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Lilith George MacDonald

To The House Of Bitterness

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I had one terrible night on the way--the third, passed in the desert between the two branches of the dead river.

We had stopped the elephants in a sheltered place, and there let the princess slip down between them, to lie on the sand until the morning. She seemed quite dead, but I did not think she was. I laid myself a little way from her, with the body of Lona by my other side, thus to keep watch at once over the dead and the dangerous. The moon was half-way down the west, a pale, thoughtful moon, mottling the desert with shadows. Of a sudden she was eclipsed, remaining visible, but sending forth no light: a thick, diaphanous film covered her patient beauty, and she looked troubled. The film swept a little aside, and I saw the edge of it against her clearness--the jagged outline of a bat-like wing, torn and hooked. Came a cold wind with a burning sting--and Lilith was upon me. Her hands were still bound, but with her teeth she pulled from my shoulder the cloak Lona made for me, and fixed them in my flesh. I lay as one paralysed.

Already the very life seemed flowing from me into her, when I remembered, and struck her on the hand. She raised her head with a gurgling shriek, and I felt her shiver. I flung her from me, and sprang to my feet.

She was on her knees, and rocked herself to and fro. A second blast of hot-stinging cold enveloped us; the moon shone out clear, and I saw her face--gaunt and ghastly, besmeared with red.

"Down, devil!" I cried.

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"Where are you taking me?" she asked, with the voice of a dull echo from a sepulchre.

"To your first husband," I answered.

"He will kill me!" she moaned.

"At least he will take you off my hands!"

"Give me my daughter," she suddenly screamed, grinding her teeth.

"Never! Your doom is upon you at last!"

"Loose my hands for pity's sake!" she groaned. "I am in torture. The cords are sunk in my flesh."

"I dare not. Lie down!" I said.

She threw herself on the ground like a log.

The rest of the night passed in peace, and in the morning she again seemed dead.

Before evening we came in sight of the House of Bitterness, and the next moment one of the elephants came alongside of my horse.

"Please, king, you are not going to that place?" whispered the Little One who rode on his neck.

"Indeed I am! We are going to stay the night there," I answered.

"Oh, please, don't! That must be where the cat-woman lives!"

"If you had ever seen her, you would not call her by that name!"

"Nobody ever sees her: she has lost her face! Her head is back and side all round."

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George MacDonald

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