Dwellers in the Mirage, by Abraham Merritt

Book of Dwayanu

Chapter XVII.

Ordeal by Khalk’ru

Twice the green night had filled the bowl of the land beneath the mirage while I feasted and drank with Lur and her women. Sword-play there had been, and the hammer-play and wrestling. They were warriors — these women! Tempered steel under silken skins, they pressed me hard now and again — strong as I was, quick as I might be. If Sirk were soldiered by such as these, it would be no easy conquest.

By the looks they gave me and by soft whispered words I knew I need not be lonely if Lur rode off to Karak. But she did not; she was ever at my side, and no more messengers came from Tibur; or if they did I did not know it. She had sent secret word to the High-priest that he had been right — I had no power to summon the Greater-than-Gods — that I was either imposter or mad. Or so she told me. Whether she had lied to him or, lied now to me I did not know and did not greatly care. I was too busy — living.

Yet no more did she call me Yellow-hair. Always it was Dwayanu. And every art of love of hers — and she was no novice, the Witch-woman — she used to bind me tighter to her.

It was early dawn of the third day; I was leaning from the casement, watching the misty jewel-fires of the luminous lilies fade, the mist wraiths that were the slaves of the waterfall rise slowly and more slowly. I thought Lur asleep. I heard her stir, and turned. She was sitting up, peering at me through the red veils of her hair. She looked all Witch-woman then . . . .

“A messenger came to me last night from Yodin. To-day you pray to Khalk’ru.”

A thrill went through me; the blood sang in my ears. Always had I felt so when I must evoke the Dissolver — a feeling of power that surpassed even that of victory. Different — a sense of inhuman power and pride. And with it a deep anger, revolt against this Being which was Life’s enemy. This demon that fed on Ayjirland’s flesh and blood — and soul. She was watching me. “Are you afraid, Dwayanu?” I sat beside her, parted the veils of her hair. “Was that why your kisses were doubled last night, Lur? Why they were so — tender? Tenderness, Witch-woman, becomes you — but it sits strangely on you. Were you afraid? For me? You soften me, Lur!” Her eyes flashed, her face flushed at my laughter. “You do not believe I love you, Dwayanu?” “Not so much as you love power. Witch-woman.” “You love me?”

“Not so much as I love power. Witch-woman,” I answered, and laughed again.

She studied me with narrowed eyes. She said:

“There is much talk in Karak of you. It grows menacing. Yodin regrets that he did not kill you when he could have — but knows full well the case might be worse if he had. Tibur regrets he did not kill you when you came up from the river — urges that no more time be lost in doing so. Yodin has declared you a false prophet and has promised that the Greater-than-Gods will prove you so. He believes what I have told you — or perhaps he has a hidden sword. You”— faint mockery crept into her voice —“you, who can read me so easily, surely can read him and guard against it! The people murmur; there are nobles who demand you be brough forth; and the soldiers would follow Dwayanu eagerly — if they believed you truly he. They are restless. Tales spread. You have grown exceedingly — inconvenient. So you face Khalk’ru today.”

“If all that be true,” I said, “it occurs to me that I may not have to evoke the Dissolver to gain rule.”

She smiled.

“It was not your old cunning which sent that thought. You will be closely guarded. You would be slain before you could rally a dozen round you. Why not — since there would then be nothing to lose by killing you? And perhaps something to be gained. Besides — what of your promises to me?”

I thrust my arm around her shoulders, lifted and kissed her.

“As for being slain-well, I would have a thing to say to that. But I was jesting, Lur. I keep my promises.”

There was the galloping of horses on the causeway, the jangle of accoutrement, the rattle of kettle-drums. I went over to the window. Lur sprang from the bed and stood beside me. Over the causeway was coming a troop of a hundred or more horsemen. From their spears floated yellow pennons bearing the black symbol of Khalk’ru. They paused at the open drawbridge. At their head I recognized Tibur, his great shoulders covered by a yellow cloak, and on his breast the Kraken.

“They come to take you to the temple. I must let them pass.”

“Why not?” I asked, indifferently. “But I’ll go to no temple until I’ve broken my fast.”

I looked again toward Tibur.

“And if I ride beside the Smith, I would you had a coat of mail to fit me.”

“You ride beside me,” she said. “And as for weapons, you shall have your pick. Yet there is nothing to fear on the way to the temple — it is within it that danger dwells.”

“You speak too much of fear, Witch-woman,” I said, frowning. “Sound the horn. Tibur may think I am loath to meet him. And that I would not have him believe.”

She sounded the signal to the garrison at the bridge. I heard it creaking as I bathed. And soon the horses were trampling before the door of the castle. Lur’s tire-woman entered, and with her she slipped away.

I dressed leisurely. On my way to the great hall I stopped at the chamber of weapons. There was a sword there I had seen and liked. It was of the weight to which I was accustomed, and long and curved and of metal excellent as any I had ever known in Ayjirland. I weighed it in my left hand and took a lighter one for my right. I recalled that someone had told me to beware of Tibur’s left hand . . . ah, yes, the woman soldier. I laughed — well, let Tibur beware of mine. I took a hammer, not so heavy as the Smith’s . . . that was his vanity . . . there was more control to the lighter sledges . . . I fastened to my forearm the strong strap that held its thong. Then I went down to meet Tibur.

There were a dozen of the Ayjir nobles in the hall, mostly men. Lur was with them. I noticed she had posted her soldiers at various vantage points, and that they were fully armed. I took that for evidence of her good faith, although it somewhat belied her assurance to me that I need fear no danger until I had reached the temple. I had no fault to find in Tibur’s greeting. Nor with those of the others. Except one. There was a man beside the Smith almost as tall as myself. He had cold blue eyes and in them the singular expressionless stare that marks the born killer of men. There was a scar running from left temple to chin, and his nose had been broken. The kind of man, I reflected, whom in the olden days I would have set over some peculiarly rebellious tribe. There was an arrogance about him that irritated me, but I held it down. It was not in my thoughts to provoke any conflict at this moment. I desired to raise no suspicions in the mind of the Smith. My greetings to him and to the others might be said to have had almost a touch of apprehension, of conciliation.

I maintained that attitude while we broke fast and drank. Once it was difficult. Tibur leaned toward the scar-face, laughing.

“I told you he was taller than you, Rascha. The grey stallion is mine!”

The blue eyes ran over me, and my gorge rose.

“The stallion is yours.”

Tibur leaned toward me.

“Rascha the Back-breaker, he is named. Next to me, the strongest in Karak. Too bad you must meet the Greater-than-Gods so quickly. A match between you two would be worth the seeing.”

Now my rage swelled up at this, and my hand dropped to my sword, but I managed to check it, and answered with a touch of eagerness.

“True enough — perhaps that meeting may be deferred . . .”

Lur frowned and stared at me, but Tibur snapped at the bait, his eyes gleaming with malice.

“No — there is one that may not be kept waiting. But after — perhaps . . .”

His laughter shook the table. The others joined in it. The scar-face grinned. By Zarda, but this is not to be borne! Careful, Dwayanu, thus you tricked them in the olden days — and thus you shall trick them now. I drained my goblet, and another. I joined them in their laughter — as though I wondered why they laughed. But I sealed their faces in my memory. We rode over the causeway with Lur at my right and a close half-circle of her picked women covering us.

Ahead of us went Tibur and the Back-breaker with a dozen of Tibur’s strongest. Behind us came the troop with the yellow pennons, and behind them another troop of the Witch-woman’s guards.

I rode with just the proper touch of dejection. Now and then the Smith and his familiars looked ‘back at me. And I would hear, their laughter. The Witch-woman rode as silently as I. She glanced at me askance, and when that happened I dropped my head a little lower.

The black citadel loomed ahead of us. We entered the city. By that time the puzzlement in Lur’s eyes had changed almost to contempt, the laughter of the Smith become derisive.

The streets were crowded with the people of Karak. And now I sighed, and seemed to strive to arouse myself from my dejection, but still rode listlessly. And Lur bit her lip, and drew close to me, frowning.

“Have you tricked me. Yellow-hair? You go like a dog already beaten!”

I turned my head from her that she might not see my face. By Luka, but it was hard to stifle my own laughter!

There were whisperings, murmurings, among the crowd. There were no shouts, no greetings. Everywhere were the soldiers, sworded and armed with the hammers, spears and pikes ready. There were archers. The High-priest was taking no chances.

Nor was I.

It was no intention of mine to precipitate a massacre. None to give Tibur slightest excuse to do away with me, turn spears and arrow storm upon me. Lur had thought my danger not on my way to the temple, but when within it. I knew the truth was the exact opposite.

So it was no conquering hero, no redeemer, no splendid warrior from the past who rode through Karak that day. It was a man not sure of himself — or better, too sure of what was in store for him. The people who had waited and watched for Dwayanu felt that — and murmured, or were silent. That well pleased the Smith. And it well pleased me, who by now was as eager to meet Khalk’ru as any bridegroom his bride. And was taking no risks of being stopped by sword or hammer, spear or arrow before I could.

And ever the’ frown on the face of the Witch-woman grew darker, and stronger the contempt and fury in her eyes.

We skirted the citadel, and took a broad road leading back to the cliffs. We galloped along this, pennons flying, drums rolling. We came to a gigantic doorway in the cliff — many times had I gone through such a door as that! I dismounted, hesitatingly. Half-reluctantly, I let myself be led through it by Tibur and Lur and into a small rock-hewn chamber.

They left me, without a word. I glanced about. Here were the chests that held the sacrificial garments, the font of purification, the vessels for the anointing of the evoker of Khalk’ru.

The door opened. I looked into the face of Yodin.

There was vindictive triumph in it, and I knew he had met the Smith and Witch-woman, and that they had told him how I had ridden. As a victim to the Sacrifice! Well, Lur could tell him honestly what he hoped was the truth. If she had the thought to betray me — had betrayed me — she now believed me liar and braggart with quite as good reason as Tibur and the others. If she had not betrayed me, I had backed her lie to Yodin.

Twelve lesser priests filed in behind him, dressed in the sacred robes. The High-priest wore the yellow smock with the tentacles entwined round him. The ring of Khalk’ru shone on his thumb.

“The Greater-than-Gods awaits your prayer, Dway-anu,” he said. “But first you must undergo purification.”

I nodded. They busied themselves with the necessary rites. I submitted to them awkwardly, like one not familiar with them, but as one who plainly wished to be thought so. The malice in Yodin’s eyes increased.

The rites were finished. Yodin took a smock like his own from a chest and draped it on me. I waited.

“Your ring,” he reminded me, sardonically. “Have you forgotten you must wear the ring!”

I fumbled at the chain around my neck, opened the locket and slipped the ring over my thumb. The lesser priests passed from the chamber with their drums. I followed, the High-priest beside me. I heard the clang of a hammer striking a great anvil. And knew it for the voice of Tubalka, the oldest god, who had taught man to wed fire and metal. Tubalka’s recognition of, his salutation and his homage to — Khalk’ru!

The olden exaltation, the ecstasy of dark power, was pouring through me. Hard it was not to betray it. We came out of the passage and into the temple.

Hail But they had done well by the Greater-than-Gods in this far shrine! Vaster temple I had never beheld in Ayjirland. Cut from the mountain’s heart, as all Khalk’ru’s abodes must be, the huge pillars which bordered the amphitheatre struck up to a ceiling lost in darkness. There were cressets of twisted metal and out of them sprang smooth spirals of wan yellow flame. They burned steadily and soundlessly; by their wan light I could see the pillars marching, marching away as though into the void itself.

Faces were staring up at me from the amphitheatre — hundreds of them. Women’s faces under pennons and bannerets broidered with devices of clans whose men had fought beside and behind me in many a bloody battle. Gods — how few the men were here! They stared up at me, these women faces . . . women — nobles, women-knights, women-soldiers. . . . They stared up at me by the hundreds . . . blue eyes ruthless . . . nor was there pity nor any softness of woman in their faces . . . warriors they were. . . . Good! Then not as women but as warriors would I treat them.

And now I saw that archers were posted on the borders of the amphitheatre, bows in readiness, arrows at rest but poised, and the bow-strings lined toward me.

Tibur’s doings? Or the priest’s — watchful lest I should attempt escape? I had no liking for that, but there was no help for it. Luka, Lovely Goddess — turn your wheel so no arrow flies before I begin the ritual!

I turned and looked for the mystic screen which was Khalk’ru’s doorway from the Void. It was a full hundred paces away from me, so broad and deep was the platform of rock. Here the cavern had been shaped into a funnel. The mystic screen was a gigantic disk, a score of times the height of a tall man. Not the square of lucent yellow through which, in the temples of the Motherland, Khalk’ru had become corporeal. For the first time I felt a doubt — was this Being the same? Was there other reason for the High-priest’s malignant confidence than his disbelief in me?

But there in the yellow field floated the symbol of the Greater-than-Gods; his vast black body lay as though suspended in a bubble-ocean of yellow space; his tentacles spread like monstrous rays of black stars and his dreadful eyes brooded on the temple as though, as always, they saw all and saw nothing. The symbol was unchanged. The tide of conscious, dark power in my mind, checked for that instant, resumed its upward flow.

And now I saw between me and the screen a semi-circle of women. Young they were, scarce blossomed out of girlhood — but already in fruit. Twelve of them I counted, each standing in the shallow hollowed cup of sacrifice, the golden girdles of the sacrifice around their waists. Over white shoulders, over young breasts, fell the veils of their ruddy hair, and through those veils they looked at me with blue eyes in which horror lurked. Yet though they could not hide that horror in their eyes from me who was so close, they hid it from those who watched us from beyond. They stood within the cups, erect, proudly, defiant. Ai! but they were brave — those women of Karak! I felt the olden pity for them; stirring of the olden revolt.

In the centre of the semi-circle of women swung a thirteenth ring, held by strong golden chains dropping from the temple’s roof. It was empty, the clasps of the heavy girdle open —

The thirteenth ring! The ring of the Warrior’s Sacrifice! Open for — me!

I looked at the High-priest. He stood beside his priests squatting at their drums. His gaze was upon me. Tibur stood at the edge of the platform beside the anvil of Tubalka, in his hands the great sledge, on his face reflection of the gloating on that of the High-priest. The Witch-woman I could not see.

The High-priest stepped forward. He spoke into the dark vastness of the temple where was the congregation of the nobles.

“Here stands one who comes to us calling himself — Dwayanu. If he be Dwayanu, then will the Greater-than-Gods, mighty Khalk’ru, hear his prayer and accept the Sacrifices. But if Khalk’ru be deaf to him — he is proven cheat and liar. And Khalk’ru will not be deaf to me who have served him faithfully. Then this cheat and liar swings within the Warrior’s Ring for Khalk’ru to punish as he wills. Hear me! Is it just? Answer!”

From the depths of the temple came the voices of the witnesses.

“We hear! It is just!”

The High-priest turned to me as if to speak. But if that had been his mind, he changed it. Thrice he raised his staff of golden bells and shook them. Thrice Tibur raised the hammer and smote the anvil of Tubalka.

Out of the depths of the temple came the ancient chant, the ancient supplication which Khalk’ru had taught our forefathers when he chose us from all the peoples of earth, forgotten age upon forgotten age ago. I listened to it as to a nursery song. And Tibur’s eyes never left me, his hand on hammer in readiness to hurl and cripple if I tried to flee; nor did Yodin’s gaze leave me.

The chant ended.

Swiftly I raised my hands in the ancient sign, and I did with the ring what the ancient ritual ordered — and through the temple swept that first breath of cold that was presage of the coming of Khalk’ru!

Hail The faces of Yodin and Tibur when they felt that breath! Would that I could look on them! Laugh now, Tibur! Hai! but they could not stop me now! Not even the Smith would dare hurl hammer nor raise hand to loose arrow storm upon me! Not even Yodin would dare halt me — I forgot all that. I forgot Yodin and Tibur. I forgot, as ever I forgot, the Sacrifices in the dark exultation of the ritual.

The yellow stone wavered, was shot through with tremblings. It became thin as air. It vanished.

Where it had been, black tentacles quivering, black body hovering, vanishing into immeasurable space, was Khalk’ru!

Faster, louder, beat the drums.

The black tentacles writhed forward. The women did not see them. Their eyes clung to me . . . as though . . . as though I held for them some hope that flamed through their despair! I . . . who had summoned their destroyer . . . .

The tentacles touched them. I saw the hope fade and die. The tentacles coiled round their shoulders. They slid across their breasts. Embraced them. Slipped down their thighs and touched their feet. The drums began their swift upward flight into the crescendo of the Sacrifice’s culmination.

The wailing of the women was shrill above the drums. Their white bodies became grey mist. They became shadows. They were gone — gone before the sound of their wailing had died. The golden girdles fell clashing to the rock —

What was wrong? The ritual was ended. The Sacrifice accepted. Yet Khalk’ru still hovered!

And the lifeless cold was creeping round me, was rising round me . . .

A tentacle swayed and writhed forward. Slowly, slowly, it passed the Warrior’s Ring — came closer — closer —

It was reaching for me!

I heard a voice intoning. Intoning words more ancient than I had ever known. Words? They were not words! They were sounds whose roots struck back and back into a time before ever man drew breath.

It was Yodin — Yodin speaking in a tongue that might have been Khalk’ru’s own before ever life was!

Drawing Khalk’ru upon me by it! Sending me along the road the Sacrifices had travelled!

I leaped upon Yodin. I caught him in my arms and thrust him between me and the questing tentacle. I raised Yodin in my arms as though he had been a doll and flung him to Khalk’ru. He went through the tentacle as though it had been cloud. He struck the chains that held the Warrior’s Ring. He swung in them, entangled. He slithered down upon the golden girdle.

Hands upraised, I heard myself crying to Khalk’ru those same unhuman syllables. I did not know their meaning then, and do not know them now — nor from whence knowledge of them came to me . . . .

I know they were sounds the throats and lips of men were never meant to utter!

But Khalk’ru heard — and heeded! He hesitated. His eyes stared at me, unfathomably — stared at and through me.

And then the tentacle curled back. It encircled Yodin. A thin screeching — and Yodin was gone!

The living Khalk’ru was gone. Lucent yellow, the bubble-ocean gleamed where he had been — the black shape floated inert within it.

I heard a tinkle upon the rock, the ring of Yodin rolling down the side of the cup. I leaped forward and picked it up.

Tibur, hammer half raised, stood glaring at me beside the anvil. I snatched the sledge from his hand, gave him a blow that sent him reeling.

I raised the hammer and crushed the ring of Yodin on the anvil!

From the temple came a thunderous shout —

“Dwayanu!”

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