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Title: The Voice of El-Lil
Author: Robert E. Howard
* A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 0608121.txt
Language: English
Date first posted: November 2006
Date most recently updated: December 2007

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The Voice of El-Lil
Robert E. Howard



_Maskat, like many another port, is a haven for the drifters of
many nations who bring their tribal customs and peculiarities with
them. Turk rubs shoulders with Greek and Arab squabbles with Hindoo.
The tongues of half the Orient resound in the loud smelly bazaar.
Therefore it did not seem particularly incongruous to hear, as I
leaned on a bar tended by a smirking Eurasian, the musical notes of a
Chinese gong sound clearly through the lazy hum of native traffic.
There was certainly nothing so startling in those mellow tones that
the big Englishman next me should start and swear and spill his
whisky-and-soda on my sleeve._

He apologized and berated his clumsiness with honest profanity,
but I saw he was shaken. He interested me as his type always does--a
fine upstanding fellow he was; over six feet tall, broad-shouldered,
narrow-hipped, heavy-limbed, the perfect fighting man, brown-faced,
blue-eyed and tawny-haired. His breed is old as Europe, and the man
himself brought to mind vague legendary characters--Hengist, Hereward,
Cerdic--born rovers and fighters of the original Anglo-Saxon stock.

I saw, furthermore, that he was in a mood to talk. I introduced
myself, ordered drinks and waited. My specimen thanked me, muttered to
himself, quaffed his liquor hastily and spoke abruptly:

"You're wondering why a grown man should be so suddenly upset by
such a small thing--well, I admit that damned gong gave me a start.
It's that fool Yotai Lao, bringing his nasty joss sticks and Buddhas
into a decent town--for a half-penny I'd bribe some Moslem fanatic to
cut his yellow throat and sink his confounded gong into the gulf. And
I'll tell you why I hate the thing.

"My name," said my Saxon, "is Bill Kirby. It was in Jibuti on the
Gulf of Aden that I met John Conrad. A slim, keen-eyed young New
Englander he was--professor too, for all his youth. Victim of
obsession also, like most of his kind. He was a student of bugs, and
it was a particular bug that had brought him to the East Coast; or
rather, the hope of the blooming beast, for he never found it. It was
almost uncanny to see the chap work himself into a blaze of enthusiasm
when speaking on his favorite subject. No doubt he could have taught
me much I should know, but insects are not among my enthusiasms, and
he talked, dreamed and thought of little else at first....

"Well, we paired off well from the start. He had money and
ambitions and I had a bit of experience and a roving foot. We got
together a small, modest but efficient safari and wandered down into
the back country of Somaliland. Now you'll hear it spoken today that
this country has been exhaustively explored and I can prove that
statement to be a lie. We found things that no white man has ever
dreamed of.

"We had trekked for the best part of a month and had gotten into a
part of the country I knew was unknown to the average explorer. The
veldt and thorn forests gave way to what approached real jungle and
what natives we saw were a thick-lipped, low-browed, dog-toothed
breed--not like the Somali at all. We wandered on though, and our
porters and askari began muttering among themselves. Some of the black
fellows had been hobnobbing with them and telling them tales that
frightened them from going on. Our men wouldn't talk to me or Conrad
about it, but we had a camp servant, a half-caste named Selim, and I
told him to see what he could learn. That night he came to my tent. We
had pitched camp in a sort of big glade and had built a thorn boma;
for the lions were raising merry Cain in the bush.

"'Master,' said he in the mongrel English he was so proud of,
'them black fella he is scaring the porters and askari with bad ju-ju
talk. They be tell about a mighty ju-ju curse on the country in which
we go to, and--'

"He stopped short, turned ashy, and my head jerked up. Out of the
dim, jungle-haunted mazes of the south whispered a haunting voice.
Like the echo of an echo it was, yet strangely distinct, deep,
vibrant, melodious. I stepped from my tent and saw Conrad standing
before a fire, taut and tense as a hunting hound.

"'Did you hear that?' he asked. 'What was it?'

"'A native drum,' I answered--but we both knew I lied. The noise
and chatter of our natives about their cooking-fires had ceased as if
they had all died suddenly.

"We heard nothing more of it that night, but the next morning we
found ourselves deserted. The black boys had decamped with all the
luggage they could lay hand to. We held a council of war, Conrad,
Selim and I. The half-caste was scared pink, but the pride of his
white blood kept him carrying on.

"'What now?' I asked Conrad. 'We've our guns and enough supplies
to give us a sporting chance of reaching the coast.'

"'Listen!' he raised his hand. Out across the bush-country
throbbed again that haunting whisper. 'We'll go on. I'll never rest
until I know what makes that sound. I never heard anything like it in
the world before.'

"'The jungle will pick our bally bones,' I said. He shook his
head.

"'Listen!' said he.

"It was like a call. It got into your blood. It drew you as a
fakir's music draws a cobra. I knew it was madness. But I didn't
argue. We cached most of our duffle and started on. Each night we
built a thorn boma and sat inside it while the big cats yowled and
grunted outside. And ever clearer as we worked deeper and deeper in
the jungle mazes, we heard that voice. It was deep, mellow, musical.
It made you dream strange things; it was pregnant with vast age. The
lost glories of antiquity whispered in its booming. It centered in its
resonance all the yearning and mystery of life; all the magic soul of
the East. I awoke in the middle of the night to listen to its
whispering echoes, and slept to dream of sky-towering minarets, of
long ranks of bowing, brown-skinned worshippers, of purple-canopied
peacock thrones and thundering golden chariots.

"Conrad had found something at last that rivaled his infernal bugs
in his interest. He didn't talk much; he hunted insects in an absent-
minded way. All day he would seem to be in an attitude of listening,
and when the deep golden notes would roll out across the jungle, he
would tense like a hunting dog on the scent, while into his eyes would
steal a look strange for a civilized professor. By Jove, it's curious
to see some ancient primal influence steal through the veneer of a
cold-blooded scientist's soul and touch the red flow of life beneath!
It was new and strange to Conrad; here was something he couldn't
explain away with his new-fangled, bloodless psychology.

"Well, we wandered on in that mad search--for it's the white man's
curse to go into Hell to satisfy his curiosity. Then in the gray light
of an early dawn the camp was rushed. There was no fight. We were
simply flooded and submerged by numbers. They must have stolen up and
surrounded us on all sides; for the first thing I knew, the camp was
full of fantastic figures and there were half a dozen spears at my
throat. It rasped me terribly to give up without a shot fired, but
there was no bettering it, and I cursed myself for not having kept a
better lookout. We should have expected something of the kind, with
that devilish chiming in the south.

"There were at least a hundred of them, and I got a chill when I
looked at them closely. They weren't black boys and they weren't
Arabs. They were lean men of middle height, light yellowish brown,
with dark eyes and big noses. They wore no beards and their heads were
close-shaven. They were clad in a sort of tunic, belted at the waist
with a wide leather girdle, and sandals. They also wore a queer kind
of iron helmet, peaked at the top, open in front and coming down
nearly to their shoulders behind and at the sides. They carried big
metal-braced shields, nearly square, and were armed with narrow-bladed
spears, strangely made bows and arrows, and short straight swords such
as I had never seen before--or since.

"They bound Conrad and me hand and foot and they butchered Selim
then and there--cut his throat like a pig while he kicked and howled.
A sickening sight--Conrad nearly fainted and I dare say I looked a bit
pale myself. Then they set out in the direction we had been heading,
making us walk between them, with our hands tied behind our backs and
their spears threatening us. They brought along our scanty dunnage,
but from the way they carried the guns I didn't believe they knew what
those were for. Scarcely a word had been spoken between them and when
I essayed various dialects I only got the prod of a spear-point. Their
silence was a bit ghostly and altogether ghastly. I felt as if we'd
been captured by a band of spooks.

"I didn't know what to make of them. They had the look of the
Orient about them but not the Orient with which I was familiar, if you
understand me. Africa is of the East but not one with it. They looked
no more African than a Chinaman does. This is hard to explain. But
I'll say this: Tokyo is Eastern, and Benares is equally so, but
Benares symbolizes a different, older phase of the Orient, while
Peking represents still another, and older one. These men were of an
Orient I had never known; they were part of an East older than
Persia--older than Assyria--older than Babylon! I felt it about them
like an aura and I shuddered from the gulfs of Time they symbolized.
Yet it fascinated me, too. Beneath the Gothic arches of an age-old
jungle, speared along by silent Orientals whose type has been
forgotten for God knows how many eons, a man can have fantastic
thoughts. I almost wondered if these fellows were real, or but the
ghosts of warriors dead four thousand years!

"The trees began to thin and the ground sloped upward. At last we
came out upon a sort of cliff and saw a sight that made us gasp. We
were looking into a big valley surrounded entirely by high, steep
cliffs, through which various streams had cut narrow canyons to feed a
good-sized lake in the center of the valley. In the center of that
lake was an island and on that island was a temple and at the farther
end of the lake was a city! No native village of mud and bamboo,
either. This seemed to be of stone, yellowish-brown in color.

"The city was walled and consisted of square-built, flat-topped
houses, some apparently three or four stories high. All the shores of
the lake were in cultivation and the fields were green and
flourishing, fed by artificial ditches. They had a system of
irrigation that amazed me. But the most astonishing thing was the
temple on the island.

"I gasped, gaped and blinked. It was the tower of Babel true to
life! Not as tall or as big as I'd imagined it, but some ten tiers
high and sullen and massive just like the pictures, with that same
intangible impression of evil hovering over it.

"Then as we stood there, from that vast pile of masonry there
floated out across the lake that deep resonant booming--close and
clear now--and the very cliffs seemed to quiver with the vibrations of
that music-laden air. I stole a glance at Conrad; he looked all at
sea. He was of that class of scientists who have the universe
classified and pigeon-holed and everything in its proper little nook.
By Jove! It knocks them in a heap to be confronted with the
paradoxical-unexplainable-shouldn't-be more than it does common chaps
like you and me, who haven't much preconceived ideas of things in
general.

"The soldiers took us down a stairway cut into the solid rock of
the cliffs and we went through irrigated fields where shaven-headed
men and dark-eyed women paused in their work to stare curiously at us.
They took us to a big, iron-braced gate where a small body of soldiers
equipped like our captors challenged them, and after a short parley we
were escorted into the city. It was much like any other Eastern city--
men, women and children going to and fro, arguing, buying and selling.
But all in all, it had that same effect of apartness--of vast
antiquity. I couldn't classify the architecture any more than I could
understand the language. The only thing I could think of as I stared
at those squat, square buildings was the huts certain low-caste,
mongrel peoples still build in the valley of the Euphrates in
Mesopotamia. Those huts might be a degraded evolution from the
architecture in that strange African city.

"Our captors took us straight to the largest building in the city,
and while we marched along the streets, we discovered that the houses
and walls were not of stone after all, but a sort of brick. We were
taken into a huge-columned hall before which stood ranks of silent
soldiery, and taken before a dais up which led broad steps. Armed
warriors stood behind and on either side of a throne, a scribe stood
beside it, girls clad in ostrich plumes lounged on the broad steps,
and on the throne sat a grim-eyed devil who alone of all the men of
that fantastic city wore his hair long. He was black-bearded, wore a
sort of crown and had the haughtiest, cruelest face I ever saw on any
man. An Arab sheikh or Turkish shah was a lamb beside him. He reminded
me of some artist's conception of Belshazzar or the Pharaohs--a king
who was more than a king in his own mind and the eyes of his people--a
king who was at once king and high priest and god.

"Our escort promptly prostrated themselves before him and knocked
their heads on the matting until he spoke a languid word to the scribe
and this personage signed for them to rise. They rose, and the leader
began a long rigmarole to the king, while the scribe scratched away
like mad on a clay tablet and Conrad and I stood there like a pair of
blooming gaping jackasses, wondering what it was all about. Then I
heard a word repeated continually, and each time he spoke it, he
indicated us. The word sounded like 'Akkaddian,' and suddenly my brain
reeled with the possibilities it betokened. It couldn't be--yet it had
to be!

"Not wanting to break in on the conversation and maybe lose my
bally head, I said nothing, and at last the king gestured and spoke,
the soldiers bowed again and seizing us, hustled us roughly from the
royal presence into a columned corridor, across a huge chamber and
into a small cell where they thrust us and locked the door. There was
only a heavy bench and one window, closely barred.

"'My heavens, Bill,' exclaimed Conrad, 'who could have imagined
anything equal to this? It's like a nightmare--or a tale from The
Arabian Nights! Where are we? Who are these people?'

"'You won't believe me,' I said, 'but--you've read of the ancient
empire of Sumeria?'

"'Certainly; it flourished in Mesopotamia some four thousand years
ago. But what--by Jove!' he broke off, staring at me wide-eyed as the
connection struck him.

"'I leave it to you what the descendants of an Asia-Minor kingdom
are doing in East Africa,' I said, feeling for my pipe, 'but it must
be--the Sumerians built their cities of sun-dried brick. I saw men
making bricks and stacking them up to dry along the lake shore. The
mud is remarkably like that you find in the Tigris and Euphrates
valley. Likely that's why these chaps settled here. The Sumerians
wrote on clay tablets by scratching the surface with a sharp point
just as the chap was doing in the throne room.

"'Then look at their arms, dress and physiognomy. I've seen their
art carved on stone and pottery and wondered if those big noses were
part of their faces or part of their helmets. And look at that temple
in the lake! A small counterpart of the temple reared to the god El-
lil in Nippur--which probably started the myth of the tower of Babel.

"'But the thing that clinches it is the fact that they referred to
us as Akkaddians. Their empire was conquered and subjugated by Sargon
of Akkad in 2750 B.C. If these are descendants of a band who fled
their conqueror, it's natural that, pent in these hinterlands and
separated from the rest of the world, they'd come to call all
outlanders Akkaddians, much as secluded oriental nations call all
Europeans Franks in memory of Martel's warriors who scuttled them at
Tours.'

"'Why do you suppose they haven't been discovered before now?'

"'Well, if any white man's been here before, they took good care
he didn't get out to tell his tale. I doubt if they wander much;
probably think the outside world's overrun with bloodthirsty
Akkaddians.'

"At this moment the door of our cell opened to admit a slim young
girl, clad only in a girdle of silk and golden breast-plates. She
brought us food and wine, and I noted how lingeringly she gazed at
Conrad. And to my surprize she spoke to us in fair Somali.

"'Where are we?' I asked her. 'What are they going to do with us?
Who are you?'

"'I am Naluna, the dancer of El-lil,' she answered--and she looked
it--lithe as a she-panther she was. 'I am sorry to see you in this
place; no Akkaddian goes forth from here alive.'

"'Nice friendly sort of chaps,' I grunted, but glad to find
someone I could talk to and understand. 'And what's the name of this
city?'

"'This is Eridu,' said she. 'Our ancestors came here many ages ago
from ancient Sumer, many moons to the East. They were driven by a
great and cruel king, Sargon of the Akkaddians--desert people. But our
ancestors would not be slaves like their kin, so they fled, thousands
of them in one great band, and traversed many strange, savage
countries before they came to this land.'

"Beyond that her knowledge was very vague and mixed up with myths
and improbable legends. Conrad and I discussed it afterward, wondering
if the old Sumerians came down the west coast of Arabia and crossed
the Red Sea about where Mocha is now, or if they went over the Isthmus
of Suez and came down on the African side. I'm inclined to the last
opinion. Likely the Egyptians met them as they came out of Asia Minor
and chased them south. Conrad thought they might have made most of the
trip by water, because, as he said, the Persian Gulf ran up something
like a hundred and thirty miles farther than it does now, and Old
Eridu was a seaport town. But just at the moment something else was on
my mind.

"'Where did you learn to speak Somali?' I asked Naluna.

"'When I was little,' she answered, 'I wandered out of the valley
and into the jungle where a band of raiding black men caught me. They
sold me to a tribe who lived near the coast and I spent my childhood
among them. But when I had grown into girlhood I remembered Eridu and
one day I stole a camel and rode across many leagues of veldt and
jungle and so came again to the city of my birth. In all Eridu I alone
can speak a tongue not mine own, except for the black slaves--and they
speak not at all, for we cut out their tongues when we capture them.
The people of Eridu go not forth beyond the jungles and they traffic
not with the black peoples who sometimes come against us, except as
they take a few slaves.'

"I asked her why they killed our camp servant and she said that it
was forbidden for blacks and whites to mate in Eridu and the offspring
of such union was not allowed to live. They didn't like the poor
beggar's color.

"Naluna could tell us little of the history of the city since its
founding, outside the events that had happened in her own memory--
which dealt mainly with scattered raids by a cannibalistic tribe
living in the jungles to the south, petty intrigues of court and
temple, crop failures and the like--the scope of a woman's life in the
East is much the same, whether in the palace of Akbar, Cyrus or
Asshurbanipal. But I learned that the ruler's name was Sostoras and
that he was both high priest and king--just as the rulers were in old
Sumer, four thousand years ago. El-lil was their god, who abode in the
temple in the lake, and the deep booming we had heard was, Naluna
said, the voice of the god.

"At last she rose to go, casting a wistful look at Conrad, who sat
like a man in a trance--for once his confounded bugs were clean out of
his mind.

"'Well,' said I, 'what d'you think of it, young fella-me-lad?'

"'It's incredible,' said he, shaking his head. 'It's absurd--an
intelligent tribe living here four thousand years and never advancing
beyond their ancestors.'

"'You're stung with the bug of progress,' I told him cynically,
cramming my pipe bowl full of weed. 'You're thinking of the mushroom
growth of your own country. You can't generalize on an Oriental from a
Western viewpoint. What about China's famous long sleep? As for these
chaps, you forget they're no tribe but the tag-end of a civilization
that lasted longer than any has lasted since. They passed the peak of
their progress thousands of years ago. With no intercourse with the
outside world and no new blood to stir them up, these people are
slowly sinking in the scale. I'd wager their culture and art are far
inferior to that of their ancestors.'

"'Then why haven't they lapsed into complete barbarism?'

"'Maybe they have, to all practical purposes,' I answered,
beginning to draw on my old pipe. 'They don't strike me as being quite
the proper thing for offsprings of an ancient and honorable
civilization. But remember they grew slowly and their retrogression is
bound to be equally slow. Sumerian culture was unusually virile. Its
influence is felt in Asia Minor today. The Sumerians had their
civilization when our bloomin' ancestors were scrapping with cave
bears and sabertooth tigers, so to speak. At least the Aryans hadn't
passed the first milestones on the road to progress, whoever their
animal neighbors were. Old Eridu was a seaport of consequence as early
as 6500 B.C. From then to 2750 B.C. is a bit of time for any empire.
What other empire stood as long as the Sumerian? The Akkaddian dynasty
established by Sargon stood two hundred years before it was overthrown
by another Semitic people, the Babylonians, who borrowed their culture
from Akkaddian Sumer just as Rome later stole hers from Greece; the
Elamitish Kassite dynasty supplanted the original Babylonian, the
Assyrian and the Chaldean followed--well, you know the rapid
succession of dynasty on dynasty in Asia Minor, one Semitic people
overthrowing another, until the real conquerors hove in view on the
Eastern horizon--the Aryan Medes and Persians--who were destined to
last scarcely longer than their victims.

"'Compare each fleeting kingdom with the long dreamy reign of the
ancient pre-Semitic Sumerians! We think the Minoan Age of Crete is a
long time back, but the Sumerian empire of Erech was already beginning
to decay before the rising power of Sumerian Nippur, before the
ancestors of the Cretans had emerged from the Neolithic Age. The
Sumerians had something the succeeding Hamites, Semites and Aryans
lacked. They were stable. They grew slowly and if left alone would
have decayed as slowly as these fellows are decaying. Still and all, I
note these chaps have made one advancement--notice their weapons?

"'Old Sumer was in the Bronze Age. The Assyrians were the first to
use iron for anything besides ornaments. But these lads have learned
to work iron--probably a matter of necessity. No copper hereabouts but
plenty of iron ore, I daresay.'

"'But the mystery of Sumer still remains,' Conrad broke in. 'Who
are they? Whence did they come? Some authorities maintain they were of
Dravidian origin, akin to the Basques--'

"'It won't stick, me lad,' said I. 'Even allowing for possible
admixture of Aryan or Turanian blood in the Dravidian descendants, you
can see at a glance these people are not of the same race.'

"'But their language--' Conrad began arguing, which is a fair way
to pass the time while you're waiting to be put in the cooking-pot,
but doesn't prove much except to strengthen your own original ideas.

"Naluna came again about sunset with food, and this time she sat
down by Conrad and watched him eat. Seeing her sitting thus, elbows on
knees and chin on hands, devouring him with her large, lustrous dark
eyes, I said to the professor in English, so she wouldn't understand:
'The girl's badly smitten with you; play up to her. She's our only
chance.'

"He blushed like a blooming school girl. 'I've a fiancee back in
the States.'

"'Blow your fiancee,' I said. 'Is it she that's going to keep the
bally heads on our blightin' shoulders? I tell you this girl's silly
over you. Ask her what they're going to do with us.'

"He did so and Naluna said: 'Your fate lies in the lap of El-lil.'

"'And the brain of Sostoras,' I muttered. 'Naluna, what was done
with the guns that were taken from us?'

"She replied that they were hung in the temple of El-lil as
trophies of victory. None of the Sumerians was aware of their purpose.
I asked her if the natives they sometimes fought had never used guns
and she said no. I could easily believe that, seeing that there are
many wild tribes in those hinterlands who've scarcely seen a single
white man. But it seemed incredible that some of the Arabs who've
raided back and forth across Somaliland for a thousand years hadn't
stumbled onto Eridu and shot it up. But it turned out to be true--just
one of those peculiar quirks and back-eddies in events like the wolves
and wildcats you still find in New York state, or those queer pre-
Aryan peoples you come onto in small communities in the hills of
Connaught and Galway. I'm certain that big slave raids had passed
within a few miles of Eridu, yet the Arabs had never found it and
impressed on them the meaning of firearms.

"So I told Conrad: 'Play up to her, you chump! If you can persuade
her to slip us a gun, we've a sporting chance.'

"So Conrad took heart and began talking to Naluna in a nervous
sort of manner. Just how he'd have come out, I can't say, for he was
little of the Don Juan, but Naluna snuggled up to him, much to his
embarrassment, listening to his stumbling Somali with her soul in her
eyes. Love blossoms suddenly and unexpectedly in the East.

"However, a peremptory voice outside our cell made Naluna jump
half out of her skin and sent her scurrying, but as she went she
pressed Conrad's hand and whispered something in his ear that we
couldn't understand, but it sounded highly passionate.

"Shortly after she had left, the cell opened again and there stood
a file of silent dark-skinned warriors. A sort of chief, whom the rest
addressed as Gorat, motioned us to come out. Then down a long, dim,
colonnaded corridor we went, in perfect silence except for the soft
scruff of their sandals and the tramp of our boots on the tiling. An
occasional torch flaring on the walls or in a niche of the columns
lighted the way vaguely. At last we came out into the empty streets of
the silent city. No sentry paced the streets or the walls, no lights
showed from inside the flat-topped houses. It was like walking a
street in a ghost city. Whether every night in Eridu was like that or
whether the people kept indoors because it was a special and awesome
occasion, I haven't an idea.

"We went on down the streets toward the lake side of the town.
There we passed through a small gate in the wall--over which, I noted
with a slight shudder, a grinning skull was carved--and found
ourselves outside the city. A broad flight of steps led down to the
water's edge and the spears at our backs guided us down them. There a
boat waited, a strange high-prowed affair whose prototype must have
plied the Persian Gulf in the days of Old Eridu.

"Four black men rested on their oars, and when they opened their
mouths I saw their tongues had been cut out. We were taken into the
boat, our guards got in and we started a strange journey. Out on the
silent lake we moved like a dream, whose silence was broken only by
the low rippling of the long, slim, golden-worked oars through the
water. The stars flecked the deep blue gulf of the lake with silver
points. I looked back and saw the silent city of Eridu sleeping
beneath the stars. I looked ahead and saw the great dark bulk of the
temple loom against the stars. The naked black mutes pulled the
shining oars and the silent warriors sat before and behind us with
their spears, helms and shields. It was like the dream of some
fabulous city of Haroun-al-Raschid's time, or of Sulieman-ben-Daoud's,
and I thought how blooming incongruous Conrad and I looked in that
setting, with our boots and dingy, tattered khakis.

"We landed on the island and I saw it was girdled with masonry--
built up from the water's edge in broad flights of steps which circled
the entire island. The whole seemed older, even, than the city--the
Sumerians must have built it when they first found the valley, before
they began on the city itself.

"We went up the steps, that were worn deep by countless feet, to a
huge set of iron doors in the temple, and here Gorat laid down his
spear and shield, dropped on his belly and knocked his helmed head on
the great sill. Some one must have been watching from a loophole, for
from the top of the tower sounded one deep golden note and the doors
swung silently open to disclose a dim, torch-lighted entrance. Gorat
rose and led the way, we following with those confounded spears
pricking our backs.

"We mounted a flight of stairs and came onto a series of galleries
built on the inside of each tier and winding around and up. Looking
up, it seemed much higher and bigger than it had seemed from without,
and the vague, half-lighted gloom, the silence and the mystery gave me
the shudders. Conrad's face gleamed white in the semi-darkness. The
shadows of past ages crowded in upon us, chaotic and horrific, and I
felt as though the ghosts of all the priests and victims who had
walked those galleries for four thousand years were keeping pace with
us. The vast wings of dark, forgotten gods hovered over that hideous
pile of antiquity.

"We came out on the highest tier. There were three circles of tall
columns, one inside the other--and I want to say that for columns
built of sun-dried brick, these were curiously symmetrical. But there
was none of the grace and open beauty of, say, Greek architecture.
This was grim, sullen, monstrous--something like the Egyptian, not
quite so massive but even more formidable in starkness--an
architecture symbolizing an age when men were still in the dawn-
shadows of Creation and dreamed of monstrous gods.

"Over the inner circle of columns was a curving roof--almost a
dome. How they built it, or how they came to anticipate the Roman
builders by so many ages, I can't say, for it was a startling
departure from the rest of their architectural style, but there it
was. And from this dome-like roof hung a great round shining thing
that caught the starlight in a silver net. I knew then what we had
been following for so many mad miles! It was a great gong--the Voice
of El-lil. It looked like jade but I'm not sure to this day. But
whatever it was, it was the symbol on which the faith and cult of the
Sumerians hung--the symbol of the god-head itself. And I know Naluna
was right when she told us that her ancestors brought it with them on
that long, grueling trek, ages ago, when they fled before Sargon's
wild riders. And how many eons before that dim time must it have hung
in El-lil's temple in Nippur, Erech or Old Eridu, booming out its
mellow threat or promise over the dreamy valley of the Euphrates, or
across the green foam of the Persian Gulf!

"They stood us just within the first ring of columns, and out of
the shadows somewhere, looking like a shadow from the past himself,
came old Sostoras, the priest-king of Eridu. He was clad in a long
robe of green, covered with scales like a snake's hide, and it rippled
and shimmered with every step he took. On his head he wore a head-
piece of waving plumes and in his hand he held a long-shafted golden
mallet.

"He tapped the gong lightly and golden waves of sound flowed over
us like a wave, suffocating us in its exotic sweetness. And then
Naluna came. I never knew if she came from behind the columns or up
through some trap door. One instant the space before the gong was
bare, the next she was dancing like a moonbeam on a pool. She was clad
in some light, shimmery stuff that barely veiled her sinuous body and
lithe limbs. And she danced before Sostoras and the Voice of El-lil as
women of her breed had danced in old Sumer four thousand years ago.

"I can't begin to describe that dance. It made me freeze and
tremble and burn inside. I heard Conrad's breath come in gasps and he
shivered like a reed in the wind. From somewhere sounded music, that
was old when Babylon was young, music as elemental as the fire in a
tigress' eyes, and as soulless as an African midnight. And Naluna
danced. Her dancing was a whirl of fire and wind and passion and all
elemental forces. From all basic, primal fundamentals she drew
underlying principles and combined them in one spin-wheel of motion.
She narrowed the universe to a dagger-point of meaning and her flying
feet and shimmering body wove out the mazes of that one central
Thought. Her dancing stunned, exalted, maddened and hypnotized.

"As she whirled and spun, she was the elemental Essence, one and a
part of all powerful impulses and moving or sleeping powers--the sun,
the moon, the stars, the blind groping of hidden roots to light, the
fire from the furnace, the sparks from the anvil, the breath of the
fawn, the talons of the eagle. Naluna danced, and her dancing was Time
and Eternity, the urge of Creation and the urge of Death; birth and
dissolution in one, age and infancy combined.

"My dazed mind refused to retain more impressions; the girl merged
into a whirling flicker of white fire before my dizzy eyes; then
Sostoras struck one light note on the Voice and she fell at his feet,
a quivering white shadow. The moon was just beginning to glow over the
cliffs to the East.

"The warriors seized Conrad and me, and bound me to one of the
outer columns. Him they dragged to the inner circle and bound to a
column directly in front of the great gong. And I saw Naluna, white in
the growing glow, gaze drawnly at him, then shoot a glance full of
meaning at me, as she faded from sight among the dark sullen columns.

"Old Sostoras made a motion and from the shadows came a wizened
black slave who looked incredibly old. He had the withered features
and vacant stare of a deaf-mute, and the priest-king handed the golden
mallet to him. Then Sostoras fell back and stood beside me, while
Gorat bowed and stepped back a pace and the warriors likewise bowed
and backed still farther away. In fact they seemed most blooming
anxious to get as far away from that sinister ring of columns as they
could.

"There was a tense moment of waiting. I looked out across the lake
at the high, sullen cliffs that girt the valley, at the silent city
lying beneath the rising moon. It was like a dead city.

The whole scene was most unreal, as if Conrad and I had been
transported to another planet or back into a dead and forgotten age.
Then the black mute struck the gong.

"At first it was a low, mellow whisper that flowed out from under
the black man's steady mallet. But it swiftly grew in intensity. The
sustained, increasing sound became nerve-racking--it grew unbearable.
It was more than mere sound. The mute evoked a quality of vibration
that entered into every nerve and racked it apart. It grew louder and
louder until I felt that the most desirable thing in the world was
complete deafness, to be like that blank-eyed mute who neither heard
nor felt the perdition of sound he was creating. And yet I saw sweat
beading his ape-like brow. Surely some thunder of that brain-
shattering cataclysm re-echoed in his own soul. El-lil spoke to us and
death was in his voice. Surely, if one of the terrible, black gods of
past ages could speak, he would speak in just such tongue! There was
neither mercy, pity nor weakness in its roar. It was the assurance of
a cannibal god to whom mankind was but a plaything and a puppet to
dance on his string.

"Sound can grow too deep, too shrill or too loud for the human ear
to record. Not so with the Voice of El-lil, which had its creation in
some inhuman age when dark wizards knew how to rack brain, body and
soul apart. Its depth was unbearable, its volume was unbearable, yet
ear and soul were keenly alive to its resonance and did not grow
mercifully numb and dulled. And its terrible sweetness was beyond
human endurance; it suffocated us in a smothering wave of sound that
yet was barbed with golden fangs. I gasped and struggled in physical
agony. Behind me I was aware that even old Sostoras had his hands over
his ears, and Gorat groveled on the floor, grinding his face into the
bricks.

"And if it so affected me, who was just within the magic circle of
columns, and those Sumerians who were outside the circle, what was it
doing to Conrad, who was inside the inner ring and beneath that domed
roof that intensified every note?

"Till the day he dies Conrad will never be closer to madness and
death than he was then. He writhed in his bonds like a snake with a
broken back; his face was horribly contorted, his eyes distended, and
foam flecked his livid lips. But in that Hell of golden, agonizing
sound I could hear nothing--I could only see his gaping mouth and his
frothy, flaccid lips, loose and writhing like an imbecile's. But I
sensed he was howling like a dying dog.

"Oh, the sacrificial dagger of the Semites was merciful. Even
Moloch's lurid furnace was easier than the death promised by this
rending and ripping vibration that armed sound waves with venomed
talons. I felt my own brain was brittle as frozen glass. I knew that a
few seconds more of that torture and Conrad's brain would shatter like
a crystal goblet and he would die in the black raving of utter
madness. And then something snapped me back from the mazes I'd gotten
into. It was the fierce grasp of a small hand on mine, behind the
column to which I was bound. I felt a tug at my cords as if a knife
edge was being passed along them, and my hands were free. I felt
something pressed into my hand and a fierce exultation surged through
me. I'd recognize the familiar checkered grip of my Webley .44 in a
thousand!

"I acted in a flash that took the whole gang off guard. I lunged
away from the column and dropped the black mute with a bullet through
his brain, wheeled and shot old Sostoras through the belly. He went
down, spewing blood, and I crashed a volley square into the stunned
ranks of the soldiers. At that range I couldn't miss. Three of them
dropped and the rest woke up and scattered like a flock of birds. In a
second the place was empty except for Conrad, Naluna and me, and the
men on the floor. It was like a dream, the echoes from the shots still
crashing, and the acrid scent of powder and blood knifing the air.

"The girl cut Conrad loose and he fell on the floor and yammered
like a dying imbecile. I shook him but he had a wild glare in his eyes
and was frothing like a mad dog, so I dragged him up, shoved an arm
under him and started for the stair. We weren't out of the mess yet,
by a long shot. Down those wide, winding, dark galleries we went,
expecting any minute to be ambushed, but the chaps must have still
been in a bad funk, because we got out of that hellish temple without
any interference. Outside the iron portals, Conrad collapsed and I
tried to talk to him, but he could neither hear nor speak. I turned to
Naluna.

"'Can you do anything for him?'

"Her eyes flashed in the moonlight. 'I have not defied my people
and my god and betrayed my cult and my race for naught! I stole the
weapon of smoke and flame, and freed you, did I not? I love him and I
will not lose him now!'

"She darted into the temple and was out almost instantly with a
jug of wine. She claimed it had magical powers. I don't believe it. I
think Conrad simply was suffering from a sort of shell-shock from
close proximity to that fearful noise and that lake water would have
done as well as the wine. But Naluna poured some wine between his lips
and emptied some over his head, and soon he groaned and cursed.

"'See!' she cried triumphantly, 'the magic wine has lifted the
spell El-lil put on him!' And she flung her arms around his neck and
kissed him vigorously.

"'My God, Bill,' he groaned, sitting up and holding his head,
'what kind of a nightmare is this?'

"'Can you walk, old chap?' I asked. 'I think we've stirred up a
bloomin' hornet's nest and we'd best leg it out of here.'

"'I'll try.' He staggered up, Naluna helping him. I heard a
sinister rustle and whispering in the black mouth of the temple and I
judged the warriors and priests inside were working up their nerve to
rush us. We made it down the steps in a great hurry to where lay the
boat that had brought us to the island. Not even the black rowers were
there. An ax and shield lay in it and I seized the ax and knocked
holes in the bottoms of the other boats which were tied near it.

"Meanwhile the big gong had begun to boom out again and Conrad
groaned and writhed as every intonation rasped his raw nerves. It was
a warning note this time and I saw lights flare up in the city and
heard a sudden hum of shouts float out across the lake. Something
hissed softly by my head and slashed into the water. A quick look
showed me Gorat standing in the door of the temple bending his heavy
bow. I leaped in, Naluna helped Conrad in, and we shoved off in a
hurry to the accompaniment of several more shafts from the charming
Gorat, one of which took a lock of hair from Naluna's pretty head.

"I laid to the oars while Naluna steered and Conrad lay on the
bottom of the boat and was violently sick. We saw a fleet of boats put
out from the city, and as they saw us by the gleam of the moon, a yell
of concentrated rage went up that froze the blood in my veins. We were
heading for the opposite end of the lake and had a long start on them,
but in this way we were forced to round the island and we'd scarcely
left it astern when out of some nook leaped a long boat with six
warriors--I saw Gorat in the bows with that confounded bow of his.

"I had no spare cartridges so I laid to it with all my might, and
Conrad, somewhat green in the face, took the shield and rigged it up
in the stern, which was the saving of us, because Gorat hung within
bowshot of us all the way across the lake and he filled that shield so
full of arrows it resembled a blooming porcupine. You'd have thought
they'd had plenty after the slaughter I made among them on the roof,
but they were after us like hounds after a hare.

"We'd a fair start on them but Gorat's five rowers shot his boat
through the water like a racehorse, and when we grounded on the shore,
they weren't half a dozen jumps behind us. As we scrambled out I saw
it was either make a fight of it there and be cut down from the front,
or else be shot like rabbits as we ran. I called to Naluna to run but
she laughed and drew a dagger--she was a man's woman, that girl!

"Gorat and his merry men came surging up to the landing with a
clamor of yells and a swirl of oars--they swarmed over the side like a
gang of bloody pirates and the battle was on! Luck was with Gorat at
the first pass, for I missed him and killed the man behind him. The
hammer snapped on an empty shell and I dropped the Webley and snatched
up the ax just as they closed with us. By Jove! It stirs my blood now
to think of the touch-and-go fury of that fight! Knee-deep in water we
met them, hand to hand, chest to chest!

"Conrad brained one with a stone he picked from the water, and out
of the tail of my eye, as I swung for Gorat's head, I saw Naluna
spring like a she-panther on another, and they went down together in a
swirl of limbs and a flash of steel. Gorat's sword was thrusting for
my life, but I knocked it aside with the ax and he lost his footing
and went down--for the lake bottom was solid stone there, and
treacherous as sin.

"One of the warriors lunged in with a spear, but he tripped over
the fellow Conrad had killed, his helmet fell off and I crushed his
skull before he could recover his balance. Gorat was up and coming for
me, and the other was swinging his sword in both hands for a death
blow, but he never struck, for Conrad caught up the spear that had
been dropped, and spitted him from behind, neat as a whistle.

"Gorat's point raked my ribs as he thrust for my heart and I
twisted to one side, and his up-flung arm broke like a rotten stick
beneath my stroke but saved his life. He was game--they were all game
or they'd never have rushed my gun. He sprang in like a blood-mad
tiger, hacking for my head. I ducked and avoided the full force of the
blow but couldn't get away from it altogether and it laid my scalp
open in a three-inch gash, clear to the bone--here's the scar to prove
it. Blood blinded me and I struck back like a wounded lion, blind and
terrible, and by sheer chance I landed squarely. I felt the ax crunch
through metal and bone, the haft splintered in my hand, and there was
Gorat dead at my feet in a horrid welter of blood and brains.

"I shook the blood out of my eyes and looked about for my
companions. Conrad was helping Naluna up and it seemed to me she
swayed a little. There was blood on her bosom but it might have come
from the red dagger she gripped in a hand stained to the wrist. God!
It was a bit sickening, to think of it now. The water we stood in was
choked with corpses and ghastly red. Naluna pointed out across the
lake and we saw Eridu's boats sweeping down on us--a good way off as
yet, but coming swiftly. She led us at a run away from the lake's
edge. My wound was bleeding as only a scalp wound can bleed, but I
wasn't weakened as yet. I shook the blood out of my eyes, saw Naluna
stagger as she ran and tried to put my arm about her to steady her,
but she shook me off.

"She was making for the cliffs and we reached them out of breath.
Naluna leaned against Conrad and pointed upward with a shaky hand,
breathing in great, sobbing gasps. I caught her meaning. A rope ladder
led upward. I made her go first with Conrad following. I came after
him, drawing the ladder up behind me. We'd gotten some halfway up when
the boats landed and the warriors raced up the shore, loosing their
arrows as they ran. But we were in the shadow of the cliffs, which
made aim uncertain, and most of the shafts fell short or broke on the
face of the cliff. One stuck in my left arm, but I shook it out and
didn't stop to congratulate the marksman on his eye.

"Once over the cliff's edge, I jerked the ladder up and tore it
loose, and then turned to see Naluna sway and collapse in Conrad's
arms. We laid her gently on the grass, but a man with half an eye
could tell she was going fast. I wiped the blood from her bosom and
stared aghast. Only a woman with a great love could have made that run
and that climb with such a wound as that girl had under her heart.

"Conrad cradled her head in his lap and tried to falter a few
words, but she weakly put her arms around his neck and drew his face
down to hers.

"'Weep not for me, my lover,' she said, as her voice weakened to a
whisper. 'Thou hast been mine aforetime, as thou shalt be again. In
the mud huts of the Old River, before Sumer was, when we tended the
flocks, we were as one. In the palaces of Old Eridu, before the
barbarians came out of the East, we loved each other. Aye, on this
very lake have we floated in past ages, living and loving, thou and I.
So weep not, my lover, for what is one little life when we have known
so many and shall know so many more? And in each of them, thou art
mine and I am thine.

"'But thou must not linger. Hark! They clamor for thy blood below.
But since the ladder is destroyed there is but one other way by which
they may come upon the cliffs--the place by which they brought thee
into the valley. Haste! They will return across the lake, scale the
cliffs there and pursue thee, but thou may'st escape them if thou
be'st swift. And when thou hearest the Voice of El-lil, remember,
living or dead, Naluna loves thee with a love greater than any god.

"'But one boon I beg of thee,' she whispered, her heavy lids
drooping like a sleepy child's. 'Press, I beg thee, thy lips on mine,
my master, before the shadows utterly enfold me; then leave me here
and go, and weep not, oh my lover, for what is--one--little--life--
to--us--who--have--loved--in--so--many--'

"Conrad wept like a blithering baby, and so did I, by Judas, and
I'll stamp the lousy brains out of the jackass who twits me for it! We
left her with her arms folded on her bosom and a smile on her lovely
face, and if there's a heaven for Christian folk, she's there with the
best of them, on my oath.

"Well, we reeled away in the moonlight and my wounds were still
bleeding and I was about done in. All that kept me going was a sort of
wild beast instinct to live, I fancy, for if I was ever near to lying
down and dying, it was then. We'd gone perhaps a mile when the
Sumerians played their last ace. I think they'd realized we'd slipped
out of their grasp and had too much start to be caught.

"At any rate, all at once that damnable gong began booming. I felt
like howling like a dog with rabies. This time it was a different
sound. I never saw or heard of a gong before or since whose notes
could convey so many different meanings. This was an insidious call--a
luring urge, yet a peremptory command for us to return. It threatened
and promised; if its attraction had been great before we stood on the
tower of El-lil and felt its full power, now it was almost
irresistible. It was hypnotic. I know now how a bird feels when
charmed by a snake and how the snake himself feels when the fakirs
play on their pipes. I can't begin to make you understand the
overpowering magnetism of that call. It made you want to writhe and
tear at the air and run back, blind and screaming, as a hare runs into
a python's jaws. I had to fight it as a man fights for his soul.

"As for Conrad, it had him in its grip. He halted and rocked like
a drunken man.

"'It's no use,' he mumbled thickly. 'It drags at my heart-strings;
it's fettered my brain and my soul; it embraces all the evil lure of
all the universes. I must go back.'

"And he started staggering back the way we had come--toward that
golden lie floating to us over the jungle. But I thought of the girl
Naluna that had given up her life to save us from that abomination,
and a strange fury gripped me.

"'See here!' I shouted. 'This won't do, you bloody fool! You're
off your bally bean! I won't have it, d'you hear?'

"But he paid no heed, shoving by me with eyes like a man in a
trance, so I let him have it--an honest right hook to the jaw that
stretched him out dead to the world. I slung him over my shoulder and
reeled on my way, and it was nearly an hour before he came to, quite
sane and grateful to me.

"Well, we saw no more of the people of Eridu. Whether they trailed
us at all or not, I haven't an idea. We could have fled no faster than
we did, for we were fleeing the haunting, horrible mellow whisper that
dogged us from the south. We finally made it back to the spot where
we'd cached our dunnage, and then, armed and scantily equipped, we
started the long trek for the coast. Maybe you read or heard something
about two emaciated wanderers being picked up by an elephant-hunting
expedition in the Somaliland back country, dazed and incoherent from
suffering. Well, we were about done for, I'll admit, but we were
perfectly sane. The incoherent part was when we tried to tell our tale
and the blasted idiots wouldn't believe it. They patted our backs and
talked in a soothing tone and poured whisky-and-sodas down us. We soon
shut up, seeing we'd only be branded as liars or lunatics. They got us
back to Jibuti, and both of us had had enough of Africa for a spell. I
took ship for India and Conrad went the other way--couldn't get back
to New England quick enough, where I hope he married that little
American girl and is living happily. A wonderful chap, for all his
damnable bugs.

"As for me, I can't hear any sort of a gong today without
starting. On that long, grueling trek I never breathed easily until we
were beyond the sound of that ghastly Voice. You can't tell what a
thing like that may do to your mind. It plays the very deuce with all
rational ideas.

"I still hear that hellish gong in my dreams, sometimes, and see
that silent, hideously ancient city in that nightmare valley.
Sometimes I wonder if it's still calling to me across the years. But
that's nonsense. Anyway, there's the yarn as it stands and if you
don't believe me, I won't blame you at all."

But I prefer to believe Bill Kirby, for I know his breed from
Hengist down, and know him to be like all the rest--truthful,
aggressive, profane, restless, sentimental and straightforward, a true
brother of the roving, fighting, adventuring Sons of Aryan.



THE END




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