The Adventures of Maya the Bee, Chapter 13

CHAPTER 13

THE FORTRESS

How happily the day had begun and how miserably it was to end!

Before the horror swept upon her, Maya had formed a very remarkable acquaintance. It was in the afternoon near a big old water-butt. She was sitting amid the scented elder blossoms, which lay mirrored in the placid dark surface of the butt, and a robin redbreast was warbling overhead, so sweetly and merrily that Maya thought it was a shame, a crying shame that she, a bee, could not make friends with the charming songsters. The trouble was, they were too big and ate you up.

She had hidden herself in the heart of the elder blossoms and was listening and blinking under the pointed darts of the sunlight, when she heard someone beside her sigh. Turning round she saw—well, now it really was the strangest of all the strange creatures she had ever met. It must have had at least a hundred legs along each side of its body—so she thought at first glance. It was about three times her size, and slim, low, and wingless.

"For goodness sake! Mercy on me!" Maya was quite startled. "You must certainly be able to run!"

The stranger gave her a pondering look.

"I doubt it," he said. "I doubt it. There's room for improvement. I have too many legs. You see, before all my legs can be set in motion, too much time is lost. I didn't use to realize this, and often wished I had a few more legs. But God's will be done.— Who are you?"

Maya introduced herself. The other one nodded and moved some of his legs.

"I am Thomas of the family of millepeds. We are an old race, and we arouse admiration and astonishment in all parts of the globe. No other animals can boast anything like our number of legs. Eight is their limit, so far as I know."

"You are tremendously interesting. And your color is so queer. Have you got a family?"

"Why, no! Why should I? What good would a family do me? We millepeds crawl out of our eggs; that's all. If we can't stand on our own feet, who should?"

"Of course, of course," Maya observed thoughtfully. "But have you no relations?"

"No, dear child. I earn my living, and doubt. I doubt."

"Oh! What do you doubt?"

"I was born doubting. I must doubt."

Maya stared at him in wide-eyed bewilderment. What did he mean, what could he possibly mean? She couldn't for the life of her make out, but she did not want to pry too curiously into his private affairs.

"For one thing," said Thomas after a pause, "for one thing I doubt whether you have chosen a good place to rest in. Don't you know what's over there in the big willow?"

"No."

"You see! I doubted right away if you knew. The city of the hornets is over there."

Maya turned deathly white and nearly fell off the elder blossoms. In a voice shaking with fright, she asked just where the city was.

"Do you see that old nesting-box for starlings, there in the shrubbery near the trunk of the willow-tree? It's so poorly placed that I doubted from the first whether starlings would ever move in. If a bird-house isn't set with its door facing the sunrise, every decent bird will think twice before taking possession. Well, the hornets have entrenched themselves in it. It's the biggest hornets' fortress in the country. You as a bee certainly ought to know of the place. Why, the hornets are brigands who lie in wait for you bees. So, at least, I have observed."

Maya scarcely heard what he was saying. There, showing clear against the green, she saw the brown walls of the fortress. She almost stopped breathing.

"I must fly away," she cried.

Too late! Behind her sounded a loud, mean laugh. At the same moment the little bee felt herself caught by the neck, so violently that she thought her joints were broken. It was a laugh she would never forget, like a vile taunt out of hellish darkness. Mingling with it was another gruesome sound, the awful clanking of armor.

Thomas let go with all his legs at once and tumbled head over heels through the branches into the water-butt.

"I doubt if you get away alive," he called back. But the poor little bee no longer heard.

She couldn't see her assailant, her neck was caught in too firm a grip, but a gilt-sheathed arm passed before her eyes, and a huge head with dreadful pincers suddenly thrust itself above her face. She took it at first to belong to a gigantic wasp, but then realized that she had fallen into the clutches of a hornet. The black-and-yellow striped monster was surely four times her size.

Maya lost sight, hearing, speech; every nerve in her body went faint. At length her voice came back, and she screamed for help.

"Never mind, girlie," said the hornet in a honey-sweet tone that was sickening. "Never mind. It'll last until it's over." He smiled a baleful smile.

"Let go!" cried Maya. "Let me go! Or I'll sting you in your heart."

"In my heart right away? Very brave. But there's time for that later."

Maya went into a fury. Summoning all her strength, she twisted herself around, uttered her shrill battle-cry, and directed her sting against the middle of the hornet's breast. To her amazement and horror, the sting, instead of piercing his breast, swerved on the surface. The brigand's armor was impervious.

Wrath gleamed in his eyes.

"I could bite your head off, little one, to punish you for your impudence. And I would, too, I would indeed, but for our queen. She prefers fresh bees to dead carcasses. So a good soldier saves a juicy morsel like you to bring to her alive."

The hornet, with Maya still in his grip, rose into the air and made directly for the fortress.

"This is too awful," thought the poor little bee. "No one can stand this." She fainted.

When she came to her senses, she found herself in half darkness, in a sultry dusk permeated by a horrid, pungent smell. Slowly everything came back to her. A great paralyzing sadness settled in her heart. She wanted to cry: the tears refused to come.

"I haven't been eaten up yet, but I may be, any moment," she thought in a tremble.

Through the walls of her prison she caught the distinct sound of voices, and soon she noticed that a little light filtered through a narrow chink. The hornets make their walls, not of wax like the bees, but of a dry mass resembling porous grey paper. By the one thread of light she managed bit by bit to make out her surroundings. Horror of horrors! Maya was almost congealed with fright: the floor was strewn with the bodies of dead insects. At her very feet lay a little rose-beetle turned over on its back; to one side was the skeleton of a large locust broken in two, and everywhere were the remains of slaughtered bees, their wings and legs and sheaths.

"Oh, oh, to think this had to happen to me," whimpered little Maya. She did not dare to stir the fraction of an inch and pressed herself shivering into the farthest corner of this chamber of horrors.

Again she heard voices on the other side of the wall. Impelled by mortal fear, she crept up to the chink and peeped through. What she saw was a vast hall crowded with hornets and magnificently illuminated by a number of captive glow-worms. Enthroned in their midst sat the queen, who seemed to be holding an important council. Maya caught every word that was said.

If those glittering monsters had not inspired her with such unspeakable horror, she would have gone into raptures over their strength and magnificence. It was the first time she had had a good view of any of the race of brigands. Tigers they looked like, superb tigers of the insect world, with their tawny black-barred bodies. A shiver of awe ran through the little bee.

A sergeant-at-arms went about the walls of the hall ordering the glow-worms to give all the light they could; they must strain themselves to the utmost. He muttered his commands in a low voice, so as not to interrupt the deliberations, and thrust at them with a long spear, hissing as he did so:

"Light up, or I'll eat you!"

Terrible the things that were done in the fortress of the hornets!

Then Maya heard the queen say:

"Very well, we shall abide by the arrangements we have made. To-morrow, one hour before dawn, the warriors will assemble and sally forth to the attack on the city of the bees in the castle park. The hive is to be plundered and as many prisoners taken as possible. He who captures Queen Helen VIII and brings her to me alive will be dubbed a knight. Go forth and be brave and victorious and bring back rich booty.— The meeting is herewith adjourned. Sleep well, my warriors. I bid you good-night."

The queen-hornet rose from her throne and left the hall accompanied by her body-guard.

Maya nearly cried out loud.

"My country!" she sobbed, "my bees, my dear, dear bees!" She pressed her hands to her mouth to keep herself from screaming. She was in the depths of despair. "Oh, would that I had died before I heard this. No one will warn my people. They will be attacked in their sleep and massacred. O God, perform a miracle, help me, help me and my people. Our need is great!"

In the hall the glow-worms were put out and devoured. Gradually the fortress was wrapped in a hush. Maya seemed to have been forgotten. A faint twilight crept into her cell, and she thought she caught the strumming of the crickets' night song outside.— Was anything more horrible than this dungeon with its carcasses strewn on the ground!