THERE was a hidden way, in truth. How Sigurd followed it in the glimmering fog, by what signs led, Kenton could not tell. But the Viking walked along, unhesitant.
Between high rocks covered with the golden ferns the narrow road ran, and through thickets where the still air was languorous with the scent of myriads of strange blossoms; through dense clumps of slender trunks which were like bamboo stems all lacquered scarlet, and through groves where trees grew primly in park-like precision and under which the tarnished silver shadows were thick. Their steps made no sound on the soft moss. They had long lost the murmur of the sea. Sound of any kind around them there was none.
At the skirt of one of the ordered groves the Viking paused.
“The place of sacrifice,” he whispered. “I go to see if any of Nergal’s black dogs are about. Wait for me here.”
He melted into the mists. They waited, silent. Each felt that something evil lay sleeping within those trees and if they spoke or moved it would awaken, draw them to it. And out of it, as though the sleeping evil breathed, pulsed the sickly sweet and charnel odor that had hung in Klaneth’s cabin.
Silently as he had gone, Sigurd returned.
“No black robes there,” he said. “Yet — something of their dark god dwells in that grove always. Eager am I to pass this place. Go softly and quickly.”
They pushed on. At last Sigurd paused, exhaled a vast sigh of relief.
“We have passed,” he told them.
He led them with increased speed. And now the way began to climb steeply. They passed through a long and deep ravine in which the glimmering, misty light was hardly strong enough for them to pick their way over the boulders that strewed it.
They passed out of it between two huge monoliths — and halted. Abruptly the silence that had enveloped them had been broken. Before them was nothing but the wall of the mists, but from them and far, far below came a murmuring, a humming of a great city, the creaking of masts, the rattle of gear, the splashing of oars and now and then a shouting, darting up like a kite from the vague clamor.
“The harbor,” said Sigurd, and pointed downward to the right. “Emakhtila lies beneath us — close. And there,”— he pointed again downward and a little to the left —“there is the temple of the Seven Zones.”
Kenton followed the pointing finger. A mighty mass loomed darkly in the silvery haze, its nebulous outlines cone-shaped, its top flattened. His heart quickened.
Down they went, and down. The murmuring of the city came to them ever louder and louder. Ever the great bulk of the temple grew plainer, climbing higher and higher into the heavens as they descended. And ever the mists hid this city from them.
They came to a high stone wall. Here Sigurd turned and led them into a grove of trees, thick, heavily shadowed. Through the trees they slipped, following the Viking who now went on with greater caution.
At last he peered out from behind an enormous trunk, beckoned them. Beyond the trees was a deep rutted, broad roadway.
“A road into the city,” he said. “A free road on which we can walk without fear.”
They clambered down a high bank and took that road, walking now side by side. Soon the trees cave way to fields, cultivated as far as the mists would let them see; fields filled with high plants whose leaves were shaped like those of the corn, but saffron yellow instead of green and instead of ears long panicles of gleaming white grains; rows of bushes on whose branches shone berries green as emeralds: strange fruits; three-stemmed vines from which fell star-shaped gourds.
They saw houses, two-storied; block-like with smaller cubes for wings like those a child makes. They were painted startlingly — both in colors and patterns; facades striped with alternate vertical, yard-wide bands of blue, and yellow facades of dull blue through which darted scarlet zigzags like the conventionalized lightning bolt; broad horizontal bands of crimson barred with stripes of green.
The road narrowed, became a thoroughfare paved with blocks. The painted houses became thicker. Men and women passed them, brown faced and black, clad alike in one sleeveless white garment cut short just below the knees. On the right wrist of each of these was a bronze ring from which fell a half dozen links of chain. They carried burdens — jugs, baskets of the fruits and gourds, loaves of bread colored ruddy brown, flat cakes a foot across. They glanced at the four curiously as they passed.
“Slaves,” said Sigurd.
Now the painted houses stood solidly, side by side. These were galleried and on the galleries were flowering trees and plants like those upon the rosy cabin of the ship. From some of them women leaned and called out to them as they went by.
They passed out of this street into a roaring avenue thronged with people. And here Kenton halted in sheer amazement.
At its far end loomed the huge bulk of the terraced temple. Its sides were lined with shops. At their doors stood men crying out their wares. Banners fell from them on which in woven silk ran the cuneiform letters that told their goods.
Past him walked Assyrians, men of Nineveh and Babylon with curled heads and ringleted beards; hook-nosed, fierce-eyed Phoenicians; sloe-eyed, muslin-skirted Egyptians; Ethiopians with great golden circles in their ears, almond-lidded, smiling yellow men. Soldiers in cuirasses of linked mail, archers with quivers on back and bows in hand strode by; priests in robes of black and crimson and blue. There stood in front of him for an instant a ruddy-skinned, smooth-muscled warrior who carried upon one shoulder the double-bladed ax of ancient Crete. Over his other shoulder lay the white arm of a sandalled woman in oddly modern pleated and patterned skirt, snake-girdled and with high, white breasts peeping from her opened and as oddly modern blouse. A Minoan and his mate he knew the pair to be, two who had perhaps watched youths and maids who were Athen’s tribute to the Minotaur go through the door of the labyrinth to the lair where the monstrous man-bull awaited them.
And there went a cuirassed Roman, gripping a short sword of bronze that might have helped cut out the paths the first Caesar trod. Behind him strode a giant Gaul with twisted locks and eyes as coldly blue as Sigurd’s own.
Up and down along the center of the thoroughfare rode men and women in litters borne on the shoulders of slaves. His eyes followed a Grecian girl, long limbed and lithe, with hair as yellow as the ripened wheat. They followed, too, a hot-eyed Carthaginian lovely enough to be a bride of Baal who leaned over the side of her litter and smiled at him.
“I am hungry and I thirst,” grunted Sigurd. “Why do we stand here? Let us be going.”
And Kenton realized that this pageant of past ages could be no strange thing to these comrades who were also of that past. He nodded assent. They swung into the crowd and stopped before a place wherein men sat eating and drinking.
“Better for us to enter two by two,” said Gigi. “Klaneth seeks four men and we are four strangers. Wolf, go you in first with Sigurd. Zubran and I will follow — but do not notice us when we enter.”
The shopkeeper set food before them and high beakers of red wine. He was garrulous; he asked them when they had made harbor, if their voyage had been a good one.
“It is a good time to be off the sea,” he gossiped. “Storm comes — and a great one. I pray to the Dispenser of Waters, that he hold it until Bel’s worship is ended. I close my shop soon to see that new priestess they talk so much about.”
Kenton’s face had been bent over, his cap veils hiding it. But at this he raised it and stared full into the man’s face.
The shopkeeper blanched, faltered, stared back at him with wide eyes.
Had he been recognized? Kenton’s hand sought stealthily his sword.
“Pardon!” gasped the shopkeeper, “I knew you not —’” Then he peered closer, straightened and laughed. “By Bel! I thought you were — another — Gods!”
He hurried away, Kenton looked after him. Was his departure a ruse? Had he recognized him as the man Klaneth sought? It could not be. His fright had been too real; his relief too sincere. Who was it then that Kenton so resembled to bring forth this fright and relief?
They finished their food quickly, paid from the gold they had taken from the galley; passed out into the street. Almost at once Gigi and the Persian joined them.
Two by two they passed down the street, not hurrying, like men just in from a long voyage. But as they went Kenton, with an ever growing puzzlement and apprehension, saw now one and now another glance at him, pause as though in wonder and then, averting eyes go swiftly by. The others saw it, too.
“Draw the cap cloths about your face,” said Gigi, uneasily. “I like not the way they stare.”
Briefly Kenton told him of the shopkeeper.
“That is bad,” Gigi shook his head. “Now who can it be you so resemble that those who look at you grow frightened? Well — hide your face as best you can.”
And this Kenton did, keeping his head bent as he walked. Nevertheless heads still turned.
The street entered a broad park. People were strolling over its sward, sitting on benches of stone, and gigantic roots of trees whose trunks were thick as the sequoia and whose tops were lost in the slowly thickening mists. And when they had gone a little way Sigurd turned off the highway into this park.
“Wolf,” he said. “Gigi is right. They stare at you too much. It comes to me that it will be better for all if you go no further. Sit upon this bench. Bow your head as though asleep or drunken. There are few here and they will be fewer as the temple court fills. The mists hide you from those who pass along the street. The three of us will go on to the temple and study that stairway. Then we will return to you and we will take counsel.”
Kenton knew the Viking was right. Steadily his own unease had grown. And yet — it was hard to stay behind, not to see for himself that place where Sharane lay captive, leave to others the chance of finding way to her.
“Courage, brother,” said Sigurd as they left him. “Odin has held off the storm for us. Odin will help us get your woman.”
Now for a time, a long, long time, it seemed to him, he sat upon that bench with face covered by hands. Stronger and stronger grew that desire to see for himself Sharane’s prison, study its weaknesses. After all, his comrades were not as interested as he; their eyes not sharpened by love. He might succeed where they would fail; his eyes see what theirs would miss. And at last the desire mastered him. He arose from the bench, made his way back to the thronged street. When it was a few steps away, he turned and went along through the park, paralleling the street but not going out on it.
And in a short while he came to the end of the park and stood, half hidden, looking out.
Directly before him, not fifty yards away, arose the immense bulk of the Temple of the Seven Zones.
It blocked his vision like a Cyclopean cone. The great stairway coiled round it like a serpent. For a hundred feet up from its base the temple shone like burnished silver. There a circular terrace bit into the cone. Above that terrace for another hundred feet the surface was covered with some metal of red gold color, rich orange. Another terrace and above that a facade of jet black, dull and dead. Again a terrace. The mists hid the walls above this last, but he thought that through them he could see a glint of flaming scarlet and over it a blue shadow.
His eyes followed the girdling stairway. He stepped forward that he might see a little better. Broad steps led up from its base to a wide platform on which stood many men on armor. That, he realized, was the garrison which they must either trick or overcome. His heart sank as he counted the soldiers that guarded it.
He looked beyond them. The rise of the stairway from the platform of the guards was gradual. About five thousand feet away the park came close to the side of the temple. There was a clump of high trees whose branches almost touched the stairway at that point.
Gigi’s rope and grapple! Ah, wise had been the Ninevite, anticipating some such chance. Kenton was lightest of the four — he could climb those trees, drop to the stairway, or if that were not possible, cast the grapple over the wall of it, swing in and climb up the rope and over!
Then he could drop that rope for the three to swarm it. It could be done! And if in such a storm as Sigurd prophesied, with certainty of giving no alarm to the garrison below.
Suddenly he had the sense of being watched. He saw that the space between him and the temple was empty of people; saw an officer of the garrison standing at the base of the steps staring.
Kenton turned; swiftly skirted the street until he was back to the bench. He seated himself on it as he had been before — bent over, face in hands.
And as he sat there some one dropped down beside him.
“What is the matter, sailor?” came a voice, roughly kind. “If you are sick why not go home?”
Kenton spoke huskily, keeping his face covered.
“Too much of Emakhtila wine,” he answered. “Leave me be. It will pass.”
“Ho!” laughed the other, and gripped an arm about the elbow. “Look up. Better seek home before the tempest breaks.”
“No, no,” said Kenton, thickly. “Never mind the tempest. Water will help me.”
The hand dropped from his arm. For a time, whoever it was beside him, was silent. Then he arose.
“Right, sailor,” he said heartily. “Stay here. Stretch out on the bench and sleep a little. The gods be with you!”
“And with you,” muttered Kenton. He heard the footsteps of that brief companionship retreating. Cautiously he turned his head, looked in their direction. There were several figures walking there among the trees. One was an old man in a long blue cloak; another an officer dressed like the one who had watched him from the base of the great stairway; a sailor; a hurrying citizen. Which had it been?
The man who had sat beside him had gripped his arm, gripped it where Sharane’s bracelet was bound! And that officer — the watching soldier of the garrison! Had it been he? Had he been followed?
He sat bolt upright, clapped his right hand on the sleeve of the leather shirt. His hand touched — the bracelet! The sleeve had been slit by a knife to reveal it!
Kenton leaped to his feet — to run. Before he could take a step there was a rustling behind him, a trampling. A heavy cloth was thrown over his head like a bag. Hands clutched his throat. Other hands wound strand after strand of rope around his arms, pinioning them to his sides.
“Take that cloth off his face — but keep your hands around his throat,” said a cold dead voice.
His head was freed. He looked straight into the pale eyes of Klaneth!
Then from the double ring of soldiers around him came a gasp of amazement, a movement of terror. An officer stepped forward, stared at him incredulously.
“Mother of the Gods!” he groaned, and knelt at Kenton’s feet. “Lord — I did not know —” He leaped up, set knife to his bonds.
“Stop!” Klaneth spoke. “It is the slave! Look again!”
Trembling, the officer studied Kenton’s face, lifted the cap veils; swore.
“Gods!” he exclaimed, “but I thought he was —”
“And he is not,” interposed Klaneth smoothly. His eyes gloated over Kenton. He reached down into his belt, drew from it the sword of Nabu.
“Hold!” the officer quietly took it from him. “This man is my prisoner until I deliver him to the king. And till then I keep his sword.”
The feral light in the pupils of the black priest glowed.
“He goes to Nergal’s House,” he rumbled. “Best beware, captain, how you cross Klaneth.”
“Cross or no cross,” replied the officer, “I am the king’s man. His orders I obey. And you know as well as I do that he has commanded all prisoners to be brought before him first — no matter what even high priests may say. Besides,” he added slyly, “there is that matter of the reward. Best to get this capture a matter of record. The king is a just man.”
The black priest stood silent, fingering his mouth. The officer laughed.
“March!” he snapped. “To the temple. If this man escapes — all your lives for his!”
In a triple ring of the soldiers walked Kenton. On one side of him strode the officers; on the other the black priest, gloating gaze never leaving him; Klaneth, licking his merciless lips.
Thus they passed through the wooded park, out into the street and at last through a high archway, and were swallowed up within a gateway of the temple.
THE KING of Emakhtila, Lord of the Two Deaths, sat, legs crooked, on a high divan. He was very like Old King Cole of the nursery rhyme, even to that monarch’s rubicund jollity, his apple-round, pippin-red cheeks. Merriment shone in his somewhat watery blue eyes. He wore one loose robe of scarlet. His long, white beard, stained here and there with drops of red and purple and yellow wine, wagged roguishly.
The judgment chamber of the King of Emakhtila was some hundred feet square. His divan rested on a platform five feet high that stretched from side to side like a stage. The chequered floor raised in a sharp concave curve to build it. The curved front was cut through by a broad flight of low wide steps ascending from the lower floor and ending about five feet from the divan of the king.
Two and ten archers in belted kirtles of silver and scarlet stood on the lowest step, shoulder to shoulder, bows at stand, arrows at strings, ready on the instant to be raised to ears and loosed. Four and twenty archers knelt at their feet. Six and thirty shafts of death were leveled at Kenton, black priest and the captain.
Out from each side of the steps and along the curved wall to where it met the sides of the chamber another file of bowmen stretched, scarlet and silver, shoulder to shoulder, arrows alert. The twinkling eyes of the king could see the backs of the heads ranged over the edge of his stage like footlights.
Along the other three walls, shoulder to shoulder, arrows at strings, eyes fixed on the King of Emakhtila, ran an unbroken silver and scarlet frieze of archers. They stood silent; tense as automatons tightly wound and waiting for touch upon some hidden spring.
The chamber was windowless. Pale blue tapestries covered all its walls. A hundred lamps lighted it with still, yellow flames.
Twice a tall man’s height away from the king’s left hand a veiled shape stood, motionless as the bowmen. Even through its thick veils came subtle hints of beauty.
At the same distance from the king’s right hand another veiled shape stood. Nor could its veils check hint of horror seeping forth from what they covered.
One shape set the pulses leaping.
One shape checked them.
On the floor, at the king’s feet, crouched a giant Chinese with a curved and crimson sword.
Close to each end of the divan stood girls, fair and young and naked to their waists. Six to this side — six to that. They held ewers filled with wine. At their feet were great bowls of wine, red and purple and yellow, in larger bowls of snow.
At the right hand of the Lord of the Two Deaths knelt a girl with golden cup on outstretched palms. At his left hand another knelt, a golden flagon on her palms. And the king to drink used equally well his left hand and his right, raising cup or flagon, setting them to his lips, putting them back. Whereupon at once they were refilled.
Through many passages the captain and the black priest had hurried Kenton to this place. And now the king drank deep, set down his cup and clapped his hands.
“The King of Emakhtila judges!” intoned the Chinese, sonorously.
“He judges!” whispered the bowmen ranged along the walls.
Kenton, black priest and captain stepped forward until their breasts touched the foremost arrow points. The king leaned, merry eyes twinkling on Kenton.
“What jest is this, Klaneth?” he cried in a high, thin treble. “Or have the Houses of Bel and Nergal declared war upon each other?”
“They are not at war, lord,” answered Klaneth. “This is the slave for whom I have offered great reward and whom I now claim since I have taken —”
“Since I have taken, Mighty One,” interrupted the captain, kneeling as he spoke. “And so have earned Klaneth’s reward, O Just One!”
“You lie, Klaneth!” chuckled the king. “If you are not at war why have you trussed up —”
“Look again, lord,” interrupted Klaneth. “I do not lie.”
The watery eyes peered closer at Kenton.
“No!” laughed the king. “You are right. He is what the other man would be were he half as much a man. Well well —”
He raised the flagon; before he had half lifted it to his lips he paused and looked into it.
“Half full!” giggled the king. “Only half full!”
He glanced from the flagon to the girl who stood closest to the kneeling girl at his left. His round face beamed on her.
“Insect!” chuckled the king. “You forgot to fill my flagon!”
He raised a finger.
A bow string sang along the left wall, an arrow shrilled. It struck the trembling girl in the shoulder on the right side. She swayed, eyes closed.
“Bad!” the king cried merrily, and again held up a finger.
From the frieze along the right wall another bow string sang; an arrow whittled across the room. The shaft cleft the heart of the first archer. Before his body touched the floor the same bow sang once more.
A second shaft leaped into sight deep within the left side of the wounded girl.
“Good!” laughed the king.
“Our lord has granted death!” chanted the Chinese. “Praise him!”
“Praise him!” echoed the bowmen and the cup maidens.
But Kenton, mad with swift rage at that heartless killing, leaped forward. Instantly the bow strings of the six and thirty archers before him were drawn taut, arrow shafts touched ears. Black priest and captain caught him, threw him down.
The Chinese drew a small hammer and struck the blade of his sword. It rang like a bell. Two slaves came out on the dais and carried the dead girl away. Another girl took her place. The slaves dragged off the dead archer. Another slipped through the curtains and stood where he had been.
“Let him up,” crowed the king — and drained his filled flagon.
“Lord — he is my slave.” All the black priest’s will could not keep the arrogant impatience out of his voice. “He has been brought before you in obedience to your general command. You have seen him. Now I claim my right to take him to his place of punishment.”
“Oh-ho!” the king set down his cup, beamed at Klaneth. “Oh-ho! Sh-so you won’t let him up? And you will take him away? Oh-ho!
“Toe nail of a rotting flea!” he shrilled. “Am I King of Emakhtila or am I not? Answer me!”
From all around the chamber came the sigh of tight drawn bow strings. Every arrow of the silver and scarlet frieze of bowmen was pointed at the black priest’s great body. The captain threw himself down beside Kenton.
“Gods!” muttered that shoulder. “Hell take you and the reward. Why did I ever see you!”
The black priest spoke, voice strangled between rage and fear —
“King of Emakhtila you are!”
He knelt. The king waved his hand. The bow strings dropped loose.
“Stand up!” cried the king. The three arose. The King of Emakhtila shook a finger at Kenton.
“Why were you so angered,” he chuckled, “by my boon of death to those two? Man — how many times, think you, will you beseech death to come, and pray for my swift archers before Klaneth is done with you?”
“It was slaughter,” said Kenton, eyes steady on the watery ones.
“My cup must be kept filled,” answered the king gently. “The girl knew the penalty. She broke my law. She was slain. I am just.”
“Our lord is just!” chanted the Chinese.
“He is just!” echoed the archers and the cup maidens.
“The bowman made her suffer when I meant painless death for her. Therefore he was slain,” said the king. “I am merciful.”
“Our lord is merciful!” chanted the Chinese. “He is merciful!” echoed the bowmen and the cup maidens.
“Death!” the king’s face wrinkled jovially. “Why, man — death is the first of boons. It is the one thing out of which the gods cannot cheat us. It is the one thing that is stronger than the fickleness of the gods. It is the only thing that is man’s own. Above the gods, heedless of the gods, stronger than the gods — since even gods in their due time must die!
“Ah!” sighed the king — and for a fleeting instant all King Cole jocundity was gone. “Ah! There was a poet in Chaldea when I dwelt there — a man who knew death and how to write of it. Maldronah, his name. None here knows him —”
And then softly:
“’Tis better be dead than alive, he said — But best is never to be!”
Kenton listened, interest in this strange personality banishing his anger. He too knew Maldronah of ancient Ur; had run across that very poem from which the king had quoted while going through some of the inscribed clay tablets recovered by Heilprecht in the sands of Nineveh — back in that old life, half forgotten. And involuntarily he spoke the beginning of the last macabresque stanza:
“Life is a game, he said; Its end we know not — nor care, And we yawn ere we come to its end —”
“What!” the king cried. “You know Maldronah! You —”
Old King Cole again, he shook with laughter. “Go on!” he ordered. Kenton felt the bulk of Klaneth beside him tremble with wrath. And Kenton laughed, too — meeting the twinkling eyes of the king; and while the Lord of the Two Deaths beat time with cup and flagon he finished Maldronah’s verse, with its curious jigging lilt entangled in slow measure of marche funerale:
“Yet it pleases to play with the snare, To skirt the pit, and the peril dare, And lightly the gains to spend; There’s a door that has opened, he said, A space where ye may tread — But the things ye have seen and the things ye have done, What are these things when the race is run —
And ye pause at the farthest door? As though they never had been, he said — Utterly passed as the pulse of the dead! Then tread on lightly with nothing to mourn! Shall he who had nothing fear for the score? Ah — better be dead than alive, he said — But best is ne’er to be born!”
Long sat the king in silence. At last he stirred, raised his flagon and beckoned one of the maidens.
“He drinks with me!” he said, pointing to Kenton.
The archers parted; let the cup maiden pass. She stood before Kenton; held the flagon to his lips. He drank deep; lifted head and bowed thanks.
“Klaneth,” said the king, “no man who knows Maldronah of Ur is a slave.”
“Lord,” answered the black priest, stubbornly. “Yet this man is my slave.”
The king again sat silent, drinking now from cup and now from flagon; eyes now on Kenton, now at Klaneth.
“Come here,” he ordered at last — and pointed with one finger at Kenton, with another at the side of the Chinese.
“Lord!” said Klaneth, more uneasily yet as stubbornly. “My slave stays beside me.”
“Does he?” laughed the king. “Ulcer on a gnat’s belly! Does he?”
All around the chamber the bow strings sighed.
“Lord,” panted Klaneth, with bowed head. “He goes to you.”
As he passed him, Kenton heard the black priest’s teeth grate; heard him sob as does a man after a long race. And Kenton, grinning, stepped through the opened space of archers; stood before the king.
“Man who knows Maldronah,” smiled the king. “You wonder how I, alone, have greater power than these priests and all their gods? Well — it is because in all Emakhtila I am the only one who has neither gods nor superstitions. I am the one man who knows there are only three realities. Wine — which up to a certain point makes man see more clearly than the gods. Power — which being combined with man’s cunning makes him superior to the gods. Death — which no god can abolish and which I deal at will.”
“Wine! Power! Death!” chanted the Chinese.
“These priests have many gods — each of them jealous of all the others. Ho! Ho!” laughed the king. “I have no gods. Therefore I am just to all. The just judge must be without prejudice; without belief.”
“Our lord is without prejudice!” chanted the Chinese. “He has no beliefs!” intoned the bowmen. “I am on one side of the scales,” nodded the king. “On the other side are many gods and priests. There are only three things that I am sure are real. Wine, power, death! Those who try to outweigh me have beliefs many times three. Therefore I outweigh them. If there were but one god, one belief opposite me — lo, I would be outweighed! Yea — three to one! That is paradox — also it is truth.”
“The Lord of Emakhtila speaks truth!” whispered the bowmen.
“Better three straight arrows in your quiver than threescore crooked ones. And if there should arise one man in Emakhtila with but one arrow and that arrow straighter than my three — that man would soon rule in my place,” beamed the king.
“Archers — hear ye the king!” chanted the Chinese. “And so,” the king said, briskly, “since all the gods and all the priests are jealous of each other, they make me-who gives not a curse for any god or priest — king of Emakhtila — to keep peace among them and hold them back from destroying each other! And this, since I now have ten bowmen to every one of theirs, and twenty swordsmen to each swordman of the priests, I do very well. Ho! Ho!” laughed the king. “That is power.”
“Our lord has power!” cried the Chinese.
“And having power I can get drunk at will,” chuckled the king.
“Our lord is drunken!” whispered the archers, all around the chamber.
“Drunken or sober — I am King of the Two Deaths!” tittered the ruler of Emakhtila.
“The Two Deaths!” whispered the archers, nodding to each other.
“To you — man who knows Maldronah — I unveil them,” said the king.
“Bowmen at sides and back — bend your heads!” shouted the Chinese. The heads of the archers along three sides of the living frieze dropped immediately upon their breasts.
The veils fell from the shape upon the left hand of the king.
There, looking at Kenton with deep eyes in which were tenderness of the mother, shyness of the maid, passion of the beloved mistress, stood a woman. Her naked body was flawless. In it, harmonies of mother, maid and mistress flowed in one compelling chord. From her breathed all springtides that ever caressed earth. She was the doorway to enchanted worlds, the symbol of everything that life could offer both of beauty and of joy. She was all the sweetnesses of life, its promises, its ecstasies, its lure and its reason. Looking on her Kenton knew that life was something to be held fast. That it was dear and filled with wonders. Exquisite — not to be let go!
And that death was very dreadful!
He had no desire toward her. But she fanned to roaring flame desire for life in full continuance.
In her right hand she held a strangely shaped instrument, long, with sharp fangs and rows of tearing claws.
“To her,” chuckled the king, “I give only those whom I greatly dislike. She kills them slowly. Looking upon her, they cling to life; fiercely, terribly they cling to it. Each moment of life that she draws from them with those claws and teeth is an eternity through which they battle against death. Slowly she draws them out of life — wailing, clinging to it, turning stubborn faces from death! And now — look!”
The veils fell from the shape at his right hand.
There crouched a black dwarf, misshapen, warped, hideous. He stared at Kenton out of dull eyes that held every sorrow and sadness and disillusionment of life; held all of life’s uselessness, its weariness, its empty labor. And looking at him, Kenton forgot that other shape — knew that life was dreadful, not to be borne.
And that death was the one good thing!
In his right hand the dwarf held a slender sword, rapier thin, needle pointed. Kenton fought increasing desire to hurl himself upon that point — die upon it!
“To him,” laughed the king, “I give those who have greatly pleased me. Swift is their death and a sweet cup to their lips.”
“You there —” the king pointed to the captain who had trapped Kenton. “Not too pleased am I with you for taking this man who knows Maldronah, even if he be Klaneth’s slave. Go up before my left hand death!”
Face bloodless white, the captain marched to the steps; rigid he marched through the archers, marched without pause until he stood before the woman. The Chinese struck his sword. Two slaves entered, heads bent low, carrying a lattice of metal. They stripped the captain of his armor, strapped him naked to the grate. The woman leaned over him, tenderness, love, all life’s promise in her wondrous face. She thrust the fanged instrument against his breast — so lovingly!
From his lips came a shrieking, anguished, despairing; prayers and curses; the wailing of the newly damned.
Still the woman leaned over him, smiling, tender, her eyes brooding upon his.
“Let be!” giggled the king. She lifted the thing of torment from the soldier’s breast; bent to her veils and threw them over her. The slaves unbound the captain; dressed his shaking body. Sobbing, he staggered back, sank on knees at the black priest’s side.
“I am displeased,” said the king, merrily. “Yet you did your duty. Therefore — live for a while, since that is your desire. I am just.”
“Just is our lord,” echoed the chamber. “You —” he pointed to the archer who had slain cup maiden and a fellow bowman —“I am much pleased with you. You shall have your reward. Come to my right hand death!”
Slowly at first the archer stepped forward. Faster he moved as the dull eyes of the dwarf met his and clung to them. Faster and faster — he raced up the steps, hurling the archers aside and leaped upon the slender sword!
“I am generous,” said the king.
“Our lord is generous,” intoned the Chinese.
“Generous!” whispered the bowmen.
“I am thirsty,” laughed the king. He drank deep from left hand and right. His head nodded; he swayed a bit; quite drunkenly.
“My command!” he opened and closed one twinkling eye after the other. “Hear me, Klaneth! I am sleepy. I will sleep. When I was awaken — bring this man who knows Maldronah to me again. Let no harm come to him before then. It is my command. Also he shall have a guard of bowmen. Take him away. Keep him safe. It is my command!”
He reached for his cup. It dropped from his lax hand.
“By my Deaths!” he whimpered. “What shame that casks can hold so much and man so little!”
He sank upon the divan.
The Lord of the Two Deaths snored.
“Our lord sleeps!” chanted the Chinese, softly.
“He sleeps!” whispered the bowmen and cup maidens.
The Chinese arose, bent over the king. He raised him on his shoulders like a child. The Two Deaths followed him. The two and ten archers upon the lowest step turned, marched up and circled the four. The four and twenty turned, marched and circled them. The bowmen beside the curved wall swung round and six abreast marched up the steps. The living frieze of scarlet and silver swung six by six out from their walls and followed them.
The double ring stepped forward, passed through the curtains at the rear. After them strode the bowmen.
Six fell out of the ranks, ranged themselves beside Kenton.
The cup maidens picked up ewers and bowls. They tripped through the curtains.
One of the six bowmen pointed to the lower floor. Kenton walked down the steps.
Black priest on one side of him, white-faced captain on the other, three archers marching before them, three after them, he passed out of the judgment chamber of the king.
THEY LED Kenton to a narrow room in whose high walls were slitted windows. Its heavy door was solid bronze. Around its sides ran stone benches. In its center was another bench. The bowmen sat him on it, tied his ankles with leathern thongs, threw cloaks on its top and pressed him down upon them. They seated themselves two by two on three sides of the room, eyes fixed on black priest and captain, now ready.
The captain tapped the black priest on the shoulder.
“My reward?” he asked. “When do I get it?” “When the slave is in my hands and not before,” answered Klaneth, savagely, “If you had been — wiser, you would have had it by now.”
“Much good it would be doing me, with an arrow through my heart or —” he shuddered —“wailing even now at the feet of the king’s left hand death!”
The black priest looked at Kenton evilly; bent over him. “Put no hope in the king’s favor,” he muttered. “It was his drunkenness that was speaking. When he awakens he will have forgotten. He will give you to me without question. No hope there!”
“No?” sneered Kenton, meeting the malignant eyes steadily. “Yet twice have I beaten you — you black swine.”
“But not a third time,” spat Klaneth. “And when the king awakens I will have not only you but that temple drab you love! Ho!” rumbled the black priest as Kenton winced, “that touches you, does it? Yes, I will have you both. And together you shall die — slowly, ah, so slowly, watching each other’s agonies. Side by side — side by side until slowly, slowly, my torturers have destroyed the last of your bodies. Nay, the last of your souls! Never before has man or woman died as you two shall!”
“You cannot harm Sharane,” answered Kenton. “Carrion eater whose filthy mouth drips lies! She is Bel’s priestess and safe from you.”
“Ho! You know that do you?” grunted Klaneth; then bent, whispering close to Kenton’s ear so softly that no one but him could hear. “Listen — here then is a sweet thought to carry you while I am away. Only while the priestess is faithful to the god is she beyond my reach. Now listen — listen — before the king awakes your Sharane shall have taken another lover! Yea! Your love shall lie in the arms of an earthly lover! And he will not be — you!”
Kenton writhed, striving to break his bonds. “Sweet Sharane!” whispered Klaneth leering. “Holy Vase of Joy! And mine now to break as I will — while the King sleeps!”
He stepped back to the soldier who had taken Kenton. “Come,” he said.
“Not I,” answered the soldier, hastily. “By the gods, I prefer this company. Also if I lose sight of this man — I might forever lose sight of that reward you owe me for him.”
“Give me his sword,” ordered Klaneth, reaching toward the blade of Nabu which the officer had retained.
“The sword goes with the man,” answered the captain, setting it behind him; he looked at the archers.
“That is true,” the bowmen nodded to each other. “Priest, you cannot have the sword.”
Klaneth snarled; his hands flew out. Six bows bent, six arrows pointed at his heart. Without word, the black priest strode out of the cell. An archer arose, dropped into place a bar, sealing the door. A silence fell. The officer brooded; now and then he shivered as though cold, and Kenton knew he was thinking of that Death who with smiling, tender eyes had pressed teeth of torture in his breast. The six bowmen watched him unwinkingly.
And at last Kenton closed his own eyes — fighting to keep back the terror of Klaneth’s last threat against his beloved; fighting against despair.
What plot had the black priest set going against her, what trap had he laid, to make him so sure that so soon he would have her in his hands — to break! And where were Gigi and Sigurd and Zubran? Did they know how he had been taken? A great loneliness swept over him.
How long his eyes were closed, or whether he had slept — he never could tell. But he heard as though from infinite distances away a still, passionless voice.
“Arise!” it bade him.
He opened his lids; lifted his head. A priest stood beside him, a priest whose long blue robes covered him from head to foot. Nothing could he see of the priest’s face.
He knew that his arms and ankles were free. He sat up. Ropes and thongs lay on the floor. On the stone benches the bowmen leaned one against the other asleep. The officer was asleep.
The priest pointed to his sword, the sword of Nabu lying across the sleeping soldier’s knees. Kenton took it. The priest pointed to the bar that held the door. Kenton lifted it and swung the door open. The blue priest glided through the doorway, Kenton close behind.
The blue priest drifted along the corridor for a hundred paces or so and then pressed against what, to Kenton’s sight, was a blank wall. A panel opened. Now they stood in a long corridor, dimly lighted. Along it they went in a great curve. It came to Kenton that this hidden passage followed the huge arc of the temple, that it ran behind the temple’s outer wall.
Now a massive bronze door closed the way. The blue priest seemed only to touch it. Yet it swung open; it closed behind them.
Kenton stood in a crypt some ten feet square. At one end was the massive door through which he had come; at the other was a similar one. At his left was a ten-foot slab of smooth, pallid stone.
The blue priest spoke — if indeed it were he speaking, since the passionless, still voice Kenton heard seemed, like that which had bidden him arise, to come from infinite distance.
“The mind of the woman you love — sleeps!” it said. “She is a woman walking in dream — moving among dreams that another mind has made for her. Evil creeps upon her. It is not well to let that evil conquer — Yet the issue rests on you — on your wisdom, your strength, your courage. When your wisdom tells you it is the time — open that farther door. Your way lies through it. And remember — her mind sleeps. You must awaken it — before the evil leaps upon her.”
Something tinkled on the floor. At Kenton’s feet lay a little wedge-shaped key. He stooped to pick it up. As he raised his head he saw the blue priest beside the far door.
The blue priest seemed but a wisp of wind-drawn smoke that, even as he looked, faded through the bronze and vanished!
Kenton heard the murmur of many voices, muffled, vague. He slipped from door to door, listening. The voices were not within the passage. They seemed to seep through the slab of pallid smooth stone. He placed an ear against it. The sounds came to him more distinctly, but still he could distinguish no words. The stone must be exceedingly thin here, he thought, that he could hear at all. He saw at his right a little shining lever. He drew it down.
A three-foot-wide, misty disc of light began to glow within the stone. It seemed to eat through the stone; it flashed out dazzlingly. Where the disc had been was a circular opening, a window. Silhouetted against it were the heads of a woman and two men. Their voices came now as clearly to his ears as though they stood beside him; over them came the wavelike murmur of a multitude. He drew back, fearing to be seen. The little lever snapped back into place. The window faded; with its fading the voices muted. He stared again at the smooth, pale wall.
Slowly he drew down the lever; once more he watched the apparent burning out of the solid stone; saw the three heads reappear. He had his free hand over the visible wall to the edge of the circle; higher he lifted it, into the disc itself. And ever he touched cold stone. Even that which was to his eyes an opening was to the questing fingers — stone!
He understood — this was some device of the sorcerers — the priests. A device to give them a peeping place, a listening post, within the crypt. Some knowledge of the properties of light not yet learned by the science of Kenton’s own world, control of a varying vibration that made the rock transparent from within but not from without. Whatever the secret, the stone was made as porous to the aerial waves of sound as to the etheric waves of light.
Keeping his grip upon the handle, Kenton peered out between the heads and over the shoulders of those so close to and still so unconscious of him.
THE MISTS had lifted. They had become dense lurid clouds pressing down almost upon the top of the Zoned Temple. In front of him was a huge court paved with immense octagons of black and white marble. Trooping down upon this court like a forest of faery, halting in a wide semicircle around it, were hosts of slender pillars, elfin shafts all gleaming red and black whose tapering tops were crowned with carven, lace-tipped fronds glistening like gigantic ferns wet with dew of diamonds and sapphires. Upon the black and scarlet columns shone mysterious symbolings in gold and azure, in emerald and vermilion and silver. In halted myriads these pillars reached up toward the sullen, smouldering sky.
Hardly a hundred feet away was a golden altar, guarded by crouching Kerubs, man-headed, eagle-winged, lion-bodied, carven from some midnight metal. They watched at each corner of the altar with cruel, bearded faces set between paws and as alert as though alive. From the tripod on the altar a single slender crimson flame lifted, lance tipped and motionless.
In a vast crescent, a dozen yards in the van of the columns stood a double ring of bowmen and spearmen. They held back a multitude; men and women and children pouring out of the ordered grove of pillars and milling against the soldiers like wind-driven leaves against a well. Score upon score of men and women and children plucked from their own times and set down in this timeless world.
“The new priestess — they say she is very beautiful?” One of the men in front of Kenton had spoken. He was thin, white-faced, a Phrygian cap over his lank hair. The woman was of a bold and blown comeliness, black tressed, black-eyed. The man at her right was an Assyrian, bearded, wolf visaged.
“She was a princess, they say,” the woman spoke. “They say she was a princess in Babylon.”
“Princess in Babylon!” echoed the Assyrian, wolf face softening, homesickness in his voice —“Oh, to be back in Babylon!”
“The Priest of Bel loves her — so they say,” the woman broke the silence.
“The priestess?” whispered the Phrygian; the woman nodded. “But that is forbidden,” he muttered. “It is — death!” The woman laughed again.
“Hush!” it was the Assyrian, cautioning.
“And Narada — the God’s Dancer — loves the Priest of Bel!” the woman went on, unheeding. “And so — as always one must speed to Nergal!”
“Hush!” whispered the Assyrian.
There was a rumbling ruffle of drums, the sweet piping of a flute. Kenton sought the sounds. His gaze rested on half a score of temple girls. Five crouched beside little tambours upon whose heads rested their rosy thumbs; two held to red lips pierced reeds; three bent over harps. Within their circle lay what at first seemed to him a mound of shimmering spider web spun all of threads of jet, in which swarms of golden butterflies were snared. The mound quivered, lifted.
The sable silken strands had meshed a woman, a woman so lovely that for a heartbeat Kenton forgot Sharane. Dark she was, with the velvety darkness of the midsummer night; her eyes were pools of midnight skies in which shone no stars; her hair was mists of tempests snared in nets of silken gold. Sullen indeed was that gold, and in all of her something sullen that menaced the more because of its sweetness.
“There is a woman!” the bold eyes turned to the Assyrian. “She’ll have what she wants — my bed on it!”
There came a voice from beside her, wistful, dreamy, worshipping:
“Ah, yes! But the new priestess — she is no woman! She is Ishtar!”
Kenton craned his neck, looking for the speaker. He saw a youth, hardly more than nineteen, saffron-robed and slight. His eyes and face were those of a beautiful dreaming child.
“He is half mad,” the dark woman whispered to the Assyrian. “Ever since the new priestess came, he haunts this place.”
“We are going to have a storm. The sky is like a bowl of brass,” muttered the Phrygian. “The air is frightened.”
The Assyrian answered:
“They say Bel comes to his house in the storm. Perhaps the priestess will not be alone tonight.”
The woman laughed, slyly. Kenton felt desire to take her throat in his hands. There came a low clashing of thunder.
“Perhaps that is he, rising,” said the woman, demurely.
There was a throbbing of the harp-strings, a complaining from the tambours. A dancing girl sang softly:
“Born was Nala for delight, Never danced there feet so white; Every heart on which she trod. Dying owned her heel its god; Loose her girdle day or night — Born was Nala for delight!”
The brooding eyes of Narada flashed angrily. “Be quiet!” Kenton heard her whisper. There was a ripple of laughter among the girls; the two with the pipes trilled them softly; the drums murmured. But she who had sung sat silent over her harp with downcast eyes.
The Phrygian asked: “Is this priestess then really so beautiful?”
The Assyrian said: “I do not know. No man has ever seen her unveiled.” The youth whispered:
“When she walks I tremble! I tremble like the little blue lake of the temple when the breeze walks on it! Only my eyes live, and something grips my throat.”
“Peace!” a brown-eyed girl with kindly face and babe in arms spoke. “Not so loud — or it will be a bow string.”
“She is no woman! She is Ishtar! Ishtar!” cried the youth.
The soldiers nearby turned. Through them strode a grizzled officer, short sword in hand. Before his approach the others drew back; only the youth stood motionless. Right and left the sword carrier peered beneath bushy brows. Ere he could fix gaze on the youth a man in sailor’s cap and tunic of mail had walked between the two, gripped the youth’s wrist, held him hidden behind him. Kenton caught a glimpse of agate eyes, black beard —— It was Zubran!
Zubran! But would he pass on? Could Kenton make him hear if he called? If his body could not be seen from without, could his voice penetrate the stone?
The sword bearer scanned the silent group, uncertainly. The Persian saluted him gravely.
“Silence here!” grunted the officer at last, and passed back among his men.
The Persian grinned; pushed the youth from him; stared at the dark woman with eyes bolder than her own. He jostled the Phrygian from his place; laid a hand upon the woman’s arm.
“I was listening,” he said. “Who is this priestess? I am newly come to this land and know nothing of its customs. Yet by Ormuzd!” he swore and dropped his arm around the woman’s shoulders. “It was worth the journey to meet you! Who is this priestess that you say is so beautiful?”
“She is the keeper of Bel’s Bower,” the woman nestled close to him.
“But what does she there?” asked Zubran. “Now if it were — you — I could understand without asking. And why does she come here?”
“The priestess lives in Bel’s Bower upon the top of the temple,” the Assyrian spoke. “She comes here to worship at his altar. When her worship is done she returns.”
“For such beauty as you say is hers,” remarked Zubran, “her world seems small indeed. Why, if she is so beautiful, is she content to dwell in so small a world?”
“She is the god’s,” answered the Assyrian. “She is the keeper of his house. If the god entered he might be hungry. There must be food for him in his house and a woman to serve it. Or he might be amor —”
“And so there must be a woman there,” interrupted the bold-eyed wench, smiling up at him.
“We have something like that in my country,” the Persian drew her closer. “But the priestesses seldom wait alone. The priests see to that — Ho! Ho!”
God! Would Zubran never come close enough to the wall? So close that Kenton might call to him? And yet — if he did! Would not those others hear him also —? And then —
“Have any of these priestesses who — wait —” Zubran’s voice purred —“Have any of these waiting priestesses ever — ah, entertained — the god?”
The youth spoke: “They say the doves speak to her — the doves of Ishtar! They say she is more beautiful than Ishtar!”
“Fool!” whispered the Assyrian. “Fool, be still! Will you bring bad luck upon us? No woman can be more beautiful than Ishtar!”
“No woman can be more beautiful than Ishtar,” sighed the youth. “Therefore she is — Ishtar!”
The Phrygian said: “He is mad!”
But the Persian stretched out his right arm, drew the youth to him.
“Have any of these priestesses ever held the god?” he asked.
“Wait” murmured the woman. “I will ask Narodach the archerer. He comes sometimes to my house. He knows. He has seen many priestesses.” she held the Persian’s arm fast about her girdle, leaned forward —“Narodach! Come to me!”
An archer turned; whispered to the men on each side of him; slipped from between them. They closed up behind him.
“Narodach,” asked the woman. “Tell us — have any of the priestesses ever held — Bel?”
The archer hesitated, uneasily.
“I do not know,” slowly he answered at last. “They tell many tales. Yet are they but tales? When first I came here there was a priestess in Bel’s house. She was like the crescent moon of our old world. Many men desired her.”
“Ho, archer,” rumbled the Persian. “But did she — hold the god?”
Narodach said: “I do not know. They said so — they said that she had been withered by his fires. The wife of the charioteer of the Priest of Ninib told me that her face was very old when they took away her body. She was a date tree that had withered before it had borne fruit, she said.”
“If I were a priestess — and so beautiful — I would not wait for a god!” the woman’s eyes clung to Zubran. “I would have a man. Yea — I would have many men!”
“There was another who followed,” said the archer. “She said the god had come to her. But she was mad — and being mad, the priests of Nergal took her.”
“Give me men, I say!” whispered the woman.
Said Narodach the archer musing: “One there was who threw herself from the Bower. One there was who vanished. One there was —”
The Persian interrupted: “It seems that these priestesses who wait for Bel are not — fortunate.”
Said the woman with intense conviction:
“Give me — men!”
There was a nearer clashing of thunder. In the lurid, ever-darkening sky, the clouds began a slow churning.
“There will be a great storm,” muttered the Phrygian.
The girl Narada had rebuked thrummed against her harp strings; she sang half maliciously, half defiantly:
“Every heart that sought a nest, Flew straightway to Nala’s breast — Bornwas Nala for delight —”
She checked her song. From afar came the faint sound of chanting; the tread of marching feet. Bowman and spearmen raised bows and spears in salute. Behind them the milling multitudes dropped to their knees. The Persian drew close to the wall. And his was now the only head in the circular window whose pane was stone.
“Zubran!” called Kenton, softly. The Persian turned startled face to the wall, then leaned against it, cloak tight around his face.
“Wolf!” he whispered. “Are you safe? Where are you?”
“Behind the wall,” whispered Kenton. “Speak softly.”
“Are you hurt? In chains?” muttered the Persian.
“I am safe,” answered Kenton. “But Gigi — Sigurd?”
“Searching for you,” the Persian said. “Our hearts have been well-nigh broken —”
“Listen,” said Kenton. “There is a clump of trees — close to the stairway above the garrison —”
“We know,” answered Zubran. “It is from them we make the steps and scale the temple. But you —”
“I will be in the Bower of Bel,” said Kenton. “Soon as the storm breaks — go there. If you do not find me — take Sharane, carry her back to the ship. I will follow.”
“We will not go without you,” whispered Zubran.
“I hear a voice speaking through the stone.” It was the Assyrian, kneeling. Zubran dropped from Kenton’s sight.
The chanting had grown louder; the marching feet were close. Then from some secret entrance of the temple there swept out into the open space a company of archers and a company of swordsmen. Behind them paced as many shaven, yellow-robed priests, swinging smoking golden censers and chanting as they walked. The soldiers formed a wide arc before the altar. The priests were silent upon a somber chord. They threw themselves flat on the ground.
Into the great court strode a single figure, tall as Kenton himself. A robe of shining gold covered him and a fold of this he held on raised left arm, completely covering his face.
“The Priest of Bel!” whispered the kneeling woman.
There was a movement among the temple girls. Narada had half risen. Never had there been such yearning, such bittersweet desire as that in her midnight eyes as the Priest of Bel passed her, unheeding. Her slender fingers gripped the cobwebs that meshed her; their webs were lifted by the swelling breast of her; shuddered with the sighs that shook her.
The Priest of Bel reached the golden altar. He dropped the arm that held the shrouding fold. And then Kenton’s stiff fingers almost loosed the shining lever.
He looked, as in a mirror, into his own face!
BREATHLESSLY Kenton stared at this strange twin. There was the same square jaw, firm-lipped dark face, the same clear blue eyes.
His mind groped toward the black priest’s plot. Was this to be — Sharane’s lover? Some flash of understanding half illumined his mind — too brief to be more than half caught. It left him groping again.
Through the stone he heard the Persian cursing. Then —
“Wolf, are you behind me?” he muttered. “Are you truly behind me, Wolf?”
“Yes,” he whispered. “I am here, Zubran. That is not I! It is some sorcery.”
His gaze flew back to the Priest of Bel; began now to take note of subtle differences in their two faces. The lips were not so firm, the corners of the mouth drew down, there was hint of indecision about them and the chin. And the eyes were strained, shadowed with half wild, half agonized longing. Silent, tense, the Priest of Bel stared over the lifted head of Narada, her lithe body as rigid as his own, unheeding her, intent upon that hidden portal through which he had come.
The lanced, crimson flame upon the altar flickered; swayed.
“The gods guard us!” he heard the bold-eyed woman say.
“Be silent! What is the matter?” said the Assyrian.
The woman whispered: “Did you see the Kerubs? They glared at the priest! They moved toward him!”
The woman with the babe said: “I saw it! I am frightened!”
The Assyrian said: “It was the light on the altar. It flickered.”
Said the Phrygian low: “Perhaps it was the Kerubs. Are they not Bel’s messengers? Did you not say the priest loved Bel’s woman?”
“Silence there!” rang the voice of the officer from behind the double ring. The priests began a low chanting. In the eyes of the priest a fire began to glow; his lips quivered; his body bent forward as though drawn by an unseen cord. Across the wide place walked a woman — alone. She was cloaked from neck to feet in purple; her head was swathed in golden veils.
Kenton knew her!
His heart leaped toward her; his blood raced. He quivered under such shock of longing that it seemed as though his leaping heart must break beneath it.
“Sharane!” he called, forgetting; and again —“Sharane!”
She glided through the opened ranks of the men-at-arms kneeling to her as she passed. Straight to the altar she paced and stood silent, motionless beside the Priest of Bel.
There was a louder rolling of the metallic thunder. As it died away the priest turned to the altar, lifted his hands high. From his attendants droned a long, sustained humming upon a single deep note. Up and out swept the priest’s arms; seven times he bowed low before the crimson flame. He stood upright. Down upon their knees dropped archers and spearmen; with a rustling of bows, a muffled beating of spear shafts.
Still to that weird humming the Priest of Bel began his invocation:
“Oh merciful among the gods! O bullnecked among the gods! Bel Merodach, king of the heavens and the worlds! Heavens and earths are thine! Breather of life art thou! Thy house is prepared for thee! We worship and await.”
Kenton heard a whisper — tremulous, golden —“I worship and await!”
Sharane’s voice! The golden voice of Sharane playing upon every taut nerve of him like myriads of little fingers over stretched harp strings!
Again the Priest of Bel:
“O begetter! O self-begotten! O beautiful one who givest life to the babe! O merciful one who givest life to the dead! King art thou of Ezida! Lord of Emakhtila! A resting place for the King of Heaven is thy house! A resting place for the Lord of Worlds is thy house! We worship and await thee!”
And once more Sharane — tremulous —“I worship and await Thee!” The priest intoned:
“Lord of the Silent Weapon! Look favorably on thy house, O Lord of Rest! May Ezida speak peace to thee in thy house! May Emakhtila speak rest to thee in thy house! We worship and await thee!”
And again Sharane: “I worship and await Thee!” Now Kenton saw the priest make toward the altar a gesture in which lurked an inexplicable defiance. He turned and faced Sharane. His voice rang loudly, jubilantly:
“Full of delight is thy supremacy! Opener of the lock of morning art thou! Opener of the lock of evening art thou! To open the lock of the Heavens is thy supremacy! I worship and await thee!”
At the first words the humming of the priests ceased; Kenton saw them stir, glance at each other uncertainly; saw a ripple pass through kneeling soldiers and worshippers as their heads raised; heard murmuring, astonished, uneasy.
Beneath him the kneeling Assyrian muttered: “That was not in the ritual!”
The Persian asked: “What was not in the ritual?”
The woman said: “That the priest cried last. It is not Bel’s. It belongs to Our Lady Ishtar!”
The youth whispered: “Yes! Yes — he knows her too! She is Ishtar!”
The woman with the babe sobbed: “Did you see the Kerubs stretch their claws? I am frightened. I am frightened, and it is not good for the child’s milk. The light on the altar is like spilled blood!”
Said the Assyrian, uneasily: “I do not like it! It was not of Bel’s ritual! And the storm is coming fast!”
Narada arose, abruptly. Her handmaids bent over drums and harps; set their pipes to lips. A soft and amorous theme beat up from them, delicate, clinging — like the beating of the wings of countless doves, the clinging of countless little soft arms, the throbbing of countless little rosy hearts. Under it the body of Narada swayed like a green reed at the first touch of roving winds of spring. The multitude looked, sighed once and was still.
But Kenton saw that the priest’s eyes never left Sharane, standing like a woman asleep beneath her veils.
Louder the music sounded; quicker, throbbing with all love longing, laden with all passion; hot as the simoon. To it, as though her body drank in each calling, imperious note, turned it into motion, made it articulate in flesh, Narada began to dance.
In the midnight eyes that had been so sorrowful, many little leaping joyous stars danced. The scarlet mouth was a luring, honey-sweet flame promising unknown raptures; and the swarms of golden butterflies meshed within her gossamer nets of jet hovered, swept down, clung to and caressed the rose and pearl of her body as though she were some wondrous flower. They were clouds of golden butterflies darting upon her, covering with kisses all her loveliness, gleaming within the cloudy nets that swirled about her, yet hiding no single exquisite contour. Maddening, breathless, grew dance and music, and in music and dance Kenton watched mating stars, embracing suns, moons swollen with birth. Gathered in them he sensed all passion, all desire of all women under stars and suns and moons . . .
The music slowed, softened; the dancer was still; from all the multitude a soft sighing arose. He heard Zubran, his voice hoarse:
“Who is that dancer? She is like a flame! She is like the flame that dances before Ormuzd on the Altar of Ten Thousand Sacrifices!”
The woman jealously: “She danced the wooing of Bel by Ishtar. She has danced it many times. Nothing new in that.”
The Phrygian said, maliciously: “He asked who she is?” The woman said, spitefully: “Gods! That dance is no new thing, I tell you. Many women have danced it.”
The Assyrian said: “She is Narada. She belongs to Bel.”
The Persian said wrathfully: “Are all the fair women in this country Bel’s? By the Nine Hells — Cyrus the King would have given ten talents of gold for her!”
“Hush!” whimpered the Assyrian; and the other two echoed him —“Hush!”
Narada had begun once more to dance. The music grew louder. But now it was languorous; dripping sweetness; distilling the very dew of desire.
The blood hammered hot in Kenton’s veins ——“She dances the surrender of Ishtar to Bell” It was the Assyrian, gloating.
The Persian stood upright.
“Aie!” he cried. “Cyrus would have given fifty talents of gold for her! She is a flame!” cried Zubran, and his voice was thick, clogged. “And if she is Bel’s — why then does she look so upon the priest?”
None heard him in the roaring of the multitude; soldiers and worshippers, none of them had eyes or ears for anything but the dancer.
Nor had Kenton!
Then witchery of the midnight woman was gone; raging at himself he beat against the stone. For the tranquillity of Sharane had broken. Her white hand thrust aside the shrouding purple folds. She turned; moved swiftly away toward that hidden entrance from which she had come.
The dancer stopped; the music died; again came the uneasy movement of the multitude; a louder murmuring.
“That was not in the ritual!” The Assyrian sprang to his feet. “The dance is not yet finished.”
There was a clashing of thunder almost overhead.
“She grows impatient for the god,” the woman said, cynically.
“She is Ishtar! She is the moon hiding her face behind a little cloud!” The youth took a step toward the men-at-arms guarding the priestess.
The bold-eyed woman arose, caught his arm; spoke to the soldiers.
“He is mad! He lives at my house. Do not hurt him! I will take him away!”
But the youth broke away from her; thrust her aside. He darted through the guards and raced across the square to meet the advancing priestess. He threw himself at her hurrying feet. He hid his face in the hem of her cloak.
She paused, regarding him through her veils. Instantly Bel’s priest was at her side. He thrust a foot against the youth’s face; sent him rolling a yard away.
“Ho! Alrac! Druchar! Take this man!” he shouted. Two officers came running to him, swords drawn; the attendant priests clustered, whispering; all the multitude was silent.
The youth twisted, sprang upon his feet, faced the priestess.
“Ishtar!” he cried. “Show me your face. Then let me die!”
She stood silent, as though she neither heard nor saw. The soldiers seized him, drew back his arms. And then, visibly, strength flowed into the youth’s slight frame. He seemed to expand, to grow in height. He threw the soldiers from him; he struck the Priest of Bel across the eyes. He gripped the veils of the priestess.
“I will not die until I see your face, O Ishtar!” he cried — and so crying tore the veils away . . .
Kenton looked upon the face of Sharane.
But not the Sharane of the ship — vital, filled with the fire of life.
Here was a Sharane of wide, unseeing eyes; upon whose white brows dream sat throned; a mind that floated through linked labyrinths of illusion.
The Priest of Bel’s voice shrilled:
“Slay that man!”
The swords of the two captains bit through the youth’s breast.
He fell, still holding tight the veils. Sharane looked down upon him, unconcerned.
“Ishtar!” he gasped. “I have seen you — Ishtar!”
His eyes glazed. Sharane tore the veils from his stiffening hands; threw the tattered remnants over her face. She swept on to the temple — was gone from Kenton’s straining sight.
From the multitude a clamor arose. Archers and spearmen began to push back the throng through the forest of the slender, lacquered pillars; sifted among them; vanished with those they herded. Past the Priest of Bel went his soldiers and acolytes; and after them slipped the harpers, the pipers and the drum girls of Narada.
Within that vast court circled by the elfin shafts remained only dancer and priest. The lurid sky darkened steadily. The slow, churning movement of the clouds had become more rapid. The lanced flame on the altar of Bel shone brighter — angrily; like a lifted, scarlet sword. Around the crouching Kerubs the shadows thickened. The metallic thundering had become continuous, marching closer.
With the passing of Sharane, Kenton would have opened that other door of bronze. Something counselled him that the time had not yet come; that a little longer he must wait. And as he waited dancer and priest drifted to that strange window through which he peered.
Close to him they paused.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:11