“Wait,” he said, “and I will take your message to the Jemadar.”
He was gone for what seemed to me a very long time, but at last he returned, saying that Sagroth would see me at once, and I was conducted through the gates and into the palace toward the small audience chamber in which Sagroth had once received me so graciously. As I was ushered into the room I found myself facing both Sagroth and Nah-ee-lah. The attitude of the Jemadar seemed apparently judicial, but that of the Princess was openly hostile.
“What are you doing here, traitor?” she demanded, without waiting for Sagroth to speak, and at the same instant a door upon the opposite side of the room burst open and three warriors leaped into the apartment with bared swords. They wore the livery of Ko-tah, and I knew instantly the purpose for which they had come. Drawing my own sword, I leaped forward.
“I have come to defend the life of the Jemadar and his Princess,” I cried, as I sprang between them and the advancing three.
“What means this?” demanded Sagroth. “How dare you enter the presence of your Jemadar with drawn sword?”
“They are the assassins of Ko-tah come to slay you!” I cried. “Defend yourself, Sagroth of Laythe!” And with that, I tried to engage the three until help arrived.
I am no novice with the sword. The art of fencing has been one of my chief diversions since my cadet days in the Air School, and I did not fear the Laytheans, though I knew that, even were they but mediocre swordsmen, I could not for long withstand the assaults of three at once. But upon this point I need not have concerned myself, for no sooner had I spoken than Sagroth’s sword leaped from its scabbard, and placing himself at my side, he fought nobly and well in defense of his life and his honor.
One of our antagonists merely tried to engage me while the other two assassinated the Jemadar. And so, seeing that he was playing me, and that I could do with him about as I pleased if I did not push him too hard, I drove him back a few steps until I was close at the side of one of those who engaged Sagroth. Then before any could know my intention, I wheeled and lunged my sword through the heart of one of those who opposed the father of Nah-ee-lah. So quickly had I disengaged my former antagonist, so swift my lunge, that I had recovered and was ready to meet the renewed assaults of the first who had engaged me almost before he realized what had happened.
It was man against man, now, and the odds were even. I had no opportunity to watch Sagroth, but from the ring of steel on steel, I knew that the two were bitterly engaged. My own man kept me well occupied. He was a magnificent swordsman, but he was only fighting for his life; I was fighting for more—for my life and for my honor, too, since after the word “traitor” that Nah-ee-lah had hurled at me, I had felt that I must redeem myself in her eyes. I did not give any thought at all to the question as to just why I should care what Nah-ee-lah the Moon Maid thought of me, but something within me reacted mightily to the contempt that she had put into that single word.
I could catch an occasional glimpse of her standing there behind the massive desk at which her father had sat upon the first occasion of my coming to this chamber. She stood there very tense, her wide eyes fixed upon me in evident incredulity.
I had almost worn my man down and we were fighting now so that I was facing Nah-ee-lah, with my back toward the doorway through which the three assassins had entered. Sagroth must have been more than holding his own, too, for I could see his opponent slowly falling back before the older man’s assaults. And then there broke above the clang of steel a girl’s voice—Nah-ee-lah’s—raised in accents of fear.
“Julian, beware! Behind you! Behind you!”
At the instant of her warning the eyes of my antagonist left mine, which, for his own good, they never should have done, and passed in a quick glance over my shoulder at something or someone behind me. His lack of concentration cost him his life. I saw my opening the instant that it was made, and with a quick lunge I passed my blade through his heart. Whipping it out again, I wheeled to face a dozen men springing into the chamber. They paid no attention to me, but leaped toward Sagroth, and before I could prevent he went down with half a dozen blades through his body.
Upon the opposite side of the desk from us was another door-way directly behind Nah-ee-lah, and in the instant that she saw Sagroth fall, she called to me in a low voice: “Come, Julian, quick! Or we, too, are lost.”
Realizing that the Jemadar was dead and that it would be folly to remain and attempt to fight this whole roomful of warriors, I leaped the desk and followed Nah-ee-lah through the doorway beyond. There was a cry, then, from someone within the room, to stop us, but Nah-ee-lah wheeled and slammed the door in their faces as they rushed forward, fastened it upon our side and then turned to me.
“Julian,” she said, “how can you ever forgive me? You who have risked your life for the Jemadar, my father, in spite of the contemptible treatment that in my ignorance I have accorded you?”
“I could have explained,” I said, “but you would not let me. Appearances were against me, and so I cannot blame you for thinking as you did.”
“It was wicked of me not to listen to you, Julian, but I thought that Ko-tah had won you over, as he has won over even some of the staunchest friends of Sagroth.”
“You might have known, Nah-ee-lah, that, even could I have been disloyal to your father, I never could have been disloyal to his daughter.”
“I did not know,” she said. “How could I?”
There suddenly came over me a great desire to take her in my arms and cover those lovely lips with kisses. I could not tell why this ridiculous obsession had seized upon me, nor why, of a sudden, I became afraid of little Nah-ee-lah, the Moon Maid. I must have looked very foolish indeed, standing there looking at her, and suddenly I realized how fatuous I must appear, and so I shook myself and laughed.
“Come, Nah-ee-lah,” I said, “we must not remain here. Where can I take you, that you will be safe?”
“Upon the outer terrace there may be some of the loyal guards,” she replied, “but if Ko-tah has already taken the palace, flight will be useless.”
“From what I know of the conspiracy, it will be useless,” I replied, “for the service of Sagroth and his palace is rotten with the spies and retainers of the Javadar.”
“I feared as much,” she said. “The very men who came to assassinate Sagroth wore the imperial livery less than an ola since.”
“Are there none, then, loyal to you?” I asked her.
“The Jemadar’s guard is always loyal,” she said, “but they number scarce a thousand men.”
“How may we summon them?” I asked.
“Let us go to the outer terraces and if there are any of them there we can congregate the balance, or as many of them as Ko-tah has left alive.”
“Come, then,” I said, “let us hasten;” and together, hand in hand, we ran along the corridors of the Jemadar’s palace to the outer terraces of the highest tier of Laythe. There we found a hundred men, and when we had told them of what had happened within the palace they drew their swords and, surrounding Nah-ee-lah, they shouted:
“To the death for Nah-ee-lah, Jemadav of Laythe!”
They wanted to remain there and protect her, but I told them that there would be nothing gained by that, that sooner or later they would be overwhelmed by far greater numbers, and the cause of Nah-ee-lah lost.
“Send a dozen men,” I said to their commander, “to rally all of the loyal guards that remain alive. Tell them to come to the throne room, ready to lay down their lives for the new Jemadav, and then let the dozen continue on out into the city, rallying the people to the protection of Nah-ee-lah. As for us, we will accompany her immediately to the throne room, and there, place her upon the throne and proclaim her ruler of Laythe. A hundred men may hold the throne room for a long time, if we reach it before Ko-tah reaches it with his forces.”
The officer looked at Nah-ee-lah questioningly.
“Your command, Jemadav?” he inquired.
“We will follow the plan of Ju-lan the Javadar,” she replied.
Immediately a dozen warriors were dispatched to rally the Imperial Guard and arouse the loyal citizens of the city to the protection of their new Jemadav, while the balance of us conducted Nah-ee-lah by a short course toward the throne room.
As we entered the great chamber at one end, Ko-tah and a handful of warriors came in at the other, but we had the advantage, in that we entered through a doorway directly behind the throne and upon the dais.
“Throw your men upon the main entrance,” I called to the officer of the guard, “and hold it until reinforcements come,” and then, as the hundred raced the length of the throne room toward the surprised and enraged Ko-tah, I led Nah-ee-lah to the central throne and seated her upon it. Then stepping forward, I raised my hand for silence.
“The Jemadar Sagroth is dead!” I cried. “Behold Nah-ee-lah, the Jemadav of Laythe!”
“Stop!” cried Ko-tah, “she may share the throne with me, but she may not possess it alone.”
“Take that traitor!” I called to the loyal guard, and they rushed forward, evidently glad to do my bidding. But Ko-tah did not wait to be taken. He was accompanied by only a handful of men, and when he saw that the guard really intended to seize him and realized that he would be given short shrift at the hands of Nah-ee-lah and myself, he turned and fled. But I knew he would come back, and come back he did, though not until after the majority of the Jemadav’s guard had gathered within the throne room.
He came with a great concourse of warriors, and the fighting was furious, but he might have brought a million men against our thousand and not immediately have overcome us, since only a limited number could fight at one time in the entrance way to the throne room. Already the corpses lay stacked as high as a man’s head, yet no single member of Ko-tah’s forces had crossed the threshold.
How long the fight was waged I do not know, but it must have been for a considerable time, since I know that our men fought in relays and rested many times, and that food was brought from other parts of the palace to the doorway behind the throne, and there were times when Ko-tah’s forces withdrew and rested and recuperated, but always they came back in greater number, and eventually I realized we must be worn down by the persistence of their repeated attacks.
And then there arose slowly a deep-toned sound, at first we could not interpret. It rose and fell in increasing volume, until finally we knew that it was the sound of human voices, the voices of a great mob—of a mighty concourse of people and that it was sweeping toward us slowly and resistlessly.
Closer and closer it approached the palace as it rose, terrace upon terrace, toward the lofty pinnacle of Laythe. The fighting at the entrance to the throne room had almost ceased. Both sides were worn down almost to utter exhaustion, and now we but stood upon our arms upon either side of the wall of corpses that lay between us, our attention centered upon the sound of the growling multitude that was sweeping slowly upward toward us.
“They come,” cried one of Nah-ee-lah’s nobles, “to acclaim the new Jemadav and to tear the minions of Ko-tah the traitor to pieces!”
He spoke in a loud voice that was easily audible to Ko-tah and his retainers in the corridor without.
“They come to drag the spawn of Sagroth from the throne!” cried one of Ko-tah’s followers. And then from the throne came the sweet, clear voice of Nah-ee-lah:
“Let the people’s will be done,” she said, and thus we stood, awaiting the verdict of the populace. Nor had we long to wait, for presently we realized that they had reached the palace terrace and entered the building itself. We could hear the shouting horde moving through the corridors and chambers, and finally the muffled bellowing resolved itself into articulate words:
“Sagroth is no more! Rule, Ko-tah, Jemadar of Laythe!”
I turned in consternation toward Nah-ee-lah. “What does it mean?” I cried. “Have the people turned against you?”
“Ko-tah’s minions have done their work well during these many kelds,” said the commander of the Jemadav’s guard, who stood upon the upper steps of the dais, just below the throne. “They have spread lies and sedition among the people which not even Sagroth’s just and kindly reign could overcome.”
“Let the will of the people be done,” repeated Nah-ee-lah.
“It is the will of fools betrayed by a scoundrel,” cried the commander of the guard. “While there beats a single heart beneath the tunic of a guardsman of the Jemadav, we shall fight for Nah-ee-lah, Empress of Laythe.”
Ko-tah’s forces, now augmented by the rabble, were pushing their way over the corpses and into the throne room, so that we were forced to join the defenders, that we might hold them off while life remained to any of us. When the commander of the guard saw me fighting at his side he asked me to return to Nah-ee-lah.
“We must not leave the Jemadav alone,” he said. “Return and remain at her side, Ju-lan the Javadar, and when the last of us has fallen, drive your dagger into her heart.”
I shuddered and turned back toward Nah-ee-lah, The very thought of plunging my dagger into that tender bosom fairly nauseated me. “There must be some other way, and yet, what other means of escape could there be for Nah-ee-lah, who preferred death to the dishonor of surrender to Ko-tah, the murderer of her father? As I reached Nah-ee-lah’s side, and turned again to face the entrance to the throne room, I saw that the warriors of Ko-tah were being pushed into the chamber by the mob behind them and that our defenders were being overwhelmed by the great number of their antagonists. Ko-tah, with a half dozen warriors, had been carried forward, practically without volition, by the press of numbers in their rear, and even now, with none to intercept him, was running rapidly up the broad center aisle toward the throne. Some of those in the entrance way saw him, and as he reached the foot of the steps leading to the dais, a snarling cry arose:
“Ko-tah the Jemadar!”
With bared sword, the fellow leaped toward me where I stood alone between Nah-ee-lah and her enemies.
“Surrender, Julian!” she cried. “It is futile to oppose them. You are not of Laythe. Neither duty nor honor impose upon you the necessity of offering your life for one of us. Spare him, Ko-tah!” she cried to the advancing Javadar, “and I will bow to the will of the people and relinquish the throne to you.”
“Ko-tah the traitor shall never sit upon the throne of Nah-ee-lah!” I exclaimed, and leaping forward, I engaged the Prince of Laythe.
His warriors were close behind him, and it behooved me to work fast, and so I fought as I had never guessed that it lay within me to fight, and at the instant that the rabble broke through the remaining defenders and poured into the throne room of the Jemadars of Laythe, I slipped my point into the heart of Ko-tah. With a single piercing shriek, he threw his hands above his head and toppled backward down the steps to lie dead at the foot of the throne he had betrayed.
For an instant the silence of death reigned in the great chamber. Friend and foe stood alike in the momentary paralysis of shocked surprise.
That tense, breathless silence had endured for but a moment, when it was shattered by a terrific detonation. We felt the palace tremble and rock. The assembled mob looked wildly about, their eyes filled with fear and questioning. But before they could voice a question, another thunderous report burst upon our startled ears, and then from the city below the palace there arose the shrieks and screams of terrified people. Again the palace trembled, and a great crack opened in one of the walls of the throne room. The people saw it, and in an instant their anger against the dynasty of Sagroth was swallowed in the mortal terror which they felt for their own safety. With shrieks and screams they turned and bolted for the doorway. The weaker were knocked down and trampled upon. They fought with fists and swords and daggers, in their mad efforts to escape the crumbling building. They tore the clothing from one another, as each sought to drag back his fellow, that he might gain further in the race for the outer world.
And as the rabble fought, Nah-ee-lah and I stood before the throne of Laythe, watching them, while below us the few remaining members of the Jemadar’s guard stood viewing in silent contempt the terror of the people.
Explosion after explosion followed one another in rapid succession. The people had fled. The palace was empty, except for that handful of us faithful ones who remained within the throne room.
“Let us go,” I said to Nah-ee-lah, “and discover the origin of these sounds, and the extent of the damage that is being done.”
“Come,” she said, “here is a short corridor to the inner terrace, where we may look down upon the entire city of Laythe.” And then, turning to the commander of the guard she said: “Proceed, please, to the palace gates, and secure them against the return of our enemies, if they have by this time all fled from the palace grounds.”
The officer bowed, and followed by the few heroic survivors of the Jemadar’s guard, he left by another corridor for the palace gates, while I followed Nah-ee-lah up a stairway that led to the roof of the palace.
Coming out upon the upper terrace, we made our way quickly to the edge overlooking the city and the crater. Below us a shrieking multitude ran hither and thither from terrace to terrace, while, now here and now there, terrific explosions occurred that shattered age-old structures and carried debris high into the air. Many terraces showed great gaps and tumbled ruins where other explosions had occurred and smoke and flames were rising from a dozen portions of the city.
But an instant it took me to realize that the explosions were caused by something that was being dropped into the city from above, and as I looked up I saw a missile describing an arc above the palace, past which it hurtled to a terrace far below, and at once I realized that the missile had originated outside the city. Turning quickly, I ran across the terrace to the outer side which overlooked the plateau upon which the city stood. I could not repress an exclamation of astonishment at the sight that greeted my eyes, for the surface of the plateau was alive with warriors. Nah-ee-lah had followed me and was standing at my elbow. “The Kalkars,” she said. “They have come again to reduce Laythe. It has been long since they attempted it, many generations ago, but what is it, Julian, that causes the great noise and the destruction and the fires within Laythe?”
“It is this which fills me with surprise,” I said, “and not the presence of the Kalkar warriors. Look! Nah-ee-lah,” and I pointed to a knoll lying at the verge of the plateau, where, unless my eyes deceived me badly, there was mounted a mortar which was hurling shells into the city of Laythe. “And there, and there,” I continued, pointing to other similar engines of destruction mounted at intervals. “The city is surrounded with them, Nah-ee-lah. Have your people any knowledge of such engines of warfare or of high explosives?” I demanded.
“Only in our legends are such things mentioned,” she replied. “It has been ages since the inhabitants of Va-nah lost the art of manufacturing such things.”
As we stood there talking, one of the Jemadar’s guards emerged from the palace and approached us.
“Nah-ee-lah, Jemadav,” he cried, “there is one here who craves audience with you and who says that if you listen to him you may save your city from destruction.”
“Fetch him,” replied Nah-ee-lah. “We will receive him here.”
We had but a moment to wait when the guardsman returned with one of Ko-tah’s captains.
“Nah-ee-lah, Jemadav,” he cried, when she had given him permission to speak, “I come to you with a message from one who is Jemadar of Jemadars, ruler of all Va-nah. If you would save your city and your people, listen well.”
The girl’s eyes narrowed. “You are speaking to your Jemadav, fellow,” she said. “Be careful, not only of your words, but of your tone,”
“I come but to save you,” replied the man sullenly. “The Kalkars have discovered a great leader, and they have joined together from many cities to overthrow Laythe. My master does not wish to destroy this ancient city, and there is but one simple condition upon which he will spare it.”
“Name your condition,” said Nah-ee-lah.
“If you will wed him, he will make Laythe the capital of Va-nah, and you shall rule with him as Jemadav of Jemadavs.”
Nah-ee-lah’s lips curled in scorn. “And who is the presumptuous Kalkar that dares aspire to the hand of Nah-ee-lah?” she demanded.
“He is no Kalkar, Jemadav,” replied the messenger. “He is one from another world, who says that he knows you well and that he has loved you long.”
“His name,” snapped Nah-ee-lah impatiently.
“He is called Or-tis, Jemadar of Jemadars.”
Nah-ee-lah turned toward me with elevated brows and a smile of comprehension upon her face.
“Or-tis,” she repeated.
“Now, I understand, my Jemadav,” I said, “and I am commencing to have some slight conception of the time that must have elapsed since I first landed within Va-nah, for even since our escape from the Va-gas, Orthis has had time to discover the Kalkars and ingratiate himself among them, to conspire with them for the overthrow of Laythe, and to manufacture explosives and shells and the guns which are reducing Laythe this moment. Even had I not heard the name, I might have guessed that it was Orthis, for it is all so like him—ingrate, traitor, cur.”
“Go back to your master,” she said to the messenger, “and tell him that Nah-ee-lah, Jemadav of Laythe, would as leave mate with Ga-va-go the Va-ga as with him, and that Laythe will be happier destroyed and her people wiped from the face of Va-nah than ruled by such a beast. I have spoken. Go.”
The fellow turned and left us, being accompanied from Nah-ee-lah’s presence by the guardsman who had fetched him, and whom Nah-ee-lah commanded to return as soon as he had conducted the other outside the palace gates. Then the girl turned to me:
“O, Julian, what shall I do? How may I combat those terrible forces that you have brought to Va-nah from another world?”
I shook my head. “We, too, could manufacture both guns and ammunition to combat him, but now we have not the time, since Laythe will be reduced to a mass of ruins before we could even make a start. There is but one way, Nah-ee-lah, and that is to send your people—every fighting man that you can gather, and the women, too, if they can bear arms, out upon the plateau in an effort to overwhelm the Kalkars and destroy the guns.”
She stood and thought for a long time, and presently the officer of the guard returned and halted before her, awaiting her commands. Slowly she raised her head and looked at him.
“Go into the city,” she said, “and gather every Laythean who can carry a sword, a dagger, or a lance. Tell them to assemble on the inner terraces below the castle, and that I, Nah-ee-lah their Jemadav, will address them. The fate of Laythe rests with you. Go.”