The Chessmen of Mars/Chapter 17
A PLAY TO THE DEATHEdit
Clear and sweet a trumpet spoke across The Fields of Jetan. From
The High Tower its cool voice floated across the city of Manator
and above the babel of human discords rising from the crowded
mass that filled the seats of the stadium below. It called the
players for the first game, and simultaneously there fluttered to
the peaks of a thousand staffs on tower and battlement and the
great wall of the stadium the rich, gay pennons of the fighting
chiefs of Manator. Thus was marked the opening of The Jeddak's
Games, the most important of the year and second only to the
Grand Decennial Games.
Gahan of Gathol watched every play with eagle eye. The match was
an unimportant one, being but to settle some petty dispute
between two chiefs, and was played with professional jetan
players for points only. No one was killed and there was but
little blood spilled. It lasted about an hour and was terminated
by the chief of the losing side deliberately permitting himself
to be out-pointed, that the game might be called a draw.
Again the trumpet sounded, this time announcing the second and
last game of the afternoon. While this was not considered an
important match, those being reserved for the fourth and fifth
days of the games, it promised to afford sufficient excitement
since it was a game to the death. The vital difference between
the game played with living men and that in which inanimate
pieces are used, lies in the fact that while in the latter the
mere placing of a piece upon a square occupied by an opponent
piece terminates the move, in the former the two pieces thus
brought together engage in a duel for possession of the square.
Therefore there enters into the former game not only the strategy
of jetan but the personal prowess and bravery of each individual
piece, so that a knowledge not only of one's own men but of each
player upon the opposing side is of vast value to a chief.
In this respect was Gahan handicapped, though the loyalty of his
players did much to offset his ignorance of them, since they
aided him in arranging the board to the best advantage and told
him honestly the faults and virtues of each. One fought best in a
losing game; another was too slow; another too impetuous; this
one had fire and a heart of steel, but lacked endurance. Of the
opponents, though, they knew little or nothing, and now as the
two sides took their places upon the black and orange squares of
the great jetan board Gahan obtained, for the first time, a close
view of those who opposed him. The Orange Chief had not yet
entered the field, but his men were all in place. Val Dor turned
to Gahan. "They are all criminals from the pits of Manator," he
said. "There is no slave among them. We shall not have to fight
against a single fellow-countryman and every life we take will be
the life of an enemy."
"It is well," replied Gahan; "but where is their Chief, and where
the two Princesses?"
"They are coming now, see?" and he pointed across the field to
where two women could be seen approaching under guard.
As they came nearer Gahan saw that one was indeed Tara of Helium,
but the other he did not recognize, and then they were brought to
the center of the field midway between the two sides and there
waited until the Orange Chief arrived.
Floran voiced an exclamation of surprise when he recognized him.
"By my first ancestor if it is not one of their great chiefs," he
said, "and we were told that slaves and criminals were to play
for the stake of this game."
His words were interrupted by the keeper of The Towers whose duty
it was not only to announce the games and the stakes, but to act
as referee as well.
"Of this, the second game of the first day of the Jeddak's Games
in the four hundred and thirty-third year of O-Tar, Jeddak of
Manator, the Princesses of each side shall be the sole stakes and
to the survivors of the winning side shall belong both the
Princesses, to do with as they shall see fit. The Orange Princess
is the slave woman Lan-O of Gathol; the Black Princess is the
slave woman Tara, a princess of Helium. The Black Chief is U-Kal
of Manataj, a volunteer player; the Orange Chief is the dwar
U-Dor of the 8th Utan of the jeddak of Manator, also a volunteer
player. The squares shall be contested to the death. Just are the
laws of Manator! I have spoken."
The initial move was won by U-Dor, following which the two Chiefs
escorted their respective Princesses to the square each was to
occupy. It was the first time Gahan had been alone with Tara
since she had been brought upon the field. He saw her
scrutinizing him closely as he approached to lead her to her
place and wondered if she recognized him: but if she did she gave
no sign of it. He could not but remember her last words--"I hate
you!" and her desertion of him when he had been locked in the
room beneath the palace by I-Gos, the taxidermist, and so he did
not seek to enlighten her as to his identity. He meant to fight
for her--to die for her, if necessary--and if he did not die to
go on fighting to the end for her love. Gahan of Gathol was not
easily to be discouraged, but he was compelled to admit that his
chances of winning the love of Tara of Helium were remote.
Already had she repulsed him twice. Once as jed of Gathol and
again as Turan the panthan. Before his love, however, came her
safety and the former must be relegated to the background until
the latter had been achieved.
Passing among the players already at their stations the two took
their places upon their respective squares. At Tara's left was
the Black Chief, Gahan of Gathol; directly in front of her the
Princess' Panthan, Floran of Gathol; and at her right the
Princess' Odwar, Val Dor of Helium. And each of these knew the
part that he was to play, win or lose, as did each of the other
Black players. As Tara took her place Val Dor bowed low. "My
sword is at your feet, Tara of Helium," he said.
She turned and looked at him, an expression of surprise and
incredulity upon her face. "Val Dor, the dwar!" she exclaimed.
"Val Dor of Helium--one of my father's trusted captains! Can it
be possible that my eyes speak the truth?"
"It is Val Dor, Princess," the warrior replied, "and here to die
for you if need be, as is every wearer of the Black upon this
field of jetan today. Know Princess," he whispered, "that upon
this side is no man of Manator, but each and every is an enemy of
She cast a quick, meaning glance toward Gahan. "But what of him?"
she whispered, and then she caught her breath quickly in
surprise. "Shade of the first jeddak!" she exclaimed. "I did but
just recognize him through his disguise."
"And you trust him?" asked Val Dor. "I know him not; but he spoke
fairly, as an honorable warrior, and we have taken him at his
"You have made no mistake," replied Tara of Helium. "I would
trust him with my life--with my soul; and you, too, may trust
Happy indeed would have been Gahan of Gathol could he have heard
those words; but Fate, who is usually unkind to the lover in such
matters, ordained it otherwise, and then the game was on.
U-Dor moved his Princess' Odwar three squares diagonally to the
right, which placed the piece upon the Black Chief's Odwar's
seventh. The move was indicative of the game that U-Dor intended
playing--a game of blood, rather than of science--and evidenced
his contempt for his opponents.
Gahan followed with his Odwar's Panthan one square straight
forward, a more scientific move, which opened up an avenue for
himself through his line of Panthans, as well as announcing to
the players and spectators that he intended having a hand in the
fighting himself even before the exigencies of the game forced it
upon him. The move elicited a ripple of applause from those
sections of seats reserved for the common warriors and their
women, showing perhaps that U-Dor was none too popular with
these, and, too, it had its effect upon the morale of Gahan's
pieces. A Chief may, and often does, play almost an entire game
without leaving his own square, where, mounted upon a thoat, he
may overlook the entire field and direct each move, nor may he be
reproached for lack of courage should he elect thus to play the
game since, by the rules, were he to be slain or so badly wounded
as to be compelled to withdraw, a game that might otherwise have
been won by the science of his play and the prowess of his men
would be drawn. To invite personal combat, therefore, denotes
confidence in his own swordsmanship, and great courage, two
attributes that were calculated to fill the Black players with
hope and valor when evinced by their Chief thus early in the
U-Dor's next move placed Lan-O's Odwar upon Tara's Odwar's
fourth--within striking distance of the Black Princess.
Another move and the game would be lost to Gahan unless the
Orange Odwar was overthrown, or Tara moved to a position of
safety; but to move his Princess now would be to admit his belief
in the superiority of the Orange. In the three squares allowed
him he could not place himself squarely upon the square occupied
by the Odwar of U-Dor's Princess. There was only one player upon
the Black side that might dispute the square with the enemy and
that was the Chief's Odwar, who stood upon Gahan's left. Gahan
turned upon his thoat and looked at the man. He was a splendid
looking fellow, resplendent in the gorgeous trappings of an
Odwar, the five brilliant feathers which denoted his position
rising defiantly erect from his thick, black hair. In common with
every player upon the field and every spectator in the crowded
stands he knew what was passing in his Chief's mind. He dared not
speak, the ethics of the game forbade it, but what his lips might
not voice his eyes expressed in martial fire, and eloquently:
"The honor of the Black and the safety of our Princess are secure
Gahan hesitated no longer. "Chief's Odwar to Princess' Odwar's
fourth!" he commanded. It was the courageous move of a leader who
had taken up the gauntlet thrown down by his opponent.
The warrior sprang forward and leaped into the square occupied by
U-Dor's piece. It was the first disputed square of the game. The
eyes of the players were fastened upon the contestants, the
spectators leaned forward in their seats after the first applause
that had greeted the move, and silence fell upon the vast
assemblage. If the Black went down to defeat, U-Dor could move
his victorious piece on to the square occupied by Tara of Helium
and the game would be over--over in four moves and lost to Gahan
of Gathol. If the Orange lost U-Dor would have sacrificed one of
his most important pieces and more than lost what advantage the
first move might have given him.
Physically the two men appeared perfectly matched and each was
fighting for his life, but from the first it was apparent that
the Black Odwar was the better swordsman, and Gahan knew that he
had another and perhaps a greater advantage over his antagonist.
The latter was fighting for his life only, without the spur of
chivalry or loyalty. The Black Odwar had these to strengthen his
arm, and besides these the knowledge of the thing that Gahan had
whispered into the ears of his players before the game, and so he
fought for what is more than life to the man of honor.
It was a duel that held those who witnessed it in spellbound
silence. The weaving blades gleamed in the brilliant sunlight,
ringing to the parries of cut and thrust. The barbaric harness of
the duelists lent splendid color to the savage, martial scene.
The Orange Odwar, forced upon the defensive, was fighting madly
for his life. The Black, with cool and terrible efficiency, was
forcing him steadily, step by step, into a corner of the
square--a position from which there could be no escape. To
abandon the square was to lose it to his opponent and win for
himself ignoble and immediate death before the jeering populace.
Spurred on by the seeming hopelessness of his plight, the Orange
Odwar burst into a sudden fury of offense that forced the Black
back a half dozen steps, and then the sword of U-Dor's piece
leaped in and drew first blood, from the shoulder of his
merciless opponent. An ill-smothered cry of encouragement went up
from U-Dor's men; the Orange Odwar, encouraged by his single
success, sought to bear down the Black by the rapidity of his
attack. There was a moment in which the swords moved with a
rapidity that no man's eye might follow, and then the Black Odwar
made a lightning parry of a vicious thrust, leaned quickly
forward into the opening he had effected, and drove his sword
through the heart of the Orange Odwar--to the hilt he drove it
through the body of the Orange Odwar.
A shout arose from the stands, for wherever may have been the
favor of the spectators, none there was who could say that it had
not been a pretty fight, or that the better man had not won. And
from the Black players came a sigh of relief as they relaxed from
the tension of the past moments.
I shall not weary you with the details of the game--only the high
features of it are necessary to your understanding of the
outcome. The fourth move after the victory of the Black Odwar
found Gahan upon U-Dor's fourth; an Orange Panthan was on the
adjoining square diagonally to his right and the only opposing
piece that could engage him other than U-Dor himself.
It had been apparent to both players and spectators for the past
two moves, that Gahan was moving straight across the field into
the enemy's country to seek personal combat with the Orange
Chief--that he was staking all upon his belief in the superiority
of his own swordsmanship, since if the two Chiefs engage, the
outcome decides the game. U-Dor could move out and engage Gahan,
or he could move his Princess' Panthan upon the square occupied
by Gahan in he hope that the former would defeat the Black Chief
and thus draw the game, which is the outcome if any other than a
Chief slays the opposing Chief, or he could move away and escape,
temporarily, the necessity for personal combat, or at least that
is evidently what he had in mind as was obvious to all who saw
him scanning the board about him; and his disappointment was
apparent when he finally discovered that Gahan had so placed
himself that there was no square to which U-Dor could move that
it was not within Gahan's power to reach at his own next move.
U-Dor had placed his own Princess four squares east of Gahan when
her position had been threatened, and he had hoped to lure the
Black Chief after her and away from U-Dor; but in that he had
failed. He now discovered that he might play his own Odwar into
personal combat with Gahan; but he had already lost one Odwar and
could ill spare the other. His position was a delicate one, since
he did not wish to engage Gahan personally, while it appeared
that there was little likelihood of his being able to escape.
There was just one hope and that lay in his Princess' Panthan,
so, without more deliberation he ordered the piece onto the
square occupied by the Black Chief.
The sympathies of the spectators were all with Gahan now. If he
lost, the game would be declared a draw, nor do they think better
of drawn games upon Barsoom than do Earth men. If he won, it
would doubtless mean a duel between the two Chiefs, a development
for which they all were hoping. The game already bade fair to be
a short one and it would be an angry crowd should it be decided a
draw with only two men slain. There were great, historic games on
record where of the forty pieces on the field when the game
opened only three survived--the two Princesses and the victorious
They blamed U-Dor, though in fact he was well within his rights
in directing his play as he saw fit, nor was a refusal on his
part to engage the Black Chief necessarily an imputation of
cowardice. He was a great chief who had conceived a notion to
possess the slave Tara. There was no honor that could accrue to
him from engaging in combat with slaves and criminals, or an
unknown warrior from Manataj, nor was the stake of sufficient
import to warrant the risk.
But now the duel between Gahan and the Orange Panthan was on and
the decision of the next move was no longer in other hands than
theirs. It was the first time that these Manatorians had seen
Gahan of Gathol fight, but Tara of Helium knew that he was master
of his sword. Could he have seen the proud light in her eyes as
he crossed blades with the wearer of the Orange, he might easily
have wondered if they were the same eyes that had flashed fire
and hatred at him that time he had covered her lips with mad
kisses, in the pits of the palace of O-Tar. As she watched him
she could not but compare his swordplay with that of the greatest
swordsman of two worlds--her father, John Carter, of Virginia, a
Prince of Helium, Warlord of Barsoom--and she knew that the skill
of the Black Chief suffered little by the comparison.
Short and to the point was the duel that decided possession of
the Orange Chief's fourth. The spectators had settled themselves
for an interesting engagement of at least average duration when
they were brought almost standing by a brilliant flash of rapid
swordplay that was over ere one could catch his breath. They saw
the Black Chief step quickly back, his point upon the ground,
while his opponent, his sword slipping from his fingers, clutched
his breast, sank to his knees and then lunged forward upon his
And then Gahan of Gathol turned his eyes directly upon U-Dor of
Manator, three squares away. Three squares is a Chief's
move--three squares in any direction or combination of
directions, only provided that he does not cross the same square
twice in a given move. The people saw and guessed Gahan's
intention. They rose and roared forth their approval as he moved
deliberately across the intervening squares toward the Orange
O-Tar, in the royal enclosure, sat frowning upon the scene. O-Tar
was angry. He was angry with U-Dor for having entered this game
for possession of a slave, for whom it had been his wish only
slaves and criminals should strive. He was angry with the warrior
from Manataj for having so far out-generaled and out-fought the
men from Manator. He was angry with the populace because of their
open hostility toward one who had basked in the sunshine of his
favor for long years. O-Tar the jeddak had not enjoyed the
afternoon. Those who surrounded him were equally glum--they, too,
scowled upon the field, the players, and the people. Among them
was a bent and wrinkled old man who gazed through weak and watery
eyes upon the field and the players.
As Gahan entered his square, U-Dor leaped toward him with drawn
sword with such fury as might have overborne a less skilled and
powerful swordsman. For a minute the fighting was fast and
furious and by comparison reducing to insignificance all that had
gone before. Here indeed were two magnificent swordsmen, and here
was to be a battle that bade fair to make up for whatever the
people felt they had been defrauded of by the shortness of the
game. Nor had it continued long before many there were who would
have prophesied that they were witnessing a duel that was to
become historic in the annals of jetan at Manator. Every trick,
every subterfuge, known to the art of fence these men employed.
Time and again each scored a point and brought blood to his
opponent's copper hide until both were red with gore; but neither
seemed able to administer the coup de grace.
From her position upon the opposite side of the field Tara of
Helium watched the long-drawn battle. Always it seemed to her
that the Black Chief fought upon the defensive, or when he
assumed to push his opponent, he neglected a thousand openings
that her practiced eye beheld. Never did he seem in real danger,
nor never did he appear to exert himself to quite the pitch
needful for victory. The duel already had been long contested and
the day was drawing to a close. Presently the sudden transition
from daylight to darkness which, owing to the tenuity of the air
upon Barsoom, occurs almost without the warning twilight of
Earth, would occur. Would the fight never end? Would the game be
called a draw after all? What ailed the Black Chief?
Tara wished that she might answer at least the last of these
questions for she was sure that Turan the panthan, as she knew
him, while fighting brilliantly, was not giving of himself all
that he might. She could not believe that fear was restraining
his hand, but that there was something beside inability to push
U-Dor more fiercely she was confident. What it was, however, she
could not guess.
Once she saw Gahan glance quickly up toward the sinking sun. In
thirty minutes it would be dark. And then she saw and all those
others saw a strange transition steal over the swordplay of the
Black Chief. It was as though he had been playing with the great
dwar, U-Dor, all these hours, and now he still played with him
but there was a difference. He played with him terribly as a
carnivore plays with its victim in the instant before the kill.
The Orange Chief was helpless now in the hands of a swordsman so
superior that there could be no comparison, and the people sat in
open-mouthed wonder and awe as Gahan of Gathol cut his foe to
ribbons and then struck him down with a blow that cleft him to
In twenty minutes the sun would set. But what of that?