The Ship of Ishtar, by Abraham Merritt

PART III

14 The Black Priest Strikes

“DEAR lord of mine — Kenton” whispered Sharane. “I think that even you do not know how greatly I love you!” They sat within the rosy cabin, her head upon his breast. It was a new Kenton who looked down upon the lovely face upturned to his. All that had been modern had fallen from him. He had gained in height, and brown as his face was the broad chest bared by open tunic. His blue eyes were clear and fearless, filled with a laughing recklessness; touched, too, with half fierce ruthlessness. Above the elbow of his left arm was a wide bracelet of thin gold, graven with symbols Sharane had cut there. Upon his feet were sandals that Sharane had embellished with woven Babylonian charms — to keep his feet upon a path of love that led to her and her alone.

How long had it been since that battle with the black priest, he wondered, as he drew her closer to him. Eternities it seemed — and but yesterday! How long?

He could not know — in that timeless world where eternities and yesterdays were as one.

And whether yester-moment or eternities ago, he had ceased to care!

On and on they had sailed. And ever as they slipped through the azure seas, memory of that other life of his had dwindled and sunk beneath the horizon of consciousness, as the land sinks behind the watcher on an outward bound ship. He thought of it, when at all, with a numbing fear that he might be thrust back into it again — that old life of his.

Away from the ship! Away from Sharane — never to return!

On and on they had sailed. The black cabin, swept clean of evil, housed now the Viking, Gigi and the Persian. Sigurd or Gigi handled the two great oars that, fastened to each side of the stern, steered the ship. Sometimes, in fair weather, maids of Sharane took their place at the rudder bars. The Viking had found an anvil in the hold under the black cabin; had made a forge and on it hammered out swords. One he had made for Gigi, full nine feet long, that the dwarf-legged giant handled like a wand. Better, though, Gigi liked the mace that Sigurd had also made for him — long as the sword, with huge bronze ball studded with nails at its end. Zubran clung to his scimitar. But the Viking labored at his forge, beating out lighter brands for Sharane’s warrior maids. He made them shields and taught them to use both sword and shield as they had been used on his dragons in the old Viking days.

Part fruit of that instruction, sword play with Sigurd, wrestling with Gigi, fencing with his own blade against the scimitar of Zubran, was Kenton now.

All this Gigi had encouraged.

“No safety while Klaneth lives!” he would croak. “Make the ship strong.”

“We have done with Klaneth!” Kenton had said, a little boastfully.

“Not so,” Gigi had answered. “He will come with many men. Sooner or later the black priest will come.”

There had been recent confirmation of this. Soon after his battle Kenton had taken one of the blacks, a Nubian, and set him in Zachel’s seat. But this had made them short one slave at the oars. They had met a ship, hailed it, and demanded an oarsman. Its captain had given them one — fearfully, quickly, and had sped away.

“He did not know that Klaneth was no longer here,” chuckled Gigi.

But not long after this they had met another ship. Its captain would not halt when hailed and they had been forced to pursue and to fight. It was a small vessel, easily overhauled and easily captured. And that same captain had told them, sullenly, that Klaneth was at Emakhtila, High Priest of a temple of Nergal there, and one of the council of the House of Nergal in the temple of the Seven Zones. And more, the black priest was high in favor with one he called the Lord of the Two Deaths — the ruler, so they gathered, of Emakhtila.

Klaneth, said the captain, had sent forth word that the Ship of Ishtar was no longer to be feared, that it now held neither Nergal nor Ishtar but only men and women. It was to be sunk when met, but its men and women were to be saved. For them he offered a reward.

“And had my boat been but a little bigger and my men more, I would have claimed that reward,” he had ended, bluntly.

They took what they wanted from him and let him go. But as the ship drew away, he shouted to them to take what joy of life they could at once, since Klaneth on a great ship and with many men was searching for them and their shift was apt to be short!

“Ho-ho!” grunted Gigi, and —“Oh-ho! Klaneth searches for us, does he? Well, I warned you he would, Wolf. What now?”

“Make for one of the isles, pick our vantage ground and let him come,” answered Kenton. “We can build a fort, raise defenses. Better chance we would have against him than on the ship — if it be true that he pursues us in a great vessel with many soldiers.”

They had found Kenton’s word good, and they were sailing toward such an isle, Sigurd at the helm, Gigi and the Persian and the women of Sharane on watch, alert.

“Yea — dear lord of me — even you do not know how greatly I love you,” whispered Sharane again, eyes worshipping, arms fettering his neck. His lips clung to hers. Even in the sweet fire of their touch he marvelled, blind to his own renaissance, at this changed Sharane — Love’s changeling since that time he had carried her within her bower, disdaining her as gift, taking her by right of his two strong arms.

Swift memories shook him; of Sharane — conquered; of some unearthly wonder that had flamed over the shrine and with fingers of pure fire had woven his soul with hers in threads of flaming ecstasies!

“Tell me, lord of me — how much you love me,” she murmured, languorously.

There came a shout from Sigurd:

“Waken the slaves! Drop oars! Storm comes!” Imperceptibly, the cabin had darkened. He heard the shrilling of the overseer’s whistle, a shouting and patter of feet. He unclasped Sharane’s arms; gave her one kiss that answered her questioning better than words; passed out upon the deck.

Swiftly the sky blackened. There was a splintering flash of the prismatic lightning, a clashing of cymbaled thunder. A wind arose and roared. Down came the sail. Before the blast, held steady by the hands of Sigurd, the ship flew.

Then fell the rain. Through it scudded the ship, hemmed in by blacknesses which when the lightnings fell were threaded by myriads of multi-colored serpents of glass from sky to sea.

A tremendous gust of wind swept down upon the ship, careening her far over. It buffeted at Sharane’s door; tore it open. Kenton staggered over to Gigi, shouted to the women to leave their watch, go inside. He watched them stumble in.

“Zubran and I will watch,” he cried in Gigi’s ear. “Go you and help Sigurd at the helm.”

But Gigi had not gone a yard before the wind died as quickly as it had risen.

“To the right!” he heard Sigurd shout. “Look to the right!”

To the starboard rail the three ran. Within the darkness was a broad faint disk of luminescence, like a far away searchlight in a fog. Rapidly its diameter decreased, growing ever brighter as its size diminished,

The disk burst out of the mists; it became a blazing beam that shot over the rushing waves and glared upon the ship. Kenton glimpsed double banks of oars that drove a huge bulk down upon them with prodigious speed. Beneath the light was a gleaming ram, lance tipped. It jutted out from the prow like the horn on a charging rhinoceros.

“Klaneth!” roared Gigi, and ran shouting to the black cabin, Zubran at his heels.

“Sharane!” shouted Kenton, and raced to her door. The ship veered abruptly, careening until the sea poured over the port rail. Kenton’s feet flew from under him; he rolled head over heels to the bulwarks; struck and lay for an instant stunned.

Sigurd’s manoeuvre could not save the ship. The bireme had changed course, swept down parallel with it to shear off its starboard bank of oars. The Viking had thought to escape the impact. But the attacking vessel’s oarsmen were too many, its speed too great for the ship of Ishtar’s single banks of seven. Down dipped the bireme’s sweeps, checking its rush. It swung broadside on straight against the ship, crushing the starboard oars, like sticks!

Kenton reeled to his feet; saw Gigi leaping down to him, battle mace in hand; beside him Zubran, scimitar gleaming. And close behind them, the useless tiller abandoned, was Sigurd the Viking, shields under arm, his great sword held high.

They were beside him. His giddiness was gone. The Viking thrust him a shield. He drew his own sword.

“To Sharane!” he gasped. Forward they ran.

Before they could reach her door, defend it, a score of soldiers, chain mailed and armed with short swords, had poured down the side of the bireme and closed the way to the cabin. And behind them poured other scores.

Out whirled Gigi’s giant mace, striking them down. Blue blade of Nabu, scimitar of Zubran, brand of Sigurd rose and fell, struck and thrust. In a breath were dripping red!

Yet not a step could they advance! For every soldier they slew, another took his place. And still the bireme rained men.

An arrow whistled, stood quivering in Sigurd’s shield. Another flew and hung from Zubran’s shoulder.

Came the bellowing of Klaneth: “No arrows! Take the black-haired dog and yellow-hair alive! Slay the others — if you must — with swords!”

Now the fighting men from the bireme were all around them. Back to back in hollow square the four fought, Upon the deck the mail clad men fell. Steadily growing mounds of dead around them, they fought on. There was a sword gash across Gigi’s hairy chest from which blood ran in little trickling streams. Sigurd was bleeding from a dozen cuts. But Zubran, save for the arrow wound, was untouched. He fought silently, but Sigurd chanted and howled as he struck and Gigi laughed as his giant mace crushed bone and sinew.

Yet still the barrier of the black priest’s men held fast between them and Sharane!

What of Sharane! Kenton’s heart sank. He cast a swift glance up at the balcony. She stood there with three of her warrior maids, swords in hands, battling against soldiers who crept two by two down a narrow bridge of planks that had been dropped from the bireme’s deck.

But that glance had been no wise one. A sword bit into his unguarded side, paralyzing him. He would have fallen but for the Viking’s hand.

“Steady, blood-brother!” he heard him say. “My shield is before you. Take breath!”

There came a triumphant shouting from the ship of Klaneth. Out from its deck two long poles had been thrust. There had been a tugging of ropes and from their ends a net had fallen — squarely over Sharane and her three women!

They were struggling to cut the meshes. They bound them, fettered them. The women beat against those meshes as helplessly as butterflies.

And suddenly the net tightened, was drawn together by cords. Slowly the poles began to lift carrying the net’s burden upward to the deck of the attacking ship!

“Ho! Sharane!” mocked Klaneth, “Ho! Vessel of Ishtar! Welcome to my ship!”

“Christ!” groaned Kenton. Strength renewed by his fury and despair, he charged. Before his onslaught the warriors gave way. Again he rushed. Something whirled through, struck him upon the temple. He fell. The men of Klaneth swarmed upon him, clutching at his hands, his feet, smothering him.

They were hurled from him. The dwarf legs of Gigi were astride of him, his mace whistling, men dropping under its stroke. Dizzily he raised his head; saw Sigurd guarding him at right, Zubran at left and rear.

He looked upward. The net that held the struggling women was being dropped upon the bireme’s deck.

Again he heard the bellow of Klaneth:

“Welcome, sweet Sharane! Welcome!”

He staggered up, broke from the Viking’s grip, staggered forward — toward her.

“Seize him!” came the howl of the black priest. “His weight in gold to the men who bring him to me — alive!”

And now there was a ring of Klaneth’s men around him, sweeping him away. Between him and the three who had fought beside him eddied another stream of warriors, falling smitten by mace and sword and scimitar — but their places taken by others; others wedging in, widening steadily the distance between Kenton and his comrades.

He ceased to struggle. After all — this was what he wanted! This was best. They could take him — he would be with Sharane!

“Hold him up!” roared Klaneth. “Let the slut of Ishtar see him!”

He was lifted high in the hands of his captors. He heard a wail from Sharane . . .

A dizziness seized him! It was as though he had been caught in some vortex and was being sucked away — away!

He had a vision of Sigurd, the Persian and Gigi staring at him, their faces incredulous bloody masks. And they had stopped fighting. There were other faces, scores of them, staring at him with that same incredulity — though now, it seemed, shaded with terror.

Now they were all staring at him as though over the edge of a prodigious funnel through which he had begun to drop!

And now clutching hands had melted away from him! The faces were gone.

“Gigi!” he called. “Sigurd! Zubran! Help me!”

He heard the howling of winds!

They changed into a trumpet note. The trumpeting changed. It became some familiar sound — some sound known in another life of his, ages and ages gone! What was it? Louder it grew, rasping, peremptory —

The shriek of an auto horn!

Shuddering, he opened his eyes.

He looked upon his own room!

There lay the shining jeweled ship — the ship of toys!

And there was a knocking at the door, agitated, frantic; the murmuring of frightened voices.

Then the voice of Jevins, faltering, panic stricken: “Mr. John! Mr. John!”

15 Down The Rope Of Sound

KENTON fought back his faintness; reached out a trembling hand, and snapped on the electrics. “Mr. John! Mr. John!”

The old servant’s voice was sharp with terror; he rattled the door knob; beat against the panels.

Kenton steadied himself against the table; forced himself to speak.

“Why — Jevins —” he strove to lighten the dragging words, inject some naturalness into them —“What’s the matter?”

He heard a little gasp of relief, another murmuring from the servants and then Jevins spoke again.

“I was passing and heard you cry out, sir. A dreadful cry! Are you ill?”

Desperately Kenton strove against the racking weakness; managed a laugh.

“Why, no — I fell asleep. Had a nightmare. Don’t worry! Go to bed.”

“Oh — it was that?”

The relief in Jevins’ voice was greater, but the doubt was not altogether gone. He did not withdraw; stood there hesitating.

There was a mist before Kenton’s eyes, a thin veil of crimson. His knees bent suddenly; barely he saved himself from falling. He stumbled to the couch and sank upon it. A panic impulse urged him to cry out to Jevins to bring help — to break down the door. Fast upon it came warning that he must not do this; that he must fight his battle out alone — if he were to tread the ship’s deck again!

“Go, Jevins!” he cried harshly. “Hell, man — didn’t I tell you I wasn’t to be disturbed tonight? Get away!”

Too late he realized that never before had he spoken so to this old servant who loved him, he knew, like a son. Had he betrayed himself — crystallized Jevins’ suspicions into certainty that within that room something was wrong indeed? Fear spurred his tongue.

“I’m all right!” He forced laughter into the words. “Of course, I’m all right!”

Damn that mist in front of his eyes! What was it? He passed a hand over them, brought it away wet with blood. He stared at it, stupidly.

“Oh, very well, Mr. John.” There was no more doubt, nothing but affection in the voice. “But hearing you cry —”

God! Would the man never go! His eyes travelled from his hand up his arm. Crimson it was, red with blood to the shoulder. The fingers dripped.

“Only a nightmare,” he interrupted quietly. “I won’t sleep again until I’m done and go to bed — so run along.”

“Then — good night, Mr. John.”

“Good night,” he answered.

Swaying he sat until the footsteps of Jevins and the others had died away. Then he tried to rise. His weakness was too great. He slid from the couch to his knees, crawled across the floor to a low cabinet, fumbled at its doors and drew down a bottle of brandy. He raised it to his lips and drank deep. The fiery stuff raced through him, gave him strength. He arose.

A sickening pang stabbed his side. He raised his hand to clutch the agony, covered it and felt trickle through his fingers a slow, warm stream!

He remembered — a sword had bitten him there — the sword of one of Klaneth’s men!

Flashed before him pictures — the arrow quivering in the Viking’s shield, the mace of Gigi, the staring warriors, the great net dropping over Sharane and her women, the wondering faces . . .

Then — this!

Again he lifted the bottle. Half way to his mouth he stopped, every muscle rigid, every nerve taut. Confronting him was a shape — a man splashed red from head to foot! He saw a strong, fierce face from which glared eyes filled with murderous menace; long tangled elf locks of black writhed round it down to the crimson-stained shoulders. From hair edge to ear down across the forehead was a wound, from which blood dripped. Bare to the waist was this man and from the nipple of his left breast to mid-side ran a red wide-mouthed slash, open to the ribs!

Gory, menacing, dreadful in its red lacquer of life, a living phantom from some pirate deck of death it glared at him.

Stop! There was something familiar about the face — the eyes! His gaze was caught by a shimmer of gold on the right arm above the elbow. It was a bracelet. And he knew that bracelet —

The bridal gift of Sharane!

Who was this man? He could not think clearly — how could he — with numbness in his brain, the red mists before his eyes, this weakness that was creeping back upon him?

Sudden rage swept through him. He swung the bottle to hurl it straight at the wild fierce face.

The left hand of the figure swung up, clutching a similar bottle —

It was he, John Kenton, reflected in the long mirror on the wall. That ensanguined, fearfully wounded, raging shape was — himself!

A clock chimed ten.

As though the slow strokes had been an exorcism, a change came over Kenton. His mind cleared, purpose and will clicked back in place. He took another deep drink of the liquor, and without another look in the mirror, without a glance toward the jeweled ship, he walked to the door.

Hand on the key he paused, considering. No, that would not do. He could not risk going out into the hallway. Jevins might still be hovering near; or some of the other servants might see him. And if he had not known himself, what would be the effect of seeing him on them?

He could not go where water was to cleanse his hurts, wash away the blood. He must do with what was here.

He turned back to the cabinet, stripping the table of its cloth as he passed. His foot struck something on the floor. The blade of Nabu lay there, no longer blue but stained as was he from tip of blade to hilt. For the moment he left it lie. He poured spirits upon the cloth, made shift to cleanse himself with them. From another cabinet he drew out his emergency medical kit. There was lint there and bandages and iodine. Stiff-lipped with the torture of its touch, he poured the latter into the great wound in his side, daubed it into the cut across his forehead. He made compresses of the lint and wound the linen tapes around brow and chest. The blood flow stopped. The fiery agony of the iodine diminished. He stepped again to the mirror and scanned himself.

The clock struck the half hour.

Half past ten! What had it been when he had clutched the golden chains of the ship — had summoned the ship and been lifted by those chains out of the room and into the mysterious world in which it sailed?

Just nine o’clock!

Only an hour and a half ago! Yet during that time in that other and timeless world he had been slave and conqueror, had fought great fights, had won both ship and the woman who had mocked him, had become — what now he was!

And all this in less than two short hours!

He walked over to the ship, picking up the sword as he went. He wiped the hilt clean of blood, the blade he did not touch. He drained the bottle before he dared drop his eyes.

He looked first on Sharane’s cabin. There were gaps in the little blossoming trees. The door was down, flung broken on the deck. The casements of the window were shattered. Upon the roof’s edge a row of doves perched, heads a-droop, mourning.

From the oar ports four sweeps instead of seven dipped on each side. And in the pit were no longer the eight and twenty rowers. Only ten were left, two to each of the stroke oars, one each to the other.

On the starboard side of the hull were gashes and deep dents — the marks of the bireme’s combing of that ship of Ishtar now sailing somewhere on that unknown world from which he had been whirled.

And at the tiller bar a manikin stood — a toy steering the toy ship. A toy man, long-haired, fair-haired. At his feet sat two other toys; one with shining, hairless head, and apelike arms; the other red bearded, agate-eyed, a shining scimitar across his knees.

Longing shook him, heartache, such homesickness as some human soul might feel marooned upon alien star on outskirts of space.

“Gigi!” he groaned. “Sigurd! Zubran! Bring me back to you!”

He bent over the three, touching them with tender fingers, breathing on them, as though to give them warmth of life. Long he paused over Gigi — instinctively he felt that in the Ninevite more than the others dwelt the power to help. Sigurd was strong, the Persian subtle — but in the dwarf-legged giant ran tide of earth gods in earth’s shouting youth; archaic, filled with unknown power long lost to man.

“Gigi!” he whispered, face close — and again and again —“Gigi! Hear me! Gigi!”

Did the manikin move?

Breaking his passion of concentration came a cry. Newsboys shouting some foolish happening of importance on this foolish world on which he was cast away! It broke the threads, shattered the fragile links that he had felt forming between himself and the manikin. Cursing, he straightened. His sight dimmed; he fell. Effort had told upon him; the treacherous weakness crept back. He dragged himself to the cabinet, knocked the head off a second bottle, let half of it pour down his throat.

The whipped blood sang in his ears; strength flowed through him. He snapped off the lights. A ray from the street came through the heavy curtains, outlining the three toy figures. Once more Kenton gathered himself for a mighty effort of will.

“Gigi! It is I! Calling you! Gigi! Answer me! Gigi!” The manikin stirred, its body trembled, its head raised! Far, far away, thin and cold as tip of frost lance upon glass, ghostly and unreal, coming from immeasurable distances, he heard Gigi’s voice.

“Wolf, I hear you! Wolf! Where are you?”

His mind clung to that thread of sound as though it were a line flung to him over vast abysses.

“Wolf — come to us!” The voice was stronger. “Gigi! Gigi! Help me to you!”

The two voices — that far flung, thin, cold one and his own met and clung and knit. They stretched over that gulf which lay between where he stood and the unknown dimension in which sailed the ship.

Now the little figure no longer squatted! It was upright! Louder rang Gigi’s voice:

“Wolf! Come to us! We hear you! Come to us!” Then as though it chanted words of power:

“Sharane! Sharane! Sharane!”

Under the lash of the loved name his will now streamed fiercely.

“Gigi! Gigi. Keep calling!”

He was no longer conscious of his room. He saw the ship far, far beneath him. He was but a point of life floating high above it, yearning to it and calling, calling to Gigi to help him. The strand of sound that linked them strained and shook like a cobweb thread. But it held and ever drew him down.

And now the ship was growing. It was misty, nebulous; but steadily it grew and steadily Kenton dropped down that rope of sound to meet it. Strengthening the two voices came other sounds weaving themselves within their threads — the chanting of Sigurd, the calling of Zubran, the thrumming of the fingers of the wind on the harpstring of the ship’s stays, the murmuring litany of the breaking waves telling their beads of foam.

Ever more real grew the ship. Striking through its substance came the wavering image of his room. It seemed to struggle against the ship, to strive to cover it. But the ship beat it back, crying out to him with the voices of his comrades and the voices of wind and sea in one.

“Wolf! We feel you near! Come to us — Sharane! Sharane! Sharane!”

The phantom outlines leaped into being; they enclosed him.

The arms of Gigi reached out to him, gripped him, plucked him out of space!

And as they gripped, he heard a chaotic whirling, a roaring as of another world spinning from under him and lashed by mighty winds.

He stood again upon the ship.

He was clasped tight to Gigi’s hairy chest. Sigurd’s hands were on his shoulders. Zubran was clasping and patting Kenton’s own hands clutching Gigi’s back, singing in his joy strange intricate Persian curses.

“Wolf!” roared Gigi, tears filling the furrows of his wrinkled face. “Where did you go? In the name of all the gods — where have you been?”

“Never mind!” sobbed Kenton. “Never mind where I’ve been, Gigi! I’m back! Oh, thank God, I’m back!”

16 How The Ship Was Manned

FAINTNESS conquered him. The wounds and the effort of will had sapped his strength to its limit. When he came back to consciousness he was on the divan in Sharane’s raped cabin. His bandages had been replaced, his wounds re-dressed. The three men and four of Sharane’s maids were looking down upon him. There was no reproach on any of their faces — only curiosity, tempered with awe.

“It must be a strange place to which you go, Wolf,” Gigi said at last. “For see! The slash across my chest is healed, Sigurd’s cuts, too — yet your wounds are as fresh as though made but a moment ago.”

Kenton looked and saw that it was so; the slash across Gigi’s breast was now only a red scar.

“Also it was a strange way to leave us, blood-brother,” rumbled the Viking.

“By the fire of Ormuzd!” swore the Persian. “It was a very good way! A good thing for us that you left as you did. Cyrus the King taught us that it was a good general who knew how to retreat to save his troops. And that retreat of yours was a masterly one, comrade, Without it we would not be here now to welcome you.”

“It was no retreat! I could not help but go!” whispered Kenton.

“Well,” the Persian shook a dubious head, “whatever it was, it saved us. One instant there you were lifted on the paws of the black priest’s dogs. Another instant you had faded into a shadow. And then, lo, even the shadow was gone!”

“How those dogs who had held you shrieked and ran,” laughed Zubran. “And the dogs who were biting at us ran too — back to their kennels on the bireme they ran, for all Klaneth’s cursing. They had great fear, comrade — and so in fact for a moment had I. Then down went their oars, and away sped their ship with Klaneth’s cursing still sounding even after they had gotten safely out of sight of us.”

“Sharane!” groaned Kenton. “What did they do to her? Where have they taken her?”

“To Emakhtila, or Sorcerers’ Isle, I think,” answered Gigi. “Fear not for her, Wolf. The black priests want you both. To torture her without your eyes looking on, or to slay you without hers beholding your agonies would be no revenge for Klaneth. No — until he lays hands on you Sharane is safe enough.”

“Not comfortable, perhaps, nor happy, but assuredly safe enough,” confirmed the Persian.

“Three of her maids they took with her in the nets,” said Sigurd. “Three they slew. These four they left when you vanished.”

“They took Satalu, my little vessel of joy,” mourned Gigi. “And for that Klaneth shall also pay when reckoning comes.”

“Half the slaves were killed when the bireme crashed against us,” went on the Viking. “Oars crushed in ribs, broke backs. Others died later. The black-skin we put in Zachel’s place is a man! He fought those who dropped into the pit and slew his share. Only eight oars have we now instead of twice seven. The black-skin sits at one of them — unchained. When we take new slaves he shall be overseer again and honored.”

“And I remember now,” it was Gigi, dropping back to his first thought, “that when I dragged you up the side of Klaneth’s cabin that day you fought his priests, you still bled from the bites of Sharane’s girls. Yet with us there had been time and time again for them to have healed, And here you are once more with old wounds fresh. It must be a strange place indeed, that you go to, Wolf, is there no time there?”

“It is your own world,” he answered. “The world from whence all of you came.”

And as they stared at him, he leaped up from the divan.

“Sail to Emakhtila! At once! Find Sharane! Free her! How soon, Gigi? How soon?”

He felt the wound in his side open, fell back, his spurt of strength exhausted.

“Not till your wounds are healed,” said Gigi, and began to unfasten the reddening bandages. “And we must make the ship strong again before we take that journey. We must have new slaves for the oars. Now lie quiet, until you heal. Klaneth will do Sharane no harm as long as there is hope of taking you. I, Gigi, tell you this. So set your heart at ease.”

And now began for Kenton a most impatient time of waiting. To be chained here by his wounds when, despite Gigi’s assurances, the black priest might be wreaking his ultimate vengeance upon Sharane! It was not to be borne.

Fever set in. His wounds had been more serious than he had known. Gigi nursed him.

The fever passed, and as he grew stronger he told him of that lost world of theirs; what had passed there during the centuries they had sailed on the timeless ship; of its machinery and its wars, its new laws and its customs.

“And none now go viking!” mused Sigurd. “Clearly then I see that there is no place for me there. Best for Sigurd, Trygg’s son, to end his days where he is.”

The Persian nodded.

“And no place for me,” he echoed. “For a man of taste such as I, it seems no world at all to live in, I like not your way of waging wars. nor could I learn to like it — I who seem to be a soldier of an old, old school, indeed.”

Even Gigi was doubtful.

“I do not think I would care for it,” he said. “The customs seem so different. And I notice, Wolf, that you were willing to risk chains and death to get out of that world — and lose no time getting back to this.”

“The new gods seem so stupid,” urged Zubran. “They do nothing. By the Nine Hells, the gods of this place are stupid enough — still they do something. Although perhaps it is better to do nothing than to do the same stupid things over and over,” he ruminated.

“I will make me a steading on one of these islands,” said Sigurd, “after we have carried away Kenton’s woman and slain the black priest. I will take me a strong wife and breed many younglings. I will teach them to build ships. Then we shall go viking as I did of old. Skoal! Skoal to the dragons slipping through Ran’s bath with the red ravens on their sails and the black ones flying overhead!”

“Say, blood-brother,” he turned to Kenton, “when you have your woman back will you make a steading beside mine? With Zubran taking wives and he and Gigi — if he is not too old — breeding young, and with those who will join us — by Odin, but we could all be great Jarls in this world!”

“That is not to my liking,” replied the Persian promptly. “For one thing it takes too long to rear strong sons to fight for us. No — after we have finished our business with Klaneth I will go back to Emakhtila where there are plenty of men already made. It will be strange if I find there no discontented ones, men who can be stirred to revolt. If there be not enough of them — well, discontent is the easiest thing in the world to breed; much easier than sons, Sigurd. Also I am a great soldier. Cyrus the King himself told me so. With my army of discontented men I shall take his nest of priests and rule Emakhtila myself! And after that — beware how you raid my ships, Sigurd!”

Thus they talked among themselves, telling Kenton things of their own lives as strange to him as his own tales must have been to them. Steadily, swiftly his wounds healed until they were at last only red welts, and strength flowed back in his veins.

Now for many sleeps, while he grew well, they had lain hidden within a land-locked cove of one of the golden isles. Its rock-jawed mouth had been barely wide enough for them to enter. Safe enough this place seemed from pursuit or prying eyes. Nevertheless they had drawn the ship close against a high bank whose water side dropped straight down to the deep bottom. The oars had been taken in. The branches of the feathery trees drooped over the craft, covered it.

The time came when Kenton, awakening, felt full tide of health. He walked back to the rudder bar where Sigurd, Gigi and the Persian were stretched out talking. He paused for the hundredth time beside the strange compass that was the helmsman’s guide in this world, where there was neither sun nor moon nor stars, no east or west, north or south. Set within the top of a wooden standee was a silver bowl covered with a sheet of clear crystal. Around the lip of this bowl were inlaid sixteen symbols, cuneiform, scarlet. Attached to a needle rising vertically from the bowl’s bottom were two slender pointers, serpent shaped, blue. The larger, he knew, pointed always toward Emakhtila, that land to which, were Gigi right, Sharane had been carried by the black priest. The smaller pointed toward the nearest land.

As always, he wondered what mysterious currents stirred them in this poleless world; what magnetic flow from the scattered isles pulled the little one; what constant flow from Emakhtila kept the big one steady? Steadier far than compass needles of earth pointed to the north.

And as he looked it seemed to him that the little blue needle spun in its scarlet pool and lay parallel with the greater one — both pointing to the Isle of Sorcerers!

“An omen!” he cried. “Look, Sigurd! Gigi — Zubran — look!”

They bent over the compass, but in the instant between his call and their response the smaller needle had shifted again; again pointed to the isle where they lay moored!

“An omen?” they asked, puzzled. “What omen?”

“Both the needles pointed to Emakhtila!” he told them. “To Sharane! It was an omen — a summons! We must go! Quick, Gigi — Sigurd — cast loose! We sail for Emakhtila!”

They looked at him, doubtfully; down at the compass once more; at each other covertly.

“I saw it, I tell you.’” Kenton repeated. “It was no illusion — I am well! Sharane is in peril! We must go!”

“Sh-h-h!” Gigi held up a warning hand, listened intently, parted the curtains of the leaves and peered out.

“A ship,” he whispered, drawing back his head. “Bid the maids get arrows and javelins. Arm — all of you. Quiet now — and speed!”

They could hear the drop of oars; voices; the low tapping of a hammer, beating the stroke for the rowers. The maids of Sharane silently ranged themselves along the port rail near the bow, bows standing, arrows at strings, beside them their stabbing javelins, their swords, too; their shields at feet.

The four men crouched, peeping out through the trees. What was coming? Questing ship of Klaneth that had nosed them out? Hunters searching the sea for them spurred on by the black priest’s promises of reward?

Through the narrow entrance to the hidden harbor drifted a galley. Twice the length of the ship of Ishtar, it was single tiered, fifteen oars to the side and double banked — two men to each sweep. There were a dozen or more men standing on the bow deck; how many others not visible there was no knowing. The galley crept in. It nosed along the shore. When less than two hundred feet away from the hidden watchers grapnels were thrown over the side and the boat made fast.

“Good water here, and all we need,” they heard one say.

Gigi put his arms around the three, drew them close to him.

“Wolf,” he whispered, “now do I believe in your omen. For lo! close upon its heels follows another and better one. A summons indeed. There are the slaves we must have for our vacant oars! And gold too, I’ll warrant, that we shall want when we reach Emakhtila.”

“Slaves and gold, yes,” muttered Kenton; then sardonically as half a dozen more men came up from below and joined the group on the bow —“only remains to find the way to take them, Gigi.”

“Nay, but that will be easy,” whispered Zubran. “They suspect nothing, and men surprised are already half beaten. We four will creep along the bank until we are just opposite their bow. When we have been away for as long as Zala there —” he motioned to one of the warrior maids —“can count two hundred, the maids shall pour their arrows into that group, shooting fast as they can but taking careful aim and bringing down as many as they can. Then we will leap aboard and upon those left. But when the maids hear us shout they must shoot no longer at the bow, lest we be struck. Thereafter let them keep any others from joining those forward. Is it a good plan? I’ll warrant we shall have their ship in less time than it has taken me to tell it.”

A qualm shook Kenton.

“Now by the gods!” came the voice, evidently of the captain of the galley. “Would that cursed Ship of Ishtar had been here. Had it been — well, I think none of us would need go faring out of Emakhtila again. Gods! If we might only have crept upon her here and won Klaneth’s reward!”

Kenton’s compunction fled; here were the hunters, and delivered into the hands of the hunted.

“Right, Zubran,” he whispered fiercely. “Beckon Zala to us and tell her the plan.”

And when that had been done he led them over to the side of the ship into the covert. There was a ledge that helped them in their going and it seemed to Kenton, watching hungrily the craft which, won, might mean Sharane, that the maids’ arrows would never fly.

At last they came, buzzing like bees and swarming among the cluster of men on the strange ship. And the maids were aiming straight. Of the near score fully half were down, spitted, before they broke for shelter, crying crazily. Kenton shouted and leaped upon the deck, cutting with his sword, while the mace of Gigi struck, and the blade of Sigurd, the scimitar of Zubran look toll. Beaten ere they could raise a hand, those left alive knelt and cried for mercy. A little band running to their aid from the stern met an arrow storm from the maids, threw down their arms, raised hands of submission.

They herded their captives together, disarmed them and thrust them into the forward cabin. They locked them in, first making sure there were no weapons there and no way for them to escape. They took the keys to the rowers’ chains. The Viking went down into the pit, picked out nineteen of the sturdiest slaves, loosed and drove them two by two over to the ship. He manacled them to its empty oars.

Much gold they found, too, and other things that might prove useful in Emakhtila — clothes of seamen in the fashion of the place, long robes to cover them and make them less open to detection.

Arose then the question of what was so be done with their prize — and the men aboard her. Gigi was for putting them all to the sword. The Persian thought that it would be best to bring back the slaves, leave their ship where she was, and after killing all those on the captive galley, put forth to Emakhtila on her. There was much in his plan to be commended. The Ship of Ishtar was a marked vessel. There was no mistaking her. This other craft would arouse no suspicion in the minds of those who saw it sailing. And once landed at Emakhtila, and what lay before them done, they could sail back on it and recover their own.

But Kenton would not have it. And the upshot was that the captain was called out for questioning and told that if he answered truthfully his life and those of the others would be spared.

There was little he could tell them — but that little was enough to quicken Kenton’s heart — bring new dread to it also. Yes, there had been a woman brought to Emakhtila by Klaneth, the Priest of Nergal. He had won her in a fight, Klaneth had said, a sea battle in which many men had been slain. He had not said where, or with whom this battle had taken place, and his soldiers had been warned to be silent. But it began to be whispered that the woman was the woman of the Ship of Ishtar. The priestesses of Ishtar had claimed her. But Klaneth who had great power had resisted them, and as a compromise the Council of Priests had made her priestess of the God Bel and placed her in Bel’s Bower on top of the Temple of the Seven Zones.

“I know that Temple and the Bower of Bel,” Sigurd had nodded. “And why its priestess must live there,” he had whispered, looking askance at Kenton.

This woman appeared now and then, heavily veiled, attending certain ceremonies to the God Bel, the captain went on. But she seemed to be a woman in a dream. Her memory had been taken from her — or so it was reported. Beyond that he knew nothing — except that Klaneth had doubled his reward for three of them — he pointed to Gigi, Zubran and the Persian; and had trebled it for him — he pointed to Kenton.

When they were done with him they unloosed the remaining slaves and sent them ashore. They hailed the ship and the Nubian brought her over. They watched the captain and his men pass over the side of the galley and disappear among the trees.

“Plenty of water and food,” grumbled Gigi. “They fare far better at our hands than we would have fared at theirs.”

They hitched the captured galley to the ship; slowly pulled it out of the harbor through the rock-lipped mouth. And after they had gone a mile or so Sigurd dropped into it, did a few things with an axe, and climbing back cut it loose. Rapidly the galley filled and sank.

“Now,” cried Kenton, and took the rudder bar, steering the ship straight to where the long blue arrow pointed.

Pointed to Emakhtila and to Sharane —

Sharane!

17 They Seek Sorcerers’ Isle

LUCK clung to them. The silver mists hung close about the ship, shrouding her so that she sailed within a circle not more than double her length. Ever the mists hid her. Kenton, sleeping little, drove the slaves at the oar to point of exhaustion.

“There is a great storm brewing,” warned Sigurd.

“Pray Odin that it may hold back till we are well within Emakhtila,” answered Kenton.

“If we but had a horse I would sacrifice it to the All–Father,” said Sigurd. “Then he would hold that storm till our needs called it.”

“Speak low, lest the sea horses trample us!” warned Kenton.

He had questioned the Viking about that interruption of his when the captain of the captured galley had said that the captured woman was Priestess of Bel’s Bower.

“She will be safe there, even from Klaneth — so long as she takes no other lover than the god,” Sigurd had said.

“No other lover than the god!” Kenton had roared, hand dropping to sword and glaring at Sigurd. “She shall have no lover but me — god or man, Sigurd! What do you mean?”

“Take hand from sword, Wolf,” Sigurd had replied. “I meant not to offend you. Only — gods are gods! And there was something in that captain’s talk about your woman walking in dream, memory withdrawn from her — was there not? If that be so — blood-brother — you are in those memories she has lost!”

Kenton winced.

“Nergal once tried to part a man and a woman who loved,” he said, “even as Sharane and I. He could not. I do not think Nergal’s priest can succeed where his master failed.”

“Not well reasoned, Wolf.” It was Zubran who had come quietly upon them. “The gods are strong. Therefore they have no reason for subtlety or cunning. They smite — and all is done. It is not artistic, I admit — but it is unanswerable. And man, who has not the strength of the gods, must resort to cunning and subtlety. That is why man will do worse things than the gods. Out of his weakness he is forced to it. The gods should not be blamed — except for making man weaker than they. And therefore Klaneth is more to be feared by you than Nergal, his master.”

“He cannot drive me out of Sharane’s heart!” Kenton cried.

The Viking bent his head down to the compass.

“You may be right,” he muttered. “Zubran may be right. All I know is that while your woman is faithful to Bel, no man may harm her!”

Vague as he might be on that one point, the Viking was direct and full of meat upon others. The Norseman had been observant while slave to the priests of Nergal. He knew the city and the Temple of the Seven Zones intimately. Best of all he knew a way of entering Emakhtila by another road than that of its harbor.

This was indeed all important, since it was not within the bounds of possibility that they could enter that harbor without instant recognition.

“Look, comrades,” Sigurd scratched with point of sword a rude map on the planks of the deck. “Here lies the city. It is at the end of a fjord. The mountains rise on each side of it and stretch in two long spits far out to sea. But here”— he pointed to a spot in the coast line close to the crotch where the left hand mountain barrier shot out from the coast —“is a bay with a narrow entrance from the sea. It is used by the priests of Nergal for a certain secret sacrifice. Between it and the city a hidden way runs through the hills. That path brings you out to the great temple. I have traveled the hidden way and have stood on the shores of that bay. I went there with other slaves, bearing priests in litters and things for the sacrifice. While it would take two good sleeps for a ship to make the journey from Emakhtila to this place, it is by the hidden way only half so far as a strong man could walk in my own land between the dawn and noon of a winter day. Also there are many places there where the ship can be hidden. Few galleys pass by and no one lives near — which is why the priests of Nergal picked it.

“Also I know well the Temple of the Seven Zones — since long it was my home,” went on Sigurd. “Its height is thirty times the ship’s mast.”

Kenton swiftly estimated. That would make the temple six hundred feet — a respectable height indeed.

“Its core,” said the Viking, “is made up of the sanctuaries of the gods and the goddess Ishtar, one upon each other. Around this core are the quarters of the priests and priestesses and lesser shrines. These secret sanctuaries are seven, the last being the house of Bel. From Bel’s House a stairway leads up into his Bower. At the base of the temple is a vast court with altars and other shrines where the people come to worship. Its entrances are strongly guarded. Even we four could not enter — there!

“But around the temple, which is shaped thus”— he scratched the outline of a truncated cone —“a great stone stairway runs thus”— he drew a spiral from base to top of cone. “At intervals, along that stairway, are sentinels. There is a garrison where it begins. Is this all clear?”

“What is clear,” grunted Gigi, “is that we would need an army to take it!”

“Not so,” the Viking answered. “Remember how we took the galley — although they outnumbered us? We will row the ship into that secret harbor. If priests are there we must do what we can — slay or flee. But if the Norns decree that no priests be there, we will hide the ship and leave the slaves in care of the black-skin. Then the four of us, dressed as seamen in the clothes and the long cloaks we took from the galley, will take the hidden way and go into the city.

“For as to that stairway — I have another plan. It is high walled — up to a man’s chest. If we can pass without arousing the guards at its base, we can creep up under shadow of that wall, slaying the sentinels as we go, until we reach the Bower of Bel and entering, bear Sharane away.

“But not in fair weather could we do this,” he ended. “There must be darkness or storm that they see us not from the streets. And that is why I pray to Odin, that this brewing tempest may not boil until we have reached the city and looked upon that stairway. For in that storm that is surely coming we could do as I have said and swiftly.”

“But in all this I see no chance of slaying Klaneth,” growled Zubran. “We creep in, we creep up, we creep out again with Sharane — if we can. And that is all. By Ormuzd, my knees are too tender for creeping! Also my scimitar itches to scratch itself on the black priest’s hide.”

“No safety while Klaneth lives!” croaked Gigi, playing upon his old tune.

“I have no thought of Klaneth now,” rumbled the Viking. “First comes Kenton’s woman. After that — we take up the black priest.”

“I am ashamed,” said Zubran. “I should have remembered. Yet in truth, I would feel easier if we could kill Klaneth on our way to her. For I agree with Gigi — while he lives, no safety for your blood-brother or any of us, However — Sharane first, of course.”

The Viking had been peering down into the compass. He looked again, intently, and drew back, pointing to it.

Both the blue serpents in the scarlet bath were parallel, their heads turned to one point.

“We head straight to Emakhtila,” said Sigurd. “But are we within the jaws of that fjord or out of them? Wherever we are we must be close.”

He swung the rudder to port. The ship veered. The large needle slipped a quarter of the space to the right between the red symbols on the bowl edge. The smaller held steady.

“That proves nothing,” grunted the Viking, “except that we are no longer driving straight to the city. But we may be close upon the mounts. Check the oarsmen.”

Slower went the ship, and slower, feeling her way through the mists. And suddenly they darkened before them. Something grew out of them slowly, slowly. It lay revealed as a low shore, rising sharply and melting into deeper shadows behind. The waves ran gently to it, caressing its rocks. Sigurd swore a great oath of thankfulness.

“We are on the other side of the mounts,” he said. “Somewhere close is that secret bay of which I told you. Bid the overseer drive the ship along as we are.”

He swung the rudder sharply to starboard. The ship turned; slowly followed the shore. Soon in front of them loomed a high ridge of rock. This they skirted, circled its end and still sculling silently came at last to another narrow strait into which the Viking steered.

“A place for hiding,” he said. “Send the ship into that cluster of trees ahead. Nay — there is water there, the trees rise out of it. Once within them the ship can be seen neither from shore nor sea.”

They drifted into the grove. Long, densely leaved branches covered them.

“Now lash her to the tree trunks,” whispered Sigurd. “Go softly. Priests may be about. We will look for them later, when we are on our way. We leave the ship in charge of the women. The black-skin stays behind. Let them all lie close till we return —”

“There would be better chance for you to return if you cut off that long hair of yours and your beard, Sigurd,” said the Persian, and added: “Better chance for us, also.”

“What!” cried the Viking, outraged. “Cut my hair! Why, even when I was slave they left that untouched!”

“Wise counsel!” said Kenton. “And Zubran — that naming beard of yours and your red hair. Better for you and us, too, if you shaved them both — or changed their color.”

“By Ormuzd, no!” exclaimed the Persian, as outraged as Sigurd.

“The fowler sets the net and is caught with the bird!” laughed the Viking. “Nevertheless, it is good counsel. Better hair off face and head than head off shoulders!”

The maids brought shears. Laughing, they snipped Sigurd’s mane to nape of neck, trimmed the long beard into short spade shape. Amazing was the transformation of Sigurd, Trygg’s son, brought about by that shearing.

“There is one that Klaneth will not know if he sees him,” grunted Gigi.

Now the Persian put himself in the women’s hands.

They dabbled at beard and head with cloths dipped in a bowl of some black liquid. The red faded, then darkened into brown. Not so great was the difference between him and the old Zubran as there was between the new and old Sigurd. But Kenton and Gigi nodded approvingly — at least the red that made him as conspicuous as the Norseman’s long hair was gone.

Remained Kenton and Gigi. Little could be done for either of them. There was no changing Gigi’s frog slit of a mouth, the twinkling beady eyes, the bald pate, the immense shoulders.

“Take out your earrings, Gigi,” bade Kenton.

“Take off that bracelet on your arm,” replied Gigi,

“Sharane’s gift! Never!” exclaimed Kenton, as outraged as had been both the Norseman and the Persian.

“My earrings were put there by one who loved me as much as she does you.” For the first time since Kenton had known Gigi there was anger in his voice.

The Persian laughed softly. It broke the tension. Kenton grinned at the drummer, somewhat guiltily. Gigi grinned back.

“Well,” he said. “It seems that we must all make our sacrifices —” he began to unscrew the earrings.

“No, Gigi!” Kenton could not bring himself to break that golden band upon which Sharane had graven the symbols of her love. “Leave them be. Rings and bracelet — both can be hidden.”

“I do not know —” Gigi paused doubtfully. “It seems to me to be better. That idea of sacrifice — it grows stronger.”

“There is little sense in what you say,” said Kenton stubbornly.

“No?” mused Gigi. “Yet many men must have seen that bracelet of yours that time you fought the black priest’s men and lost Sharane. Klaneth must have seen it. Something whispers to me that token is more perilous than the rings in my ears.”

“Well, nothing whispers to me,” said Kenton, shortly, He led the way into what had been Klaneth’s cabin and began stripping to clothe himself in the sailors’ gear they had taken from the captured galley. He slipped on a loose shirt of finely tanned, thin leather whose loose sleeves fastened around his wrists.

“You see,” he said to Gigi, “the bracelet is hidden.”

Next came loose hose of the same material drawn tight by a girdle around the waist. He drew on high, laced buskins. Over the shirt he fastened a sleeveless tunic of mail. On his head he placed a conical metal covered cap from whose padded sides dropped, shoulder deep, folds of heavy oiled silk.

The others dressed with him in similar garments. Only the Persian would not leave off his own linked mail. He knew its strength, he said, and the others were new to him It was an old friend, often tried and always faithful he said he would not cast it off for new ones whose loyalty was still untried. But over it he drew one of the shirts and a tunic. And Gigi, after he had set the cap upon his head, drew close the folds of silk so that they hid his ears and their pendants. Also he fastened around his neck another long fold of silk, binding the others fast and hiding his mouth.

And when they had covered themselves with the long cloaks they scanned each other with lightened hearts. The Viking and the Persian were true changelings. Little fear of recognition there. Changed enough by his new garb, it seemed to them, was Kenton. The cloak hid Gigi’s stumpy legs and the cloths around his face, the close fitting, conical cap altered it curiously into one not easily recognzable.

“It is good!” murmured the Viking.

“It is very good!” echoed Kenton.

They belted themselves and thrust into the belts both their own swords and short ones of Sigurd’s forging. Only Gigi would take neither that nine-foot blade the Norseman had made for him nor the great mace. The latter was too well known; the other too cumbersome for their journey; impossible, like the mace, to hide. He took two swords of average length. Last he picked up a long, thin piece of rope, swiftly spliced to it a small grappling hook. He coiled the rope around his waist, hanging the grapple to his belt.

“Lead, Sigurd,” said Kenton.

One by one they dropped over the ship’s bow, waded through shallow water and stood upon the shore while Sigurd cast about for his bearings. The mists had grown thicker. The golden leaves, the panicles of crimson and yellow blooms were etched against them as though upon some ancient Chinese screen. In the mists Sigurd moved, shadowy.

“Come,” the Viking joined them. “I have found the way.”

Silently they followed him through the mists, under the silver shadows of the trees.

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 23:09