A Fighting Man of Mars
Chapter 16: Despair
Copyright© 2012 by Edgar Rice Burroughs
Immediately after the close of the battle the Warlord sent for me and a few moments later Tavia and I stepped aboard the flagship.
The Warlord himself came forward to meet us. "I knew," he said, "that the son of Had Urtur would give a good account of himself. Helium can scarcely pay the debt of gratitude that you have placed upon her today. You have been to Jahar; your work today convinces me of that. May we with safety approach and take the city?"
"No," I replied, and then briefly I explained the mighty force that Tul Axtar had gathered and the armament with which he expected to subdue the world. "But there is a way," I said.
"And what is that?" he asked.
"Send one of the captured Jaharian ships with a flag of truce and I believe that Tul Axtar will surrender. He is a coward. He fled in terror when the battle was still young."
"Will he honor a flag of truce?"
"If it is carried aboard one of his own ships, protected by the blue paint of Jahar, I believe that he will," I said; "but at the same time I shall accompany the ship in the invisible Jhama.
"I know how I may gain entrance to the palace. I have abducted Tul Axtar once and perchance I may be able to do it again. If you have him in your hands, you can dictate terms to the nobles, all of whom fear the terrific power of the hungry multitude that is held in check now only by the instinctive terror they feel for their Jeddak."
As we waited for the former Jaharian cruiser that was to carry the flag of truce to come alongside, John Carter told me what had delayed the expedition against Jahar for so many months.
The major-domo of Tor Hatan's palace, to whom I had entrusted the message to John Carter and which would have led immediately to the descent upon Jahar, had been assassinated while on his way to the palace of the Warlord. Suspicion, therefore, did not fall upon Tul Axtar and the ships of Helium scoured Barsoom for many months in vain search for Sanoma Tora.
It was only by accident that Kal Tavan, the slave who had overheard my conversation with the major-domo, learned that the ships of Helium had not been dispatched to Jahar, for a slave ordinarily is not taken into the confidences of his master and the arrogant Tor Hatan was, of all men, least likely to do so; but Kal Tavan did hear eventually and he went himself to the Warlord and told his story.
"For his services," said John Carter, "I gave him his freedom and as it was apparent from his demeanor that he had been born to the nobility in his native country, though he did not tell me this, I gave him service aboard the fleet. He has turned out to be an excellent man and recently I have made him a dwar. Having been born in Tjanath and served in Kobol, he was more familiar with this part of Barsoom than any other man in Helium. I, therefore, assigned him to duty with the navigating officer of the fleet and he is now aboard the flagship."
"I had occasion to notice the man immediately after Sanoma Tora's abduction," I said, "and I was much impressed by him. I am glad that he has found his freedom and the favor of the Warlord."
The cruiser that was to bear the flag of truce was now alongside. The officer in command reported to the Warlord and as he received his instructions, Tavia and I returned to the Jhama. We had decided to carry on our part of the plan alone, for if it became necessary to abduct Tul Axtar again I had hoped, also, that I might find Phao and Sanoma Tora, and if so the small cabin of the Jhama would be sufficiently crowded without the addition of the two padwars. They were reluctant to leave her for I think they had had the most glorious experience of their lives during the short time that they had been aboard her, but I gained permission from the Warlord for them to accompany the cruiser to Jahar.
Once again Tavia and I were alone. "Perhaps this will be our last cruise aboard the Jhama," I said.
"I think I shall be glad to rest," she replied.
"You are tired?" I asked.
"More tired than I realized until I felt the safety and security of that great fleet of Helium about me. I think that I am just tired of being always in danger."
"I should not have brought you now," I said. "There is yet time to return you to the flagship."
She smiled. "You know better than that, Hadron," she said.
I did know better. I knew that she would not leave me. We were silent for a while as the Jhama slid through the air slightly astern of the cruiser. As I looked at Tavia's face, it seemed to reflect a great weariness and there were little lines of sadness there that I had not seen before. Presently she spoke again in a dull tone that was most unlike her own.
"I think that Sanoma Tora will be glad to come away with you this time," she said.
"I do not know," I said. "It makes no difference to me whether she wishes to come or not. It is my duty to fetch her."
She nodded. "Perhaps it is best," she said; "her father is a noble and very rich."
I did not understand what that had to do with it and not being particularly interested further in either Sanoma Tora or her father, I did not pursue the conversation. I knew that it was my duty to return Sanoma Tora to Helium if possible, and that was the only interest that I had in the affair.
We were well within sight of Jahar before we encountered any warships and then a cruiser came to meet ours which bore the flag of truce. The commanders of the two boats exchanged a few words and then the Jaharian craft turned and led the way toward the palace of Tul Axtar. It moved slowly and I forged on ahead, my plans already made, and the Jhama, being clothed with invisibility, needed no escort. I steered directly to that wing of the palace which contained the women's quarters and slowly circled it, my periscope on a line with the windows.
We had rounded the end of the wing, in which the great hall lay where Tul Axtar held court with his women, when the periscope came opposite the windows of a gorgeous apartment. I brought the ship to a stop before it, as I had before some of the others which I wished to examine, and while the slowly moving periscope brought different parts of the large room to the ground glass plate before me I saw the figures of two women and instantly I recognized them. One was Sanoma Tora and the other Phao, and upon the figure of the former hung the gorgeous trappings of a Jeddara. The woman I had loved had achieved her goal, but it caused me no pang of jealousy. I searched the balance of the apartment and finding no other occupant, I brought the deck of the Jhama close below the sill of the window. Then I raised a hatch and leaped into the room.
At sight of me Sanoma Tora arose from the divan upon which she had been sitting and shrank back in terror. I thought that she was about to scream for help, but I warned her to silence, and at the same instant Phao sprang forward and, seizing Sanoma Tora's arm, clapped a palm over her mouth. A moment later I had gained her side.
"The fleet of Jahar has gone down to defeat before the ships of Helium," I told Sanoma Tora, "and I have come to take you back to your own country."
She was trembling so that she could not reply. I had never seen such a picture of abject terror, induced no doubt by her own guilty conscience.
"I am glad you have come, Hadron of Hastor," said Phao, "for I know that you will take me, too."
"Of course," I said. "The Jhama lies just outside that window. Come! We shall soon be safe aboard the flagship of the Warlord."
While I had been talking I had become aware of a strange noise that seemed to come from a distance and which rose and fell in volume and now it appeared to be growing nearer and nearer. I could not explain it; perhaps I did not attempt to, for at best I could be only mildly interested. I had found two of those whom I sought. I would get them aboard the Jhama and then I would try to locate Tul Axtar.
At that instant the door burst open and a man rushed into the room. It was Tul Axtar. He was very pale and he was breathing hard. At sight of me he halted and shrank back and I thought that he was going to turn and run, but he only looked fearfully back through the open door and then he turned to me, trembling.
"They are coming!" he cried in a voice of terror. "They will tear me to pieces."
"Who is coming?" I demanded.
"The people," he said. "They have forced the gates and they are coming, Do you not hear them?"
So that was the noise that had attracted my attention--the hungry hordes of Jahar searching out the author of their misery.
"The Jhama is outside that window," I said. "If you will come aboard her as a prisoner of war, I will take you to the Warlord of Barsoom."
"He will kill me, too," wailed Tul Axtar.
"He should," I assured him.
He stood looking at me for a moment and I could see in his eyes and the expression of his face the reflection of a dawning idea. His countenance lightened. He looked almost hopeful. "I will come," he said; "but first let me get one thing to take with me. It is in yonder cabinet."
"Hasten," I said.
He went quickly to the cabinet, which was a tall affair reaching from the floor almost to the ceiling, and when he opened the door it hid him from our view.
As I waited I could hear the crash of weapons upon levels below and the screams and shrieks and curses of men and I judged that the palace guard was holding the mob, temporarily at least. Finally I became impatient. "Hasten, Tul Axtar," I called, but there was no reply. Again I called him, with the same result, and then I crossed the room to the cabinet, but Tul Axtar was not behind the door.
The cabinet contained many drawers of different sizes, but there was not one large enough to conceal a man, nor any through which he could have passed to another apartment. Hastily I searched the room, but Tul Axtar was nowhere to be found and then I chanced to glance at Sanoma Tora. She was evidently trying to attract my attention, but she was so terrified that she could not speak. With trembling fingers she was pointing toward the window. I looked in that direction, but I could see nothing.
"What is it? What are you trying to say, Sanoma Tora?" I demanded as I rushed to her side.
"Gone!" she managed to say. "Gone!"
"Who is gone?" I demanded.
"Where? What do you mean?" I insisted.
"The hatch of the Jhama--I saw it open and close."
"But it cannot be possible. We have been standing here looking-" and then a thought struck me that left me almost dazed. I turned to Sanoma Tora. "The cloak of invisibility?" I whispered.
Almost in a single bound I crossed the room to the window and was feeling for the deck of the Jhama. It was not there. The ship had gone. Tul Axtar had taken it and Tavia was with him.
I turned back and crossed the room to Sanoma Tora. "Accursed woman!" I cried. "Your selfishness, your vanity, your treachery has jeopardized the safety of one whose footprints you are not fit to touch." I wanted to close my fingers upon that perfect throat, I yearned to see the agony of death upon that beautiful face; but only turned away, my hands dropping at my sides, for I am a man--a noble of Helium--and the women of Helium are sacred, even such as Sanoma Tora.
From below came the sounds of renewed fighting. If the mob broke through I knew that we should all be lost, There was but one hope for even temporary safety and that was the slender tower above the women's quarters.
"Follow me," I said curtly. As we entered the main corridor I caught a glimpse of the interior of the great hall where Tul Axtar had held court. It was filled with terrified women. Well they knew what the fate of the women of a Jeddak would be at the hands of an infuriated mob. My heart went out to them, but I could not save them. Lucky, indeed, should I be if I were able to save these two.
Crossing the corridor we ascended the spiral ramp to the storeroom, where, after entering, I took the precaution to bolt the door, then I ascended the ladder toward the trap door at the summit of the tower, the two women following me. As I raised the trap and looked about me I could have cried aloud with joy, for circling low above the roof of the palace was the cruiser flying the flag of truce. I apprehended no danger of discovery by Jaharian warriors since I knew that they were all well occupied below--those who were not fleeing for their lives-- and so I sprang to the summit of the tower and hailed the cruiser in a voice that they might well hear above the howling of the mob. An answering hail came from the deck of the craft and a moment later she dropped to the level of the tower roof. With the help of the crew I assisted Phao and Sanoma Tora aboard.
The officer in command of the cruiser stepped to my side. "Our mission here is fruitless," he said. "Word has just been brought me that the palace has fallen before the onslaught of a mob of infuriated citizens. The nobles have commandeered every craft upon which they could lay hands and have fled. There is no one with whom we can negotiate a peace. No one knows what has become of Tul Axtar."
"I know," I told him, and then I narrated what had happened in the apartment of the Jeddara.
"We must pursue him," he said. "We must overtake him and carry him back to the Warlord."
"Where shall we look?" I asked. "The Jhama may lie within a dozen sofads of us and even so we could not see her. I shall search for him; never fear, and some day I shall find him, but it is useless now to try to find the Jhama. Let us return to the flagship of the Warlord."
I do not know that John Carter fully realized the loss that I had sustained, but I suspect that he did for he offered me all the resources of Helium in my search for Tavia.
I thanked him, but asked only for a fast ship; one in which I might devote the remainder of my life in what I truly believed would prove a futile search for Tavia, for how could I know where in all wide Barsoom Tul Axtar would elect to hide. Doubtless there were known to him many remote spots in his own empire where he could live in safety for the balance of his allotted time on Barsoom. To such a place he would go and because of the Jhama no man would see him pass; there would be no clue by which to follow him and he would take Tavia with him and she would be his slave. I shuddered and my nails sank into my palms at the thought.
The Warlord ordered one of the newest and swiftest fliers of Helium to be brought alongside the flagship. It was a trim craft of the semi-cabin type that would easily accommodate four or five in comfort. From his own stores he had provisions and water transferred to it and he added wine from Ptarth and jars of the famous honey of Dusar.
Sanoma Tora and Phao had been sent at once to a cabin by the Warlord, for the deck of a man-of-war on duty is no place for women. I was about to depart when a messenger came saying that Sanoma Tora wished to see me.
"I do not wish to see her," I replied.
"Her companion also begged that you would come," replied the messenger.
That was different. I had almost forgotten Phao, but if she wished to see me I would go, and so I went at once to the cabin where the two girls were. As I entered Sanoma Tora came forward and threw herself upon her knees before me.