Dwellers in the Mirage, by Abraham Merritt

Chapter XXII.

Gate of Khalk’ru

We were close to Karak when the drums of the Little People began beating.

The leaden weariness pressed down upon me increasingly. I struggled to keep awake. Tibur’s stroke on my head had something to do with that, but I had taken other blows and eaten nothing since long before dawn. I could not think, much less plan what I was going to do after I had got back to Karak.

The drums of the Little People drove away my lethargy, brought me up wide-awake. They crashed out at first like a thunderburst across the white river. After that they settled down into a slow, measured rhythm filled with implacable menace. It was like Death standing on hollow graves and stamping on them before he marched.

At the first crash Evalie straightened, then sat listening with every nerve. I reined up my horse, and saw that the Witch-woman had also halted and was listening with all of Evalie’s intentness. There was something inexplicably disturbing in that monotonous drumming. Something that reached beyond and outside of human experience — or reached before it. It was like thousands of bared hearts beating in unison, in one unalterable rhythm, not to be still till the hearts themselves stopped . . . inexorable . . . and increasing in steadily widening area . . . spreading, spreading . . . until they beat from all the land across white Nanbu.

I spoke to Lur.

“I am thinking that here is the last of my promises, Witch-woman. I killed Yodin, gave you Sirk, I slew Tibur — and here is your war with the Rrrllya.”

I had not thought of how that might sound to Evalie! She turned and gave me one long level look of scom; she said to the Witch-woman, coldly, in halting Uighur:

“It is war. Was that not what you expected when you dared to take me? It will be war until my people have me again. Best be careful how you use me.”

The Witch-woman’s control broke at that, all the long pent-up fires of her wrath bursting forth.

“Good! Now we shall wipe out your yellow dogs for once and all. And you shall be flayed, or bathed in the cauldron — or given to Khalk’ru. Win or lose — there will be little of you for your dogs to fight over. You shall be used as I choose.”

“No,” I said, “as I choose, Lur.”

The blue eyes flamed on me at that. And the brown eyes met mine as scornfully as before.

“Give me a horse to ride. I do not like the touch of you — Dwayanu.’’

“Nevertheless, you ride with me, Evalie.”

We passed into Karak. The drums beat now loud, now low. But always with that unchanging, inexorable rhythm. They swelled and fell, swelled and fell. Like Death still stamping on the hollow graves — now fiercely — and now lightly.

There were many people in the streets. They stared at Evalie, and whispered. There were no shouts of welcome, no cheering. They seemed sullen, frightened. Then I knew they were listening so closely to the drums that they hardly knew we were passing. The drums were closer. I could hear them talking from point to point along the far bank of the river. The tongues of the talking drums rose plain above the others. And through their talking, repeated and repeated:

“Ev-ah-lee! Ev-ah-lee!”

We rode over the open square to the gate of the black citadel. There I stopped.

“A truce, Lur.”

She sent a mocking glance at Evalie.

“A truce! What need of a truce between you and me — Dwayanu?”

I said, quietly:

“I am tired of bloodshed. Among the captives are some of the Rrrllya. Let us bring them where they can talk with Evalie and with us two. We will then release a part of them, and send them across Nanbu with the message that no harm is intended Evalie. That we ask the Rrrllya to send us on the morrow an embassy empowered to arrange a lasting peace. And that when that peace is arranged they shall take Evalie back with them unharmed.”

She said, smiling:

“So — Dwayanu — fears the dwarfs!”

I repeated:

“I am tired of bloodshed.”

“Ah, me,” she sighed. “And did I not once hear Dwayanu boast that he kept his promises — and was thereby persuaded to give him payment for them in advance! Ah, me — but Dwayanu is changed!”

She stung me there, but I managed to master my anger; I said:

“If you will not agree to this, Lur, then I myself will give the orders. But then we shall be a beleagured city which is at its own throat. And easy prey for the enemy.”

She considered this.

“So you want no war with the little yellow dogs? And it is your thought that if the girl is returned to them, there will be none? Then why wait? Why not send her back at once with the captives? Take them up to Nansur, parley with the dwarfs there. Drum talk would settle the matter in a little while — if you are right. Then we can sleep this night without the drums disturbing you.”

That was true enough, but I read the malice in it. The truth was that I did not want Evalie sent back just then. If she were, then never, I knew, might I have a chance to justify myself with her, break down her distrust — have her again accept me as the Leif whom she had loved. But given a little time — I might. And the Witch-woman knew this.

“Not so quickly should it be done, Lur,” I said, suavely. “That would be to make them think we fear them — as the proposal made you think I feared them. We need more than hasty drum talk to seal such treaty. No, we hold the girl as hostage until we make our terms.”

She bent her head, thinking, then looked at me with clear eyes, and smiled.

“You are right, Dwayanu. I will send for the captives after I have rid myself of these stains of Sirk. They will be brought to your chamber. And in the meantime I will do more. I will order that word be sent the Rrrllya on Nansur that soon their captured fellows will be among them with a message. At the least it will give us time. And we need time, Dwayanu — both of us.”

I looked at her sharply. She laughed, and gave her horse the spurs. I rode behind her through the gate and into the great enclosed square. It was crowded with soldiers and captives. Here the drumming was magnified. The drums seemed to be within the place itself, invisible and beaten by invisible drummers. The soldiers were plainly uneasy, the prisoners excited, and curiously defiant.

Passing into the citadel I called various officers who had not taken part in the attack on Sirk and gave orders that the garrison on the walls facing Nansur Bridge be increased. Also that an alarm should be sounded which would bring in the soldiers and people from the outer-lying posts and farms. I ordered the guard upon the river walls to be strengthened, and the people of the city be told that those who wished to seek shelter in the citadel could come, but must be in by dusk. It was a scant hour before nightfall. There would be little trouble in caring for them in that immense place. And all this I did in event of the message failing. If it failed, I had no desire to be part of a massacre in Karak, which would stand a siege until I could convince the Little People of my good faith. Or convince Evalie of it, and have her bring about a peace.

This done, I took Evalie to my own chambers, not those of the High-priest where the Black Octopus hovered over the three thrones, but a chain of comfortable rooms in another part of the citadel. The little troop, which had stood by me through the sack of Sirk and after, followed us. There I turned Evalie over to Dara. I was bathed, my wound dressed and bandaged, and clothed. Here the windows looked out over the river, and the drums beat through them maddeningly. I ordered food brought, and wine, and summoned Evalie. Dara brought her. She had been well cared for, but she would not eat with me. She said to me:

“I fear my people will have but scant faith in any messages you send, Dwayanu.”

“Later we will talk of that other message, Evalie. I did not send it. And Tsantawu, dying in my arms, believed me when I told him I had not.”

“I heard you say to Lur that you had promised her Sirk. You did not lie to her, Dwayanu — for Sirk is eaten. How can I believe you?”

I said: “You shall have proof that I speak truth, Evalie, Now, since you will not eat with me, go with Dara.”

She had no fault to find with Dara. Dara was no lying traitor, but a soldier, and fighting in Sirk or elsewhere was part of her trade. She went with her.

I ate sparingly and drank heavily. The wine put new life in me, drove away what was left of weariness. I put sorrow for Jim resolutely aside for the moment, thinking of what I intended to do, and how best to do it. And then there was a challenge at the door, and the Witch-woman entered.

Her red braids crowned her and in them shone the sapphires. She bore not the slightest mark of the struggles of the day, nor sign of fatigue. Her eyes were bright and clear, her red lips smiling. Her low, sweet voice, her touch upon my arm, brought back memories I had thought gone with Dwayanu.

She called, and through the door came a file of soldiers, and with them a score of the Little People, unbound, hatred in their yellow eyes as they saw me, curiosity too. I spoke to them, gently. I sent for Evalie. She came, and the golden pygmies ran to her, threw themselves upon her like a crowd of children, twittering and trilling, stroking her hair, touching her feet and hands.

She laughed, called them one by one by name, then spoke rapidly. I could get little of what she said; by the shadow on Lur’s face I knew she had understood nothing at all. I repeated to Evalie precisely what I had told Lur — and which, at least in part, she knew, for she had betrayed that she understood the Uighur, or the Ayjir, better than she had admitted. I translated from the tongue of the dwarfs for Lur.

The pact was speedily made. Half of the pygmies were to make their way at once over Nanbu to the garrison on the far side of the bridge. By the talking drums they would send our message to the stronghold of the Little People. If they accepted it, the beating of the war drums would cease. I said to Evalie:

“When they talk on their drums, let them say that nothing will be asked of them that was not contained in the old truce — and that death will no longer lie in wait for them when they cross the river.”

The Witch-woman said:

“Just what does that mean, Dwayanu?”

“Now Sirk is done, there is no longer much need for that penalty, Lur. Let them gather their herbs and metals as they will; that is all.”

“There is more in your mind than that —” Her eyes narrowed.

“They understood me, Evalie — but do you also tell them.”

The Little People trilled among themselves; then ten of them stepped forward, those chosen to take the message. As they were moving away, I stopped them.

“If Sri escaped, let him come with the embassy. Better still — let him come before them. Send word through the drums that he may come as soon as he can. He has my safe-conduct, and shall stay with Evalie until all is settled.”

They chattered over that, assented. The Witch-woman made no comment. For the first time I saw Evalie’s eyes soften as she looked at me.

When the pygmies were gone, Lur walked to the door, and beckoned. Ouarda entered.

“Ouarda!”

I liked Ouarda. It was good to know she was alive. I went to her with outstretched hands. She took them.

“It was two of the soldiers. Lord. They had sisters in Sirk. They cut the ladder before we could stop them. They were slain,” she said.

Would to God they had cut it before any could, have followed me I

Before I could speak, one of my captains knocked and entered.

“It is long after dusk and the gates are closed. Lord. All those who would come are behind them.”

“Were there many, soldier?”

“No, Lord — not more than a hundred or so. The others refused.”

“And did they say why they refused?”

“Is the question an order. Lord?”

“It is an order.”

“They said they were safer where they were. That the Rrrllya had no quarrel with them, who were but meat for Khalk’ru.”

“Enough, soldier!” The Witch-woman’s voice was harsh. “Go! Take the Rrrllya with you.”

The captain saluted, turned smartly and was gone with the dwarfs. I laughed.

“Soldiers cut our ladder for sympathy of those who fled Khalk’ru. The people fear the enemies of Khalk’ru less than they do their own kind who are his butchers! We do well to make peace with the Rrrllya, Lur.”

I watched her face pale, then redden and saw the knuckles of her hands whiten as she clenched them. She smiled, poured herself wine, lifted it with a steady hand.

“I drink to your wisdom — Dwayanu!”

A strong soul — the Witch-woman’s! A warrior’s heart. Somewhat lacking in feminine softness, it was true. But it was no wonder that Dwayanu had loved her — in his way and as much as he could love a woman.

A silence dropped upon the chamber, intensified in some odd fashion by the steady beating of the drums. How long we sat in that silence I do not know. But suddenly the beat of the drums became fainter.

And then all at once the drums ceased entirely. The quiet brought a sense of unreality. I could feel the tense nerves loosening like springs long held taut. The abrupt silence made ears ache, slowed heart-beat.

“They have the message. They have accepted it,” Evalie spoke.

The Witch-woman arose.

“You keep the girl beside you to-night, Dwayanu?”

“She sleeps in one of these rooms, Lur. She will be under guard. No one can reach her without passing through my room here,” I looked at her, significantly. “And I sleep lightly. You need have no fear of her escape.”

“I am glad the drums will not disturb your sleep — Dwayanu.”

She gave me a mocking salute, and, with Ouarda, left me.

And suddenly the weariness dropped upon me again. I turned to Evalie, watching me with eyes in which I thought doubt of her own deep doubt had crept. Certainly there was no scorn, nor loathing in them. Well, now I had her where all this manoeuvring had been meant to bring her. Alone with me. And looking at her I felt that in the face of all she had seen of me, all she had undergone because of me — words were useless things. Nor could I muster them as I wanted. No, there would be plenty of time . . . in the morning, perhaps, when I had slept . . . or after I had done what I had to do . . . then she must believe . . . .

“Sleep, Evalie. Sleep without fear . . . and believe that all that has been wrong is now becoming right. Go with Dara. You shall be well guarded. None can come to you except through this room, and here I will be. Sleep and fear nothing.”

I called Dara, gave her instructions, and Evalie went with her. At the curtains masking the entrance to the next room she hesitated, half turned as though to speak, but did not. And not long after Dara returned. She said:

“She is already asleep, Dwayanu.”

“As you should be, friend,” I told her. “And all those others who stood by me this day. I think there is nothing to fear to-night. Select those whom you can trust and have them guard the corridor and my door. Where have you put her?”

“In the chamber next this, Lord.”

“It would be better if you and the others slept here, Dara. There are half a dozen rooms for you. Have wine and food brought for you — plenty of it.”

She laughed.

“Do you expect a siege, Dwayanu?”

“One never knows.”

“You do not greatly trust Lur, Lord?”

“I trust her not at all, Dara.”

She nodded, turned to go. Upon the impulse I said:

“Dara, would it make you sleep better to-night and those with you, and would it help you in picking your guard if I told you this: there will be no more sacrifices to Khalk’ru while I live?”

She started; her face lightened, softened. She thrust out her hand to me:

“Dwayanu — I had a sister who was given to Khalk’ru. Do you mean this?”

“By the life of my blood! By all the living gods! I mean it!”

“Sleep well. Lord!” Her voice was choked. She walked away, through the curtain, but not before I had seen the tears on her cheeks.

Well, a woman had a right to weep — even if she was a soldier. I myself had wept today.

I poured myself wine, sat thinking as I drank. Mainly my thoughts revolved around the enigma of Khalk’ru. And there was a good reason for that.

What was Khalk’ru?

I slipped the chain from round my neck, opened the locket and studied the ring. I closed it, and threw it on the table. Somehow I felt that it was better there than over my heart while I was doing this thinking.

Dwayanu had had his doubts about that dread Thing being any Spirit of the Void, and I, who now was Leif Langdon and a passive Dwayanu, had no doubts whatever that it was not. Yet I could not accept Barr’s theory of mass hypnotism — and trickery was out of the question.

Whatever Khalk’ru might be, Khalk’ru — as the Witch-woman had said — was. Or at least that Shape which became material through ritual, ring and screen — was.

I thought that I might have put the experience in the temple of the oasis down as hallucination if it had not been repeated here in the Shadowed-land. But there could be no possible doubt about the reality of the sacrifice I had conducted; no possible doubt as to the destruction — absorption — dissolvement — of the twelve girls. And none of Yodin’s complete belief in the power of the tentacle to remove me, and none of his complete effacement. And I thought that if the sacrifices and Yodin were standing in the wings laughing at me, as Barr had put it — then it was in the wings of a theatre in some other world than this. And there was the deep horror of the Little People, the horror of so many of the Ayjir — and there was the revolt in ancient Ayjirland born of this same horror, which had destroyed Ayjirland by civil war.

No, whatever the Thing was, no matter how repugnant to science its recognition as a reality might be — still it was Atavism, superstition — call it what Barr would — I knew the Thing was real! Not of this earth — no, most certainly not of this earth. Not even supernatural. Or rather, supernatural only insofar as it might come from another dimension or even another world which our five senses could not encompass.

And I reflected, now, that science and religion are really blood brothers, which is largely why they hate each other so, that scientists and religionists are quite alike in their dogmatism, their intolerance, and that every bitter battle of religion over some interpretation of creed or cult has its parallel in battles of science over a bone or rock.

Yet just as there are men in the churches whose minds have not become religiously fossilized, so there are men in the laboratories whose minds have not become scientifically fossilized. . . . Einstein, who dared challenge all conceptions of space and time with his four dimensional space in which time itself was a dimension, and who followed that with proof of five dimensional space instead of the four which are all our senses can apprehend, and which apprehends one of them wrongly . . . the possibility of a dozen worlds spinning interlocked with this one . . . in the same space . . . the energy which we call matter of each of them keyed to the different vibration, and each utterly unaware of the other . . . and utterly overturning the old axiom that two bodies cannot occupy the same place at the same time.

And I thought — what if far and far back in time, a scientist of that day, one of the Ayjir people, had discovered all that! Had discovered the fifth dimension beyond length, breadth, thickness and time. Or had discovered one of those interlocking worlds whose matter streams through the interstices of the matter of ours. And discovering dimension or world, had found the way to make dwellers in that dimension or that other world both aware of and manifest to those of this. By sound and gesture, by ring and screen, had made a gateway through which such dwellers could come — or at least, appear! And then what a weapon this discoverer had — what a weapon the inevitable priests of that Thing would have! And did have ages gone, just as they had here in Karak.

If so, was it one dweller or many who lurked in those gateways for its drink of life? The memories bequeathed me by Dwayanu told me there had been other temples in Ayjirland besides that one of the oasis. Was it the same Being that appeared in each? Was the Shape that came from the shattered stone of the oasis the same that had fed in the temple of the mirage? Or were there many of them — dwellers in other dimension or other world — avidly answering the summons? Nor was it necessarily true that in their own place these Things had the form of the Kraken. That might be the shape, through purely natural laws, which entrance into this world forced upon them.

I thought over that for quite awhile. It seemed to me the best explanation of Khalk’ru. And if it was, then the way to be rid of Khalk’ru was to destroy his means of entrance. And that, I reflected, was precisely how the ancient Ayjirs had argued.

But it did not explain why only those of the old blood could summon —

I heard a low voice at the door. I walked softly over to it, listened. I opened the door and there was Lur, talking to the guards.

“What is it you are seeking, Lur?”

“To speak with you. I will keep you only a little time, Dwayanu.”

I studied the Witch-woman. She stood, very quietly, in her eyes nothing of defiance nor resentment nor subtle calculation — only appeal. Her red braids fell over her white shoulders; she was without weapon or ornament. She looked younger than ever I had seen her, and somewhat forlorn. I felt no desire to mock her nor to deny her. I felt instead the stirrings of a deep pity.

“Enter, Lur — and say all that is in your mind.”

I closed the door behind her. She walked over to the window, looked out into the dim greenly glimmering night. I went to her.

“Speak softly, Lur. The girl is asleep there in the next chamber. Let her rest.”

She said, tonelessly:

“I wish you had never come here. Yellow-hair.” I thought of Jim, and I answered:

“I wish that too. Witch-woman. But here I am.” She leaned towards me, put her hand over my heart. “Why do you hate me so greatly?”

“I do not hate you, Lur. I have no hate left in me — except for one thing.”

“And that —?”

Involuntarily I looked at the table. One candle shone there and its light fell on the locket that held the ring. Her glance followed mine. She said:

“What do you mean to do? Throw Karak open to the dwarfs? Mend Nansur? Rule here over Karak and the Rrrllya with their dark girl at your side? Is it that . . . and if it is that — what is to become of Lur? Answer me. I have the right to know. There is a bond between us . . . I loved you when you were Dwayanu . . . you know how well . . .”

“And would have killed me while I was still Dwayanu,” I said, sombrely.

“Because I saw Dwayanu dying as you looked into the eyes of the stranger,” she answered. “You whom Dwayanu had mastered was killing Dwayanu. I loved Dwayanu. Why should I not avenge him?”

“If you believe I am no longer Dwayanu, then I am the man whose friend you trapped and murdered — the man whose love you trapped and would have destroyed. And if that be so — what claim have you upon me, Lur?”

She did not answer for moments; then she said:

“I have some justice on my side. I tell you I loved Dwayanu. Something I knew of your case from the first. Yellow-hair. But I saw Dwayanu awaken within you. And I knew it was truly he! I knew, too, that as long as that friend of yours and the dark girl lived there was danger for Dwayanu. That was why I plotted to bring them into Sirk. I threw the dice upon the chance of killing them before you had seen them. Then, I thought, all would be well. There would be none left to rouse that in you which Dwayanu had mastered. I lost. I knew I had lost when by whim of Luka she threw you three together. And rage and sorrow caught me — and I did . . . what I did.”

“Lur,” I said, “answer me truly. That day you returned to the Lake of the Ghosts after pursuit of the two women — were they not your spies who bore that lying message into Sirk? And did you not wait until you learned my friend and Evalie were in the trap before you gave me word to march? And was it not in your thought that you would then — if I opened the way into Sirk — rid yourself not only of those two but of Dwayanu? For remember — you may have loved Dwayanu, but as he told you, you loved power better than he. And Dwayanu threatened your power. Answer me truly.”

For the second time I saw tears in the eyes of the Witch-woman. She said, brokenly:

“I sent the spies, yes. I waited until the two were in the trap. But I never meant harm to Dwayanu!”

I did not believe her. But still I felt no anger, no hate. The pity grew.

“Lur, now I will tell you truth. It is not in my mind to rule with Evalie over Karak and the Rrrllya. I have no more desire for power. That went with Dwayanu. In the peace I make with the dwarfs, you shall rule over Karak — if that be your desire. The dark girl shall go back with them. She will not desire to remain in Karak. Nor do I . . . .”

“You cannot go with her,” she interrupted me. “Never would the yellow dogs trust you. Their arrows would be ever pointed at you.”

I nodded — that thought had occurred to me long before.

“All — that must adjust itself,” I said. “But there shall be no more sacrifices. The gate of Khalk’ru shall be closed against him for ever. And I will close it.”

Her eyes dilated.

“You mean —”

“I mean that I will shut Khalk’ru for ever from Karak — unless Khalk’ru proves stronger than I.”

She wrung her hands, helplessly.

“What use rule over Karak to me then . . . how could I hold the people?”

“Nevertheless — I will destroy the gate of Khalk’ru.”

She whispered:

“Gods — if I had Yodin’s ring . . .”

I smiled at that.

“Witch-woman, you know as well as I that Khalk’ru comes to no woman’s call.”

The witch-lights flickered in her eyes; a flash of green shone through them.

“There is an ancient prophecy. Yellow-hair, that Dwayanu did not know — or had forgotten. It says that when Khalk’ru comes to a woman’s call, he — stays! That was the reason no woman in ancient Ayjilrand might be priestess at the sacrifice.”

I laughed at that.

“A fine pet, Lur — to add to your wolves.”

She walked toward the door, paused.

“What if I could love you — as I loved Dwayanu? Could make you love me as Dwayanu loved me? And more! Send the dark girl to join her people and take the ban of death from them on this side of Nanbu. Would you let things be as they are — rule with me over Karak?”

I opened the door for her.

“I told you I no longer care for power, Lur.”

She walked away.

I went back to the window, drew a chair to it, and sat thinking. Suddenly from somewhere close to the citadel I heard a wolf cry. Thrice it howled, then thrice again.

“Leif!”

I jumped to my feet. Evalie was beside me. She peered at me through the veils of her hair; her clear eyes shone upon me — no longer doubting, hating, fearing. They were as they were of old.

“Evalie!”

My arms went round her; my lips found hers.

“I listened, Leif!”

“You believe, Evalie!”

She kissed me, held me tight.

“But she was right — Leif. You could not go with me again into the land of the Little People. Never, never would they understand. And I would not dwell in Karak.”

“Will you go with me, Evalie — to my own land? After I have done what I must do . . . and if I am not destroyed in its doing?”

“I will go with you, Leif!”

And she wept awhile, and after another while she fell asleep in my arms. And I lifted her, and carried her into her chamber and covered her with the sleep silks. Nor did she awaken.

I returned to my own room. As I passed the table I picked up the locket, started to put it round my neck. I threw it back. Never would I wear that chain again, I dropped upon the bed, sword at hand. I slept.

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