Dwellers in the Mirage, by Abraham Merritt

Chapter XVIII.

Wolves of Lur

I rode through the forest with the Witch-woman. The white falcon perched on her gauntleted wrist and cursed me with unwinking golden eyes. It did not like me-Lur’s falcon. A score of her women rode behind us. A picked dozen of my own were shield for my back. They rode close. So it was of old. I liked my back covered. It was my sensitive part, whether with friends or foes.

The armourers had fashioned me a jacket of the light chain-mail. I wore it; Lur and our little troop wore them; and each was as fully armed as I with the two swords, the long dagger and the thonged hammer. We were on our way to reconnoitre Sirk.

For five days I had sat on the throne of the High-priest, ruling Karak with the Witch-woman and Tibur. Lur had come to me — penitent in her own fierce fashion. Tibur, all arrogance and insolence evaporated, had bent the knee, proffering me allegiance, protesting, reasonably enough, that his doubts had been but natural. I accepted his allegiance, with reservations. Sooner or later I would have to kill Tibur — even if I had not promised Lur his death. But why kill him before he ceased to be useful? He was a sharp-edged tool? Well, if he cut me in my handling of him, it would be only my fault. Better a crooked sharp knife than a straight dull one.

As for Lur — she was sweet woman flesh, and subtle. But did she greatly matter? Not greatly — just then. There was a lethargy upon me, a lassitude, as I rode beside her through the fragrant forest.

Yet I had received from Karak homage and acclaim more than enough to soothe any wounded pride. I was the idol of the soldiers. I rode through the streets to the shouts of the people, and mothers held their babes up to look on me. But there were many who were silent when I passed, averting their heads, or glancing at me askance with eyes shadowed by furtive hatred and fear.

Dara, the bold-eyed captain who had warned me of Tibur, and Naral, the swaggering girl who had given me her locket, I had taken for my own and had made them officers of my personal guard. They were devoted and amusing. I had spoken to Dara only that morning of those who looked askance at me, asking why.

“You want straight answer. Lord?”

“Always that, Dara.”

She said bluntly:

“They are the ones who looked for a Deliverer. One who would break chains. Open doors. Bring freedom. They say Dwayanu is only another feeder of Khalk’ru. His butcher. Like Yodin. No worse, maybe. No better certainly.”

I thought of that strange hope I had seen strangled in the eyes of the sacrifices. They too had hoped me Deliverer, instead of . . .

“What do you think, Dara?”

“I think as you think. Lord,” she answered. “Only — it would not break my heart to see the golden girdles broken.”

And I was thinking of that as I rode along with Lur, her falcon hating me with its unwinking glare. What was — Khalk’ru? Often and often, long and long and long ago, I had wondered that. Could the illimitable cast itself into such a shape as that which came to the call of the wearer of the ring? Or rather — would it? My empire had been widespread — under sun and moon and stars. Yet it was a mote in the sun-ray compared to the empire of the Spirit of the Void. Would one so great be content to shrink himself within the mote?

Ai! but there was no doubt that the Enemy of Life was! But was that which came to the summons of the ring-the Enemy of Life? And if not-then was this dark worship worth its cost?

A wolf howled. The Witch-woman threw back her head and answered it. The falcon stretched its wings, screaming. We rode from the forest into an open glade, moss-carpeted. She halted, sent again from her throat the wolf cry.

Suddenly around us was a ring of wolves. White wolves whose glowing green eyes were fixed on Lur. They ringed us, red tongues lolling, fangs glistening. A patter of pads, and as suddenly the circle of wolves was doubled. And others slipped through the trees until the circle was three-fold, four-fold . . . until it was a wide belt of living white flecked by scarlet flames of wolf-tongues, studded with glinting emeralds of wolf-eyes . . . .

My horse trembled; I smelled its sweat.

Lur drove her knees into the sides of her mount and rode forward. Slowly she paced it round the inner circle of the white wolves. She raised her hand; something she said. A great dog-wolf arose from its haunches and came toward her. Like a dog, it put its paws upon her saddle. She reached down, caught its jowls in her hands. She whispered to it. The wolf seemed to listen. It slipped back to the circle and squatted, watching her. I laughed.

“Are you woman — or wolf, Lur?”

She said:

“I, too, have my followers, Dwayanu. You could not easily win these from me.”

Something in her tone made me look at her sharply. It was the first time that she had shown resentment, or at least chagrin, at my popularity. She did not meet my gaze.

The big dog-wolf lifted its throat and howled. The circles broke. They spread out, padding swiftly ahead of us like scouts. They melted into the green shadows.

The forest thinned. Giant ferns took the place of the trees. I began to hear a curious hissing. Also it grew steadily warmer, and the air filled with moisture, and mist wreaths floated over the ferns. I could see no tracks, yet Lur rode steadily as though upon a well-marked road.

We came to a huge clump of ferns. Lur dropped from her horse.

“We go on foot here, Dwayanu. It is but a little way.”

I joined her. The troop drew up but did not alight. The Witch-woman and I slipped through the ferns for a score of paces. The dog-wolf stalked just ahead of her. She parted the fronds. Sirk lay before me.

At right arose a bastion of perpendicular cliff, dripping with moisture, little of green upon it except small ferns clinging to precarious root-holds. At left, perhaps four arrow flights away, was a similar bastion, soaring into the haze. Between these bastions was a level platform of black rock. Its smooth and glistening foundations dropped into a moat as wide as two strong throws of a javelin. The platform curved outward, and from cliff to cliff it was lipped with one unbroken line of fortress.

Hai! But that was a moat! Out from under the right-hand cliff gushed a torrent. It hissed and bubbled as it shot forth, and the steam from it wavered over the cliff face like a great veil and fell upon us in a fine warm spray. It raced boiling along the rock base of the fortress, and jets of steam broke through it and immense bubbles rose and burst, scattering showers of scalding spray.

The fortress itself was not high. It was squat and solidly built, its front unbroken except for arrow slits close to the top. There was a parapet across the top. Upon it I could see the glint of spears and the heads of the guards. In only one part was there anything like towers. These were close to the centre where the boiling moat narrowed. Opposite them, on the farther bank, was a pier for a drawbridge. I could see the bridge, a narrow one, raised and protruding from between the two towers like a tongue.

Behind the fortress, the cliffs swept inward. They did not touch. Between them was a gap about a third as wide as the platform of the fortress. In front of us, on our side of the boiling stream, the sloping ground had been cleared both of trees and ferns. It gave no cover.

They had picked their spot well, these outlaws of Sirk. No besiegers could swim that moat with its hissing jets of live steam and bursting bubbles rising continually from the geysers at its bottom. No stones nor trees could damn it, making a causeway over which to march to batter at the fortress’s walls. There was no taking of Sirk from this side. That was clear. Yet there must be more of Sirk than this.

Lur had been following my eyes, reading my thoughts.

“Sirk itself lies beyond those gates,” she pointed to the gap between the cliffs. “It is a valley wherein is the city, the fields, the herds. And there is no way into it except through those gates.”

I nodded, absently. I was studying the cliffs behind the fortress. I saw that these, unlike the bastions in whose embrace the platform lay, were not smooth. There had been falls of rock, and these rocks had formed rough terraces. If one could get to those terraces — unseen . . .

“Can we get closer to the cliff from which the torrent comes, Lur?”

She caught my wrist, her eyes bright.

“What do you see, Dwayanu?”

“I do not know as yet. Witch-woman. Perhaps nothing. Can we get closer to the torrent?”

“Come.”

We slipped out of the ferns, skirted them, the dog-wolf walking stiff-legged in the lead, eyes and ears alert. The air grew hotter, vapour-filled, hard to breathe. The hissing became louder. We crept through the ferns, wet to the skins. Another step and I looked straight down upon the boiling torrent. I saw now that it did not come directly from the cliff. It shot up from beneath it, and its heat and its exhalations made me giddy. I tore a strip from my tunic and wrapped it around mouth and nose. I studied the cliff above it, foot by foot. Long I studied it and long — and then I turned.

“We can go back, Lur.”

“What have you seen, Dwayanu?”

What I had seen might be the end of Sirk — but I did not tell her so. The thought was not yet fully born. It had never been my way to admit others into half-formed plans. It is too dangerous. The bud is more delicate than the flower and should be left to develop free from prying hands or treacherous or even well-meant meddling. Mature your plan and test it; then you can weigh with clear judgment any changes. Nor was I ever strong for counsel; too many pebbles thrown into the spring muddy it. That was one reason I was — Dwayanu. I said to Lur:

“I do not know. I have a thought. But I must weigh it.”

She said, angrily:

“I am not stupid. I know war — as I know love. I could help — you.”—

I said, impatiently:

“Not yet. When I have made my plan I will tell it to you.”

She did not speak again until we were within sight of the waiting women; then she turned to me. Her voice was low, and very sweet:

“Will you not tell me? Are we not equal, Dwayanu?”

“No,” I answered, and left her to decide whether that was answer to the first question or both.

She mounted her horse, and we rode back through the forest.

I was thinking, thinking over what I had seen, and what it might mean, when I heard again the howling of the wolves. It was a steady, insistent howling. Summoning. The Witch-woman raised her head, listened, then spurred her horse forward. I shot my own after her. The white falcon fluttered, and beat up into the air, screeching.

We raced out of the forest and upon a flower-covered meadow. In the meadow stood a little man. The wolves surrounded him, weaving around and around one another in a witch-ring. The instant they caught sight of Lur, they ceased their cry — squatted on their haunches. Lur checked her horse and rode slowly toward them. I caught a glimpse of her face, and it was hard and fierce.

I looked at the little man. Little enough he was, hardly above one of my knees, yet perfectly formed. A little golden man with hair streaming down almost to his feet. One of the Rrrllya — I had studied the woven pictures of them on the tapestries, but this was the first living one I had seen — or was it? I had a vague idea that once I had been in closer contact with them than the tapestries.

The white falcon was circling round his head, darting down upon him, striking at him with claws and beak. The little man held an arm before his eyes, while the other was trying to beat the bird away. The Witch-woman sent a shrill call to the falcon. It flew to her, and the little man dropped his arms. His eyes fell upon me.

He cried out to me, held his arms out to me, like a child.

There was appeal in cry and gesture. Hope, too, and confidence. It was like a frightened child calling to one whom it knew and trusted. In his eyes I saw again the hope that I had watched die in the eyes of the Sacrifices. Well, I would not watch it die in the eyes of the little man!

I thrust my horse past Lur’s, and lifted it over the barrier of the wolves. Leaning from the saddle, I caught the little man up in my arms. He clung to me, whispering in strange trilling sounds.

I looked back at Lur. ‘She had halted her horse beyond the wolves.

She cried:

“Bring him to me!”

The little man clutched me tight, and broke into a rapid babble of the strange sounds. Quite evidently he had understood, and quite as evidently he was imploring me to do anything other than turn him over to the Witch-woman.

I laughed, and shook my head at her. I saw her eyes blaze with quick, uncontrollable fury. Let her rage! The little man should go safe! I put my heels to the horse and leaped the far ring of wolves. I saw not far away the gleam of the river, and turned my horse toward it.

The Witch-woman gave one wild, fierce cry. And then there was the whirr of wings around my head, and the buffeting of wings about my ears. I threw up a hand. I felt it strike the falcon, and I heard it shriek with rage and pain. The little man shrank closer to me.

A white body shot up and clung for a moment to the pommel of my saddle, green eyes glaring into mine, red mouth’ slavering. I took a quick glance back. The wolf pack was rushing down upon me, Lur at their heels. Again the wolf leaped. But by this time I had drawn my sword. I thrust it through the white wolf’s throat. Another leaped, tearing a strip from my tunic. I held the little man high up in one arm and thrust again.

Now the river was close. And now I was on its bank. I lifted the little man in both hands and hurled him far out into the water.

I turned, both swords in hand, to meet the charge of the wolves.

I heard another cry from Lur. The wolves stopped in their rush, so suddenly that the foremost of them slid and rolled. I looked over the river. Far out on it was the head of the little man, long hair floating behind him, streaking for the opposite shore.

Lur rode up to me. Her face was white, and her eyes were hard as blue jewels. She said in a strangled voice:

“Why did you save him?”

I considered that, gravely. I said:

“Because not twice would I see hope die in the eyes of one who trusts me.”

She watched me, steadily; and the white-hot anger did not abate.

“You have broken the wings of my falcon, Dwayanu.”

“Which do you love best. Witch-woman — its wing or my eyes?”

“You have killed two of my wolves.”

“Two wolves — or my throat, Lur?”

She did not answer. She rode slowly back to her women. But I had seen tears in her eyes before she turned. They might have been of rage — or they might not. But it was the first time I had ever seen Lur weep.

With never a word to each other we rode back to Karak — she nursing the wounded falcon, I thinking over what I had seen on the cliffs of Sirk.

We did not stop at Karak. I had a longing for the quiet and beauty of the Lake of the Ghosts. I told Lur that. She assented indifferently, so we went straight on and came to it just as the twilight was thickening. With the women, we dined together in the great hall. Lur had shaken off her moodiness. If she still felt wrath toward me, she hid it well. We were merry and I drank much wine. The more I drank the clearer became my plan for the taking of Sirk. It was a good plan. After awhile, I went up with Lur to her tower and watched the waterfall and the beckoning mist wraiths, and the plan became clearer still.

Then my mind turned back to that matter of Khalk’ru. And I thought over that a long while. I looked up and found Lur’s gaze intent upon me.

“What are you thinking, Dwayanu?”

“I am thinking that never again will I summon Khalk’ru.”

She said, slowly, incredulously:

“You cannot mean that, Dwayanu!”

“I do mean it.”

Her face whitened. She said:

“If Khalk’ru is not offered his Sacrifice, he will withdraw life from this land. It will become desert, as did the Motherland when the Sacrifices were ended.”

I said:

“Will it? That is what I have ceased to believe. Nor do I think you believe it, Lur. In the olden days there was land upon land which did not acknowledge Khalk’ru, whose people did not sacrifice to Khalk’ru — yet they were not desert. And I know, even though I do not know how I know, that there is land upon land today where Khalk’ru is not worshipped — yet life teems in them. Even here — the Rrrllya, the Little People, do not worship him. They hate him — or so you have told me — yet the land over Nanbu is no less fertile than here.”

She said:

“That was the whisper that went through the Motherland, long and long and long ago. It became louder — and the Motherland became desert.”

“There might liave been other reasons than Khalk’ru’s wrath for that, Lur.”

“What were they?”

“I do not know,” I said. “But you have never seen the sun and moon and stars. I have seen them. And a wise old man once told me that beyond sun and moon were other suns with other earths circling them, and upon them — life. The Spirit of the Void in which burn these suns should be too vast to shrink itself to such littleness as that which, in a little temple in this little comer of all earth, makes itself manifest to us.”

She answered:

“Khalk’ru is! Khalk’ru is everywhere. He is in the tree that withers, the spring that dries. Every heart is open to him. He touches it — and there comes weariness of life, hatred of life, desire for eternal death. He touches earth and there is sterile sand where meadows grew; the flocks grow barren. Khalk’ru is.”

I thought over that, and I thought it was true enough. But there was a flaw in her argument.

“Nor do I deny that, Lur,” I answered. “The Enemy of Life is. But is what comes to the ritual of the ring — Khalk’ru?”

“What else? So it has been taught from ancient days.”

“I do not know what else. And many things have been taught from ancient days which would not stand the test. But I do not believe that which comes is Khalk’ru, Soul of the Void, He-to-Whom–All-Life–Must-Return and all the rest of his titles. Nor do I believe that if we end the Sacrifices life will end here with them.”

She said, very quietly:

“Hear me, Dwayanu. Whether that which comes to the Sacrifices be Khalk’ru or another matters not at all to me. All that matters is this: I do not want to leave this land, and I would keep it unchanged. I have been happy here. I have seen the sun and moon and stars. I have seen the outer earth in my waterfall yonder. I would not go into it. Where would I find a place so lovely as this my Lake of the Ghosts? If the Sacrifices end, they whom only fear keeps here will go. They will be followed by more and more. The old life I love ends with the Sacrifices — surely. For if desolation comes, we shall be forced to go. And if it does not come, the people will know that they have been taught lies, and will go to see whether what is beyond be not fairer, happier, than here. So it has always been. I say to you, Dway-anu — it shall not be here!”

She waited for me to answer. I did not answer.

“If you do not wish to summon Khalk’ru, then why not choose another in your place?”

I looked at her sharply. I was not ready to go quite that far as yet. Give up the ring, with all its power!

“There is another reason, Dwayanu, than those you have given me. What is it?”

I said, bluntly:

“There are many who call me feeder of Khalk’ru. Butcher for him. I do not like that. Nor do I like to see — what I see — in the eyes of the women I feed him.”

“So that is it,” she said, contemptuously. “Sleep has made you soft, Dwayanu! Better tell me your plan to take Sirk and let me carry it out! You have grown too tender-hearted for war, I think!”

That stung me, swept all my compunctions away. I jumped up, knocking away the chair, half-raised my hand to strike her. She faced me, boldly, no trace of fear in her eyes. I dropped my hand.

“But not so soft that you can mould me to your will, Witch,” I said. “Nor do I go back on my bargains. I have given you Yodin. I shall give you Sirk, and all else I have promised. Till then — let this matter of the Sacrifices rest When shall I give you Tibur?”

She put her hands on my shoulders and smiled into my angry eyes. She clasped her hands around my neck and brought my lips down to her warm red ones.

“Now,” she whispered, “you are Dwayanu! Now the one I love — ah, Dwayanu, if you but loved me as I love you!”

Well, as for that, I loved her as much as I could any woman. . . . After all, there was none like her. I swung her up and held her tight, and the old recklessness, the old love of life poured through me.

“You shall have Sirk! And Tibur when you will.”

She seemed to consider.

“Not yet,” she said. “He is strong, and he has his followers. He will be useful at Sirk, Dwayanu. Not before then — surely.”

“It was precisely what I was thinking,” I said. “On one thing at least we agree.”

“Let us have wine upon our peace,” she said, and called to her serving-women.

“But there is another thing also upon which we agree.” She looked at me strangely.

“What is it?” I asked.

“You yourself have said it,” she answered — and more than that I could not get her to say. It was long before I knew what she had meant, and then it was too late . . . .

It was good wine. I drank more than I should have. But clearer and clearer grew my plan for the taking of Sirk.

It was late next mqrning when I awoke. Lur was gone. I had slept as though drugged. I had the vaguest memory of what had occurred the night before, except that Lur and I had violently disagreed about something. I thought of Khalk’ru not at all. I asked Ouarda where Lur had gone. She said that word had been brought early that two women set apart for the next Sacrifice had managed to escape. Lur thought they were making their way to Sirk. She was hunting them with the wolves. I felt irritated that she had not roused me and taken me with her. I thought that I would like to see those white brutes of hers in action. They were like the great dogs we had used in Ayjirland to track similar fugitives.

I did not go into Karak. I spent the day at sword-play and wrestling, and swimming in the Lake of the Ghosts — after my headache had worn off.

Close toward nightfall Lur returned.

“Did you catch them?” I asked.

“No,” she said. “They got to Sirk safely. We were just in time to see them half-across the drawbridge.”

I thought she was rather indifferent about it, but gave the matter no further thought. And that night she was gay — and most tender toward me. Sometimes so tender that I seemed to detect another emotion in her kisses. It seemed to me that they were — regretful. And I gave that no thought then either.

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