Swords of Mars

Chapter XXIII

The Secret Door

Edgar Rice Burroughs


ECHOING through the chamber and the corridor beyond, the screams of the warrior seemed enough to bring every fighting man in the castle upon me, as I launched myself upon him and brought him to the floor.

As the man went down, the light of the torch was extinguished; we fought in total darkness. My first aim was to quiet his screams, and this I did the instant that my fingers found his throat.

It seemed almost in the nature of a miracle that my dream of escape should be materializing, step by step, almost precisely as I had visualized it; and this thought gave me hope that good fortune might continue to attend me until I was safely out of the clutches of Ul Vas.

The warrior with whom I struggled upon the stone floor of that dark cell beneath the castle of the Tarids was a man of only ordinary physical strength, and I soon subdued him.

Possibly I accomplished this sooner than I might have otherwise; for, after I got my fingers on his throat, I promised I would not kill him if he would cease his struggling and his attempted screaming.

With me, time was an all-important factor; for even if the man’s outcry had not been heard by his comrades above stairs, it seemed quite reasonable that if he did not return to his other duties within a reasonable time, a search for him would be instituted. If I were to escape, I must get out at once; and so, after I made my offer to the man and he ceased his struggling momentarily, I released my grip upon his throat long enough for him to accept or refuse my proposition.

Being a man of intelligence, he accepted.

I immediately bound him with his own harness and, as an added precaution, stuffed a gag in his mouth. Next I relieved him of his dagger, and after groping around on the floor for some time I found the long-sword that had fallen from his hand when I first attacked him.

“And now good-bye, my friend,” I said. “You need not feel humiliated at your defeat; far better men than you have gone down before John Carter, Prince of Helium.” Then I went out and closed and locked the door of the cell after me.

The corridor was very dark. I had had but one brief glimpse of it, or rather of a portion of it, when my food had been brought to me the previous day.

It had seemed to me then that the corridor led straight away from the entrance to my cell, and now I groped my way through the darkness in that direction.

Probably I should have moved slowly along that unknown passageway; but I did not, for I knew, that if the warrior’s cries had been heard in the castle above, there might be an investigation; and I most certainly did not wish to meet a body of armed men in that cul-de-sac.

Keeping one hand against the wall to guide me, I moved rapidly forward; and I had gone perhaps a hundred yards when I discerned a faint suggestion of light ahead of me. It did not seem to be the yellowish light of a torch, but, rather, diffused daylight.

It increased in volume as I approached it, and presently I came to the foot of the stairway down which it was shining.

All this time, I had heard nothing to indicate that anyone was coming to investigate; so it was with a feeling of at least some security that I ascended the stairway.

With the utmost caution, I entered the level above. Here it was much lighter. I was in a short corridor with a doorway on either side; ahead of me the passageway ended in a transverse corridor. I moved quickly forward, for I could now see my way quite clearly, as the corridor, although extremely gloomy, was much better lighted than that from which I had emerged.

I was congratulating myself upon my good fortune as I was about to turn into the transverse corridor, when I bumped full into a figure at the turn.

It was a woman. She was probably much more surprised than I, and she started to scream.

I knew that, above all things, I must prevent her from giving an alarm; and so I seized her and clapped a hand across her mouth.

I had just turned the corner into the other corridor when I collided with her; its full length was visible to me; and now, as I silenced the woman, I saw two warriors turn into it at the far end. They were coming in my direction.

Evidently I had congratulated myself too soon.

Unencumbered by my captive, I might have found a hiding-place, or, failing that, I could have lain in ambush for them in this darker passageway and killed them both before they could raise an alarm; but here I was with both of my hands occupied, one of them holding the struggling girl and the other effectually silencing her attempt to cry out.

I could not kill her, and if I turned her loose she would have the whole castle on me in a few moments. My case seemed entirely hopeless, but I did not give up hope. I had come this far; I would not, I could not, admit defeat.

Then I recalled the two doors that I had passed in the short corridor. One of them was only a few paces to my rear.

“Keep still, and I will not harm you,” I whispered, and then I dragged her along the corridor to the nearest door.

Fortunately, it was unlocked; but what lay beyond it, I did not know. I had to think quickly and decide what I should do if it were occupied. There seemed only one thing to do, push the girl into it and then run back to meet the two warriors that I had seen approaching. In other words, try to fight my way out of the castle of Ul Vas—a mad scheme, with half a thousand warriors to block my way.

But the room was not occupied, as I could see the moment that I entered it; for it was well lighted by several windows.

Closing the door, I stood with my back against it, listening. I had not looked down at the woman in my arms; I was too intent upon listening for the approach of the two warriors I had seen. Would they turn into this corridor? Would they come to this very room?

I must have unconsciously released my pressure upon the girl’s lips; for before I could prevent it, she tore my hand away and spoke.

“John Carter!” she exclaimed in a low tone.

I looked down at her in surprise, and then I recognized her. It was Ulah, the slave of Ozara, the Jeddara of the Tarids.

“Ulah,” I said, earnestly, “please do not make me harm you. I do not wish to harm anyone in the castle; I only wish to escape. More than my life depends upon that, so very much more that I would break the unwritten law of my caste even to killing a woman, were it necessary to do so to accomplish my purpose.”

“You need not fear me,” she said, “I will not betray you.”

“You are a wise girl,” I said; “you have bought your life very cheaply.”

“It was not to save my life that I promised,” she said. “I would not have betrayed you in any event.”

“And why?” I asked. “You owe me nothing.”

“I love my mistress, Ozara,” she said simply.

“And what has that to do with it?” I asked.

“I would not harm one whom my mistress loves.”

Of course, I knew that Ulah was romancing—letting her imagination work overtime; and as it was immaterial what she believed so long as she helped me, I did not contradict her.

“Where is your mistress now?” I asked.

“She is in this very tower,” she replied. “She is locked in a room directly above this one, on the next level. Ul Vas is keeping her there until he is ready to destroy her. Oh, save her, John Carter, save her!”

“How did you learn my name, Ulah?” I asked.

“The Jeddara told me,” she replied; “she talked about you constantly.”

“You are better acquainted with the castle than I am, Ulah,” I said; “is there any way in which I can reach the Jeddara? “Can you get a message to her? Could we get her out of that room?”

“No,” she replied; “the door is locked, and two warriors stand guard outside it day and night.”

I walked to the window and looked out. There seemed to be no one in sight. Then I leaned out as far as I could and looked up. Perhaps fifteen feet above me was another window. I turned back into the room.

“You are sure that the Jeddara is in the room directly above this?” I asked.

“I know it,” she replied.

“And you want to help her to escape?”

“Yes; there is nothing that I would not do to serve her.”

“What is this room used for?” I asked.

“Nothing, now,” she replied; “you see everything is covered with dust. It has not been used for a long time.”

“You think it is not likely that anyone will come here?” I asked. “You think I might hide here safely until tonight?”

“I am sure that you are perfectly safe,” she replied; “I do not know why anyone should come here.”

“Good!” I exclaimed. “Do you really want to help your mistress to escape?”

“With all my heart,” she replied. “I could not bear to see her die.”

“You can help her, then,” I said.

“How?”

“Bring me a rope and a strong hook. Do you think you can do it?”

“How long a rope?”

“About twenty feet.”

“When do you want them?”

“Whenever you can bring them without danger of detection, but certainly before midnight tonight.”

“I can get them,” she said. “I will go at once.”

I had to trust her; there was no other way, and so I let her depart.

After she had gone and I had closed the door behind her, I found a heavy bar on the inside. I dropped this into its keeper so that no one could enter the room unexpectedly and take me by surprise. Then I sat down to wait.

Those were long hours that dragged themselves slowly by. I could not but constantly question my wisdom in trusting the slave girl, Ulah. What did I know about her? By what loyalty was she bound to me, except by the thin bond engendered by her foolish imagination? Perhaps, already, she had arranged for my capture. It would not be at all surprising that she had a lover among the warriors, as she was quite beautiful. What better turn could she serve him than by divulging the place of my concealment and permitting him to be the means of my capture and perhaps thereby winning promotion?

Toward the end of the afternoon, when I heard footsteps coming along the corridor toward my hiding place—the first sounds that I had heard since Ulah left me—I was certain that warriors were coming to seize me. I determined that I would give a good account of myself; and so I stood by the door, my long sword ready in my hand; but the footsteps passed by me. They were moving in the direction of the stairway up which I had come from the black corridor leading to my cell.

Not long after, I heard them returning. There were a number of men talking excitedly, but through the heavy door I could not quite catch their words. When they had passed out of hearing, I breathed a sigh of relief; and my confidence in Ulah commenced to take new heart.

Night fell. Light began to shine beyond many of the windows in the castle visible from the room in which I hid.

Why did not Ulah return? Had she been unable to find a rope and a hook? Was something or someone detaining her? What futile questions one propounds in the extremity of despair.

Presently I heard a sound outside the door of the room. I had heard no one approaching; but now I knew that someone was pushing on the door, attempting to enter. I went close to it and put my ear against the panels. Then I heard a voice. “Open, it is Ulah.”

Great was my relief as I drew the bar and admitted the slave girl. It was quite dark in the room; we could not see one another.

“Did you think I was never going to return, John Carter?” she asked.

“I was commencing to have my doubts,” I replied. “Were you able to get the things I asked for?”

“Yes, here they are,” she said, and I felt a rope and a hook pressed into my hand.

“Good!” I exclaimed. “Have you learned anything while you were away that might help me or the Jeddara?”

“No,” she said, “nothing that will help you but something that may make it more difficult for you to leave the castle, if that were possible at all, which I doubt.”

“What is that?” I demanded.

“They have learned of your escape from the cell,” she replied. “The warrior who was sent there with your food did not return; and when other warriors went to investigate, they found him bound and gagged in the cell where you should have been.”

“It must have been they I heard passing the door late in the afternoon,” I said.

“It is strange they have not searched this room.”

“They think you went in another direction,” she explained. “They are searching another part of the castle.”

“But eventually they will come here?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said; “eventually they will search every room in the castle, but that will take a long time.”

“You have done well, Ulah,” I said. “I am sorry that I can offer you nothing more in return than my thanks.”

“I shall be glad to do even more,” she said; “there is nothing that I would not do to help you and the jeddara.”

“There is nothing more that you can do,” I told her; “and now you had better go, before they find you here with me.”

“You are sure that there is nothing more I can do?” she asked.

“No, nothing, Ulah,” and I opened the door, and she went out.

“Good-bye, and good luck, John Carter,” she whispered, as I closed the door behind her.

I went at once to the window, after rebolting the door. It was very dark outside. I had wanted to wait until after midnight and until the castle was asleep before I attempted to put into practice the plan I contemplated for the rescue of Ozara, but the knowledge that they were searching the castle for me forced me to put aside every consideration except haste.

I fastened one end of the rope securely to the hook that Ulah had brought me.

Then I sat on the window sill and leaned far out.

I took one end of the rope in my left hand where I grasped the frame of the window, and held the hook in my right hand, permitting the slack of the rope to fall free beneath me against the side of the tower outside the window.

I gauged the distance upward to the sill of the window above. It seemed too far for me to hope to make a successful cast from the position in which I was sitting, and so I arose and stood on the sill of the window. This brought me a few feet nearer my goal and also gave me a little more freedom of action.

I was very anxious to be successful at the first cast; for I feared that if I missed, the rattling of the metal hook against the side of the tower might attract attention.

I stood there several minutes gauging the distance and going through all the motions of throwing the hook except actually releasing it.

When I felt that I had the timing and the distance as accurately gauged as it was possible to do in this manner, I swung the hook upward and released it.

I could see the sill above me, because a faint light was coming from the room beyond it. I saw the hook swing into this light; I heard it strike the sill with a metallic ring; then I pulled down upon the rope.

The hook had caught! I put considerable weight upon the rope, and still the hook held. I waited a moment to see if I had attracted the attention of Ozara or anyone else who might be in the room with her.

No sign came out of the silence above, and I let my body swing out upon the rope.

I had to ascend very carefully, for I did not know how secure a hold the hook had upon the sill above.

I had not a great distance to climb, yet it seemed an eternity before my hand touched the sill.

First the fingers of one hand closed over it; then I drew myself up until I could grasp it with my other hand. Slowly, by main strength, I raised myself until my eyes were above the level of the sill. Before me was a dimly lighted room, apparently vacant.

I drew myself up farther until I could get one knee upon the sill, and always I was very careful not to dislodge the hook.

When, at last, my position was secure, I entered the room, taking the hook in with me lest it slip and fall to the bottom of the tower on the outside.

Now I saw that the room was occupied. A woman rose from her bed upon the opposite side. She was looking at me with wide, horror-struck eyes. It was Ozara. I thought she was going to scream.

Raising a warning finger to my lips, I approached her. “Make no sound, Ozara,” I whispered; “I have come to save you.”

“John Carter!” She breathed the name in tones so low that they could not have been heard beyond the door. As she spoke, she came close and threw her arms about my neck.

“Come,” I said, “we must get out of here at once. Do not talk; we may be overheard.”

Taking her to the window, I drew in the rope and fastened the lower end of it around her waist.

“I am going to lower you to the window of the room just below,” I whispered. “As soon as you are safely inside, untie the rope and let it swing out for me.”

She nodded, and I lowered her away. Presently the rope went slack, and I knew that she had reached the sill of the room below. I waited for her to unfasten it from her body; then I engaged the hook over the sill upon which I sat, and quickly descended to the room below.

I did not wish to leave the hook and the rope as they were, because, in the event that anyone should enter Ozara’s cell above, this evidence would point immediately to the room below; and I did not know how long we might have to wait here.

As gently as possible, I shook the hook loose and was fortunate in catching it as it dropped and before it could scrape against the side of the tower.

As I entered the room, Ozara came close to me and placed her hands upon my breast. She was trembling, and her voice was trembling as she spoke.

“I was so surprised to see you, John Carter,” she said. “I thought that you were dead. I saw them strike you down, and Ul Vas told me that they had killed you.

“What a terrible wound; I do not see how you recovered. When you faced me in the, room above and I saw the blood dried upon your skin and in your hair, it was as though a dead man had come back to life.”

“I had forgotten what a spectacle I must present,” I said. “I have had no opportunity to wash the blood from me since I was wounded. What little water they brought me barely sufficed for drinking purposes; but as far as the wound is concerned, it does not bother me. I am quite recovered; it was only a flesh wound.”

“I was so frightened for you,” she said; “and to think that you took that risk for me, when you might have escaped with your friends.”

“You think they got away all right?” I asked.

“Yes,” she replied, “and Ul Vas is very furious about it .He will make you and me pay, if we do not escape.”

“Do you know of any way by which we can escape from this castle?” I asked her.

“There is a secret doorway, known only to Ul Vas and two of his most faithful slaves,” she replied. “At least, Ul Vas thinks that only those three know of it; but I know. It leads out to the edge of the river where the waters lap the walls of the castle.

“Ul Vas is not well-liked by his people. There are plots and intrigues in the castle. There are factions that would like to overthrow Ul Vas and set up a new jeddak. Some of these enemies are so powerful that Ul Vas does not dare destroy them openly. These, he murders secretly; and he has his two faithful slaves carry the bodies to this secret doorway and cast them into the river.

“Once, suspecting something of the kind, I followed him, thinking that I might discover a way to escape and return to my own people in Domnia; but when I saw where the passage led, I was afraid. I would not dare to jump into the river; and even if I did, beyond the river there is a terrible forest. I do not know, John Carter, that we would be much better off either in the river or the forest than we are here.”

“If we remain here, Ozara, we know that we shall meet death and that there will be no escape. In the river or the forest beyond, there will be at least a chance; for often wild beasts are less cruel than men.”

“I know that all too well,” she replied; “but even in the forest there are men, terrible men.”

“Nevertheless, I must take the chance, Ozara,” I told her. “Will you come with me?”

“Wherever you take me, John Carter, whatever fate befalls us, I shall be happy as long as I am with you. I was very angry when I learned that you loved that woman from Barsoom,” she said; “but now she is gone, and I shall have you all to myself.”

“She is my mate, Ozara.”

“You love her?” she demanded.

“Of course,” I replied.

“That is all right,” she said, “but she is gone, and you are mine now.”

I had no time to waste on such matters then. It was apparent that the girl was self-willed; that she had always had her own way, had everything that she wished, and could not brook being crossed, no matter how foolish her whim might be. At another time, if we lived, I might bring her to her senses; but now I must bend every effort to escape.

“How can we reach this secret doorway?” I asked. “Do you know the way from here?”

“Yes,” she replied; “come with me.”

We crossed the room and entered the corridor. It was very dark, but we groped our way to the stairs that I had ascended from the pit earlier in the day. When she started down these, I questioned her.

“Are you sure this is the right way?” I asked. “This leads to the cell in which I was imprisoned.”

“Perhaps it does,” she said; “but it also leads to a distant part of the castle, close to the river, where we shall find the doorway we are seeking.”

I hoped that she knew what she was talking about as I followed her down the stairway and through the Stygian darkness of the corridor below.

When I had come through it before, I had guided myself by pressing my right hand against the wall at my side. Now Ozara followed the opposite wall; and when we had gone a short distance, turned into a corridor at our right that I had passed without knowing of its existence, because I had been following the opposite wall; and of course in the absolute darkness of the corridor, I had not been able to see anything.

We followed this new corridor for a long distance, but finally ascended a circular stairway to the next level above.

Here we came into a lighted corridor.

“If we can reach the other end of this without being discovered,” whispered Ozara, “we shall be safe. At the far end is a false door that leads into the secret passageway ending at the door above the river.”

We both listened intently. “I hear no one,” she said.

“Nor I.”

As we started down the long corridor, I saw that there were rooms opening from it on either side; but as we approached each door I was relieved to find that it was closed.

We had covered perhaps half the length of the corridor when a slight noise behind us attracted my attention; and, turning, I saw two men step from one of the rooms we had recently passed. They were turning away from us, toward the opposite end of the corridor; and I was breathing a sigh of relief, when a third man followed them from the room. This one, through some perversity of fate, glanced in our direction; and immediately he voiced an exclamation of surprise and warning.

“The Jeddara!” he cried, “and the black-haired one!”

Instantly the three turned and ran toward us. We were about halfway between them and the door leading to the secret passage that was our goal.

Flight, in the face of an enemy, is something that does not set well upon my stomach; but now there was no alternative, since to stand and fight would have been but to insure disaster; and so Ozara and I fled.

The three men pursuing us were shouting at the tops of their voices for the evident purpose of attracting others to their assistance.

Something prompted me to draw my long-sword as I ran; and it is fortunate that I did so; for just as we were approaching a doorway on our left, a warrior, attracted by the noise in the corridor, stepped out. Ozara dodged past him just as he drew his sword. I did not even slacken my speed but took him in my stride, cleaving his skull as I raced past him.

Now we were at the door, and Ozara was searching for the secret mechanism that would open it to us. The three men were approaching rapidly.

“Take your time, Ozara,” I cautioned her, for I knew that in the haste of nervousness her fingers might bungle the job and delay us.

“I am trembling so,” she said; “they will reach us before I can open it.”

“Don’t worry about them,” I told her. “I can hold them off until you open it.”

Then the three were upon me. I recognized them as officers of the Jeddak’s guard, because their trappings were the same as those worn by Zamak; and I surmised, and rightly, that they were good swordsmen.

The one in the lead was too impetuous. He rushed upon me as though he thought he could cut me down with his first stroke, which was not the part of wisdom. I ran him through the heart.

As he fell, the others were upon me but they fought more cautiously; yet, though there were two of them, and their blades were constantly thrusting and cutting in an endeavor to reach me, my own sword, moving with the speed of thought, wove a steel net of defense about me.

But defense alone would not answer my purpose; for if they could keep me on the defensive, they could hold me here until reinforcements came; and then, by force of numbers, I must be overcome.

In the instant, following a parry, my point reached out and pricked one of my adversaries sharply above the heart. involuntarily, he shrank back; and as he did so I turned upon his companion and opened his chest wide.

Neither wound was mortal, but they slowed my adversaries down. Ozara was still fumbling with the door. Our situation promised to be most unpleasant if she were unable to open it, for now at the far end of the corridor I saw a detachment of warriors racing toward us; but I did not warn her to hurry, fearing that then, in her excitement, she would never be able to open it.

The two wounded men were now pressing me hard again. They were brave warriors and worthy foemen. It is a pleasure to be pitted against such, although there are always regrets when one must kill them. However, I had no choice, for then I heard a sudden cry of relief from Ozara.

“It is open, John Carter,” she cried. “Come! Hurry!”

But now the two warriors were engaging me so fiercely that I could not break away from them.

But just for an instant was I held. With a burst of speed and a ferocity such as I imagine they had never beheld before, I took the battle to them. A vicious cut brought down one; and as he fell, I ran the other through the chest.

The reinforcements running toward us had covered half the length of the corridor as I hurried through the doorway after Ozara and closed the door behind me.

Now again we were in complete darkness. “Hurry!” cried Ozara. “The passageway is straight and level all the way to the door.”

Through the darkness, we ran. I heard the men behind me open the door, and knew that they were in the passageway at our rear; fully twenty of them there must have been.

Suddenly I ran full upon Ozara. We had come to the end of the passage, and she was standing at the door. This door she opened more quickly; and as it swung in, I saw the dark river flowing beneath us. Upon the opposite shore was the gloomy outline of the forest.

How cold and mysterious this strange river looked. What mysteries, what dangers, what terrors, lay in the sinister wood beyond?

But I was only vaguely conscious of such thoughts. The warriors who would seize us and carry us back to death were almost upon us as I took Ozara in my arms and jumped.


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