“It must seem good,” I said, “to travel again this familiar tunnel of your native city. I know how happy I should be were I thus approaching my own birthplace.”
“I am glad to be returning to Laythe,” she said, “for many reasons, but for one I am sorry, and as for this passageway it is scarcely more familiar to me than to you, since I have traversed it but once before in my life and that when I was a little girl and came here with my father and his court upon the occasion of his periodical inspection of the passageway, which is now practically never used.”
“If you are not familiar with the tunnel,” I asked, “are you sure that there is no danger of our going astray at some fork or branch?”
“There is but the one passageway,” she replied, “which leads from the crater to Laythe.”
“And how long is the tunnel?” I asked. “Will we soon enter the city?”
“No,” she replied, “it is a great distance from the crater to Laythe.”
We had covered some little distance at this time, possibly five or six miles, and she had scarcely ceased speaking when a turn in the passageway led us into a cave of larger proportions than any through which we had previously passed and from the opposite side of which two passageways diverged.
“I thought there were no branches,” I remarked. “I do not understand it,” she said. “There is no branch from the tunnel of Laythe.”
“Could it be possible that we are in the wrong tunnel?” I asked, “and that this does not lead to Laythe?”
“A moment before I should have been sure that we were in the right tunnel,” she replied, “but now, Julian, I do not know, for never had I heard of any branch of our own tunnel.”
We had crossed the cave and were standing between the openings of the two divergent passageways.
“Which one shall we take?” I asked, but again she shook her head.
“I do not know,” she replied.
“Listen!” I cautioned her. “What was that?” For I was sure that I had heard a sound issuing from one of the tunnels.
We stood peering into an aperture which revealed about a hundred yards of the passageway before an abrupt turn hid the continuation of it from our view. We could hear what now resolved itself into the faint sound of voices approaching us along the corridor, and then quite suddenly the figure of a man appeared around the corner of the turn. Nah-ee-lah leaped to one side out of sight, drawing me with her.
“A Kalkar!” she whispered. “Oh, Julian, if they find us we are lost.”
“If there is only one of them I can take care of him,” I said.
“There will be more than one,” she replied; “there will be many.”
“Then, let us return the way we came and make our way to the top of the crater’s rim before they discover us. We can throw their hooked poles into the crater, including the one which we used to ascend from the mouth of the tunnel, thus effectually preventing any pursuit.”
“We cannot cross this room again to the tunnel upon the opposite side without being apprehended,” she replied. “Our only hope is in hiding in this other tunnel until they have passed and trusting to chance that we meet no one within it.”
“Come, then,” I said. “I dislike the idea of flying like a scared rabbit, but neither would there be any great wisdom in facing armed men without a single weapon of defense.”
Even as we had whispered thus briefly together, we found the voices from the other tunnel had increased and I thought that I noted a tone of excitement in them, though the speakers were still too far away for us to understand their words. We moved swiftly up the branch tunnel, Nah-ee-lah in the lead, and after passing the first turn we both felt comparatively safe, for Nah-ee-lah was sure that the men who had interrupted our journey were a party of hunters on their way to the outer world by means of the crater through which we had entered the tunnel and that they would not come up the branch in which we were hiding. Thus believing, we halted after we were safely out of sight and hearing of the large cave we had just left.
“That man was a Kalkar,” said Nah-ee-lah, “which means that we are in the wrong tunnel and that we must retrace our steps and continue our search for Laythe upon the surface of the ground.” Her voice sounded tired and listless, as though hope had suddenly deserted her brave heart. We were standing shoulder to shoulder in the narrow corridor and I could not resist the impulse to place an arm about her and comfort her.
“Do not despair, Nah-ee-lah,” I begged her; “we are no worse off than we have been and much better off than before we escaped the Va-gas of Ga-va-go. Then do you not recall that you mentioned one drawback to your return to Laythe—that you might be as well off here as there? What was the reason, Nah-ee-lah?”
“Ko-tah wants me in marriage,” she replied. “Ko-tah is very powerful. He expects one day to be Jemadar of Laythe. This he cannot be while I live unless he marries me.”
“Do you wish to marry him?” I asked.
“No,” she said; “not now. Before—” she hesitated—“before I left Laythe I did not care so very much; but now I know that I cannot wed with Ko-tah.”
“And your father,” I continued, “what of him—will he insist that you marry Ko-tah?”
“He cannot do otherwise,” replied Nah-ee-lah, “for Ko-tah is very powerful. If my father refuses to permit me to marry him Ko-tah may overthrow him, and when my father is dead, should I still refuse to marry Ko-tah he may slay me, also, and then become Jemadar easily, for the blood of Jemadars flows in his veins.”
“It appears to me, Nah-ee-lah, that you will be about as badly off at home as anywhere else in Va-nah. It is too bad that I cannot take you to my own Earth, where you would be quite safe, and I am sure, happy.”
“I wish that you might, Julian,” she replied simply.
I was about to reply when she placed slim fingers upon my lips. “Hush, Julian!” she whispered, “they are following us up this corridor. Come quickly, we must escape before they overtake us,” and so saying, she turned and ran quickly along the corridor which led neither of us knew whither.
But we were soon to find out, for we had gone but a short distance when we came to the tunnel’s end in a large circular chamber, at one end of which was a rostrum upon which were a massive, elaborately carved desk and a chair of similar design. Below the rostrum were arranged other chairs in rows, with a broad aisle down the center. The furniture, though of peculiar design and elaborately carved with strange figures of unearthly beasts and reptiles, was not, for all of that, markedly dissimilar to articles of the same purpose fabricated upon Earth. The chairs had four legs, high backs and broad arms, seeming to have been designed equally for durability, service, and comfort.
I glanced quickly around the apartment, as we first entered, only taking in the details later, but I saw that there was no other opening than the one through which we had entered.
“We will have to wait here, Nah-ee-lah,” I said. “Perhaps, though, all will be well—the Kalkars may prove friendly.”
She shook her head negatively. “No,” she said, “they will not be friendly.”
“What will they do to us?” I asked.
“They will make slaves of us,” she replied, “and we shall spend the balance of our lives working almost continuously until we drop with fatigue under the cruelest of taskmasters, for the Kalkars hate us of Laythe and will hesitate at nothing that will humiliate or injure us.”
She had scarcely ceased speaking when there appeared in the entrance of the cave the figure of a man about my own height dressed in a tunic similar to Nah-ee-lah’s but evidently made of leather. He carried a knife slung in a scabbard depending from a shoulder belt, and in his right hand he grasped a slender lance. His eyes were close set upon either side of a prominent, hooked nose. They were watery, fishy, blue eyes, and the hair growing profusely above his low forehead was flaxen in color. His physique was admirable, except for a noticeable stoop. His feet were very large and his gait awkward when he moved. Behind him I could see the heads and shoulders of others. They stood there grinning at us for a moment, most malevolently, it seemed to me, and then they entered the cave—a full dozen of them. There were several types, with eyes and hair of different colors, the former ranging from blue to brown, the latter from light blond to almost black.
As they emerged from the mouth of the tunnel they spread out and advanced slowly toward us. We were cornered like rats in a trap. How I longed for the feel of my automatic at my hip! I envied them their slender spears and their daggers. If I could have but these I might have a chance at least to take Nah-ee-lah out of their clutches and save her from the hideous fate of slavery among the Kalkars, for I had guessed what such slavery would mean to her from the little that she had told me, and I had guessed, too, that she would rather die than submit to it. For my own part, life held little for me; I had long since definitely given up any hope of ever returning to my own world, or of finding the ship and being re-united with West and Jay and Norton. There came upon me at that moment, however, a sense of appreciation of the fact that since we had left the village of the No-vans I had been far from unhappy, nor could I attribute this to aught else than the companionship of Nah-ee-lah—a realization that convinced me that I should be utterly miserable were she to be taken from me now. Was I to submit supinely then, to capture and slavery for myself and worse than death for Nah-ee-lah, with the assurance of consequent separation from her? No. I held up my hand as a signal for the advancing Kalkars to halt.
“Stop!” I commanded. “Before you advance farther I wish to know your intentions toward us. We entered this tunnel, mistaking it for that which led to the city of my companion. Permit us to depart in peace and all will be well.”
“All will be well, anyway,” replied the leader of the Kal-kars. “You are a strange creature, such as I have never before seen in Va-nah. Of you we know nothing except that you are not of the Kalkars, and therefore an enemy of the Kal-kars, but this other is from Laythe.”
“You will not permit us to go in peace, then?” I demanded.
He laughed sneeringly. “Nor in any other way,” he said.
I had been standing in the aisle, with my hand upon one of the chairs near the rostrum and now I turned to Nah-ee-lah who was standing close beside me.
“Come,” I said to her, “follow me; stay close behind me.”
Several of the Kalkars were coming down the main aisle toward us, and as I turned toward them from speaking to Nah-ee-lah, I raised the chair which my hand had been resting upon, and swinging it quickly around my head hurled it full in the face of the leader. As he went down Nah-ee-lah and I ran forward, gaining a little toward the opening of the tunnel, and then without pausing I hurled another chair and a third and a fourth, in rapid succession. The Kalkars tried to bring us down with their lances, but they were so busy dodging chairs that they could not cast their weapons accurately, and even those few which might otherwise have struck us were warded off by my rather remarkable engines of defense.
There had been four Kalkars advancing toward us down the center aisle. The balance of the party had divided, half of it circling the cave to the left and the other half to the right, with the evident intention of coming up the center aisle from behind us. This maneuver had started just before I commenced hurling chairs at the four directly in front of us, and now when those who had intended to take us from the rear discovered that we were likely to make our way through to the tunnel’s entrance, some of them sprang toward us along the passageways between the chairs, which necessitated my turning and devoting a moment’s attention to them. One huge fellow was in the lead, coming across the backs of the chairs leaping from seat to seat; and being the closest to me, he was naturally my first target. The chairs were rather heavy and the one that I let drive at him caught him full in the chest with an impact that brought a howl from him and toppled him over across the backs of the chairs behind him, where he hung limp and motionless. Then I turned my attention again to those before us, all of whom had fallen before my massive ammunition. Three of them lay still, but one of them had scrambled to his feet and was in the very act of casting his lance as I looked. I stopped the weapon with a chair and as the fellow went down I caught a glimpse of Nah-ee-lah from the corners of my eyes as she snatched the lance from the first Kalkar who had fallen and hurled it at someone behind me. I heard a scream of rage and pain and then I turned in time to see another of the Kalkars fall almost at my feet, the lance imbedded in his heart.
The way before us was temporarily open, while the Kalkars behind us had paused, momentarily, at least, in evident consternation at the havoc I wrought with these unseemly weapons against which they had no defense.
“Get two knives and two lances from those who have fallen,” I cried to Nah-ee-lah, “while I hold these others back.”
She did as I bade, and slowly we backed toward the mouth of the tunnel. My chairs had accounted for half our enemies when at last we stood in the opening, each armed with a lance and a knife.
“Now run, Nah-ee-lah, as you never ran before,” I whispered to my companion. “I can hold them off until you have reached the mouth of the tunnel and clambered to the rim of the crater. If I am lucky, I will follow you.”
“I will not leave you, Julian,” she replied, “we will go together or not at all.”
“But you must, Nah-ee-lah,” I insisted, “it is for you that I have been fighting them. What difference can it make in my fate where I am when in Va-nah—all here are my enemies.”
She laid her hand gently upon my arm. “I will not leave you, Julian,” she repeated, “and that is final.”
The Kalkars within the room were now advancing toward us menacingly.
“Halt!” I cried to them, “you see what fate your companions have met, because you would not let us go in peace. That is all we ask. I am armed now and it will be death to any who follow us.”
They paused and I saw them whispering together as Nah-ee-lah and I backed along the corridor, a turn in which soon shut them from our view. Then we wheeled and ran like deer along the winding passageway. I did not feel very safe from capture at any time, but at least I breathed a sigh of relief after we had passed the chamber from which the Kal-kars had run us into the cul-de-sac, and we had seen no sign of any other of their kind. We heard no sound of pursuit, but that in itself meant nothing, since the Kalkars are shod with soft leather sandals, the material for which, like all their other leather trappings, is made of the skins of Va-gas and of the prisoners from Laythe.
As we came to the pile of hooked poles which marked the last turn before the entrance of the tunnel I breathed an inward sigh of relief. Stooping, I gathered them all in my arms, and then we ran on to the opening into the crater, where I cast all but one of the poles into the abyss. That which I retained I hooked over the lip of the crater and then, turning to Nah-ee-lah, I bade her ascend.
“You should have saved two of the poles,” she said, “and then we could have ascended together; but I will make haste and you can follow me immediately, for we do not know but that they are pursuing us. I cannot imagine that they will let us escape thus easily.”
Even as she spoke I heard the soft patter of sandal shod feet up the corridor.
“Make haste, Nah-ee-lah,” I cried; “they come!”
Climbing a pole is slow work at best, but when one is suspended over the brink of a bottomless chasm and is none too sure of the security of the hook that is holding the pole above, one must needs move cautiously. Yet, even so, Nah-ee-lah scrambled upward so rapidly as to fill me with apprehension for her safety. Nor were my fears entirely groundless, for standing in the mouth of the tunnel, where I could keep one eye upon Nah-ee-lah and the other toward the turn around which my pursuers would presently come in view, I saw the girl’s hands grasp the rim of the crater at the very instant that the hook came loose and the pole dropped past me into the abyss. I might have caught it as it fell, but my whole mind was fixed upon Nah-ee-lah and her grave danger. Would she be able to draw herself upward, or would she fall? I saw her straining frantically to raise her body above the edge of the volcano, and then from up the corridor behind me came an exultant cry and I turned to face a brawny Kalkar who was racing toward me.