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The Mountain Conclave







From: The Fire People

"It is reasonable," Miela said thoughtfully. "And that our women will help
as you say--of that I am sure."

We were gathered in the living room after the evening meal, and I had
given them my ideas of how we should start meeting the situation that
confronted us. We had had no more trouble that day. After the encounter in
the king's garden Mercer and I had followed the two girls swiftly home. We
were not molested in the streets, although the people crowded about us
wherever we went.

"Why did none of Baar's friends come to his rescue up there in the
garden?" I asked Miela. "Surely there must have been many of them about."

"They were afraid, perhaps," she answered. "And they knew the people were
against them. There might have been serious trouble; for that is not their
way--to fight in the open."

Her face became very grave. "We must be very careful, my husband, that
they, or Tao's men do not come here to harm you while you sleep."

"Why do you suppose they ever happened to bring me here in the first
place?" Mercer wanted to know. "That's what I can't figure out."

"They knew not that Alan was here," said Miela. "I think they wanted to
show you to our people as their captive--one of the earth-men."

Mercer chuckled.

"They didn't know what a good runner I was, or they'd never have taken a
chance like that."

I told Miela then my plan for enlisting the sympathy of the women of the
Light Country and for securing the active cooperation of the girls in
ridding us of the disturbing presence of these Tao emissaries.

We planned that whatever we did should be in secret, so far as possible.
Mercer and I talked together, while Miela consulted with Lua at length.

I explained to Mercer that Tao might at any time send an expedition to
invade the Light Country.

"How about that car we came from earth in?" he suggested. "He could sail
over in that, couldn't he--if he should want to come over here?"

I knew that was not feasible. In the outer realms of space the balancing
attractions of the different heavenly bodies made it easy enough to head
in any specified direction; but for travel over a planet's surface it was
quite impractical. Its rise and fall could be perfectly governed; but when
it was directed laterally the case was very different. Just where it would
go could not be determined with enough exactness.

Miela turned back to us from her consultation with Lua.

"In the mountains, high up and far beyond the Valley of the Sun," she
said, "lies a secret place known only to our women. Our mother says that
she and I and Anina can spread the news among our virgins to gather there
to-morrow at the time of sleep. Only to those we know we can trust will we
speak--and they will have no men to whom to tell our plans. To-morrow they
will gather up there in the clouds, among the crags, unseen by prying
eyes. And you and our--our friend Ollie"--she smiled as she used the
nickname by which he had asked her to call him--"you two we will take
there by the method you have told us. We will arrange, up there in secret,
what it is we are to do to help our world and yours."

This, in effect, was our immediate plan of procedure. Nearly all the next
day Mercer and I stayed about the house, while the three women went
through the city quietly, calling forth all those they could reach to our
conclave in the mountains.

They returned some time after midday. Miela came first, alighting with a
swift, triumphant swoop upon the roof where Mercer and I were sitting.

One glance at her face told me she had been successful.

"They will come, my husband," she announced. "And they are ready and
eager, all of them, to do what they can."

Anina and Lua brought the same news. When we were all together again
Mercer and I took them to the garden behind the house and showed them what
we had done while they were away.

It was my plan to have the girls carry Mercer and me through the air with
them. For that purpose we had built a platform of bamboo, which now lay
ready in the garden.

Miela clapped her hands at sight of it. "That is perfect, my husband. No
difficulty will there be in taking you with us now."

The platform was six feet wide by ten long. It rested upon a frame with
two poles of bamboo some forty feet in length running lengthwise along its
edges. These two poles thus projected in front and back of the platform
fifteen feet each way. Running under them crosswise at intervals were
other, shorter bamboo lengths which projected out the sides a few feet to
form handles. There were ten of them on a side at intervals of four feet.

I found it difficult to realize the difference between night and day,
since here on Mercury the light never changed. I longed now for that
darkness of our own earth which would make it so much easier for us to
conceal our movements. Miela relieved my mind on that score, however, by
explaining that at nearly the same hour almost every one in the city fell
asleep. The physical desire for sleep was, I learned, much stronger with
the Mercutians than with us; and only by the drinking of a certain
medicinal beverage could they ward it off.


It was after the evening meal, at a time which might have corresponded to
an hour or so before midnight, that the selected eighteen girls began to
arrive. Miela brought them into the living room with us until they were
all together.

It was a curious gathering--this bevy of Mercutian maidens. They all
seemed between the ages of sixteen and twenty-three--fragile, dainty
little wisps of femininity, yet having a strength in their highly
developed wing muscles that was truly surprising.

They were dressed in the characteristic costume I have described, with
only a slight divergence of color or ornamentation. They were of only two
types--jet black tresses, black eyes, and red-feathered wings like Miela;
or the less vivid, more ethereal Anina--blue-eyed, golden-haired, with
wing feathers of light blue.

When they had all arrived we went into the garden behind the house. In a
moment more Mercer and I were seated side by side on the little bamboo
platform. Miela and Anina took the center positions so that they would be
near us. The other girls ranged themselves along the sides, each grasping
one of the handles.

In another moment we were in the air. My first sensation was one of a
sudden rushing forward and upward. The frail little craft swayed under me
alarmingly, but I soon grew used to that. The flapping of those many pairs
of huge wings so close was very loud; the wind of our swift forward flight
whistled past my ears. Looking down over the side of the platform, between
the bodies of two of the girls, I could see the city silently dropping
away beneath us. Above there was nothing but the same dead gray sky, black
in front, with occasional vivid lightning flashes and the rumble of
distant thunder.

Underneath the storm cloud, far ahead, the jagged tops of a range of
mountains projected above the horizon. As I watched they seemed slowly
creeping up and forward as the horizon rolled back to meet them.

For half an hour or so we sped onward through the air. We were over the
mountains now. Great jagged, naked peaks of shining metal towered above
us, with that broken, utterly desolate country beneath. We swept
continually upward, for the mountains rose steadily in broad serrated
ranks before us.

Occasionally we would speed up a narrow defile, with the broken, tumbling
cliffs rising abruptly over our heads, only to come out above a level
plateau or across a canyon a thousand feet deep or more.

The storm broke upon us. We entered a cloud that wrapped us in its wet
mist and hid the mountains from our sight. The darkness of twilight
settled down, lighted by flashes of lightning darting almost over our
heads. The sharp cracks of thunder so close threatened to split my
eardrums.

The wind increased in violence. The little platform trembled and swayed. I
could see the girls struggling to hold it firm. At times we would drop
abruptly straight down a hundred or two hundred feet, with a great
fluttering of wings; but all the time I knew we were rising sharply.

Mercer and I clung tightly to the platform. We did not speak, and I think
both of us were frightened. Certainly we were awed by the experience.
After a time--I have no idea how long--we passed through the storm and
came again into the open air with the same gray sky above us.

We were several thousand feet up now, flying over what seemed to be a
tumbling mass of small volcanic craters. In front of us rose a sheer cliff
wall, extending to the right and left to the horizon. We passed over its
rim, and I saw that it curved slightly inward, forming the circumference
of a huge circle.

The inner floor was hardly more than a thousand feet down, and seemed
fairly level. We continued on, arriving finally over the mouth of a little
circular pit. This formed an inner valley, half a mile across and with
sheer side walls some five hundred feet high. As we swung down into it I
noticed above the horizon behind us a number of tiny black dots in the
sky--other girls flying out from the city to our meeting.

I have never beheld so wild, so completely desolate a scene. The ground
here was that same shining mass of virgin metal, tumbled about and broken
up in hopeless confusion.

Great rugged bowlders lay strewn about; tiny caverns yawned; fissures
opened up their unknown depths; sharp-pointed crags reared their heads
like spires left standing amid the ruins of some huge cathedral. There
was, indeed, hardly a level spot of ground in sight.

I wondered with vague alarm where we should land, for nowhere could I see
sufficient space, even for our small platform. We were following closely
the line of cliff wall when suddenly we swooped sharply downward and to
the right with incredible speed. My heart leaped when, for an instant, I
thought something had gone wrong. Then the forward end of the platform
tilted abruptly upward; there was a sudden, momentary fluttering of wings,
a scrambling as the girls' feet touched the ground, and we settled back
and came to rest with hardly more than a slight jar.

Miela stood up, rubbing her arms, which must have ached from her efforts.

"We are here, Alan--safely, as we planned."

We had landed on a little rocky niche that seemed to be in front of the
opening of a small cave mouth in the precipitous cliffside. I stood up
unsteadily, for I was cramped and stiff, and the solid earth seemed
swaying beneath me. I was standing on what was hardly more that a narrow
shelf, not over fifteen feet wide and some thirty feet above the base of
the cliff.

Mercer was beside me, looking about him with obvious awe.

"What a place!" he ejaculated.

We stepped cautiously to the brink of the ledge and peered over.
Underneath us, with the vertical wall of the cliff running directly down
into it, spread a small pool of some heavy, viscous fluid, inky black, and
with iridescent colors floating upon its surface. It bubbled and boiled
lazily, and we could feel its heat on our faces plainly.

Beyond the pool, not more than a hundred yards across, lay a mass of
ragged bowlders piled together in inextricable confusion; beyond these a
chasm with steam rising from it, whose bottom I could not see--a crack as
though the ground had suddenly cooled and split apart. Across the entire
surface of this little cliff-bound circular valley it was the same, as
though here a tortured nature had undergone some terrible agony in the
birth of this world.

The scene, which indeed had something infernal about it, would have been
extraordinary enough by itself; but what made it even more so was the fact
that several hundred girls were perched among these crags, sitting idle,
or standing up and flapping their wings like giant birds, and more were
momentarily swooping in from above. I had, for an instant, the feeling
that I was Dante, surveying the lower regions, and that here was a host of
angels from heaven invading them.

During the next hour fully a thousand girls arrived. There were perhaps
fifteen hundred altogether, and only a few stragglers were hastily flying
in when we decided to wait no longer.

Miela flew out around the little valley, calling them to come closer. They
came flying toward us and crowded upon the nearer crags just beyond the
pool, clutching the precipitous sides, and scrambling for a foothold
wherever they could. A hundred or more found place on the ledge with us,
or above or below it wherever a slight footing could be found on the wall
of the cliff.

When they were all settled, and the scrambling and flapping of wings had
ceased, Miela stood up and addressed them. A solemn, almost sinister hush
lay over the valley, and her voice carried far. She spoke hardly above the
ordinary tone, earnestly, and occasionally with considerable emphasis, as
though to drive home some important point.

For nearly half an hour she spoke without a break, then she called me to
her side and put one of her wings caressingly about my shoulders. I did
not know what she said, but a great wave of handclapping and flapping of
wings answered her. She turned to me with glowing face.

"I have told them about your wonderful earth, and Tao's evil plans; and
just now I said that you were my husband--and I, a wife, can still fly as
well as they. That is a very wonderful thing, Alan. No woman ever, in this
world, has been so blessed as I. They realize that--and they respect me
and love you for it."

She did not wait for me to speak, but again addressed the assembled girls.
When she paused a chorus of shouts answered her. Many of the girls in
their enthusiasm lost their uncertain footholds and fluttered about,
seeking others. For a moment there was confusion.

"I have told them briefly what we are to do," Miela explained. "First, to
rid the Great City of Tao's men, sending them back to the Twilight
Country; and do this in all our other cities where they are making
trouble. Then, when our nation is free from this danger, we will plan how
to deal with Tao direct, for he must not again go to your earth.

"And when all that is done I have said you will do your best to make our
men believe as you do, so that never again will our women marry only to
lose all that makes their virginity so glorious."





Next: The Fire Planet

Previous: The Ruler Of The Light Country



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