Dwellers in the Mirage, by Abraham Merritt

Chapter XII.

On Nansur Bridge

When we went out of the temple into the morning there were half a hundred of the elders, men and women, patiently awaiting our appearance. I thought they were the same who had followed into the domed rock when I had first entered it.

The little women clustered around Evalie. They had brought wraps and swathed her from head to feet. She walked off among them with never a glance nor a word for me. There was something quite ceremonial about it all; she looked for all the world like a bride being led away by somewhat mature elfin bridesmaids.

The little men clustered around me. Sri was there. I was glad of that, for, whatever the doubts of the others about me, I knew he had none. They bade me go with them, and I obeyed without question.

It was raining, and it was both jungle-wet and jungle-warm. The wind was blowing in the regular, rhythmic gusts of the night before. The rain seemed less to fall than to condense in great drops from the air about, except when the wind blew and then the rain drove by in almost level lines. The air was like fragrant wine. I felt like singing and dancing. There was thunder all around — not the drums, but real thunder.

I had been wearing only my shirt and my trousers. I had discarded my knee-high boots for sandals. It was only a minute or two before I was soaking wet. We came to a steaming pool. and there we halted. Sri told me to strip and plunge in.

The pool was hot and invigorating and as I splashed around in it I kept feeling better and better. I reflected that whatever had been in the minds of the Little People when they had driven Evalie and me into the temple, their fear of me had been exorcised — for the time at any rate. But I thought I knew what had been in their minds. They suspected that Khalk’ru had some hold on me, as over the people I resembled. Not much of a hold maybe — but still it was not to be ignored. Very well — the remedy, since they couldn’t kill me without breaking Evalie’s heart, was to spike me down as they had the Kraken which was Khalk’ru’s symbol. So they had spiked me down with Evalie.

I climbed out of the pool, more thoughtful than I had gone into it. They wrapped a loin cloth around me, in curious folds and knots. Then they trilled and twittered and laughed, and danced.

Sri had my clothes and belt. I didn’t want to lose them, so when we started off I kept close behind him. Soon we stopped — in front of Evalie’s lair.

After a while there was a great commotion, singing and beating of drums, and along came Evalie with a crowd of the little women dancing around her. They led her to where I was waiting. Then all of them danced away.

That was all there was to it. The ceremony, if ceremony it was, was finished. But, somehow, I felt very much married.

I looked down at Evalie. She looked up at me, demurely. Her hair was no longer free, but braided cunningly around head and ears and neck. The swathings were gone. She wore the little apron of the pygmy matrons and the silvery cobweb veils. She laughed, and took my hand, and we went into the lair.

Next day, late in the afternoon, we heard a fanfare of trumpets that sounded rather close. They blew long and loudly, as though summoning someone. We stepped out into the rain, to listen better. I noted that the wind had changed from north to west, and was blowing steadily and strongly. By this time I knew that the acoustics of the land under the mirage were peculiar and that there was no way of telling just how close the trumpets were. They were on the far side of the river bank of course, but how far away the pygmies’ guarded slope was from the river, I did not know. There was some bustling on the wall, but no excitement.

There came a final trumpet blast, raucous and derisive. It was followed by a roar of laughter more irritatingly mocking because of its human quality. It brought me out of my indifference with a jump. It made me see red.

“That,” said Evalie, “was Tibur. I suppose he has been hunting with Lur. I think he was laughing at — you, Leif.”

Her delicate nose was turned up disdainfully, but there was a smile at the corner of her lips as she watched my quick anger flare up.

“See here, Evalie, just who is this Tibur?”

“I told you. He is Tibur the Smith, and he rules the Ayjir with Lur. Always does he come when I stand on Nansur. We have talked together — often. He is very strong — oh, strong.”

“Yes?” I said, still more irritated. “And why does Tibur come when you are there?”

“Why, because he desires me, of course,” she said tranquilly.

My dislike for Tilbur the Laugher increased.

“He’ll not laugh if I ever get an opening at him,” I muttered.

“What did you say?” she asked. I translated, as best t could. She nodded and began to speak — and then I saw her eyes open wide and stark terror fill them. I heard a whirring over my head.

Out of the mists had flown a great bird. It hovered fifty feet over us, glaring down with baleful yellow eyes. A great bird — a white bird . . . .

The white falcon of the Witch-woman!

I thrust Evalie back into the lair, and watched it. Thrice it circled over me, and then, screaming, hurtled up into the mists and vanished.

I went in to Evalie. She was crouched on the couch of skins. She had undone her hair and it streamed over her head and shoulders, hiding her like a cloak. I bent over her, and parted it. She was crying. She put her arms around my neck, and held me close, close. I felt her heart beating like a drum against mine.

“Evalie, beloved — there’s nothing to be afraid of.”

“The — white falcon, Leif!”

“It is only a bird.”

“No — Lur sent it.”

“Nonsense, dark sweetheart. A bird flies where it wills. It was hunting — or it had lost its way in the mists.”

She shook her head.

“But, Leif, I— dreamed of a white falcon . . .”

I held her tight, and after a while she pushed me away and smiled at me. But there was little of gaiety the remainder of that day. And that night her dreams were troubled, and she held me close to her, and cried and murmured in her sleep.

The next day Jim came back. I had been feeling a bit uncomfortable about his return. What would he think of me? I needn’t have worried. He showed no surprise at all when I laid the cards before him. And then I realized that of course the pygmies must have been talking to one another by their drums, and that they would have gone over matters with him.

“Good enough,” said Jim, when I had finished. “If you don’t get out, it’s the best thing for both of you. If you do get out, you’ll take Evalie with you — or won’t you?”

That stung me.

“Listen, Indian — I don’t like the way you’re talking! I love her.”

“All right. I’ll put it another way. Does Dwayanu love her?”

That question was like a slap on my mouth. While I struggled for an answer, Evalie ran out. She went over to Jim and kissed him. He patted her shoulder and hugged her like a big brother. She glanced at me, and came to me, and drew my head down to her and kissed me too, but not exactly the way she had kissed him.

I glanced over her head at Jim. Suddenly I noticed that he looked tired and haggard.

“You’re, feeling all right, Jim?”

“Sure. Only a bit weary. I’ve — seen things.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well,” he hesitated, “well — the tlanusi — the big leeches — for one thing. I’d never have believed it if I hadn’t seen them, and if I had seen them before we dived into the river, I’d have picked the wolves as cooing doves in comparison.”

He told me they had camped at the far end of the plain that night.

“This place is bigger than we thought, Leif. It must be, because I’ve gone more miles than would be possible if it were only as large as it looked before we went through the mirage. Probably the mirage foreshortened it — confused us.”

The next day they had gone through forest and jungle and cane-brake and marsh. They had come at last to a steaming swamp. A raised path ran across it. They had taken that path, and eventually came to another transecting it. Where the two causeways met, there was a wide, circular and gently rounded mound rising from the swamp. Here the pygmies had halted. They had made fires of fagots and leaves. The fires sent up a dense and scented smoke which spread slowly out from the mound over the swamp. When the fires were going well, the pygmies began drumming — a queerly syncopated beat. In a few moments he had seen a movement in the swamp, close by the mound.

“There was a ring of pygmies between me and the edge,” he said, “and when I saw the thing that crawled out I was glad of it. First there was an upheaval of the mud, and then up came the back of what I thought was an enormous red slug. The slug raised itself, and crept out on land. It was a leech all right, and that was all it was — but it made me more than a bit sick. It was its size that did that. It must have been seven feet long, and it lay there, blind and palpitating, its mouth gaping, listening to the drums and luxuriating in that scented smoke. Then another and another came out. After a awhile there were a hundred of the things grouped around in a semicircle, eyeless heads all turned to us — sucking in the smoke, palpitating to the drums.

“Some of the pygmies got up, took burning sticks from the fire and started off on the intersecting causeway, drumming as they went. The others quenched the fires. The leeches writhed along after the torch-bearers. The other pygmies fell in behind, herding them. I stuck in the rear. We went along until we came to the bank of the river. Those in the lead stopped drumming. They threw their smoking, blazing sticks into the water, and they cast into it handfuls of crushed berries — not the ones Sri and Sra rubbed on us. Red berries. The big leeches went writhing over the bank and into the river, following, I suppose, the smoke and the scent of the berries. Anyway, they went in-each and all of them.

“We went back, and out of the marsh. We camped on its edge. All that night they talked with the drums.

“They had talked the night before, and were uneasy; but I took it that it was the same worry they had when we started. They must have known what was going on, but they didn’t tell me then. Yesterday morning, though, they were happy and care-free. I knew something must have happened — that they must have got good news in the night. They were so good-natured that they told me why they were. Not just as you have — but the sense was the same —”

He chuckled.

“That morning we herded up a couple of hundred more of the tianusi and put them where the Little People think they’ll do the post good. Then we started back — and here I am.”

“Yes,” I asked suspiciously. “And is that all?”

“All for to-night, anyway,” he said. “I’m sleepy. I’m going to turn in. You go with Evalie and leave me strictly alone till tomorrow.”

I left him to sleep, determined to find out in the morning what he was holding back; I didn’t think it was entirely the journey and the leeches that accounted for his haggardness.

But in the morning I forgot all about it.

In the first place, when I awoke, Evalie was missing. I went over to the tent, looking for Jim. He was not there. The Little People had long since poured out of the cliffs, and were at work; they always worked in the morning — afternoons and nights they played and drummed and danced. They said Evalie and Tsantawu had gone into council with the elders. I went back to the tent.

In a little while Evalie and Jim came up. Evalie’s face was white and her eyes were haunted. Also they were ntisty with tears. Also, she was madder than hell. Jim was doing his best to be cheerful.

“What’s the matter?” I asked.

“You’re due for a little trip,” said Jim. “You’ve been wanting to see Nansur Bridge, haven’t you?”

“Yes.” I said.

“Well,” said Jim. “That’s where we’re going. Better put on your travelling clothes and your boots. If the trail is anything like what I’ve just gone over, you’ll need them. The Little People can slip through things — but we’re built different.”

I studied them, puzzled. Of course I’d wanted to see Nansur Bridge — but why should the fact we were to go there make them behave so oddly? I went to Evalie, and turned her face up to mine.

“You’ve been crying, Evalie. What’s wrong?”

She shook her head, slipped out of my arms and into the lair. I followed her. She was bending over a coffer, taking yards and yards of veils out of it. I swung her away from it and lifted her until her eyes were level with mine.

“What’s wrong, Evalie?”

A thought struck me. I lowered her to her feet.

“Who suggested going to Nansur Bridge?”

“The Little People . . . the elders . . . I fought against it . . . I don’t want you to go . . . they say you must . . . .”

“I must go?” The thought grew clearer. “Then you need not go — nor Tsantawu. Unless you choose?”

“Let them try to keep me from going with you.” She stamped a foot furiously.

The thought was crystal clear, and I began to feel a bit irritated by the Little People. They were thorough to the point of annoyance. I now understood perfectly why I was to go to Nansur Bridge. The pygmies were not certain that their magic — including Evalie — had thoroughly taken. Therefore I was to look upon the home of the enemy — and be watched for my reactions. Well, that was fair enough, at that. Maybe the Witch-woman would be there. Maybe Tibur — Tibur who desired Evalie — Tibur who had laughed at me. Suddenly I was keen for going to Nansur Bridge. I began to put on my old clothes. As I was tying the high shoes, I glanced over at Evalie. She had coiled her hair and covered it with a cap; she had swathed her body from neck to knees in the veils and she was lacing high sandals that covered her feet and legs as completely as my boots did mine. She smiled faintly at my look of wonder.

“I do not like Tibur to Iook on me — not now!” she said.

I bent over her and took her in my arms. She set her lips to mine in a kiss that bruised them. . . . When we came out, Jim and about fifty of the pygmies were waiting.

We struck diagonally across the plain away from the cliffs, heading north toward the river. We went over the slope, past one of the towers, and put feet on a narrow path like that which we had trod when coming into the land of the Little People. It wound through a precisely similar fern-brake. We went along it single file, and, perforce, in silence. We came out of it into a forest of close-growing, coniferous trees, through which the trail wound tortuously. We went through this for an hour or more, without once resting, the pygmies trotting along tirelessly. I looked at my watch. We had been going for four hours and had covered, I calculated, about twelve miles. There was no sign of bird or animal life.

Evalie seemed deep in thought and Jim had fallen into one of his fits of Indian taciturnity. I didn’t feel much like talking. It was a silent journey; not even the golden pygmies chattered, as was their habit. We came to a sparkling spring, and drank. One of the dwarfs swung a small cylindrical drum in front of him and began to tap out some message. It was answered at length from far ahead by other tappings.

We swung into our way once more. The conifers began to thin. At our left and far below us I began to catch glimpses of the white river and of the dense forest on its opposite bank. The conifers ceased and we came out upon a rocky waste. Just ahead of us was an outthrust of cliff along whose base streamed the white river. The out-thrust cut off our view of what lay beyond. Here the pygmies halted and sent another drum message. The answer was startlingly close. Then around the edge of the cliff, half-way up, spear tips glinted. A group of little warriors stood there, scrutinizing us. They signalled, and we marched forward, over the waste.

There was a broad road up the side of the cliff, wide enough for six horses abreast. We climbed it. We came to the top, and I looked on Nansur Bridge and towered Karak.

Once, thousands or hundreds of thousands of years ago, there had been a small mountain here, rising from the valley floor. Nanbu, the white river, had eaten it away — all except a vein of black adamantine rock.

Nanbu had fallen, fallen, steadily gnawing at the softer stone until at last it was spanned by a bridge that was like a rainbow of jet. That gigantic bow of black rock winged over the abyss with the curved flight of an arrow.

Its base, on each side, was a mesa — sculptured as Nansur had been from the original mount.

The mesa, at whose threshold I stood, was flat-topped. But on the opposite side of the river, thrusting up from the mesa-top, was a huge, quadrangular pile of the same black rock as the bow of Nansur. It looked less built from than cut out of that rock. It covered I judged about half a square mile. Towers and turrets both square and round sprang up from it. It was walled.

There was something about that immense ebon citadel that struck me with the same sense of fore-knowledge that I had felt when I had ridden into the ruins of the Gobi oasis. Also I thought it looked like that city of Dis which Dante glimpsed in Hades. And its antiquity hung over it like a sable garment.

Then I saw that Nansur was broken. Between the arch that winged from the side on which we stood and the arch that swept up and out from the side of the black citadel, there was a gap. It was as though a gigantic hammer had been swung down on the soaring bow, shattering it at its centre. I thought of Bifrost Bridge over which the Valkyries rode, bearing the souls of the warriors to Valhalla; and I thought it had been as great a blasphemy to have broken Nansur Bridge as it would have been to have broken Bifrost.

Around the citadel were other buildings, hundreds of them outside its walls — buildings of grey and brown stone, with gardens; they stretched over acres. And on each side of this city were fertile fields and flowering groves. There was a wide road stretching far, far away to cliffs shrouded in the green veils. I thought I saw the black mouth of a cavern at its end.

“Karak!” whispered Evalie. “And Nansur Bridge! And Oh, Leif, beloved . . . but my heart is heavy . . . so heavy!”

I hardly heard her, looking at Karak. Stealthy memories had begun to stir. I trod on them, and put my arm around Evalie. We went on, and now I saw why Karak had been built where it was, for on the far side the black citadel commanded both ends of the valley, and when Nansur had been unbroken, it had commanded this approach as well.

Suddenly I felt a feverish eagerness to run out upon Nansur and look down on Karak from the broken end. I was restive at the slowness of the pygmies. I started forward. The garrison came crowding around me, staring up at me, whispering to one another, studying me with their yellow eyes. Drums began to beat.

They were answered by trumpets from the citadel.

I walked ever more rapidly toward Nansur. The fever of eagerness had become consuming. I wanted to run. I pushed the golden pygmies aside impatiently. Jim’s voice came to me, warningly:

“Steady, Leif — steady!”

I paid no heed. I went out upon Nansur. Vaguely, I realized that it was wide and that low parapets guarded its edges, and that the stone was ramped for the tread of horses and the tread of marching men. And that if the white river had shaped it, the hands of men had finished its carving.

I reached the broken end. A hundred feet below me the white river raced smoothly. There were no serpents. A dull red body, slug-like, monstrous, lifted above the milky current; then another and another, round mouths gaping — the leeches of the Little People, on guard.

There was a broad plaza between the walls of the dark citadel and the end of the bridge. It was empty. Set in the walls were massive gates of bronze. I felt a curious quivering inside me, a choking in my throat. I forgot Evalie; I forgot Jim; I forgot everything in watching those gates.

There was a louder blaring of the trumpets, a clanging of bars, and the gates swung open. Through them galloped a company, led by two riders, one on a great black horse, the other upon a white. They raced across the plaza, dropped from their mounts and came walking over the bridge. They stood facing me across the fifty-foot gap.

The one who had ridden the black horse was the Witch-woman, and the other I knew for Tibur the Smith — Tibur the Laugher. I had no eyes just then for the Witch-woman or her followers. I had eyes only for Tibur.

He was a head shorter than I, but strength great or greater than mine spoke from the immense shoulders, the thick body. His red hair hung sleekly straight to his shoulders. He was red-bearded. His eyes were violet-blue and lines of laughter crinkled at their comers; and the wide, loose mouth was a laughing mouth. But the laughter which had graven those lines on Tibur’s face was not the kind to make the bearer merry.

He wore a coat of mail. At his left side hung a huge war hammer. He looked me over from head to foot and back again with narrowed, mocking eyes. If I had hated Tibur before I had seen him, it was nothing to what I felt now.

I looked from him to the Witch-woman. Her cornflower-blue eyes were drinking me in; absorbed, wondering — amused. She, too, wore a coat of mail, over which streamed her red braids. Those who were clustered behind Tibur and the Witch-woman were only a blur to me.

Tibur leaned forward.

“Welcome — Dwayanu!” he jeered. “What has brought you out of your skulking place? My challenge?”

“Was it you I heard baying yesterday?” I said. “Hai — you picked a safe distance ere you began to howl, red dog!”

There was a laugh from the group around the Witch-woman, and I saw that they were women, fair and red-haired like herself, and that there were two tall men with Tibur. But the Witch-woman said nothing, still drinking me in, a curious speculation in her eyes.

Tibur’s face grew dark. One of the men leaned, and whispered to him. Tibur nodded, and swaggered forward. He called out to me:

“Have you grown soft during your wanderings, Dwayanu? By the ancient custom, by the ancient test, we must learn that before we acknowledge you — great Dwayanu. Stand fast —”

His hand dropped to the battle-hammer at his side. He hurled it at me.

The hammer was hurtling through the air at me with the speed of a bullet — yet it seemed to come slowly. I could even see the thong that held it to Tibur’s arm slowly lengthening as it flew . . . .

Little doors were opening in my brain . . . the ancient test. . . . Hai! but I knew that play . . . I waited motionless as the ancient custom prescribed . . . but they should have given me a shield . . . no matter . . . how slowly the great sledge seemed to come . . . and it seemed to me that the hand I thrust out to catch it moved as slowly . . . .

I caught it. Its weight was all of twenty pounds, yet I caught it squarely, effortlessly, by its metal shaft. Hai! but did I not know the trick of that? . . . The little doors were opening faster now . . . and I knew another. With my other hand I gripped the thong that held the battle-hammer to Tibur’s arm and jerked him toward me.

The laugh was frozen on Tibur’s face. He tottered on Nansur’s broken edge. I heard behind me the piping shout of the pygmies . . . .

The Witch-woman sliced down a knife and severed the thong. She jerked Tibur back from the verge. Rage swept me . . . that was not in the play . . . by the ancient test it was challenger and challenged alone. . . . I swung the great hammer around my head and around, and hurled it back at Tibur; it whistled as it flew and the severed thong streamed rigid in its wake. He threw himself aside, but not quickly enough. The sledge struck him on a shoulder. A glancing bow, but it dropped him.

And now I laughed across the gulf.

The Witch-woman leaned forward, incredulity flooding the speculation in her eyes. She was no longer amused. No! And Tibur jerked himself up on one knee, glaring at me, his laughter lines twisted into nothing like mirth of any kind.

Still other doors, tiny doors, opening in my brain. . . . They wouldn’t believe I was Dwayanu . . . Hai! I would show them. I dipped into the pocket of my belt. Ripped open the buckskin pouch. Drew out the ring of Khalk’ru. I held it up. .The green light glinted on it. The yellow stone seemed to expand. The black octopus to grow . . . .

“Am I Dwayanu? Look on this! Am I Dwayanu?”

I heard a woman scream — I knew that voice. And I heard a man calling, shouting to me — and that voice I knew too. The little doors clicked shut, the memories that had slipped through them darted back before they closed . . . .

Why, it was Evalie who was screaming! And Jim who was shouting at me! What was the matter with them? Evalie was facing me, arms outstretched. And there was stark unbelief and horror — and loathing — in the brown eyes fastened on me. And rank upon rank, the Little People were closing around the pair of them — barring me from them. Their spears and arrows were levelled at me. They were hissing like a horde of golden snakes, their faces distorted with hatred, their eyes fastened on the ring of Khalk’ru still held high above my head.

And now I saw that hatred reflected upon the face of Evalie — and the loathing deepen in her eyes.

“Evalie!” I cried, and would have leaped toward her. . . . Back went the hands of the pygmies for the throwing cast; the arrows trembled in their bows.

“Don’t move, Leif! I’m coming!” Jim jumped forward. Instantly the pygmies swarmed round and upon him. He swayed and went down under them.

“Evalie!” I cried again.

I saw the loathing fade, and heart-break come into her face. She called some command.

A score of pygmies shot by her, on each side, casting down their bows and spears as they raced toward me. Stupidly, I watched them come; among them I saw Sri.

They struck me like little living battering rams. I was thrust backward. My foot struck air —

The pygmies clinging to my legs, harrying me like terriers, I toppled over the edge of Nansur.

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