SHE slipped down upon the divan and beckoned him beside her. She laid a hand lightly upon his heart. His heart leaped beneath the touch; she felt it, too, and moved a little from him, smiling, watching him through downcast, curving lashes. She drew her slender, sandaled feet beneath her; mused with white hands clasped between rounded knees. When she spoke her voice was low, words half intoned.
“The sin of Zarpanit; the tale of her sin against Ishtar; Ishtar the Mighty Goddess; Mother of the Gods and of men; Lady of the Heavens and of Earth — who loved her!”
“High Priestess of Ishtar at her Great House in Uruk was Zarpanit. Kadishtu, Holy One, was she. And I, Sharane, who come from Babylon, was closest to her; her priestess; loved by her even as she was loved by Ishtar. Through Zarpanit the Goddess counseled and warned, rewarded and punished. Kings and men. Into the body of Zarpanit the Goddess came as to a shrine, seeing through her eyes, speaking with her lips.
“Now the temple in which we dwelt was named the House of the Seven Zones. In it was the sanctuary of Sin, God of Gods, who lives in the Moon; of Shamash his son; whose home is the Sun, of Nabu, the Lord of Wisdom; of Ninib, the Lord of War; of Nergal, the Dark Hornless one, Ruler of the Dead; and of Bel–Merodach, the Mighty Lord. Yet most of all was it the House of Ishtar, who dwelt there of his own right — temple themselves within her holy home.
“From Cuthaw in the north, from the temple there which Dark Nergal ruled as Ishtar ruled at Uruk, came a priest to sit over the Zone of Nergal in the House of the Seven Zones. His name was Alusar — and close as was Zarpanit to Ishtar as close was he to the Lord of the Dead. Nergal made himself manifest through Alusar, spoke through him and dwelt at times within him even as did Ishtar within her Priestess Zarpanit. With Alusar came retinue of priests, and among them that spawn of Nergal’s slime — Klaneth. And Klaneth was close to Alusar as I to Zarpanit.”
She raised her head and looked at Kenton through, narrowed lids.
“I know you now,” she cried. “A while ago you lay upon the ship and watched my strife with Klaneth! Now I know you — although then you had no cloak nor sword; and vanished as I looked upon you!”
Kenton smiled at her.
“You lay with frightened face,” she said. “And stared at me with fearful eyes — and fled!”
She half arose; he saw suspicion sweep her anew; the scorn in her voice lashed him into quick, hot rage. He drew her down beside him.
“I was that man,” he said. “Nor was it fault of mine that then I went away — I who have returned as quickly as I could? And your own eyes lied to you. Nor ever think again that mine hold fear of you! Look into them!” he bade her, fiercely.
She looked — long; sighed and bent away, sighed again and swayed toward him, languorously. His arms gripped her.
“Enough,” she thrust him away. “I read no hasty script in new eyes. Yet I retract — you were not fearful. You did not flee! And when you speak I shall no doubt understand. Let be!
“Between Ishtar and Nergal,” she took up the interrupted tale, “is and ever must be unending hatred and strife. For Ishtar is Bestower of Life and Nergal is Taker of Life; she is the Lover of Good and he is the Lover of Evil. And how shall ever Heaven and Hell be linked; or life and death; or good and evil?
“Yet she, Zarpanit, Kadishtu, the Holy One of Ishtar, her best beloved, did link all these. For where she should have turned away — she looked with desire; and where she should have hated — she loved!
“Yea — the Priestess of the Lady of Life loved Alusar the Priest of the Lord of Death! Her love was a strong flame by whose light she could see only him — and him only. Had Zarpanit been Ishtar she would have gone to the Dwelling Place of the Lost for Alusar, even as did the Goddess for her lover Tammuz — to draw him forth or to dwell there with him.
“Yea — even to dwell with him there in the cold darkness where the dead creep feebly, calling with the weak voices of birds. In the cold of Nergal’s domain, in the famine of Nergal’s abode, in the blackness of his city where the deepest shade of earth would be a ray of sunlight, Zarpanit would have been happy — knowing that she was with Alusar.
“So greatly did she love!
“I helped her in her love — for love of her,” she whispered. “But Klaneth crept ever behind Alusar waiting for chance to betray him and to take his place. Yet Alusar trusted him. There came a night —”
She paused, her face drawn with memoried terror.
“There came . . . a night when Alusar lay with Zarpanit . . . within her chamber. His arms were about her . . . hers around his neck . . . their lips together . . .
“And that night down came Ishtar from her Heavens and entered and possessed her! . . .
“While at the same instant from his dark city came Nergal . . . and passed into Alusar . . .
“And in each others arms, looking into each other’s eyes, caught in the fire of mortal love . . . were . . . Ishtar and Nergal . . . Heaven and Hell . . . the Soul of Life mated to the Soul of Death!”
She quivered and wept and long minutes went slowly by before again she spoke.
“Straightway those two who clasped were torn from each other. We were buffeted as by hurricanes, blinded by lightnings; scourged and thrown broken to the walls. And when we knew consciousness the priests and priestesses of all the Seven Zones had us. All the sin was known!
“Yea, even though Ishtar and Nergal had not . . . met . . . that night still would the sinning of Zarpanit and Alusar have been known. For Klaneth, whom we had thought on guard, had betrayed them and brought down upon them the pack!
“Let Klaneth be cursed!” Sharane raised arms high, and the pulse of her hate beat upon Kenton like a hammer of flame. “Let Klaneth crawl blind and undying in the cold blackness of Nergal’s abode! But Goddess Ishtar! Wrathful Ishtar! Give him to me first that I may send him there as I would have him go!”
“FOR A TIME,” she said, “we lay in darkness, Zarpanit and I together — and Alusar we knew not where. Great had been the sin of those two, and in it I had shared. Not quickly was our punishment to be decided. I comforted her as best I might, loving her, caring naught for myself — for her heart was close to breaking, knowing not what they did with him she loved.
“There fell another night when the priests came to us. They drew us from our cell and bore us in silence to the portal of the Du-azzaga, the Brilliant Chamber, the Council Room of the Gods. There stood other priests with Alusar. They opened the portal, fearfully, and thrust us three within.
“Now in truth my spirit shrank and was afraid, and beside mine I felt the shuddering soul of Zarpanit.
“For the Du-azzaga was filled with light, and in the places of the Gods sat not their images but the Gods themselves! Hidden each behind a sparkling cloud the Gods looked at us. In the place of Nergal was a fiery darkness.
“Out of the shining azure mist before the Shrine of Nabu came the voice of the Lord of Wisdom.
“‘So great is your sin, woman,’ it said, ‘and yours, priest, that it has troubled even us the Gods! Now what have you to say before we punish?’
“The voice of Nabu was cold and passionless as the light of far flung stars — yet in it was understanding.
“And suddenly my love for Zarpanit swelled, and I held fast to it and it gave me strength; while beside me I felt her soul stand erect, defiant, her love flinging itself before her as a shield. She did not answer — only held out her arms to Alusar. His love stood forth unafraid even as hers. He clasped her.
“Their lips met — and the judging Gods were forgotten!
“Then Nabu spoke again:
“‘These two bear a flame that none but Ishtar can quench — and it may be not even she!’
“At this Zarpanit drew from her lover’s arms; came close to the glory in which hid Ishtar; did homage and addressed her:
“‘Yea, O Mother, are you not the mother of that fire we call love? Did you not create it and set it as a torch above Chaos? And having made it, did you not know how mighty was the thing you made? It was that love of which you are the mother, O Holy Ishtar, that came uncalled into this temple of my body which was yours, and still is yours though you have abandoned it. Is it my fault that so strong was love that it broke the doors of your temple, or my fault that its light blinded me to all save him on whom it shone? You are the creator of love, O Ishtar; and if you did not mean it to conquer then why made you it so mighty? Or if love be grown stronger than you who made it can we — a man and woman — be blamed that we could not overcome it? And if love be not stronger than you, still did you make it stronger than man. Therefore punish love, your child, O Ishtar — not us!’
“It was the Lord Nabu who broke the silence of the Gods:
“‘Truth is in what she says. The flame they bear is one whose ways you know, O Ishtar, far better than do we. Therefore it is for you to answer her.’
“‘From the glory veiling the Goddess a voice came, sweet but small with bitter anger:
“‘There is truth in what you say Zarpanit, whom once I called daughter. Now because of that truth I will temper my anger. You have asked me whether love is stronger than I who created it. We shall learn! You and your lover shall dwell in a certain place that shall be opened to you. Ever together shall you be. You may look upon each other, your eyes may meet — but never lips nor hands! You may speak to each other — but never of this flame called love! For when it leaps and draws you together then I, Ishtar, will enter you, Zarpanit, and give it battle! Nor shall it be the Ishtar you have known. Nay, that Sister–Self of mine whom men name the Wrathful, the Destroyer — she shall possess you. And so it shall be until the flame within you conquers her, or that flame perishes!’
“The voice of Ishtar was still. The gods sat, silent. Then out of the fiery blackness of Nergal’s shrine bellowed the voice of the Lord of Death!
“‘So say you, Ishtar! Then I, Nergal, tell you this — I stand with this man who is my priest! Nor am I much displeased with him, since it was by him that I looked so closely into your eyes, O Mother of Life!’— the Blackness shook with laughter —‘I shall be with him, and I will meet you, Ishtar the Destroyer! Yea, with craft to match yours and strength to grapple with you — until I, not you, have blown out that flame. For in my abode is no such fire — and I would quench it in them that my darkness be not affrighted when at last these two come to me!’
“And again the laughter shook the ebon cloud, while the glory that covered the Goddess quivered with her wrath.
“But the three of us listened with despair — for ill as it had gone with us, far worse was it to hear this jesting of the Dark Hornless One with the Mother of the Heavens.
“Came Ishtar’s voice, smaller still:
“‘Be it so, O Nergal!’
“There was silence for a little time among the other gods; and I thought that behind their veils they looked at each other askance. Came at last the passionless voice of Nabu:
“‘What of this other woman —?
“The voice of Ishtar, impatient:
“‘Let her fate be bound with Zarpanit’s. Let Zarpanit have her retinue in that place to which she goes.’
“Then Nabu again:
“‘The priest Klaneth — is he to go free?’
“‘What! Shall not my Alusar have his retinue as well?’ mocked Nergal. ‘Nay, set Klaneth and others beside him to minister to him.’
“‘Again I thought that the Gods looked at each other askance; then Nabu asked:
“‘Shall it be so, O Ishtar?’
“And Ishtar answered:
“‘Let it be so!’
“The Du-azwsa faded; I was one with the nothingness.
“When we awoke we were on this haunted ship, on this strange sea, in this strange world and all the gods had decreed in the Du-azzaga had come to pass. With Zarpanit was I and half a score of the temple girls she had loved. And with Alusar was Klaneth and a pack of his black acolytes. They had given us oarsmen, sturdy temple slaves — a twain for each oar. They had made the ship beautiful, and they had seen to it that we lacked nothing.”
A flame of anger pulsed for an instant through her eyes.
“Yea,” she said, “the kindly gods did all for our comfort — and then they launched the ship on this strange sea in this strange world as battleground for Love and Hate, arena for Wrathful Ishtar and Dark Nergal, torture chamber for their priestess and priest.
“It was in this cabin that Zarpanit awakened — with the name of Alusar upon her lips. Then straightway she ran out the door, and from the black cabin came Alusar calling her name. I saw her reach that line where black deck meets this — and, lo, she was hurled back as though by thrust of arms. For there is a barrier there, messenger — a barrier built by the gods over which none of us upon the ship may pass — but then we knew nothing of that. And Alusar, too, was hurled back.
“Then as they arose, calling, stretching hands, striving to touch finger to finger, straightway into Zarpanit poured that Sister–Self of Ishtar, the Angry One, the Destroyer, while around Alusar black shadows deepened and hid him. At last — the shadows parted — and what had been the face of Alusar peered from them and it was the face of Nergal, Lord of the Dead!
“So it was — even as the gods had decreed. And that immortal twain within the bodies of those mortal two who loved each other so — battled and flung their hates like brands against each other, while the slaves chained to their oars in the pit cowered and raved or fell senseless under the terrors loosed above them. And the temple girls cast themselves upon the deck or ran screaming into the cabin that they might not see. Only I did not cry out or flee — who, since I had faced the gods in the Du-azzaga, could never again feel fear.
“And so it fared; how long, how long I do not know, in this place where time seems not to be, since there is neither night nor day as we knew them in Babylon.
“Yet ever Zarpanit and Alusar strove to meet, and ever Wrathful Ishtar and Dark Nergal thrust them apart. Many are the wiles of the Lord of the Shades and countless are his weapons. Many are the arts of Ishtar, and is not her quiver always full? Messenger, how long the pair endured I know not. Yet always they strove to break that barrier through, driven by their love. And always —
“The flames within them burned on,” she whispered. “Nergal nor Ishtar could dim them. Their love did but grow stronger. There came a day —
“It was in mid-battle. Ishtar had taken possession of Zarpanit and stood where this deck touches the pit of the oarsmen. Nergal had poured himself into Alusar and hurled his evil spawn across the pit against the goddess’s lightnings.
“And as I crouched, watching, at this cabin’s door, I saw the radiance that covered Ishtar tremble and dull. I saw the face of Ishtar waver and fade — the face of Zarpanit look out from where the face of Ishtar had been.
“The darkness that shrouded the Lord of the Dead lightened as though a strong flame had shot up within it!
“Then Ishtar took one step — and another and another — toward the barrier between black deck and this. But it came to me that not by her will did she so move. No! She went haltingly, reluctantly, as though something stronger than herself pushed her on. And as she moved, so moved Nergal within his shadows to meet her!
“Closer they came and closer. And ever the radiance of Ishtar would wax and wane. Ever the shadows clothing Nergal would lighten, darken, lighten again. Yet ever-slowly, unwillingly, but inexorably they drew closer and closer to each other. I could see the face of Alusar, the priest, thrusting itself into sight, stripping itself of Nergal’s mask.
“Slowly, slowly the white feet of Zarpanit carried Ishtar to the barrier; and slowly, slowly, ever matching her tread, came Alusar to meet her. And they met!
“They touched hands, touched lips, clasped — ere conquered god and goddess could withdraw from them.
“They kissed and clasped. They fell upon the deck — dead. Dead — in each other’s arms.
“Nor Ishtar nor Nergal had conquered! Nay! Love of man and love of woman — these had conquered. Victors over god and goddess — the flames were free!
“The priest had fallen on the hither side of the barrier. We did not unclasp their arms. We set them adrift, alock, face to face — their bodies.
“Then I ran forth to slay Klaneth. But I had forgotten that neither Ishtar nor Nergal had conquered one the other. Lo, into me poured the goddess, and into Klaneth returned Nergal! As of old these two powers battled. And again as of old the unseen barrier was strong, holding back from each other those on ivory deck and black.
“Yet I was happy — for by this I knew that Zarpanit and Alusar had been forgotten by them. It came to me that the strife had gone beyond those two who had escaped. That now it mattered not either to Wrathful Ishtar or to Nergal that priestess and priest had gone — since in my body and in Klaneth’s they could still strive against each other for possession of the ship . . .
“And so we sail — and fight, and sail — and fight . . . How long, I do not know. Many, many years must have passed since we faced the gods in Uruk — but see, I am still as young as then and as fair! Or so my mirror tells me,” she sighed.
KENTON sat silent, unanswering Young and fair she was indeed — and Uruk and Babylon mounds of timeworn sands these thousands of years!
“Tell me, Lord”— her voice roused him; “tell me, has the Temple at Uruk great honor among the nations still? And is Babylon proud in her supremacy?”
He did not speak, belief that he had been thrust into some alien, reality wrestling with outraged revolt of reason.
And Sharane, raising her eyes to his troubled face, stared at him with ever growing doubt. She leaped from beside him, stood quivering like a blade of wrath in a sweetly flowered sheath.
“Have you word for me?” she cried. “Speak — and quickly!”
Dream woman or woman meshed in ancient sorceries, there was but one answer for Sharane — the truth.
And tell her truth Kenton did, beginning from the arrival of the block from Babylon into his house; glossing no detail that might make all plain to her. She listened, her gaze steadfast upon him, drinking in his words — amazement alternating with stark disbelief; and these in turn replaced by horror, by despair.
“For even the site of ancient Uruk is well-nigh lost,” he ended. “The House of the Seven Zones is a windswept heap of desert sand. And Babylon, mighty Babylon, has been level with the wastes for thousands of years!”
She leaped to her feet — leaped and rushed upon him, eyes blazing, red-gold hair streaming.
“Liar!” she shrieked. “Liar! Now I know you — you phantom of Nergal!”
A dagger flashed in her hand; he caught the wrist just in time; struggled with her; bore her down upon the couch.
She relaxed, hung half fainting in his arms.
“Uruk dust!” she whimpered. “The House of Ishtar dust! Babylon a desert! And Sargon of Akkad dead six thousand years ago, you said — six thousand years ago!” She shuddered, sprang from his embrace. “But if that is so, then what am I?” she whispered, white lipped. “What — am I? Six thousand years and more gone since I was born — and I alive! Then what am I?”
Panic overpowered her; her eyes dulled; she clutched at the cushions. He bent over her; she threw white arms around him.
“I am alive?” she cried. “I am — human? I am — woman?”
Her soft lips clung to his, supplicating; the perfumed tent of her hair covered him. She held him, her lithe body pressed tight, imperatively desperate. Against his racing heart he felt the frightened pulse of hers. And ever between her kisses she whispered: “Am I not a woman — and alive? Tell me — am I not alive?”
Desire filled him; he gave her kiss for kiss; tempering the flame of his desire was clear recognition that neither swift love for him nor passion had swept her into his arms.
It was terror that lay behind her caresses. She was afraid — appalled by that six-thousand-year-wide abyss between the life she had known and his. Clinging to him she fought for assurance. She had been driven back to woman’s last intrenchment — the primal assertion of the woman-self — the certainty of her womanhood and its unconquerable lure.
No, it was not to convince him that her kisses burned his lips — it was to convince herself.
He did not care. She was in his arms. He gave her kiss for kiss.
She thrust him from her; sprang to her feet.
“I am a woman, then?” she cried triumphantly. “A woman — and alive?”
“A woman!” he answered thickly, his whole body quivering toward her. “Alive! God — yes!”
She closed her eyes; a great sigh shook her.
“And that is truth,” she cried, “and it is the one truth you have spoken. Nay — be silent!” she checked him. “If I am a woman and alive, it follows that all else you have told me are lies — since I could be neither were Babylon dust and it six thousand years since first I saw the ship. You lying dog!” she shrilled, and with one ringed hand struck Kenton across the lips.
The rings cut deep. As he fell back, dazed both by blow and sudden shift of fortune, she threw open the inner door.
“Luarda! Athnal! All!” wrathfully she summoned. “Quick! Bind me this dog! Bind him — but slay him not!”
Streamed from the cabin seven warrior maids, short kirtled, bare to their waists, in their hands light javelins. They flung themselves upon him. And as they wound about him Sharane darted in and tore the sword of Nabu from his hand.
And now young, fragrant bodies crushed him in rings of woman flesh, soft, yet inexorable as steel. The blue cloak was thrown over his head, twisted around his neck. Kenton awoke from his stupor — awoke roaring with rage. He tore himself loose, hurled the cloak from him, leaped toward Sharane. Quicker than he, the lithe bodies of the maids screened her from his rush. They thrust him with their javelins, pricking him as do the matadors to turn a charging bull. Back and back they drove him, ripping his clothing, bringing blood now here, now there.
Through his torment he heard her laughter.
“Liar!” she mocked. “Liar, coward and fool! Tool of Nergal, sent to me with a lying tale to sap my courage! Back to Nergal you go with another tale!”
The warrior maids dropped their javelins, surged forward as one. They clung to him; twined legs and arms around him, dragged him down. Cursing, flailing with his fists, kicking — caring no longer that they were women — Kenton fought them. Berserk, he staggered to his feet. His foot struck the lintel of the rosy cabin’s door. Down he plunged, dragging his wildcat burden with him. Falling they drove against the door. Open it flew, and out through it they rolled, battling down the ivoried deck.
There was a shouting close behind him, a shrill cry of warning from Sharane — some urgent command, for grip of arms and legs relaxed; clutching hands were withdrawn.
Sobbing with rage, Kenton swung to his feet. He saw that he was almost astride the line between ivoried deck and black. It came to him that this was why Sharane had whistled her furies from him; that he had dragged them too close to its mysterious menace.
Again her laughter lashed him. She stood upon the gallery of little blossoming trees, her doves winging about her. The sword of Nabu was in her hand; derisively she lifted it.
“Ho, lying messenger!” mocked Sharane. “Ho, dog beaten by women! Come, get your sword!”
“I’ll come, damn you!” he shouted, and leaped forward.
The ship pitched. Thrown off his balance, Kenton staggered back, reeled to the line where black and ivory decks met.
Reeled over it — unhurt!
Something deeper than his consciousness registered that fact; registered it as of paramount importance. Whatever the power of the barrier, to it Kenton was immune. He poised himself to leap back to the ivory deck.
“Stop him!” came the voice of Klaneth.
In mid-spring long, sinewy fingers gripped his shoulder, swung him round. He looked into the face of the beater of the serpent drum. The drummer’s talons lifted him and cast Kenton like a puppy behind him.
And panting like some outraged puppy, Kenton swayed up on his feet. A ring of black-robed men was closing in upon him, black-robed men whose faces were dead white, impassive; black-robed men closing in upon him with clutching hands. Beyond the ring stood the mailed warrior with the red beard and the pale agate eyes; and beside him the Black Priest.
Naught cared Kenton for any or all of them. He rushed. The black robes curled over him, overwhelming him, pinned him down.
Again the ship lurched, this time more violently. Kenton, swept off his feet, slid sidewise. A wave swished over him. The hands that clutched him were washed away. Another wave lifted him, flung him up and out. Deep he sank; fought his way upward; dashed the water from his eyes and looked for the ship.
A roaring wind had risen. Under it the ship was scudding — a hundred yards away. He shouted; swam toward her. Down went the sail, down dipped the oars, straining to keep her before the wind. Faster, faster flew the ship before the blast.
She was lost in the silvery mists.
Kenton ceased his efforts; floated, abandoned in an unknown world.
A wave smote him; he came up behind it, choking. The spindrift whipped him. He heard the booming surf, the hiss of combers thrown back by ramparts of rock. Another wave caught him. Struggling on its crest he saw just ahead of him a pinnacle of yellow stone rising from a nest of immense boulders upon which the billows broke in fountains of spume.
He was lifted by a gigantic comber; dashed straight against the yellow pillar.
The shock of his impact was no greater than that of breaking through thick cobweb. For infinite distances it seemed to him he rushed on and on through a soft thick darkness. With him went the shrieking clamor of vast tempests. Abruptly his motion ended, the noise of the tempests ceased.
He lay prone; his fingers clenched some coarse fabric that crumpled stubbornly in his grip. He rolled over, hands thrust out; one of them gripped cool, polished wood. He sat up —
He was back in his own room!
Kenton dragged himself to his feet, stood swaying, dazed.
What was that darkening the rug at his feet? It was water — water that was dripping from him, strangely colored water — crimsoned water.
He realized that he was wet to the skin, drenched. He licked his lips — there was salt upon them. His clothing was ripped and torn, the salt water dripped from it.
And from a score of wounds his blood mingled with the water!
He stumbled over to the jewelled ship. On the black deck was a little group of manikins, leaning and looking over the rail.
Upon the gallery of the rosy cabin one tiny figure stood —
He touched her — jewel hard, jewel cold, a toy!
And yet — Sharane!
Like returning wave his berserk rage swept him. Echoes of her laughter in his ears, Kenton, cursing, sought for something to shatter the shining ship. Never again should Sharane mock him!
He caught a heavy chair by the legs, swung it high overhead, poised for an instant to send it crashing down —
And suddenly beneath the salt upon his lips Kenton tasted the honey musk of her kisses — the kisses of Sharane!
The chair fell from his hands.
“Ishtar! Nabu!” he whispered, and dropped upon his knees. “Set me again upon the ship! Ishtar! Do with me as you will — only set me again upon your ship!”
SWIFT was his answer. He heard far away a bellowing roar as of countless combers battering against a rock-ribbed coast. Louder it grew.
With a thunder of vast waters the outward wall of his room disappeared. Where wall had been was the crest of an enormous leaping wave. The wave curled down over Kenton, lifted him up, rolled him far under it; shot him at last, gasping for breath up and up through it.
He was afloat again upon the turquoise sea!
The ship was close. Close! Its scimitared bow was striking down by his head; was flying past him. A golden chain hung from it, skittering over the crests. Kenton clutched at it — missed it.
Back he fell. Swift raced the shining side of the ship past him. Again he threw himself high. There was another chain; a black one spattering over the wave tips and hanging from the stem.
He gripped it. The sea tore at his thighs, his legs, his feet. Grimly he held fast. Hand over hand, cautiously, he drew himself up. Now he was just below the rail. Slowly he raised his head to peer over.
Long arms swept down upon him; long hands gripped his shoulders, lifted him, hurled him down upon the deck, pinned him there. A thong was drawn round his ankles, his arms were pinioned to his sides.
He looked into the face of the frog-mouthed beater of the serpent drum. And over one of the drummer’s enormous shoulders stared the white face of Klaneth. He heard his voice:
“Carry him in, Gigi.”
He felt himself lifted by the drummer as easily as though he had been a babe; and cradled in the huge hands he was carried through the black cabin’s door.
The drummer set Kenton on his feet, regarding him with curious, half-amused eyes. Agate eyes of the red-bearded warrior and pale eyes of Klaneth dwelt upon him as curiously.
Kenton took stock of the three. First the black priest — massive, elephant thewed; flesh pallid and dead as though the blood flowed through veins too deeply imbedded to reveal the creep of its slow tide; the face of Nero remodelled from cold clay by numbed hands.
Then Gigi — the drummer. His froglike face with the pointed ears; his stunted and bowed legs; his giant’s body above the hips; the gigantic shoulders whence swung the long and sinewy and apish arms whose strength Kenton had felt; the slit of a mouth in whose corners a malicious humor dwelt. Something of old earth gods about him; a touch of Pan.
Red beard — a Persian out of that time when Persia’s hordes were to the world what later the Roman legions were to be. Or so Kenton judged him by his tunic of linked light mail, the silken-sheathed legs, the high buskins and the curved daggers and the scimitar in his jewelled belt. And human as Kenton himself. About him was none of the charnel flavor of Klaneth nor the grotesqueness of Gigi. The full red lips beneath the carefully trimmed beard were sensual, life loving; the body was burly and muscular; the face whiter than Kenton’s own. But it was sullen and stamped deep with a half-resigned, half-desperate boredom that even his lively and frank curiosity about Kenton lightened little.
In front of him was a wide slab of bloodstone. Six priests knelt upon it, worshipping something that stood within a niche just above the slab. What it was he could not tell — except that it breathed out evil. A little larger than a man, the thing within the niche was black and formless as though made of curdling shadows. It quivered, pulsated — as though the shadows that were its substance thickened constantly about it, passed within it and were replaced swiftly by others.
Dark was that cabin, the walls somber as dull black marble. Other shadows clung to the dark walls and clustered in the corners; shadows that seemed only to await command to deepen into substance.
Unholy shadows — like those that clothed the thing within the niche.
Beyond, as in the cabin of Sharane, was another chamber, and crowding at the door between were a dozen or more of the black-robed, white-faced priests.
“Go to your places,” Klaneth turned to them, breaking the silence. They slipped away. The black priest closed the door upon them. He touched the nearest of the kneeling priests with his foot.
“Our Lord Nergal has had enough of worship,” he said. “See — he has swallowed your prayers!”
Kenton looked at the thing within the niche. It was no longer misty, shadowed. It stood out, clear cut. Its body was that of a man and its face was that same awesome visage of evil into which he had seen the black priest’s turn on that first adventure of his upon the ship.
The face of Nergal — Lord of the Dead!
What had been the curdled, quivering shades enveloping the statue?
He felt the eyes of Klaneth searching him, covertly. A trick! A trick to frighten him. He met the black priest’s gaze squarely; smiled.
The Persian laughed.
“Hai, Klaneth,” he said. “There was a bolt that fell short. Mayhap this stranger has seen such things before. Mayhap he is a sorcerer himself and can do better things. Change your play, Klaneth.”
He yawned and seated himself upon a low settle. The black priest’s face grew grimmer.
“Best be silent, Zubran,” he said. “Else it may be that Nergal will change his play for you in a way to banish forever your disbelief.”
“Disbelief?” echoed the Persian. “Oh, Nergal is real enough. It is not disbelief that irks me. It is the eternal monotony. Can you do nothing new, Klaneth? Can Nergal do nothing new? Change his play for me, eh? By Ahriman — that is just what I wish he would do, if he can.”
He yawned again, ostentatiously. The black priest growled; turned to the six worshippers.
“Go,” he ordered, “and send Zachel to me.”
They filed through the outer door. The black priest dropped upon another settle, studying Kenton; the drummer squatted, also watching him; the Persian muttered to himself, playing with his dagger hilts. The door opened and into the cabin stepped a priest who held in one hand a long whip whose snaky lash, metal topped, was curled many times around his forearm. He bowed before Klaneth.
Kenton recognized him. When he had lain on the deck close to the mast he had seen this man sitting on a high platform at the foot of that mast. Overseer of the galley slaves, the oarsmen, was Zachel, and that long lash was measured to flick the furtherest of them if they lagged.
“Is this he whom you saw upon the deck some sleeps ago?” asked Klaneth. “He who lay there and, you say, vanished when the drab of Ishtar yonder bent over to touch him?”
“He is the same, master,” answered the overseer, coming close to Kenton and scanning him.
“Where went he then?” asked Klaneth, more to himself than to the other. “To Sharane’s cabin? But if so, why did she drive him out, her cats clawing him? And whence came that sword she waved and bade him come retake? I know that sword —”
“He did not go into her cabin at that time, master,” interrupted Zachel. “I saw her seek for him. She went back to her place alone. He had vanished.”
“And his driving forth,” mused Klaneth, “that was two sleeps ago. And the ship has sailed far since then. We saw him struggling in the waves far behind us. Yet here he is upon the ship again — and with his wounds still fresh, still bleeding as though it had been but a moment gone. And how passed he the barrier? Yea — how passed he the barrier?”
“Ah, at last you have stumbled on a real question,” cried the Persian. “Let him but tell me that — and, by the Nine Hells, not long will you have me for companion, Klaneth.”
Kenton saw the drummer make a covert warning gesture to Zuhran; saw the black priest’s eyes narrow.
“Ho! Ho!” laughed Gigi. “Zubran jests. Would he not find life there as tiresome as he pretends to find it with us? Is it not so, Zubran?”
Again he made the fleet, warning sigh. And the Persian heeded it.
“Yes, I suppose that is so,” he answered grudgingly. “At any rate — am I not sworn to Nergal? Nevertheless,” he muttered, “the gods gave women one art that has not grown tiresome since first they made the world.”
“They lose that art in Nergal’s abode,” said the black priest, grimly. “Best remember that and curb that tongue of yours lest you find yourself in a worse place than here — where at least you have your body.”
“May I speak, master?” asked Zachel; and Kenton felt threat in the glance the overseer shot at him.
The black priest nodded.
“I think he passed the barrier because he knows naught of our Lord,” said Zachel. “Indeed — may be an enemy of our Lord. If not — why was he able to shake off the hands of your priests, vanish in the sea — and return?”
“Enemy of Nergal!” Klaneth muttered.
“But it does not follow that he is friend of Ishtar,” put in the drummer, smoothly. “True if he were sworn to the Dark One he could not pass the barrier. But true is it also that were he sworn to Ishtar equally would that have been impossible.”
“True!” Klaneth’s face cleared. “And I know that sword — Nabu’s own blade.”
He was silent for a moment; thoughtful. When he spoke there was courtesy in the thick voice.
“Stranger,” he said, “if we have used you roughly, forgive us. Visitors are rare upon this craft. You — let me say — startled us out of our manners. Zachel, loose his bonds.”
The overseer bent and sullenly set Kenton free of his thongs.
“If, as I think, you come from Nabu,” went on the black priest, “I tell you that I have no quarrel with the Wise One or his people. Nor is my Master, the Lord of Death, ever at odds with the Lord of Wisdom. How could he be when one carries the keys of knowledge of this life, and the other the key that unlocks the door of the ultimate knowledge? Nay, there is no quarrel there. Are you a favored one of Nabu? Did he set you on the ship? And — why?”
Silent was Kenton, searching desperately for some way to answer the black priest. Temporize with him as he had with Sharane, he knew he could not. Nor, he knew, was it of any use to tell him the truth as he had told her — and been driven out like a hunted rat for it. Here was danger; peril, greater than he had faced in the rosy cabin. Klaneth’s voice cut in:
“But favored of Nabu as you may be, it seems that could not save you from losing his sword, nor from the javelins of Ishtar’s women. And if that is so — can it save you from my whip, my chains?”
And as Kenton stood, still silent, wolf light flared in the dead pupils and the black priest leaped to his feet crying:
“Answer Klaneth!” roared Gigi. “Has fear of him killed your tongue?”
Under the apparent anger of the drummer’s voice Kenton sensed a warning; friendliness.
“If that favor could have saved me, at least it did not,” he said sullenly.
The black priest dropped back upon the settle, chuckling.
“Nor could it save you if I decreed your death,” he said.
“Death — if he decrees it,” croaked Gigi. “Whoever you are,” went on the black priest, “whence you come, or how — one thing seems true. You have power to break a chain that irks me. Nay, Zachel, stay,” he spoke to the overseer who had made a move to go. “Your counsel is also good. Stay!”
“There is a slave dead at the oars,” said the overseer. “I would loose his chains and cast him over.”
“Dead,” there was new interest in Klaneth’s voice. “Which was he? How did he die?”
“Who knows?” Zachel shrugged his shoulders. “Of weariness, maybe. He was one of those who first set sail with us. He who sat beside the yellow-haired slave from the North whom we bought at Emakhtila.”
“Well — he had served long,” said the black priest. “Nergal has him. Let his body bear his chains a little longer. Stay with me.”
He spoke again to Kenton, deliberately, finally:
“I offer you freedom. I will give you honors and wealth in Emakhtila, where we shall sail as soon as you have done my bidding. There you shall have priesthood and a temple if you want them. Gold and women and rank — if you will do what I desire.”
“What must I do to win me all this?” asked Kenton. The black priest arose and bent his head so that his eyes looked straight into Kenton’s own. “Slay Sharane!” he said.
“Little meat in that, Klaneth,” the Persian spoke, mockingly. “Did you not see her girls beat him? As well send to conquer a lioness a man who has already been whipped by her cubs.”
“Nay,” said Klaneth, “I did not mean for him to pass over the open deck where surely her watchers would see him. He can clamber round the ship’s hull — from chain, ledge to ledge. There is a window behind the cabin wherein she sleeps. He can creep up and through it.”
“Best swear him to Nergal before he takes that road, master,” Zachel interrupted. “Else we may never have him back again.”
“Fool!” Gigi spoke. “If he makes his vows to Nergal perhaps he cannot go at all. How do we know that then the barrier will not be closed to him as it is to us who are sworn to the Dark One, even as it is to those who are sworn to Ishtar?”
“True,” nodded the black priest. “We dare not risk that. Well spoken, Gigi.”
“Why should Sharane be slain?” asked Kenton. “Let me take her for slave that I may repay her for her mockery and her blows. Give her to me — and you may keep all the riches and honors you have offered.”
“No!” The black priest leaned closer, searching more intently his eyes. “She must be slain. While she lives the Goddess has a vial into which to pour herself. Sharane dead — Ishtar has none on this ship through whom she may make herself manifest. This, I, Klaneth, know. Sharane dead, Nergal rules — through me! Nergal wins — through me!”
In Kenton’s mind a plan had formed. He would promise to do this — to slay Sharane. He would creep into her cabin, tell her of the black priest’s plot. Some way, somehow, make her believe him.
Too late he saw by the black priest’s face that Klaneth had caught his thought! Too late remembered that the sharp eyes of the overseer had been watching him, losing no fleeting change of expression; interpreting.
“Look, master!” Zachel snarled. “Look! Can you not read his thought, even as I? He cannot be trusted. You have held me here for counsel and have called my counsel good — then let me speak what is in my mind. I thought that this man had vanished from beside the mast, even as I told you. But did he? The gods come and go upon the ship as they will. But no man does. We thought we saw him struggling in the waves far behind the ship. But did we? By sorcery he may have lain all this while, hid in Sharane’s cabin. Out of her cabin we saw him come —”
“But driven forth by her women, Zachel,” broke in the drummer. “Cast out. Beaten. Remember that. There was no friendship there, Klaneth. They were at his throat like hounds tearing down a deer.”
“A play!” cried Zachel. “A play to trick you, master. They could have killed him. Why did they not? His wounds are but pin pricks. They drove him, yes, but where? Over to us! Sharane knew he could cross the barrier. Would she have made gift to us of new strength unless — she had a purpose? And what could that purpose have been, master? Only one. To place him here to slay you — even as you now plan to send him to slay her!
“He is a strong man — and lets himself be beaten by girls! He had a sword, a sharp blade and a holy one — and he lets a woman take it. Ho! Ho!” laughed Zachel. “Do you believe all this, master? Well — I do not!”
“By Nergal!” Klaneth swore, livid. “Now by Nergal —!”
He gripped Kenton by the shoulders, hurled him through the cabin door and out upon the deck. Swiftly he followed him.
“Sharane!” he howled. “Sharane!”
Kenton raised his head, dizzily; saw her standing beside the cabin door, arms around the slim waists of two of her damsels.
“Nergal and Ishtar are busy elsewhere,” mocked the black priest. “Life on the ship grows dull. There is a slave under my feet. A lying slave. Do you know him, Sharane?”
He bent and lifted Kenton high, as a man a child. Her face, cold, contemptuous, did not change.
“He is nothing to me — Worm,” she answered.
“Nothing to you, eh?” roared Klaneth. “Yet it was by your will that he came to me. Well — he has a lying tongue, Sharane. By the old law of the slaves shall he be punished for it. I will pit four of my men against him. If he master them I shall keep him for awhile — to amuse us further. But if they master him — then shall his lying tongue be torn from him. And I will give it to you as a token of my love — O, Sacred Vessel of Ishtar!”
“Ho! Ho!” laughed the black priest as Sharane shrank, paling. “A test for your sorceries, Sharane. To make that tongue speak! Make it —” the thick voice purred —“make it whisper of love to you. Tell you how beautiful you are, Sharane. How wonderful — ah, sweet Sharane! Reproach you a little, too, perhaps for sending it to me to be torn out!”
“Ho! Ho!” laughed Klaneth; then as though he spat the words, “You temple slut!”
He thrust a light whip in Kenton’s hands. “Now fight, slave!” he snarled, “fight for your lying tongue!”
Four of the priests leaped forward, drawing from beneath their robes thongs tipped with metal. They circled, and before Kenton could gather his strength they were upon him. They darted about him like four lank wolves; slashing at him with their whips. Blows flailed upon his head, his naked shoulders. Awkwardly he tried to parry to return them. The metal tips bit deep. From shoulders, chest, back, a slow rain of blood began to drip.
A thong caught him across the face, half blinding him.
Far away, he heard the golden voice of Sharane, shrill with scorn.
“Slave — can you not even fight?”
Cursing, he dropped his useless whip. Close before him was the grinning face of the priest who had struck him. Ere his lash could be raised again the fist of Kenton had smashed squarely on the leering mouth. He felt beneath his knuckles the bones of the nose crumble, the teeth shatter. The priest crashed back; went rolling to the rail.
Instantly the other three were upon him; tearing at his throat, clawing him, striving to drag him down. He broke loose. The three held back for an instant; then rushed. One there was a little in front of the others. Kenton. caught him by an arm, twisted that arm over his shoulder, set hip to prisoned flank, heaved and hurled the priest through air against the pair poised to strike. Out flung the body; fell short. The head crashed against the deck. There was a sharp snap, like a breaking faggot. For a moment the body stood, shoulders touching deck, legs writhing as though in grotesque mid-somersault. Then crumpled and lay still.
“Well thrown!” he heard the Persian shout.
Long fingers clutched his ankles; his feet flew from beneath him. As he fell he caught glimpse of a face staring up at him, a face that was but one red smear; the face of the first priest he had battered down. Falling, Kenton swept out his arms. Claws clutched his throat. There flashed into Kenton’s mind a dreadful thing he had seen done in another unequal combat upon a battlefield in France. Up swept his right hand, the first two fingers extended. They found place in the eye sockets of the throttler; pressed there cruelly; pressed there relentlessly. He heard a howl of agony; tears of blood spurted over his hands; the choking fingers dropped from his throat. Where eyes had been were now two raw red sockets with dreadful pendants.
Kenton leaped to his feet. He stamped upon the crimson smeared face looking up at him stamped once, twice, thrice — and the grip about his ankles was gone.
He caught a glimpse of Sharane, white-faced, wide-eyed; realized that the laughter of the black priest was stilled.
At him rushed the fourth acolyte, a broad-leafed knife gleaming in his grip. Kenton bent his head, rushed to meet him. He caught the hand that held the blade; bent the arm back; heard the bone snap. The fourth priest shrieked and fell.
He saw Klaneth, mouth loose, staring at him.
Straight for the black priest’s throat he leaped, right fist swinging upward to the jaw as he sprang. But the black priest thrust out his arms, caught him in mid-leap; lifted him high, over his head; balanced him to dash him down upon the deck.
Kenton closed his eyes — this, then, was the end.
He heard the voice of the Persian, urgent:
“Hai, Klaneth! Hai! Kill him not! By Ishak of the Hollow Hell — kill him not. Klaneth! Save him to fight again!”
Then the drummer —
“Nay, Klaneth! Nay!” He felt the talons of Gigi catch him; hold him tight in double grasp. “Nay, Klaneth! He fought fairly and well. He would be a rare one to have with us. Mayhap he will change his mind — with discipline. Remember, Klaneth — he can pass the barrier.”
The great bulk of the black priest trembled. Slowly his hands began to lower Kenton.
“Discipline? Ha!” it was the snarling voice of the overseer. “Give him to me, master, in the place of the slave who died at the oar. I will teach him — discipline.”
The black priest dropped Kenton on the deck; stood over him for a moment. Then he nodded, turned and stalked into his cabin. Kenton, reaction seizing him, huddled; hands clasping knees.
“Unchain the dead slave and cast him over, Zachel,” he heard Gigi say. “I will watch this man till you return.”
Kenton heard the overseer patter away. The drummer bent over him.
“Well fought, wolf cub,” he whispered. “Well fought! Now to your chains. Obey. Your chance shall come. Do as I say, wolf cub — and I will do what I may.”
He walked away. Kenton, wondering, raised his head. He saw the drummer stoop, lift the body of the priest with the broken neck and with one sweep of his long arm send it whirling over the ship’s rail. Bending again he sent after it the body of him upon whose face Kenton had stamped.
He paused speculatively before the wailing, empty-socketed horror stumbling and falling about the deck. Then. grinning cheerfully, he lifted it by the knees and tossed it overboard.
“Three less to worry about hereafter,” muttered Gigi,
A tremor shook Kenton; his teeth chattered; he sobbed. The drummer looked down on him with amused wonder.
“You fought well, wolf cub,” he said. “Then why do you quiver like a whipped hound whose half-chewed bone has been cast away?”
He laid both hands on Kenton’s bleeding shoulders. Under their touch he steadied. It was as though through Gigi’s hands flowed some current of strength of which his soul drank. As though he had tapped some ancient spring, some still pool of archaic indifference both to life and death, the current ran through him.
“Good!” said Gigi, and stood up. “Now Zachel comes for you.”
The overseer was beside Kenton; he touched his shoulder; pointed down a short flight of steps that led from the black deck to the galley-pit. Zachel behind him, Kenton groped down those steps into the half darkness of the pit. He stumbled along a narrow passage-way; was brought to halt at a great oar over whose shank a head, golden-haired, long-haired as any woman’s, bent from muscle-gnarled shoulders. This golden-haired oarsman slept. Around his waist was a thick bronze ring. From this ring a strong chain swung, its end fastened to a staple sunk deep in the back of the bench on which he sat. His wrists were manacled. The oar on which his head rested was manacled, too. Between manacled wrists and manacled oar two other strong chains stretched.
There was an empty chained circlet at the sleeper’s left side; on the oar at his left two empty manacles hung from chains.
Zachel pushed Kenton down on the bench beside the sleeping oarsman; girdled his waist with the empty bronze circlet; snapped it close; locked it.
He thrust Kenton’s unresisting hands through the manacles dangling from the oar; closed them on him; locked them.
And suddenly Kenton felt warmth of eyes upon him: looked behind him; saw leaning over the rail the face of Sharane. There was pity in her face; and dawning of something that set his heart to beating wildly.
“I’ll discipline you — never fear!” said Zachel.
Kenton looked behind him again.
Sharane was gone.
He bent over his oar beside the sleeping giant.
Bent over his oar —
Chained to it.
Slave of the ship!
KENTON awakened to the shrilling of a whistle. Something flicked his shoulder like the touch of a hot iron. He jerked his head up from the bed of his arms; looked stupidly at the chained wrists. Again the flick upon the shoulder, biting into the flesh.
“Up, slave!” he heard a snarling voice say — a voice he knew and struggled with deep drugged mind to place. “Up! Stand to your oar!”
Then another voice, close beside him, whispering, hoarse, but with warmth of comradeship in it:
“On your feet before his whip covers your back with the blood runes.”
He struggled upright; hands falling mechanically into two smooth, worn hollows in the wooden shaft to which he was chained. Standing thus upon the bench, his eyes looked out upon a tranquil, turquoise ocean, waveless, within a huge inverted bowl of silver mists. In front of him were four men, two standing, two sitting, at shanks of great oars which, like that he clutched, thrust through the side of a ship. Beyond them sloped a black deck —
Memory rushed upon him, banishing the last of sleep. The first voice had been that of Zachel, and the hot touches on his skin the bite of his whip. He turned his head. A score of other men, black and brown, sat and stood at other great sweeps, bending and rising, sending the Ship of Ishtar cutting through the still blue sea. And there on a platform at the mast step was Zachel, grinning derisively, out at Kenton, flicked the long lash once more.
“Look not back! Row!” snarled Zachel.
“I will row,” whispered the second voice. “Stand and sway with the oar till strength comes to you.”
He looked down on a head fair-haired, long-haired as any woman’s. But there was nothing womanish in the face that was lifted for an instant to his. Ice cold and ice blue were the eyes in it, though thawed now by a rough kindliness. The skin was storm beaten, tempest tanned. Nor was there aught womanish in the muscles that swelled on shoulders, back, and arms as he swung the great sweep, handling it as easily as a woman a broom.
Norseman from tip to toe; a Viking straight out of some ancient Saga — and, like Kenton, a slave to the ship; the giant who had been asleep over the oar when Kenton’s own chains had been locked upon him.
“Sigurd, Trygg’s son, I,” muttered the Norseman. “What Norn of ill-luck set you on this ship of warlocks? Speak low — bend to your oar. The devil with the lash has sharp ears.”
To the motion of the oar Kenton bent and rose, standing there on the bench. The benumbment that had held his mind was passing: passed ever more swiftly as his tightened grip on the oar began to send the blood more swiftly through his veins. The man beside him grunted approval,
“No weakling, you,” he whispered. “The oar wearies — yet up it flows strength from the sea. But sip that strength slowly. Grow strong — slowly. Then it may be that you and I together —”
He paused; shot a wary side glance at Kenton.
“By your looks, you are a man of Eirnn, of the Southern Isles,” he whispered. “No grudge bear I against them. They met us always sword to sword and breast to breast. Many the blows we have struck between us, and the hovering Valkyries went never empty-handed back to Valhalla where we met the men of Eirnn. Brave men, strong men, men who died shouting, kissing sword blade and spear point as gayly as a bride. Are you one of these?”
Kenton thought swiftly. He must shape his answer cunningly to bind this comradeship so plainly offered him neither bewilder by whole truth nor be so vague as to rouse suspicion.
“Kenton, my name,” he answered softly. “My fathers were of the Eirnn. They knew well the Vikings and their ships — nor have they handed down to me any grudge against them. I would be friend of yours, Sigurd, Trygg’s son, since for how long neither of us knows I must labor here beside you. And since you and I— together —”
He paused meaningly, as had the Viking. The Norseman nodded, then again shot that keen side glance at him.
“How fell this bane upon you?” he muttered. “Since they drove me aboard this ship at Isle of Sorcerers we have entered no harbor. You were not here when they chained me to the oar.”
“Sigurd — by Odin All–Father — I do not know!” The Norseman’s hand quivered at the name of his god. “A hand that I could not see plucked me out of my own land and set me here. That son of Hela who rules the black deck offered me freedom — if I would do a thing of shame. I would not. I battled with his men. Three I slew. And then they chained me to this oar.”
“You slew three!” The Viking looked up at Kenton, eyes blazing, teeth bared. “You slew three! Skoal! Comrade! Skoal!” he shouted.
Something like a flying serpent hissed by Kenton; hissed and struck the Norseman’s back. It withdrew, blood spurting from where it had bitten. It struck and struck again.
Zachel’s voice snarled through the hissing of the lash:
“Dog! Sow spittle! Have you gone mad? Shall I flay you then!”
Under the lash the body of Sigurd, Trygg’s son, shuddered. He looked up at Kenton, bloody froth on his lips. Suddenly, Kenton knew that it was not from the pain of the blows — that it was from the shame of them and from rage; that the whiplash was drawing redder drops from his heart, threatening to break it.
And Kenton, leaning over, thrust his own bare back between that lash and the bloody shoulders; took the blows itself.
“Ha!” shouted Zachel. “You want them, do you? Jealous of my whip’s kisses, are you? Well, then — take your fill of them!”
Mercilessly the lash hissed and struck, hissed and struck. Kenton endured its bite stoically, never shifting the shield of his body from the Norseman; meeting each sharp agony by thought of what he would do to repay when his time had come —
When he had mastered the ship!
“Stop!” Through pain-misted eyes he saw the drummer leaning over the pit. “Would you kill the slave, Zachel? By Nergal, if you do I’ll ask Klaneth as gift to me to chain you to his oar for a while!”
Then Zachel, sullenly:
Silently, half fainting, Kenton bent over the oar. The Norseman caught a hand, held it in iron grip.
“Sigurd, Trygg’s son, am I! Jarl’s grandson! Master of Dragons!” His voice was low, yet in it was a clanging echo of smiting swords; and he spoke with eyes closed as though he stood before some altar. “Blood brotherhood is there now between us, Kenton of the Eirnn. Blood brothers — you and I. By the red runes upon your back written there when you thrust it between me and the whip. I shall be your shield as you have been mine. Our swords shall be as one sword. Your friend shall be my friend, and your enemy my enemy. And my life for yours when need be! This by Odin All–Father and by all the Aesir I swear — I, Sigurd, Trygg’s son! And if ever I break faith with you, then may I lie under the poison of Hela’s snakes until Yggdrasill, the Tree of Life, withers, and Ragnarak, the Night of the Gods, has come!”
The heart of Kenton swelled and grew warm.
The grip of the Norseman tightened. He withdrew his hand and bent once more to the oar. Nothing more said he — but Kenton knew the vow was sealed.
The whip of the overseer cracked, a shrill whistle sounded. The four rowers in front lifted high their oars shunted them into a niche. The Viking raised his sweep, set it in a similar rest.
“Sit,” he said. “They wash us now and feed.”
A cascade of water fell over Kenton, and another. The salt of it stung his wounds, brought tears to his eyes,
“Quiet!” warned Sigurd. “Soon the pain passes, and the salt will heal.”
Then down over him swished the water. Two brown men, naked to the waists, backs scarred, went by. In each hand they held buckets, raised them, and poured the water over two of the men at the stroke oars. They turned and went back along the narrow way between the benches.
Powerful were their bodies. Their faces were those of men come to life out of some ancient Assyrian frieze, narrow, hook-nosed, full-lipped. No mind dwelt behind those faces. Their eyes were staring, empty.
The pair came back with other buckets which they dashed over the floor of the rowers’ pit, washing it clean. And when this was done two other slaves set upon the bench between Kenton and the Norseman a rough platter and a bowl. On the platter were a dozen long pods and a heap of round cakes resembling the cassava bread the tropical folk press out and bake in the sun. The bowl was filled with a dark, thick liquid, purplish red.
He munched the pods; they were fleshy, with a curious meaty flavor. The round cakes tasted exactly like what they resembled — cassava bread. The liquid was strong, pungent, a trace of fermentation in it. There was strength in that food and drink. The Norseman smiled at him.
“No lash now, so we speak not too loudly,” he said. “It is the rule. So while we eat and drink ask what you will of me without fear, blood brother.”
“Two things I would first know of many,” said Kenton. “How came you on the ship, Sigurd? And how comes this food here?”
“From here and there comes the food,” answered the Viking. “It is a ship of warlocks and a cursed one. Not long may it stop at any place, nor at any place is it welcome. Nay, not even at Emakhtila, which is full of warlocks. Where it harbors they bring food and gear quickly and with fear. Quickly do they give to speed it quickly away, lest the demons who possess it grow angry and destroy. They have strong magic — that pale son of Helan and the woman on the white deck. Sometimes I think her a daughter of Loki, whom Odin chained for his wickedness. And sometimes I think her a daughter of Freya, the Mother of Gods. But whatever she be, she is very fair and has a great soul. I have no hatred toward her.”
He lifted the bowl to his lips.
“And as for how I came here,” he went on, “that is a short tale enough. Southward I had sailed with the fleet of Kagnor Red Spear. Twelve great dragons had we when we set forth. Southward sailed we through many seas. raiding as we went. Then after long, with six of our twelve dragons left us, we came to a city in the land of the Egyptians. It was a very great city and full of temples to all the gods in the world — except our gods.
“It irked us that among all these temples Odin All–Father had none. It irked us, and we grew wroth. So one night when we had drunk overdeep of the Egyptian wine six of us set forth to take a temple, cast out its god and give it to Odin for a home.
“We came to a temple and entered. It was a dark temple and full of black robes like these on board the ship. When we told them what we meant to do, they buzzed like bees and rushed us like a wolfpack. Many then we slew, shouting. And we would have won that temple for Odin, the six of us fighting in a ring, but — a horn blew!”
“Summoning too many for you?” asked Kenton.
“Not at all, blood brother,” said Sigurd. “It was a warlock horn. A horn of sleep. It blew sleep through us as the storm wind blows the spray through a sail. It turned our bones to water, and our red swords dropped from hands that could not longer feel their hilts. And down we all dropped, sodden with sleep, among the slain.
“When we awoke we were in a temple. We thought it the same temple, for it was as dark and the same black-robed priests filled it. We were in chains, and they whipped us and made us slaves. Then we found we were no longer in the land of the Egyptians, but in a city named Emakhtila, on an isle of warlocks set in a sea of what I think a warlock world. Long I slaved for the black robes, I and my comrades, till they dragged me to this ship that had dropped anchor in Emakhtila harbor. And here ever since I have bent over my oar, watching their wizardries and fighting to keep my soul from being sucked from me.”
“A horn that poured out sleep!” said Kenton, puzzled. “But that I do not understand, Sigurd.”
“You will, comrade,” Sigurd said grimly. “Soon enough you will. Zachel plays it well — listen — it begins.”
From behind them a deep, droning, mellow horn note sounded. Low pitched, vibrant, continuous, it crept into the ears, and seemed to pour through them along every nerve, touching them, caressing them with the soft fingers of the very soul of poppied sleep.
The note droned on, dripping sleep.
The Viking’s eyes were fierce and strained with struggle against slumber. Slowly, slowly the lids closed over them.
His hands relaxed, the fingers opened, his body swayed, his head dropped upon his chest. He slumped down upon the bench.
The note droned on.
Fight as hard as Kenton might, he could not thrust away the soft, clinging slumber that pressed inexorably in on him from every side. A numbness crept through his body. Sleep, sleep — swarms of infinite particles of sleep were drifting through him, drifting with his blood through every vein, along every nerve, clogging his brain.
Lower and lower dropped his own lids.
And suddenly he could no longer fight. Chains rattling, down against Sigurd he fell . . .
Something deep within Kenton whispered to him to awaken; something reached down into the abysses of his charmed slumber and drew to its surface his consciousness. Slowly his heavy lids began to rise — then stopped, obeying some subtle warning. He looked out through narrowest slits. The chains that bound his wrists to the riveted manacles of the oar were long. He had moved in his sleep and now lay with head on arm stretched along the back of the low bench. He faced the ivory deck.
There, at its edge, looking down upon him was Sharane. Veils of palest blue, through which the hands of long dead Assyrian maids had woven golden lotuses, draped her breast, coiled round her slender waist, and fell to the delicate, sandaled feet. Her black-haired maiden Satalu beside her, she leaned over, scanning him.
“Mistress,” he heard Satalu say, “he cannot be man of Nergal, since Nergal’s men have chained him there.”
“No” mused Sharane. “No — in that I was wrong. And had he been of Nergal, never could he have crossed the barrier. Nor would Klaneth have taunted me — as he did —”
“He is very handsome and young,” sighed Satalu, “and strong. He fought the priests like a lion lord.”
“Even a cornered rat will fight,” answered Sharane, scornful. “He let himself be led to his chains like a whipped dog. And he lied to me! He came to me in borrowed plumes, bearing a sword he could not use!”
“Oh,” cried Sharane — and half of that cry was a sob —“oh, Satalu, I am ashamed! Liar and coward and slave — still he stirs something in my heart that never yet stirred for man. Oh, I am ashamed — I am ashamed, Satalu!”
“Lady Sharane, do not weep!” Satalu caught the fluttering hands. “He may be none of these. How do you know? Perhaps he did speak the truth. How know we what has happened in that world of ours so long lost to us? And he is very handsome — and young!”
“At least,” said Sharane and bitterly, “he is a slave.”
“Sh-h!” warned Satalu. “Zachel comes.”
They turned; walked toward Sharane’s cabin out of Kenton’s vision.
The wakening whistle shrilled. There was a stir among the slaves, and Kenton groaned, raised himself, rubbed eyes, and gripped the oar.
Exultation was in his heart. There could be no mistaking Sharane’s words. He held her. By a slender thread, it might be; but still — he held her. And if he were not a slave — when slave he ceased to be — what then? By no slender thread then would he hold her. He laughed — but softly, lest Zachel hear. Sigurd looked at him curiously.
“The sleep horn must have brought you gay dream,” he murmured.
“Gay, indeed, Sigurd,” he answered. “The kind of dream that will thin our chains until we can snap them.”
“Odin send more dreams like it,” grunted the Norseman.
WHEN Zachel blew the horn again Kenton had no need of it to send him to sleep. The sharp eyes of the overseer had seen through Sigurd’s self-sacrificing stratagem, and he had watched Kenton continually, lashing him when he faltered or let the whole burden of the oar fall upon the Norseman. His hands were blistered, every bone and muscle ached, and his mind lay dulled in his weary body. And thus it was between the next five sleeps.
Once he roused himself enough to ask Sigurd a question that had been going round and round in his brain. Half the rowers in the pit were behind the line that separated black deck from ivory — that line which neither Klaneth and his crew nor Sharane and her women could cross. Yet Zachel roamed at will from one end of that pit to the other; other priests, too, for he had seen them. And although he had not seen Klaneth or Gigi or the Persian there, he did not doubt that they could come and go if they so wished. Why, then, did not the black robes swarm up the farther side and overwhelm the rosy cabin? Why did not Sharane and her women drop into the pit and lay siege to the ebon cabin? Why did they not launch their javelins, their arrows, over the pit of the rowers into the wolfpack of the black priest?
It was a warlock ship, the Viking had repeated, and the spell upon it no simple one. The slave who had died had told him that he had been on the ship since the gods had launched her, and that the same unseen, mysterious barrier shut off the side of the rowers that rimmed Sharane’s deck. Nor could javelin or arrow or other missile other than those hurled by god and goddess penetrate it.
Humanly, each opposing camp was helpless against the other. There were other laws, too, the slave had told Sigurd. Neither Sharane nor Klaneth could leave the ship when it hove to in harbor. Sharane’s women could. The black priest’s men, yes — but not for long. Soon they must return. The ship drew them back. What would happen to them if they did not return? The slave had not known, had said that such thing was impossible, the ship would draw them back.
Kenton pondered over all this as with aching back he pushed and pulled at the oar. Decidedly these were practical, efficient deities who had doomed the ship overlooking no detail, he thought, half amused.
Well, they had created the game, and certainly they had the right to make that game’s rules. He wondered whether Sharane could roam at will from stem to stern when he had conquered the ship. Wondering still, he heard the drone of Zachel’s horn begin, and pitched, content, into the bottomless oubliette of sleep it opened.
He awoke from that sixth sleep with mind crystal clear, an astonishing sense of well being, and a body once more free from pain and flexible and vigorous. He pulled at his oar strongly and easily.
“Strength flows up to you from the sea even as I foretold,” grunted Sigurd.
Kenton nodded absently, his sharpened mind grappling with the problem of escape from his chains.
What went on in the pit and on the ship while the rowers were asleep? What chance would offer then to free himself and the Viking if he could stay awake?
If he could stay awake!
But how could he close his ears to that horn which poured sleep into them as the sirens of old poured with their songs fatal fascination into the ears of sailors strayed within their ken?
The sirens! The story of crafty Ulysses’ adventure with those sea women flashed into his memory. How desire had come upon that wanderer to hear the siren song — yet no desire to let it draw him to them. How he had sailed into their domain; had filled his oarsmen’s ears with melted wax; had made them bind him to the mast with open ears, and then, cursing, straining at his bonds, mad with desire to leap into their white arms, had heard their enchanted measures — and sailed safe away.
A wind arose — a steady wind that filled the sail and drove the ship through gently cresting waves. Came command to rest oars. Kenton slouched down upon the bench. Sigurd was in one of his silent moods, face brooding, gaze far away, filled with dreams of other days when his dragons cleft the Northern Ocean.
Kenton dropped his hands upon the silken rags upon his legs; his fingers began, seemingly idly, to unravel their threads, twist and knot them into little silken cylinders. He worked on, the Viking unheeding. Now two were finished. He palmed one, rubbed as idly the side of his face, and so rubbing slipped the little silken cylinder into an ear. He waited for a time; slipped in the other ear the second plug. The roaring of the wind sank to a loud whispering.
Carefully, unhurrying, he drew them out; twisted more threads around them. Again he set them in place. Now the wind’s roar was only a murmuring, faint and far away. Satisfied, he slipped the silken cylinders under his torn girdle.
On sped the ship. And after a while the slaves came and dashed their buckets over him and the Viking; brought them food and drink.
On the very edge of the sleep-horn drone Kenton slumped down upon the bench, face on forearms, the silken cylinders hidden under thumbs. Swiftly he slipped them in his ears. Then he let every muscle go limp. The droning diminished to a faint, hardly heard humming. Even so, a languor crept through him. He fought it. He beat the languor back. The humming ceased. He heard the overseer go by him; looked after him through half-raised lids; saw him ascend that pit’s steps and pass over the deck to Klaneth’s cabin.
The black deck was empty. As though shifting in slumber Kenton rolled over, threw an arm across the back of the bench, rested his head upon it, and through lowered lashes took stock of what lay behind him.
He heard laughter, golden, chiming. To the edge of her deck, black-haired Satalu beside her, walked Sharane. She seated herself there, unbound her hair, shook the flaming red gold cloud of it over face and shoulders; sat within it as though within a perfumed, silken red gold tent. Satalu raised a shining tress; began to comb it.
Through that web of loveliness he felt Sharane’s eyes upon him. Involuntarily his own opened wide; clung to her hidden ones. She gasped, half rose, parted the curtains of her hair, stared at him in wonder. “He is awake!” she whispered. “Sharane!” he breathed.
He watched shame creep again into her eyes — her face grow cold. She raised her head, sniffed daintily.
“Satalu,” she said, “is there not a stronger taint from the pit?” Again she silted her nose. “Yes — I am sure there is. Like the old slave market at Uruk when they brought the new slaves in.”
“I— I notice it not, mistress,” faltered Satalu. “Why yes — of course.” Sharane’s voice was merciless. “See there he sits. A new slave; a strange slave who sleeps with open eyes.”
“Yet he — he looks not like a slave,” again faltered her handmaiden.
“No” questioned Sharane sweetly. “What has happened to your memory, girl? What is the badge of a slave?”
The black-haired girl did not answer; bent low over the locks of her mistress.
“A chain and the brand of whips,” mocked Sharane. “These are the slave’s badge. And this new slave has both — in plenty.”
Still Kenton was silent beneath her mockery; made no movement; indeed scarce heard her, his burning eyes drinking in her beauty.
“Ah, but I dreamed one came to me with great words, a bearer of promises, fanning hope in my heart,” sighed Sharane. “I opened my heart to him — in that dream, Satalu. All my heart! And he repaid me with lies — and his promises were empty — and he was a weakling — and my girls beat him. And now it seems to me that there sits that liar and weakling of my dreams with brand of whip upon his back and weak hands chained. A slave!”
“Mistress! Oh, Mistress!” whispered Satalu. But Kenton kept silence, although now her mockery began to sting.
And suddenly she rose, thrust hands through shining locks.
“Satalu,” she murmured, “would you not think that sight of me would awaken even a slave? That any slave, so he were young and strong, would break his chains — for me?”
She swayed, turned; through her thin robes gleamed exquisite, rosy curves of breast and thigh; lithe loveliness. She spread wide the nets of her hair, peered through them at him with wanton eyes; preened herself, thrust out a tiny, rosy foot, a dimpled knee.
He raised his head recklessly, the hot blood rushing through.
“The chains will break, Sharane!” he called. “I will break them — never fear! And then ——”
“And then —” she echoed, “and then my girls shall beat you as before!” she mocked, and sped away.
He watched her go, pulse beating like drums. He saw her halt and whisper to Satalu. The black-haired girl turned, made him a warning gesture. He closed his eyes, dropped head on arm. And soon he heard the feet of Zachel striding down the steps, go by him. The waking whistle shrilled.
Why, if her mockery had been real, had she warned him?
Sharane looked down upon him again from her deck.
Time had gone by since she had stood there mocking him. Time had gone, but how measured in his own lost world Kenton had no means of telling, meshed as he was in the ship’s timeless web.
Sleep after sleep he had lain on his bench, watching for her. She had kept to her cabin — or if she had not, she had kept herself from his sight.
Nor had he told the Viking that he had broken the spell of the sleep horn. Sigurd he trusted, heart and soul. Yet he was not sure of the Norseman’s subtlety; not certain that he could feign the charmed slumber as Kenton did. He could not take the risk.
And now again Sharane stood and looked down upon him from the platform close to the emerald mast. The slaves slept. There was none at watch on the black deck. There was no mockery now in Sharane’s face. And when she spoke she struck straight home to the heart of her purpose.
“Whoever you are, whatever you may be,” she whispered, “two things can you do. Cross the barrier. Remain awake when the other slaves must sleep. You have told me that you can break your chains. Since those two things you can do — I find belief within me that of the third you also speak the truth. Unless ——”
She paused; he read her thought.
“Unless I lied to you about that as I lied to you before,” he said levelly. “Well, those were no lies I told you.”
“If you break your chains,” she said, “will you slay Klaneth?”
He feigned to consider.
“Why should I kill Klaneth?” he asked at last.
“Why? Why?” Scorn tinged her voice. “Has he not set his chains upon you? Had you whipped? Made you slave?”
“Did not Sharane drive me forth with javelins?” he asked. “Did not Sharane pour salt in my wounds with her mockery — her laughter?”
“But — you lied to me!” she cried.
Again he feigned consideration.
“What will this liar, weakling, and slave gain if he kills the black priest for you?” he asked bluntly.
“Gain?” she repeated blankly.
“What will you pay me for it?” he said.
“Pay you? Pay you! Oh!” The scorn in her eyes scorched him. “You shall be paid. You shall have freedom — the pick of my jewels — all of them —”
“Freedom I shall have when I have slain Klaneth,” he answered. “And of what use to me are your jewels on this cursed ship?”
“You do not understand,” she said. “The black priest slain, I can set you on any land you wish in this world. In all of them jewels have value.”
She paused, then: “And have they no worth in that land from whence you come, and to which, unchained, it seems you can return whenever danger threatens?”
Her voice was honeyed poison. But Kenton only laughed.
“What more do you want?” she asked. “If they be not enough — what more?”
“You!” he said.
“Me!” she gasped incredulously. “I give myself to any man — for a price! I— give myself to you! You whipped dog!” She stormed. “Never!”
Up to this Kenton’s play with her had been calculated; but now he spoke with wrath as real and hot as hers.
“No!” cried Kenton. “No! You’ll not give yourself to me! For, by God, Sharane, I’ll take you!”
He thrust a clenched, chained hand out to her.
“Master of this ship I’ll be, and with no help from you — you who have called me a liar and slave and now would throw me butcher’s pay. No! When I master the ship it will be by my own hand. And that same hand shall master — you!”
“You threaten me!” Her face flamed wrath. “You!”
She thrust a hand into her breast, drew out a slender knife — hurled it at him. As though it had struck some adamantine wall, invisible, it clanged, fell to her feet, blade snapped from hilt.
She paled, shrank.
“Hate me!” jeered Kenton. “Hate me, Sharane; For what is hate but the flame that cleans the cup for wine of love!”
With no soft closing of her cabin door did she go within it. And Kenton, laughing grimly, bent his head over his oar; was soon as sound asleep as the Norseman snoring beside him.
HE AWAKENED to a stirring and humming through all the ship. On ivory deck and black the ship’s folk stood, pointing, talking, gesticulating. A flock of birds, the first he had seen in this strange world, hovered above him. Their wings were shaped like those of great butterflies. Their plumage shone as though lacquered in glowing vermilions and pale golds. From their opened beaks came a chiming tumult as of little tinkling bells.
“Land!” the Viking exclaimed. “We run into harbor. Food and water must be low.”
There was a brisk wind blowing and the oars at rest. Careless of Zachel’s lash, Kenton leaped upon the bench, looking over the bow. The overseer gave no heed, his own eyes intent upon what lay before.
It was a sun yellow isle, high and rounded, and splashed with craters of color like nests of rainbows. Save for these pansied dapplings, the island curved all glowing topaz, from its base in the opalescent shallows of the azure sea to its crest, where feathered trees drooped branches like immense panaches of ostrich plumes dyed golden amber. Over and about that golden isle shot flashes of iridescences from what seemed luminous flying flowers.
Closer drew the ship. At the bow the damsels of Sharane clustered, laughing and chattering. And upon her balcony was Sharane, watching the isle with wistful eyes.
Now it was close indeed. Down ran the peacock sail. The ship rowed slowly and more slowly to the shore; not until the curved prow had almost touched that shore did the steersman shift the rudder and bring the ship sharply about. As they drifted, the plumes of the strange trees swept the deck with long leaves, delicately feathered as those the frost etches on the winter pane. Topaz yellow and sun amber were those leaves; the branches from which they hung glistened as though cut from yellow chrysolite. Immense clusters of flowers dropped from them, lily shaped, flame scarlet.
Slowly, ever more slowly, drifted the ship. It crept by a wide cleft that cut into the heart of the isle. The sides of this vale were harlequined with the cratered colors, and Kenton saw that these were fields of flowers, clustered as though they filled deep circled amphitheaters. The flashing iridescences were birds — birds of every size from smallest dragon flies to those whose wing-spread was that of condors in the high Andes. Large and small, on each glittered the lacquered butterfly wings.
The isle breathed fragrance. Of green upon it there was none, save for the emerald glintings of the birds.
The valley slid behind them. Ever more slowly the feathered trees brushed the deck. The ship slipped into the mouth of a glen at whose end a cataract dropped rain of pearl into a golden-ferned pool. There was the rattling of a chain; an anchor splashed. The bow of the ship swung in; nosed through the foliage; touched the bank.
Over the rail climbed the women of Sharane, upon their heads great baskets. From her balcony Sharane looked after them with deeper wistfulness. The women melted within the flower-spangled boskage; fainter and fainter came their voices; died away. Sharane, chin cupped in white hands, drank in the land and with wide and longing eyes. Above her red gold hair streaming through the silver crescent a bird hovered — a bird all gleaming emeralds and flashing blues, chiming peals of fairy bells. Kenton saw tears upon her cheeks. She caught his gaze, dashed them away angrily. She half turned as though to go; then slipped down woefully behind one of her balcony’s tiny blossoming trees where he could no longer see her weeping.
Now her women filed back along the bank, their baskets filled with plunder; fruits, gourds purple and white, and great clusters of those pods he had eaten when first he had broken fast upon the ship. Into the cabin they trooped, and out again with baskets empty. Time upon time they came and went. At last they bore away skins instead of the woven hampers; water bags which they filled from the pool of the cataract. Time upon time they brought them back, swollen full, upon their shoulders.
They trooped out once more, burdenless; darted joyously over the rail; doffed their scanty enough robes and plunged into the pool. Like water nymphs they swam and played, the pearly flow caressing, streaming from delicately delicious curves — pale ivory, warm rose, soft olive. They sprang from the pool, wove flower crowns and with sprays of the fragrant lily blooms in arms clambered, reluctant, over the side and into the rosy cabin.
Now crawled over the rail the men of Klaneth. They slipped on and off the ship with their burdens, poured their last water skins into the casks.
Again there was stir upon the ship. The chains rattled, the anchor lifted. Up and down flashed the oars, drawing the ship from the bank. Up rose the peacock sail. The ship veered, caught the wind, swam slowly through the amethystine shallows. Faster swung the sweeps. The golden isle diminished, was saffron shadow in the mists; vanished.
On sailed the ship. And on and on — by what signs or reckonings or to what port Kenton could not know. Sleep after sleep it sailed. The huge bowl of silver mists whose edge was the horizon, contracted or expanded as those mists thickened or thinned. Storms they met and weathered; roaring storms that changed the silver of the mists to lurid copper, ambered jet, darkness deeper than night. Sudden storms threaded with lightnings weird and beautiful. Lightnings that were like the shatterings of immense prisms, the breakings of rainbows of jewels. Storms that trod on feet of thunder. Thunder that was metallic, tintinnabulary; hurricanes of clashing cymbals following showers of multicolored, flaming gems.
Steadily strength of the sea poured into Kenton up his oar blade, even as Sigurd had promised; remaking him, hardening him, turning all his body into a machine as finely tempered as a rapier and as flexible.
Between sleeps Sigurd chanted to him Viking tales, Sagas unsung, lost epics of the Norse.
Twice the black priest sent for him; questioned him, threatened him, cajoled him — vainly. And each time with blacker face sent him back to his chains.
Strife of god and goddess there was none. And Sharane during the sleep time of the slaves kept to her cabin. Awake, he could not turn his head to seek her without inviting the bite of Zachel’s lash. So often he let the horn of sleep have its way — what use to keep awake while Sharane hid?
There came a time when, lying awake, he heard steps coming down the pit’s stair. He turned, face against the back of his bench, as though in troubled slumber. The steps paused beside him.
“Zubran,” it was the voice of Gigi, “this man has become a young lion.”
“Strong enough,” grunted the Persian. “It is a pity that his strength is wasted here — driving this ship from one place of weariness to another as bad.”
“I think as you,” said Gigi. “Strength he now has. Also he has courage. You remember how he slew the priests.”
“Remember!” There was no boredom in Zubran’s voice now. “Can I forget! By the heart of Rustam — could I forget! It was the first draft of life given me, it seemed, for centuries. I owe him something for that.”
“Also,” went on Gigi, “he has loyalty where his heart turns. I told you how he shielded with his own back the man who sleeps beside him. I liked him well for that, Zubran.”
“As a gesture,” said the Persian, “it was excellent. A trifle florid, perhaps, for perfect taste. But still — excellent.”
“Courage, loyalty, strength,” mused the drummer; then slowly, a hint of mirth in his voice, “and cunning. Unusual cunning, Zubran, since he has found a way to shut his ears to the sleep horn — and lies here now wide awake.”
Kenton’s heart stopped; began to beat furiously. How did the drummer know? Did he know? Was it only a guess? Desperately he strove against quivering nerves; forced his body to remain inert.
“What!” exclaimed the Persian, incredulously. “Awake! Gigi — you dream!”
“Nay,” said Gigi quietly. “I have watched him when he saw me not. He is awake, Zubran.”
Suddenly Kenton felt his paw upon his breast, pressing upon his pounding heart. The drummer chuckled; withdrew the hand.
“Also,” he said, approvingly, “he has caution. A little he trusts me — but not too much. Nor does he know you well enough as yet, Zubran, to give you any trust at all. Therefore he lies quiet, saying to himself: ‘Gigi cannot really know. He cannot be sure as long as I do not open my eyes.’ Yes, he has caution. But see, Zubran, he cannot keep the blood from stealing up into his face, nor slow his heart to the calm rhythm of sleep.” Again he chuckled, half-maliciously. “And there is other proof of his caution, in that he has not told his comrade that the horn has no power over him. Hear the long-haired one snore? No mistaking that for wakefulness. I like that too — he knows that a secret shared by two runs risk of being none.”
“He seems sound asleep to me.” Kenton felt the Persian bend down over him doubtfully.
His eyelids fought to rise; by sheer will he kept them down, breathing regularly, motionless. How long would they stand there looking at him? At last Gigi broke the silence.
“Zubran,” he said, quietly, “like you, I tire of the black priest and this fruitless strife between Ishtar and Nergal. Yet bound by our vows neither you nor I may come to grips with Klaneth, nor may we harm his men. It matters not that by trickery those vows were gotten from us. We made them — and they bind. As long as Nergal’s priest rules Nergal’s deck we may not give him battle. But suppose Klaneth no longer ruled — that another hand thrust him to his dark master?”
“A mighty hand that! Where on these seas could we find such a hand? And if found, how persuade it to close on Klaneth?” jeered the Persian.
“I think — it is here.” Kenton felt again the drummer’s touch. “Courage and loyalty and strength, quick wit and caution. He has all these. Besides — he can pass the barrier!”
“By Ahriman! That is so!” whispered the Persian. “Now I would make another vow,” said Gigi. “A vow in which you would join. If this man’s chains were — broken, easily then could he pass to Sharane’s cabin; easily now, I think, regain his sword.”
“Well, what then?” asked Zubran. “He would still have Klaneth to meet and all his pack. And we could not help him.”
“No,” answered the drummer. “But neither would we hinder him. Our vows do not bind us to fight for the black priest, Zubran. Were I this man — with my chains broke — and sword regained — I would find way to release this comrade sleeping beside him. He, I think, could keep off the pack while this wolf cub, who is now no longer cub but grown, could match himself against Klaneth.”
“Well —” the Persian began doubtfully; then changed to cheerfulness —“I would see him loosed, Gigi. At the least, it would give break to this cursed monotony. But you spoke of a vow.”
“A vow for a vow,” answered Gigi. “If broken were his chains, if he regained sword, if he met Klaneth and we fought not against him at Klaneth’s side, and if he slew Klaneth, would he vow comradeship with you and me, Zubran? I wonder?”
“Why should he make that vow to us,” asked Zubran, “unless — we loosed his chains?”
“Exactly,” whispered Gigi. “For if he made that vow — I would loose them!”
Hope sprang flaming up in Kenton. Cold doubt followed. Was this all a trap? A trick to torment him? He would take no chance — and yet — freedom!
Gigi again bent over him.
“Trust me, Wolf,” he said, low. “Vow for vow. If you accept — look at me.”
The dice were offered him. Were they straight or weighted, he would cast them. Kenton opened his eyes, stared straight for an instant into the twinkling beads of jet so close. Then he closed them tight; resumed his slow breathing; his semblance of deepest slumber.
And Gigi rose from him, laughing. He heard the two move away, up the pit’s steps.
Freedom again! Could it be true? And when would Gigi — were it true and no trap — when would Gigi loose his chains? Long he lay between fiery hope and chilling doubt. Could it be true?
Freedom! And ——
NOT LONG did Kenton have to wait. Hardly had the next faint hum of the sleep horn died than he felt a touch on his shoulder. Longer fingers twitched his ears, raised his eyelids. He looked into the face of Gigi. Kenton pulled out the little silken cylinders that shut off the compelling slumber of the horn.
“So that is how you do it.” Gigi examined them with interest. He squatted down beside him.
“Wolf,” he said, “I have come to have a talk with you, so that you may know me a little better. I would continue to sit here beside you, but some of those cursed priests may come prowling around. Therefore, in a moment I shall seat myself on Zachel’s stool. When I have done so, turn you around facing me, taking that highly deceptive attitude I have so often watched you assume.”
He stepped up on the bench. “Zubran is with Klaneth, arguing about the gods. Zubran, although sworn to Nergal, thinks him a rather inferior copy of Ahriman, the Persian god of darkness. He is also convinced that this whole matter of warfare between Nergal and Ishtar for the ship lacks not only originality and ingenuity, but taste — something, indeed, that his own gods and goddesses would not do; or if they did, would do much better. This angers Klaneth, which greatly rejoices Zubran.”
Once more he arose and looked about him.
“However,” he went on, “this time he is arguing to keep Klaneth and especially Zachel away while we talk, since Klaneth leans a great deal upon Zachel in these arguments. I have told them that I cannot bear their talk and that I will watch on Zachel’s seat until it is finished. And it will not be finished until I return, for Zubran is clever, oh, very clever and he expects our talk to lead, ultimately, to permanent relief of his bore —”
He glanced slyly at the ivory deck.
“So do not fear, Wolf.” He swayed upon his dwarfed legs. “Only as I go, slip sideways and keep your eyes on me. I will give you warning if warning is needed.”
He waddled away, climbed into the overseer’s seat. Kenton, obeying him, turned sleepily; rested arm on bench and head on arm.
“Wolf,” said Gigi suddenly, “is there a shrub called the chilquor in the place from whence you came?”
Kenton stared at him, struck dumb by such a question. Yet Gigi must have some reason for asking it. Had he ever heard of such a shrub? He searched his memory.
“Its leaves are about so large.” Gigi parted finger-tips for inches three. “It grows only upon the edge of the desert and it is rare — sorrowfully rare. Look you — perhaps you know it by another name. Perhaps this will enlighten you. You bruise the buds just before they open. Then you mix them with sesamum oil and honey and a little burned ivory and spread it like a paste over your head. Then you rub and rub and rub — so and so and so —” he illustrated vigorously upon his bald and shining pate.
“And after a little,” he said, “the hair begins to sprout; like grain under the rains of spring it grows, until soon — lo — naked dome is covered. Instead of the light flying off affrighted from shining dome it plays within new hair. And once more the man who was bald is beautiful in the eyes of woman!
“By Nadak of the Goats; by Tanith, the dispenser of delights!” cried Gigi with enthusiasm. “That paste grows hair! How it does grow hair! Upon a melon would it grow it. Yes, even those planks rightly rubbed by it would sprout hair like grass. You are sure you do not know it?”
Struggling with his amazement Kenton shook his head. “Well,” said Gigi, sorrowfully. “All this the chilquor buds can do. And so I search for them —” here he sighed mightily —“who would once more be beautiful in woman’s eyes.”
He sighed again. Then one by one he flecked the backs of the sleeping slaves with Zachel’s whip — even the back of Sigurd.
“Yes,” he murmured, “yes, they sleep.”
His black eyes twinkled on Kenton, the slit mouth grinned.
“You wonder,” he said, “why I talk of such trivial matters as shrubs and hair and bald pates, while you lie chained. Well, Wolf, these matters are far from trivial. They brought me here. And were I not here — would you have hope of freedom, think you? Ah, no,” said Gigi. “Life is a serious matter. Therefore all parts of it must be serious. And therefore no part of it can be trivial. Let us rest for a moment, Wolf, while you absorb that great truth.”
Again, one by one, he flecked the backs of the sleeping slaves.
“Well, Wolf,” he went on, “now I shall tell you how I came aboard this ship because of the chilquor, its effect on hair and because of my bald pate. And you shall see how your fortune rests upon them. Wolf, when I was but a child in Nineveh, girls found me singularly attractive.
“‘Gigi!’ they would cry as I passed by them. ‘Gigi, little love, little darling! Kiss me, Gigi!’”
Gigi’s voice was ludicrously languishing; Kenton laughed.
“You laugh, Wolf!” observed the drummer. “Well — that makes us understand each other better.”
His eyes twinkled impishly.
“Yes,” he said, “‘Kiss me,’ they cried. And I would kiss them, because I found them all as singularly attractive as each found me. And as I grew, this mutual attraction increased. You have no doubt noticed,” said Gigi complacently, “that I am an unusual figure of a man. But as I passed from adolescence my greatest beauty was, perhaps, my hair. It was long and black and ringleted, and it fell far over my shoulders. I perfumed it and cared for it, and the tender little vessels of joy who loved me would twine their fingers in it when I lifted them upon my head or when my head was on their knees. They joyed in it even as I.
“And then I had a fever. When I recovered, all my beautiful hair was gone!”
He paused to sigh again.
“There was a woman of Nineveh who pitied me. She it was who anointed my head with the chilquor paste; told me how to make it; showed me the growing shrub. After years of — ah, mutual attraction — I had fever again. And again my hair vanished. I was in Tyre then, Wolf, and made what haste I could to return to Nineveh. When I did return, the kindly woman was dead and a sand storm had covered the spot where she had pointed out to me the chilquor shrubs!”
He sighed, prodigiously. Kenton, amused and fascinated by his tale as he was, could not forbear a suspicious glance after that melancholy exhalation. It seemed overdone.
“Then before I could search further,” went on Gigi, hurriedly, “word came to me that one who loved me — a princess — was on her way to Nineveh to see me. Shame was mine and anguish! I could not meet her with a bald pate. For no one loves a bald man!”
“Nobody loves a fat man,” grinned Kenton. He had spoken, it seemed, in his own tongue for the drummer apparently had not understood.
“What did you say?” he asked.
“I said,” answered Kenton, gravely, “that for one whose excellencies are as great as yours, the loss of your hair should have been of no more consequence to a woman than the falling of one feather from a pet bird.”
“That is a fine tongue of yours,” remarked Gigi, stolidly. “That it can say so much in so few sounds.”
“Well,” he continued. “I was distressed indeed. I could have hidden — but I feared my will would not be strong enough to keep me hid. She was a very lovely princess, Wolf. Besides, I knew that if she found that I was in Nineveh, as find out she surely would, she would rout me out. She was a fair woman. And this is the one difference between the fair women and the dark — that the latter wait for you to come for them, but the former search for you. And I could go to no other city to hide — for in each of them were other women who admired me. What was I to do?”
“Why didn’t you get a wig?” asked Kenton, so interested now in Gigi’s tale that his chains were forgotten.
“I told you, Wolf, that they loved to thread their fingers through my locks,” answered Gigi, severely. “Could any wig stay in place under such treatment? Not when the women were such as loved me — No! No! I will tell you what I did. And here is where you will see how my lost hair and you are entangled. The High Priest of Nergal in Nineveh was a friend of mine. I went to him and asked him first to work a magic that would plant my head afresh with hair. He was indignant — said that his art was not to be debased for such a common purpose.
“It was then. Wolf, that I began to have my suspicions of the real power of these sorcerers. I had seen this priest perform great magic. He had raised phantoms that had raised my hair — when I had it. How much easier then ought it to have been for him to have raised my hair without the trouble of raising the phantoms too? I suggested this. He grew more indignant — said that he dealt with gods, not barbers!
“But now I know better. He could not do it! I made the best of the matter, however, and asked him to put me for a while where my princess could not find me and where, weak willed as I am, I could not go to her. He smiled, and said he knew just the place. He inducted me as an acolyte to Nergal and gave me a token that he said would insure me recognition and good will from one he named Klaneth. Also he sealed me with certain vows, not to be broken. I took them cheerfully, thinking them but temporary, and his friend Klaneth the high priest of some hidden temple where I would be safe. I went to sleep that night trustfully, happy as a child. I awakened, Wolf — here!
“It was a sorry jest,” muttered Gigi, angrily. “And a sorry jest would it be for that Ninevite priest if I knew the way back to him!
“But here I have been ever since,” he added, briskly. “Barred by my acolytage to Nergal from crossing to that other deck where there is a little vessel of joy named Satalu whom I would fain take within my hands. Barred by other vows from leaving the ship wherever it may touch for food and gear — since it was sanctuary I asked from which I could not go nor my princess come to me.”
“By Tiamat of the Abyss — I got the sanctuary I asked!” he exclaimed, ruefully enough. “And by Bel who conquered Tiamat — I am as weary of the ship as Zubran himself. Yet were I not here,” he added, as by afterthought, “who would loose you of your chains? A shrub and lack of hair, an amorous princess and my vanity — these brought me on the ship to set you free when you came. Of such threads do the gods weave our destinies.”
He leaned forward, all malice gone from twinkling eyes, a grotesque tenderness on the frog-like mouth.
“I like you. Wolf,” he said, simply.
“I like you, Gigi,” all Kenton’s defenses were down. “Greatly, indeed, do I like you. And trust fully. But — Zubran —”
“Have no doubts about Zubran,” snapped Gigi. “He, too, was tricked upon this ship and is even more eager than I to be free. Some day he shall tell you his story, as I have mine. Ho! Ho!” laughed the drummer. “Ever seeking the new, ever tiring of the known is Zubran. And this is his fate — to be shot into a whole new world and find it worse than his old. Nay, Wolf, fear not Zubran. With shield and sword will he stand beside you — until he tires even of you. But even then will he be loyal.”
He grew solemn, kept unwinking gaze on Kenton, searching, it seemed, his soul.
“Consider well, Wolf,” he whispered. “The odds are all against you. We two may not help you as long as Klaneth is lord of his deck. It may be that you cannot free the long-haired one beside you, You have Klaneth to face and twenty of his men — and, it may be, Nergal! And if you lose — death for you — and after long, long torture. Here, chained to your oar, you are at least alive. Consider well!”
Kenton held out to him his prisoned wrists.
“When will you loose my chains, Gigi?” was all he said.
Gigi’s face lighted, his black eyes blazed, he sprang upright, the golden loops in his pointed ears dancing.
“Now!” he said. “By Sin, the Father of Gods! By Shamash his Son and by Bel the Smiter — now!”
He thrust his hands between Kenton’s waist and the great circlet of bronze that bound it; pulled it apart as though it had been made of putty; he broke the locks of the manacles on Kenton’s wrists.
“Run free. Wolf!” he whispered. “Run free!”
With never a look behind him, he waddled to the pit’s steps and up them. Slowly Kenton stood upon his feet. His chains dropped from him. He looked down at the sleeping Viking. How could he unfasten his links? How, if he could unfasten, awaken him before Zachel came hurrying down among the slaves?
Again be looked about him. At the foot of the overseer’s high stool lay a shining knife, long-bladed, thin-bladed, dropped there by Gigi — for him? He did not know. But he did know that with it he might pick the Viking’s locks. He took a step toward it —
How long he was in taking the second step.
And there was a mist before his eyes.
Through that mist the sleeping forms of the oarsmen wavered — were like phantoms. And now he could no longer see the knife.
He rubbed his eyes, looked down on Sigurd. He was a wraith!
He looked at the sides of the ship. They melted away even as he sought them. He had a glimpse of sparkling turquoise sea. And then — it became vaporous. Was not!
Cease to be!
And now Kenton floated for an instant in thick mist shot through with silvery light. The light snapped out. He hurtled through a black void filled with tumult of vast winds.
The blackness snapped out! Through his closed lids he saw light. And he was no longer falling. He stood, rocking, upon his feet. He opened his eyes —— Once more he was within his own room! Outside hummed the traffic of the Avenue, punctuated by blasts of auto horns.
Kenton rushed over to the jeweled ship. Except for the slaves, on it was but one little figure — one toy. A manikin who stood half way down the pit steps, mouth open, whip at feet, stark astonishment in every rigid line.
Zachel, the overseer!
He looked down into the galley pit. The slaves lay asleep, oars at rest ——
And suddenly he caught sight of himself in the long mirror! Stood, wondering, before it!
For what he saw was never the Kenton who had been borne out of that room upon the breast of the inrushing mystic sea. His mouth had hardened, eyes grown fearless, falcon bright. Over all his broadened chest the muscles ran not bulging, bound — but graceful, flexible, and steel hard. He flexed his arms, and the muscles ran rippling along them. He turned, scanned his back in the mirror.
Scars covered it, healed teeth marks of the lash. The lash of Zachel — Zachel — the toy?
No toy had made those scars!
No oars of toy had brought into being those muscles!
And suddenly all Kenton’s mind awoke. Awoke and was filled with shame, with burning longing, despair.
What would Sigurd think of him when he awakened and found him gone — Sigurd with whom he had sworn blood brothership? What would Gigi think — Gigi, who had made vow for vow with him; and trusting him, had broken his chains?
A frenzy shook him. He must get back! Get back before Sigurd or Gigi knew that he was no longer on the ship.
How long had he been away? As though in answer a clock began chiming. He counted. Eight strokes!
Two hours of his own time had passed while he had been on the ship. Two hours only? And in those two hours all these things had happened? His body changed to — this?
But in those two minutes he had been back in his room what had happened on the ship?
He must get back! He must . . .
He thought of the fight before him. Could he take his automatics with him when he went back — if he could go back? With them he could match any sorceries of the black priest. But they were in another room, in another part of his house. Again he looked at himself in the glass. If his servants saw him — thus! They would not know him. How could he explain? Who would believe him?
And they might tear him away — away from this room where the ship lay. This room that held his only doorway back into Sharane’s world!
He dared not risk going from that room.
Kenton threw himself upon the floor; grasped the golden chains that hung from the ship’s bow — so thin they were, so small on the ship of jeweled toys!
He threw his will upon the ship! Summoning it! Commanding it!
The golden chains stirred within his grasp. They swelled. He felt a tearing wrench. Thicker grew the chains. They were lifting him. Again the dreadful wrenching, tearing at every muscle, nerve and bone.
His feet swung free.
The vast winds howled around him — for a heartbeat only. They were gone. In their place was the rushing of wind driven waves. He felt the kisses of their spray.
Beneath him was a racing azure sea. High above him curved the prow of the Ship of Ishtar. But not the ship of jeweled toys. No! The ensorcelled ship of which the toy ship was the symbol; the real ship on which blows were actual and death lurked — death that even now might be watching him, poised to strike!
The chain he clutched passed up the side of the bow and into the hawser port painted like a great eye between the bow-ward wall of the cabin and the curved prow. Behind him the great oars rose and fell. He could not be seen from them; the oarsmen’s backs were toward him and the oar ports were covered with strong leather, through which the shanks slipped; shields to protect the rowers from waves dashing past those ports. Nor, under the hang of the hull as he was, could he be seen from the black deck.
Slowly, silently, hand over hand, pressing his body as close to the hull as he could, he began to creep up the chain. Up to Sharane’s cabin. Up to that little window that opened into her cabin from the closed bit of deck beneath the great scimitar.
Slowly, more slowly, he crept; pausing every few links to listen; he reached at last the hawser port; he threw a leg over the bulwark, and dropped upon the little deck. He rolled beneath the window; flattened himself against the cabin wall; hidden now from every eye upon the ship; hidden even from Sharane, should she peer through that window.
Crouched there — waiting.
KENTON raised his head, cautiously. The chains passed through a hawser port, wound around a crude windlass and were fastened to a thin, double hook that was more like a grappling iron than anchor. Evidently, although control of steering gear, mast and rowers’ pit was in the hands of the black priest, the women of Sharane looked after anchorage. He noted, with some anxiety, a door leading out of the cabin’s farther side — the portion that housed her warrior maids. But it was not likely, he thought, that any would come out as long as the ship was under sail and oar. At any rate he would have to take that risk.
Through the opened window above him he could hear the hum of voices. Then that of Sharane came to him scornful.
“He broke his chains, even as he had promised — and then fled!”
“But mistress,” it was Satalu. “Where could he go? He did not come here. How do we know that Klaneth did not take him?”
“No mistaking Klaneth’s wrath,” answered Sharane. “No mistaking the scourging he gave Zachel. Both were real, Satalu.”
So the black priest had scourged Zachel had he, well, that, at any rate, was good news.
“Nay, Satalu,” said Sharane, “why argue? He had grown strong. He broke his chains. He fled. And so proved himself the coward I called him — and never believed he was — till now!”
There was silence in the cabin. Then Sharane spoke again.
“I am weary, Luarda — watch outside the door. You others to your cabin to sleep — or what you will. Satalu, brush my hair a little and then leave me.”
Another silence; a longer one. Then Satalu’s voice:
“Mistress, you are half asleep. I go.”
Kenton waited — but not long. The sill of the window was about as high above the anchor deck as his chin. He raised himself gently; peered within. His gaze rested first on the shrine of the luminous gems, the pearls and pale moonstones, the milky curdled crystals. He had the feeling that it was empty, tenantless. There were no flames in the seven little crystal basins.
He looked down. The head of the wide divan of ivory with its golden arabesques was almost beneath him. Upon it lay Sharane, face down upon its cushions, clothed only in one thin silken veil and the floods of her red gold hair, and weeping; weeping like any woman with bruised heart.
Weeping for — him?
A gleam of sapphire, a glint of steel caught his eyes. It was his sword — the sword of Nabu. The sword he had vowed he would not take from her hands — would take, unaided, with his own. It hung upon a low rack on the wall just above her head; so close that she need but reach up a hand to grasp it.
He drew back, waited impatiently for her weeping to cease. Love for her — or lust — he had in full. But search his heart now as he might — no pity.
And soon her sobbing lessened; died away. And after another while of waiting he slowly thrust his head again through the window. She lay asleep, face turned toward the cabin door, tears still on the long lashes — breast rising and falling softly in the measured respiration of slumber.
Kenton gripped the sill, drew himself softly up until shoulders and breast were within. Then he bent over until his waist rested on the ledge. Now his hands touched the softnesses of one of the rugs upon the floor. He slid down, gripping the sill with his insteps. Slowly, like a tumbler, he brought his legs down; lay prone, full length, at the head of Sharane’s bed.
Again he waited. Her measured breathing did not change. He drew himself up on his feet. He slipped to the door that lay between this cabin and that of the warrior maids. There was a low murmuring of voices there. He saw a bar that, lowered, slipped into a metal clutch on the other side, securing it. Noiselessly he dropped it, fastened it. Those cats were caged, he thought, grinning.
He glanced over the cabin. Upon a low stool lay a small piece of silk; over a settle a long one, scarf-like. He picked up the small piece and rolled it deftly into a serviceable gag. He took the long piece and tested it. It was heavy and strong, just what he needed, he reflected — but not enough. He slipped to a wall, unhooked a similar hanging.
He tiptoed over to Sharane’s bed. She stirred, uneasily, as though she felt his eyes on her; as though she were awakening.
Before she could raise her lids Kenton had opened her mouth and thrust the silken gag within. Then throwing himself over her, holding her down by sheer weight, he jerked up her head, wound the scarf tightly around her mouth, tied it. As swiftly he raised her from the hips and wound the balance of the scarf around her arms, pinioning them to her sides.
Eyes blazing with wrathful recognition, she tried to roll from beneath him, struck up at him with her knees. He shifted his weight, lay across her thighs, bound knees and ankles with the second scarf that he had torn from the wall.
Now she lay motionless, glaring at him. He sent her a kiss, mockingly. She tried to throw herself upon the floor. Noiselessly still, he took other hangings, wrapped her round and round with them. And finally he passed a pair of heavy cords under and over the bed; bound her fast with them to the divan.
Heedless of her now, he walked to the outer door. In some way he must get the handmaiden she called Luarda within the cabin, make her as helpless as her mistress — and as silent. He opened the door the merest slit, peered through it. Luarda sat close beside it, back turned to him, gaze upon the black deck.
He stole away, found another small piece of silk; snatched from the wall another hanging. The small piece he fashioned into another gag. Then he opened the door as before, placed his lips to the crack, pitched his voice high and softly; as femininely as he could, called to her:
“Luarda! The mistress wants you! Quick!” She leaped to her feet. He shrank back, pressing himself against the wall close beside the door frame. Unsuspiciously, she opened the door; stepped within it, and paused for an instant, open-mouthed, at the sight of Sharane, bound and helpless.
That instant was all Kenton needed. One arm was around her neck, throttling her. With his free hand he thrust the gag into her mouth; in the same moment closed the door with his foot. The girl in his arms wriggled like a snake. He managed to keep her mouth closed until he had wound the hanging around jaws and throat. Her hands swept up, clawing him; she strove to wind her legs around his. He drew the silk tighter around her neck, strangling her. When her struggles grew feeble, he bound her arms to her side. He laid her on the floor, and pinioned, as he had Sharane’s, her ankles and knees.
Helpless as her mistress now she lay. He picked her up; carried her over to the divan; rolled her under it.
Not till then did he reach up and take down his sword. He stood before Sharane.
There was no fear in the burning eyes that stared up at him. Rage enough and to spare was there — but no fear.
And Kenton laughed low, bent over her, and pressed his lips to her own gagged and bound ones. He kissed each wrathful eye.
“And now, Sharane,” he laughed. “I go to take the ship — without your help! And when I have taken it, I’ll come back and take — you!”
He walked to the door, opened it softly, swept gaze over the ship.
Upon the black deck squatted Gigi, forehead resting on the edge of the serpent drum, long arms trailing disconsolately down its sides. There was a forlornness about the drummer that made Kenton want to cry out to him. It was an impulse to which the sight of Zachel’s head put speedy check. He could see just the top of it over the low rail between Sharane’s deck and the rowers’ pit.
He crouched low, until the head was out of sight — knowing that in that position Zachel could not see him. He knotted the sword in his girdle. On hands and knees he crept out of the cabin door. He saw that there was a window in the place where Sharane’s women slept. But there was no outward door. They must pass through her cabin to gain the deck. If they suspected something amiss with their mistress, found the door barred, undoubtedly they would come through that window. Well — he would have to take his chances on that; only hope that he could get most of the work ahead of him done before they were aroused.
And if he could surprise Klaneth in his den, strike swiftly and silently — then he and the Viking could make short work of the rest, and the women could do what they pleased. They could neither help nor hinder. It would be too late.
He flattened himself to the deck; wriggled beneath the window; listened. There was no sound of voices now. Slowly raising himself he saw that from this point the overseer was hidden from him by the mast. Keeping a cautious eye on the disconsolate Gigi. he stood up and peered within the second cabin. There were eight girls there asleep; some pillowed on each other’s breasts, some curled up on the silken cushions. He reached in, closed the window noiselessly.
Again he lay flat and squirmed along the side of the cabin to the starboard rail. He slipped over it. He hung for a moment, fingers gripping the top, feet feeling for the chain that stretched below. He swung along it. When he came to its end, he raised himself, caught the rail again and swung along that, swiftly hand over hand.
Now the mast was directly in front of him; he had reached the spot from which he planned to strike his first blow. He chinned himself, and streamed over the rail like a snake; lay flat against the bulwarks until breath came once more easily.
He was in plain sight of Gigi — and as he lay there Gigi’s head came up with a jerk from his drum, his eyes stared straight into Kenton’s own. The ugly face broke into a thousand wrinkles of amazement; then instantly became indifferent, immobile. He yawned, got upon his feet; then, hand over eyes, peered intently over the port side as though he had sighted something far away upon the sea.
“By Nergal, but Klaneth must know of this!” he said.
He waddled over to the black cabin.
Kenton wriggled to the edge of the pit. He had glimpse of Zachel standing upon his platform stool, peering, searching for whatever it was that seemingly had so aroused the drummer’s interest.
Kenton dropped into the pit. One leap he took and was beside the mast. The overseer turned sharply. He opened mouth to yell and swept hand down to belt where his poniard was sheltered.
The sword of Kenton hissed through air and through his neck.
The sheared head of Zachel leaped from his shoulders, mouth stretched open, eyes glaring. For three heartbeats the body of Zachel stood upright, blood spouting from the severed arteries, hand still gripping at the dagger.
The body of Zachel squattered.
The sleep horn fell from his girdle. Kenton snatched at it. The knees of Zachel’s body crumpled down on it; crushed it.
From the benches of the oarsmen came no sound, no outcry; they sat, mouths agape, blades idle.
He groped in Zachel’s belt for the overseer’s keys, the keys that would free Sigurd. He found them, snatched them loose, tore the dagger from Zachel’s stiffening fingers and raced down the narrow passage way to the Viking.
“Brother! I thought you gone! Sigurd forgotten . . . ” the Norseman babbled. “By Odin what a blow! The dog’s head leaped from his shoulders as though Thor had smitten him with his hammer . . . ”
“Quiet, Sigurd! Quiet!” Kenton was working with desperate haste among the keys, trying to find that which would fit the Viking’s fetters. “We must fight for the ship . . . stand together, you and I . . . Hell, damn these keys . . . which is the right one! If we can reach Klaneth’s den before alarm is raised stand you between me and his priests. Leave Klaneth to me. Touch not Gigi nor Zubran the red beard. They cannot help us but they have given vow not to fight against us . . . remember, Sigurd . . . ah . . . ”
The manacles at Sigurd’s wrists clicked and opened; the lock on the metal belt flew open. Sigurd shook his hands free of the chains, reached down and wrenched the cincture from his waist. He stood upright, flaxen mane streaming in the wind.
“Free!” he howled. “Free!”
“Close your jaws!” Kenton thrust his hands against the shouting mouth. “Do you want the pack down on us before we have chance to move!”
He pressed Zachel’s dagger into the Viking’s hand.
“Use that,” he said, “until you have won a better weapon.”
“That! Ho-ho!” laughed Sigurd. “A woman’s toy! Nay, Kenton — Sigurd can do better than that!”
He dropped the dagger. He gripped the great oar; lifted it out of the thole pins. He bent forward sharply, bringing its shaft against the side of the port there was a sharp crackling, a rending of wood. He drew back, bringing the oar against the opposite side of the port. There was another crackling, and Sigurd drew the oar in, broken squarely in the middle, a gigantic club all of ten feet long. He gripped it by the splintered end, whirled it round his head, the chains and the dangling manacles spinning like battle mace.
“Come!” barked Kenton, and stooped to pick up the dagger.
Now from all the pit came clamor; the slaves straining at their bonds and crying to be freed.
And from Sharane’s deck came the shrilling of women. Out of the window poured her warrior maids.
No chance now to surprise the black priest. No chance but in battle — fang and claw. His sword and the club of Sigurd against Klaneth and his pack.
“Quick, Sigurd!” he shouted. “To the deck!”
“I first,” grunted Sigurd. “Shield to you!”
He pushed Kenton aside, rushed past him. Before he could reach the foot of the stairway its top was filled with priests, white-faced, snarling, swords in their hands, and short stabbing spears.
Kenton’s foot fell on something that rolled away-from beneath it, sending him to his knees. He looked down into the grinning face of Zachel. His severed head it was that had tripped him. He lifted it by the hair, swung it round and hurled it straight at the face of the foremost priest at the stairway top. It caught the priest a glancing blow, fell among the others; rolled and bounced away.
They shrank back from it. Before they could muster again the Viking was up the steps and charging them, oar club flinging like a flail. And at his heels came Kenton, making for the black cabin’s door.
There were eight of the black robes facing them. The Norseman’s oar struck, shattering the skull of one like an egg shell. Before he could raise it again two of the priests had darted in upon him, stabbing, thrusting with their spears. Kenton’s sword swept down, bit deep into the bone of an arm whose point was touching Sigurd’s breast. With quick upward thrust he ripped that priest from navel to chin. The Viking dropped one hand from the oar, caught the half of the second spear, twisted it out of the black robe’s grip and ran it through his heart. Down went another under bite of Kenton’s blade.
Other priests came streaming from every passageway and corner of the black deck, armed with swords and spears and bearing shields. Out they streamed, screaming. And out of the black cabin rushed Klaneth, roaring, a great sword in hand. Behind him were Gigi and the Persian. The black priest came straight on, charging like a bull through the half ring of his servitors. But Gigi and the Persian slipped over to the serpent drum, stood there watching.
For an instant the black priest stood towering over Kenton. Then he struck downward, a lightning blow designed to cleave Kenton from shoulder to hip.
But Kenton was not there when the blow fell. Swifter than the sword of Klaneth he had leaped aside, thrust out his own blade ——
Felt it bite deep into the black priest’s side! The black priest howled and fell back. Instantly his acolytes streamed in between him and the besieged pair. They circled them.
“Back to back,” shouted the Viking. Kenton heard the great club hum, saw three of the black robes mowed down by it as by giant flail. With sweep and thrust he cleared away the priests ravening at him.
Now the fighting had carried them close to the drum. He saw the Persian, scimitar unsheathed and held by rigid arm. And he was cursing, sobbing, quivering like a hound held in leash and held back from his quarry. Gigi, froth upon the corners of wide-open mouth, face contorted, stood with long arms outstretched, hands trembling, shaking with that same eagerness.
Desire, Kenton knew, to join with him and Sigurd in that battle; both held back by vows not to be broken.
Gigi pointed downward. Kenton followed the gesture, saw a priest crawling, sword in hand, and almost within reach of the Viking’s feet. One sweep of the sword against Sigurd’s legs and he was done for; hamstrung. Forgetting his own defense, Kenton leaned forward, cut downward. The head of the creeping priest jumped from his shoulders, rolled away.
But as he straightened he saw Klaneth again above him, poised to strike!
“The end!” thought Kenton. He dropped flat, rolled away from the falling edge.
He had not counted on the Viking. Sigurd had seen that swift by-play. He swept his oar, held horizontally, in a gigantic punch. It crashed into Klaneth’s chest.
The sword stroke fell short, the black priest was hurled backward, half falling for all his strength and massive bulk.
“Gigi! Zubran! To me!” he howled. Before Kenton could rise, two priests were on him, clawing him, stabbing at him. He released his grip on his sword; drew the poniard of Zachel. He thrust upward; felt a body upon him stiffen, then collapse like a pricked balloon, felt too, the edge of a sword slice into his shoulder. He struck again, blindly; was drenched with sudden flood of blood. He heard a bubbling whispering and the second weight was gone.
He gripped his sword, staggered upright. Of all Klaneth’s pack not more than half a dozen were on their feet. They had drawn back, out of reach of the Viking’s club. Sigurd stood, drawing in great breaths. And the black priest was gasping too, holding his broad chest where the oar of Sigurd had struck. At his feet was a little pool of blood, dripping from where the sword of Nabu had pierced him. “Gigi! Zubran!” he panted. “Take these dogs!”
The drummer leered at him. “Nay, Klaneth,” he answered. “There was no vow to aid you.”
He bent over the tall drum, with heave of broad shoulders he hurled it over the side.
From the priests arose a groan. Klaneth stood, silent, struck dumb.
There came from the waves touching the ship a sound — sonorous and sinister.
A thunderous drumming, menacing, malignant — summoning! Br-oom-rr-oom-oom!
The serpent drum swinging against the side of the ship! Lifted by the waves and by their arms beaten against the ship!
The Summoner of Nergal!
The ship trembled. A shadow fell upon the sea. Around Klaneth a darkness began to gather.
More angrily thundered the wave-beaten drum. The mists about the black priest thickened, writhed; beginning that hellish transmutation of Nergal’s priest into the dread self of the Lord of the Dead.
“Strike!” howled Gigi. “Quick! Bite deep!”
He ran to the rail; dropped over it.
Kenton rushed straight upon that cloudy horror within which the black priest moved. His sword swept into it; struck. He heard a shriek, agonized, unbelieving. The voice of Klaneth. He struck again.
And striking realized that the drumming had ceased, that the voice of the drum was stilled. He heard Gigi’s shout:
“Bite again. Wolf! Bite deep!”
The dark mist around Klaneth cleared. He stood there, dead eyes closed, hand holding an arm from which dark blood welled through clasping fingers.
And as Kenton raised his sword to strike again the black priest dashed into his eyes the blood from the hand that had held the wounded arm. Blinded, Kenton held his sword at mid-stroke. The black priest rushed upon him. Mechanically, through dimmed sight, he thrust out his blade to meet that rush; saw Sigurd driving down upon the remaining priests; heard the crack of bone as red stained oar met their bodies.
His sword struck against Klaneth’s, and was beaten down.
Kenton’s foot slipped on a gout of blood. He fell. The black priest crashed on him; his arms encircled him. Over and over they rolled. He saw Sigurd, whimpering with eagerness, striving to strike . . .
Suddenly Klaneth rolled over, Kenton on top of him; his grip relaxed; he grew limp; lay inert.
Kenton knelt upon him; looked up at the Norseman.
“Not yours,” he gasped. “Mine!”
He sought for the dagger at his belt. The body of the black priest stiffened. Then, like a released spring, he leaped upon his feet, throwing Kenton away.
Before the Viking could raise his club Klaneth was at the rail.
He hurled himself over it into the sea!
A hundred feet away, the serpent drum floated, its top slit across by Gigi’s knife. The head of Klaneth arose beside it, his hands gripped it. Under the touch the huge cylinder dipped to him with grotesque genuflection. From it came a dismal sound, like a lament.
Out of the silver haze a shadow moved. It darkened over black priest and drum. It shrouded them and withdrew. Where it had been was neither black priest nor Summoner! Man and drum — both had gone!
BATTLE fury still in his veins, Kenton looked about him. The black deck was strewn with Klaneth’s men; men crushed and broken under Sigurd’s mace; men from whom his own sword had let out the life; men in twisted heaps; men — but not many — who still writhed and groaned. He turned to Sharane’s deck. Her women, white-faced, clustered at the cabin door.
And on the very verge of the barrier between the two decks stood Sharane. Proudly she faced him, but with misty eyes on whose long lashes tears still trembled. Diadem of shining crescent was gone; gone too that aura of the goddess which even when Ishtar was afar lingered like a splendor around this, her living shrine.
She was but a woman. Nay — only a girl! A girl all human, exquisite —
He was lifted high on the shoulders of Gigi and the Persian.
“Hail!” cried Gigi. “Hail! Master of the ship!”
“Master of the ship!” shouted the Persian.
Master of the ship! “Put me down,” he ordered. And when they had set him on his feet he strode from Klaneth’s deck to Sharane’s.
He stood over her.
“Master of the ship!” he laughed. “And master of — you! Sharane!” He gripped her slender wrists, drew her to him.
There was a cry from Gigi, a groan echoed by the Persian. Sharane’s face paled . . .
Out of the black cabin strode Sigurd, and in his arms was that dark statue of cloudy evil that had stood in Klaneth’s shrine.
“Stop!” cried Gigi, and sprang. Before the Ninevite could reach him Sigurd had lifted the idol and cast it over into the waves.
“The last devil gone!” he shouted. The ship trembled — trembled as though far beneath its keel a hand had risen and was shaking it. It stopped. Around it the waters darkened. Deep, deep down in those darkened waters began to glow a scarlet cloud. Deep, deep beneath them the cloud moved and widened as widens the thunderhead. It vortexed into a crimson storm cloud blotted with blacknesses. It floated up; ever growing, its scarlets deepening ever more angrily, its blacks shading ever more menacingly’
The lifting cloud swirled; from it shot out strangely ordered rays, horizontal, fan-shaped. From those slant planed luminescences now whirling like a tremendous wheel in the abyss, immense bubbles, black and crimson, began to break. They arose, growing swiftly in girth as they neared the surface.
Within them Kenton glimpsed figures, misty figures; bodies of crouching men clad in armor that glimmered jet and scarlet.
Men within the bubbles!
Armored men! Men who crouched with heads on knees, clothed all in glittering scales. Warriors in whose hands were misty swords, misty bows, misty javelins.
Up rushed the bubble hosts, myriad after myriad. Now they were close to sea surface. Now they broke through.
The bubbles burst!
Out of their shattered sides the warriors sprang. All in their checkered mail, pallid-faced, pupilless eyes half closed and dead, they leaped out upon the darkened blue of the sea. From crest to crest of waves they vaulted. They ran over the waters as though over a field of withered violets. Silently they poured down upon the ship!
“Men of Nergal!” wailed Sharane. “Warriors of the Black One! Ishtar! Ishtar — help us!”
“Phantoms!” cried Kenton, and held high his blood-stained sword. “Phantoms!”
And he knew in his soul that whatever they were — phantoms they were not!
The front rank poised themselves upon the tip of a curling wave as though upon a long land barrow. They thrust down bows no longer misty. To their cheeks they drew the tips of long arrows. Came a twang of strings, a pattering as of hail against the sides of the ship. A dozen shafts quivered along the side of the mast; one fell at his feet — serpent scaled, black and crimson, its head buried deep within the deck.
“Ishtar! Mother Ishtar! Deliver us from Nergal!” wailed Sharane.
As though in answer the ship leaped as if another hand had thrown it forward.
From the hosts still breaking through the bubbles arose a shouting. They raced after the flying ship. Another rain of arrows fell upon it.
“Ishtar! Mother Ishtar!” sobbed Sharane. The hovering darkness split. For an instant out of it peered an immense orb circled with garlands of little moons. From it poured silver fire; living, throbbing, jubilant. The pulsing flood struck the sea and melted through it. The shadows closed; the orb was gone.
The moon flames it had poured dropped down and down. Up to meet them sparkled other great bubbles all rosy, pearl and silver, shimmering with glints and glimmerings of tenderest nacre, gleamings of mother-of-pearl, cream of roses.
In each of them Kenton sensed a form, a body — wondrous, delicate and delicious; a woman’s body from whose beauty the shining sides of the bubbles drew their glory!
Women within the bubbles! Up rushed the spheres of glamour; they touched the surface of the wan sea. They opened.
Out of them flowed hosts of women. Naked, save for tresses black as midnight, silvery as the moon, golden as the wheat and poppy red, they stepped from the shimmering pyxes that had borne them upward.
They lifted white arms and brown arms, arms shell pink and arms pale amber, beckoning to the rushing, sea-born men-at-arms. Their eyes gleamed like little lakes of jewels — sapphires blue, black and pale sapphires, velvet jet, sun stone yellow, witched amber; eyes gray as sword blades beneath winter moons.
Round hipped and slender hipped, high-breasted and virginal, they swayed upon their wave crests, beckoning, calling to Nergal’s warriors.
At their calling — dove sweet, gull plaintive, hawk eager, sweet and poignant — the scaled hosts wavered; halted. The bows that had been drawn dropped; swords splashed; javelins twirled through the deeps. Within their dead eyes a flame sprang.
The warriors shouted. They leaped forward . . . to the women . . .
Wave crests on which mailed men raced met crests on which the wondrous women poised. Into the mailed arms the women were swept. For a breath, tresses brown and black, silver as the moon and golden as the wheat, swirled round mail ebon and scarlet.
Then warriors and women melted into the form behind the racing ship; became one with the jeweled and sparkling wake of it; a wake that rolled and sighed as though it were the soul of amorous seas.
“Ishtar! Mother Beloved!” prayed the Lady Sharane. “To Ishtar — homage!”
“To Ishtar — homage!” echoed Kenton, and bent his knee. Rising, he caught her to him.
“Sharane!” he breathed. Her soft arms wreathed his neck. “My lord — I pray you forgiveness,” she sighed. “I pray you forgiveness! Yet how could I have known — when first you lay upon the deck and seemed afraid and fled? I loved you! Yet how could I have known how mighty a lord you are?”
Her fragrance shook him; the softness of her against his breath closed his throat.
“Sharane!” he murmured. “Sharane!”
His lips sought hers and clung; mad wine of life raced through his veins; in the sweet fire of her mouth memory of all save this moment was burned away.
“I— give myself — to you!” she sighed.
He remembered . . .
“You give nothing, Sharane,” he answered her. “I— take!” He lifted her in his arms; he strode through the rosy cabin’s door; shut it with thrust of foot and hurled down its bar.
Sigurd, Trygg’s son, came and sat at the threshold of the rosy cabin. He polished the black priest’s sword, chanting low some ancient bridal lay.
Upon the black deck Gigi and Zubran moved, casting the bodies of the slain into the sea; ending the pain of those not yet dead; casting them then after the others.
One dove and then another fluttered down from the balcony of the little blossoming trees. The Viking watched them, still chanting. Quick after the first dropped others, twain upon twain. They cooed and bent inquisitive heads; they billed and murmured. They formed a half ring before the cabin’s closed door.
The white-breasted doves — red-beaked, vermilion-footed; the murmuring, the wooing, the caressing doves — they set their snowy seal upon the way to Kenton and Sharane.
The doves of Ishtar wedded them!
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:53