SELF-SATISFIED, contented, Atan Thome lounged at his ease in an apartment in the palace of Queen Atka at Ashair, while Lal Taask paced the floor nervously.
“I do not like it,” grumbled the latter. “We shall all die for it.”
“It is perfectly safe,” Atan Thome assured him. “Everything is arranged, and when it is over we shall be safe, favorites of the ruler of Ashair—and that much nearer The Father of Diamonds.”
“I have a presentiment,” said Lal Taask, “that we shall not be safe.”
“Put your trust in Akamen,” urged Thorne. “He will lead you to the Queen’s bedroom; then you will know what to do.”
“Why not you?” demanded Lal Taask. “It is you who wants The Father of Diamonds so badly, not I.”
“I do not do it, because you are more experienced with a dagger,” replied Thorne, smiling. “Come! Have you lost your nerve?”
“I do not wish to do it,” said Lal Taask, emphatically.
“You will do as I command!” snapped Thorne.
Lal Taask’s eyes fell before those of his master. “Just this once,” he said. “Promise that you will not ask such a thing of me again.”
“I promise that after tonight I shall ask nothing more of you,” agreed Thorne. “S-s-h! Some one is coming!”
As he ceased speaking, the door opened and Akamen entered the room. He was pale and nervous. He looked at Atan Thome questioningly. The latter nodded.
“It is all understood,” he said. “Lal Taask will do his duty.”
“Very well,” said Akamen. “I have arranged everything. The Queen has retired. There are no guards before her door. It will be over in five minutes. Suspicion will be directed against the noble in command of the guard. The Queen disciplined him severely a short time ago, and it is known that he was very bitter. Come with me, Lal Taask.”
Akamen led the way through silent corridors to the Queen’s bedroom. Without noise, he opened the door; and as the assassin, dagger in hand, slunk stealthily toward his victim, Akamen, flattened against the wall of the corridor, awaited the blow that would make him King of Ashair. Seconds seemed as hours to him as he waited for Lal Taask to reach the side of the Queen’s bed and strike.
He was almost there! The dagger hand was rising! And then there was sudden commotion in the room as warriors leaped from behind hangings and fell upon the would-be assassin and his accomplice; and Queen Atka sat up in bed, a bitter smile of triumph on her lips.
“Summon my nobles to the throne room,” she directed, “and take these two and the man Thorne there, also, that justice may be done.”
When a warrior came to Atan Thome’s apartments and summoned him to the throne room in the Queen’s name, the Eurasian could scarcely restrain an expression of exultation, though he simulated surprise that Atka should wish to see him at so late an hour.
“Akamen,” said the Queen, as the three men were lined up before the throne, “you conspired with these two strangers to assassinate me, that you might be king. One of your accomplices, hoping to curry favor with me, informed upon you. To my mind, he is even more vile than you, if that be possible; and his punishment shall be the same as yours. I sentence all three of you to the cages of the temple for life—a far greater punishment than a quick and merciful death. As added punishment, you shall all be half starved all of the time and tortured periodically, at each full moon. At the first, you shall each have one eye burned out; at the next, another; after that, you shall lose, first your right hands; then your left hands; your feet shall follow, one by one; and after that I am sure that I can devise other means whereby you may be reminded that treachery is a dangerous avocation.” She turned to one of her nobles. “Take them away!”
Atan Thome, Lal Taask, and Akamen in adjoining cages were the only prisoners now in the Temple of Brulor, Father of Diamonds. Lal Taask and Akamen glared at Atan Thome, cursing him; but he seemed oblivous to everything except the casket on the altar before the throne.
“Lowest of the low!” growled Akamen. “You betrayed us. But for you, I should be King of Ashair.”
“There is The Father of Diamonds!” whispered Atan Thome.
“Dog!” cried Taask. “For years I have served you faithfully, and now you have sacrificed me!”
“There lies The Father of Diamonds,” droned Thorne. “For that, I would betray my mother or my god.”
A ptome approached, bearing a wriggling fish upon a trident. “Here is your dinner, damned ones!” he cried.
“It is not cooked!” exclaimed Atan Thome. “Take it away!”
“Sure, I’ll take it away,” said the ptome; “but then you’ll go hungry. We do not cook the fish for such as you.”
“Give me the fish!” screamed Lal Taask; “and let him starve, but not too much—he must be saved for my dagger.”
“It is I who should have the right to kill him,” growled Akamen—“he who kept me from being a king.”
“You are both fools,” cried Atan Thome. “Nothing matters but The Father of Diamonds. Help me get that, and I shall make us all rich. Think, Taask, what it would buy in the capitals of Europe! I would give my soul for it.”
“You have no soul, you beast!” screamed Taask. “Only let me get my dagger into you!”
Tarzan and Thetan came with a warrior to the cell where Gregory and Lavac were chained. “Herat has reprieved you,” explained Tarzan, while the warrior removed their chains. “You are to have freedom within the city until I return from Ashair.”
“Why are you going to Ashair?” asked Gregory.
“I want to find out if your daughter and d’Arnot are there, and ascertain if there is any way in which they may be rescued, if they are there; then there is the matter of Brulor and The Father of Diamonds. To win freedom for all of us, they must be brought to Herat.”
“The other conditions have been fulfilled?” asked Lavac. “You have killed the lions?”
“They are both dead,” replied Tarzan.
“I shall go to Ashair with you.” said Lavac.
“And I,” said Gregory.
“It is better that I go alone,” said Tarzan.
“But I must go,” insisted Lavac. “I must do something to atone for my beastliness to d’Arnot. Please let me go with you.”
“I must go, too,” insisted Gregory.
“I can take one of you,” replied Tarzan. “Herat insists that one of us remain here as a hostage. You may come, Lavac.”
The morning was still young as Thetan bid Tarzan and Lavac farewell as they were setting out for Ashair. “I have told you all that I know of Ashair and the Temple of Brulor at the bottom of Lake Horus,” said the Thobotian. “May the gods be with you!”
“I need no gods,” said Tarzan.
“Tarzan is enough,” added Lavac.
All night the nine fugitives had tramped from their last hiding place, and they were foot sore and weary. There had been no indication of pursuit, but Herkuf knew his own people well enough to know that they would not be allowed to escape so easily.
“Now that it is light,” he said, “it is time that we found another hiding place.”
“We are only a few hours from Thobos,” said the Thobotian, “and before that I can show you the trail out of Tuen-Baka.”
“Nevertheless, I think it better that we hide through the day,” insisted Herkuf. “I have no wish to be caught and taken back to the cages.”
“What is another day, if by hiding we can escape?” asked Brian.
“I think Herkuf is right,” said d’Arnot. “We should not take a single risk, however small it may seem.”
“Listen!” whispered Helen. “I hear voices. Some one is coming behind us.”
“It can be no one but the Asharians who are looking for us,” said Herkuf. “Quick! We’ll turn off the trail here, and hide. Make no noise—just follow me. I know this place.”
They moved silently along a narrow trail for a quarter of a mile, coming at last to a little clearing. “This is the place,” said Herkuf. “I do not think they will look here for us. They will think that we kept on straight up the valley.”
“I don’t hear them any more,” said Helen.
“The trouble with this,” said d’Arnot, “is that now they’ll be between us and where we want to go.”
“I don’t think so,” replied Herkuf. “They won’t dare go too near Thobos; so, if they don’t find us, they’ll have to turn around and come back. They’ll pass us again later in the day, and tonight we can go on in safety.”
“I hope you’re right,” said Brian.
Six Asharian warriors, following the trail of the fugitives, came to the place at which they had turned off. “Their tracks are plain here,” said the leader. “Here’s where they turned off the main trail, and not so long ago. We should soon have them—remember to take the woman and the strange men alive.”
Half crouching, the six crept along the trail of their quarry—a trail as plain as a board walk. They did not speak now, for they felt that the fugitives were not far ahead; but moved with the utmost quiet and stealth. Each was thinking of what Atka would do to them if they failed.
As Tarzan and Lavac followed a forest trail toward Ashair, the ape-man suddenly stopped and tested the air with his keen nostrils. “There are men ahead,” he said. “You stay here; I’ll take to the trees and investigate.”
“They must be men from Ashair,” said Lavac, and Tarzan nodded and was off into the trees.
Lavac watched him until he disappeared among the foliage, marvelling at his strength and agility. Though he had seen him take to the trees many times, it never ceased to thrill him; but when Tarzan was gone, he felt strangely alone and helpless.
As the ape-man swung through the trees, the scent spoor became plainer; and among that of many men he detected the delicate aroma of a white woman. It was faintly familiar but still too tenuous to identify—just a suggestion of familiarity, but it spurred him to greater speed; and while he swung silently through the lower terrace of the forest, the six Asharian warriors broke into the clearing upon the fugitives with shouts of triumph. Some of the nine started to run, bringing a shower of spears upon them; but d’Arnot, Helen, Brian, and Herkuf stood still, knowing that there could be no escape now. A spear drove through one of the fleeing men; and, as he fell, screaming, the others gave up hope and stopped.
Tarzan heard the shouts of the Asharians as they broke into the clearing and the scream of him who had received the spear. The sounds were close, now. In another moment he would be on the scene.
The Asharians, having recovered their spears, rounded up the fugitives and commenced to belabor them with the hafts of their weapons. They struck indiscriminately, venting their hatred on all; but when one of them threatened Helen, d’Arnot knocked him down; and instantly another raised his spear to drive it through the Frenchman’s back. It was this scene upon which Tarzan looked as he reached the edge of the clearing.
As Helen screamed in horror and warning, an arrow pierced the warrior’s heart; and, shrieking, he fell dead. Instantly the other Asharians looked about, but they saw no one who could have sped the missile. They knew that it could not have come from any of the unarmed prisoners, and they were frightened and mystified. Only d’Arnot could even hazard a guess as to the identity of the bowman.
“It seems incredible,” he whispered to Helen, “but who in the world but Tarzan could have shot that arrow?”
“Oh, if it only were!” she exclaimed.
None knew better than Tarzan of the Apes how to harass and mystify an enemy. He had seen the surprise that the mysterious messenger of death had caused in the clearing below. A grim half-smile touched his lips as he drew his bow again and selected another victim; then he sped the arrow.
Once again the mysterious killer had struck, and as another Asharian screamed and fell the others looked about in consternation.
“Who is it?” cried one. “I see nobody.”
“Where is he?” demanded another. “Why doesn’t he show himself?”
“It is the god of us outside people,” said d’Arnot. “He will kill you all.”
“If he doesn’t kill us, Atka will,” said a warrior, “if we don’t bring you back to Ashair;” then the four remaining warriors sought to herd their prisoners onto the back trail toward the city.
“Let’s make a break for it,” suggested Brian. “They’re confused and frightened.”
“No,” counselled d’Arnot; “they’d get some of us with their spears. We can’t take the chance now.”
Suddenly there burst upon the surprised ears of the Asharians a deep voice that spoke the Swahili they all understood. “I am Tarzan of the Apes,” it boomed. “Go, and leave my friends!”
“We might as well die here as in Ashair,” a warrior shouted back, “for the Queen will have us killed if we come back empty handed; so we are going to take our prisoners with us, or kill them here.”
“Kill them now!” cried another, and turned upon Brian, who was closest to him; but as he raised his spear an arrow passed through his heart; and then, with the rapidity of machine gun fire, three more arrows brought down the remaining Asharians, while the surviving fugitives looked on in amazement.
“There is only one man in the world who could have done that,” said d’Arnot, “and we are very fortunate that he is our friend.”
As Tarzan dropped to the ground among them, they surrounded him, voicing their thanks; but he silenced them with a gesture. “What are your plans?” he asked.
“There is a Thobotian with us who is going to show us a secret trail out of Tuen-Baka,” explained d’Arnot. “We didn’t know that anyone but us was left alive.”
“Have you seen anything of Dad?” interrupted Helen. “Was he drowned?”
“No,” replied Tarzan; “he and Magra are in Thobos and safe for the moment. Lavac is back there on the trail waiting for me. He and I were on our way to Ashair to look for you.”
“Then we can all turn back to Thobos,” said Brian.
“It is not as simple as that,” replied Tarzan. “I shall have to go to Ashair and bring back a god and a diamond to Herat before he will release your father and Magra.”
“It looks like a mansize job,” commented d’Arnot, with a rueful smile. “I shall go with you.”
“And I,” said Helen.
Tarzan shrugged. “You’d be little better off in Thobos,” he said, “and I doubt very much that you could ever make it back to Bonga if you succeeded in getting out of Tuen-Baka alive.”
“I think we should all stick together,” said Brian. “I’m going along with you.”
“My duty lies near Ashair,” said Herkuf. “I shall go with you. Perhaps, of all of us, I can be of the most help in getting what you want.”
“Very well,” agreed the ape-man. “I’ll go back and bring Lavac.”
A half hour later the little party was on its way back to Ashair, the Forbidden City of Tuen-Baka.