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The Charge Of Cowardice







From: The Chessmen Of Mars

Gahan, watching through the aperture between the hangings, saw
the frantic flight of their pursuers. A grim smile rested upon
his lips as he viewed the mad scramble for safety and saw them
throw away their swords and fight with one another to be first
from the chamber of fear, and when they were all gone he turned
back toward Tara, the smile still upon his lips; but the smile
died the instant that he turned, for he saw that Tara had
disappeared.

"Tara!" he called in a loud voice, for he knew that there was no
danger that their pursuers would return; but there was no
response, unless it was a faint sound as of cackling laughter
from afar. Hurriedly he searched the passageway behind the
hangings finding several doors, one of which was ajar. Through
this he entered the adjoining chamber which was lighted more
brilliantly for the moment by the soft rays of hurtling Thuria
taking her mad way through the heavens. Here he found the dust
upon the floor disturbed, and the imprint of sandals. They had
come this way--Tara and whatever the creature was that had stolen
her.

But what could it have been? Gahan, a man of culture and high
intelligence, held few if any superstitions. In common with
nearly all races of Barsoom he clung, more or less inherently, to
a certain exalted form of ancestor worship, though it was rather
the memory or legends of the virtues and heroic deeds of his
forebears that he deified rather than themselves. He never
expected any tangible evidence of their existence after death; he
did not believe that they had the power either for good or for
evil other than the effect that their example while living might
have had upon following generations; he did not believe therefore
in the materialization of dead spirits. If there was a life
hereafter he knew nothing of it, for he knew that science had
demonstrated the existence of some material cause for every
seemingly supernatural phenomenon of ancient religions and
superstitions. Yet he was at a loss to know what power might have
removed Tara so suddenly and mysteriously from his side in a
chamber that had not known the presence of man for five thousand
years.

In the darkness he could not see whether there were the imprints
of other sandals than Tara's--only that the dust was
disturbed--and when it led him into gloomy corridors he lost the
trail altogether. A perfect labyrinth of passages and apartments
were now revealed to him as he hurried on through the deserted
quarters of O-Mai. Here was an ancient bath--doubtless that of
the jeddak himself, and again he passed through a room in which a
meal had been laid upon a table five thousand years before--the
untasted breakfast of O-Mai, perhaps. There passed before his
eyes in the brief moments that he traversed the chambers, a
wealth of ornaments and jewels and precious metals that surprised
even the Jed of Gathol whose harness was of diamonds and platinum
and whose riches were the envy of a world. But at last his search
of O-Mai's chambers ended in a small closet in the floor of which
was the opening to a spiral runway leading straight down into
Stygian darkness. The dust at the entrance of the closet had been
freshly disturbed, and as this was the only possible indication
that Gahan had of the direction taken by the abductor of Tara it
seemed as well to follow on as to search elsewhere. So, without
hesitation, he descended into the utter darkness below. Feeling
with a foot before taking a forward step his descent was
necessarily slow, but Gahan was a Barsoomian and so knew the
pitfalls that might await the unwary in such dark, forbidden
portions of a jeddak's palace.

He had descended for what he judged might be three full levels
and was pausing, as he occasionally did, to listen, when he
distinctly heard a peculiar shuffling, scraping sound approaching
him from below. Whatever the thing was it was ascending the
runway at a steady pace and would soon be near him. Gahan laid
his hand upon the hilt of his sword and drew it slowly from its
scabbard that he might make no noise that would apprise the
creature of his presence. He wished that there might be even the
slightest lessening of the darkness. If he could see but the
outline of the thing that approached him he would feel that he
had a fairer chance in the meeting; but he could see nothing, and
then because he could see nothing the end of his scabbard struck
the stone side of the runway, giving off a sound that the
stillness and the narrow confines of the passage and the darkness
seemed to magnify to a terrific clatter.

Instantly the shuffling sound of approach ceased. For a moment
Gahan stood in silent waiting, then casting aside discretion he
moved on again down the spiral. The thing, whatever it might be,
gave forth no sound now by which Gahan might locate it. At any
moment it might be upon him and so he kept his sword in
readiness. Down, ever downward the steep spiral led. The darkness
and the silence of the tomb surrounded him, yet somewhere ahead
was something. He was not alone in that horrid place--another
presence that he could not hear or see hovered before him--of
that he was positive. Perhaps it was the thing that had stolen
Tara. Perhaps Tara herself, still in the clutches of some
nameless horror, was just ahead of him. He quickened his pace--it
became almost a run at the thought of the danger that threatened
the woman he loved, and then he collided with a wooden door that
swung open to the impact. Before him was a lighted corridor. On
either side were chambers. He had advanced but a short distance
from the bottom of the spiral when he recognized that he was in
the pits below the palace. A moment later he heard behind him the
shuffling sound that had attracted his attention in the spiral
runway. Wheeling about he saw the author of the sound emerging
from a doorway he had just passed. It was Ghek the kaldane.

"Ghek!" exclaimed Gahan. "It was you in the runway? Have you seen
Tara of Helium?"

"It was I in the spiral," replied the kaldane; "but I have not
seen Tara of Helium. I have been searching for her. Where is
she?"

"I do not know," replied the Gatholian; "but we must find her and
take her from this place."

"We may find her," said Ghek; "but I doubt our ability to take
her away. It is not so easy to leave Manator as it is to enter
it. I may come and go at will, through the ancient burrows of the
ulsios; but you are too large for that and your lungs need more
air than may be found in some of the deeper runways."

"But U-Thor!" exclaimed Gahan. "Have you heard aught of him or
his intentions?"

"I have heard much," replied Ghek. "He camps at The Gate of
Enemies. That spot he holds and his warriors lie just beyond The
Gate; but he has not sufficient force to enter the city and take
the palace. An hour since and you might have made your way to
him; but now every avenue is strongly guarded since O-Tar learned
that A-Kor had escaped to U-Thor."

"A-Kor has escaped and joined U-Thor!" exclaimed Gahan.

"But little more than an hour since. I was with him when a
warrior came--a man whose name is Tasor--who brought a message
from you. It was decided that Tasor should accompany A-Kor in an
attempt to reach the camp of U-Thor, the great jed of Manatos,
and exact from him the assurances you required. Then U-Thor was
to return and take food to you and the Princess of Helium. I
accompanied them. We won through easily and found U-Thor more
than willing to respect your every wish, but when Tasor would
have returned to you the way was blocked by the warriors of
O-Tar. Then it was that I volunteered to come to you and report
and find food and drink and then go forth among the Gatholian
slaves of Manator and prepare them for their part in the plan
that U-Thor and Tasor conceived."

"And what was this plan?"

"U-Thor has sent for reinforcements. To Manatos he has sent and
to all the outlying districts that are his. It will take
a month to collect and bring them hither and in the meantime the
slaves within the city are to organize secretly, stealing and
hiding arms against the day that the reinforcements arrive. When
that day comes the forces of U-Thor will enter the Gate of
Enemies and as the warriors of O-Tar rush to repulse them the
slaves from Gathol will fall upon them from the rear with the
majority of their numbers, while the balance will assault the
palace. They hope thus to divert so many from The Gate that
U-Thor will have little difficulty in forcing an entrance to the
city."

"Perhaps they will succeed," commented Gahan; "but the warriors
of O-Tar are many, and those who fight in defense of their homes
and their jeddak have always an advantage. Ah, Ghek, would that
we had the great warships of Gathol or of Helium to pour their
merciless fire into the streets of Manator while U-Thor marched
to the palace over the corpses of the slain." He paused, deep in
thought, and then turned his gaze again upon the kaldane. "Heard
you aught of the party that escaped with me from The Field of
Jetan--of Floran, Val Dor, and the others? What of them?"

"Ten of these won through to U-Thor at The Gate of Enemies and
were well received by him. Eight fell in the fighting upon the
way. Val Dor and Floran live, I believe, for I am sure that I
heard U-Thor address two warriors by these names."

"Good!" exclaimed Gahan. "Go then, through the burrows of the
ulsios, to The Gate of Enemies and carry to Floran the message
that I shall write in his own language. Come, while I write the
message."

In a nearby room they found a bench and table and there Gahan sat
and wrote in the strange, stenographic characters of Martian
script a message to Floran of Gathol. "Why," he asked, when he
had finished it, "did you search for Tara through the spiral
runway where we nearly met?"

"Tasor told me where you were to be found, and as I have explored
the greater part of the palace by means of the ulsio runways and
the darker and less frequented passages I knew precisely where
you were and how to reach you. This secret spiral ascends from
the pits to the roof of the loftiest of the palace towers. It has
secret openings at every level; but there is no living
Manatorian, I believe, who knows of its existence. At least never
have I met one within it and I have used it many times. Thrice
have I been in the chamber where O-Mai lies, though I knew
nothing of his identity or the story of his death until Tasor
told it to us in the camp of U-Thor."

"You know the palace thoroughly then?" Gahan interrupted.

"Better than O-Tar himself or any of his servants."

"Good! And you would serve the Princess Tara, Ghek, you may serve
her best by accompanying Floran and following his instructions. I
will write them here at the close of my message to him, for the
walls have ears, Ghek, while none but a Gatholian may read what I
have written to Floran. He will transmit it to you. Can I trust
you?"

"I may never return to Bantoom," replied Ghek. "Therefore I have
but two friends in all Barsoom. What better may I do than serve
them faithfully? You may trust me, Gatholian, who with a woman of
your kind has taught me that there be finer and nobler things
than perfect mentality uninfluenced by the unreasoning tuitions
of the heart. I go."

* * * * *

As O-Tar pointed to the little doorway all eyes turned in the
direction he indicated and surprise was writ large upon the faces
of the warriors when they recognized the two who had entered the
banquet hall. There was I-Gos, and he dragged behind him one who
was gagged and whose hands were fastened behind with a ribbon of
tough silk. It was the slave girl. I-Gos' cackling laughter rose
above the silence of the room.

"Ey, ey!" he shrilled. "What the young warriors of O-Tar cannot
do, old I-Gos does alone."

"Only a Corphal may capture a Corphal," growled one of the chiefs
who had fled from the chambers of O-Mai.

I-Gos laughed. "Terror turned your heart to water," he replied;
"and shame your tongue to libel. This be no Corphal, but only a
woman of Helium; her companion a warrior who can match blades
with the best of you and cut your putrid hearts. Not so in the
days of I-Gos' youth. Ah, then were there men in Manator. Well do
I recall that day that I--"

"Peace, doddering fool!" commanded O-Tar. "Where is the man?"

"Where I found the woman--in the death chamber of O-Mai. Let your
wise and brave chieftains go thither and fetch him. I am an old
man, and could bring but one."

"You have done well, I-Gos," O-Tar hastened to assure him, for
when he learned that Gahan might still be in the haunted chambers
he wished to appease the wrath of I-Gos, knowing well the
vitriolic tongue and temper of the ancient one. "You think she is
no Corphal, then, I-Gos?" he asked, wishing to carry the subject
from the man who was still at large.

"No more than you," replied the ancient taxidermist.

O-Tar looked long and searchingly at Tara of Helium. All the
beauty that was hers seemed suddenly to be carried to every fibre
of his consciousness. She was still garbed in the rich harness of
a Black Princess of Jetan, and as O-Tar the Jeddak gazed upon her
he realized that never before had his eyes rested upon a more
perfect figure--a more beautiful face.

"She is no Corphal," he murmured to himself. "She is no Corphal
and she is a princess--a princess of Helium, and, by the golden
hair of the Holy Hekkador, she is beautiful. Take the gag from
her mouth and release her hands," he commanded aloud. "Make room
for the Princess Tara of Helium at the side of O-Tar of Manator.
She shall dine as becomes a princess."

Slaves did as O-Tar bid and Tara of Helium stood with flashing
eyes behind the chair that was offered her. "Sit!" commanded
O-Tar.

The girl sank into the chair. "I sit as a prisoner," she said;
"not as a guest at the board of my enemy, O-Tar of Manator."

O-Tar motioned his followers from the room. "I would speak alone
with the Princess of Helium," he said. The company and the slaves
withdrew and once more the Jeddak of Manator turned toward the
girl. "O-Tar of Manator would be your friend," he said.

Tara of Helium sat with arms folded upon her small, firm breasts,
her eyes flashing from behind narrowed lids, nor did she deign to
answer his overture. O-Tar leaned closer to her. He noted the
hostility of her bearing and he recalled his first encounter with
her. She was a she-banth, but she was beautiful. She was by far
the most desirable woman that O-Tar had ever looked upon and he
was determined to possess her. He told her so.

"I could take you as my slave," he said to her; "but it pleases
me to make you my wife. You shall be Jeddara of Manator. You
shall have seven days in which to prepare for the great honor
that O-Tar is conferring upon you, and at this hour of the
seventh day you shall become an empress and the wife of O-Tar in
the throne room of the jeddaks of Manator." He struck a gong that
stood beside him upon the table and when a slave appeared he bade
him recall the company. Slowly the chiefs filed in and took their
places at the table. Their faces were grim and scowling, for
there was still unanswered the question of their jeddak's
courage. If O-Tar had hoped they would forget he had been
mistaken in his men.

O-Tar arose. "In seven days," he announced, "there will be a
great feast in honor of the new Jeddara of Manator," and he waved
his hand toward Tara of Helium. "The ceremony will occur at the
beginning of the seventh zode* in the throne room. In the
meantime the Princess of Helium will be cared for in the tower of
the women's quarters of the palace. Conduct her thither, E-Thas,
with a suitable guard of honor and see to it that slaves and
eunuchs be placed at her disposal, who shall attend upon all her
wants and guard her carefully from harm."

* About 8:30 P. M. Earth Time.


Now E-Thas knew that the real meaning concealed in these fine
words was that he should conduct the prisoner under a strong
guard to the women's quarters and confine her there in the tower
for seven days, placing about her trustworthy guards who would
prevent her escape or frustrate any attempted rescue.

As Tara was departing from the chamber with E-Thas and the guard,
O-Tar leaned close to her ear and whispered: "Consider well
during these seven days the high honor I have offered you,
and--its sole alternative." As though she had not heard him the
girl passed out of the banquet hall, her head high and her eyes
straight to the front.

After Ghek had left him Gahan roamed the pits and the ancient
corridors of the deserted portions of the palace seeking some
clue to the whereabouts or the fate of Tara of Helium. He
utilized the spiral runway in passing from level to level until
he knew every foot of it from the pits to the summit of the high
tower, and into what apartments it opened at the various levels
as well as the ingenious and hidden mechanism that operated the
locks of the cleverly concealed doors leading to it. For food he
drew upon the stores he found in the pits and when he slept he
lay upon the royal couch of O-Mai in the forbidden chamber
sharing the dais with the dead foot of the ancient jeddak.

In the palace about him seethed, all unknown to Gahan, a vast
unrest. Warriors and chieftains pursued the duties of their
vocations with dour faces, and little knots of them were
collecting here and there and with frowns of anger discussing
some subject that was uppermost in the minds of all. It was upon
the fourth day following Tara's incarceration in the tower that
E-Thas, the major-domo of the palace and one of O-Tar's
creatures, came to his master upon some trivial errand. O-Tar was
alone in one of the smaller chambers of his personal suite when
the major-domo was announced, and after the matter upon which
E-Thas had come was disposed of the jeddak signed him to remain.

"From the position of an obscure warrior I have elevated you,
E-Thas, to the honors of a chief. Within the confines of the
palace your word is second only to mine. You are not loved for
this, E-Thas, and should another jeddak ascend the throne of
Manator what would become of you, whose enemies are among the
most powerful of Manator?"

"Speak not of it, O-Tar," begged E-Thas. "These last few days I
have thought upon it much and I would forget it; but I have
sought to appease the wrath of my worst enemies. I have been
very kind and indulgent with them."

"You, too, read the voiceless message in the air?" demanded the
jeddak.

E-Thas was palpably uneasy and he did not reply.

"Why did you not come to me with your apprehensions?" demanded
O-Tar. "Be this loyalty?"

"I feared, O mighty jeddak!" replied E-Thas. "I feared that you
would not understand and that you would be angry."

"What know you? Speak the whole truth!" commanded O-Tar.

"There is much unrest among the chieftains and the warriors,"
replied E-Thas. "Even those who were your friends fear the power
of those who speak against you."

"What say they?" growled the jeddak.

"They say that you are afraid to enter the apartments of O-Mai in
search of the slave Turan--oh, do not be angry with me, Jeddak;
it is but what they say that I repeat. I, your loyal E-Thas,
believe no such foul slander."

"No, no; why should I fear?" demanded O-Tar. "We do not know that
he is there. Did not my chiefs go thither and see nothing of
him?"

"But they say that you did not go," pursued E-Thas, "and that
they will have none of a coward upon the throne of Manator."

"They said that treason?" O-Tar almost shouted.

"They said that and more, great jeddak," answered the major-domo.
"They said that not only did you fear to enter the chambers of
O-Mai, but that you feared the slave Turan, and they blame you
for your treatment of A-Kor, whom they all believe to have been
murdered at your command. They were fond of A-Kor and there are
many now who say aloud that A-Kor would have made a wondrous
jeddak."

"They dare?" screamed O-Tar. "They dare suggest the name of a
slave's bastard for the throne of O-Tar!"

"He is your son, O-Tar," E-Thas reminded him, "nor is there a
more beloved man in Manator--I but speak to you of facts which
may not be ignored, and I dare do so because only when you
realize the truth may you seek a cure for the ills that draw
about your throne."

O-Tar had slumped down upon his bench--suddenly he looked
shrunken and tired and old. "Cursed be the day," he cried, "that
saw those three strangers enter the city of Manator. Would that
U-Dor had been spared to me. He was strong--my enemies feared
him; but he is gone--dead at the hands of that hateful slave,
Turan; may the curse of Issus be upon him!"

"My jeddak, what shall we do?" begged E-Thas. "Cursing the slave
will not solve your problems."

"But the great feast and the marriage is but three days off,"
plead O-Tar. "It shall be a great gala occasion. The warriors and
the chiefs all know that--it is the custom. Upon that day gifts
and honors shall be bestowed. Tell me, who are most bitter
against me? I will send you among them and let it be known that I
am planning rewards for their past services to the throne. We
will make jeds of chiefs and chiefs of warriors, and grant them
palaces and slaves. Eh, E-Thas?"

The other shook his head. "It will not do, O-Tar. They will have
nothing of your gifts or honors. I have heard them say as much."

"What do they want?" demanded O-Tar.

"They want a jeddak as brave as the bravest," replied E-Thas,
though his knees shook as he said it.

"They think I am a coward?" cried the jeddak.

"They say you are afraid to go to the apartments of O-mai the
Cruel."

For a long time O-Tar sat, his head sunk upon his breast, staring
blankly at the floor.

"Tell them," he said at last in a hollow voice that sounded not
at all like the voice of a great jeddak; "tell them that I will
go to the chambers of O-Mai and search for Turan the slave."





Next: A Risk For Love

Previous: The Menace Of The Dead



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