The Eternal Lover

Part II

Chapter XIV

“I Have Come to Save You”

Edgar Rice Burroughs

NU REACHED the edge of the plateau in time to see the herders and their captive arrive at the dwellings on the lake. He saw the crowds of excited natives that ran out to meet them. He saw the captive pulled and hauled hither and thither. The herders pointed often toward the plateau behind them. It was evident that Nu’s assault upon the sentry of the previous night taken with the capture of this stranger and the appearance of Nu and Gron upon the cliff the day before had filled the villagers with fear of an invasion from the south. This only could account for the early return of the herders with their aurochs.

Taking advantage of what cover the descent to the valley afforded and the bushes and trees that dotted the valley itself, Nu crept cautiously onward toward the lake. He was determined to discover the identity of the prisoner, though even yet he could not believe that she was Nat-ul. A mile from the shore he was compelled to hide until dark, for there was less shelter thereafter and, too, there were many of the natives moving to and fro, having their herds browsing in the bottom lands close to their dwellings.

When it was sufficiently dark Nu crept closer. Again he hid in the reeds, but this time much closer to one of the causeways. He wished that he knew in precisely which of the dwellings the captive was confined. He knew that it would be madness to attempt to search the entire village, and yet he saw no other way.

At last the villagers had retired, with the exception of the sentries that guarded the narrow bridges connecting the dwellings with the shore. Nu crept silently beneath the nearest causeway. Wading through the shallow water he made his way to a point beyond the sentinel’s post. Then he crossed beneath the dwelling until he had come to the opposite side. Here the water was almost to his neck. He climbed slowly up one of the piles. Stopping often to listen, he came at last to a height which enabled him to grasp the edge of the flooring above with the fingers of one hand. Then he drew himself up until his eyes topped the platform. Utter silence reigned about him—utter silence and complete darkness. He raised himself, grasping the railing, until one knee rested upon the flooring, then he drew himself up, threw a leg over the railing and was crouching close in the shadows against the wall.

Here he listened intently for several minutes. From within came the sound of the heavy breathing of many sleepers. Above his head was an opening—a window. Nu raised himself until he could peer within. All was darkness. He sniffed in the vain hope of detecting the familiar scent of Nat-ul, but if she were there all sign of her must have been submerged in the sweaty exhalations from the close packed men, women and children and the strong stench of the ill-cured aurochs hides upon which they slept.

There was but one way to assure himself definitely—he must enter the dwelling. With the stealth of a cat he crawled through the small aperture. The floor was almost covered with sleepers. Among them, and over them Nu picked his careful way. He bent low toward each one using his sensitive nostrils in the blind search where his eyes were of no avail. He had crossed the room and assured himself that Nat-ul was not there when a man appeared in the doorway. It was the sentry. Nu flattened himself against the wall not two yards from the door. What had called the fellow within? Had he been alarmed by the movement within the hut? Nu waited with ready knife. The man stepped just within the doorway.

“Throk!” he called. One of the sleepers stirred and sat up.

“Huh?” grunted he.

“Come and watch—it is your turn,” replied the sentry.

“Ugh,” replied the sleepy one, and the sentry turned and left the hut.

Nu could hear him who had been called Throk rising and collecting his weapons, donning his sandals, straightening and tightening his loin cloth. He was making ready for his turn at sentry duty. As he listened a bold scheme flashed into Nu’s mind. He grasped his knife more tightly, and of a sudden stepped boldly across the room toward Throk.

“Sh!” he whispered. “I will stand watch in your place tonight, Throk.”

“Huh?” questioned the sleepy man.

“I will stand watch for you,” repeated Nu “I would meet ____” and he mumbled a name that might have been anything, “she said that she would come to me tonight during the second watch.”

Nu could hear the man chuckle.

“Give me your robe,” said Nu, “that all may think that it is you,” and he reached his hand for the horn crowned aurochs skin.

Throk passed it over, only too glad to drop back again into the slumber that his fellow had disturbed. Nu drew the bull’s head over his own, the muzzle projecting like a visor, and the whole sitting low upon his head threw his features into shadow. Nu stepped out upon the platform. The other sentry was standing impatiently waiting his coming, at sight of him the fellow turned and walked toward one of the dwellings that stretched further into the lake. There were seven in all that were joined to the shore by this single causeway—Nu had entered the one nearest the land.

In which was the prisoner, and was she even in any of this particular collection of dwellings? It was equally possible that she might be in one of the others of which Nu had counted not less than ten stretching along the shore of the lake for at least a mile or more. But he was sure that they had first brought her to one of the dwellings of this unit—he had seen them cross the causeway with her. Whether they had removed her to some other village later, he could not know. If there was only some way to learn definitely. He thought of the accommodating and sleepy Throk—would he dare venture another assault upon the lunk-head’s credulity. Nu shrugged. The chances were more than even that he would not find the girl before dawn without help, and that whether he did or no he never would escape from the village with his life. What was life anyway, but a series of chances, great and small. He had taken chances before—well, he would take this one.

He reentered the dwelling and walked noisily to Throk’s side. Stooping he shook the man by the shoulder. Throk opened his eyes.

“In which place is the prisoner?” asked Nu. He had come near to saying cave, but he had heard Gron speak of the hide and thatch things which protected them from the rains by another name than cave, and so he was bright enough to guess that he might betray himself if he used the word here. For the most part his language and the language of the Lake Dwellers was identical, and so he used a word which meant, roughly, in exactly what spot was the captive secured.

“In the last one, of course,” grumbled the sleepy Throk.

Nu did not dare question him further. The last one might mean the last of this unit of dwellings or it might mean that she was in the last village, and Nu did not know which the last village might be, whether north or south of the village where he was. Already he could feel the eyes of the man searching through the darkness toward him. Nu rose and turned toward the doorway. Had the fellow’s suspicions been aroused—had Nu gone too far?

Throk sat upright upon his hides watching the retreating figure—in his dense mind questions were revolving. Who was this man? Of course he must know him, but somehow he could not place his voice. Why had he asked where the captive was imprisoned? Everyone in all the villages knew that well enough. Throk became uneasy. He did not like the looks of things. He started to rise. Ugh! how sleepy he was. What was the use, anyway? It was all right, of course. He lay back again upon his aurochs skins.

Outside Nu walked to the shore and replenished the beast fire. Then he turned back up the causeway. Quickly he continued along the platforms past the several dwellings until he had come to the last of the seven. At the doorway he paused and listened, at the same time sniffing quietly. A sudden tremor ran through his giant frame, his heart, throbbing wildly, leaped to his throat—Natul was within!

He crossed the threshold—the building was a small one. No other scent of human being had mingled with that of Nat-ul. She must be alone. Nu groped through the darkness, feeling with his hands in the air before him and his sandaled feet upon the floor. His delicate nostrils guided him too, and at last he came upon her, lying tightly bound to an upright at the far end of the room.

He bent low over her. She was asleep. He laid a hand upon her shoulder and as he felt her stir he placed his other palm across her lips and bending his mouth close to her ear whispered that she must make no outcry.

Nat-ul opened her eyes and stirred.

S-sh,” cautioned Nu. “It is I, Nu, the son of Nu.” He removed his hand from her lips and raised her to a sitting posture, kneeling at her side. He put his arms about her, a word of endearment on his lips; but she pushed him away.

“What do you here?” she asked, coldly.

Nu was stunned with the surprise of it.

“I have come to save you,” he whispered; “to take you back to the cliffs beside the Restless Sea, where our people dwell.”

“Go away!” replied Nat-ul. “Go back to your woman.”

“Nat-ul!” exclaimed Nu. “What has happened? What has changed you? Has the sickness come upon you, because of what you have endured—the sickness that changes the mind of its victim into the mind of one of the ape-folk? There is no woman for Nu but Nat-ul, the daughter of Tha.”

“There is the stranger woman, Gron,” cried Nat-ul, bitterly. “I saw her in your arms—I saw your lips meet, and then I ran away. Go back to her. I wish to die.”

Nu sought her hand, holding it tight.

“You saw what you saw, Nat-ul,” he said; “but you did not hear when I told Gron that I loved only you. You did not see me disengage her arms. Then I saw you far away, and the herders come and take you, and I did not even cast another look upon the stranger woman; but hurried after your captors, hiding close by until darkness came. That I am here, Nat-ul, should prove my love, if ever you could have doubted it. Oh, Nat-ul, Nat-ul, how could you doubt the love of Nu!”

The girl read as much in his manner as his words that he spoke the truth, and even had he lied she would surely have believed him, so great was her wish to hear the very words he spoke. She dropped her cheek to his hand with a little sigh of relief and happiness, and then he took her in his arms. But only a moment could they spare to sentiment—stern necessity called upon them for action, immediate and swift. How urgent was the call Nu would have guessed could he have looked into the hut where Throk lay upon his aurochs skins, wide eyed.

The man’s muddy brain revolved many times the details of the coming of the fellow who had just asked the whereabouts of the prisoner. It was all quite strange, and the more that Throk thought upon it the more fully awake he became and the better able to realize that there had been something altogether too unusual and mysterious in the odd request and actions of the stranger.

Throk sat up. He had suddenly realized what would befall him should anything happen to the community because of his neglect of duty—the primitive communal laws were harsh, the results of their infringement, sudden and relentless. He jumped to his feet, all excitement now. Not waiting to find a skin to throw over his shoulders, he grasped his weapons and ran out upon the platform. A quick glance revealed the fact that no sentry was in sight where a sentry should have been. He recalled the stranger’s query about the location of the captive, and turned his face in the direction of the further dwellings.

Running swiftly and silently he hastened toward the hut in which Nat-ul had been confined, and so it was that as Nu emerged he found a naked warrior almost upon him. At sight of Nu and the girl behind him Throk raised his voice in a loud cry of alarm. His spear hand flew back, but back, too, flew the spear hand of Nu, the son of Nu. Two weapons flew simultaneously, and at the same instant Nat-ul, Nu and Throk dropped to the planking to avoid the missiles. Both whizzed harmlessly above them, and then the two warriors rushed upon one another with upraised axes.

From every doorway men were pouring in response to Throk’s cry. Nu could not wait to close with his antagonist. He must risk the loss of the encounter and his ax as well in one swift move. Behind his shoulder his ax hand paused for an instant, then shot forward and released the heavy weapon. With the force of a cannon ball the crude stone implement flew through the air, striking Throk full in the face, crushing his countenance to a mangled blur of bloody flesh.

As the Lake Dweller stumbled forward dead, Nu grasped Nat-ul’s hand and dragged her around the corner of the dwelling out of sight of the advancing warriors who were dashing toward them with savage shouts and menacing weapons. At the rail of the platform Nu seized Nat-ul and lifted her over, dropping her into the water beneath as he vaulted over at her side.

A few strong strokes carried them well under the village, and as they forged toward the shore they could hear the searchers running hither and thither above them. The whole community was awake by now, and the din was deafening. As the two crawled from the water to the shore they were instantly discovered by those nearest them, and at once the causeway rattled and groaned beneath the feet of a hundred warriors that sped along it to intercept the flight of the fugitives. Ahead of them were the dangers of the primeval night; behind them were no less grave dangers at the hands of their savage foes. Unarmed, but for a knife, it was futile to stand and fight. The only hope lay in flight and the chance that they might reach the forest and a sheltering tree before either the human beasts behind them or the beasts of prey before had seized them.

Both Nu and Nat-ul were fleet of foot. Beside them, the Lake Dwellers were sluggards, and consequently five minutes put them far ahead of their pursuers, who, seeing the futility of further pursuit and the danger of being led too far from their dwellings and possibly into a strong camp of enemies, abandoned the chase and returned to the lake.

Fortune favored Nu and Nat-ul, as it is ever credited with favoring the brave. They reached the forest at the edge of the plateau without encountering any of the more formidable carnivora. Here they found sanctuary in a tree where they remained until dawn. Then they resumed their way toward the cliffs which they must scale to reach the sea. The matter of Gron had been settled between them—they would offer to take her with them back to their own people where she might live in safety so long as she chose.

It was daylight when Nu and Nat-ul reached the base of the cliffs. Gron was not in sight. At the summit of the cliff, however, two crafty eyes looked from behind a grassy screen upon them. The watcher saw the man and the maid, and recognized them both. They were ascending—he would wait a bit.

Nu and Nat-ul climbed easily upward. When they had gained about half the distance toward the summit the man, shunning further concealment, started downward to meet them. His awkwardness started a loose stone and appraised them of his presence. Nu looked up, as did Nat-ul.

“Tur!” exclaimed the latter.

“Tur,” echoed Nu, and redoubled his efforts to ascend.

“You are unarmed,” cautioned Nat-ul, “and he is above. The advantage is all his.”

But the cave man was hot to lay hands upon this fellow who had brought upon Nat-ul all the hardships she had suffered. He loosed his knife and carried it between his teeth, ready for instant use. Like a cat he scrambled up the steep ascent. Directly at his heels came his sweet and savage Nat-ul. Between her strong, white teeth was her own knife. Tur was in for a warm reception. He had reached a ledge now just below a cave mouth. Lying loosely upon the cliff-side, scarcely balanced there, was a huge rock, a ton or two of potential destruction. Tur espied it. Just below it, directly in its path, climbed Nu and Nat-ul. Tur grasped in an instant the possibilities that lay in the mighty weight of that huge boulder. He leaped behind it, and bracing his feet against it and his back against the cliff, pushed. The boulder leaned and rocked. Nu, realizing the danger, looked to right and left for an avenue of escape, but chance had played well into the hands of the enemy. Just at this point there was no foothold other than directly where they stood. They redoubled their efforts to reach the man before he could dislodge the boulder.

Tur redoubled his efforts to start it spinning down upon them. He changed his position, placing his shoulder against the rock and one hand and foot against the cliff. Thus he pushed frantically. The hideous menace to those below it swayed and rocked. Another moment and it would topple downward.

Presently from the cave behind Tur a woman emerged, awakened by the noises from without. It was Gron. She took in the whole scene in a single glance. She saw Nu and with him Nat-ul. The man she loved with the woman who stood between them, who must always stand between them, for she realized that Nu would never love her, whether Nat-ul were alive or dead.

She smiled as she saw success about to crown the efforts of Tur. In another instant the man who scorned her love and the woman she hated with all the power of her savage jealousy would be hurled, crushed and mangled, to the bottom of the cliff.

Tur! She watched her mate with suddenly narrowing eyes. Tur! He struck her! He repudiated her! A flush of shame scorched her cheek. Tur! Her mate. The father of her child!

The rock toppled. Nu and Nat-ul from below were clambering upward. The man had seen Gron, but he had read her emotions clearly. No use to call upon her for help. Out of the past the old love for her true mate had sprung to claim her. She would cleave to Tur in the moment of his victory, hoping thus to win him back. Nor was Nu insensible to the power of hatred which he might have engendered in the woman’s breast by repulsing her demonstrations of love.

Another push like the last and the boulder would lunge down upon them. Gron stood with her hands clutching her naked breasts, the nails buried in the soft flesh until blood trickled down the bronze skin. The father of her child. Her child! The pitiful thing that she deserted within the shelter by the beach! Her baby—her dead baby! Dead because of Tur and his cruelty toward her.

Tur braced himself for the final push. A smile curled his lip. His back was toward Gron—otherwise he would not have smiled. Even Nu did not smile at the thing he saw above him—the face of a woman made hideous by hate and blood-lust. With bared knife Gron leaped toward Tur. The upraised knife buried itself in his back and chest. With a scream he turned toward the avenger. As his eyes rested upon the face of the mother of his child, he shrieked aloud, and with the shriek still upon his lips he sank to the ledge, dead.

Then Gron turned to face the two who were rapidly ascending toward her. Words of thanks were already upon Nu’s lips; but Gron stood silent, ready to meet them—with bared knife. What would she do? Nu and Nat-ul wondered, but there was no retreat and only a knife-armed woman barred their way to liberty and home.

Nu was almost level with her. Gron raised her knife above her head. Nu sprang upward to strike the weapon to one side before it was buried in his breast; but Gron was too quick for him. The blade fell, but not upon Nu. Deep into her own broken heart Gron plunged the sharp point, and at the same instant she leaped far beyond Nu and Nat-ul to crash, mangled and broken at the foot of the lofty cliff.

Death, sudden and horrible, was no stranger to these primeval lovers. They saw that Gron was dead, and Tur, likewise. Nu appropriated the latter’s weapons, and side by side the two set out to find the beach. They found it with only such delays and dangers as were daily incidents in their savage lives. They found the boat, too, and reached the mainland and, later, the cliffs and their tribe, in safety. Here they found a wild welcome awaiting them, for both had been given up as dead.

That night they walked hand in hand beneath the great equatorial moon, beside the Restless Sea.

“Soon,” said Nu, “Nat-ul shall become the mate of Nu, the son of Nu. Nu, my father, hath said it, and so, too, has spoken Tha, the father of Nat-ul. At the birth of the next moon we are to mate.”

Nat-ul nestled closer to him.

“My Nu is a great warrior,” she said, “and a great hunter, but he has not brought back the head of Oo, the killer of men and of mammoths, that he promised to lay before the cave of Tha, my father.”

“Nu sets out at the breaking of the next light to hunt Oo,” he answered quietly, “nor will he return to claim his mate until he has taken the head of the killer of men and mammoths.”

Nat-ul laughed up into Nu’s face.

“Nat-ul but joked,” she said. “My man has proved himself greater than a hunter of Oo. I do not want the great toothed head, Nu. I only want you. You must not go forth to hunt the beast—it is enough that you could slay him were he to attack us, and none there is who dares say it be beyond you.”

“Nevertheless I hunt Oo on the morrow,” insisted Nu. “I have never forgotten my promise.”

Nat-ul tried to dissuade him, but he was obdurate, and the next morning Nu, the son of Nu, set forth from the cliffs beside the Restless Sea to hunt the lair of Oo.

All day Nat-ul sat waiting his return though she knew that it might be days before he came back, or that he might not come at all. Grave premonitions of impending danger haunted her. She wandered in and out of her cave, looking for the thousandth time along the way that Nu might come.

Suddenly a rumbling rose from far inland. The earth shook and trembled. Nat-ul, wide eyed with terror, saw her people fleeing upward toward their caves. The heavens became overcast, the loud rumbling rose to a hideous and deafening roar. The violence of the earth’s motion increased until the very cliffs in which the people hid rocked and shook like a leaf before a hurricane.

Nat-ul ran to the innermost recess of her father’s cave. There she huddled upon the floor burying her face in a pile of bear and lion skins. About her clustered other members of her father’s family—all were terror stricken.

It was five minutes before the end came. It came in one awful hideous convulsion that lifted the mighty cliff a hundred feet aloft, cracking and shattering it to fragments as its face toppled forward into the forest at its foot. Then there was silence—silence awful and ominous. For five minutes the quiet of death reigned upon the face of the earth, until presently from far out at sea came a rushing, swirling sound—a sound that only a few wild beasts were left to hear—and the ocean, mountain high, rushed in upon what had been the village of Nu, the chief.

The Eternal Lover - Contents    |     Part II - Chapter XV - What the Cave Revealed

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