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The Water City







From: The Fire People

It had stopped raining; the sky overhead was luminous with diffused
sunlight; the scene that lay before Mercer was plainly visible. The river
had opened abruptly into a broad, shallow, nearly circular lake, some five
or six miles across. The country here showed an extraordinary change from
that they had passed through. The lake appeared to occupy a depression in
the surrounding hills, like the bottom of a huge, shallow bowl. From the
water's edge on all sides the ground sloped upward. It was no longer a
barren, rocky land, but seemingly covered with a rich heavy soil, dotted
with tropical trees. That it was under a high state of cultivation was
evident. Mercer saw tier upon tier of rice terraces on the hillsides.

But what astonished him most was the city itself. It covered almost the
entire surface of the lake--a huge collection of little palm-thatched
shacks built upon platforms raised above the water on stilts. Some of the
houses were larger and built of stone, with their foundations in the
water.

Off to one side were two or three little islands, an acre or less in
extent, fringed with palms and coconut trees. In nearly the center of the
lake stood a stone castle, two stories in height, with minarets
ornamenting its corners. An open stretch of water surrounded it.

There was little of regularity about this extraordinary city, and no
evidence of streets, for the houses were set down quite haphazard wherever
open space afforded. In some places they were more crowded together than
others, although seldom closer than twenty or thirty feet.

Around the larger ones there was a little more open water, as though the
owners controlled it and forbade building there. Some of the smaller
houses were connected by little wooden bridges. Anina said this was where
two or more families of relatives had located together.

There were a few boats moving about--little punts hollowed out of logs and
propelled by long poles--and Mercer saw many others, some of them larger
like the one he and Anina were in, tied up by the houses. It was now the
time of the evening meal. The workers had returned from the terraces;
there were few moving about the city. Occasionally a girl would dart up
from one of the houses and wing her way to another, but beyond that there
were no signs of activity.

Anina took command of the boat now, slowing it down and heading for the
nearest of the houses, which were hardly more than quarter of a mile away.
Mercer stretched himself out in the bottom of the boat, covering himself
with a large piece of fabric that lay there. He felt that he would be
unnoticed, even should a girl chance to pass directly overhead. But he
could see nothing of the city from where he was, and soon grew restless
and anxious to do something else.

"I'm coming up, Anina," he said once. "Shucks! Nobody can do anything to
us. Haven't I got this light-ray?"

But Anina was obdurate, and made him stay where he was.

They went slowly forward and were soon among the houses. On the front
platform of one a man sat fishing. A little naked boy slid down into the
water from another, swimming as though born to the water. Both stared at
Anina curiously as she passed slowly by, but they said nothing. A girl
looked out of the window of another house and waved her hand in friendly
greeting, which Anina answered.

Mercer, lying with all but his face covered by the cloth, could see only
the sides of the boat, the bottom of the cross-seat over his head, and
Anina as she sat above him in the stern.

"Where do you suppose the Tao people hang out around here?" he suddenly
asked. "If we could--"

The girl silenced him with a gesture.

He lowered his voice. "Try and find out where they are, Anina," he
whispered.

Anina steered the boat directly under several of the houses, which must
have been quite a usual proceeding, for it attracted no attention. A girl
flew close to them once, and Anina called to her. The girl alighted on the
stern of the boat for a moment; Mercer slid the cloth over his face and
held himself motionless. Then he heard Anina's voice calling to him
softly. He slid the cloth back; the girl had gone.

"She says Tao's men live, there--large house, of wood," said Anina,
pointing off to one side.

Mercer nearly rapped his head against the seat above him in his
excitement.

"You know which house? Let's go there. Maybe we can hear what they're
saying. Can we get under it?"

She nodded.

"Let's try, Anina," he said eagerly. "You steer us slow right under it,
just as if you were going past. If there's nobody in sight you can stop
underneath, can't you? Maybe we can hear what they're saying."

"I try," the girl said simply.

"I'll lay still," encouraged Mercer. "Nobody will bother about you. Just
sneak in and see what happens. If anybody sees you, keep going."

He was all excitement, and in spite of Anina's protests wriggled about
continually, trying to see where they were.

The house that the girl had pointed out lay only a few hundred yards
ahead. It was one of the largest of the wooden buildings--sixty or seventy
feet long at least--single story, with a high sloping thatched roof.

It was raised on a platform some six feet above the water, which, in
front, had a little flight of wooden steps leading down to the surface.
There was a hundred feet of open water on all sides of the building. The
boat, moving slowly, slipped through the water almost without a sound.

"Where are we now?" Mercer whispered impatiently. "Aren't we there yet?"

The girl put a finger to her lips. "Almost there. Quiet now."

She steered straight for the house. There was no one in sight, either
about the house itself or about those in its immediate vicinity. A moment
more and the boat slid beneath the building into semidarkness.

Anina shut the power off and stood up. The floor of the house was just
above her head. In front of her, near the center of the building, she saw
the side walls of an inner inclosure some twenty feet square. These walls
came down to the surface, making a room like a basement to the dwelling. A
broad doorway, with a sliding door that now stood open, gave ingress.

The boat had now almost lost headway. Anina nosed its bow into this
doorway, and grasping one of the pilings near at hand, brought it to rest.

Mercer, at a signal from her, climbed cautiously to his feet, still
holding the little light-ray cylinder in his hand.

"What's that in there?" he whispered.

Beyond the doorway, through which the bow of the boat projected, there was
complete darkness.

"Lower room," Anina whispered back. "Store things in there. And boat
landing, too."

"Let's go in and see."

Mercer started toward the bow of the boat. Six feet or more of it was
inside the doorway. He made his way carefully into the bow, and found
himself inside the basement of the house.

In the dimness of this interior he could just make out the outlines of
things around. The doorway was located at a corner of the inclosure. In
front lay a small open space of water. At one side a platform about two
feet above the surface formed the floor of the room. A tiny punt lay
moored to it. Farther back a small, steep flight of steps led up through a
rectangular opening to the building above.

Most of the light in this lower room came down through this opening; and
now, as Mercer stood quiet looking about him, he could hear plainly the
voices of men in the room above.

Anina was beside him.

"They're up there," he whispered, pointing. "Let's land and see if we can
get up those stairs a ways and hear what they're saying."

They stood a moment, undecided, and then from the silence and darkness
about them they distinctly heard a low muffled sound.

"What's that?" whispered Mercer, startled. "Didn't you hear that, Anina?
There's something over there by the bottom of the steps."

They listened, but only the murmur of the voices from above, and an
occasional footstep, broke the stillness.

"I tell you I heard something," Mercer persisted. "There's something over
there." He rattled a bit of rope incautiously, as if to startle a rat from
its hiding place. "Let's tie up, Anina."

They made the boat fast, but in such a way that they could cast it loose
quickly.

"We might want to get out of here in a hurry," Mercer whispered with a
grin. "You never can tell, Anina."

He stood stock still. The sound near at hand was repeated. It was
unmistakable this time--a low, stifled moan.

Mercer stepped lightly out of the boat onto the platform. A few boxes, a
coil of rope, and other odds and ends stood about. He felt his way forward
among them toward the bottom of the steps. He heard the moan again, and
now he saw the outlines of a human figure lying against the farther wall.

Anina was close behind him.

"There's somebody over there," he whispered. "Hurt or sick, maybe."

They crept forward.

It was a woman, bound hand and foot and gagged. Mercer bent over and tore
the cloth from her face. In another instant Anina was upon her knees,
sobbing softly, with her mother's head in her lap.

They loosed the cords that held her, and chaffed her stiffened limbs. She
soon recovered, for she was not injured. She told Anina her story
then--how Baar had captured her in her home while she was waiting for
Miela and me, and how two of his men had brought her here to the Water
City by boat at once.

That was all she knew, except that this house was the headquarters of
Tao's emissaries, who, it appeared, were now allied with Baar and his
party.

Anina whispered all this to Mercer when her mother had finished.

"Let's get out of here," said Mercer.

The responsibility of two women, especially the elder Lua, who could not
fly, weighed suddenly upon him, and his first thought was to get back to
the Great City at once.

Anina helped her mother into the boat.

"Wait," she whispered to Mercer. "I hear what they say. You wait here."

She went to the foot of the steps and began climbing them cautiously.

"Not on your life, I won't wait here," Mercer muttered to himself, and,
gripping the light-ray cylinder firmly as though he feared it might get
away from him, he joined Anina on the stairway.

Slowly, cautiously they made their way upward. The steps were fairly wide,
and they went up almost side by side. From near the top they could see a
portion of the room above.

The corner of a table showed, around which a number of men were gathered,
eating. A woman was moving about the room serving them.

Their words, from here, were plainly audible. Mercer would have gone a
step or two higher, without thought of discovery, but Anina held him back.
"Wait, Ollie. I hear now what they say."

They stood silent. The men were talking earnestly. Mercer could hear their
words, but of course understood nothing he heard.

"What do they say, Anina?" he whispered impatiently after a moment.

"Baar is here with two or three of his men. He talks with Tao's men. They
talk about men from Twilight Country. Waiting for them now. Speak of
storm. Worried--because men do not come. Waiting for light-ray."

"They'll have a long wait," Mercer chuckled. "Let's get out of here,
Anina."

He must have made a slight noise, or perhaps he and Anina, crouching there
on the stairs, were seen by some one above. He never knew quite how it
occurred, but, without warning, a man stood at the opening, looking down
at them.

There was a shout, and the room above was in instant turmoil. Mercer lost
his head. Anina pulled at him and said something, but he did not hear her.
He only knew that they had been discovered, and that most of their enemies
in the Water City were crowded together in this one room at hand. And he
had the light-ray--the only one in the city.

A sudden madness possessed him. He tore away from Anina and, climbing up
the steps of the stairway, leaped into the room above.

Twenty or thirty men faced him, most of them about the table. Several had
started hastily to their feet; two or three chairs were overturned.

The man who had been looking down into the opening darted back as Mercer
came up, and shouted again.

Mercer saw it was Baar.


THE WATER CITY.

The men around the table were now all on their feet. One of them picked up
a huge metal goblet and flung it at Mercer's head. The last remaining bit
of reason Mercer had left fled from him. Without thought of what he was
about, he raised the metal cylinder; his thumb found the little button and
pressed it hard; he waved the cylinder back and forth before him.

It was over in an instant. Mercer relaxed his pressure on the button and
staggered back. He was sick and faint from what he had seen--with the
realization of what he had done. Flames were rising all about him. The
room was full of smoke. He held his breath, finding his way back somehow
to the stairway, with the agonized screams of the men ringing in his
ears. He caught a glimpse of Anina's white face as she stood there where
he had left her.

"Good God. Anina! Go back! Go back! I'm coming!"

He tripped near the top of the stairs and fell in a heap onto the platform
below, but he still held the cylinder clutched tightly in his hand.

Anina groped her way down to him. He gripped her by the arm. He was
trembling like a leaf. The crackling of the burning house above came down
to him; the cries of the men were stilled.

"Come, Anina," he half whispered. "Hurry--let's get away, anywhere.
Home--out of this cursed city."

Lua was still in the boat. Her calm, steady glance brought Mercer back to
his senses. They shoved the boat out from under the house, and in a moment
more were heading back through the city. The building they had left was
now a mass of flames, with a great cloud of smoke, rolling up from it. A
woman stood on the front platform an instant, and then, screaming, flung
herself into the water.

The city was in commotion. Faces appeared at windows; girls flew up and
gathered in a frightened flock, circling about the burning building; boats
miraculously appeared from everywhere. Lua was steering their boat on its
tortuous way between the houses. She put the boat nearly to full speed,
and as they swept past a house nearly collided with a punt that was
crossing behind it.

Mercer's nerves were still shaken. He handed Anina the light-ray cylinder.

"Here--take it, Anina. I don't want the cursed thing. Shoot it up into the
air. Somebody might try and stop us. That'll scare them. Careful you don't
hit anything!"

Anina played the light about in the air for a time, but soon there were so
many girls flying about she had to shut it off. A few minutes more and
they had passed the last of the houses, swept around the bend in the
river, and left the frightened city out of sight behind them.

They had left the river and, following close along shore, headed for the
bayous that led up to the Great City. The storm had now entirely passed,
leaving the daylight unusually bright and a fresh coolness in the air. The
sea was still rough, although not alarmingly so, and the boat made
comparatively slow progress. It was two hours or more--to Mercer it seemed
a whole day--before they were nearing the bayous. Anina was sitting by his
side in the center of the boat. Lua was steering.

"You hungry, Ollie?" the girl asked, smiling.

Mercer shook his head. He had forgotten they had intended to eat in the
Water City.

"I very hungry. Soon we--"

She stopped abruptly, staring up into the sky ahead of them.

Mercer followed her glance. A little black blob showed against the gray;
off to one side two other smaller black dots appeared.

"What's that?" cried Mercer, alarmed.

They watched a few moments in silence. Then Mercer took the cylinder, and
flashed its light into the air.

"If it's anybody connected with Tao, that'll show they'd better keep
away," he explained grimly.

Anina smiled. "Tao people cannot fly, Ollie."

A few moments more and they saw what it was. And within ten minutes they
had landed at the mouth of one of the bayous, and Miela and I were with
them.





Next: Preparations For War

Previous: The Storm



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