There was stark amazement on Kulun’s face; and fear now enough. He dropped from the parapet among his men. There came one loud trumpet blast.
Out from the battlements poured a storm of arrows, a cloud of javelins. The squat catapults leaped forward. From them came a hail of boulders. Before that onrushing tempest of death I flinched.
I heard Norhala’s golden laughter and before they could reach us arrow and javelin and boulder were checked as though myriads of hands reached out from the Thing under us and caught them. Down they dropped.
Forth from the great spindle shot a gigantic arm, hammer tipped with cubes. It struck the wall close to where the scarlet armored Kulun had vanished.
Under its blow the stones crumbled. With the fragments fell the soldiers; were buried beneath them.
A hundred feet in width a breach gaped in the battlements. Out shot the arm again; hooked its hammer tip over the parapet, tore away a stretch of the breastwork as though it had been cardboard. Beside the breach an expanse of the broad flat top lay open like a wide platform.
The arm withdrew, and out from the whole length of the spindle thrust other arms, hammer tipped, held high aloft, menacing.
From all the length of the wall arose panic outcry. Abruptly the storm of arrows ended; the catapults were still. Again the trumpets sounded; the crying ceased. Down fell a silence, terrified, stifling.
Kulun stepped forth again, both hands held high. Gone was his arrogance.
“A parley,” he shouted. “A parley, Norhala. If we give you the maid and man, will you go?”
“Go get them,” she answered. “And take with you this my command to Cherkis — that HE return with the two!”
For an instant Kulun hesitated. Up thrust the dreadful arms, poised themselves to strike.
“It shall be so,” he shouted. “I carry your command.”
He leaped back, his red mail flashed toward a turret that held, I supposed, a stairway. He was lost to sight. In silence we waited.
On the further side of the city I glimpsed movement. Little troops of mounted men, pony drawn wains, knots of running figures were fleeing from the city through the opposite gates.
Norhala saw them too. With that incomprehensible, instant obedience to her unspoken thought a mass of the Metal Things separated from us; whirled up into a dozen of those obelisked forms I had seen march from the cat eyes of the City of the Pit.
In but a breath, it seemed, their columns were far off, herding back the fugitives.
They did not touch them, did not offer to harm — only, grotesquely, like dogs heading off and corraling frightened sheep, they circled and darted. Rushing back came those they herded.
From the watching terraces and walls arose shrill cries of terror, a wailing. Far away the obelisks met, pirouetted, melted into one thick column. Towering, motionless as we, it stood, guarding the further gates.
There was a stir upon the wall, a flashing of spears, of drawn blades. Two litters closed with curtainings, surrounded by triple rows of swordsmen fully armored, carrying small shields and led by Kulun were being borne to the torn battlement.
Their bearers stopped well within the platform and gently lowered their burdens. The leader of those around the second litter drew aside its covering, spoke.
Out stepped Ruth and after her — Ventnor!
“Martin!” I could not keep back the cry; heard mingled with it Drake’s own cry to Ruth. Ventnor raised his hand in greeting; I thought he smiled.
The cubes on which we stood shot forward; stopped within fifty feet of them. Instantly the guard of swordsmen raised their blades, held them over the pair as though waiting the signal to strike.
And now I saw that Ruth was not clad as she had been when we had left her. She stood in scanty kirtle that came scarcely to her knees, her shoulders were bare, her curly brown hair unbound and tangled. Her face was set with wrath hardly less than that which beat from Norhala. On Ventnor’s forehead was a blood red scar, a line that ran from temple to temple like a brand.
The curtains of the first litter quivered; behind them someone spoke. That in which Ruth and Ventnor had ridden was drawn swiftly away. The knot of swordsmen drew back.
Into their places sprang and knelt a dozen archers. They ringed in the two, bows drawn taut, arrows in place and pointing straight to their hearts.
Out of the litter rolled a giant of a man. Seven feet he must have been in height; over the huge shoulders, the barreled chest and the bloated abdomen hung a purple cloak glittering with gems; through the thick and grizzled hair passed a flashing circlet of jewels.
The scarlet armored Kulun beside him, swordsmen guarding them, he walked to the verge of the torn gap in the wall. He peered down it, glancing imperturbably at the upraised, hammer-banded arms still threatening; examined again the breach. Then still with Kulun he strode over to the very edge of the broken battlement and stood, head thrust a little forward, studying us in silence.
“Cherkis!” whispered Norhala — the whisper was a hymn to Nemesis. I felt her body quiver from head to foot.
A wave of hatred, a hot desire to kill, passed through me as I scanned the face staring at us. It was a great gross mask of evil, of cold cruelty and callous lusts. Unwinking, icily malignant, black slits of eyes glared at us between pouches that held them half closed. Heavy jowls hung pendulous, dragging down the corners of the thick lipped, brutal mouth into a deep graven, unchanging sneer.
As he gazed at Norhala a flicker of lust shot like a licking tongue through his eyes.
Yet from him pulsed power; sinister, instinct with evil, concentrate with cruelty — but power indomitable. Such was Cherkis, descendant perhaps of that Xerxes the Conqueror who three millenniums gone ruled most of the known world.
It was Norhala who broke the silence.
“Tcherak! Greeting — Cherkis!” There was merciless mirth in the buglings of her voice. “Lo, I did but knock so gently at your gates and you hastened to welcome me. Greetings — gross swine, spittle of the toads, fat slug beneath my sandals.”
He passed the insults by, unmoved — although I heard a murmuring go up from those near and Kulun’s hard eyes blazed.
“We will bargain, Norhala,” he answered calmly; the voice was deep, filled with sinister strength.
“Bargain?” she laughed. “What have you with which to bargain, Cherkis? Does the rat bargain with the tigress? And you, toad, have nothing.”
He shook his head.
“I have these,” he waved a hand toward Ruth and her brother. “Me you may slay — and mayhap many of mine. But before you can move my archers will feather their hearts.”
She considered him, no longer mocking.
“Two of mine you slew long since, Cherkis,” she said, slowly. “Therefore it is I am here.”
“I know,” he nodded heavily. “Yet now that is neither here nor there, Norhala. It was long since, and I have learned much during the years. I would have killed you too, Norhala, could I have found you. But now I would not do as then — quite differently would I do, Norhala; for I have learned much. I am sorry that those that you loved died as they did. I am in truth sorry!”
There was a curious lurking sardonicism in the words, an undertone of mockery. Was what he really meant that in those years he had learned to inflict greater agonies, more exquisite tortures? If so, Norhala apparently did not sense that interpretation. Indeed, she seemed to be interested, her wrath abating.
“No,” the hoarse voice rumbled dispassionately. “None of that is important — now. YOU would have this man and girl. I hold them. They die if you stir a hand’s breadth toward me. If they die, I prevail against you — for I have cheated you of what you desire. I win, Norhala, even though you slay me. That is all that is now important.”
There was doubt upon Norhala’s face and I caught a quick gleam of contemptuous triumph glint through the depths of the evil eyes.
“Empty will be your victory over me, Norhala,” he said; then waited.
“What is your bargain?” she spoke hesitatingly; with a sinking of my heart I heard the doubt tremble in her throat.
“If you will go without further knocking upon my gates”— there was a satiric grimness in the phrase —“go when you have been given them, and pledge yourself never to return — you shall have them. If you will not, then they die.”
“But what security, what hostages, do you ask?” Her eyes were troubled. “I cannot swear by your gods, Cherkis, for they are not my gods — in truth I, Norhala, have no gods. Why should I not say yes and take the two, then fall upon you and destroy — as you would do in my place, old wolf?”
“Norhala,” he answered, “I ask nothing but your word. Do I not know those who bore you and the line from which they sprung? Was not always the word they gave kept till death — unbroken, inviolable? No need for vows to gods between you and me. Your word is holier than they — O glorious daughter of kings, princess royal!”
The great voice was harshly caressing; not obsequious, but as though he gave her as an equal her rightful honor. Her face softened; she considered him from eyes far less hostile.
A wholesome respect for this gross tyrant’s mentality came to me; it did not temper, it heightened, the hatred I felt for him. But now I recognized the subtlety of his attack; realized that unerringly he had taken the only means by which he could have gained a hearing; have temporized. Could he win her with his guile?
“Is it not true?” There was a leonine purring in the question.
“It IS true!” she answered proudly. “Though why YOU should dwell upon this, Cherkis, whose word is steadfast as the running stream and whose promises are as lasting as its bubbles — why YOU should dwell on this I do not know.”
“I have changed greatly, Princess, in the years since my great wickedness; I have learned much. He who speaks to you now is not he you were taught — and taught justly then — to hate.”
“You may speak truth! Certainly you are not as I have pictured you.” It was as though she were more than half convinced. “In this at least you do speak truth — that IF I promise I will go and molest you no more.”
“Why go at all, Princess?” Quietly he asked the amazing question — then drew himself to his full height, threw wide his arms.
“Princess?” the great voice rumbled forth. “Nay — Queen! Why leave us again — Norhala the Queen? Are we not of your people? Am I not of your kin? Join your power with ours. What that war engine you ride may be, how built, I know not. But this I do know — that with our strengths joined we two can go forth from where I have dwelt so long, go forth into the forgotten world, eat its cities and rule.
“You shall teach our people to make these engines, Norhala, and we will make many of them. Queen Norhala — you shall wed my son Kulun, he who stands beside me. And while I live you shall rule with me, rule equally. And when I die you and Kulun shall rule.
“Thus shall our two royal lines be made one, the old feud wiped out, the long score be settled. Queen — wherever it is you dwell it comes to me that you have few men. Queen — you need men, many men and strong to follow you, men to gather the harvests of your power, men to bring to you the fruit of your smallest wish — young men and vigorous to amuse you.
“Let the past be forgotten — I too have wrongs to forget, O Queen. Come to us, Great One, with your power and your beauty. Teach us. Lead us. Return, and throned above your people rule the world!”
He ceased. Over the battlements, over the city, dropped a vast expectant silence — as though the city knew its fate was hanging upon the balance.
“No! No!” It was Ruth crying. “Do not trust him, Norhala! It’s a trap! He shamed me — he tortured —”
Cherkis half turned; before he swung about I saw a hell shadow darken his face. Ventnor’s hand thrust out, covered Ruth’s mouth, choking her crying.
“Your son”— Norhala spoke swiftly; and back flashed the cruel face of Cherkis, devouring her with his eyes. “Your son — and Queenship here — and Empire of the World.” Her voice was rapt, thrilled. “All this you offer? Me — Norhala?”
“This and more!” The huge bulk of his body quivered with eagerness. “If it be your wish, O Queen, I, Cherkis, will step down from the throne for you and sit beneath your right hand, eager to do your bidding.”
A moment she studied him.
“Norhala,” I whispered, “do not do this thing. He thinks to gain your secrets.”
“Let my bridegroom stand forth that I may look upon him,” called Norhala.
Visibly Cherkis relaxed, as though a strain had been withdrawn. Between him and his crimson-clad son flashed a glance; it was as though a triumphant devil sped from them into each other’s eyes.
I saw Ruth shrink into Ventnor’s arms. Up from the wall rose a jubilant shouting, was caught by the inner battlements, passed on to the crowded terraces.
“Take Kulun,” it was Drake, pistol drawn and whispering across to me. “I’ll handle Cherkis. And shoot straight.”
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:11