I had constructed a little platform in a tree that overhung the river; and there at night we were comparatively safe from predatory animals while the soft music of the purling water lulled us to sleep, a sleep that might be suddenly broken by the savage roars of hunting beasts or the screams of their victims, to which the distant lowing and bellowing of the vast herds upon the plain furnished a harmonious undertone in this raw aria of life.
It was our last night in this pleasant camp. We were sitting on our little platform watching the fish leaping and jumping in the river below.
“I could be happy here forever—with you, Duare,” I said.
“One may not think of happiness alone,” she replied; “there is duty also.”
“But what if circumstances make us helpless to perform our duties? Aren’t we warranted in making the best of our fate and making the most of the chance for happiness where we find it?”
“What do you mean?” she asked.
“I mean that there is practically no possibility that we can ever reach Vepaja. We do not know where it is, and if we did it seems to me that there is not even the remotest chance that we should survive the dangers that must lie along that unknown trail that leads back to the house of Mintep, your father.”
“I know that you are right,” she replied a little wearily, “but it is my duty to try; and I may never cease to seek to return, to the end of my life, no matter how remote I may know the chance of success may be.”
“Isn’t that being a little unreasonable, Duare?”
“You do not understand, Carson Napier. If I had a brother or sister it might make a difference; but I have neither, and my father and I are the last of our line. It is not for myself nor for my father that I must return but for my country—the royal line of the jongs of Vepaja must not be broken, and there is none to perpetuate it but myself.”
“And if we do return—what then?”
“When I am twenty I shall marry a noble selected by my father, and after my father dies I shall be vadjong, or queen, until my oldest son is twenty; then he will be jong.”
“But with the longevity serum that your scientists have perfected your father will never die; so why return?”
“I hope he will not die, but there are accidents and battles and assassins. Oh, why discuss it! The royal line must be preserved!”
“And what of me, if we reach Vepaja?” I asked.
“What do you mean?”
“Will there be a chance for me?”
“I do not understand.”
“If your father consents, will you marry me?” I blurted.
Duare flushed. “How many times must I tell you that you may not speak of such serious things to me?”
“I can’t help it, Duare; I love you. I care nothing for customs nor jongs nor dynasties. I shall tell your father that I love you, and I shall tell him that you love me.”
“I do not love you; you have no right to say that. It is sinful and wicked. Because once I was weak and lost my head and said a thing I did not mean you have no right to constantly throw it in my face.”
Now that was just like a woman. I had been fighting every impulse to keep from speaking of love during all the time we had been together. I couldn’t recall but one other instance when I had lost control of myself, yet she accused me of constantly throwing in her face the one admission of love that she had made.
“Well,” I said, sullenly, “I shall do what I said I’d do, if I ever see your father again.”
“And do you know what he will do?”
“If he’s the right kind of a father he’ll say, ‘Bless you, my children.’”
“He is a jong before he is a father, and he will have you destroyed. Even if you do not make any such mad admission to him, I shall have to use all of my powers of persuasion to save you from death.”
“Why should he kill me?”
“No man who has spoken, without royal permission, to a janjong, or princess, is ordinarily permitted to live. That you may be with me alone for months and possibly years before we return to Vepaja will but tend to exaggerate the seriousness of the situation. I shall plead your service to me; that you risked your life innumerable times to preserve mine; and that I think will have sufficient weight to save you from death; but, of course, you will be banished from Vepaja.”
“That is a pleasant outlook. I may lose my life, and I am certain to lose you. Under such circumstances, do you think that I will prosecute the search for Vepaja with much enthusiasm or diligence?”
“Perhaps not with enthusiasm; but with diligence, yes. You will do it for me, because of that thing which you call love.”
“Possibly you are right,” I said, and I knew that she was.
The next day we started, in accordance with a plan we had formulated, to follow the little river down toward the big river along which we would continue to the sea. Where we should go from there was problematical. We decided to wait until we reached the sea before making any further plans. What lay before us we could not guess; had we been able to we might have fled back to the comparative safety of the gloomy forest we had so recently quitted with delight.
Late in the afternoon we were taking a short cut across open ground where the river made a great bend. It was rather rough going, for there were many rocks and bowlders and the surface of the land was cut by gullies.
As we clambered up the bank of a particularly deep gully I chanced to glance back and saw a strange animal standing on the opposite rim watching us. It was about the size of a German police dog, but there the similarity ceased. It had a massive, curved beak remarkably similar to that of a parrot; and its body was covered with feathers; but it was no bird, for it went on four legs and had no wings. Forward of its two short ears were three horns, one in front of either ear and the third growing midway between the others. As it turned part way around to look back at something we could not see, I saw that it had no tail. At a distance its legs and feet appeared bird-like.
“Do you see what I see, Duare?” I asked, nodding in the direction of the weird creature; “or am I suffering from a touch of fever?”
“Of course I see it,” she replied, “but I don’t know what it is. I am sure that there is no such creature on the island of Vepaja.”
“There’s another of them, and another, and another! I exclaimed. “Lord! there must be a dozen of them.”
They were standing in a little knot surveying us when suddenly the one we had first seen raised its grotesque head and voiced a hoarse, wailing scream; then it started down into the gully and headed for us at a rapid gallop, and behind it came its fellows, all now voicing that hideous cry.
“What are we going to do?” asked Duare. “Do you suppose they are dangerous?”
“I don’t know whether they are dangerous our not,” I replied, “but I wish that there were a tree handy.”
“A forest does have its advantages,” admitted Duare. “What are we going to do?”
“It would do no good to run; so we might as well stand here and have it out with them. We’ll have some advantage as they come up the bank of the gully.”
I fitted an arrow to my bow and Duare did likewise; then we stood waiting for them to come within range. They loped easily across the bottom of the gully and started the ascent. They didn’t seem to be in much of a hurry; that is, they didn’t seem to be extending themselves to their full speed, probably because we were not running away from them.
Perhaps this surprised them, for they presently slowed down to a walk and advanced warily. They had ceased their baying. The feathers along their backs rose stiffly erect as they slunk toward us.
Aiming carefully at the foremost, I loosed an arrow. It struck the beast full in the chest, and with a scream it stopped and tore at the feathered shaft protruding from its body. The others halted and surrounded it. They made a strange cackling sound.
The wounded creature staggered and sank to the ground, and instantly its fellows were upon it, tearing and rending. For a moment it fought fiercely to defend itself, but futilely.
As the othels commenced to devour their fallen comrade I motioned Duare to follow me, and we turned and ran toward the trees we could see about a mile away where the river turned back across our line of march. But we hadn’t gone far before we heard again the infernal screaming that told us that the pack was on our trail.
This time they overtook us while we were at the bottom of a depression, and once again we made a stand. Instead of attacking us directly, the beasts slunk about just out of range, as though they knew the danger line beyond which they would be safe; then slowly they circled us until we were surrounded.
“If they charge now, all at once,” said Duare, “we are sure to be finished.”
“Perhaps if we succeed in killing a couple of them the others will stop to devour them, thus giving us another chance to get closer to the wood,” I argued with an assumed optimism.
As we waited for the next move of our antagonists, we heard a loud shout in the direction from which we had come. Looking quickly up, I saw a man seated upon the back of a four footed animal at the rim of the depression in which we stood.
At the sound of the human voice, the beasts surrounding us looked in the direction of the interruption and immediately commenced to cackle. The man on the beast rode slowly down toward us, and as he came to the ring of beasts they moved aside and let him pass through their savage ranks.
“It is fortunate for you that I came when I did,” said the stranger, as the beast he rode stopped in front of us; “these kazars of mine are a ferocious lot.” He was eying us intently, especially Duare. “Who are you, and where are you from?” he demanded.
“We are strangers, and we are lost,” I replied. “I am from California.” I did not wish to tell him that we were from Vepaja until we knew more of him. If he was a Thorist he was an enemy; and the less he knew about us the better, especially that we were from the country of Mintep, the jong, than whom the Thorists have no more bitter enemy.
“California,” he repeated. “I never heard of such a country. Where is it?”
“In North America,” I replied, but he only shook his head. “And who are you,” I asked, “and what country is this?”
“This is Noobol, but that of course you already know. This part of it is known as Morov. I am Skor, the jong of Morov. But you have not told me your names.”
“This is Duare,” I replied, “and I am Carson.” I did not give surname as they are seldom used on Venus.
“And where were you going?”
“We were trying to find our way to the sea.”
“From where did you come?”
“Recently we were in Kapdor,” I explained.
I saw his eyes narrow ominously. “So you are Thoristst” he snapped.
“No,” I assured him, “we are not. We were prisoners of the Thorists.” I hoped that my guess had been a good one and that he was not kindly disposed toward the Thorists. The slender thread upon which I hung my hopes was no more substantial than the frown that had clouded his brow at my admission that we had just come from Kapdor.
To my relief his expression changed. “I am glad that you are not Thorists; otherwise I would not help you. I have no use for the breed.”
“You will help us, then?” I asked.
“With pleasure,” he replied. He was looking at Duare as he spoke, and I did not exactly relish the tone of his voice nor the expression on his face.
The kazars were circling around us, cackling and whistling. When one of them approached us too close, Skor would flick it with the lash of a long whip he carried; and the creature would retreat, screaming and cackling the louder.
“Come,” he said presently, “I will take you to my house; then we may discuss plans for the future. The woman may ride behind me on my zorat.”
“I prefer to walk,” said Duare. “I am accustomed to it now.”
Skor’s eyes narrowed a bit. He started to speak, and then he checked himself. Finally he shrugged. “As you will,” he said, and turned the head of his mount back in the direction from which he had come.
The creature he rode, which he called a zorat, was unlike any beast that I had ever seen before. It was about the size of a small horse. Its long, slender legs suggested great speed. Its feet were round and nailless and heavily calloused on the bottoms. Its almost vertical pasterns suggested that it might be a hard gaited beast, but this was not so. Later I learned that almost horizontal femurs and humeri absorbed the jolts and rendered the zorat an easy riding saddle animal.
Above its withers and just forward of its kidneys were soft pads or miniature humps which formed a perfect saddle with natural pommel and cantle. Its head was short and broad, with two large, saucer-like eyes and pendulous ears. Its teeth were those of a grass-eater. Its only means of defense seemed to lie in its fleetness, although, as I afterward had occasion to discover, it could use its jaws and teeth most effectively when its short temper was aroused.
We walked beside Skor on the journey toward his house, the grotesque kazars following docilely behind at the command of their master. The way led toward the great bend of the river, that we had sought to avoid by taking a short cut, and a forest that lined its banks. The proximity of the kazars made me nervous, for occasionally one of them would trot close at our heels; and I was fearful that Duare might be injured by one of the fierce beasts before I could prevent it. I asked Skor what purpose the creatures served.
“I use them for hunting,” he replied, “but principally for protection. I have enemies; and then, too, there are many savage beasts roaming at large in Morov. The kazars are quite fearless and very savage fighters. Their greatest weakness is their predilection for cannibalism; they will abandon a fight to devour one of their own number that has fallen.”
Shortly after we entered the forest we came upon a large, gloomy, fortress-like building of stone. It was built upon a low rise of ground at the water’s edge, the river lapping the masonry upon that side. A stone wall connecting with the river wall of the building inclosed several acres of clear land in front of the structure. A heavy gate closed the only aperture that was visible in this wall.
As we approached, Skor shouted, “Open! It is the jong,” and the gates swung slowly outward.
As we entered, several armed men, who had been sitting beneath one of the several trees that had been left standing when the ground was cleared, arose and stood with bowed heads. They were a hard and also a sad looking lot. The feature that struck me most forcibly was the strange hue of their skin, a repulsive, unhealthy pallor, a seeming bloodlessness. I caught the eyes of one that chanced to raise his head as we passed, and I shivered. They were glazed, clammy eyes, without light, without fire. I would have thought the fellow stone blind but for the fact that the instant that my eyes caught his they dropped swiftly. Another had an ugly, open wound across his cheek from temple to chin; it gaped wide, but it did not bleed.
Skor snapped a brief order; and two of the men herded the pack of cackling kazars into a strong inclosure built beside the gateway, as we proceeded on toward the house. Perhaps I should call it castle.
The inclosure across which we passed was barren except for the few trees that had been left standing. It was littered with refuse of all descriptions and was unspeakably disorderly and untidy. Old sandals, rags, broken pottery, and the garbage from the castle kitchens were strewn promiscuously about. The only spot from which any effort had been made to remove the litter was a few hundred square feet of stone flagging before the main entrance to the building.
Here Skor dismounted as three more men similar to those at the gate came lifelessly from the interior of the building. One of these took Skor’s mount and led it away, the others stood one on either side of the entrance as we passed in.
The doorway was small, the door that closed it thick and heavy. It seemed to be the only opening on the first floor on this side of the castle. Along the second and third floor levels I had seen small windows heavily barred. At one corner of the building I had noticed a tower rising two more stories above the main part of the castle. This, too, had small windows, some of which were barred.
The interior of the building was dark and gloomy. Coupled with the appearance of the inmates I had already seen it engendered within me a feeling of depression that I could not throw off.
“You must be hungry,” suggested Skor. “Come out into the inner court—it is pleasanter there—and I will have food served.”
We followed him down a short corridor and through a doorway into a courtyard around which the castle was built. The inclosure reminded me of a prison yard. It was flagged with stone. No living thing grew there. The gray stone walls, cut with their small windows, rose upon four sides. There had been no effort toward architectural ornamentation in the design of the structure, nor any to beautify the courtyard in any way. Here, too, was litter and trash that it had evidently been easier to throw into the inner court than carry to the outer.
I was oppressed by forebodings of ill. I wished that we had never entered the place, but I tried to brush my fears aside. I argued that Skor had given no indications of being other than a kindly and solicitous host. He had seemed anxious to befriend us. That he was a jong I had commenced to doubt, for there was no suggestion of royalty in his mode of living.
In the center of the court a plank table was flanked by grimy, well worn benches. On the table were the remains of a meal. Skor graciously waved us toward the benches; then he clapped his hands together three times before he seated himself at the head of the table.
“I seldom have guests here,” he said. “It is quite a pleasant treat for me. I hope that you will enjoy your stay. I am sure that I shall,” and as he spoke he looked at Duare in that way that I did not like.
“I am sure that we might enjoy it could we remain,” replied Duare quickly, “but that is not possible. I must return to the house of my father.”
“Where is that?” asked Skor.
“In Vepaja,” explained Duare.
“I never heard of that country,” said Skor. “Where is it?”
“You never heard of Vepaja!” exclaimed Duare incredulously. “Why, all the present country of Thora was called Vepaja until the Thorists rose and took it and drove the remnants of the ruling class to the island that is now all that remains of ancient Vepaja.”
“Oh, yes, I had heard of that,” admitted Skor; “but it was a long time ago and in distant Trabol.”
“Is this not Trabol?” asked Duare.
“No,” replied Skor; “this is Strabol.”
“But Strabol is the hot country,” argued Duare. “No one can live in Strabol.”
“You are in Strabol now. It is hot here during a portion of the year, but not so hot as to be unendurable.”
I was interested. If what Skor said were true, we had crossed the equator and were now in the northern hemisphere of Venus. The Vepajans had told me that Strabol was uninhabitable—a steaming jungle reeking with heat and moisture and inhabited only by fierce and terrible beasts and reptiles. The entire northern hemisphere was a terra incognita to the men of the southern hemisphere, and for that reason I had been anxious to explore it.
With the responsibility of Duare on my shoulders I could not do much exploring, but I might learn something from Skor; so I asked him of the country farther north.
“It is no good,” he snapped. “It is the land of fools. They frown upon true science and progress. They drove me out; they would have killed me. I came here and established the kingdom of Morov. That was many years ago—perhaps a hundred years. I have never returned since to the country of my birth; but sometimes their people come here,” and he laughed unpleasantly.
Just then a woman came from the building, evidently in response to Skor’s summons. She was middle aged. Her skin was the same repulsive hue as that of the men I had seen, and it was very dirty. Her mouth hung open and her tongue protruded; it was dry and swollen. Her eyes were glazed and staring. She moved with a slow, awkward shuffle. And now, behind her, came two men. They were much as she; there was something indescribably revolting about all three.
“Take these away!” snapped Skor with a wave of the hand toward the soiled dishes. “And bring food.”
The three gathered up the dishes and shuffled away. None of them spoke. The look of horror in Duare’s eyes could not have gone unnoticed by Skor.
“You do not like my retainers?” demanded Skor testily.
“But I said nothing,” objected Duare.
“I saw it in your face.” Suddenly Skor broke into laughter. There was no mirth in it, nor was there laughter in his eyes but another expression, a terrible glint that passed as quickly as it had come. “They are excellent servants,” he said in normal tones; “they do not talk too much, and they do whatever I tell them to do.”
Presently the three returned carrying vessels of food. There was meat, partially raw, partially burned, and wholly unpalatable; there were fruits and vegetables, none of which appeared to have been washed; there was wine. It was the only thing there fit for human consumption.
The meal was not a success. Duare could not eat. I sipped my wine and watched Skor eat ravenously.
Darkness was falling as Skor arose from the table. “I will show you to your rooms,” he said. “You must be tired.” His tone and manner were those of the perfect host. “To-morrow you shall set out again upon your journey.”
Relieved by this promise we followed him into the house. It was a dark and gloomy abode, chill and cheerless. We followed him up a stairway to the second floor and into a long, dark corridor. Presently he stopped before a door and threw it open.
“May you sleep well,” he said to Duare, bowing and motioning her to enter.
Silently Duare crossed the threshold and Skor closed the door behind her; then he conducted me to the end of the corridor, up two flights of stairs and ushered me into a circular room that I guessed was in the tower I had seen when we entered the castle.
“I hope you awaken refreshed,” he said politely and withdrew, closing the door behind him.
I heard his footsteps descending the stairs until they were lost in the distance. I thought of Duare down there alone in this gloomy and mysterious pile. I had no reason to believe that she was not safe, but nevertheless I was apprehensive. Anyway, I had no intention of leaving her alone.
I waited until he had had plenty of time to go to his own quarters wherever they might be; then I stepped to the door, determined to go to Duare. I laid my hand upon the latch and sought to open it. It was locked from the outside. Quickly I went to the several windows. Each was heavily barred. Faintly from the distant recesses of that forbidding pile I thought I heard a mocking laugh.