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At Ghek's Command







From: The Chessmen Of Mars

Turan the panthan chafed in his chains. Time dragged; silence and
monotony prolonged minutes into hours. Uncertainty of the fate of
the woman he loved turned each hour into an eternity of hell. He
listened impatiently for the sound of approaching footsteps that
he might see and speak to some living creature and learn,
perchance, some word of Tara of Helium. After torturing hours his
ears were rewarded by the rattle of harness and arms. Men were
coming! He waited breathlessly. Perhaps they were his
executioners; but he would welcome them notwithstanding. He would
question them. But if they knew naught of Tara he would not
divulge the location of the hiding place in which he had left
her.

Now they came--a half-dozen warriors and an officer, escorting an
unarmed man; a prisoner, doubtless. Of this Turan was not left
long in doubt, since they brought the newcomer and chained him to
an adjoining ring. Immediately the panthan commenced to question
the officer in charge of the guard.

"Tell me," he demanded, "why I have been made prisoner, and if
other strangers were captured since I entered your city."

"What other prisoners?" asked the officer.

"A woman, and a man with a strange head," replied Turan.

"It is possible," said the officer; "but what were their names?"

"The woman was Tara, Princess of Helium, and the man was Ghek, a
kaldane, of Bantoom."

"These were your friends?" asked the officer.

"Yes," replied Turan.

"It is what I would know," said the officer, and with a curt
command to his men to follow him he turned and left the cell.

"Tell me of them!" cried Turan after him. "Tell me of Tara of
Helium! Is she safe?" but the man did not answer and soon the
sound of their departure died in the distance.

"Tara of Helium was safe, but a short time since," said the
prisoner chained at Turan's side.

The panthan turned toward the speaker, seeing a large man,
handsome of face and with a manner both stately and dignified.
"You have seen her?" he asked. "They captured her then? She is in
danger?"

"She is being held in The Towers of Jetan as a prize for the next
games," replied the stranger.

"And who are you?" asked Turan. "And why are you here, a
prisoner?"

"I am A-Kor the dwar, keeper of The Towers of Jetan," replied the
other. "I am here because I dared speak the truth of O-Tar the
jeddak, to one of his officers."

"And your punishment?" asked Turan.

"I do not know. O-Tar has not yet spoken. Doubtless the
games--perhaps the full ten, for O-Tar does not love A-Kor, his
son."

"You are the jeddak's son?" asked Turan.

"I am the son of O-Tar and of a slave, Haja of Gathol, who was a
princess in her own land."

Turan looked searchingly at the speaker. A son of Haja of Gathol!
A son of his mother's sister, this man, then, was his own cousin.
Well did Gahan remember the mysterious disappearance of the
Princess Haja and an entire utan of her personal troops. She had
been upon a visit far from the city of Gathol and returning home
had vanished with her whole escort from the sight of man. So this
was the secret of the seeming mystery? Doubtless it explained
many other similar disappearances that extended nearly as far
back as the history of Gathol. Turan scrutinized his companion,
discovering many evidences of resemblance to his mother's people.
A-Kor might have been ten years younger than he, but such
differences in age are scarce accounted among a people who seldom
or never age outwardly after maturity and whose span of life may
be a thousand years.

"And where lies Gathol?" asked Turan.

"Almost due east of Manator," replied A-Kor.

"And how far?"

"Some twenty-one degrees it is from the city of Manator to the
city of Gathol," replied A-Kor; "but little more than ten degrees
between the boundaries of the two countries. Between them,
though, there lies a country of torn rocks and yawning chasms."

Well did Gahan know this country that bordered his upon the
west--even the ships of the air avoided it because of the
treacherous currents that rose from the deep chasms, and the
almost total absence of safe landings. He knew now where Manator
lay and for the first time in long weeks the way to his own
Gathol, and here was a man, a fellow prisoner, in whose veins
flowed the blood of his own ancestors--a man who knew Manator;
its people, its customs and the country surrounding it--one who
could aid him, with advice at least, to find a plan for the
rescue of Tara of Helium and for escape. But would A-Kor--could
he dare broach the subject? He could do no less than try.

"And O-Tar you think will sentence you to death?" he asked; "and
why?"

"He would like to," replied A-Kor, "for the people chafe beneath
his iron hand and their loyalty is but the loyalty of a people to
the long line of illustrious jeddaks from which he has sprung. He
is a jealous man and has found the means of disposing of most of
those whose blood might entitle them to a claim upon the throne,
and whose place in the affections of the people endowed them with
any political significance. The fact that I was the son of a
slave relegated me to a position of minor importance in the
consideration of O-Tar, yet I am still the son of a jeddak and
might sit upon the throne of Manator with as perfect congruity as
O-Tar himself. Combined with this is the fact that of recent
years the people, and especially many of the younger warriors,
have evinced a growing affection for me, which I attribute to
certain virtues of character and training derived from my mother,
but which O-Tar assumes to be the result of an ambition upon my
part to occupy the throne of Manator.

"And now, I am firmly convinced, he has seized upon my criticism
of his treatment of the slave girl Tara as a pretext for ridding
himself of me."

"But if you could escape and reach Gathol," suggested Turan.

"I have thought of that," mused A-Kor; "but how much better off
would I be? In the eyes of the Gatholians I would be, not a
Gatholian; but a stranger and doubtless they would accord me the
same treatment that we of Manator accord strangers."

"Could you convince them that you are the son of the Princess
Haja your welcome would be assured," said Turan; "while on the
other hand you could purchase your freedom and citizenship with a
brief period of labor in the diamond mines."

"How know you all these things?" asked A-Kor. "I thought you were
from Helium."

"I am a panthan," replied Turan, "and I have served many
countries, among them Gathol."

"It is what the slaves from Gathol have told me," said A-Kor,
thoughtfully, "and my mother, before O-Tar sent her to live at
Manatos. I think he must have feared her power and influence
among the slaves from Gathol and their descendants, who number
perhaps a million people throughout the land of Manator."

"Are these slaves organized?" asked Turan.

A-Kor looked straight into the eyes of the panthan for a long
moment before he replied. "You are a man of honor," he said; "I
read it in your face, and I am seldom mistaken in my estimate of
a man; but--" and he leaned closer to the other--"even the walls
have ears," he whispered, and Turan's question was answered.

It was later in the evening that warriors came and unlocked the
fetter from Turan's ankle and led him away to appear before
O-Tar, the jeddak. They conducted him toward the palace along
narrow, winding streets and broad avenues; but always from the
balconies there looked down upon them in endless ranks the silent
people of the city. The palace itself was filled with life and
activity. Mounted warriors galloped through the corridors and up
and down the runways connecting adjacent floors. It seemed that
no one walked within the palace other than a few slaves.
Squealing, fighting thoats were stabled in magnificent halls
while their riders, if not upon some duty of the palace, played
at jetan with small figures carved from wood.

Turan noted the magnificence of the interior architecture of the
palace, the lavish expenditure of precious jewels and metals, the
gorgeous mural decorations which depicted almost exclusively
martial scenes, and principally duels which seemed to be fought
upon jetan boards of heroic size. The capitals of many of the
columns supporting the ceilings of the corridors and chambers
through which they passed were wrought into formal likenesses of
jetan pieces--everywhere there seemed a suggestion of the game.
Along the same path that Tara of Helium had been led Turan was
conducted toward the throne room of O-Tar the jeddak, and when he
entered the Hall of Chiefs his interest turned to wonder and
admiration as he viewed the ranks of statuesque thoatmen decked
in their gorgeous, martial panoply. Never, he thought, had he
seen upon Barsoom more soldierly figures or thoats so perfectly
trained to perfection of immobility as these. Not a muscle
quivered, not a tail lashed, and the riders were as motionless as
their mounts--each warlike eye straight to the front, the great
spears inclined at the same angle. It was a picture to fill the
breast of a fighting man with awe and reverence. Nor did it fail
in its effect upon Turan as they conducted him the length of the
chamber, where he waited before great doors until he should be
summoned into the presence of the ruler of Manator.

* * * * *

When Tara of Helium was ushered into the throne room of O-Tar she
found the great hall filled with the chiefs and officers of O-Tar
and U-Thor, the latter occupying the place of honor at the foot
of the throne, as was his due. The girl was conducted to the foot
of the aisle and halted before the jeddak, who looked down upon
her from his high throne with scowling brows and fierce, cruel
eyes.

"The laws of Manator are just," said O-Tar, addressing her; "thus
is it that you have been summoned here again to be judged by the
highest authority of Manator. Word has reached me that you are
suspected of being a Corphal. What word have you to say in
refutation of the charge?"

Tara of Helium could scarce restrain a sneer as she answered the
ridiculous accusation of witchcraft. "So ancient is the culture
of my people," she said, "that authentic history reveals no
defense for that which we know existed only in the ignorant and
superstitious minds of the most primitive peoples of the past. To
those who are yet so untutored as to believe in the existence of
Corphals, there can be no argument that will convince them of
their error--only long ages of refinement and culture can
accomplish their release from the bondage of ignorance. I have
spoken."

"Yet you do not deny the accusation," said O-Tar.

"It is not worthy the dignity of a denial," she responded
haughtily.

"And I were you, woman," said a deep voice at her side, "I
should, nevertheless, deny it."

Tara of Helium turned to see the eyes of U-Thor, the great jed of
Manatos, upon her. Brave eyes they were, but neither cold nor
cruel. O-Tar rapped impatiently upon the arm of his throne.
"U-Thor forgets," he cried, "that O-Tar is the jeddak."

"U-Thor remembers," replied the jed of Manatos, "that the laws of
Manator permit any who may be accused to have advice and counsel
before their judge."

Tara of Helium saw that for some reason this man would have
assisted her, and so she acted upon his advice.

"I deny the charge," she said, "I am no Corphal."

"Of that we shall learn," snapped O-Tar. "U-Dor, where are those
who have knowledge of the powers of this woman?"

And U-Dor brought several who recounted the little that was known
of the disappearance of E-Med, and others who told of the capture
of Ghek and Tara, suggesting by deduction that having been found
together they had sufficient in common to make it reasonably
certain that one was as bad as the other, and that, therefore, it
remained but to convict one of them of Corphalism to make certain
the guilt of both. And then O-Tar called for Ghek, and
immediately the hideous kaldane was dragged before him by
warriors who could not conceal the fear in which they held this
creature.

"And you!" said O-Tar in cold accusing tones. "Already have I
been told enough of you to warrant me in passing through your
heart the jeddak's steel--of how you stole the brains from the
warrior U-Van so that he thought he saw your headless body still
endowed with life; of how you caused another to believe that you
had escaped, making him to see naught but an empty bench and a
blank wall where you had been."

"Ah, O-Tar, but that is as nothing!" cried a young padwar who had
come in command of the escort that brought Ghek. "The thing which
he did to I-Zav, here, would prove his guilt alone."

"What did he to the warrior I-Zav?" demanded O-Tar. "Let I-Zav
speak!"

The warrior I-Zav, a great fellow of bulging muscles and thick
neck, advanced to the foot of the throne. He was pale and still
trembling visibly as from a nervous shock.

"Let my first ancestor be my witness, O-Tar, that I speak the
truth," he began. "I was left to guard this creature, who sat
upon a bench, shackled to the wall. I stood by the open doorway
at the opposite side of the chamber. He could not reach me, yet,
O-Tar, may Iss engulf me if he did not drag me to him helpless as
an unhatched egg. He dragged me to him, greatest of jeddaks, with
his eyes! With his eyes he seized upon my eyes and dragged me to
him and he made me lay my swords and dagger upon the table and
back off into a corner, and still keeping his eyes upon my eyes
his head quitted his body and crawling upon six short legs it
descended to the floor and backed part way into the hole of an
ulsio, but not so far that the eyes were not still upon me and
then it returned with the key to its fetter and after resuming
its place upon its own shoulders it unlocked the fetter and again
dragged me across the room and made me to sit upon the bench
where it had been and there it fastened the fetter about my
ankle, and I could do naught for the power of its eyes and the
fact that it wore my two swords and my dagger. And then the head
disappeared down the hole of the ulsio with the key, and when it
returned, it resumed its body and stood guard over me at the
doorway until the padwar came to fetch it hither."

"It is enough!" said O-Tar, sternly. "Both shall receive the
jeddak's steel," and rising from his throne he drew his long
sword and descended the marble steps toward them, while two
brawny warriors seized Tara by either arm and two seized Ghek,
holding them facing the naked blade of the jeddak.

"Hold, just O-Tar!" cried U-Dor. "There be yet another to be
judged. Let us confront him who calls himself Turan with these
his fellows before they die."

"Good!" exclaimed O-Tar, pausing half way down the steps. "Fetch
Turan, the slave!"

When Turan had been brought into the chamber he was placed a
little to Tara's left and a step nearer the throne. O-Tar eyed
him menacingly.

"You are Turan," he asked, "friend and companion of these?"

The panthan was about to reply when Tara of Helium spoke. "I know
not this fellow," she said. "Who dares say that he be a friend
and companion of the Princess Tara of Helium?"

Turan and Ghek looked at her in surprise, but at Turan she did
not look, and to Ghek she passed a quick glance of warning, as to
say: "Hold thy peace."

The panthan tried not to fathom her purpose for the head is
useless when the heart usurps its functions, and Turan knew only
that the woman he loved had denied him, and though he tried not
even to think it his foolish heart urged but a single
explanation--that she refused to recognize him lest she be
involved in his difficulties.

O-Tar looked first at one and then at another of them; but none
of them spoke.

"Were they not captured together?" he asked of U-Dor.

"No," replied the dwar. "He who is called Turan was found seeking
entrance to the city and was enticed to the pits. The following
morning I discovered the other two upon the hill beyond The Gate
of Enemies."

"But they are friends and companions," said a young padwar, "for
this Turan inquired of me concerning these two, calling them by
name and saying that they were his friends."

"It is enough," stated O-Tar, "all three shall die," and he took
another step downward from the throne.

"For what shall we die?" asked Ghek. "Your people prate of the
just laws of Manator, and yet you would slay three strangers
without telling them of what crime they are accused."

"He is right," said a deep voice. It was the voice of U-Thor, the
great jed of Manatos. O-Tar looked at him and scowled; but there
came voices from other portions of the chamber seconding the
demand for justice.

"Then know, though you shall die anyway," cried O-Tar, "that all
three are convicted of Corphalism and that as only a jeddak may
slay such as you in safety you are about to be honored with the
steel of O-Tar."

"Fool!" cried Turan. "Know you not that in the veins of this
woman flows the blood of ten thousand jeddaks--that greater than
yours is her power in her own land? She is Tara, Princess of
Helium, great-granddaughter of Tardos Mors, daughter of John
Carter, Warlord of Barsoom. She cannot be a Corphal. Nor is this
creature Ghek, nor am I. And you would know more, I can prove my
right to be heard and to be believed if I may have word with the
Princess Haja of Gathol, whose son is my fellow prisoner in the
pits of O-Tar, his father."

At this U-Thor rose to his feet and faced O-Tar. "What means
this?" he asked. "Speaks the man the truth? Is the son of Haja a
prisoner in thy pits, O-Tar?"

"And what is it to the jed of Manatos who be the prisoners in the
pits of his jeddak?" demanded O-Tar, angrily.

"It is this to the jed of Manatos," replied U-Thor in a voice so
low as to be scarce more than a whisper and yet that was heard
the whole length and breadth of the great throne room of O-Tar,
Jeddak of Manator. "You gave me a slave woman, Haja, who had been
a princess in Gathol, because you feared her influence among the
slaves from Gathol. I have made of her a free woman, and I have
married her and made her thus a princess of Manatos. Her son is
my son, O-Tar, and though thou be my jeddak, I say to you that
for any harm that befalls A-Kor you shall answer to U-Thor of
Manatos."

O-Tar looked long at U-Thor, but he made no reply. Then he turned
again to Turan. "If one be a Corphal," he said, "then all of you
be Corphals, and we know well from the things that this creature
has done," he pointed at Ghek, "that he is a Corphal, for no
mortal has such powers as he. And as you are all Corphals you
must all die." He took another step downward, when Ghek spoke.

"These two have no such powers as I," he said. "They are but
ordinary, brainless things such as yourself. I have done all the
things that your poor, ignorant warriors have told you; but this
only demonstrates that I am of a higher order than yourselves, as
is indeed the fact. I am a kaldane, not a Corphal. There is
nothing supernatural or mysterious about me, other than that to
the ignorant all things which they cannot understand are
mysterious. Easily might I have eluded your warriors and escaped
your pits; but I remained in the hope that I might help these two
foolish creatures who have not the brains to escape without help.
They befriended me and saved my life. I owe them this debt. Do
not slay them--they are harmless. Slay me if you will. I offer my
life if it will appease your ignorant wrath. I cannot return to
Bantoom and so I might as well die, for there is no pleasure in
intercourse with the feeble intellects that cumber the face of
the world outside the valley of Bantoom."

"Hideous egotist," said O-Tar, "prepare to die and assume not to
dictate to O-Tar the jeddak. He has passed sentence and all three
of you shall feel the jeddak's naked steel. I have spoken!"

He took another step downward and then a strange thing happened.
He paused, his eyes fixed upon the eyes of Ghek. His sword
slipped from nerveless fingers, and still he stood there swaying
forward and back. A jed rose to rush to his side; but Ghek
stopped him with a word.

"Wait!" he cried. "The life of your jeddak is in my hands. You
believe me a Corphal and so you believe, too, that only the sword
of a jeddak may slay me, therefore your blades are useless
against me. Offer harm to any one of us, or seek to approach your
jeddak until I have spoken, and he shall sink lifeless to the
marble. Release the two prisoners and let them come to my side--I
would speak to them, privately. Quick! do as I say; I would as
lief as not slay O-Tar. I but let him live that I may gain
freedom for my friends--obstruct me and he dies."

The guards fell back, releasing Tara and Turan, who came close to
Ghek's side.

"Do as I tell you and do it quickly," whispered the kaldane. "I
cannot hold this fellow long, nor could I kill him thus. There
are many minds working against mine and presently mine will tire
and O-Tar will be himself again. You must make the best of your
opportunity while you may. Behind the arras that you see hanging
in the rear of the throne above you is a secret opening. From it
a corridor leads to the pits of the palace, where there are
storerooms containing food and drink. Few people go there. From
these pits lead others to all parts of the city. Follow one that
runs due west and it will bring you to The Gate of Enemies. The
rest will then lie with you. I can do no more; hurry before my
waning powers fail me--I am not as Luud, who was a king. He could
have held this creature forever. Make haste! Go!"





Next: The Old Man Of The Pits

Previous: A Desperate Deed



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