El Borak and Other Desert Adventures (5 page)

BOOK: El Borak and Other Desert Adventures
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Outside the walls, men tilled the thin soil with primitive implements, and herded sheep and cattle. A few horses grazed along the bank of the stream which meandered through the valley. All the men, like Bardylis, were tall and fair-haired. They dropped their work and came running up, staring at the black-haired stranger in hostile surprize, until Bardylis reassured them.

“It is the first time any but a captive or a trader has entered the valley in centuries,” said Bardylis to Gordon. “Say nothing till I bid you. I wish to surprize my people with your knowledge. Zeus, they will gape when they hear a stranger speak to them in their own tongue!”

The gate in the wall hung open and unguarded, and Gordon noticed that the wall itself was in a poor state of repair. Bardylis remarked that the guard in the narrow pass at the end of the valley was sufficient protection, and that no hostile force had ever reached the city
itself. They passed through and walked along a broad paved street, in which yellow-haired people in tunics, men, women and children, went about their tasks much like the Greeks of two thousand years ago, among buildings which were duplicates of the structures of ancient Athens.

A crowd quickly formed about them, but Bardylis, bursting with glee and importance, gave them no satisfaction. He went straight toward a large edifice near the center of the town and, mounting the broad steps, came into a large chamber where several men, more richly dressed than the common people, sat casting dice on a small table before them. The crowd swarmed in after them, and thronged the doorway eagerly. The chiefs ceased their dice game, and one, a giant with a commanding air, demanded: “What do you wish, Bardylis? Who is this stranger?”

“A friend of Attalus, oh Ptolemy, king of the valley of Iskander,” answered Bardylis. “He speaks the tongue of Iskander!”

“What tale is this?” harshly demanded the giant.

“Let them hear, brother!” Bardylis directed triumphantly.

“I come in peace,” said Gordon briefly, in archaic Greek. “I am called El Borak, but I am no Moslem.”

A murmur of surprise went up from the throng, and Ptolemy fingered his chin and scowled suspiciously. He was a magnificently built man, clean shaven like all his tribesmen, and handsome, but his visage was moody.

He listened impatiently while Bardylis related the circumstances of his meeting with Gordon, and when he told of the American lifting the stone that pinned him down, Ptolemy frowned and involuntarily flexed his own massive thews. He seemed ill-pleased at the approval with which the people openly greeted the tale. Evidently these descendants of Grecian athletes had as much admiration for physical perfection as had their ancient ancestors, and Ptolemy was vain of his prowess.

“How could he lift such a stone?” the king broke in. “He is of no great size. His head would scarcely top my chin.”

“He is mighty beyond his stature, oh king,” retorted Bardylis. “Here is the bruise on my leg to prove I tell the truth. He lifted the stone I could not move, and he came down the Road of the Eagles, which few even among the Attalans have dared. He has traveled far and fought men, and now he would feast and rest.”

“See to it then,” grunted Ptolemy contemptuously, turning back to his dice game. “If he is a Moslem spy, your head shall answer for it.”

“I stake my head gladly on his honesty, oh king!” answered Bardylis proudly; then taking Gordon’s arm, he said softly, “Come my friend. Ptolemy is short of patience and scant of courtesy. Pay no heed to him. I will take you to the house of my father.”

As they pushed their way through the crowd, Gordon’s gaze picked out an alien countenance among the frank, blond faces — a thin, swarthy visage, whose black eyes gleamed avidly on the American. The man was a Tajik, with a bundle on his back. When he saw he was being scrutinized he smirked and bobbed his head servilely. There was something familiar about the gesture.

“Who is that man?” Gordon asked.

“Abdullah, a Moslem dog whom we allow to enter the valley with beads and mirrors and such trinkets as our women love; we trade ore and wine and skins for them.”

Gordon remembered the fellow now — a shifty character who used to hang around Peshawur, and was suspected of smuggling rifles up the Khyber Pass. But when he turned and looked back, the dark face had vanished in the crowd. However, there was no reason to fear Abdullah, even if the man recognized him. The Tajik could not know of the papers he carried. Gordon felt that the people of Attalus were friendly to the friend of Bardylis, though the youth had plainly roused Ptolemy’s jealous vanity by his praise of Gordon’s strength.

Bardylis conducted Gordon down the street to a large stone house with a pillared portico, where he proudly displayed his friend to his father, a venerable patriarch called Perdiccas, and his mother, a tall, stately woman, well along in years. The Attalans certainly did not keep their women in seclusion like the Moslems. Gordon saw Bardylis’ sisters, robust blond beauties, and his young brother. The American could scarcely suppress a smile at the strangeness of it all, being ushered into the every-day family life of two thousand years ago. These people were definitely not barbarians; lower, undoubtedly, in the cultural scale than their Hellenic ancestors, they were still more highly civilized by far than their fierce Afghan neighbors.

Their interest in their guest was genuine, but none save Bardylis showed much interest in the world outside their valley. Presently the youth led Gordon into an inner chamber and set food and wine before him. The American ate and drank ravenously, suddenly aware of the lean days that had preceded this feast. While he ate, Bardylis talked, but he did not speak of the men who had been pursuing Gordon. Evidently he supposed them to have been Afghans of the surrounding hills, whose hostility was proverbial. Gordon learned that no man of Attalus had ever been more than a day’s journey away from the valley. The ferocity of the hill tribes all about them had isolated them from the world completely.

When Gordon at last expressed a desire for sleep, Bardylis left him alone, assuring him that he would not be disturbed. The American was somewhat disturbed to find that there was no door to his chamber, merely a curtain drawn across an archway. Bardylis had said there were no thieves in Attalus, but caution was so much a natural part of Gordon that he found himself a prey
to uneasiness. The room opened onto a corridor, and the corridor, he believed, gave onto an outer door. The people of Attalus apparently did not find it necessary to safeguard their dwellings; but though a native might sleep in safety, that might not apply to a stranger.

Finally Gordon drew aside the couch which formed the main piece of furniture for the chamber, and making sure no spying eyes were on him, he worked loose one of the small stone blocks which composed the wall. Taking the silk-bound packet from his shirt, he thrust it into the aperture, pushed back the stone as far as it would go, and replaced the couch.

Stretching himself, then, upon the couch, he fell to evolving plans for escape with his life and those papers which meant so much to the peace of Asia. He was safe enough in the valley, but he knew Hunyadi would wait for him outside with the patience of a cobra. He could not stay here forever. He would scale the cliffs some dark night and bolt for it. Hunyadi would undoubtedly have all the tribes in the hills after him, but he would trust to luck and his good right arm, as he had so often before. The wine he had drunk was potent; weariness after the long flight weighted his limbs. Gordon’s meditations merged into dream. He slept deeply and long.

IV

When Gordon awoke it was in utter darkness. He knew that he had slept for many hours, and night had fallen. Silence reigned over the house, but he had been awakened by the soft swish of the curtains over the doorway.

He sat up on his couch and asked: “Is that you, Bardylis?”

A voice grunted, “Yes.” Even as he was electrified by the realization that the voice was
not
that of Bardylis, something crashed down on his head, and a deeper blackness, shot with fire-sparks, engulfed him.

When he regained consciousness, a torch dazzled his eyes, and in its glow he saw three men — burly, yellow-haired men of Attalus with faces more stupid and brutish than any he had yet seen. He was lying on a stone slab in a bare chamber, whose crumbling, cobwebbed walls were vaguely illumined by the gutturing torch. His arms were bound, but not his legs. The sound of a door opening made him crane his neck, and he saw a stooped, vulture-like figure enter the room. It was Abdullah, the Tajik.

He looked down on the American with his rat-like features twisted in a venomous grin.

“Low lies the terrible El Borak!” he taunted. “Fool! I knew you the instant I saw you in the palace of Ptolemy.”

“You have no feud with me,” growled Gordon.

“A friend of mine has,” answered the Tajik. “That is nothing to me, but it
shall gain me profit. It is true you have never harmed me, but I have always feared you. So when I saw you in the city, I gathered my goods and hastened to depart, not knowing what you did here. But beyond the pass I met the
Feringhi
Hunyadi, and he asked me if I had seen you in the valley of Iskander, whither you had fled to escape him. I answered that I had, and he urged me to help him steal into the valley and take from you certain documents he said you stole from him.

“But I refused, knowing that these Attalan devils would kill me if I tried to smuggle a stranger into Iskander, and Hunyadi went back into the hills with his four Turks, and the horde of ragged Afghans he has made his friends and allies. When he had gone I returned to the valley, telling the guardsmen at the pass that I feared the Pathans.

“I persuaded these three men to aid me in capturing you. None will know what became of you, and Ptolemy will not trouble himself about you, because he is jealous of your strength. It is an old tradition that the king of Attalus must be the strongest man in the city. Ptolemy would have killed you himself, in time. But I will attend to that. I do not wish to have you on my trail, after I have taken from you the papers Hunyadi wishes. He shall have them ultimately — if he is willing to pay enough!” He laughed, a high, cackling laugh, and turned to the stolid Attalans. “Did you search him?”

“We found nothing,” a giant rumbled.

Abdullah
tck-tck’ed
his teeth in annoyance.

“You do not know how to search a
Feringhi
. Here, I will do it myself.”

He ran a practiced hand over his captive, scowling as his search was unrewarded. He tried to feel under the American’s arm-pits, but Gordon’s arms were bound so closely to his sides that this was impossible.

Abdullah frowned worriedly, and drew a curved dagger.

“Cut loose his arms,” he directed, “then all three of you lay hold on him; it is like letting a leopard out of his cage.”

Gordon made no resistance and was quickly spread-eagled on the slab, with a big Attalan at each arm and one at his legs. They held him closely, but seemed skeptical of Abdullah’s repeated warnings concerning the stranger’s strength.

The Tajik again approached his prisoner, lowering his knife as he reached out. With a dynamic release of coiled steel muscles Gordon wrenched his legs free from the grasp of the careless Attalan and drove his heels terrifically into Abdullah’s breast. Had his feet been booted they would have caved in the Tajik’s breast bone. As it was, the merchant shot backward with an agonized grunt, and struck the floor flat on his shoulders.

Gordon had not paused. That same terrific lunge had torn his left arm free, and heaving up on the slab, he smashed his left fist against the jaw of the man who gripped his right arm. The impact was like that of a caulking hammer,
and the Attalan went down like a butchered ox. The other two lunged in, hands grasping. Gordon threw himself over the slab to the floor on the other side, and as one of the warriors lunged around it, he caught the Attalan’s wrist, wheeled, jerking the arm over his shoulder, and hurled the man bodily over his head. The Attalan struck the floor headfirst with an impact that knocked wind and consciousness out of him together.

The remaining kidnaper was more wary. Seeing the terrible strength and blinding speed of his smaller foe, he drew a long knife and came in cautiously, seeking an opportunity for a mortal thrust. Gordon fell back, putting the slab between himself and that glimmering blade, while the other circled warily after him. Suddenly the American stooped and ripped a similar knife from the belt of the man he had first felled. As he did so, the Attalan gave a roar, cleared the slab with a lion-like bound, and slashed in mid-air at the stooping American.

Gordon crouched still lower and the gleaming blade whistled over his head. The man hit the floor feet-first, off balance, and tumbled forward, full into the knife that swept up in Gordon’s hand. A strangled cry was wrung from the Attalan’s lips as he felt himself impaled on the long blade, and he dragged Gordon down with him in his death struggles.

Tearing free from his weakening embrace, Gordon rose, his garments smeared with his victim’s blood, the red knife in his hand. Abdullah staggered up with a croaking cry, his face green with pain. Gordon snarled like a wolf and sprang toward him, all his murderous passion fully roused. But the sight of that dripping knife and the savage mask of Gordon’s face galvanized the Tajik. With a scream he sprang for the door, knocking the torch from its socket as he passed. It hit the floor, scattering sparks and plunging the room into darkness, and Gordon caromed blindly into the wall.

When he righted himself and found the door, the room was empty except for himself and the Attalans, dead or senseless.

Emerging from the chamber, he found himself in a narrow street, with the stars just fading for dawn. The building he had just quitted was dilapidated and obviously deserted. Down the narrow way he saw the house of Perdiccas. So he had not been carried far. Evidently his abductors had anticipated no interference. He wondered how much of a hand Bardylis had had in the plot. He did not like to think that the youth had betrayed him. But in any event, he would have to return to the house of Perdiccas, to obtain the packet he had concealed in the wall. He went down the street, still feeling a bit sick and giddy from that blow that had knocked him senseless, now that the fire of battle had cooled in his veins. The street was deserted. It seemed, indeed, more like an alley than a street, running between the backs of the houses.

BOOK: El Borak and Other Desert Adventures
13.07Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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