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Agaliha
October 19th, 2008, 12:29 AM
CHAPTER XIII

THE FORTRESS


How happily the day had begun and how miserably it was to end!

Before the horror swept upon her, Maya had formed a very
remarkable acquaintance. It was in the afternoon near a big old
water-butt. She was sitting amid the scented elder blossoms,
which lay mirrored in the placid dark surface of the butt, and a
robin redbreast was warbling overhead, so sweetly and merrily
that Maya thought it was a shame, a crying shame that she,
a bee, could not make friends with the charming songsters. The
trouble was, they were too big and ate you up.

She had hidden herself in the heart of the elder blossoms and
was listening and blinking under the pointed darts of the
sunlight, when she heard someone beside her sigh. Turning round
she saw--well, now it really _was_ the strangest of all the
strange creatures she had ever met. It must have had at least a
hundred legs along each side of its body--so she thought at
first glance. It was about three times her size, and slim, low,
and wingless.

"For goodness sake! Mercy on me!" Maya was quite startled. "You
must certainly be able to run!"

The stranger gave her a pondering look.

"I doubt it," he said. "I doubt it. There's room for
improvement. I have too many legs. You see, before all my legs
can be set in motion, too much time is lost. I didn't use to
realize this, and often wished I had a few more legs. But God's
will be done.-- Who are you?"

Maya introduced herself. The other one nodded and moved some of
his legs.

"I am Thomas of the family of millepeds. We are an old race, and
we arouse admiration and astonishment in all parts of the globe.
No other animals can boast anything like our number of legs.
Eight is _their_ limit, so far as I know."

"You are tremendously interesting. And your color is so queer.
Have you got a family?"

"Why, no! Why should I? What good would a family do me? We
millepeds crawl out of our eggs; that's all. If _we_ can't stand
on our own feet, who should?"

"Of course, of course," Maya observed thoughtfully. "But have
you no relations?"

"No, dear child. I earn my living, and doubt. I doubt."

"Oh! _What_ do you doubt?"

"I was born doubting. I must doubt."

Maya stared at him in wide-eyed bewilderment. What did he mean,
what could he possibly mean? She couldn't for the life of her
make out, but she did not want to pry too curiously into his
private affairs.

"For one thing," said Thomas after a pause, "for one thing I
doubt whether you have chosen a good place to rest in. Don't you
know what's over there in the big willow?"

"No."

"You see! I doubted right away if you knew. The city of the
hornets is over there."

Maya turned deathly white and nearly fell off the elder
blossoms. In a voice shaking with fright, she asked just where
the city was.

"Do you see that old nesting-box for starlings, there in the
shrubbery near the trunk of the willow-tree? It's so poorly
placed that I doubted from the first whether starlings would
ever move in. If a bird-house isn't set with its door facing the
sunrise, every decent bird will think twice before taking
possession. Well, the hornets have entrenched themselves in it.
It's the biggest hornets' fortress in the country. You as a bee
certainly ought to know of the place. Why, the hornets are
brigands who lie in wait for you bees. So, at least, I have
observed."

Maya scarcely heard what he was saying. There, showing clear
against the green, she saw the brown walls of the fortress. She
almost stopped breathing.

"I must fly away," she cried.

Too late! Behind her sounded a loud, mean laugh. At the same
moment the little bee felt herself caught by the neck, so
violently that she thought her joints were broken. It was a
laugh she would never forget, like a vile taunt out of hellish
darkness. Mingling with it was another gruesome sound, the awful
clanking of armor.

Thomas let go with all his legs at once and tumbled head over
heels through the branches into the water-butt.

"I doubt if you get away alive," he called back. But the poor
little bee no longer heard.

She couldn't see her assailant, her neck was caught in too firm
a grip, but a gilt-sheathed arm passed before her eyes, and a
huge head with dreadful pincers suddenly thrust itself above her
face. She took it at first to belong to a gigantic wasp, but
then realized that she had fallen into the clutches of a hornet.
The black-and-yellow striped monster was surely four times her
size.

Maya lost sight, hearing, speech; every nerve in her body went
faint. At length her voice came back, and she screamed for help.

"Never mind, girlie," said the hornet in a honey-sweet tone that
was sickening. "Never mind. It'll last until it's over." He
smiled a baleful smile.

"Let go!" cried Maya. "Let me go! Or I'll sting you in your
heart."

"In my heart right away? Very brave. But there's time for that
later."

Maya went into a fury. Summoning all her strength, she twisted
herself around, uttered her shrill battle-cry, and directed her
sting against the middle of the hornet's breast. To her
amazement and horror, the sting, instead of piercing his breast,
swerved on the surface. The brigand's armor was impervious.

Wrath gleamed in his eyes.

"I could bite your head off, little one, to punish you for your
impudence. And I would, too, I would indeed, but for our queen.
She prefers fresh bees to dead carcasses. So a good soldier
saves a juicy morsel like you to bring to her alive."

The hornet, with Maya still in his grip, rose into the air and
made directly for the fortress.

"This is too awful," thought the poor little bee. "No one can
stand this." She fainted.

When she came to her senses, she found herself in half darkness,
in a sultry dusk permeated by a horrid, pungent smell. Slowly
everything came back to her. A great paralyzing sadness settled
in her heart. She wanted to cry: the tears refused to come.

"I haven't been eaten up yet, but I may be, any moment," she
thought in a tremble.

Through the walls of her prison she caught the distinct sound of
voices, and soon she noticed that a little light filtered
through a narrow chink. The hornets make their walls, not of wax
like the bees, but of a dry mass resembling porous grey paper.
By the one thread of light she managed bit by bit to make out
her surroundings. Horror of horrors! Maya was almost congealed
with fright: the floor was strewn with the bodies of dead
insects. At her very feet lay a little rose-beetle turned over
on its back; to one side was the skeleton of a large locust
broken in two, and everywhere were the remains of slaughtered
bees, their wings and legs and sheaths.

"Oh, oh, to think this had to happen to me," whimpered little
Maya. She did not dare to stir the fraction of an inch and
pressed herself shivering into the farthest corner of this
chamber of horrors.

Again she heard voices on the other side of the wall. Impelled
by mortal fear, she crept up to the chink and peeped through.
What she saw was a vast hall crowded with hornets and
magnificently illuminated by a number of captive glow-worms.
Enthroned in their midst sat the queen, who seemed to be holding
an important council. Maya caught every word that was said.

If those glittering monsters had not inspired her with such
unspeakable horror, she would have gone into raptures over their
strength and magnificence. It was the first time she had had a
good view of any of the race of brigands. Tigers they looked
like, superb tigers of the insect world, with their tawny
black-barred bodies. A shiver of awe ran through the little bee.

A sergeant-at-arms went about the walls of the hall ordering the
glow-worms to give all the light they could; they must strain
themselves to the utmost. He muttered his commands in a low
voice, so as not to interrupt the deliberations, and thrust at
them with a long spear, hissing as he did so:

"Light up, or I'll eat you!"

Terrible the things that were done in the fortress of the
hornets!

Then Maya heard the queen say:

"Very well, we shall abide by the arrangements we have made.
To-morrow, one hour before dawn, the warriors will assemble and
sally forth to the attack on the city of the bees in the castle
park. The hive is to be plundered and as many prisoners taken as
possible. He who captures Queen Helen VIII and brings her to me
alive will be dubbed a knight. Go forth and be brave and
victorious and bring back rich booty.-- The meeting is herewith
adjourned. Sleep well, my warriors. I bid you good-night."

The queen-hornet rose from her throne and left the hall
accompanied by her body-guard.

Maya nearly cried out loud.

"My country!" she sobbed, "my bees, my dear, dear bees!" She
pressed her hands to her mouth to keep herself from screaming.
She was in the depths of despair. "Oh, would that I had died
before I heard this. No one will warn my people. They will be
attacked in their sleep and massacred. O God, perform a miracle,
help me, help me and my people. Our need is great!"

In the hall the glow-worms were put out and devoured. Gradually
the fortress was wrapped in a hush. Maya seemed to have been
forgotten. A faint twilight crept into her cell, and she
thought she caught the strumming of the crickets' night song
outside.-- Was anything more horrible than this dungeon with
its carcasses strewn on the ground!