THE MAIN GATE of Athne, the City of Ivory, looks toward the south; for in that direction runs the trail that leads to Cathne the City of Gold, the stronghold of the hereditary enemies of the Athneans. In that direction ride the warriors and the nobles of Athne seeking women and heads and other loot; from that direction come the raiding parties from Cathne, also seeking women and heads and other loot; so the main gate of Athne is strong and well guarded. It is surmounted by two squat towers in which warriors watch by day and by night.
Before the gate is a great level plain where the elephants are trained and the warriors of Athne drill upon their mighty mounts. It is dusty, and nothing grows there but a sturdy Cynodon; and even that survives the trampling pads of the pachyderms only in scattered patches. The fields of the Athneans lie north of the city, and there the slaves labor; so one might approach the city from the south without glimpsing a sign of human life.
It was mid afternoon. The hot sun beat down upon the watchtowers. The warriors, languid with the heat, gamed at dice—those who were not on watch. Presently one of the latter spoke.
“A man comes from the south,” he said.
“How many?” asked one of the players.
“I said a man. I see but one.”
“Then we do not have to give the alarm. But who could come alone to Athne? Is it a man from Cathne?”
“There have been deserters come to us before. Perhaps this is one.”
“He is yet too far off to see plainly,” said the warrior who had discovered the stranger, “but he does not look like a Cathnean. His dress seems strange to me.”
He went to the inner side of the tower then and, leaning over the edge of the parapet, called the captain of the guard. An officer came from the interior of the tower and looked up.
“What is it?” he asked.
“Some one is coming from the south,” explained the warrior.
The officer nodded and mounted the ladder leading to the tower’s top. The warriors stopped their game then, and all went to the southern parapet to have a look at the stranger. He was nearer now, and they could see that he wore garments strange to them.
“He is no Cathnean,” said the officer, “but he is either a fool or a brave man to come thus alone to Athne.”
As Stanley Wood neared the gates of Athne he saw the warriors in the watchtowers observing him, and when he came quite close they challenged him but in a language he could not understand.
“Friend,” he said, and raised his hand in the peace sign.
Presently the gate opened and an officer and several warriors came out. They tried to talk with him, and when they found that neither could understand the other they formed about him and escorted him through the gateway.
He found himself at the end of an avenue lined with low buildings occupied by shops. The warriors who had brought him into the city were white as were most of the people on the avenue, although there were some Negroes. Everyone appeared much interested in him; and he was soon surrounded by a large crowd, all talking at once, pointing, feeling of his clothes and weapons. The latter were soon taken from him by his guard, the officer shouted some commands, and the warriors pushed the people out of the way and started up the avenue with Wood.
He felt very uncomfortable and helpless because of his inability to converse with those about him. There were so many questions he wished to ask. Gonfala might be in this city and yet he might never know it if he could not ask anyone about her who could understand him. He determined that the first thing he must do was to learn the language of these people. He wondered if they would be friendly. The fact that they were white gave him hope.
Who could they be? Their garb, so different from anything modern, gave him no clew. They might have stepped from the pages of ancient history, so archaic were their weapons and their raiment; but he could not place them exactly. Where did they originate, these strange, rather handsome men and women? How and when did they reach this unknown valley in Africa? Could they be descendants of some Atlantean colonists stranded here after the submergence of their continent?
Vain speculations. No matter who they were, they were here; and he was either their prisoner or their guest—the former, he was inclined to believe. One did not usually surround a guest by armed warriors.
As they proceeded along the avenue Wood observed more closely the raiment of his escort and of the people whom they passed. The officer in charge was a handsome, black haired fellow who strode along apparently oblivious of those they passed, yet there was nothing offensive about his manner. If there were social castes here, Wood hazarded a safe guess that this man was of the nobility. The headband that confined his hair supported a carved ivory ornament at the center of his forehead, an ornament that was shaped like a concave, curved trowel, the point of which projected above the top of the man’s head and curved forward. He wore wristlets and anklets of long, flat strips of ivory laid close together and fastened around his limbs by leather thongs that were laced through holes piercing the strips near their tops and bottoms. Sandals of elephant hide encasing his feet were supported by leather thongs fastened to the bottoms of his anklets. On each arm, below the shoulder, was an ivory disc upon which was a carved device; about his neck was a band of smaller ivory discs elaborately carved, and from the lowest of these a strap ran down to a leather habergeon, which was also supported by shoulder straps. Depending from each side of his headband was another ivory disc of large size, above which was a smaller disc, the former covering his ears. Heavy, curved, wedge-shaped pieces of ivory were held, one upon each shoulder, by the same straps that supported his habergeon. He was armed with a dagger and a short sword.
The warriors who accompanied him were similarly garbed, but less elaborately in the matter of carved ivory; and their habergeons and sandals were of coarser leather more roughly fabricated. Upon the back of each was a small shield. The common warriors carried short, heavy spears as well as swords and daggers. From their arms, Wood concluded that what he had first supposed to be ivory ornaments were definitely protective armour.
The American was conducted to a large, walled enclosure in the center of the city. Here stood the most elaborate buildings he had seen. There was a large central structure and many smaller buildings, the whole set in a parklike garden of considerable beauty which covered an area of several acres.
Just inside the gate was a small building before which lolled a score of warriors. Within, an officer sat at a table; and to him Wood was taken, and here the officer who had brought him evidently made his report. What passed between them Wood could not, of course, understand; but when the first officer left he realized that he had been delivered into the custody of the other.
While similarly garbed, this second officer did not give the impression of birth or breeding that had been so noticeable in the first. He was a burly, uncouth appearing fellow with much less in his appearance to recommend him than many of the common warriors Wood had seen. When left alone with his prisoner he commenced to shout questions at him; and when he found that Wood could not understand him, or he Wood, he pounded on the table angrily.
Finally he summoned warriors to whom he issued instructions, and once again Wood was taken under escort. This time he was led to an enclosure toward the rear of the grounds not far from a quite large one-storied building with the interior of which he was destined to become well acquainted.
He was thrust into an enclosure along the north side of which was an open shed in which were some fifty men. A high fence or stockade formed the remaining three sides of the quadrangle, the outside of which was patrolled by warriors; and Wood realized now that he was definitely a prisoner and far from being either an important or favored one, as the other inmates of the stockade were for the most part filthy, unkempt fellows, both white and black.
As Wood approached the enclosure every eye was upon him; and he knew that they were commenting upon him; and, from the tone of an occasional laugh, judged that he was the butt of many a rough quip. He sensed antagonism and felt more alone than he would have in solitary confinement; and then he heard his name called by some one in the midst of the assemblage in the shed.
Immediately two men separated themselves from the others and came to meet him. They were Spike and Troll. A wave of anger swept through the American as the implication of their presence here pointed them out as the abductors of Gonfala.
His face must have betrayed his emotions as he advanced toward them; for Spike raised his hand in a gesture of warning.
“Hold on, now,” he cried. “Gettin’ hostile ain’t goin’ to get us no place. We’re in a Hell of a fix here, an’ gettin’ hostile ain’t goin’ to help matters none. It’ll be better for all of us if we work together.”
“Where’s Gonfala?” demanded Wood. “What have you done with her?”
“They took her away from us the day they captured us,” said Troll. “We ain’t seen her since.”
“We understand she’s in the palace,” said Spike. “They say the big guy here has fell for her. He’s got her an’ the Gonfal, the dirty bounder.”
“What did you steal her for?” Wood demanded. “If either one of you harmed her—”
“Harm her!” exclaimed Troll. “You don’t think I’d never let nobody harm my sister, do you?”
Spike winked behind Troll’s back and tapped his forehead. “They ain’t nobody harmed her,” he assured Wood, “unless it was done after they took her away from us. And for why did we bring ’er along with us? We had to ’ave ’er. We couldn’t work the Gonfal without ’er.”
“That damned stone!” muttered Wood.
“I think they’s a curse on it myself,” agreed Spike. “It ain’t never brought nobody nothin’ but bad luck. Look at me and Troll. Wot we got for our pains? We lost the emerald; now we lost the Gonfal, an’ all we do is shovel dirt out o’ the elephant barns all day an’ wait to see w’ich way they’s goin’ to croak us.”
As they talked they were surrounded by other prisoners prompted by curiosity to inspect the latest recruit. They questioned Wood; but, as he could not understand them nor they he, they directed their questions upon Spike who replied in a strange jargon of African dialects, signs, and the few words of the Athnean language he had picked up. It was a wholly remarkable means of conveying thoughts, but it apparently served its purpose admirably.
As Wood stood there, the object of their interest, he was rapidly considering the attitude he should assume toward Spike and Troll. The men were scoundrels of the first water, and could command only his bitterest enmity. For the wrong that they had done Gonfala it seemed to Wood that they deserved death; yet they were the only men here with whom he could talk, the only ones with whom he had any interests in common. His judgment told him that Spike had been right when he said that they should work together. For the time being, then, he would put aside his just anger against them and throw his lot in with them in the hope that in some way they might be of service to Gonfala.
“They wants to know who you are an’ where you comes from,” said Spike; “an’ I told ’em you come from a country a thousand times bigger than Athne an’ that you was a juke or somethin’, like their officers. They’s one of ’em in here with us. See that big bloke over there standin’ with his arms folded?” He pointed to a tall, fine looking fellow who had not come forward with the others. “He’s a toff, or I never seen one. He don’t never have no truck with these scrubs; but he took a shine to Troll and me, an’ is learnin’ us his language.”
“I’d like to meet him,” said Wood, for his first interest now was to learn the language of these people into whose hands fate had thrown him.
“Awright, come on over. Ire ain’t a bad bloke. He’s wot they calls an elephant man. That’s somethin’ like bein’ a juke at home. They had some sort of a revolution here a few months ago, an’ killed off a lot of these here elephant men, wot didn’t escape or join the revolutionists. But this bloke wasn’t killed. They say it was because he was a good guy an’ everybody liked him, even the revolutionists. He wouldn’t join ’em; so they stuck him in here to do chamber work for the elephants. These here revolutionists is like the gangsters in your country. Anyway, they’s a bad lot, always makin’ trouble for decent people an’ stealin’ wot they ain’t got brains enough to make for themselves. Well, here we are. Valthor, shake hands with my old friend Stanley Wood.”
Valthor looked puzzled, but he took Wood’s outstretched hand.
“Cripes!” exclaimed Spike. “I’m always forgettin’ you don’t know no English.” Then he couched the introduction in the bastard language he had picked up.
Valthor smiled and acknowledged the introduction.
“He says he’s glad to meetcha,” translated Spike.
“Tell him it’s fifty-fifty,” said the American, “and ask him if he’ll help me learn his language.”
When Spike had translated this speech Valthor smiled and nodded, and there immediately began an association that not only developed into a genuine friendship during the ensuing weeks but gave Wood a sufficient knowledge of the Athnean language to permit free intercourse with all with whom he came in contact.
During this time he worked with the other slaves in the great elephant stables of Phoros, the dictator who had usurped the crown of Athne after the revolution. The food was poor and insufficient, the work arduous, and the treatment he received harsh; for the officers who were put in charge of the slaves had been men of the lowest class prior to the revolution and found a vent for many an inhibition when they were given a little authority.
During all this time he heard nothing of the fate of Gonfala, for naturally little news of the palace reached the slaves in the stables. Whether she lived or not, he could not know; and this state of constant uncertainty and anxiety told even more heavily upon him than did the hardships he was forced to undergo.
“If she is beautiful,” Valthor had told him, “I think you need have no fear for her life. We do not take the lives of beautiful women—even the Erythra would not do that.”
“Who are the Erythra?” asked Wood.
“The men who overthrew the government and placed Phoros on the throne of Zygo, king of Athne.”
“She is very beautiful,” said Wood. “I wish to God she were not so beautiful.”
“Perhaps it will do her no harm. If I know Menofra, and I think I do, your friend will be safe from the attentions of Phoros at least; and if I know Phoros, he will not let any one else have her if she is very beautiful. He will always wait and hope—hope that something will happen to Menofra.”
“And who might Menofra be?”
“Above all else she is a she-devil for jealousy, and she is the wife of Phoros.”
This was slight comfort, but it was the best that was vouchsafed Wood. He could only wait and hope. There was little upon which to base a plan of action. Valthor had told him that there might be a counter-revolution to unseat Phoros and return Zygo to the throne; but in the slaves’ compound there was little information upon which to base even a conjecture as to when, if ever, this might take place; as there was no means of communication between those confined there and Zygo’s sympathizers in the city, while Zygo and most of his loyal nobles and retainers were hiding in the mountains to which they had escaped when revolution overwhelmed the city.
Among other duties that had fallen to the lot of Wood was the exercising of the elephant that was his particular charge. He had been chosen for this work, along with Valthor, Spike, and Troll, because of his greater intelligence than the ordinary run of slaves in the compound. He had learned quickly, and rode almost daily on the plain south of the city under a heavy escort of warriors.
They had returned to the stables one day from the field after the exercise period, which was always early in the morning, and were brushing and washing their huge mounts, when they were ordered to remount and ride out.
On the way to the plain they learned from the accompanying warriors that they were being sent out to capture a wild elephant that had been damaging the fields.
“They say he’s a big brute and ugly,” offered one of the warriors, “and if he’s as bad as all that we won’t all of us come back.”
“Under Zygo, the nobles rode out to capture wild elephants, not slaves,” said Valthor.
The warrior rode his mount closer to the Athnean noble. “They are all too drunk to ride,” he said, lowering his voice. “If they were just a little drunk they might ride. If they were not drunk at all they would not have the nerve. We warriors are sick of them. Most of us would like to ride again under real elephant men like your nobleness.”
“Perhaps you will,” said Valthor, “—if you have the nerve.”
“Hi—yah!” shouted a warrior ahead of them.
“They’ve sighted him,” Valthor explained to Wood, who was riding at his side.
Presently they too saw the quarry emerging from a bamboo forest at the edge of the plain.
Valthor whistled. “He’s a big brute, and if he’s as ugly as they say we should have some real sport. But it’s murder to send inexperienced slaves against him. Watch out for yourself, Wood. Just keep out of his way, no matter what the guards tell you to do. Make believe you can’t control your elephant. Look at him! He’s coming right for us. He’s a bad one all right—not a bit afraid of us either, by Dyaus.”
“I never saw a larger one,” said Wood.
“Nor I,” admitted Valthor, “though I’ve seen many an elephant in my time. He’s got a blemish though—look at that tusk. It’s much darker than the other. If it weren’t for that he’d make a king’s elephant all right.”
“What are we supposed to do?” asked Wood. “I don’t see how we could ever capture that fellow if he didn’t want us to.”
“They’ll have some females ridden close to him, and try to work him gently toward the city and into the big corral just inside the gate. Look at that, now!”
Up went the big elephant’s trunk, and he trumpeted angrily. It was evident that he was about to charge. The officer in command shouted orders to the slaves to ride the females toward him, but the officer did not advance. Like the other three with him, he was an Erythros and not of the noble class. Not having their pride or their code of honor, he could order others into danger while he remained in comparative safety.
Some of the slaves moved forward, but with no great show of enthusiasm; then the great beast charged. He barged right through the line of advancing females, scattering them to right and left, and charged for the bull ridden by the officer in command.
Screaming commands, the officer sought to turn his mount and escape; but the bull he rode was a trained fighting elephant which knew little about running away; besides, his harem of cows was there; and he was not going to relinquish that to any strange bull without a battle; so, torn between his natural inclinations and his habit of obedience to the commands of his rider, he neither faced the oncoming bull nor turned tail toward him; but swung half way around, broadside, in his indecision. And in this position the great stranger struck him with almost the momentum of a locomotive run amok.
Down he went, pitching the officer heavily to the ground; but the fellow was up instantly and running—by far the stupidest thing he could have done; for almost any animal will pursue a thing that flees.
Hoarse screams for help mingled with the trumpeting of the wild bull as the latter bore down upon his fleeing victim. Valthor urged the female he rode into a trot in an effort to head off the charge and distract the bull’s attention, and Wood followed behind him; just why, he could not have explained.
Valthor was too late. The bull overtook the terrified man, tossed him three times, and then trampled him into the dust of the plain until he was only a darker spot on the barren ground.
It was then that Valthor and Wood arrived. Wood expected nothing less than a repetition of the scene he had just witnessed with either himself or Valthor as the victim, but nothing of the kind happened.
The Athnean rode his cow quietly close to the great bull, which stood complacently switching its tail, all the madness having apparently passed out of him with the killing of his victim; and Wood, following the example of Valthor, closed in gently on the other side.
All this time Valthor was chanting in a low, sing-song monotone a wordless song used by the elephant men of Athne to soothe the great beasts in moods of nervousness or irritation; and now to the cadence of his chant he added words of instruction to Wood so that the two might work in harmony to bring the wild bull to the city and into the corral.
Between the two cows, which knew their parts well, the bull was guided to captivity; while the officers, the warriors, and the slaves trailed behind, happy and relieved that they had not been called upon to risk their lives.
Valthor already held the respect of his fellow prisoners as well as of the warriors who guarded them, and now Wood took his place as a person of importance among them.
That word of the manner of the capture of the wild elephant had reached the palace Wood had proof the following day when an officer and a detail of warriors came to take him into the presence of Phoros.
“He wishes to see the fellow who helped Valthor capture the rogue,” said the officer.
Valthor leaned close and whispered, “He has some other reason. He would not send for you just for that.”