[From the Sydney Fowler Wright web site: www.sfw.org]
by S. Fowler Wright
THELMO drew Stele to talk of himself for a time, for he would know more of this man whom his, sister sought. Stele told of how he should have fought Borl, and of the mischance by which that was stayed. "So I have killed none," he said, in a modest way, "that is, of our own kind, though I must be near to my full strength, and may be chief of my tribe even as I sit here." (For they sat round the spread food on the hut floor, as they talked.) "I should say that you have done more, having had, it may be, better chances than mine."
Thelmo, who was little older than he, allowed that might be no more than truth. "At least, if you call them equal to men, which we scarcely do. I have killed many of those who come through the great swamp, but there was little merit in that, for the battle lasted three days, giving time for much."
"That was far from this vale?"
"It is of that I would tell, among many things. For, after three days' time" he turned to Elsya as he said this "we must go to that land." He did not say that they must return in a month's time if his sister's claim of themselves were to come to its due end.
Elsya was glad at that. Her eyes shone, and she looked at Thelmo in a way that he would learn to love, as she meant that he should. "My heart knew well that you were a greater prince than of this vale."
Thelmo went on, seeing no reason to guard his speech, for these were things that his wife must learn were she his for a week or a life; and whether Stele went by the secret road to the end which the King had meant, or whether he went to his sister's god at a later day, it mattered not what he heard or knew. It mattered only that he should have no fear of guile, such as might be passed over to Elsya's mind. And if things should come to another end, and Tekla should have her way by a means that he could not guess well, then he must come to this knowledge too, so it might be said to both, and the time was saved.
"The way out of this valley is through the hills on the eastern side. It is not over the hills, which will never be climbed by man on that side, as you can see for yourselves, but by caverns that none may trace (except that the way be shown), so that they die in the dark; for there is no light by that way."
"You will tell me," Stele said, "if I ask that which were better left, and I will take it in the right way; but I would know why you hold this valley as so secret a thing, your father being king of a greater land on the other side of the hills."
"It is a thing that would be asked by any," Thelmo replied; "yet it is simple enough. The valley is known to none, for the lake, being of three miles' length, and twisting somewhat among the hills, closes its mouth, and the beasts that are in the lake are such that no man would swim by that way, even though he could swim so far, and had hope to find aught for his toil... We keep secret that which we have found because we can withdraw when we will, either for counsel or rest, and the people of my father's land see no more than that we enter the mountain-side, bringing, it may be, no food, nor aught else for our need, and we are within (as they think) for many days, and come forth as we were, having communed with gods. It has a simple sound, yet it makes our rule sure."
"That is well to know, and it is a secret that I shall keep very still in my mind, both for the oath that I shall swear, and for Elsya's sake, that she shall ever have this sure place to which to flee if she must. But there is one further thing that I would ask, and then I am done. I would know what your sister meant when she said that we were claimed for her god."
Thelmo may not have liked to be asked on this point, but he met it in the best way that he could, giving as much truth as he dared, which he judged to be better than a made tale.
"As to that you will soon know, for you will see him in three nights from now, if it be a sight which you choose. You will say that it is no god at all, being no more than one of the beasts of the lake which has grown too fat to go free; but it is not to be said in a loud voice, for, to the valley-folk, it is a great god. Now that you have been claimed for the god the people will bring you all that you can ask to have, as you have already seen."
"Why should it be seen," Elsya asked, "in three days' time, and not now?" She did not like the sound of what this god was, and she would learn more.
Thelmo must go on by the path that he had started to take, and he trod it so that it was less bad than he had feared it would be. "You need not see it then, but of your own choice. I gave you that time because we have one that is doomed to die on that day for a good cause, and he will be given to it for the food it needs."
"I hope," Stele answered to that and the smile with which he spoke was more of the lips than the heart "that your sister would not claim us for a like end."
Thelmo gave an answer which was frank enough, and Stele was inclined to believe that he meant all that he said. "My sister has not told me her mind, which she might not thank me to guess. She would rather show it herself in her own time. Yet I think she meant no ill, neither to yourself nor to your sister, whom I shall wed, for you will see that you are both in the level cast of that net."
"I am sure alike," Elsya said to that, "that she meant us no ill."
"I am of the same mind," said Stele; "yet you will see that it had the look of a spear which might point the wrong way."
THELMO went on, after that, to talk of his own land on the far side of the hills, which, as he told it, was of a great expanse, being a fertile plain, with low hills at the north, where it was many miles in width, though it narrowed toward the south; but at the east, being the farther side, the ground was flat and low, and sank till it was no more than a swampy marsh, with islands of bushy growths standing up here and there, and this swamp closed in on the south till it met the hills; for the lake which closed the valley in which they were was drained by a river which ran south and then east through a gorge in the hills; it had rapid falls, and then spread out in the marshy lands till it was lost in the swamp.
On this fertile land there dwelt a great people who had been there for more years than a man could count, and had grown so numerous that there had been seven tens of tens of tens at the last count, all men and women in their best years, for the old and the children had not been counted at all.
There were old tales that if any could cross the swamp they would come to a land that had no limit at all, very fertile, but being full of serpents and great beasts that it would be terror to see; but no one knew the truth of this, for the swamp had not been crossed in the time of any who now lived, as they were at ceaseless war with those that dwelt therein, and no man unless he were riding a swift horse could go near it and live.
At that point he must stop to tell that the horses, of which they had seen something, were not kept in the outer plain to milk and eat only, but that men would ride on their backs, which was a strange thing to be heard; and when that talk had ceased Stele asked, "Are there more of the men of the swampy lands, or are they better-weaponed or of a fiercer kind, that they hold you in as they do?"
"They are not men at all," Thelmo answered, "or they could not dwell in that place. They are, as we call them, the Thlantus, the great rats of the marsh."
"I know the Ogpurs," Stele answered, "which are men, though of a loathsome kind, dwelling in holes that they have made in the ground; but of the Thlantus I had not heard. What are they in size and shape?"
"They are like in shape to the rats which may be found in a stream's bank or in the roots of an old tree, but much larger, being half the size of a man, and at times more than that. Also they are slimmer and lither than rats, having long, thin heads, with many narrow, needle-pointed teeth, showing from jaws that are slit far back."
He went on to tell of their colour, which was dull white, of a fish-like look, and how their blood, though it was not reptile-cold, was not of the bright heat of a man's, but ran slow in a chill stream.
Yet (he said) it must not be thought that they were dull of movement or tame of mood because their blood flowed thus in a chill stream from a slow heart, which is easy to understand. For even the reptiles have an agility which is not for contempt, as when the lizards streak from stone to stone. There is no slowness in the sweep of a crocodile's tail. But these were not reptiles. They were mammals of the swamp. Animals with keen brains in narrow heads, behind their hell-red eyes. Animals that bred too fast for the feeding that the swamps supplied; that gluttoned ever in thought upon the root-rich fields of the plains that the men tilled; that had a fiercer thirst to suck the hot pulses of one that they had pulled down, while he yet lived. Animals of an age that had not yet bent its neck to the dominion of man; that yet fought for freedom if not for supremacy in a lawless world.
Furtive and fierce, they lurked along the edges of the swamp, restless ever to cross the ten-mile barrier of a plain that was kept barren to part the swamps from the fertile lands and the dwellings of men. They were scarcely checked by the knowledge that those who ventured first would very surely die, whatever might be the fate of others that came behind.
Elsya spoke at that point. She was of fickle moods since she had known what her fate would be. At times she was shy and glad, and she had sudden fears and quick beatings of heart, so that she thought that those round her must hear. Ever she watched that Thelmo's eyes should come her way, though she would not always look back when they did. She was jealous of the talk that went on, though it was for her that he spoke, and she did not hear more than half that was said, though it was so much to her gain to know.
But she heard this talk of the swamp-rat's teeth, and she said, in a quick fear, "I will not go to that land. Thelmo can have me here if he will. There would be no rest, neither by night nor by day."
Thelmo did not look pleased at this. He did not wish that he should marry a coward. Yet he looked at her, and could not feel as wroth as he should. He thought that she might be one of those who will do more than they boast, which showed that he was wise for his years.
He answered, without heat, "You need not fear to come, for the Thlantus would never reach to the strong place where we should dwell, nor am I one with whom a wife would be less than safe at a need. I would not have you to think that. Beside, you are wrong when you think that there could be no peace either by night or day, for they cannot see in the dark. They are then more sightless than we. On the moonless nights the patrols are called in, and we sleep in a sure peace."
"Have they never crossed the barrier-plain," Stele asked, "so that they have done harm to your fields?"
"They came often at one time in small bands, doing much harm at first to the crops, and then taking children and horses as their boldness grew.
"At that time we relied only on a barrier fence and mound which we had built round the whole land on those sides, from which watchers looked over the plain.
"Then there was a time when they came in a force that no man could count, and were met mid-way on the plain in a great fight, in which more than half of our people were slain. That was before I was born.
"After that we began to train the horses to carry men, and with them we patrolled the plain through the daylight hours, hunting down any that came out from the edge of the swamp.
"When I was a child it was hard to get men to ride on these patrols, for though they might kill many, their own end was ever the same. It was said that they would never live more than two years. For you must see that, there being so many miles to patrol, they must ride alone, or in parties of few, if all points were to be watched at once.
"Then my father made the Amazons, who had been before but a king's guard, into a larger force, giving this work to them, which has been well done from that day."
"It is they whom my sister leads, they being known as the Left Wing, for such they are when the whole army moves out, the horses being fed in the meadows of the north, where the land is most wide.
"Yet there are more of the rats (or so it seems to us) every year, and they have been very bold of late. It was last year that they came out in all their force, as they did in the earlier time, and it was a three days' fight that we had before they were back in their own place. At that time we were only saved by those of the Left Wing, who rode through them from side to side till their horses could do no more."
Stele asked, "What are they whom your sister leads? Are they women or men?"
"They are not men," he answered, "nor are they women, though once they were; for my father made it a law that every year we shall choose twenty of the best of our girls of the fourteenth year (or it may be more than that, if there have been many losses that should be replaced), and they are cut with stones, as was done before to those only who would be of the King's guard, so that they will bear no babies to their lives' ends.
"After that, for five years, they are trained in riding, and in the ways of war. Then they must take their turn to patrol the plain at its farther side on the swamp's edge, being ten miles from the dwellings of men. They know that they will be pulled down at the last, feeling the swamp-rats' teeth tearing at throat and thigh, and they count ever the tale of deaths they give before that evil shall be."
"Yet I see not why they should go ever childless before their deaths."
"There are good reasons enough. Would they ride at peril ever with minds that are fierce and free, had they babes in a left hut?"
"Yet it is strange, if you would have your race grow, that you should thus deal with your women, from whom its increase comes. Could you not better spare a regiment of men of a like kind?"
"It is a thing that we could not fail to ask of ourselves. But the answer is that a sexless man becomes spiritless and heavy of flesh. He is slow to move, with little courage to fight, though he may be spiteful more than enough; but a sexless woman, being in her strong youth, is of another kind, being without pity and without fear. She is like a fierce cat that would let no other life endure, her own being cut off as it is."
Stele was silent for a moment after this had been told, and then asked, as one in a doubt who would not say the wrong thing, "Yet, unless I err and I speak as one who would be told if he should ask that which should be left unsaid your sister seems not of this kind?"
"My sister," Thelmo answered, "is as she was born. She leads the Left Wing of her own choice, having a great hatred of the Thlantus, as I have also, which may be from this root, that it was but two months before our birth that a troop of them found their way to the place where our mother was, and she held them off till help came, killing two with a spear of bronze."
Elsya was somewhat bored by this talk, which was not of those things that she was most eager to know, yet she would not be rude to Thelmo, nor win the rebuke of Stele, who would not care what he said. "All this," she said, "is a tale to hear; yet I would know most of the ways of life in your own walls, and of what houses you have."
So Thelmo turned the talk to strong houses of wood, and herds of goats, and garments woven of hair, and of pits for the tanning of skins, and of the tin and copper which were found in the northern hills, which could be blended to a metal of stubborn strength, and of a bright dye which could be made from a plant that grew in the swamps, and of cunning workers in bone and wood of all which Elsya was glad to hear, thinking that she would be queen in a great land.
But Rita listened to all this, saying nothing at all. Her thought was, "Why do men come down from the trees, which are safe and clean, to find this trouble and dirt?" But it went on to show her that she was doing this thing herself, though (as we can see) she knew the voice of the serpent for what it was.
TEKLA took Elsya to her own hut, that she might tell her the marriage rites, and find her what she might wear.
She gave her a pair of deer's horns for her hair, and showed her how to fasten them on. They were of a straight spiral, not more than five inches long, bone white and well polished, making her hair more black than it was before.
"It is god's luck," Tekla said, "that I have any such here; but of seemly clothes there is nothing that can be found in this savage place. For at this time you should be clothed in skin of lizard or snake. You should be covered from neck to knee, that none may see what you will give to him that you will wed, and it should be a covering that fits close, that all may envy what it will be. There is nothing of such kind in this vale. Yet you cannot be wed in those skins, which are of an old filth, such as would not be easy to cleanse."
She looked at her own tunic of white, which she wore only in her own hut while she was here. Elsya tried it over her head. She was lost in its width, and it fell near to her feet.
She laughed at that, looking up at Tekla, who was more than a head taller than she. She said, "You must be of a great strength."
"Thelmo is stronger than I, though we are of a like height. You will learn his strength when you are wed."
"It is a good thought."
Elsya would have gone on talking of Thelmo, or of herself, which she was ever willing to do, but Tekla held to her point. "It is large, yet it must serve."
Elsya said, "That is soon changed. Give me threads, and a good needle of bone, and I have my own knife with which to cut. I will make it to fit well... Tell me what I shall say and do."
"There is not much that can be said or done in this place. It had been different in our own land. We shall gather the people in one crowd, that all may see. Then you will go up to the King, who will stand, and you will kneel at his feet and say in a clear voice, 'King, I would wed your son, if you will.'
"And the King will say, 'Will you be his, to take his babes in your womb, or his spear in your heart's depth?' And you will answer to that, 'I will be his, to do as he will.'
"The King will say, 'You will be none but his while you both live?' And you will answer, 'I will be none other's at all.'
"Then the King will turn to Thelmo, who will be standing at his right hand, and will say, 'Son, here is a wife of a good kind.'
"To that Thelmo can answer in two ways. He can say, 'She is dirt to me,' and the crowd will laugh, and you will go where you can; or he can say, 'I am in want of a wife,' after which he will stoop and lift you from where you kneel, and carry you to his own hut, after which you will both do as you please."
Tekla said this over a second time, that it might be learnt well, but Elsya was not one to forget. She considered it, and was not over-pleased. She said, "It is not worth a high price. Does Thelmo promise nothing at all?... Yet it matters naught. Men will have their words, but it is a woman's way in the end."
"It is more than words," Tekla answered, "as you should know. Were we in our own land when a prince is wed, it is custom that a faithless wife shall die in the bride's sight of a cut throat, and such may be kept alive for a long space, so that she may serve her use on the right day... But these people of the vale are a dull folk, and I doubt that there will be one such to be found."
Elsya yawned at that. She did not greatly care as her mood was at that time whose throat might be cut, so that it were not hers. She laughed at a new thought.
"When you wed," she said, "you will have a small choice. There are few who could carry you in that manner. I hope his hut will be near."
She would have said more, but she stopped at the sudden anger in Tekla's eyes. She saw that which she had not guessed, though she was quick to judge, both of women and men. For a second's space she saw, not a woman friend, but the fierce, implacable eyes of the priestess of the valley-god, of the Leader of the Left Wing, and they were not easy to meet. She would see that glance once again, when they were to look their last at one another in a place of death and high deeds; but they would not know that at this day. In a moment it had passed, and Tekla said, "I am a king's daughter. I should not wed in that style."
"As to that," Elsya answered, boldly enough, "I am a king's daughter too. Is this a marriage that does me shame?"
"Yes... I suppose you are... There is no shame at all. Thelmo will wed you with all the honour he may... But you have not seen our land."
Elsya might have left it at that, but she was one who was not easily still with her tongue. She went on: "You might wed Stele, and do well. He would carry you for a mile, if there were such a need, though I think you are little shorter than he. He carried Rita for half a day, hanging down his back like a dead deer, though he was sulky about her weight."
Tekla looked at her with attentive eyes, which were now under control of a strong will. "What is this tree-woman to him?"
"She is nothing as yet. She follows him as a child follows those to whom it looks for its food, but she holds off, as one dreading a seen end."
"Yet they sleep in the same hut. They lie close at night on the same skins. He may do as he will."
Elsya wondered how she should know this. She said, "You are wrong in that. He will never do as he wills. It is she who will bend that bough."
Elsya did not know that she had said ill, but there was little but cold speech between them after that, at least at that time.
The next day Tekla was as kind as before.
THE wedding was as Tekla had said it would be, and there is no need to tell it again. Elsya said her words without fault, being too nervous to fail. She meant them as much, or as little, as women do at such times. They were incantation rather than vow. She had a little dread, in the dark rear of her mind, that Thelmo should change his will, and should call her dirt to her shame, and she had a sure faith all the time that he would say a different thing, as he did.
She knew that she looked her best, as there were eyes enough to behold, though she would have had them more. She wished much that those of her own tribe had been there to see.
In the end Thelmo picked her up, and carried her off with an ease at which she was well pleased. She said, as he put her down in his hut, "You could carry two such as I. You should have wed two, being so strong." She scarcely knew what she said, for her heart beat very fast, and she was more frightened than she had thought to be.
She said, "I am not to be hurt!" for she was ever a coward at pain. She had heard tales of what may be when a girl comes first to a man's power, and she was much smaller than he. After that she had moods. She pleaded. She teased. She mocked, "Will you never take me at all?"... But at last she kissed hard. Thelmo was well content. He knew that he had a wife of a good kind. He thought that they would do much, being together in days to be. He thought little of his sister's claim. He said, "When you see my land you will know that you are to be a great queen at the last. It may be that you will be the greatest that the world holds, when we have conquered the swamp, as I have hope to do."
It was a foolish boast, for no man knows of the days to be, and those who guess will guess wrong. But they slept well for that night, and Elsya waked with a glad heart, and must tempt him that he would love her again, which he was very ready to do.
IT was that night that Stele and Rita came to the same end, though by a different path.
For they were alone in the hut when the night closed, and it was different now that Elsya was gone as they both felt, though it would have been hard to put it to speech and they had come to a strong love, and were in their first youth and in vigour of life. Nature cares nothing for the mumming of men, nor for a priest's prayer, nor overmuch for a man's joy or a woman's pain. She plays for a new life. Next to that, for a safe nest, where it may grow. And it was the doubt of this last which had held Rita back for so long. Now she put that doubt from her mind, seeing the way she must tread; and having come to that point there was no cloud to her joy. For she was different from Elsya, being of braver heart, and thinking less of herself. Also, though of the same years, she was much older of soul, having had a more leisured life, and thought much as she had sat in the summer sun, when she had been tired of play, or when she had lain close at her mother's side, in the dark of the colder days, going little abroad unless the sun showed, but staying in the high shelter that they had built, and eating at times from the food which they had stored in a tree's gap, yet feeling little of the cold, for her fur was thick at that time of the year, falling off in the spring, till that which remained was little more than a fine down, as it was now.
So having come to this mind, she let Stele know that he might do as he would, which was very quickly done. She did not love after Elsya's way, being without fear or guile, but Stele saw no cause to complain. They went their own way (as they thought), and Nature had hers, which (as we have said) is ever for the living babe and even one that is weak is a hope, and so is better than none. There are those who dream that they can do better than this, and that life may come to a safe end by a fenced way, being unstrengthened by any strife, which may be true when the stars fail.
But there were four who waked at that dawn, each having a glad heart; and there was one who waked alone, having no joy, to brood plans in a doubtful mind.
IT was the night of the next day. The moon rose early in the southern sky, being two days on the wane. It was a moon of more brilliance than is ours, except in the tropic lands, and on that night there would come a time when it would shine straight down through a fissure in the rocky hills, piercing inward through the high side of a great cave, and moving down its black wall, till it fell at last upon the blacker water of a still pool, which was in the midst of the cave.
It could have been seen at that time, by one whose eyes had become used to the dark, that the sides of the pool were high and steep, but having a stair cut in the rock which led down to a narrow beach running round the pool, between it and the steep sides.
The cave was large, with a wide level of space round three sides of the pool, and it could have been seen in the faint light that it was crowded with men. All the men of the valley were in that space, and the women too, except such as had babes to watch, and the King was there, seated on the ground, as he ever was, and Thelmo sat before him on his right hand, and Elsya on his left, and before them was the Amazon guard; but Tekla stood in another place.
She was clothed in the reptile-skin which she ever wore in the sight of the valley-folk. On her forehead, between the horns of deer, there was a large and luminous stone, the like of which is not now in the hands or knowledge of men, though such may be found again in the deep hills, when a man shall go far enough in the right way. Also, she had a knife in her hand.
It could be seen by the stone's light (for the moon did not shine on that side) that a man stood before her, and that his hands were bound at his back. There was none that stood, beside these two. All others sat on the ground; among whom were Rita and Stele. Rita watched all with a thoughtful mind, wondering much at the ways of the men who had left the trees. Stele watched as closely as she, and with less ease of mind than he would have liked to have, being alert to see the ways of this god to whom he had been given without his will.
Elsya watched too with a curious mind, for she was ever one who would see all, but there was no fear in her heart now that she and Thelmo were one. She felt that she had come to a safe place.
They stood silent and still, Tekla and the bound man, till the moon's light fell on the dark pool, and there was a stir from its depths. Then Tekla spoke to the man.
"You know the law. If you answer that which ask, and do that which I say, the god may eat or spare; but if you delay either to speak or do, you will be thrown in, bound as you are... How came you here for a god's meal?"
"I am condemned thus," the man answered, "because I thought to follow you through the dark caves, which is against the will of the god."
"Are you the first to try this wrong thing?"
"I am the third."
"Where are the two?"
"They have both gone to the god." The man's voice shook as he said this, with a fear that he could not rule.
"You have spoken truth. I will loose your hands, and you must go down the steps at the best speed you can. It is death to be slow in that. When the moon moves from the pool you can come up if you still live, for the god will have granted your life."
The man turned, and she cut the rope from his hands. He ran down the steep steps, which were roughly hewn in the rock, and having no rail, with such haste that he was likely to have fallen to the water below, and so ended at once. Yet he was barely in time to save meeting the god at the stair's foot, for he came from the centre of the pool with a swift rush as he saw the man on the steps. Meeting at the water's edge, the man dodged the beast, making a swift turn, and ran round the side of the pool. With a bark of anger the beast gave chase, showing himself, as he came clear of the water, to be much larger than those that swam in the lake. It was through that size that he was fast in the pool, for when he was young he had found a way from the lake that was under the water's height, and had gone out and in till he grew too big, and so here he was to his life's end.
To Elsya's eyes he was slow and fat compared to the one she had seen before, and it seemed to her in the pale Light that his body was covered with swellings or cysts of an evil growth, but it might have been that they were but fungi of a foul kind that had taken root on his scales.
Fat though he might be, he waddled round the pool's edge at such a speed that the man must break into a rapid trot to keep ahead of the hungry jaws that snapped at his buttocks' height. Yet he might have kept ahead with no worse than a panting of breath till the light moved from the pool and he was free to go back by the way he came, had the margin of the pool been of an equal width for its whole girth. But there was one place where it was no more than a foot's width, and this narrow path was not flat, as was the most of that narrow beach, but shelved so sharply down that a man must move with slow feet, holding to the side of the rock, lest he fall into the depth of the pool.
If the reptile were close behind when the man came to this place he was no better than dead, for it could plunge into the lake and swim up to where he clung with one stroke of the tail, and pull him off by the leg, but if it were well behind, his chance to cross might be good enough. For if it should take to the water from where it then was, thinking to catch him up before he had gone far, he could turn back, and run past in the opposite way, and it would have all its trouble to begin as it had been at the first.
Elsya watched this play, as the man circled the pool three or four times and was still uncaught, and she liked it well. She was not cruel of heart, but there was no cause that she should care for the life of a man that she did not know, and he one who had proved to be of a spying kind, against the will of her friends. She wondered whether there had been any who had come back up the steps as the light failed; and when there was something that she would know she had a tongue that was not easily stilled.
She said to Thelmo, "May we talk in this place?"
She spoke in a low voice, aware of the soundless hush that had been in that crowd since the moon came, and Thelmo answered in the same way. "You may talk, if you choose words."
If they spoke low they could not be heard but by the Amazons who sat at their front, and by his father the King; but he knew, if she were incautious of words, that she might say things that were not good for his father's ears.
She said, "Doth no one escape?... Saw you that? It was a close thing."
He answered, "There was one only who came near to saving his life. He had very active legs, and, at the first, he could leap the gap, but he lost strength at the end, and failed at the last round."
Her eyes wandered to Tekla, who stood where she had been at the first, the knife still in her hand, and her face lit by the stone she wore. It gave to it a cold blue light, as though frozen to a like stone. She looked down on the man, but not as caring that the god should have his meal, but as one whose mind was on farther and very sombre things.
Elsya asked, "Is this custom hers? Or was it of older time?" She did not think of the foul beast as a god, and she saw well enough that it was a device to end those who were better dead; also she knew that women are by nature more cruel than men, though they may whisper a different tale in a man's ear; yet it did not seem such a sport as Tekla would have thought for herself. Thelmo answered that with a free tongue, knowing that there was none of the valley-folk that could hear his words. "It is older than she. There was a priest here when we came first who had been told by the god that no woman should rear more than three babes, and those she had beyond three should be fattened for him to eat in the third year. Also the old, and those who were maimed by mischance, went the same way.
"My father asked him if he were sure that such was the god's desire, and he said that if the god were of a different mind it would surely be shown, for he would not touch any who should be thrown to him against his will. He said this where all the people could hear, and my father said that the god's will should be obeyed.
"But the next night my father had a dream in which the god came to him wrapped in a red flame, and in wrathful mood, saying that the priest was too old, and that it was time that he should come to his jaws, as did others of the same age. The King told this dream when all were gathered on the next day, and the priest said that the dream was not from the god at all. My father said that this might be true, but it seemed to him that it was a thing to test, and that it was such a test as could do no harm, for (as the priest had said) if it were not the god's will he would not take him at all. But the god took him from the very foot of the steps with an eager snap, so that the people saw that my father's dream had come from the right place."
Elsya laughed at that. It was a good tale. Thelmo went on: "The god ate the priest where he pulled him down at the pool's edge, and sank back into the lake at last, leaving no more than a picked bone, and my father said that it was the god's will that who should be the first to go down the steps and stand at the water's edge should be in the priest's place, if he should show that such was his pleasure by letting him go free. Tekla went down the steps, and stood for a time at the water's edge, but the god did not rise at all, and she has been priestess from that day.
"After that the god told her that he was getting tired of the flesh of men, and most tired of those who were old and tough, or who were too young to have any flavour, wherefore he would only eat men from that day that were of the middle years, and when the light should be on the pool as it now is.
"The people were not sorry for that. The mothers, and those who were in their later years, took it for a good word. Yet they asked, 'What shall we then do o when the children grow in numbers and size, and the old men are slow to die, and the valley becomes too arrow for the life it holds?' The King said to that, 'Every winter I will take half the children of the second year, and though they pass to another land, and their mothers will not see them again, yet they will grow to a good end.' "
Thelmo might have said more, but he saw that Elsya had ceased to heed, for the play came to its last scene. The man came to the narrow place, and the god was close at his heels. He tried a new feint, turning and leaping back, so that he passed over the eager jaws, but he could do no more than come down on the beast's head, where he sat, facing its tail, and spreading his legs apart, so that they should be clear of the teeth.
The god shook his head with a sudden jerk, but the man would not come off, for which he cannot be blamed, on which the god jumped into the pool. There was a great splash, and a cry, and then the pool became still, except for the slow circles that spread for a time from where the struggle had been.
Thelmo said, "That is how it always is at the last. There is really little to see."
TEKLA knew that a man may have more than one wife, though a woman may not act quite in the same way. There are good reasons for that, as a child may see. A man may wed with four or five wives, and his children may be five times as many as one would bear, but a woman cannot increase hers in the same way Though a man have many wives it will bring no doubt of who may be the parents of every child; but if a woman act in a like way, she will have children of whom the father may not be known but to her own mind, and it may be not even to her.
Even if all that be put to the side, Tekla had no cause for wrath that Stele had met a woman of the trees while he had been unknown to herself, and had taken her for his use, as she supposed that he had. But the nature of men or of women changes little as the ages pass (if it change at all, which would not be easy to show), though it may be that in the world's dawn there were men of strong limbs and of heavy jaws who were gentler than are we of a later time, as it is natural for strength to be, and as we may see it today in the gorillas that would live at peace, but that men have killed for the mere sport of seeing a dead thing.
Tekla looked for a mate, as a woman should. She saw Stele as one of a better kind than were most of those of her own land, and one whom she would rather wed than that she should be under a man of her own race who was of less rank than herself. It was a chance to take with a quick hand. She would not deal at his price, which was to leave all that she was and had, to pick shell-fish on a barren coast, and to sit in a smoky cave, but she would have him to deal at her mart, and to pay the price that she set. She had his life in her hand.
As to wives, he could have all that he would, either first or last. She had no thought to make the world in a new way. But she would be first of these, as a thing of course, being that which she was. With a woman of her own race who would be slow to see this, which was a slender chance at the most, she would know how to deal. But this tree-woman was of a different kind. She knew that in their animal way (being scarcely to be counted as men) they would mate for life, and would have but one, being in this (as she had heard it said) as stupid as the wild geese, who may be slow to mate anew, even when they do no more than think of a dead thing. What her custom was might be little to Stele who was of another breed in which there would have been hope but that she had seen the looks in the eyes of those two, which she did not like.
She knew that she held power in her hands. She could order the woman's death. She could let Stele. know that his life was to be saved, if at all, by her own wit. She had a fierce desire for him in her heart, and she had power in her hands. That should have been enough for most. But she was of a great pride. She had been ever slow either to bargain or beg, which might have mattered less, things being as they were, but that she was one who would reach her end by a clean path, which it might not be easy to do. Then she had the King's will to thwart, and there was the claim she, had made which covered not only Stele, but her who was now her brother's wife.
She passed Thelmo as they came out from the cave, and he saw that she was of a vexed mood, which is easy to understand. Seeing that, trouble stirred in his own mind, for she had Elsya's life in her hands by her own plot, and Elsya was more to him by a night's play than he had thought a woman could be.
He said to her, speaking apart, "Goes it well?" And when she did not answer to that, "I cannot walk in the dark. I must know all." She looked at him with startled eyes, as one made awake by his last word. She said, "There is nothing that can divide us two." It was no answer to that he had asked, but he understood. He said, after a pause, "That would be true at the last." He waited for her to say more.
When she spoke again she went wide of what was in the minds of both, as she had done before.
"There is an old shrine in the northern hills. It was built by men who are not of our time. It is broken now."
"Yes," he said. "I know it well. What of that?"
"It was the shrine of a god."
"So it was," he replied. "But it is nothing now. You cannot read the god's name. It is but graven marks, which mean nothing to us. He is no more than a dead thing."
"Yes," she said. "So he is. Even gods die."
He thought at first that she spoke only from such mood as will come to all at times, showing life as a futile thing; but he thought after that she had offered words, as she sometimes would, having more meaning than their surface showed. Gods might die. If a god should die It must end a claim that had been destined to fill his jaws.
"Would you that?" he said, with a new hope.
"Would I what? We have but talked of a dead shrine. I have said nothing at. all."
After a time she added, "I know not what I will. That is plain truth. But you may sleep in peace, Elsya and you."
RITA talked with Stele at the same time. He had not liked that which he had seen, and he felt that there were hidden things that it would be well to know. Rita thought to the same end, but there was less: hidden from her, because she searched by another road. She felt that she was in a pit of filth, but she was there at the call of love. If Stele's life were at stake she would fight to the most she could. She would not be weak or slow, as she had shown more than once in the past days. But she did not choose to walk by that road. Why had he come down from the hills? Yet here they were; and she was his, as she thought, to her life's end by what had been in the last night, and she must learn to walk where he would.
Tekla had judged her well enough, as she had looked at her over the pool's breadth, seeming to see naught. "She is one who would harm none, being left in peace; but she would fight for her mate if the need were, being neither weakling nor fool." So she thought; and, beyond that, she could admire a grace of form that was almost of her own height, though of lighter build, and the golden down that lay so smooth and close, which few might be found who would praise at this day on a woman's back. She thought only that she was too long in the arms, as Elsya had thought before.
Stele told his doubts, fearing that the King would bring him to death, though Elsya might be left alone, being his son's wife. Rita could say naught of the King's mind, but of Tekla she spoke as of a seen thing: "She does not know what she would. She is in a great doubt. Yet we shall be safe enough, if the last word be with her."
"Well," Stele said, "we can but watch as yet, and be ready for all. Tomorrow it seems that we shall go t o the new land, when I suppose that we may have better hope of escape." He thought Elsya safe, and his only thought was to get back to his own tribe by the shortest road he could find.
THE next morning, at the first hour of the full light, Elsya came to the hut where Stele and Rita were. She had a message from Thelmo. It said that they should stay in the hut (except at the King's call) until they should hear again either from Tekla or him.
Elsya added to this, "We are to start at noon, but about you two there have been some words between Tekla and the King, who wished that you should stay here. She gave way when she saw that his will was fixed, but Thelmo says that the game is not played to its end."
"There is something hidden in this, which I do not like," Stele said. "We are treated as guests in this place. We are well fed. We may walk as we will. Yet there is no friendship shown. If we are to go free, as the King pledged, it would seem that now is the time, when those of his own house are to leave by the secret way. If we are to stay here, I must think that he means us no good. Can you not ask Thelmo that he shall talk in a plain way? "
Elsya said, "I have done that in the last hour. I said I was ill at ease, having seen the ways of the god whose I am claimed to be, and more so if you be held here. He said I was at his side in a high tree to which no evil could climb. I said I would take no comfort in that if you two were yet on the ground; to which he said, 'Would you cry a wound, having a whole skin? Let it be.' And after that he gave me the message which I now bring."
"Then we will wait here. You will not go without coming to us again?"
Elsya promised this, and her word held. It was an hour to noon when she came again. She was in a blithe mood, and began to talk before she had shut the door of the hut.
"There have been things to see! Yet I will tell you the end first, though I thought we should not reach it at all, so that you can hear with quiet minds. You are to come. That might not have been, but that But I must begin at the right end."
"The end may be the best place," Stele struck in, "if we are to start at noon. You must make short tale."
"It shall be short enough. There were valley-men that would speak to the King. He received them as he did us, and I was there, being who I now am, seated at Thelmo's side.
"It was that man with the hairy face, and the voice that squeaks when he talks fast, who spoke for the rest. There were three others with him, and all the people seemed to be there, standing back, but not too far to hear what was said.
"The man talked for a long time, very fast, and saying the same things three or four times, and the King listened and said nothing at all.
"The man stopped at last. He had only said one thing all the time. They wanted to know the way out of the valley, so that they could go in and out as they would, and see what became of the children that the King took every year.
"Then the King said, 'Have you quite done?' He did not seem angered or in any haste. He went on: 'Did you show me the way by which I come, or did I find it myself? It is mine to keep or to give. It is yours to find if you can. Yet I will give thought to this thing you ask, and answer you when I next come, which will be in three weeks from now, for we go for no more than a short time... As to the children, would you have them thrown to the god, as they once were?' The man said 'No' to that, and the King asked if they would have them stay in the vale till there was no food for their mouths. The man said 'No' again, but they would know how they fared, and would see for themselves. He got bolder because the King spoke in a mild voice, and at last he called in a high, squeaking way, speaking very fast, that they would have an answer now rather than when the King came again. The King said, 'Do you threaten because I have had patience to hear you talk?' The man said 'No' again, but that they were many who asked, and they would have an answer while they met in that way.
"The King said, still in a quiet voice, 'You are many and we are few. That has the sound of a threat. It is a word which I will not hear.' I did not see that he made any sign as he said this, I being somewhat forward and sideways from where he sat, and how could it have been seen, they being seated before us, as they were? But she of the Amazons who sat in the midst drew a knife from her belt and threw. It was so quick that; there was no motion of any till the knife was in the man's throat. It went in under his chin, and must have gone deep, for he fell down, and scarcely moved where he lay.
"The King looked at the man who stood next to him that had fallen. He said, 'Take out the knife. He had squeaked more than enough. I would see him bleed.' The man did not move, seeming struck with fear, and the King said, 'Would you all die? There are knives that wait. You will take it out, and cleanse it on your own cloth, and give it back to her to whom it belongs.' At which the man stooped in a shaking haste and did what he was told. After that the King said, 'Now you will take him, you three, and no others shall do this. You shall hang him on the best tree that grows in the place where your huts are, and hang him so that all may look and think well.' So they began to do this, being still in the range of the knives, which they might well fear, and as they picked up the man the crowd broke up, murmuring among themselves, but with no heart to do more.
"This was but ten minutes ago, and as the crowd broke Tekla looked at the King, saying, 'Would you still have them to stay here?' The King said, 'They must take their chance. They should come to no harm. They are aside.' Tekla answered, 'I meant not that.' The King looked at her in the slow, thinking way that he has. He smiled at her, and she at him. They seem good friends, even when they fight with their wills. He said, 'You could say more than you do.' She said, 'So I will. If they would be loyal to our part, and have no doubt of aught that we may plan, you or I, then it is no harm that they come; if they are not loyal, and would take a chance to do us what evil they may, would you leave them here? Would you give a leader to this scum?' After that we spoke apart, Thelmo and Tekla and I, and Tekla said that I should take no heed of that which I might have heard, but that I should tell you to be at the caves' mouth at noon if you would be free of this vale."
Stele said, "There is no need for words, but we may think as we will." What he thought was that the King must have meant him ill when he had refused him leave to go forth, and it seemed that Tekla was a true friend. Yet it was Tekla who had claimed them for the god, which was that which would not leave his mind. He resolved to go forth with open eyes and a ready spear.
RITA stood in the dim light of the cave-mouth, and looked into the black hollow ahead. It was a fearful thing to go under the mountains thus, where one might be crushed or lost in the black night. Very fearful to one who had been born in an open place. Elsya could not feel as she, nor could Stele help her in this, for they had been born in a cave. They would think that the farther a cave went into the dark hills the more safe it would be. She knew that she must draw together all the courage she had, as a man draws round his body a cloak which is of a scant size. She did not think that she was bound to go by this way. She had a thought that she could climb back by the way they came if she were alone to do as she would, with no other of whom to think. She was less than sure that she could not find a way over the great heights beneath which they were now to go. But where Stele went she would go too. Nor could she tell a fear which would be foolish to them. She took her place on the chain.
This chain was of hammered bronze, very hard and strong, having been made of much copper and little tin. It was a long chain, having hanging loops of metal at distances of three or four feet, large enough to take a man's arm. Tekla took her place at the head of this chain. She was dressed as she had been when she had given food to the god, wearing the luminous stone on her forehead, between the horns. They had no other light than this. Elsya went next to her, and then Thelmo, and then the King. After that there were two servants of the King, of whom we have not heard, they having no place in this tale; and then Rita and Stele, and the five Amazons in the rear. Stele did not like the place that was his, for he thought with truth that, if the King had spoken to her who went behind to put a knife in his back in a dark place she would do it with a good will; yet what could he do? They let him bring his weapons without word said. He had a thought that they would not do him wrong where Elsya could see or hear. He must take the chance.
Each of them put a left arm through his own loop. They went through the god's cave to its darker side. They climbed rough steps in the rock. They went through a narrow place into another cave which may have been very large, for they could not see to its sides, having no light at all but that of the stone which Tekla wore. Yet she led them on at a quick pace, not keeping to the wall of the cave, but crossing its open space as one who walks a known way.
Then they were in a passage, if such it could be called, having a side that shelved over their heads from the left and a floor that sloped away from beneath their feet, and there were times when there was wall on their right hand so that they must squeeze through a narrow space, and at others there was no wall on that side, either to feel or see. Those who walked at the tail end of the chain had no light at all. They walked in the black dark, and there were times when a word would be called back that they must step with care in a place of rocks, or that they must make a great stride where a fissure yawned, and they would drag in the chain as they moved slowly with feeling feet.
Stele thought, "Why do we walk in the dark? There could be torches made from the pines on the hill-slopes. I have seen lamps in their huts which are not of a bad kind, though they should be carried with care." He saw that it must be so that the way should be a very secret thing, even to those who were brought in the King's train. Yet, he thought, it has been found in the past; it is known of some. He knew that he had a mind that could judge nicely of space and turn. He counted steps; he watched for gaps in the wall. He listened when water fell, that he might know at which side it was, and how far. He learnt much, yet when they came to the third halt, and it may have been night by then, for they had come far but who could tell? and there was talk that they were near the end, he knew that there would be little chance that he could find aught but a cold death in the hollow hills should he venture a lone way, either to return or to come again.
The third halt was in a place of caves, many and small, and here there were lamps to light, and store of food and of other things, and beds for rest.
There was a tunnel beyond these caves, at which a watch was set of an Amazon at its black mouth. Not that there was any fear of attack, but because, when the dawn came, there would be a point of light at its farther end, and then must all be roused. For when the King went into the hills it was his custom ever to come back at the dawn.
IN the place to which they had come there was store kept in the caves. There were clothes and other things which were used in the valley, but not in the wider land; there were others which were laid aside when they entered the hills and taken up when they went forth.
For when they entered the hills it was thought of all in the King's lands that he went to commune with the high gods. He must go forth as he went in, with dress unsoiled and unchanged, as must his children and those who went with him (but not, as it was said, into the holiest place).
Tekla would be no priestess when she went forth, nor would she wear the lizard skin in which she had sat at the King's side when we saw her first.
She changed now (after she had taken some sleep) into the garb of war which she wore when she rode on the barren plain, chasing the rats back to their native swamps. This was made of the tanned skin of their own bellies, soft and tough, and of a grey colour, and was ornamented, or armed, with fringe and collar of their own teeth, needle-sharp, and so placed that they would give greeting to snout and paw in a grappling fight. She covered herself thus from head to heel, for it would be her first deed, when she went forth, to ride with the next patrols, and to see that there had been no fault of guard during her absent days. But as yet she went with her head bare.
And being now ready to go forth at any time when the word should be called, and having that on her mind which would not wait, she went to speak to the King, whose rest (being an old man and a lean) was soon done, and who was as ready as she.
"Father," Tekla said, "I would talk."
"It is time," said the King.
"Our wills have not been at one, which is not well between such as we."
The King smiled as one unmoved, though in a kind way. "My will has been at ease, walking a vacant path. "
Tekla did not like that. She thought that her father held her at something less than her true worth, yet she saw that the event might seem to equal his word.
"Let that be as it may. I am of a changed mind."
"So I saw," said the King.
"Yet I do not say you were right. We may both have been less than that. There is a third way."
"There is ever a third, way."
Tekla was annoyed again. Would he have her think that he read her mind to its depth? She fenced with an equal skill. "Is it good?"
The King did not answer quickly to that. He knew as well as she that there were more than three ways. He guessed what was in her head less surely than he would show. "It may be good enough. Let us have plain words."
"It was for that I am here. When these strangers stood at your door I thought them to be of a good kind. I said in my heart, 'Here is the man I will wed.' I looked next at the girl, and I thought, 'She is good, though in another way. Here is Thelmo's mate.' When Stele gave the message of Coiling Snake it had a good sound, except that I should go to his sea-cliffs, which was vain, for they knew not how much we are. That I refused. Yet I thought, 'When he sees all he will stay.' I had been at ease as to that, but I saw you had other plans."
"Daughter," said the King, "I saw all that you say. I would have given your wish with a glad hand, but you saw not the fruit which it would be like to bear. It had been folly and wrong."
"Let that be as it may, for it is no more than a dead dream. I am of a changed mind. I wed none... Yet you were wrong as to the girl. I will say that to the last. She is of a good kind. She must be Thelmo's wife to the end."
"I have the same thought," said the King. "Yet two may come to the same spot walking by separate ways. Why do you say that? I told you that she is of timid moods and of a jealous sort. Are these good in a king's wife?"
"She is one who would fight hard for her own. Had she babes to guard she would bite as a cat bites. She would be wakeful to watch their lair. These are good things in a queen... Also, she is very true to her friends."
"You have seen well," said the King. "But I have seen farther than that. She shall come out of this place as of a high birth, being more than woman or man. Do not all know that we commune with gods when we come here? They have given Thelmo a bride. She will be more than any that he could take to wife from our own folk. Her children will be a race apart, and the rule be sure to a far day... There is but one thing to be faced. Why did you claim them both for your god?"
"As to that," Tekla said, "I may have been right or wrong. Yet I am the priestess, and there is none that can change my word. It is between me and the god. If we are at one that she live you need not trouble for that... You can leave that to me."
The King mused for a time. He could see trouble of a likely kind; so, he supposed, could she.
"Yes," he said, "so I will... Have you more to say?"
"Yes," she answered, "as you know well enough. We must talk of Stele."
"We may talk till we tire," the King said, "but it will not change that which you can see if you will. The man must die in a quick way, and the woman beside, you having been stubborn to bring them here. For if we have it thought that Elsya comes from the gods, there must be none who may tell truth in a simpler word. Had you wed him it would have brought evil at a far day, but to turn him loose to live, having no bond, were a nearer risk."
"He would have the bond of his sister's good."
"It is not enough."
"Yet we must find a way. They shall not die at this time."
"Daughter," said the King, "I will be more frank than you. There is that in your heart which I do not read. I saw that you were of a changed mind, yet I saw not why. If you have no longer a will for this man, why would you guard his life at your land's risk?"
"Father," she answered, "I will show my mind as a skinned skull. I will be second to none, Should he wed me, he would think first of the tree-woman, who has few words but who sees all.
"I am not one who can be bought at that price. I have seen myself in these days, and I do not boast. I am one that will die with a barren womb rather than bend with a hurt pride. It is more than sorrow to know; yet, being said, it sounds but a mean thing."
"Let it all be as you say," said the King, "yet you itch at a flea's bite. The woman were soon sped. You could have the man as you will, were there no trouble but that."
"There is another thing which I have learned in the last days. I cannot walk by that path. It were joy enough to see the blood run and the life go from her eyes; yet it were but a short joy, and there were a long grief for a thing which I could not change."
"It would seem that you can read all, even yourself, which few can. Yet I had thought you to be of a less meek kind. I had not thought that you would let this tree-woman have a full meal while you thirst as you do."
"I had been of the same mind but a week back, and I walk now on a thin edge. I have seen my knife in her neck, from a good throw. I have seen it in her loins, so that she would die by a slow way. I have led her to where she would fall by the swamp-rats' teeth. I have seen her jump at the snap of the god's jaws. I have thought of new deaths... That is how I am, and how you think me to be. Yet you must think beyond that. I was born of two. I have thoughts which war with these thoughts. They cannot cause them to die, yet they can make them too weak to be changed to a wrought deed."
The King was silent at this, for it was a true word that she was born of two. Her mother had been a great queen in ways other than his, giving her life for the tribe at a sore need, in a way which he would have been slow to do, and yet of so weal; a heart that she could not hate her foes as a woman should. There was a door in his mind that moved as Tekla spoke, so that the hinge creaked, but he closed it with a firm will. It is not good to think of a dead past, having fallen to smaller days; nor of a dead love, having no more than that which is bought with beads.
He said, "Let all this be as it may, yet they must die for the land's good."
Tekla had a subtle thought, which was not of her mother's blood. She asked only, "When?"
"As to that," said the King, "it is to be so done that Elsya shall neither know it nor guess. They shall be sent with gifts as to their own land, being told that they must speak no word of what they have seen, nor come ever again. Elsya will care little for that. What is a brother to one who is newly wed? Stele will buy his life at what price he must. They will go with a guide, that they fall not to the swamp-rats' teeth; but a guide ' may leave in the night. He will leave when the path turns at the lake's edge. "
"It is a good plan," she said; "yet it is once that I have seen better than you.... When the gods of the hill-caves give Thelmo a bride, do they give her a brother also, and a woman of the forest-land?"
The King was silent at this, stroking his chin. He said at last, "I will not change my will that they die, I yet I will hear what you would say."
"It is simple wile, and one that we may spread out ! on the floor where we all sit. We can speak our thoughts without hiding or lies; and they will see that we plan well. Elsya will go out with us alone. It is that she be of the gods, which will please her enough. Stele and Rita will go back to the vale, having been seen by none but those who are with us, who will not speak. You can tell them that they can leave later, in a quiet way, but not now. Elsya can go back to the vale on a near day, and she will see that her brother is well. After that you must do as you will."
"So," said the King, "you win his life for a time." He saw well what she would do, yet he could not deny that it was the better way.
TEKLA sought Stele, who was with Rita in a cave by themselves.
Being roused, they rose up from a bed.
There was little of her mother's mood in Tekla's heart, seeing them thus. She thought that, had she had Rita alone at that hour, she would have killed with a quick hand. Rita saw this well enough. Saying little, she saw much. It was of her kind that she saw more of the moods and meanings of men than of the things which they did, or which lay at their hands.
She was less fierce than Tekla to hate, and, besides, it was she who won. But she saw the peril in which she stood, and which might be Stele's. She had thought much of ways in which she might guard her life at need, since she had come down from the sure peace of the trees. Even Tekla might not have found her easy to kill. But it was not to be tried at this time.
Tekla looked at Stele, and her mood was not that of which she had told in her father's cave. Had she been asked did she hate or love, would she slay or save, it had been hard to say. Had he not made his choice of a woman whose skin was covered with hair, who was too long in the arms, whose feet would curve like a hand? And not in such choice as that of a man who would gather wives that he may be great in a tribe, having many young, but as of one to be at his side, both in the night and the day. So she saw, for lave had been thus since the world's dawn, as it will still be when a thousand races have bared or blackened the land, and have found their end, and the earth is green again with a new hope.
On his part Stele looked to her to speak, with a doubtful mind that was far from ease. He was alert, as one fearing a trap.
He was not of the kind which will dream a peril which is not there. He was not of those who dream, but of those who build. It was for that that Coiling Snake had seen that he would make a good king. A man may dream a roof first, having no props, and it is no difference at all. He may add the props when he will. But they who build will find that there is a price to pay for that which is left unthought, though it be but a wooden peg.
Stele had thought much as he lay, putting sleep aside, for he was strong both of body and mind; but he moved ever in mist. He could not come to a clear light. He did not think that harm was meant to Elsya, and Tekla's claim had been for her, as for him. He thought Thelmo to be of a straight speech. Of Tekla he was less sure. As to the King, he would not trust him the length of a man's stride, and it was of him that he was most greatly afraid. So far, he saw clearly enough, but he could not tell what it all meant, nor (which was the cause that he had lain awake in the night) could he be sure what it were best to do. He watched now as a wrestler stands await for one whom he would let try for the first throw.
Tekla said, "I have been at speech with the King. We are near to come out to the light, and to our own land. "
Stele said, "It will be much to see."
Tekla thought, "It will be much to him. Will it aid him to see that I am more than this beast of the trees? He will see much that he has not thought to be not in his life's length. But he will see naught if he go back now." She had a doubt that her plan was less good than she had thought it at first. Yet it was good for the time, and after that it might be changed.
She went on: "The King hath a good plan. It will make Elsya more than a queen-to-be. She will be goddess as from this day. She comes out from the hills where the gods dwell. They have given Thelmo a bride."
Stele said, "Elsya will fit that part as a kernel fits to a shell. She could strut well from her birth, or, at least, at the next spring."
"But there is more to hear. A goddess comes not forth with a brother and woman of the tree-folk."
Stele saw that with ease. Her brother would be god too, which would be little to the King's mind. Was the peril near? He said, "But the plan was that we go our own way. I have no will to stay here. It is a pledged thing, and it will fit this plan as a knuckle fits to the joint."
"So it was," Tekla answered, "and so it shall be at the last, but not yet. For the time, the King wills that you shall go back to the valley-folk."
"I see well," Stele said to that, "that we should not come out with you to the light; yet I see not that we might not wait till the dark, and be led forth and away, so that none should heed. It were soon done and the shorter risk."
"You see not that, because you talk of that of which you know naught. There is ever guard at the cave-mouth... It must be planned with care... For the time, you must go back."
"For what time?" Stele asked, having no love of this plan. "Shall I not know how my sister fares and if she be in the honour of which you tell?"
Tekla thought, "She will show him how great we are." Why should she not go back to the valley in a short space? They could come and go when they would. They were planned to return at the next moon, before the feast of the god. She said, "Elsya shall come herself before many days, and you will hear the honour to which she wins." She had a new thought. "You can come near to the cave-mouth. You can see the land. You will give word that you go not out to the light. Those who stand in the dark may be unseen, though they see far."
Stele said no more; for what was there to say? The plan had a good sound, but he was unsure as before.
Rita said nothing from first to last. She felt baffled and heavy at heart, having hoped to win clear of these folk that she did not love, nor they her.
It was at this time that there was a cry from the one who watched. There was a point of light at the cave-mouth, showing that the dawn came.
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]