Thalaba travelled on day after day. He crossed rivers, and climbed mountains, and plodded wearily across measureless plains, but saw neither man, nor the trace of man. It was a cold country which he now reached, and such slender provision of food as he had carried was exhausted. The sun was not to be seen in the sky; but there was one dull cloud over all, and now the snow began to fall. How he wished for his native deserts and the warm winds of Arabia! And now the night came on, and there was neither moon nor star to be seen; only a dim light reflected from the snow. At last he spied a fire burning in a cave of the hill, and to that, with courage and strength renewed, he moved on.
He found a woman in the cave, a solitary woman, who sat spinning by the fire and singing as she span. She had grey hair, but her face was smooth like a girl's. She smiled a welcome to him; but still went on with her spinning and singing. He laid his bow before the fire, for its string was frozen stiff, and his quiver also, for the feathers on the arrows were covered with ice. Then he asked for food. She answered him in song.
"The She-bear, she dwells near to me,
And she bath cubs, one, two, three;
She hunts the deer, and brings him here,
And then with her I make good cheer.
And now to the chase the She-bear is gone,
And she with her prey will be here anon."
When she had said this she began her spinning again. The thread gleamed like gold in the blaze of the pine-log, but it was so marvellously fine, that except when the light fell on it you might look for it in vain. Thalaba looked on with wonder, and she observing him, spoke again, this time also in song.
"Now twine it round thy hands I say,
Now wind it round thy hands I pray,
But he must be
stronger than thee,
Who can break this thread of mine!"
Thalaba, thinking no harm, so sweetly did she smile on him, took the thread, and wound it round and round his right hand, and round and round his left. Then the woman spoke again—
"Now thy strength, O stranger, strain,
Strain and break the slender chain."
Thalaba strained his strength, but to no purpose, till he was flushed with shame and fear. Then the witch, for the woman was the witch Maimuna, smiled at him again, but this time fiercely, and she sang a fourth time—
"I thank thee, I thank thee, Hodeirah's son,
For binding thyself in the chain I have spun."
With this she wrenched a lock of hair from his head, and sang again
"Sister! Sister! hear my voice,
The thread is spun,
The prize is won,
The work is done,
For I have made captive Hodeirah's son."
And in a moment Khawla, the fiercest of the sorcerers, was there in her magic chariot. And when she saw the youth she laughed aloud in scorn, and clapped her hands for joy. That moment the She-bear came in from the chase, bearing the deer that it had caught in its mouth. This she laid down at Maimuna's feet, and looked up wistfully as if to ask for her share.
"There! there!" said Maimuna, and pointing to Thalaba, spurned him with her foot. "There! make thy meal of him."
And the two sisters laughed aloud, but the She-bear fawned upon the youth and licked his hand. Thereupon Maimuna stamped on the ground, and called a spirit up.
"Shall we bear the Enemy to the dungeon of the Domdaniel Cavern?"
"Woe to our Empire if he ever tread the Domdaniel Cavern."
"Shall we leave him fettered here to die of hunger now?"
"Fly from your dwelling, I see danger at hand, danger that he should live and thou shouldst fall."
"Whither then shall we carry him?"
"To Mohareb's Island."
So they threw Thalaba chained into the magic chariot. Drawn by no mortal steed, it passed over land and sea, till it came to the island and to the chief city in which Mohareb reigned. The Sultan himself came out to meet them in his royal robes, and Thalaba knew him at once as the one whom he had cast down into the pit amidst the ruins of Babylon.
The two sisters and Mohareb held council.
"Go up, and read the stars," said Khawla.
Maimuna went up to the terrace of the top-most tower, and stood there, her white hair streaming like the Aurora in the polar sky. When she descended, they asked, "What have you read?"
"Death—danger—judgment," said she.
"Is that what the stars say?" cried Khawla; "they are the creatures of Him who made them, and would terrify us with their lying threats. I never liked this lore of the Heavens. Better much the sacrifice of Divination, and I will be my own oracle. Command the victims, Mohareb. You know what are wanted, that they must be male and female."
While the Sultan went to fetch them, Khawla made the place ready for the dreadful rite. She faced about to each point of the compass, and at each she laid her hand on the wall, and smote the air, and smote the floor, and said, "To Eblis and his slaves I consecrate this place. Let no one enter but he and they."
And now all was prepared. Mohareb returned, and the circle was drawn, and the victims were slain, and Khawla stood, holding a human head by the hair in either hand.
"Go out, ye lights!" she cried, and began the spell. She spread out her arms, and whirled round, calling, "Eblis, Eblis," without ceasing, till she reeled with dizziness. Her hair stood up, and gave out sparks of light, and her eyes gleamed like the moon through a mist. Then she spoke—
"Ye may hope, and ye may fear,
The danger of his stars is near.
Sultan! if he perish, woe!
Fate hath written one death blow
For Mohareb and the foe!
Triumph! Triumph! only she
That knit his bonds can set him free!"
Then she fell senseless on the ground. Mohareb and Maimuna knelt beside her, and wetted the palms of her hands with water, and her nostrils with blood till she revived.
"What did I say?" she asked. When she heard the words, her face grew dark. All that she said was, "Well, let him rot in prison."
But Mohareb read her purpose better. Her lips lied, but her face told the truth. They were pledged to him by oath; but his death would keep them safe; and he knew they would not spare him. Nor did the ring protect him, for they could strike at his life through Thalaba. It was needful, then, that he must take counsel for himself. Accordingly he went to the dungeon where the prisoner lay. It was early dawn, and Thalaba was so busy with his prayers, that the grating of the hinges did not rouse him. Mohareb stood still, and enviously watched the peace which piety can give.
When the youth had ended his prayer, and looked to see who his visitor might be, the Sultan said—"Arab, unknowingly you more than paid me for my guiding through that dangerous cave. The Hand that caught the Ring received me, and carried me whither I wished. See, I am not ungrateful. Take again the amulet."
It was but a show of gratitude. In truth he gave the Ring that Thalaba's life might be safe, and with Thalaba's, as Khawla's oracle had warned him, his own. The youth took the Ring, and put it on his finger with the same words that he had used at first. "In the name of God! If its power be for good, well; if for evil, then God and my faith in Him shall hallow it."
Mohareb said, "You are brave, and I would willingly be your friend, aye, and buy your friendship for a royal price. Now hear me—There are two Powers in the world, two hostile Gods, equal in all things. Nay, hear me patiently—I say, equal. Look about you. The same earth bears fruit and poison. The Elements now are the servants of Man, and now his masters. If there is joy in one house, there is sorrow in the next. You say that sin entered into the world, and that God permits it to remain for a time. Nay, but if a serpent creep into your tent you crush it. Be sure that God had crushed His enemy if He could. No, Thalaba; good and evil are but words. In Heaven as in earth it is the weak who are guilty. Think not that the dead are sent to abodes of bliss and evil. Not so, they join the great armies that fight the great fight. Woe to the vanquished! You, Thalaba, have chosen your part ill. The Power you serve is a hard taskmaster, and where are His wages? Who has ever seen them? But look at ours, the power and riches and pleasures of the world. Do you remember how we met at Babylon, each zealous for His Lord, adventurers both of us? Now think what I am, and what you are—you a prisoner, I the Sultan of this land."
Thalaba answered, "And this is your faith! monstrous falsehood which even the sun and moon and stars in their courses disprove. No; the true Master of the world is the Power of Good, and He will triumph in the end. You have me here in chains, but I am not deserted. And against you are leagued the Just and Wise of all time; yes, and your own crimes, and truth, and God in Heaven."
"Slave!" cried Mohareb, in his rage. "Slave, I leave you here; and in this prison you shall rot limb from limb," and he rushed out of the prison.
Meanwhile Khawla the witch was working her spells against the life of Thalaba. She made an image of wax, compounding it of the wax of the machineal tree and the poison of the mandrake. This image she moulded to the shape of Thalaba, and muttered spells over it, by which it became instinct with a portion of the young man's life. Then she built up a pile of poisonous woods, and set the image of wax in the full blaze of the heat. She might as well have tried the eternal ice which is piled about the pole. "Waste away!" she cried, "and with thee waste Hodeirah's son!" But the flames harmed it no more than the moon-beam thaws a field of snow. "Curse thee!" cried the witch, "hast thou still a spell of safety?" and she threw the image into the fire itself, and in the fire itself it lay unharmed. Then she stamped thrice on the floor of the cave crying Maimuna," and in a moment her sister was there.
When Maimuna saw the fire and the image she said, "Nay, sister, Mohareb's life is bound up with Thalaba's, and to Mohareb we are pledged by oath."
"Fool!" answered Khawla, "one must die or all. To keep faith with Mohareb were to commit treason against all the rest of our company. But tell me what it is that protects the son of Hodeirah?"
For still the wax lay unmelted. So hot was the fire that the bat clinging to the roof of the cave loosed its hold sickening to death with the heat, and the toad, having crawled to the darkest corner, panted with fever, while the viper came out with her brood, and sported with them in the rays. But the image lay cold as marble.
At length Maimuna raised her thoughtful eyes. "Where, sister, did you find the wax? Was it the work of the bee, or of the worm? If so, your labour is lost. It is only the wax from a dead man's grave that can avail."
"Excellent witch," said Khawla. "Go and fetch it, for you know the place and the way."
And Maimuna went to fetch it. By her spells she opened a grave. What she there saw were too horrible to tell. But the terror of it so wrought upon her that she cast herself upon the earth in the agony of despair. And she had died the utter death but that it was that mysterious night on which all created things adore their Maker; yes, all things, beasts and birds and fishes of the sea, and even trees and stones, all things but man only. And now, by the mercy of God, all the gracious influences of the time were poured out upon her, till she wept; and at the sight of her tears her good angel came down again and took again his charge.
Maimuna thought to herself, "I will undo as far as I may the evil that I have done," and in a moment she was in the prison cell of Thalaba. One more spell, and only one will she work. She sang as she had sung when she had bound the silken threads about the prisoner's hands, and when she had finished he was free. But the prison walls are thick. She calls the Genii, but they do not hear; her power was gone; then she cried, "Rebel Spirits, in the name of God, hear me!" and in a moment the prison walls were burst open, and the two, Maimuna and Thalaba, were carried forth in the chariot of the winds.