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Three Mulla-mulgars, The

CHAPTER VII

It was bitterly cold, and as the three travellers stood there, ragged and sore and hungry, they thought they would never weary of gazing at the starry sky and sniffing the keen night air between the trees. But which way should they go? No path ran here, for the Earth-mulgars never let any path grow clear around their mounds. Thumb climbed a little way up a Gelica-tree that stood over them, and soon espied low down in the sky the Bear's bright Seven, which circle about the dim Pole Star. So he quickly slid down again to tell his brothers. It so happened, however, that in this tree grows a small, round, gingerish nut that takes two whole years to ripen, and hangs in thick clusters amid the branches. They have a taste like cinnamon, and with these the Earth-mulgars flavour their meat. And as Thumb slid heavily down, being stiff and sore now, and very heavy, he shook one of these same clusters, and down it came rattling about Nod's head. They have but thin shells, these nuts, and are not heavy, but they tumbled so suddenly, and from such a height, that Nod fell flat, his hands thrown out along the snow. He clambered up, rubbing his head, and in the quietness, while they listened, they heard as it were a distant and continuous throbbing beneath them.

Thimble crouched down, with head askew. "The Minimuls, the Zōōts!" he grunted.

But even at the same moment Nod had cried out too. "Thumb, Thumb, O Mulla-mulgar, the Wonderstone! the Wonderstone! the snow, the snow!" No pale and tapering light hovered clearly beaming now beneath these cold and starlit branches. The Mounds of the Minimuls were awake and astir. Soon the furious little Flesh-eaters would come pouring up in their hundreds, and to-morrow, their magic gone, all three brothers would be quickly frizzling, with these same Gelica-nuts for seasoning, on the spit.

Nod flung himself down; down, too, went Thumb and Thimble in the ice-bespangled snow. At last they found the stone, shining like a pale moon amid the twinkling starriness of the frost. But it was only just in time. Even now they could hear the far-away crying and clamour, and the surly Zōōt-beating of the Earth-mulgars drawing nearer and nearer.

Without pausing an instant, Nod cast the stone into his mouth for safety, and away went the three travellers, bundle and cudgel, rags and sheep's-coat, helter-skelter, between the silvery breaks of the trees, scampering faster than any Mulgar, Mulla, or Munza had ever run before. The snow was crisp and hard; their worn and hardened feet made but the faintest flip-flap in the hush. And scarcely had they run their first short wind out, when lo and behold! there, in a leafy bower of snow in their path, three short-maned snorting little Horses of Tishnar, or Zevveras, stood, rearing and chafing, and yet it seemed tethered invisibly to that same frosty stable by a bridle from which they could not break away.

They whinnied in concert to see these scampering Mulgars come panting over the snow. And Nod remembered instantly the longed-for gongs and stripes of his childhood, and he called like a parakeet: "Tishnar, O Tishnar!" He could say no more. The Wonderstone that had lain couched on his tongue, as he opened his mouth, slid softly back, paused for his cry, and the next instant had glided down his throat. But by this time Thumb had straddled the biggest of the little plunging beasts. And, like arrows from the Gunga's bow, each with his hands clasped tight about his Zevvera's neck, away went Thumb, away went Thimble, away went Nod, the night wind whistling in their ears, their rags a-flutter, the clear stripes of the Zevveras winking in the rising moon.

But the Little Horse of Tishnar which carried Nod upon his back was by much the youngest and smallest of the three. And soon, partly because of his youth, and partly because he had started last, he began to fall farther and farther behind. And being by nature a wild and untamable beast, his spirit flamed up to see his brothers out-stripping him so fast. He flung up his head with a shrill and piercing whinny, and plunged foaming on. The trees winked by. Now up they went, now down, into deep and darkling glades, now cantering softly over open and moon-swamped snow. If only he could fling the clumsy, clinging Mulgar off his back he would soon catch up his comrades, who were fast disappearing between the trees. He jumped, he reared, he kicked, he plunged, he wriggled, he whinnied. Now he sped like the wind, then on a sudden stopped dead, with all four quivering legs planted firmly in the snow. But still Nod, although at every twist and turn he slipped up and down the sleek and slippery shoulders, managed to cling fast with arms and legs.

Then the cunning beast chose all the lowest and brushiest trees to run under, whose twigs and thorns, like thick besoms, lashed and scratched and scraped his rider. But Nod wriggled his head under his sheep's-coat, and still held on. At last, maddened with shame and rage, the Zevvera flung back his beautiful foam-flecked face, and with his teeth snapped at Nod's shoulder. The Mulgar's wound was not quite healed. The gleaming teeth just scraped his sore. Nod started back, with unclasped hands, and in an instant, head over heels he shot, plump into the snow, and before he could turn to scramble up, with a triumphing squeal of delight, the little Zevvera had vanished into the deep shadows of the moon-chequered forest.

HE JUMPED, HE REARED, HE KICKED, HE PLUNGED, HE WRIGGLED, HE WHINNIED.

At last Nod managed to get to his feet again. He brushed the snow out of his eyes, and spat it out of his mouth. The Zevvera's hoof-prints were plain in the snow. He would follow them, he thought, till he could follow no longer. His brothers had forsaken him. His Wonderstone was gone. He felt it even now burning like a tiny fire beneath his breast-bone. He limped slowly on. But at every step he stumbled. His shoulder throbbed. He could scarcely see, and in a little while down he fell again. He lay still now, rolled up in his jacket, wishing only to die and be at peace. Soon, he thought, the prowling Minimuls would find him, stiff and frozen. They would wrap him up in leaves, and carry him home between them on a pole to their mounds, and pick his small bones for the morrow's supper. Everything he had done was foolish—the fire, the wild pig, the Ephelantoes. He could not even ride the smallest of the Little Horses of Tishnar. The languid warmth of his snow-bed began to lull his senses. The moon streamed through the trees, silvering the branches with her splendour. And in the beautiful glamour of the moonbeams it seemed to Nod the air was aflock with tiny wings. His heavy eyelids drooped. He was falling softly—falling, falling—when suddenly, close to his ear, a harsh and angry voice broke out.

"Hey, Mulgar! hey, Slugabones! how come you here? What are you doing here?"

He opened his eyes drowsily, and saw an old grey Quatta hare staring drearily into his face with large whitening eyes.

"Sleep," he said, softly blinking into her face.

"Sleep!" snarled the old hare. "You idle Mulgars spend all your days eating and sleeping!"

Nod shut his eyes again. "Do not begrudge me this, old hare," he said; "'tis Nōōmanossi's."

"Where did you steal that sheep's-coat, Mulgar? And how came you and the ugly ones to be riding under my Dragon-tree on the Little Horses of Tishnar?"

"Why," replied Nod, smiling faintly, "I stole my sheep's-coat from my mother, who gave it me; and as for 'riding on the Little Horses'—here I am!"

"Where have you come from? Where are you going to?" asked the old hare, staring.

"I've come from the Flesh-mounds of the Minimuls, and I think I'm going to die," said Nod—"that is, if this old Quatta will let me."

The old hare stiffened her long grey ears, and stamped her foot in the snow. "You mustn't die here," she said. "No Mulgar has ever died here. This forest belongs to me."

In spite of all his aches and pains, Nod grinned. "Then soon you will have Nod's little bones to fence it in with," he said.

The old hare eyed him angrily. "If you weren't dying, impudent Mulgar, I'd teach you better manners."

Nod wriggled closer into his jacket. "Trouble not, Queen of Munza," he said softly. "I shouldn't have time to use them now." He shut his eyes again, and all his pain seemed to be floating away in sleep.

The old hare sat up in the snow and listened. "What's amiss in Munza-mulgar?" she muttered to herself. "First these galloping Horses of Tishnar, one, two, three; now the angry Zōōts of the Minimuls, and all coming nearer?" But Nod was far away in sleep now, and numb with cold.

She tapped his little shrunken cheek with her foot. "Even in your sleep, Mulgar, you mustn't dream," she said. "None may dream in my forest." But Nod made no answer even to that. She sat stiff up again, twitching her lean, long, hairy ears, now this way, now that way. "Foh, Earth-mulgars!" she said to herself. She stamped in the snow, and stamped again. And in a minute another old Quatta came louping between the trees, and sat down beside her.

"Here's an old sheep's-jacket I've found," said the old Queen Quatta, "with a little Mulgar inside it. Let us carry it home, Sister, or the Minimuls will steal him for their feast."

The other old Quatta raised her lip over her long curved teeth. "Pull out the Mulgar first," she said.

But Mishcha said: "No, it is a strange Mulgar, a Mulla-mulgar, a Nizza-neela, and he smells of magic. Take his legs, Sister, and I will carry his head. There's no time to be lost." So these two old Quatta hares wrapped Nod round tight in his sheep-skin coat, and carried him off between them to their form or house in an enormous hollow Dragon-tree unimaginably old, and very snug and warm inside, with cotton-leaf, feathers, and dry tree-moss. There they laid him down, and pillowed him round. And Mishcha hopped out again to watch and wait for the Minimuls.

Sheer overhead the pygmy moon stood, when with drums beating and waving cudgels, in their silvery girdles, leopard-skin hats, and grass shoes, thirty or forty of the fury Minimuls appeared, hobbling bandily along, following the hoof-prints of the galloping Zevveras in the snow. But little clouds in passing had scattered their snow, and the track had begun to grow faint. The old hare watched these Earth-mulgars draw near without stirring. Like all the other creatures of Munza-mulgar, she hated these groping, gluttonous, cannibal gnomes. When they reached the place where Nod had fallen, the Minimuls stood still and peered and pointed. In a little while they came scuttling on again, and there sat old Mishcha under a great thorn-bush, gaunt in the snow.

They stood round her, waving their darts, and squeaking questions. She watched them without stirring. Their round eyes glittered beneath their spotted leopard-skin hats as they stood in their shimmering grasses in the snow.

"When so many squall together," she said at last, "I cannot hear one. What's your trouble this bright night?"

Then one among them, with a girdle of Mulla-bruk's teeth, bade the rest be silent.

"See here, old hare," he said; "have any filthy Mulgars passed this way, one tall and bony, one fat and hairy, and one little and cunning?"

Mishcha stared. "One and one's two, and one's three," she said slowly. "Yes, truly—three."

"Three, three!" they cried all together—"thieves, thieves!"

Mishcha's face wrinkled. "All Mulgars are thieves," she said; "some even eat flesh. Ugh!"

At this the Minimul-mulgars grew angry, their glassy eyes brightened. They raised their snouts in the air and waved their darts. But the old hare sat calmly under her roof of poisonous thorns.

"Answer us, answer us," they squeaked, "you dumb old Quatta!"

"H'm, h'm!" said Mishcha, staring solemnly. "Mulgars? There are hundreds, and tens of hundreds of Mulgars in my forest, of more kinds and tribes than I have hairs on my scut. How should old Mishcha raise an eyelid at only three? Olory mi, my third-gone grandmother used to tell me many a story of you thieving, gluttonous Mulgars, all alike, all alike. It's sad when one's old to remember, but it's sadder to forget."

Clouds had stolen again over the moon, and snow was falling fast. Let these evil-smelling Minimuls chatter but a little longer, she thought; not a hoof-print would be left.

"Listen, old hare," said the chief of the Minimuls. "Have you seen three Mulgars pass this way, two in red jackets, and one, a Nizza-neela, in a sheep's coat, and all galloping, galloping, on three Little Horses of Tishnar?"

Mishcha gazed at him stonily, with hatred in her eyes. She was grey with age, and now a little peaked cap of snow crowned her head, so still she had sat beneath the drifting flakes. "I am old—oh yes, old, and old again," she said. "I have ruled in Munza-mulgar one hundred, two hundred, five hundred years, but I never yet saw a Mulgar riding on a Little Horse of Tishnar. Tell me, Wise One, which way did they sit—with the stripes, or cross-cross?"

"Answer us, grandam," squealed one of the Minimuls in a fury, "or I'll stick a poisoned dart down your throat."

Mishcha smiled. "Better a Minimul's dart than no supper at all," she said. "Swallow thy tongue, thou Mulgar!" she said; and suddenly her lips curled upward, her two long front teeth gleamed, her hair bristled. "Hobble off home, you thieving, flesh-eating, sun-hating earth-worms! Hobble off home before ears and nose and thumbs and toes are bitten and frozen in Tishnar's snows! Away with you, moon-maggots, grubbers of sand!" She stamped with her foot, her old eyes greenly burning under the bush.

The Minimuls began angrily chattering again. At last the first who had spoken turned mousily and said: "To-day you go unharmed, old Quatta, but to-morrow we will come with fire and burn your Dragon-tree about your ears."

Mishcha stirred not one hair. "It's sad to burn, but it's sadder still to freeze." Her round eyes glared beneath her snow-cap. "A long march home to you, Minnikin-mulgar! A long march home! And if I should smell out the Sheep's-jacket on his Little Horse of Tishnar, I will tell him where to find you—burnt, bitten, brittle, baked hard in frozen snow!" She turned and began to hop off slowly between the shadow-casting trees.

At this, one of the Minimuls in his fury lifted a dart and flung it at the old hare. It stuck, quivering, in her shoulder. She turned slowly, and stared at him through the falling flakes; then, drawing the dart out with one of her forefeet, she spat on the point, and laid it softly down in the snow. And so wildly she gazed at them out of her aged and whitening eyes that the Minimuls fell into a sudden terror of the old witch-hare, and without another word turned back in silence and scuffled off in the thick falling snow by the way they had come.

Old Mishcha watched them till they were hidden from sight by the trees and the clouding snow-flakes; then, muttering a little to herself, nodding her thin long ears, she, too, turned and hopped off quickly to her house in the old Dragon-tree.



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