Dwellers in the Mirage, by Abraham Merritt

Chapter XIV.

In the Black Citadel

The bars that held the gate crashed down behind us. The passage through the walls was wide and long and lined with soldiers, most of them women. They stared at me; their discipline was good, for they were silent, saluting us with upraised swords.

We came out of the walls into an immense square, bounded by the towering black stone of the citadel. It was stone-paved and. bare, and there must have been half a thousand soldiers in it, again mostly women and one and all of the strong-bodied, blue-eyed, red-haired type. It was a full quarter-mile to the side — the square. Opposite where we entered, there was a group of people on horses, of the same class as those who rode with us, or so I judged. They were clustered about a portal in the farther walls, and toward these we trotted.

About a third of the way over, we passed a circular pit a hundred feet wide in which water boiled and bubbled and from which steam arose. A hot spring, I supposed; I could feel its breath. Around it were slender stone pillars from each of which an arm jutted like that of a gallows, and from the ends of them dangled thin chains. It was, indefinably, an unpleasant and ominous place. I didn’t like the look of it at all. Something of this must have shown on my face, for Tibur spoke, blandly.

“Our cooking pot.”

“No easy one from which to ladle broth,” I said. I thought him jesting.

“Ah — but the meat we cook there is not the kind we eat,” he answered, still more blandly. And his laughter roared out.

I felt a little sick as his meaning reached me. It was tortured human flesh which those chains were designed to hold, lowering it slowly inch by inch into that devil’s cauldron. But I only nodded indifferently, and rode on.

The Witch-woman had paid no attention to us; her russet head bent, she went on deep in thought, though now and then I caught her oblique glance at me. We drew near the portal. She signalled those who awaited there, a score of the red-haired maids and women and a half-dozen men; they dismounted. The Witch-woman leaned to me and whispered:

“Turn the ring so its seal will be covered.”

I obeyed her, asking no question.

We arrived at the portal. I looked at the group there. The women wore the breast-revealing upper garment; their legs were covered with loose baggy trousers tied in at the ankles; they had wide girdles in which were two swords, one long and one short. The men were clothed in loose blouses, and the same baggy trousers; in their girdles beside the swords — or rather, hanging from their girdles — were hammers like that of the Smith, but smaller. The women who had gathered around me after I had climbed out of Nanbu had been fair enough, but these were far more attractive, finer, with a stamp of breeding the others had not had. They stared at me as frankly, as appraisingly, as had the soldier woman and her lieutenant; their eyes rested upon my yellow hair and stopped there, as though fascinated. On all their faces was that suggestion of cruelty latent in the amorous mouth of Lur.

“We dismount here,” said the Witch-woman, “to go where we may become — better acquainted.”

I nodded as before, indifferently. I had been thinking that it was a foolhardy thing I had done, thus to thrust myself alone among these people; but I had been thinking, too, that I could have done nothing else except have gone to Sirk, and where that was I did not know; and that if I had tried I would have been a hunted outlaw on this side of white Nanbu, as I would be on the other. The part of me that was Leif Langdon was thinking that — but the part of me that was Dwayanu was not thinking like that at all. It was fanning the fire of recklessness, the arrogance, that had carried me thus far in safety; whispering that none among the Ayjir had the right to question me or to bar my way, whispering with increasing insistence that I should have been met by dipping standards and roll of drums and fanfare of trumpets. The part that was Leif Langdon answered that there was nothing else to do but continue as I had been doing, that it was the game to play, the line to take, the only way. And that other part, ancient memories, awakening of Dwayanu, post-hypnotic suggestion of the old Gobi priest, impatiently asked why I should question even myself, urging that it was no game — but truth! And that it would brook little more insolence from these degenerate dogs of the Great Race — and little more cowardice from me!

So I flung myself from my horse, and stood looking arrogantly down upon the faces turned to me, literally looking down, for I was four inches or more taller than the tallest of them. Lur touched my arm. Between her and Tibur I strode through the portal and into the black citadel.

It was a vast vestibule through which we passed, and dimly lighted by slits far up in the polished rock. We went by groups of silently saluting soldier-women; we went by many transverse passages. We came at last to a great guarded door, and here Lur and Tibur dismissed their escorts. The door rolled slowly open; we entered and it rolled shut behind us.

The first thing I saw was the Kraken.

It sprawled over one wall of the chamber into which we had come. My heart leaped as I saw it, and for an instant I had an almost ungovernable impulse to turn and run. And now I saw that the figure of the Kraken was a mosaic set in the black stone. Or rather, that the yellow field in which it lay was a mosaic and that the Black Octopus had been cut from the stone of the wall itself. Its unfathomable eyes of jet regarded me with that suggestion of lurking malignity the yellow pygmies had managed to imitate so perfectly in their fettered symbol inside the hollow rock.

Something stirred beneath the Kraken. A face looked out on me from under a hood of black. At first I thought it the old priest of the Gobi himself, and then I saw that this man was not so old, and that his eyes were clear deep blue and that his face was unwrinkled, and cold and white and expressionless as though carved from marble. Then I remembered what Evalie had told me, and knew this must be Yodin the High Priest. He sat upon a throne-like chair behind a long low table on which were rolls like the papyrus rolls of the Egyptians, and cylinders of red metal which were, I supposed, their containers. On each side of him was another of the thrones.

He lifted a thin white hand and beckoned me.

“Come to me — you who call yourself Dwayanu.”

The voice was cold and passionless as the face, but courteous. I seemed to hear again the old priest when he had called me to him. I walked over, more as one who humours another a little less than equal than as though obeying a summons. And that was precisely the way I felt. He must have read my thought, for I saw a shadow of anger pass over his face. His eyes searched me.

“You have a certain ring, I am told.”

With the same feeling of humouring one slightly inferior, I turned the bevel of the Kraken ring and held my hand out toward him. He looked at the ring, and the white face lost its immobility. He thrust a hand into his girdle, and drew from it a box, and out of it another ring, and placed it beside mine. I saw that it was not so large, and that the setting was not precisely the same. He studied the two rings, and then with a hissing intake of breath he snatched my hands and turned them over, scanning the palms. He dropped them and leaned back in his chair.

“Why do you come to us?” he asked.

A surge of irritation swept me.

“Does Dwayanu stand like a common messenger to be questioned?” I said harshly.

I walked around the table and dropped into one of the chairs beside him.

“Let drink be brought, for I am thirsty. Until my thirst is quenched, I will not talk.”

A faint flush stained the white face; there was a growl from Tibur. He was glaring at me with reddened face; the Witch-woman stood, gaze intent upon me, no mockery in it now; the speculative interest was intensified. It came to me that the throne I had usurped was Tibur’s. I laughed.

“Beware, Tibur,” I said. “This may be an omen!”

The High Priest intervened, smoothly.

“If he be indeed Dwayanu, Tibur, then no honour is too great for him. See that wine is brought.”

The look that the Smith shot at Yodin seemed to me to hold a question. Perhaps the Witch-woman thought so too. She spoke quickly.

“I will see to it.”

She walked to the door, opened it and gave an order to a guard. She waited; there was silence among us while she waited. I thought many things. I thought, for example, that I did not like the look that had passed between Yodin and Tibur, and that while I might trust Lur for the present — still she would drink first when the wine came. And I thought that I would tell them little of how I came to the Shadowed-land. And I thought of Jim — and I thought of Evalie. It made my heart ache so that I felt the loneliness of nightmare; and then I felt the fierce contempt of that other part of me, and felt it strain against the fetters I had put on it. Then the wine came.

The Witch-woman carried ewer and goblet over to the table and set them before me. She poured yellow wine into the goblet and handed it to me. I smiled at her.

“The cup-bearer drinks first,” I said. “So it was in the olden days, Lur. And the olden customs are dear to me.”

Tibur gnawed his lip and tugged at his beard at that, but Lur took up the goblet and drained it. I refilled it, and raised it to Tibur. I had a malicious desire to bait the Smith.

“Would you have done that had you been the cup-bearer, Tibur?” I asked him and drank.

That was good wine! It tingled through me, and I felt the heady recklessness leap up under it as though lashed. I filled the goblet again and tossed it off.

“Come up, Lur, and sit with us,” I said. “Tibur, join us.”

The Witch-woman quietly took the third throne. Tibur was watching me, and I saw a new look in his eyes, something of that furtive speculation I had surprised in Lur’s. The white-faced priest’s gaze was far away. It occurred to me that the three of them were extremely busy with their own thoughts, and that Tibur at least, was becoming a bit uneasy. When he answered me his voice had lost all truculency.

“Well and good — Dwayanu!” he said, and, lifting a bench, carried it to the table, and set it where he could watch our faces.

“I answer your question,” I turned to Yodin. “I came here at the summons of Khalk’ru.”

“It is strange,” he said, “that I, who am High Priest of Khalk’ru, knew nothing of any summons.”

“The reasons for that I do not know,” I said, casually. “Ask them of him you serve.”

He pondered over that.

“Dwayanu lived long and long and long ago,” he said. “Before —”

“Before the Sacrilege. True.” I took another drink of the wine. “Yet — I am here.”

For the first time his voice lost its steadiness.

“You — you know of the Sacrilege!” His fingers clutched my wrist. “Man — whoever you are — from whence do you come?”

“I come,” I answered, “from the Mother-land.”

His fingers tightened around my wrist. He echoed Tibur.

“The Mother-land is a dead land. Khalk’ru in his anger destroyed its life. There is no life save here, where Khalk’ru hears his servants and lets life be.”

He did not believe that; I could tell it by the involuntary glance he had given the Witch-woman and the Smith. Nor did they.

“The Mother-land,” I said, “is bleached bones. Its cities lie covered in shrouds of sand. Its rivers are waterless, and all that runs within their banks is sand driven by the arid winds. Yet still is there life in the Motherland, and although the ancient blood is thinned — still it runs. And still is Khalk’ru worshipped and feared in the place from whence I came — and still in other lands the earth spawns life as always she has done.”

I poured some more wine. It was good wine, that.

Under it I felt my recklessness increase . . . under it Dwayanu was stronger . . . well, this was a tight box I was in, so let him be . . .

“Show me the place from whence you came,” the High Priest spoke swiftly. He gave me a tablet of wax and a stylus. I traced the outline of Northern Asia upon it and of Alaska. I indicated the Gobi and approximately the location of the oasis, and also the position of the Shadowed-land.

Tibur got up to look at it; their three heads bent over it. The priest fumbled among the rolls, picked one, and they compared it with the tablet. It appeared like a map, but if so the northern coast line was all wrong. There was a line traced on it that seemed to be a route of some sort. It was overscored and underscored with symbols. I wondered whether it might not be the record of the trek those of the Old Race had made when they had fled from the Gobi.

They looked up at last; there was perturbation in the priest’s eyes, angry apprehension in Tibur’s, but the eyes of the Witch-woman were clear and untroubled — as though she had made up her mind about something and knew precisely what she was going to do.

“It is the Mother-land!” the priest said. “Tell me — did the black-haired stranger who fled with you across the river and who watched you hurled from Nansur come also from there?”

There was sheer malice in that question. I began to dislike Yodin.

“No,” I answered. “He comes from an old land of the Rrrllya.”

That brought the priest up standing; Tibur swore incredulously; and even the Witch-woman was shaken from her serenity.

“Another land-of the Rrrllya! But that cannot be!” whispered Yodin.

“Nevertheless it is so,” I said.

He sank back, and thought for a while.

“He is your friend?”

“My brother by the ancient blood rite of his people.”

“He would join you here?”

“He would if I sent for him. But that I will not do. Not yet. He is well off where he is.”

I was sorry I had said that the moment I had spoken. Why — I did not know. But I would have given much to have recalled the words.

Again the priest was silent.

“These are strange things you tell us,” he said at last. “And you have come to us strangely for — Dwayanu. You will not mind if for a little we take counsel?”

I looked in the ewer. It was still half-full. I liked that wine — most of all because it dulled my sorrow over Evalie.

“Speak as long as you please,” I answered, graciously. They went off to a comer of the room. I poured myself another drink, and another. I forgot about Evalie. I began to feel I was having a good time. I wished Jim was with me, but I wished I hadn’t said he would come if I sent for him. And then I took another drink and forgot about Jim. Yes, I was having a damned good time . . . well, wait till I let Dwayanu loose a bit more! I’d have a better one . . . I was sleepy . . . I wondered what old Barr would say if he could be here with me . . . .

I came to myself with a start. The High Priest was standing at my side, talking. I had a vague idea he had been talking to me for some time but I couldn’t remember what about. I also had the idea that someone had been fumbling with my thumb. It was clenched stubbornly in my palm, so tightly that the stone had bruised the flesh. The effect of the wine had entirely worn off I looked around the room. Tibur and the Witch-woman were gone. Why hadn’t I seen them go? Had I been asleep? I studied Yodin’s face. There was a look ol strain about it, of bafflement; and yet I sensed some deep satisfaction. It was a queer composite of expression. And I didn’t like it.

“The others have gone to prepare a fitting reception for you,” he said. “To make ready a place for you and fitting apparel.”

I arose and stood beside him.

“As Dwayanu?” I asked.

“Not as yet,” he answered urbanely. “But as an honoured guest. The other is too serious a matter to decide without further proof.”

“And that proof?”

He looked at me a long moment before answering.

“That Khalk’ru will appear at your prayer!”

A little shudder went through me at that. He was watching me so closely that he must have seen it.

“Curb your impatience,” his voice was cold honey. “You will not have long to wait. Until then I probably shall not see you. In the meantime — I have a request to make.”

“What is it?” I asked.

“That you will not wear the ring of Khalk’ru openly — except, of course, at such times as may seem necessary to you.”

It was the same thing Lur had asked me. Yet scores had seen me with the ring — more must know I had it. He read my indecision.

“It is a holy thing,” he said. “I did not know another existed until word was brought me that you had shown it on Nansur. It is not well to cheapen holy things. I do not wear mine except when I think it — necessary.”

I wondered under what circumstances he considered it — necessary. And I wished fervently I knew under what circumstances it would be helpful to me. His eyes were searching me, and I hoped he had not read that thought.

“I see no reason to deny that request,” I said. I slipped the ring off my thumb and into my belt pocket.

“I was sure you would not,” he murmured.

A gong sounded lightly. He pressed the side of the table, and the door opened. Three youths clothed in the smocks of the people entered and stood humbly waiting.

“They are your servants. They will take you to your place,” Yodin said. He bent his head. I went out with the three young Ayjirs. At the door was a guard of a dozen women with a bold-eyed young captain. They saluted me smartly. We marched down the corridor and at length turned into another. I looked back.

I was just in time to see the Witch-woman slipping into the High Priest’s chamber.

We came to another guarded door. It was thrown open and into it I was ushered, followed by the three youths.

“We are also your servants. Lord,” the bold-eyed captain spoke. “If there is anything you wish, summon me by this. We shall be at the door.”

She handed me a small gong of jade, saluted again and marched out.

The room had an odd aspect of familiarity. Then I realized it was much like that to which I had been taken in the oasis. There were the same oddly shaped stools, and chairs of metal, the same wide, low divan bed, the tapestried walls, the rugs upon the floor. Only here there were no signs of decay. True, some of the tapestries were time-faded, but exquisitely so; there were no rags or tatters in them. The others were beautifully woven but fresh as though just from the loom. The ancient hangings were threaded with the same scenes of the hunt and war as the haggard drapings of the oasis; the newer ones bore scenes of the land under the mirage. Nansur Bridge sprang unbroken over one, on another was a battle with the pygmies, on another a scene of the fantastically lovely forest — with the white wolves of Lur slinking through the trees. Something struck me as wrong. I looked and looked before I knew what it was. The arms of its olden master had been in the chamber of the oasis, his swords and spears, helmet and shield; in this one there was not a weapon. I remembered that I had carried the sword of Tibur’s man into the chamber of the High Priest. I did not have it now.

A disquietude began to creep over me. I turned to the three young Ayjirs, and began to unbutton my shirt. They came forward silently, and started to strip me. And suddenly I felt a consuming thirst.

“Bring me water,” I said to one of the youths. He paid not the slightest attention to me.

“Bring me water,” I said again, thinking he had not heard. “I am thirsty.”

He continued tranquilly taking off a boot. I touched him on the shoulder.

“Bring me water to drink,” I said, emphatically.

He smiled up at me, opened his mouth and pointed. He had no tongue. He pointed to his ears. I understood that he was telling me he was both dumb and deaf. I pointed to his two comrades. He nodded.

My disquietude went up a point or two. Was this a general custom of the rulers of Karak; had this trio been especially adapted not only for silent service but unhearing service on special guests? Guests or — prisoners?

I tapped the gong with a finger. At once the door opened, and the young captain stood there, saluting.

“I am thirsty,” I said. “Bring water.”

For answer she crossed the room and pulled aside one of the hangings. Behind it was a wide, deep alcove.

Within the floor was a shallow pool through which cleat water was flowing, and close beside it was a basin of porphyry from which sprang a jet like a tiny fountain, She took a goblet from a niche, filled it under the jet and handed it to me. It was cold and sparkling.

“Is there anything more. Lord?” she asked. I shook my head, and she marched out.

I went back to the ministrations of the three deaf-mutes. They took off the rest of my clothes and began to massage me, with some light, volatile oil. While they were doing it, my mind began to function rather actively. In the first place, the sore spot in my palm kept reminding me of that impression someone had been trying to get the ring off my thumb. In the second place, the harder I thought the more I was sure that before I awakened or had come out of my abstraction or drink or whatever it was, the white-faced priest had been talking, talking, talking to me, questioning me, probing into my dulled mind. And in the third place, I had lost almost entirely all the fine carelessness of consequences that had been so successful in putting me where I was — in fact, I was far too much Leif Langdon and too little Dwayanu. What had the priest been at with his talking, talking, questioning — and what had I said?

I jumped out of the hands of my masseurs, ran over to my trousers and dived into my belt. The ring was there right enough. I searched for my old pouch. It was gone. I rang the gong. The captain answered. I was mother-naked, but I hadn’t the slightest sense of her being a woman.

“Hear me,” I said. “Bring me wine. And bring with it a safe, strong case big enough to hold a ring. Bring with that a strong chain with which I can hang the case around my neck. Do you understand?”

“Done at once. Lord,” she said. She was not long in returning. She set down the ewer she was carrying and reached into her blouse. She brought out a locket suspended from a metal chain. She snapped it open.

“Will this do. Lord?”

I turned from her, and put the ring of Khalk’ru into the locket. It held it admirably.

“Most excellently,” I told her, “but I have nothing to give you in return.”

She laughed.

“Reward enough to have beheld you. Lord,” she said, not at all ambiguously, and marched away. I hung the locket round my neck. I poured a drink and then another. I went back to my masseurs and began to feel better. I drank while they were bathing me, and I drank while they were trimming my hair and shaving me. And the more I drank the more Dwayanu came up, coldly wrathful and resentful.

My dislike for Yodin grew. It did not lessen while the trio were dressing me. They put on me a silken under-vest. They covered it with a gorgeous tunic of yellow shot through with metallic threads of blue; they covered my long legs with the baggy trousers of the same stuff; they buckled around my waist a broad, gem-studded girdle, and they strapped upon my feet sandals of soft golden leather. They had shaved me, and now they brushed and dressed my hair which they had shorn to the nape of my neck.

By the time they were through with me, the wine was done. I was a little drunk, willing to be more so, and in no mood to be played with. I rang the gong for the captain. I wanted some more wine, and I wanted to know when, where and how I was going to eat. The door opened, but it was not the captain who came in.

It was the Witch-woman.

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