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THE FIRST RETREAT.
MANY winters, as we are told by the old men of the district, have passed since human beings first settled in the land of Ohet, a somewhat extensive valley of varying breadth, traversed by a winding stream running southward till it flows into a great river.
The sides of the valley present a series of hills of moderate height, descending by gentle slopes where it widens, and more abruptly where it narrows. On the steeper hill-sides grey crags jut out, and the ground is strewn with fragments of rock. Ascending the stream for some three hours' walk from the point where it joins the great river, we find on the right another stream separating into several small branches in a more elevated valley. In summer, some of these branches dry up, others form pools, whose banks are covered with reeds and waterlilies. The inhabitants of the vale dread this valley, which they believe to be haunted by evil spirits. It is dangerous to wander there, because of the number of bogs covered over with leaves and decaying branches in which the unwary sink. The forest in this valley is so dense, the plants and bushes are so thickly interlaced with the trunks and branches of dead trees, that the rays of the sun hardly penetrate through it, and only illuminate pools of water covered with a mantle of green. A kind of promontory divides the two water-courses at this point (Frontispiece —Fig. 1);—the river running from the north-west, and the smaller stream from the north-north-east. This elevated part of the country is covered with thick woods, and the inhabitants of the valley seldom go there except to hunt the wild ox, the boar, the wolf, and the deer. Beyond, the country seems a wilderness; and strangers who occasionally visit the inhabitants of the vale to exchange amber, copper, gold, salt, and coarse woollen or hempen fabrics for skins of beasts, never come except by the way where flows the great river. The occupants live in families, in the open spaces amid the woods and on the banks of the rivers, inhabiting conical huts, made with stakes set in the ground, joined at the top, and covered with branches, earth, and rushes. The father of the family occupies one of these huts with his wife and children, and as his sons grow up, they build another cabin and take a companion.
The products of the chase and fishing, with the wild roots which they dry and crush between stones, are their only means of subsistence; they do not till the soil, nor have they any flocks or herds. Our informants add that they never had to fight men like themselves, and that if any disputes arise between the families, they call together the oldest chiefs of the other families to arbitrate between them. Those who are unwilling to submit to their judgment are banished from the valley, together with their families; they descend the shores of the great river, and are no more heard of.
When these old men are further asked whether there were other human beings before them settled in the valley, they answer that there were; but that they were small men—dwarfs—who ate earth, and had no bows and arrows to kill the wild beasts, nor hooks to catch fish, nor canoes to cross the river; that at the approach of the present inhabitants, these dwarfs disappeared, and took refuge underground, whence they came out sometimes in the night to do mischief—to cut the fastenings of boats, or sink the boats themselves—to cause children at the breast to die, or to break the bows, or warn the animals of the forest of an intended chase, so that they might get out of the way.
For some time a report has been current—brought by strangers who have found their way along the river into the valley—that an alien race of great stature and strength, with fair hair, and mounted on horses, have already overspread the neighbouring countries, driving away their inhabitants, or killing those who do not fly at their approach; speaking an unknown tongue, and undertaking nothing without first deliberating in great numbers, and consulting the elders and women, sparing none but children, and employing these in labours of all kinds. This news has spread great consternation in the valley; the chiefs of the families meet together, and determine to watch by turns at the mouth of the river; young men posted at regular intervals are to give warning, by loud cries, of the arrival of the fair-haired people, so that all the inhabitants of the valley may be quickly warned, and take refuge with their families in the woods situated on the promontory which divides the river from the smaller stream at their confluence; lastly, each is to furnish himself with provisions such as will be sufficient for a hunting expedition of several days; and then they will consult as to what course shall be adopted.
Meantime, the elders of the people take counsel. They decide that at the first cry of alarm, and while the invaders are entering the valley by one of the banks, all the inhabitants of that side shall cross in the boats to the opposite side shore, in order to unite with those who inhabit that side, and that all together they shall hasten to bring their cargoes to the point where the valley divides, so as to moor the boats below the promontory on the left bank above the mouth of the stream; that the women, children, and old men shall take refuge on the promontory, so that the able-bodied, thus separated from the fair-haired men by the river and the rivulet, will be able to deliberate whether they should use their bows or fly to the forest above. Some days after, just when the sun is beginning to decline, the valley resounds with the cry of alarm, a hundred times repeated, announcing that the fair-haired people are advancing and entering the valley on the western side.
Immediately the whole country—silent but a few minutes before—begins to be filled with a continued hum; most of the inhabitants of the right hasten in their boats to the left bank; but some, either through negligence, or because they have been away from their dwellings, cannot follow the advice of the elders.
In the meantime, the invaders advance with caution: first, a detachment mounted on horses are seen riding round the woods, assembling in the openings, and appearing to deliberate before going further. A body of them have captured some unhappy loiterers among the inhabitants of the valley, who, fastened with cords, are driven onwards by their captors, and closely interrogated, but they do not understand what is said to them.
In a little while, at every visible point in the direction of the river, the valley appears dotted with men on foot and on horseback, and with chariots; and every now and then shouts arise. The sun sinks upon the horizon, but the shouting continues to be heard, and the columns of smoke ascend from all sides; night comes, the valley appears lit up with fires, and silence gradually supervenes.
Assembled at the foot of the promontory, along the banks of the two streams, the men of the land of Ohet have concealed their boats among the bulrushes; they have sent up the women, the children, and the aged to the plateau; they dare not light any fires, lest they should attract the attention of the invaders. The night is spent in fruitless deliberation; some bold young hunters propose to take advantage of the sleep of the fair-haired people to cross the river and fall upon them as they would upon wild beasts, and to kill them all with their stone hatchets; but the chiefs of the families consider that they are too few in number for the execution of any such design; they urge that this body of invaders is perhaps followed by others, that they have horses and can easily escape, that they appear to be tall and strong; and, moreover, that they do not appear to have killed the inhabitants they met with, as the strangers had reported.
At break of day the valley echoes with unusual sounds, such as the inhabitants of the land of Ohet had never heard before. It is not the shouting of men, nor the songs of women, nor the bellowing of wild bulls. These noises spread terror among the fugitives. They all abandon the boats and climb the promontory; there, in the woods, they can see through the trees what is taking place in the valley. They soon perceive a numerous body of men on the opposite side, not far from the river. Some canoes which had been forgotten are being guided up the stream by the invaders. They go through the rushes, unfasten the boats, and draw them up with loud cries on the shore opposite the promontory. These cries are answered from other quarters, and the whole body rush to the shore. But at this juncture the chiefs seem to interfere; they parley for some time, and appear to threaten those who are impatient to get into the boats, often pointing to the plateau above. The main body retire again from the shore, and a dozen men only get into two boats, which make for the opposite bank at the foot of the promontory. With them are two of the inhabitants of the land of Ohet, tied by the neck with leathern thongs. They land together, put the captives before them, and ascend to the plateau. The twelve fair-haired men are armed with sticks, terminated by a long, bright, metal point. Some hold bows in their hands, with the arrows in place. They are dressed in short tunics of ornamented stuffs, their arms bare, and their legs up to the knee bound round with leathern thongs, to which are fastened covered sandals. About their loins is a belt of skin, to which is suspended a bag, also of skin, with the hair of the animal preserved, two knives—one long, the other very short—and a hatchet, the blade of which is of bronze; their necks and wrists are adorned with strings of large glass beads, or with circlets of metal. Many have their hair fastened on the top of their heads, with large pins of bone or bronze; others have their hair divided into long tresses. Their beards have been carefully removed, while their moustaches reach down to their breasts. Their aspect is terrible, for they are tall; their light blue eyes, inclosed by black lines, sparkle like diamonds beneath bushy brows dyed of a brilliant red.
Approaching to within fifty paces of the brow of the promontory, where the ground is somewhat clear, they stop, and one of the captives speaks thus: "The fair-haired people have captured several of us; they have done us no harm; they have not burned our huts, nor killed the women and children. They wish to live in peace with us always, on the same ground. They will not hinder us from hunting or fishing, or from remaining with our wives and children. They say that the land is good, and can support a much greater number of inhabitants than it does now. They bring an abundance of things useful to man. They teach youths to ride, and to use arms against evil men. They say in fine that we have nothing to fear, and that you may return to your dwellings.
"I am told all this by one of their people who speaks as we do, and who once lived in our valley, from which he was banished. They also say that if you will not return to your homes and live in peace with them, they will kill us all like wild beasts, for they are both numerous and strong. They will await your answer here until the sun reaches the middle of its daily course. This is all we have to say."
Several of the elders of the valley then came out of the wood and advanced towards the captives; but the party of fair-haired men made signs to them to come no farther, and fitted their arrows to the strings of their bows. The captive who had already spoken, again addressed them: "Do not come any nearer; deliberate among yourselves, and give an answer quickly. This is all we have to say."
The old men thereupon assembled, and having cut some branches of trees on which they seated themselves, one of them spoke thus: "These fair-haired people with painted faces are more numerous than we; they have murderous weapons, and horses, and are brave; we are not able to drive them out of the valley; if they desire to live with us in peace, as they say they do, why net consider them as friends? Is it to their advantage to kill us? No. They possess many things which we have not, and are provided with what they need. Have you not observed the flocks and herds, the loaded waggons, and the women and children that accompany them? They are not empty-handed robbers. Let us accept the conditions they offer us."
One of the hunters, among the bravest in the valley, then rose and spoke in his turn: "Why do these people with painted faces come into our valley? It is to take possession of it and drive us away. They are strangers to us, and we have never done them any harm. Why do they not remain where they were born? Will there be fish enough in the river and enough wild animals in the forest to feed them and us? They will take all and leave us nothing. Fighting against them is impossible, it is true —but we can fly. There are other valleys and other rivers not far off. Let us take our wives and children with us; I know the woods as far as three days' journey. Let us leave our huts and our boats, and go and settle far away from these strangers." After the utterance of these contrary opinions a hundred voices were raised; some supporting the advice of the old man, others that of the hunter.
A few young men even wished to fall upon the little troop of strangers and massacre them.
Some of the most venerated of the inhabitants of the Val d'Ohet tried more than once to impose silence and make themselves heard, but the tumult continuing to increase, the assembly was broken up into groups, and the women began to cry out and lament and the children to weep. Meanwhile the little party of fair-haired men had begun to cut some bushes and briars and to make a rampart with them.
Not long afterwards twelve boats crossed the river, and sixty of the strangers came and joined the first twelve. These were bearing twelve oval shields of wicker-work covered with skin. They set up these shields by means of stakes driven in the ground, and placed themselves behind them; only their heads painted red and blue and their sparkling eyes remained visible. They were laughing together loudly.
Midday was at hand, and confusion continued to prevail among the fugitives. Then were heard again those strange sounds which had so much alarmed the unhappy inhabitants of Ohet at dawn; and the shore opposite to the promontory was covered with a multitude of fair-haired men in several detachments, all armed. They began to cross the river, and to seat themselves in a line on the shore beneath the plateau. Then the captive who had already spoken advanced alone toward the forest, and when he was within hearing, said: "My friends, my brethren, you are going to be attacked: and we are to be killed before your eyes. Have pity on yourselves—have pity on us; come down to the fair-haired men; they will do you no sort of harm; they have respected your houses and the women that have fallen into their hands. Do not hope to defend yourselves, for they will kill you with their keen weapons! "At this last appeal the fugitives became silent, and one of the inhabitants of the valley, who had remained since the morning without speaking a word, rose up. He was a short, robust man, of dark complexion and crisp hair; he was well known as a skilful carpenter, and the best boats were his handywork. "There is no more time for discussion," said he. "Let those who wish to stay in the valley come out from the wood, and let the rest hide themselves as quickly as possible in the forest. They will be able to fly with their families; for the strangers do not know how many we are. As for myself, I remain where I was born." A great number assembled round the carpenter with acclamations, accompanied by their wives and children; and all together without a moment's delay showed themselves to the troop of strangers. "We will return to our dwellings," was all the carpenter said to the captive interpreter, and then they advanced towards the little camp.
Many had bows and stone hatchets. "Throw down your arms," said the captive; "throw down your arms, you have no need of them." The invaders who had taken up their position on the shore, dividing into two bodies, were rapidly climbing the sides of the promontory, to the right and left; so that in a few minutes the carpenter and his companions were surrounded by an innumerable crowd, which penetrating the mass of the fugitives, separated them into small parties and took possession of the few weapons which had been retained by some of their number.
Excerpted from ANNALS OF A FORTRESS by Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, Benjamin Bucknall. Copyright © 2014 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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