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THE PHANTOM BOWMEN
As Jav leaped toward him Carthoris laid his hand upon the hilt of his long-sword. The Lotharian halted. The great apartment was empty save for the four at the dais, yet as Jav stepped back from the menace of the Heliumite's threatening attitude the latter found himself surrounded by a score of bowmen.
From whence had they sprung? Both Carthoris and Thuvia looked their astonishment.
Now the former's sword leaped from its scabbard, and at the same instant the bowmen drew back their slim shafts.
Tario had half raised himself upon one elbow. For the first time he saw the full figure of Thuvia, who had been concealed behind the person of Carthoris.
"Enough!" cried the jeddak, raising a protesting hand, but at that very instant the sword of the Heliumite cut viciously at its nearest antagonist.
As the keen edge reached its goal Carthoris let the point fall to the floor, as with wide eyes he stepped backward in consternation, throwing the back of his left hand across his brow. His steel had cut but empty air — his antagonist had vanished — there were no bowmen in the room!
"It is evident that these are strangers," said Tario to Jav. "Let us first determine that they knowingly affronted us before we take measures for punishment."
Then he turned to Carthoris, but ever his gaze wandered to the perfect lines of Thuvia's glorious figure, which the harness of a Barsoomian princess accentuated rather than concealed.
"Who are you," he asked, "who knows not the etiquette of the court of the last of jeddaks?"
"I am Carthoris, Prince of Helium," replied the Heliumite. "And this is Thuvia, Princess of Ptarth. In the courts of our fathers men do not prostrate themselves before royalty. Not since the First Born tore their immortal goddess limb from limb have men crawled upon their bellies to any throne upon Barsoom. Now think you that the daughter of one mighty jeddak and the son of another would so humiliate themselves?"
Tario looked at Carthoris for a long time. At last he spoke.
"There is no other jeddak upon Barsoom than Tario," he said. "There is no other race than that of Lothar, unless the hordes of Torquas may be dignified by such an appellation. Lotharians are white; your skins are red. There are no women left upon Barsoom. Your companion is a woman."
He half rose from the couch, leaning far forward and pointing an accusing finger at Carthoris.
"You are a lie!" he shrieked. "You are both lies, and you dare to come before Tario, last and mightiest of the jeddaks of Barsoom, and assert your reality. Some one shall pay well for this, Jav, and unless I mistake it is yourself who has dared thus flippantly to trifle with the good nature of your jeddak.
"Remove the man. Leave the woman. We shall see if both be lies. And later, Jav, you shall suffer for your temerity. There be few of us left, but — Komal must be fed. Go!"
Carthoris could see that Jav trembled as he prostrated himself once more before his ruler, and then, rising, turned toward the Prince of Helium.
"Come!" he said.
"And leave the Princess of Ptarth here alone?" cried Carthoris.
Jav brushed closely past him, whispering:
"Follow me — he cannot harm her, except to kill; and that he can do whether you remain or not. We had best go now — trust me."
Carthoris did not understand, but something in the urgency of the other's tone assured him, and so he turned away, but not without a glance toward Thuvia in which he attempted to make her understand that it was in her own interest that he left her.
For answer she turned her back full upon him, but not without first throwing him such a look of contempt that brought the scarlet to his cheek.
Then he hesitated, but Jav seized him by the wrist.
"Come!" he whispered. "Or he will have the bowmen upon you, and this time there will be no escape. Did you not see how futile is your steel against thin air!"
Carthoris turned unwillingly to follow. As the two left the room he turned to his companion.
"If I may not kill thin air," he asked, "how, then, shall I fear that thin air may kill me?"
"You saw the Torquasians fall before the bowmen?" asked Jav.
"So would you fall before them, and without one single chance for self-defence or revenge."
As they talked Jav led Carthoris to a small room in one of the numerous towers of the palace. Here were couches, and Jav bid the Heliumite be seated.
For several minutes the Lotharian eyed his prisoner, for such Carthoris now realized himself to be.
"I am half convinced that you are real," he said at last.
"Of course I am real," he said. "What caused you to doubt it? Can you not see me, feel me?"
"So may I see and feel the bowmen," replied Jav, "and yet we all know that they, at least, are not real."
Carthoris showed by the expression of his face his puzzlement at each new reference to the mysterious bowmen — the vanishing soldiery of Lothar.
"What, then, may they be?" he asked.
"You really do not know?" asked Jav.
Carthoris shook his head negatively.
"I can almost believe that you have told us the truth and that you are really from another part of Barsoom, or from another world. But tell me, in your own country have you no bowmen to strike terror to the hearts of the green hordesmen as they slay in company with the fierce banths of war?"
"We have soldiers," replied Carthoris. "We of the red race are all soldiers, but we have no bowmen to defend us, such as yours. We defend ourselves."
"You go out and get killed by your enemies!" cried Jav incredulously.
"Certainly," replied Carthoris. "How do the Lotharians?"
"You have seen," replied the other. "We send out our deathless archers — deathless because they are lifeless, existing only in the imaginations of our enemies. It is really our giant minds that defend us, sending out legions of imaginary warriors to materialize before the mind's eye of the foe.
"They see them — they see their bows drawn back — they see their slender arrows speed with unerring precision toward their hearts. And they die — killed by the power of suggestion."
"But the archers that are slain?" exclaimed Carthoris. "You call them deathless, and yet I saw their dead bodies piled high upon the battlefield. How may that be?"
"It is but to lend reality to the scene," replied Jav. "We picture many of our own defenders killed that the Torquasians may not guess that there are really no flesh and blood creatures opposing them.
"Once that truth became implanted in their minds, it is the theory of many of us, no longer would they fall prey to the suggestion of the deadly arrows, for greater would be the suggestion of the truth, and the more powerful suggestion would prevail — it is law."
"And the banths?" questioned Carthoris. "They, too, were but creatures of suggestion?"
"Some of them were real," replied Jav. "Those that accompanied the archers in pursuit of the Torquasians were unreal. Like the archers, they never returned, but, having served their purpose, vanished with the bowmen when the rout of the enemy was assured.
"Those that remained about the field were real. Those we loosed as scavengers to devour the bodies of the dead of Torquas. This thing is demanded by the realists among us. I am a realist. Tario is an etherealist.
"The etherealists maintain that there is no such thing as matter — that all is mind. They say that none of us exists, except in the imagination of his fellows, other than as an intangible, invisible mentality.
"According to Tario, it is but necessary that we all unite in imagining that there are no dead Torquasians beneath our walls, and there will be none, nor any need of scavenging banths."
"You, then, do not hold Tario's beliefs?" asked Carthoris.
"In part only," replied the Lotharian. "I believe, in fact I know, that there are some truly ethereal creatures. Tario is one, I am convinced. He has no existence except in the imaginations of his people.
"Of course, it is the contention of all us realists that all etherealists are but figments of the imagination. They contend that no food is necessary, nor do they eat; but any one of the most rudimentary intelligence must realize that food is a necessity to creatures having actual existence."
"Yes," agreed Carthoris, "not having eaten to-day I can readily agree with you."
"Ah, pardon me," exclaimed Jav. "Pray be seated and satisfy your hunger," and with a wave of his hand he indicated a bountifully laden table that had not been there an instant before he spoke. Of that Carthoris was positive, for he had searched the room diligently with his eyes several times.
"It is well," continued Jav, "that you did not fall into the hands of an etherealist. Then, indeed, would you have gone hungry."
"But," exclaimed Carthoris, "this is not real food — it was not here an instant since, and real food does not materialize out of thin air."
Jav looked hurt.
"There is no real food or water in Lothar," he said; "nor has there been for countless ages. Upon such as you now see before you have we existed since the dawn of history. Upon such, then, may you exist."
"But I thought you were a realist," exclaimed Carthoris.
"Indeed," cried Jav, "what more realistic than this bounteous feast? It is just here that we differ most from the etherealists. They claim that it is unnecessary to imagine food; but we have found that for the maintenance of life we must thrice daily sit down to hearty meals.
"The food that one eats is supposed to undergo certain chemical changes during the process of digestion and assimilation, the result, of course, being the rebuilding of wasted tissue.
"Now we all know that mind is all, though we may differ in the interpretation of its various manifestations. Tario maintains that there is no such thing as substance, all being created from the substanceless matter of the brain.
"We realists, however, know better. We know that mind has the power to maintain substance even though it may not be able to create substance — the latter is still an open question. And so we know that in order to maintain our physical bodies we must cause all our organs properly to function.
"This we accomplish by materializing food-thoughts, and by partaking of the food thus created. We chew, we swallow, we digest. All our organs function precisely as if we had partaken of material food. And what is the result? What must be the result? The chemical changes take place through both direct and indirect suggestion, and we live and thrive."
Carthoris eyed the food before him. It seemed real enough. He lifted a morsel to his lips. There was substance indeed. And flavour as well. Yes, even his palate was deceived.
Jav watched him, smiling, as he ate.
"Is it not entirely satisfying?" he asked.
"I must admit that it is," replied Carthoris. "But tell me, how does Tario live, and the other etherealists who maintain that food is unnecessary?"
Jav scratched his head.
"That is a question we often discuss," he replied. "It is the strongest evidence we have of the non-existence of the etherealists; but who may know other than Komal?"
"Who is Komal?" asked Carthoris. "I heard your jeddak speak of him."
Jav bent low toward the ear of the Heliumite, looking fearfully about before he spoke.
"Komal is the essence," he whispered. "Even the etherealists admit that mind itself must have substance in order to transmit to imaginings the appearance of substance. For if there really was no such thing as substance it could not be suggested — what never has been cannot be imagined. Do you follow me?"
"I am groping," replied Carthoris dryly.
"So the essence must be substance," continued Jav. "Komal is the essence of the All, as it were. He is maintained by substance. He eats. He eats the real. To be explicit, he eats the realists. That is Tario's work.
"He says that inasmuch as we maintain that we alone are real we should, to be consistent, admit that we alone are proper food for Komal. Sometimes, as to-day, we find other food for him. He is very fond of Torquasians."
"And Komal is a man?" asked Carthoris.
"He is All, I told you," replied Jav. "I know not how to explain him in words that you will understand. He is the beginning and the end. All life emanates from Komal, since the substance which feeds the brain with imaginings radiates from the body of Komal.
"Should Komal cease to eat, all life upon Barsoom would cease to be. He cannot die, but he might cease to eat, and, thus, to radiate."
"And he feeds upon the men and women of your belief?" cried Carthoris.
"Women!" exclaimed Jav. "There are no women in Lothar. The last of the Lotharian females perished ages since, upon that cruel and terrible journey across the muddy plains that fringed the half-dried seas, when the green hordes scourged us across the world to this our last hiding-place — our impregnable fortress of Lothar.
"Scarce twenty thousand men of all the countless millions of our race lived to reach Lothar. Among us were no women and no children. All these had perished by the way.
"As time went on, we, too, were dying and the race fast approaching extinction, when the Great Truth was revealed to us, that mind is all. Many more died before we perfected our powers, but at last we were able to defy death when we fully understood that death was merely a state of mind.
"Then came the creation of mind-people, or rather the materialization of imaginings. We first put these to practical use when the Torquasians discovered our retreat, and fortunate for us it was that it required ages of search upon their part before they found the single tiny entrance to the valley of Lothar.
"That day we threw our first bowmen against them. The intention was purely to frighten them away by the vast numbers of bowmen which we could muster upon our walls. All Lothar bristled with the bows and arrows of our ethereal host.
"But the Torquasians did not frighten. They are lower than the beasts — they know no fear. They rushed upon our walls, and standing upon the shoulders of others they built human approaches to the wall tops, and were on the very point of surging in upon us and overwhelming us.
"Not an arrow had been discharged by our bowmen — we did but cause them to run to and fro along the wall top, screaming taunts and threats at the enemy.
"Presently I thought to attempt the thing — the great thing. I centred all my mighty intellect upon the bowmen of my own creation — each of us produces and directs as many bowmen as his mentality and imagination is capable of.
"I caused them to fit arrows to their bows for the first time. I made them take aim at the hearts of the green men. I made the green men see all this, and then I made them see the arrows fly, and I made them think that the points pierced their hearts.
"It was all that was necessary. By hundreds they toppled from our walls, and when my fellows saw what I had done they were quick to follow my example, so that presently the hordes of Torquas had retreated beyond the range of our arrows.
"We might have killed them at any distance, but one rule of war we have maintained from the first — the rule of realism. We do nothing, or rather we cause our bowmen to do nothing within sight of the enemy that is beyond the understanding of the foe. Otherwise they might guess the truth, and that would be the end of us.
"But after the Torquasians had retreated beyond bowshot, they turned upon us with their terrible rifles, and by constant popping at us made life miserable within our walls.
"So then I bethought the scheme to hurl our bowmen through the gates upon them. You have seen this day how well it works. For ages they have come down upon us at intervals, but always with the same results."
"And all this is due to your intellect, Jav?" asked Carthoris. "I should think that you would be high in the councils of your people."
"I am," replied Jav, proudly. "I am next to Tario."
"But why, then, your cringing manner of approaching the throne?"
"Tario demands it. He is jealous of me. He only awaits the slightest excuse to feed me to Komal. He fears that I may some day usurp his power."
Carthoris suddenly sprang from the table.
"Jav!" he exclaimed. "I am a beast! Here I have been eating my fill, while the Princess of Ptarth may perchance be still without food. Let us return and find some means of furnishing her with nourishment."
The Lotharian shook his head.
"Tario would not permit it," he said. "He will, doubtless, make an etherealist of her."
"But I must go to her," insisted Carthoris. "You say that there are no women in Lothar. Then she must be among men, and if this be so I intend to be near where I may defend her if the need arises."
"Tario will have his way," insisted Jav. "He sent you away and you may not return until he sends for you."
"Then I shall go without waiting to be sent for."
"Do not forget the bowmen," cautioned Jav.
"I do not forget them," replied Carthoris, but he did not tell Jav that he remembered something else that the Lotharian had let drop — something that was but a conjecture, possibly, and yet one well worth pinning a forlorn hope to, should necessity arise.
Carthoris started to leave the room. Jav stepped before him, barring his way.
"I have learned to like you, red man," he said; "but do not forget that Tario is still my jeddak, and that Tario has commanded that you remain here."
Carthoris was about to reply, when there came faintly to the ears of both a woman's cry for help.
With a sweep of his arm the Prince of Helium brushed the Lotharian aside, and with drawn sword sprang into the corridor without.