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Title: Worms Of the Earth
Author: Robert E. Howard
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eBook No.: 0607861.txt
Language: English
Date first posted: September 2006
Date most recently updated: September 2006

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Worms Of the Earth

Robert E. Howard



Chapter One



"Strike in the nails, soldiers, and let our guest see the reality
of our good Roman justice!"

The speaker wrapped his purple cloak closer about his powerful
frame and settled back into his official chair, much as he might have
settled back in his seat at the Circus Maximus to enjoy the clash of
gladiatorial swords. Realization of power colored his every move.
Whetted pride was necessary to Roman satisfaction, and Titus Sulla was
justly proud; for he was military governor of Eboracum and answerable
only to the emperor of Rome. He was a strongly built man of medium
height, with the hawk-like features of the pure-bred Roman. Now a
mocking smile curved his full lips, increasing the arrogance of his
haughty aspect. Distinctly military in appearance, he wore the golden-
scaled corselet and chased breastplate of his rank, with the short
stabbing sword at his belt, and he held on his knee the silvered
helmet with its plumed crest. Behind him stood a clump of impassive
soldiers with shield and spear--blond titans from the Rhineland.

Before him was taking place the scene which apparently gave him so
much real gratification--a scene common enough wherever stretched the
far-flung boundaries of Rome. A rude cross lay flat upon the barren
earth and on it was bound a man--half-naked, wild of aspect with his
corded limbs, glaring eyes and shock of tangled hair. His executioners
were Roman soldiers, and with heavy hammers they prepared to pin the
victim's hands and feet to the wood with iron spikes.

Only a small group of men watched this ghastly scene, in the dread
place of execution beyond the city walls: the governor and his
watchful guards; a few young Roman officers; the man to whom Sulla had
referred as "guest" and who stood like a bronze image, unspeaking.
Beside the gleaming splendor of the Roman, the quiet garb of this man
seemed drab, almost somber.

He was dark, but he did not resemble the Latins around him. There
was about him none of the warm, almost Oriental sensuality of the
Mediterranean which colored their features. The blond barbarians
behind Sulla's chair were less unlike the man in facial outline than
were the Romans. Not his were the full curving red lips, nor the rich
waving locks suggestive of the Greek. Nor was his dark complexion the
rich olive of the south; rather it was the bleak darkness of the
north. The whole aspect of the man vaguely suggested the shadowed
mists, the gloom, the cold and the icy winds of the naked northern
lands. Even his black eyes were savagely cold, like black fires
burning through fathoms of ice.

His height was only medium but there was something about him which
transcended mere physical bulk--a certain fierce innate vitality,
comparable only to that of a wolf or a panther. In every line of his
supple, compact body, as well as in his coarse straight hair and thin
lips, this was evident--in the hawk-like set of the head on the corded
neck, in the broad square shoulders, in the deep chest, the lean
loins, the narrow feet. Built with the savage economy of a panther, he
was an image of dynamic potentialities, pent in with iron self-
control.

At his feet crouched one like him in complexion--but there the
resemblance ended. This other was a stunted giant, with gnarly limbs,
thick body, a low sloping brow and an expression of dull ferocity, now
clearly mixed with fear. If the man on the cross resembled, in a
tribal way, the man Titus Sulla called guest, he far more resembled
the stunted crouching giant.

"Well, Partha Mac Othna," said the governor with studied
effrontery, "when you return to your tribe, you will have a tale to
tell of the justice of Rome, who rules the south."

"I will have a tale," answered the other in a voice which betrayed
no emotion, just as his dark face, schooled to immobility, showed no
evidence of the maelstrom in his soul.

"Justice to all under the rule of Rome," said Sulla. "Pax Romana!
Reward for virtue, punishment for wrong!" He laughed inwardly at his
own black hypocrisy, then continued: "You see, emissary of Pictland,
how swiftly Rome punishes the transgressor."

"I see," answered the Pict in a voice which strongly-curbed anger
made deep with menace, "that the subject of a foreign king is dealt
with as though he were a Roman slave."

"He has been tried and condemned in an unbiased court," retorted
Sulla.

"Aye! And the accuser was a Roman, the witnesses Roman, the judge
Roman! He committed murder? In a moment of fury he struck down a Roman
merchant who cheated, tricked and robbed him, and to injury added
insult--aye, and a blow! Is his king but a dog, that Rome crucifies
his subjects at will, condemned by Roman courts? Is his king too weak
or foolish to do justice, were he informed and formal charges brought
against the offender?"

"Well," said Sulla cynically, "you may inform Bran Mak Morn
yourself. Rome, my friend, makes no account of her actions to
barbarian kings. When savages come among us, let them act with
discretion or suffer the consequences."

The Pict shut his iron jaws with a snap that told Sulla further
badgering would elicit no reply. The Roman made a gesture to the
executioners. One of them seized a spike and placing it against the
thick wrist of the victim, smote heavily. The iron point sank deep
through the flesh, crunching against the bones. The lips of the man on
the cross writhed, though no moan escaped him. As a trapped wolf
fights against his cage, the bound victim instinctively wrenched and
struggled. The veins swelled in his temples, sweat beaded his low
forehead, the muscles in arms and legs writhed and knotted. The
hammers fell in inexorable strokes, driving the cruel points deeper
and deeper, through wrists and ankles; blood flowed in a black river
over the hands that held the spikes, staining the wood of the cross,
and the splintering of bones was distinctly heard. Yet the sufferer
made no outcry, though his blackened lips writhed back until the gums
were visible, and his shaggy head jerked involuntarily from side to
side.

The man called Partha Mac Othna stood like an iron image, eyes
burning from an inscrutable face, his whole body hard as iron from the
tension of his control. At his feet crouched his misshapen servant,
hiding his face from the grim sight, his arms locked about his
master's knees. Those arms gripped like steel and under his breath the
fellow mumbled ceaselessly as if in invocation.

The last stroke fell; the cords were cut from arm and leg, so that
the man would hang supported by the nails alone. He had ceased his
struggling that only twisted the spikes in his agonizing wounds. His
bright black eyes, unglazed, had not left the face of the man called
Partha Mac Othna; in them lingered a desperate shadow of hope. Now the
soldiers lifted the cross and set the end of it in the hole prepared,
stamped the dirt about it to hold it erect. The Pict hung in midair,
suspended by the nails in his flesh, but still no sound escaped his
lips. His eyes still hung on the somber face of the emissary, but the
shadow of hope was fading.

"He'll live for days!" said Sulla cheerfully. "These Picts are
harder than cats to kill! I'll keep a guard of ten soldiers watching
night and day to see that no one takes him down before he dies. Ho,
there, Valerius, in honor of our esteemed neighbor, King Bran Mak
Morn, give him a cup of wine!"

With a laugh the young officer came forward, holding a brimming
wine cup, and rising on his toes, lifted it to the parched lips of the
sufferer. In the black eyes flared a red wave of unquenchable hatred;
writhing his head aside to avoid even touching the cup, he spat full
into the young Roman's eyes. With a curse Valerius dashed the cup to
the ground, and before any could halt him, wrenched out his sword and
sheathed it in the man's body.

Sulla rose with an imperious exclamation of anger; the man called
Partha Mac Othna had started violently, but he bit his lip and said
nothing. Valerius seemed somewhat surprized at him as he sullenly
cleansed his sword. The act had been instinctive, following the insult
to Roman pride, the one thing unbearable.

"Give up your sword, young sir!" exclaimed Sulla. "Centurion
Publius, place him under arrest. A few days in a cell with stale bread
and water will teach you to curb your patrician pride in matters
dealing with the will of the empire. What, you young fool, do you not
realize that you could not have made the dog a more kindly gift? Who
would not rather desire a quick death on the sword than the slow agony
on the cross? Take him away. And you, centurion, see that guards
remain at the cross so that the body is not cut down until the ravens
pick bare the bones. Partha Mac Othna, I go to a banquet at the house
of Demetrius--will you not accompany me?"

The emissary shook his head, his eyes fixed on the limp form which
sagged on the black-stained cross. He made no reply. Sulla smiled
sardonically, then rose and strode away, followed by his secretary who
bore the gilded chair ceremoniously, and by the stolid soldiers, with
whom walked Valerius, head sunken.

The man called Partha Mac Othna flung a wide fold of his cloak
about his shoulder, halted a moment to gaze at the grim cross with its
burden, darkly etched against the crimson sky, where the clouds of
night were gathering. Then he stalked away, followed by his silent
servant.

 Chapter Two

In an inner chamber of Eboracum, the man called Partha Mac Othna
paced tigerishly to and fro. His sandaled feet made no sound on the
marble tiles.

"Grom!" he turned to the gnarled servant. "Well I know why you
held my knees so tightly--why you muttered aid of the Moon-Woman--you
feared I would lose my self-control and make a mad attempt to succor
that poor wretch. By the gods, I believe that was what the dog Roman
wished--his iron-cased watchdogs watched me narrowly, I know, and his
baiting was harder to bear than ordinarily.

"Gods black and white, dark and light!" He shook his clenched
fists above his head in the black gust of his passion. "That I should
stand by and see a man of mine butchered on a Roman cross--without
justice and with no more trial than that farce! Black gods of R'lyeh,
even you would I invoke to the ruin and destruction of those butchers!
I swear by the Nameless Ones, men shall die howling for that deed, and
Rome shall cry out as a woman in the dark who treads upon an adder!"

"He knew you, master," said Grom.

The other dropped his head and covered his eyes with a gesture of
savage pain.

"His eyes will haunt me when I lie dying. Aye, he knew me, and
almost until the last, I read in his eyes the hope that I might aid
him. Gods and devils, is Rome to butcher my people beneath my very
eyes? Then I am not king but dog!"

"Not so loud, in the name of all the gods!" exclaimed Grom in
affright. "Did these Romans suspect you were Bran Mak Morn, they would
nail you on a cross beside that other."

"They will know it ere long," grimly answered the king. "Too long
I have lingered here in the guise of an emissary, spying upon mine
enemies. They have thought to play with me, these Romans, masking
their contempt and scorn only under polished satire. Rome is courteous
to barbarian ambassadors, they give us fine houses to live in, offer
us slaves, pander to our lusts with women and gold and wine and games,
but all the while they laugh at us; their very courtesy is an insult,
and sometimes--as today--their contempt discards all veneer. Bah! I've
seen through their baitings--have remained imperturbably serene and
swallowed their studied insults. But this--by the fiends of Hell, this
is beyond human endurance! My people look to me; if I fail them--if I
fail even one--even the lowest of my people, who will aid them? To
whom shall they turn? By the gods, I'll answer the gibes of these
Roman dogs with black shaft and trenchant steel!"

"And the chief with the plumes?" Grom meant the governor and his
gutturals thrummed with the blood-lust. "He dies?" He flicked out a
length of steel.

Bran scowled. "Easier said than done. He dies--but how may I reach
him? By day his German guards keep at his back; by night they stand at
door and window. He has many enemies, Romans as well as barbarians.
Many a Briton would gladly slit his throat."

Grom seized Bran's garment, stammering as fierce eagerness broke
the bonds of his inarticulate nature.

"Let me go, master! My life is worth nothing. I will cut him down
in the midst of his warriors!"

Bran smiled fiercely and clapped his hand on the stunted giant's
shoulder with a force that would have felled a lesser man.

"Nay, old war-dog, I have too much need of thee! You shall not
throw your life away uselessly. Sulla would read the intent in your
eyes, besides, and the javelins of his Teutons would be through you
ere you could reach him. Not by the dagger in the dark will we strike
this Roman, not by the venom in the cup nor the shaft from the
ambush."

The king turned and paced the floor a moment, his head bent in
thought. Slowly his eyes grew murky with a thought so fearful he did
not speak it aloud to the waiting warrior.

"I have become somewhat familiar with the maze of Roman politics
during my stay in this accursed waste of mud and marble," said he.
"During a war on the Wall, Titus Sulla, as governor of this province,
is supposed to hasten thither with his centuries. But this Sulla does
not do; he is no coward, but the bravest avoid certain things--to each
man, however bold, his own particular fear. So he sends in his place
Caius Camillus, who in times of peace patrols the fens of the west,
lest the Britons break over the border. And Sulla takes his place in
the Tower of Trajan. Ha!"

He whirled and gripped Grom with steely fingers.

"Grom, take the red stallion and ride north! Let no grass grow
under the stallion's hoofs! Ride to Cormac na Connacht and tell him to
sweep the frontier with sword and torch! Let his wild Gaels feast
their fill of slaughter. After a time I will be with him. But for a
time I have affairs in the west."

Grom's black eyes gleamed and he made a passionate gesture with
his crooked hand--an instinctive move of savagery.

Bran drew a heavy bronze seal from beneath his tunic.

"This is my safe-conduct as an emissary to Roman courts," he said
grimly. "It will open all gates between this house and Baal-dor. If
any official questions you too closely--here!"

Lifting the lid of an iron-bound chest, Bran took out a small,
heavy leather bag which he gave into the hands of the warrior.

"When all keys fail at a gate," said he, "try a golden key. Go
now!"

There were no ceremonious farewells between the barbarian king and
his barbarian vassal. Grom flung up his arm in a gesture of salute;
then turning, he hurried out.

Bran stepped to a barred window and gazed out into the moonlit
streets.

"Wait until the moon sets," he muttered grimly. "Then I'll take
the road to--Hell! But before I go I have a debt to pay."

The stealthy clink of a hoof on the flags reached him.

"With the safe-conduct and gold, not even Rome can hold a Pictish
reaver," muttered the king. "Now I'll sleep until the moon sets."

With a snarl at the marble frieze-work and fluted columns, as
symbols of Rome, he flung himself down on a couch, from which he had
long since impatiently torn the cushions and silk stuffs, as too soft
for his hard body. Hate and the black passion of vengeance seethed in
him, yet he went instantly to sleep. The first lesson he had learned
in his bitter hard life was to snatch sleep any time he could, like a
wolf that snatches sleep on the hunting trail. Generally his slumber
was as light and dreamless as a panther's, but tonight it was
otherwise.

He sank into fleecy gray fathoms of slumber and in a timeless,
misty realm of shadows he met the tall, lean, white-bearded figure of
old Gonar, the priest of the Moon, high counselor to the king. And
Bran stood aghast, for Gonar's face was white as driven snow and he
shook as with ague. Well might Bran stand appalled, for in all the
years of his life he had never before seen Gonar the Wise show any
sign of fear.

"What now, old one?" asked the king. "Goes all well in Baal-dor?"

"All is well in Baal-dor where my body lies sleeping," answered
old Gonar. "Across the void I have come to battle with you for your
soul. King, are you mad, this thought you have thought in your brain?"

"Gonar," answered Bran somberly, "this day I stood still and
watched a man of mine die on the cross of Rome. What his name or his
rank, I do not know. I do not care. He might have been a faithful
unknown warrior of mine, he might have been an outlaw. I only know
that he was mine; the first scents he knew were the scents of the
heather; the first light he saw was the sunrise on the Pictish hills.
He belonged to me, not to Rome. If punishment was just, then none but
me should have dealt it. If he were to be tried, none but me should
have been his judge. The same blood flowed in our veins; the same fire
maddened our brains; in infancy we listened to the same old tales, and
in youth we sang the same old songs. He was bound to my heartstrings,
as every man and every woman and every child of Pictland is bound. It
was mine to protect him; now it is mine to avenge him."

"But in the name of the gods, Bran," expostulated the wizard,
"take your vengeance in another way! Return to the heather--mass your
warriors--join with Cormac and his Gaels, and spread a sea of blood
and flame the length of the great Wall!"

"All that I will do," grimly answered Bran. "But now--now--I will
have a vengeance such as no Roman ever dreamed of! Ha, what do they
know of the mysteries of this ancient isle, which sheltered strange
life long before Rome rose from the marshes of the Tiber?"

"Bran, there are weapons too foul to use, even against Rome!"

Bran barked short and sharp as a jackal.

"Ha! There are no weapons I would not use against Rome! My back is
at the wall. By the blood of the fiends, has Rome fought me fair? Bah!
I am a barbarian king with a wolfskin mantle and an iron crown,
fighting with my handful of bows and broken pikes against the queen of
the world. What have I? The heather hills, the wattle huts, the spears
of my shock-headed tribesmen! And I fight Rome--with her armored
legions, her broad fertile plains and rich seas--her mountains and her
rivers and her gleaming cities--her wealth, her steel, her gold, her
mastery and her wrath. By steel and fire I will fight her--and by
subtlety and treachery--by the thorn in the foot, the adder in the
path, the venom in the cup, the dagger in the dark; aye," his voice
sank somberly, "and by the worms of the earth!"

"But it is madness!" cried Gonar. "You will perish in the attempt
you plan--you will go down to Hell and you will not return! What of
your people then?"

"If I can not serve them I had better die," growled the king.

"But you can not even reach the beings you seek," cried Gonar.
"For untold centuries they have dwelt apart. There is no door by which
you can come to them. Long ago they severed the bonds that bound them
to the world we know."

"Long ago," answered Bran somberly, "you told me that nothing in
the universe was separated from the stream of Life--a saying the truth
of which I have often seen evident. No race, no form of life but is
close-knit somehow, by some manner, to the rest of Life and the world.
Somewhere there is a thin link connecting those I seek to the world I
know. Somewhere there is a Door. And somewhere among the bleak fens of
the west I will find it."

Stark horror flooded Gonar's eyes and he gave back crying, "Woe!
Woe! Woe! to Pictdom! Woe to the unborn kingdom! Woe, black woe to the
sons of men! Woe, woe, woe, woe!"

Bran awoke to a shadowed room and the starlight on the window-
bars. The moon had sunk from sight though its glow was still faint
above the house tops. Memory of his dream shook him and he swore
beneath his breath.

Rising, he flung off cloak and mantle, donning a light shirt of
black mesh-mail, and girding on sword and dirk. Going again to the
iron-bound chest he lifted several compact bags and emptied the
clinking contents into the leathern pouch at his girdle. Then wrapping
his wide cloak about him, he silently left the house. No servants
there were to spy on him--he had impatiently refused the offer of
slaves which it was Rome's policy to furnish her barbarian emissaries.
Gnarled Grom had attended to all Bran's simple needs.

The stables fronted on the courtyard. A moment's groping in the
dark and he placed his hand over a great stallion's nose, checking the
nicker of recognition. Working without a light he swiftly bridled and
saddled the great brute, and went through the courtyard into a shadowy
side street, leading him. The moon was setting, the border of floating
shadows widening along the western wall. Silence lay on the marble
palaces and mud hovels of Eboracum under the cold stars.

Bran touched the pouch at his girdle, which was heavy with minted
gold that bore the stamp of Rome. He had come to Eboracum posing as an
emissary of Pictdom, to act the spy. But being a barbarian, he had not
been able to play his part in aloof formality and sedate dignity. He
retained a crowded memory of wild feasts where wine flowed in
fountains; of white-bosomed Roman women, who, sated with civilized
lovers, looked with something more than favor on a virile barbarian;
of gladiatorial games; and of other games where dice clicked and spun
and tall stacks of gold changed hands. He had drunk deeply and gambled
recklessly, after the manner of barbarians, and he had had a
remarkable run of luck, due possibly to the indifference with which he
won or lost. Gold to the Pict was so much dust, flowing through his
fingers. In his land there was no need of it. But he had learned its
power in the boundaries of civilization.

Almost under the shadow of the northwestern wall he saw ahead of
him loom the great watchtower which was connected with and reared
above the outer wall. One corner of the castle-like fortress, farthest
from the wall, served as a dungeon. Bran left his horse standing in a
dark alley, with the reins hanging on the ground, and stole like a
prowling wolf into the shadows of the fortress.

The young officer Valerius was awakened from a light, unquiet
sleep by a stealthy sound at the barred window. He sat up, cursing
softly under his breath as the faint starlight which etched the
window-bars fell across the bare stone floor and reminded him of his
disgrace. Well, in a few days, he ruminated, he'd be well out of it;
Sulla would not be too harsh on a man with such high connections; then
let any man or woman gibe at him! Damn that insolent Pict! But wait,
he thought suddenly, remembering: what of the sound which had roused
him?

"Hsssst!" it was a voice from the window.

Why so much secrecy? It could hardly be a foe--yet, why should it
be a friend? Valerius rose and crossed his cell, coming close to the
window. Outside all was dim in the starlight and he made out but a
shadowy form close to the window.

"Who are you?" he leaned close against the bars, straining his
eyes into the gloom.

His answer was a snarl of wolfish laughter, a long flicker of
steel in the starlight. Valerius reeled away from the window and
crashed to the floor, clutching his throat, gurgling horribly as he
tried to scream. Blood gushed through his fingers, forming about his
twitching body a pool that reflected the dim starlight dully and
redly.

Outside Bran glided away like a shadow, without pausing to peer
into the cell. In another minute the guards would round the corner on
their regular routine. Even now he heard the measured tramp of their
iron-clad feet. Before they came in sight he had vanished and they
clumped stolidly by the cell-window with no intimation of the corpse
that lay on the floor within.

Bran rode to the small gate in the western wall, unchallenged by
the sleepy watch. What fear of foreign invasion in Eboracum?--and
certain well organized thieves and women-stealers made it profitable
for the watchmen not to be too vigilant. But the single guardsman at
the western gate--his fellows lay drunk in a nearby brothel--lifted
his spear and bawled for Bran to halt and give an account of himself.
Silently the Pict reined closer. Masked in the dark cloak, he seemed
dim and indistinct to the Roman, who was only aware of the glitter of
his cold eyes in the gloom. But Bran held up his hand against the
starlight and the soldier caught the gleam of gold; in the other hand
he saw a long sheen of steel. The soldier understood, and he did not
hesitate between the choice of a golden bribe or a battle to the death
with this unknown rider who was apparently a barbarian of some sort.
With a grunt he lowered his spear and swung the gate open. Bran rode
through, casting a handful of coins to the Roman. They fell about his
feet in a golden shower, clinking against the flags. He bent in greedy
haste to retrieve them and Bran Mak Morn rode westward like a flying
ghost in the night.

 Chapter Three

Into the dim fens of the west came Bran Mak Morn. A cold wind
breathed across the gloomy waste and against the gray sky a few herons
flapped heavily. The long reeds and marsh-grass waved in broken
undulations and out across the desolation of the wastes a few still
meres reflected the dull light. Here and there rose curiously regular
hillocks above the general levels, and gaunt against the somber sky
Bran saw a marching line of upright monoliths--menhirs, reared by what
nameless hands?

As a faint blue line to the west lay the foothills that beyond the
horizon grew to the wild mountains of Wales where dwelt still wild
Celtic tribes--fierce blue-eyed men that knew not the yoke of Rome. A
row of well-garrisoned watchtowers held them in check. Even now, far
away across the moors, Bran glimpsed the unassailable keep men called
the Tower of Trajan.

These barren wastes seemed the dreary accomplishment of
desolation, yet human life was not utterly lacking. Bran met the
silent men of the fen, reticent, dark of eye and hair, speaking a
strange mixed tongue whose long-blended elements had forgotten their
pristine separate sources. Bran recognized a certain kinship in these
people to himself, but he looked on them with the scorn of a pure-
blooded patrician for men of mixed strains.

Not that the common people of Caledonia were altogether pure-
blooded; they got their stocky bodies and massive limbs from a
primitive Teutonic race which had found its way into the northern tip
of the isle even before the Celtic conquest of Britain was completed,
and had been absorbed by the Picts. But the chiefs of Bran's folk had
kept their blood from foreign taint since the beginnings of time, and
he himself was a pure-bred Pict of the Old Race. But these fenmen,
overrun repeatedly by British, Gaelic and Roman conquerors, had
assimilated blood of each, and in the process almost forgotten their
original language and lineage.

For Bran came of a race that was very old, which had spread over
western Europe in one vast Dark Empire, before the coming of the
Aryans, when the ancestors of the Celts, the Hellenes and the Germans
were one primal people, before the days of tribal splitting-off and
westward drift.

Only in Caledonia, Bran brooded, had his people resisted the flood
of Aryan conquest. He had heard of a Pictish people called Basques,
who in the crags of the Pyrenees called themselves an unconquered
race; but he knew that they had paid tribute for centuries to the
ancestors of the Gaels, before these Celtic conquerors abandoned their
mountain-realm and set sail for Ireland. Only the Picts of Caledonia
had remained free, and they had been scattered into small feuding
tribes--he was the first acknowledged king in five hundred years--the
beginning of a new dynasty--no, a revival of an ancient dynasty under
a new name. In the very teeth of Rome he dreamed his dreams of empire.

He wandered through the fens, seeking a Door. Of his quest he said
nothing to the dark-eyed fenmen. They told him news that drifted from
mouth to mouth--a tale of war in the north, the skirl of war-pipes
along the winding Wall, of gathering-fires in the heather, of flame
and smoke and rapine and the glutting of Gaelic swords in the crimson
sea of slaughter. The eagles of the legions were moving northward and
the ancient road resounded to the measured tramp of the iron-clad
feet. And Bran, in the fens of the west, laughed, well pleased.

In Eboracum, Titus Sulla gave secret word to seek out the Pictish
emissary with the Gaelic name who had been under suspicion, and who
had vanished the night young Valerius was found dead in his cell with
his throat ripped out. Sulla felt that this sudden bursting flame of
war on the Wall was connected closely with his execution of a
condemned Pictish criminal, and he set his spy system to work, though
he felt sure that Partha Mac Othna was by this time far beyond his
reach. He prepared to march from Eboracum, but he did not accompany
the considerable force of legionaries which he sent north. Sulla was a
brave man, but each man has his own dread, and Sulla's was Cormac na
Connacht, the black-haired prince of the Gaels, who had sworn to cut
out the governor's heart and eat it raw. So Sulla rode with his ever-
present bodyguard, westward, where lay the Tower of Trajan with its
warlike commander, Caius Camillus, who enjoyed nothing more than
taking his superior's place when the red waves of war washed at the
foot of the Wall. Devious politics, but the legate of Rome seldom
visited this far isle, and what of his wealth and intrigues, Titus
Sulla was the highest power in Britain.

And Bran, knowing all this, patiently waited his coming, in the
deserted hut in which he had taken up his abode.

One gray evening he strode on foot across the moors, a stark
figure, blackly etched against the dim crimson fire of the sunset. He
felt the incredible antiquity of the slumbering land, as he walked
like the last man on the day after the end of the world. Yet at last
he saw a token of human life--a drab hut of wattle and mud, set in the
reedy breast of the fen.

A woman greeted him from the open door and Bran's somber eyes
narrowed with a dark suspicion. The woman was not old, yet the evil
wisdom of ages was in her eyes; her garments were ragged and scanty,
her black locks tangled and unkempt, lending her an aspect of wildness
well in keeping with her grim surroundings. Her red lips laughed but
there was no mirth in her laughter, only a hint of mockery, and under
the lips her teeth showed sharp and pointed like fangs.

"Enter, master," said she, "if you do not fear to share the roof
of the witch-woman of Dagon-moor!"

Bran entered silently and sat him down on a broken bench while the
woman busied herself with the scanty meal cooking over an open fire on
the squalid hearth. He studied her lithe, almost serpentine motions,
the ears which were almost pointed, the yellow eyes which slanted
curiously.

"What do you seek in the fens, my lord?" she asked, turning toward
him with a supple twist of her whole body.

"I seek a Door," he answered, chin resting on his fist. "I have a
song to sing to the worms of the earth!"

She started upright, a jar falling from her hands to shatter on
the hearth.

"This is an ill saying, even spoken in chance," she stammered.

"I speak not by chance but by intent," he answered.

She shook her head. "I know not what you mean."

"Well you know," he returned. "Aye, you know well! My race is very
old--they reigned in Britain before the nations of the Celts and the
Hellenes were born out of the womb of peoples. But my people were not
first in Britain. By the mottles on your skin, by the slanting of your
eyes, by the taint in your veins, I speak with full knowledge and
meaning."

Awhile she stood silent, her lips smiling but her face
inscrutable.

"Man, are you mad," she asked, "that in your madness you come
seeking that from which strong men fled screaming in old times?"

"I seek a vengeance," he answered, "that can be accomplished only
by Them I seek."

She shook her head.

"You have listened to a bird singing; you have dreamed empty
dreams."

"I have heard a viper hiss," he growled, "and I do not dream.
Enough of this weaving of words. I came seeking a link between two
worlds; I have found it."

"I need lie to you no more, man of the North," answered the woman.
"They you seek still dwell beneath the sleeping hills. They have drawn
apart, farther and farther from the world you know."

"But they still steal forth in the night to grip women straying on
the moors," said he, his gaze on her slanted eyes. She laughed
wickedly.

"What would you of me?"

"That you bring me to Them."

She flung back her head with a scornful laugh. His left hand
locked like iron in the breast of her scanty garment and his right
closed on his hilt. She laughed in his face.

"Strike and be damned, my northern wolf! Do you think that such
life as mine is so sweet that I would cling to it as a babe to the
breast?"

His hand fell away.

"You are right. Threats are foolish. I will buy your aid."

"How?" the laughing voice hummed with mockery.

Bran opened his pouch and poured into his cupped palm a stream of
gold.

"More wealth than the men of the fen ever dreamed of."

Again she laughed. "What is this rusty metal to me? Save it for
some white-breasted Roman woman who will play the traitor for you!"

"Name me a price!" he urged. "The head of an enemy--"

"By the blood in my veins, with its heritage of ancient hate, who
is mine enemy but thee?" she laughed and springing, struck catlike.
But her dagger splintered on the mail beneath his cloak and he flung
her off with a loathsome flit of his wrist which tossed her sprawling
across her grass-strewn bunk. Lying there she laughed up at him.

"I will name you a price, then, my wolf, and it may be in days to
come you will curse the armor that broke Atla's dagger!" She rose and
came close to him, her disquietingly long hands fastened fiercely into
his cloak. "I will tell you, Black Bran, king of Caledon! Oh, I knew
you when you came into my hut with your black hair and your cold eyes!
I will lead you to the doors of Hell if you wish--and the price shall
be the kisses of a king!

"What of my blasted and bitter life, I, whom mortal men loathe and
fear? I have not known the love of men, the clasp of a strong arm, the
sting of human kisses, I, Atla, the were-woman of the moors! What have
I known but the lone winds of the fens, the dreary fire of cold
sunsets, the whispering of the marsh grasses?--the faces that blink up
at me in the waters of the meres, the foot-pad of night--things in the
gloom, the glimmer of red eyes, the grisly murmur of nameless beings
in the night!

"I am half-human, at least! Have I not known sorrow and yearning
and crying wistfulness, and the drear ache of loneliness? Give to me,
king--give me your fierce kisses and your hurtful barbarian's embrace.
Then in the long drear years to come I shall not utterly eat out my
heart in vain envy of the white-bosomed women of men; for I shall have
a memory few of them can boast--the kisses of a king! One night of
love, oh king, and I will guide you to the gates of Hell!"

Bran eyed her somberly; he reached forth and gripped her arm in
his iron fingers. An involuntary shudder shook him at the feel of her
sleek skin. He nodded slowly and drawing her close to him, forced his
head down to meet her lifted lips.

 Chapter Four

The cold gray mists of dawn wrapped King Bran like a clammy cloak.
He turned to the woman whose slanted eyes gleamed in the gray gloom.

"Make good your part of the contract," he said roughly. "I sought
a link between worlds, and in you I found it. I seek the one thing
sacred to Them. It shall be the Key opening the Door that lies unseen
between me and Them. Tell me how I can reach it."

"I will," the red lips smiled terribly. "Go to the mound men call
Dagon's Barrow. Draw aside the stone that blocks the entrance and go
under the dome of the mound. The floor of the chamber is made of seven
great stones, six grouped about the seventh. Lift out the center
stone--and you will see!"

"Will I find the Black Stone?" he asked.

"Dagon's Barrow is the Door to the Black Stone," she answered, "if
you dare follow the Road."

"Will the symbol be well guarded?" He unconsciously loosened his
blade in its sheath. The red lips curled mockingly.

"If you meet any on the Road you will die as no mortal man has
died for long centuries. The Stone is not guarded, as men guard their
treasures. Why should They guard what man has never sought? Perhaps
They will be near, perhaps not. It is a chance you must take, if you
wish the Stone. Beware, king of Pictdom! Remember it was your folk
who, so long ago, cut the thread that bound Them to human life. They
were almost human then--they overspread the land and knew the
sunlight. Now they have drawn apart. They know not the sunlight and
they shun the light of the moon. Even the starlight they hate. Far,
far apart have they drawn, who might have been men in time, but for
the spears of your ancestors."

The sky was overcast with misty gray, through which the sun shone
coldly yellow when Bran came to Dagon's Barrow, a round hillock
overgrown with rank grass of a curious fungoid appearance. On the
eastern side of the mound showed the entrance of a crudely built stone
tunnel which evidently penetrated the barrow. One great stone blocked
the entrance to the tomb. Bran laid hold of the sharp edges and
exerted all his strength. It held fast. He drew his sword and worked
the blade between the blocking stone and the sill. Using the sword as
a lever, he worked carefully, and managed to loosen the great stone
and wrench it out. A foul charnel house scent flowed out of the
aperture and the dim sunlight seemed less to illuminate the cavern-
like opening than to be fouled by the rank darkness which clung there.

Sword in hand, ready for he knew not what, Bran groped his way
into the tunnel, which was long and narrow, built up of heavy joined
stones, and was too low for him to stand erect. Either his eyes became
somewhat accustomed to the gloom, or the darkness was, after all,
somewhat lightened by the sunlight filtering in through the entrance.
At any rate he came into a round low chamber and was able to make out
its general dome-like outline. Here, no doubt, in old times, had
reposed the bones of him for whom the stones of the tomb had been
joined and the earth heaped high above them; but now of those bones no
vestige remained on the stone floor. And bending close and straining
his eyes, Bran made out the strange, startlingly regular pattern of
that floor: six well-cut slabs clustered about a seventh, six-sided
stone.

He drove his sword-point into a crack and pried carefully. The
edge of the central stone tilted slightly upward. A little work and he
lifted it out and leaned it against the curving wall. Straining his
eyes downward he saw only the gaping blackness of a dark well, with
small, worn steps that led downward and out of sight. He did not
hesitate. Though the skin between his shoulders crawled curiously, he
swung himself into the abyss and felt the clinging blackness swallow
him.

Groping downward, he felt his feet slip and stumble on steps too
small for human feet. With one hand pressed hard against the side of
the well he steadied himself, fearing a fall into unknown and
unlighted depths. The steps were cut into solid rock, yet they were
greatly worn away. The farther he progressed, the less like steps they
became, mere bumps of worn stone. Then the direction of the shaft
changed sharply. It still led down, but at a shallow slant down which
he could walk, elbows braced against the hollowed sides, head bent low
beneath the curved roof. The steps had ceased altogether and the stone
felt slimy to the touch, like a serpent's lair. What beings, Bran
wondered, had slithered up and down this slanting shaft, for how many
centuries?

The tunnel narrowed until Bran found it rather difficult to shove
through. He lay on his back and pushed himself along with his hands,
feet first. Still he knew he was sinking deeper and deeper into the
very guts of the earth; how far below the surface he was, he dared not
contemplate. Then ahead a faint witch-fire gleam tinged the abysmal
blackness. He grinned savagely and without mirth. If They he sought
came suddenly upon him, how could he fight in that narrow shaft? But
he had put the thought of personal fear behind him when he began this
hellish quest. He crawled on, thoughtless of all else but his goal.

And he came at last into a vast space where he could stand
upright. He could not see the roof of the place, but he got an
impression of dizzying vastness. The blackness pressed in on all sides
and behind him he could see the entrance to the shaft from which he
had just emerged--a black well in the darkness. But in front of him a
strange grisly radiance glowed about a grim altar built of human
skulls. The source of that light he could not determine, but on the
altar lay a sullen night-black object--the Black Stone!

Bran wasted no time in giving thanks that the guardians of the
grim relic were nowhere near. He caught up the Stone, and gripping it
under his left arm, crawled into the shaft. When a man turns his back
on peril its clammy menace looms more grisly than when he advances
upon it. So Bran, crawling back up the nighted shaft with his grisly
prize, felt the darkness turn on him and slink behind him, grinning
with dripping fangs. Clammy sweat beaded his flesh and he hastened to
the best of his ability, ears strained for some stealthy sound to
betray that fell shapes were at his heels. Strong shudders shook him,
despite himself, and the short hair on his neck prickled as if a cold
wind blew at his back.

When he reached the first of the tiny steps he felt as if he had
attained to the outer boundaries of the mortal world. Up them he went,
stumbling and slipping, and with a deep gasp of relief, came out into
the tomb, whose spectral grayness seemed like the blaze of noon in
comparison to the stygian depths he had just traversed. He replaced
the central stone and strode into the light of the outer day, and
never was the cold yellow light of the sun more grateful, as it
dispelled the shadows of black-winged nightmares of fear and madness
that seemed to have ridden him up out of the black deeps. He shoved
the great blocking stone back into place, and picking up the cloak he
had left at the mouth of the tomb, he wrapped it about the Black Stone
and hurried away, a strong revulsion and loathing shaking his soul and
lending wings to his strides.

A gray silence brooded over the land. It was desolate as the blind
side of the moon, yet Bran felt the potentialities of life--under his
feet, in the brown earth--sleeping, but how soon to waken, and in what
horrific fashion?

He came through the tall masking reeds to the still deep men
called Dagon's Mere. No slightest ripple ruffled the cold blue water
to give evidence of the grisly monster legend said dwelt beneath. Bran
closely scanned the breathless landscape. He saw no hint of life,
human or unhuman. He sought the instincts of his savage soul to know
if any unseen eyes fixed their lethal gaze upon him, and found no
response. He was alone as if he were the last man alive on earth.

Swiftly he unwrapped the Black Stone, and as it lay in his hands
like a solid sullen block of darkness, he did not seek to learn the
secret of its material nor scan the cryptic characters carved thereon.
Weighing it in his hands and calculating the distance, he flung it far
out, so that it fell almost exactly in the middle of the lake. A
sullen splash and the waters closed over it. There was a moment of
shimmering flashes on the bosom of the lake; then the blue surface
stretched placid and unrippled again.

 Chapter Five

The were-woman turned swiftly as Bran approached her door. Her
slant eyes widened.

"You! And alive! And sane!"

"I have been into Hell and I have returned," he growled. "What is
more, I have that which I sought."

"The Black Stone?" she cried. "You really dared steal it? Where is
it?"

"No matter; but last night my stallion screamed in his stall and I
heard something crunch beneath his thundering hoofs which was not the
wall of the stable--and there was blood on his hoofs when I came to
see, and blood on the floor of the stall. And I have heard stealthy
sounds in the night, and noises beneath my dirt floor, as if worms
burrowed deep in the earth. They know I have stolen their Stone. Have
you betrayed me?"

She shook her head.

"I keep your secret; they do not need my word to know you. The
farther they have retreated from the world of men, the greater have
grown their powers in other uncanny ways. Some dawn your hut will
stand empty and if men dare investigate they will find nothing--except
crumbling bits of earth on the dirt floor."

Bran smiled terribly.

"I have not planned and toiled thus far to fall prey to the talons
of vermin. If They strike me down in the night, They will never know
what became of their idol--or whatever it be to Them. I would speak
with Them."

"Dare you come with me and meet them in the night?" she asked.

"Thunder of all gods!" he snarled. "Who are you to ask me if I
dare? Lead me to Them and let me bargain for a vengeance this night.
The hour of retribution draws nigh. This day I saw silvered helmets
and bright shields gleam across the fens--the new commander has
arrived at the Tower of Trajan and Caius Camillus has marched to the
Wall."

That night the king went across the dark desolation of the moors
with the silent were-woman. The night was thick and still as if the
land lay in ancient slumber. The stars blinked vaguely, mere points of
red struggling through the unbreathing gloom. Their gleam was dimmer
than the glitter in the eyes of the woman who glided beside the king.
Strange thoughts shook Bran, vague, titanic, primeval. Tonight
ancestral linkings with these slumbering fens stirred in his soul and
troubled him with the phantasmal, eon-veiled shapes of monstrous
dreams. The vast age of his race was borne upon him; where now he
walked an outlaw and an alien, dark-eyed kings in whose mold he was
cast had reigned in old times. The Celtic and Roman invaders were as
strangers to this ancient isle beside his people. Yet his race
likewise had been invaders, and there was an older race than his--a
race whose beginnings lay lost and hidden back beyond the dark
oblivion of antiquity.

Ahead of them loomed a low range of hills, which formed the
easternmost extremity of those straying chains which far away climbed
at last to the mountains of Wales. The woman led the way up what might
have been a sheep-path, and halted before a wide black gaping cave.

"A door to those you seek, oh king!" her laughter rang hateful in
the gloom. "Dare ye enter?"

His fingers closed in her tangled locks and he shook her
viciously.

"Ask me but once more if I dare," he grated, "and your head and
shoulders part company! Lead on."

Her laughter was like sweet deadly venom. They passed into the
cave and Bran struck flint and steel. The flicker of the tinder showed
him a wide dusty cavern, on the roof of which hung clusters of bats.
Lighting a torch, he lifted it and scanned the shadowy recesses,
seeing nothing but dust and emptiness.

"Where are They?" he growled.

She beckoned him to the back of the cave and leaned against the
rough wall, as if casually. But the king's keen eyes caught the motion
of her hand pressing hard against a projecting ledge. He recoiled as a
round black well gaped suddenly at his feet. Again her laughter
slashed him like a keen silver knife. He held the torch to the opening
and again saw small worn steps leading down.

"They do not need those steps," said Atla. "Once they did, before
your people drove them into the darkness. But you will need them."

She thrust the torch into a niche above the well; it shed a faint
red light into the darkness below. She gestured into the well and Bran
loosened his sword and stepped into the shaft. As he went down into
the mystery of the darkness, the light was blotted out above him, and
he thought for an instant Atla had covered the opening again. Then he
realized that she was descending after him.

The descent was not a long one. Abruptly Bran felt his feet on a
solid floor. Atla swung down beside him and stood in the dim circle of
light that drifted down the shaft. Bran could not see the limits of
the place into which he had come.

"Many caves in these hills," said Atla, her voice sounding small
and strangely brittle in the vastness, "are but doors to greater caves
which lie beneath, even as a man's words and deeds are but small
indications of the dark caverns of murky thought lying behind and
beneath."

And now Bran was aware of movement in the gloom. The darkness was
filled with stealthy noises not like those made by any human foot.
Abruptly sparks began to flash and float in the blackness, like
flickering fireflies. Closer they came until they girdled him in a
wide half-moon. And beyond the ring gleamed other sparks, a solid sea
of them, fading away in the gloom until the farthest were mere tiny
pin-points of light. And Bran knew they were the slanted eyes of the
beings who had come upon him in such numbers that his brain reeled at
the contemplation--and at the vastness of the cavern.

Now that he faced his ancient foes, Bran knew no fear. He felt the
waves of terrible menace emanating from them, the grisly hate, the
inhuman threat to body, mind and soul. More than a member of a less
ancient race, he realized the horror of his position, but he did not
fear, though he confronted the ultimate Horror of the dreams and
legends of his race. His blood raced fiercely but it was with the hot
excitement of the hazard, not the drive of terror.

"They know you have the Stone, oh king," said Atla, and though he
knew she feared, though he felt her physical efforts to control her
trembling limbs, there was no quiver of fright in her voice. "You are
in deadly peril; they know your breed of old--oh, they remember the
days when their ancestors were men! I can not save you; both of us
will die as no human has died for ten centuries. Speak to them, if you
will; they can understand your speech, though you may not understand
theirs. But it will avail not--you are human--and a Pict."

Bran laughed and the closing ring of fire shrank back at the
savagery in his laughter. Drawing his sword with a soul-chilling rasp
of steel, he set his back against what he hoped was a solid stone
wall. Facing the glittering eyes with his sword gripped in his right
hand and his dirk in his left, he laughed as a blood-hungry wolf
snarls.

"Aye," he growled, "I am a Pict, a son of those warriors who drove
your brutish ancestors before them like chaff before the storm!--who
flooded the land with your blood and heaped high your skulls for a
sacrifice to the Moon-Woman! You who fled of old before my race, dare
ye now snarl at your master? Roll on me like a flood now, if ye dare!
Before your viper fangs drink my life I will reap your multitudes like
ripened barley--of your severed heads will I build a tower and of your
mangled corpses will I rear up a wall! Dogs of the dark, vermin of
Hell, worms of the earth, rush in and try my steel! When Death finds
me in this dark cavern, your living will howl for the scores of your
dead and your Black Stone will be lost to you forever--for only I know
where it is hidden and not all the tortures of all the Hells can wring
the secret from my lips!"

Then followed a tense silence; Bran faced the fire-lit darkness,
tensed like a wolf at bay, waiting the charge; at his side the woman
cowered, her eyes ablaze. Then from the silent ring that hovered
beyond the dim torchlight rose a vague abhorrent murmur. Bran,
prepared as he was for anything, started. Gods, was that the speech of
creatures which had once been called men?

Atla straightened, listening intently. From her lips came the same
hideous soft sibilances, and Bran, though he had already known the
grisly secret of her being, knew that never again could he touch her
save with soul-shaken loathing.

She turned to him, a strange smile curving her red lips dimly in
the ghostly light.

"They fear you, oh king! By the black secrets of R'lyeh, who are
you that Hell itself quails before you? Not your steel, but the stark
ferocity of your soul has driven unused fear into their strange minds.
They will buy back the Black Stone at any price."

"Good," Bran sheathed his weapons. "They shall promise not to
molest you because of your aid of me. And," his voice hummed like the
purr of a hunting tiger, "they shall deliver into my hands Titus
Sulla, governor of Eboracum, now commanding the Tower of Trajan. This
They can do--how, I know not. But I know that in the old days, when my
people warred with these Children of the Night, babes disappeared from
guarded huts and none saw the stealers come or go. Do They
understand?"

Again rose the low frightful sounds and Bran, who feared not their
wrath, shuddered at their voices.

"They understand," said Atla. "Bring the Black Stone to Dagon's
Ring tomorrow night when the earth is veiled with the blackness that
foreruns the dawn. Lay the Stone on the altar. There They will bring
Titus Sulla to you. Trust Them; They have not interfered in human
affairs for many centuries, but They will keep their word."

Bran nodded and turning, climbed up the stair with Atla close
behind him. At the top he turned and looked down once more. As far as
he could see floated a glittering ocean of slanted yellow eyes
upturned. But the owners of those eyes kept carefully beyond the dim
circle of torchlight and of their bodies he could see nothing. Their
low hissing speech floated up to him and he shuddered as his
imagination visualized, not a throng of biped creatures, but a
swarming, swaying myriad of serpents, gazing up at him with their
glittering unwinking eyes.

He swung into the upper cave and Atla thrust the blocking stone
back in place. It fitted into the entrance of the well with uncanny
precision; Bran was unable to discern any crack in the apparently
solid floor of the cavern. Atla made a motion to extinguish the torch,
but the king stayed her.

"Keep it so until we are out of the cave," he grunted. "We might
tread on an adder in the dark."

Atla's sweetly hateful laughter rose maddeningly in the flickering
gloom.

 Chapter 6

It was not long before sunset when Bran came again to the reed-
grown marge of Dagon's Mere. Casting cloak and sword-belt on the
ground, he stripped himself of his short leathern breeches. Then
gripping his naked dirk in his teeth, he went into the water with the
smooth ease of a diving seal. Swimming strongly, he gained the center
of the small lake, and turning, drove himself downward.

The mere was deeper than he had thought. It seemed he would never
reach the bottom, and when he did, his groping hands failed to find
what he sought. A roaring in his ears warned him and he swam to the
surface.

Gulping deep of the refreshing air, he dived again, and again his
quest was fruitless. A third time he sought the depth, and this time
his groping hands met a familiar object in the silt of the bottom.
Grasping it, he swam up to the surface.

The Stone was not particularly bulky, but it was heavy. He swam
leisurely, and suddenly was aware of a curious stir in the waters
about him which was not caused by his own exertions. Thrusting his
face below the surface, he tried to pierce the blue depths with his
eyes and thought to see a dim gigantic shadow hovering there.

He swam faster, not frightened, but wary. His feet struck the
shallows and he waded up on the shelving shore. Looking back he saw
the waters swirl and subside. He shook his head, swearing. He had
discounted the ancient legend which made Dagon's Mere the lair of a
nameless water-monster, but now he had a feeling as if his escape had
been narrow. The time-worn myths of the ancient land were taking form
and coming to life before his eyes. What primeval shape lurked below
the surface of that treacherous mere, Bran could not guess, but he
felt that the fenmen had good reason for shunning the spot, after all.

Bran donned his garments, mounted the black stallion and rode
across the fens in the desolate crimson of the sunset's afterglow,
with the Black Stone wrapped in his cloak. He rode, not to his hut,
but to the west, in the direction of the Tower of Trajan and the Ring
of Dagon. As he covered the miles that lay between, the red stars
winked out. Midnight passed him in the moonless night and still Bran
rode on. His heart was hot for his meeting with Titus Sulla. Atla had
gloated over the anticipation of watching the Roman writhe under
torture, but no such thought was in the Pict's mind. The governor
should have his chance with weapons--with Bran's own sword he should
face the Pictish king's dirk, and live or die according to his
prowess. And though Sulla was famed throughout the provinces as a
swordsman, Bran felt no doubt as to the outcome.

Dagon's Ring lay some distance from the Tower--a sullen circle of
tall gaunt stones planted upright, with a rough-hewn stone altar in
the center. The Romans looked on these menhirs with aversion; they
thought the Druids had reared them; but the Celts supposed Bran's
people, the Picts, had planted them--and Bran well knew what hands
reared those grim monoliths in lost ages, though for what reasons, he
but dimly guessed.

The king did not ride straight to the Ring. He was consumed with
curiosity as to how his grim allies intended carrying out their
promise. That They could snatch Titus Sulla from the very midst of his
men, he felt sure, and he believed he knew how They would do it. He
felt the gnawings of a strange misgiving, as if he had tampered with
powers of unknown breadth and depth, and had loosed forces which he
could not control. Each time he remembered that reptilian murmur,
those slanted eyes of the night before, a cold breath passed over him.
They had been abhorrent enough when his people drove Them into the
caverns under the hills, ages ago; what had long centuries of
retrogression made of them? In their nighted, subterranean life, had
They retained any of the attributes of humanity at all?

Some instinct prompted him to ride toward the Tower. He knew he
was near; but for the thick darkness he could have plainly seen its
stark outline tusking the horizon. Even now he should be able to make
it out dimly. An obscure, shuddersome premonition shook him and he
spurred the stallion into swift canter.

And suddenly Bran staggered in his saddle as from a physical
impact, so stunning was the surprize of what met his gaze. The
impregnable Tower of Trajan was no more! Bran's astounded gaze rested
on a gigantic pile of ruins--of shattered stone and crumbled granite,
from which jutted the jagged and splintered ends of broken beams. At
one corner of the tumbled heap one tower rose out of the waste of
crumpled masonry, and it leaned drunkenly as if its foundations had
been half-cut away.

Bran dismounted and walked forward, dazed by bewilderment. The
moat was filled in places by fallen stones and broken pieces of
mortared wall. He crossed over and came among the ruins. Where, he
knew, only a few hours before the flags had resounded to the martial
tramp of iron-clad feet, and the walls had echoed to the clang of
shields and the blast of the loud-throated trumpets, a horrific
silence reigned.

Almost under Bran's feet, a broken shape writhed and groaned. The
king bent down to the legionary who lay in a sticky red pool of his
own blood. A single glance showed the Pict that the man, horribly
crushed and shattered, was dying.

Lifting the bloody head, Bran placed his flask to the pulped lips
and the Roman instinctively drank deep, gulping through splintered
teeth. In the dim starlight Bran saw his glazed eyes roll.

"The walls fell," muttered the dying man. "They crashed down like
the skies falling on the day of doom. Ah Jove, the skies rained shards
of granite and hailstones of marble!"

"I have felt no earthquake shock," Bran scowled, puzzled.

"It was no earthquake," muttered the Roman. "Before last dawn it
began, the faint dim scratching and clawing far below the earth. We of
the guard heard it--like rats burrowing, or like worms hollowing out
the earth. Titus laughed at us, but all day long we heard it. Then at
midnight the Tower quivered and seemed to settle--as if the
foundations were being dug away--"

A shudder shook Bran Mak Morn. The worms of the earth! Thousands
of vermin digging like moles far below the castle, burrowing away the
foundations--gods, the land must be honeycombed with tunnels and
caverns--these creatures were even less human than he had thought--
what ghastly shapes of darkness had he invoked to his aid?

"What of Titus Sulla?" he asked, again holding the flask to the
legionary's lips; in that moment the dying Roman seemed to him almost
like a brother.

"Even as the Tower shuddered we heard a fearful scream from the
governor's chamber," muttered the soldier. "We rushed there--as we
broke down the door we heard his shrieks--they seemed to recede--into
the bowels of the earth! We rushed in; the chamber was empty. His
bloodstained sword lay on the floor; in the stone flags of the floor a
black hole gaped. Then--the--towers--reeled--the--roof--broke;--
through--a--storm--of--crashing--walls--I--crawled--"

A strong convulsion shook the broken figure.

"Lay me down, friend," whispered the Roman. "I die."

He had ceased to breathe before Bran could comply. The Pict rose,
mechanically cleansing his hands. He hastened from the spot, and as he
galloped over the darkened fens, the weight of the accursed Black
Stone under his cloak was as the weight of a foul nightmare on a
mortal breast.

As he approached the Ring, he saw an eery glow within, so that the
gaunt stones stood etched like the ribs of a skeleton in which a
witch-fire burns. The stallion snorted and reared as Bran tied him to
one of the menhirs. Carrying the Stone he strode into the grisly
circle and saw Atla standing beside the altar, one hand on her hip,
her sinuous body swaying in a serpentine manner. The altar glowed all
over with ghastly light and Bran knew someone, probably Atla, had
rubbed it with phosphorus from some dank swamp or quagmire.

He strode forward and whipping his cloak from about the Stone,
flung the accursed thing on to the altar.

"I have fulfilled my part of the contract," he growled.

"And They, theirs," she retorted. "Look!--They come!"

He wheeled, his hand instinctively dropping to his sword. Outside
the Ring the great stallion screamed savagely and reared against his
tether. The night wind moaned through the waving grass and an
abhorrent soft hissing mingled with it. Between the menhirs flowed a
dark tide of shadows, unstable and chaotic. The Ring filled with
glittering eyes which hovered beyond the dim illusive circle of
illumination cast by the phosphorescent altar. Somewhere in the
darkness a human voice tittered and gibbered idiotically. Bran
stiffened, the shadows of a horror clawing at his soul.

He strained his eyes, trying to make out the shapes of those who
ringed him. But he glimpsed only billowing masses of shadow which
heaved and writhed and squirmed with almost fluid consistency.

"Let them make good their bargain!" he exclaimed angrily.

"Then see, oh king!" cried Atla in a voice of piercing mockery.

There was a stir, a seething in the writhing shadows, and from the
darkness crept, like a four-legged animal, a human shape that fell
down and groveled at Bran's feet and writhed and mowed, and lifting a
death's-head, howled like a dying dog. In the ghastly light, Bran,
soul-shaken, saw the blank glassy eyes, the bloodless features, the
loose, writhing, froth-covered lips of sheer lunacy--gods, was this
Titus Sulla, the proud lord of life and death in Eboracum's proud
city?

Bran bared his sword.

"I had thought to give this stroke in vengeance," he said
somberly. "I give it in mercy--Vale Cosar!"

The steel flashed in the eery light and Sulla's head rolled to the
foot of the glowing altar, where it lay staring up at the shadowed
sky.

"They harmed him not!" Atla's hateful laugh slashed the sick
silence. "It was what he saw and came to know that broke his brain!
Like all his heavy-footed race, he knew nothing of the secrets of this
ancient land. This night he has been dragged through the deepest pits
of Hell, where even you might have blenched!"

"Well for the Romans that they know not the secrets of this
accursed land!" Bran roared, maddened, "with its monster-haunted
meres, its foul witch-women, and its lost caverns and subterranean
realms where spawn in the darkness shapes of Hell!"

"Are they more foul than a mortal who seeks their aid?" cried Atla
with a shriek of fearful mirth. "Give them their Black Stone!"

A cataclysmic loathing shook Bran's soul with red fury.

"Aye, take your cursed Stone!" he roared, snatching it from the
altar and dashing it among the shadows with such savagery that bones
snapped under its impact. A hurried babel of grisly tongues rose and
the shadows heaved in turmoil. One segment of the mass detached itself
for an instant and Bran cried out in fierce revulsion, though he
caught only a fleeting glimpse of the thing, had only a brief
impression of a broad strangely flattened head, pendulous writhing
lips that bared curved pointed fangs, and a hideously misshapen,
dwarfish body that seemed--mottled--all set off by those unwinking
reptilian eyes. Gods!--the myths had prepared him for horror in human
aspect, horror induced by bestial visage and stunted deformity--but
this was the horror of nightmare and the night.

"Go back to Hell and take your idol with you!" he yelled,
brandishing his clenched fists to the skies, as the thick shadows
receded, flowing back and away from him like the foul waters of some
black flood. "Your ancestors were men, though strange and monstrous--
but gods, ye have become in ghastly fact what my people called ye in
scorn! Worms of the earth, back into your holes and burrows! Ye foul
the air and leave on the clean earth the slime of the serpents ye have
become! Gonar was right--there are shapes too foul to use even against
Rome!"

He sprang from the Ring as a man flees the touch of a coiling
snake, and tore the stallion free. At his elbow Atla was shrieking
with fearful laughter, all human attributes dropped from her like a
cloak in the night.

"King of Pictland!" she cried, "King of fools! Do you blench at so
small a thing? Stay and let me show you real fruits of the pits! Ha!
ha! ha! Run, fool, run! But you are stained with the taint--you have
called them forth and they will remember! And in their own time they
will come to you again!"

He yelled a wordless curse and struck her savagely in the mouth
with his open hand. She staggered, blood starting from her lips, but
her fiendish laughter only rose higher.

Bran leaped into the saddle, wild for the clean heather and the
cold blue hills of the north where he could plunge his sword into
clean slaughter and his sickened soul into the red maelstrom of
battle, and forget the horror which lurked below the fens of the west.
He gave the frantic stallion the rein, and rode through the night like
a hunted ghost, until the hellish laughter of the howling were-woman
died out in the darkness behind.



THE END



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