The travellers marched slowly, keeping sharp watch, their cudgels ready in their hands. Behind them, paled by the moonlight, shook the fiery silver of the Salemnāgar. With this at their backs and that North Pole, Mōōt, in huge congealment, a little to their left, they made their way at an angle across the open snow, and approached the tangled thickets. Here they walked more closely together, with heads aslant and tails in air, like little old men, like pedlars, blinking and spying, wishing beyond measure they were sitting in comfort around their watch-fire. The farther they zigzagged betwixt the thorns, the more doubtful grew the way. For the thorn-trees rise all so equal in height and thickness they often with their tops shut out the stars, and there was nothing by which the travellers could mark what way they went.
Still they pressed on, their hairy faces to the night-wind, which Ghibba had observed before starting was drifting from the north. They shuffled crisply over the snow, coughing softly, and gurring in their throats, winding in and out between the trees, and casting lean, gigantic shadows across the open spaces. For so dazzling bright the moon gleamed, she almost put out the smoky flare of their torches. But it gave the Mulgars more courage to march encompassed with their own light. Their packs were heavy, the thickets sloped continually upward. But the poison-thorns curl backward beneath the drooping hood of their leaves by night—in the hours, that is, when, it is said, they distil their poison—so the travellers were no longer fretted by their stings. Thus, then, they gradually advanced till Mōōt was left behind them, and out of the grey night rose Mulgarmeerez, mightiest of Arakkaboa's peaks, whose snows have known no Mulgar footprints since the world began.
Only the whish of the travellers' feet on the snow was to be heard, when suddenly all with one accord stopped dead, as if a voice had cried, "Halt!"
Their torches faintly crackled, their smoke rising in four straight pillars towards the stars. And they heard, as if everywhere around them in the air, clear yet marvellously small voices singing with a thin and pining sound like glass. It floated near, this tiny, multitudinous music—so near that the travellers drew back their face with wide-open eyes. Then it seemed out of the infinite distance to come, echoing across the moonlit spars that towered above their heads.
And Ghibba said softly, jerking up his bundle and peering around him from beneath his eye-bandage: "Courage, my kinsmen! it is the danger-song of Tishnar we hear, who loves the fearless."
At this one of the Men of the Mountains thrust up his pointed chin, and said, wagging his head: "Why do we march like this at night, Mulla-moona? These are not our mountain-passes. Let us camp here while we are still alive, and burn a great watch-fire till morning."
"You have faggots, Cousin of a Skeeto," said Ghibba. "Kindle a fire for yourself, and catch us up at daybreak."
The Mountain-men laughed wheezily, for now the singing had died away. On they pushed again. But now the thorn-trees gathered yet closer together, so that the Mulgars could no longer walk in company, but had to straggle up by ones or twos as best they could. Still up and up they clambered, laying hold of the thick tufts of leaves sticky with poison to drag themselves forward. Many times they had to pause to recover their breath, and Nod turned giddy to look down on the moon-dappled forest through which they had so heavily ascended. Thus they continued, until, quite without warning, Thumb, who was leading, broke out into one loud, hard, short bark of fear, for he suddenly found himself standing beneath contorted branches on the verge of another and wider plateau of snow. He stood motionless, leaning heavily on his cudgel, the knuckles of his other hand resting in the snow, his breath caught back, and his head stooping forward between his shoulders, staring on and on between astonishment and fear.
For there, all along the opposite ridge, as it were on the margin of an enormous platter, stood as if frozen in the moonlight the monstrous silver-haired Meermuts of Mulgarmeerez, guarding the enchanted orchards of Tishnar. Thumb stood in deep shadow, for instantly, at sight of these shapes, as one by one the travellers came straggling up together, they quenched their hissing torches in the snow. No sign made the Meermuts that they had seen the little quaking band of lean and ragged Mulgars. But even a squirrel cracking a nut could have been heard across these windless and icy altitudes. And even now it seemed that bark of fear went echoing from spur to spur. The wretched Mulgars could only stand and gaze in helpless confusion at the phantoms, whose eyes shone dismally in the moon beneath their silver hair and great purple caps. The Meermuts stood, as it were, for a living rampart all down the untrodden snow towards the great Pit of Mulgarmeerez till lost in the faint grey mists of the mountains.
"What's to be done now, Prince of Ladder-makers?" said Thumb presently. "Are we not weary of wandering? There's room for us all in those great shadowy bellies."
"Itthiluthi thoth 'Meermut' onnoth anoot oonoothi," lisped one of the Moona-mulgars—that is to say, in their own language, "But maybe these Meermuts gnaw before swallowing."
As for Ghibba, he feigned that his eyes were too weak and sore, and peered in vain beneath his bandages. "Tell me what's to be seen, Mulla-mulgar," he said. "Why do we linger? The frost's in my toes. Up with fresh torches and go forward."
Thumb grunted, but made no answer. Then Ghibba drew softly back into the deeper shadow, and the rest of the Mulgars, who by now were all come up, stood whispering, some in perplexity, not knowing what to do; some itching and sniffing to go forward, and one or two for turning back. One Moona-mulgar, indeed, mewing like a cat in his extreme fear, when he had heard Thumb's sudden bark, had turned lean shanks and hairy arms and fled down by the way they had come. Fainter and fainter had grown the sounds of snapping twigs, until all again was silent.
"What wonder our father Seelem stumbled as he ran?" muttered Nod to Thumb.
But Ghibba stood thinking, the skin of his forehead twitching up and down, as is the habit of nearly all Mulgars, high and low. "This is our riddle, O Mulla-mulgars," he said: "If we turn back and climb slowly upward, so as to creep round in hiding from these giant Meermuts, we shall only come at last to batter our heads against the walls of Mōōt. And Mōōt I know of old: there the Gunga-moonas make their huddles. And the other way, under the moon, there juts a precipice five thousand Mulgars deep, through which, so the old news goes, creeps slowlier than moss Tishnar's never-melting Obea of ice. Here, then, is our answer, Princes: The valleys must be yet many long days' journey. Either, then, we go straight forward beneath the feet of Tishnar's Orchard-meermuts, like forest-mice that gambol among a Mutti of Ephelantoes, or else, like shivering Jack-Alls, we go back, to live out the rest of this littlest of lives itching, but having nowhere to scratch. What thinks the Mulgar Eengenares?"
And at that Nod remembered what the watchman had said, when they were talking together by the eagles' watch-fires. He touched Thumb, speaking softly in Mulgar-royal. "Thumb, my brother, what of the Wonderstone? what of the Wonderstone? Shall we tell this Moona-mulgar of that?"
Thumb laughed sulkily. "Seelem kept all his wits for you, Jugguba," he answered; "rub and see!"
So Nod spread open his pocket-flap and fetched out the Wonderstone, wrapped in its wisp of wool and the stained leaf of paper from Battle's little book. He held it out in his brown, hairless palm to Ghibba beneath the thorn. "What think you of that, Mulla-moona?" he said. And even Ghibba's dim eyes could discern its milk-pale shining. They talked long together in the shadow of the thorns, while the rest of the skinny travellers sat silent beside their bundles, coughing and blinking as they mumbled their mouldy cheese-rind.
Ghibba said that, as Nod was a Nizza-neela, they should venture out alone together. "I am nothing but a skin of bones—nothing to pick," he said, "and all but sand-blind, and therefore could not see to be afraid."
"No, no, no, Mulla-moona," Thumb grunted stubbornly. "If mischief came to my brother, how could I live on, listening to the chittering of his mother's Meermut asking me, 'Where is Nod?' Stay here and guard my brother, Thimbulla, who is too sick and weak to go with us; and if we neither of us return before morning, deal kindly with him, Mulla-moona, and have our thanks till you too are come to be a shadow."
So at last it was agreed between them. And Thumb and Nod returned together to the edge of the wood and peered out once more towards the phantom-guarded orchards. Nod waited no longer. He wetted his thumb once more, and rubbed thrice, droning or crooning, and stamping nimbly in the snow, till suddenly Thumb sprang back clean into the midst of a thorn-tree in his dismay.
"Ubbe nimba sul ugglourint!" he cried hollowly. For the child stood there in the snow, shining as if his fur were on fire with silver light. About his head a wreath of moon-coloured buds like frost-flowers was set. His shoulders were hung with a robe like spider-silk falling behind him to his glistening heels. But it was Nod's shrill small laughter that came out of the shining.
"Follow, oh follow, brother," he said. "I am Fulby, I am Oomgar's M'keeso; it is a dream; it is a night-shadow; it is Nod Meermut; it is fires of Tishnar. Hide in my blaze, Thumb Mulgar. And see these Noomas cringe!"
Thumb grunted, beat once on his chest like a Gunga, and they stepped boldly out together, first Nod, then black Thumb, into the wide splendour of the waste. And the Men of the Mountains watched them from between the spiky branches, with eyes round as the Minimuls', and mouths ajar, showing in their hair their catlike teeth.
Out into the open snow that borders for leagues the trees of Tishnar's orchard stepped Nod, with his Wonderstone. And, as he moved along, the frost-parched flakes burned with the rainbow. But if the phantoms of Mulgarmeerez were not blind, they were surely dumb. They made no sign that they perceived this blazing pigmy advancing against them. Nod's light heels fell so fast Thumb could scarcely keep pace with him. He came on grunting and coughing, plying his thick cudgel, his great dark eyes fixed stubbornly upon the snow. And lo and behold! when next Nod lifted his face he saw only moonlight shining upon the smooth trunks of trees, which in the higher branches were stooping with coloured fruit. He laughed aloud. "See, Thumb," he said, "my magic burns. M'keeso chatters. These Tishnar Meermuts are nought but trunks of trees!"
But Thumb stared in more dismal terror still, for he saw plainly now their huge and shadowy clubs, their necklets of gold and ivory, and the hideous, purple-capped faces of the ghouls gloating down on him. "Press on, Ummanodda; your eyes burn magic, and trees to you are sudden death to me." His hair stood out in a grisly mantle around him, for sheer fear and horror of these gigantic faces as they passed. But Nod edged lightly through, like mantling swan or peacock, seeing only Tishnar's lovely orchards. No snow lay here in these enchanted glades, but the grass was powdered with pure white flowers that caught the flame of him in their beauty as he passed. The strange small voices the travellers had heard on the hillside seemed haunting the laden boughs of the orchard. But to Thumb all was darkness, and frozen snow, spiked thorn-trees, a-roost with evil birds, and the horror of the motionless phantoms behind him. He seemed ever and again to hear their stride between the twigs, and to feel a terrific thumb and finger closing over his matted scalp.
In a little while the path the two Mulgars thridded led out from under the boughs, and they found themselves at the foot of the great peak they had all night been approaching. And Nod saw fountains springing in foam amid the flowery grasses, and all about them were trees laden with fruit, and the music of instruments and distant voices. But not on these near things was his mind set, but on the secret paths of Mulgarmeerez, winding down from the crested peak above.
"O brother, my brother! Tishnar is walking on the hills," he said. But Thumb, though he rubbed his eyes, could see nothing but the towering and desolate scaurs of ice and snow and a kind of snow-choked ridge girdling the abrupt mountain-side. But Nod came to a stand, half crouching, amazed, and watched, as it seemed to him, the Middens of Tishnar riding more beautiful than daybreak in the moonlight of her hills. And he heard a clear voice within him cry: "Have no fear, Nizza-neela, Mulla-mulgar jugguba Ummanodda, neddipogo, Eengenares; feast and be merry. Tishnar watches over the brave." And he told Thumb what the voice had said to him.
And Thumb grew angry, for he was tired out of his courage. "Have it as you will," he said. "It is easy to fear nothing and to see what is not here when you meddle with magic, and shine like a fish out of water. But as for me, I go back to my brother Thimble, and to my friends, the Men of the Mountains." And he stumped sullenly off, crouching low over his cudgel.
Then Nod said softly: "Wonderstone, Wonderstone! call back my brother and open his eyes." Instantly Thumb stopped and stood upright. Thorn and snow, blain and ache and bruise, were gone. He saw the meadows alight with starry flowers, the fountains and the fruit. And he smelled the smoke of nard and soltziphal burning in the cressets of the servants of Tishnar. Nod laughed silently, and said: "Bring, too, O Wonderstone, my brother Thimbulla on his litter, and the Prince Ghibba and his kinsfolk to feast with me."
For there, in the midst between the fountains, was a long low table spread with flowers and strange fruits and nuts, and lit with clear, pear-shaped flames floating in the air like that of the Wonderstone, but of the colours of ivory and emerald and amethyst; with nineteen platters of silver and nineteen goblets of gold. And presently they heard in the distance the grasshopper voices of the Hill-mulgars, as they came stubbling along with Thimble's litter in their midst, carrying their heavy faggots and bottles and bundles, their pink eyes blinking, their knees trembling, not knowing whether to be joyful or afraid.