It was many a day after Nod had been taken in the sailor's snare, and one very snowy, when the little Mulgar, looking up over his cooking, saw Battle come limping white and blood-beslobbered across the frozen stream towards home. He carried nothing except his gun, neither beast nor bird. He stumbled over the ice, and walked crazily. And when he reached the fire, he just tumbled his musket against a log and sat himself down heavily, holding his head in his hands, with a sighing groan. Now, this was the fifth day or more that Battle had gone out and returned without meat, and Nod, in his vanity, thought the sailor was beginning to weary of flesh, and to take pleasure only in nuts and fruit, as the Mulla-mulgars do. But when Battle had dried up the deep scratch on his neck, and eaten a morsel or two of Nod's fresh-baked Nano-cake, he told him of his doings.
Nod could even now, of course, only understand a little here and there of what Battle said. But he twisted out enough words to learn that the sailor was astonished and perplexed at finding such a scarcity of game, howsoever far or cautiously he roamed in search of it.
"Ay, and maybe that's no great wonder, neether, what with this everlasting snow and all. But tell me this, Nod Mulgar: Why does, whenever I spies a fine fat four-legged breakfast or two-winged supper feeding within comfortable musket-shot—why does a howl like a M'keesoe's, dismal and devilish, break out not fifteen paces off, and scare away every living creature for leagues around? Why does leopards and Jack-Alls and Jaccatrays swarm round Andy Battle when he goes a-walking, thick as cats round cream? They've scotched me this once, my son—an old she-leopard, black as pitch out of an Ollacondy. And I could have staked a ransom I cast my eye over every bough. Next time who's to know what may happen? Nizza-neela will go on cooking his little hot niminy-cakes, and wait and wait—only for bones—only for Battle's bones, Mulgar mio. What I says is this-how: leopards and Jaccatrays, from being what they once was, two or three, one to-day and three to-morrow, now lurks everywhere, looking me in the face as bold as brass, and sniffling at my very musket. But, there! that's all plain-sailing. What Andy wants to know for sartin sure is: what beast it is grinds out so close against his ear that unearthly human howling? 'Twixt me and you and Lord Makellacolongee, it criddles my very blood to hear it. My finger begins tapping on the musket-trigger like hail on a millpond."
Nod listened, puckered and intent, and looked a good deal wiser than he was. And when supper was done he fetched out the thick rhinoceros-shoes which Battle had made him, as if to go disporting himself as usual on the ice. But, instead of this, he hid them behind a hummock of snow, and, crossing over the stream, crept to the edge of the snowy shelf, and sat under an Exxswixxia-bush, gazing down into the gloom, silently watching and listening. He heard soft, furtive calls, whimperings. A startled bird flew up on beating wings, and far and near the Jack-Alls were hollowly barking one to another in their hunting-bands. But he saw no leopards nor heard any voice or sound he knew no reason for, or had not heard before. Perhaps, he thought, his dull wits had misunderstood the Oomgar's talk.
He was just about to turn away, when he heard a little call, often repeated, "Chikka, chikka," which means in Munza-mulgar, "Bide here," or "Wait awhile." And there, stealing up from under the longer grasses, came who but Mishcha, the old witch-hare. But very slowly and cautiously she came, pretending that she was searching out what poor fare she could find in the dismal snow.
When she was come close, she whispered: "Move not; stir not a finger, Mulla-mulgar; speak to me as I am. I have a secret thing to say to you. These seven long frozen evenings have I come fretting abroad in my forest and watched and watched, and chikka'd and chikka'd, but you have not come. Why, O Prince of Tishnar, do you linger here with this flesh-eating Oomgar, whose gun barks Nōōmanossi all day long? Why do you think no more of your brothers and of the distant valleys?"
Nod crouched in silence a little while, twitching his small brows. "But this Oomgar took me in a snare," he said at last. "And he has fed me, and been like my own father Seelem come again to me, and we are friends—'messimuts,' old hare. Besides, I wait only until I am healed of my blains and thorns, and my shoulder is quite whole again. Then I go. But even then, why has the old Queen duatta come louping through Munza all these seven evenings past, only to tell me that?"
Mishcha eyed him silently with her whitening eyes. "Not so blind am I yet, little Mulgar, as not to creep and creep a league for the sake of a friend. Be off to-morrow, Nizza-neela! What knows an Oomgar of friendship? That brings only the last sleep."
"I mind not the last sleep, old hare," said Nod in his vanity. "Did I fear it when half-frozen in the snow? Besides, my friend, the Oomgar, whose name is Battle, he will guard me."
Mishcha crept nearer. "Has not the little Mulla-mulgar, then, heard Immanâla's hunting-cry?"
Now, Immanâla in Munza means, as it were, unstoried, nameless, unknown, darkness, secrecy. All these the word means. Night is Immanâla to Munza-mulgar. So is sorcery. So, too, is the dark journey to death or the Third Sleep. And this Beast they name Immanâla because it comes of no other beast that is known, has no likeness to any. Child of nothing, wits of all things, ravenous yet hungerless, she lures, lures, and if she die at all, dies alone. By some it is said that this Immanâla is the servant of Nōōmanossi, and has as many lives as his white resting-tree has branches. And so she is born again to haunt and raven and poison Munza with cruelty and strife. All this Nod had heard from his father Seelem, and his skin crept at sound of the name. But he pretended he felt no fear.
"Who is this Immanâla, the Nameless?" he scoffed softly, "that a Mulla-mulgar should heed her yapping (uggagugga)?"
"Ah," said the old hare, "he boasts best who boasts in safety. Mishcha, little Mulgar, has met the Nameless face to face, and when I hear her hunting-cry I do not make merry. How could she all these days have given ear to the Oomgar's gun in the forest, and make no sign—she who has for her servants leopards and Jaccatrays of many years' hunting? Mark this, too," said Mishcha, "if the little Mulgar were not the chosen of Tishnar, his Oomgar would long ago have been nothing but a few picked bones."
The old hare touched him with her long-clawed foot, and gazed earnestly into his face with her half-blind, whitening eyes. "Yes, Mulgar," she said at last, whispering, "your brothers that rode on the little Horses of Tishnar are none so far away. 'Why,' say they to each other, roosting half-frozen in their tree-huts—'why does Ummanodda betray all Munza-mulgar to the Oomgar's gun? He is no child of Royal Seelem's now.'"
Nod's heart stood still to hear again of his brothers, and that they were so near. And Mishcha promised if he would abandon the Oomgar, she would lead him to them. Nod gazed long into the gloom before he sadly answered:
"I cannot leave my master," he said, "who has fed and befriended me. I cannot leave him to be torn in pieces by this Beast of Shadows. He is wise—oh, he is wise! He was born to stand upright. He fears not any shadow. He walks with Nōōmas beneath every tree. He kills, old Mishcha—that I know well—and feeds like a glutton on flesh. But a she-leopard in one moon eats as many of the Munza-mulgars as she has roses on her skin. As for the Nameless, my father Seelem told me many a time of her thirsty tongue."
Then Mishcha whispered warily in Nod's ear in the shadow of the thorn-bush beneath which they sat, turning her staring stone-coloured eyes this way, that way. "If the Oomgar were safe from her," she said, scarcely opening her thin lips above the lean curved teeth, "would then the little Mulgar go?"
Nod laughed. "Then would I go on all fours, O Mishcha, for I am weary of waiting and being far from my brothers, Thumb and Thimble. Then would I go at once if I could leave the Oomgar quietly to his hunting, and safe from this Shadow-beast and from more than three lean hunting leopards on the Ollaconda boughs at one time."
Then Mishcha told him what he should do. And Nod listened, shivering, in part for the cold, and in part for dread of what she was saying. "There be three things, Nizza-neela," she said, when she had told him all her stratagem—"there be three things even a Mulla-mulgar must have who fights with Immanâla, Queen of Shadows: he must have Magic, he must have cunning, and he must have courage. Oh, little Prince of Tishnar, should I have physicked you and saved you from the sooty spits of the Minimuls if you had been neither wise nor brave?"
And Nod promised by his Wonderstone to do all that she had bidden him. And she crept soundlessly back into the gloom of the forest. Nod himself quickly hobbled home, took up his sliding-shoes again, and returned to the little hut and the Oomgar's red fire.
Battle sat there, stooping in the light of the rising moon and the ruddy glow over his little book. But he held it for memory's sake rather than to read in it. His head was jerking in sleep when Nod sat himself down by the fire, and the little Mulgar could think quietly of all that the old hare had told him. He half shut his eyes, watching his slow, curious Mulgar thoughts creep in and out. And while he sat there, lonely and wretched, struggling between love for his brothers and for the Oomgar, he heard a small clear voice within him speaking that said: "Courage, Prince Ummanodda! Tishnar is faithful to the faithful. Who is this Nameless to set snares against her chosen? Fear not, Nizza-neela; all will be well!" Thus it seemed to Nod the inward voice was saying to him, and he took comfort. He would tell the poor sailor, perhaps, part of what he feared and knew, and with Tishnar to help him would seek out this Immanâla and meet her face to face.
Night rode in starry darkness above the great black forest. The logs burned low. Close before his fire sat Battle, his chin on his breast, his yellow-haired head rolling from side to side in his sleep. Thin clear flames, blue and sulphur, floated along the logs, and lit up his fast-shut eyes. Nod sat with his little chops in his hairy hands watching the sailor. Sometimes a solitary beast roared, or a night-bird squalled out of the gloom. At last the little book fell out of Battle's sleep-loosened fingers. He started, raised his head, and stared into the darkness, listening to howl answering to howl, shrill cry to distant cry. He yawned, showing all his small white teeth.
"Your friends are uncommon fidgety to-night, Nod Mulgar," he said.
Nod got up and threw more wood on the glowing fire. "Not Mulla-mulgar's friends. Nod's friends not hate Oomgar." Up sprang the flames, hissing and crackling.
The sailor grinned. "Lor' bless ye, my son; you talks wonnerful hoity-toity; but in my country they would clap ye into a cage."
"Cage?" said Nod.
"Ay, in a stinking cage, with iron bars, for the rabble to jeer at. What would the monkeys do with a white man, an Oomgar, if they cotched 'n?"
"In my father Seelem's hut over there," said Nod, waving his long hand towards the Sulemnāgar, "Oomgar's bones hanged click, click, click in the wind."
Battle stared. "They hates us, eh? Picks us clean!"
Nod looked at him gravely. "Mulla-mulgar—me—not hate Oomgar. All Munza"—he lifted his brows—"ay! he kill and eat, eat, eat, same as leopard, same as Jaccatray."
Battle frowned. "It's tit for tat, my son. I kills Roses, or Roses kills me. Not a Jack-All that howls moon up over yonder that wouldn't say grace for a picking. But apes and monkeys, no; not even a warty old drumming Pongo that's twice as ugly as his own shadow in the glass. I never did burn powder 'gainst a monkey yet. What's more," said Battle, "who's to know but we was all what you calls Oomgars once? Good as. You've just come down in the world, that's all. And who's to blame ye? No barbers, no ships, no larnin', no nothing. Breeches?—One pair, my son, to half a million, as far as Andy ever set eyes on. Maybe you come from that wicked King Pharaoh over in Egypt there. Maybe you was one of the plagues, and scuttled off with all the fleas." He grinned cheerfully. Nod watched his changing face, but what he said now he could not understand.
"There's just one thing, Master Mulgar," went on Battle solemnly. "Kill or not kill, hairy as hairy, or bald as a round-shot, God made us every one. And speakin' comfortable-like, 'twixt you and me, just as my old mother taught me years gone by, I planks me down on my knees like any babby this very hour gone by, while you was sliding in your shoes, and said me prayers out loud. I'm getting mortal sick of being lonesome. Not that I blames you, my son. You're better company than fifty million parakeets, and seven-and-seventy Mullagoes of blackamoors."
Nod stared gravely. "Oomgar talk; Nod unnerstand—no." He sorrowfully shook his head.
"My case all over," said Battle. "Andy unnerstand—no. But there, we'll off to England, my son, soon as ever this mortal frost breaks. Years and years have I been in this here dismal Munza. Man-eaters and Ephelantoes, Portingals and blackamoors, chased and harassed up and down, and never a spark of frost seen, unless on the Snowy Mountains. What wouldn't I give for a sight of Plymouth now!"
He rose and stretched himself. Facing him, across the unstirring darkness of the forest shone palely the great new-risen moon. "'Hi, hi, up she rises,'" said Battle, staring over. "'But what's to be done with a shipwrecked sailor?' Nobody knows, but who can't tell us. Now, just one stave, Nod Mulgar, afore we both turns in. Give us 'Cherry-trees.' No, maybe I'll pipe ye one of Andy's Own, and you shall jine in, same as t'other." Nod climbed up and stood on his log, his hands clasped behind his neck, and stamped softly with his feet in time, while Battle, after tuning up his great gourd—or Juddie, as he called it—plucked the sounding strings. And soon the Oomgar's voice burst out so loud and fearless that the prowling panthers paused with cowering head and twitching ears, and the Jaccatrays out of the shadows lifted their cringing eyes up to the moon, dolefully listening. And when the last two lines of each verse had been sung, Battle plucked more loudly at his strings, and Nod joined in.
This song sung, Nod danced the Jaqquas' war-dance, which Battle had taught him, stooping and crooked, "wriggle and stamp," gnashing his teeth, waving a club—which waving, indeed, always waved Nod sprawling off his log before long, and set Battle rolling with laughter, and ended the dance.
That dance danced, they sat quiet awhile, Battle softly, very softly, thrumming on his Juddie, gazing into the fire. And suddenly in the silence, out of the vast blackness of the moonlit leagues beneath them, broke a strange and dismal cry. It rose lone and hollow, and yet it seemed with its sound to fill the whole enormous bowl of star-bedazzling sky above the forest. Then down it lingeringly fell, note by note, wailing and menacing, an answering song of hatred against the solitary Oomgar and his gun.
Battle caught up his musket and stood erect, facing with scowling eyes the vast silence of the forest. And instantly from far and near, solitary and in hunting-bands, deep and shrill, every beast that slinks and lies in wait beneath the moon broke into its hunting-cry.
Battle stood listening with a savage grin on his face, until the last echo had died away. Then, throwing down his musket, he hitched up the cloth bandage on his shoulder, lifted his great Juddie, and strode out from the fire a few paces till he stood black and solitary in the moonlight of the snow. And he plucked the girding strings and roared out with all his lungs his mocking answer:
He swept his great scarred thumb over the strings with a resounding flourish, and burst into a laugh. Then he turned his back on the unanswering forest, and sat down by the fire again, wiping the sweat from his face and combing out his tangled beard. Nod drew a little away from the fire, and sat softly watching him. The Oomgar was muttering with wide-open lids. He snatched up a lump of the cold Mulgar-bread that Nod had cooked for his supper, and gnawed it with twitching fingers. He glanced over it with bright blue glittering eyes at his little hunched-up friend.
"Don't you have no shadow of fear, my son. If they come, come they must. Just you skip off into the forest with your courage where your tail ought to be. I care not a pinch of powder for them or'nery beasts. It's that there Shadowlegs that beats me with his mewling. I've heard it down on the coast; I've heard it with the Portingals; I've heard it with the Andalambandoes; I've heard it wake and sleep. But witch-beast or no witch-beast, and every skulk-by-night that creeps on claws, I'll win home yet!" He kicked a few loose smoking logs into the blaze. "More fire, my son! I like a light to fight by when fighting comes."
The darkness was clear as glass. The sky seemed shaken as if with fire-flies. Not a sound stirred now, not even a hovering wing. Nod heaped high the huge fire, and followed the Oomgar into his hut.
But not to sleep. He crouched on his snug dry bed of moss, and waited patiently till Battle's snores rose slow and mournful beneath the snow-piled roof. Then very quickly he put on his sheep's-coat over his Juzanda jacket and breeches. He crawled out, and lifted down with both hands the heavy bar of the door, and stole out into the moonlight again. He thrust his puckered hand under his jacket, and touched his skinny breast-bone, beneath which, ever since the little Horse of Tishnar had toppled him into the snow, he had felt the slumbering Wonderstone strangely burning. And, as if even Oomgar magic, too, might help him, he hobbled back into the hut and put Battle's little dog's-eared book into his pocket. Then, before his heart could fail him, he ran out as fast as his fours could carry him to where he had heard rise up in the night the Hunting-Song of Immanâla.
On the extreme verge of the steep, opposite Battle's hut, stood a solitary flat-headed rock beside the frozen stream. Here the water burst in a blaze of moonlight into a cascade of icicles and foam. Nod stood there in the rock's shadow awhile, looking down into the forest. And as if a little cloud had come upon the glittering moon, he felt, as it were, a sudden darkness above his head, and a cold terror crept over his skin.
Then he stepped, trembling, out of the shadow of the rock into the moonlight, and gazed up into the shadowy countenance of Immanâla. She lay gaunt and spare, her long neck touching the snow, her eye-balls beneath their wide lids fixed glassily on Nod. He gazed and gazed, until it seemed he was sinking down, down into those wide unstirring eyes.
His heart seemed to rise up into his mouth. He coughed, and something hard and round and tingling slid on to his tongue. He put up his hand to his thick lips, and, like courage that steals into the mind when all else is vain, fell into his hand, milk-pale and magical, the long-hidden Wonder-stone.
"I couch here, Ummanodda," said the Nameless, without stirring, "night after night, hungry and thirsty, waiting for the Oomgar's head. Why does the Mulla-mulgar keep me waiting so long for my supper?"
"Because, O Queen of Shadows," said Nod as calmly as he could—"because the head of the Oomgar refuses to come without his legs—and his gun."
"Nay," said she, "there must be many a shallow gourd in the Oomgar's hut. Cut off the head, and bring it hither yourself in that."
"Ohé," said Nod, "the Nameless has sharp teeth, if all that is said be true. She shall cut, and I will carry. Princes of Tishnar have no tongue for blood."
Immanâla crouched low, with jutting head. "Who is this Prince of Tishnar that, having no tongue for blood, roasts meat with fire for an Oomgar, the enemy of us all?"
"I, Nameless, am Nod," said he softly. "But meat dead is dead meat. What against me is it if this blind Oomgar hungers for scorched bones? It is a riddle, Immanâla. Come with me now, then; let us palaver with him together."
"Yea, together!" snarled the Nameless—"I to ride and thou to carry." She gathered herself as if to spring.
Nod whispered, "O Tishnar!" and he stood stock-still.
Immanâla drew back her flat grey head from the snow, and shook it, softly glancing at the moon.
"Why, O Prince of Tishnar, should we be at strife one with another? We hate the Oomgar. And if it were not for this magic that is yours, my servants would have slain him long since in his hunting."
"Ah, me!" said Nod, sighing it in Mulgar-royal, as if to himself alone, "I myself love this Oomgar none too much. Did he not catch me walking lonely in Munza in a wild pig snare? If he is to die, let him die, says Nod. But I like not your fashion of hunting, Beast of Shadows, skulking and creeping and scaring off his wandering supper-meat. Bring your hunting-dogs into the open snow here out of their dens and lairs and shadows. Then shall the Oomgar fight like an Oomgar, one against a hundred, and Nod can go free!"
Immanâla rose bristling against the clearness of the moon.
"Tell me, Prince of Tishnar, what is this story you seem to be whispering about my hunting-dogs?"
And Nod, with his Wonderstone clipped tight in his hot palm, bethought him of all Mishcha's counsel, and promised Immanâla he would come down the next night following. And if she would call her packs into the ravine, he would lead them, and open the door of the hut and lure out the Oomgar. "Then you, O fearless Queen of Shadows, shall watch the hunt in peace," he said. "One forsaken Oomgar without his gun against nine-and-ninety Jack-Alls and Jaccatrays, and perhaps a Roses or two, famished and parched with cold. Ay, but before I whistle them up," he muttered, as if to himself, "I must steal the Oomgar's M'Keesso's coat, which is drenched through with magic."
Immanâla peered gloatingly from her rock. "The little Mulla-mulgar has a cunning face," she said, "and a heart of many devices. I have heard of his comings and goings in Munza-mulgar. But if he deal falsely with me, though Tishnar came herself in all her brightness, I would wait and wait. Not an Utt nor a Nikka-nikka but should be his enemy, and as for those magicless Mulla-mulgars his brothers, who even now squat sullen and hungry in their leafy houses, they shall lie cold as stones before the morning light."
"Why," said Nod softly, "he must be frightened who begins to threaten. I have no fear of you, O Nameless, who are but a creeping candle-fly at twilight to the blaze of Tishnar's moon. Come hither to-morrow with your half-starved hunting-dogs, and I'll show you good hunting, will I."
Without another word, with every hair on end, he ran swiftly back to the hut by the way he had come. But even now his night's doings were not ended, for in a while, by which time the Immanâla should have returned from her watching-rock into the shadows of the forest, he ran out again, and, crouching beneath the old Exxswixxia-bush under the Sulemnāgar, he called softly: "Mishcha, old hare! Mishcha!"
When he had called her many times, she came slowly and warily limping across the chequered snow. And Nod told her of all he had done that night, and of how he had met and abashed the Nameless face to face. The old hare watched dimly his flashing eyes and the vainglory of the face of the young Mulgar Prince boasting in his finery, and she grimly smiled.
"Chakka, chakka," says she; "tchackka, tchackka: you bleed before you're wounded, Mulgar-royal."
But Nod in the heat of his glory cared nothing for what his old friend said to quench it. And he told her to bring his brothers to the great Ukka-tree that stood over against the shadow, where they talked, there to wait and watch till morning. "By that time," he said, "I shall have finished my supper with the Nameless, and the Oomgar will know me for the Prince I am."
Mishcha wagged slowly her old head. She hated the Oomgar, but she hated the Beast of Shadows more, and off she hopped again, stiff and cold, to seek out Thimble and Thumb.