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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesAyesha - Chapter VIII - THE DEATH-HOUNDS
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Ayesha - Chapter VIII - THE DEATH-HOUNDS Post by :mikegiving Category :Long Stories Author :H. Rider Haggard Date :May 2011 Read :1691

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Ayesha - Chapter VIII - THE DEATH-HOUNDS

It may have been ten o'clock on the following morning, or a little
past it, when the Shaman Simbri came into my room and asked me how I
had slept.

"Like a log," I answered, "like a log. A drugged man could not have
rested more soundly."

"Indeed, friend Holly, and yet you look fatigued."

"My dreams troubled me somewhat," I answered. "I suffer from such
things. But surely by your face, friend Simbri, you cannot have slept
at all, for never yet have I seen you with so weary an air."

"I am weary," he said, with a sigh. "Last night I spent up on my
business--watching at the Gates."

"What gates?" I asked. "Those by which we entered this kingdom, for,
if so, I would rather watch than travel them."

"The Gates of the Past and of the Future. Yes, those two which you
entered, if you will; for did you not travel out of a wondrous Past
towards a Future that you cannot /guess?/"

"But both of which interest you," I suggested.

"Perhaps," he answered, then added, "I come to tell you that within an
hour you are to start for the city, whither the Khania has but now
gone on to make ready for you."

"Yes; only you told me that she had gone some days ago. Well, I am
sound again and prepared to march, but say, how is my foster-son?"

"He mends, he mends. But you shall see him for yourself. It is the
Khania's will. Here come the slaves bearing your robes, and with them
I leave you."

So with their assistance I dressed myself, first in good, clean under-
linen, then in wide woollen trousers and vest, and lastly in a fur-
lined camel-hair robe dyed black that was very comfortable to wear,
and in appearance not unlike a long overcoat. A flat cap of the same
material and a pair of boots made of untanned hide completed my
attire.

Scarcely was I ready when the yellow-faced servants, with many bows,
took me by the hand and led me down the passages and stairs of the
Gate-house to its door. Here, to my great joy, I found Leo, looking
pale and troubled, but otherwise as well as I could expect after his
sickness. He was attired like myself, save that his garments were of a
finer quality, and the overcoat was white, with a hood to it, added, I
suppose, to protect the wound in his head from cold and the sun. This
white dress I thought became him very well, also about it there was
nothing grotesque or even remarkable. He sprang to me and seized my
hand, asking how I fared and where I had been hidden away, a greeting
of which, as I could see, the warmth was not lost upon Simbri, who
stood by.

I answered, well enough now that we were together again, and for the
rest I would tell him later.

Then they brought us palanquins, carried, each of them, by two ponies,
one of which was harnessed ahead and the other behind between long
shaft-like poles. In these we seated ourselves, and at a sign from
Simbri slaves took the leading ponies by the bridle and we started,
leaving behind us that grim old Gate-house through which we were the
first strangers to pass for many a generation.

For a mile or more our road ran down a winding, rocky gorge, till
suddenly it took a turn, and the country of Kaloon lay stretched
before us. At our feet was a river, probably the same with which we
had made acquaintance in the gulf, where, fed by the mountain snows,
it had its source. Here it flowed rapidly, but on the vast, alluvial
lands beneath became a broad and gentle stream that wound its way
through the limitless plains till it was lost in the blue of the
distance.

To the north, however, this smooth, monotonous expanse was broken by
that Mountain which had guided us from afar, the House of Fire. It was
a great distance from us, more than a hundred miles, I should say, yet
even so a most majestic sight in that clear air. Many leagues from the
base of its peak the ground began to rise in brown and rugged
hillocks, from which sprang the holy Mountain itself, a white and
dazzling point that soared full twenty thousand feet into the heavens.

Yes, and there upon the nether lip of its crater stood the gigantic
pillar, surmounted by a yet more gigantic loop of virgin rock, whereof
the blackness stood out grimly against the blue of the sky beyond and
the blinding snow beneath.

We gazed at it with awe, as well we might, this beacon of our hopes
that for aught we knew might also prove their monument, feeling even
then that yonder our fate would declare itself. I noted further that
all those with us did it reverence by bowing their heads as they
caught sight of the peak, and by laying the first finger of the right
hand across the first finger of the left, a gesture, as we afterwards
discovered, designed to avert its evil influence. Yes, even Simbri
bowed, a yielding to inherited superstition of which I should scarcely
have suspected him.

"Have you ever journeyed to that Mountain?" asked Leo of him.

Simbri shook his head and answered evasively.

"The people of the Plain do not set foot upon the Mountain. Among its
slopes beyond the river which washes them, live hordes of brave and
most savage men, with whom we are oftentimes at war; for when they are
hungry they raid our cattle and our crops. Moreover, there, when the
Mountain labours, run red streams of molten rock, and now and again
hot ashes fall that slay the traveller."

"Do the ashes ever fall in your country?" asked Leo.

"They have been known to do so when the Spirit of the Mountain is
angry, and that is why we fear her."

"Who is this Spirit?" said Leo eagerly.

"I do not know, lord," he answered with impatience. "Can men see a
spirit?"

"/You/ look as though you might, and had, not so long ago," replied
Leo, fixing his gaze on the old man's waxen face and uneasy eyes. For
now their horny calm was gone from the eyes of Simbri, which seemed as
though they had beheld some sight that haunted him.

"You do me too much honour, lord," he replied; "my skill and vision do
not reach so far. But see, here is the landing-stage, where boats
await us, for the rest of our journey is by water."

These boats proved to be roomy and comfortable, having flat bows and
sterns, since, although sometimes a sail was hoisted, they were
designed for towing, not to be rowed with oars. Leo and I entered the
largest of them, and to our joy were left alone except for the
steersman.

Behind us was another boat, in which were attendants and slaves, and
some men who looked like soldiers, for they carried bows and swords.
Now the ponies were taken from the palanquins, that were packed away,
and ropes of green hide, fastened to iron rings in the prows of the
boats, were fixed to the towing tackle with which the animals had been
reharnessed. Then we started, the ponies, two arranged tandem fashion
to each punt, trotting along a well-made towing path that was
furnished with wooden bridges wherever canals or tributary streams
entered the main river.

"Thank Heaven," said Leo, "we are together again at last! Do you
remember, Horace, that when we entered the land of Kor it was thus, in
a boat? The tale repeats itself."

"I can quite believe it," I answered. "I can believe anything. Leo, I
say that we are but gnats meshed in a web, and yonder Khania is the
spider and Simbri the Shaman guards the net. But tell me all you
remember of what has happened to you, and be quick, for I do not know
how long they may leave us alone."

"Well," he said, "of course I remember our arrival at that Gate after
the lady and the old man had pulled us out of the river, and, Horace,
talking of spiders reminds me of hanging at the end of that string of
yak's hide. Not that I need much reminding, for I am not likely to
forget it. Do you know I cut the rope because I felt that I was going
mad, and wished to die sane. What happened to you? Did you slip?"

"No; I jumped after you. It seemed best to end together, so that we
might begin again together."

"Brave old Horace!" he said affectionately, the tears starting to his
grey eyes.

"Well, never mind all that," I broke in; "you see you were right when
you said that we should get through, and we have. Now for your tale."

"It is interesting, but not very long," he answered, colouring. "I
went to sleep, and when I woke it was to find a beautiful woman
leaning over me, and Horace--at first I thought that it was--you know
who, and that she kissed me; but perhaps it was all a dream."

"It was no dream," I answered. "I saw it."

"I am sorry to hear it--very sorry. At any rate there was the
beautiful woman--the Khania--for I saw her plenty of times afterwards,
and talked to her in my best modern Greek--by the way, Ayesha knew the
old Greek; that's curious."

"She knew several of the ancient tongues, and so did other people. Go
on."

"Well, she nursed me very kindly, but, so far as I know, until last
night there was nothing more affectionate, and I had sense enough to
refuse to talk about our somewhat eventful past. I pretended not to
understand, said that we were explorers, etc., and kept asking her
where you were, for I forgot to say I found that you had gone. I think
that she grew rather angry with me, for she wanted to know something,
and, as you can guess, I wanted to know a good deal. But I could get
nothing out of her except that she was the Khania--a person in
authority. There was no doubt about that, for when one of those slaves
or servants came in and interrupted her while she was trying to draw
the facts out of me, she called to some of her people to throw him out
of the window, and he only saved himself by going down the stairs very
quickly.

"Well, I could make nothing of her, and she could make little of me,
though why she should be so tenderly interested in a stranger, I don't
know--unless, unless--oh! who is she, Horace?"

"If you will go on I will tell you what I think presently. One tale at
a time."

"Very good. I got quite well and strong, comparatively speaking, till
the climax last night, which upset me again. After that old prophet,
Simbri, had brought me my supper, just as I was thinking of going to
sleep, the Khania came in alone, dressed like a queen. I can tell you
she looked really royal, like a princess in a fairy book, with a crown
on, and her chestnut black hair flowing round her.

"Well, Horace, then she began to make love to me in a refined sort of
way, or so I thought, looked at me and sighed, saying that we had
known each other in the past--very well indeed I gathered--and
implying that she wished to continue our friendship. I fenced with her
as best I could; but a man feels fairly helpless lying on his back
with a very handsome and very imperial-looking lady standing over him
and paying him compliments.

"The end of it was that, driven to it by her questions and to stop
that sort of thing, I told her that I was looking for my wife, whom I
had lost, for, after all, Ayesha is my wife, Horace. She smiled and
suggested that I need /not/ look far; in short, that the lost wife was
already found--in herself, who had come to save me from death in the
river. Indeed, she spoke with such conviction that I grew sure that
she was not merely amusing herself, and felt very much inclined to
believe her, for, after all, Ayesha may be changed now.

"Then while I was at my wits' end I remembered the lock of hair--all
that remains to us of /her/," and Leo touched his breast. "I drew it
out and compared it with the Khania's, and at the sight of it she
became quite different, jealous, I suppose, for it is longer than
hers, and not in the least like.

"Horace, I tell you that the touch of that lock of hair--for she did
touch it--appeared to act upon her nature like nitric acid upon sham
gold. It turned it black; all the bad in her came out. In her anger
her voice sounded coarse; yes, she grew almost vulgar, and, as you
know, when Ayesha was in a rage she might be wicked as we understand
it, and was certainly terrible, but she was never either coarse or
vulgar, any more than lightning is.

"Well, from that moment I was sure that whoever this Khania may be,
she had nothing to do with Ayesha; they are so different that they
never could have been the same--like the hair. So I lay quiet and let
her talk, and coax, and threaten on, until at length she drew herself
up and marched from the room, and I heard her lock the door behind
her. That's all I have to tell you, and quite enough too, for I don't
think that the Khania has done with me, and, to say the truth, I am
afraid of her."

"Yes," I said, "quite enough. Now sit still, and don't start or talk
loud, for that steersman is probably a spy, and I can feel old
Simbri's eyes fixed upon our backs. Don't interrupt either, for our
time alone may be short."

Then I set to work and told him everything I knew, while he listened
in blank astonishment.

"Great Heavens! what a tale," he exclaimed as I finished. "Now, who is
this Hesea who sent the letter from the Mountain? And who, who is the
Khania?"

"Who does your instinct tell you that she is, Leo?"

"Amenartas?" he whispered doubtfully. "The woman who wrote the
/Sherd/, whom Ayesha said was the Egyptian princess--my wife two
thousand years ago? Amenartas re-born?"

I nodded. "I think so. Why not? As I have told you again and again, I
have always been certain of one thing, that if we were allowed to see
the next act of the piece, we should find Amenartas, or rather the
spirit of Amenartas, playing a leading part in it; you will remember I
wrote as much in that record.

"If the old Buddhist monk Kou-en could remember /his/ past, as
thousands of them swear that they do, and be sure of his identity
continued from that past, why should not this woman, with so much at
stake, helped as she is by the wizardry of the Shaman, her uncle,
faintly remember hers?

"At any rate, Leo, why should she not still be sufficiently under its
influence to cause her, without any fault or seeking of her own, to
fall madly in love at first sight with a man whom, after all, she has
always loved?"

"The argument seems sound enough, Horace, and if so I am sorry for the
Khania, who hasn't much choice in the matter--been forced into it, so
to speak."

"Yes, but meanwhile your foot is in a trap again. Guard yourself, Leo,
guard yourself. I believe that this is a trial sent to you, and
doubtless there will be more to follow. But I believe also that it
would be better for you to die than to make any mistake."

"I know it well," he answered; "and you need not be afraid. Whatever
this Khania may have been to me in the past--if she was anything at
all--that story is done with. I seek Ayesha, and Ayesha alone, and
Venus herself shall not tempt me from her."

Then we began to speak with hope and fear of that mysterious Hesea who
had sent the letter from the Mountain, commanding the Shaman Simbri to
meet us: the priestess or spirit whom he declared was "mighty from of
old" and had "servants in the earth and air."

Presently the prow of our barge bumped against the bank of the river,
and looking round I saw that Simbri had left the boat in which he sat
and was preparing to enter ours. This he did, and, placing himself
gravely on a seat in front of us, explained that nightfall was coming
on, and he wished to give us his company and protection through the
dark.

"And to see that we do not give him the slip in it," muttered Leo.

Then the drivers whipped up their ponies, and we went on again.

"Look behind you," said Simbri presently, "and you will see the city
where you will sleep to-night."

We turned ourselves, and there, about ten miles away, perceived a
flat-roofed town of considerable, though not of very great size. Its
position was good, for it was set upon a large island that stood a
hundred feet or more above the level of the plain, the river dividing
into two branches at the foot of it, and, as we discovered afterwards,
uniting again beyond.

The vast mound upon which this city was built had the appearance of
being artificial, but very possibly the soil whereof it was formed had
been washed up in past ages during times of flood, so that from a
mudbank in the centre of the broad river it grew by degrees to its
present proportions. With the exception of a columned and towered
edifice that crowned the city and seemed to be encircled by gardens,
we could see no great buildings in the place.

"How is the city named?" asked Leo of Simbri.

"Kaloon," he answered, "as was all this land even when my fore-
fathers, the conquerors, marched across the mountains and took it more
than two thousand years ago. They kept the ancient title, but the
territory of the Mountain they called Hes, because they said that the
loop upon yonder peak was the symbol of a goddess of this name whom
their general worshipped."

"Priestesses still live there, do they not?" said Leo, trying in his
turn to extract the truth.

"Yes, and priests also. The College of them was established by the
conquerors, who subdued all the land. Or rather, it took the place of
another College of those who fashioned the Sanctuary and the Temple,
whose god was the fire in the Mountain, as it is that of the people of
Kaloon to-day."

"Then who is worshipped there now?"

"The goddess Hes, it is said; but we know little of the matter, for
between us and the Mountain folk there has been enmity for ages. They
kill us and we kill them, for they are jealous of their shrine, which
none may visit save by permission, to consult the Oracle and to make
prayer or offering in times of calamity, when a Khan dies, or the
waters of the river sink and the crops fail, or when ashes fall and
earthquakes shake the land, or great sickness comes. Otherwise, unless
they attack us, we leave them alone, for though every man is trained
to arms, and can fight if need be, we are a peaceful folk, who
cultivate the soil from generation to generation, and thus grow rich.
Look round you. Is it not a scene of peace?"

We stood up in the boat and gazed about us at the pastoral prospect.
Everywhere appeared herds of cattle feeding upon meadow lands, or
troops of mules and horses, or square fields sown with corn and
outlined by trees. Village folk, also, clad in long, grey gowns, were
labouring on the land, or, their day's toil finished, driving their
beasts homewards along roads built upon the banks of the irrigation
dykes, towards the hamlets that were placed on rising knolls amidst
tall poplar groves.

In its sharp contrast with the arid deserts and fearful mountains
amongst which we had wandered for so many years, this country struck
us as most charming, and indeed, seen by the red light of the sinking
sun on that spring day, even as beautiful with the same kind of beauty
which is to be found in Holland. One could understand too that these
landowners and peasant-farmers would by choice be men of peace, and
what a temptation their wealth must offer to the hungry, half-savage
tribes of the mountains.

Also it was easy to guess when the survivors of Alexander's legions
under their Egyptian general burst through the iron band of snow-clad
hills and saw this sweet country, with its homes, its herds, and its
ripening grass, that they must have cried with one voice, "We will
march and fight and toil no more. Here we will sit us down to live and
die." Thus doubtless they did, taking them wives from among the women
of the people of the land which they had conquered--perhaps after a
single battle.

Now as the light faded the wreaths of smoke which hung over the
distant Fire-mountain began to glow luridly. Redder and more angry did
they become while the darkness gathered, till at length they seemed to
be charged with pulsing sheets of flame propelled from the womb of the
volcano, which threw piercing beams of light through the eye of the
giant loop that crowned its brow. Far, far fled those beams, making a
bright path across the land, and striking the white crests of the
bordering wall of mountains. High in the air ran that path, over the
dim roofs of the city of Kaloon, over the river, yes, straight above
us, over the mountains, and doubtless--though there we could not
follow them--across the desert to that high eminence on its farther
side where we had lain bathed in their radiance. It was a wondrous and
most impressive sight, one too that filled our companions with fear,
for the steersmen in our boats and the drivers on the towing-path
groaned aloud and began to utter prayers. "What do they say?" asked
Leo of Simbri.

"They say, lord, that the Spirit of the Mountain is angry, and passes
down yonder flying light that is called the Road of Hes to work some
evil to our land. Therefore they pray her not to destroy them."

"Then does that light not always shine thus?" he asked again.

"Nay, but seldom. Once about three months ago, and now to-night, but
before that not for years. Let us pray that it portends no misfortune
to Kaloon and its inhabitants."

For some minutes this fearsome illumination continued, then it ceased
as suddenly as it had begun, and there remained of it only the dull
glow above the crest of the peak.

Presently the moon rose, a white, shining ball, and by its rays we
perceived that we drew near to the city. But there was still something
left for us to see before we reached its shelter. While we sat quietly
in the boat--for the silence was broken only by the lapping of the
still waters against its sides and the occasional splash of the
slackened tow-line upon their surface--we heard a distant sound as of
a hunt in full cry.

Nearer and nearer it came, its volume swelling every moment, till it
was quite close at last. Now echoing from the trodden earth of the
towing-path--not that on which our ponies travelled, but the other on
the west bank of the river--was heard the beat of the hoofs of a horse
galloping furiously. Presently it appeared, a fine, white animal, on
the back of which sat a man. It passed us like a flash, but as he went
by the man lifted himself and turned his head, so that we saw his face
in the moonlight; saw also the agony of fear that was written on it
and in his eyes.

He had come out of the darkness. He was gone into the darkness, but
after him swelled that awful music. Look! a dog appeared, a huge, red
dog, that dropped its foaming muzzle to the ground as it galloped,
then lifted it and uttered a deep-throated, bell-like bay. Others
followed, and yet others: in all there must have been a hundred of
them, every one baying as it took the scent.

"/The death-hounds!/" I muttered, clasping Leo by the arm.

"Yes," he answered, "they are running that poor devil. Here comes the
huntsman."

As he spoke there appeared a second figure, splendidly mounted, a
cloak streaming from his shoulders, and in his hand a long whip, which
he waved. He was big but loosely jointed, and as he passed he turned
his face also, and we saw that it was that of a madman. There could be
no doubt of it; insanity blazed in those hollow eyes and rang in that
savage, screeching laugh.

"The Khan! The Khan!" said Simbri, bowing, and I could see that he was
afraid.

Now he too was gone, and after him came his guards. I counted eight of
them, all carrying whips, with which they flogged their horses.

"What does this mean, friend Simbri?" I asked, as the sounds grew
faint in the distance.

"It means, friend Holly," he answered, "that the Khan does justice in
his own fashion--hunting to death one that has angered him."

"What then is his crime? And who is that poor man?"

"He is a great lord of this land, one of the royal kinsmen, and the
crime for which he has been condemned is that he told the Khania he
loved her, and offered to make war upon her husband and kill him, if
she would promise herself to him in marriage. But she hated the man,
as she hates all men, and brought the matter before the Khan. That is
all the story."

"Happy is that prince who has so virtuous a wife!" I could not help
saying unctuously, but with meaning, and the old wretch of a Shaman
turned his head at my words and began to stroke his white beard.

It was but a little while afterwards that once more we heard the
baying of the death-hounds. Yes, they were heading straight for us,
this time across country. Again the white horse and its rider
appeared, utterly exhausted, both of them, for the poor beast could
scarcely struggle on to the towing-path. As it gained it a great red
hound with a black ear gripped its flank, and at the touch of the
fangs it screamed aloud in terror as only a horse can. The rider
sprang from its back, and, to our horror, ran to the river's edge,
thinking evidently to take refuge in our boat. But before ever he
reached the water the devilish brutes were upon him.

What followed I will not describe, but never shall I forget the scene
of those two heaps of worrying wolves, and of the maniac Khan, who
yelled in his fiendish joy, and cheered on his death-hounds to finish
their red work.

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Horrified, sick at heart, we continued our journey. No wonder that theKhania hated such a mad despot. And this woman was in love with Leo,and this lunatic Khan, her husband, was a victim to jealousy, which heavenged after the very unpleasant fashion that we had witnessed. Trulyan agreeable prospect for all of us! Yet, I could not help reflecting,as an object lesson that horrid scene had its advantages.Now we reached the place where the river forked at the end of theisland, and disembarked upon a quay. Here a guard of men commanded bysome Household officer, was waiting to receive us. They
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The shaman advanced to my side and asked me courteously how I fared.I answered, "Better. Far better, oh, my host--but how are you named?""Simbri," he answered, "and, as I told you by the water, my title isHereditary Guardian of the Gate. By profession I am the royalPhysician in this land.""Did you say physician or magician?" I asked carelessly, as though Ihad not caught the word. He gave me a curious look."I /said/ physician, and it is well for you and your companion that Ihave some skill in my art. Otherwise I think, perhaps, you would nothave been alive to-day, O my
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