The Eternal Lover

Part II

Chapter VII

The Beast-Fires

Edgar Rice Burroughs

TUR CARRIED the girl, still struggling and fighting, toward his boat. For the first time he saw the boat that had brought Nu, and wondered at the presence of another craft. Who could it be? A closer inspection revealed that the boat was one that had just been fashioned by others of his own tribe. Some of the men must have followed him. Still clasping Nat-ul firmly as he stood ankle deep in the water beside his boat he raised his voice in a loud hallo.

Presently a clattering of falling stones from the cliff facing the beach attracted the attention of Tur and the girl. Already half way down, the figure of an agile giant was leaping toward them in descent. From his shoulders fluttered the skin of a cave-lion. From his shock of black hair a single long feather rose straight and defiantly aloft.

A single glance revealed to Tur the fact that this was no member of his tribe. It was a stranger, and so an enemy. Nat-ul recognized Nu at once. She gave a little cry of delight at sight of him, a cry that was answered by a shout of encouragement from Nu. Tur threw the girl roughly into the bottom of the boat, holding her there with one hand, though she fought bitterly to escape, while with his free hand he dragged first his boat and then Nu’s out into deeper water.

Handicapped though he was, Tur worked rapidly, for he was at home in the surf and wonderfully proficient in the handling of the cumbersome craft of his tribe even under the most adverse conditions. At last he succeeded in shoving Nu’s boat into the grip of a receding roller that carried it swiftly away from shore, and at the same time he shoved his own through, leaping into it with his captive.

Nat-ul fought her way to her knees, calling aloud to Nu, and striving desperately to throw herself overboard, but Tur held her fast, paddling with one hand, and when Nu reached the water’s edge they were well beyond his reach. So, too, was his own tree-trunk. Between him and Nat-ul the sea swarmed with carnivorous reptiles. Every instant was carrying her away from him. The troglodyte scarce hesitated. With a swift movement he threw off his lion skin and discarded his stone ax, then, naked but for a loin cloth, and armed only with his knife he dove through the pounding surf into the frightful sea.

As Nat-ul witnessed his act she redoubled her efforts to retard Tur. Crawling to her knees she threw both arms about her captor’s neck, dragging him down until he could no longer wield his paddle. Tur fought to disengage himself. He did not wish to kill or maim his captive—she was far too beautiful to destroy or disfigure—he wanted her in all her physical perfection, just as she was.

Gradually Nu was overhauling them. Twice he was attacked by slimy monsters. Once he fought his way to victory, and again the two who menaced him fell to fighting between themselves and forgot their prey. At last he was within reach of Tur’s boat. Nat-ul battling with desperation and every ounce of her strength to hamper Tur’s movements was tugging at the man’s arms. He could do nothing, and already Nu had seized the side of the craft and was raising one leg over it.

With a sudden wrench Tur freed his right hand. Nat-ul strove to regain it, but the great fist rose above her face. With terrific impact it fell upon her forehead. All went black before her as she released her hold upon Tur and sank to the bottom of the boat, unconscious.

Instantly Tur snatched up his paddle and leaping to his feet beat furiously at Nu’s head and hands. Bravely the man strove to force his way into the boat in the face of this terrific punishment; but it was too severe, and at last, half stunned, he slipped back into the water, as Tur drove his paddle once again and the rude craft forged away toward the mainland.


When Nat-ul regained consciousness she found herself lying upon a shaggy aurochs skin beneath a rude shelter of thatch and hide. Her hands and feet were securely bound with tough bullock sinew. When she struggled to free herself they cut into her soft flesh, hurting cruelly. So she lay still looking straight up at the funnel-like peak of the shelter’s interior.

She knew where she was. This was one of the strange caves of the people she had seen working upon the tree trunks, for what purpose she now knew. She turned her head toward the entrance. Beyond she saw men and women squatting about small fires, eating. It was already dark. Beyond them were other fires, larger fires that kept the savage carnivora at bay.

And beyond this outer circle of fires, from out of the outer darkness, came the roaring and the coughing, the grunting and the growling of scores of terrible beasts of prey, that slunk back and forth about the encampment thirsting for the blood of the men and women and children who huddled within the safety of the protecting fires.

Occasionally a little boy would snatch up a burning brand and hurl it among the night prowlers. There would be a chorus of angry screams and low toned, rumbling growls as the menacers retreated for an instant, then the ring of shadowy forms, and the glowing spots of burning flame that were their eyes, would reform out of the stygian blackness of the night.

Once a cave lion, emboldened by familiarity with the camp fires of primitive people, leaped through the encircling ring of flame. Into the midst of a family party he sprang, seizing upon an old man. Instantly a half hundred warriors snatched up their spears, and as the lion turned with his prey and leaped back into the night fifty harpoons caught him in mid-air.

Down he came directly on top of a flaming pile of brush, and with him came the old man. The warriors leaped forward with whirling axes. What mattered it if the old man was pierced by a dozen of the spears that had been intended for the marauder? They leaped and shouted in savage glee, for the lion was dead even before a single ax had smitten him. The old man was dead, too. Him they hurled out to the beasts beyond the flames; the lion they first skinned.

It was an awful spectacle, that evening scene in the far antiquity of man, when the Boat Builders, come north in search of new fisheries, camped upon the shore of the Restless Sea in the edge of the jungle primeval; but to Nat-ul it presented nothing remarkable. To such scenes she had been accustomed since earliest childhood. Of course, with her people the danger of attack by wild beasts at night was minimized by the fact that her tribe dwelt in caves, the mouths of which could be easily blocked against four footed enemies; but she was familiar with the evening fires which burned at the cliff’s base while the tribe was gathered to feast or council, and she was used, too, to the sudden charge of some bolder individual amongst the many that always fore-gathered about the haunts of man at night.

At last the people withdrew to their shelters. Only two girls were left, whose business it was to keep the fires burning brightly. Nat-ul was familiar with this custom and she knew the utilitarian origin of it. Women were the least valuable assets of a tribe. They could best be spared in case of a sudden onslaught by some fierce beast at night—it was the young men, who soon were to become warriors, that must be preserved. The death of a single girl would count for little—her purpose would have been served if the screams of herself and her companion aroused the warriors.

But why not old and useless women instead of young girls? Merely because the instinct of self-preservation is stronger in the young than in the very old. An old woman would have been much less careless of her life than would a young woman, and so might sleep and permit the fires to die out—she would have but a few years or months to live anyway and little or nothing to live for in those primitive days.

The young woman, on the contrary, would watch the fires zealously for her own protection, and so ensure the greater safety of the tribe. Thus, perhaps, was born the custom from which sprung the order of holy virgins who tended the eternal fires in the temples that were yet unbuilt in the still undreamed-of Rome.

Presently the entrance to the shelter in which Nat-ul was secured was darkened by the figure of a man—it was Tur. Nat-ul recognized him at once. He came to her side and knelt.

“I have kept the women from you,” he said. “Gron would have torn you to pieces, and the others would have helped her. But you need not fear them. Promise me that you will not resist, or attempt to escape, and you shall be freed from your bonds permanently. Otherwise I shall have to tie you up whenever I am away, and then there is no telling what Gron may do, since you will be defenseless and I not here to keep her from you. What do you say?”

“I say that the moment my hands are freed I shall fight until I kill or am killed,” replied the girl; “and when my feet are loosed I shall run away as fast as I can.”

Tur shrugged his shoulders.

“Very well,” he said. “It will profit you nothing, unless you enjoy being always tied in this uncomfortable position.”

He stooped and commenced to work upon the knots that held her feet and ankles. Outside the shelter something slunk stealthily in the shadows. Tur did not hear the faint scraping sound of the creature’s wary advance. His back was toward the entrance of the shelter as he knelt low over the hard knots in the bullock sinews. Already he had released the cords that encircled Nat-ul’s ankles, and now he was turning his attention to those at her knees. The girl lay quietly, her face toward the lesser darkness which showed through the entrance. She would wait patiently until he had freed her, and then she would fight until the man was forced to kill her.

Suddenly she became aware of the darker shadow of a form blotting a portion of the dark entrance way. The creature was not large enough to be of the more formidable carnivora, though it might have been a hyena or a wild dog. Nat-ul was on the point of warning the man, when it occurred to her that here might be not only the quick death she now craved, but at the same time a means of revenging herself upon her captor.

She lay very quiet while Tur labored over the last knot. Close behind the man crept the silent prowler of the night. Nat-ul could imagine the bared fangs and the slavering jowls. In another instant there would be a savage growl as the thing closed with a swift spring upon its prey.

Or would it leap past the man upon her unprotected throat? The girl’s eyes were wide in fascinated horror. She shuddered once as in the close presence of death. The last knot loosened beneath Tur’s fingers. He jerked the cord from about the girl’s knees with a low exclamation of satisfaction.

And then Nat-ul saw the thing behind the man rear upon its hind legs and spring full upon his back. There was no savage growl—no sound. The silence of the attack rendered it infinitely more horrible than would bestial roars and growls that might have proclaimed the nature of the animal.

Tur rolled over upon his side to grapple with his antagonist. In an instant they were locked in furious combat. Nat-ul staggered to her feet. Her arms still were pinioned, but her legs were free. Here was her opportunity! Leaping over the two blood mad beasts she darted from the shelter and plunged into the nearby jungle.

The Eternal Lover - Contents    |     Part II - Chapter VIII - Bound to the Stake

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