Chapter XVI. The Cage of Death
 

An hour later the attack commenced at chosen points of the double wall, one of them being the southern gate. In front of the advancing columns of savages were driven vast numbers of slaves, many of whom had been captured, or had surrendered in the outer town. These men were laden with faggots to fill the ditch, rude ladders wherewith to scale the walls, and heavy trunks of trees to be used in breaching them. For the most part, they were unarmed, and protected only by their burdens, which they held before them as shields, and by the arrows of the warriors of Ithobal. But these did little harm to the defenders, who were hidden behind the walls, whereas the shafts of the garrison, rained on them from above, killed or wounded the slaves by scores, who, poor creatures, when they turned to fly, were driven onward by the spear-points of the savages, to be slain in heaps like game in a pitfall. Still, some of them lived, and running under the shelter of the wall, began to breach it with the rude battering rams, and to raise the scaling ladders till death found them, or they were worn out with excitement, fear and labour.

Then the real attack began. With fierce yells, the threefold column rushed at the wall, and began to work the rams and scale the ladders, while the defenders above showered spears and arrows upon them, or crushed them with heavy stones, or poured upon their heads boiling pitch and water, heated in great cauldrons which stood at hand.

Time after time they were driven back with heavy loss; and, time upon time, fresh hordes of them advanced to the onslaught. Thrice, at the southern gate, were the ladders raised, and thrice the stormers appeared above the level of the wall, to be hurled back, crushed and bleeding, to the earth beneath.

Thus the long day wore on and still the defenders held their own.

"We shall win," shouted Aziel to Metem, as a fresh ladder was cast down with its weight of men to the death-strewn plain.

"Yes, here we shall win because we fight," answered the Phoenician, "but elsewhere it may be otherwise." Indeed for a while the attack upon the south gate slackened.

Another hour passed and presently to the left of them rose a wild yell of triumph, and with it a shout of "Fly to the second wall. The foe is in the fosse!"

Metem looked and there, down the great ditch, 300 paces to their left, a flood of savages poured towards them. "Come," he said, "the outer wall is lost." But as he spoke once more the ladders rose against the gates and flanking towers and once more Aziel sprang to cast them down. When the deed was done, he looked behind him to find that he was cut off and surrounded. Metem and most of his men indeed had gained the inner wall in safety, while he with twelve only of his bravest soldiers, Jews of his own following, who had stayed to help him to throw back the ladders, were left upon the gateway tower. Nor was escape any longer possible, for both the plain without and the fosse within were filled with the men of Ithobal who advanced also by hundreds down the broad coping of the captured wall.

"Now there is but one thing that we can do," said Aziel; "fight bravely till we are slain."

As he spoke a javelin cast from the wall beneath struck him upon the breastplate, and though the bronze turned the iron point, it brought him to his knees. When he found his feet again, he heard a voice calling him by name, and looking down, saw Ithobal clad in golden harness and surrounded by his captains.

"You cannot escape, prince Aziel," cried the king; "yield now to my mercy."

Aziel heard, and setting an arrow to his bow, loosed it at Ithobal beneath. He was a strong and skilful archer, and the heavy shaft pierced the golden helmet of the king, cutting his scalp down to the bone.

"That is my answer," cried Aziel, as Ithobal rolled upon the ground beneath the shock of the blow. But very soon the king was up and crying his commands from behind the shield-hedge of his captains.

"Let the prince Aziel, and the Jews with him, be taken alive and brought to me," he shouted. "I will give a great reward in cattle to those who capture them unharmed; but if any do them hurt, they themselves shall be put to death."

The captains bowed and issued their orders, and presently Aziel and his companions saw lines of unarmed men creeping up ladders set at every side of the lofty tower. Again and again they cast off the ladders, till at length, being so few, they could stir them no more because of the weight upon them, but must hack at the heads of the stormers as they appeared above the parapet, killing them one by one.

In this fashion they slew many, but their arms grew weary at last, and ever under the eye of their king, the brave savages crept upward, heedless of death, till, with a shout, they poured over the battlements and rushed at the little band of Jews.

Now rather than be taken, Aziel sought to throw himself from the tower, but his companions held him, and thus at last it came about that he was seized and bound.

As they dragged him to the stairway he looked across the fosse and saw the mercenaries flying from the inner wall, although it was still unbreached, and saw the citizens of Zimboe streaming by thousands to the narrow gateway of the temple fortress.

Then Aziel groaned in his heart and struggled no more, for he knew that the fate of the ancient town was sealed, and that the prophecy of Issachar would be fulfilled.

*****

A while later Aziel and those with him, their hands bound behind their backs, were led by hide ropes tied about their necks through the army of the Tribes that jeered and spat upon them as they passed, to a tent of sewn hides on the plain, above which floated the banner of Ithobal. Into this tent the prince was thrust alone, and there forced upon his knees by the soldiers who held him. Before him upon a couch covered with a lion skin lay the great shape of Ithobal, while physicians washed his wounded scalp.

"Greeting, son of Israel and Pharaoh," he said in a mocking voice; "truly you are wise thus to do homage to the king of the world."

"A poor jest," answered Aziel, glancing at those who held him down; "true homage is of the heart, king Ithobal."

"I know it, Jew, and this also you shall give me when you are humbler. Who taught you the use of the bow? You shoot well," and he pointed to his blood-stained helm, which was still transfixed by the arrow.

"Nay," answered Aziel, "I shot but ill, for my arm was weary. When next I draw a string against your breast, king Ithobal, I promise you a straighter shaft."

"Well said," answered the king with a laugh, "but know, dog of a Jew, that now it is my turn to draw the string--how, I will show you afterwards. Have they told you that the city has fallen, and that my captains hold the gates, while the cowards of Zimboe are penned like sheep within the temple and on the cliff-edged height above? They have fled hither for safety, but I tell you that they would be more safe on yonder plain, for I have the key of their stronghold, a certain passage leading from the palace of the Baaltis to the temple; you know if it, I think. Yes, and if I had not, very soon hunger and thirst would work for me.

"Well, Jew, I have won, and with less trouble than I thought, and now I hold the great city in hostage, to save or to destroy as it shall please me, though that arrow of yours went near to robbing me of my crown of victory."

"So be it," answered Aziel, indifferently; "I have played my part, now things must go as Fate may will."

"Yes, Jew, you fought well till they deserted you, and the doom of cowards is little to a brave man. But what of the lady Elissa? Nay, I know all; she has taken refuge in the tomb of Baaltis, has she not, with poison in her bosom and bronze at her girdle to be used against her own life, should they lay hands on her or give her to me? And all this she does for the love of you, prince Aziel; for the love of you she refuses to become my queen, ruling over that city which I have conquered, and all my unnumbered tribes.

"Do you guess now why I caused you to be taken living? I will tell you; that you may be the bait to draw her to me. To kill you would be easy; but how would that serve, seeing that then she herself would choose to die? But, perchance, to save your life she will live also-- yes, and give herself to me. At least, I will try it; should the plan fail--then you can pay the price of her pride with your blood, prince Aziel."

"That I would do gladly," answered Aziel, "but oh! what a cross-bred hound you are who thus can seek to torture the heart of a helpless woman! Have you then no manhood that you can stoop to such a coward's plot?"

"Fool! it is because of my manhood that I do stoop to it," said Ithobal angrily. "Doubtless you think that a mad fancy and naught else drives me to the deed, but it is not so, although in truth my heart-- like yours--chooses this woman to be my wife and none other. That fondness I might conquer, but look you, of all things living this lady alone has dared to cross my will, so that to-day even the sentries on their rounds and the savage women in the kraals tell each other of how Ithobal, the great king of an hundred tribes, has been baffled and mocked at by a girl who despises him because his blood is not all white. Thus I am become a laughing-stock, and therefore I will win her, cost me what it may."

"And I, king Ithobal, tell you that you will not win her--no, not if you torture me to death before her eyes."

"That we shall see," said the king with a sneer. Then he called to his guard and added, "Let this man and his companions be taken to the place prepared for them."

Now Aziel was dragged from the tent and thrust into a wooden cage, such as were used for carrying slaves and women from place to place upon the backs of camels. His soldiers, who had been taken with him, were thrust also into cages, and, with himself laden upon camels that were waiting, two cages to each camel. Then a cloth was thrown over them, and, rising to their feet, the camels began to march.

When they had covered a league or more of ground Aziel learned from the motion of the camel upon which he was secured, and the sound of the repeated blows of its drivers, that they were ascending some steep place. At length they reached the top of it, and were unloaded from the beasts like merchandise, but he could see nothing, for by now the night had fallen. Then, still in the cages, they were carried to a tent, where food and water were given them through the bars, after which, so weary was Aziel with war, misery and the remains of recent illness, that he fell asleep.

At daybreak he awoke, or rather was awakened, by the sound of a familiar voice, and, looking through his bars, perceived Metem standing before them, guarded but unbound, with indignation written on his face, and tears in his quick eyes.

"Alas!" he cried, "that I should have lived to see the seed of Israel and Pharaoh thus fastened like a wild beast in a den, while barbarians make a mock of him. Oh! Prince, it were better that you should die rather than endure such shame."

"Misfortunes are the master of man, not man of his misfortunes, Metem," said Aziel quietly, "and in them is no true disgrace. Even if I had the means to kill myself, it would be a sin; moreover, it might bring another to her death. Therefore, I await my doom, whatever it may be, with such patience as I can, trusting that my sufferings and ignominy may expiate my crimes in the sight of Him whom I renounced. But how come you here, Metem?"

"I came under the safe-conduct of Ithobal who gave me leave to visit you, doubtless for some ends of his own. Have you heard, Prince, that he holds the gates of the city, though as yet no harm has been done to it, and that its inhabitants are crowded within the temple, and upon the heights above; also that in his despair Sakon has fallen on his sword and slain himself?"

"Is it so?" answered Aziel. "Well, Issachar foretold as much. On their own heads be the doom of these devil-worshippers and cowards. Have you any tidings of the lady Elissa?"

"Yes, Prince. She still sits yonder in the tomb, resolute in her purpose, and giving no answer to those who come to reason with her."

As he spoke the guard let fall the front of the tent so that the sunlight flowed into it, revealing Aziel and his twelve companions, each fast in his narrow and shameful prison. "See," said Metem, "do you know the place?"

The prince struggled to his knees, and saw that they were set upon the top of a hill, built up of granite boulders, which rose eighty feet or more from the surface of the plain. Opposite to them at a distance of under a hundred paces was a precipice in the face of which could be seen a cave closed with barred gates of bronze, while between the rocky hill and the precipice ran a road.

"I know it, Metem; there runs the path by which we travelled from the coast, and there is the tomb of Baaltis. Why have we been brought here?"

"The lady Elissa sits behind the bars of yonder tomb whence her view of all that happens upon this mount must be very good indeed," answered Metem with meaning. "Now, can you guess why you were brought here, prince Aziel."

"Is it that she may witness our sufferings under torment?" he asked.

Metem nodded.

"How will they deal with us, Metem?"

"Wait and see," he answered sadly.

As he spoke Ithobal himself appeared followed by certain evil-looking savages. Having greeted Metem courteously he turned to the Hebrew soldiers in the cages and asked them which of their number was most prepared to die.

"I, Ithobal, who am their leader," said Aziel.

"No, Prince," replied Ithobal with a cruel smile, "your time is not yet. Look, there is a man who has been wounded; to put him out of his pain will be a kindness. Slaves, bear that Jew to the edge of the rock, and--as the prince will wish to study a new mode of death--bring his cage also."

The order was obeyed, Aziel being set down upon the very verge of the cliff. Close to him a spur of granite jutted out twenty feet or so from the edge. At the end of the spur a groove was cut and over this groove, suspended by a thin chain from a pole, hung a wedge of pure crystal carefully shaped and polished. While Aziel wondered what evil purpose this stone might serve, the slaves had fastened a fine rope to the cage containing the wounded Hebrew soldier and secured its end. Then they set the rope in the groove of the granite spur, and pushed the cage over the edge of the cliff, so that it dangled in mid-air.

"Now I will explain," said Ithobal. "This is a method of punishment that I have borrowed from those followers of Baal who worship the sun, by means of which Baal claims his own sacrifice, and none are guilty of the victim's blood. You see yonder crystal--well, at any appointed hour, for it can be hung as you will, the rays of the sun shining through it cause the fibres of the grass rope to smoke and smoulder till at length they part and--Baal takes his sacrifice. Should a cloud hide the sun at the appointed hour, then, Baal having spared him, the victim is set free. But, as you will note, at this season of the year there are no clouds.

"What, Prince, have you nothing to say?" he went on, for Aziel had listened in silence to the tale of this devilish device. "Well, learn that it depends upon the lady Elissa yonder whether or not this fate shall be yours. Send now and pray her to save you. Think what it will be to hang as at this moment your servant hangs over that yawning gulf of space, waiting through the long hours till at last you see the little wreaths of smoke begin to curl from the tinder of the cord. Why! before the end found them I have known men go mad, and, like wolves, tear with their teeth at the wooden bars.

"You will not. Then, Metem, do you plead for your friend. Bid the Baaltis look forth at one hour before noon and see the sight of yonder wretch's death, remembering that to-morrow this fate shall be her lover's unless she foregoes her purpose of self-murder and gives herself to me. Nay, no words! an escort shall lead you through the lower city to the gateway of the tomb and there listen to your speech. See that it does not fail you, merchant, unless you also seek to hang in yonder cage. Tell the lady Elissa that to-morrow at sunrise I will come in person for her answer. If she yields, then the prince and his companions shall be set free and with you, Metem, to guide them, be mounted on swift camels to carry them unharmed to their retinue beyond the mountains. But if she will not yield, then--Baal shall take his sacrifice. Begone."

So, having no choice, Metem bowed and went, leaving the caged Aziel upon the edge of the cliff, and the Hebrew soldier hanging from the spur of rock.

Now Aziel roused himself from the horror in which his soul was sunk, and strove to comfort his doomed comrade, praying with him to Heaven.

Slowly as they prayed, the hours drew on till at length, upon the opposite cliff, he saw men whom he knew to be Metem and his escort, approach the mouth of the tomb, and faintly heard him call through the bars of the gateway. Turning himself in his cage, Aziel glanced at the rope, and watched the spot of light born from the burning glass of the crystal creep to its side.

Now the fatal moment was at hand, and Aziel saw a little wreath of smoke rise in the still air and bade his wretched servant close his eyes. Then came the end. Suddenly the taut rope, eaten through by the sun's fire, flew back and the cage with the soldier in it vanished from his sight, while, from far below, rose the sound of a heavy fall, and from the tomb of Baaltis rang the echo of a woman's shriek.