[From the Sydney Fowler Wright web site: www.sfw.org]
by S. Fowler Wright
STELE said, "We can rest here, and drink." These were their first two needs. He laid his burden down where there was moss among the stones. She lay without movement, and he looked at her with attentive eyes. "She could move well enough if she would," he said at last. "She hears all." There were some things that he knew.
Not understanding his words, or only in part, she was not disturbed. He looked at her, pleased, and yet ill-content. Having carried anything so far, is it not yours?
He thought of food. "Are we never to eat again?"
"I have a piece of meat left," Elsya answered.
In the morning he had divided very equally what they had, though he could have eaten all. Now he had his reward. Elsya gave him most of that which she had saved. It was fair enough. He had walked a burdened way. And it was the custom of the tribe that the women went short first, if there were little for all. That was good sense, for the strength of the men must be kept up that they may hunt for more. There were some who held that exception should be made for those women who had a young child. There have been faddists at all times.
Having little to eat, Elsya looked to their companion whether captive or guest was less than clear to the minds of any of the three. She washed the wound, using gentle hands. As she did this Rita opened her eyes. They looked at one another for some time without attempt of words. Elsya brought water in cupped hands. She offered what she had left of the meat, from which Rita turned.
At the end of that time they were friends.
Rita, who could have done it very well before, sat up. She had regained some of her strength, but she had been panic-stilled, like a caught thing.
All she lacked was food, of which she had had less than her companions, and for which she had a more difficult need. She saw them casting their net, to try the chance of the lake. It meant nothing to her.
She thought it was a very dreadful place. The lake was black, under a lead-grey sky. The reeds moaned. The birds cried, as though they wailed over a grave. She wondered that any should come to such a place, having known of a better life. It might be well enough for these others, for they were no better than cave-men after all. Nothing could alter that. How could she get back to her trees?
BUT Rita did not go back to the trees, though for the next four days she had this purpose fixed in her mind. There were reasons why it delayed, though she had no doubt what the end would be.
In the first place, her wound was such that, though she could walk well enough (and did, for she would have no more of Stele's shoulder, even had it been offered with a goodwill, which did not happen, for he remembered her weight), yet it was less easy to climb. She found this at the first wooded place to which they came, which was no more than a copse in a vale that was steep and small, where she found nuts that she could eat, though not of a good sort.
In the second, Elsya was kind. She had no great cause to wish to keep Rita with them, but she was of those who will never seek at a slow pace or want in a pale way. What she would she must. Having the wish once born in her mind that Rita should go their way, she would have given all that the world held (except her pearls) rather than that it should thwart her will. There are still those of this kind. They walk a hard way, finding joy at times, but no peace.
So it came at last that when Stele would have held to the high lands, that he might oversee the dwellings of men for which they sought, she was quick to say that Rita could find no food on the barren hills, though they two might fare well enough; and Stele saw this, and went by a lower way. Yet he would not go down into the thick trees more than he must, for he would see first where he went, which is best done from the hills.
So they held to the lower slopes, and to little straggles of climbing wood, and for the first two days Rita saw none of her own kind.
Then they came to a gloom of great trees through which they must pass, as they had seen from the higher ground, for it stretched north and south beyond sight, though it was not very wide; and here Rita must climb, straining her wound, seeking food, of which she was in great need. And in the high boughs she came on a man of the trees who dwelt alone, having a roofed nest, and some platforms beyond, very great, so that she was amazed. She saw that she had come to a strange thing, as those who wander may do. But the man of the trees, having been alone many days (a long tale, which could be told, but tales are many and we must go on with that which is ours), saw her to be a wife whom he would have if he could.
Rita saw a man who was strong, and ugly, and dark, with hair that was coarse and shaggy about his back. He was not at all to her mind. She did not like his teeth.
Beside that, she knew that though it is good to mate when you are young, it should be with one that you know well, after long playing in the trees. She had not been told this, for her people used little speech, but she had seen it from the time when she hung on her mother's back. Those who speak much may think speech to be of more use than it is. Rita knew the way of her tribe.
The man meant well enough, in his own way, but Rita fled. She forgot her wound in her haste, and it broke and bled. Then she made poor speed, and he thought she was of a mind to be caught, which was not true. Yet, she being as she was, he would have had her, but that she made for the ground, calling on her new friends in her fear.
The man did not heed Stele. He may not have seen him. He followed Rita to the ground, being close behind. Stele came up, and the man died. There is no need to dwell on that. It was hard on the man.
But this was a new thing that Rita had fled from one of her own kind, and called on Stele for his aid. It gave him a new sense that she was owned by him.
But as to the tree-man being of her own kind, Rita would not have agreed. She looked down on him as he lay on his back, and she was glad he was dead, though she thought he had good arms. She thought that had he got his hands on to Stele he would have gone back with a wife. It was much better as it was.
There was another way in which Elsya helped to keep the three together in the first days, though this she may not have known.
Stele had his eyes on Rita more than seemed to be a needful thing, and his thoughts more. Though she was not of his tribe, nor of his ways, yet he thought she would make a good wife. He thought that she was of a mind to have him, which showed her sense, and he thought he could have her when he would, in which he was partly wrong. Ever he became more doubtful of the wisdom of Coiling Snake and of the laws of his tribe. Every mile that he travelled away from these, the more easy it was to see that they might be less good than he had been taught to think.
Yet it was the law of his race that he was not yet of the age when he should take a wife, and he was pledged to his father's plan that he should seek one in a far land. What he would have done if he had been alone it is hard to say, but what he did must be in his sister's sight, which made such laws harder to break, though this he may not have known.
The fourth night was very cold. Rita was hungry and tired. She was strangely hot, and she had a pain in her lungs.
In the morning they had gone aside from the straight way, down into a great wood, so that she might get the food that she sought, but it had been full of a tree-folk that had given her little peace. They had had a war of their own, in which many of their males had been killed. She was chased by unmarried girls, who thought that she had come to the wrong place. In spite of all she got some nuts, and she showed that she could throw straighter than most, breaking a bone in the cheek of the one that had vexed her worst. Yet she had not fed well.
In the evening they came through a high pass. They looked down to a fertile land, and saw the dwellings of men of a new kind. But they stood on a height, meeting a cold wind and a cold rain.
Stele and Elsya cared little for any wind. They were clothed warmly in their dead skins, and they had been born in the caves of a bleak shore. They would swim the cold seas in the winter days. But Rita felt the cold of the wind, and the pain came as she breathed. She took no long hurt, for she was very strong, having breathed clean air from her birth, and the next day she felt well enough, being warm in the sun; but this night, when they found shelter under a low rock, and Elsya took the first watch, she was glad to lie close to Stele for his warmth, which she had not done before. He was clothed in the skins of seals which had been so dressed that they were as soft as when they had had their own lives, and Rita lay close, and was of a quiet mind.
But Stele was not of a quiet mind. He thought of the laws of his tribe, and they had never seemed quite so vain as they did then. 'What is a wife more or less? If you carry a woman for six hours when she is hurt, so that your shoulder aches all the next day, is she not yours? Is she not yours if you kill a tree-man at her own call a tree-man who had very strong arms, so that it was a dangerous thing to do? Is she not yours if she come of her own will to lie close in your cave?
After a while Rita waked, and was aware that Stele's arm was round her. It was where she would not have it to be. She lifted his hand to her mouth. Her teeth closed on his wrist. He lay still, waiting to see what she would do. He knew the strength of her teeth, though they were not large. If she bit, he would be a man with one hand, and he would miss the blood that he would lose.
They thus lay for some time, and then she let the hand go, and they slept in peace.
After that they were better friends than before.
STELE looked at Rita, and he was puzzled in mind. He could not see what she would have. She had come down from the trees. She had followed him all these days. Yet she would bite his wrist in the night.
He thought of her sex as being of a perverse folly and a curse to men. He was not the first to think thus, even in that day, nor would he have been the last in this. Yet it is not a very wise thought. It lacks depth. He did not see that Rita was in the same perplexity as himself.
She had that which she would be glad to sell, but she would be sure of the price. In the words of our own day, she would not have lust without love, and of the love she was not yet sure.
For there was a law in her tribe that all creatures have not learnt, though some better than men, as have the wild swans that will mate for a life's space, nesting in the Arctic peace.
It is a law that men will unlearn at times, boasting of better ways, but it must be learnt again, for it is one that will last till the world's end. It was a law that was better known by those of the trees at that time than by the men of the caves, who had the will to seek and to do; for there was more of wisdom in those who dwelt in the trees. They took the laws of God with accepting minds, as they took the sun and the rain; but the men of the caves had no doubt that they could take charge in His place. If we say that they may both have been doing His will in their own ways, it has the sound of a lively tale.
But Stele looked at Rita as they climbed down that morning through the pathless rocks, and he was a puzzled man, though he knew that they were of a better friendship than they had been before, which did nothing to clear his mind. Yet the will to have her for his wife was now a thing that he faced, even to the ruin of his father's plans, and as he looked at her the desire grew. Nor did he think of her now as of a wife "more or less," who is of little weight in the scale; he thought of her as more, and to be won at any cost that a man can pay.
It was in this mood that he looked down on the huts of men huts such as he had not seen in his life before, being built of trees, solid and strong and knew that he must be near the gates of a great king, such as he might approach for the giving and taking of brides, after the plan that Coiling Snake had devised.
They looked far down on a valley which closed up to a point at the north, where the mountains met. There were mountains on either side, steep and high, and the valley sloped down to southward between these walls, till it ended in a lake, which closed it from cliff to cliff. Stele saw that it was a very strong place. It would be a great thing if he could make alliance with such a lord, and if Elsya were sold as wife to its heir. He said this to her, and she agreed well enough, though she loved the shore, and as they had left it farther away she had been thinking that she should never love an inland life.
Still, there was a lake here. She could swim in that. She supposed there would be shell-fish to find. There might be pearls of a new kind. She was uncertain in mind. She would wait till she had seen the prince, and then think.
What she said was, "How do you know they are men?"
Stele considered that. He saw that he did not know. He thought that only men would make such huts so he said.
Elsya said, "I did not know that there are men who make such houses as that. Nor did you. It doesn't prove they are men. Men are not the only things that make homes. There are ants on land and many creatures in the sea who could do better than that. Not to talk of the birds... I can see them moving about. They are not like men. They are too large, and they walk on all their legs. I don't think we should go down to them not till we know more. I think I will stay here."
She sat down on a stone. Rita, who had been somewhat ahead, finding the way easier than did her companions, came back and sat at her side.
Stele was of a will to go on, being ever of impatient moods and eager to see a new way of life; yet he did not say she was wrong. There was another side to his mind, which disposed him ever to plan with care, seeing the end of his work before he should lift a tool.
He stood still with a frown. He said that women are a hindrance and a curse to men, though they will fight well among themselves. What could he do, having two on his hands to guard?
Elsya said, "Yet I killed Amul."
"It was a wretched blow. I would not talk of that, if I were you."
"It is your talk, not mine. It was a good blow enough. It was enough for him. I don't believe you ever killed a man of our own kind in your life, nor a woman either."
He was annoyed at that, because it was true. "How could I kill Borl when he wouldn't fight? Anyway, I shouldn't want to kill women. Men never do."
"No," said Elsya, who felt that the talk was going just as it should. "Men don't kill women, but women don't mind killing men, because they both know that the women are worth more. It just shows."
"It's not that at all. It's because if the women get too few there are no children and the tribe dies."
"Well, of course. That just shows again. It shows what men are. You couldn't make a child if you tried. It isn't like making a net or a bone spear. When you think of its hands and its feet and its head, and all its inside, it's a very clever thing to do. I don't suppose you'd even know how to begin."
"Nor would you. I don't think women make them at all. They just grow." At which Elsya was annoyed in turn, because that was true too.
Rita listened to this with amused eyes. Every day she learnt better to understand the differences in their speech, having a clear and vacant mind; but she still used it little herself, for that was the way of the tree-folk to watch and to understand rather than to change and attempt.
Nor was their speech very easy to her lips, for that af her own people was simpler, and more largely of vowel sounds, which were lengthened and accented in different ways, telling of how they felt rather than what they did, so that it was a better speech for love than for war.
Stele's speech was less simple, having harsher sounds and tricks by which you could alter words when you thought of a past time, so that those who heard you would understand. Rita could use it well enough if the need came, sounding it in a softer way, which Stele, being foolish for all his strength, would be glad to hear.
Rita made no effort to interpose or to speak at all while they debated whether they should go down into the valley of wooden huts. If they had seen her mind they would have known that she thought it such a thing as only cave-men would do, and that because they are half-witted, as was well known, and would always be blundering into some new trouble. But having thrown in her lot with them she would take what came with a quiet mind.
They did not think to consult her, because they also knew that she was half-witted, having little skill either to speak or plan. They expected her to follow the wiser lead, as the weak and the foolish should.
Yet she saw something that they had missed had she not touched Elsya with a slow hand on a skin-clad knee. Then they looked at the same thing, and Stele also, and they had puzzled minds.
They saw the beasts move where they fed, on the grassy banks of a stream that ran through the midst of the valley's length, from the high hills to the lake. They did not move as those that change ground of their own will, one after one, with a quiet lifting of heads and a pause to gaze before the feet go forward. Rather, they hastened, not as in any panic of fear, but as being moved by a will behind, so that they bunched somewhat in the rear.
Their distance was great, and they were not huge, like the rhinoceri of the plains, though they were much larger than men, being of about the same height, though they were walking on all their legs; yet when Stele looked with care he could see them well enough, as could the women at his side.
Elsya spoke first, as she most often did.
"They are moving away from a man."
"Girl," said Rita, who had the best sight of the three.
Stele said nothing, for it was a weird thing to watch, and it filled his mind. If they were afraid, why did they not run? If they were not afraid, why did they move away?
He was puzzled, and more curious than before, but he was also afraid of these men who built huts of trees and could move beasts in that way. Because he was ashamed of that fear he rose to his feet and said, "We are going down to those men."
The women made no protest at this, and he led the way at the best pace he could, till he came to a steeper place, and Rita went ahead.
It was late afternoon before they trod grass, and could look upward at those cliffs as at a thing done. Nor would they have done it at all had not Rita been of the three. It was not only that the cliffs fell at a stiff slope, but that they had a surface of shale, of a very brittle kind, so that the little jutting ledges, on which it seemed that a foot might rest or a hand lean, would break off at the first pressure, and even those that held could win little trust. And in places there was no way but by sliding down on a looseness of dust and stone, where it was hard to stop when you would.
Stele and Elsya could climb well, having learnt from childhood what must be done for the meal of a sea-bird's eggs, but Rita was far better than they, having longer ams, and feet that were not clumsy and short-toed, but which could hold almost like a hand, and could close almost in the same way.
Had Elsya shown her mind, she would have been slow to own that there was any girl in the world of fairer form than that one for whom she had made a necklace of pearls, but she looked at Rita's feet and would have hidden her own, had it been a thing she could do.
Rita, who could drop from branch to branch, scarce looking where she fell, but knowing that hand or foot would come at last to a good grasp, was not troubled at all. She would rather go thus than on level ground; but when she saw how clumsy they were, she remembered that they were of a lower kind, and gave help that was quiet and sure.
So they came down by a way that they could not hope to climb again, be the need little or much.
When they stood on grass they were approached by four men who had watched their descent. The men wore clothes of a woven fibre somewhat darker than themselves. They carried wooden spears, but did not lift them as meaning strife. Stele, being one of good sense when he was unvexed and his patience stayed, gave his spear to Elsya to hold, and if his hand was not far from his axe well, it was the most natural place for it to be, being at the end of his arm. So they met without fear.
The first man said, looking up to Stele who was a head taller than he, "The King will see you at once." The tongue was that to which Stele had been born, though the man did not know how to sound his words as he should, an ignorance which Stele found to be general in that land. Even the King did not seem to know how to speak with a clear sound. Still, it was plain enough. Even Rita could understand much that was said.
Stele answered, "It is for that I came. I am a king's son. I bring a message from king to king."
The man looked at Stele and believed. He said, "It is well. Let us go, for the light fails. Are there more to come?"
Stele said "No" to that.
The man again said, "It is well," and there was more heart in his words. They did not welcome strangers in that land.
THE King said, "You come unasked, by a strange way. Can I call it well?"
He sat on the ground, for he was too great a king to sit on a meaner thing than the earth itself, or on one that might let him down, which the earth will not do. He sat on the skin of a striped beast a beast of prey which he had killed in his youth that men might not forget the deed.
He sat cross-legged, a lean man, much taller than were most of those who stood round; as tall as Stele, though he would have weighed less. He sat at the back of a triangular hut, of which one side was open to all, and the other two sides joined at his back. All the huts in the valley were built in this shape. They were built according to the shape of the valley itself, which was that of a spear-head, having its point in the hills and its broad base at the lake. Sitting as he did, there could come none to his back, nor to either side.
Before him sat his daughter Tekla, the priestess of the tribe, on his right; and his son Thelmo was on his left.
Before him sat the line of the fighting wives. There were five of these, Amazons, barren and young, who were sure of life while the King lived, but beyond that was a doubt. It would be for Tekla to say that they must die, and if she said nothing of that it was for Thelmo to say that they should live, which would be saying more. But they had no fear that the King would die. He was still a man of a lean strength, and his teeth were good.
They sat, as their custom was, with their throwing-knives near to their hands. They filled the widening space of the hut from wall to wall. These walls were of the squared trunks of oaks, laid one upon another, and joined with a holding clay, so that they could not be torn apart, even by a great force, this being a secret which the world lost at a later day.
So the King sat very safe, as he knew. For Stele stood before him unarmed, as did Elsya also, and as did the men who had led them. Rita was not there.
Rita sat on the ground about twenty yards away, at one side, so that she could not see the King, nor he her; but she could see Stele and Elsya, who stood without, on the open side of the hut.
There had been some trouble about this, as might be guessed. For, as they came near to the King's hut, the men had said, "You must leave your arms. No one can go to the King's face holding a spear in his hand."
Stele knew in his heart that this was a fair thing. about which one who came in peace should not contend, but he stood silent, being perplexed.
The man saw that he was in some doubt, and added, "You have no cause to fear. We shall leave ours also. It is the custom for all."
Stele said, "With whom?" That was the point of his doubt. Whatever peace they might mean, it might be an easier thing to give the axe to another than to get it back.
In the end it was agreed that Rita should guard his weapons, standing aside. That had been her own thought, which she had given him with her eyes, with which she spoke much.
Now she sat on the ground, and his spear was between her knees. But the axe was in her hand, and should she see that it would be of more use in Stele's it would be soon there, for she could throw well, as we know.
There was a group of women round her, whom she disliked, but no men, for they stood behind Stele to hear what answer he would make to the King.
The women crowded round Rita, finding her a strange sight, for there were none of the tree-folk in that land. Rita heard their talk, as a man hears the droning of flies. Only, if they came between her and Stele, so that she could not see what he did, she would shift the spear in an idle way, so that they broke somewhat apart, lest they should take a hurt that was not meant.
Stele looked at the King, and he saw a face that was high, narrow, and gaunt, with very piercing eyes. The cheek-bones stood out through the stretched skin; there were many lines at the eye-slit ends, and at the corners of a thin mouth. Youth was far behind, but he saw no weakness of age.
He saw also that the King was not one who could be answered with foolish words. He did not look like a man of war. If he had killed a great beast in his youth (which Stele did not know), he had planned his risk with a cool brain, seeing that there was gain enough to be won. But he was not one who would rule by his club's weight or his spear's craft, as most kings did at that time. He must be met on a different plane.
Stele had the wit to answer with simple words. "You may call it well, for I come in peace from a far land."
"So I saw," said the King. "Are you a son of the Coiling Snake?"
Stele was surprised. How should he know that? Yet it was simple enough. He had said himself that he was a king's son. The King, who knew much, had some knowledge of the coast tribes. He saw the pearls on Elsya's neck. They were a sure sign. He saw other things. He was a man who saw much.
Stele said, "I am the first son of the Coiling Snake, and his daughter also is here." He told the mission on which he came.
The King listened to that. Then he said, "Will you tell me why I should not feed you to my own god, and take the girl for myself, making no payment at all?"
Stele said, "Because I offer a better thing."
The King looked as one who would hear all, and judge it with care. "It is not plain that you do."
"Yet I may make it plain," Stele answered to that, not showing the fear that he felt. "For any man may destroy, but a king builds. There are men in my own tribe who do not understand which is the better way, as I found when I would have built them a dam; but you are greater than such as they."
When Stele said this the King looked at him with more keenness than before, but he was not quick to reply. When he spoke again he asked a new thing.
"You would be king of your tribe when Coiling Snake dies. If we made friendship now, could you bring them here to my aid if a need rose?"
Stele thought of the men of his tribe, who were fishers, and men who lived ever on the seashore. He thought of the long way he had come. He did not think that it would be useful to lie.
"No," he said, "I do not think that I could." Then he added, "But there could be no cause for such aid, for you dwell secure, in a strong place."
"You know nothing of that," said the King; "but I can see that you would be of no use to me... As to this plan that you speak, it is of no more use than yourself. It might be good for you, having the custom of which you tell, but our customs are different. I have one daughter, and she is the priestess here, and has a great power. Do you think she would leave it to stoke a sea-cliff fire? "
The King looked at Tekla as he said this, and Stele looked in the same way. She had a dark face that was proud and strong. Two upright spirals of horn rose from her hair. They were the horns of a small deer, and gave grace to her head. She was clothed in alligator skin, very softly tanned, and so made that it was a close sheath to body and limbs. She looked slim, but that was from her height, and because she was so narrowly clad; for she was strongly made, so that she could have broken Elsya across her knee.
Stele looked at her, and their eyes met. At the first glance he thought that she approved that which she saw; after which her eyes told him nothing at all. But she spoke, and her words had a plain edge. "Would he call me a fool?" She spoke without anger or heat, as one who puts aside that which is not worth thought.
He answered as well as he might. "Yet my tribe is not small, and it may gain in wealth when I rule, for I am one that would plan. When I left, it was of a total of fifty tens, without counting the unweaned babes or the old that sit in the smoke. If I had such a queen I could do much."
He saw well that Tekla would be something more than a common wife, who would cook and breed, and be content to sit and scratch herself in the sun on the fine days, talking to the other women of the troubles of babes or the ways of men. But, beyond that, he was puzzled, for he had counted the huts as he came down the mountain-side, and they were not more than six tens, and he did not think that more than five could dwell in each, even counting the young, and it might be much less than that. Yet there could be little of human life in the barren hills or in the great lake below, and it seemed that they were a small tribe dwelling apart, for how could men climb the slopes which had been so hard to descend? And the mountains upon the farther side were of a much greater height, rising to icy cliffs of an unscalable kind. Yet he felt that there was something more to be learned. He could not say that he had been received with a great front either of strength or state, and yet there seemed too much head for the tail.
But the King's answer showed that he was unmoved by the boast of fifty tens. "You get no wife here. It is forgotten that you have asked, because it was of a folly that you did not know... As for the girl" he paused, and looked at Elsya with speculating and appraising eyes "she will improve, and the pearls are good. Thelmo can have her, if he will; but he will have better wives... It is getting dark now. I will decide these things at the fourth hour from the dawn." He turned to the men who had brought them there, telling them to put them into a vacant hut. He said other things which they did not hear. The men led them away, Rita joining them, and returning his weapons to Stele.
They were led to a hut which was newly built, and quite empty inside. Stele looked round it, and was not pleased. He had been thinking as he walked. Now he asked, "Can we have food?"
"You can ask the King at the dawn."
"But we need it now... There may be things I can give which are of more worth."
"The King ordered that you should have no food."
Stele knew that for an ominous thing. But he answered without change of tone:
"Then we must look for ourselves. We cannot starve till the dawn. It is not forbidden that we walk abroad?"
"If you steal you will die. It is the King's word. You are not under his cloak at all."
"But we are free to go?"
The man spread indifferent hands. "You may go where you will, if you steal naught nor cause alarm in the night."
IT was getting dark as they stood in the empty hut. They did not stand long, for they had come through a hard day. They sat on the ground.
But they did not turn to sleep, for they were hungry, and they had reason to think.
Elsya, who may have had least to fear, was the most afraid. She was set on flight, so that she forgot how she felt.
"The moon will rise in an hour. When they are all asleep we had better go."
Stele did not deny that, nor agree. He asked, "How? Could you climb back by the way we came?"
"No. But we there must be some way; we could swim the lake."
"Rita could not swim. The tree-folk never can."
Rita spoke then. "I could go up the hills."
Elsya looked her doubt. "Are you sure?" She remembered the precipitous crags and the loose slopes, where there was no foothold at all. And the hills on the farther side were a harder thing.
Rita was quite sure of that. "I could go up in the dark." She was puzzled in mind that anyone could think of trusting life to a deep lake, which is a treacherous, choking thing, when you might go up the side of a solid hill, in the safe air; but she remembered that they were still only people of the caves, though she might have made them her friends.
Stele would have liked to be away, but he was not sure of the wisdom of flight. He wanted to think.
He said, "Anyway, we must sleep first." He was quite sure of the wisdom of that, because they would not have strength for a long flight without any sleep at all, and if they must sleep it was best to do it where there was no fear of pursuit, and while they had not shown what they meant to do. Also, he knew that men sleep most soundly at a later hour, and that it would be foolish to attempt flight at the rise of the moon, sunset being but an hour past.
So they lay close, for at this time of year the valley was hot in the day, but the nights were chilly, when there was an open sky and the wind came up from the south-west, as it did that night; and the women slept, but Stele lay awake, thinking what they should do.
Yet when Elsya waked from an evil dream the night was far gone, and Stele slept as one having no care. She was trembling from the thing which she had seen in the dream, about which there was nothing new, but when she had thought where she was, and what might come with the dawn, she was in the greater fear, and she shook more than before.
So, at that, she waked Stele with an urgent hand, and he sat up, with a quick grasp on the axe.
"Time to go?" he said, and he made it clear by his tone that he was wroth to lose his sleep in that way. "We are not going at all. I should have waked you if we were."
Elsya's voice shook. "I am afraid of this place... There are dreadful things..."
"You are a little fool," he said, in a worse voice than before. "We shall come through well enough."
It may be that he spoke as he did because he was not sure of the thing he said. He added, after a pause, "Why can't you be quiet, like Rita, and trust to me? She doesn't make scenes in the night."
"She doesn't understand. She isn't like us."
Stele didn't dispute that. Who could? He didn't suppose she understood much of the peril in which they lay. But her arm had been over him when he waked, in a way he had liked to feel.
As to Rita, she had waked at the first movement that Elsya made, though she lay still, as her way was, even leaving her arm where she had not known it to be, till Stele pushed it off as he sat up in his haste.
She lay as though she still slept, but her thought was, as it had been before, that they were a half-witted kind, climbing down into trouble in their clumsy way, and then being surprised at what they found. But she had made them her friends, and would hold their part in her own style, having also a greater confidence in Stele than he had in himself in that hour. Beyond that, she knew that he would not consult her, nor look to her for a wise plan. He would expect her to follow by his rule, if he expected anything of her at all, so that she had the freedom of those who walk in a willing way. She went to sleep quickly enough, but the image that had been in her mind had been of insects that walk on a flower's rim, not knowing that it is closing to make a meal of their struggling limbs, which was a thing she had often seen. For she thought in pictures rather than words, having few of such for the abstract things.
So Stele and Rita slept again till the dawn, and neither knew that their arms went where they would, but Elsya lay on Stele's other side, and there was no more sleep for her.
For there were memories of that which was past, and fears of that which was to come, that entered ever to vex her mind, and would come again if she thrust them forth, moving in a throng which would never cease; and there was not a good one among them. It is a way that the night has. To lie and think in the night is a very foolish thing.
Elsya's hand went to her pearls, and it was a hand that shook, for even they did not feel safe. She feared for them, and she feared almost as much for Stele and Rita, for she was of a loving and generous kind when other feelings allowed, and she had a strong affection for Stele, and Rita was one that she could love with ease. It seemed a natural thing that Rita should love the one man in the world that she could not want for herself.
Elsya feared for them more than they had feared for themselves, and that was not only because she was of the sort that will have grief in the dark hours. She was one who learnt more from the blood's pulse than the spoken word. She had looked at the King, at Thelmo and Tekla, and at the five wives (who were not wives at all in the common use of the word), and her heart had paused, as though she had looked on death. That was before there had been any word from the King.
Now she could think of his words: "She will improve, and the pearls are good. Thelmo can have her, if he will, but he will have better wives."
They were hateful words. They may not seem to us to have been so bad in themselves, when we consider that for a man to have many wives was natural to Elsya's mind, but they were discoloured by her aversion to the lips by which they were uttered, and by her hatred of Thelmo, who had done the worst to her that a man could. He had not looked at her at all. His eyes had been for Stele. Elsya could have forgiven a blow, but not that.
She did not mind the idea of being one wife among others. She had seen how it worked. To have only one wife might be best for a man, who was the more likely to have peace in his cave. But for the wife it is less sure. It is a harder life, having more toils for the two hands, and it may be of a dull kind. The best life is to be one of several, and to be first of all. That was Elsya's idea, and that she would be first she had little doubt. Next to that, she would be content to be the bride of a prince, who would have only one wife, as Coiling Snake had proposed. In fact, she had rather liked the idea. She would be first in a new way.
But now she was not sure that she would be first after any manner at all. She saw herself left alone, her friends dead, herself doing the meaner toils of her husband's hut bearing blows that came from a woman's hand, which was an evil thought, for a woman's bruises should be made by a man and she saw her pearls on another neck.
Her teeth closed at the thought, and her hand ceased to shake. It would go hard with that woman. She should die in the night, though it might mean that Elsya would die on the next day. And the pearls should be hidden where they should not be found they should be cast in the lake. She did not turn her thoughts to ask why she had lost confidence in herself, why she was so moved because an old man had said, "He will have better wives." But the fact is that she was a very frightened girl, and one that was sick for her own home, which had been much to her, though it might seem little to us. She had much confidence in herself, in her smiles, and in the quick skill of her words, and in her coaxing ways, but if this confidence shook she was a timid thing. She was not made to be bruised. She had learnt to be bold in the sea-depths, for she had sought pearls, which had been a great lure. She had killed Amul, but that had been quickly done, and she had seen at once that there was no other way. Had she thought of it for a night before it had not been so easy a thing.
Now she feared and hated the King. She hated and feared Thelmo also hating even more than she feared. But she did not hate either of these as she hated Tekla, who (as she thought) had also given her no regard. She did not hate her for that. She hated her because she was of a type of beauty that she had not seen before, nor imagined. She did not think that Tekla was more beautiful than herself, but she saw that there might be men who would hold that view, which is as bad, if not worse.
She was puzzled by these women, as Stele had been in another way. She had seen the men of the tribe, who were a head shorter than Stele, and she thought them of small account. She had seen some of the women also, those who had been gathered round Rita when they had come away from the King, and most of them were not for envy, but for contempt. There had been some of which there was only one thing to be said: they would make bones in the pot. That was a saying among her own people. If there were one of whom you would say no good, or of whom there was no good to be said, you would say, in the voice of one who would not be unfair to the worst, "Oh, she would make bones for the pot."
So these women had seemed to her in the dusk, but those in the King's hut had been of a different kind. They could not dwell in one place. There were the five who were neither women nor men, as her instinct told, though her mind could not explain. They had been of the same size, of the same style. They had looked to be of the same age. Elsya thought that to pick five who were so alike there must have been a wide choice. Her thoughts turned for a minute's length to think of the basinets they had worn, which had been covered with serpent skin, which was strange to her, and the colours of which, black and yellow and olive-green, were very clear in her mind, as were the aigrettes of parrot-yellow which were on their left sides. She was not sure that she would not like one of those basinets. She thought of it on her black curls, and she was not quite sure. She would like to see how it would look in a clear pool. Of course, she would not wear what they wore. They would be told to wear something else... Then she remembered again. The programme might be somewhat different from that.
Oh that she were back in her own cave, curled in the corner that she had made her own for a dozen years! Not alone in the cave, which she shared with eight other girls who were too old to dwell in their parents' caves and too young to wed. She had always dreaded to be alone. She liked to lie by herself and to have her own dreams (if they were good, as they mostly were), but she liked to know that others were near.
...She was puzzled by those women, and by the King and his son, who were so different from the other men of the tribe. There was a mystery that she could not read... She was afraid; and with the fear came a terror of the loneliness which is the lot of all has been the lot of a million million of men since the world's dawn. Some lonely thoughts, and a little heap of memories in a skull's space, which are piled up for a time, and then fall apart, having been nothing to others, who have their own that, and the dark curtains of birth and death that are before and behind, and the unstable beauties of a world in which nothing will cease or last.
So she lay and feared till the dawn came, having those thoughts which come to all, but are told to few. But when the light was very faint in the hut, so that she could not see yet to the farther wall, she rose up so quietly that even Rita did not hear, and went out to see what she could.
THERE was more light outside than there had been in the hut, but it was still very dim, and there was a white mist on the grass, so that she could see but a yard ahead, or it might be two, and she moved slowly and without a sound. She thought more of what she might find than of how she could get back to the hut, which should not be hard when the dawn widened and the mist should clear. She had a purpose in her mind, which was to find the lake, and to see what hope of flight it might give, which she thought to do before men were about; but the real cause that she rose was that she could lie still no more.
She had not been long gone when Stele waked, and Rita at the same time. He was half vexed that she was not there, and looked out, but he saw that she must come back of herself, if at all, for she could not be sought in that mist. He thought her one who could care for herself, and that she would not be gone far. Perhaps she was seeking food. He could understand that. He felt that he could have eaten a cod, leaving neither gills nor tail; and he knew that if Elsya were hungry it was a more important thing than if a dozen others were in the same state. She was not one of those who may have a slight pain or a mild desire.
He spoke to Rita, Elsya having gone. It made them of a closer intimacy that she was no longer there.
"I think we had better wait here till the mist lifts. I suppose some one will come before long. They cannot mean to keep us ever without food. It cannot be scarce with them. They do not look like men who labour overmuch, or who go short... I did not think it wise to try to. escape in the night. There may be traps set. Had they not known that we could not go they had not left us thus, in an open hut: that is, they had not left us so unless their own thoughts were peace, in which case we had put ourselves, perhaps, in a needless peril and in a foolish wrong."
Rita thought that was sense, though she was as hungry as he, and it was a newer feeling to her, for she had not known it till the last days, there being always food in the trees. There was food in the caves too, but it was of a less regular coming, and there had been times when it fell short.
But the light got more and the mist cleared from the upper air, so that they could see the mountain heights when they looked out from the hut, though it still lay low, and they could not see far over the grass, and Elsya did not come back.
After a time the man came who had been their guide to the King. He came as one not seeking speech, but that he might see that they were there as he passed, as one counting his stock. When he saw there were only two, he came to a pause.
"There should be three here."
"She is not far," Stele answered. "She has gone round the hut. The mist hides."
The man would have gone on, seeming content with the reply, but Stele stood in his way.
"Do you not feed your guests in this land? We have not even water to drink. Shall we lick grass?"
The man said, "But you are not guests. How can we give food till we know the King's will?"
"Then can we go forth?"
"By what way?" The man seemed amused.
"If we cannot go forth we must have food here. Would you force us to take, that there may be cause of wrath?"
"There is milk enough," said the man. "You can take what you will, but we may not give. There will be no quarrel for that. You may milk the mares if you can." He seemed amused again. He went on.
Stele had not seen a horse, but he understood the milking of goats.
He said to Rita (for he was of the kind who cannot think well without speech), "These must be the great beasts that we saw from the mountain-top. We have goats on the sea-cliffs with whom the women make friends. Sometimes we kill their young, which are good to eat when they have been scorched at the fire. After that the dams are glad to have their milk drawn, which the women do, making more for our own babes, so that we gain all along."
It seemed a good way to Stele, of which a man might boast, having got the best of the goats by a cunning wile; but whatever Rita may have thought she said nothing. He had reminded her that he was a man of the caves, which she was more glad to forget.
Men have won to be first of all beasts by the practice of fraud and trick, and it has gone on so long that today the best will speak of it without shame; but at that time, though it was old enough, it was a newer thing. Stele felt that she did not admire the way in which they dealt with the goats with whom they had first made friends, though she gave no sign, and he tried not to be wroth, which was not hard, for she was very fair in the dawnlight, and he desired her more with every hour that they were together. He reminded himself that she was of the tree-folk, who are content to be, and not to do, which is a poor life. She was an Eve who had not yet reached for the fruit.
If the women of the caves could smile at the goats and coax them till their fear died and they would take food from their hands, and they would then lure a kid to a place aside and strangle it with the same hands, so that it made no sound, was it not well? And if the goats could then be taught to be milked, and show gratitude for a pain relieved, was it not better still?
They might have hunted the goats if they would, and killed them with danger and toil; but even then they would not have got their milk. For fraud is always stronger than force, by which law would not the mastodon die and the man live? If there be anything which is stronger than fraud it is a lesson which is still to learn.
Stele went on: "These animals are such as I have not known, but we saw how they walked where a woman would, being obedient, though not afraid, which was a strange thing to watch, they being of such size. Even the goats have not been brought to that. Do you think you could get their milk if we should find where they are?"
Rita felt that there was not much which she would not try, if it were the way to end the thirst which was in her throat, but she had no confidence that she could do this strange thing.
She said, "We can try, but Elsya were best for that."
They went out together, seeking her, or the mares or both, if they could be found. It was no use to stand there till the hour of the King's doom should arrive.
ELSYA could not tell which way to go for the lake, the mist being as it was, but she took the way that the ground sloped, thinking that she would come to the stream, and she would see which way it ran, and so follow it to the lake, which was a simple plan and good enough; and so she did, no man meeting her on the way.
The stream was much wider than she had thought it to be, and had a margin of rushes, green and high, though they were not yet at their full growth. From its right bank, toward which she came, there spread a wide pasture of a marshy sort, so that she could not come near the stream, unless she should be content to wade and get her feet fouled in a black mud, which there was no reason to do.
The stream did its part, guiding her to the lake, which she saw over a fence of wood. The fence was of upright stakes, driven into the ground too closely for any, even a child, to have squeezed between. They were sharpened at the top, so that they were not easy to climb, but they were not high. Elsya found a place where she could look over with ease.
She saw a stretch of green, watery enough, but with high tussocks of grass, and then patches of rush, and other places where the grass went on to the water's edge. The mist lay on the lake, so that she could not see far, but she thought that it was of a great size.
"If Stele were with me now we should soon be gone, and it would be a good thing." So she thought; but the idea that she might escape alone did not enter her mind. Yet she would have a nearer view of the lake before she would go back.
She looked at the fence with contempt. "If I couldn't jump that..." she thought. But the stakes were sharp and it was not a thing at which it would be safe to fail. She walked back, that she might get a good run for the jump, fastening up her skins as she did this, so that her legs were free.
She took the run, and cleared the fence with a foot to spare, hearing, as she did this, the voice of some one who called in a warning voice, which it would have been to late to head, even had she been in the mood.
When she came down her feet slipped in a muddy soil, so that she ended that jump on her back and in a fouled state. She looked at her clothes and at the backs of her legs, and she was not pleased. But the remedy was not far. She went on to the lake.
She went in up to her knees, or somewhat above, but did not attempt to swim, not wishing to cast off her skins in that place, and being in some haste to return, having (as she thought) found out all that she could. Had she waded at any other time of the day she had been a dead girl, but she was untroubled by that which she did not know.
When her legs were clean she went back. It was a worse jump from that side, being from lower ground, the run uphill, and the footing poor. So she walked some distance away from where the stream entered the lake, to where the ground was firmer to tread, and there she jumped with the same ease as before.
As she came down on the grass she heard the noise of something that struck the fence that she had just jumped. She turned quickly at that, and saw a creature of ten or twelve feet, short-legged, of a scaly kind, that swung an angry tail. It was like an alligator of our own day, but of a blacker colour, and with a more active head. It had not learned how much will come to those who lie still.
There was only one time of day that Elsya could have gone to the lake as she did and come back alive, which was the hour of the dawn, for it was at that time that the garbage of the tribe was thrown into the lake at its eastern corner, and the alligators would all be there for the meal. As it was, she had stayed almost too long, and the rush of the one that she had just escaped, though she had not seen, would have been swifter had it not been heavy with food.
She looked at the snapping jaws, listening to a barking sound that was not pleasant to hear, and was glad of the fence's strength; but it was a cold thought that there was no escape by that way. She did not think that there was any impulse of flight or fear that would take her over that fence again. She did not know that a day would come when she would swim the lake from end to end, and that not for her own life. She would not have believed had she been told it then.
Now she was on firm grass, and walked, as she thought, in a safe place; but she was not where she had been before, for she had paddled along for some distance at the lake's edge, and then walked a farther length seeking the harder ground, so that she was in another field. The mist was lifting, and she saw that it was strongly fenced. There was a fence on her right hand as she moved away from the lake, eight feet in height, but the stakes were far apart, with cross-bars which would have been quite easy to climb or to slip through. She looked ahead and saw a fence of the same kind, and she saw people there who watched, and as they saw her look they shouted and warned. She remembered a call that she had heard before which she might have done well to heed, and she looked round.' On her right hand, but a few paces from where she stood, there was a closed gate in that fence, and as she looked she heard the dull thunder of hooves, and over a rise of ground in that field which the gate closed there came a stallion great and black. He came at a great pace, his mouth wide, his mane and tail loose in the wind, seeming as though he would leap the fence, but at the last he swung round, seeing that it was too high. He stood by the gate and neighed, bending his head to Elsya, as one who asked.
She had never seen such a creature before, and she was glad of the sight, having no fear at all. She put a quiet hand through the fence, stroking a damp flank. The horse turned his head to her, neighing again. As she made nothing of that, he went off with a lift of heels, circling the field once more.
Elsya would have gone on, having her own cares, but she looked round, and was aware that she was not alone in the field in which she stood. There was a yellow mare not twenty yards away. It had not ventured to come nearer than that while she had stood at the stallion's side, but it was showing its teeth and the whites of its eyes in a way that she could read very well, though it might be a new thing. As the stallion disappeared over the rising ground the mare charged.
Elsya had no time for thought or choice of what she did, if she wished to live. She slipped through the fence. The mare sheered off again as the stallion approached, and Elsya returned again to her own side. But this time things did not happen quite in the same way. Elsya saw the mare coming on, and she was not at all sure that she meant to stop. If she had to choose between the two she had no doubt where she would be. She slipped through the fence again, and stood at the stallion's side. He took no notice of her at all, going up to the fence, where the mare stood. Their heads met through the bars. Then the mare sheered off again, as one not knowing what she would have. The stallion looked at Elsya, and walked to the gate.
Elsya was willing to do him a good turn, and for what the mare might think she cared just nothing at all. She would have done her ill with a happy mind. She pulled out the bar.
She went on up the field without waiting to see what might come of the thing she did, being aware of how long she had been away, and with the thought of food first in her mind. She had lost her thirst at the lake. She got over the fence at the field top, and was among a little crowd that looked at her in a wonder that was not free from fear. It was a small thing, after that, that she should draw milk from some quiet mares, as she did for herself and her friends in the next hour.
Yet all she had done was to leap a fence and to open a gate.
STELE said, "If we cannot swim the lake there must be another way, or how did these men come here at the first?"
Elsya said, "They might have come down the cliffs, as we did ourselves."
That was true, but it did not explain much. Stele was sure that they could go in and out as they would. The King had not talked as one who was cooped up in a place that he could not leave.
"There may be a narrow path at the lake's edge."
Elsya said "No" to that. The mountains came down on either side like a wall. She had a silly thought which she spoke as it came: "They might float down the lake on trees." She thought of how you might go out on the tide, on a tree trunk, and come back when it turned. so that you might have little swimming to do. But she saw that it was a silly thing to have said, even before Stele spoke.
"They might go down with the stream, holding their legs high from the beasts, but how would they get back? And a tree would go every time. They have felled trees for their huts till there are not five tens left in the valley of a good growth beside those which are for the food of men." For he had seen that as they came down from the hills.
"Yet they must have a way by which they can go out and in, or how did the great beasts come?" He thought of the horses, asking a question which had been asked before, for the men who had tamed them there could not answer it any more than he.
Yet it had been a simple thing. For there was a time when the horses had been driven from the lower plains by the pressure of beasts of prey, a pack of which had once hunted a herd so that they had taken to the lake, being very closely pursued; and though the alligators had pulled some under, they were so many that some had come safely through. So they came to that lonely valley, where the beasts of prey could not follow, and would have bred there till they got too many for the grass to feed, but that the alligators lay in wait while they drank.
At that time the alligators were in the river from end to end, and though the grown horses might drink in safety in the shallow spots, where they could not be dragged under so that they drowned, yet it was a clever foal that was not caught, so that they did not increase.
That was before men came and fenced the lake and cleared the stream, so that they drank in peace, and at last made them their slaves, drinking their milk and eating their flesh. But the fear of the alligators was still with them, so that the low fence over which Elsya had jumped was enough to keep the yellow mare in on that side, or the stallion either, for they would have shaken with fear had any tried to lead them toward the lake.
Elsya could not say how the horses had come, and though she agreed with Stele that there must be a way in and out, that was of little use if they could not tell where it would be; and while they debated this the same man came who had led them to the King before and would do it again.
So they went without any more words, for there was no use in delay. Stele had fixed his mind that it would be vain to ask further that he should wed the Princess, who was priestess also, for the King had made it too clear that she could not come to his land, and the cunning of Coiling Snake could not reach its end by that way. It had not occurred to him that he might make better way should he approach her himself. He was, in fact, well content to be so refused, for he had resolved that he would go back with Rita, and that she should be the one bride he would have, which would be his father's plan to a point, if not to the road's end.
Only, before he could wed whom he would, or get back at all, he must get clear of this place, and he was not sure that it would be easy to do.
So they came again to the King's hut, and Rita stayed on one side as she had done before, guarding the weapons, and Stele and Elsya stood before the King. But Thelmo and Tekla were not there, and so the King let them stand, for he would say nothing till his children were there to hear.
TEKLA said, "You had better come to my hut, for I am late now, and we can talk while I dress."
Thelmo went in with her and barred the door. She had on a tunic under a loose robe of white, which she cast off, standing as bare as she had been at her birth, but without consciousness of what she did, for they were twins and their thoughts were as one.
She clad herself in the shining skin that lay as close as her own, grumbling that she should have to dress so in that narrow hut. "I would," she said, "that we might stay more in our own place. I hate the vale and all that it holds."
"Did you ask me here that you might tell me that?"
"No. You knew that before. What did you think of the girl?"
"So I supposed. I did not think of her at all. If I wed I would have one of a better height I would have some one as like you as I may... He is a fine man."
"You need not tell me of him. She is of more account than you think. They say she has been in the lake since the dawn."
"Is she dead?"
"No. She jumped back over the stakes, as one who did not see the danger in which she stood; and one of the beasts that charged her hurt his snout on the fence."
"Did she really swim in the lake?"
"So they say. Then she went into the stallion's field."
"Then she is dead. There is nothing surer than that."
"No. They made friends. She let him in with the yellow mare."
"She did what?" Thelmo was roused indeed. He would have unbarred the door. "She is a devil, that mare. If she were not fit, she would kick till a leg broke. She may have "
"Can't you stop to hear? There is no harm. The black stallion has his legs as they were. The mare made no trouble at all... It is of the girl I would talk."
"I will look at her again, if you think her good."
"You can believe that from me. But if you mean only to look, you can spare your eyes. Our father does not mean them to live."
"Then we are wasting our words. He will have his way, as you know."
"It may be that I will have mine."
"Has he ever failed in his will?"
"There must be a first time."
"What do you think to do?"
"I have only a will as yet. I called you here that I might give birth to a plan... Thelmo, I may be priestess of the Black Lake when I am here, and I may lead the Left Wing in our own land as I do, but you know that I am not as they that I lead thus. I would have sons... We need mates, you and I."
"That is a true word. But if our father intends his death you will not get this man. You must look elsewhere. I dare say he will give me the girl."
"If you have the girl I must have the man. We must make bargain on that. Am I to give you help and to get none?"
"I don't know that I want the girl."
"Then you will when you have looked again."
"What do you want me to do?"
"I want you to support what I may say, and to be alert if I seek your help."
"You need not have asked for that. You knew it yours."
"Yet you must know my mind."
"So I do now. But we shall do nothing if we stay here. Look at the sun."
STELE stood at such ease as he might, and Elsya showed no sign of her thoughts; but it was an irksome thing to be kept waiting thus. The King gave them no word. His eyes were those of a man who looks far off, or within the depth of his own mind. The five who were not wives looked on the two with a gaze that did not alter nor fall, but there was no life in their eyes.
Stele saw that there was a little curious group round Rita, as there had been the night before, but not so many as then, and there were many more who were behind the place where he stood, waiting to hear what the end would be. He wished that he could have had Rita at his side. Perhaps if he should tell the King that he had resolved to make her his wife, and that he had ceased to think of the Princess, it would bring peace. But when he thought of the difficulty about the weapons he saw that they had met it with the best plan that they might. He noticed that Rita still shifted the spear from time to time, so that it kept the space clear from her to him, and he knew by that that she would be alert at his need. For all that, if it came to blows, it must be a poor end, they being placed as they were. He thought that Rita might escape up the hills, if she would, and Elsya might be no worse than a captured wife, who may often make her own way if she have a fair body or a good wit; but it would be death for him. So he waited with what patience he could through a time that may have seemed more than it was. Then he saw that Thelmo and Tekla came.
They gave no glance to Elsya or him, passing them with no greeting word, and took the places that they had held before at their father's sides, but more forward than he, and Stele would have thought that they would have no more active part than they had had on the last day; but when the King was about to speak Tekla turned to him, saying something in a cold voice which did not sound far, so that Stele could not tell what it was, but the King was checked in his speech.
He looked at his daughter, not as one who was wroth, or as though their wills crossed, but as one in doubt. Then he said, "There is no need for that. It can be settled now." He showed no care that his words should not be heard. But he added to that, "Let all men stand back," and then to Stele, "I will speak with you in an hour's time. You can go where you will till then."
The words were indifferent rather than rude, the King speaking as one being used to power and to the rule of men who would wait his will. They showed Stele no better hope, nor any omen of fear. He did not even know that it was of him that they would speak. He thought rather that the late coming of the Princess and her brother showed that they were concerned with some other more urgent thing.
But Elsya had no doubt about that.
"It is of us they will speak."
She was in better spirits now. The morning had gone well at the first. Also, she had caught Thelmo's eyes, while Tekla spoke to the King. They had been on her in a very satisfactory way, and she had given back an audacious glance, as though he were a small thing, and yet intimately, as though he might come to a better place in her thoughts if they should talk somewhere apart. It was a short glance on her side, and after that he might look as he would, but he would get nothing from her. She had more hope now that she might be the first wife, and more willingness to try what it would be. She was more anxious for her friends than herself, but all might come to a good end. It is more easy to think thus when you are in the sun than when you lie awake in the night.
Rita had her own fears through these hours, but they were better held. She had but one wish to be clear of a hateful place to which they should not have come; but she knew that Stele had the same mind, so there was no discord in that. She would be ready if she could help. It is not every woman of any time who can be quiet in that way. She was as sure as Elsya that the talk was of them, for she had seen where the eyes of the two had been as they had approached Stele from the side, and she had judged that they came with a common will, though she was less sure what it was...
When the hut was clear Tekla came to her point with few words of a straight kind. She asked first, "Is Thelmo to have the girl?"
"I have said that," answered the King. "He can have her if he will. I think little of her."
"Then," said his daughter, "you think wrong." She told him what she had told Thelmo before. He said nothing, but he did not look pleased.
She went on: "Thelmo will have the girl. She will be his first wife. I have told him that. But I would speak of the man. I do not want you to send him away.
"I had no such thoughts. Those who come stay.
"He is one that I think to wed.
The King kept a quiet voice, and his words were less abrupt than were those of her who should have bent to his will.
"That is a foolish thought which you will do well to forget.
"He is the best man I have seen."
"I know that. How many kings would you have?"
"There is no such thing to be thought. There can be no king but you."
"Not at this time. But I look ahead. There will be a time when I die."
"If I wed him, he will do as I will. Thelmo will be king then."
The King thought for a time. Then he said, "You would wed sister and brother, knowing them for the kind they are? Peace might hold, or not. I cannot tell. But what of the children what would come in the next place? Can you say who would be first?... It is useless to say more. It is a thing that I will not have. The man must go to the pens."
Tekla answered with heat, "That he never shall. Do you think no more of such a man than of a few pounds of meat? I would never sit at that meal."
The King still spoke in a quiet voice. "Daughter, you do me a strange wrong. A king would have living men. When have I let them be slaughtered for meat, even those who are mean, or old, or have a limping leg? Yet, if a healthy man die, shall we throw his flesh to the dogs, that the dogs may become more and the men less?"
"It is a custom," she said, "which I have never liked."
"Then," said the King, very reasonably, "you might have told me before."
She had no answer to that.
He went on: "All my days I have discouraged the eating of men's flesh, lest they should be killed for that end; yet to forbid all is a length I could not go if I would. A king's power has its bounds. And I would not go so far, if I could. It were too great a waste. For you must think what it would mean when we go to war. Men would not fight as they do if they did not know that there would be food for those who can hold the field. Shall the victor go back with a tight belt while the dogs and the crows get fat? And would it not be a man's choice that he should be meat for his friends rather than for meaner things to tear, or for his bones to be chewed in a dog's mouth? Have you not said yourself that it is a good change, when we have had horseflesh too long?"
Tekla did not deny that, being one of a very straight speech. She said, "It may be less stringy than horse, if the man is young and has been of an idle life; but that is not to the point that I would make... If you will not that I wed this man, will you let him go?"
The King thought again, for he would have done his daughter's will if he could. But at last he said, "I cannot let him go, for I know you too well. You would have your will at the last if not in white, then in black." (Which was a saying of that time.) "And besides, it were too great a risk, though he swore by every oath that he knows. I cannot have it that a man lives, except ourselves in this hut, who knows of the way to this place, nor a man in the outer world who knows that this place is here. It were a risk which none would take, being fit to rule."
Tekla said no more as to that, and gave no sign of her thoughts, for she knew that to say more were to waste words. She asked a new thing: "What shall you do with the tree-woman who is his wife now, as it seems "
The King answered that without pause of thought: You may do with her as you will, or she may go. There is no danger from such as she."
"Yes," said Thelmo, who had not spoken before, being ever sparing of words, and his thoughts being on Elsya at this time in a way it would have pleased her to know, "she will say nothing to nay. What could her people do, though she told them all? They are less than we. I do not think we should count them as men."
The King differed from that, having the wisdom of age. "You are right in part. But I would not say that they are less than we. They may understand us better than we understand them. But you are right that she can do no harm. She came in peace. Let her go where she will."
As he said this he knew himself to be a king who was wiser than most, and who was just, and of a merciful mood.
He said, "Let the man be called."
All this time the five Amazons had sat there, as hearing nothing, and not moving at all.
Now the crowd came back, being larger than it had been before, and Stele and Elsya stood before the King. Tekla looked once at Thelmo, who knew well what the glance meant. He was to leave all to her and to make no protest, whatever she might say at the last. She could trust him for that, though she thought he would have a shock before long.
The King spoke to Stele, and his words were smooth.
"I have thought well of this mission on which you came. Coiling Snake is a wise king, and I would not say that it was not a good plan, but it was not for me; for, as you have heard, my daughter would not leave her place here, which may be more great than you think. Now, I would bring this thing to a good end, doing harm to none, but you have put me in a hard case. For you have come unasked to a very secret place, on which more hangs than you know. I cannot let you go out, unless I have a sure oath that you will tell it to none, and some pledge beyond that, so that you will seek our good in your heart. Now, I will do this. I cannot change bride for bride, as I have shown, but if you will give your sister to my son with a good will you shall go free of the valley by a very secret road, swearing that you will come no more, nor tell of where you have left her to any."
He said this, meaning to keep his word, but no more. What would be found at the end of the secret road he had not said. He thought that his son would have a happier bride if she saw that her brother would go free, and he was a king who was very thoughtful for all.
Stele looked at Elsya. He saw that it was a thing that had got to be, and it was one that might have been worse. Yet he would have her speak her own mind, which was more than most would have done at that pass, though it may be it would have made no difference had she shown a loth will. But he looked at her with such knowledge as a brother gains, and he did not think that she would break her heart at that deal.
He had one other thought, which he must not miss. He said, "We are three who came. There is a woman of the trees whom I would not leave."
The King was easy at that. "She may go or stay as she will. There is no danger in her." He thought that if she went with Stele, and came to the same end, it would be all for the best, but he would not alter the promise he had made to Tekla, being a just man.
He said, "We will have the wedding in two days from now, and in such state as we may, for the next day we must go from here." He would have dismissed all with a lifted hand, having sat there long enough, and being of a will to go to his private hut, when Tekla leaned forward a little from where she sat and spoke in a very clear voice, so that all men would know what had been said: "I claim them both for the god."
Stele and Elsya could not tell what she meant, nor if she were friend or foe. But there was a sound that was like a sudden breath from the crowd behind, for they knew that she had doomed them both to a sure death.
The King showed no sign of his thought, looking at his daughter in a quiet way, as one who would read her mind. It seemed a good ending to him, though not easy to understand, unless she meant that the girl should not do well if the man died.
Thelmo made a start that might have been surprise or wrath at the first, and then looked at his sister and became still.
Stele and Elsya found that the crowd were breaking apart, and that they were free to walk where they would.
IT was but ten minutes later that Thelmo stood in his sister's hut and looked at her with troubled eyes.
"She is all that you said, and more. She would bring pride to a king. Am I to wed her or no?"
"You will wed her two days hence, as the King has said."
"Will she be in a mood to wed, knowing her end? And what can it be for me?"
Tekla was troubled by the first question of these two, if not by both. It was one thing of which she had not fully thought, and she knew that there might be more. She said, "There is none knoweth his end in this world... It may be that they will not be told."
"Those who go to your god know their end in a short time."
"That is true enough. But they are very safe until then. Also, they go one at a time, and there is one that comes first."
"There is little comfort in that."
"There may be more than you think."
"Will you not tell me what you would do?"
"I have said more than enough. Would you know what to say when you will talk to the King?"
Thelmo went away very troubled in mind, but not as much as he might have been. Tekla sent out a swift word that none was to tell any of the three of the meaning of the claim she had made, or not more than to say that it placed them under her protection, so that all would make them their care. And this was true to a point, so that it was not hard to believe. For there was no lack of food now, nor of anything that was in that place to give. They could have all that they would.
The King was a thoughtful man during the next hour. He heard the order that Tekla had sent out that they should not know their fate and he thought more. He did not mind that they should go to the god. In some ways it was the better plan, for he was not sure that Elsya would have made a good wife for his son. She had too much will of her own, and he thought her to be of a jealous kind, which was true enough, and which may bring trouble to the homes of kings.
Had he liked it less than he did it had been a hard thing to stop, after Tekla had made her claim in that public way. He thought, without wrath, that she had planned it well for her own end, but he would be sure what that end would be.
After an hour of such thought he rose up and walked forth without guard, as he sometimes did in that place when he would see for himself.
He sought Thelmo, and found him walking apart.
"What does she mean by this?" said the King.
Thelmo was glad to answer, "I know nothing at all."
"So I supposed," said the King; "yet you can know if you will."
"She says the wedding shall go on."
"You can say 'No' to that... Which of them will she have first?"
"I have not asked that."
"Then it is a thing that you should. It is something that you should know for yourself, and it would tell much."
Thelmo saw that. He knew that he would have thought to ask had he not felt that his sister had some; purpose which it had been agreed between them, without words, that he should not know. But this was a thing that she must expect to tell. He said, "I will ask that."
The King went on: "The moon will be in its place but three nights from now, so that you may have a bride for no more than a day's length if she decide as I think she will."
"It is less soon than that. There is one that comes first."
The King had forgotten that, and was vexed in mind. "Then she can make it two months that the man lives... Has she said that she would have son?"
It was a shrewd question, and sudden, and of the sort which is answered if there be pause in reply.
Thelmo said, "She is not as they of the Left Wing. Women do."
The King was answered enough. He thought he saw more than he did, but he would make sure. He said again, "Ask her which she will have first. It will tell much."
"So I will," said his son. He went at once to his sister's hut.
TEKLA sat on a heap of skins, having comfort of body but less of mind. She had seen the only way she could take, and had turned the helm to that course with a steady hand, but it was by rock and shoal she must steer if she were to come to port at the last. There were things of which she had had no time to think before, but they would not wait long.
She sat with her chin in her hand and her elbow upon her knee, which was a way she had when she thought much. She was clothed in white in a loose way, showing her size. She would not that the valley people should see her thus, and for that cause she would have none to wait in her hut when she must come to this place, but she let Thelmo come in, for he was as herself.
She looked at him, and a light of mockery changed the sombreness of her eyes. "You have had word with the King."
"That is so. He would know which you would have first. He thought I should have asked that."
"So you should. It was a thing I forgot... Well, it can be your own way. I do not care which is first."
"If you leave it to me, I can only choose in one way.
"Are you so sure? Well, so you can tell the King."
Thelmo went back to the King. "She says she does not care which is first... I can choose as I will."
The King considered that in a puzzled mind. "You can only choose in one way. She will slay the man first."
For once Thelmo was quicker than he. Perhaps his sister's "Are you so sure?" should be thanked for that.
"It is not quite as it sounds. Elsya will see where her brother goes, and she will know her own end. It would be a poor month after that for him to whom she were wed."
"You mean it will be best that she be the first, both for you and for her? Tekla may count that you will decide in that way, and she will have the man for two months, though none can say that it is of her own choice." The King thought that he saw far into his daughter's mind, but he was still unsure that he saw all, in which he was right, as he most often was. "We will say no more at this time." He left Thelmo alone.
Thelmo thought for himself. He was not foolish at all, though in this thing he may seem as one whom his sister ruled, the fight being hers at the root, and one that she must win by a lonely path, if at all. He remembered that she had said that she did not care which would be first. Perhaps she might have meant that which she said.
He could not tell what his sister would do, for in the depth of his mind he did not think that she meant that either Stele or Elsya should go to her god; but he could not see how she could get clear of that, having made the claim which so many heard, or how she could bring her own wish to a good end even then, for her father had said that Stele was not one that he would have, and he would not easily change from a fixed mind.
Thelmo saw that he must leave these doubts till he could talk with her again. For the next thing, he would do well to talk to his coming bride, for though she might be his only for a month (or two, if he would), which he was slow to think, yet there was much that she would have to know, as would Stele also, and he was the one that should tell. So he went his way to the hut to which the three had returned, and where there had been talk enough before he came, as it would be easy to guess.
They were content, in the main, with the way that the thing had gone, as it would look to any from their side that they had reason to be; but they were puzzled as to what Tekla might have meant at the last: "I claim them both for the god." They would return to this again and again, being that which they could not solve.
Stele said, "It must be some protection by which we are made safe in the tribe, or some rite by which we are made of a high caste; for what else could it be? It is the same for both, and she would not mean aught but good for her brother's bride."
Elsya said, "It is more than that. It is something which we do not guess, and which I have a heart to fear. Yet I am not greatly afraid. I am less afraid than I think."
This was shrewdly put. Her mind was drawn in different ways by two things which she had felt, and which were more to her than a reasoned word. On the one side, she had not liked the sound which the people made when they had heard that they were claimed for the god. It was something that she could not fit with the ideas which seemed good to Stele, and so she put them away. But, on the other side, she was quite sure that Thelmo wished her no ill, and she was as sure that he and Tekla were of a common will, so she turned the doubt from her door.
She did this with the greater ease because she had much else of which to think. She had formed a sure thought that Thelmo was prince of a larger place than this valley, and she was eager to know of what she would be queen at the last; she wished also to know if he had other wives, or if she would be first in time, as she meant to be in other ways. Then she was curious to know what might be the marriage customs of a strange land, and if there would be some rite in the gathering of many eyes, as she would like it to be; and she had a girl's thoughts, which have been alike at all times, for her clothes, though it may be for no more than the bliss of a ringed nose or a feathered head. She had no more than her pearls and the dusty skins that she wore; and Rita could be of no help, for she wore nothing at all. Nor had Rita any care for such customs as these, for, had she talked of them at all, she would have called them of a vulgar kind. She would have said that if two would mate it was for themselves alone, and there could be no time at which others could be better away.
But Rita had her own thoughts, which were the trouble of one who comes near to the grasp of a sought thing and is not sure what it may prove to be. At the sight of Stele she had come down from the trees, seeking a strange love, and had found it hers, and she was told now that Elsya would be left here, and that they two could go back to his own tribe, at what leisure they would, and she could see that he was glad at the thought.
Doubtless he would expect that she would be his in the quiet woods, and that they would go back to dwell in his cave, and to take rule of the tribe when Coiling Snake should be dead. She knew that love is more than a tale of two who lie close in a shadowed place, and she was afraid of how at last it would be. For she had no heart for the caves, nor for the ways of those who could live such lives, eating fish that their hands had killed or that had gasped to death on the shore. She was not quick at their speech, nor did she wear their skins. She did not like the way in which they would ever be doing things for which there was no need, when they might lie stretched in the sun and be aware of themselves; and the smoke of their fires was a very filthy thing.
She would have been very glad to be back in the dear home in the trees, where her birth had been, but she knew that she would go on, from step to step, never turning at all, and yet dreading what the next would be. So she had grief at a joy which might be less near than she thought, which had been a grief of another depth had she known what the doubt was.
But Stele felt that it was all near to a good end.
He was confirmed in this when men came bringing more food than they could eat in a week, asking if it were as they would, and going with quick feet for such kinds as Rita would be more glad to have. Nor was it of a different face when Thelmo came to the door, saying that he had much to tell, and might he eat with them on the same floor? Which they were pleased for him to do.
Chapter: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 OUT
[From the Sydney Fowler Wright web site: www.sfw.org]