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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe People Of The Mist - Chapter XXXII - HOW OTTER FOUGHT THE WATER DWELLER
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The People Of The Mist - Chapter XXXII - HOW OTTER FOUGHT THE WATER DWELLER Post by :johneze Category :Long Stories Author :H. Rider Haggard Date :March 2011 Read :1640

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The People Of The Mist - Chapter XXXII - HOW OTTER FOUGHT THE WATER DWELLER

Keeping himself carefully under the overshadowing edge of the rock-
bank, and holding his double-bladed knife ready in one hand, Otter
swam to the mouth of the Snake's den. As he approached it he perceived
by the great upward force of the water that the real body of the
stream entered the pool from below, the hole where the crocodile lived
being but a supplementary exit, which doubtless the river followed in
times of flood.

Otter reached the mouth of the tunnel without any great difficulty,
and, watching his chance, he lifted himself on his hands and slipped
through it quickly, for he did not desire to be seen by those who were
gathered above. Nor indeed was he seen, for his red head-dress and the
goat-skin cloak had been washed away or cast off in the pool, and in
that light his black body made little show against the black rock
beneath.

Now he was inside the hole, and found himself crouching upon a bed of
sand, or rather disintegrated rock, brought down by the waters. The
gloom of the place was great, but the light of the white dawn, which
had turned to red, was gathering swiftly on the surface of the pool
without as the mist melted, and thence was reflected into the tunnel.
So it came about that very soon Otter, who had the gift, not uncommon
among savages, of seeing in anything short of absolute darkness, was
able to make out his surroundings with tolerable accuracy. The place
in a corner of which he squatted was a cave of no great height or
width, hollowed in the solid rock by the force of water, as smoothly
as though it had been hewn by the hand of man: in short, an enormous
natural drain-pipe, but constructed of stone instead of earthenware.

In the bottom of this drain trickled a stream of water nowhere more
than six inches in depth, on either side of which, for ten feet or
more, lay a thick bed of debris ground small. How far the cave
stretched of course he could not see, nor as yet could he discover the
whereabouts of its hideous occupant, though traces of its presence
were plentiful, for the sandy floor was marked with its huge
footprints, and the air reeked with an abominable stink.

"Where has this evil spirit gone to?" thought Otter; "he must be near,
and yet I can see nothing of him. Perhaps he lives further up the
cave"; and he crept a pace or two forward and again peered into the
gloom.

Now he perceived what had hitherto escaped him, namely, that some
eight yards from the mouth of the tunnel a table-shaped fragment of
stone rose from its floor to within six feet of the roof, having on
the hither side a sloping plane that connected its summit with the
stream-bed beneath. Doubtless this fragment or boulder, being of some
harder material than the surrounding rock, had resisted the wear of
the rushing river; the top of it, as was shown by the high-water marks
on the sides of the cave, being above the level of the torrent, which,
although it was now represented only by a rivulet, evidently at
certain seasons of the year poured down with great force and volume.

"Here is a bed on which a crocodile might sleep," reflected Otter,
creeping a little further forward and staring at the mass of rock, and
more especially at a triangular-shaped object that was poised on the
top of the sloping plane, and on something which lay beneath it.

"Now, if that thing be another stone," thought Otter again, "how comes
it that it does not slip into the water as it should do, and what is
that upon which it rests?" and he took a step to one side to prevent
his body from intercepting any portion of the ray of light that
momentarily shone clearer and pierced the darkness of the cave to a
greater distance.

Then he looked again and almost fell in his horror, for now he could
see all. The thing that he had taken for a stone set upon the rock-
table was the head of the Dweller in the Waters, for there in it, as
the light struck on them, two dreadful eyes gleamed with a dull and
changing fire. Moreover, he discovered what was the object which lay
under the throat of the reptile. It was the body of that priest whom
Otter had taken with him in his leap from the statue, for he could see
the dead face projecting on one side.

"Perhaps if I wait awhile he will begin to eat him," reflected the
dwarf, remembering the habits of crocodiles, "and then I can attack
him when he rests and sleeps afterwards"; and, acting on this idea, he
stood still, watching the green fire as it throbbed and quivered,
waxed and waned in the monster's eyes.

How long he remained thus Otter never knew; but after a time he became
conscious that these eyes had taken hold of him and were drawing him
towards them, though whether the reptile saw him or not he could not
tell. For a space he struggled against this unholy fascination; then,
overcome by dread, he strove to fly, back to the pool or anywhere out
of reach of those devilish orbs. Alas! it was too late: no step could
he move backwards, no, not to save his life.

Now he must go on. It was as though the Water Dweller had read his
mind, and drew its foe towards itself to put the matter to the test.
Otter took one step forward--rather would he have sprung again off the
head of the colossus--and the eyes glowed more dreadfully than ever,
as though in triumph.

Then in despair he sank to the ground, hiding his face in his hands
and groaning in his heart.

"This is a devil that I have come to fight, a devil with magic in his
eyes," he thought. "And how can I, who am but a common Knobnose dwarf,
do battle against the king of evil spirits, clothed in the shape of a
crocodile?"

Even now, when he could not see them, he felt the eyes drawing him.
Yet, as they were no longer visible, his courage and power of mind
came back to him sufficiently to enable him to think again.

"Otter," he said to himself, "if you stay thus, soon the magic will do
its work. Your sense will leave you, and that devil will eat you up as
a cobra devours a meer-cat. Yes, he will swallow you, and his inside
will be your grave, and that is no end for one who has been called a
god! Men, let alone gods, should die fighting, whether it be with
other men, with wild beasts, with snakes, or with devils. Think now,
if your master, the Deliverer, saw you crouch thus like a toad before
an adder, how he would laugh and say, 'Ho! I thought this man brave.
Ho! he talked very loud about fighting the Water Dweller, he who came
of a line of warriors; but now I laugh at him, for I see that he is
but a cross-bred cur and a coward.'

"Yes, yes, you can hear his words, Otter. Say now, will you bear their
shame and sit here until you are snapped up and swallowed?"

Thus the dwarf addressed himself, and it seemed to his bewildered
brain that the words which he had imagined were true, and that Leonard
really stood by and mocked him.

At last he sprang to his feet, and crying, "Never, Baas!" so loudly
that the cave rang with the echoes of his shout, he rushed straight at
the foe, holding the two-bladed knife in his right hand.

The crocodile, that was waiting for him to fall insensible, as had
ever been the custom of the living victims on whom it fixed its
baneful glare, heard his cry and awoke from its seeming torpor. It
lifted its head, fire seemed to flash from its dull eyes, its vast
length began to stir. Higher and higher it reared its head, then of a
sudden it leaped from the slope of rock, as alligators when disturbed
leap from a river bank into the water, coming so heavily to the ground
that the shock caused the cave to tremble, and stood before the dwarf
with its tail arched upwards over its back.

Again Otter shouted, half in rage and half in terror, and the sound
seemed to make the brute more furious.

It opened its huge mouth as though to seize him and waddled a few
paces forward, halting within six feet of him. Now the dwarf's chance
had come and he knew it, for with the opportunity all his courage and
skill returned to him. It was he who sprang and not the crocodile. He
sprang, he thrust his arm and the double knife far into the yawning
mouth, and for a second held it there, one end pointing upwards to the
brain and one to the tongue beneath. He felt the jaws close, but their
rows of yellow fangs never touched his arm, for there was that between
them which held them some little space apart. Then he cast himself on
one side and to the ground, leaving the weapon in the reptile's
throat.

For a few moments it shook its horrible head, while Otter watched
gasping, for the reek of the brute's breath almost overpowered him.
Twice it opened its great jaws and spat, and twice it strove to close
them. Oh! what if it should rid itself of the knife, or drive it
through the soft flesh of the throat? Then he was lost indeed! But
this it might not do, for the lower blade caught upon the jawbone, and
at each effort it drove the sharp point of the upper knife deeper
towards its brain. Moreover, so good was the steel, and so firm were
the hide bindings of the handles, shrunken as they were with the wet,
that nothing broke or gave.

"Now he will trample me or dash me to pieces with his tail," said
Otter; but as yet the Snake had no such mind--indeed, in its agony it
seemed to have forgotten the presence of its foe. It writhed upon the
floor of the cave, lashing the rock with its tail, and gasping
horribly the while. Then suddenly it started forward past him, and the
tough hide rope about Otter's middle ran out like the line from the
bow of a whale-boat when the harpoon has gone home in the quarry.

Thrice the dwarf spun round violently, then he felt himself dragged in
great jerks along the rocky floor, which, happily for him, was smooth.
A fourth jerk, and once more he was in the waters of the pool, ay, and
being carried to its remotest depths.

"Now, he is mad," thought Otter, "who ties himself to such a fish as
this, for it will drown me ere it dies."

Had Otter been any other man, doubtless this would have been so. But
he was as nearly amphibious as a human being can be, and could dive
and swim and hold his breath, yes, and see beneath the surface as well
as the animal from which he took his name. Never did such gifts stand
their owner in better stead than during the minutes of this strange
duel.

Twice the tortured reptile sank to the bottom of the pool--and its
depth was great--dragging the dwarf after it, though, as it chanced,
between dives it rose to the surface, giving him time to breathe. A
third time it dived, and Otter must follow it--on this occasion to the
mouth of one of the subterranean exits of the water, into which the
dwarf was sucked. Then the brute turned, heading up the pool with the
speed of a hooked salmon, and Otter, who had prayed that the line
would break, now prayed that it might hold, for he knew that even he
could never hope to swim against that undertow.

It held, and once more they rose to the surface, where the reptile lay
lashing the waters in its pain, blood pouring from its mouth and
nostrils. Very glad was Otter to be able to breathe again, for during
that last rush he had gone near to suffocation. He lifted his head,
inhaling the air with great gulps, and saw that the banks of the pool
were lined with spectators who shouted and surged in their mad
excitement. After that he did not see much more for a while, since
just then it seemed to occur to the crocodile for the first time that
the man alongside of him was the cause of his suffering; at least it
wallowed round, causing the waters to boil about its horny sides, and
charged him. With its fangs it could not bite, therefore it struck at
him with its tail.

Twice Otter dived, avoiding the blows, but the third time he was not
so successful, for the reptile followed him into the deep water and
dealt him a fearful stroke before he could either sink or rise. He
felt the rough scales cut into his flesh and a sensation as though
every bone in his body was breaking and his eyes were starting from
his head. Faintly and more faintly he struggled, but in vain, for now
life and sense were leaving him together, and everything grew black.

But suddenly there came a change, and Otter knew vaguely that again he
was being dragged through the water and over rock. Then darkness took
him, and he remembered no more.

When the dwarf awoke it was to find himself lying on the floor of the
cave, but not alone, for by his side, twisted into a last and hideous
contortion, lay the Snake god--dead! The upper part of the double
knife had worked itself into its brain, and, with a dying effort, it
sought the den where it had lived for centuries, dragging Otter with
it, and there expired, how or when he knew not. But the dwarf had
triumphed. Before him was stretched the ancient terror of the People
of the Mist, the symbol and, indeed, the object of their worship,
slain by his skill and valour.

Otter saw, and, bruised and shaken as he was, his heart swelled with
pride, for had he not done a deed single-handed such as was not told
of in the stories of his land?

"Oh! that the Baas were here to see this sight!" he said, as he
crawled along the length of his dead enemy, and seated himself upon
its flat and loathsome snout. "Alas! he cannot," he added, "but I pray
that my watching spirit may spare my life, that I may live to sing the
song of the slaying of the Devil of the People of the Mist. /Wow!/
that was a fight. When shall a man see another? And lo! save for many
bruises and the cutting of the rope about my middle, I am not greatly
hurt, for the water broke the weight of his tail when he smote me with
it. After all, it is well that the line held, for it served to drag me
from the pool as it had dragged me into it, otherwise I had surely
drowned there.

"See, though, it is nearly done with," and grasping that end of the
cord which hung from the jaws of the crocodile, he broke it with a
jerk, for, with the exception of half a strand, it was frayed through
by the worn fangs.

Then, having rested himself a little, and washed the worst of his
hurts with water, Otter set himself to consider the position. First,
however, he made an utterly ineffectual effort to extract the great
knives. Ten men could not have moved them, for the upper blade was
driven many inches deep into the bone and muscles of the reptile's
massive head. But for this chance it would have soon shaken itself
clear of them; but, as it was, every contortion and gnashing of its
jaws had only served to drive the steel deeper--up to the hilt,
indeed.

Abandoning this attempt, the dwarf crept cautiously to the mouth of
the cave and peered at the further banks of the pool, whence he could
hear shouts and see men moving to and fro, apparently in a state of
great excitement.

"Now I am weary of that pool," he said to himself, "and if I am seen
in it the Great People will surely shoot at me with arrows and kill
me. What shall I do, then? I cannot stay in this place of stinks with
the dead devil and the bones of those whom he has devoured, until I
die of hunger. Yet this water must come from somewhere, therefore it
seems best that I should follow it awhile, searching for the spot
where it enters the cave. It will be dark walking, but the walls and
the floor are smooth, so that I shall not hurt myself, and if I find
nothing I can return again and strive to escape from the pool by
night."

Having decided upon the adventure, Otter began to carry it out with
characteristic promptness, the more readily, indeed, because his long
immersion the water had chilled him, and he felt a weariness creeping
over him as a result of the terrible struggle and emotions that he had
passed through.

Coiling the hide ripe about his middle, which was sadly cut by its
chafing, he started with an uncertain gait, for he was still very
weak. A few steps brought him to that rock on which he had discovered
the head of the reptile, and he paused to examine it. Climbing the
sloping stone--no easy task, for it was smooth as ice--he came to the
table-like top. On its edge lay the body of that priest who had shared
his fall from the head of the colossus.

Then he inspected the surface of the rock, and for the first time
understood how old that monster must have been which he had conquered
in single combat. For there, where its body had lain from generation
to generation, and perhaps from century to century, the hard material
was worn away to the depth of two feet or more, while at the top of
the sloping stone was a still deeper niche, wherein its head reposed
as it lay keeping its sleepless watch on the waters of the pool.

Around this depression, and strewn about the floor of the cave itself,
were the remains of many victims, a considerable number of whom had
not been devoured. In every case, however, the larger bones were
broken, and from this circumstance Otter judged that, although it was
the custom of this dreadful reptile to crush the life out of all who
were thrown to it with a bite of its fangs, yet, like that of other
animals, its appetite was limited, and it was only occasionally that
it consumed what it had killed.

The sight of these remains was so unpleasant and suggestive that even
Otter, who certainly could not be called squeamish, hastened to
descend the rock. As he passed round it his attention was attracted by
the skeleton of a man who, from various indications, must have been
alive within the last few weeks. The bones were clad in a priest's
cloak, of which the dwarf, who was trembling with cold, hastened to
possess himself. As he picked up the robe he observed beneath it a bag
of tanned ox-hide that doubtless had once been carried by the owner of
the cloak.

"Perhaps he kept food in this," thought Otter; "though what he who
came to visit the Water Dweller should want with food I cannot guess.
At the least it will be bad by now, so I will leave it and be gone.
Only a vulture would stay for long in this house of the dead." Then he
started forward.

For a few yards more he had light to guide his steps, but very soon
the darkness became complete; still the cave was not difficult to
travel, for everywhere the rock was smooth and the water shallow. All
that he needed to do was to walk straight on, keeping touch of one
side of the tunnel with one hand. Indeed he had but two things to
fear, that he should fall into some pit and that he might suddenly
encounter another crocodile, "for doubtless," thought Otter, "the
devil was married."

But Otter fell into no hole and he saw no crocodile, since, as it
chanced, the Water Dweller of the People of the Mist was a bachelor.

When the dwarf had travelled up a steep slope for rather more than
half an hour, to his intense joy he saw light before him and hurried
towards it. Presently he reached the further mouth of the cavern that
was almost closed by blocks of ice, among which a little water
trickled. Creeping through an aperture he found himself upon the crest
of the impassable precipice at the back of the city, and that before
him a vast glacier of green ice stretched upwards, whereon the sun
shone gloriously.

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Lifting Juanna in his arms, Leonard hurried from the sleepingapartment to the throne-room he halted hesitating, for he didnot know what was to happen next. Soa, who had preceded him,surrounded by the four priests and with a torch in her hand, stoodagainst that wall of the chamber where she had lain bound on the nightof the drugging of Otter."Bald-pate has fainted with fear, he is a coward," she said to thepriests, pointing to the burden in Leonard's arms; "open the secretway, and let us pass on."Then a priest came forward, and pressed upon a stone in the wall,which gave way,
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