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Across the Zodiac by Percy Greg

Completely numbing it for the moment

We had now reached another road which led apparently towards the larger houses I had seen in the distance, and were proceeding along the raised central pathway, when some half-dozen persons from the cottages followed us. At a call from my guide, these, and presently as many more, ran after and gathered around us. I turned, took down my air-gun from my back, and waving it around me, signalled to them to keep back, not choosing to incur the danger of a sudden rush, since their bearing, if not plainly hostile, was not hospitable or friendly. Thus escorted, but not actually assailed, I passed on for three or four miles, by which time we were among the larger dwellings of which I have spoken. Each of them stood in grounds enclosed by walls about eight feet high, each of some uniform colour, contrasting agreeably with that chosen for the exterior of the house. The enclosures varied in size from about six to sixty acres. The houses were for the most part some twelve feet in height, and from one to four hundred feet square. On several flat roofs, guarded by low parapets, other persons, all about the size of my guide, now showed themselves, all of them interested, and, as it seemed, somewhat excited by my appearance. In a few cases groups differently dressed, and, from their somewhat smaller stature, slighter figures, and the long hair here and there visible, probably consisting of women, were gathered on a remoter portion of the roof. But these, when seen by those in front, were always waived back with an impatient or threatening gesture, and instantly retired. Presently two or three men more richly dressed than my escort, and in various colours, came out upon the road. Addressing one of these, I pointed again to the sky, and again endeavoured to describe my journey, holding out to him at the same time, as the thing most likely to conciliate him, a watch somewhat larger than that I had bestowed upon my guide. He, however, did not come within arm's length; and when I repeated my signs, he threw back his head with a sort of sneer and uttered a few words in a sharp tone, at which my escort rushed upon and attempted to throw me down. For this, however, I had been long prepared, and striking right and left with my air-gun--for I was determined not to shed blood except in the last extremity--I speedily cleared a circle round me, still grasping my guide with the left hand, from a providential instinct which suggested that his close contiguity might in some way protect me. A call from the chief of my antagonists was answered from the roof of a neighbouring house. I heard a whizzing through the air, and presently something like a winged serpent, but with a slender neck, and shoulders of considerable breadth, and a head much larger than a serpent's in proportion to the body, and shaped more like a bird's, with a sharp, short beak, sprang upon and coiled round my left arm. That it was trying to sting with an erectile organ placed about midway between the shoulders and the tail I became instinctively aware, and presently felt something like a weak electric thrill over all my body, while my left hand, which was naked, sustained a severe shock, completely numbing it for the moment. I caught the beast by the neck, and flung him with all my force right in the face of my chief antagonist, who fell with a cry of terror. Looking in the direction from which this dangerous assailant had come, I perceived another in the air, and saw that not a moment was to be lost. Dropping my gun with the muzzle between my feet, and holding it so far as I could with my numbed left hand--releasing also my guide, but throwing him to the ground as I released him--I drew my sword; and but just in time, with the same motion with which I drew it, I cut right through the neck of the dragon that had been launched against me. My principal enemy had quickly recovered his feet and presence of mind, and spoke very loudly and at some length to the person who had launched the dragons. The latter disappeared, and at the same time the group around me began to disperse. Whatever suited them was certain not to suit me, and accordingly, still holding my sword, I caught one of them with each hand. It was well I had done so, for within another minute the owner of the dragons reappeared with a weapon not wholly unlike a long cannon of very small bore fixed upon a sort of stand. This he levelled at me, and I, seeing that a danger of whose magnitude and nature I could form no exact estimate was impending, caught up instinctively one of my prisoners, and held him as a shield between myself and the weapon pointed at me. This checked my enemy, who for the moment seemed almost as much at a loss as myself. Fortunately his hostile intention evidently endangered not only my life but all near me, and secured me from any close attack.

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