“What luck”’ exclaimed Llana, disgustedly, “and just when I was so sure that we were practically safe and sound in Gathol.”
“What do we do now?” asked Pan Dan Chee.
“Our fate is in the hands of our ancestors,” said Jad-han.
“But we won’t leave it there,” I assured them; “I feel that I am much more competent to direct my own fate than are my ancestors, who have been dead for many years. Furthermore, I am much more interested in it than they.”
“I think perhaps you are on the right track there,” said Llana, laughing, “although I wouldn’t mind leaving my fate in the hands of my living ancestors—and now, just what is one of them going to do about it?”
“First I am going to find something to eat,” I replied, “and then I am going to try to find out who were warming themselves at those fires last night; they might be friends, you know.”
“I doubt it,” said Llana; “but if they are friends, then Gathol is in the hands of enemies.”
“We should know very shortly; and now you three remain here while I go and see if anything edible grows in this forest. Keep a good lookout.”
I walked into the forest, looking for roots or herbs and that life giving plant, the mantalia, the milklike sap of which has saved me from death by thirst or starvation on many an occasion. But that forest seemed to be peculiarly barren of all forms of edible things, and I passed all the way through it and out upon the other side without finding anything that even a starving man would try to eat.
Beyond the forest, I saw some low hills; and that gave me renewed hope, as in some little ravine, where moisture might be held longest, I should doubtless find something worth taking back to my companions.
I had crossed about half the distance from the forest to the hills when I heard the unmistakable clank of metal and creaking of leather behind me; and, turning, saw some twenty red men mounted on riding thoats approaching me at a gallop, the nailless, padded feet of their mounts making no sound on the soft vegetation which covered the ground.
Facing them, I drew my sword; and they drew rein a few yards from me. “Are you men of Gathol?” I asked.
“Yes,” replied one of them.
“Then I am a friend,” I said.
The fellow laughed. “No Black Pirate of Barsoom is any friend of ours,” he shot back.
For the moment I had forgotten the black pigment with which I had covered every inch of my face and body as a disguise to assist me in effecting my escape from The Black Pirates of the Valley of the First Born.
“I am not a Black Pirate,” I said.
“Oh, no!” he cried; “then I suppose you are a white ape.” At that they all laughed. “Come on now, sheathe your sword and come along with us. We’ll let Gan Hor decide what is to be done with you, and I can tell you right now that Gan Hor doesn’t like Black Pirates.”
“Don’t be a fool,” I said; “I tell you I am no Black Pirate—this is just a disguise.”
“Well,” said the fellow, who thought he was something of a wit, “isn’t it strange that you and I should meet?—I’m really a Black Pirate disguised as a red man.” This simply convulsed his companions. When he could stop laughing at his own joke, he said, “Come on now, no more foolishness! Or do you want us to come and take you?”
“Come and take me!” I replied. In that, I made a mistake; but I was a little sore at being laughed at by these stupid fools.
They started circling me at a gallop; and as they did so, they uncoiled the ropes they use to catch thoats. They were whirling them about their heads now and shouting. Suddenly a dozen loops spun through the air at me simultaneously.
It was a beautiful demonstration of roping, but I didn’t really appreciate it at the moment. Those nooses settled around me from my neck to my heels, rendering me absolutely helpless as they yanked them taut; then the dozen whose ropes had ensnared me rode away all in the same direction, jerking me to the ground; nor did they stop there—they kept on going, dragging me along the ground.
My body rolled over and over in the soft ocher vegetation, and my captors kept riding faster and faster until their mounts were at a full run. It was a most undignified situation for a fighting man; it is like me that I thought first of the injury to my pride, rather than to the injury to my body—or the fact that much more of this would leave me but a bloody corpse at the ends of twelve rawhide ropes.
They must have dragged me half a mile before they finally stopped, and only the fact that the mosslike vegetation which carpets most of Mars is soft found me alive at the end of that experience.
The leader rode back to me, followed by the others. He took one look at me, and his eyes were wide. “By my first ancestor!” he exclaimed; “he is no Black Pirate—the black has rubbed off!”
I glanced at myself; sure enough, much of the pigment had been rubbed off against the vegetation through which I had been dragged, and my skin was now a mixture of black and white streaks smeared with blood.
The man dismounted; and, after disarming me, took the nooses from about me. “He isn’t a Black Pirate and isn’t even a red man,” he said to his companions; “he’s white and he has gray eyes. By my first ancestor, I don’t believe he’s a man at all. Can you stand up?”
I came to my feet. I was a little bit groggy, but I could stand. “I can stand,” I said, “and if you want to find out whether or not I’m a man, give me back my sword and draw yours,” and with that I slapped him in the face so hard that he fell down. I was so mad that I didn’t care whether he killed me or not. He came to his feet cursing like a true pirate from the Spanish main.
“Give him his sword!” he shouted. “I was going to take him back to Gan Hor alive, but now I’ll leave him here dead.”
“You’d better take him back alive, Kor-an,” advised one of his fellows. “We may have captured a spy; and if you kill him before Gan Hor can question him, it won’t go so well for you.”
“No man can strike me and live,” shouted Kor-an; “where is his sword?”
One of them handed me my long sword, and I faced Kor-an. “To the death?” I asked.
“To the death!” replied Kor-an.
“I shall not kill you, Kor-an,” I said; “and you cannot kill me, but I shall teach you a lesson that you will not soon forget.” I spoke in a loud tone of voice, that the others might hear.
One of them laughed, and said, “You don’t know who you’re talking to, fellow. Kor-an is one of the finest swordsmen in Gathol. You will be dead in five minutes.”
“In one,” said Kor-an, and came for me.
I went to work on Kor-an then, after trying to estimate roughly how many bleeding cuts and scratches I had on my body. He was a furious but clumsy fighter. In the first second I drew blood from his right breast; then I cut a long gash in his right thigh. Again and again I touched him, drawing blood from cuts or scratches. I could have killed him at any time, and he could touch me nowhere.
“It has been more than a minute, Kor-an,” I said.
He did not reply; he was breathing heavily, and I could tell from his eyes that he was afraid. His companions sat in silence, watching every move.
Finally, after I had cut his body from forehead to toe, I stepped back, lowering my point. “Have you had enough, Kor-an?” I asked, “or do you want me to kill you?”
“I chose to fight to the death,” he said, courageously; “it is your right to kill me—and I know that you can. I know that you could have killed me any time from the moment we crossed swords.”
“I have no wish to kill a brave man,” I said.
“Call the whole thing off,” said one of the others; “you are up against the greatest swordsman anyone ever saw, Kor-an.”
“No,” said Kor-an, “I should be disgraced, if I stopped before I killed him or he killed me. Come!” He raised his point.
I dropped my sword to the ground and faced him. “You now have your chance to kill me,” I told him.
“But that would be murder,” he said; “I am no assassin.”
“Neither am I, Kor-an; and if I ran you through, even while you carried your sword, I should be as much a murderer as you, were you to kill me now; for even with a sword in your hand you are as much unarmed against me as I am now against you.”
“The man is right,” spoke up one of the Gatholians. “Sheathe your sword, Kor-an; no one will hold it against you.”
Kor-an looked at the others, and they all urged him to quit. He rammed his sword into its scabbard and mounted his thoat. “Get up behind me,” he said to me. I mounted and they were off at a gallop.