ON THE KAOLIAN ROAD
If there be a fate that is sometimes cruel to me, there surely
is a kind and merciful Providence which watches over me.
As I toppled from the tower into the horrid abyss below I
counted myself already dead; and Thurid must have done likewise,
for he evidently did not even trouble himself to look after me,
but must have turned and mounted the waiting flier at once.
Ten feet only I fell, and then a loop of my tough, leathern harness
caught upon one of the cylindrical stone projections in the tower's
surface--and held. Even when I had ceased to fall I could not believe
the miracle that had preserved me from instant death, and for a moment
I hung there, cold sweat exuding from every pore of my body.
But when at last I had worked myself back to a firm position
I hesitated to ascend, since I could not know that Thurid was not
still awaiting me above.
Presently, however, there came to my ears the whirring of the
propellers of a flier, and as each moment the sound grew fainter
I realized that the party had proceeded toward the south without
assuring themselves as to my fate.
Cautiously I retraced my way to the roof, and I must admit
that it was with no pleasant sensation that I raised my eyes once
more above its edge; but, to my relief, there was no one in sight,
and a moment later I stood safely upon its broad surface.
To reach the hangar and drag forth the only other flier which
it contained was the work of but an instant; and just as the two
Thern warriors whom Matai Shang had left to prevent this very
contingency emerged upon the roof from the tower's interior,
I rose above them with a taunting laugh.
Then I dived rapidly to the inner court where I had last seen Woola,
and to my immense relief found the faithful beast still there.
The twelve great banths lay in the doorways of their lairs,
eyeing him and growling ominously, but they had not disobeyed
Thuvia's injunction; and I thanked the fate that had made her
their keeper within the Golden Cliffs, and endowed her with the
kind and sympathetic nature that had won the loyalty and affection
of these fierce beasts for her.
Woola leaped in frantic joy when he discovered me; and as the
flier touched the pavement of the court for a brief instant he
bounded to the deck beside me, and in the bearlike manifestation
of his exuberant happiness all but caused me to wreck the vessel
against the courtyard's rocky wall.
Amid the angry shouting of Thern guardsmen we rose high above
the last fortress of the Holy Therns, and then raced straight
toward the northeast and Kaol, the destination which I had heard
from the lips of Matai Shang.
Far ahead, a tiny speck in the distance, I made out another
flier late in the afternoon. It could be none other than that
which bore my lost love and my enemies.
I had gained considerably on the craft by night; and then,
knowing that they must have sighted me and would show no lights
after dark, I set my destination compass upon her--that wonderful
little Martian mechanism which, once attuned to the object of
destination, points away toward it, irrespective of every change
in its location.
All that night we raced through the Barsoomian void, passing over
low hills and dead Sea bottoms; above long-deserted cities and
populous centers of red Martian habitation upon the ribbon-like
lines of cultivated land which border the globe-encircling
waterways, which Earth men call the canals of Mars.
Dawn showed that I had gained appreciably upon the flier ahead of me.
It was a larger craft than mine, and not so swift; but even so,
it had covered an immense distance since the flight began.
The change in vegetation below showed me that we were rapidly
nearing the equator. I was now near enough to my quarry to have
used my bow gun; but, though I could see that Dejah Thoris was not
on deck, I feared to fire upon the craft which bore her.
Thurid was deterred by no such scruples; and though it must have been
difficult for him to believe that it was really I who followed them,
he could not very well doubt the witness of his own eyes; and so he
trained their stern gun upon me with his own hands, and an instant later
an explosive radium projectile whizzed perilously close above my deck.
The black's next shot was more accurate, striking my flier
full upon the prow and exploding with the instant of contact,
ripping wide open the bow buoyancy tanks and disabling the engine.
So quickly did my bow drop after the shot that I scarce had
time to lash Woola to the deck and buckle my own harness to a
gunwale ring before the craft was hanging stern up and making
her last long drop to ground.
Her stern buoyancy tanks prevented her dropping with great rapidity;
but Thurid was firing rapidly now in an attempt to burst these also,
that I might be dashed to death in the swift fall that would instantly
follow a successful shot.
Shot after shot tore past or into us, but by a miracle neither
Woola nor I was hit, nor were the after tanks punctured. This good
fortune could not last indefinitely, and, assured that Thurid would
not again leave me alive, I awaited the bursting of the next shell
that hit; and then, throwing my hands above my head, I let go my hold
and crumpled, limp and inert, dangling in my harness like a corpse.
The ruse worked, and Thurid fired no more at us. Presently I
heard the diminishing sound of whirring propellers and realized
that again I was safe.
Slowly the stricken flier sank to the ground, and when I had freed
myself and Woola from the entangling wreckage I found that we were
upon the verge of a natural forest--so rare a thing upon the bosom
of dying Mars that, outside of the forest in the Valley Dor beside
the Lost Sea of Korus, I never before had seen its like upon the planet.
From books and travelers I had learned something of the little-known
land of Kaol, which lies along the equator almost halfway round the
planet to the east of Helium.
It comprises a sunken area of extreme tropical heat, and is
inhabited by a nation of red men varying but little in manners,
customs, and appearance from the balance of the red men of Barsoom.
I knew that they were among those of the outer world who still
clung tenaciously to the discredited religion of the Holy Therns,
and that Matai Shang would find a ready welcome and safe refuge
among them; while John Carter could look for nothing better
than an ignoble death at their hands.
The isolation of the Kaolians is rendered almost complete by
the fact that no waterway connects their land with that of any
other nation, nor have they any need of a waterway since the low,
swampy land which comprises the entire area of their domain
self-waters their abundant tropical crops.
For great distances in all directions rugged hills and arid
stretches of dead Sea bottom discourage intercourse with them,
and since there is practically no such thing as foreign commerce
upon warlike Barsoom, where each nation is sufficient to itself,
really little has been known relative to the court of the Jeddak of Kaol
and the numerous strange, but interesting, people over whom he rules.
Occasional hunting parties have traveled to this out-of-the-way
corner of the globe, but the hostility of the natives has usually
brought disaster upon them, so that even the sport of hunting the
strange and savage creatures which haunt the jungle fastnesses
of Kaol has of later years proved insufficient lure even to the
most intrepid warriors.
It was upon the verge of the land of the Kaols that I now knew
myself to be, but in what direction to search for Dejah Thoris,
or how far into the heart of the great forest I might have to
penetrate I had not the faintest idea.
But not so Woola.
Scarcely had I disentangled him than he raised his head high
in air and commenced circling about at the edge of the forest.
Presently he halted, and, turning to see if I were following,
set off straight into the maze of trees in the direction we had
been going before Thurid's shot had put an end to our flier.
As best I could, I stumbled after him down a steep declivity
beginning at the forest's edge.
Immense trees reared their mighty heads far above us, their broad
fronds completely shutting off the slightest glimpse of the sky.
It was easy to see why the Kaolians needed no navy; their cities,
hidden in the midst of this towering forest, must be entirely
invisible from above, nor could a landing be made by any but the
smallest fliers, and then only with the greatest risk of accident.
How Thurid and Matai Shang were to land I could not imagine,
though later I was to learn that to the level of the forest
top there rises in each city of Kaol a slender watchtower
which guards the Kaolians by day and by night against the secret
approach of a hostile fleet. To one of these the hekkador of the
Holy Therns had no difficulty in approaching, and by its means the
party was safely lowered to the ground.
As Woola and I approached the bottom of the declivity the
ground became soft and mushy, so that it was with the greatest
difficulty that we made any headway whatever.
Slender purple grasses topped with red and yellow fern-like fronds
grew rankly all about us to the height of several feet above my head.
Myriad creepers hung festooned in graceful loops from tree to tree,
and among them were several varieties of the Martian "man-flower,"
whose blooms have eyes and hands with which to see and seize the
insects which form their diet.
The repulsive calot tree was, too, much in evidence. It is a
carnivorous plant of about the bigness of a large sage-brush such
as dots our western plains. Each branch ends in a set of strong jaws,
which have been known to drag down and devour large and formidable
beasts of prey.
Both Woola and I had several narrow escapes from these greedy,
Occasional areas of firm sod gave us intervals of rest from
the arduous labor of traversing this gorgeous, twilight swamp, and
it was upon one of these that I finally decided to make camp for
the night which my chronometer warned me would soon be upon us.
Many varieties of fruit grew in abundance about us; and as Martian
calots are omnivorous, Woola had no difficulty in making a square
meal after I had brought down the viands for him. Then, having eaten,
too, I lay down with my back to that of my faithful hound, and dropped
into a deep and dreamless sleep.
The forest was shrouded in impenetrable darkness when a low
growl from Woola awakened me. All about us I could hear the
stealthy movement of great, padded feet, and now and then the
wicked gleam of green eyes upon us. Arising, I drew my
long-sword and waited.
Suddenly a deep-toned, horrid roar burst from some savage
throat almost at my side. What a fool I had been not to have
found safer lodgings for myself and Woola among the branches
of one of the countless trees that surrounded us!
By daylight it would have been comparatively easy to have hoisted
Woola aloft in one manner or another, but now it was too late.
There was nothing for it but to stand our ground and take
our medicine, though, from the hideous racket which now assailed
our ears, and for which that first roar had seemed to be the signal,
I judged that we must be in the midst of hundreds, perhaps thousands,
of the fierce, man-eating denizens of the Kaolian jungle.
All the balance of the night they kept up their infernal din,
but why they did not attack us I could not guess, nor am I sure to
this day, unless it is that none of them ever venture upon the
patches of scarlet sward which dot the swamp.
When morning broke they were still there, walking about as in
a circle, but always just beyond the edge of the sward. A more
terrifying aggregation of fierce and blood-thirsty monsters it
would be difficult to imagine.
Singly and in pairs they commenced wandering off into the
jungle shortly after sunrise, and when the last of them had
departed Woola and I resumed our journey.
Occasionally we caught glimpses of horrid beasts all during the day;
but, fortunately, we were never far from a sward island, and when
they saw us their pursuit always ended at the verge of the solid sod.
Toward noon we stumbled upon a well-constructed road running
in the general direction we had been pursuing. Everything about
this highway marked it as the work of skilled engineers, and I was
confident, from the indications of antiquity which it bore, as well
as from the very evident signs of its being still in everyday use,
that it must lead to one of the principal cities of Kaol.
Just as we entered it from one side a huge monster emerged from the
jungle upon the other, and at sight of us charged madly in our direction.
Imagine, if you can, a bald-faced hornet of your earthly experience
grown to the size of a prize Hereford bull, and you will have some
faint conception of the ferocious appearance and awesome formidability
of the winged monster that bore down upon me.
Frightful jaws in front and mighty, poisoned sting behind made my
relatively puny long-sword seem a pitiful weapon of defense indeed.
Nor could I hope to escape the lightning-like movements or hide
from those myriad facet eyes which covered three-fourths of the
hideous head, permitting the creature to see in all directions
at one and the same time.
Even my powerful and ferocious Woola was as helpless as a kitten
before that frightful thing. But to flee were useless, even had
it ever been to my liking to turn my back upon a danger; so I stood
my ground, Woola snarling at my side, my only hope to die as
I had always lived--fighting.
The creature was upon us now, and at the instant there seemed
to me a single slight chance for victory. If I could but remove
the terrible menace of certain death hidden in the poison sacs
that fed the sting the struggle would be less unequal.
At the thought I called to Woola to leap upon the creature's
head and hang there, and as his mighty jaws closed upon that
fiendish face, and glistening fangs buried themselves in the bone
and cartilage and lower part of one of the huge eyes, I dived
beneath the great body as the creature rose, dragging Woola from
the ground, that it might bring its sting beneath and pierce the
body of the thing hanging to its head.
To put myself in the path of that poison-laden lance was to court
instant death, but it was the only way; and as the thing shot
lightning-like toward me I swung my long-sword in a terrific cut
that severed the deadly member close to the gorgeously marked body.
Then, like a battering-ram, one of the powerful hind legs caught
me full in the chest and hurled me, half stunned and wholly winded,
clear across the broad highway and into the underbrush of the
jungle that fringes it.
Fortunately, I passed between the boles of trees; had I struck
one of them I should have been badly injured, if not killed,
so swiftly had I been catapulted by that enormous hind leg.
Dazed though I was, I stumbled to my feet and staggered back to
Woola's assistance, to find his savage antagonist circling ten
feet above the ground, beating madly at the clinging calot with
all six powerful legs.
Even during my sudden flight through the air I had not once
released my grip upon my long-sword, and now I ran beneath the
two battling monsters, jabbing the winged terror repeatedly
with its sharp point.
The thing might easily have risen out of my reach, but evidently
it knew as little concerning retreat in the face of danger as
either Woola or I, for it dropped quickly toward me, and before
I could escape had grasped my shoulder between its powerful jaws.
Time and again the now useless stub of its giant sting struck
futilely against my body, but the blows alone were almost as
effective as the kick of a horse; so that when I say futilely,
I refer only to the natural function of the disabled member--
eventually the thing would have hammered me to a pulp.
Nor was it far from accomplishing this when an interruption
occurred that put an end forever to its hostilities.
From where I hung a few feet above the road I could see along the
highway a few hundred yards to where it turned toward the east,
and just as I had about given up all hope of escaping the perilous
position in which I now was I saw a red warrior come into view
from around the bend.
He was mounted on a splendid thoat, one of the smaller species
used by red men, and in his hand was a wondrous long, light lance.
His mount was walking sedately when I first perceived them, but the
instant that the red man's eyes fell upon us a word to the thoat
brought the animal at full charge down upon us. The long lance of
the warrior dipped toward us, and as thoat and rider hurtled beneath,
the point passed through the body of our antagonist.
With a convulsive shudder the thing stiffened, the jaws relaxed,
dropping me to the ground, and then, careening once in mid air,
the creature plunged headforemost to the road, full upon Woola,
who still clung tenaciously to its gory head.
By the time I had regained my feet the red man had turned and
ridden back to us. Woola, finding his enemy inert and lifeless,
released his hold at my command and wriggled from beneath the body
that had covered him, and together we faced the warrior looking
down upon us.
I started to thank the stranger for his timely assistance,
but he cut me off peremptorily.
"Who are you," he asked, "who dare enter the land of Kaol and
hunt in the royal forest of the Jeddak?"
Then, as he noted my white skin through the coating of grime
and blood that covered me, his eyes went wide and in an altered
tone he whispered: "Can it be that you are a Holy Thern?"
I might have deceived the fellow for a time, as I had deceived
others, but I had cast away the yellow wig and the holy diadem in
the presence of Matai Shang, and I knew that it would not be long
ere my new acquaintance discovered that I was no Thern at all.
"I am not a Thern," I replied, and then, flinging caution to
the winds, I said: "I am John Carter, Prince of Helium, whose
name may not be entirely unknown to you."
If his eyes had gone wide when he thought that I was a Holy Thern,
they fairly popped now that he knew that I was John Carter.
I grasped my long-sword more firmly as I spoke the words which I
was sure would precipitate an attack, but to my surprise they
precipitated nothing of the kind.
"John Carter, Prince of Helium," he repeated slowly, as though
he could not quite grasp the truth of the statement. "John Carter,
the mightiest warrior of Barsoom!"
And then he dismounted and placed his hand upon my shoulder
after the manner of most friendly greeting upon Mars.
"It is my duty, and it should be my pleasure, to kill you,
John Carter," he said, "but always in my heart of hearts have I
admired your prowess and believed in your sincerity the while I
have questioned and disbelieved the therns and their religion.
"It would mean my instant death were my heresy to be suspected
in the court of Kulan Tith, but if I may serve you, Prince,
you have but to command Torkar Bar, Dwar of the Kaolian Road."
Truth and honesty were writ large upon the warrior's noble countenance,
so that I could not but have trusted him, enemy though he should have been.
His title of Captain of the Kaolian Road explained his timely presence
in the heart of the savage forest, for every highway upon Barsoom is
patrolled by doughty warriors of the noble class, nor is there any
service more honorable than this lonely and dangerous duty in the
less frequented sections of the domains of the red men of Barsoom.
"Torkar Bar has already placed a great debt of gratitude upon
my shoulders," I replied, pointing to the carcass of the
creature from whose heart he was dragging his long spear.
The red man smiled.
"It was fortunate that I came when I did," he said. "Only
this poisoned spear pricking the very heart of a sith can kill it
quickly enough to save its prey. In this section of Kaol we are
all armed with a long sith spear, whose point is smeared with the
poison of the creature it is intended to kill; no other virus acts
so quickly upon the beast as its own.
"Look," he continued, drawing his dagger and making an
incision in the carcass a foot above the root of the sting, from
which he presently drew forth two sacs, each of which held fully a
gallon of the deadly liquid.
"Thus we maintain our supply, though were it not for
certain commercial uses to which the virus is put,
it would scarcely be necessary to add to our present store,
since the sith is almost extinct.
"Only occasionally do we now run upon one. Of old, however,
Kaol was overrun with the frightful monsters that often came in
herds of twenty or thirty, darting down from above into our cities
and carrying away women, children, and even warriors."
As he spoke I had been wondering just how much I might safely tell
this man of the mission which brought me to his land, but his next
words anticipated the broaching of the subject on my part, and
rendered me thankful that I had not spoken too soon.
"And now as to yourself, John Carter," he said, "I shall not
ask your business here, nor do I wish to hear it. I have eyes and
ears and ordinary intelligence, and yesterday morning I saw the
party that came to the city of Kaol from the north in a small flier.
But one thing I ask of you, and that is: the word of John Carter
that he contemplates no overt act against either the nation
of Kaol or its Jeddak."
"You may have my word as to that, Torkar Bar," I replied.
"My way leads along the Kaolian road, away from the city of Kaol,"
he continued. "I have seen no one--John Carter least of all.
Nor have you seen Torkar Bar, nor ever heard of him. You understand?"
"Perfectly," I replied.
He laid his hand upon my shoulder.
"This road leads directly into the city of Kaol," he said.
"I wish you fortune," and vaulting to the back of his thoat
he trotted away without even a backward glance.
It was after dark when Woola and I spied through the mighty
forest the great wall which surrounds the city of Kaol.
We had traversed the entire way without mishap or adventure,
and though the few we had met had eyed the great calot wonderingly,
none had pierced the red pigment with which I had smoothly smeared
every square inch of my body.
But to traverse the surrounding country, and to enter the guarded
city of Kulan Tith, Jeddak of Kaol, were two very different things.
No man enters a Martian city without giving a very detailed and
satisfactory account of himself, nor did I delude myself with
the belief that I could for a moment impose upon the acumen of
the officers of the guard to whom I should be taken the moment
I applied at any one of the gates.
My only hope seemed to lie in entering the city surreptitiously
under cover of the darkness, and once in, trust to my own wits
to hide myself in some crowded quarter where detection would
be less liable to occur.
With this idea in view I circled the great wall, keeping within
the fringe of the forest, which is cut away for a short distance
from the wall all about the city, that no enemy may utilize the
trees as a means of ingress.
Several times I attempted to scale the barrier at different points,
but not even my earthly muscles could overcome that cleverly
constructed rampart. To a height of thirty feet the face of the
wall slanted outward, and then for almost an equal distance it
was perpendicular, above which it slanted in again for some
fifteen feet to the crest.
And smooth! Polished glass could not be more so. Finally I
had to admit that at last I had discovered a Barsoomian
fortification which I could not negotiate.
Discouraged, I withdrew into the forest beside a broad highway
which entered the city from the east, and with Woola beside me
lay down to sleep.
Warlord of Mars Chapter 4
... Warlord of Mars Chapter 6