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The Ruler Of The Light Country







From: The Fire People

However pleased the newcomer was to see me, I had no difficulty in
assuring him with equal truth that my feelings matched his. The first
surprise of the meeting over, we took him to the living room, where Lua
greeted him with dignified courtesy, and we all gathered around to hear
his story.

He was, I saw now, not more than twenty years old, rather short--perhaps
five feet six or seven inches--and powerfully built, with a shock of
tousled red hair and a handsome, rough-hewn face essentially masculine.

He seemed to be an extraordinarily good-humored chap, with the ready wit
of an Irishman. I liked him at once--I think we all did.

He began, characteristically, near the end rather than the beginning of
the events I knew he must have to tell us.

"I got away," he chuckled, grinning more broadly than ever. "But where I
was going to, search me. And who the deuce are you, if you don't mind my
asking? How did you ever get to this God-forsaken place?"

I smiled. "You tell us about yourself first; then I'll tell you about
myself. You are the earth-man we've been hearing about, aren't you--the
man Tao captured in Wyoming and brought here with him?"

"They caught me in Wyoming all right. Who's Tao?"

"He's the leader of them all."

"Oh. Well, they brought me here, as you say, and I guess they've had me
about all over this little earth since. They stuck me in a boat, and Lord
knows how far we went. We got here last night, and when my guard went to
sleep I beat it." He scratched his head lugubriously. "Though what good I
thought it was going to do me I don't know. That's about all, I guess.
Who the deuce are you?"

I laughed.

"Wait a minute--don't go so fast. Start at the beginning. What's your
name?"

"Oliver Mercer."

His face grew suddenly grave. "My brother was killed up there in
Wyoming--that's how I happened to go there in the first place."

"Mercer!" I exclaimed.

He started. "Yes--why? You don't think you know me, by any chance, do
you?"

"No, but I knew your brother--that is, I know Bob Trevor, who was with him
when he was killed. He's one of my best friends."

The young fellow extended his hand. "A friend of Bob Trevor's--away off
here! Don't it get you, just?"

Miela interrupted us here to translate to her mother and Anina what he
said.

Mercer went on: "The assumption is, you people here are not working with
this gang of crooks I got away from--this Tao? Am I right in thinking so?"

"You're certainly right, that far," I laughed.

I felt, more than I can say, a great sense of relief, a lessening of the
tension, the unconscious strain I had been under, at this swift, jovial
conversation with another human of my own kind.

"Yes, you're right on that. This Tao and I are not exactly on the same
side. I'll tell you all about it in a minute."

"Then, we're working together?"

"Yes."

"Well, all I'm working for is to get back home where I came from."

"You won't be when you hear all I've got to say."

He started at that; then, with sudden change of thought, his eyes turned
to Anina. The girl blushed under his admiring gaze.

"Say, she's a little beauty, isn't she? Who is she?"

"She's my sister," I said, smiling.

For once he was too dumfounded to reply.

Miela had finished her translation now, and, as she turned back to us,
spoke in English for the first time during the conversation.

"Do you know why it is they brought you here from the Twilight Country?"
she asked Mercer.

This gave him another shock. "Why, I--no. That is--say, how do you happen
to talk English? Is it one of your languages here, by any chance?"

Miela laughed gayly.

"Only we three, in all this world, speak English. I know it because--"

I interrupted her.

"Suppose I tell him our whole story, Miela? Then--"

"That's certainly what I want to hear," said Mercer emphatically. "And
especially why it is that I'm not supposed to want to get back to where I
belong."

My explanation must have lasted nearly an hour, punctuated by many
questions and exclamations of wonder from young Mercer. I told him the
whole affair in detail, and ended with a statement of exactly how matters
stood now on Mercury.

"Do you want to hurry back home to earth now?" I finished.

"Duck out of this? I should say not. Why, we've got a million things to do
here."

His eyes turned again toward Anina.

"And, say--about letting those girls keep their wings. I'm strong for
that. Let's be sure and fix that up before we leave."

It was not more than half an hour later when the king's guards arrived to
conduct us to the castle. Meanwhile young Mercer had discovered he was
hungry and thirsty. As soon as he had finished eating we started off--he
and I, with Lua and Miela. The guards led us away as though we were
prisoners, forming a hollow square--there were some thirty of them--with
us in the center. We attracted little attention from passersby; the few
who stopped to stare at us, or who attempted to follow, were briskly
ordered away.

Occasionally a few girls would hover overhead, but when the guards shouted
up at them they flew away obediently.

The king's castle was constructed of metal and stone--a long, low,
rambling structure, flanked by two spires or minarets, giving it somewhat
an Oriental appearance. Each of these minarets was girdled, halfway up, by
a narrow balcony.

The first room into which we passed was small, seemingly an antechamber.
From it, announced by two other guards who stood at the entrance, we
entered directly into the main hall of the building. At one end of it
there was a raised platform. On this, seated about a large table, were
some ten or twelve dignitaries--the king's advisers. They were, I saw, all
aged men, with beardless, seamed faces, long snowy-white hair to their
shoulders, and dressed in flowing silk robes.

The king was a man of seventy-odd, kindly faced, gentle in demeanor. He
bore himself with the dignity of a born ruler, and yet his very kindliness
of aspect and the doddering gravity of his aged councilors, seemed to
explain at once most of the trouble that now confronted him.

We stood beside this table--they courteously made way for Lua to sit among
them--and all its occupants immediately turned to face us.

Our audience lasted perhaps an hour and a half altogether. I need not go
into details. I was right in assuming that the king desired to help us
prevent Tao from his attempted conquest of the earth. This was so, but
only in so far as his actions would not jeopardize the peace of his own
nation. He sadly admitted his error in allowing Tao's emissaries into the
Light Country. But now they were there, he did not see how to get them
out.

His people were daily listening to them more eagerly; and, what was worse,
the police guards themselves seemed rather more in sympathy with them than
otherwise. A slight disturbance had occurred in the streets the day
before, and the guards had stood apathetically by, taking no part. Above
all else, the king stoutly protested, he would have no bloodshed in his
country if he could prevent it.

In the neighboring towns of the Light Country--the nearest of which was
some forty miles away from the Great City--the situation was almost the
same. Reports brought by young women flying between the cities said that
to many Tao also had sent emissaries who were fast winning converts to his
cause.

"Do all these people who believe in Tao expect to go to our earth when it
is conquered?" I asked Miela. "How can they--so many of them--hope to
benefit in that way? Aren't they satisfied here?"

Miela smiled sadly.

"No people can ever be satisfied--all of them. That you must know, my
husband. They have many grievances against our ruler. Many things they
want which he cannot give. Tao may promise these things--and if they
believe his promise it is very bad."

"He might come over here and try to make himself king," Mercer said
suddenly. "If it's like that maybe he could do it, too, with this grand
earth-conquest getting ready. Tell the king that--see what he says."

"He says that he realizes and fears it," Miela answered. "But he thinks
that first Tao will go to your earth, and he may never come back. So much
may happen--"

"So he's just going to wait," I explained. "Well, we're not just going
to wait. Ask the king what our status is."

"Ask him about me," Mercer put in. "Are those Tao men going to grab me the
minute I show my face on the street, or will he protect me?"

Miela translated this to the king, adding something of her own to which he
evidently agreed.

"It is as I thought," she said. "He believes he can present you to the
people as men of earth who are our guests, and that they will accept you
in friendly spirit, most of them."

The king spoke to one of his advisers, who abruptly left the room.

"He will call the people now," Miela went on, "and will speak to them from
the tower--all who can leave their tasks to come. You will stand there
with him. He will ask that we of the Light Country allow you to remain
here in peace among us. And this captive earth man of Tao's"--she laid her
hand lightly on Mercer's shoulder--"he will ask, too, that he be given
sanctuary among us. Our people still are kindly--most of them--and they
will see the justice of what he asks."

I suggested then that Miela tell the king that we had determined, if we
could, to frustrate Tao in his plans; and showed her how to point out to
him that such an outcome would, if successful, make his throne secure and
insure peace for his nation.

He asked me bluntly what it was I thought I could do. The vague beginnings
of a plan were forming in my mind. "Tell him, Miela, I think we can rid
the Light Country of Tao's emissaries--send them back--without causing any
disturbances among the people. Ask him if that would not be a good thing."

The king nodded gravely as this was translated.

"He asks you how?" Miela said next.

"Tell him, Miela, that there are some things that might happen of which he
would be very glad, but which it might be better he did not know. You
understand. Make him see that we will be responsible for this--that he
needn't have anything to do with it or know anything about it. Then, if we
do anything wrong against your laws, he will be perfectly safe in stopping
and punishing us."

Miela nodded, and began swiftly telling this to the king. As she spoke I
saw his eyes twinkle and a swift little series of nods from the aged men
about the table made me know that I had carried my point. During the
latter part of this talk I had noticed the growing murmur of voices
outside the castle. The old man who had left the room at the king's order
came back.

"The people now are gathering," Miela said. "In a moment we shall go up
into the tower."

The king's councilors now rose and withdrew, and a few moments later the
king, without formality, led the four of us through the castle and up into
the tower.

We climbed a little stone staircase in the tower and came into a circular
room some sixty feet above the ground. A small doorway from this room gave
access to the narrow balcony which girdled the tower. The sounds of the
gathering crowd came up plainly from the gardens below. We waited for a
time, and then, at a sign from the king, stepped together upon the
balcony.

The gardens below were full of people--gathered among the palms and moving
about for points of vantage from which to obtain a view of the balcony.
Most of them were men and older women. The girls were, nearly all of them,
in the air, flying about the tower and hovering near the balcony, staring
at us curiously. The women were, for the most part, dressed as I have
described Lua.

The men wore knee-length trousers of fabric or leather, and sometimes a
shirt or leather jacket, although a difference of costume that made
evident the rank of the wearer was noticeable in both sexes. All were
bareheaded, with the exception of the king's guards, who were thus plainly
distinguishable, standing idly about among the crowd.

As we stepped out into view of the people a louder murmur arose, mingled
with a ripple of applause. Three or four girls, hovering only a few feet
in front of us, clapped their hands and laughed. The king placed Mercer
and me on either side of him, and, standing with his hands on our
shoulders, leaned over the balcony rail and began to speak.

A silence fell over the crowd; they listened quietly, but with none of
that respect and awe with which a people usually faces its king.

Miela whispered to me. "He is telling them about your earth, and that you
came here to visit us in friendly spirit."

There were some murmurs of dissent as the king proceeded, and once some
bolder individual shouted up a question, at which a wave of laughter
arose. As it died away, and the crowd appeared to listen to the king's
next words, a stone suddenly came whirling up from below, narrowly missing
the king's head. A sudden hush fell over the people at this hostile act;
then a tumult of shouting broke loose, and a commotion off to one side
showed where the offender was standing.

Mercer wheeled toward me, his face white with anger.

"Who did that--did you see him? Which one was it?"

The king began to speak, as if nothing had occurred, and an instant later
several more stones whistled past us. The commotion in the crowd grew more
violent, but it was evident that a great majority of the people were
against this demonstration.

"It is better we go inside," Miela said quietly.

The king was shouting down to his guards now, but they stood apathetically
by, taking no part.

Another stone hurtled past us, striking the tower and falling at our feet.
The king abruptly ceased his shouting and left the balcony. As he passed
me and I glanced into his frightened face I felt a sudden sense of pity
for this gentle, kindly old man, so well-meaning, but so utterly
ineffective as a ruler.

I was about to pull Miela back into the room when a girl flew up to the
balcony railing. As she balanced herself upon it I saw it was Anina. She
said something to Miela, who turned swiftly to me.

"She is right, my husband. We must not leave the matter like this. They
can have no confidence in you--our women most of all--if you do not do
something now. A sign of your strength now would make them respect
you--perhaps one of those who threw the stones you could punish."

I knew she was right. Most of the crowd was with us. If we retreated now,
those against us would grow bolder--our appearance on the street might at
any time be dangerous. But if now we proved ourselves superior in
strength, the popular sentiment in our favor would be just that much
stronger. At least, that is the way it seemed to me.

I did not need to ask Mercer's opinion, for at Miela's words he
immediately said: "That's my idea. Just give me a chance at them."

He leaned over the balcony. "How are we going to get down there? It's too
far to drop."

Miela spoke to Anina, and they both flew away. In a moment they were back
with two other girls. All four clung to the outside of the balcony
railing, and formed a cross with their joined hands. Into this little seat
of their arms I clambered. My weight was too great for them to have lifted
me up, but they fluttered safely with me to the ground, landing in a heap
among the people, who had cleared a space to receive us. As soon as I was
upon my feet the girls flew back for Mercer, and in a moment more he was
beside me.

"If we only knew who threw those stones," I said.

I stood erect, and my greater height enabled me to see over the heads of
the people easily.

Miela laid her hand on my arm.

"One of them I know. His name is Baar, a bad character. He has caused much
trouble in the past."

She then told me hastily that she and Anina would fly up and seek him out.
Mercer and I were to follow them through the crowd on the ground.

The throng was pushing close about us now, although those nearest us tried
to keep away as best they could. Miela and Anina flew up over our heads,
and, side by side, Mercer and I started off. The people struggled back
before our advance, striving to make a path for us. At times the press of
those behind made it impossible for them to give us room. We did not
hesitate, but shoved our way forward, elbowing them away roughly.

Suddenly, some twenty feet ahead of us, I saw Miela and Anina come to the
ground, and in a moment more we were with them again.

The crowd was less dense here, and about us there was a considerable open
space, Miela pointed out a man leaning against the trunk of a palm tree
near by and glaring at us malevolently.

"That is he," she said quietly. "A very bad man--this Baar--whom many
would like to see punished."

Mercer jumped forward, but I swept him back with my arm.

"Leave him to me," I said. "You stand here by the girls. If I need you,
I'll shout."

The man by the tree was a squat little individual, some five feet three or
four inches tall, and extraordinarily broad. He was bareheaded, with black
hair falling to his shoulders. He was naked to the waist, exposing a
powerful torso. His single garment was the usual knee-length trousers. I
thought I had never seen so evil a face as his, as he stood there, holding
his ground before my slow advance, and leering at me. His cheek bones were
high, his jowls heavy, his little eyes set wide apart. His nose was flat,
as though it had once been broken.

I went straight up to him, and he did not move. There were certainly three
hundred people watching us as I stood there facing him.

"You threw a stone at your king," I said to him sternly, although I knew
perfectly well he could not understand my words. "You shall be punished."

I reached out suddenly and struck him in the face as smartly as I could
with the flat of my hand. He gave a roar of surprise and pain, and as soon
as he could recover from my blow lunged at me with a snarl of rage.

As he came I turned and darted swiftly away. I heard a shout of surprise
from Mercer. "It's all right," he called. "Wait."

I ran about twenty feet, then turned and waited. The man came on, head
down, charging like a mad bull. When he was close upon me I gathered my
muscles and sprang clear over his head, landing well behind him.

He stopped and looked around confusedly, evidently not quite sure at first
what had become of me.

Mercer gave a shout of glee, and, to my great satisfaction, I heard it
taken up by the crowd, mingled with murmurs of surprise and awe.

I stood quiet, and again my opponent charged me. I eluded him easily, and
then for fully ten minutes I taunted and baited him this way, as a
skillful toreador taunts his bull. The crowd now seemed to enjoy the
affair hugely.

Finally I darted behind my adversary and, catching him by the shoulders,
tripped him and laid him on his back on the ground A great roar of
laughter went up from the onlookers.

The man was on his feet again in an instant, breathing heavily, for indeed
he had nearly winded himself by his exertions. I ran over to Mercer.

"Go on," I said; "show them what you can do."

The commotion of this contest had drawn many other spectators about us
now, but they kept a space clear, pushing back hurriedly before our sudden
rushes. At my words Mercer darted forward eagerly. His first move was to
leap some twenty feet across the open space. This smaller opponent seemed
to give the Mercutian new courage.

He shouted exultantly and dashed at Mercer, who stood quietly waiting for
him at the edge of the crowd.

Mercer's ideas evidently were different from mine, for as his adversary
came within reach he stepped nimbly aside and hit him a vicious blow in
the face. The man toppled over backward and lay still.

I ran over to where Mercer was bending over his fallen foe. As I came up
he straightened and grinned at me. "Oh, shucks," he said disgustedly. "You
can't fight up here--it's too easy."





Next: The Mountain Conclave

Previous: The Captive Earth-man



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