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Three Mulla-mulgars, The

CHAPTER XVI

And now that the moon was near her setting, dark grew the air. The Men of the Mountains had at last ceased to call their lost companions, and on either side of the path were breaking up their faggots and building fires, leaving two wide spaces beneath the beetling rock for their encampment between the fires. Nod, sitting beside Thimble's litter, watched them for some time, and presently he fancied he heard a distant howling, not from the darkness below, but seemingly from the heights above the Mulgar-pass. He rose and limped along to Ghibba, who was busy about the fires. "Why are you heaping up such large fires?" he said, "and whose, Man of the Mountains, are those howlings I heard from the mountain-tops?"

Ghibba's face was scorched and bleeding; one of his long eyebrows was nearly torn off. "The fires and the howls are cousins, little Mulgar," he said. "The screams of the golden-folk have roused the wolves, and if we do not light big fires they will come down in packs along their secret paths to devour us. It is a good thing to fight bravely, but it's a better not to have to fight at all."

Nod came back and told this news to Thumb, who was sitting with a great strip of his jacket bound round his head like a Turk's turban. "It is good news, brother," he said—"it is good news. What stories we shall have to tell when we are old!"

"But two of the hairy ones are dead," said Nod, "and one is slipping, they say, from his second sleep."

"Then," said Thumb, looking softly over the valley, "they need fight no more."

Nod sat down again beside Thimble's litter and touched his hand. It was dry and burning hot. He heard him gabbling, gabbling on and on to himself, and every now and again he would start up and gaze fixedly into the night. "No, Thimble, no," Nod would say. "Lie back, my brother. It is neither the Harp-strings nor our father's Zevveras; it is only the little mountain-wolves barking at the icicles."

On either side of their camping-place he heard yelp answering to yelp, and then a long-drawn howl far above his head. He began to think, too, he could see, as it were, small green and golden marshlights wandering along the little paths. And, watching them where he sat quietly on his heels in a little hollow of the rock, it brought back, as if this were but a dream he was in, the twangle of Battle's Juddie, the restless fretting and howling of Immanâla's Jaccatrays. As the Moona-mulgar's fires mounted higher, great shadows sprang trembling up the mountains, and tongues of flame cast vague shafts of light across the shadowy abyss; while, stuck along the wall in sconces of the rock, a dozen torches smoked.

Thumb grunted. "They'd burn all Munza up with fires like these," he muttered. "Little wolves need only little fires." But Thumb did not know the ferocity of these small mountain-wolves. They are meagre and wrinkle-faced, with prick ears and rather bushy tails. In winter they grow themselves thick coats as white as snow, except upon their legs, which are short-haired and grey, with long tapping claws. And they are fearless and very cunning creatures. Nod could now see them plainly in the nodding flamelight, couched on their haunches a few paces beyond the fires, and along the galleries above, with gleaming eyes, scores and scores of them. And now the eagles were returning to their eyries from their feasting in the valley, and though they swept up through the air mewing and peering, they dared not draw near to the great blaze of fire and torch, but screamed as they ascended, one to the other, until the wolves took up an answer, barking hard and short, or with long mournful ululation.

When at last they fell quiet, then the Men of the Mountains began wailing again for their lost comrades. They sit with their eyes shut, resting on their long narrow hands, their faces to the wall, and sing through their noses. First one takes up a high lamentable note, then another, and so on, faster and faster, for all the world like a faint and distant wind in the hills, until all the voices clash together, "Tish—naehr!" Then, in a little, breaks out the shrillest in solo again, and so they continue till they weary.

Nod listened, his face in his hands, but so faint and fast sang the voices he could only catch here and there the words of their drone, if words there were. He touched Thumb's shoulder. "These hairy fellows are singing of Tishnar!" he said.

Thumb grunted, half asleep.

"Who taught them of Tishnar?" Nod asked softly.

Thumb turned angrily over. "Oh, child!" he growled, "will you never learn wisdom? Sleep while you can, and let Thumb sleep too! To-morrow we may be fighting again."

But though the Ladder-mulgars soon ceased to wail, and, except for two who were left to keep watch and to feed the fires, laid themselves down to sleep, Nod could not rest. The mountains rose black and unutterably still beneath the stars. Up their steep sides enormous shadows jigged around the fires. Sometimes an eagle squawked on high, nursing its wounds. And whether he turned this way or that way he still saw the little wolves huddled close together, their pointed heads laid on their lean paws, uneasily watching. And he longed for morning. For his heart lay like a stone in him in grief for his brother Thimble. A little dry snow harboured in the crevices of the rocks. He filled his hands with it, and laid it on poor Thimble's head and moistened his lips. Then he walked softly along past the sleeping Mulgars towards the fire.

Where should we all be now, he thought, if the eagles had come in the morning? On paths narrow as those there was not even room enough to brandish a cudgel. The fire-watcher raised his sad countenance and peered through his hair at Nod.

"What is it in your mouldy cheese, Man of the Mountains, that has poisoned my brother?" said Nod.

The Mulgar shook his head. "Maybe it is something in the Mulla-mulgar," he answered. "It is very good cheese."

"Will morning soon be here?" said Nod, gazing into the fire.

The Mulgar smiled. "When night is gone," he answered.

"Why do these mountain-wolves fear fire?" asked Nod.

The Mulgar shook his head. "Questions, royal traveller, are easier than answers," he said. "They do."

He caught up a firebrand, and threw it with all his strength beyond the fire. It fell sputtering on the ledge, and instantly there rose such a yelping and snarling the chasm re-echoed. Yet so brave are these snow-wolves one presently came venturing pitapat, pitapat, along the frosty gallery, and very warily, with the tip of his paw, poked and pushed at it until the burning stick toppled and fell over, down, down, down, down, till, a gliding spark, it vanished into the torrent below. The Mountain-mulgar looked back over his shoulder at Nod, but said nothing.

Nod's eyes went wandering from head to head of the shadowy pack. "Is it far now to my uncle, Prince Assasimmon's? Is it far to the Valleys?" he said in a while.

"Only to the other side of death," said the watchman. "Come Nōōmanossi, we shall walk no more."

"Do you mean, O Man of the Mountains," said Nod, catching his breath, "that we shall never, never get there alive?" The watchman hobbled over and threw an armful of wood on to the fire.

"'Never' shares a big bed with 'Once,' Mulla-mulgar," he said, raking the embers together with a long forked stick. "But we have no Magic."

Nod stared. Should he tell this dull Man of the Mountains to think no more of death, seeing that he, Ummanodda himself, had magic? Should he let him dazzle his eyes one little moment with his Wonderstone? He fumbled in the pocket of his sheep-skin coat, stopped, fumbled again. His hair rose stiff on his scalp. He shivered, and then grew burning hot. He searched and searched again. The Mulgar eyed him sorrowfully. "What ails you, O nephew of a great King?" he said in his faint, high voice. "Fleas?"

Nod stared at him with flaming eyes. He could not think nor speak. His Wonderstone was gone. He turned, dropped on his fours, sidled noiselessly back to Thimble's litter, and sat down.

How had he lost it? When? Where? And in a flash came back to his outwearied, aching head remembrance of how, in the height of the eagle-fighting, there had come the plunge of a lean, gaping beak and the sudden rending of his coat. Vanished for ever was Tishnar's Wonderstone, then. The Valleys faded, Nōōmanossi drew near.

He sat there with chattering teeth, his little skull crouching in his wool, worn out with travel and sleeplessness, and the tears sprang scalding into his eyes. What would Thumb say now? he thought bitterly. What hope was left for Thimble? He dared not wake them, but stooped there like a little bowed old man, utterly forlorn. And so sitting, cunning Sleep, out of the silence and darkness of Arakkaboa, came softly hovering above the troubled Nizza-neela; he fell into a shallow slumber. And in this witching slumber he dreamed a dream.

He dreamed it was time gone by, and that he was sitting on his log again with his master, Battle, just as they used to sit, beside their fire. And the Oomgar had a great flat book covering his knees. Nod could see the book marvellously clearly in his dream—a big book, white as a dried palm-leaf, that stretched across the sailor knee to knee. And the sailor was holding a little stick in his hand, and teaching him, as he used in a kind of sport to do, his own strange "Ningllish" tongue. Before, however, the sailor had taught the little Mulgar only in words, by sound, never in letters, by sight. But now in Nod's dream Battle was pointing with his little prong, and the Mulgar saw a big straddle-legged black thing in the book strutting all across the page.

"Now," said the Oomgar, and his voice sounded small but clear, "what's that, my son?"

But Nod in his dream shook his head; he had never seen the strange shape before.

"Why, that's old 'A,' that is," said Battle; "and what did old straddle-legs 'A' go for to do? What did 'A' do, Nod Mulgar?"

And Nod thought a voice answered out of his own mouth and said: "A ... Yapple-pie."

"Brayvo!" cried the Oomgar. And there, sure enough, filling plump the dog's-eared page, was a great dish something like a gourd cut in half, with smoke floating up from a little hole in the middle.

"A—Apple-pie," repeated the sailor; "and I wish we had him here, Master Pongo. And now, what's this here?" He turned the page.

Nod seemed in his dream to stand and to stare at the odd double-bellied shape, with its long straight back, but in vain. "Bless ye, Nod Mulgar," said Battle in his dream, "that's old Buzz-buzz; that's that old garden-robber—that's 'B.'"

"'B,'" squealed Nod.

"And 'B'—he bit it," said Battle, clashing his small white teeth together and laughing, as he turned the page.

Next in the dream-book came a curled black fish, sitting looped up on its tail. And that, the Oomgar told him, leaning forward in the firelight, was "C"; that was "C"—crying, clawing, clutching, and croaking for it.

Nod thought in his dream that he loved learning, and loved Battle teaching him, but that at the word "croaking" he looked up wondering into the sailor's face, with a kind of waking stir in his mind. What was this "it"? What could this "IT" be—hidden in the puffed-out, smoking pie that "B" bit, and "C" cried for, and swollen "D" dashed after? And ... over went another crackling page.... The Oomgar's face seemed strangely hairy in Nod's dream; no, not hairy—tufty, feathery; and so loud and shrill he screamed "E," Nod all but woke up.

"'E,'" squeaked Nod timidly after him.

"And what—what—what did 'E' do?" screamed the Oomgar.

But now even in his dream Nod knew it was not the beloved face of his sailor Zbaffle, but an angry, keen-beaked, clamouring, swooping Eagle that was asking him the question, "'E,' 'E,' 'E'—what did 'E' do?" And clipped in the corner of its beak dangled a thread, a shred of his sheep's-jacket. What ever, ever did "E" do? puzzled in vain poor Nod, with that dreadful face glinting almost in touch with his.

"Dunce! Dunce!" squalled the bird. "'E' ate it...."

"E ... ate it," seemed to be still faintly echoing on his ear in the darkness when Nod found himself wide awake and bolt upright, his face cold and matted with sweat, yet with a heat and eagerness in his heart he had never known before. He scrambled up and crept along in the rosy firelight till he came to the five dead eagles. Their carcasses lay there with frosty feathers and fast-sealed eyes. From one to another he crept slowly, scarcely able to breathe, and turned the carcasses over. Over the last he stooped, and—a flock, a thread of sheep's wool dangled from its clenched black beak. Nod dragged it, stiff and frozen, nearer the fire, and with his knife slit open the deep-black, shimmering neck, and there, wrapped damp and dingily in its scrap of Oomgar-paper, his fingers clutched the Wonderstone. He hastily wrapped it up, just as it was, in the flock of wool, and thrust it deep into his other pocket, and with trembling fingers buttoned the flap over it. Then he went softly back to his brothers, and slept in peace till morning.



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