Dwellers in the Mirage, by Abraham Merritt

Chapter XXIII.

In Khalk’ru’s Temple

Twice I awakened. The first time it was the howling of the wolves that aroused me. It was as though they were beneath my window. I listened drowsily, and sank back to sleep.

The second time I came wide awake from a troubled dream. Some sound in the chamber had roused me, of that I was sure. My hand dropped to my sword lying on the floor beside my bed. I had the feeling that there was someone in the room. I could see nothing in the green darkness that filled the chamber. I called, softly:

“Evalie! Is that you?”

There was no answer, no sound.

I sat up in the bed, even thrust a leg out to rise. And then I remembered the guards at my door, and Dara and her soldiers beyond, and I told myself that it had been only my troubled dream that had awakened me. Yet for a time I lay awake listening, sword in hand. And then the silence lulled me back to sleep.

There was a knocking upon my door, and I struggled out of that sleep. I saw that it was well after dawn. I went to the door softly so that I might not awaken Evalie. I opened it, and there with the guards was Sri. The little man had come well armed, with spear and sickle-sword and between his shoulders one of the small, surprisingly resonant talking drums. He looked at me in the friendliest fashion. I patted his hand and pointed to the curtains.

“Evalie is there, Sri. Go waken her.”

He trotted past me. I gave greeting to the guards, and turned to follow Sri. He stood at the curtains, looking at me with eyes in which was now no friendliness at all. He said:

“Evalie is not there.”

I stared at him, incredulously, brushed by him and into that chamber. It was empty. I crossed to the pile of silks and cushions on which Evalie had slept, touched them. There was no warmth. I went, Sri at my heels, into the next room. Dara and a half dozen of the women lay there, asleep. Evalie was not among them. I touched Dara on the shoulder. She sat up, yawning.

“Dara — the girl is gone!”

“Gone!” she stared at me as incredulously as I had at the golden pygmy. She leaped to her feet, ran to the empty room, then with me through the other chambers. There lay the soldier women, alseep, but not Evalie.

I ran back to my own room, and to its door. A bitter rage began to possess me. Swiftly, harshly, I questioned the guards. They had seen no one. None had entered; none had gone forth. The golden pygmy listened, his eyes never leaving me.

I turned toward Evalie’s room. I passed the table on which I had thrown the locket. My hand fell on it, lifted it; it was curiously light . . . I opened it. . . . The ring of Khalk’ru was not there! I glared at the empty locket — and like a torturing flame realization of what its emptiness and the vanishment of Evalie might signify came to me. I groaned, leaned against the table to keep from falling.

“Drum, Sri! Call your people! Bid them come quickly! There may yet be time!”

The golden pygmy hissed; his eyes became little pools of yellow fire. He could not have known all the horror of my thoughts — but he read enough. He leaped to the window, swung his drum and sent forth call upon call — peremptory, raging, vicious. At once he was answered — answered from Nansur, and then from all the river and beyond it the drums of the Little People roared out.

Would Lur hear them? She could not help but hear them . . . but would she heed . . . would their threat stop her . . . it would tell her that I was awake and that the Little People knew of their betrayal . . . and Evalie’s.

God! If she did hear — was it in time to save Evalie?

“Quick, Lord!” Dara called from the curtains. The dwarf and I ran through. She pointed to the side of the wall. There, where one of the carved stones jointed another, hung a strip of silk.

“A door there, Dwayanu! That is how they took her. They went hurriedly. The cloth caught when the stone closed.”

I looked for something to batter at the stone. But Dara was pressing here and there. The stone swung open. Sri darted past and into the black passage it had masked. I stumbled after him, Dara at my heels, the others following. It was a narrow passage, and not long. Its end was a solid wall of stone. And here Dara pressed again until that wall opened.

We burst into the chamber of the High-priest. The eyes of the Kraken stared at me and through me with their inscrutable malignancy. Yet it seemed to me that in them now was challenge.

All my senseless fury, all blind threshing of my rage, fell from me. A cold deliberation, an ordered purpose that had in it nothing of haste took its place. . . . Is it too late to save Evalie? . . . It is not too late to destroy you, my enemy . . . .

“Dara — get horses for us. Gather quickly as many as you can trust. Take only the strongest. Have them ready at the gate of the road to the temple. . . . We go to end Khalk’ru. Tell them that.”

I spoke to the golden pygmy.

“I do not know if I can help Evalie. But I go to put an end to Khalk’ru. Do you wait for your people — or do you go with me?”

“I go with you.”

I knew where the Witch-woman dwelt in the black citadel, and it was not far away. I knew I would not find her there, but I must be sure. And she might have taken Evalie to the Lake of the Ghosts, I was thinking as I went on, past groups of silent, uneasy, perplexed and saluting soldiers. But deep in me I knew she had not. Deep within me I knew that it had been Lur who had awakened me in the night. Lur, who had stolen through the curtains to take the ring of Khalk’ru. And there was only one reason why she should have done that. No, she would not be at the Lake of the Ghosts.

Yet, if she had come into my room — why had she not slain me? Or had she meant to do this, and had my awakening and calling out to Evalie stayed her? Had she feared to go further? Or had she deliberately spared me?

I reached her rooms. She was not there. None of her women was there. The place was empty, not even soldiers on guard.

I broke into a run. The golden pygmy followed me, shrilling, javelins in left hand, sickle-sword in right. We came to the gate to the temple road.

There were three or four hundred soldiers awaiting me. Mounted — and every one a woman. I threw myself on a horse Dara held for me, swung Sri up on the saddle. We raced toward the temple.

We were half-way there when out from the trees that bordered the temple road poured the white wolves. They sprang from the sides like a white torrent, threw themselves upon the riders. They checked our rush, our horses stumbled, falling over those the fangs of the wolves had dropped in that swift, unexpected ambuscade; soldiers falling with them, ripped and torn by the wolves before they could struggle to their feet. We milled among them — horses and men and wolves in a whirling, crimson-flecked ring.

Straight at my throat leaped the great dog-wolf, leader of Lur’s pack, green eyes naming. I had no time for sword thrust. I caught its throat in my left hand, lifted it and flung it over my back. Even so, its fangs had struck and gashed me.

We were through the wolves. What was left of them came coursing behind us. But they had taken toll of my troop.

I heard the clang of an anvil . . . thrice stricken . . . the anvil of Tubalka!

God! It was true . . . Lur in the temple . . . and Evalie . . . and Khalk’ru!

We swept up to the door of the temple. I heard voices raised in the ancient chant. The entrance swarmed. . . . It bristled with swords of the nobles, women and men.

“Ride through them, Dara! Ride them down!”

We swept through them like a ram. Sword against sword, hammers and battleaxes beating at them, horses trampling them.

The shrill song of Sri never ceased. His javelin thrust, his sickle-sword slashed.

We burst into Khalk’ru’s temple. The chanting stopped. The chanters arose against us; they struck with sword and axe and hammer at us; they stabbed and hacked our horses; pulled us down. The amphitheatre was a raging cauldron of death . . . .

The lip of the platform was before me. I spurred my horse to it, stood upon its back and leaped upon the platform. Close to my right was the anvil of Tubalka; beside it, hammer raised to smite, was Ouarda. I heard the roll of drums, the drums of Khalk’ru’s evocation. The backs of the priests were bent over them.

In front of the priests, the ring of Khalk’ru raised high, stood Lur.

And between her and the bubble ocean of yellow stone that was the gate of Khalk’ru, fettered dwarfs swung two by two in the golden girdles . . . .

Within the warrior’s ring — Evalie!

The Witch-woman never looked at me; she never looked behind her at the roaring cauldron of the amphitheatre where the soldiers and nobles battled.

She launched into the ritual!

Shouting, I rushed on Ouarda. I wrested the great sledge from her hands. I hurled it straight at the yellow screen . . . straight at the head of Khalk’ru. With every ounce of my strength I hurled that great hammer.

The screen cracked! The hammer was thrown back from it . . . fell.

The Witch-woman’s voice went on . . . and on . . . never faltering.

There was a wavering in the cracked screen. The Kraken floating in the bubble ocean seemed to draw back . . . to thrust forward . . .

I ran toward it . . . to the hammer.

An instant I halted beside Evalie. I thrust my hands through the golden girdle, broke it as though it had been wood. I dropped my sword at her feet.

“Guard yourself, Evalie!”

I picked up the hammer. I raised it. The eyes of Khalk’ru moved . . . they glared at me, were aware of me . . . the tentacles stirred! And the paralysing cold began to creep round me. . . . I threw all my will against it.

I smashed the sledge of Tubalka against the yellow stone . . . again . . . and again —

The tentacles of Khalk’ru stretched toward me!

There was a crystalline crashing, like a lightning bolt striking close. The yellow stone of the screen shattered. It rained round me like sleet driven by an icy hurricane. There was an earthquake trembling. The temple rocked. My arms fell, paralysed. The hammer of Tubalka dropped from hands that could no longer feel it. The icy cold swirled about me . . . higher . . . higher . . . there was a shrill and dreadful shrieking . . . .

For an instant the shape of the Kraken hovered where the screen had been. Then it shrank. It seemed to be sucked away into immeasurable distances. It vanished.

And life rushed back into me!

There were jagged streamers of the yellow stone upon the rocky floor . . . black of the Kraken within them . . . I beat them into dust . . . .

“Leif!”

Evalie’s voice, shrill, agonized. I swung round. Lur was rushing upon me, sword raised. Before I could move Evalie had darted between us, flung herself in front of the Witch-woman, struck at her with my own sword.

The blade of Lur parried the stroke, swept in . . . bit deep . . . and Evalie fell . . . .Lur leaped toward me . . . I watched her come, not moving, not caring . . . there was blood upon her sword . . . Evalie’s blood . . . .

Something like a flash of light touched her breast. She halted as though a hand had thrust her back. Slowly, she dropped to her knees. She sank to the rock.

Over the rim of the platform leaped the dog-wolf, howling as it ran. It hurled itself straight at me. There was another flash of light. The dog-wolf somersaulted and fell — in mid-leap.

I saw Sri, crouching. One of his javelins was in Lur’s breast, the mate to it in the dog-wolf’s throat. . . . I saw the golden pygmy running to Evalie . . . saw her rise, holding a hand to a shoulder from which streamed blood . . . .

I walked toward Lur, stiffly, like an automaton. The white wolf tried to stagger to its feet, then crawled to the Witch-woman, dragging itself on its belly. It reached her before I did. It dropped its head upon her breast. It turned its head, and lay glaring at me, dying.

The Witch-woman looked up at me. Her eyes were soft and her mouth had lost all cruelty. It was tender. She smiled at me.

“I wish you had never come here, Yellow-hair!”

And then —

“Ai — and — Ai! My Lake of the Ghosts!”

Her hand crept up, and dropped on the head of the dying wolf, caressingly. She sighed —

The Witch-woman was dead.

I LOOKED into the awed faces of Evalie and Dara. “Evalie — your wound —”

“Not deep, Leif. . . . Soon it will heal . . . it does not matter . . . .”

Dara said:

“Hail — Dwayanu! It is a great thing you have done this day!”

She dropped on her knees, kissed my hand. And now I saw that those of mine who had survived the battle in the temple had come up on the platform, and were kneeling — to me. And that Ouarda lay beside Tubalka’s anvil, and that Sri too was on his knees, staring at me, eyes filled with worship.

I heard the tumult of the drums of the Little People . . . no longer on Nanbu’s far side . . . in Karak . . . and closer.

Dara spoke again:

“Let us be going back to Karak, Lord. It is now all yours to rule.”

I said to Sri:

“Sound your drum, Sri. Tell them that Evalie lives. That Lur is dead. That the gate of Khalk’ru is closed forever. Let there be no more killing.”

Sri answered:

“What you have done has wiped out all war between my people and Karak. Evalie and you we will obey. I will tell them what you have done.”

He swung the little drum, raised his hands to beat it I stopped him.

“Wait, Sri, I shall not be here to obey.”

Dara cried: “Dwayanu — you will not leave us!”

“Yes, Dara. . . . I go now to that place whence I came. . . . I do not return to Karak. I am done with the Little People, Sri.”

Evalie spoke, breathlessly:

“What of me — Leif?”

I put my hands on her shoulders, looked into her eyes:

“Last night you whispered that you would go with me, Evalie. I release you from that promise. . . . I am thinking you would be happier here with your small folk . . . .”

She said, steadily:

“I know where happiness lies for me. I hold to my promise . . . unless you do not want me . . . .”

“I do want you — dark girl!”

She turned to Sri: “Carry my love to my people, Sri. I shall not see them again.”

The little man clung to her, cast himself down before her, wailed and wept while she talked to him. At last he squatted on his haunches, and stared long at the shattered gate of the Kraken. I saw the secret knowledge touch him. He came to me, held up his arms for me to lift him. He raised my lids and looked deep into my eyes. He thrust his hand in my breast, and placed his head on my breast, and listened to the beating of my heart. He dropped, bent Evalie’s head to his, whispering.

Dara said: “Dwayanu’s will is our will. Yet it is hard to understand why he will not stay with us.”

“Sri knows . . . more than I do. I cannot, Dara.”

Evalie came to me. Her eyes were bright with unshed tears.

“Sri says we must go now, Leif . . . quickly. My people must — not see me. He will tell them a tale upon his drum . . . there will be no fighting . . . and henceforth there will be peace.”

The golden pygmy began to beat the talking drum. At the first strokes the hosts of other drums were silent. When he had ended they began again . . . jubilant, triumphant . . . until in them crept a note of questioning. Once more he beat a message . . . the answer came — angry, peremptory — in some queer fashion, incredulous.

Sri said to me: “Haste! Haste!”

Dara said: “We stay with you, Dwayanu, until the last.”

I nodded, and looked at Lur. Upon her hand the ring of Khalk’ru sent out a sudden gleam. I went to her, lifted the dead hand and took from it the ring. I smashed it on the anvil of Tubalka as I had the ring of Yodin.

Evalie said: “Sri knows a way that will lead us out into your world, Leif. It lies at the head of Nanbu. He will take us.”

“Is the way past the Lake of Ghosts, Evalie?”

“I will ask him .. . yes, it passes there.”

“That is good. We go into a country where the clothing I wear would be hardly fitting. And some provision must be made for you.”

We rode from the temple with Sri on my saddle, and Evalie and Dara on either side. The drums were very close. They were muted when we emerged from the forest upon the road. We went swiftly. It was mid-afternoon when we reached the Lake of the Ghosts. The drawbridge was down. There was no one in the garrison. The Witch-woman’s castle was empty. I searched, and found my roll of clothes; I stripped the finery of Dwayanu from me. I took a battle-ax, thrust a short sword in my belt, picked javelins for Evalie and myself. They would help us win through, would be all we had to depend upon to get us food later on. We took food with us from Lur’s castle, and skins to clothe Evalie when she passed from the Mirage.

I did not go up into the chamber of the Witch-woman. I heard the whispering of the waterfall — and did not dare to look upon it.

All the rest of that afternoon we galloped along the white river’s banks. The drums of the Little People followed us . . . searching . . . questioning . . . calling . . . “Ev-ah-lee .. . Ev-ah-lee . . . Ev-ah-lee . . .”

By nightfall we had come to the cliffs at the far end of the valley. Here Nanbu poured forth in a mighty torrent from some subterranean source. We picked our way across. Sri led us far into a ravine running steeply upward, and here we camped.

And that night I sat thinking long of what Evalie must meet in that new world awaiting her beyond the Mirage — the world of sun and stars and wind and cold. I thought long of what must be done to shield her until she could adjust herself to that world. And I listened to the drums of the Little People calling her, and I watched her while she slept, and wept and smiled in dream.

She must be taught to breathe. I knew that when she emerged from this atmosphere in which she had lived since babyhood, she would cease instantly to breathe — deprivation of the accustomed stimulus of the carbon-dioxide would bring that about at once. She must will herself to breathe until the reflexes again became automatic and she need give them no conscious thought. And at night, when she slept, this would be trebly difficult. I would have to remain awake, watch beside her.

And she must enter this new world with eyes bandaged, blind, until the nerves accustomed to the green luminosity of the Mirage could endure the stronger light. Warm clothing we could contrive from the skins and furs. But the food — what was it Jim had said in the long and long ago — that those who had eaten the food of the Little People would die if they ate other. Well, that was true in part. Yet, only in part — it could be managed.

With dawn came a sudden memory — the pack I had hidden on Nanbu’s bank when we had plunged into the white river with the wolves at our heels. If that could be found, it would help solve the problem of Evalie’s clothing at least. I told Dara about it. And she and Sri set out to find it. And while they were gone the soldier-women foraged for food and I instructed Evalie upon what she must do to cross in safety that bridge which lay, perilous, between her world and mine.

Two days they were gone — but they had found the pack. They brought word of peace between the Ayjir and the Little People. As for me —

Dwayanu the Deliverer had come even as the prophecy had promised . . . had come and freed them from the ancient doom . . . and had gone back as was his right to that place from which, answering the prophecy, he had come . . . and had taken with him Evalie as was also his right. Sri had spread the tale.

And next morning when the light showed that the sun had risen over the peaks that girdled the Valley of the Mirage, we set forth — Evalie like a slim boy beside me.

We climbed until we were within the green mists. And here we bade farewell, Sri clinging to Evalie, kissing her hands and feet, weeping. And Dara clasped my shoulders:

“You will come back to us, Dwayanu? We will be waiting!”

It was like the echo of the Uighur captain’s voice — long and long ago. . .

I turned and began to climb, Evalie following. I thought that so might Euridice have followed her lover up from the Land of Shades in another long and long ago.

The figures of Sri and the watching women became dim. They were hidden under the green mists . . . .

I felt the bitter cold touch my face. I caught Evalie up in my arms — and climbed up and on — and staggered at last out into the sun-lit warmth of the slopes beyond the pit of the precipices.

The day dawned when we had won the long, hard fight for Evalie’s life. Not easily was the grip of the Mirage loosed. We turned our faces to the South and set our feet upon the Southward trail.

And yet . . .

Ai! Lur — Witch-woman! I see you lying there, smiling with lips grown tender — the — white wolf’s head upon your breast! And Dwayanu still lives within me!

This web edition published by:

eBooks@Adelaide
The University of Adelaide Library
University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/m/merritt/abraham/mirage/chapter23.html

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