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XI HOW THE OUTLIERS CAME UP WITH THE FAR-FOLK AT A PLACE CALLED THE SMITHY
HOW THE OUTLIERS CAME UP WITH THE FAR-FOLK AT A PLACE CALLED THE SMITHY, AND HERMAN CAME BACK TO RIVER WARD

Nothing in all that struggle initiated by the lifting of the King’s Desire, pleased me so much as the way the Far-Folk outstretched themselves by their own cunning. They had chewed the cud of the old grudge so long, disgorging and regorging, that life smacked no other savour for them. They made the mistake of imagining no other among their enemies. That slow treachery of Ravenutzi’s, while it burned against the honor of the Outliers, kept the habit of treacherous thinking alive among their enemies. The Far-Folk wasted themselves upon the method and left not much to reckon with beyond the fact of possession.

Let them once get their hands upon the 218King’s Desire! They asked no more than that, planned very little more. Communication with Ravenutzi was difficult. Never greater than the time of the Meet from which they hoped so much, when the thought of the Treasure was uppermost in every man’s mind. Then hope overrode precaution and drew them, when they had most need to keep in the dark, to cluster just beyond River Ward like wastrels above the water where the dead are about to rise. There, had he not had other business for his thoughts, Mancha should have discerned them. But the Hammerer’s preoccupation, though it saved them from detection by increasing the sense of safety, hurried the unearthing of the King’s Desire.

News of this move only reached the Far-Folk as they lay all together, with no preparation for flight or siege, in a shallow cañon back of River Ward, humming with excited talk, like a hive about to swarm. The mere hint of frustration fanned them into a fury, which was succeeded when the Treasure was actually in camp, by gross, babbling boastfulness and exultation. Close on this came word from Ravenutzi that he had fled the Outliers with the 219Ward, and they were to await him in a place called the Smithy.

If they wondered why he should have taken so much trouble for a girl who had already served her turn, they had either less interest in his relation to her, or trusted him more. What did concern them was that the same message told them that by this time the Outliers were in a fair way to discover the loss of the King’s Desire.

They judged they would be tracked and planned their defense in keeping with what they thought the Outliers’ probable estimate of themselves. They reasoned that the Outliers would be expecting lies in the enemy’s country. They left a boy behind them to watch. If the Outliers lost the trail he was to run and bring the Far-Folk word. If they struck the trail to the Smithy he was to turn them from it by the simple truth. There they overdid themselves. The Outliers, not yet inured to lies, believed what the boy told them.

They caught the boy—one with some spirit in him meriting a better employment—crawling through the scrub half a day beyond River Ward, and brought him before Persilope, where he scratched and cursed awhile and 220then fell sullen under their questioning. Let them kill him, he said, but he would not tell where his people were, nor how to get at them.

“Nay, we will not kill you, lad,” Noche reassured him, “we love you so much.” Here he wrapped his great arms about the boy, handfast behind his back as the captors had brought him in, and lifted him against his breast.

“So,” he laughed, “will you not tell me for love where the Far-Folk are?”

“No.” The boy’s face flushed purple, the breath came whistling through his teeth.

“One,” said Noche, and the muscles of his back began to swell.

“Two,” said Noche.

“Yes-s-ss!” sung the boy’s rattling breath.

And when Noche, who would have cracked the ribs of a grown man as well, set him down, the boy staggered and was sick, and admitted they were at the Smithy. He had been entirely within his instruction in that, but he must have seen the unwisdom of telling the truth as he had been instructed, when the Outliers set out immediately in that direction. His distress was evident and genuine, he 221moaned and whimpered, came fawning to Persilope.

“Why, what ails the boy?” said he, perplexed. “We want no more of you.”

“But, oh, I have lied to you,” whined the lad. “I have lied; you will kill me when you learn how I have lied. They are not at the Smithy.”

“Where then?”

“Oh, oh, I do not know. Over there. At Eagle Rock, perhaps. But certainly not at the Smithy.”

His anxiety undid him; Noche came close.

“Shall I say three to you, my youngling?”

The boy fell silent and shivering. All the rest of that journey Noche kept him serviceable by the mere motion of his arms.

The place called the Smithy lies in the pit of a blind cañon, all of rusty red volcanic stone. Half-cooled it seems, smudged black with smoke, encrusted with flakes of dark lichen like soot. Some Junipers grow there, wind depressed, all asquat above the rocks like dwarfed, warty things crept out of the ruins to take the sun. In the middle of the pit half a score of pines staggered together as if awry with labor at the cold forges. Here the 222Far-Folk repaired to wait the smith and gloat upon his work. Here, when the earth melted in its own shadow under a sky of dusky blueness, whitening to an unrisen moon, the Outliers found them. The Far-Folk had eaten, and sat about on the broken stones gloating. Even in repose, and from the top of the hill where the Outliers looked down at them, they had the attitudes of exultation. The King’s Desire lay uncorded in their midst, the little low fire struck a thousand bright reflections from it. Red eyes of gems winked from behind a screen of golden fret. At the head of the circle sat the chief of the Far-Folk, and the Cup of the Four Quarters was between his knees.

This Oca was a lithe man, well bronzed, of a singular, wild, fearless bearing; he had a beard of thick, wavy locks that he blew back from his lips as he talked, accommodated to the carriage of his head like sculptor work. Around his mouth there was the evidence of something half-formed, undependable, the likeness of half fabled wood-creatures. In his eyes, which were bright and roving, and on his brow, there was the witness of extraordinary intelligence. He had a laugh, short and 223bubbling, that came always at the end of his words and belied their seriousness; it was as if some sardonic half-god sat in him and laughed at his assumption of being a man. He laughed now as the Outliers looked down on him, lifting the Cup of the Four Quarters, blowing back his long lip locks to drink.

The Outliers had come, I say, to the top of the cañon at dark, for they had not been very sure of the way, and had scorned to squeeze further help from their captive. They hung there straining through the dusk to take the lay of the land and for the moment forgot the lad. He must have had some good stuff in him, for all that afternoon he had been white with high resolve, when they thought him merely frightened. The Outliers’ party halted where the coiled and undulating strata flowed down the sides of the cañon like water lines in old bas-reliefs. Under the wiry trees they made out sparkles of red and green and figures moving. Just then the boy managed, by slipping on a pebble, to bring his throat a foot from Noche’s hand and to let out a cry formless and anguished, breaking off in mid-utterance like a trumpet torn asunder. To it succeeded the sound of a limp body dropping 224among disjointed stones, the rush of the Outliers going down, and the scuttling of the Far-Folk in the blind gully like scared sheep in a runway.

It was very quickly over. The cry had done its work and the advantage of the ground was all to the Far-Folk; dark people as they were, the dark befriended them. When the Outliers loosed their slings the first sound took them into cover. There was heard the crack of the sling stones followed by sharp groans, but by the time our men got down to the twisty trees there was not a spark of the Treasure nor one of the Treasure lifters. They stumbled on some of the Far-Folk women who had lingered to wake the sleeping children, and took them, with a good part of their baggage. By the time the moon came up there was nothing to be seen of either party but one slim body of a lad, with his back broken, growing cold in a deep cairn of stones.

Persilope moved on with the slingsmen to keep the trail of the Far-Folk warm, and Mancha, who preferred the work that promised earliest news of Zirriloë, came back with the captives to River Ward.

In the early half light, as they traveled, 225they were aware of a tall woman with long hair blowing, who came and stood on a hill overlooking them for long enough to have counted all the captives. When she had told them over, she wrung her hands and bit upon them, and vanished into the morning mist. I supposed it must have been Ravenutzi’s wife. She was still looking for some clue of him and had not found it.

We moved, all of us, from Windy Covers that day to a place beyond the Ledge, but near enough to the Gap for us to fall back upon our own country if need arose. That night, before Mancha got in from the Smithy, Herman came back again. It was the pale end of night, the moon was gone ghost white, and the wind was awake that runs before the dawn. I was lying sleepless in my bed under the buckthorn when I heard the whisper of their arrival on the far side of the camp.

I had said to myself that I owed Herman no welcome. Though there was no personal tie between us, there was in our common condition of aliens among the Outliers an obligation to look out for me, which he had no right to neglect. Here was I left to he knew not what pains and inconveniences while he ran 226after this wild girl and a faithless, dishonored man. The more I considered this, the less of satisfaction it brought me. For whatever the pitiableness of the girl’s case, and I felt there might be something in that, it was no affair of Herman’s. Why should he set himself beside her and against all other women who had kept right and true, by what pains and passionate renunciations I seemed now to feel myself seized and participated. I saw myself with the others affronted by any excusing of Zirriloë. That my friend should so excuse her pointed and made personal the offense.

I was so sure of this resentment, and it was so palpable a barrier in my own mind to the renewal of intimacy, that when Herman, before he had eaten or rested, came stealing among the stretched figures, I could not imagine what he was looking for. He crept with long, stooping pauses where an arm thrown up or a drawn cover concealed an identity, until he came to where I lay, wrapped in a cougar skin under the buckthorn. Then I knew by the full stop, and by the long breath of easement after strain that it was I he wanted.

He sat down a very little way from me, on 227the hillock of a broken pine. Though I could not see his eyes in that light, I made out that his face was turned toward me, and that he leaned it upon his hand. Whether he felt some emanation of my resentment and was troubled by it, or whether from weariness, he moved uneasily and sighed. He must have grown more accustomed to the dark by traveling in it, for presently he reached out to brush lightly some small twigs and leaves that had fallen on my bed, and felt or saw the barely perceptible stir I made.

“Mona?” he whispered.

“Well?”

“Did I wake you? I did not mean to. Do you wish to sleep again?”

“I am not asleep.”

I suppose he expected some question which would give him leave to begin with what his mind was full of, but I had already heard the whisper, handed from bed to bed. I guessed what ill success the expedition had, and I had no wish to hear Herman’s part in it. I lay still and made out the faint movement in the leaves of the buckthorn, until, by the slow clearing of the dark, I could see the droop of 228his figure with fatigue, and I was not proof against that.

“You are very tired; why do you not go and lie down?”

“If you don’t mind I would rather talk.”

He moved over nearer and seemed to get some comfort from my proximity, for he began without any further encouragement.

Herman, he said, had not kept close to the Outliers but with Mancha had scouted far to the left in the hope of coming on some trace of the Far-Folk’s secret camp, where he imagined Zirriloë might be hid. They had followed fruitlessly on faint clues, and finally with no clues at all, and had come to no conclusion except that the fugitives must be still on the Outlanders’ side of the Ledge. The track had gone far north of Windy Covers and there was no other passage known for so great a distance as to be impracticable.

“There is a way,” said I.

And as soon as I had said it I was overtaken with a swift certainty. This secret way by which Ravenutzi and the girl had gone must be the same one the wife had come through with her torn hands, venturing so much to ease her need of him by talking to me. I was 229so struck by the idea that, by just the time she had taken to wait for me at Windy Covers she had missed seeing Ravenutzi help the girl tenderly over that same trail, that I began at once to tell Herman about it, to his great amazement.

“You did that,” he said; “you talked to her and let her go, knowing what harm she had in her mind to do?”

“She was a desperate woman; she could have killed me before help came if I had given the alarm. In any case,” I protested, “I would not have given it, because she trusted me. But no harm will come to the Outliers. This is a private quarrel.”

“That poor girl,” he said, “if she should find her!”

“In that case,” said I, “would you back Ravenutzi to back his wanton or his wife?”

“Mona—you have no proof!”

“You said—the day she came out of the woods by Leaping Water—that she was the sort to do anything for the man she loved. Well—she is that sort.”

“Mona!”

“Perhaps it was not for love then. You 230said she could appreciate—things. Perhaps Ravenutzi promised her a——”

“Mona! Mona!” he said, with so sharp an anguish that if I had not felt I owed it to all honorable women to show him where he stood, I should have left him to his dear illusion. Yet to see him so excusing treachery for the sake of a tinted cheek or the way a wrist was turned, set me white hot and throbbing.

“Would you rather,” I said, “she had done it for love, or for the King’s Desire?”

I could not see his face, but his voice was troubled with amazement.

“Mona—I—I was not prepared for this.” It was too dark to see, but I guessed the pauses to be the swallowings of his throat. “I thought you would be glad to have me go to that poor girl and make things as easy for her as I could. You never seem to think how she must have suffered before she came to this.”

“She hid it well. And depend upon it, Herman, whatever sufferings a woman has in such a case, whatever struggles, they are toward the thing she would do, not away from it.” I do not know how I knew this, but the moment I had spoken I was quite sure. “If she struggles,” I said, “it is to justify her right to 231do it, to quiet compunction, to appease her fears. Zirriloë came to the end too quickly to have suffered much.”

We were both still after that, while the heavens whitened and showed me a little of how worn he was and what marks of the trail were on him. I suppose he must have felt the melting of my mood toward him, for presently his hand stole toward me and began to finger the loose end of my cougar skin.

“You never seem to think, Mona”—he hesitated—“what this might mean to me.”

“Well, what does it mean?”

I tried, I think I tried, not to make my voice sound so yielding that he should suppose me softened toward the shame and wrong of it, nor so hard that he might imagine the hardness grew out of my caring what it meant to him. I must have fallen a little to one side or the other, for it was a long time before he began again.

“I don’t know,” he said, “I am hardly sure myself. There was a time before we came to Outland—how long ago was that, Mona?—when I fell short of much that you said and thought. There was something in books and poetry and music, especially in music, that you 232were always expecting me to understand, and the expectation irritated me. I fell into the way of denying and despising that something, and trying—I am afraid succeeding, too, in making myself feel that it sprang from some superiority in me not to understand.... Are you listening, Mona?”

“Yes, Herman.”

“It was not that I felt the want of it so much in myself, but other people—you, Mona—missed it in me. There was a door to all that, about to swing upon the latch ... and I could never swing it. And then we came to this free life ... and Zirriloë.... Did you think I was in love with her, Mona?”

“Were you in love with her?”

“I don’t know ... she made the door swing back ... she had such a way of walking ... and that little smile of hers coming and going ... she was all those things made manifest. A man would understand. I liked to do things for her. It was a way of serving all the loveliness of women ... it was serving you, Mona....”

“Ah,” I said, “I would have understood better if the service had been paid in person.”

“I suppose so.”

233He was both humble and reluctant in his acknowledgment, and paused so long a time after it that I could mark the ebb of the dark from the highest hills and the full slopes emerging rounded with verdure. But I found I had nothing to say to him in all this, and perhaps he expected nothing.

“If she could have stayed so ...” he began again, “as long as she stayed so, I could feel ... what was it you used to say? ... the roll of the world eastward.... But to have it end like this ... in meanness and betrayal ... I wish I might have brought her back with me!”

“Better that you did not, considering what she would come back to meet. If she loved Ravenutzi she is having her happiness now. If she suffers at all it is not for what she has done but for what you may think of it. And if there is any deep-felt misery going on in this anywhere, it is on the part of Ravenutzi’s wife.”

“Ah, I had forgotten there was a wife.”

I meant he should not forget, nor lose for that shallow girl any of the deeper opprobriousness that should attach to the double betrayal. But I was taken by surprise to have 234him turned by that suggestion quite in another direction.

“A desperate woman, by your account of her,” he said. “Promise me, Mona, that you will not hold any further communication with her, and that you will not go out of the camp without an escort. It isn’t safe, and it isn’t quite fair, is it, to parley with the enemies of the Outliers?”

If he had stopped with the consideration of my safety, I should probably have consented meekly like any woman when any man takes an interest in her, but that suggestion of unfairness set me at odds again.

“I shall not do anything imprudent,” I said; “but as to the relation of my behavior to the Outliers, that is a matter which you must leave me to decide for myself.”

“I suppose so,” said Herman ruefully. “I beg your pardon. I don’t know how it is, Mona, I let other women do pretty much as they like with me, but I always find myself getting irritated if you don’t do exactly as I say.”

I was certain Herman had never said anything like this to me before, yet it had so familiar a ring to it that I found myself going 235back in my mind for the association. I recalled what Evarra said when she asked if Herman was in love with me, that if such were the case he would expect me to do as he said. I was so taken up with this possibility that I heard not too attentively the far cry of coyotes going by. There must have been some nuance in it not of the beasts’ cry, for the Outliers began springing up around us, listening and intent. It came again and one answered it. By such signs we were made aware it was Mancha returning from the Smithy.


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