He looked about and saw Thorek emerging from the cave. “Take some men and get the ladders,” von Horst directed his late antagonist.
The other slaves looked quickly at the mammoth man to see how he would accept this command. What they saw astonished them. Thorek’s face was already badly swollen, there was a cut above one eye and his nose was bleeding.. His whole face and much of his body were covered with blood, which made his injuries appear graver than they really were.
Thorek turned toward the other slaves. “Some of you go into each cave and bring out the ladders,” he said. “Let the women find thongs with which to bind them together.”
“Who is chief?” asked one of the men so addressed.
“He is chief,” replied Thorek, pointing at von Horst.
“He is not my chief, and neither are you,” retorted the man, belligerently.
Von Horst was suddenly hopeless. How could he get anywhere, how could he accomplish anything, with such stupid egotists to contend with? Thorek, however, was not at all discouraged. He suddenly leaped upon the fellow; and before the man had time to gather his slow wits, lifted him above his head and hurled him from the cliff. Then he turned to the others. “Get the ladders,” he said, and as one man they set about doing his bidding.
Now von Horst turned his attention again to Frug and the other warriors below. They offered an excellent target; and he could easily have driven them back had he cared to, but he had another plan. In low tones he issued instructions to his companions, having them line up along the ledge while the Bastians climbed to that directly below. In the meantime the ladders had been carried out; and the women were busy lashing several of them together, making two long ladders.
La-ja stood sullenly apart, glaring at von Horst, and making no pretense of helping the other women with their work; but the man paid no attention to her, which probably added to her resentment and her wrath. Frug was bellowing threats and commands from the ledge below, and from the bottom of the cliff the women and children were shouting encouragement to their men.
“Bring me the man called Von,” shouted Frug, “and none of the rest of you shall be punished.”
“Come up and get him,” challenged Thorek. “If the men of Basti were better than old women they would do something more than stand down there and shout,” taunted von Horst. He threw a small fragment of rock that struck Frog on the shoulder. “See,” he exclaimed, “how easily we could drive away the old women who are not strong enough to hurl their spears up here!”
That insult was too much for the Bastians. Instantly spears began to fly; but the slaves were ready, and as the weapons rose to their level they reached out and seized many of them. As the others dropped back to the Bastians, they were hurled again; and soon the slaves were armed, as van Horst had hoped.
“Now, the rocks,” he directed; and the slaves commenced to pelt their antagonists with small missiles until they took refuge in the caves on the level below. “Don’t let them come out,” ordered van Horst. “Dangar, you take five men and let every Bastian that shows his head get a rock on it; the rest of you men raise the ladders.”
When the ladders, rickety and sagging, were leaned, against the cliff they just topped its summit; and von Horst breathed a sigh of relief as he saw the success of his plan thus more nearly assured. He turned to Thorek. “Take three men and go to the top of the cliff. If the way is clear, tell me; and I will send up the women and the rest of the men.”
As Thorek and the three climbed aloft, the ladders creaked and bent; but they held, and presently the mammoth man called down that all was well.
“Now, the women,” said von Horst; and all the women but one started up the ladders. That one was La-ja. She ignored the ladders as she had ignored von Horst, and again the man paid no attention to her. Soon all but Dangar and his five men, von Horst, and La-ja had climbed safely to the cliff top. One by one, von Horst sent the five up; and he and Dangar kept the Bastians below confined in the caves where they might not know what was going on upon the ledge above; for he knew that they could bring other ladders from the caves in which they were hiding and enough of them reach the ledge that he and Dangar were defending to overcome them easily.
La-ja, now, was his greatest problem. Had she been a man, he would have left her; and his better judgment told him that he should leave her anyway, but he could not. Perhaps she was a stubborn little fool; but he realized that he could not know what strange standards of pride, custom, environment, and heredity had bequeathed her. How might he judge her? Her attitude might seem right and proper to her, no matter how indefensible it appeared to him.
“I wish you would go up with the others, La-ja,” he said. “We three may be recaptured if you don’t.”
“Go yourself, if you wish,” she retorted. “La-ja will remain here.”
“Do not forget Skruf,” he reminded her.
“Skruf will never have me. I can always die,” she replied.
“You will not come, then?” he asked.
“I would rather stay with Skruf than go with you.”
Von Horst shrugged and turned away. The girl was watching him intently to see what effects her insult had upon him, and she flushed with anger when he showed no resentment.
“Give them a few more rocks, Dangar,” directed von Horst; “then get to the cliff top as fast as you can.”
“And you?” asked the Sarian.
“I shall follow you.”
“And leave the girl?”
“She refuses to come,” replied von Horst.
Dangar shrugged. “She needs a beating,” he said.
“I would kill any man that laid a hand on me,” said La-ja, belligerently.
“Nevertheless, you need a beating,” insisted Dangar; “then you would have more sense.” He gathered up several rocks and hurled them at a head that appeared from one of the caves below; then he turned and swarmed up one of the ladders.
Von Horst walked toward the other ladder. It took him close to La-ja. Suddenly he seized her. “I am going to take you with me,” he said.
“You are not,” she cried, and commenced to strike and kick him.
Without great difficulty he carried her as far as the ladder; but when he tried to ascend it, she clung to it. He struggled upward and gained a couple of rounds, but she fought so viciously and clung so desperately that he soon saw they must be overtaken if the Bastians reached this ledge.
Already he heard their voices raised more loudly from below, indicating that they had come from the caves. He heard Frug directing the raising of a ladder. In a moment they would be upon them. He looked down at the beautiful face of the angry girl. He could drop her and leave her to the tender mercies of the Bastians. There was still time for him to gain the summit of the cliff alone. But there was another way, a way he shrank from; yet he saw no alternative if he were to save them both. He drew back a clenched fist and struck her heavily on the side of the head, and instantly she went limp in his arms; then he climbed upward as rapidly as he could with the dead weight of the unconscious girl hampering his every movement. He had almost reached the top when he heard a shout of triumph below him. Glancing downward, he saw a Bastian just clambering onto the ledge upon which the ladder rested. If the fellow could lay hands upon the ladder he could drag them down to death or recapture. Von Horst shifted the weight of the girl so that her body hung balanced over his left shoulder. This freed his left hand so that he could cling to the ladder as he drew his pistol with his right. He had to swing out and backward to get a bead on the Bastian; and he had to do all this in a fraction of the time it takes to tell it; for if the first man reached the ledge, there would be another directly behind him; and one shot would not stop them both.
He fired just as the Bastian was about to step from the ladder to the ledge. The fellow toppled backward. There were yells and curses from below; and though von Horst could not see what happened, he was certain that the falling body had knocked others from the ladder. Once again he hastened upward, and a moment later Dangar and Thorek reached down and dragged him and the girl to the summit of the cliff.
“Your luck is with you,” said Thorek. “Look; they are right behind you.”
Von Horst looked down. The Bastians had raised other ladders and were clambering rapidly onto the ledge below. Some of them were already climbing the ladders that the slaves had raised to the cliff top. Others of the slaves were standing near von Horst looking down at the Bastians. “We had better run,” said one. “They will soon be up here.”
“Why run?” demanded Thorek. “Are we not armed even better than they? We have most of their spears.”
“I have a better plan,” said von Horst. “Wait until the ladders are full.”
He called other slaves to him then, and waited. It was but a matter of seconds when the ladders were both filled with climbing Bastians; then von Horst gave the word, and a score of hands pushed the ladders outward from the face of the cliff. Screams of terror broke from the lips of the doomed Bastians as the slaves toppled the ladders over backward, and a dozen bodies hurtled down the face of the cliff to fall at the feet of the women and children.
“Now,” said von Horst, “let’s get out of here.” He looked down at the girl still lying on the sward where they had placed her, and he was suddenly stunned by the realization that she might be dead—that the blow he had struck her had killed her. He dropped to his knees beside her and placed an ear over her heart. It was beating, and beating strongly. With a sigh of relief, he lifted the inanimate form to his shoulder again.
“Where to now?” he asked, addressing the entire gathering of escaped slaves.
“At first we’d better get out of the Bastian country,” counseled Thorek. “After that, we can plan.”
The way led through hills and mountain gorges, and finally out into a lovely valley teeming with wild life; but though they often encountered fierce beasts they were not attacked.
“There are too many of us,” explained Dangar when von Horst commented upon their apparent immunity. “Occasionally you’ll find a beast that will attack a whole tribe of men, but ordinarily they are afraid of us when we are in numbers.”
Long before they reached the valley, La-ja regained consciousness. “Where am I?” she demanded. “What has happened?”
Von Horst lowered her from his shoulder and steadied her until he saw that she could stand. “I brought you away from Basti,” he explained. “We are free now.”
She looked at him, knitting her brows as though trying to recall a fleeting memory that eluded her. “You brought me!” she said. “I said I would not come with you. How did you do it?”
“I—er—I put you to sleep,” he fumbled hesitatingly. The thought that he had struck her humiliated him.
“Oh, I remember,” she said; “you struck me.” “I had to,” he replied. “I am very sorry, but there was no other way. I could not leave you there among those beasts.” “But you did strike me.” “Yes, I struck you:’
“Why did you wish to bring me? Why did you care whether or not I was left to Skruf?”
“Well, you see—I—but how could I leave you there?”
“If you think I am going to be your mate now, you are mistaken,” she said with emphasis.
Von Horst hushed. The young lady seemed to be jumping to embarrassing conclusions. She was certainly candid. Perhaps that was a characteristic of the stone age. “No,” he replied; “after the things that you said to me and did to me, I had no reason either to believe that you would be my mate or that I would wish you to be.”
“Well.” she snapped; “I wouldn’t be—I should prefer Skruf.”
“Thanks,” said von Horst. “Now we understand one another.”
“And hereafter,” said La-ja, “you can attend to your own affairs and leave me alone.”
“Certainly,” he replied stiffly, “just so long as you obey me.”
“I obey no one.”
“You’ll obey me,” he said determinedly, “or I’ll punch your head again,” The words surprised him much more than they seemed to surprise the girl. How could he have said such a thing to a woman? Was he reverting to some primordial type? Was he becoming, indeed, a man of the old stone age? She walked away from him then and joined the women. On her lips was a strange little melody, such perhaps as women of the outer crust hummed to the singing stars when the world was young.
When they reached the valley, some of the men made a kill; and they all ate. Then they held a council, discussing plans for the future.
Each individual wished to go his way to his own country, and while there was safety in numbers there was also danger to each in going into the country of another. There were some, like Dangar, who could promise a friendly reception to those who wished to accompany them to their land; but there were few who dared take the chance. Both von Horst and Dangar recalled the fair promises of Skruf and the manner in which they had been belied.
To von Horst, it was a strange world; but then, he realized, it might be anywhere from fifty thousand to half a million years younger than the world with which he was familiar, with a corresponding different philosophy and code of ethics. Yet these people were quite similar to types of the outer crust. They were more naïve, perhaps; less artificial, and they certainly had fewer inhibitions; but they revealed, usually in a slightly exaggerated form, all the characteristics of present day men and women of a much older humanity.
He considered La-ja. Envisioning her frocked in the latest mode, he realized that she might pass unnoticed, except for her great beauty, in any capital of Europe. No one would dream, to look at her, that she had stepped from the Pleistocene. He was not so certain, however, as to what one might think who crossed her.
The result of the council was a decision of each to return to his own country. There were several from Amdar, and they would go together. There were others from Go-hal. Thorek came from Ja-ru, the country of the, mammoth-men; La-ja from Lo-har; Dangar, from Sari. These three, with von Horst, could proceed together for awhile, as their paths lay in the same general direction.
After the council, they sought and found a place to sleep—a place of caves in cliffs. As they awoke, each individual or each party set out in the direction of his own country with only instinct as his guide. The countries of most of them were not far distant. Sari was the farthest. From what Von Horst could gather, it might be half way around this savage world; but what was a matter of distance when there was no time by which to measure the duration of a journey?
There were no good-byes. A group or an individual walked out of the lives of those others with whom they had suffered long imprisonment, with whom they had fought and won to freedom; and there was no sign of regret at parting—just the knowledge that when next they met, they would meet as mortal enemies, each eager to slay the other. This was true of most of them, but not of all. There was a real friendship existing between von Horst and Dangar, and something that approached it between these two and Thorek. Where La-ja stood, who might know? She was very aloof. Perhaps because she was the daughter of a chief; perhaps because she was a very beautiful young woman whose pride had been hurt, or who was nursing a knowledge that her woman’s intuition had vouchsafed her, or because she was by nature reserved. Whatever her reason, she kept her own counsel.
Several sleeps after the party of slaves had broken up, Thorek announced that his path now diverged from theirs. “I wish that you were coming to Ja-ru with me,” he said to von Horst. “You should have been a mammoth man; we are all great warriors. If we ever meet again, let us meet as friends.”
“That suits me,” replied von Horst. “May it hold for all of us.” He looked at Dangar and La-ja.
“A Sarian may be friends with any brave warrior,” said the former. “I would be friends always with you.”
“I would be friends with Thorek and Dangar,” said La-ja.
“And not with Von?” asked the Sarian.
“I would not be friends with Von,” she replied.
Von Horst shrugged and smiled. “But I am your friend, always, La-ja,” he said.
“I do not wish you for a friend,” she replied. “Did I not say so?”
“I’m afraid you can’t help yourself.”
“We’ll see about that,” she said, enigmatically.
So Thorek left them, and the three continued on their way. It seemed a hopeless, aimless journey to von Horst. In the bottom of his consciousness, he did not believe that either Dangar or La-ja had the slightest conception of where they were going. He did not possess the homing instinct himself, and so he could not conceive that such a sense existed in man or woman.
When they were confronted by high mountains they circled them. They followed mysterious rivers until they found a ford, and then they crossed in constant danger from weird reptiles that had been long extinct upon the outer crust. The fords were quite bad enough; they never dared swim a river. Never did they know what lay ahead of them, for this country was as strange to the two Pellucidarians as it was to von Horst.
They came through low hills to a narrow valley upon the far side of which grew a dense forest, such a forest as von Horst had never seen before in this world or his own. Even at a distance it looked grim and forbidding. As they passed down the valley, von Horst was glad that their way did not lead through the forest; for he knew how depressing the long gloom of a broad forest might become.
Presently La-ja stopped. “Which way is your country, Dangar?” she asked.
He pointed down the valley. “That way,” he said, “until we reach the end of these high hills; then I turn to the right.”
“It is not my way,” said La-ja. “Lo-har lies this way,” and she pointed straight toward the forest. “Now I must leave you and go to my own country.”
“The forest does not look good to me,” said Dangar. “Perhaps you would never get through it alive. Come to Sari with Von and me. You will be well treated.”
The girl shook her head. “I am the daughter of a chief,” she said. “I must return to Lo-har and bear sons, for my father has none; otherwise there will be no good chief to rule over my father’s people after he is dead.”
“But you cannot go alone,” said von Horst. “You could never come through alive. You would merely be throwing away your life, and then you would never have any sons at all.”
“I must go,” she insisted, “or for what purpose am I the daughter of a chief?”
“Aren’t you afraid?” asked von Horst.
“I am the daughter of a chief,” she said, with her chin in the air, defiantly; but von Horst thought that her square little chin trembled. Perhaps it was just a shadow.
“Good-by, Dangar,” she said presently, and turned away from them toward the forest. She did not say goodbye to von Horst; she did not even look at him.
The man from the outer crust watched the trim, clean cut figure of the girl as she made her way toward the wood. He noted for the thousandth time the poise of that blond head, the almost regal carriage, the soft and graceful tread of the panther.
The man did not know what motivated him, he could not interpret the urges that seemed to possess him; something quite beyond reason, something that exhilarated one as might an inspiration, prompted him. He did not wish to reason it out; he wished merely to obey.
He turned to Dangar. “Good-by,” he said.
“Good-by?” exclaimed Dangar. “Where are you going?”
“I am going to La-har with La-ja,” replied von Horst.