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- The People Of The Mist - 70/80 -
strike for their own sakes and for that of their order, which was the most powerful among the People of the Mist, and had no desire to be placed under the yoke of secular authority.
It was clear to all of them that if they could not escape, they must fall very shortly into the hands of the priests, who, knowing everything, would not dare to allow them to appeal to the army, or to the superstition of the outside public. The only good card they held was the possession of the person of Nam, though it remained to be seen how far this would help them.
To begin with, there are always some ready to step into the shoes of a high priest, also Nam had blundered so extensively in the matter of the false gods, that the greater part of the fraternity, whom he had involved in his mistakes, would not sorrow to see the last of him.
These facts, which were perfectly well known to Olfan and guessed at by his companions, sharpened their sense of the danger in which they had been placed by Soa's resource and cunning. Indeed, their escape was a matter of life and death to them and to many hundreds of their adherents. If once they could reach the temple and proclaim the re-arisen gods to the people, all would go well, for the army would suffice to keep the priests from using violence. But if they failed in this, their death-warrant was already signed, for none of them would ever be heard of again.
No wonder, then, that they hurled themselves despairingly upon the stubborn doors. For an hour or more they laboured, but all in vain. The massive timbers of hard wood, six inches or more in thickness, could scarcely be touched by their knives and spears, nor might their united strength serve even to stir the stone bolts and bars that held them fast, and they had nothing that could be used as a battering-ram.
"It is useless," said Leonard at last, throwing down his knife in despair; "this wood is like iron, it would take us a week to cut through it."
"Why not try fire, Baas?" suggested Otter.
Accordingly they attempted to burn down the doors, with the result that they nearly stifled themselves in the smoke and made but little impression upon the woodwork.
At length they gave up the experiment--it was a failure--and sat looking blankly at each other as they listened to certain sounds which reached them from the passages without, telling them that their enemies were gathering there.
"Has anyone a suggestion to make?" said Leonard at last. "If not, I think that this game is about played."
"Baas," answered Otter, "I have a word to say. We can all go down through that hole by which I came up to you. The Water-Dweller is dead, I slew him with my own hand, so there is nothing to fear from him. Beneath the hole runs a tunnel, and that tunnel leads to the slope of the mountain above. At the top of this slope is an ice-bridge by which men may reach a fair country if they have a mind to."
"Then for heaven's sake let us cross it," put in Juanna.
"I have seen that bridge," said Olfan, while the captains stared wonderingly at the man whose might had prevailed against the ancient Snake, "but never yet have I heard of the traveller who dared to set his foot upon it."
"It is dangerous, but it can be crossed," replied Otter; "at the least, it is better to try it than to stay here to be murdered by the medicine-men."
"I think that we will go, Leonard," said Juanna; "if I am to die I wish to do so in the open air. Only what is to become of Nam? And perhaps Olfan and the captains would prefer to stop here?"
"Nam will go with us wherever we go," answered Leonard grimly; "we have a long score to settle with that gentleman. As for Olfan and his captains, they must please themselves."
"What will do you, Olfan?" asked Juanna, speaking to him for the first time since the scene in the other prison.
"It seems, Queen," he answered, with downcast eyes, "that I have sworn to defend you to the last, and this I will do the more readily because now my life is of little value. As for my brethren here, I think, like you, that they will choose to die in the open, rather than wait to be murdered by the priests."
The three captains nodded an assent to his words. Then they all set to work.
First they took food and drink, of which there was an ample supply in the other cell, and hurriedly swallowing some of it, disposed the rest about their persons as best they could, for they foresaw that even if they succeeded in escaping, it was likely that they would go hungry for many days. Then Leonard wrapped Juanna in a goat-skin cloak which he took from one of the fallen priests, placing the second cloak over his own shoulders, for he knew that it would be bitterly cold on the mountains. Lastly, they tied Nam's arms behind him and deprived him of his knife, so that the old man might work none of them a sudden injury in his rage.
All being prepared, Otter made his rope fast to the staff and descended rapidly to the cave below. As his feet touched the ground, the priests began to batter upon the doors of the cell with beams of wood, or some such heavy instruments.
"Quick, Juanna!" said Leonard, "sit in this noose and hold the line, we will let you down. Hurry, those doors cannot stand for long."
Another minute and she was beside Otter, who stood beneath, a candle in his hand. Then Leonard came down.
"By the way, Otter," he said, "have you seen anything of the jewels that are supposed to be here?"
"There is a bag yonder by the Water-Dweller's bed, Baas," answered the dwarf carelessly, "but I did not trouble to look into it. What is the use of the red stones to us now?"
"None, but they may be of use afterwards, if we get away."
"Yes, Baas, /if/ we get away," answered Otter, bethinking himself of the ice-bridge. "Well, we can pick it up as we go along."
Just then Nam arrived, having been let down by Olfan and the captains, and stood glaring round him, not without awe, for neither he nor any of his brethren had ever dared to visit the sacred home of the Snake- god. Then the captains descended, and last of all came Olfan.
"We have little time to spare, Deliverer," said the king; "the door is falling," and as he spoke they heard a great crash above. Otter jerked furiously at the rope, till by good luck one end of the stake slid over the edge of the hole and it fell among them.
"No need to leave this line for them to follow by," he said; "besides it may be useful." At that moment something appeared looking through the hole. It was the head of one of the pursuing priests. Nam saw it and took his opportunity.
"The false gods escape by the tunnel to the mountains," he screamed, "and with them the false king. Follow and fear not, the Water-Dweller is dead. Think not of me, Nam, but slay them."
With an exclamation Otter struck him heavily across the mouth, knocking him backwards, but the mischief was done, for a voice cried in answer:
"We hear you, father, and will find ropes and follow."
Then they started. One moment they paused to look at the huge bulk of the dead crocodile.
"This dwarf is a god in truth," cried one of the captains, "for no man could have wrought such a deed."
"Forward," said Leonard, "we have no time to lose."
Now they were by the crocodile's bed and among the broken bones of his victims.
"The bag, Otter, where is the bag?" asked Leonard.
"Here, Baas," answered the dwarf, dragging it from the mouldering skeleton of the unlucky priest who, having offended the new-found god, had been let down through the hole to lay it in its hiding-place and to perish in the jaws of the Water-Dweller.
Leonard took the bag, and opening its mouth, which was drawn tight with a running strip of hide, he peeped into it while Otter held down the candle that he might see. From its depths came a glimmer of red and blue light that glowed like the heart of some dull fire.
"It is the treasure," he said, in a low tone of exultation. "At last the luck has turned."
"How much does it weigh?" said Juanna, as they sped onwards.
"Some seven or eight pounds, I should say," he answered, still exultantly. "Seven or eight solid pounds of gems, the finest in the world."
"Then give it to me," she said; "I have nothing else to carry. You may have to use both your hands presently."
"True," he answered, and passed the string of the bag over her head.
Now they went on up the smooth sloping bed of the stream, suffering little inconvenience, except from the cold of the water that flowed about their ankles.
"The stream has risen a little, Baas, since I passed it this morning," said Otter. "Doubtless this day's sun has melted some snow at its source. To-morrow we might not have been able to travel this road."
"Very likely," answered Leonard. "I told you that our luck had turned at last."
Twenty minutes more and they reached the mouth of the tunnel, and passing between the blocks of ice, found themselves upon the mountain side. But, as it chanced, the face of the moon was hidden by clouds, which is often the case in this country at the beginning of the spring
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