Project Gutenberg Australia
a treasure-trove of literature
treasure found hidden with no evidence of ownership




Title: The Blood of Belshazzar
Author: Robert E. Howard
* A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 0608061.txt
Language: English
Date first posted: November 2006
Date most recently updated: November 2006

This eBook was produced by: Richard Scott

Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions
which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice
is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular
paper edition.

Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the
copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this
file.

This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions
whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms
of the Project Gutenberg of Australia License which may be viewed online at
http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html


To contact Project Gutenberg of Australia go to http://gutenberg.net.au


The Blood of Belshazzar
Robert E. Howard



It shone on the breast of the Persian king.
It lighted Iskander's road;
It blazed where the spears were splintering.
A lure and a maddening goad.
And down through the crimson, changing years
It draws men, soul and brain;
They drown their lives in blood and tears.
And they break their hearts in vain.
Oh, it flames with the blood of strong men's hearts
Whose bodies are clay again.
   --The Song of the Red Stone.



CHAPTER 1



Once it was called Eski-Hissar, the Old Castle, for it was very
ancient even when the first Seljuks swept out of the east, and not
even the Arabs, who rebuilt that crumbling pile in the days of Abu
Bekr, knew what hands reared those massive bastions among the frowning
foothills of the Taurus. Now, since the old keep had become a bandit's
hold, men called it Bab-el-Shaitan, the Gate of the Devil, and with
good reason.

That night there was feasting in the great hall. Heavy tables
loaded with wine pitchers and jugs, and huge platters of food, stood
flanked by crude benches for such as ate in that manner, while on the
floor large cushions received the reclining forms of others. Trembling
slaves hastened about, filling goblets from wineskins and bearing
great joints of roasted meat and loaves of bread.

Here luxury and nakedness met, the riches of degenerate
civilizations and the stark savagery of utter barbarism. Men clad in
stenching sheepskins lolled on silken cushions, exquisitely brocaded,
and guzzled from solid golden goblets, fragile as the stem of a desert
flower. They wiped their bearded lips and hairy hands on velvet
tapestries worthy of a shah's palace.

All the races of western Asia met here. Here were slim, lethal
Persians, dangerous-eyed Turks in mail shirts, lean Arabs, tall ragged
Kurds, Lurs and Armenians in sweaty sheepskins, fiercely mustached
Circassians, even a few Georgians, with hawk-faces and devilish
tempers.

Among them was one who stood out boldly from all the rest. He sat
at a table drinking wine from a huge goblet, and the eyes of the
others strayed to him continually. Among these tall sons of the desert
and mountains his height did not seem particularly great, though it
was above six feet. But the breadth and thickness of him were
gigantic. His shoulders were broader, his limbs more massive than any
other warrior there.

His mail coif was thrown back, revealing a lion-like head and a
great corded throat. Though browned by the sun, his face was not as
dark as those about him and his eyes were a volcanic blue, which
smoldered continually as if from inner fires of wrath. Square-cut
black hair like a lion's mane crowned a low, broad forehead.

He ate and drank apparently oblivious to the questioning glances
flung toward him. Not that any had as yet challenged his right to
feast in Bab-el-Shaitan, for this was a lair open to all refugees and
outlaws. And this Frank was Cormac FitzGeoffrey, outlawed and hunted
by his own race. The ex-Crusader was armed in close-meshed chain mail
from head to foot. A heavy sword hung at his hip, and his kite-shaped
shield with the grinning skull wrought in the center lay with his
heavy vizorless helmet, on the bench beside him. There was no
hypocrisy of etiquette in Bab-el-Shaitan. Its occupants went armed to
the teeth at all times and no one questioned another's right to sit
down to meat with his sword at hand.

Cormac, as he ate, scanned his fellow-feasters openly. Truly Bab-
el-Shaitan was a lair of the spawn of Hell, the last retreat of men so
desperate and bestial that the rest of the world had cast them out in
horror. Cormac was no stranger to savage men; in his native Ireland he
had sat among barbaric figures in the gatherings of chiefs and reavers
in the hills. But the wild-beast appearance and utter inhumanness of
some of these men impressed even the fierce Irish warrior.

There, for instance, was a Lur, hairy as an ape, tearing at a
half-raw joint of meat with yellow fangs like a wolf's. Kadra
Muhammad, the fellow's name was, and Cormac wondered briefly if such a
creature could have a human soul. Or that shaggy Kurd beside him,
whose lip, twisted back by a sword scar into a permanent snarl, bared
a tooth like a boar's tusk. Surely no divine spark of soul-dust
animated these men, but the merciless and soulless spirit of the grim
land that bred them. Eyes, wild and cruel as the eyes of wolves,
glared through lank strands of tangled hair, hairy hands unconsciously
gripped the hilts of knives even while the owners gorged and guzzled.

Cormac glanced from the rank and file to scrutinize the leaders of
the band--those whom superior wit or war-skill had placed high in the
confidence of their terrible chief, Skol Abdhur, the Butcher. Not one
but had a whole volume of black and bloody history behind him. There
was that slim Persian, whose tone was so silky, whose eyes were so
deadly, and whose small, shapely head was that of a human panther--
Nadir Tous, once an emir high in the favor of the Shah of Kharesmia.
And that Seljuk Turk, with his silvered mail shirt, peaked helmet and
jewel-hilted scimitar--Kai Shah; he had ridden at Saladin's side in
high honor once, and it was said that the scar which showed white in
the angle of his jaw had been made by the sword of Richard the Lion-
hearted in that great battle before the walls of Joppa. And that wiry,
tall, eagle-faced Arab, Yussef el Mekru--he had been a great sheikh
once in Yemen and had even led a revolt against the Sultan himself.

But at the head of the table at which Cormac sat was one whose
history for strangeness and vivid fantasy dimmed them all. Tisolino di
Strozza, trader, captain of Venice's warships, Crusader, pirate,
outlaw--what a red trail the man had followed to his present casteless
condition! Di Strozza was tall and thin and saturnine in appearance,
with a hook-nosed, thin-nostriled face of distinctly predatory aspect.
His armor, now worn and tarnished, was of costly Venetian make, and
the hilt of his long narrow sword had once been set with gems. He was
a man of restless soul, thought Cormac, as he watched the Venetian's
dark eyes dart continually from point to point, and the lean hand
repeatedly lifted to twist the ends of the thin mustache.

Cormac's gaze wandered to the other chiefs--wild reavers, born to
the red trade of pillage and murder, whose pasts were black enough,
but lacked the varied flavor of the other four. He knew these by sight
or reputation--Kojar Mirza, a brawny Kurd; Shalmar Khor, a tall
swaggering Circassian; and Jusus Zehor, a renegade Georgian who wore
half a dozen knifes in his girdle.

There was one not known to him, a warrior who apparently had no
standing among the bandits, yet who carried himself with the assurance
born of prowess. He was of a type rare in the Taurus--a stocky,
strongly built man whose head would come no higher than Cormac's
shoulder. Even as he ate, he wore a helmet with a lacquered leather
drop, and Cormac caught the glint of mail beneath his sheepskins;
through his girdle was thrust a short wide-bladed sword, not curved as
much as the Moslem scimitars. His powerful bowed legs, as well as the
slanting black eyes set in an inscrutable brown face, betrayed the
Mongol.

He, like Cormac, was a newcomer; riding from the east he had
arrived at Bab-el-Shaitan that night at the same time that the Irish
warrior had ridden in from the south. His name, as given in guttural
Turki, was Toghrul Khan.

A slave whose scarred face and fear-dulled eyes told of the
brutality of his masters, tremblingly filled Cormac's goblet. He
started and flinched as a sudden scream faintly knifed the din; it
came from somewhere above, and none of the feasters paid any
attention. The Norman-Gael wondered at the absence of women-slaves.
Skol Abdhur's name was a terror in that part of Asia and many caravans
felt the weight of his fury. Many women had been stolen from raided
villages and camel-trains, yet now there were apparently only men in
Bab-el-Shaitan. This, to Cormac, held a sinister implication. He
recalled dark tales, whispered under the breath, relating to the
cryptic inhumanness of the robber chief--mysterious hints of foul
rites in black caverns, of naked white victims writhing on hideously
ancient altars, of blood-chilling sacrifices beneath the midnight
moon. But that cry had been no woman's scream.

Kai Shah was close to di Strozza's shoulder, talking very rapidly
in a guarded tone. Cormac saw that Nadir Tous was only pretending to
be absorbed in his wine cup; the Persian's eyes, burning with
intensity, were fixed on the two who whispered at the head of the
table. Cormac, alert to intrigue and counter-plot, had already decided
that there were factions in Bab-el-Shaitan. He had noticed that di
Strozza, Kai Shah, a lean Syrian scribe named Musa bin Daoud, and the
wolfish Lur, Kadra Muhammad, stayed close to each other, while Nadir
Tous had his own following among the lesser bandits, wild ruffians,
mostly Persians and Armenians, and Kojar Mirza was surrounded by a
number of even wilder mountain Kurds. The manner of the Venetian and
Nadir Tous toward each other was of a wary courtesy that seemed to
mask suspicion, while the Kurdish chief wore an aspect of truculent
defiance toward both.

As these thoughts passed through Cormac's mind, an incongruous
figure appeared on the landing of the broad stairs. It was Jacob, Skol
Abdhur's majordomo--a short, very fat Jew attired in gaudy and costly
robes which had once decked a Syrian harem master. All eyes turned
toward him, for it was evident he had brought word from his master--
not often did Skol Abdhur, wary as a hunted wolf, join his pack at
their feasts.

"The great prince, Skol Abdhur," announced Jacob in pompous and
sonorous accents, "would grant audience to the Nazarene who rode in at
dusk--the lord Cormac FitzGeoffrey."

The Norman finished his goblet at draft and rose deliberately,
taking up his shield and helmet.

"And what of me, Yahouda?" It was the guttural voice of the
Mongol. "Has the great prince no word for Toghrul Khan, who has ridden
far and hard to join his horde? Has he said naught of an audience with
me?"

The Jew scowled. "Lord Skol said naught of any Tartar," he
answered shortly. "Wait until he sends for you, as he will do--if it
so pleases him."

The answer was as much an insult to the haughty pagan as would
have been a slap in the face. He half-made to rise then sank back, his
face, schooled to iron control, showing little of his rage. But his
serpent-like eyes glittering devilishly, took in not only the Jew but
Cormac as well, and the Norman knew that he himself was included in
Toghrul Khan's black anger. Mongol pride and Mongol wrath are beyond
the ken of the Western mind, but Cormac knew that in his humiliation,
the nomad hated him as much as he hated Jacob.

But Cormac could count his friends on his fingers and his personal
enemies by the scores. A few more foes made little difference and he
paid no heed to Toghrul Khan as he followed the Jew up the broad
stairs, and along a winding corridor to a heavy, metal-braced door
before which stood, like an image carven of black basalt, a huge naked
Nubian who held a two-handed scimitar whose five-foot blade was a foot
wide at the tip.

Jacob made a sign to the Nubian, but Cormac saw that the Jew was
trembling and apprehensive.

"In God's name," Jacob whispered to the Norman, "speak him softly;
Skol is in a devilish temper tonight. Only a little while ago he tore
out the eyeball of a slave with his hands."

"That was that scream I heard then," grunted Cormac. "Well, don't
stand there chattering; tell that black beast to open the door before
I knock it down."

Jacob blenched; but it was no idle threat. It was not the Norman-
Gael's nature to wait meekly at the door of any man--he who had been
cup-companion to King Richard. The majordomo spoke swiftly to the
mute, who swung the door open. Cormac pushed past his guide and strode
across the threshold.

And for the first time he looked on Skol Abdhur the Butcher, whose
deeds of blood had already made him a semi-mythical figure. The Norman
saw a bizarre giant reclining on a silken divan, in the midst of a
room hung and furnished like a king's. Erect, Skol would have towered
half a head taller than Cormac, and though a huge belly marred the
symmetry of his figure, he was still an image of physical prowess. His
short, naturally black beard had been stained to a bluish tint; his
wide black eyes blazed with a curious wayward look not altogether sane
at times.

He was clad in cloth-of-gold slippers whose toes turned up
extravagantly, in voluminous Persian trousers of rare silk, and a wide
green silken sash, heavy with golden scales, was wrapt about his
waist. Above this he wore a sleeveless jacket, richly brocaded, open
in front, but beneath this his huge torso was naked. His blue-black
hair, held by a gemmed circlet of gold, fell to his shoulders, and his
fingers were gleaming with jewels, while his bare arms were weighted
with heavy gem-crusted armlets. Women's earrings adorned his ears.

Altogether his appearance was of such fantastic barbarism as to
inspire in Cormac an amazement which in an ordinary man would have
been a feeling of utmost horror. The apparent savagery of the giant,
together with his fantastic finery which heightened rather than
lessened the terror of his appearance, lent Skol Abdhur an aspect
which set him outside the pale of ordinary humanity. The effect of an
ordinary man, so garbed, would have been merely ludicrous; in the
robber chieftain it was one of horror.

Yet as Jacob salaamed to the floor in a very frenzy of obeisance,
he was not sure that Skol looked any more formidable than the mail-
clad Frank with his aspect of dynamic and terrible strength directed
by a tigerish nature.

"The lord Cormac FitzGeoffrey, oh mighty prince," proclaimed
Jacob, while Cormac stood like an iron image not deigning even to
incline his lion-like head.

"Yes, fool, I can see that," Skol's voice was deep and resonant.
"Take yourself hence before I crop your ears. And see that those fools
downstairs have plenty of wine."

From the stumbling haste with which Jacob obeyed, Cormac knew the
threat of cropping ears was no empty one. Now his eyes wandered to a
shocking and pitiful figure--the slave standing behind Skol's divan
ready to pour wine for his grim master. The wretch was trembling in
every limb as a wounded horse quivers, and the reason was apparent--a
ghastly gaping socket from which the eye had been ruthlessly ripped.
Blood still oozed from the rim to join the stains which blotched the
twisted face and spotted the silken garments. Pitiful finery! Skol
dressed his miserable slaves in apparel rich merchants might envy. And
the wretch stood shivering in agony, yet not daring to move from his
tracks, though with the pain-misted half-sight remaining him, he could
scarcely see to fill the gem-crusted goblet Skol lifted.

"Come and sit on the divan with me, Cormac," hailed Skol. "I would
speak to you. Dog! Fill the lord Frank's goblet, and haste, lest I
take your other eye."

"I drink no more this night," growled Cormac, thrusting aside the
goblet Skol held out to him. "And send that slave away. He'll spill
wine on you in his blindness."

Skol stared at Cormac a moment and then with a sudden laugh waved
the pain-sick slave toward the door. The man went hastily, whimpering
in agony.

"See," said Skol, "I humor your whim. But it was not necessary. I
would have wrung his neck after we had talked, so he could not repeat
our words."

Cormac shrugged his shoulders. Little use to try to explain to
Skol that it was pity for the slave and not desire for secrecy that
prompted him to have the man dismissed.

"What think you of my kingdom, Bab-el-Shaitan?" asked Skol
suddenly.

"It would be hard to take," answered the Norman.

Skol laughed wildly and emptied his goblet.

"So the Seljuks have found," he hiccupped. "I took it years ago by
a trick from the Turk who held it. Before the Turks came the Arabs
held it and before them--the devil knows. It is old--the foundations
were built in the long ago by Iskander Akbar--Alexander the Great.
Then centuries later came the Roumi--the Romans--who added to it.
Parthians, Persians, Kurds, Arabs, Turks--all have shed blood on its
walls. Now it is mine, and while I live, mine it shall remain! I know
its secrets--and its secrets," he cast the Frank a sly and wicked
glance full of sinister meaning, "are more than most men reckon--even
those fools Nadir Tous and di Strozza, who would cut my throat if they
dared."

"How do you hold supremacy over these wolves?" asked Cormac
bluntly.

Skol laughed and drank once more.

"I have something each wishes. They hate each other; I play them
against one another. I hold the key to the plot. They do not trust
each other enough to move against me. I am Skol Abdhur! Men are
puppets to dance on my strings. And women"--a vagrant and curious
glint stole into his eyes--"women are food for the gods," he said
strangely.

"Many men serve me," said Skol Abdhur, "emirs and generals and
chiefs, as you saw. How came they here to Bab-el-Shaitan where the
world ends? Ambition--intrigues--women--jealousy--hatred--now they
serve the Butcher. And what brought you here, my brother? That you are
an outlaw I know--that your life is forfeit to your people because you
slew a certain emir of the Franks, one Count Conrad von Gonler. But
only when hope is dead do men ride to Bab-el-Shaitan. There are cycles
within cycles, outlaws beyond the pale of outlawry, and Bab-el-Shaitan
is the end of the world."

"Well," growled Cormac, "one man can not raid the caravans. My
friend Sir Rupert de Vaile, Seneschal of Antioch, is captive to the
Turkish chief Ali Bahadur, and the Turk refuses to ransom him for the
gold that has been offered. You ride far, and fall on the caravans
that bring the treasures of Hind and Cathay. With you I may find some
treasure so rare that the Turk will accept it as a ransom. If not,
with my share of the loot I will hire enough bold rogues to rescue Sir
Rupert."

Skol shrugged his shoulders. "Franks are mad," said he, "but
whatever the reason, I am glad you rode hither. I have heard you are
faithful to the lord you follow, and I need such a man. Just now I
trust no one but Abdullah, the black mute that guards my chamber."

It was evident to Cormac that Skol was fast becoming drunk.
Suddenly he laughed wildly.

"You asked me how I hold my wolves in leash? Not one but would
slit my throat. But look--so far I trust you I will show you why they
do not!"

He reached into his girdle and drew forth a huge jewel which
sparkled like a tiny lake of blood in his great palm. Even Cormac's
eyes narrowed at the sight.

"Satan!" he muttered. "That can be naught but the ruby called--"

"The Blood of Belshazzar!" exclaimed Skol Abdhur. "Aye, the gem
Cyrus the Persian ripped from the sword-gashed bosom of the great king
on that red night when Babylon fell! It is the most ancient and costly
gem in the world. Ten thousand pieces of heavy gold could not buy it.

"Hark, Frank," again Skol drained a goblet, "I will tell you the
tale of the Blood of Belshazzar. See you how strangely it is carved?"

He held it up and the light flashed redly from its many facets.
Cormac shook his head, puzzled.

The carving was strange indeed, corresponding to nothing he had
ever seen, east or west. It seemed that the ancient carver had
followed some plan entirely unknown and apart from that of modern
lapidary art. It was basically _different_ with a difference Cormac
could not define.

"No mortal cut that stone!" said Skol, "but the djinn of the sea!
For once in the long, long ago, in the very dawn of happenings, the
great king, even Belshazzar, went from his palace on pleasure bent and
coming to the Green Sea--the Persian Gulf--went thereon in a royal
galley, golden-prowed and rowed by a hundred slaves. Now there was one
Naka, a diver of pearls, who desiring greatly to honor his king,
begged the royal permission to seek the ocean bottom for rare pearls
for the king, and Belshazzar granting his wish, Naka dived. Inspired
by the glory of the king, he went far beyond the depth of divers, and
after a time floated to the surface, grasping in his hand a ruby of
rare beauty--aye, this very gem.

"Then the king and his lords, gazing on its strange carvings, were
amazed, and Naka, nigh to death because of the great depth to which he
had gone, gasped out a strange tale of a silent, seaweed-festooned
city of marble and lapis lazuli far below the surface of the sea, and
of a monstrous mummied king on a jade throne from whose dead taloned
hand Naka had wrested the ruby. And then the blood burst from the
diver's mouth and ears and he died.

"Then Belshazzar's lords entreated him to throw the gem back into
the sea, for it was evident that it was the treasure of the djinn of
the sea, but the king was as one mad, gazing into the crimson deeps of
the ruby, and he shook his head.

"And lo, soon evil came upon him, for the Persians broke his
kingdom, and Cyrus, looting the dying monarch, wrested from his bosom
the great ruby which seemed so gory in the light of the burning palace
that the soldiers shouted: 'Lo, it is the heart's blood of
Belshazzar!' And so men came to call the gem the Blood of Belshazzar.

"Blood followed its course. When Cyrus fell on the Jaxartes, Queen
Tomyris seized the jewel and for a time it gleamed on the naked bosom
of the Scythian queen. But she was despoiled of it by a rebel general;
in a battle against the Persians he fell and it went into the hands of
Cambyses, who carried it with him into Egypt, where a priest of Bast
stole it. A Numidian mercenary murdered him for it, and by devious
ways it came back to Persia once more. It gleamed on Xerxes' crown
when he watched his army destroyed at Salamis.

"Alexander took it from the corpse of Darius and on the
Macedonian's corselet its gleams lighted the road to India. A chance
sword blow struck it from his breastplate in a battle on the Indus and
for centuries the Blood of Belshazzar was lost to sight. Somewhere far
to the east, we know, its gleams shone on a road of blood and rapine,
and men slew men and dishonored women for it. For it, as of old, women
gave up their virtue, men their lives and kings their crowns.

"But at last its road turned to the west once more, and I took it
from the body of a Turkoman chief I slew in a raid far to the east.
How he came by it, I do not know. But now it is mine!"

Skol was drunk; his eyes blazed with inhuman passion; more and
more he seemed like some foul bird of prey.

"It is my balance of power! Men come to me from palace and hovel,
each hoping to have the Blood of Belshazzar for his own. I play them
against each other. If one should slay me for it, the others would
instantly cut him to pieces to gain it. They distrust each other too
much to combine against me. And who would share the gem with another?"

He poured himself wine with an unsteady hand.

"I am Skol the Butcher!" he boasted, "a prince in my own right! I
am powerful and crafty beyond the knowledge of common men. For I am
the most feared chieftain in all the Taurus, I who was dirt beneath
men's feet, the disowned and despised son of a renegade Persian noble
and a Circassian slave-girl.

"Bah--these fools who plot against me--the Venetian, Kai Shah,
Musa bin Daoud and Kadra Muhammad--over against them I play Nadir
Tous, that polished cutthroat, and Kojar Mirza. The Persian and the
Kurd hate me and they hate di Strozza, but they hate each other even
more. And Shalmar Khor hates them all."

"And what of Seosamh el Mekru?" Cormac could not twist his Norman-
Celtic tongue to the Arabic of Joseph.

"Who knows what is in an Arab's mind?" growled Skol. "But you may
be certain he is a jackal for loot, like all his kind, and will watch
which way the feather falls, to join the stronger side--and then
betray the winners.

"But I care not!" the robber roared suddenly. "I am Skol the
Butcher! Deep in the deeps of the Blood have I seen misty, monstrous
shapes and read dark secrets! Aye--in my sleep I hear the whispers of
that dead, half-human king from whom Naka the diver tore the jewel so
long ago. Blood! That is a drink the ruby craves! Blood follows it;
blood is drawn to it! Not the head of Cyrus did Queen Tomyris plunge
into a vessel of warm blood as the legends say, but the gem she took
from the dead king! He who wears it must quench its thirst or it will
drink his own blood! Aye, the heart's flow of kings and queens have
gone into its crimson shadow!

"And I have quenched its thirst! There are secrets of Bab-el-
Shaitan none knows but I--and Abdullah whose withered tongue can never
speak of the sights he has looked upon, the shrieks his ears have
heard in the blackness below the castle when midnight holds the
mountains breathless. For I have broken into secret corridors, sealed
up by the Arabs who rebuilt the hold, and unknown to the Turks who
followed them."

He checked himself as if he had said too much. But the crimson
dreams began to weave again their pattern of insanity.

"You have wondered why you see no women here? Yet hundreds of fair
girls have passed through the portals of Bab-el-Shaitan. Where are
they now? Ha ha ha!" the giant's sudden roar of ghastly laughter
thundered in the room.

"Many went to quench the ruby's thirst," said Skol, reaching for
the wine jug, "or to become the brides of the Dead, the concubines of
ancient demons of the mountains and deserts, who take fair girls only
in death throes. Some I or my warriors merely wearied of, and they
were flung to the vultures."

Cormac sat, chin on mailed fist, his dark brows lowering in
disgust.

"Ha!" laughed the robber. "You do not laugh--are you thin-skinned,
lord Frank? I have heard you spoken of as a desperate man. Wait until
you have ridden with me for a few moons! Not for nothing am I named
the Butcher! I have built a pyramid of skulls in my day! I have
severed the necks of old men and old women, I have dashed out the
brains of babes, I have ripped up women, I have burned children alive
and sat them by scores on pointed stakes! Pour me wine, Frank."

"Pour your own damned wine," growled Cormac, his lip writhing back
dangerously.

"That would cost another man his head," said Skol, reaching for
his goblet. "You are rude of speech to your host and the man you have
ridden so far to serve. Take care--rouse me not." Again he laughed his
horrible laughter.

"These walls have re-echoed to screams of direst agony!" his eyes
began to burn with a reckless and maddened light. "With these hands
have I disemboweled men, torn out the tongues of children and ripped
out the eyeballs of girls--thus!"

With a shriek of crazed laughter his huge hand shot at Cormac's
face. With an oath the Norman caught the giant's wrist and bones
creaked in that iron grip. Twisting the arm viciously down and aside
with a force that nearly tore it from its socket, Cormac flung Skol
back on the divan.

"Save your whims for your slaves, you drunken fool," the Norman
rasped.

Skol sprawled on the divan, grinning like an idiotic ogre and
trying to work his fingers which Cormac's savage grasp had numbed. The
Norman rose and strode from the chamber in fierce disgust; his last
backward glance showed Skol fumbling with the wine jug, with one hand
still grasping the Blood of Belshazzar, which cast a sinister light
all over the room.

The door shut behind Cormac and the Nubian cast him a sidelong,
suspicious glance. The Norman shouted impatiently for Jacob, and the
Jew bobbed up suddenly and apprehensively. His face cleared when
Cormac brusquely demanded to be shown his chamber. As he tramped along
the bare, torch-lighted corridors, Cormac heard sounds of revelry
still going on below. Knives would be going before morning, reflected
Cormac, and some would not see the rising of the sun. Yet the noises
were neither as loud nor as varied as they had been when he left the
banquet hall; no doubt many were already senseless from strong drink.

Jacob turned aside and opened a heavy door, his torch revealing a
small cell-like room, bare of hangings, with a sort of bunk on one
side; there was a single window, heavily barred, and but one door. The
Jew thrust the torch into a niche of the wall.

"Was the lord Skol pleased with you, my lord?" he asked nervously.

Cormac cursed. "I rode over a hundred miles to join the most
powerful raider in the Taurus, and I find only a wine-bibbing, drunken
fool, fit only to howl bloody boasts and blasphemies to the roof."

"Be careful, for God's sake, sir," Jacob shook from head to foot.
"These walls have ears! The great prince has these strange moods, but
he is a mighty fighter and a crafty man for all that. Do not judge him
in his drunkenness. Did--did--did he speak aught of me?"

"Aye," answered Cormac at random, a whimsical grim humor striking
him. "He said you only served him in hopes of stealing his ruby some
day."

Jacob gasped as if Cormac had hit him in the belly and the sudden
pallor of his face told the Norman his chance shot had gone home. The
majordomo ducked out of the room like a scared rabbit and it was in
somewhat better humor that his tormentor turned to retire.

Looking out the window, Cormac glanced down into the courtyard
where the animals were kept, at the stables wherein he had seen that
his great black stallion had been placed. Satisfied that the steed was
well sheltered for the night, he lay down on the bunk in full armor,
with his shield, helmet and sword beside him, as he was wont to sleep
in strange holds. He had barred the door from within, but he put
little trust in bolts and bars.



CHAPTER 2



Cormac had been asleep less than an hour when a sudden sound
brought him wide awake and alert. It was utterly dark in the chamber;
even his keen eyes could make out nothing, but someone or something
was moving on him in the darkness. He thought of the evil reputation
of Bab-el-Shaitan and a momentary shiver shook him--not of fear but of
superstitious revulsion.

Then his practical mind asserted itself. It was that fool Toghrul
Khan who had slipped into his chamber to cleanse his strange nomadic
honor by murdering the man who had been given priority over him.
Cormac cautiously drew his legs about and lifted his body until he was
sitting on the side of the bunk. At the rattle of his mail, the
stealthy sounds ceased, but the Norman could visualize Toghrul Khan's
slant eyes glittering snake-like in the dark. Doubtless he had already
slit the throat of Jacob the Jew.

As quietly as possible, Cormac eased the heavy sword from its
scabbard. Then as the sinister sounds recommenced, he tensed himself,
made a swift estimate of location, and leaped like a huge tiger,
smiting blindly and terribly in the dark. He had judged correctly. He
felt the sword strike solidly, crunching through flesh and bone, and a
body fell heavily in the darkness.

Feeling for flint and steel, he struck fire to tinder and lighted
the torch, then turning to the crumpled shape in the center of the
room, he halted in amazement. The man who lay there in a widening pool
of crimson was tall, powerfully built and hairy as an ape--Kadra
Muhammad. The Lur's scimitar was in his scabbard, but a wicked dagger
lay by his right hand.

"He had no quarrel with me," growled Cormac, puzzled. "What--" He
stopped again. The door was still bolted from within, but in what had
been a blank wall to the casual gaze, a black opening gaped--a secret
doorway through which Kadra Muhammad had come. Cormac closed it and
with sudden purpose pulled his coif in place and donned his helmet.
Then taking up his shield, he opened the door and strode forth into
the torch-lighted corridor. All was silence, broken only by the tramp
of his iron-clad feet on the bare flags. The sounds of revelry had
ceased and a ghostly stillness hung over Bab-el-Shaitan.

In a few minutes he stood before the door of Skol Abdhur's chamber
and saw there what he had half-expected. The Nubian Abdullah lay
before the threshold, disemboweled, and his woolly head half severed
from his body. Cormac thrust open the door; the candles still burned.
On the floor, in the blood-soaked ruins of the torn divan lay the
gashed and naked body of Skol Abdhur the Butcher. The corpse was
slashed and hacked horribly, but it was evident to Cormac that Skol
had died in drunken sleep with no chance to fight for his life. It was
some obscure hysteria or frantic hatred that had led his slayer or
slayers to so disfigure his dead body. His garments lay near him,
ripped to shreds. Cormac smiled grimly, nodding.

"So the Blood of Belshazzar drank your life at last, Skol," said
he.

Turning toward the doorway he again scanned the body of the
Nubian.

"More than one slew these men," he muttered, "and the Nubian gave
scathe to one, at least."

The black still gripped his great scimitar, and the edge was
nicked and bloodstained.

At that moment a quick rattle of steps sounded on the flags and
the affrighted face of Jacob peered in at the door. His eyes flared
wide and he opened his mouth to the widest extent to give vent to an
ear-piercing screech.

"Shut up, you fool," snarled Cormac disgusted, but Jacob gibbered
wildly.

"Spare my life, most noble lord! I will not tell anyone that you
slew Skol--I swear--"

"Be quiet, Jew," growled Cormac. "I did not slay Skol and I will
not harm you."

This somewhat reassured Jacob, whose eyes narrowed with sudden
avarice.

"Have you found the gem?" he chattered, running into the chamber.
"Swift, let us search for it and begone--I should not have shrieked
but I feared the noble lord would slay me--yet perchance it was not
heard--"

"It was heard," growled the Norman. "And here are the warriors."

The tramp of many hurried feet was heard and a second later the
door was thronged with bearded faces. Cormac noted the men blinked and
gaped like owls, more like men roused from deep sleep than drunken
men. Bleary-eyed, they gripped their weapons and ogled, a ragged,
bemused horde. Jacob shrank back, trying to flatten himself against
the wall, while Cormac faced them, bloodstained sword still in his
hand.

"Allah!" ejaculated a Kurd, rubbing his eyes. "The Frank and the
Jew have murdered Skol!"

"A lie," growled Cormac menacingly. "I know not who slew this
drunkard."

Tisolino di Strozza came into the chamber, followed by the other
chiefs. Cormac saw Nadir Tous, Kojar Mirza, Shalmar Khor, Yussef el
Mekru and Justus Zenor. Toghrul Khan, Kai Shah and Musa bin Daoud were
nowhere in evidence, and where Kadra Muhammad was, the Norman well
knew.

"The jewel!" exclaimed an Armenian excitedly. "Let us look for the
gem!"

"Be quiet, fool," snapped Nadir Tous, a light of baffled fury
growing in his eyes. "Skol has been stripped; be sure who slew him
took the gem."

All eyes turned toward Cormac.

"Skol was a hard master," said Tisolino. "Give us the jewel, lord
Cormac, and you may go your way in peace."

Cormac swore angrily; had not, he thought, even as he replied, the
Venetian's eyes widened when they first fell on him?

"I have not your cursed jewel; Skol was dead when I came to his
room."

"Aye," jeered Kojar Mirza, "and blood still wet on your blade." He
pointed accusingly at the weapon in Cormac's hand, whose blue steel,
traced with Norse runes, was stained a dull red.

"That is the blood of Kadra Muhammad," growled Cormac, "who stole
into my cell to slay me and whose corpse now lies there."

His eyes were fixed with fierce intensity on di Strozza's face but
the Venetian's expression altered not a whit.

"I will go to the chamber and see if he speaks truth," said di
Strozza, and Nadir Tous smiled a deadly smile.

"You will remain here," said the Persian, and his ruffians closed
menacingly around the tall Venetian. "Go you, Selim." And one of his
men went grumbling. Di Strozza shot a swift glance of terrible hatred
and suppressed wrath at Nadir Tous, then stood imperturbably; but
Cormac knew that the Venetian was wild to escape from that room.

"There have been strange things done tonight in Bab-el-Shaitan,"
growled Shalmar Khor. "Where are Kai Shah and the Syrian--and that
pagan from Tartary? And who drugged the wine?"

"Aye!" exclaimed Nadir Tous, "who drugged the wine which sent us
all into the sleep from which we but a few moments ago awakened? And
how is it that you, di Strozza, were awake when the rest of us slept?"

"I have told you, I drank the wine and fell asleep like the rest
of you," answered the Venetian coldly. "I awoke a few moments earlier,
that is all, and was going to my chamber when the horde of you came
along."

"Mayhap," answered Nadir Tous, "but we had to put a scimitar edge
to your throat before you would come with us."

"Why did you wish to come to Skol's chamber anyway?" countered di
Strozza.

"Why," answered the Persian, "when we awoke and realized we had
been drugged, Shalmar Khor suggested that we go to Skol's chamber and
see if he had flown with the jewel--"

"You lie!" exclaimed the Circassian. "That was Kojar Mirza who
said that--"

"Why this delay and argument!" cried Kojar Mirza. "We know this
Frank was the last to be admitted to Skol this night. There is blood
on his blade--we found him standing above the slain! Cut him down!"

And drawing his scimitar he stepped forward, his warriors surging
in behind him. Cormac placed his back to the wall and braced his feet
to meet the charge. But it did not come; the tense figure of the giant
Norman-Gael was so fraught with brooding menace, the eyes glaring so
terribly above the skull-adorned shield, that even the wild Kurd
faltered and hesitated, though a score of men thronged the room and
many more than that number swarmed in the corridor outside. And as he
wavered the Persian Selim elbowed his way through the band, shouting:
"The Frank spoke truth! Kadra Muhammad lies dead in the lord Cormac's
chamber!"

"That proves nothing," said the Venetian quietly. "He might have
slain Skol after he slew the Lur."

An uneasy and bristling silence reigned for an instant. Cormac
noted that now Skol lay dead, the different factions made no attempt
to conceal their differences. Nadir Tous, Kojar Mirza and Shalmar Khor
stood apart from each other and their followers bunched behind them in
glaring, weapon-thumbing groups. Yussef el Mekru and Justus Zehor
stood aside, looking undecided; only di Strozza seemed oblivious to
this cleavage of the robber band.

The Venetian was about to say more, when another figure shouldered
men aside and strode in. It was the Seljuk, Kai Shah, and Cormac noted
that he lacked his mail shirt and that his garments were different
from those he had worn earlier in the night. More, his left arm was
bandaged and bound close to his chest and his dark face was somewhat
pale.

At the sight of him di Strozza's calm for the first time deserted
him; he started violently.

"Where is Musa bin Daoud?" he exclaimed.

"Aye!" answered the Turk angrily. "Where is Musa bin Daoud?"

"I left him with you!" cried di Strozza fiercely, while the others
gaped, not understanding this byplay.

"But you planned with him to elude me," accused the Seljuk.

"You are mad!" shouted di Strozza, losing his self-control
entirely.

"Mad?" snarled the Turk. "I have been searching for the dog
through the dark corridors. If you and he are acting in good faith,
why did you not return to the chamber, when you went forth to meet
Kadra Muhammad whom we heard coming along the corridor? When you came
not back I stepped to the door to peer out for you, and when I turned
back, Musa had darted through some secret opening like a rat--"

Di Strozza almost frothed at the mouth. "You fool!" he screamed,
"keep silent!"

"I will see you in Gehennum and all our throats cut before I let
you cozen me!" roared the Turk, ripping out his scimitar. "What have
you done with Musa?"

"You fool of Hell," raved di Strozza, "I have been in this chamber
ever since I left you! You knew that Syrian dog would play us false if
he got the opportunity and--"

And at that instant when the air was already supercharged with
tension, a terrified slave rushed in at a blind, stumbling run, to
fall gibbering at di Strozza's feet.

"The gods!" he howled. "The black gods! Aie! The cavern under the
floors and the djinn in the rock!"

"What are you yammering about, dog?" roared the Venetian, knocking
the slave to the floor with an open-handed blow.

"I found the forbidden door open," screeched the fellow. "A stair
goes down--it leads into a fearful cavern with a terrible altar on
which frown gigantic demons--and at the foot of the stairs--the lord
Musa--"

"What!" di Strozza's eyes blazed and he shook the slave as a dog
shakes a rat.

"Dead!" gasped the wretch between chattering teeth.

Cursing terribly, di Strozza knocked men aside in his rush to the
door; with a vengeful howl Kai Shah pelted after him, slashing right
and left to clear a way. Men gave back from his flashing blade,
howling as the keen edge slit their skins. The Venetian and his
erstwhile comrade ran down the corridor, di Strozza dragging the
screaming slave after him, and the rest of the pack gave tongue in
rage and bewilderment and took after them. Cormac swore in amazement
and followed, determined to see the mad game through.

Down winding corridors di Strozza led the pack, down broad stairs,
until he came to a huge iron door that now swung open. Here the horde
hesitated.

"This is in truth the forbidden door," muttered an Armenian. "The
brand is on my back that Skol put there merely because I lingered too
long before it once."

"Aye," agreed a Persian. "It leads into places once sealed up by
the Arabs long ago. None but Skol ever passed through that door--he
and the Nubian and the captives who came not forth. It is a haunt of
devils."

Di Strozza snarled in disgust and strode through the doorway. He
had snatched a torch as he ran and he held this high in one hand.
Broad steps showed, leading downward, and cut out of solid rock. They
were on the lower floor of the castle; these steps led into the bowels
of the earth. As di Strozza strode down, dragging the howling, naked
slave, the high-held torch lighting the black stone steps and casting
long shadows into the darkness before them, the Venetian looked like a
demon dragging a soul into Hell.

Kai Shah was close behind him with his drawn scimitar, with Nadir
Tous and Kojar Mirza crowding him close. The ragged crew had, with
unaccustomed courtesy, drawn back to let the lord Cormac through and
now they followed, uneasily and casting apprehensive glances to all
sides.

Many carried torches, and as their light flowed into the depths
below a medley of affrighted yells went up. From the darkness huge
evil eyes glimmered and titanic shapes loomed vaguely in the gloom.
The mob wavered, ready to stampede, but di Strozza strode stolidly
downward and the pack called on Allah and followed. Now the light
showed a huge cavern in the center of which stood a black and utterly
abhorrent altar, hideously stained, and flanked with grinning skulls
laid out in strangely systematic lines. The horrific figures were
disclosed to be huge images, carved from the solid rock of the cavern
walls, strange, bestial, gigantic gods, whose huge eyes of some glassy
substance caught the torchlight.

The Celtic blood in Cormac sent a shiver down his spine. Alexander
built the foundations of this fortress? Bah--no Grecian ever carved
such gods as these. No; an aura of unspeakable antiquity brooded over
this grim cavern, as if the forbidden door were a mystic threshold
over which the adventurer stepped into an elder world. No wonder mad
dreams were here bred in the frenzied brain of Skol Abdhur. These gods
were grim vestiges of an older, darker race than Roman or Hellene--a
people long faded into the gloom of antiquity. Phrygians--Lydians--
Hittites? Or some still more ancient, more abysmal people?

The age of Alexander was as dawn before these ancient figures, yet
doubtless he bowed to these gods, as he bowed to many gods before his
maddened brain made himself a deity.

At the foot of the stairs lay a crumpled shape--Musa bin Daoud.
His face was twisted in horror. A medley of shouts went up: "The djinn
have taken the Syrian! Let us begone! This is an evil place!"

"Be silent, you fools!" roared Nadir Tous. "A mortal blade slew
Musa--see, he has been slashed through the breast and his bones are
broken. See how he lies. Someone slew him and flung him down the
stairs--"

The Persian's voice trailed off, as his gaze followed his own
pointing fingers. Musa's left arm was outstretched and his fingers had
been hacked away.

"He held something in that hand," whispered Nadir Tous. "So hard
he gripped it that his slayer was forced to cut off his fingers to
obtain it--"

Men thrust torches into niches on the wall and crowded nearer,
their superstitious fears forgotten.

"Aye!" exclaimed Cormac, having pieced together some of the bits
of the puzzle in his mind. "It was the gem! Musa and Kai Shah and di
Strozza killed Skol, and Musa had the gem. There was blood on
Abdullah's sword and Kai Shah has a broken arm--shattered by the sweep
of the Nubian's great scimitar. Whoever slew Musa has the gem."

Di Strozza screamed like a wounded panther. He shook the wretched
slave.

"Dog, have you the gem?"

The slave began a frenzied denial, but his voice broke in a
ghastly gurgle as di Strozza, in a very fit of madness, jerked his
sword edge across the wretch's throat and flung the blood-spurting
body from him. The Venetian whirled on Kai Shah.

"You slew Musa!" he screamed. "He was with you last! You have the
gem!"

"You lie!" exclaimed the Turk, his dark face an ashy pallor. "You
slew him yourself--"

His words ended in a gasp as di Strozza, foaming at the mouth and
all sanity gone from his eyes, ran his sword straight through the
Turk's body. Kai Shah swayed like a sapling in the wind; then as di
Strozza withdrew the blade, the Seljuk hacked through the Venetian's
temple, and as Kai Shah reeled, dying on his feet but clinging to life
with the tenacity of the Turk, Nadir Tous leaped like a panther and
beneath his flashing scimitar Kai Shah dropped dead across the dead
Venetian.

Forgetting all else in his lust for the gem, Nadir Tous bent over
his victim, tearing at his garments--bent further as if in a deep
salaam and sank down on the dead men, his own skull split to the teeth
by Kojar Mirza's stroke. The Kurd bent to search the Turk, but
straightened swiftly to meet the attack of Shalmar Khor. In an instant
the scene was one of ravening madness, where men hacked and slew and
died blindly. The flickering torches lit the scene, and Cormac,
backing away toward the stairs, swore amazedly. He had seen men go mad
before, but this exceeded anything he had ever witnessed.

Kojar Mirza slew Selim and wounded a Circassian, but Shalmar Khor
slashed through his arm-muscles, Justus Zehor ran in and stabbed the
Kurd in the ribs, and Kojar Mirza went down, snapping like a dying
wolf, to be hacked to pieces.

Justus Zehor and Yussef el Mekru seemed to have taken sides at
last; the Georgian had thrown in his lot with Shalmar Khor, while the
Arab rallied to him the Kurds and Turks. But besides these loosely
knit bands of rivals, various warriors, mainly the Persians of Nadir
Tous, raged through the strife, foaming at the mouth and striking all
impartially. In an instant a dozen men were down, dying and trampled
by the living. Justus Zehor fought with a long knife in each hand and
he wrought red havoc before he sank, skull cleft, throat slashed and
belly ripped up.

Even while they fought, the warriors had managed to tear to shreds
the clothing of Kai Shah and di Strozza. Finding naught there, they
howled like wolves and fell to their deadly work with new frenzy. A
madness was on them; each time a man fell, others seized him, ripping
his garments apart in search for the gem, slashing at each other as
they did so.

Cormac saw Jacob trying to steal to the stairs, and even as the
Norman decided to withdraw himself, a thought came to the brain of
Yussef el Mekru. Arab-like, the Yemenite had fought more coolly than
the others, and perhaps he had, even in the frenzy of combat, decided
on his own interests. Possibly, seeing that all the leaders were down
except Shalmar Khor, he decided it would be best to reunite the band,
if possible, and it could be best done by directing their attention
against a common foe. Perhaps he honestly thought that since the gem
had not been found, Cormac had it. At any rate, the Sheikh suddenly
tore away and pointing a lean arm toward the giant figure at the foot
of the stairs, screamed: _"Allahu akbar! There stands the thief! Slay
the Nazarene!"_

It was good Moslem psychology. There was an instant of bewildered
pause in the battle, then a bloodthirsty howl went up and from a
tangled battle of rival factions, the brawl became instantly a charge
of a solid compact body that rushed wild-eyed on Cormac howling: "Slay
the Caphar!"

Cormac snarled in disgusted irritation. He should have anticipated
that. No time to escape now; he braced himself and met the charge. A
Kurd, rushing in headlong, was impaled on the Norman's long blade, and
a giant Circassian, hurling his full weight on the kite-shaped shield,
rebounded as from an iron tower. Cormac thundered his battle cry,
_"Cloigeand abu,"_ (Gaelic: "The skull to victory.") in a deep-toned
roar that drowned the howls of the Moslems; he freed his blade and
swung the heavy weapon in a crashing arc. Swords shivered to singing
sparks and the warriors gave back. They plunged on again as Yussef el
Mekru lashed them with burning words. A big Armenian broke his sword
on Cormac's helmet and went down with his skull split. A Turk slashed
at the Norman's face and howled as his wrist was caught on the Norse
sword, and the hand flew from it.

Cormac's defense was his armor, the unshakable immovability of his
stance, and his crashing blows. Head bent, eyes glaring above the rim
of his shield, he made scant effort to parry or avoid blows. He took
them on his helmet or his shield and struck back with thunderous
power. Now Shalmar Khor smote full on his helmet with every ounce of
his great rangy body behind the blow, and the scimitar bit through the
steel cap, notching on the coif links beneath. It was a blow that
might have felled an ox, yet Cormac, though half-stunned, stood like a
man of iron and struck back with all the power of arm and shoulders.
The Circassian flung up his round buckler but it availed not. Cormac's
heavy sword sheared through the buckler, severed the arm that held it
and crashed full on the Circassian's helmet, shattering both steel cap
and the skull beneath.

But fired by fanatical fury as well as greed, the Moslems pressed
in. They got behind him. Cormac staggered as a heavy weight landed
full on his shoulders. A Kurd had stolen up the stairs and leaped from
them full on to the Frank's back. Now he clung like an ape, slavering
curses and hacking wildly at Cormac's neck with his long knife.

The Norman's sword was wedged deep in a split breastbone and he
struggled fiercely to free it. His hood was saving him so far from the
knife strokes of the man on his back, but men were hacking at him from
all sides and Yussef el Mekru, foam on his beard, was rushing upon
him. Cormac drove his shield upward, catching a frothing Moslem under
the chin with the rim and shattering his jawbone, and almost at the
same instant the Norman bent his helmeted head forward and jerked it
back with all the strength of his mighty neck, and the back of his
helmet crushed the face of the Kurd on his back. Cormac felt the
clutching arms relax; his sword was free, but a Lur was clinging to
his right arm--they hemmed him in so he could not step back, and
Yussef el Mekru was hacking at his face and throat. He set his teeth
and lifted his sword-arm, swinging the clinging Lur clear of the
floor. Yussef's scimitar rasped on his bent helmet--his hauberk--his
coif links--the Arab's swordplay was like the flickering of light and
in a moment it was inevitable that the flaming blade would sink home.
And still the Lur clung, ape-like, to Cormac's mighty arm.

Something whispered across the Norman's shoulder and thudded
solidly. Yussef el Mekru gasped and swayed, clawing at the thick shaft
that protruded from his heavy beard. Blood burst from his parted lips
and he fell dying. The man clinging to Cormac's arm jerked
convulsively and fell away. The press slackened. Cormac, panting,
stepped back and gained the stairs. A glance upward showed him Toghrul
Khan standing on the landing bending a heavy bow. The Norman
hesitated; at that range the Mongol could drive a shaft through his
mail.

"Haste, _bogatyr_," came the nomad's gutturals. "Up the stairs!"

At that instant Jacob started running fleetly for the darkness
beyond the flickering torches; three steps he took before the bow
twanged. The Jew screamed and went down as though struck by a giant's
hand; the shaft had struck between his fat shoulders and gone clear
through him.

Cormac was backing warily up the stairs, facing his foes who
clustered at the foot of the steps, dazed and uncertain. Toghrul Khan
crouched on the landing, beady eyes a-glitter, shaft on string, and
men hesitated. But one dared--a tall Turkoman with the eyes of a mad
dog. Whether greed for the gem he thought Cormac carried, or fanatical
hate sent him leaping into the teeth of sword and arrow, he sprang
howling up the stairs, lifting high a heavy iron-braced shield.
Toghrul Khan loosed, but the shaft glanced from the metal work, and
Cormac, bracing his legs again, struck downward with all his power.
Sparks flashed as the down-crashing sword shattered the shield and
dashed the onrushing Turkoman headlong to lie stunned and bloodied at
the foot of the stairs.

Then as the warriors fingered their weapons undecidedly, Cormac
gained the landing, and Norman and Mongol backed together out of the
door which Toghrul Khan slammed behind them. A wild medley of wolfish
yells burst out from below and the Mongol, slamming a heavy bolt in
place, growled: "Swiftly, _bogatyr_! It will be some minutes before
those dog-brothers can batter down the door. Let us begone!"

He led the way at a swift run along a corridor, through a series
of chambers, and flung open a barred door. Cormac saw that they had
come into the courtyard, flooded now by the gray light of dawn. A man
stood near, holding two horses--the great black stallion of Cormac's
and the Mongol's wiry roan. Leaning close Cormac saw that the man's
face was bandaged so that only one eye showed.

"Haste," Toghrul Khan was urging. "The slave saddled my mount, but
yours he could not saddle because of the savagery of the beast. The
serf is to go with us."

Cormac made haste to comply; then swinging into the saddle he gave
the fellow a hand and the slave sprang up behind him. The strangely
assorted companions thundered across the courtyard just as raging
figures burst through the doorway through which they had come.

"No sentries at the gates this night," grunted the Mongol.

They pulled up at the wide gates and the slave sprang down to open
them. He swung the portals wide, took a single step toward the black
stallion and went down, dead before he struck the ground. A crossbow
bolt had shattered his skull, and Cormac, wheeling with a curse, saw a
Moslem kneeling on one of the bastions, aiming his weapon. Even as he
looked, Toghrul Khan rose in his stirrups, drew a shaft to the head
and loosed. The Moslem dropped his arbalest and pitched headlong from
the battlement.

With a fierce yell the Mongol wheeled away and charged through the
gates, Cormac close at his heels. Behind them sounded a wild and
wolfish babble as the warriors rushed about the courtyard, seeking to
find and saddle mounts.



CHAPTER 3



"Look!" The companions had covered some miles of wild gorges and
treacherous slopes, without hearing any sound of pursuit. Toghrul Khan
pointed back. The sun had risen in the east, but behind them a red
glow rivaled the sun.

"The Gate of Erlik burns," said the Mongol. "They will not hunt
us, those dog-brothers. They stopped to loot the castle and fight one
another; some fool has set the hold on fire."

"There is much I do not understand," said Cormac slowly. "Let us
sift truth from lies. That di Strozza, Kai Shah and Musa killed Skol
is evident, also that they sent Kadra Muhammad to slay me--why, I know
not. But I do not understand what Kai Shah meant by saying that they
heard Kadra Muhammad coming down the corridor, and that di Strozza
went forth to meet him, for surely at that moment Kadra Muhammad lay
dead on my chamber floor. And I believe that both Kai Shah and the
Venetian spoke truth when they denied slaying Musa."

"Aye," acknowledged the Mongol. "Harken, lord Frank: scarcely had
you gone up to Skol's chamber last night, when Musa the scribe left
the banquet hall and soon returned with slaves who bore a great bowl
of spiced wine--prepared in the Syrian way, said the scribe, and the
steaming scent of it was pleasant.

"But I noted that neither he nor Kadra Muhammad drank of it, and
when Kai Shah and di Strozza plunged in their goblets, they only
pretended to drink. So when I raised my goblet to my lips, I sniffed
long and secretly and smelled therein a very rare drug--aye, one I had
thought was known only to the magicians of Cathay. It makes deep sleep
and Musa must have obtained a small quantity in some raid on a caravan
from the East. So I did not drink of the wine, but all the others
drank saving those I have mentioned, and soon men began to grow
drowsy, though the drug acted slowly, being weak in that it was
distributed among so many.

"Soon I went to my chamber which a slave showed me, and squatting
on my bunk, devised a plan of vengeance in my mind, for because that
dog of a Jew put shame upon me before the lords, hot anger burned in
my heart so that I could not sleep. Soon I heard one staggering past
my door as a drunkard staggers, but this one whined like a dog in
pain. I went forth and found a slave whose eye, he said, his master
had torn out. I have some knowledge of wounds, so I cleansed and
bandaged his empty socket, easing his pain, for which he would have
kissed my feet.

"Then I bethought me of the insult which had been put upon me, and
desired the slave to show me where slept the fat hog, Jacob. He did
so, and marking the chamber in my mind, I turned again and went with
the slave into the courtyard where the beasts were kept. None hindered
us, for all were in the feasting-hall and their din was growing lesser
swiftly. In the stables I found four swift horses, ready saddled--the
mounts of di Strozza and his comrades. And the slave told me,
furthermore, that there were no guards at the gates that night--di
Strozza had bidden all to feast in the great hall. So I bade the slave
saddle my steed and have it ready, and also your black stallion which
I coveted.

"Then I returned into the castle and heard no sound; all those who
had drunk of the wine slept in the sleep of the drug. I mounted to the
upper corridors, even to Jacob's chamber, but when I entered to slit
his fat throat, he was not sleeping there. I think he was guzzling
wine with the slaves in some lower part of the castle.

"I went along the corridors searching for him, and suddenly saw
ahead of me a chamber door partly open, through which shone light, and
I heard the voice of the Venetian speak: 'Kadra Muhammad is
approaching; I will bid him hasten.'

"I did not desire to meet these men, so I turned quickly down a
side corridor, hearing di Strozza call the name of Kadra Muhammad
softly and as if puzzled. Then he came swiftly down the corridor, as
if to see whose footfalls it was he heard, and I went hurriedly before
him, crossing the landing of a wide stair which led up from the
feasting-hall, and entered another corridor where I halted in the
shadows and watched.

"Di Strozza came to the landing and paused, like a man bewildered,
and at that moment an outcry went up from below. The Venetian turned
to escape but the waking drunkards had seen him. Just as I had
thought, the drug was too weak to keep them sleeping long, and now
they realized they had been drugged and stormed bewilderedly up the
stairs and laid hold on di Strozza, accusing him of many things and
making him accompany them to Skol's chamber. Me they did not spy.

"Still seeking Jacob, I went swiftly down the corridor at random
and coming onto a narrow stairway, came at last to the ground floor
and a dark tunnel-like corridor which ran past a most strange door.
And then sounded quick footsteps and as I drew back in the shadows,
there came one in panting haste--the Syrian Musa, who gripped a
scimitar in his right hand and something hidden in his left.

"He fumbled with the door until it opened; then lifting his head,
he saw me and crying out wildly he slashed at me with his scimitar.
Erlik! I had no quarrel with the man, but he was as one maddened by
fear. I struck with the naked steel, and he, being close to the
landing inside the door, pitched headlong down the stairs.

"Then I was desirous of learning what he held so tightly in his
left hand, so I followed him down the stairs. Erlik! That was an evil
place, dark and full of glaring eyes and strange shadows. The hair on
my head stood up but I gripped my steel, calling on the Lords of
Darkness and the high places. Musa's dead hand still gripped what he
held so firmly that I was forced to cut off the fingers. Then I went
back up the stairs and out the same way by which we later escaped from
the castle, and found the slave ready with my mount, but unable to
saddle yours.

"I was loath to depart without avenging my insult, and as I
lingered I heard the clash of steel within the hold. And I stole back
and came to the forbidden stair again while the fighting was fiercest
below. All were assailing you, and though my heart was hot against
you, because you had been given preference over me, I warmed to your
valor. Aye, you are a hero, _bogatyr_!"

"Then it was thus, apparently," mused the Frank, "di Strozza and
his comrades had it well planned out--they drugged the wine, called
the guards from the walls, and had their horses ready for swift
flight. As I had not drunk the drugged wine, they sent the Lur to slay
me. The other three killed Skol and in the fight Kai Shah was
wounded--Musa took the gem doubtless because neither Kai Shah nor the
Venetian would trust it to the other.

"After the murder, they must have retired into a chamber to
bandage Kai Shah's arm, and while there they heard you coming along
the corridor and thought it the Lur. Then when di Strozza followed he
was seized by the waking bandits, as you say--no wonder he was wild to
be gone from Skol's chamber! And meanwhile Musa gave Kai Shah the slip
somehow, meaning to have the gem for himself. But what of the gem?"

"Look!" the nomad held out his hand in which a sinister crimson
glow throbbed and pulsed like a living thing in the early sun.

"The Blood of Belshazzar," said Toghrul Khan. "Greed for this slew
Skol and fear born of this evil thing slew Musa; for, escaping from
his comrades, he thought the hand of all men against him and attacked
me, when he could have gone on unmolested. Did he think to remain
hidden in the cavern until he could slip away, or does some tunnel
admit to outer air?

"Well, this red stone is evil--one can not eat it or drink it or
clothe himself with it, or use it as a weapon, yet many men have died
for it. Look--I will cast it away." The Mongol turned to fling the gem
over the verge of the dizzy precipice past which they were riding.
Cormac caught his arm.

"Nay--if you do not want it, let me have it."

"Willingly," but the Mongol frowned. "My brother would wear the
gaud?"

Cormac laughed shortly and Toghrul Khan smiled.

"I understand; you will buy favor from your sultan."

"Bah!" Cormac growled, "I buy favor with my sword. No." He
grinned, well pleased. "This trinket will pay the ransom of Sir Rupert
de Vaile to the chief who now holds him captive."



THE END



This site is full of FREE ebooks - Project Gutenberg Australia