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Agaliha
October 19th, 2008, 12:20 AM
CHAPTER XVI

THE BATTLE


The kingdom of the bees was in a whirl of excitement. Not even
in the days of the revolution had the turmoil been so great. The
hive rumbled and roared. Every bee was fired by a holy wrath,
a burning ardor to meet and fight the ancient enemy to the very
last gasp. Yet there was no disorder or confusion. Marvelous the
speed with which the regiments were mobilized, marvelous the way
each soldier knew his duty and fell into his right place and
took up his right work.

It was high time. At the queen's call for volunteers to defend
the entrance, a number of bees offered themselves, and of these
several had been sent out to see if the enemy was approaching.
Two had now returned--whizzing dots--and reported that the
hornets were drawing near.

An awesome hush of expectancy fell upon the hive. Soldiers in
three closed ranks stood lined up at the entrance, proud, pale,
solemn, composed. No one spoke. The silence of death prevailed,
except for the low commands of the officers drawing up the
reserves in the rear. The hive seemed to be fast asleep.
The only stir came from the doorway where about a dozen
wax-generators were at work in feverish silence executing their
orders to narrow the entrance with wax. As by a miracle, two
thick partitions of wax had already gone up, which even the
strongest hornets could not batter down without great loss of
time. The hole had been reduced by almost half.

The queen took up an elevated position inside the hive from
which she was able to survey the battle. Her aides flew
scurrying hither and thither.

The third messenger returned. He sank down exhausted at the
queen's feet.

"I am the last who will return," he shouted with all the
strength he had left. "The others have been killed."

"Where are the hornets?" asked the queen.

"At the lindens!-- Listen, listen," he stammered in mortal
terror, "the air hums with the wings of the giants."

No sound was heard. It must have been the poor fellow's
terrified imagination, he must have thought he was still being
pursued.

"How many are there?" asked the queen sternly. "Answer in a low
voice."

"I counted forty."

Although the queen was startled by the enemy's numbers, she gave
no sign of shock.

In a ringing, confident voice that all could hear, she said:

"Not one of them will see his home again."

Her words, which seemed to sound the enemy's doom, had instant
effect. Men and officers alike felt their courage rise.

But when in the quiet of the morning an ominous whirring was
heard outside the hive, first softly, then louder and louder,
and the entrance darkened, and the whispering voices of the
hornets, the most frightful robbers and murderers in the insect
world, penetrated into the hive, then the faces of the valiant
little bees turned pale as if washed over by a drab light
falling upon their ranks. They gazed at one another with eyes in
which death sat waiting, and those who were ranged at the
entrance knew full well that one moment more and all would be
over with them.

The queen's controlled voice came clear and tranquil from her
place on high:

"Let the robbers enter one by one until I give orders to attack.
Then those at the front throw themselves upon the invaders a
hundred at a time, and the ranks behind cover the entrance. In
that way we shall divide up the enemy's forces. Remember, you at
the front, upon your strength and endurance and bravery depends
the fate of the whole state. Have no fear; in the dusk the enemy
will not see right away how well prepared we are, and he will
enter unsuspecting...."

She broke off. There, thrust through the doorway, was the head
of the first brigand. The feelers played about, groping,
cautious, the pincers opened and closed. It was a blood-curdling
sight. Slowly the huge black-and-gold striped body with its
strong wings crept in after the head. The light falling in from
the outside drew gleams from the warrior's cuirass.

Something like a quiver went through the ranks of the bees, but
the silence remained unbroken.

The hornet withdrew quietly. Outside he could be heard
announcing:

"They're fast asleep. But the entrance is half walled up and
there are no sentinels. I do not know whether to take this as a
good or a bad sign."

"A good sign!" rang out. "Forward!"

At that two giants leapt in through the entrance side by side;
after them, soundlessly, pressed a throng of striped, armed,
gleaming warriors, awful to behold. Eight made their way into
the hive. Still no orders to attack from the queen. Was she dumb
with horror, had her voice failed her?

And the brigands, did they not see in the shadow, to right and
left, the soldiers drawn up in close, glittering ranks ready for
mortal combat...?

Now at last came the order from on high:

"In the name of eternal right, in the name of your queen, to the
defense of the realm!"

At that a droning roar went up. Never before had the city been
shaken by such a battle-cry. It threatened to burst the hive in
two. Where, an instant before, the hornets had been visible
singly, there were now buzzing heaps, thick, dark, rolling
knots. A young officer had scarcely awaited the end of the
queen's words. He wanted to be the first to attack. He was the
first to die. He had stood for some time ready to leap all
a-quiver with eagerness for battle, and at the first sound of
the order he rushed forward right into the clutches of the
foremost brigand. His delicately fine-pointed sting found its
way between the head and upper breast-ring of his opponent; he
heard the hornet give a yell of rage, saw him double up into a
glittering, gold-black ball. Then the bandit's fearful sting
leapt out and pierced between the young officer's breast-rings
right into his heart; and dying the bee felt himself and his
mortally wounded enemy sink under a cloud of storming bees. His
brave death inspired them all with the wild rapture that comes
from utter willingness to die for a noble cause. Fearful was
their attack upon the invaders. The hornets were sore pressed.

But the hornets are an old race of robbers, trained to warfare.
Pillage and murder have long been their gruesome profession.
Though the initial assault of the bees had confused and divided
them, yet the damage was not so great as might have seemed at
first. For the bees' stings did not penetrate their breastplates,
and their strength and gigantic size gave them an advantage of
which they were well aware. Their sharp, buzzing battle-cry
rose high above the battle-cry of the bees. It is a sound that
fills all creatures with horror, even human beings, who dread
this danger signal, and are careful not to enter into conflict
with hornets unprotected.

Those of the assailants who had already penetrated into the hive
quickly realized that they must make their way still deeper
inward if they were not to block up the entrance to their
comrades outside. And so the struggling knots rolled farther and
farther down the dark streets and corridors. How right the queen
had been in her tactics! No sooner was a bit of space at the
entrance cleared than the ranks in the rear leapt forward to its
defense. It was an old strategy, and a dreadful one for the
enemy. When a hornet at the entrance gave signs of exhaustion,
the bees shammed the same, and let him crawl in; but the instant
the one behind showed his head a great swarm of fresh soldiers
dashed up to defend the apparently unprotected entrance, while
the invader who had gone on ahead would find himself, already
wearied, suddenly confronted by glittering ranks of soldier-bees
who had not yet stirred a finger in battle. Generally he
succumbed to their superior numbers at the very first attack.

Now the groans of the wounded and the shrieks of the dying
mingled in wild agony with the fierce battle-cries. The hornets'
stings worked fearful havoc among the bees. The rolling knots
left tracks of dead bodies in their wake. The hornets, whose
retreat had been cut off, realizing that they would never see
the light of day again, fought the fight of despair. Yet,
slowly, one by one, they succumbed. There was one great thing
against them. Though their strength was inexhaustible, not so
the poison of their sting. After a time their sting lost its
virulence, and the wounded bees, knowing they'd recover, fought
in the consciousness of certain victory. To this was added the
grief of the bees for their dead; it gave them the power of
divine wrath.

Gradually the din subsided. The loud calls of the hornets on the
outside met with no response from the invaders within.

"They are all dead," said the leader of the hornets grimly, and
summoned the combatants back from the entrance. Their numbers
had melted down to half.

"We have been betrayed," said the leader. "The bees were
prepared."

The hornets were assembled on the silver-fir. It had
grown lighter, and the red of dawn tinged the tops of the
linden-trees. The birds began to sing. The dew fell. Pale and
quivering with rage of battle, the warriors stood around their
leader, who was waging an awful inward struggle. Should he yield
to prudence or to his lust for pillage? The former prevailed.
There was no use anyway. His whole tribe was in danger of
destruction. Grudgingly, in a shudder of thwarted ambition, he
determined to send a messenger to the bees to sue for the return
of the prisoners.

He chose his cleverest officer and called upon him by name.

A depressed silence instead of an answer. The officer was among
those who had been cut off.

The leader, overcome now by mortal dread lest those who had
entered would never return, quickly chose another officer. The
raging and roaring in the beehive could be heard in the
distance.

"Be quick!" he cried, laying the white petal of a jasmine in the
messenger's hand, "or the human beings will soon come and we
shall be lost. Tell the bees we will go away and leave them in
peace forever if they will deliver up the prisoners."

The messenger rushed off. At the entrance he waved his white
signal and alighted on the flying-board.

The queen-bee was immediately informed that an emissary was
outside who wanted to make terms, and she sent her aide to
parley with him. When he returned with his report she sent back
this reply:

"We will deliver up the dead if you want to take them away.
There are no prisoners. All of your people who invaded our
territory are dead. Your promise never to return we do not
believe. You may come again, whenever you wish. You will fare no
better than you did to-day. And if you want to go on with the
battle we are ready to fight to the last bee."

The leader of the hornets turned pale when this message was
delivered to him. He clenched his fists, he fought with himself.
Only too gladly would he have yielded to the wishes of his
warriors who clamored for revenge. Reason prevailed.

"We _will_ come again," he hissed. "How could this thing have
happened to us? Are we not a more powerful people than the bees?
Every campaign of mine so far has been successful and has only
added to our glory. How can I face the queen after this defeat?"
In a quiver of fury he cried again: "How could this thing have
happened to us? There must be treachery somewhere."

An older hornet known as a friend of the queen's here took up
the word.

"It is true, we _are_ a more powerful race, but the bees are a
unified nation, and unflinchingly loyal to their people and
their state. That is a great source of strength; it makes them
irresistible. Not one of them would turn traitor; each without
thought of self serves the weal of all."

The leader scarcely listened.

"My day is coming," he hissed. "What care I for the wisdom of
these bourgeois! I am a brigand and will die a brigand.-- But to
keep up the battle now would be madness. What good would it do
us if we destroyed the whole hive, and none of us came back
alive?" Turning to the messenger, he cried:

"Give us back our dead. We will withdraw."

A dead silence fell. The messenger flew off.

"We must be prepared for a fresh piece of trickery, though I
don't think the hornets are in a fighting mood at present," said
the queen bee when she heard the hornets' decision. She gave
orders for the rear-guard, wax-generators, and honey-carriers to
remove the dead from the city while two fresh regiments guarded
the entrance.

Her orders were carried out. Over mountains of the dead one
brigand's body after another was dragged to the entrance and
thrown to the ground outside.

In gloomy silence the troop of hornets waited on the silver-fir
and saw the corpses of their fallen warriors drop one by one to
the earth.

The sun arose upon a scene of endless desolation. Twenty-one
slain, who had died a glorious death, made a heap in the grass
under the city of the bees. Not a drop of honey, not a single
prisoner had been taken by the enemy. The hornets picked up
their dead and flew away, the battle was over, the bees had
conquered.

But at what a cost! Everywhere lay fallen bodies, in the streets
and corridors, in the dim places before the brooders and
honey-cupboards. Sad was the work in the hive on that lovely
morning of summer sunshine and scented blossoms. The dead had to
be disposed of, the wounded had to be bandaged and nursed. But
before the hour of noon had struck, the regular tasks were
begun; for the bees neither celebrated their victory nor spent
time mourning their dead. Each bee carried his pride and his
grief locked quietly in his breast and went about his work.