A Fighting Man of Mars
Chapter 6: Sentenced to Die
Copyright© 2012 by Edgar Rice Burroughs
I was not long in the pits of Tjanath before warriors came, and, removing my fetters, led me from my dungeon. There were only two of them and I could not but note their carelessness and the laxness of their discipline as they escorted me to an upper level of the palace, but at the time I thought it meant only that the attitude of the officials had altered and that I was to be free.
There was nothing remarkable about the palace of the Jed of Tjanath. It was a poor place by comparison with the palaces of some of the great nobles of Helium, yet never before, I imagined, had I challenged with greater interest every detail of architecture, every corridor and doorway, or the manners, harness and decorations of the people that passed us, for, though in my heart was the hope that I was about to be free, yet I considered this place my prison and these people my jailers, and, as my one object in life was to escape, I was determined to let no detail elude my eye that might possibly in any way aid me if the time should come when I must make a break for liberty.
It was such thoughts that were uppermost in my mind as I was ushered through wide portals into the presence of a bejeweled warrior. As my eyes first alighted upon him I knew at once that I was in the presence of Haj Osis, Jed of Tjanath.
As my guard halted me before him, the Jed scrutinized me intently with that air of suspicion which is his most marked characteristic.
"Your name and country?" he demanded.
"I am Hadron of Hastor, padwar in the navy of Helium," I replied.
"You are from Jahar," he accused. "You came here from Jahar with a woman of Jahar in a flier of Jahar. Can you deny it?"
I told Haj Osis in detail everything that had led up to my arrival at Tjanath. I told him Tavia's story as well, and I must at least credit him with listening to me in patience, though I was constantly impressed by a feeling that my appeal was being directed at a mind already so prejudiced against me that nothing that I might say could alter its convictions.
The chiefs and courtiers that surrounded the Jed evidenced open skepticism in their manner until I became convinced that fear of Tul Axtar so obsessed them that they were unable to consider intelligently any matter connected with the activities of the Jeddak of Jahar. Terror made them suspicious and suspicion sees everything through distorted lenses.
When I had finished my story, Haj Osis ordered me removed from the room and I was held in a small ante-chamber for some time while, I imagined, he discussed my case with his advisors.
When I was again ushered into his presence I felt that the whole atmosphere of the chamber was charged with antagonism, as for the second time I was halted before the dais upon which the Jed sat in his carved throne-chair.
"The laws of Tjanath are just," proclaimed Haj Osis, glaring at me, "and the Jed of Tjanath is merciful. The enemies of Tjanath shall receive justice, but they may not expect mercy. You, who call yourself Hadron of Hastor, have been adjudged a spy of our most malignant enemy, Tul Axtar of Jahar, and as such I, Haj Osis, Jed of Tjanath, sentence you to die The Death. I have spoken." With an imperious gesture he signalled the guards to remove me.
There was no appeal. My doom was sealed, and in silence I turned and left the chamber, escorted by a guard of warriors, but for the honor of Helium I may say that my step was firm and my chin high.
On my return to the pits I questioned the padwar in charge of my escort relative to Tavia, but if the fellow knew aught of her, he refused to divulge it to me and presently I found myself again fettered in the gloomy dungeon by the side of Nur An of Jahar.
"Well?" he asked.
"The Death," I replied.
He extended a manacled hand through the darkness and placed it upon one of mine. "I am sorry, my friend," he said.
"Man has but one life," I replied; "if he is permitted to give it in a good cause, he should not complain."
"You die for a woman," he said.
"I die for a woman of Helium," I corrected.
"Perhaps we shall die together," he said. "What do you mean?"
"While you were gone a messenger came from the major-domo of the palace advising me to make peace with my ancestors as I should die The Death in a short time."
"I wonder what The Death is like," I said.
"I do not know," replied Nur An, "but from the awe-hushed tones in which they mention it, I imagine that it must be very terrible."
"Torture, do you imagine?" I asked.
"Perhaps," he replied.
"They will find that the men of Helium who know so well how to live, know also how to die," I said.
"I shall hope to render a good account of myself also," said Nur An. "I shall not give them the satisfaction of knowing that I suffer. Still, I wish I might know beforehand what it is like that I might better be prepared to meet it."
"Let us not depress our thoughts by dwelling upon it," I suggested. "Let us rather take the part of men and consider only plans for thwarting our enemies and effecting our escape."
"I am afraid that is hopeless," he said.
"I may answer that," I said, "in the famous words of John Carter: 'I still live!'"
"The blind philosophy of absolute courage," he said admiringly, "but yet futile."
"It served him well many a time," I insisted, "for it gave him the will to attempt the impossible and to succeed. We still live, Nur An; do not forget that--we still live!"
"Make the best of it while you can," said a gruff voice from the corridor, "for it will not long be true."
The speaker entered our dungeon--a warrior of the guard, and with him was a single companion. I wondered how much of our conversation they had overheard, but I was soon reassured, for the very next words of the warrior that had first spoken revealed the fact that they had heard nothing but my assertion that we still lived.
"What did you mean by that," he asked, "'remember, Nur An, we still live?'"
I pretended not to hear his question and he did not repeat it, but came directly to me and unlocked my fetters. As he turned to unlock those which held Nur An, he turned his back to me and I could not but note his inexcusable carelessness. His companion lolled at the doorway while the first warrior bent over the padlock that held the fetters of Nur An.
My ancestors were kind to me; little had I expected such an opportunity as this, yet I waited--like a great banth ready to spring I waited until he should have released Nur An, and then, as the fetters fell away from my companion, I flung myself upon the back of the warrior. He sprawled forward upon his face on the stone flagging, falling heavily beneath my weight, and as he did so I snatched his dagger from its sheath and plunged it between his shoulder blades. With a single cry he died, but I had no fear that the echo of that cry would carry upward out of the gloomy pits of Tjanath to warn his fellows upon the level above.
But the fellow's companion had seen and heard and with a bound he was across the dungeon, his long sword ready in his hand, and now I was to see the mettle of which Nur An was made.
The affair had occurred so quickly, like a bolt of lightning out of a clear sky, that any man might have been excused had he been momentarily stunned into inactivity by the momentousness of my act, but Nur An was guilty of no fatal delay. As though we had planned the thing together it seemed that he leaped forward the instant that I sprang for the warrior and ran to meet his companion. Barehanded, he faced the long sword of his antagonist.
The gloom of the dungeon reduced the advantage of the armed man. He saw a figure leaping to meet his attack and in the excitement of the moment and in the dark of the cell, he did not know that Nur An was unarmed. He hesitated, paused and stepped back to receive the impetuous attack coming out of the darkness, and in that instant I had whipped the long sword of the fallen warrior from its scabbard and was charging the fellow at a slightly different angle from Nur An.
An instant later we were engaged and I found the fellow no mean swordsman; yet from the instant that our blades crossed I knew that I was his master and he must soon have realized it, too, for he fell back, fully on the defensive, evidently bent upon escaping to the corridor. This, however, I was determined not to permit and so I pressed him so closely that he dared not turn to run; nor did he call for help, and this, I guess, was because he realized the futility of so doing.
With the desperation of caged animals, Nur An and I were fighting for our lives. There could be no question here of the scrupulous observance of the niceties of combat. It was his life or ours. Realizing this, Nur An snatched the short sword from the corpse of the fallen warrior and an instant later the second man was lying in a pool of his own blood.
"And now what?" asked Nur An.
"Are you familiar with the palace?" I asked.
"No," he replied.
"Then we must depend upon what little I was able to glean from my observation of it," I said. "Let us get into the harnesses of these two men at once. Perhaps they will offer a sufficient disguise to permit us to reach one of the upper levels at least, for without an intimate knowledge of the pits it is useless for us to try to seek escape below ground."
"You are right," he said, and a few moments later we emerged into the corridors, to all intents and purposes, two warriors of the guard of Haj Osis, Jed of Tjanath. Believing that up to a certain point boldness of demeanor would be our best safeguard against detection, I led the way toward the ground level of the palace without attempting in any way to resort to stealth or secrecy.
"There are many warriors at the main entrance of the palace," I told Nur An, "and without knowing something of the regulations governing the coming and going of the inmates of the building, it would be suicidal to attempt to reach the avenue beyond the palace by that route."
"What do you suggest then?" he asked.
"The ground level of the palace is a busy place, people are coming and going constantly through the corridors. Doubtless some of the upper levels are less frequented. Let us therefore seek a hiding place higher up and from the vantage point of some balcony we may be able to work out a feasible plan of escape."
"Good!" he said. "Lead on!"
Ascending the winding ramp from the lower pits, we passed two levels before we reached the ground level of the palace, without meeting a single person, but the instant that we emerged upon the ground level we saw people everywhere. Officers, courtiers, warriors, slaves and merchants moved to and fro upon their various duties or in pursuit of the business that had brought them to the palace, but their very numbers proved a safeguard for us.
Upon the side of the corridor opposite from the point at which we entered it lay an arched entrance to another ramp running upward. Without an instant's hesitation I crossed through the throng of people, and, with Nur An at my side, passed beneath the arch and entered the ascending ramp.
Scarcely had we started upward when we met a young officer descending. He accorded us scarcely a glance as we passed and I breathed more easily as I realized that our disguises did, in fact, disguise us.
There were fewer people on the second level of the palace, but yet far too many to suit me and so we continued on upward to the third level, the corridors of which we found almost deserted.
Near the mouth of the ramp lay the intersection of two main corridors. Here we hesitated for an instant to reconnoiter. There were people approaching from both directions along the corridor into which we had emerged, but in one direction the transverse corridor seemed deserted and we quickly entered it. It was a very long corridor, apparently extending the full length of the palace. It was flanked at intervals upon both sides by doorways, the doors to some of which were open, while others were closed or ajar. Through some of the open doorways we saw people, while the apartments revealed through others appeared vacant. The location of these we noted carefully as we moved slowly along, carefully observing every detail that might later prove of value to us.
We had traversed about two-thirds of this long corridor when a man stepped into it from a doorway a couple of hundred feet ahead of us. He was an officer, apparently a padwar of the guard. He halted in the middle of the corridor as a file of warriors emerged from the same doorway, and, forming in a column of twos, marched in our direction, the officer bringing up the rear.
Here was a test for our disguises that I did not care to risk. There was an open doorway at our left; beyond it I could see no one. "Come!" I said to Nur An, and without accelerating our speed we walked nonchalantly into the chamber, and as Nur An crossed the threshold, I closed the door behind him and as I did so I saw a young woman standing at the opposite side of the apartment looking squarely at us.
"What do you here, warriors?" she demanded.
Here, indeed, was an embarrassing situation. In the corridor without I could hear the clank of the accoutrements of the approaching warriors and I knew that the girl must hear it, too. If I did aught to arouse her suspicion, she had but to call for help, and how might I allay her suspicion when I had not the faintest conception of what might pass for a valid excuse for the presence of two warriors in this particular apartment, which for all I knew, might be the apartment of a princess of the royal house, to enter which without permission might easily mean death to a common warrior. I thought quickly, or perhaps I did not think at all; often we act rightly upon impulse and then credit the result to super-intelligence.
"We have come for the girl," I stated brusquely. "Where is she?"
"What girl?" demanded the young woman in surprise.
"The prisoner, of course," I replied.
"The prisoner?" she looked more puzzled than before.
"Of course," said Nur An, "the prisoner. Where is she?" and I almost smiled for I knew that Nur An had not the faintest idea of what was in my mind.
"There is no prisoner here," said the young woman. "These are the apartments of the infant son of Haj Osis."
"The fool misdirected us," I said. "We are sorry that we intruded. We were sent to fetch the girl, Tavia, who is a prisoner in the palace."
It was only a guess. I did not know that Tavia was a prisoner, but after the treatment that had been accorded me I surmised as much.
"She is not here," said the young woman, "and as for you, you had better leave these apartments at once for if you are discovered here it will go ill with you."
Nur An, who was standing beside me, had been looking at the young woman intently. He stepped forward now, closer to her.