POLARIS OF THE SNOWS by Charles B Stilson
12: War and an Armistice
FROM many an ancient parchment Kalin read to them bits of the lore of the Sardanians, and a strange store of knowledge and incident did the yellowed, leathery scraps unfold. For, as might be judged, the Sardanians had come down from Antiquity; and, as might be guessed, they were an offshoot of old Greece—the Greece that Homer sang.
“Some great city had been sacked,” explained the priest, “and from its siege one adventurous party of warriors, with some of their women, turned their faces from their home across the Aegean Seas to the Pillars of Hercules even”—which means that they sailed through the Mediterranean to the Straits of Gibraltar— “and passed the pillars to the great seas beyond. There they sail north, seeking the barbarous isles, where strange metals and red-haired slaves might be gathered”—Britain.
“From the isles they-turned southward toward home again, but a great tempest took their ship and whirled it away from the coasts. Down past the Pillars of Hercules the storm drove them, along the coasts of Libya”—Africa. “For weeks were they buffeted in a mighty gale, whirled ever to the south into the gates of the ice gods. Nearly perishing in the cold and for lack of food, on a day a mighty wave came from the north and their ship rode the crest of it through the barriers of ice, and came to this place.
“On .a snow-bound shore they landed, those Achaeans, with their women and their captives, and pushed on toward the green mountains, whose smoky summits they could not see ahead of them to the south. Thus they came to Sardanes, finding it even as ye see it this day, except that the Gateway to the Future was then as are its sister mountains, for the eternal fires flared at its top.
“So was Sardanes peopled, and the Sardanians of to-day are all the descendants of that little ship’s .company and their women and their captives from the barbarous isles. For a time they were sore beset in the valley by the great beasts which dwelt here, and they were fain to make their homes in the caves of the smoking hills. But as the years drew on they slew the beasts, and some of the great bones remain even until now in witness of their struggles. Then they built their homes in the valley and throve and multiplied and became a people.’
“But what of the Gateway to the Future, and the worship, of the Lord Hephaistos?” asked Polaris, who had followed the tale of the priest with minute attention, translating it the while to the girl, who listened breathlessly to this unfolding of the pages of the dead past.
“Hephaistos was the smith god of the Achaeans,” answered Kahn, “and when they came hither they believed that it was Hephaistos who had shown mercy to them and saved them out of the cold and the icy seas. This valley, said the wise men, must be the forge and smithy of the god himself. So, as he had taken them under his protection and set them to dwell in his workshop, they came to worship him alone of all the gods they had known.
“Then, in time, when the ancient fires began to burn low in one of the hills, it was believed that the god was angered, and many sacrifices were made, that he might not forget the people and withdraw from the valley the warmth and light of his forge fires. Should he do so, the valley must go back to the arms of the snows and the people of Sardanes perish miserable one by one with the coming of the terrible cold.
“Thus grew up the customs of the religion which thou hast seen, but ever the ancient fires eats deeper in the pit of the mountain, and ever a great fear lies in the hearts of all Sardanians that some time the fires of the other mountains will follow that fire and leave Sardanes the prey of the ice and snow and darkness that wait without her gates.”
Then Kalin questioned Polaris in turn of the world, and listened with an intentness that was wistful to stories of the histories of the great peoples that have ruled the earth since the Greece of which his traditions told him.
“Ah, that I might see it!*’ he sighed. “Fain 1 am to fare to the North with thee, and to see the great world and to learn new things before I go into the darkness. But I know not how that may be.”
Polaris learned from the priest that his office had been handed down from father to son for uncounted centuries, but that he himself was unwed, and thus far had no successor. He learned further that a few years before, on the coming of Prince Helicon to the throne of Sardanes, there had been a division in church and state, as it were—that the headstrong prince would have none of the domination or advice of the priesthood in conducting the affairs of the kingdom.
In consequence of that, there was a coolness between the prince and Kalin, and each had his followers in the land. Some of the people sided with the prince. Others were for the priests and the religion, and looked with terror on anything that might anger further the Lord Hephaistos. Thus far, however, there had been no open break, and the relations of the prince and his brethren with Kalin and the priests of the gateway, if cold, were not openly hostile.
“And now,” said Kalin, with a strange smile, “thou comest to Sardanes, thou and the lady with thee, and Kalin sees a storm in the brewing.”
“How meanest thou?” questioned Polaris quickly, although he guessed at Kalin’s meaning. ‘We come but to tarry a brief space, and then to find our way to the North again, where is the lady’s home, and whither Polaris carries a message of the dead.”
“That way to the North may be hard to win, my brother,” answered Kalin. “What wilt thou do if the Prince Helicon shall decree that thou goest not?”
Polaris laughed shortly. “Not by the Prince Helicon, or by any who dwell in Sardanes, shall Polaris be kept from that way to the North,” he answered. “Not while the breath of life is in his body.”
“Whatsoever be thy ways, O stranger, know that Kalin wisheth thee but good fortune, and. will lend thee his aid to it. Aye, even though it crosseth the desires of the Prince Helicon, as well it may,” he muttered.
Grown suddenly sober, Rose Emer laid her hand earnestly on Polaris’s arm. “Can we go back to the North?” she asked. “Is it possible? Is there a chance that we can cross those leagues of snow and ice and live to find our ship?”
The man looked into her eyes. “Lady, is it your wish to go?” he questioned.
“I must go back, back to my home, and—Oh, we must go; but you—Will it not be at the risk of our lives?”
Polaris smiled quietly. “Where the Lady Rose wishes to go, Polaris will not be left behind. I, too, must go to the North. I will not even suggest that you might wait here on a chance that I might fetch aid to take you. We will go together, and, though the way be hard, as Kalin here says, we will win through to the ship and to your home. Fear it not.”
Impulsively the girl held out her hand to him, and Polaris bent over it and kissed it. Through his half-closed, dreaming eyes, Kalin watched them, and smiled; but with a wistful tightening at the corners of his mouth.
THREE days they had rested at the dwelling of the priest, when there came a messenger to the mountain from the Prince Helicon, bidding their attendance at the Judgement House, where the prince would hear more of their strange tales of the world. In a gorgeous state costume Rose Emer made, a brave showing as they set forth for the Judgement House, and beside her strode Polaris in the full garb of a Sardanian noble, his gift from Kalin the priest. In dark blue, edged with bands of white, he was costumed with his necklace of bear’s teeth falling on the broad bosom of his tunic. He carried no weapon openly, but under the skirt of the tunic, in its leather holster, he had belted one of his father’s trusty revolvers.
They found the Prince Helicon sitting as they had left him, on his pillared throne, and Morolas and Minos, the tall twin brothers, lolled on their seats of stone at the throne’s foot. Several of the Sardanian nobles occupied seats on the dais. A great number of the people were gathered to hear more of the tales of the strangers.
“Many tales of the world Polaris told them, turning often to Rose Emer for answers to those questions which his own knowledge did not hold. At length he broached the subject that was uppermost in his mind, that of their departure from the land.
At his mention of going Helicon frowned. “And thou wilt rashly dare to cross the great deserts of snow in a vain attempt to, win back to the world?” he asked.
“In the great desert was I reared, O prince,” Polaris answered him. “I fear not its terrors. I must face to the North, and soon—”
“But surely thou wilt not think to expose the lady to the dangers of the path,” interrupted the prince. “She will remain in Sardanes, and, if indeed thou shalt come safely to the other side of the snow wastes, perchance her own people will find a means to come and transport her afterward.”
“Nay, but she shall not remain here, prince,” answered Polaris sharply and steadily. “She, too, wishes to be on the way, and no one may transport her across the bitter wilderness more safely than I, who know how and have the ready means to travel it.”
Prince Helicon turned his eyes to Rose Emer. A flush mounted to his cheeks and his eyes glittered as he drank in her loveliness.
“How know I that the lady wishes to be so soon gone?” he asked. “It is in my mind that Helicon, Prince of Sardanes, might persuade her to remain, had I the words to talk to her in her own tongue.”
He paused and seemed to consider. Polaris watched him with narrowing eyes, and in his anger would not answer lest he might say too much.
“Now, say thou to the lady,” spoke Helicon with sudden decision, “that Helicon offers her the love of a prince and the half of the throne of Sardanes. Tell her, and be sure that thou dost translate aright, and her answer to me also.”
POLARIS’S face was clouded, but he turned to Rose and repeated evenly to her the proposal of the prince.
Rose Emer paled and then flushed, and instinctively she rested her hand on the arm of her comrade.
“Say to the Prince Helicon that his words do me great honour, very great honour,” she answered; “but I am an American girl, and am lonely for my own home and people. Now we are rested, and I wish to go, no matter what may be the risks. And tell him also that I cannot be his wife, because—because—I already am promised to another.”
Under his anger and back of his spirit a cold hand clutched at the heart of the man of the snows, but he turned to the prince and repeated the words of the girl. Helicon’s eyes were bright with anger.
“Art altogether sure that thou hast made plain both my words and hers, O stranger?” he cried.
“He doubts my words, lady,” said Polaris. “Perhaps you can make him understand.”
“1 think I can,” answered Rose. She fronted the prince, and stared him coolly in the face. Then she turned and held out her arms toward the North. Turning again to Helicon, she threw out her right hand, with the palm toward him, in a repellent gesture. “I think you will not misunderstand that, prince,” she said in English.
Nor did he. He sprang to his feet and took one step down from the throne.
“Now, by the gods of the gateway,” he cried, “thou shalt not so flout Helicon!” All forgetful that she could not understand a word, he raged at the girl. “I say that thou shalt stay in Sardanes as I will, and thy wanderer in strange places shall wander forth without thee, or—”
There Kalin interrupted.
“O prince, think well before thou speakest. Wouldst thou, the prince of great and ancient Sardanes, mate with a woman outlander of whom thou knowest naught? What will thy people think?”
“And, O prince, think well again before thou sayest that which thou canst not recall,” broke in Polaris. “For I, Polaris of the Snows, tell thee that this thing shall not be, though thou wert forty times prince. I swear it by no dark portals of the future but on the honour of an American gentleman!”
“A truce to thy interfering tongue, priest!” said Helicon furiously. “And thou, man of the wilderness, bridle thy tongue also, lest it be curbed for thee. In Sardanes Helicon is the master.”
One of the nobles, a middle-aged man, who had started from his seat, now made himself heard. “O prince,” he said anxiously, “I tell thee that Kalin hath the right. It is not meet that thou shouldst take to wife this woman from we know not where, who hath come among us. Let her go, and the man with her, lest harm befall. See, already the people murmur.”
It was true. Down in,” the great hall, where the gathered Sardanians had listened breathless, arose now a babel of voices in protest.
“Sardanes, be thou silent also,” said Helicon, but the prince could not turn a deaf ear to the murmurs of the people. He sank back in his seat, and for a space rested his chin on his hand. At length he spoke again in a low, choked voice.
“Not that I fear thee, outlander; nor thee, priest; but it shall be as the people wish. Now get thee gone, thou and the woman. In the time of ten sleeps will Helicon answer thee, after he hath taken counsel with his nobles and his people. Then will he say whether thou shalt go or stay. Go hence until that time and abide in peace with Kalin.”
As the Sardanians measured time by sleeping and waking, and not by days, in a land where the days were six months long, it would be ten ordinary days until the prince made his decision.
On their way back to the Gateway to the Future, Polaris said to Kalin: “Now what shall hinder that I be gone before the time be set?”
For once Kalin, the far-seeing, erred in his wisdom, for he made answer:
“Nay, it were best to wait, I deem it not unlikely that the prince will act in despite of the wishes of the nobles and of the people. In any case, he is a faithful man, and no harm will come to thee in the time he hath named.”
CONTINUES NEXT WEEK