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CHAPTER XXI
MARY MAKES A REQUEST

The cross was jade, in the shape of the medieval emblem—the Greek cross. Before it burned a candle. Gray stared at it silently while Timur limped forward and trimmed the wick of the candle.

"We do not remember the faith of our fathers," the old Wusun said sadly. "But we have kept the talisman. It is not as strong as the bronze Buddha of Wu Fang Chien. We will not give it up, although he has asked to buy it. Truly, no man should part with what was precious in the sight of his fathers."

Thoughts crowded in upon Gray. Was this the cross left by a wandering missionary—one of those who followed the footsteps of Marco Polo? Were the ancient Wusun the Christians mentioned in medieval legends as the kingdom of Prester John, sometimes called Presbyter John? The Wusun had been warriors. Was the symbol of the cross adapted from the hilt of a sword? Was it one of the vagaries of fate that had brought the cross into the hands of the Wusun, who were descendants of the Christians of Europe? Or had they of their own accord become worshipers of the cross? What did it mean to them?

He recalled the sunset hymn. Was this their version of the vespers of a forgotten priest? He did not know. The problem of the cross existing among the remnants of the Wusun remains to be solved by more learned minds than his. It was clear, however, that beyond the cross, they retained no vestige of their former religion.

Abruptly his head snapped up.

"I promised you, Bassalor Danek," he cried, "that this would be a symbol. As I have promised, you will find it. We—who are of the same fathers—have also this talisman of our God."

The Wusun stared at him. There was a ring of conviction in Gray's words. He recalled Delabar's words that the talisman of the Wusun had earned the captive race the hatred of the Buddhists. He saw now how this was. Fate—or what the soldier esteemed luck—had put an instrument into his hand. For the defense of the girl. He must make full use of it.

He pointed to the jade cross.

"The Kha Rakcha and I are of the same blood as the Wusun. We came in peace to seek you. The Kha Rakcha claims your protection. Will you not grant it? Thus, I have spoken."

Bassalor Danek folded his lean arms, tiny wrinkles puckering about his aged eyes.

"I hear," he said. "The tale of the Eyes-of-Long-Sight is a true tale. . But this thing is another tale. Have you a token to show, so that we may know that it, also, is true?"

In the back of Gray's mind was memory of a token. Something that Mary had mentioned. In his anxiety, he could not recall it.

Thus did Gray miss a golden opportunity. If he had been alone, his natural quickness of thought would have found an answer to the Gur-Khan's question. With the life of the girl he loved at stake, he hesitated.

It was vitally important that Bassalor Danek should believe what Gray had said about the cross. Believing, he would aid them, for he reverenced the cross. Doubting, they would be exposed to the wiles of Wu Fang Chien.

"If I spoke the truth in one thing, O Gur-Khan," he parried, "would I speak lies concerning another?"

"The two things are not the same," put in Timur, logically, "The talisman is precious—like to the gold in the sword-hilt of Gela. Yet what is it to you?"

"It is the sign of our faith. It is the talisman of Christianity."

"I know not the word."

"You know the name of the ancient khan of the Wusun—Awang Khan?"

Gray hazarded a bold stroke, on his knowledge of the legend of Prester John of Asia. Timur considered.

"The name is not in our speech," he announced.

Bassalor Danek looked up sagely.

"You speak of faith, O One-Who-Kills-Swiftly. Is that a word of a priesthood?"

"Yes."

"Then," said Bassalor Danek gravely, "it is clear that your talisman is not like to this. Nay, for the only priesthood is that of the false Buddhists."

"Our faith is different from theirs—even as a grain of sand is different from a drop of clear water."

The Gur-Khan's hand swept in a wide circle.

"Nay. What can we see from Sungan save the grains of sand? Everywhere, beyond, is the Buddhist priesthood. We have seen this thing. It is true." He lifted his head proudly. "Behold, youth, here is the talisman of a warrior. From chieftain to chieftain, it has been handed down. It is the token of a chieftain. Of one who safeguards his people. None can wear it but myself, or another of royal blood who has fought for his people."

For the first time he showed Gray a smaller cross, fashioned from gold which hung from a chain of the same metal across his chest under the cloak.

"Because I am khan of the Wusun, this thing is mine," he added. "If my father and his before him had not been strong warriors, the Wusun would have passed from the world as a candle is blown out in a strong wind."

"Aye," amended Timur. "It is a sign of the rank of the Gur-Khan. Has it not always been thus?"

Both men nodded their heads, as at an unalterable truth. Age and isolation had made their conceptions rigid. The safety of the Wusun was their sole care.

"Your sign is not like to ours," said they, "Is the moon kindred to the sun because both live in the sky?"

"There is but one Cross," cried Gray.

They shook their heads. How were they to alter the small store of belief that had been their meager heritage of wisdom?"

"You are not kin to us, but the Kha Rakcha is a woman, and so may become kin to the Wusun," announced Bassalor Danek. "Go now, for we must weigh well our answer to Wu Fang Chien."

Gray rose, his lips hard.

"Be it so," he said slowly. "If it is in your mind that you must yield to Wu Fang Chien, give me up into his hands. I will take a sword and go to seek him. Keep the Kha Rakcha safe within Sungan. She is, as you have seen, the White Spirit. Her beauty is not less than the light of the sun. Guard her well."

Gray had spoken bitterly, feeling that he had failed in his plea. He had not sensed the full meaning of the other's words. He knew that his own death would be the most serious loss to the girl. Without him she was defenseless.

He did not want to leave her. She had been so childlike in her reliance upon his protection. And he was so helpless to aid her.

But Gray had weighed the odds with the cold precision that never left him. There was a slight chance that he might be able to kill Wu Fang Chien, and if so, Mary might be safeguarded.

He walked away from the shrine, and, unconsciously, bent his steps toward the house of Bassalor Danek where the girl was. Then he turned back, resolutely. He could not see Mary now. She would guess instantly—so quick was the woman's instinct—that something was wrong.

Gray retraced his steps to the tower and to his own chamber where he would await the decision of the Gur-Khan.

For the space of several hours the two Wusun debated together. They glanced from time to time at a water clock which creaked dismally in the corner furthest from the shrine. Their brows were furrowed by anxiety as they talked.

Outside the sun was already past its highest point, and the sands burned with reflected heat. The people of Sungan had taken shelter under the canal trees and in the underground buildings. Even the dogs and the lepers were no longer to be seen. Quiet prevailed in Sungan, and in the armed camps of the guards without the wall.

No glimmer of sunlight penetrated into the shrine of Bassalor Danek. The attendant lighted fresh candles and stood motionless. Then he stirred and advanced to the doorway. He uttered a gruff exclamation.

Mary Hastings pushed past him and stood gazing at the two Wusun.

"Timur!" she cried. "Where is the One-Who-Kills-Swiftly?"

The councilor of Sungan glanced at her wonderingly. She was flushed, and breathing quickly. Her bronze hair had fallen to her slim shoulders. Tall and proud and imperious, she faced him—a lovely picture in the dim chamber.

"He said that he would return to me," she repeated. "And he has not come. Well do I know that this could only be because of something evil that has happened. Where is he?"

The two were stoically silent. She approached them fearlessly. To the guard's amazement, she stamped an angry foot, her eyes wide with anxiety.

This, to the guard, was something that should not be permitted in the high presence of the Gur-Khan. He laid a warning hand on her shoulder. Startled, the girl drew back and struck down his arm. Abashed by her flaming displeasure, the warrior glanced at Bassalor Danek.

The Gur-Khan frowned.

"Touch not the Kha Rakcha, dog!" he growled. "Soon the woman is to be allied to me by blood." Then to Mary: "It is not fitting, maiden, that even one such as you should come to this place is anger. Cover then the flame of spirit with the ashes of respect."

Timur interpreted his stately speech. But the girl was wrought up by fear for Gray. Not until be had failed to rejoin her did she realize how much his coming had meant.

It was not loneliness alone. She yearned to hear the soldier's quiet voice, to feel the reassurance of his eyes upon her. Womanlike, her anxiety had grown. Perhaps—so close had the two became in thought after their meeting of the morning—her intuition had whispered that Gray was in trouble.

So she was not minded to respect the dignity of the two aged men. Mary Hastings had been mistress of native servants. She knew how to extract obedience.

"Tell the chieftain," she cried, "to answer when I speak. Am I one to hide the fire of spirit under the cloak of humiliation? Speak! What has become of the white man?"

Timur rendered the Gur-Khan's reply in Turki.

"The tall warrior has offered his body to cool the anger of Wu Fang Chien, who demands him."

The girl paled.

"How? When?"

"He will take a sword that we will give him this night and go to seek the ruler of the Buddhists. Even so shall it be. We have decided, in council. In this way Wu Fang Chien will be appeased, and the Wusun will drink of the solace of peace in their trouble. Furthermore——"

"Stay!" The girl drew a quick breath. She guessed why Gray had not come to her. The knowledge of his danger steadied her tumultuous thoughts. The danger was worse than she feared. But—such was the woman's strength of soul when the man she loved was menaced—she became strangely calm.

She had not admitted to herself until now that she loved the American. With the understanding of the fresh sacrifice he was prepared to make for her, she could no more deny the truth of her love than she could question the fact of her own life.

"Will you give me up as well?" she asked scornfully.

"Nay. You will have a place by the side of the Gur-Khan, because of your beauty which—so said the One-Who-Kills-Swiftly—is like to the sun. The Wusun will safeguard the Kha Rakcha, even as he demanded."

Mary Hastings sighed softly. Then lifted her head stubbornly. She flushed rosily.

"The white man is precious in my sight," she said dearly. "His life is like to the warmth of the sun, and if he dies, my life would pass, even as water vanishes when it is poured upon the sands."

"Verily," pondered Timur, stroking his beard, "is he a brave man. But how then may Wu Fang Chien be appeased?"

Anger flashed into the girl's expressive face.

"So the Wusun are weak of soul," she accused. "Their heart is like the soul of a gully jackal. They would give up the warrior who came to be their friend, to buy their own comfort! Aie! Are you such men?"

Timur stared, confronted for perhaps the first time in his life with the scorn of a woman who thought as a man.

"Think you I will buy my comfort, upon such terms?" she continued mercilessly. "Or remain in the shadow of those who are not men but jackals?"

Timur raised his hand. The decision of the leaders of the Wusun had been actuated by their jealous care of their people, not by selfish motives. But the girl's swift words had sadly confused him.

"If you yield him up," said Mary Hastings, "I also will go. I will not part from him."

And she would not. If Gray was to face the Chinese, she would be at his side. How often do men judge correctly the true strength of a woman's devotion?

"We have planned otherwise," pointed out Timur. "For you——"

"I have spoken, you have heard."

Bassalor Danek questioned the councilor as to what had been said. Then the chieftain rose.

"Say to the woman," he announced, "that I, the leader of the Wusum, have decided. What my wisdom decides, she cannot alter by hot words. Who is she, but a fair woman? I am master of the talisman of the Wusun."

He pointed to the altar. Mary, intent upon his face, followed his gesture swiftly. She gave a little cry at seeing for the first time the cross. She caught Timur's arm.

"What is that?" she begged. "What—does it mean?"

Timur explained the symbol.

"It is the sign of the Gur-Khan alone," he concluded. "None but those of a chieftain's rank bear it." He touched the smaller cross lying upon the broad shoulders of Bassalor Khan.

Radiantly the girl's face brightened. She smiled, drawing nearer to the two old men. No need for a woman's wit to reason logically!

She drew back the throat of her jacket, revealing the tiny gold cross which had been her sole belonging left by the avaricious Buddhists. If Wu Fang Chien had known of the token, he would have torn it from her.

"See," she said softly. "I also am a bearer of the cross."

The Wusun stared from her excited face to the glittering symbol on her breast.

To their limited intelligence two things were plain. (The girl's talisman had not been in Sungan before she came. So it was clearly hers. Also, she wore it as by right.

They recalled her pride, and her angry words. Verily, she wore the sign of rank by right. Timur stepped back and bent his head.

"O, Queen," he said, "I was blind. Will you pardon the dog who was blind?"

Bassalor Danek had been frowning, somewhat jealously. But as he stared into the woman's open face, his brow cleared.

It is well, Kha Rakcha," he observed slowly. "This is truly the token that witnesses the truth of your coming. None but a woman royal-born can wear such a talisman as this. It is well."

He touched the cross curiously, comparing it with his own. Timur bent over his hand, watching. The girl was silent, holding her breath in suspense.

The minds of the Wusun were wise in their way, but their wisdom was that of simplicity.

"None but a queen may carry this on her breast," they assured each other. "So in very truth this is a woman royal-born."

She seized swiftly upon her advantage.

"Then you know that I am one who commands."

"Aye," they said, each in his tongue, "we were as blind dogs before."

"Guard then," she said, her lips trembling, for she felt the strain, "the life of the One-Who-Kills-Swiftly. For he is of my blood."

Bassalor Danek pondered, and spoke with grave decision.

"We will safeguard him within Sungan. Wu Fang Chien will ask in vain."