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Three Mulla-mulgars, The

CHAPTER XVII

When he awoke, bright day was on the mountains. The little snow-wolves had slunk back to their holes and lairs. The fires burned low. And Thimble lay in a sleep so quiet and profound it seemed to Nod the heart beneath the sharp-ribbed chest was scarcely stirring. It was bitter cold on these heights in the sunlessness of morning. And Nod was glad to sit himself down beside one of the wood-fires to eat his breakfast of nuts, and swallow a suppet or two of the thawed Mulgar-milk. But the Men of the Mountains had plucked and roasted the eagles, and were squatting, with not quite such doleful faces as usual, picking with pointed, rather catlike teeth, the bones.

Nod could not help watching them under his eyebrows, where they sat, with tail-tufts over their shoulders, in their fleecy hair, blinking mildly from their pale pink eyes. For, though here and there may be seen a Mountain-mulgar with eyes blue as the turquoise, by far the most of them have pink, and some (but these are what the Oomgar-nuggas would call Witch-doctors, or Fulbies) have one of either. They looked timid and feeble enough, these Moona-mulgars, yet with what fearless fury had they fought with the eagles! How swiftly they shambled dim-sighted along these wrinkled precipices! Some even now were seated on the rocky verge as easily as a Skeeto in its tree-top, their lean shanks dangling over. But they nibbled and tugged at their slender bird-bones, and peered and waved their long arms in faint talk; though, as their watchman had told Nod in the firelight, they knew they were all within earshot of the Harp.

Ghibba was sitting a little away from the others, eating with his eyes shut.

"Are you so sleepy, Prince of the Mountains, that you keep your eyes shut in broad day?" said Nod.

Ghibba wagged his head. "No, Mulla-mulgar, I am not sleepy; but one eye is scorched with the fire and one a little angry with the eagles, so that I can scarcely see at all."

"Not blind?" said Nod.

Ghibba opened his eyes, red and glittering. "Nay, twilight, not night, little Mulgar," he answered cheerfully. "I see no more of you than a little brown cloud against black mountains."

"But how will you walk on these narrow, icy shelves?" said Nod.

"Why," says he, "I have a tail, Mulgar-royal; and my people must lead me.... What of the morning, Nizza-neela?"

"It is bright as hoarfrost on the slopes and tops there," said Nod, pointing. "It dazzles Ummanodda's eyes to look. But the sun is behind this huge black wall of ours, so here we sit cold in the shadow."

"Then we will wait," said Ghibba, "till he come walking a little higher to melt the frost and drive away the last of the wolves."

"Man of the Mountains," said Nod presently, "would you hold me if I crept close and put my head over the edge? I would like to see how many Mulgars-deep we walk."

Ghibba laughed. "This path is but as other Mulgar-paths, Mulla-mulgar; no traveller need stumble twice. But I will do as you ask me."

So Nod lay down flat on his stomach, while two of the Mountain-mulgars clutched each a leg. He wriggled forward till head and shoulders hung beyond the margent of the rock. He shut his eyes a moment against that terrific steep of air, and the huge shadow of the mountain upon the deep blue forest. All far beneath was still dark with night; only the frozen waters of the swirling torrent palely reflected the daybreak sky. But suddenly he shot out a lean brown paw. "Ahôh, ahôh! I say!"

The Men of the Mountains dragged him back so roughly that his broad snub nose was scraped on the stone. "Why do you do that?" he said angrily.

"You called 'O, O!' Mulla-mulgar, and we thought you were afraid."

"Afraid! Nod? No!" said Nod. "What is there to be afraid of?"

Ghibba twitched his long grey eyebrow. "The little Mulgar asks us riddles," he said.

"I called," said Nod, "because I spy something jutting there with a fluff of hair in the wind that leaps the chasm, and with thin ends that look to me like the arms and legs of a Man of the Mountains lying caught in a bush of Tummusc."

At the sound of Nod's "Ahôh!" Thumb had come scrambling along from the other fire, and many of the Mountain-mulgars fell flat on their faces, and leaned peering over the precipice. But their eyes were too dim to pierce far. They broke into shrill, eager whisperings.

"It is, perhaps, a wisp of snow, an eagle's feather, or maybe a nosegay of frost-flowers."

"What was the name of him who fell fighting?" said Nod eagerly.

"His name was Ubbookeera," said Ghibba.

"Then," said Nod, "there he hangs."

"So be it, Eyes-of-an-Eagle," said Ghibba; "we will go down before he melts and fetch him up." So they drove two of their long staves into a crevice of the rocks. And Ghibba, being one of the strongest of them, and also nearly blind, crept to the end and unwound himself down; then one by one the rest of the Mountain-mulgars descended, till the last and least was gone.

"Hold my legs, Thumb, my brother, that I may see what they're at," said Nod. Thumb clutched him tight, and Nod edged on his stomach to the end of the bending pole. He saw far down the grey string of the Men of the Mountains dangling, but even the last of them was still twenty or thirty Mulgars off the Tummusc-bush. He heard their shrill chirping. And presently the first sunbeam trembled over the wall of the mountain above them, and beamed clear into the valley. Nod wriggled back to Thumb. "They cannot reach him," he said. "He lies there huddled up, Thumb, in a Tummusc-bush, just as he fell."

"Why, then," said Thumb, "he must have hung dead all night. The eagles will have picked his eyes out."

In a little while the last and least of the Mountain-mulgars crept back over Ghibba's shoulders and scrambled on to the path. He was a little blinking fellow, and in colour patched like damask.

"Is he dead? Is he dead? Is thy 'Messimut' dead?" said Nod, leaning his head.

"He is dead, Mulla-mulgar, or in his second sleep," he answered.

Now, all the Mulgar beads on that strange string stood whispering and nodding together. Ghibba presently turned away from them, and began raking back the last smoulderings of their watch-fire.

"What will you do?" said Nod. "Why do you drag back the embers?"

"The swiftest of us is going back to bring a longer 'rope' and stronger staves and Samarak, and, alive or dead, they will drag him up. But we go on, Mulla-mulgar."

"Ohé," said Nod softly; "but will he not be melted by then, Prince of the Mountains? Will not the eagle's feather be blown away? Will not the frost flowers have melted from the bush?"

Ghibba turned his grave, hairy face to Nod.

"The Men of the Mountains will remember you in their drones, Mulla-mulgar, for saving the life of their kinsman; they will call you in their singing 'Mulla-mulgar Eengenares'"—that is, Royal-mulgar with the Eyes of an Eagle.

Nod laughed. "Already am I in my brothers' thoughts Prince of Bonfires, Noddle of Pork; if only I could see through Zut, they also might call me Eengenares, too."

All were in haste now, binding up what remained of faggots and torches, combing and beating themselves and quenching the fires. Soon the Mulgar who had been chosen to return had rubbed noses and bidden them all farewell, and had set out on his lonely journey home. Thimble still lay in a deep sleep, and so cold after the heats of fever that they had to muffle him twice or thrice in shadow-blankets to regain his warmth.

When they had trudged on a league or so the day began to darken with cloud. And a thin smoke began to fume up from below. The travellers pressed on in all haste, so fast that the tongues of the bearers of Thimble's litter lolled between their teeth. Wind rose in scurries, and every peak was shrouded. Unnatural gloom thickened around the lean, straggling troop of Mulgars. And almost before they had time to drive in their long poles, as shepherds drive in posts for their wattles, and to swathe and bind themselves close into the sloping rock, the tempest broke over them. A dense and tossing cloud of ice beat up on the wind, so that soon the huddled travellers looked like nothing else than a long low mound on the Mulgar pass, heaped high with the drifting crystals. On every peak and crest the lightning played blue and crackling. In its flash the air hung still, bewitched with snow-flakes. Thunder and wind made such a clamour between them that Nod could scarcely hear himself think. But the travellers sat mute and glum, and moved never a finger. Such storms sweep like wild birds through these mountains of Arakkaboa, and, like birds, are as quickly flown away. For in a little while all was peace again and silence. And the sun broke in flames out of the pale sky, shining in peaceful beauty upon the mountains, as if, indeed, the snow-white Zevveras of Tishnar had passed by.

The travellers soon beat each other free of their snow, and danced and slapped themselves warm. And now they were rejoiced to see in the distant clearness peeping above the shoulder of Makkri that league-long needle Moot. The pass now began to widen, and a little before noonday they broke out into a broad and steep declivity of snow. And, seeing that they had but lately rested themselves, and soon would be journeying in shelter from the sun, they did not tarry for their "glare," or middle-day sleep.

Their breath hung like smoke on the icy air. They sank at every step wellnigh up to their middles in snow, and were all but wearied out when at last they climbed up into a gorge cut sheer between bare walls of rock, and so lofty on either hand that daylight scarcely trembled down to them at the bottom.

So steep and glazed with ice was this gorge or gully that they were compelled to tie themselves together with strands of Cullum. They laid Thimble's litter on three long pieces of wood strapped together. Then, Ghibba going foremost, one by one they followed the ascent after him, stumbling and staggering, and heaving at the Cullum-rope to drag up poor Thimble on his slippery bed.

The Men of the Mountains have bristly feet and long, hairy, hard-nailed toes. But Thumb and Nod, with their naked soles and shorter toes, could scarcely clutch the icy path at all, and fell so often they were soon stiff with bruises. Worse still, there frequents in the upper parts of these mountains a kind of witless or silly Mulgars, who are called Obobbomans, with very long noses. And just as men use a spyglass for sight, to magnify things and to bring things at a distance nearer, so these Obobbomans use their prolonged noses for smell. Long before Thumb and his company were come to their precipitous gully they had sniffed them out. And, being as mischievous as they are dull-witted, they had already scampered about, gathering together great heaps of stones, and had now set themselves in a row, sniffing and chattering, along the edge of the rock on both sides, and waited there concealed in ambush.

When the Men of the Mountains had climbed up some little way into the gorge, and were scrambling and stumbling on the ice, these Obobbomans began pelting them as fast as they could with their stones and snowballs and splinters of ice. These missiles, though not very large, fell heavily down the walls of the precipice. And soon the whole caravan of Mulgars was brought to a standstill, they were so battered and bewildered by the stones.

As soon as the travellers stopped, these knavish Long-noses ceased to pelt them. So cautious and furtive are they that not a sign of them could be distinguished by the Mulgars staring up from below, though, indeed, a hundred or more of their thin snouts were actually protruded over the sides of the chasm, sniffing and trembling.

"Does it always rain pebble-stones and lumps of ice in these miserable hills?" said Thumb bitterly.

And Ghibba told him that it was the Long-nose mulgars who were molesting them. They squatted down to breathe themselves, hoping to tire out the Obobbomans. But the instant they stirred, down showered snowball, ice, and stones once more. The travellers bound faggots and blankets over their heads, and struggled on, but the faggots kept slipping loose, and did not cover their stooping backs and buttocks. They shouted, threatened, shook their hands towards the heights; one or two even flung pebbles up that only bounced down upon their own heads again. It was all in vain. They halted once more, and squatted down in despair. To add to their misery, it was so cold in this gorge that the breath of the Hill-mulgars froze in long icicles on their beards, and whensoever they turned to speak to one another, or if they sneezed (as they often did in the cold, and with the snuff-like ice-dust), their fringes tinkled like glass. At last Ghibba, who had been sitting lost in thought of what to be doing next, suddenly groped his way forward, and bade two of his people sit down to their firesticks to make fire.

"What is this Whisker-face tinkering at now?" muttered Thumb. "What is he after now? We had best have come alone."

"I know not," said Nod; "but if he can fight Noses, Thumb, as well as he can fight Beaks, we shall soon be getting on again."

They crouched miserably in the snow, huddled up in shadow-blankets. The Obobbomans peeped further into the ravine, chattering together, at a loss to understand why the travellers were sitting there so still. But at last fire came to the firesticks, and Ghibba then bade two or three of his Mountaineers kindle torches. Whereupon he gave to each a bundle of the eagle feathers which they had plucked from the five carcasses on the pass, and told them to burn them piecemeal in their torches.

"Ghost of a Môh-man!" grunted Thumb sourly; "he has lost his cheesy wits!"

With feathers fizzling, away they went again, slipping, staggering, and straining at the rope. Down at once hailed the stones again, the Obobbomans gambolling and squealing with delight in their silly mischief. And now no longer little were the snowballs, for the Long-noses all this time had been busy making big ones. These four or five of them, shoving together, with noses laid sidelong, rolled slowly to the edge, and pushed over. Down they came, bounding and rebounding into the abyss, and broke into fragments on the travellers' heads. Some, too, of the craftier of the Long-noses had mingled stones and ice in these great balls.

Thumb groaned and sweated in spite of the cold, for he, being by far the fattest and broadest of the travellers, received the most stones, and stumbled and fell far more often than the rest on his clumsy feet on the ice. Now, however, the smoke of the burning bunches of eagles' feathers was mounting in pale blue clouds through the gorge. It was enough. At the first sniff and savour of this evil smoke the Long-noses paused in their mischief, coughing and sneezing. At the next sniff they paused no longer. Away they scampered headlong, higgledy-piggledy, toppling one over another in their haste to be gone, squealing with disgust and horror; and the travellers at last were left in peace.

"I began to fear, O Man of the Mountains," grunted Thumb to Ghibba, "that your wits had got frostbitten. But I am not too old nor fat to learn wisdom."

Ghibba lifted his face and peered from under the bandage he had wound over his sore eyes into Thumb's bruised face. "Munza or Mountains, there's wisdom for all, brave traveller," he said. "They are very old friends of ours, these Long-noses; they could smell out a mouse's Meermut in the moon."



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