The Eternal Lover

Part II

Chapter VIII

Bound to the Stake

Edgar Rice Burroughs

NU, the son of Nu, half stunned by the paddle of Tur, still managed to keep afloat until he partially regained his senses. Then, seeing the futility of further attempt to overtake the boat in which Nat-ul was being borne toward the mainland, he struck out for the shore of the island. For a while he lay upon the hot sand, resting. Then he arose looking out across the water. Far in the distance he could see a tiny speck approaching the opposite shore. It must be the boat in which Nat-ul had been carried off. Nu marked the spot—in the distance a lofty mountain peak reared its head far inland.

Nu bethought himself of the boat that had brought him to the island. He looked out to sea for it, but it was not in sight there. He walked along the beach. Beyond a heap of wave washed boulders he came upon the thing he sought. He could have shouted aloud, so elated was he. There before him lay the boat and in it was the paddle. He ran forward and pulled it up upon the beach, then he hurried back to the spot at which he had discarded his robe and ax, and after regaining them returned to the dug-out.

A moment more saw him floundering out through the surf. He leaped into the craft, seized the paddle and struck out for the far off shore line. With paddle and ax and stone knife he fought off the marauders of the sea. The journey was marked by a series of duels and battles that greatly impeded the man’s progress. But he was not discouraged. He was accustomed to nothing else. It was his life, as it was the life of every creature that roamed the land or haunted the deeps in those stupendously savage days.

It was quite dark when the heavy booming of the surf before him warned Nu that he was close in-shore. For some time he had seen the fires of the Boat Builders ahead of him and toward these he had directed his way. Now his boat ran its blunt nose out upon the sand a hundred yards north of the camp. Nu leaped out, leaving the boat where it lay. He doubted that he should ever have further use for it, but should he live to return to his people he would lose no time in building a similar craft with which he should fill his father’s people with awe and admiration.

About the camp of the Boat Builders, as Nu approached, he discovered the usual cordon of night prowlers that he had naturally expected. Circling until he was down wind from the shelters he was enabled to reach the jungle without being discovered by any of the more ferocious beasts. Once he had just eluded a ponderous cave bear that was lumbering toward the encampment in search of prey, and again he almost stumbled against a huge rhinoceros as it lay in the long grasses upon the jungle’s outer fringe. But once within the jungle he took to the trees, since among their branches there were few that he had reason to fear. The panther sometimes climbed to the lower branches, but, though he was a mighty beast by comparison with the panther of the twentieth century, Nu looked upon him with contempt, since he seldom deliberately hunted man and could be put to flight, if not killed, by a well hurled ax. Reptiles constituted the greatest menace to the jungle traveler who chose the branches of the trees, for here often lurked enormous snakes in whose giant coils the mightiest hunters were helpless as babes.

To the rear of the village Nu traveled through the trees, leaping in the dark from one huge frond to another. When the distance was too great to span in a single leap he came to the ground, springing across the intervening space with the speed and agility of a deer. At last he came to the edge of the jungle opposite the camp. The fires came close beneath the tree in which he hid. He could see the girls tending them, and further in, the balance of the tribe squatting about their smaller cooking fires, gnawing upon bones, or splitting them to extract the marrow.

He saw the rush of the lion upon the opposite side of the camp. He saw him seize the old man. He saw the warriors leap to their feet and run toward the beast. He saw the eyes and attention of every member of the tribe directed toward the spot which was farthest from Nu. Even the girls who were tending the fires below him ran quickly across the village to witness the killing of the marauder.

Taking advantage of this fortuitous good fortune Nu dropped quickly to the ground and ran for the shadows of the shelters which were placed in a rude circle facing outward toward the outer circle of fires with the result that the circular space they enclosed was in partial shadow. Here Nu threw himself upon his belly in the darkest spot he could find. For some time he lay motionless, listening and sniffing the air. As nothing rewarded his observations at this point he rose cautiously upon all fours and crept a few feet further on in the shadows of the shelters. Again he lay down to listen and sniff. For half an hour he pursued his slow way about the inner circle behind the dwellings. The inhabitants had retired—all except the girls who tended the fires.

At last Nu heard low voices coming from the interior of a shelter behind which he had but just crawled. He lay very quiet with his nose a few inches from the bottom of the skin and thatch hut. Presently there came to his sensitive nostrils the evidence he had been seeking—within was Nat-ul; but there was someone with her. Cautiously Nu crept around to the front of the shelter. Even there it was very dark, for the girls had permitted the fires to die down to a few fitful flames. Opposite the entrance Nu heard Nat-ul’s voice distinctly. He saw the form of a man leaning over her. He went hot with hate and rage. Like a beast of prey he slunk noiselessly upon all fours into the shelter directly behind the unsuspecting Tur. Then without a sound he rose to his feet and threw himself full upon the back of the stranger.

His knife was out and his fighting fangs were bared as the two rolled about the floor of the shelter striking, clawing and biting at one another. At last the man raised his voice in a call for help, for Nu was getting the better of him. The long knife had not found a vital spot as yet, for Tur was an experienced fighter and so far had been able to ward off the more dangerous blows; but nevertheless he was bleeding from several wounds and his throat and breast were lacerated by the other’s teeth.

In reply to his shouts the village awoke with answering cries. Warriors, bearing their short spears, ran from every shelter. Women and children scampered at their heels. Gron, Tur’s mate, was among the first to come. She had recognized the voice of her man and had guessed where he might be in trouble. Like an angry tigress she sprang for the shelter in which the beautiful stranger had been confined. Behind her came the warriors. One carried a burning brand from a nearby fire. He flung it into the interior, careless of where it might land. Fortunately for the inmates it fell beyond them, rolling against the further side of the hut. Instantly the dry fronds of the thatch that had been leaned against the bottom of the skins to fill in the gaps caught fire and the inside of the shelter was illumined by the sudden glare of flames.

When the rescuers saw that but a single man opposed their fellow they threw themselves upon the two, and though Nu battled bravely he was presently overcome. The entire hut was now aflame, so that his captors were forced to drag him outside. Here they bound his arms and legs, and then turned their attention to saving the balance of the village from destruction. This they accomplished by pulling down the blazing shelter with their spears and beating out the flames with fresh hides.

Even in the excitement of the fight Nu had not for a moment forgotten Nat-ul, and when the brand lighted up the interior he had sought for her with his eyes, unsuccessfully—Nat-ul had disappeared.

He wondered what could have become of her. From her position upon the floor of the hut he had been sure that she was securely bound—otherwise she would have been fighting tooth and nail against her captor. He looked about him from where he lay before the ruins of the burned shelter. He could see nothing of her; but he saw another woman—a young woman with good features but with the expression of a wild beast. Hate, jealousy and rage were mirrored in every line of the passion distorted countenance. It was Gron. She came toward him.

“Who are you?” she cried.

“I am Nu, the son of Nu,” replied the man.

“Are you of the same people as the woman in whose shelter you found my man?” she continued.

Nu nodded affirmatively.

“She was to have been my mate,” he said. “Where is she?”

For the first time the woman seemed to realize the absence of the fair prisoner. She turned toward Tur.

“Where is the woman?” she shrieked. “Where have you hidden the woman? No longer shall you keep me from her. This time I shall tear out her heart and drink her blood.”

Tur looked about in consternation.

“Where is the woman?” he called to the warriors; but none seemed to know.

Immediately a search of the village commenced. The warriors ran hither and thither through the huts, and into the enclosure behind them. Nu lay awaiting the outcome of the search. As it became evident that Nat-ul had escaped his heart leaped with joy. At last there was no other place to look and all the searchers had returned—Nat-ul was not in the village.

Gron turned toward Nu.

“Your woman has escaped me,” she shouted; “but you shall suffer for her,” and she leaped upon him as he lay there bound and defenseless.

In her mad rage she would have torn his eyes out had not a tall warrior interfered. He seized the woman by her hair, jerking her roughly from her victim. Then he swung her, still by the hair, brutally to the ground.

“Take your woman away,” he called to Tur. “Does a woman rule my people? Take her away and beat her, that she may learn that it is not a woman’s place to interfere with the doings of men. Then take you another mate, that this woman may be taught her place.”

Tur seized upon the unfortunate Gron and dragged her toward his own shelter, from which, later, could be heard the sound of a spear haft falling upon flesh, and the shrieks and moans of a woman.

Nu was disgusted. Among his people women were not treated thus. He looked up at the burly form of the chief who was standing over him. Well, why didn’t they kill him? That was the proper thing to do with male prisoners. Among his own tribe a spear thrust through the heart would long since have settled the fate of one in Nu’s position. He wondered where Nat-ul was. Could she find her way back to the tribe, safely? He wished that he might live but long enough to find her, and see her safe in her father’s cave.

The chief was gazing intently upon him; but he had as yet made no move to finish him.

“Who are you?” he at length asked.

“I am Nu, the son of Nu,” replied the prisoner.

“From where do you come?”

Nu nodded toward the north.

“From near the Barren Cliffs,” he replied. “And should you go thither, beater of women, my father’s tribe would fall upon you and kill you all.”

“You talk big,” said the chief.

“I talk truth,” retorted Nu. “My father’s people would laugh at such as you—at men clothed in the skins of cows. It shows what manner of people you be. Now, my father’s warriors wear the skins of Ur, and Zor and Oo, and upon their feet are sandals of the hides of Ta and Gluh. They are men. They would laugh as they sent their women and children out with sticks to drive you away.”

This was a terrible insult. The chief of the Boat Builders trembled with rage.

“You shall see,” he cried, “that we are men. And the manner of your death will prove if you be such a brave man as you say. Tomorrow you shall die—after the day is done and the fires are lighted you shall begin to die; but it will be long before you are dead, and all the time you will be crying out against the woman who bore you, and begging us to put you out of your misery.”

Nu laughed at him. He had heard of distant peoples who tortured their prisoners, and so he guessed what the chief meant to suggest. Well, he would show them how the son of Nu could die.

Presently at the chief’s command a couple of warriors dragged Nu into a nearby shelter. A guard was placed before the door, for the escape of Nat-ul had warned them to greater watchfulness.

The long night dragged itself to a slow end. The sun rose out of the Restless Sea. The villagers bestirred themselves. Nu could smell the cooking food. He was very hungry, but they offered him not a single morsel. He was thirsty but none brought him water, and he was too proud to ask favors of his captors.

If the night had been long the day seemed an eternity, and though he knew that darkness was to be the signal for the commencement of the tortures that were to mark his passing he welcomed the first shadows of the declining sun.

Whatever cruelties they might perpetrate upon him could not last forever. Sooner or later he would die, and with this slim comfort Nu, the son of Nu, waited for the end.

The fishers had all returned. The outer ring of fires had been kindled, as well as the smaller cooking fires within. The people squatted about on their haunches gnawing upon their food like beasts. At last they had completed their evening meal. A couple of men brought a small post and after scooping a hole in the ground with their spears set it up half way between the shelters and the outer fires.

Then two warriors came to the hut where Nu lay. They seized him by the feet and dragged him, upon his back and shoulders, through the village. The women and children poked him with sharp sticks, threw stones at him and spat upon him. Nu, the son of Nu, made no remonstrances. Not by so much as a line did the expression of utter indifference that sat his features like a mask alter in response to painful blows or foul indignities.

At last his guard stopped before the post which was now set firmly upright in the ground. They jerked Nu to his feet, and bound him securely to the stake. In a circle about him was a ring of brush wood. He knew that he was to be slowly roasted, for the brush was nowhere quite close enough for the flames to reach him. It would be a slow death, very pleasant to the eyes of the audience—especially if the victim gave evidence of his agonies. But it was far from the intention of Nu, the son of Nu, to afford the Boat Builders this satisfaction. He looked around upon the ring of eager, savage faces with bored contempt. Nu despised them, not because they would kill him, for that he might expect from any strangers, but because they wore the skins of “cows” and the men labored instead of devoting all their time and energies to the chase and to warfare.

Their boats were fine to have—Nu had even thought of fashioning one upon his return to his people; but to make a business of such labor—ugh! it was disgusting. Had he escaped he should have returned to the Boat Builders with his father’s warriors and taken what boats he wished.

His meditations were cut short by the ceremonies which were going on about him. There had been dancing, and a certain primitive chanting, and now one of the warriors lighted the brush that surrounded the victim at the stake.

The Eternal Lover - Contents    |     Part II - Chapter IX - The Fight

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