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- The People Of The Mist - 60/80 -
For a while all those who witnessed this phenomenon stood aghast, then there arose that babel of voices which had reached the ears of Otter as he lurked under the bank of rock.
"The gods have been sacrificed unjustly," yelled the people. "They are true gods; see, the dawn is red!"
The situation was curious and most unexpected, but Nam, who had been a high priest for more than fifty years, proved himself equal to it.
"This is a marvel indeed!" he cried, when silence had at length been restored; "for no such thing is told of in our history as that a white dawn upon the mountain should turn to red. Yet, O People of the Mist, those whom we thought gods have not been offered up wrongfully. Nay, this is the meaning of the sign: now are the true gods, Aca and Jal, appeased, because those who dared to usurp their power have gone down to doom. Therefore the curse is lifted from the land and the sunlight has come back to bless us."
As he finished speaking, again the tumult broke out, some crying this thing and some that. But no action was taken, for Nam's excuse was ready and plausible, and the minds of men were confused. So the assembly broke up in disorder; only the priests and as many more as could find place, Olfan among them, crowded round the edges of the pool to see what happened in its depths.
Meanwhile Otter had seen that which caused him to think no more of the shouting above him than of the humming of last year's gnats. Suffering his eyes to travel round the circumference of the rocky wall, he saw the mouth of a circular hole, situated immediately under the base of the idol, which may have measured some eight feet in diameter. The lower edge of this hole stood about six inches above the level of the pool, and water ran out of it in a thin stream. Passing down this stream, half swimming and half waddling, appeared that huge and ungainly reptile which was the real object of the worship of the People of the Mist.
Great as were its length and bulk, the dwarf saw it but for a few moments, so swift were its movements; then the creature vanished into the deep waters, to reappear presently by the side of the dead priest, who was now beginning to sink. Its horrible head rose upon the waters as on that night when the woman had been thrown to it; it opened its huge jaws, and, seizing the body of the man across the middle, it disappeared beneath the foam. Otter watched the mouth of the hole, and not in vain; for before he could have counted ten the monster was crawling through it, bearing its prey into the cave.
Now once more the dwarf felt afraid, for the Snake, or rather the crocodile, at close quarters was far more fearful than anything that his imagination had portrayed. Keeping his place beneath the ledge, which, except for the coldness of the water, he found himself able to do with little fatigue or difficulty, Otter searched the walls of the pool, seeking for some possible avenue of escape, since his ardour for personal conflict with this reptile had evaporated. But search as he would he could find nothing; the walls were full thirty feet high, and sloped inwards, like the sides of an inverted funnel. Wherever the exits from the pool might be, they were invisible; also, notwithstanding his strength and skill, Otter did not dare to swim into the furious eddy to look for them.
One thing he noticed, indeed: immediately above the entrance to the crocodile's den, and some twenty feet from the level of the water, two holes were pierced in the rock, six feet or so apart, each measuring about twelve inches square. But these holes were not to be reached, and even if reached they were too small to pass, so Otter thought no more of them.
Now the cold was beginning to nip him, and he felt that if he stayed where he was much longer he would become paralyzed by it, for it was fed from the ice and snow above. Therefore, it would seem that there was but one thing to do--to face the Water Dweller in his lair. To this, then, Otter made up his mind, albeit with loathing and a doubtful heart.
HOW OTTER FOUGHT THE WATER DWELLER
Keeping himself carefully under the overshadowing edge of the rock- bank, and holding his double-bladed knife ready in one hand, Otter swam to the mouth of the Snake's den. As he approached it he perceived by the great upward force of the water that the real body of the stream entered the pool from below, the hole where the crocodile lived being but a supplementary exit, which doubtless the river followed in times of flood.
Otter reached the mouth of the tunnel without any great difficulty, and, watching his chance, he lifted himself on his hands and slipped through it quickly, for he did not desire to be seen by those who were gathered above. Nor indeed was he seen, for his red head-dress and the goat-skin cloak had been washed away or cast off in the pool, and in that light his black body made little show against the black rock beneath.
Now he was inside the hole, and found himself crouching upon a bed of sand, or rather disintegrated rock, brought down by the waters. The gloom of the place was great, but the light of the white dawn, which had turned to red, was gathering swiftly on the surface of the pool without as the mist melted, and thence was reflected into the tunnel. So it came about that very soon Otter, who had the gift, not uncommon among savages, of seeing in anything short of absolute darkness, was able to make out his surroundings with tolerable accuracy. The place in a corner of which he squatted was a cave of no great height or width, hollowed in the solid rock by the force of water, as smoothly as though it had been hewn by the hand of man: in short, an enormous natural drain-pipe, but constructed of stone instead of earthenware.
In the bottom of this drain trickled a stream of water nowhere more than six inches in depth, on either side of which, for ten feet or more, lay a thick bed of debris ground small. How far the cave stretched of course he could not see, nor as yet could he discover the whereabouts of its hideous occupant, though traces of its presence were plentiful, for the sandy floor was marked with its huge footprints, and the air reeked with an abominable stink.
"Where has this evil spirit gone to?" thought Otter; "he must be near, and yet I can see nothing of him. Perhaps he lives further up the cave"; and he crept a pace or two forward and again peered into the gloom.
Now he perceived what had hitherto escaped him, namely, that some eight yards from the mouth of the tunnel a table-shaped fragment of stone rose from its floor to within six feet of the roof, having on the hither side a sloping plane that connected its summit with the stream-bed beneath. Doubtless this fragment or boulder, being of some harder material than the surrounding rock, had resisted the wear of the rushing river; the top of it, as was shown by the high-water marks on the sides of the cave, being above the level of the torrent, which, although it was now represented only by a rivulet, evidently at certain seasons of the year poured down with great force and volume.
"Here is a bed on which a crocodile might sleep," reflected Otter, creeping a little further forward and staring at the mass of rock, and more especially at a triangular-shaped object that was poised on the top of the sloping plane, and on something which lay beneath it.
"Now, if that thing be another stone," thought Otter again, "how comes it that it does not slip into the water as it should do, and what is that upon which it rests?" and he took a step to one side to prevent his body from intercepting any portion of the ray of light that momentarily shone clearer and pierced the darkness of the cave to a greater distance.
Then he looked again and almost fell in his horror, for now he could see all. The thing that he had taken for a stone set upon the rock- table was the head of the Dweller in the Waters, for there in it, as the light struck on them, two dreadful eyes gleamed with a dull and changing fire. Moreover, he discovered what was the object which lay under the throat of the reptile. It was the body of that priest whom Otter had taken with him in his leap from the statue, for he could see the dead face projecting on one side.
"Perhaps if I wait awhile he will begin to eat him," reflected the dwarf, remembering the habits of crocodiles, "and then I can attack him when he rests and sleeps afterwards"; and, acting on this idea, he stood still, watching the green fire as it throbbed and quivered, waxed and waned in the monster's eyes.
How long he remained thus Otter never knew; but after a time he became conscious that these eyes had taken hold of him and were drawing him towards them, though whether the reptile saw him or not he could not tell. For a space he struggled against this unholy fascination; then, overcome by dread, he strove to fly, back to the pool or anywhere out of reach of those devilish orbs. Alas! it was too late: no step could he move backwards, no, not to save his life.
Now he must go on. It was as though the Water Dweller had read his mind, and drew its foe towards itself to put the matter to the test. Otter took one step forward--rather would he have sprung again off the head of the colossus--and the eyes glowed more dreadfully than ever, as though in triumph.
Then in despair he sank to the ground, hiding his face in his hands and groaning in his heart.
"This is a devil that I have come to fight, a devil with magic in his eyes," he thought. "And how can I, who am but a common Knobnose dwarf, do battle against the king of evil spirits, clothed in the shape of a crocodile?"
Even now, when he could not see them, he felt the eyes drawing him. Yet, as they were no longer visible, his courage and power of mind came back to him sufficiently to enable him to think again.
"Otter," he said to himself, "if you stay thus, soon the magic will do its work. Your sense will leave you, and that devil will eat you up as a cobra devours a meer-cat. Yes, he will swallow you, and his inside will be your grave, and that is no end for one who has been called a god! Men, let alone gods, should die fighting, whether it be with other men, with wild beasts, with snakes, or with devils. Think now, if your master, the Deliverer, saw you crouch thus like a toad before an adder, how he would laugh and say, 'Ho! I thought this man brave. Ho! he talked very loud about fighting the Water Dweller, he who came of a line of warriors; but now I laugh at him, for I see that he is but a cross-bred cur and a coward.'
"Yes, yes, you can hear his words, Otter. Say now, will you bear their shame and sit here until you are snapped up and swallowed?"
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