Chapter XVII. "There is Hope"
 

It was dawn. Ithobal the king stood without the gates of the tomb of Baaltis, the grey light glimmering faintly on his harness, and knocked upon the brazen bars with the handle of his sword.

"Who troubles me now?" said a voice within.

"Lady, it is I, Ithobal, who, as I promised by Metem the Phoenician, am come to learn your will as to the fate of my prisoner, the Prince Aziel. Already he hangs above the gulf, and within one short hour, if you so decree it, he will fall and be dashed to pieces. Or, if you so decree it, he will be set free to return to his own land."

"At what price will he be set free, king Ithobal?"

"Lady, you know the price; it is yourself. Oh! I beseech you, be wise! spare his life and your own. Listen: spare his life, and I will spare this city which lies in the hollow of my hand, and you shall rule it with me."

"You cannot bribe me thus, king Ithobal. My father whom I loved is dead, and shall I give myself to you for the sake of a city and a Faith that would have betrayed me into your hands?"

"Nay, but for the sake of the man to whom you are dear, you shall do even this, Elissa. Think: if you refuse, his blood will be upon your head, and what will you have gained?"

"Death, which I seek, for I weary of the struggle of my days."

"Then end it in my arms, lady. Soon this fancy will escape your mind, and you will remain one of the mightiest queens of men."

Elissa returned no answer, and for a while there was silence.

"Lady," said Ithobal at length, "the sun rises and my servants yonder await a signal."

Then she spoke like one who hesitates.

"Are you not afraid, king Ithobal, to trust your life to a woman won in such a fashion?"

"Nay," answered Ithobal, "for though you say that their fate does not concern you, the lives of all those penned-up thousands are hostages for my own. Should you by chance find a means to stab me unawares, then to-night fire and sword would rage through the city of Zimboe. Nor do I fear the future, since I know well that you who think you hate me now, very soon will learn to love me."

"You promise, king Ithobal, that if I yield myself you will set the prince Aziel free; but how can I believe you who twice have tried to murder him?"

"Doubt me if you will, Elissa, at least, you cannot doubt your own eyes. Look, his road to the sea runs beneath this rock. Come from the tomb and take your stand upon it and you shall see him pass; yes, and should you wish, speak with him in farewell that you may be sure that it is he and alive. Further, I swear to you by my head and honour, that no finger shall be laid upon you till he is gone by, and that no pursuit of him shall be attempted. Now choose."

Again there was silence for a while. Then Elissa spoke in a broken voice.

"King Ithobal, I have chosen. Trusting to your royal word I will stand upon the rock and when I have seen the prince Aziel go by in safety, then, since you desire it, you shall put your arms about me and bear me whither you will. You have conquered me, king Ithobal! Henceforward these lips of mine are yours and no other man's. Give the signal, I pray you, and I will cast aside the dagger and the poison and come out living from this tomb."

Aziel hung in his cage over the abyss of air, awaiting death, and glad to die, because now he was sure that Elissa had refused to purchase his life at the expense of her own surrender. There he hung, dizzy and sick at heart, making his prayer to heaven and waiting the end, while the eagles that would prey upon his shattered flesh swept past him.

Presently, from the opposing cliff, came the sound of a horn blown thrice. Then, while Aziel wondered what this might mean, the cage in which he lay was drawn in gently over the edge of the precipice, and carried down the steeps of the granite hill as it had been carried up them.

At the foot of the hill its covering was torn aside, and he saw before him a caravan of camels, and seated on each camel a comrade of his own. But one camel had no rider, and Metem led it by a rope.

The servants of Ithobal took him from the cage and set him upon this camel, though they did not loosen the bonds about the wrists.

"This is the command of the king," said the captain to Metem "that the arms of the prince Aziel shall remain bound until you have travelled for six hours. Begone in safety, fearing nothing."

*****

"What happens now, Metem," asked Aziel, as the camels strode forward, "and why am I set free who was expecting death? Is this some new artifice of yours, or has the lady Elissa----" and he ceased.

"Upon the word of an honest merchant I cannot tell you, Prince. Yesterday, as I was forced, I gave the message of king Ithobal to the lady Elissa yonder in the tomb. She would answer me only one thing, which she whispered in my ear through the bars of the holy tomb; that if we could escape we should do so, moreover that you must have no fear for her since she also had found a means of escape from Ithobal, and would certainly join us upon the road."

As Metem spoke, the camels passed round the little hill on to the path that ran beneath the tomb of Baaltis. There, standing upon the rock some fifty feet above them, was Elissa, and with her, but at a distance, Ithobal the king.

"Halt, prince Aziel," she called in a clear voice, "and hearken to my farewell. I have bought your life, and the lives of your companions, and you are free, for the road is clear and nothing can overtake the twelve swiftest camels in Zimboe. Go, therefore, and be happy, forgetting no word that has passed my lips. For all my words are true, even to a certain promise which I made you lately by the mouth of Metem, and which I now fulfil--that I would join you on your road lest you should deem me faithless to the troth which I have so often sworn to you.

"King Ithobal, this shape is yours; come now and take your prize. Prince Aziel, my soul is yours, in life it shall companion you, and in death await you. Prince Aziel, I come to you." Then, before he could answer a single word, with one swift and sudden spring she hurled herself from the cliff edge to fall crushed upon the road beneath.

Aziel saw. In his agony he strained so fiercely at the bonds which held him that they burst like rushes. He leapt from the camel and knelt beside Elisa. She was not yet dead, for her eyes were open and her lips stirred.

"I have kept faith, keep it also, Aziel! the story is not yet done," she gasped. Then her life flickered out, and her spirit passed.

Aziel rose from beside the corpse and looked upward. There upon the edge of the rock above him, leaning forward, his eyes blind with horror, stood Ithobal the king. Aziel saw him, and a fury entered into his heart because this man, whose jealous rage and evil doing had bred such woe and caused the death of his beloved still lived upon the earth. By the prince was Metem, who, for once, had no words, and from his hand he snatched a bow, set an arrow on the string and loosed.

The shaft rushed upwards, it smote Ithobal between the joints of his harness so that the point of it sunk through this neck.

"This gift, king Ithobal, from Aziel the Israelite," he cried, as the arrow sped.

For a moment the great man stood still, then he opened his arms wide and of a sudden plunged downward, falling with a crash on the roadway, where he lay dead at the side of dead Elissa.

*****

"The play is played, and the fate fulfilled," cried Metem. "See, the servants of the king speed yonder with their evil tidings; let us away lest we bide here with these two for ever."

"That is my desire," said Aziel.

"A desire which may not be fulfilled," answered Metem. "Come, Prince, since we cannot go without you. Surely you do not wish to sacrifice the lives of all of us as an offering to the great spirit of the lady who is dead. It is one that she would not seek."

Then Aziel knelt down and kissed the brow of the dead Elissa, and went his way, saying no word.

*****

That night, when the darkness fell, the sky behind these travellers grew red with fire.

"Behold the end of the golden city!" said Metem. "Zimboe is food for flames and its children for the sword. Issachar was a prophet indeed, who foretold that it should be so."

Aziel bowed his head, remembering that Issachar had foretold also that for Elissa and for him there was hope beyond the grave. As he thought it, a wind beat upon his brow and through it a soft voice seemed to murmur to his heart:--

"Be of good courage: Beloved, there is hope."

*****

So, turning from the death behind him, this far away forgotten lover set his face to the sea of Life and passed it, and long ago, at his appointed hour, gained its further shore, to be welcomed there by her who watched for him.

And thus, because of the fateful and predestined loves of Aziel the prince, and Elissa the priestess and daughter of Sakon, three thousands years and more ago, the ancient city of Zimboe fell at the hand of king Ithobal and his Tribes, so that to-day there remain of it nothing but a desolate grey tower of stone, and beneath, the crumbling bones of men.