Dwellers in the Mirage, by Abraham Merritt

Book of Leif

Chapter XXI.

Return to Karak

I leanded over Jim and kissed his forehead. I arose. I was numb with sorrow. But under that numbness seethed a tortured rage, a tortured horror. Deadly rage against the Witch-woman and the Smith — horror of myself, of what I had been . . . horror of — Dwayanu!

I must find Tibur and the Witch-woman — but first there was something else to be done. They and Evalie could wait.

“Dara — have them lift him. Carry him into one of the houses.”

I followed on foot as they bore Jim away. There was fighting still going on, but far from us. Here were only the dead. I guessed that Sirk was making its last stand at the end of the valley.

Dara, Naral and I and half-dozen more passed through the broken doors of what yesterday had been a pleasant home. In its centre was a little columned hall. The other soldiers clustered round the broken doors, guarding entrance. I ordered chairs and beds and whatever else would burn brought into the little hall and heaped into a pyre. Dara said:

“Lord, let me bathe your wound.”

I dropped upon a stool, sat thinking while she washed the gash upon my head with stinging wine. Beyond the strange numbness, my mind was very clear. I was Leif Langdon. Dwayanu was no longer master of my mind — nor ever again would be. Yet he lived. He lived within as part of — myself. It was as though the shock of recognition of Jim had dissolved Dwayanu within Leif Langdon.

As though two opposing currents had merged into one; as though two drops had melted into each other; as though two antagonistic metals had fused.

Crystal clear was every memory of what I had heard and seen, said and done and thought from the time I had been hurled from Nansur Bridge. And crystal clear, agonizingly clear, was all that had gone before. Dway-anu was not dead, no! But part of me, and I was by far the stronger. I could use him, his strength, his wisdom — but he could not use mine. I was in control. I was the master.

And I thought, sitting there, that if I were to save Evalie — if I were to do another thing that now I knew I would do or die in the doing, I must still outwardly be all Dwayanu. There lay my power. Not easily could such transmutation as I had undergone be explained to my soldiers. They believed in me and followed me as Dwayanu. If Evalie, who had known me as Leif, who had loved me as Leif, who had listened to Jim, could not understand — how much less could these? No, they must see no change.

I touched my head. The cut was deep and long; apparently only the toughness of my skull had saved it from being split.

“Dara — you saw who made this wound?”

“It was Tibur, Lord.”

“He tried to kill me. . . . Why did he not finish?”

“Never yet has Tibur’s left hand failed to deal death. He thinks it cannot fail. He saw you fall — he thought you dead.”

“And death missed me by a hair’s-breadth. And would not, had not someone hurled me aside. Was that you, Dara?”

“It was I, Dwayanu. I saw his hand dip into his girdle, knew what was coming. I threw myself at your knees — so he could not see me.”

“Why, because you fear Tibur?”

“No — because I wanted him to believe he did not miss.”

“Why?”

“So that you would have better chance to kill Tibur, Lord. Your strength was ebbing with your friend’s life.”

I looked sharply at this bold-eyed captain of mine. How much did she know? Well, time later to find that out. I looked at the pyre. It was nearly complete.

“What was it he threw, Dara?”

She drew from her girdle a curious weapon, one whose like I had never seen. Its end was top-shaped, pointed like a dagger and with four razor-edged ribs on its sides. It had an eight-inch metal haft, round, like the haft of a diminutive javelin. It weighed about five pounds. It was of some metal I did not recognize — denser, harder than the finest of tempered steel. It was, in effect, a casting knife. But no mail could turn aside that adamantine point when hurled with the strength of one like the Smith. Dara took it from me, and pulled the short shaft. Instantly the edged ribs flew open, like flanges. The end of each was shaped like an inverted barb. A devilish tool, if I ever saw one. Once embedded, there was no way to get it out except cutting, and any pull would release the flanges, hooking them at the same time into the flesh. I took it back from Dara, and placed it in my own girdle. If I had had any doubts about what I was going to do to Tibur — I had none now.

The pyre was finished. I walked over to Jim, and laid him on it. I kissed him on the eyes, and put a sword in his dead hand. I stripped the room of its rich tapestries and draped them over him. I struck flint and set flame to the pyre. The wood was dry and resinous, and burned swiftly. I watched the flames creep up and up until smoke and fire made a canopy over him.

Then dry-eyed, but with death in my heart. I walked out of that house and among my soldiers.

Sirk had fallen and its sack was on. Smoke was rising everywhere from the looted homes. A detachment of soldiers marched by, herding along some two-score prisoners — women, all of them, and little children; some bore the marks of wounds. And then I saw that among those whom I had taken for children were a handful of the golden pygmies. At sight of me the soldiers halted, stood rigid, staring at me unbelievingly.

Suddenly one cried out . . . “Dwayanu! Dwayanu lives!” . . . They raised their swords in salute, and from them came a shout . . . “Dwayanu!”

I beckoned their captain.

“Did you think Dwayanu dead then?”

“So ran the tale among us, Lord.”

“And did this tale also tell how I was slain?”

She hesitated.

“There were some who said it was by the Lord Tibur . . . by ‘accident . . . that he had made cast at Sirk’s leader who was menacing you . . . and that you were struck instead . . . and that your body had been borne away by those of Sirk . . . I do not know . . . .”

“Enough, soldier. Go on to Karak with the captives. Do not loiter, and do not speak of seeing me. It is a command. For a while I let the tale stand.”

They glanced at each other, oddly, saluted, and went on. The yellow eyes of the pygmies, filled with a venomous hatred, never left me until they had passed out of range. I waited, thinking. So that was to be the story! Hai! But they had fear at their elbows or they would not have troubled to spread that tale of accident! Suddenly I made decision. No use to wander over Sirk searching for Tibur. Folly to be seen, and have the counter-tale that Dwayanu lived be borne to the ears of Tibur and Lur! They should come to me — unknowing.

There was only one way out of Sirk, and that by the bridge. It was there I would await them. I turned to Dara.

“We go to the bridge, but not by this road. We take the lanes until we reach the cliffs.”

They wheeled their horses, and for the first time I realized that all this little troop of mine were mounted. And for the first time I realized that all were of my own guard, and that many of them had been foot-soldiers, yet these, too, were riding, and that upon a score of saddles were the colours of nobles who had followed me and the Witch-woman and Tibur through the gap of Sirk. It was Naral who, reading my perplexity, spoke, half-impudently as always:

“These are your most faithful, Dwayanu! The horses were idle — or a few we made so. For your better shield should Tibur — make mistake again.”

I said nothing to that until we had gone around the burning house and were under cover of one of the lanes. Then I spoke to them:

“Naral — Dara — let us talk apart for a moment.”

And when we had drawn a little away from the others, I said:

“To you two I owe my life — most of all to you, Dara. All that I can give you is yours for the asking. All I ask of you is — truth.”

“Dwayanu — you shall have it.”

“Why did Tibur want to kill me?”

Naral said, dryly:

“The Smith was not the only one who wanted you killed, Dwayanu.”

I knew that, but I wanted to hear it from them.

“Who else, Naral?”

“Lur — and most of the nobles.”

“But why? Had I not opened Sirk for them?”

“You were becoming too strong, Dwayanu. It is not in Lur or Tibur to take second place — or third . . . or maybe no place.”

“But they had opportunity before —”

“But you had not taken Sirk for them,” said Dara.

Naral said, resentfully:

“Dwayanu, you play with us. You know as well as we — better — what the reason was. You came here with that friend we have just left on his fire couch. All knew it. If you were to die — so must he die. He must not live, perhaps to escape and bring others into this place — for I know, as some others do, that there is life beyond here and that Khalk’ru does not reign supreme, as the nobles tell us. Well — here together are you and this friend of yours. And not only you two, but also the dark girl of the Rrrllya, whose death or capture might break the spirit of the little folk and put them under Karak’s yoke. The three of you — together! Why, Dwayanu — it was the one place and the one time to strike! And Lur and Tibur did — and killed your friend, and think they have killed you, and have taken the dark girl.”

“And if I kill Tibur, Naral?”

“Then there will be fighting. And you must guard yourself well, for the nobles hate you, Dwayanu. They have been told you are against the old customs — mean to debase them, and raise the people. Intend even to end the Sacrifices . . .”

She glanced at me, slyly.

“And if that were true?”

“You have most of the soldiers with you now, Dwayanu. If it were true you would also have most of the people. But Tibur has his friends — even among the soldiers. And Lur is no weakling.”

She twitched up her horse’s head, viciously.

“Better kill Lur, too, while you’re in the mood, Dwayanu!”

I made no answer to that. We trotted through the lanes, not speaking again. Everywhere were dead, and gutted houses. We came out of the city, and rode over the narrow plain to the gap between the cliffs. There happened to be none on the open road just then; so we entered the gap unnoticed. We passed through it out into the square behind the fortress. There were soldiers here, in plenty, and groups of captives. I rode in the centre of my troop, bent over the neck of my horse. Dara had roughly bandaged my head. The bandages and cap-helmet I had picked up hid my yellow hair. There was much confusion, and I passed through unnoticed. I rode straight to the door of the tower behind which we had lurked when Karak stormed the bridge. I slipped in with my horse, half-closed the door. My women grouped themselves outside. They were not likely to be challenged. I settled down to wait for Tibur.

It was hard waiting, that! Jim’s face over the camp-fire. Jim’s face grinning at me in the trenches. Jim’s face above mine when I lay on the moss bank of the threshold of the mirage — Jim’s face under mine on the street of Sirk . . . .

Tsantawu! Aie — Tsantawul And you thought that only beauty could come from the forest I

Evalie? I cared nothing for Evalie then, caught in that limbo which at once was ice and candent core of rage.

“Save . . . Evalie!” Jim had bade. Well, I would save Evalie! Beyond that she mattered no more than did the Witch-woman . . . yes, a little more . . . I had a score to satisfy with the Witch-woman . . . I had none with Evalie . . . .

The face of Jim . . . always the face of Jim . . . floating before me . . . .

I heard a whisper —

“Dwayanu — Tibur comes!”

“Is Lur with him, Dara?”

“No — a group of the nobles. He is laughing. He carries the dark girl on his saddle-bow.”

“How far away is he, Dara?”

“Perhaps a bow-shot. He rides slowly.”

“When I ride out, close in behind me. The fight will be between me and Tibur. I do not think those with him will dare attack me. If they do . . .”

Naral laughed.

“If they do, we shall be at their throats, Dwayanu. There are one or two of Tibur’s friends I would like to settle accounts with. We ask you only this: waste neither words nor time on Tibur. Kill him quickly. For by the gods, if he kills you, it will be the boiling pot and the knives of the flayers for all of us he captures.”

“I will kill him, Naral.”

Slowly I opened the great door. Now I could see Tibur, his horse pacing toward the bridge-end. Upon the pommel of his saddle was Evalie. Her body drooped; the hair of blue-black was loosened and covered her face like a veil. Her hands were tied behind her back, and gripped in one of Tibur’s. There were a score of his followers around and behind him, nobles — and the majority of them men. I had noticed that although the Witch-woman had few men among her guards and garrisons, the Smith showed a preference for them among his friends and personal escort. His head was turned toward them, his voice, roaring with triumph, and his laughter came plainly to me. By now the enclosure was almost empty of soldiers and captives. There was none between us. I wondered where the Witch-woman was.

Closer came Tibur, and closer.

“Ready Dara — Naral?”

“Ready, Lord!”

I flung open the gate. I raced toward Tibur, head bent low, my little troop behind me. I swung against him with head uplifted, thrust my face close to his.

Tibur’s whole body grew rigid, his eyes glared into mine, his jaw dropped. I knew that those who followed him were held in that same incredulous stupefaction. Before the Smith could recover from his paralysis, I had snatched Evalie up from his saddle, had passed her to Dara.

I lifted my sword to slash at Tibur’s throat. I gave him no warning. It was no time for chivalry. Twice he had tried treacherously to kill me. I would make quick end.

Swift as had been my stroke, the Smith was swifter. He threw himself back, slipped off his horse, and landed like a cat at its heels. I was down from mine before his great sledge was half-raised to hurl. I thrust my blade forward to pierce his throat. He parried it with the sledge. Then berserk rage claimed him. The hammer fell clanging on the rock. He threw himself on me, howling. His arms circled me, fettering mine to my sides, like living bands of steel. His legs felt for mine, striving to throw me. His lips were drawn back like a mad wolf’s, and he bored his head into the pit of my neck, trying to tear my throat with his teeth.

My ribs cracked under the tightening vice of Tibur’s arms. My lungs were labouring, sight dimming. I writhed and twisted in the effort to escape the muzzling of that hot mouth and the searching fangs.

I heard shouting around me, heard and dimly saw milling of the horses. The clutching fingers of my left hand touched my girdle — closed on something there — something like the shaft of a javelin —

Tibur’s hell-forged dart!

Suddenly I went limp in Tibur’s grip. His laughter bellowed, hoarse with triumph. And for a split-second his grip relaxed.

That split-second was enough. I summoned all my strength and broke his grip. Before he could clench me again, my hand had swept down into the girdle and clutched the dart.

I brought it up and drove it into Tibur’s throat just beneath his jaw. I jerked the haft. The opened, razor-edged flanges sliced through arteries and muscles. The bellowing laughter of Tibur changed to a hideous gurgling. His hands sought the haft, dragged at it — tore it out — And the blood spurted from Tibur’s mangled throat; Tibur’s knees buckled beneath him, and he lurched and fell at my feet . . . choking . . . his hands still feebly groping to clutch me . . . .

I stood there, dazed, gasping for breath, the pulse roaring in my ears.

“Drink this. Lord!”

I looked up at Dara. She was holding a wine-skin to me. I took it with trembling hands, and drank deep. The good wine whipped through me. Suddenly I took it from my lips.

“The dark girl of the Rrrllya — Evalie. She is not with you.”

“There she is. I set her on another horse. There was fighting. Lord.”

I stared into Evalie’s face. She looked back at me, brown eyes cold, implacable.

“Better use the rest of the wine to wash your face, Lord. You are no sight for any tender maid.”

I passed my hand over my face, drew it away wet with blood.

“Tibur’s blood, Dwayanu, thank the gods!”

She brought my horse forward. I felt better when I was in its saddle. I glanced down at Tibur. His fingers were still faintly twitching. I looked about me. There was a shattered company of Karak’s archers at the bridge-end. They raised their bows in salute.

“Dwayanu! Live Dwayanu!”

My troop seemed strangely shrunken. I called —“Naral!”

“Dead, Dwayanu. I told you there had been fighting.”

“Who killed her?”

“Never mind. I slew him. And those left of Tibur’s escort have fled. And now what. Lord?”

“We wait for Lur.”

“Not long shall we have to linger then, for here she comes.”

There was the blast of a horn. I turned to see the Witch-woman come galloping over the square. Her red braids were loose, her sword was red, and she was nigh as battle-stained as I. With her rode a scant dozen of her women, half as many of her nobles.

I awaited her. She reined up before me, searching me with wild bright eyes.

I should have killed her as I had Tibur. I should have been hating her. But I found I was not hating her at all. All of hate I had held seemed to have poured out upon Tibur.’ No, I was not hating her.

She smiled faintly:

“You are hard to kill. Yellow-hair!”

“Dwayanu — Witch.”

She glanced at me, half-contemptuously.

“You are no longer Dwayanu!”

“Try to convince these soldiers of that, Lur.’

“Oh, I know” she said, and stared down at Tibur. “So you killed the Smith. Well, at least you are still a man.”

“Killed him for you, Lur!” I jeered. “Did I not promise you?”

She did not answer, only asked, as Dara had before her:

“And now what?”

“We wait here until Sirk is emptied. Then we ride to Karak, you beside me. I do not like you at my back, Witch-woman.”

She spoke quietly to her women, then sat, head bent, thinking, with never another word for me.

I whispered to Dara:

“Can we trust the archers?”

She nodded.

“Bid them wait and march with us. Let them drag the body of Tibur into some corner.”

For half an hour the soldiers came by, with prisoners, with horses, with cattle and other booty. Small troops of the nobles and their supporters galloped up, halted, and spoke, but, at my word and Lur’s nod, passed on over the bridge. Most of the nobles showed dismayed astonishment at my resurrection; the soldiers gave me glad salute.

The last skeleton company came through the gap. I had been watching for Sri, but he was not with them, and I concluded that he had been taken to Karak with the earliest prisoners or had been killed.

“Come,” I said to the Witch-woman. “Let your women go before us.”

I rode over to Evalie, lifted her from her saddle and set her on my pommel. She made no resistance, but I felt her shrink from me. I knew she was thinking that she had but exchanged Tibur for another master, that to me she was only spoil of war. If my mind had not been so weary I suppose that would have hurt. But my mind was too weary to care.

We passed over the bridge, through the curling mists of steam. We were halfway to the forest when the Witch-woman threw back her head and sent forth a long, wailing call. The white wolves burst from the ferns. I gave command to the archers to set arrows. Lur shook her head.

“No need to harm them. They go to Sirk. They have earned their pay.”

The white wolves coursed over the barren to the bridge-end, streamed over it, vanished. I heard them howling among the dead.

“I, too, keep my promises,” said the Witch-woman.

We rode on, into the forest, back to Karak.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/m/merritt/abraham/mirage/chapter21.html

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