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CHAPTER XXIII
THE CHALLENGE

He slept little. The fate destined for Mary had come as a complete surprise. It was not strange, he reflected, that Gela should want her for a wife. Nor that Bassalor Danek should approve the marriage. He might have foreseen something of the kind.

No wonder the Gur-Khan had taken excellent care of the girl, when she was marked for the bride of his grandson. Gray swore fluently, and vainly. The calmness with which the Wusun had put him aside was irksome. He wished that he had claimed to be the husband of Mary. It was too late now.

Nor did he hope that the girl's objection, once she heard of the proposed match, would carry weight. Evidently marriage among the Wusun was arranged by the parents of the parties concerned, as in China. Bassalor Danek's word was law. And the old chieftain fully appreciated the beauty of the girl.

Gray groaned, reflecting that the coincidence of the cross that the girl wore had rendered her doubly desirable in the eyes of the Wusun. He wondered how they had seen the cross. Was the marriage to be the price of his safety? He groaned at the thought.

Flight, even if he could reach the girl, from Sungan, was not to be thought of for the present. Wu Fang Chien would be alert for just such an attempt. And Gray did not see how he could hope to win through the lepers.

"They say blood calls to blood," he muttered. Then he scowled savagely. "Confound Gela!"

He was hungry for sight of the girl. She must be worried about him, as he had not been able to visit her yesterday as he had promised. His involuntary protest had excited the suspicions of Garluk. He would find it difficult now to escape from the surveillance of the tumani, if he should make the attempt.

And beyond the Wusun was Wu Fang Chien, watching keenly for any effort on the part of Gray or Mary to leave Sungan.

It was clear to Gray that the mandarin could not permit them to leave the place alive. For one thing, they would carry the news of the massacre of the caravan. And the tidings of the existence of the Wusun.

It would be fatal to the plans of Wu Fang Chien and the Buddhists if the Wusun should be discovered. The knowledge of a race of ancient Asia that worshipped the cross would be a severe blow to the Mongolians. The Wusun were dying out. Soon they would be extinct, and the danger over. Until then Wu Fang Chien must guard his prisoners.

The situation afforded little comfort to Gray. At daybreak he pounded on his door. In time Garluk came with food. Timur, he said, would visit Gray presently, in the morning. No, the Man-from-the-Outside could not leave the tower. Bassalor Danek had issued orders. He was concerned for the safety of his guests as the soldiers of the Chinese had been seen assembling outside the wall.

The Wusun, said Garluk, had mustered their fighting men at the wall and in the passages, under Gela. After the wedding the Chinese could not interfere with the Kha Rakcha, for she would be the wife of the Kha Khan.

Gray dismissed Garluk, to hasten the approach of Timur, and watched moodily from the embrasure. He knew that he was little better than a prisoner. Hours passed while the sun climbed higher. He noticed an unusual activity in Sungan, and saw bodies of armed men pass from point to point.

The discipline of the place was strict. Probably, he reflected, a heritage from the military ancestors of the Wusun. It was noon when Timur entered the chamber and seated himself calmly on the rugs.

Gray curbed his anxiety, and greeted the lame councilor quietly. He had a desperate game to play with nothing to rely upon but his own wits.

"Garluk said that you had need of me," observed Timur, scanning him keenly.

"I have a word to say to you," corrected Gray quietly.

"It is said," he added as the old man was silent, "that the Kha Rakcha is to be asked in marriage by Gela, the Kha Khan. Is this so?"

"They said the truth. The wedding will be to-night, after sunset."

Gray's heart sank at this. He had hoped, illogically, that Garluk had exaggerated the state of affairs. Timur stretched out a lean hand. In it was a small square of linen, Mary's handkerchief.

The American took it eagerly. It was a message from Mary, written in the Chinese ink, and it ran as follows:


Bassalor Danek has ordered me to marry Gela. I have said no, a hundred times, but they will not listen It will be to-night. They will not let me see you. I don't know what to do, Captain Gray. Please, please think of something—to delay it. I did not dream they wanted to do anything like that. I would rather face Wu Fang Chien.

Why could not you come to me? Please, help me. Timur has agreed to carry this.


It was signed with Mary's name. The girlish appeal stirred Gray strangely. She had sent to him for aid. Yet there was little he could do. He followed the note mechanically and faced Timur, thinking quickly.

"In her own country," he said slowly, "the Kha Rakcha has high rank. Because of this it is not fitting that she should marry among the Wusun. She does not want to stay in Sungan. It will kill her. This is the truth."

"I have seen that you speak the truth," assented the chieftain. "And my heart is warm for love of the woman who talked with me. Yet Gela has rank among us."

"But she does not wish the marriage."

"It is the word of Bassalor Danek."

"You know that I speak what is so. The woman will die, if not by her own hand, from unhappiness."

Timur looked sadly from the embrasure.

"It may be. But death is slow in coming to the young, O Man-from-the-Outside. Before she dies the Kha Rakcha will bear Gela a son. That is the wish of Bassalor Danek."

Gray's lips tightened grimly.

"Is that a just reward for coming over the desert to find the Wusun and lighten their captivity?"

"It is fate."

"If it comes to pass the White Spirit will never leave Sungan, but will die here. Will you lay that black fate upon her?"

"Will she not be kept here, if she does not marry Gela?"

Gray looked up hotly. "The Kha Rakcha is not a subject of Bassalor Danek. She is a servant of a mightier king——"

Timur raised his hand.

"Harken, youth," he said gravely. "I have seen your love for the Kha Rakcha, and I know that she has love for you in her heart——" Gray's pulses quickened at this—"but the will of Bassalor Danek must be obeyed. I know not if it is fitting that she marry among the Wusun. But the Gur-Khan has said that by the marriage, aid may be obtained from her people for the Wusun. Blood ties are strong. And the Wusun are fast dying out. If the marriage takes place, the Kha Rakcha will remain in Sungan. That is the word of the Gur-Khan. It may not be altered."

Silently, Gray studied the pattern of the carpet at his feet. His firm mouth was set in hard lines. Argument was gaining him nothing. And he must make his effort to save the girl now or never.

"I claim the White Spirit as my bride," he said. "By right of love. She is mine."

Timur combed his white beard thoughtfully.

"How can it be?"

"In this way. Bassalor Danek has given to Gela what is mine. Since the time of Kaidu and Genghis Khan it has been the law of Mongolia that a maiden should not be taken from the man to whom she is betrothed."

"Bassalor Danek has decided. It is for the good of his people."

"I, who have come across the desert to the Wusun, know that it is not so. I call upon the Wusun to abide by the law of Mongolia."

"The marriage feast is being prepared. The White Spirit will be clothed in the robe of blessed felicity."

"Let it be so." Gray looked at the old man steadily. "Let there be a marriage this night, according to the custom of the Wusun. But I, as well as Gela, claim the girl. You know the law?"

"If two men say that a woman is theirs, they must decide the matter with weapons in their hands."

"That is the law, Timur. From across the desert I have known it. I will fight Gela. Thus it will be decided."

Timur glanced at him curiously.

"The Kha Khan is no light foe. He will fight with swords. He has learned the art of sword play from his fathers."

"Be it so." Gray rose. "Bear this message to the Kha Khan. Say that the White Spirit is mine."

The Wusun sighed.

"It is the way of the hot blood of youth. You are foolhardy. Why should friends fight when Wu Fang Chien is approaching our gates? Still, what fate has written will come to pass. I will tell Bassalor Danek your message."

That night there was a stir in Sungan. Rumor of the coming event had spread through the ruins, and, with the exception of the guards that Gela stationed to prevent any attempt at entrance on the part of the Chinese, the whole of the Wusun men flocked into the council hall.

Gray, from his tower, watched the glow of the sunset and saw the shadows form about the gardens of Sungan. The evening chant floated up to him, mournful and melodious. Occasionally he saw a sentry pass along the outline of the wall.

He wondered grimly whether he would see the next sunrise. Timur had announced, by Garluk, that Gray's challenge to the chief of the tumani had been accepted.

Garluk was voluble with excitement. He made no secret of his belief that the American would die at the hand of Gela. It would be an excellent spectacle, he said. He asked if Gray intended to protect himself by magic during the combat.

Gray did not answer. He had had no experience in handling a sword; the primitive blades of the Wusun were clumsy weapons. Doubtless Gela was skilled in their use.

The situation afforded little ground for hope. Certainly Gray, who had had an opportunity to measure his adversary, was not overconfident. He was resolved to make the best of it. He was doing the only thing he could to aid the girl.

He was not sorry. Gray was the type that did not shirk physical conflict. And his love for Mary Hastings was without stint. He did not know how much she cared for him. He was incredulous of Timur's words—that she could love him.

At Garluk's summons, he followed the tumani down the stairs. The corridors were thronged with men who stared at him avidly. So great was the crowd that Garluk could barely force his way into the hall.

The place was brightly lighted with candles. Overhead, the gallery was filled with the Wusun. On the dais Bassalor Danek was talking earnestly with Timur and the other elders of the tribe.

A murmur went up at Gray's entrance and the throng turned, as one man, to stare at him. He returned their scrutiny, from the doorway, hoping that he might see the girl. Would she be brought to the hall? He did not know. Timur limped forward.

"The bronze bracelet," he ordered Garluk. The tumani produced a metal armlet which he clamped upon Gray's left forearm. It was an ancient ornament, engraved with lettering unfamiliar to the American. He wondered idly what Van Schaick would have thought of it.

"It shall be as you wish," said Timur gravely. "Bassalor Danek is just. He has granted your claim. If you are the victor, the White Spirit shall be yours."

"It is well," assented Gray.

He spoke mechanically, feeling the phenomena known to men who are about to go into bodily danger—the acute interest in all about him, merged into indifference.

"We have sent for the White Spirit," added Timur. "Gela will bring her."

A fresh murmur caused Gray to raise his eyes. He searched the throng greedily. At the door behind the daïs Mary Hastings had appeared. The murmur changed into a loud exclamation of astonishment.

The girl had been forced to discard her own clothing for a loose garment of white silk, fitted with a wide girdle of the same material and a veil that covered her face below the eyes. Her hair hung over her slender shoulders in bronze coils on which the candlelight played fitfully.

Her arms were bare. Thrust into the glare, she shrank back. Then she caught sight of Gray and would have started forward, but the women around prevented her. For a moment her eyes sought his pleadingly.

"The Kha Rakcha," murmured those near him. "Aie—she is fair."

Gray's heart leaped at the sight Then Gela appeared at the girl's side, his tall bulk towering above the women. He was armed with his sword and appeared well pleased with the situation.

"A fine stage setting," thought Gray whimsically. "Just like the plays at home. Only the savage in this case isn't ready to drop by the footlights when the time comes. And his sword isn't papier maché..

His mind ran on, illogically. But his gaze fastened hungrily on the girl. He admired the pluck which kept her erect and calm in the face of the multitude.

"A thoroughbred!" he muttered. He wanted to call to her, but the commotion would drown his voice. He did not look at her again. The appeal in the girl's mute eyes was too great.

With this came a quick revulsion of feeling. His stupor of indifference vanished at sight of the light figure among the staring Wusun. A hot longing to fight for her swept over him—a desire to match his strength with her enemies, to win her for himself and keep her.

The thought sent the blood pulsing through him quickly. He smiled and waved at the girl, who responded bravely.

Gray moved toward her, followed by Timur. He wished to speak to her. And then came the incident which altered matters entirely and which set in motion the strange events of that night.

Gela had been talking with Bassalor Danek. In a burst of pride, the Kha Khan turned to the girl, caught her about the knees and lifted her easily for all to see. Surprise caused the girl to cry out.

"Gela!" Gray called angrily, "that was ill done. The Kha Rakcha is not for your hands to touch!"

The youth did not understand. Mastered by an impulse of passion, he laughed, pressing the white woman closer. An echoing cry came from the Wusun. Gela kissed the bare arm of the girl, running his free hand through her hair.

The sight was too much for Gray's prudence. Pushing Timur aside, he sprang forward. Several of the tumani stepped into his path. Gray struck at them viciously.

He was in the grip of a cold rage which renders a man doubly dangerous. His powerful body flung forward through the group of his enemies. Love for the girl blinded him to the consequences of his mistake.

An outcry arose. Gray paid no heed to it, his fists smashing into the faces of those who tried to hold him. He wrenched free from men who caught his legs.

"Peace!" cried the great voice of Bassalor Danek.

An injured Wusun, bleeding from the mouth, struck at Gray with his sword. The white man stepped under the blow and twisted the weapon away from its holder.

Aflame with the lust of conflict, he swung his blade against the others that flashed in his face. The force of his trained muscles beat down their guard and cleared him a way to the foot of the daïs.

Then the Wusun gave back, at a sharp command. A space was cleared around him. He saw Gela standing alone before him, smiling, weapon in hand.