"They do dance. Do you not think - why, I could forgive the gods themselves. I'll shortly be able to forgive Redival; perhaps. But how can - it will be winter in a month or less. You can't - Psyche, how have you kept alive till now? I thought, I thought - " but to think of what I had thought overcame me.
"Hush, Maia, hush," said Psyche (once more it was she who was comforting me). "All those fears are over. All's well. I'll make it well for you too; I'll not rest till you're as happy as I. But you haven't yet even asked me my story. Weren't you surprised to find this fair dwelling place, and me living here; like this? Have you no wonder?"
"Yes, Psyche, I am overwhelmed in it. Of course I want to hear your story. Unless we should make our plans first."
"Solemn Orual," said Psyche mockingly. "You were always one for plans. And rightly too, Maia, with such a foolish child as me to bring up. And well you did it." With one light kiss she put all those days, all of my life that I cared for, behind us and began her story.
"I wasn't in my right mind when we left the palace. Before the two temple girls began painting and dressing me they gave me a sweet, sticky stuff to drink - a drug, as I guess - for soon after I had swallowed it everything went dreamlike, and more and more so for a long time. And I think, Sister, they must always give that to those whose blood is to be poured over Ungit, and that's why we see them die so patiently. And the painting on my face helped the dreaminess too. It made my face stiff till it didn't seem to be my own face. I couldn't feel it was I who was being sacrificed. And then the music and incense and the torches made it more so. I saw you, Orual, at the top of the stairway, but I couldn't lift even a hand to wave to you; my arms were as heavy as lead. And I thought it didn't matter much, because you too would wake up presently and find it was all a dream. And in a sense it was, wasn't it? And you are nearly awake now. What? still so grave? I must wake you more.
"You'd think the cold air would have given me my mind back when we came out of the great gates, but the drug must have been still coming to its full power. I had no fear; nor joy either. Sitting there on that litter, up above the heads of all that crowd, was a strange enough thing anyway . . . and the horns and the rattles were going on all the time. I don't know whether the journey up the mountain was long or short. Each bit of it was long; I
noticed every pebble on the road, I looked long, long at every tree as we passed it. Yet the whole journey seemed to take hardly any time. Yet long enough for me to get some of my wits back. I began to know that something dreadful was being done to me. Then for the first time I wanted to speak. I tried to cry out to them that there was some mistake, that I was only poor Istra and it couldn't be me they meant to kill. But nothing more than a kind of grunting or babbling came out of my mouth. Then a great bird-headed man, or a bird with a man's body - "
"That would be the Priest," said I.
"Yes. If he is still the Priest when he puts on his mask; perhaps he becomes a god while he wears it. Anyway, it said, 'Give her some more,' and one of the younger priests got on someone else's shoulders and put the sweet sticky cup to my lips again. I didn't want to take it, but, you know, Maia, it all felt so like the time you had the barber to take that thorn out of my hand long ago - you remember - you holding me tight, and telling me to be good, and that it'd all be over in a moment. Well, it was like that, so I felt sure I'd better do whatever I was told.
"The next thing I knew - really knew - was that I was off the litter and on the hot earth, and they were fastening me to the Tree with iron round my waist. It was the sound of the iron that cleared the last of the drug out of my mind. And there was the King, shrieking and wailing and tearing his hair. And do you know, Maia, he actually looked at me, really looked, and it seemed to me he was then seeing me for the first time. But all I wished was that he would stop it and then he and all the rest would go away and leave me alone to cry. I wanted to cry now. My mind was getting clearer and clearer and I was terribly afraid. I was trying to be like those girls in the Greek stories that the Fox is always telling us about, and I knew I could keep it up till they were gone, if only they would go quickly."
"Oh, Psyche, you say all's well now. Forget that terrible time. Go on quickly and tell me how you were saved. We have so much to talk about and arrange. There's no time - "
"Orual! There's all the time there is. Don't you want to hear my story?"
"Of course I do. I want to hear every bit. When we're safe and - "
"Where shall we ever be safe if we're not safe here? This is my home, Maia. And you won't understand the wonder and glory of my adventure unless you listen to the bad part. It wasn't very bad, you know."
"It's so bad I can hardly bear to listen to it."
"Ah, but wait. Well, at last they were gone, and there I was alone under the glare of the sky with the great baked, parched mountain all round me, and not one noise to be heard. There wasn't a breath of wind even by the Tree; you remember what the last day of the drought was like. I was already thirsty - the sticky drink had done that. Then I noticed for the first time that they had so bound me that I couldn't sit down. That was when my heart really failed me. I did cry then; oh, Maia, how badly I wanted you and the Fox! And all I could do was to pray, pray, pray to the gods that whatever was going to happen to me might happen soon. But nothing happened, except that my tears made me thirstier. Then, a very long time after that, things began gathering round me."
"Oh, nothing dreadful. Only the mountain cattle at first. Poor lean things they were. I was sorry for them, for I thought they were as thirsty as I. And they came nearer and nearer in a great circle, but never very near, and mooed at me. And after that there came a beast that I had never seen before, but I think it was a lynx. It came right up close. My hands were free and I wondered if I would be able to beat it off. But I had no need to. After advancing and drawing back I don't know how many times (I think it began by fearing me as much as I feared it) it came and sniffed at my feet, and then it stood up with its forepaws on me and sniffed again. Then it went away. I was sorry it had gone; it was a kind of company. And do you know what I was thinking all this time?"
"At first I was trying to cheer myself with all that old dream of my gold and amber palace on the Mountain . . . and the god . . . trying to believe it. But I couldn't believe in it at all. I couldn't understand how I ever had. All that, all my old longings, were clean gone."
I pressed her hands and said nothing. But inwardly I rejoiced. It might have been good (I don't know) to encourage that fancy the night before the Offering, if it supported her. Now, I was glad she had got over it. It was a thing I could not like, unnatural and estranging.
Perhaps this gladness of mine is one of the things the gods have against me. They never tell.
"The only thing that did me good," she continued, "was quite different. It was hardly a thought, and very hard to put into words. There was a lot of the Fox's philosophy in it - things he says about gods or 'the divine nature' - but mixed up with things the Priest said, too, about the blood and the earth and how sacrifice makes the crops grow. I'm not explaining it well. It seemed to come from somewhere deep inside me, deeper than the part that sees pictures of gold and amber palaces, deeper than fears and tears. It was shapeless, but you could just hold onto it; or just let it hold onto you. Then the change came."
"What change?" I didn't know well what she was talking about, but I saw she must have her way and tell the story in her own fashion.
"Oh, the weather of course. I couldn't see it, tied the way I was, but I could feel it. I was suddenly cool. Then I knew the sky must be filling with clouds, behind my back, over Glome, for all the colours on the Mountain went out and my own shadow vanished. And then - that was the first sweet moment - a sigh of wind - west-wind - came at my back.
Then more and more wind; you could hear and smell and feel the rain drawing near. So then I knew quite well that the gods really are, and that I was bringing the rain. And then the wind was roaring (but it's too soft a sound to call it a roar) all round me, and rain. The Tree kept some of it off me; I was holding out my hands all the time and licking the rain off them, I was so thirsty. The wind got wilder and wilder. It seemed to be lifting me off the ground so that, if it hadn't been for the iron round my waist, I'd have been blown right away, up in the air. And then - at last - for a moment - I saw him."