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In The Twilight Country







From: The Fire People

Mercer sat on the rear end of the platform and waved good-by vigorously as
he was carried swiftly up and out over the water. Under him was a pile of
blankets and a coat, and beside him a box of baked dough-like bread--the
food he was to turn over to Tao's emissaries when he set them free.

Anina flew at his side, at intervals smiling up at him reassuringly.
Before him on the platform his captives huddled. Although all of them were
trussed up securely, he menacingly kept his little wooden revolver pointed
at them from the level of his knee.

He chuckled as he thought of the fight at the bayou. Everything was
working out all right; it was surprising what one could do with his
physical strength here on Mercury.

The girls had carried the platform up some five hundred feet above the
sea. Mercer turned and looked back. The shore had already dropped almost
to the rim of the close-encircling horizon. He leaned over toward Anina,
resting one hand on the bamboo handle she was holding. "How long will it
take us to get there, Anina?"

He knew the girl would understand his words, but he did not realize she
had little basis for comparing time in his language.

"Long time," she answered, smiling. "But we go quickly now."

He sat back again and waited. It seemed like hours--it was hours
probably, three or four--and still they swept onward straight as an arrow.

After another interminable interval Anina raised one hand and pointed
ahead.

"Twilight Country--there," she said.

Mercer saw, coming up over the horizon, the dim outlines of a rocky land
sparsely covered with trees. It spread out rapidly before him as he
watched, fascinated. It seemed a desolate land, a line of low, barren
hills off to one side, and a forest of stunted, naked-looking trees in
front. The platform swept on over the shore line, a rocky beach on which
the calm sea rolled up in tiny white lines of breakers. Then in a great
curve the girls circled to one side.

"Where are we going?" Mercer asked.

"A trail--near us somewhere. A trail to the Lone City. There we land."

Mercer saw the trail in a moment. It came out of the woods and struck the
shore by a little bight where boats could land. The girls swooped
downward, and in a moment more the platform was lying motionless on the
beach.

Mercer looked around. It was light enough to see objects in the immediate
foreground--a gray twilight. The forest came almost to the water's edge.
He saw now the trees might have been firs, but with small, twisted trunks,
few branches except near the top, and very few leaves. They seemed somehow
very naked and starved--indeed, it surprised him that they could grow at
all in such a rocky waste. The end of the trail was close before him. It
appeared merely an opening in the trees with the fallen logs and
underbrush cleared away.

The girls were obviously cold, standing idle now after their long flight.
Mercer lost no time in preparing for the return journey. He tumbled his
captives unceremoniously off the platform and set the box of food and
blankets beside them.

"What's this, Anina?"

He was holding in his palm a tiny metal cylinder.

Anina took it from him.

"For fire, see?"

She picked up a bit of driftwood, and, holding the end of the cylinder
against it, pressed a little button. A curl of smoke rose from the wood,
and in a moment a wisp of flame.

"A light-ray!" Mercer exclaimed.

"The ray--but different."

She tossed the blazing bit of wood aside, and held her hand a foot or so
in front of the cylinder.

"No danger! See?" She brought her hand closer. "Heat here--close--no heat
far away."

Mercer understood then that this was not a light-ray projector, but a
method of producing heat with the property of radiation, but not of
projection--a different and harmless form of the ray.

He took the little cylinder from the girl, inspected it curiously, then
laid it on the blankets.

"They'll need it, I guess, if it's any colder where they're going."

He set one of the captives free.

"Anina, tell him to sit quiet until we've gone. Then he can cut the others
loose." He tossed a knife into the box. "Come on, Anina; let's get away."

They were about ready to start back, when Mercer suddenly decided he was
hungry. He hopped off the platform. "They don't need all that food."

He gathered some of the little flat cakes of dough in his hands. "Want
some?" He offered them to the girls, who smilingly refused.

"All right. I do. I'm hungry. Might as well take a blanket, too. It's
devilish cold."

He was back on the platform in a moment, sitting down with the blanket
about his knees and munching contentedly at the bread.

"All right, Anina. Start her off."

They swung up into the air and began the return flight.

A few hours more and they would be back at the Great City. Then the real
work would begin. Mercer squared his shoulders unconsciously as he thought
of all there was to do.

But there was no danger to the Light Country from Tao, he thought with
satisfaction. At least, there would be none when the other cities were rid
of Tao's men, as the Great City was now. The men would find their way back
all right--

At the sudden thought that came to him Mercer dropped his bit of bread and
sat up in astonishment. Tao no longer a menace? He remembered my reasoning
in the boat coming down the bayou. Of course, Tao would have no reason to
attack the Light Country by force of arms until he was sure his propaganda
among the people had failed.

My argument was sound enough, but the utter stupidity of what we had done
now dawned on Mercer with overwhelming force. Tao would await the results
of his emissaries' work, of course. And here we had gone and sent them
straight back to their leader to report their efforts a failure! If
anything were needed to precipitate an invasion from Tao, this very thing
Mercer had just finished doing was it. He cursed himself and me fervently
as he thought what fools we had been.

Then it occurred to him perhaps it was not too late to repair the damage.
Not more than half an hour had passed since he had set the men free on the
shore of the Twilight Country. He must go back at once. Under no
circumstances must they be allowed to reach Tao and tell him what had
occurred.

Anina was flying near Mercer as before. He leaned over the edge of the
platform to talk with her, but the wind of their forward flight and the
noise of the girls' wings made conversation difficult.

"Anina! Come up here with me. Sit here. I want to talk to you. It's
important. They don't need you flying now."

Obediently the girl sat where he indicated, close beside him. And then as
he was about to begin telling her what was in his mind Mercer suddenly
remembered that they were still heading toward the Light Country, every
moment getting farther away from Tao's men, whose homeward journey he must
head off some way.

"We must go back, Anina--back where we came from--at once. Tell them--now!
Then I'll tell you why."

The girl's eyes widened, but she did as he directed, and the platform,
making a broad, sweeping turn, headed back toward the Twilight Country
shore.

"Anina, how far is it to Tao's city from where we landed?"

"The Lone City? A day, going fast."

"But they won't go fast, will they? Some of them are pretty badly hurt."

"Two days for them," the girl agreed.

Mercer then told her what an error we had made. She listened quietly, but
he knew she understood, not only his words, but the whole situation as he
viewed it then.

"Most bad," she said solemnly when he paused.

"That's what I want to tell you; it's bad," he declared. "We've got to
head them off some way; stop them somehow. I don't see how we're going to
capture them again--ten of them against me. But we've got to do
something."

Then he asked her about the lay of the country between the shore of the
sea and the Lone City.

Anina's English was put to severe test by her explanation; but she knew
far many more words than she had ever used, and now, with the interest of
what she had to say, she lost much of the diffidence which before had
restrained her.

She told him that the trail led back through the forest for some distance,
and then ran parallel with a swift flowing river. This river, she
explained, emptied into the Narrow Sea a few miles below the end of the
trail. It was the direct water route to the Lone City.

The trail, striking the river bank, followed it up into a mountainous
country--a metallic waste where few trees grew. There was a place still
farther up in a very wild, broken country, where the river ran through a
deep, narrow gorge, and the trail followed a narrow ledge part way up one
of its precipitous sides.

Anina's eyes sparkled with eagerness as she told of it.

"There, my friend Ollie, we stop them. Many loose stones there are, and
the path is very narrow."

Mercer saw her plan at once. They could bar the men's passage somewhere
along this rocky trail, and with stones drive them back. He realized with
satisfaction that he could throw a stone fully twice as large and twice as
far as any of the men, and thus, out of range, bombard them until they
would be glad enough to turn back.

His plan, then, was to land, and with Anina follow the men. The rest of
the girls he would send back to me with the platform, to tell Miela and me
to come over the next evening to the end of the trail.

He and Anina meanwhile would keep close behind the men, and then when the
canyon was neared, get around in front of them, and bar their farther
advance. This would be easy since he could walk and run much faster than
they, and Anina could fly. He would drive them back out of the gorge, send
Anina to keep the appointment with me and bring me up to him with the
girls and the platform.

They reached the shore and landed within a few feet of where they had been
an hour before. The men were not in sight; nothing remained to show they
had been there, save pieces of cut cord lying about.

Anina now instructed the girls what to tell me, and in a moment more, with
the blanket and a few pieces of bread, she and Mercer were left standing
alone on the rocky beach. Anina was cold. He took off his fur jacket and
wrapped it about her shoulders.

She made a quaint little picture standing there, with her two long braids
of golden hair, and her blue-feathered wings which the jacket only partly
covered. They started up the trail together. It was almost dark in the
woods, but soon their eyes grew accustomed to the dim light, and they
could see a little better. They walked as rapidly, as Anina was able, for
the men had nearly an hour's start, and Mercer concluded they would be far
ahead.

They had gone perhaps a mile, climbing along over fallen logs, walking
sometimes on the larger tree trunks lying prone--rude bridges by which the
trail crossed some ravine--when Anina said: "I fly now. You wait here,
Ollie, and I find where they are."

She handed him the coat and flew up over the treetops, disappearing almost
immediately in the darkness. Mercer slung the coat around him and sat down
to wait. He sat there perhaps fifteen or twenty minutes, staring up at the
silent, motionless treetops, and thinking all sorts of vague, impossible
dangers impending. Then he heard her wings flapping and saw her flitting
down through the trees.

"Very near, they are," she said as soon as she reached the ground. "A
fire--they have--and they are ready now to sleep."

They went on slowly along the trail, and soon saw the glimmer of a fire
ahead. "A camp for the night," whispered Mercer.

"It must be nearly morning now."

He looked about him and smiled as he realized that no light would come
with the morning. Always this same dim twilight here--and eternal darkness
on ahead. "Good Lord, what a place to live!" he muttered.

They crept on cautiously until they were within sight of the camp. A large
fire was burning briskly. Most of the men were wrapped in their blankets,
apparently asleep; three were sitting upright, on guard. Mercer and Anina
crept away.

"We'd better camp, too," Mercer said when they were well out of hearing.
"They will probably stay there four or five hours, anyway. Lord, I'm
tired." He laid his hand on her shoulder gently, almost timidly. "Aren't
you tired, too, little girl?"

"Yes," she answered simply, and met his eyes with her gentle little smile.
"Oh, yes--I tired. Very much."

They did not dare light a fire, nor had they any means of doing so. They
went back from the trail a short distance, finding a little recess between
two fallen logs, where the ground was soft with a heavy moss. Here they
decided to sleep for a few hours.

A small pool of water had collected on a barren surface of rock near by,
and from this they drank. Then they sat down, together and ate about half
the few remaining pieces of bread which Mercer was carrying in the pockets
of his jacket. They were both tired out. Anina particularly was very
sleepy.

When they had finished eating Anina lay down, and Mercer covered her with
the blanket. She smiled up at him.

"Good night, Anina."

"Good night, my friend Ollie."

She closed her eyes, snuggling closer under the blanket with a contented
little sigh. Mercer put on his jacket and sat down beside her, his chin
cupped in his hand. It seemed colder now. His trousers were thin, his legs
felt numb and stiff from his recent exertion.

He sat quiet, staring at the sleeping girl. She was very beautiful and
very sweet, lying there with her golden hair framing her face, her little
head pillowed on her arms, a portion of one blue-feathered wing peeping
out from under the blanket. All at once Mercer bent over and kissed her
lightly, brushing her lips with his, as one kisses a sleeping child.

She stirred, then opened her eyes and smiled up at him again.

"You cold, Ollie," she said accusingly. She lifted an edge of the blanket.
"Here--you sleep, too."

He stretched himself beside her, and she flung a corner of the blanket
over him; and thus, like two children lost in the woods and huddled
together for warmth under a fallen log, they slept.





Next: Another Light-ray!

Previous: The New Ruler



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