CHAPTER SIX: SHASTA AMONG THE TOMBS
SHASTA ran lightly along the roof on tiptoes. It felt hot to his bare feet. He was only a few seconds scrambling up the wall at the far end and when he got to the corner he found himself looking down into a narrow, smelly street, and there was a rubbish heap against the outside of the wall just as Corin had told him. Before jumping down he took a rapid glance round him to get his bearings. Apparently he had now come over the crown of the island-hill on which Tashbaan is built. Everything sloped away before him, flat roofs below flat roofs, down to the towers and battlements of the city’s Northern wall. Beyond that was the river and beyond the river a short slope covered with gardens. But beyond that again there was something he had never seen the like of – a great yellowish-grey thing, flat as a calm sea, and stretching for miles. On the far side of it were huge blue things, lumpy but with jagged edges, and some of them with white tops. “The desert! the mountains!” thought Shasta.
He jumped down on to the rubbish and began trotting along downhill as fast as he could in the narrow lane, which soon brought him into a wider street where there were more people. No one bothered to look at a little ragged boy running along on bare feet. Still, he was anxious and uneasy till he turned a corner and there saw the city gate in front of him. Here he was pressed and jostled a bit, for a good many other people were also going out; and on the bridge beyond the gate the crowd became quite a slow procession, more like a queue than a crowd. Out there, with clear running water on each side, it was deliciously fresh after the smell and heat and noise of Tashbaan.
When once Shasta had reached the far end of the bridge he found the crowd melting away; everyone seemed to be going either to the left or right along the river bank. He went straight ahead up a road that did not appear to be much used, between gardens. In a few paces he was alone, and a few more brought him to the top of the slope. There he stood and stared. It was like coming to the end of the world for all the grass stopped quite suddenly a few feet before him and the sand began: endless level sand like on a sea shore but a bit rougher because it was never wet. The mountains, which now looked further off than before, loomed ahead. Greatly to his relief he saw, about five minutes’ walk away on his left, what must certainly be the Tombs, just as Bree had described them; great masses of mouldering stone shaped like gigantic bee-hive, but a little narrower. They looked very black and grim, for the sun was now setting right behind them.
He turned his face West and trotted towards the Tombs. He could not help looking out very hard for any sign of his friends, though the setting sun shone in his face so that he could see hardly anything. “And anyway,” he thought, “of course they’ll be round on the far side of the farthest Tomb, not this side where anyone might see them from the city.”
There were about twelve Tombs, each with a low arched doorway that opened into absolute blackness. They were dotted about in no kind of order, so that it took a long time, going round this one and going round that one, before you could be sure that you had looked round every side of every tomb. This was what Shasta had to do. There was nobody there.
It was very quiet here out on the edge of the desert; and now the sun had really set.
Suddenly from somewhere behind him there came a terrible sound. Shasta’s heart gave a great jump and he had to bite his tongue to keep himself from screaming. Next moment he realized what it was: the horns of Tashbaan blowing for the closing of the gates. “Don’t be a silly little coward,” said Shasta to himself. “Why, it’s only the same noise you heard this morning.” But there is a great difference between a noise heard letting you in with your friends in the morning, and a noise heard alone at nightfall, shutting you out. And now that the gates were shut he knew there was no chance of the others joining him that evening. “Either they’re shut up in Tashbaan for the night,” thought Shasta, “or else they’ve gone on without me. It’s just the sort of thing that Aravis would do. But Bree wouldn’t. Oh, he wouldn’t. – now, would he?”
In this idea about Aravis Shasta was once more quite wrong. She was proud and could be hard enough but she was as true as steel and would never have deserted a companion, whether she liked him or not.
Now that Shasta knew he would have to spend the night alone (it was getting darker every minute) he began to like the look of the place less and less. There was something very uncomfortable about those great, silent shapes of stone. He had been trying his hardest for a long time not to think of ghouls: but he couldn’t keep it up any longer.
“Ow! Ow! Help!” he shouted suddenly, for at that very moment he felt something touch his leg. I don’t think anyone can be blamed for shouting if something comes up from behind and touches him; not in such a place and at such a time, when he is frightened already. Shasta at any rate was too frightened to run. Anything would be better than being chased round and round the burial places of the Ancient Kings with something he dared not look at behind him. Instead, he did what was really the most sensible thing he could do. He looked round; and his heart almost burst with relief. What had touched him was only a cat.
The light was too bad now for Shasta to see much of the cat except that it was big and very solemn. It looked as if it might have lived for long, long years among the Tombs, alone. Its eyes made you think it knew secrets it would not tell.
“Puss, puss,” said Shasta. “I suppose you’re not a talking cat.”
The cat stared at him harder than ever. Then it started walking away, and of course Shasta followed it. It led him right through the tombs and out on the desert side of them. There it sat down bolt upright with its tail curled round its feet and its face set towards the desert and towards Narnia and the North, as still as if it were watching for some enemy. Shasta lay down beside it with his back against the cat and his face towards the Tombs, because if one is nervous there’s nothing like having your face towards the danger and having something warm and solid at your back. The sand wouldn’t have seemed very comfortable to you, but Shasta had been sleeping on the ground for weeks and hardly noticed it. Very soon he fell asleep, though even in his dreams he went on wondering what had happened to Bree and Aravis and Hwin.
He was wakened suddenly by a noise he had never heard before. “Perhaps it was only a nightmare,” said Shasta to himself. At the same moment he noticed that the cat had gone from his back, and he wished it hadn’t. But he lay quite still without even opening his eyes because he felt sure he would be more frightened if he sat up and looked round at the Tombs and the loneliness: just as you or I might lie still with the clothes over our heads. But then the noise came again – a harsh, piercing cry from behind him out of the desert. Then of course he had to open his eyes and sit up.
The moon was shining brightly. The Tombs – far bigger and nearer than he had thought they would be – looked grey in the moonlight. In fact, they looked horribly like huge people, draped in grey robes that covered their heads and faces. They were not at all nice things to have near you when spending a night alone in a strange place. But the noise had come from the opposite side, from the desert. Shasta had to turn his back on the Tombs (he didn’t like that much) and stare out across the level sand. The wild cry rang out again.
“I hope it’s not more lions,” thought Shasta. It was in fact not very like the lion’s roars he had heard on the night when they met Hwin and Aravis, and was really the cry of a jackal. But of course Shasta did not know this. Even if he had known, he would not have wanted very much to meet a jackal.
The cries rang out again and again. “There’s more than one of them, whatever they are,” thought Shasta. “And they’re coming nearer.”
I suppose that if he had been an entirely sensible boy he would have gone back through the Tombs nearer to the river where there were houses, and wild beasts would be less likely to come. But then there were (or he thought there were) the ghouls. To go back through the Tombs would mean going past those dark openings in the Tombs; and what might come out of them? It may have been silly, but Shasta felt he would rather risk the wild beasts. Then, as the cries came nearer and nearer, he began to change his mind.
He was just going to run for it when suddenly, between him and the desert, a huge animal bounded into view. As the moon was behind it, it looked quite black, and Shasta did not know what it was, except that it had a very big, shaggy head and went on four legs. It did not seem to have noticed Shasta, for it suddenly stopped, turned its head towards the desert and let out a roar which re-echoed through the Tombs and seemed to shake the sand under Shasta’s feet. The cries of the other creatures suddenly stoppd and he thought he could hear feet scampering away. Then the great beast turned to examine Shasta.
“It’s a lion, I know it’s a lion,” thought Shasta. “I’m done. I wonder will it hurt much. I wish it was over. I wonder does anything happen to people after they’re dead. O-o-oh! Here it comes!” And he shut his eyes and his teeth tight.
But instead of teeth and claws he only felt something warm lying down at his feet. And when he opened his eyes he said, “Why, it’s not nearly as big as I thought! It’s only half the size. No, it isn’t even quarter the size. I do declare it’s only the cat!! I must have dreamed all that about its being as big as a horse.”
And whether he really had been dreaming or not, what was now lying at his feet, and staring him out of countenance with its big, green, unwinking eyes, was the cat; though certainly one of the largest cats he had ever seen.
“Oh, Puss,” gasped Shasta. “I am so glad to see you again. I’ve been having such horrible dreams.” And he at once lay down again, back to back with the cat as they had been at the beginning of the night. The warmth from it spread all over him.
“I’ll never do anything nasty to a cat again as long as I live,” said Shasta, half to the cat and half to himself. “I did once, you know. I threw stones at a half-starved mangy old stray. Hey! Stop that.” For the cat had turned round and given him a scratch. “None of that,” said Shasta. “It isn’t as if you could understand what I’m saying.” Then he dozed off.
Next morning when he woke, the cat was gone, the sun was already up, and the sand hot. Shasta, very thirsty, sat up and rubbed his eyes. The desert was blindingly white and, though there was a murmur of noises from the city behind him, where he sat everything was perfectly still. When he looked a little left and west, so that the sun was not in his eyes, he could see the mountains on the far side of the desert, so sharp and clear that they looked only a stone’s throw away. He particularly noticed one blue height that divided into two peaks at the top and decided that it must be Mount Pire. “That’s our direction, judging by what the Raven said,” he thought, “so I’ll just make sure of it, so as not to waste any time when the others turn up.” So he made a good, deep straight furrow with his foot pointing exactly to Mount Pire.
The next job, clearly, was to get something to eat and drink. Shasta trotted back through the Tombs – they looked quite ordinary now and he wondered how he could ever have been afraid of them – and down into the cultivated land by the river’s side. There were a few people about but not very many, for the city gates had been open several hours and the early morning crowds had already gone in. So he had no diffculty in doing a little “raiding” (as Bree called it). It involved a climb over a garden wall and the results were three oranges, a melon, a fig or two, and a pomegranate. After that, he went down to the river bank, but not too near the bridge, and had a drink. The water was so nice that he took off his hot, dirty clothes and had a dip; for of course Shasta, having lived on the shore all his life, had learned to swim almost as soon as he had learned to walk. When he came out he lay on the grass looking across the water at Tashbaan – all the splendour and strength and glory of it. But that made him remember the dangers of it too. He suddenly realized that the others might have reached the Tombs while he was bathing (“and gone on without me, as likely as not”), so he dressed in a fright and tore back at such a speed that he was all hot and thirsty when he arrived and so the good of his bathe was gone.
Like most days when you are alone and waiting for something this day seemed about a hundred hours long. He had plenty to think of, of course, but sitting alone, just thinking, is pretty slow. He thought a good deal about the Narnians and especially about Corin. He wondered what had happened when they discovered that the boy who had been lying on the sofa and hearing all their secret plans wasn’t really Corin at all. It was very unpleasant to think of all those nice people imagining him a traitor.
But as the sun slowly, slowly climbed up to the top of the sky and then slowly, slowly began going downwards to the West, and no one came and nothing at all happened, he began to get more and more anxious. And of course he now realized that when they arranged to wait for one another at the Tombs no one had said anything about How Long. He couldn’t wait here for the rest of his life! And soon it would be dark again, and he would have another night just like last night. A dozen different plans went through his head, all wretched ones, and at last he fixed on the worst plan of all. He decided to wait till it was dark and then go back to the river and steal as many melons as he could carry and set out for Mount Pire alone, trusting for his direction to the line he had drawn that morning in the sand. It was a crazy idea and if he had read as many books as you have about journeys over deserts he would never have dreamed of it. But Shasta had read no books at all.
Before the sun set something did happen. Shasta was sitting in the shadow of one of the Tombs when he looked up and saw two horses coming towards him. Then his heart gave a great leap, for he recognized them as Bree and Hwin. But the next moment his heart went down into his toes again. There was no sign of Aravis. The Horses were being led by a strange man, an armed man pretty handsomely dressed like an upper slave in a great family. Bree and Hwin were no longer got up like pack-horses, but saddled and bridled. And what could it all mean? “It’s a trap,” thought Shasta. “Somebody has caught Aravis and perhaps they’ve tortured her and she’s given the whole thing away. They want me to jump out and run up and speak to Bree and then I’ll be caught too! And yet if I don’t, I may be losing my only chance to meet the others. Oh I do wish I knew what had happened.” And he skulked behind the Tomb, looking out every few minutes, and wondering which was the least dangerous thing to do.