This story originally appeared in the anthology Under the Moons of Mars edited by John Joseph Adams, a book of original stories set in the same world as the classic Edgar Rice Burroughs novel A Princess of Mars (adapted into the Disney feature film John Carter). The illustration is by Charles Vess. Learn more about the story here.
This is a tale of Mars, which the Martians call Barsoom — a dying planet that clings to life only through the striving of its most civilized inhabitants, the Red Men, who maintain its grand canals and atmosphere plant.
This is a tale of the wild Green Men of Mars, four-armed giants who roam in great hordes across the dead sea bottoms and who dwell amidst the ruins of ancient cities.
This is a tale of three deaths.
Our story begins on the day that a small band of Warhoon scouts crossed paths with John Carter of Virginia, and Ghar Han, one of the greatest warriors of the Green Men, challenged the Earthman to single combat. By all the laws of Mars such a challenge may not be refused, and the man so challenged must choose a weapon that is no better than that wielded by his adversary.
Ghar Han held swords in each of his four hands, and the skulls of half a dozen great warriors rattled upon his harness, for he had won many battles, and added the names of many a vanquished foe to his own. He towered over his opponent, and gazed with contempt upon the Earthman, who held but a single blade, and who seemed small and freakish with his strange pale flesh and black hair. Around them stood a ring of Green Men, including two young warriors, the arrogant Harkan Thul and the sly Sutarat. Nearby, the mounts of the Green Men, the eight-legged reptilian thoats, grazed upon the yellow grass that stretched away in all directions.
Ghar Han attacked, now stabbing with his upper right hand, now slashing with his lower left, his four blades a whirlwind of steel, glinting in the sun. John Carter backed away, ducking from side to side, parrying strike after strike. When the Earthman had been backed against the spectators and had no more room to retreat, Ghar Han employed his favorite attack, a devastating overhand chop with his upper right sword, a move which had cleft many an opponent nearly in two.
The sword buried itself in the sand as John Carter spun away and came around with a double-handed blow aimed at Ghar Han’s exposed right shoulder. The Green Man raised his lower right sword to block, but the Earthman’s blade knocked the weapon aside and sank deep into Ghar Han’s flesh.
Ghar Han stumbled back, feeling a terrible wrenching as the Earthman’s blade was ripped free. Ghar Han’s upper right sword fell from his nerveless fingers, and his upper right arm now hung from his shoulder like a pennon. That arm, his strongest, would never fully heal, he knew.
John Carter pressed the attack, and Ghar Han reeled, dazed. The Earthman’s blade was everywhere, and Ghar Han hurled up sword after sword to deflect the blows, but three swords were not enough. He needed a fourth sword, a fifth, a sixth, to fend off the relentless attacks.
A crushing stroke swept the upper left sword from his grasp and sent it spinning into the crowd, and then the tip of John Carter’s blade lanced through Ghar Han’s lower right forearm, causing him to drop that sword as well. Blood streaked the Green Man’s side. Dizzy, half-blind with pain and fear, he sank to one knee, feebly holding up his last remaining sword.
John Carter kicked him in the chest, and Ghar Han sprawled, sliding backward through the sand.
He lifted his head. The sun was in his eyes, and all he could see was a dark form wreathed in blinding light. The shadow raised its sword and brought it down.
Ghar Han, one of the greatest warriors of the Green Men, felt his lower left arm part, and fall away.
He awoke, which surprised him, since duels among the Green Men are fought to the death. He was in his tent, lying on a mat, and it was night. He went to rub his eyes with his upper right hand, but nothing happened. He glanced at his shoulder, and saw bandages there soaked in blood. More bandages bound his abdomen.
“We were forced to remove the upper right arm,” came a woman’s voice. “And the lower left was–”
“Where is John Carter?” said Ghar Han.
“Gone. The others brought you here.”
“Get out!” he said, sitting up. The woman fled.
Ghar Han fell back, writhing. Phantom pains lanced up and down his missing limbs. He cursed the cruelty of the Earthman, for not striking a killing blow. He cursed the potent medicine of the Green women. He was a freak now, a cripple. Two arms only remained to him — two arms, like any of the lesser races of men.
For days he did not leave his tent. He drifted in and out of sleep, haunted by strange, vivid dreams. In one he was running and fighting, stabbing and slashing, and he realized that he had four arms again, and felt elation. It was only a dream, he thought, only a dream that I had lost them. Then he woke in the tent again and moaned, despairing.
In another dream he’d lost all his limbs, even his legs, and he lay helpless on his back like a worm, staring up at the stars, and the twin moons, and Earth. From the darkness around him came the growls of circling banths, and somewhere above him echoed the cruel laughter of John Carter. It was a dream he would have many more times.
When he was awake, he replayed the duel over and over in his mind.
How was it possible, he thought, that he should have been defeated by such a small and wretched man? Not through skill, that was certain. No, rather this John Carter had come from another world, a world whose heavy gravity had given him muscles unmatched on Barsoom. It was treacherous, thought Ghar Han, to use Earthly muscles here. The more he thought about it, the greater grew his sense of outrage. John Carter did not belong here. John Carter had caught him off guard. John Carter had cheated!
We will meet again, Earthman, he thought. And next time I’ll be ready.
Finally he strapped on four swords — one at each hip and two crossed across his back — and strode out into the harsh light of day. As he moved through the camp, the Warhoon regarded him with disdain. Harkan Thul and Sutarat emerged from behind a tent and stopped to stare. Normally they would never have the nerve to mock Ghar Han to his face, but now that he’d been shamed and crippled they jeered.
“Look!” cried Harkan Thul. “An intruder in our camp! What manner of creature is it, Sutarat?”
“I know not,” said Sutarat, with a grin. “It almost seems to be one of us, but of course we have four arms, and this strange creature has only two.”
“Perhaps it is the Earthman John Carter,” said Harkan Thul. “And he has smeared himself with green paint in order to infiltrate our ranks.”
Ghar Han scowled and walked on past. He sought out the tent of Xan Malus, jeddak of the Warhoon, and was shown into the presence of the great lord, a cold, imperious man who clutched a spiked scepter and sat upon a jeweled throne.
“Kaor, Ghar Han,” said Xan Malus. “It pleases us to see that you are up and useful to us once more.”
“Kaor, Excellency,” said Ghar Han, crossing his two arms and bowing his head. “Thank you.”
“Now tell us,” said the jeddak, “why have you come?”
“Excellency,” said Ghar Han, “if it please you, I should like to pursue the Earthman John Carter, and challenge him once again to–”
“No, no,” said Xan Malus impatiently. “It does not please us. John Carter’s death is nothing to me, and in any event you would not succeed. I relinquish no asset, however small. I will not sacrifice one of my warriors, even a cripple, to no end.”
“I know, I know,” said the jeddak, with a wave. “You would prefer an honorable death to your present humiliation. But what care I for your honor, Ghar Han? I am jeddak, and you are mine, and so long as I breathe you shall be deployed to my ends, not yours. Tomorrow we strike camp and journey to retrieve the eggs of our offspring, and I desire that every able warrior be on hand to guard them. You know our wishes. Go.”
Ghar Han bowed again, and departed.
He was not accustomed to being treated with such contempt, but in the days that followed he became quite practiced at it. Many of the younger warriors seemed never to tire of mocking him for his missing arms, and Harkan Thul and Sutarat remained the worst of his tormentors. Once, he would have simply challenged the two of them to duels, but without the use of his strongest arm he was no longer confident of victory, and besides, spilling their blood would not erase his shame. Only the death of John Carter could do that. Ghar Han’s only hope now was that fate would deliver John Carter to him once again. In his dreams he slew the Earthman a hundred times.
As the months passed, he found that his feelings about his people had begun to change. From his lofty vantage as a fearsome warrior, the ways of the Warhoon had always seemed fair to him. Harsh, yes, for Barsoom was a harsh world that required a harsh people. But fair. Now though, he was not so sure. More and more the ways of the Warhoon seemed to him pointlessly cruel. Why should he, who had suffered a misfortune that might befall anyone, be so scorned? Did such ruthlessness make them stronger as a tribe, or weaker?
One day he was walking through camp and turned a corner into a shaded area between two tents, and came upon Harkan Thul and Sutarat and some of the others. They’d surrounded a young woman, who’d been knocked to her knees, and they were taunting her and laughing.
Without thinking, Ghar Han stepped forward. “Leave her alone.”
Harkan Thul turned to regard him with contempt. “Oh leave us be, two-arm. You’re not wanted here.”
“Don’t call me that,” warned Ghar Han, and the others laughed.
For an instant he considered walking away. Then he took a deep breath, collected himself, and said calmly, “I said leave her alone.”
Sutarat exchanged glances with some of the others, and they moved away from the girl and slowly closed in on Ghar Han, their faces dark.
Harkan Thul sighed. “Oh, what has become of you, Ghar Han? Not only do you look like one of the lesser races, now it seems you have one of their soft hearts as well. You don’t belong here. You are not one of us. Go.”
Ghar Han didn’t move.
Harkan Thul reached for his swords. “Do you lust for suffering, Ghar Han? This will go worse for you than the day you faced John Carter.”
“And how would you know?” Ghar Han said sharply.
Harkan Thul paused, caught off guard.
“How would you know what it’s like to face John Carter? You never have. Only I have.” Ghar Han’s voice rose, his fury pouring out of him. “The Earthman was here among us. I fought him, and then he departed, and none of you raised a sword to stop him. Because you were afraid!”
Harkan Thul drew his swords. “Call me a coward? I will kill you.”
“Oh, so brave!” cried Ghar Han. “To fight a cripple. But where were you when John Carter was among us?” He pounded his fist against his chest. “Only Ghar Han had the courage to face him then.”
Harkan Thul was silent. Finally he sheathed his swords.
“It’s true,” he said, “spilling your blood would be too easy. Bring me a real challenge. Bring any man of this world or another and I will face him. I am not afraid.”
“We’ll see,” said Ghar Han. “Someday the Earthman will cross our paths again, and then we’ll see who’s not afraid.”
Harkan Thul sneered and turned away. “Come on,” he said to the others. “Let’s go.”
When they were gone, Ghar Han offered his hand to the girl.
“Here,” he said, “let me–”
“Do not touch me, cripple,” she said, furious, climbing to her feet.
Years passed, and Ghar Han grew ever more isolated and withdrawn, watching grimly as Harkan Thul and Sutarat amassed power and status. Harkan Thul attained the rank of jed and became leader of their scouting party, with Sutarat as his second-in-command.
One day the scouting party rode up over the crest of a hill and looked out on the valley below. Before them lay an ancient ghost town, a lonely place of stairways and minarets and white marble. Then the Green Men noticed, off in the distance, a lone figure trudging across the sand toward the village.
Sutarat said, “Who is that, who dares invade our territory?”
“Let’s find out,” said Harkan Thul, urging his thoat to a gallop.
As the beasts thundered down the hill, the stranger broke into a run, racing toward the village. Then, as the Green Men watched, astonished, he took a great flying leap, hurtling through the air. In two bounds he’d reached the outlying buildings, and then he sprang to a third-story window and disappeared.
Ghar Han’s heart beat faster. John Carter! It must be, for only the unnatural muscles of an Earthman could propel such wondrous leaps. After all these years they would meet again. At last had come his chance for redemption, or perhaps an honorable death.
When the Green Men reached the city gates, Harkan Thul wheeled his mount and cried, “Circle the village, all of you! Make sure he doesn’t sneak off! I will enter and challenge him to a duel. Sutarat will be my second. Come.”
“No!” said Ghar Han, riding forward. “John Carter is mine!”
Harkan Thul glared. “I am jed here, not you, and I say–”
“No!” yelled one of the warriors. “Ghar Han should face John Carter. If he dares.”
“Yes,” said another. “He was crippled and shamed by the Earthman. Let him fight.”
Others muttered agreement, and Harkan Thul saw that he risked mutiny if he tried to press the issue.
“All right,” he said at last. “Ghar Han will have his chance. But if he fails, I will not. Come on.”
As the others fanned out around the village, Ghar Han, Harkan Thul, and Sutarat rode through the gates. They tied their thoats to a hitching post, then proceeded on foot through the narrow streets, swords in their hands.
Ghar Han heard footfalls on a nearby rooftop, and glanced up just as a dark form catapulted across the sky, leaping from building to building. An instant later it was gone, but not before Ghar Han had seen that this Earthman had yellow hair.
Yellow, not black like John Carter.
“Come on!” said Harkan Thul. “After him!”
They pursued the figure, and Ghar Han’s mind raced. What if this was not John Carter?
If not, then Ghar Han would not be able to exact vengeance upon the man who’d shamed him, but he found that this no longer moved him the way it once had. What disturbed him more was the idea of more than one Earthman on Barsoom. Bad enough that John Carter had found his way here through some arcane means, but now it seemed there might be two, and if two then why not three, or four, or ten? Any one of them a match for even the strongest native warrior. And suddenly Ghar Han imagined the Earthmen building great fleets, imagined those ships soaring across the void and landing here, disgorging armies.
As the Green Men burst into a courtyard, Harkan Thul cried “There!” and pointed.
Ghar Han wheeled, and regarded the shadowed third story window of a palatial manse.
Harkan Thul shouted to Sutarat, “Go! Down the alley! Make sure he doesn’t slip out the back.” Sutarat took off running.
Harkan Thul turned to Ghar Han. “I’ll watch this side. Now enter, find the Earthman, and slay him. And do not forget the favor I’ve done you this day, and do not dishonor us.”
Ghar Han nodded. He leapt through the open doors, then passed through an antechamber and made his way up a spiral stair. He glanced into the room where the Earthman had been, but it was empty.
“Earthman!” he cried. “Show yourself! I am Ghar Han. I dare you to face me.”
He explored room after room, all of them empty. He moved cautiously, holding his swords before him, picturing the Earthman crouched in some shadowed nook, just waiting to fall upon him. Finally he grew exhausted. It seemed he’d explored every corner, and still there was no sign of the Earthman.
He glanced out a window into the courtyard. Harkan Thul was nowhere in sight.
“Harkan Thul!” he shouted. “Sutarat!”
He felt a chill. Could they have fallen to the Earthman? Or had the Earthman fled, and they’d gone chasing after him? But surely Ghar Han would have heard the commotion.
Then he knew.
It was a trick. The Earthman had never been here at all.
Ghar Han dashed out into the courtyard, cursing himself. He strained to hear, but heard nothing, so he picked a direction at random and began to run.
It was near sundown, and shadows filled the streets and alleys. In the empty silence of that dead city, he could almost imagine that he was the only living thing on all of Barsoom, and everywhere the black windows seemed to watch him like the eyes of skulls. He hurried down block after block, certain that he would miss whatever was about to happen.
But luck was with him. As he passed an ancient fountain, he heard a voice upon the air, and pursued it. He peeked around a corner.
In the center of a broad avenue stood Harkan Thul, facing one of the dwellings that lined the street. “This is your last chance, Earthman!” he called. “I know you’re in there! My warriors have this village surrounded, and I have come, alone, to challenge you. If you defeat me, you will be permitted to depart in peace.”
More lies, thought Ghar Han. The others would not allow the Earthman to escape. And where was Sutarat?
There. Down the street a ways, crouched at the base of a statue. And in his hand he held a radium pistol.
No! thought Ghar Han. Surely not. For to challenge a man to duel with swords and then ambush him with a pistol was the most heinous crime that could be dreamt of on Barsoom.
The Earthman appeared in the doorway.
She was tall, for her kind, and long-limbed, and stern, her pale hair cut short, and she held a sword. She regarded Harkan Thul coldly as she emerged from the building. “All right,” she said. “All right.”
Sutarat leaned out from behind the statue and took aim at her back.
“Look out!” Ghar Han yelled.
The woman spun, and spotted Sutarat, who opened fire. Harkan Thul leapt to the ground as the woman fled, shots bursting all around her. She dove into an alley and disappeared.
As Ghar Han strode forward, Harkan Thul stood and screamed, “What are you doing?”
“What are you doing?” said Ghar Han. “This is shameful! Are you afraid to face the Earthman fairly?”
“No fight with an Earthman is fair,” said Harkan Thul. “They cheat by coming here, from a world with such heavy gravity.”
I once thought as he does, Ghar Han realized. And now he saw how petulant and contemptible he’d been.
“Listen, Harkan Thul,” he said. “The Earthmen are stronger than us. That’s a hard truth, but one we must face. With honor.”
Sutarat approached, and leveled his pistol at Ghar Han’s chest.
“So,” said Ghar Han, “now you fear a fair fight with me as well?”
“Yes, put it away,” said Harkan Thul. “Save it for the Earthman.”
Sutarat tucked the pistol in his belt and drew four swords.
Harkan Thul raised his own swords as well. “Long have we despised you, Ghar Han, but it pleased us to mock you, so we suffered you to live. But no longer.”
The two of them advanced, their eyes full of hate, and Ghar Han backed away, drawing his own weapons, knowing he stood no chance against both of them.
“I challenge Sutarat to single combat,” he said.
“No, you’ll fight us both,” said Harkan Thul, grinning. “Two opponents, one for each of your arms. It seems fitting.”
Then suddenly the Earth woman was back, rushing Harkan Thul, slashing at him.
He spun, cursing, just barely in time to bring a sword around to block hers. As the two of them fought, Harkan Thul shouted, “Get him! I’ll deal with her.”
Sutarat leapt at Ghar Han, striking with sword after sword, and Ghar Han fell back before the onslaught, ducking and parrying as the blows fell. For an instant he despaired that his two arms could possibly prevail against Sutarat’s four.
Then he remembered the day he’d faced John Carter, the way the Earthman had cut him to pieces. It was a battle Ghar Han had replayed in his mind a thousand times.
The next time Sutarat attacked with an overhand chop, Ghar Han spun aside and hacked the man’s shoulder, causing him to drop a sword, and then Ghar Han battered another of the man’s blades, knocking it from his hand. Then it was two swords against two.
Ghar Han smiled. What came next felt almost inevitable.
When Sutarat attacked again, Ghar Han skewered him through the forearm, then kicked him in the chest, knocking him onto his back.
Sutarat groaned, fumbling at his belt, grasping the radium pistol, raising it. Ghar Han brought his sword screaming down, and both pistol and hand fell away, and the blade plunged deep into Sutarat’s chest, killing him.
Panting, Ghar Han glanced back over his shoulder.
Harkan Thul was standing over the woman. She lay in the street, reaching for her blade, which had fallen just out of reach.
As Harkan Thul raised his swords to deliver a killing blow, Ghar Han snatched up the radium pistol and shot him in the back.
On the streets of a ghost town, beneath the twin moons, a Green Man knelt, staring at the pistol in his hand. Two corpses lay nearby.
The Earth woman came and stood beside him. “Hello.”
He was silent.
“Who are you?” she said.
His voice was soft. “I don’t know.”
After a moment, he added, “We take the names of those we slay in battle. I am no longer worthy of those names. I have broken every law…”
“You did what you had to,” she said. “You had no choice.”
“I had a choice,” he said, and fell silent again.
A bit later, the woman said, “My name is Suzanne. Suzanne Meyers. Of Earth.”
“Earth,” he echoed. “Tell me, Suzanne, how did you come to Barsoom?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “I just … woke up, and I was here.”
“Do you know John Carter? Of Virginia?”
“No,” she said. “I’m from New York. Who’s John Carter?”
“Someone I met once,” said the Green Man. “Long ago.”
They were silent for a time.
The woman said, “Thank you for saving my life. I owe you. I mean, if there’s any way I can help you…”
The Green Man said, “If you would do me one favor, it is this: I foresee a time when Earthmen will come to this world, not one by one, but by the thousands. Do what you can to ensure that, when that day comes, my people will not be utterly wiped away.”
“You have my word,” she said. “For what it’s worth.”
“Who are you, on your world?” he asked. “A great warlord? A princess?”
“No,” she said. “I … I’m nobody, really.”
“I understand,” said the Green Man. “I am also nobody.”
“Two nobodies,” she said.
After a moment, she added, “Maybe we should stick together then. It would be fitting.”
He raised his head and looked at her.
And why not? he thought. He could never return to his own people. Not now.
“Come on,” she said, offering him her hand.
They stole through the quiet streets, to the place where the thoats were tied, and took two of them, and galloped away through the gates. Under cover of darkness they slipped the cordon of Warhoon scouts, though the warriors heard them, and pursued them.
When the two of them reached the hills, the Earth woman said, “Follow me. I came this way before.” And she urged her mount up a narrow trail, near-invisible in the dark, and the Green Man followed.
Hours later, as dawn broke, they saw that they’d escaped. Then they paused atop a ridge and looked out toward the horizon, knowing that all the weird and wondrous landscapes of Barsoom lay spread before them.
“Where shall we go?” she said.
“Wherever we want,” he replied.
“And what shall I call you?” she asked.
He reflected on this. Finally he said, “Call me Var Dalan. It means ‘two-arm.'”
And that concludes our story, a story of three deaths.
The first death was that of the sly Sutarat, killed in single combat.
The second death was that of the arrogant Harkan Thul, shot in the back with a radium pistol.
And the third death was that of the fierce and terrible warrior Ghar Han, reborn now as he gallops his thoat across the yellow hills beneath a purple sky, a two-armed man who rides with a two-armed woman at his side. For the man that he was, who served the cruel whims of the jeddak, and who longed for the approbation of his people, and who was ashamed of the wounds he bore, and who lived for nothing but to take vengeance on John Carter, that man is dead now, dead as the dead sea bottoms of Mars.