Dwellers in the Mirage, by Abraham Merritt

Chapter II.

Ring of the Kraken

Three years ago, so I began my story, I went into Mongolia with the Fairchild expedition. Part of its work was a mineral survey for certain British interests, part of it ethnographic and archeological research for the British Museum and the University of Pennsylvania.

I never had a chance to prove my value as a mining engineer. At once I became good-will representative, camp entertainer, liaison agent between us and the tribes. My height, my yellow hair, blue eyes and freakish strength, and my facility in picking up languages were of never-ending interest to them. Tartars, Mongols, Buriats, Kirghiz — they would watch while I bent horseshoes, twisted iron bars over my knees and performed what my father used to call contemptuously my circus tricks.

Well, that’s exactly what I was to them — a one-man circus. And yet I was more than that — they liked me. Old Fairchild would laugh when I complained that I had no time for technical work. He would tell me that I was worth a dozen mining engineers, that I was the expedition’s insurance, and that as long as I could keep up my act they wouldn’t be bothered by any trouble makers. And it is a fact that they weren’t. It was the only expedition of its kind I ever knew where you could leave your stuff unwatched and return to find it still there. Also we were singularly free from graft and shake-downs.

In no time I had picked up half a dozen of the dialects and could chatter and chaff with the tribesmen in their own tongues. It made a prodigious bit with them. And now and then a Mongol delegation would arrive with a couple of their wrestlers, big fellows with chests like barrels, to pit against me. I learned their tricks, and taught them ours. We had pony lifting contests, and some of my Manchu friends taught me how to fight with the two broadswords — a sword in each hand.

Fairchild had planned on a year, but so smoothly did the days go by that he decided to prolong our stay. My act, he told me in his sardonic fashion, was undoubtedly of perennial vitality; never again would science have such an opportunity in this region — unless I made up my mind to remain and rule. He didn’t know how close he came to prophecy.

In the early summer of the following year we shifted our camp about a hundred miles north. This was Uighur country. They are a strange people, the Uighurs. They say of themselves that they are descendants of a great race which ruled the Gobi when it was no desert but an earthly Paradise, with flowing rivers and many lakes and teeming cities. It is a fact that they are apart from all the other tribes, and while those others cheerfully kill them when they can, still they go in fear of them. Or rather, of the sorcery of their priests.

Seldom had Uighurs appeared at the old camp. When they did, they kept at a distance. We had been at the new camp less than a week when a band of twenty rode in. I was sitting in the shade of my tent. They dismounted and came straight to me. They paid no attention to anyone else. They halted a dozen feet from me. Three walked close up and stood, studying me. The eyes of these three were a peculiar grey-blue; those of the one who seemed to be their captain singularly cold. They were bigger, taller men than the others.

I did not know the Uighur. I gave them polite salutations in the Kirghiz. They did not answer, maintaining their close scrutiny. Finally they spoke among themselves, nodding as though they had come to some decision.

The leader then addressed me. As I stood up, I saw that he was not many inches under my own six feet four. I told him, again in the Kirghiz, that I did not know his tongue. He gave an order to his men. They surrounded my tent, standing like guards, spears at rest beside them, their wicked long-swords drawn.

At this my temper began to rise, but before I could protest the leader began to speak to me in the Kirghiz. He assured me, with deference, that their visit was entirely peaceful, only they did not wish their contact with me to be disturbed by any of my companions. He asked if I would show him my hands. I held them out. He and his two comrades bent over the palms, examining them minutely, pointing to a mark or a crossing of lines. This inspection ended, the leader touched his forehead with my right hand.

And then to my complete astonishment, he launched without explanation into what was a highly intelligent lesson in the Uighur tongue. He took the Kirghiz for the comparative language. He did not seem to be surprized at the ease with which I assimilated the tuition; indeed, I had a puzzled idea that he regarded it as something to be expected. I mean that his manner was less that of teaching me a new language, than of recalling to me one I had forgotten. The lesson lasted for a full hour. He then touched his forehead again with my hand, and gave a command to the ring of guards. The whole party walked to their horses and galloped off.

There had been something disquieting about the whole experience. Most disquieting was my own vague feeling that my tutor, if I had read correctly his manner, had been right — that I was not learning a new tongue but one I had forgotten. Certainly I never picked up any language with such rapidity and ease as I did the Uighur.

The rest of my party had been perplexed and apprehensive, naturally. I went immediately to them, and talked the matter over. Our ethnologist was the famous Professor David Barr, of Oxford. Fairchild was inclined to take it as a joke, but Barr was greatly disturbed. He said that the Uighur tradition was that their forefathers had been a fair race, yellow-haired and blue-eyed, big men of great strength. In short, men like myself. A few ancient Uighur wall paintings had been found which had portrayed exactly this type, so there was evidence of the correctness of the tradition. However, if the Uighurs of the present were actually the descendants of this race, the ancient blood must have been mixed and diluted almost to the point of extinction.

I asked what this had to do with me, and he replied that quite conceivably my visitors might regard me as of the pure blood of the ancient race. In fact, he saw no other explanation of their conduct. He was of the opinion that their study of my palms, and their manifest approval of what they had discovered there, clinched the matter.

Old Fairchild asked him, satirically, if he was trying to convert us to palmistry. Barr said, coldly, that he was a scientist. As a scientist, he was aware that certain physical resemblances can be carried on by hereditary factors through many generations. Certain peculiarities in the arrangement of the lines of the palms might persist through centuries. They could reappear in cases of atavism, such as I clearly represented.

By this time, I was getting a bit dizzy. But Barr had a few shots left that made me more so. By now his temper was well up, and he went on to say that the Uighurs might even be entirely correct in what he deduced was their opinion of me. I was a throwback to the ancient Norse. Very well. It was quite certain that the Aesir. the old Norse gods and goddesses — Odin and Thor, Frigga and Freya, Frey and Loki of the Fire and all the others — had once been real people. Without question they had been leaders in some long and perilous migration. After they had died, they had been deified, as numerous other similar heroes and heroines had been by other tribes and races. Ethnologists were agreed that the original Norse stock had come into North-eastern Europe from Asia, like other Aryans. Their migration might have occurred anywhere from 1000 B.C. to 5000 B.C. And there was no scientific reason why they should not have come from the region now called the Gobi, nor why they should not have been the blond race these present-day Uighurs called their forefathers.

No one, he went on to say, knew exactly when the Gobi had become desert — nor what were the causes that had changed it into desert. Parts of the Gobi and all the Little Gobi might have been fertile as late as two thousand years ago. Whatever it had been, whatever its causes, and whether operating slowly or quickly, the change gave a perfect reason for the migration led by Odin and the other Aesir which had ended in the colonization of the Scandinavian Peninsula. Admittedly I was a throwback to my mother’s stock of a thousand years ago. There was no reason why I should not also be a throwback in other recognizable ways to the ancient Uighurs — if they actually were the original Norse.

But the practical consideration was that I was headed for trouble. So was every other member of our party. He urgently advised going back to the old camp where we would be among friendly tribes. In conclusion he pointed out that, since we had come to this site, not a single Mongol, Tartar or any other tribesman with whom I had established such pleasant relations had come near us. He sat down with a glare at Fairchild, observing that this was no palmist’s advice but that of a recognized scientist.

Well, Fairchild apologized, of course, but he over-ruled Barr on returning; we could safely wait a few days longer and see what developed. Barr remarked morosely that as a prophet Fairchild was probably a total loss, but it was also probable that we were being closely watched and would not be allowed to retreat, and therefore it did not matter. .

That night we heard drums beating far away, drumming between varying intervals of silence almost until dawn, reporting and answering questions of drums still further off.

The next day, at the same hour, along came the same troop. Their leader made straight for me, ignoring, as before, the others in the camp. He saluted me almost with humility. We walked back together to my tent. Again the cordon was thrown round it, and my second lesson abruptly began. It continued for two hours or more. Thereafter, day after day, for three weeks, the same performance was repeated. There was no desultory conversation, no extraneous questioning, no explanations. These men were there for one definite purpose: to teach me their tongue. They stuck to that admirably. Filled with curiosity, eager to reach the end and leam what it all meant, I interposed no obstacles, stuck as rigorously as they to the faatter in hand. This, too, they seemed to take as something expected of me. In three weeks I could carry on a conversation in the Uigher as well as I can in English.

Barr’s uneasiness kept growing. “They’re grooming you for something!” he would say. “I’d give five years of my life to be in your shoes. But I don’t like it. I’m afraid for you. I’m damned afraid!”

One night at the end of this third week, the signalling drums beat until dawn. The next day my instructors did not appear, nor the next day, nor the day after. But our men reported that there were Uighers all around us, picketing the camp. They were in fear, and no work could be got out of them.

On the afternoon of the fourth day we saw a cloud of dust drifting rapidly down upon us from the north. Soon we heard the sound of the Uigher drums. Then out of the dust emerged a troop of horsemen. There were two or three hundred of them, spears glinting, many of them with good rifles. They drew up in a wide semi-circle before the camp. The cold-eyed leader who had been my chief instructor dismounted and came forward leading a magnificent black stallion. A big horse, a strong horse, unlike the rangy horses that carried them; a horse that could bear my weight with ease.

The Uighur dropped on one knee, handing me the stallion’s reins, I took them, automatically. The horse looked me over, sniffed at me, and rested its nose on my shoulder. At once the troop raised their spears, shouting some word I could not catch, then dropped from their mounts and stood waiting.

The leader arose. He drew from his tunic a small cube of ancient jade. He sank again upon his knee, handed me the cube. It seemed solid, but as I pressed it flew open. Within, was a ring. It was of heavy gold, thick and wide. Set in it was a yellow, translucent stone about an inch and a half square. And within this stone was the shape of a black octopus.

Its tentacles spread out fan-wise from its body. They had the effect of reaching forward through the yellow stone. I could even see upon their nearer tips the sucking discs. The body was not so clearly defined. It was nebulous, seeming to reach into far distance. The black octopus had not been cut upon the jewel. It was within it.

I was aware of a curious mingling of feelings — repulsion and a peculiar sense of familiarity, like the trick .of the mind that causes what we call double memory, the sensation of having experienced the same thing before. Without thinking. I slipped the ring over my thumb which it fitted perfectly, and held it up to the sun to catch the light through the stone. Instantly every man of the troop threw himself down upon his belly, prostrating himself before it.

The Uigher captain spoke to me. I had been subconsciously aware that from the moment of handing me the jade he had been watching me closely. I thought that now there was awe in his eyes.

“Your horse is ready —” again he used the unfamiliar word with which the troop had saluted me. “Show me what you wish to take with you, and your men shall carry it.”

“Where do we go — and for how long?” I asked.

“To a holy man of your people,” he answered. “For how long — he alone can answer.”

I felt a momentary irritation at the casualness with which I was being disposed of. Also I wondered why he spoke of his men and his people as mine.

“Why does he not come to me?” I asked.

“He is old,” he answered. “He could not make the journey.”

I looked at the troop, now standing up beside their horses. If I refused to go, it would undoubtedly mean the wiping out of the camp if my companions attempted, as they would, to resist my taking. Besides, I was on fire with curiosity.

“I must speak to my comrades before I go,” I said.

“If it please Dwayanu”— this time I caught the word —“to bid farewell to his dogs, let him.” There was a nicker of contempt in his eyes as he looked at old Fairchild and the others.

Definitely I did not like what he had said, nor his manner.

“Await me here,” I told him curtly, and walked over to Fairchild. I drew him into his tent, Barr and the others of the expedition at our heels. I told them what was happening. Barr took my hand, and scrutinized the ring. He whistled softly.

“Don’t you know what this is?” he asked me. “It’s the Kraken — that super-wise, malignant and mythical sea-monster of the old Norsemen. See, its tentacles are not eight but twelve. Never was it pictured with less than ten. It symbolized the principle that is inimical to Life — not Death precisely, more accurately annihilation. The Kraken — and here in Mongolia!”

“See here. Chief,” I spoke to Fairchild. “There’s only one way you can help me — if I need help. And that’s to get back quick as you can to the old camp. Get hold of the Mongols and send word to that chief who kept bringing in the big wrestlers — they’ll know whom I mean. Persuade or hire him to get as many able fighting men at the camp as you can. I’ll be back, but I’ll probably come back running. Outside of that, you’re all in danger. Not at the moment, maybe, but things may develop which will make these people think it better to wipe you out. I know what I’m talking about. Chief. I ask you to do this for my sake, if not for your own.”

“But they watch the camp —” he began to object.

“They won’t — after I’ve gone. Not for a little while at least. Everyone of them will be streaking away with me.” I spoke with complete certainty, and Barr nodded acquiescence.

“The King returns to his Kingdom,” he said. “All his loyal subjects with him. He’s in no danger — while he’s with them. But — God, if I could only go with you, Leif! The Kraken! And the ancient legend of the South Seas told of the Great Octopus, dozing on and biding his time till he felt like destroying the world and all its life. And three miles up in the air the Black Octopus is cut into the cliffs of the Andes! Norsemen — and the South Sea Islanders — and the Andeans! And the same symbol — here!”

“Please promise?” I asked Fairchild. “My life may depend on it.”

“It’s like abandoning you. I don’t like it!”

“Chief, this crowd could wipe you out in a minute. Go back, and get the Mongols. The Tartars will help. They hate the Uighurs. I’ll come back, don’t fear. But I’d bet everything that this whole crowd, and more, will be at my heels. When I come, I want a wall to duck behind.”

“We’ll go,” he said.

I went out of that tent, and over to my own. The odd-eyed Uighnr followed me. I took my rifle and an automatic, stuffed a toothbrush and a shaving-kit in my pocket, and turned to go.

“Is there nothing else?” There was surprise in his Question.

“If there is, I’ll come back for it,” I answered.

“Not after you have — remembered,” he said, enigmatically.

Side by side we walked to the black stallion. I lifted myself to his back.

The troop wheeled in behind us. Their spears a barrier between me and the camp, we galloped south.

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