Dwellers in the Mirage, by Abraham Merritt

Chapter XI.

Drums of the Little People

Six times the green light of the Shadowed-land had darkened into the pale dusk that was its night, and I had heard nothing, seen nothing of the Witch-woman or of any of those who dwelt on the far side of the white river. They had been six days and nights of curious interest. We had gone with Evalie among the golden pygmies over all their guarded plain; and we had gone at will among them, alone.

We had watched them at their work and at their play, listened to their drumming and looked on in wonder at their dances — dances so intricate, so extraordinary, that they were more like complex choral harmonies than steps and gestures. Sometimes the Little People danced in small groups of a dozen or so, and then it was like some simple song. But sometimes they were dancing by the hundreds, interlaced, over a score of the smooth-turfed dancing greens; and then it was like symphonies translated into choreographic measures.

They danced always to the music of their drums; they had no other music, nor did they need any. The drums of the Little People were of many shapes and sizes, in range covering all of ten octaves, and producing not only the semitones of our own familiar scale, but quarter and eighth-tones and even finer gradations that oddly affect the listener — at least, they did me. They ranged in pitch from the pipe organ’s deepest bass to a high staccato soprano. Some, the pygmies played with thumbs and fingers, and some with palms of their hands, and some with sticks. There were drums that whispered, drums that hummed, drums that laughed, and drums that sang.

Dances and drums, but especially the drums, were evocative of strange thoughts, strange pictures; the drums beat at the doors of another world — and now and then opened them wide anough to give a glimpse of fleeting, weirdly beautiful, weirdly disturbing, images.

There must have been between four and five thousand of the Little People in the approximately twenty square miles of cultivated, fertile plain enclosed by their wall; how many outside of it, I had no means of knowing. There were a score or more of small colonies, Evalie told us. These were like hunting or mining posts from which came the pelts, the metals and other things the horde fashioned to their uses. At Nansur Bridge was a strong warrior post. Some balance of nature, so far as I could leam from her, kept them at about the same constant; they grew quickly into maturity and their lives were not long.

She told us of Sirk, the city of those who had fled from the Sacrifice. From her description an impregnable place, built against the cliffs; walled; boiling springs welling up at the base of its battlements and forming an impassable moat. There was constant warfare between the people of Sirk and the white wolves of Lur, lurking in the encompassing forest, keeping watch to intercept those fleeing to it from Karak. I had the feeling that there was furtive intercourse between Sirk and the golden pygmies, that perhaps the horror of the Sacrifice which both shared, and the revolt of those in Sirk against the worshippers of Khalk’ru was a bond. And that when they could, the Little People helped them, and would even join hands with them, were it not for the deep ancient fear of what might follow should they break the compact their forefathers had made with the Ayjir.

It was a thing Evalie said that made me think that.

“If you had turned the other way, Leif — and if you had escaped the wolves of Lur — you would have come to Sirk. And a great change might have grown from that, for Sirk would have welcomed you, and who knows what might have followed, with you as their leader. Nor would my Little People then . . .”

She stopped there, nor would she complete the sentence, for all my urging. So I told her there were too many ifs about the matter, and I was content that the dice had fallen as they had. It pleased her.

I had one experience not shared by Jim. Its significance I did not then recognize. The Little People were as I have said — worshippers of life. That was their whole creed and faith. Here and there about the plain were small cairns, altars in fact, upon which, cut from wood or stone or fossil ivory, were the ancient symbols of fertility; sometimes singly, sometimes in pairs, and sometimes in a form curiously like that same symbol of the old Egyptians — the looped cross, the crux ansata which Osiris, God of the Resurrection, carried in his hand and touched, in the Hall of the Dead, those souls which had passed all tests and had earned immortality.

It happened on the third day. Evalie bade me go with her, and alone. We walked along the well-kept path that ran along the base of the cliffs in which the pygmies had their lairs. The tiny golden-eyed women peeped out at us and trilled to their dolls of children as we passed. Groups of elders, both men and women, came dancing toward us and fell in behind us as we went on. Each and all carried drums of a type I had not yet seen. They did not beat them, nor did they talk; group by group they dropped in behind us, silently.

After awhile I noticed that there were no more lairs. At the end of half an hour we turned a bastion of the dins. We were at the edge of a small meadow carpeted with moss, fine and soft as the pile of a silken carpet. The meadow was peihaps five hundred feet wide and about as many feet deep. Opposite me was another bastion. It was as though a rounded chisel had been thrust down, cutting out a semicircle in the precipice. At the far end of the meadow was what, at first glance, I thought a huge domed building, and then saw was an excrescence from the cliff itself.

In this rounded rock was an oval entrance, not much larger than an average door. As I stood, wondering, Evalie took my hand and led me toward it. We went through it.

The domed rock was hollow.

It was a temple of the Little People — I knew that, of course, as soon as I had crossed the threshold. Its walls of some cool, green stone curved smoothly up. It was not dark within the temple. The rocky dome had been pierced as though by the needle of a lace-maker, and through hundreds of the frets light streamed. The walls caught it, and dispersed it from thousands of crystalline angles within the stone. The floor was carpeted with the thick, soft moss, and this was faintly luminous, adding to the strange pellucid light; it must have covered at least two acres.

Evalie drew me forward. In the exact centre of the floor was a depression, like an immense bowl. Between it and me stood one of the looped-cross symbols, thrice the height of a tall man. It was polished, and glimmered as though cut from some enormous amethystine crystal I glanced behind me. The pygmies who had followed us were pouring through the oval doorway.

They crowded close behind us as Evalie again took my hand and led me toward the cross. She pointed, and I peered down into the bowl.

I looked upon the Kraken!

There it lay, sprawled out within the bowl, black tentacles spread fanwise from its bloated body, its huge black eyes staring inscrutably up into mine!

Resurgence of the old horror swept me. I jumped back with an oath.

The pygmies were crowding around my knees, staring up at me intently. I knew that my horror was written plain upon my face. They began an excited trilling, nodding to one another, gesticulating. Evalie watched them gravely, and then I saw her own face lighten as though with relief.

She smiled at me, and pointed again to the bowl. I forced myself to look. And now I saw that the shape within it had been cunningly carved. The dreadful, inscrutable eyes were of jet-like jewel. Through the end of each of the fifty-foot-long tentacles had been driven one of the crux ansatas, pinioning it like a spike; and through the monstrous body had been driven a larger one. I read the meaning: life fettering the enemy of life; rendering it impotent; prisoning it with the secret, ancient and holy symbol of that very thing it was bent upon destroying. And the great looped-cross above — watching and guarding like the god of life.

I heard a rippling and rustling and rushing from the drums. On and on it went in quickly increasing tempo. There was triumph in it — the triumph of onrushing conquering waves, the triumph of the free rushing wind; and there was peace and surety of peace in it — like the rippling song of little waterfalls chanting their faith that “they will go on and on for ever”, the rippling of little waves among the sedges of the river-bank, and the rustling of the rain bringing life to all the green things of earth.

Round the amethystine cross Evalie began to dance, circling it slowly to the rippling, the rustling and the rushing music of the drums. And she was the spirit of that song they sang, and the spirit of all those things of which they sang.

Three times she circled it. She came dancing to me, took my hand once more and led me away, out through the portal. From behind us, as we passed through, there came a sustained rolling of the little drums, no longer rippling, rustling, rushing — defiant now, triumphal.

But of that ceremony, or of its reasons, or of the temple itself she would speak no work thereafter, question her as I might.

And we still had to stand upon Nansur Bridge and look on towered Karak.

“On the morrow,” she would say; and when the morrow came, again she would say —“on the morrow”. When she answered me, she would drop long lashes over the clear brown eyes and glance at me from beneath them, strangely; or touch my hair and say that there were many morrows and what did it matter on which of them we went, since Nansur would not run away. There was some reluctance I could not fathom. And day by day her sweetness and her beauty wound a web around my heart until I began to wonder whether it might become a shield against the touch of what I carried on my breast.

But the Little People still had their doubts about me. temple ceremony or none; that was plain enough. Jim, they had taken to their hearts; they twittered and trilled and laughed with him as though he were one of them. They were polite and friendly enough to me, but they watched me. Jim could take up the tiny doll-like children and play with them. The mothers didn’t like me to do that and showed it very clearly. I received direct confirmation of how they felt about me that morning.

“I’m going to leave you for two or three days, Leif,” he told me when we had finished breakfasting. Evalie had floated away on some call from her small folk.

“Going to leave me!” I gaped at him in astonishment. “What do you mean? Where are you going?”

He laughed.

“Going to look at the tlanusi — what Evalie calls the dalanusa — the big leeches. The river guards she told us the pygmies put on the job when the bridge was broken.”

She had not spoken about them again, and I had forgotten all about them.

“What are they, Indian?”

“That’s what I’m going to find out. They sound like the great leech of Tianusi’yi. The tribes said it was red with white stripes and as big as a house. The Little People don’t go that far. They only say they’re as big as you are.”

“Listen, Indian — I’m going along.”

“Oh, no, you’re not.”

“I’d like to know why not.”

“Because the Little People won’t let you. Now listen to me, old-timer — the plain fact is that they’re not entirely satisfied about you. They’re polite, and they wouldn’t hurt Evalie’s feelings for the world, but — they’d much rather be without you.”

“You’re telling me nothing new,” I said.

“No, but here is something new. A party that’s been on a hunting trip down the other end of the valley came in yesterday. One of them remembered his grandfather had told him that when the Ayjir came riding into this place they all had yellow hair like yours. Not the red they have now. It’s upset them.”

“I thought they’d been watching me pretty damned close the last twenty-four hours,” I said. “So that’s the reason, is it?”

“That’s the reason, Leif. It’s upset them. It’s also the reason for this expedition to the tianusi. They’re going to increase the river guard. It involves some sort of ceremony, I gather. They want me to go along. I think it better that I do.”

“Does Evalie know all this?”

“Sure she does. And she wouldn’t let you go, even if the pygmies would.”

Jim left with a party of about a hundred of the pygmies about noon. I bade him a cheerful good-bye. If it puzzled Evalie that I took his departure so calmly, and asked her no questions she did not show it. But she was very quiet that day, speaking mostly in monosyllables abstractedly. Once or twice I caught her looking at me with a curious wonder in her eyes. And once I had taken her hand, and she had quivered and leaned toward me, and then snatched it away, half-angrily. And once when she had forgotten her moodiness and had rested against my shoulder, I had fought hard against taking her in my arms.

The worst of it was that I could find no cogent argument why I shouldn’t take her. A voice within my mind was whispering that if I so desired, why should I not? And there were other things besides that whisper which sapped my resistance. It had been a queer day even for this queer place. The air was heavy, as though a storm brooded. The heady fragrances from the far forest were stronger, clinging amorously, confusing. The vaporous veils that hid the distances had thickened; at the north they were almost smoke colour, and they marched slowly but steadily nearer.

We sat, Evalie and I, beside her tent. She broke a long silence.

“You are sorrowful, Leif — and why?”

“Not sorrowful, Evalie — just wondering.”

“I, too, am wondering. Is it what you wonder?”

“How do I know — who know nothing of your mind?”

She stood up, abruptly.

“You like to watch the smiths. Let us go to them.”

I looked at her, struck by the anger in her voice. She frowned down upon me, brows drawn to a straight line over bright, half-contemptuous eyes.

“Why are you angry, Evalie? What have I done?”

“I am not angry. And you have done nothing.” She stamped her foot. “I say you have done — nothing! Let us watch the smiths.”

She walked away. I sprang up, and followed her. What was the matter with her? I had done something to irritate her, that was certain. But what? Well, I’d know, sooner or later. And I did like to watch the smiths. They stood beside their small anvils beating out the sickled knives, the spear and arrowheads, shaping the earrings and bracelets of gold for their tiny women.

Tink-a-tink, tink-a-clink, cling-clang, clink-atink-went their little hammers.

They stood beside their anvils like gnomes, except that there was no deformity about them. Miniature men they were, perfectly shaped, gleaming golden in the darkening light, long hair coiled about their heads, yellow eyes intent upon their forgings. I forgot Evalie and her wrath, watching them as ever, fascinated.

Tink-a-tink I Cling-clang! Clink —

The little hammers hung suspended in air; the little smiths stood frozen. Speeding from the north came the horn of a great gong, a brazen stroke that seemed to break overhead. It was followed by another and another and another. A wind wailed over the plain; the air grew darker, the vaporous smoky veils quivered and marched closer.

The clangour of the gongs gave way to a strong chanting, the singing of many people; the chanting advanced and retreated, rose and waned as the wind rose and fell, rose and fell in rhythmic pulse. From all the walls the drums of the guards roared warning.

The little smiths dropped their hammers and raced to the lairs. Over all the plain there was turmoil, movement of the golden pygmies racing to the cliffs and to the circling slope to swell the garrisons there.

Through the strong chanting came the beat of other drums. I knew them — the throb of the Uighur kettle-drums, the war drums. And I knew the chant — it was the war song, the battle song of the Uighurs. Not the Uighurs, no — not the patched and paltry people I had led from the oasis! War song of the ancient race! The great race — the Ayjir!

The old race! My people! I knew the song — well did I know it! Often and often had I heard it in the olden days . . . when I had gone forth to battle . . . By Zarda of the Thirsty Spears . . . by Zarda God of Warriors, but it was like drink to a parched throat to hear it again!

My blood drummed in my ears . . . I opened my throat to roar that song . . . “Leif! Leif! What is the matter?” Evalie’s hands were on my shoulders, shaking me| I glared at her, uncomprehending for a moment. I felt a strange, angry bafflement. Who was this dark girl that checked me on my way to war? And abruptly the obsession left me. It left me trembling, shaken at though by some brief wild tempest of the mind. I put my own hands upon those on my shoulders, drew reality from the touch. I saw that there was amazement in Evalie’s eyes, and something of fear. And around us was a ring of the Little People, staring up at me. I shook my head, gasping for breath, “Leif! What is the matter?” ^| Before I could answer, chanting and drums were drowned in a bellow of thunder. Peal upon peal of thunder roared and echoed over the plain, beating back, beating down the sounds from the north — roaring over them, rolling over them, sweeping them back.

I stared stupidly around me. All along the cliffs were the golden pygmies, scores of them, beating upon great drums high as their waists. From those drums came the pealing of thunder, claps and shattering strokes of the bolt’s swift fall, and the shouting reverberations that follow it.

The Thunder Drums of the Little People!

On and on roared the drums, yet through their rolling diapason beat ever the battle chant and those other drums . . . like thrusts of lances . . . like trampling of horses and of marching men . . . by Zarda, but the old race still was strong . . . .

A ring of the Little People was dancing around me. Another ring joined them. Beyond them I saw Evalie, watching me with. wide, astonished eyes. And around her was another ring of the golden pygmies, arrows at readiness, sickled knives in hand.

Why was she watching me . . . why were the arms of the Little People turned against me . . . and why were they dancing? That was a strange dance . . . it made you sleepy to look at it . . . what was this lethargy creeping over me . . . God, but I was sleepy! So sleepy that my dull ears could hardly hear the Thunder Drums . . . so sleepy I could hear nothing else . . . so sleepy . . .I knew, dimly, that I had dropped to my knees, then had fallen prone upon the soft turf . . . then slept.

I awakened, every sense alert. The drums were throbbing all around me. Not the Thunder Drums, but drums that sang, drums that throbbed and sang to some strange lilting rhythm that set the blood racing through me in tune and in time with its joyousness. The throbbing, singing notes were like tiny, warm, vital blows that whipped my blood into ecstasy of life.

I leaped to my feet. I stood upon a high knoll, round as a woman’s breast. Over all the plain were lights, small fires burning, ringing the little altars of the pygmies. And around the fires the Little People were dancing to the throbbing drums. Around the fires and the altars they danced and leaped like little golden flames of life made animate.

Circling the knoll on which I stood was a triple ring of the dwarfs, women and men, weaving, twining, swaying.

They and the burden of the drums were one.

A soft and scented wind was blowing over the knoll. It hummed as it streamed by — and its humming was akin to dance and drum.

In and out, and round about and out and in and back again, the golden pygmies danced around the knoll. And round and round and back again they circled the fire-ringed altars.

I heard a sweet low voice singing — singing to the cadence, singing the song of the drums, singing the dancing of the Little People.

Close by was another knoll like that on which I was — like a pair of woman’s high breasts they stood above the plain. It, too, was circled by the dancing dwarfs.

On it sang and danced Evalie.

Her singing was the soul of drum song and dance — her dancing was the sublimation of both. She danced upon the knoll — cobweb veils and girdle gone, clothed only in the silken, rippling cloak of her blue-black hair.

She beckoned, and she called to me — a high-pitched, sweet call.

The fragrant, rushing wind pushed me toward her as I ran down the mound.

The dancing pygmies parted to let me through. The throbbing of the drums grew swifter; their song swept into a higher octave.

Evalie came dancing down to meet me . . . she was beside me, her arms round my neck, her lips pressed to mine . . . The drums beat faster. My pulses matched them.

The two rings of little yellow living flames of life joined. They became one swirling circle that drove us forward. Round and round and round us they swirled, driving us on and on to the pulse of the drums. I ceased to think — drum-throb, drum-song, dance-song were all of me.

Yet still I knew that the fragrant wind thrust us on and on, caressing, murmuring, laughing.

We were beside an oval doorway. The silken, scented tresses of Evalie streamed in the wind and kissed me. Beyond and behind us sang the drums. And ever the wind pressed us on . . . .

Drums and wind drove us through the portal of the domed rock.

They drove us into the temple of the Little People . . . .

The soft moss glimmered . . . the amethystine cross gleamed . . . .

Evalie’s arms were around my neck . . — I held her close . . . the touch of her lips to mine was like the sweet, secret fire of life. . .

It was silent in the temple of the Little People. Their drums were silent. The glow of the looped cross above the pit of the Kraken was dim.

Evalie stirred, and cried out in her sleep. I touched her lips and she awoke.

“What is the matter, Evalie?”

“Leif, beloved — I dreamed a white falcon tried to dip its beak into my heart!”

“It was but a dream, Evalie.”

She shuddered; she raised her head and bent over me so that her hair covered our faces.

“You drove the falcon away — but then a white wolf came . . . and leaped upon me.”

“It was only a dream, Evalie — bright flame of my heart.”

She bent closer to me under the tent of her hair, lips close to mine.

“You drove the wolf away. And I would have kissed you . . . but a face came between ours . . .”

“A face, Evalie?”

She whispered:

“The face of Lur! She laughed at me . . . and then you were gone . . . with her . . . and I was alone . . . .”

“It was a lying dream, that! Sleep, beloved.”

She sighed. There was a long silence; then drowsily:

“What is it you carry round your neck, Leif? Something from some woman that you treasure?”

“Nothing of woman, Evalie. That is truth.”

She kissed me — and slept.

Fool that I was not to have told her then, under the shadow of the ancient symbol. . . . Fool that I was — I did not!

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 23:09