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- The Emancipatrix - 20/21 -
lovers were being punished; but some intervening bushes prevented seeing the men themselves. The other villagers were at work quite as usual; so it was plain that, although the bees were invisible, yet they were still the masters.
Hardly had the nine reached the first low-growing brush before they encountered some of the bees. None attempted to attack, but turned about and flew back to report. It was not long before Supreme, and therefore Billie, knew of the approaching raiders.
"They are doubtless provided with the magic flower," Supreme told her lieutenants. "You will watch the blossom as it sways in the wind, and keep always on the windward side of it. In this way you can attack the inferiors."
The word was passed, bee-fashion, until every soldier and worker in the colony knew her duty. The stingers were to keep back and watch their chance, while the workers harassed the attackers. Moreover, with the hives always uppermost in her mind, Supreme planned to keep the actual conflict always at a distance from the "city."
It was late in the day when the nine reached the stream in whose bed rested the pyrites taken from Corrus and Dulnop. This stream, it will be remembered, flowed not far from the torture-place. Deltos's plan was to rescue these two men before doing anything else; this, because it would strengthen the villagers' regard for the conquerors.
The bees seemed to sense this. They met the invaders about three miles above the village, in an open spot easily seen by the people with the telescope. And the encounter took place during twilight, just early enough to be visible from a distance, yet late enough to make the fire very impressive.
"Remember, it's the smoke as much as the flame," Deltos shouted to the others. "Just keep your torches on the move, and make as much fuss as you can!"
Next moment the swarm was upon them. It was like a vast cloud of soot; only, the buzzing of those millions of wings fairly drowned out every other sound. The nine had to signal to one another; shouting was useless.
Within a single minute the ground was covered with bees, either dead or insensible from the smoke. Yet the others never faltered. At times the insects battered against the wire netting with such force, and in such numbers, that the men had to fight them away in order to get enough air.
Supreme watched from above, and kept sending her lieutenants with fresh divisions to first one man and then another, as he became separated from the rest. Of course, nobody suffered but the bees. Never before had they swarmed a creature which did not succumb; but these inferiors with the queer things over their faces, and the cows' hides over their bodies and hands, seemed to care not at all. Supreme was puzzled.
"Keep it up," she ordered. "They surely cannot stand it much longer."
"It shall be done!"
And the bees were driven in upon the men, again and again. Always the torches were kept waving, so that the insects never could tell just where to attack. Always the men kept moving steadily down-stream; and as they marched they left in their wake a black path of dead and dying bees. Half of them had been soldier bees, carrying enough poison in their stings to destroy a nation. Yet, nine little matches were too much for them!
Presently the invaders had approached to within a half-mile of the torture-place. One of Supreme's lieutenants made a suggestion:
"Had we not better destroy the men, rather than let them be rescued?"
The commandant considered this fully. "No," she decided. "To kill them would merely enrage the other villagers, and perhaps anger them so much as to make them unmanageable." More than once a human had been driven so frantic as to utterly disregard orders. "We cannot slay them all."
The bees attacked with unabated fury. Not once did the insects falter; orders were orders, and always had been. What mattered it if death came to them, so long as the Hive lived? For that is bee philosophy.
And then, just when it seemed that the wisest thing would be to withdraw, Supreme got the greatest idea she had ever had. For once she felt positively enthusiastic. Had she been a human she would have yelled aloud for sheer joy.
"Attention!" to her subordinates. "We attack no more! Instead, go into the huts and drive all the inferiors here! Compel them to bring their tools! Kill all that refuse!"
The lieutenants only dimly grasped the idea. "What shall we do when we get them here?"
"Do? Drive them against the invaders, of course!"
It was a daring thought. None but a super bee could have conceived it. Off flew the lieutenants, with Supreme's inspired order humming after them:
"Call out every bee! And drive every last one of the inferiors to this spot!"
And thus it came about that, a minute later, the nine looked around to see the bees making off at top speed. Sorplee raised a cheer.
"Hurrah!" he shouted, and the rest took it up. Neither admitted that he was vastly relieved; it had been a little nerve-shaking to know that a single thickness of leather had been all that stood, for an hour, between him and certain death. The buzzing, too, was demoralizing.
"Now, to release the two men!" reminded Deltos, and led the way to the torture-place. They found Corrus and Dulnop exactly as the two women had left them six weeks before, except that their faces were drawn with the agony of what they had endured. Below the surface of the ground their bodies had shriveled and whitened with their daily imprisonment. Only their spirits remained unchanged; they, of all the natives, had known what it was to feel superior.
For the last time they were dug out and helped to their feet. They could not stand by themselves, much less run; but it is not likely they would have fled. Somehow they knew that the strange head-coverings had human faces be hind them. And scarcely had they been freed before Sorplee, glancing about, gave an exclamation of delight as he saw a group of natives running toward them.
"Just what we want!" he exclaimed. "They've seen the scrap, and realize that we've won!"
Looking around, the nine could see the other groups likewise hurrying their way. All told, there were a couple of hundred of the villagers, and all were armed with tools they knew how to use very well.
"Who shall do the honors?" asked Sorplee. "Wish Somat was here, to explain for us."
"Don't need him," reminded Deltos. "All we've got to do is to show these two fellows we dug up."
And it was not until the first of the villagers was within twenty yards that the nine suspected anything. Then they heard the buzzing. Looking closer, they saw that it was--an attack!
"Stop!" cried Deltos, in swift panic. "We are friends, not enemies!"
It was like talking to the wind. The villagers had their choice of two fears: either fight the strangers with the magic flower, or--be stung to death. And no one can blame them for what they chose.
The nine had time enough to snatch knives or hatchets from their belts, or clubs from the ground. Then, with wild cries of fear, the natives closed in. They fought as only desperate people can fight, caught between two fires. And they were two hundred to nine!
In half a minute the first of the invaders was down, his head crushed by a mattock in the hands of a bee-tormented native. In a single minute all were gone but two; and a moment later, Deltos alone, because he had chanced to secure a long club, was alive of all that crew.
For a minute he kept them off by sheer strength. He swung the stick with such vigor that he fairly cleared a circle for himself. The natives paused, howling and shrieking, before the final rush.
An inspiration came to Deltos. He tore his cap from his head and his net from his face.
"Look!" he screamed, above the uproar. "I am a man, like yourselves! Do not kill!"
Next second he froze in his tracks. The next he was writhing in the death agony, and the bees were supreme once.
Supreme herself had stung Deltos.
Of the four on the earth, Smith was the first to make any comment. He had considerable difficulty in throwing his thought to the others; somehow he felt slightly dazed.
"This is--unbelievable!" he said, and repeated it twice. "To think that those insects are still the masters!"
"I wish"--Billie's voice shook somewhat--"I wish almost that I had let you warn Rolla. It might have helped--" She broke off suddenly, intent upon something Supreme was hearing. "Just listen!"
"Quick!" a lieutenant was humming excitedly to the commandant. "Back to the hives; give the order, Supreme!"
It was done, and immediately the bees quit the throng of natives and their victims, rushing at top speed for their precious city. As they went, Supreme demanded an explanation.
"What is the meaning of this?"
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