Dwellers in the Mirage, by Abraham Merritt

Book of the Witch-Woman

Chapter XIII.

Karak

I had sense enough to throw my hands up over my head, and so I went down feet first. The pygmies hanging to my legs helped that, too. When I struck the water I sank deep and deep. The old idea is that when a man drowns his whole past life runs through his mind in a few seconds, like a reversed cinema reel. I don’t know about that, but I do know that in my progress into Nanbu’s depths and up again I thought faster than ever before in my life.

In the first place I realized that Evalie had ordered me thrown off the bridge. That made me white-hot mad. Why hadn’t she waited and given me a chance to explain the ring! Then I thought of how many chances I’d had to explain — and hadn’t taken one of them. Also that the pygmies had been in no mood for waiting, and that Evalie had held back their spears and arrows and given me a run for my life, even though it might be a brief one. Then I thought of my utter folly in flashing the ring at that particular moment, and I couldn’t blame the Little People for thinking me an emissary of Khalk’ru. And I saw again the heart-break in Evalie’s eyes, and my rage vanished in a touch of heart-break of my own.

After that, quite academically, the idea came to me that Tibur’s hammer-play explained old God Thor of ibs Norse and his hammer Mjolnir, the Smasher, which always returned to his hand after he had thrown it — to make it more miraculous the skalds had left out that practical detail of the thong; here was still another link between the Uighur or Ayjir and the Aesar — I’d talk to

Jim about it. And then I knew I couldn’t get back to Jim to talk to him about that or anything else because the pygmies would certainly be waiting for me, and would quite as certainly drive me back among the leeches, even if I managed to get as far as their side of Nanbu. At that thought, if a man entirely immersed in water can break into a cold sweat I did it. I would much rather pass out by way of the Little People’s spears and darts or even Tibur’s smasher than be drained dry by those sucking mouths.

Just then I broke through the surface of Nanbu, trod water for a moment, clearing my eyes, and saw the red-slug back of a leech gliding toward me not twenty feet away. I cast a despairing glance around me. The current was swift and had borne me several hundred yards below the bridge. Also it had carried me toward the Karak side, which seemed about five hundred feet away. I turned to face the leech. It came slowly, as though sure of me. I planned to dive under it and try to make for the shore . . . if — only there were no others . . . .

I heard a chattering shout. Sri shot past me. He raised an arm and pointed at Karak. Clearly he was telling me to get there as quickly as I could. I had forgotten all about him, except for a momentary flash of wrath that he had joined my assailants. Now I saw what an injustice I had done him. He swam straight to the big leech and slapped it alongside its mouth. The creature bent toward him, actually it nuzzled him. I waited to see no more, but struck out as fast as my boots would let me for the river bank.

That was no pleasant swim, no! The place was thick with the gliding red backs. Without question it was only Sri that saved me from them. He came scuttering back, and he circled round and round me as I ploughed on; he drove the leeches away. I touched bottom, and scrambled over rocks to the safety of the bank. The golden pygmy sent one last call to me. What he said I could not hear. I stood there, gasping for breath, and saw him shooting across the white water like a yellow flying fish, a half-dozen of the red slug-backs gliding in his wake.

I looked up at Nansur Bridge. The Little People’s end of it and the parapets were crowded with pygmies, watching me. The other side was empty. I looked around me. I was in the shadow of the walls of the black citadel. They arose, smooth, impregnable, for a hundred feet. Between me and them was a wide plaza, similar to that over which Tibur and the Witch-woman had ridden from the bronze gates. It was bordered with squat, one-storied houses of stone; there were many small flowering trees. Beyond the bordering houses were others, larger, more pretentious, set farther apart. Not so far away and covering part of the plaza was an everyday, open-air market.

From the bordering houses and from the market, scores of people were pouring down upon me. They came swiftly, but they came silently, not calling to one another, not signalling nor summoning — intent upon me. I felt for my automatic and swore, remembering that I had not worn it for days. Something flashed on my hand . . . .

The ring of Khalk’ru! I must have slipped it on my thumb when the pygmies had rushed me. Well, the ring had brought me here. Surely its effect would not be less upon these people, than it had been upon those who had faced me from the far side of the broken bridge. At any rate, it was all I had. I turned it so that the stone was hidden in my hand.

They were close now, and mostly women and girls and girl children. They all wore much the same kind of garment, a smock that came down to their knees and which left the right breast bare. Without exception, they were. red-haired and blue-eyed, their skins creamy-white and delicate rose, and they were tall and strong and beautifully formed. They might have been Viking maids and mothers come to welcome home some dragon-ship from its sea-faring. The children were little blue-eyed angels. I took note of the men; there were not many of them, a dozen perhaps. They, too, had the red polls and blue eyes. The older wore short beards, the younger were clean-shaven. They were not so tall by several inches as the run of the women. None, men nor women, came within half a head of my height. They bore no weapons.

They halted a few yards from me, looking at me in silence. Their eyes ran over me and stopped at my yellow hair, and rested there.

There was a bustle at the edge of the crowd. A dozen women pushed through and walked toward me. They wore short kirtles; there were short swords in their girdles and they carried javelins in their hands; unlike the others, their breasts were covered. They ringed me, javelins raised, so close that the tips almost touched me.

The leader’s bright blue eyes were bold, more soldier’s than woman’s.

“The yellow-haired stranger! Luka has smiled on us this day!”

The woman beside her leaned and whispered, but I caught the words:

“Tibur would give us more for him than Lur.”

The leader shook her head.

“Too dangerous. We’ll enjoy Lur’s reward longer.”

She looked me over, quite frankly.

“It’s a shame to waste him,” she said.

“Lur won’t,” the other answered, cynically.

The leader gave me a prod of her javelin, and motioned toward the citadel wall.

“Onward, Yellow Hair,” she said. “It’s a pity you can’t understand me. Or I’d tell you something for your own good — at a price, of course.”

She smiled at me, and prodded me again. I felt like grinning back at her; she was so much like a hard-boiled sergeant I’d known in the War. I spoke, instead, sternly:

“Summon Lur to me with fitting escort, O! woman whose tongue rivals the drum stick.”

She gaped at me, her javelin dropping from her hand. Quite evidently, although an alarm had been sounded for me, the fact that I could speak the Uighur had not been told.

“Summon Lur at once,” I said. “Or, by Khalk’ru —”

I did not complete the sentence. I turned the ring and held up my hand.

There was a gasp of terror from the crowd. They went down on their knees, heads bent low. The soldier-woman’s face whitened, and she and the others dropped before me. And then there was a grating of bars. An immense block opened in the wall of the citadel not far away.

Out of the opening, as though my words had summoned them, rode the Witch-woman with Tibur beside her, and at their heels the little troop who had watched me from Nansur Bridge.

They baited, staring at the kneeling crowd. Then Tibur spurred his horse; the Witch-woman thrust out a hand and stayed him, and they spoke together. The soldier touched my foot.

“Let us rise. Lord,” she said. I nodded, and she jumped up with a word to her women. Again they ringed me. I read the fear in the leader’s eyes, and appeal. I smiled at her.

“Don’t fear. I heard nothing,” I whispered.

“Then you have a friend in Dara,” she muttered. “By Luka — they would boil us for what we said!”

“I heard nothing,” I repeated.

“A gift for a gift,” she breathed. “Watch Tibur’s left hand should you fight him.”

The little troop was in motion; they came riding slowly toward me. As they drew near I could see that Tibur’s face was dark, and that he was holding in his temper with an effort. He halted his horse at the edge of the crowd. His rage fell upon them; for a moment I thought he was going to ride them down.

“Up, you swine!” he roared. “Since when has Karak knelt to any but its rulers?”

They arose, huddled together with frightened faces as the troop rode through them. I looked up at the Witch-woman and the Laugher.

Tibur glowered down on me, his hand fumbling at his hammer; the two big men who had flanked him on the bridge edged close to me, long swords in hand. The Witch-woman said nothing, studying me intently yet with a certain cynical impersonality I found disquieting; evidently she still had not made up her mind about me and was waiting for some word or move of mine to guide her. I didn’t like the situation very much. If it came to a dog fight I would have little chance with three mounted men, to say nothing of the women. I had the feeling that the Witch-woman did not want me killed out-of-hand, but then she might be a bit late in succouring me — and beyond that I had no slightest wish to be beaten up, trussed up, carried into Karak a prisoner.

Also I began to feel a hot and unreasoning resentment against these people who dared bar my way, dared hold me back from whatever way I chose to go, an awakening arrogance — a stirring of those mysterious memories that had cursed me ever since I had carried the ring of Khalk’ru . . . .

Well, those memories had served me on Nansur Bridge when Tibur cast the hammer at me . . . and what was it Jim had said? . . . to let Dwayanu ride when I faced the Witch-woman . . . well, let him . . . it was the only way . . . the bold way . . . the olden way. . . . It was as though I heard the words! I threw my mind wide open to the memories, or to — Dwayanu.

There was a tiny tingling shock in my brain, and then something like the surging up of a wave toward that consciousness which was Leif Langton. I managed to thrust it back before it had entirely submerged that consciousness. It retreated, but sullenly — nor did it retreat far. No matter, so long as it did not roll over me . . . I pushed the soldiers aside and walked to Tibur. Something of what had occurred must have stamped itself on my face, changed me. Doubt crept into the Witch-woman’s eyes. Tibur’s hand fell from his hammer, and he backed his horse away. I spoke, and my wrathful voice fell strangely on my own ears.

“Where is my horse? Where are my arms? Where are my standard and my spearsmen? Why are the drums and the trumpets silent? Is it thus Dwayanu is greeted when he comes to a city of the Ayjir! By Zarda, but this is not to be home!”

Now the Witch-woman spoke, mockery in the clear, deep bell-toned voice, and I felt that whatever hold I had gained over her had in some way slipped.

“Hold your hand, Tibur! I will speak to — Dwayanu. And you — if you are Dwayanu — scarcely can hold us to blame. It has been long and long since human eyes rested on you — and never in this land. So how could we know you? And when first we saw you, the little yellow dogs ran you away from us. And when next we saw you, the little yellow dogs ran you to us. If we have not received you as Dwayanu has a right to expect from a city of the Ayjir, equally is it true that no city of the Ayjir has ever before been so visited by Dwayanu.”

Well, that was true enough, admirable reasoning, lucid and all of that. The part of me that was Lief Langdon, and engaged in rather desperate struggle to retain control, recognized it. Yet the unreasoning anger grew. I held up the ring of Khalk’ru.

“You may not know Dwayanu — but you know this.”

“I know you have it,” she said, levelly. “But I do not know how you came by it. In itself it proves nothing.”

Tibur leaned forward, grinning.

“Tell us where you did come from. Are you by — blow of Sirk?”

There was a murmur from the crowd. The Witch-woman leaned forward, frowning. I heard her murmur, half-contemptuously:

“Your strength was never in your head, Tibur!”

Nevertheless, I answered him.

“I come,” I said bleakly, “from the Mother-land of the Ayjir. From the land that vomited your shivering forefathers, red toad!”

I shot a glance at the Witch-woman. That had jolted her all right. I saw her body stiffen, her corn-flower eyes distend and darken, her red lips part; and her women bent to each other, whispering, while the murmur of the crowd swelled.

“You lie!” roared Tibur. “There is no life in the Mother-land. There is no life elsewhere than here. Khalk’ru has sucked earth dry of Life. Except here. You lie!”

His hand dropped to his hammer.

And suddenly I saw red; all the world dissolved in a red mist of red. The horse of the man closest to me was a noble animal. I had been watching it — a roan stallion, strong as the black stallion that had carried me from the Gobi oasis. I reached up, caught at its jaw, and pulled it down to its knees. Taken unaware, its rider toppled forward, somersaulted over its head and fell at my feet. He was up again like a cat, sword athrust at me. I caught his arm before he could strike and swung up my left fist. It cracked on his jaw; his head snapped back, and he dropped. I snatched up the sword, and swung myself on the rising horse’s back. Before Tibur could move I had the point of the sword at his throat.

“Stop! I grant you Dwayanu! Hold your hand!” It was the Witch-woman’s voice, low, almost whispering.

I laughed. I pressed the point of the sword deeper into Tiber’s throat.

“Am I Dwayanu? Or by-blow of Sirk?”

“You are — Dwayanu!” he groaned.

I laughed again.

“I am Dwayanu! Then guide me into Karak to make amends for your insolence, Tibur!”

I drew the sword away from his throat.

Yes, I drew it back — and by all the mad mixed gods of that mad mixed mind of mine at that moment I would that I had thrust it through his throat!

But I did not’, and so that chance passed. I spoke to the Witch-woman:

“Ride at my right hand. let Tibur ride before.”

The man I had struck down was on his feet, swaying unsteadily. Lur spoke to one of her women. She slipped from her horse, and with Tibur’s other follower helped him upon it.

We rode across the plaza, and through the walls of the black citadel.

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