Dwellers in the Mirage, by Abraham Merritt

Chapter XIX.

The Taking of Sirk

Again I rode through the forest toward Sirk, with Lur at my left hand and Tibur beside her. At my back were my two captains, Dara and Naral. Close at our heels came Ouarda, with twelve slim, strong girls, fair skins stained strangely green and black, and naked except for a narrow belt around their waists. Behind these rode four score of the nobles with Tibur’s friend Rascha at their head. And behind them marched silently a full thousand of Karak’s finest fighting women.

It was night. It was essential to reach the edge of the forest before the last third of the stretch between midnight and dawn. The hoofs of the horses were muffled so that no sharp ears might hear their distant tread, and the soldiers marched in open formation, noiselessly. Five days had passed since I had first looked on the fortress.

They had been five days of secret, careful preparation. Only the Witch-woman and the Smith knew what I had in mind. Secret as we had been, the rumour had spread that we were preparing for a sortie against the Rrrllya. I was well content with that. Not until we had gathered to start did even Rascha, or so I believed, know that we were headed toward Sirk. This so no word might be carried there to put them on guard, for I knew well that those we menaced had many friends in Karak — might have them among the ranks that slipped along behind us. Surprise was the essence of my plan. Therefore the muffling of the horses’ hoofs. Therefore the march by night. Therefore the silence as we passed through the forest. And therefore it was that when we heard the first howling of Lur’s wolves the Witch-woman slipped from her horse and disappeared in the luminous green darkness.

We halted, awaiting her return. None spoke; the howls were stilled; she came from the trees and remounted. Like well-trained dogs the white wolves spread ahead of us, nosing over the ground we still must travel, ruthless scouts which no spy nor chance wanderer, whether from or to Sirk, could escape.

I had desired to strike sooner than this, had chafed at the delay, had been reluctant to lay bare my plan to Tibur. But Lur had pointed out that if the Smith were to be useful at Sirk’s taking he would have to be trusted, and that he would be less dangerous if informed and eager than if uninformed and suspicious. Well, that was true. And Tibur was a first-class fighting man with strong friends.

So I had taken him into my confidence and told him what I had observed when first I had stood with Lur beside Sirk’s boiling moat — the vigorously growing clumps of ferns which extended in an almost unbroken, irregular line high up and across the black cliff, from the forest on the hither side and over the geyser-spring, and over the parapets. It betrayed, I believed, a slipping or cracking of the rock which had formed a ledge. Along that ledge, steady-nerved, sure-footed climbers might creep, and make their way unseen into the fortress — and there do for us what I had in mind.

Tibur’s eyes had sparkled, and he had laughed as I had not heard him laugh since my ordeal by Khalk’ru. He had made only one comment.

“The first link of your chain is the weakest, Dwayanu.”

“True enough. But it is forged where Sirk’s chain of defence is weakest.”

“Nevertheless — I would not care to be the first to test that link.”

For all my lack of trust, I had warmed to him for that touch of frankness.

“Thank the gods for your weight then, Anvil-smiter,” I had said. “I cannot see those feet of yours competing for toe-holds with ferns. Otherwise I might have picked you.”

I had looked down at the sketch I had drawn to make the matter clearer.

“We must strike quickly. How long before we can be in readiness, Lur?”

I had raised my eyes in time to see a swift glance pass between the two. Whatever suspicion I may have felt had been fleeting. Lur had answered, quickly.

“So far as the soldiers are concerned, we could start to-night. How long it will take to pick the climbers, I cannot tell. Then I must test them. All that will take time.”

“How long, Lur? We must be swift.” “Three days — five days — I will be swift as may be. Beyond that I will not promise.”

With that I had been forced to be content. And now, five nights later, we marched on Sirk. It was neither dark nor light in the forest; a strange dimness floated over us; the glimmer of the flowers was our torch. All the fragrances were of life. But it was death whose errand we were on.

The weapons of the soldiers were covered so that there could be no betraying glints; spear-heads darkened — no shining of metal upon any of us. On the tunics of the soldiers was the Wheel of Luka, so that friend would not be mistaken for foe once we were behind the walls of Sirk. Lur had wanted the Black Symbol of Khalk’ru.

I would not have it. We reached the spot where we had decided to leave the horses. And here in silence our force separated. Under leadership of Tibur and Rascha, the others crept through wood and fern-brake to the edge of the clearing opposite the drawbridge.

With the Witch-woman and myself went a scant dozen of the nobles, Ouarda with the naked girls, a hundred of the soldiers. Each of these had bow and quiver in well-protected cases on their backs. They carried the short battleaxe, long sword and dagger. They bore the long, wide rope ladder I had caused to be made, like those I had used long and long ago to meet problems similar to this of Sirk — but none with its peculiarly forbidding aspects. They carried another ladder, long and flexible and of wood. I was armed only with battleaxe and long sword, Lur and the nobles with the throwing hammers and swords.

We stole toward the torrent whose hissing became louder with each step.

Suddenly I halted, drew Lur to me.

“Witch-woman, can you truly talk to your wolves?”

“Truly, Dwayanu.”

“I am thinking it would be no bad plan to draw eyes and ears from this end of the parapet. If some of your wolves would fight and howl and dance a bit there at the far bastion for the amusement of the guards, it might help us here.”

She sent a low call, like the whimper of a she-wolf. Almost instantly the head of the great dog-wolf which had greeted her on our first ride lifted beside her. Its hackles bristled as it glared at me. But it made no sound. The Witch-woman dropped to her knees beside it, took its head in her arms, whispering. They seemed to whisper together. And then as suddenly as it had appeared, it was gone. Lur arose, in her eyes something of the green fire of the wolf’s.

“The guards shall have their amusement.”

I felt a little shiver along my back, for this was true witchcraft. But I said nothing and we went on. We came to that place from which I had scanned the cliff. We parted the ferns and peered out upon the fortress.

Thus it was. At our right, a score of paces away, soared the sheer wall of the cliff which, continuing over the boiling torrent, formed this nearer bastion. The cover in which we lurked ran up to it, was thrown back like a green wave from its base. Between our cover and the moat was a space not more than a dozen paces across, made barren by the hot spray that fell on it. Here, the walls of the fortress were not more than a javelin cast distant. The wall and the parapet touched the cliff, but hardly could they be seen through the thick veils of steam. And this was what I had meant when I had said that our weakest link would be forged where Sirk’s defences were weakest. For no sentinels stood at this corner. With the heat and steam and exhalations from the geyser, there was no need — or so they thought. How, here at its hottest source, could the torrent be crossed? Who could scale that smooth and dripping cliff? Of all the defences, this spot was the impregnable one, unnecessary to guard — or so they thought. Therefore it was the exact point to attack — if it could be done.

I studied it. Not for full two hundred paces was there a single sentinel. From somewhere behind the fortress came the glare of a fire. It cast nickering shadows on the terraces of fallen rock beyond the bastioning cliffs; and that was good, since if we gained their shelter, we, too, would seem but flickering shadows. I beckoned Ouarda, and pointed to the rocks which were to be the goal of the naked girls. They were close to the clifi where it curved inward beyond the parapet, and they were about the height of twenty tall men above where we hid. She drew the girls to her and instructed them. They nodded, their eyes dropping swiftly to the cauldron of the moat, then turning to the glistening precipice. I saw some of them shudder. Well, I could not hold that against them, no!

We crept back and found the base of the cliff. Here were enough and to spare of rock holds for the grapnels of the ladder. We unwound the rope ladder. We set the wooden ladder against the cliff. I pointed out the ledge that might be the key to Sirk, counselled the climbers as best I could. I knew that the ledge could not be much wider than the span of a hand. Yet above it and below it were small crevices, pockets, where fingers and toes could grip, for clumps of ferns sprouted there.

Hai! But they had courage, those slim girls. We fastened to their belts long strong cords which would slip through our hands as they crept along. And they looked at one another’s stained faces and bodies and laughed. The first went up the ladder like a squirrel, got foothold and handhold and began to edge across. In an instant she had vanished, the green and black with which her body was stained merging into the dim green and black of the cliff. Slowly, slowly, the first cord slipped through my fingers.

Another followed her, and another, until I held six cords. And now the others climbed up and crept out on the perilous path, their leashes held in the strong hands of the Witch-woman.

Hai! But that was queer fishing! With will strained toward keeping these girl-fish out of water! Slowly — Gods, but how slowly — the cords crept through my fingers! Through the fingers of the Witch-woman . . . slowly . . . slowly . . . but ever on and on.

Now that first slim girl must be over the cauldron . . . I had swift vision of her clinging to the streaming rock, the steam of the cauldron clothing her . . . .

That line slackened in my hand. It slackened, then ran out so swiftly that it cut the skin . . . slackened again . . . a tug upon it as of a great fish racing away . . . I felt the line snap. The girl had fallen! Was now dissolving flesh in the cauldron!

The second cord slackened and tugged and snapped . . . and the third. . . . Three of them gone! I whispered to Lur:

“Three are gone!”

“And two!” she said. I saw that her eyes were tightly closed, but the hands that clutched the cords were steady.

Five of those slim girls! Only seven left! Luka — spin your wheel!

On and on, slowly, with many a halt, the remaining cords crept through my fingers. Now the fourth girl must be over the moat . . . must be over the parapet . . . must be well on her way to the rocks . . . my heart beat in my throat, half-strangling me. . . . Gods — the sixth had fallen! “Another!” I groaned to Lur. “And another!” she whispered, and cast the end of a cord from her hand.

Five left . . . only five now . . . Luka, a tempk to you in Karak — all your own, sweet goddess!

What was that? A pull upon a cord, and twice repeated! The signal! One had crossed! Honour and wealth to you, slim girl . . . .

“All gone but one, Dwayanu!” whispered the Witch-woman.

I groaned again, and glared at her. . . . Again the twitches — upon my fifth cord! Another safe! “My last is over!” whispered Lur. Three safe! Three hidden among the rocks. The fishing was done. Sirk had stolen three-fourths of my bait.

But Sirk was hooked!

Weakness like none I had known melted bones and muscles. Lur’s face was white as chalk, black shadows under staring eyes.

Well, now it was our turn. The slim maids who had fallen might soon have company!

I took the cord from Lur. Sent the signal. Felt it answered.

We cut the cords, and knotted their ends to heavier strands. And when they had run out we knotted to their ends a stronger, slender rope.

It crept away — and away — and away —

And now for the ladder — the bridge over which we must go.

It was light but strong, that ladder. Woven cunningly in a way thought out long and long ago. It had claws at each end which, once they had gripped, were not easily opened.

We fastened that ladder’s end to the slender rope. It slipped away from us . . . over the fems . . . out into the hot breath of the cauldron . . . through it.

Invisible within that breath . . . invisible against the green dusk of the cliff . . . on and on it crept . . . .

The three maids had it! They were making it fast. Under my hands it straightened and stiffened. We drew it taut from our end. We fastened our grapnels.

The road to Sirk was open!

I turned to the Witch-woman. She stood, her gaze far and far away. In her eyes was the green fire of her wolves. And suddenly over the hissing of the torrent, I beard the howling of her wolves — far and far away.

She relaxed; her head dropped; she smiled at me —“Yes — truly can I talk to my wolves, Dwayanu!”

I walked to the ladder, tested it. It was strong, secure.

“I go first, Lur. Let none follow me until I have crossed. Then do you, Dara and Naral, climb to guard my back.”

Lur’s eyes blazed.

“I follow you. Your captains come after me.”

I considered that. Well — let it be.

“As you say, Lur. But do not follow until I have crossed. Then let Ouarda send the soldiers. Ouarda — not more than ten may be on the ladder at a time. Bind cloths over their mouths and nostrils before they start Count thirty — slowly, like this — before each sets forth behind the other. Fasten axe and sword between my shoulders, Lur. See to it that all bear their weapons so. Watch now, how I use my hands and feet.”

I swung upon the ladder, arms and legs opened wide. I began to climb it. Like a spider. Slowly, so they could learn. The ladder swayed but little; its angle was a good one.

And now I was above the fern-brake. And now I was at the edge of the torrent. Above it. The stream swirled round me. It hid me. The hot breath of the geyser shrivelled me. Nor could I see anything of the ladder except the strands beneath me . . . .

Thank Luka for that! If what was before me was hidden — so was I hidden from what was before me!

I was through the steam. I had passed the clifi. I was above the parapet. I dropped from the ladder, among the rocks — unseen. I shook the ladder. There was a quivering response. There was weight upon it . . . more weight . . . and more . . . .

I unstrapped axe and sword —

“Dwayanu —”

I turned. There were the three maids. I began to praise them — holding back laughter. Green and black had run and combined under bath of steam into grotesque pattern.

“Nobles you are, maids! From this moment! Green and black your colours. What you have done this night will long be a tale in Karak.”

I looked toward the battlements. Between us and them was a smooth floor of rock and sand, less than half a bow-shot wide. A score of soldiers stood around the fire. There was a larger group on the parapet close to the towers of the bridge. There were more at the farther end of the parapet, looking at the wolves.

The towers of the drawbridge ran straight down to the rocky floor. The tower at the left was blank wall. The tower at the right had a wide gate. The gate was open, unguarded, unless the soldiers about the fire were its guards. Down from between the towers dropped a wide ramp, the approach to the bridge-head.

There was a touch on my arm. Lur was beside me. And close after her came my two captains. After them, one by one, the soldiers. I bade them string bows, set arrows. One by one they melted out of the green darkness, slipped by me. They made ready in the shadow of the rocks.

One score — two score . . . a shriek cut like an arrow through the hissing of the torrent! The ladder trembled. It shook — and twisted. . . . Again the despairing cry . . . the ladder fell slack!

“Dwayanu — the ladder is broken? At — Ouarda —”

“Quiet, Lur! They may have heard that shrieking. The ladder could not break . . . .”

“Draw it in, Dwayanu — draw it in!”

Together we pulled upon it. It was heavy. We drew it in like a net, and swiftly. And suddenly it was of no weight at all. It rushed into our hands —

Its ends were severed as though by knife slash or axe blow.

“Treachery!” I said.

“But treachery . . . how . . . with Ouarda on guard.”

I crept, crouching, behind the shadow of the rocks.

“Dara — spread out the soldiers. Tell Naral to slip to the farther end. On the signal, let them loose their arrows. Three flights only. The first at those around the fire. The second and the third at those on the walls closest to the towers. Then follow me. You understand me?”

“It is understood. Lord.”

The word went along the line; I heard the bowstrings whisper.

“We are fewer than I like, Lur — yet nothing for us but to go through with it. No way out of Sirk now but the way of the sword.”

“I know. It is of Ouarda I am thinking . . . .” Her voice trembled.

“She is safe. If treachery had been wide-spread, we would have heard sounds of fighting. No more talking, Lur. We must move swiftly. After the third arrow flight, we rush the tower gate.”

I gave the signal. Up rose the archers. Straight upon those around the fire flew their shafts. They left few alive. Instantly upon those around the towers of the bridge whistled a second arrow storm.

Hai! But that was straight shooting! See them fall! Once more —

Whistle of feathered shaft! Song of the bow-string I Gods — but this is to live again!

I dropped down the rocks, Lur beside me. The soldier women poured after us. Straight to the tower door we sped. We were half-way there before those upon the long parapet awakened.

Shouts rang. Trumpets blared, and the air was filled with the brazen clangour of a great gong bellowing the alarm to Sirk asleep behind the gap. We sped on. Javelins dropped among us, arrows whistled. From other gates along the inner walls guards began to emerge, racing to intercept us.

We were at the door of the bridge towers — and through it!

But not all. A third had fallen under javelin and arrow. We swung the stout door shut. We dropped across it the massive bars that secured it. And not an instant too soon. Upon the door began to beat the sledges of the tricked guards.

The chamber was of stone, huge and bare. Except for the door through which we had come, there was no opening. I saw the reason for that — never had Sirk expected to be attacked from within. There were arrow slits high up, looking over the moat, and platforms for archers. At one side were cogs and levers which raised and lowered the bridge.

All this I took in at one swift glance. I leaped over to the levers, began to manipulate them. The cogs revolved.

The bridge was falling!

The Witch-woman ran up to the platform of the archers; she peered out; set horn to lips; she sent a long call through the arrow slit — summoning signal for Tibur and his host.

The hammering against the door had ceased. The blows against it were stronger, more regular-timed. The battering of a ram. The stout wood trembled under them; the bars groaned, Lur called to me:

“The bridge is down, Dwayanu! Tibur is rushing upon it. It grows lighter. Dawn is breaking. They have brought their horses!”

I cursed.

“Luka, sent him wit not to pound across that bridge on horse!”

“He is doing it . . . he and Rascha and a handful of others only . . . the rest are dismounting. . .”

“Hai — they are shooting at them from the arrow slits . . . the javelins rain among them . . . Sirk takes toll . . . .”

There was a thunderous crash against the door. The wood split . . . .

A roaring tumult. Shouts and battle cries. Ring of sword upon sword and the swish of arrows. And over it all the laughter of Tibur.

No longer was the ram battering at the door.

I threw up the bars, raised axe in readiness, opened the great gate a finger’s breadth and peered out.

The soldiers of Karak were pouring down the ramp from the bridge-head.

I opened the door wider. The dead of the fortress lay thick around tower base and bridge-head.

I stepped through the door. The soldiers saw me.

“Dwayanu!” rang their shout.

From the fortress still came the clamour of the great gong — warning Sirk.

Sirk — no longer sleeping!

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