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THE CHARGE OF COWARDICEEdit

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."