Dwellers in the Mirage, by Abraham Merritt

Chapter XVI.

Kisses of Lur

Black sorrow and the bitter ashes were in my heart when I turned from the window. I looked at Lur. From long slim feet to shining head I looked at her, and the black sorrow lightened and the bitter ashes blew away.

I put my hands on her shoulders and laughed. Luka had spun her wheel and sent my empire flying off its rim like dust from the potter’s. But she had left me something. In all old Ayjirland there had been few women like this.

Praise Luka! A sacrifice to her next morning if this woman proves what I think her!

My vanished empire! What of it? I would build another. Enough that I was alive!

Again I laughed. I put my hand under Lur’s chin, raised her face to mine, set my lips against hers. She thrust me from her. There was anger in her eyes — but there was doubt under the anger.

“You bade me remember. Well, I have remembered. Why did you open the gates of memory. Witch-woman, unless you had made up your mind to abide by what came forth? Or did you know less of Dwayanu than you pretended?”

She took a step back; she said, furiously:

“I give my kisses. None takes them.”

I caught her in my arms, crushed her mouth to mine, then released her.

“I take them.”

I struck down at her right wrist. There was a dagger in her hand. I was amused, wondering where she had hidden it. I wrenched it from her grip and slipped it m my girdle.

“And draw the stings from those I kiss. Thus did Dwayanu in the days of old and thus he does today.”

She stepped back and back, eyes dilated. Ai! but I could read her! She had thought me other than I was, thought me hare-brain, imposter, trickster. And it had been in her mind to trick me, to bend me to her will. To beguile me. Me — Dwayanu, who knew women as I knew war! And yet —

She was very beautiful . . . and she was all I had in this alien land to begin the building of my rule. I summed her up as she stood staring at me. I spoke, and my words were as cold as my thoughts.

“Play no more with daggers — nor with me. Call your servants. I am hungry and I thirst. When I have eaten and drunk we will talk.”

She hesitated, then clapped her hands. Women came in with steaming dishes, with ewers of wine, with fruits. I ate ravenously. I drank deeply. I ate and drank, thinking little of Lur — but thinking much of what her sorcery had made me see, drawing together what I remembered from desert oasis until now. It was little enough. I ate and drank silently. I felt her eyes upon me. I looked into them and smiled. “You thought to make me slave to your will, Lur. Never think it again!”

She dropped her head between her hands and gazed at me across the table.

“Dwayanu died long and long ago. Can the leaf that has withered grow green?”

“I am he, Lur.”

She did not answer.

“What was in your thought when you brought me here, Lur?”

“I am weary of Tibur, weary of his laughter, weary of his stupidity.”

“What else?”

“I tire of Yodin. You and I— alone — could rule Karak, if —”

“That ‘if is the heart of it. Witch-woman. What is it?”

She arose, leaned toward me.

“If you can summon Khalk’ru!”

“And if I cannot?”

She shrugged her white shoulders, dropped back into her chair. I laughed.

“In which case Tibur will not be so wearisome, and Yodin may be tolerated. Now listen to me, Lur. Was it your voice I heard urging me to enter Khalk’ru’s temples? Did you see as I was seeing? You need not answer. I read you, Lur. You would be rid of Tibur. Well, perhaps I can kill him. You would be rid of Yodin. Well, no matter who I am, if I can summon the Greater-than-Gods, there is no need of Yodin. Tibur and Yodin gone, there would be only you and me. You think you could rule me. You could not, Lur.”

She had listened quietly, and quietly now she answered.

“All that is true —”

She hesitated; her eyes glowed; a rosy flush swept over bosom and cheeks.

“Yet — there might be another reason why I took you —”

I did not ask her what that other reason might be; women had tried to snare me with that ruse before. Her gaze dropped from me, the cruelty on the red mouth stood out for an instant, naked.

“What did you promise Yodin, Witch-woman?”

She arose, held out her arms to me, her voice trembled —

“Are you less than man — that you can speak to me so! Have I not offered you power, to share with me? Am I not beautiful — am I not desirable?”

“Very beautiful, very desirable. But always I learned the traps my city concealed before I took it.”

Her eyes shot blue fires at that. She took a swift step toward the door. I was swifter. I held her, caught the hand she raised to strike me.

“What did you promise the High-priest, Lur?”

I put the point of the dagger at her throat. Her eyes blazed at me, unafraid. Luka — turn your wheel so I need not slay this woman!

Her straining body relaxed; she laughed.

“Put away the dagger, I will tell you.”

I released her, and walked back to my chair. She studied me from her place across the table; she said, half incredulously:

“You would have killed me!”

“Yes,” I told her.

“I believe you. Whoever you may be. Yellow-hair — there is no man like you here.”

“Whoever I may be — Witch?”

She stirred impatiently.

“No further need for pretence between us.” There was anger in her voice. “I am done with lies — better for both if you be done with them too. Whoever you are — you are not Dwayanu. I say again that the withered leaf cannot turn green nor the dead return.”

“If I am not he, then whence came those memories you watched with me not long ago? Did they pass from your mind to mine. Witch-woman — or from my mind to yours?”

She shook her head, and again I saw a furtive doubt cloud her eyes.

“I saw nothing. I meant you to see — something. You eluded me. Whatever it was you saw — I had no part in it. Nor could I bend you to my will. I saw nothing.”

“I saw the ancient land, Lur.”

She said, sullenly:

“I could go no farther than its portal.”

“What was it you sent me into Ayjirland to find for Yodin, Witch-woman?”

“Khalk’ru,” she answered evenly.

“And why?”

“Because then I would have known surely, beyond all doubt, whether you could summon him. That was what I promised Yodin to discover.”

“And if I could summon him?”

“Then you were to be slain before you had opportunity.”

“And if I could not?”

“Then you would be offered to him in the temple.”

“By Zarda!” I swore. “Dwayanu’s welcome is not like what he had of old when he went visiting — or, if you prefer it, the hospitality you offer a stranger is no thing to encourage travellers. Now do I see eye to eye with you in this matter of eliminating Tibur and the priest. But why should I not begin with you. Witch?”

She leaned back, smiling.

“First — because it would do you no good. Yellow-hair. Look.”

She beckoned me to one of the windows. From it I could see the causeway and the smooth hill upon which we had emerged from the forest. There were soldiers all along the causeway and the top of the hill held a company of them. I felt that she was quite right — even I could not get through them unscathed. The old cold rage began to rise within me. She watched me, with mockery in her eyes.

“And second —” she said. “And second — well, hear me. Yellow-hair.”

I poured wine, raised the goblet to her, and drank. She said:

“Life is pleasant in this land. Pleasant at least for those of us who role it. I have no desire to change it — except in the matter of Tibur and Yodin. And another matter of which we can talk later. I know the world has altered since long and long ago our ancestors fled from Ayjirland. I know there is life outside this sheltered place to which Khalk’ru led those ancestors. Yodin and Tibur know it, and some few more. Others guess it. But none of us desires to leave this pleasant place — nor do we desire it invaded. Particularly have we no desire to have our people go from it. And this many would attempt if they knew there were green fields and woods and running water and a teeming world of men beyond us. For through the uncounted years they have been taught that in all the world there is no life save here. That Khalk’ru, angered by the Great Sacrilege when Ayjirland rose in revolt and destroyed his temples, then destroyed all life except here, and that only by Khalk’ru’s sufferance does it here exist — and shall persist only so long as he is offered the ancient Sacrifice. You follow me. Yellow-hair.”

I nodded.

“The prophecy of Dwayanu is an ancient one. He was the greatest of the Ayjir kings. He lived a hundred years or more before the Ayjirs began to turn their faces from Khalk’ru, to resist the Sacrifice — and the desert in punishment began to waste the land. And as the unrest grew, and the great war which was to destroy the Ayjirs brewed, the prophecy was born. That he would return to restore the ancient glory. No new story. Yellow-hair. Others have had their Dwayanus — the Redeemer, the Liberator, the Loosener of Fate — or so I have read in those rolls our ancestors carried with them when they fled. I do not believe these stories; new Dwayanus may arise, but the old ones do not return. Yet the people know the prophecy, and the people will believe anything that promises them freedom from something they do not like. And it is from the people that the sacrifices to Khalk’ru are taken — and they do not like the Sacrifice. But because they fear what might come if there were no more sacrifices — they endure them.

“And now. Yellow-hair — we come to you. When first I saw you, heard you shouting that you were Dwayanu, I took council with Yodin and Tibur. I thought you then from Sirk. Soon I knew that could not be. There was another with you —”

“Another?” I asked, in genuine surprise.

She looked at me, suspiciously.

“You have no memory of him?”

“No. I remember seeing you. You had a white falcon. There were other women with you. I saw you from the river.”

She leaned forward, gaze intent.

“You remember the Rrrllya — the Little People? A dark girl who calls herself Evalie?”

Little People — a dark girl — Evalie? Yes, I did remember something of them — but vaguely. They had been in those dreams I had forgotten, perhaps. No — they had been real . . . or had they?

“Faintly, I seem to remember something of them, Lur. Nothing clearly.”

She stared at me, a curious exultation in her eyes.

“No matter,” she said. “Do not try to think of them. You were not — awake. Later we will speak of them. They are enemies. No matter — follow me now. If you were from Sirk, posing as Dwayanu, you might be a rallying point for our discontented. Perhaps even the leader they needed. If you were from outside — you were still more dangerous, since you could prove us liars. Not only the people, but the soldiers might rally to you. And probably would. What was there for us to do but to kill you?”

“Nothing,” I answered. “I wonder now you did not when you had the chance.”

“You had complicated matters,” she said. “You had shown the ring. Many had seen it, many had heard you call yourself Dwayanu —”

Ah, yes! I remember now — I had come up from the river. How had I gotten into the river? The bridge — Nansur — something had happened there . . . it was all misty, nothing clear-cut . . . the Little People . . . yes, I remembered something of them . . . they were afraid of me . . . but I had nothing against them . . . vainly I tried to sort the vague visions into some pattern. Lur’s voice recalled my wandering thoughts.

“And so,” she was saying, “I made Yodin see that it was not well to slay you outright. It would have been known, and caused too much unrest — strengthened Sirk for one thing. Caused unrest among the soldiers. What — Dwayanu had come and we had slain him! ‘I will take him,’ I told Yodin. ‘I do not trust Tibur who, in his stupidity and arrogance, might easily destroy us all. There is a better way. Let Khalk’ru eat him and so prove us right and him the liar and braggart. Then not soon will another come shouting that he is Dwayanu’!”

“So the High-priest does not think me Dwayanu, either?”

“Less even than I do. Yellow-hair,” she said, smiling. “Nor Tibur. But who you are, and whence you came, and how and why — that puzzles them as it does me. You look like the Ayjir — it means nothing. You have the ancient marks upon your hands — well, granted you are of the ancient blood. So has Tibur — and he is no Redeemer,” again her laughter rang like little bells, “You have the ring. Where did you find it. Yellow-hair? For you know little of its use. Yodin found that out. When you were in sleep. And Yodin saw you turn colour and half turn to flee when first you saw Khalk’ru in his chamber. Deny it not. Yellow-hair. I saw it myself. Ah, no-Yodin has little fear of a rival with the Dissolver. Yet-he is not wholly certain. There is the faintest shadow of doubt. I played on that. And so — you are here.”

I looked at her with frankest admiration, again raised the goblet and drank to her. I clapped my hands, and the serving girls entered.

“Clear the table.’ Bring wine.”

They came with fresh ewers and goblets. When they had gone out I went over to the door. There was a heavy bar that closed it. I thrust it down. I picked up one of the ewers and half emptied it.

“I can summon the Dissolver, Witch-woman.”

She drew in her breath, sharply; her body trembled; the blue fires of her eyes were bright — bright.

“Shall I show you?”

I took the ring from the locket, slipped it on my thumb, raised my hands in the beginning of the salutation —

A cold breath seemed to breathe through the room. The Witch-woman sprang to me, dragged down my hand. Her lips were white.

“No! — No! I believe — Dwayanu!”

I laughed. The strange cold withdrew, stealthily.

“And now. Witch, what will you tell the priest?”

The blood was slowly coming back into her lips and face. She lifted the ewer and drained it. Her hand was steady. An admirable woman — this Lur!

She said:

“I will tell him that you are powerless.”

I said:

“I will summon the Dissolver. I will kill Tibur. I will kill Yodin — what else is there?”

She came to me, stood with breast touching mine.

“Destroy Sirk. Sweep the dwarfs away. Then you and I shall rule — alone.”

I drank more wine.

“I will summon Khalk’ru; I will eliminate Tibur and the priest; I will sack Sirk and I will war against the dwarfs — if —”

She looked into my eyes, long and long; her arm stole round my shoulder . . . I thrust out a hand and swept away the candles. The green darkness of the mirage night seeped through the casements. The whispering of the waterfall was soft laughter.

“I take my pay in advance,” I said. “Such was Dwayanu’s way of old — and am I not Dwayanu?”

“Yes!” whispered the Witch-woman.

She took the strand of sapphires from her hair, she unbraided her coronal and shook loose its russet-gold. Her arms went round my neck. Her lips sought mine and clung to them.

There was the beat of horses’ hoofs on the causeway. A distant challenge. A knocking at the door. The Witch-woman awakened, sat sleepily up under the silken tent of her hair.

“Is it you, Ouarda?”

“Yes, mistress. A messenger from Tibur.”

I laughed.

“Tell him you are busy with your gods, Lur.”

She bent her head over mine so that the silken tent of it covered us both.

“Tell him I am busy with the gods, Ouarda. He may stay till morning — or return to Tibur with the message.”

She sank back, pressed her lips to mine —

By Zarda! But it was as it was of old — enemies to slay, a city to sack, a nation to war with and a woman’s soft arms around me.

I was well content!

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