He was an American after all, and he hated the common enemy. Was he responsible for the mad act of an ancestor dead now nearly four hundred years? But the hate that was almost a part of my being would not down entirely—he was still an Or-tis. I told him as much.
“I do not know that I can blame you,” he said; “but what matters it? To-morrow we shall both be dead. Let us at least call a truce until then.”
He was a pleasant-faced young fellow, two or three years my senior, perhaps, with a winning way that disarmed malice. It would have been very hard to have hated this Or-tis.
“Agreed!” I said, and held out my hand. He took it and then he laughed.
“Thirty-four ancestors would turn over in their graves if they could see this!” he cried.
We talked there by the opening for a long time, while in the trail below us constant streams of Kalkars moved steadily to the battlefront. Faintly, from a great distance, came the booming of the drums.
“You beat them badly yesterday,” he said. “They are filled with terror.”
“We will beat them again to-day and to-morrow and the next day until we have driven them into the sea,” I said.
“How many warriors have you?” he asked.
“There were full twenty-five thousand when we rode out of the desert,” I replied proudly.
He shook his head dubiously. “They must have ten or twenty times twenty-five thousand,” he told me.
“Even though they have forty times twenty-five thousand we shall prevail,” I insisted.
“Perhaps you will for you are better fighters; but they have so many youths growing into the warrior class every day. It will take years to wear them down. They breed like rabbits. Their women are married before they are fifteen, as a rule. If they have no child at twenty they are held up to scorn and if they are still childless at thirty they are killed, and unless they are mighty good workers they are killed at fifty anyhow—their usefulness to the State is over.”
Night came on. The Kalkars brought us no food or water. It became very dark. In the trail below and in some of the surrounding tents flares gave a weird, flickering fight. The sky was overcast with light clouds. The Kalkars in the avenue beyond our doorway dozed. I touched the Or-tis upon the shoulder where he lay stretched beside me on the hard floor.
“What is it?” he whispered.
“I am going,” I said. “Do you wish to come?”
He sat up. “How are you going?” he demanded, still in a low whisper.
“I do not know, nor how far I shall go; but I am going, if only far enough to cheat the butcher.”
He laughed. “Good! I will go with you.”
It had taken me a long time to overcome the prejudice of heredity and I had thought long before I could bring myself to ask an Or-tis to share with me this attempt to escape; but now it was done. I hoped I would not regret it.
I arose and moved cautiously toward the doorway. A wick, burning from the nozzle of a clay vessel filled with oil, gave forth a sickly light. It shone upon two hulking Kalkars nodding against the wall as they sat upon, the stone floor of the avenue.
My knife, of course, had been taken from me and I was unarmed; but here was a sword within my reach and another for the Or-tis. The hilt of one protruded from beneath the cloak of the nearer Kalkar. My hand, reaching forth, was almost upon it when he moved. I could not wait to learn if he was awaking or but moving in his sleep. I lunged for the hilt, grasped it and the fellow was awake: At the same instant the Or-tis sprang upon the other.
He whom I had attacked lumbered to his feet, clawing at the hand that had already half drawn his sword from its scabbard, and at the same time he set up a terrific yelling. I struck him on the jaw with my clenched fist. I struck him as hard as I could strike as he loomed above me his full eight feet.
The Or-tis was having a bad time with his man, who had seized him by the throat and was trying to draw a knife to finish him. The knife must have become stuck in its scabbard for a moment, or his long, red cloak was in the way. I do not know. I saw only a flash of it from the corner of my eye as my man stiffened and then sank to the floor.
Then I wheeled upon the other, a naked blade in my hand. He threw the Or-tis aside when he saw me and whipped out his own sword, but he was too slow. As I ran my point into his heart I heard the sound of running footsteps ascending the stairway and the shouts of men. I handed the sword I carried to the Or-tis and snatched the other from the fellow I had just finished.
Then I kicked the puny flare as far as I could kick it and called to the Or-tis to follow me. The light went out and together we ran along the dark avenue toward the stairway, up which we could hear the warriors coming in response to the cries of our late antagonists.
We reached the head of the stairs but a moment before the Kalkars appeared. There were three of them and one carried a weak, smoking flare that did little but cast large, grotesque, dancing shadows upon wall and stair and reveal our targets to us without revealing us to them.
“Take the last one,” I whispered to the Or-tis.
We leaned over the railing and as he smote the head of the last of the three I finished the second. The first, carrying the flare, turned to find himself facing two swords. He gave a shriek and started down the avenue.
That would not do. If he had kept still we might have let him live, for we were in a hurry; but he did not keep still and so we pursued him. He reminded me of a comet as he fled through the dark with his tail of light, only it was such a little tail. He was a fast comet, though, and we could not catch him until the end of the avenue brought him to bay, then, in turning, he slipped and fell.
I was upon him in the same instant, but some fancy stayed my blade when I might have run it through him. Instead I seized him, before he could recover himself, and lifting him from the floor I hurled him through the aperture at the end of the avenue. He still clung to his lamp, and as I leaned out above him he appeared a comet indeed, although he was quickly extinguished when he struck the pavement in the courtyard far below.
The Or-tis chuckled at my elbow. “The stupid clod!” he ejaculated. “He clung to that flare even to death, when, had he thrown it away and dodged into one of these many chambers he could have eluded us and still live.”
“Perhaps he needed it to light his way to hell,” I suggested.
“They need no help in that direction,” the Or-tis assured me, “for they will all get there, if there be such a place.”
We retraced our steps to the stairway again, but once more we heard men ascending. The Or-tis plucked me by the sleeve. “Come,” he whispered; “it is futile to attempt escape in this direction now that the guard is aroused. I am familiar with this place. I have been here many times. If we have the nerve we may yet escape. Will you follow me?”
“Certainly,” I replied.
The corpses of two of our recent antagonists lay at our feet at the head of the stairs, where we stood. Or-tis stooped and snatched their cloaks and bonnets from them. “We shall need these if we reach the ground—alive,” he said. “Follow me closely.”
He turned and continued along the corridor, presently entering a chamber at the left.
Behind us we could hear the Kalkars ascending the stairs. They were calling to their fellows above, from whom they would never receive a reply; but they were evidently coming slowly, for which we were both thankful.
Or-tis crossed the chamber to an aperture in the wall. “Below is the courtyard,” he said. “It is a long way down. These walls are laid in uneven courses. An agile man might make his way to the bottom without falling. Shall we try it? We can go down close to these apertures and thus rest often if we wish.”
“You go on one side and I will go on the other,” I told him.
He rolled the two cloaks and the bonnets into a bundle and dropped them into the dark void beneath, then we slid over the edge of the aperture. Clinging with my hands I found a foothold and then another below the first.
The ledges were about half the width of my hand. Some of them were rounded by time and the weather. These did not afford a very good hold. However, I reached the aperture below without mishap and there, I am free to confess, I was glad to pause for a moment, as I was panting as though I had run a mile.
Or-tis came down in safety, too. “The butcher appears less terrible.” he said.
I laughed. “He would have it over quicker,” I replied.
The next stage we descended two floors before we halted. I came close to slipping and falling twice in that distance. I was wet with sweat as I took a seat beside my companion.
I do not like to recall that adventure. It sends shivers through me always, even now; but at last it was over—we reached the bottom together and donned the cloaks and the bonnets of the Kalkars. The swords, for which we had no scabbards, we slipped through our own belts, the cloaks hiding the fact that they were scabbardless.
The smell of horses was strong in our nostrils as we crept toward a doorway. All was darkness within, as we groped forward to find that we were in a small chamber with a door at the opposite side. Nearly all the doors of the ancients have been destroyed, either by the fires that have destroyed the interiors of most of the buildings, by decay or by the Kalkars that have used them for fuel; but there are some left—they are the metal doors, and this was one.
I pushed it open enough to see if there was a light beyond. There was. It was in the great chamber on the first floor where the horses were tethered. It was not a brilliant light, but a sad, flickering light. Even the lights of the Kalkars are grimy and unclean. It cast a pallid luminescence beneath it, elsewhere were heavy shadows. The horses, when they moved, cast giant shadows upon the walls and floor and upon the great polished stone columns.
A guard loafed before the door that led to the trail in front of the tent. It was composed of five or six men. I suppose there were others in some near-by chamber. The doorway through which we peered was in shadow.
I pushed it open far enough to admit our bodies and we slipped through. In an instant we were hidden from the sight of the guard among the horses. Some of them moved restlessly as we approached them. If I could but find Red Lightning!
I had searched along one line almost the full length of the chamber and had started along a second when I heard a low nicker close by. It was he! Love of the Flag! It was like finding my own brother.
In the slovenly manner of the Kalkars the saddles and bridles lay in the dirt in the aisle behind the horses. Fortunately I found my own, more easily, of course, because it is unlike those of the Kalkars, and while I slipped them quietly upon Red Lightning the Or-tis, selecting a mount haphazard, was saddling and bridling it.
After a whispered consultation we led our horses to the rear of the room and mounted among the shadows, unobserved by the guard. Then we rode out from behind the picket lines and moved slowly toward the entrance, talking and laughing in what we hoped might appear an unconcerned manner, the Or-tis riding on the side nearest the guard and a little in advance, that Red Lightning might be hidden from them, for we thought that they might recognize him more quickly than they would us.
As they saw us coming they ceased their chatter and looked up, but we paid no attention to them, riding straight on for the aperture that led into the trail outside the structure. I think we might have passed them without question had there not suddenly burst from the doorway of what was I judge, the guard room, an excited figure who shouted lustily to all within hearing of his voice:
“Let no one leave! The Julian and the Or-tis have escaped!” he screamed.
The guards threw themselves across the entrance and at the same instant I put spurs to Red Lightning, whipped out my sword and bore down upon them, the Or-tis following my example. I cut at one upon my left front and Red Lightning bore down another beneath his iron hoofs.
We were out upon the trail and the Or-tis was beside us. Reining to the left we bore south a few yards and then turned west upon another trail, the shouts and curses of the Kalkars ringing in our ears.
With free rein we let our mounts out to far greater speed than the darkness and the littered trail gave warrant, and it was not until we had put a mile behind us that we drew in to a slower gait. The Or-tis spurred to my side.
“I had not thought it could be done, Julian,” he said; “yet here we ride, as free as any men in all the country wide.”
“But still within the shadow of the butcher,” I replied. “Listen! They are following hot-foot.” The pounding of the hoofs of our pursuers’ horses arose louder and louder behind us as we listened. Again we spurred on, but presently we came to a place where a ruined wall had fallen across the trail.
“May the butcher get me!” cried the Or-tis! “that I should have forgotten that this trail is blocked. We should have turned north or south at the last crossing. Come, we must ride back, and quickly, too, if we are to reach it before they.”
Wheeling, we put our mounts to the run back along the trail over which we had but just come. It was but a short distance to the cross trail, yet our case looked bad, for even in the darkness the pursuing Kalkars could now be seen, so close were they. It was a question as to which would reach the crossing first.
“You turn to the south,” I cried to the Or-tis, “and I will turn to the north. In that way one of us may escape.”
“Good!” he agreed. “There are too many of them for us to stand and fight.”
He was right—the trail was packed with them, and we could hear others coming far behind the van. It was like a young army. I hugged the left hand side of the trail and Or-tis the right. We reached the crossing not a second in advance of the leaders of the pursuit.
Into the blackness of the new trail I plunged and behind me came the Kalkars. I urged Red Lightning on and he responded, as I knew he would. It was madness to ride through the black night along a strange trail at such speed, yet it was my only hope.
Quickly, my fleet stallion drew away from the clumsy, ill-bred mounts of my pursuers. At the first crossing I turned again to the west, and although here I encountered a steep and winding hill it was fortunately but a short ride to the top and after that the way was along a rolling trail, but mostly downhill.
The structures of the ancients that remained standing became fewer and fewer as we proceeded, and in an hour they had entirely disappeared. The trail, however, was fairly well marked and after a single, short turn to the south it continued westward over rolling country in almost a straight line.
I had reduced my speed to conserve Red Lightning’s strength, and as no sign of pursuit developed I jogged along at a running walk, a gait which Red Lightning could keep up for hours without fatigue. I had no idea where the trail was leading me, and at the time I did not even know that it was bearing west, for the heavens were still overcast, although I judged that this must be the fact. My first thought was to put as much distance as possible between me and the Kalkar camp and at the first streak of dawn take to the hills and then work my way north and east in an attempt to rejoin my people.
And so I moved on, through country that was now level and now rolling, for the better part of three hours. A cool breeze sprang up and blew in my face. It had a damp freshness and a strange odor with which I was entirely unfamiliar. I was tired from my long exertions, from loss of sleep and from lack of food and water, yet this strange breeze revived me and filled me with new strength and life.
It had become very dark, although I knew that dawn must be near. I wondered how Red Lightning could pick his way through the utter blackness. This very thought was in my mind when he came to a sudden halt.
I could see nothing, yet I could tell that Red Lightning had some good reason for his action. I listened, and there came to my ears a strange, sullen roar—a deep pounding, such as I never had heard before. What could it be?
I dismounted to rest my beloved mount, while I listened and sought for an explanation of this monotonously reiterated sound. At length I determined to await dawn before continuing. With the bridle reins about my wrist I lay down, knowing that, if danger threatened, Red Lightning would warn me. In another minute I was asleep.
How long I slept I do not know—an hour, perhaps—but when I awoke it was daylight and the first thing that broke upon my sensibilities was the dull, monotonous booming, the pounding, pounding, pounding that had lulled me to sleep so quickly.
Never shall I forget the scene that burst upon my astonished eyes as I rose to my feet. Before me was a sheer cliff dropping straight away at my feet, upon the very verge of which Red Lightning had halted the previous night; and beyond, as far as the eye could reach, was water—a vast expanse of water, stretching on and on and on—the sea! At last a Julian had looked upon it.
It rolled up on the sands below me, pounding, surging, booming. It rolled back again, resistless, restless; and, at once, terrifying and soothing—terrifying in its immensity and mystery, soothing in the majestic rhythm of its restlessness.
I had looked upon it—the goal of four hundred years of strife—and it gave to me renewed strength and determination to lead my people to it. There it lay, as it had always lain, unaltered, unalterable.
Along its shore line, sweeping away upon either hand toward distant haze dimmed headlands, was a faint scratch at the foot of its bold cliffs that may mark the man—made trail of the ancients, but of man or his works there is no other sign. In utter solitude its rolling waters break upon its sands, and there is no ear to hear.
To my right an old trail led down into a deep cañon that opened upon the beach. I mounted Red Lightning and followed its windings along the half obliterated trail of the ancients, down among giant oaks and sycamores and along the cañon’s bottom to the beach. I wanted to feel the cool waters and to quench my thirst.
Red Lightning must have been thirsty, too, but the great waves rolling in frightened him so that it was with difficulty that I urged him to the water’s edge; but training and heredity are stronger than fear, and at last he walked out upon the sands until the waters, surging in, broke about his pasterns. Then I threw myself from him at full length upon the beach and as the next wave rolled in I buried my face in it and quaffed one deep drink.
One was enough. Sputtering, choking and gagging, I sprang to my feet. What poisoned liquid rolled in this hellish cauldron? I became very sick. Never in my life had I experienced such ill sensations.
I thought that I was dying, and in my agony I saw Red Lightning dip his velvet muzzle into the treacherous liquid.
Red Lightning took one draught, as had I, and then, snorting, he leaped back from that vast pool of iniquity. For a moment he stood there wide-eyed, staring at the water, pained surprise in his eyes.
Then he fell to trembling as, upon wide spread feet, he swayed to and fro. He was dying—together we were dying at the foot of the goal we had achieved after four hundred years of battle and suffering.
I prayed that I might live even if it were only long enough for me to reach my people and warn them against this hideous monster lying in wait for them. Better that they flee back to their desert than trust themselves to his unknown world where even the fairest of waters held death.
But I did not die. Neither did Red Lightning die. I was very sick for an hour; but after that I rapidly recovered. It was a long time after before I learned the truth about sea water.