Child's Book of Warriors - William Canton

The Rock of Narsinga

[Illustration] from Child's Book of Warriors by William Canton

This was the first of the stories told in the garden at Sebertswold.

Very few people know, said the Truthful Storyteller, how the great King Alexander came to the Rock of Narsinga; how the hill folk, deeming their rock impregnable, made a mock of him; and what befell them and made their lives bitter for many a long year afterwards.

It was in the course of that marvellous invasion in which Alexander, bent upon achieving the lordship of the world, set in his crown the golden horns of East and West, and the peoples he conquered, unable to pronounce his Greek name, and seeing on his head the symbols of his power, called him Iskander Dulkarnein, Iskander the Two-horned.

He had crossed the blinding wastes of salt and sand in the autumn, and had reached the edge of the hill country. During the great cold his legions lay round their camp-fires in the orchards and meadows of the Uzbeks; but at the first sign of spring, when almond-blossom breaks, he marched through the mountains to Narsinga, the Valley of the Sun. Winter was still white on the high pine woods and on the half-circle of peaks which shut in the valley; and the route eastward over the mountains was spear-deep in snow. At the foot of the pass the rock sprang up in precipitous cliffs. There was no foothold except upon one side where a track had been hewn in narrow steps to the stronghold on the summit, and there the wives and children of the hill chiefs had been sent for safety, with a band of valiant tribesmen to defend them.

With a proud clamour of trumpets, the heralds of Iskander called for submission, and promised in return for prompt surrender, peace and unravaged fields, freedom to return to their homes, and alliance with the great king. "But if you will not, then shall he who hath shaken the snow from cities covered by the northern cold, let in the light on nations underground, and crossed the waters on bridges of the slain, wax wroth and harry your eyrie, and make your tribes his bondsmen for ever."

Then from the rock came a barbarous peal of laughter, and the mountains awoke and flung to each other the echoes of that fierce derision; and Oxyart the Bactrian leaped upon the wall of the fort and cried down to the heralds: "Is Dulkarnein lord of the rainbow that he can come to us? Or are his warriors winged that they can capture this mountain for him? None other do we fear." And once again the cliffs of Narsinga rang with mocking laughter.

Who but Dulkarnein reddened with anger? He had a splendid reward cried through the camp—twelve talents of gold for the first man, and thrice a hundred Darics for the tenth, who scaled the Rock of Narsinga. Adventurers were not wanting. Three hundred threw in their lot for the daring feat. They chose the side where the cliffs were steepest and least guarded; and advancing silently in the starlight, they planted ladders of pine, drove iron tent-pegs into the ice and the hard ground, and knotting ropes to the pegs, drew themselves up the face of the rock.

A tithe perished in that wild climbing—broken on the rocks or lost in the chasms of snow; but the rest reached the top as the grey dawn broke. They piled up the small faggots they had brought, and kindled fire; and as the flame leaped up on the peak, there rose from the darkness of the valley pealing of trumpets and shouting of the legions; and that clamour, as of a mighty wind, struck the hill-folk with panic. Women wailed and children ran shrieking; but the shaggy tribesmen stared motionless at the blaze, and at what seemed a host, half seen in its red light.

Then out of the dark valley was heard the voice of the herald calling: "Ho, you of the rock, give ear! 'See you not my winged warriors?' saith the lord of the rainbow. Cast aside quiver and bow, sword and spear, and yield to the mightiest. Your lives he spares you, man and maid, mother and child; but from this sunrise he counts you among his bondfolk."

So the Rock of Narsinga was taken.

When droves of horses had trampled down the snow in the pass, the legions of that famous invasion streamed over the mountains into the East; and in the midst, between vanguard and rearguard, passed the flower of kings, Iskander of the Two Horns.



But a troop of veterans was left behind upon the rock to hold the tribes in subjection. Twice and yet again the people rose in arms, but the veterans came down into the valley and broke and slew them. In times of peace nothing was seen of these men of iron. No one knew how they fared; whether they were relieved; when they were provisioned. The rock was hated and shunned. Between sunset and dawn the most daring spirit in the hills would have fled from it in terror.

One sure sign there was of the sleepless watch of the garrison. Summer and winter, at noon or at midnight, the sound of their trumpets suddenly rang out from the fort on the rock. At one time it might be a low, plaintive cadence which floated across the valley; at another it was a fierce confusion of alarms and charges and recalls from pursuit.

So the years passed away. The old people died and were laid in the stone chambers of sleep hewn in the cliffs. The boys and girls grew up, and a new race of children played in the Valley of the Sun. And long afterwards, upon a summer evening, the villagers sat under their sacred fig-tree near the little red shrine by the lake-side.

The fragrance of the pine-woods was keen in the sunny air; and soft as the bloom of a plum the purple light lay upon the peaks. Among the villagers was a venerable elder to whom no one spoke, because he was slumbrous with the dreams of the aged; but as they talked together, some words fell upon his ear and aroused him to sudden and eager attention. His eyes gleamed with a wild, dark light as he questioned them.

The Elder. Was there not one who spoke but now of the Lords of the Rock?

Villagers. Yes, here is one who spoke of them.

The Elder. It may be I did not hear aright. What doth he say?

Old man. He wonders whether the Lords of the Rock be not all dead at last.

The Elder. Dead at last? Wherefore should he wonder? Hath he seen—hath he heard—

Old man. Nay, father of hoariness, he hath listened and hath not heard. He hath hearkened for their trumpets and hath heard them not. The trumpets blow no more.

The Elder. That cannot be. Hath no man heard the wicked cry of the trumpets? Who saith this?

Old man. Here is the young man. Let him answer thee.

The Elder. Speak, O son of wonder; what is this thou say'st of the trumpets?

Youth. In the winter storms I heard them. A little while ago in the great gales late in the spring they were silent. Yet who doth not know that they ever blared fiercest in the wind and tempest?

The Elder. Yea, truth-teller, 'twas in the wild weather they thought it most joy to lift up their voices. "Dulkarnein, Dulkarnein! Ye are his bondfolk, ye are his bondfolk!" 'Twas so they kept calling; by night, by day, in sun-time, in snow-time, but loudest always when the weather was wildest.

Villagers. It may be the lords are all dead at last. (They come from under the sacred tree and look up curiously to the fort on the rock.)

Youth. In the winter storms the trumpet-calls seemed to sound fainter than they used to be. Surely, I thought, even the Lords of the Rock are growing old.

Villagers. They must all be very ancient men.

The Elder (who has been gazing at the rock with his wildly lighted eyes). All dead at last? They dead? Do not think it. They are not of flesh as we are; they are men of bronze, men of mill-stone. They will never die.

Old man. All things yield to time and death; and these are very old.

The Elder. Very old, very old! They were veterans when I was still young. O ye gods of the steadfast hills, what valour and what might were theirs! We, the strong men of the cliffs, unconquered since time began, we went down like corn before them; they scattered us like leaves in the fall of the year. Dulkarnein, Dulkarnein!

Villagers. Didst thou look on the Two-Horned, thou warrior of old?

The Elder. Even I. A tall companion he was; and out of the crowned head of him jutted the golden horns. Blue-eyed and yellow-haired, like a god! Wholly comely and radiant in the pride of his youth, save that he bore his neck somewhat awry!" Dulkarnein, Dulkarnein! Ye are his bondfolk!" We rose and they vanquished us. Again and yet again we rose, and the Lords of the Rock came upon us as a hail of fire. They clothed us with shame; they shod us with weakness; they bowed our proud heads with ashes. They sheathed the sword; they quelled our hearts with the trumpet-cry of power. The mountain echoes hooted us for slaves, but our sinews were loosened. Our children grew up in bondage; our children's children were born in bondage. Who among you but now thinks that of all losses the loss of life is the worst?

Villagers. Why, yes; lose life, lose all.

The Elder. And once we were the free men of the hills! Dulkarnein, Dulkarnein!

(A troop of boys run in shouting joyfully, "The trumpets, the trumpets!" "The Lords of the Rock!" The Elder lifts up his hand for quiet. The lads stand silent and shame faced.)

The Elder. Let but one speak. You with the bird's nest.

Boy. Peace on thy head, father; on thine eyes, peace! We wondered why the trumpets had so long ceased sounding. We stole through the woods. We scaled the rock. At the top all was so still that we ventured upon the wall.

The Elder. Yet this child was born in bondage!

Boy. There was no one. All the place is tumbling down; it is all grown over with bushes.

The Elder. Speak on; what more?

Boy. Up yonder there are eight big stone trumpets fixed on pillars. They are choked with bird's nests and dead leaves. The wind cannot blow through them now; so they have stopped sounding. This is one of the nests.

The Elder. O ye divine lights of night and day! Boy. The Lords made them long ago, we think—before they marched away.

Boy. The Lords made them long ago, we  think—before they marched away.

The Elder. And we were the free men of the hills! Hold my hand, friends; mine eyes have grown dark. . . . Dulkarnein! Dulkarnein! . . . My breath fails for anguish. To die is not the worst of life's losses. (The Elder sinks back in their arms. They lay him down gently under the sacred tree, and cover his face.)

"Now, that's where an aeroplane would have come in," said Giggums, the electrical engineer. "If they'd had a Bleriot, they would have jolly soon spotted that fake of old Iskander and his glittering Myrmidons."

"They didn't need aeroplanes," rejoined Simplicia, "if they'd had great hearts. Did they, father? Why, those boys were braver than they were."

"Boy scouts, I expect," said Giggums. "But, my bananas! wasn't it a cute dodge?"

"It was horribly mean, and tricky, and cruel," cried Simplicia; and Vigdis, who evidently took Simplicia's view of the matter, scornfully flung a handful of rose-leaves over the electrician.

All that afternoon, while the apple-trees glittered red and green, and out on the hillside opposite the great beeches burned in gold and russet, with rings of fallen leaves glowing at their feet like reflections on the grass, we sat and talked of old heroic things "and battles long ago." And many a sunny evening after that; right through to the end of a wonderful September. All the apples were gathered; the martins flocked in thousands, and were up and away by starlight one morning ("Even little chaps like those run two houses," quoth the electrician); the pink flowers of the willow-herb turned into tufts of silvery feathers; and still there were tales to tell, for since time began there have ever been heroes, and all life is warfare by land and sea, and Alexander had little need to weep for worlds to conquer, until he had conquered the turbulent spirit under his own crown.

There were tales of the huge earthworks that you can still see on the lonely downs; tales of legions lost in the forest, for the woodland tribes surrounded them as they marched, and the trees came crashing down on all sides of them, and they were trapped and slain among the fallen timber, and their bones were left to whiten in the gloom of the woods; tales of savage hordes who streamed from the steppes by the hundred thousand, with their wives and children in bullock waggons, seeking for new settlements. They carried all before them until they came to the entrenchment of the Cęsars, and there a single red-plumed horse-soldier turned them aside—so awful was the name of Rome!

Do not suppose we forgot our own great Roman Wall. Simplicia thought there was no romance equal to that of the mighty rampart which swept across the moors from the shipping in the Tyne to the sands of the Solway. She hugged herself with delight as she spoke of the tramp of the sentries and the flashing of spears between the watch-towers. Mile after mile, one looked from the tops of the castles, beyond the rolling heather, to the blue Cheviots. And all along the southern side of the Wall lay the stations—great camps grown into little towns, with white pillars of colonnades glinting through the trees. One liked to imagine them on market-days, full of life and gaiety—folk flocking in from villages and farms, traders and chapmen hawking their wares, merry groups of soldiers watching the jugglers and dancing-girls. Nothing could be more wonderful than those soldiers and their babel of tongues. Spaniards and Syrians, men from Athens and Carthage, Goths from the Baltic and Huns from the Danube, negroes from Nubia and Persians from the Euphrates, they seemed to have come from every country under the sun.

The weather broke early in October, and we had very few stories until Christmas, when Sigfrid, our Iceland friend, came and brought three days of driving snow with him. He rigged up snow-shoes for us, and in his honour we made the fire blaze with old wood from the rose-bushes and loppings from the fruit trees. Then to the huge joy of Vigdis, who pretended that we were in Iceland, and that the Northern Lights were dancing over the white wastes, Sigfrid told us the old Viking sagas.

In the long evenings many of the stories got written down in remembrance of a good time, and I hope they still keep some of the freshness of the garden and the pleasantness of the winter fires.

[Illustration] from Child's Book of Warriors by William Canton