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Title: Dawn of Flame
Author: Stanley G. Weinbaum
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eBook No.: 0608971.txt
Language:  English
Date first posted: November 2006
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Title: Dawn of Flame
Author: Stanley G. Weinbaum




Hull Tarvish looked backward but once, and that only as he reached the
elbow of the road. The sprawling little stone cottage that had been home
was visible as he had seen it a thousand times, framed under the cedars.
His mother still watched him, and two of his younger brothers stood
staring down the Mountainside at him. He raised his hand in farewell,
then dropped it as he realized that none of them saw him now; his mother
had turned indifferently to the door, and the two youngsters had spied a
rabbit. He faced about and strode away, down the slope out of Ozarky.

He passed the place where the great steel road of the Ancients had been,
now only two rusty streaks and a row of decayed logs. Beside it was the
mossy heap of stones that had been an ancient structure in the days
before the Dark Centuries, when Ozarky had been a part of the old state
of M'souri. The mountain people still sought out the place for squared
stones to use in building, but the tough metal of the steel road itself
was too stubborn for their use, and the rails had rusted quietly these
three hundred years.

That much Hull Tarvish knew, for they were things still spoken of at
night around the fireplace. They had been mighty sorcerers, those
Ancients; their steel roads went everywhere, and everywhere were the
ruins of their towns, built, it was said, by a magic that lifted
weights. Down in the valley, he knew, men were still seeking that magic;
once a rider had stayed by night at the Tarvish home, a little man who
said that in the far south the secret had been found, but nobody ever
heard any more of it.

So Hull whistled to himself, shifted the rag bag on his shoulder, set
his bow more comfortably on his mighty back, and trudged on. That was
why he himself was seeking the valley; he wanted to see what the world
was like. He had been always a restless sort, not at all like the other
six Tarvish sons, nor like the three Tarvish daughters. They were true
mountainies, the sons great hunters, and the daughters stolid and
industrious. Not Hull, however; he was neither lazy like his brothers
nor stolid like his sisters, but restless, curious, dreamy. So he
whistled his way into the world, and was happy.

At evening he stopped at the Hobel cottage on the edge of the mountains.
Away before him stretched the plain, and in the darkening distance was
visible the church spire of Norse. That was a village; Hull had never
seen a village, or no more of it than this same distant steeple, shaped
like a straight white pine. But he had heard all about Norse, because
the mountainies occasionally went down there to buy powder and ball for
their rifles, those of them who had rifles.

Hull had only a bow. He didn't see the use of guns; powder and ball cost
money, but an arrow did the same work for nothing, and that without
scaring all the game a mile away.

Morning he bade goodbye to the Hobels, who thought him, as they always
had, a little crazy, and set off. His powerful, brown bare legs flashed
under his ragged trousers, his bare feet made a pleasant soosh in the
dust of the road, the June sun beat warm on his right cheek. He was
happy; there never was a pleasanter world than this, so he grinned and
whistled, and spat carefully into the dust, remembering that it was bad
luck to spit toward the sun. He was bound for adventure.

Adventure came. Hull had come down to the plain now, where the trees
were taller than the scrub of the hill country, and where the occasional
farms were broader, well tilled, more prosperous. The trail had become a
wagon road, and here it cut and angled between two lines of forest. And
unexpectedly a man--no, two men--rose from a log at the roadside and
approached Hull. He watched them; one was tall and light-haired as
himself, but without his mighty frame, and the other was a head shorter,
and dark. Valley people, surely, for the dark one had a stubby pistol at
his belt, wooden-stocked like those of the Ancients, and the tall man's
bow was of glittering spring steel.

"Ho, mountainy!" said the dark one. "Where going?"

"Norse," answered Hull shortly,

"What's in the bag?"

"My tongue," snapped the youth.

"Easy, there," grunted the light man. "No offense, mountainy. We're just
curious. That's a good knife you got. I'll trade it."

"For what?"

"For lead in your craw," growled the dark one. Suddenly the blunt pistol
was in his hand. "Pass it over, and the bag too."

Hull scowled from one to the other. At last he shrugged, and moved as if
to lift his bag from his shoulders. And then, swift as the thrust of a
striking diamondback, his left foot shot forward, catching the dark one
squarely in the pit of his stomach, with the might of Hull's muscles and
weight behind it.

The man had breath for a low grunt; he doubled and fell, while his
weapon spun a dozen feet away into the dust. The light one sprang for
it, but Hull caught him with a great arm about his throat, wrenched
twice, and the brief fight was over. He swung placidly on toward Norse
with a blunt revolver primed and capped at his hip, a glistening
spring-steel bow on his shoulder, and twenty-two bright tubular steel
arrows in his quiver.

He topped a little rise and the town lay before him. He stared. A
hundred houses at least. Must be five hundred people in the town, more
people than he'd ever seen in his life all together. He strode eagerly
on, goggling at the church that towered high as a tall tree, at the
windows of bits of glass salvaged from ancient ruins and carefully
pieced together, at the tavern with its swinging emblem of an
unbelievably fat man holding a mammoth mug. He stared at the houses,
some of them with shops before them, and at the people, most of them
shod in leather.

He himself attracted little attention. Norse was used to the
mountainies, and only a girl or two turned appraising eyes toward his
mighty figure. That made him uncomfortable, however; the girls of the
mountains giggled and blushed, but never at that age did they stare at a
man. So he gazed defiantly back, letting his eyes wander from their
bonnets to the billowing skirts above their leather strap-sandals, and
they laughed and passed on.

Hull didn't care for Norse, he decided. As the sun set, the houses
loomed too close, as if they'd stifle him, so he set out into the
countryside to sleep. The remains of an ancient town bordered the
village, with its spectral walls crumbling against the west. There were
ghosts there, of course, so he walked farther, found a wooded spot, and
lay down, putting his bow and the steel arrows into his bag against the
rusting effect of night-dew. Then he tied the bag about his bare feet
and legs, sprawled comfortably, and slept with his hand on the pistol
grip. Of course there were no animals to fear in these woods save
wolves, and they never attacked humans during the warm parts of the
year, but there were men, and they bound themselves by no such seasonal

He awoke dewy wet. The sun shot golden lances through the trees, and he
was ravenously hungry. He ate the last of his mother's brown bread from
his bag, now crumbled by his feet, and then strode out to the road.
There was a wagon creaking there, plodding northward; the bearded,
kindly man in it was glad enough to have him ride for company.

"Mountainy?" he asked.


"Bound where?"

"The world," said Hull.

"Well," observed the other, "it's a big place, and all I've seen of it
much like this. All except Selui. That's a city. Yes, that's a city.
Been there?"


"It's got," said the farmer impressively, "twenty thousand people in it.
Maybe more. And they got ruins there the biggest you ever saw. Bridges.
Buildings. Four--five times as high as the Norse church, and at that
they're fallen down. The Devil knows how high they used to be in the old

"Who lived in 'em?" asked Hull.

"Don't know. Who'd want to live so high up it'd take a full morning to
climb there? Unless it was magic. I don't hold much with magic, but they
do say the Old People knew how to fly."

Hull tried to imagine this. For a while there was silence save for the
slow clump of the horses' hooves. "I don't believe it," he said at last.

"Nor I. But did you hear what they're saying in Norse?"

"I didn't hear anything."

"They say," said the farmer, "that Joaquin Smith is going to march

"Joaquin Smith!"

"Yeah. Even the mountainies know about him, eh?"

"Who doesn't?" returned Hull. "Then there'll be fighting in the south, I
guess. I have a notion to go south."


"I like fighting," said Hull simply.

"Fair answer," said the farmer, "but from what folks say, there's not
much fighting when the Master marches. He has a spell; there's great
sorcery in N'Orleans, from the merest warlock up to Martin Sair, who's
blood-son of the Devil himself, or so they say."

"I'd like to see his sorcery against the mountainy's arrow and ball,"
said Hull grimly. "There's none of us can't spot either eye at a
thousand paces, using rifle. Or two hundred with arrow."

"No doubt; but what if powder flames, and guns fire themselves before
he's even across the horizon? They say he has a spell for that, he or
Black Margot."

"Black Margot?"

"The Princess, his half-sister. The dark witch who rides beside him, the
Princess Margaret."

"Oh--but why Black Margot?"

The farmer shrugged. "Who knows? It's what her enemies call her."

"Then so I call her," said Hull.

"Well, I don't know," said the other. "It makes small difference to me
whether I pay taxes to N'Orleans or to gruff old Marcus Ormiston, who's
eldarch of Ormiston village there." He flicked his whip toward the
distance ahead, where Hull now descried houses and the flash of a little
river. "I've sold produce in towns within the Empire, and the people of
them seemed as happy as ourselves, no more, no less."

"There is a difference, though. It's freedom."

"Merely a word, my friend. They plow, they sow, they reap, just as we
do. They hunt, they fish, they fight. And as for freedom, are they less
free with a warlock to rule them than I with a wizened fool?"

"The mountainies pay taxes to no one."

"And no one builds them roads, nor digs them public wells. Where you pay
little you get less, and I will say that the roads within the Empire are
better than ours."

"Better than this?" asked Hull, staring at the dusty width of the

"Far better. Near Memphis town is a road of solid rock, which they
spread soft through some magic, and let harden, so there is neither mud
nor dust."

Hull mused over this. "The Master," he burst out suddenly, "is he really

The other shrugged. "How can I say? There are great sorcerers in the
southlands, and the greatest of them is Martin Sair. But I do know this,
that I have seen sixty-two years, and as far back as memory goes here
was always Joaquin Smith in the south, and always an Empire gobbling
cities as a hare gobbles carrots. When I was young it was far away, now
it reaches close at hand; that is all the difference. Men talked of the
beauty of Black Margot then as they do now, and of the wizardry of
Martin Sair."

Hull made no answer, for Ormiston was at hand. The village was much like
Norse save that it huddled among low hills, on the crest of some of
which loomed ancient ruins. At the near side his companion halted, and
Hull thanked him as he leaped to the ground.

"Where to?" asked the farmer.

Hull thought a moment. "Selui," he said.

"Well, it's a hundred miles, but there'll be many to ride you."

"I have my own feet," said the youth. He spun suddenly about at a voice
across the road: "Hi! Mountainy!"

It was a girl. A very pretty girl, slim waisted, copper haired, blue
eyed, standing at the gate before a large stone house. "Hi!" she called.
"Will you work for your dinner?"

Hull was ravenous again. "Gladly!" he cried.

The voice of the farmer sounded behind him. "It's Vail Ormiston, the
dotard eldarch's daughter. Hold her for a full meal, mountainy. My taxes
are paying for it."

But Vail Ormiston was above much converse with a wandering mountain-man.
She surveyed his mighty form approvingly, showed him the logs he was to
quarter, and then disappeared into the house. If, perchance, she peeped
out through the clearest of the ancient glass fragments that formed the
window, and if she watched the flexing muscles of his great bare arms as
he swung the axe--well, he was unaware of it.

So it happened that afternoon found him trudging toward Selui with a
hearty meal inside him and three silver dimes in his pocket, ancient
money, with the striding figure of the woman all but worn away. He was
richer than when he had set out by those coins, by the blunt pistol at
his hip, by the shiny steel bow and arrows, and by the memory of the
copper hair and blue eyes of Vail Ormiston.



Three weeks in Selui had served to give Hull Tarvish a sort of speaking
acquaintancy with the place. He no longer gaped at the sky-piercing
ruins of the ancient city, or the vast fallen bridges, and he was quite
at home in the town that lay beside it. He had found work easily enough
in a baker's establishment, where his great muscles served well; the
hours were long, but his pay was munificent--five silver quarters a
week. He paid two for lodging, and food--what he needed beyond the burnt
loaves at hand from his employment cost him another quarter, but that
left two to put by. He never gambled other than a wager now and then on
his own marksmanship, and that was more profitable than otherwise.

Ordinarily Hull was quick to make friends, but his long hours hindered
him. He had but one, an incredibly old man who sat at evening on the
step beyond his lodging, Old Einar. So this evening Hull wandered out as
usual to join him, staring at the crumbling towers of the Ancients
glowing in the sunset. Trees sprung on many, and all were green with
vine and tussock and the growth of wind-carried seeds. No one dared
build among the ruins, for none could guess when a great tower might
come crashing down.

"I wonder," he said to Old Einar, "what the Ancients were like. Were
they men like us? Then how could they fly?"

"They were men like us, Hull. As for flying--well, it's my belief that
flying is a legend. See here; there was a man supposed to have flown
over the cold lands to the north and those to the south, and also across
the great sea. But this flying man is called in some accounts Lindbird
and in others Bird and surely one can see the origin of such a legend.
The migrations of birds, who cross land and seas each year, that is

"Or perhaps magic," suggested Hull.

"There is no magic. The Ancients themselves denied it and I have
struggled through many a moldy book in a curious, archaic tongue."

Old Einar was the first scholar Hull had ever encountered. Though there
were many during the dawn of that brilliant age called the Second
Enlightenment, most of them were still within the Empire. John Holland
was dead, but Olin was yet alive in the world, and Kohlmar, and
Jorgensen, and Teran, and Martin Sair, and Joaquin Smith the Master.
Great names--the names of demigods.

But Hull knew little of them. "You can read!" he exclaimed. "That in
itself is a sort of magic. And you have been within the Empire, even in
N'Orleans. Tell me, what is the Great City like? Have they really
learned the secrets of the Ancients? Are the Immortals truly immortal?
How did they gain their knowledge?"

Old Einar settled himself on the step and puffed blue smoke from his
pipe filled with the harsh tobacco of the region. "Too many questions
breed answers to none," he observed. "Shall I tell you the true story of
the world, Hull--the story called History?"

"Yes. In Ozarky we spoke little of such things."

"Well," said the old man comfortably, "I will begin then, at what to us
is the beginning, but to the Ancients was the end. I do not know what
factors, what wars, what struggles, led up to the mighty world that died
during the Dark Centuries, but I do know that three hundred years ago
the world reached its climax. You cannot imagine such a place, Hull. It
was a time of vast cities, too--fifty times as large as N'Orleans with
its hundred thousand people."

He puffed slowly. "Great steel wagons roared over the iron roads of the
Ancients. Men crossed the oceans to east and west. The cities were full
of whirring wheels, and instead of the many little city-states of our
time, there were giant nations with thousands of cities and a hundred
million--a hundred and fifty million people."

Hull stared. "I do not believe there are so many people in the world,"
he said.

Old Einar shrugged. "Who knows?" he returned. "The ancient books--all
too few--tell us that the world is round, and that beyond the seas lie
one, or several continents, but what races are there today not even
Joaquin Smith can say." He puffed smoke again. "Well, such was the
ancient world. These were warlike nations, so fond of battle that they
had to write many books about the horrors of war to keep themselves at
peace, but they always failed. During the time they called their
twentieth century there was a whole series of wars, not such little
quarrels as we have so often between our city-states, nor even such as
that between the Memphis League and the Empire, five years ago. Their
wars spread like storm clouds around the world, and were fought between
millions of men with unimaginable weapons that flung destruction a
hundred miles, and with ships on the seas, and with gases."

"What's gases?" asked Hull.

Old Einar waved his hand so that the wind of it brushed the youth's
brown cheek. "Air is a gas," he said. "They knew how to poison the air
so that all who breathed it died. And they fought with diseases, and
legend says that they fought also in the air with wings, but that is
only legend."

"Diseases!" said Hull. "Diseases are the breath of Devils, and if they
controlled Devils they used sorcery, and therefore they knew magic."

"There is no magic," reiterated the old man. "I do not know how they
fought each other with diseases, but Martin Sair of N'Orleans knows.
That was his study, not mine, but I know there was no magic in it." He
resumed his tale. "So these great fierce nations flung themselves
against each other, for war meant more to them than to us. With us it is
something of a rough, joyous, dangerous game, but to them it was a
passion. They fought for any reason, or for none at all save the love of

"I love fighting," said Hull.

"Yes, but would you love it if it meant simply the destroying of
thousands of men beyond the horizon? Men you were never to see?"

"No. War should be man to man, or at least no farther than the carry of
a rifle ball."

"True. Well, some time near the end of their twentieth century, the
ancient world exploded into war like a powder horn in a fire. They say
every nation fought, and battles surged back and forth across seas and
continents. It was not only nation against nation, but race against
race, black and white and yellow and red, all embroiled in a titanic

"Yellow and red?" echoed Hull. "There are a few black men called Nigs in
Ozarky, but I never heard of yellow or red men."

"I have seen yellow men," said Old Einar. "There are some towns of
yellow men on the edge of the western ocean, in the region called
Friscia. The red race, they say, is gone, wiped out by the plague called
the Grey Death, to which they yielded more readily than the other

"I have heard of the Grey Death," said Hull. "When I was very young,
there was an old, old man who used to say that his grand-father had
lived in the days of the Death."

Old Einar smiled. "I doubt it, Hull. It was something over two and a
half centuries ago. However," he resumed, "the great ancient nations
were at war, and as I say, they fought with diseases. Whether some
nation learned the secret of the Grey Death, or whether it grew up as a
sort of cross between two or more other diseases, I do not know. Martin
Sair says that diseases are living things, so it may be so. At any rate,
the Grey Death leaped suddenly across the world, striking alike at all
people. Everywhere it blasted the armies, the cities, the countryside,
and of those it struck, six out of every ten died. There must have been
chaos in the world; we have not a single book printed during that time,
and only legend tells the story.

"But the war collapsed. Armies suddenly found themselves unopposed, and
then were blasted before they could move. Ships in mid-ocean were
stricken, and drifted unmanned to pile in wreckage, or to destroy
others. In the cities the dead were piled in the streets, and after a
while, were simply left where they fell, while those who survived fled
away into the country. What remained of the armies became little better
than roving robber bands, and by the third year of the plague there were
few if any stable governments in the world."

"What stopped it?" asked Hull.

"I do not know. They end, these pestilences. Those who take it and live
cannot take it a second time, and those who are somehow immune do not
take it at all, and the rest--die. The Grey Death swept the world for
three years; when it ended, according to Martin Sair, one person in four
had died. But the plague came back in lessening waves for many years;
only a pestilence in the Ancient's fourteenth century, called the Black
Death, seems ever to have equaled it.

"Yet its effects were only beginning. The ancient transport system had
simply collapsed, and the cities were starving. Hungry gangs began
raiding the countryside, and instead of one vast war there were now a
million little battles. The weapons of the Ancients were everywhere, and
these battles were fierce enough, in all truth, though nothing like the
colossal encounters of the great war. Year by year the cities decayed
until by the fiftieth year after the Grey Death, the world's population
had fallen by three-fourths, and civilization was ended. It was
barbarism now that ruled the world, but only barbarism, not savagery.
People still remembered the mighty ancient civilization, and everywhere
there were attempts to combine into the old nations, but these failed
for lack of great leaders."

"As they should fail," said Hull. "We have freedom now."

"Perhaps. By the first century after the Plague, there was little left
of the Ancients save their ruined cities where lurked robber bands that
scoured the country by night. They had little interest in anything save
food or the coined money of the old nations, and they did incalculable
damage. Few could read, and on cold nights was usual to raid the ancient
libraries for books to burn and to make things worse, fire gutted the
ruins of all cities, and there was no organized resistance to it. The
flames simply burned themselves out, and priceless books vanished."

"Yet in N'Orleans they study, don't they?" asked Hull.

"Yes, I'm coming to that. About two centuries after the Plague--a
hundred years ago, that is--the world had stabilized itself. It was much
as it is here today, with little farming towns and vast stretches of
deserted country. Gunpowder had been rediscovered, rifles were used, and
most of the robber bands had been destroyed. And then, into the town of
N'Orleans, built beside the ancient city, came young John Holland.

"Holland was a rare specimen, anxious for learning. He found the remains
of an ancient library and began slowly to decipher the archaic words in
the few books that had survived. Little by little others joined him, and
as the word spread slowly, men from other sections wandered in with
books, and the Academy was born. No one taught, of course; it was just a
group of studious men living a sort of communistic, monastic life. There
was no attempt at practical use of the ancient knowledge until a youth
named Teran had a dream--no less a dream than to recondition the
centuries-old power machines of N'Orleans, to give the city the power
that travels on wires!"

"What's that?" asked Hull. "What's that, Old Einar?"

"You wouldn't understand, Hull. Teran was an enthusiast; it didn't stop
him to realize that there was no coal or oil to run his machines. He
believed that when power was needed, it would be there, so he and his
followers scrubbed and filed and welded away, and Teran was right. When
he needed power, it was there.

"This was the gift of a man named Olin, who had unearthed the last, the
crowning secret of the Ancients, the power called atomic energy. He gave
it to Teran, and N'Orleans became a miracle city where lights glowed and
wheels turned. Men came from every part of the continent to see, and
among these were two called Martin Sair and Joaquin Smith, come out of
Mexico with the half-sister of Joaquin, the Satanically beautiful being
sometimes called Black Margot.

"Martin Sair was a genius. He found his field in the study of medicine,
and it was less than ten years before he had uncovered the secret of the
hard rays. He was studying sterility but he found--immortality!"

"Then the Immortals are immortal!" murmured Hull.

"It may be, Hull. At least they do not seem to age, but---- Well,
Joaquin Smith was also a genius, but of a different sort. He dreamed of
the re-uniting of the peoples of the country. I think he dreams of even
more, Hull; people say he will stop when he rules a hundred cities, but
I think he dreams of an American Empire, or"--Old Einar's voice
dropped--"a world Empire. At least, he took Martin Sair's immortality
and traded it for power. The Second Enlightenment was dawning and there
was genius in N'Orleans. He traded immortality to Kohlmar for a weapon,
he offered it to Olin for atomic power, but Olin was already past youth,
and refused, partly because he didn't want it, and partly because he was
not entirely in sympathy with Joaquin Smith. So the Master seized the
secret of the atom despite Olin, and the Conquest began.

"N'Orleans, directly under the influence of the Master's magnetic
personality, was ready to yield, and yielded to him cheering. He raised
his army and marched north, and everywhere cities fell or yielded
willingly. Joaquin Smith is magnificent, and men flock to him, cities
cheer him, even the wives and children of the slain swear allegiance
when he forgives them in that noble manner of his. Only here and there
men hate him bitterly, and speak such words as tyrant, and talk of

"Such are the mountainies," said Hull.

"Not even the mountainies can stand the ionic beams that Kohlmar dug out
of ancient books, nor the Erden resonator that explodes gunpowder miles
away. I think that Joaquin Smith will succeed, Hull. Moreover, I do not
think it entirely bad that he should, for he is a great ruler, and a
bringer of civilization."

"What are they like, the Immortals?"

"Well, Martin Sair is as cold as mountain rock, and the Princess
Margaret is like black fire. Even my old bones feel younger only to look
at her, and it is wise for young men not to look at her at all, because
she is quite heartless, ruthless, and pitiless. As for Joaquin Smith,
the Master--I do not know the words to describe so complex a character,
and I know him well. He is mild, perhaps, but enormously strong, kind or
cruel as suits his purpose, glitteringly intelligent, and dangerously

"You know him!" echoed Hull, and added curiously, "What is your other
name, Old Einar, you who know the Immortals?"

The old man smiled. "When I was born," he said, "my parents called me
Einar Olin."



Joaquin Smith was marching.

Hull Tarvish leaned against the door of File Ormson's iron worker's shop
in Ormiston, and stared across the fields and across the woodlands, and
across to the blue mountains of Ozarky in the south. There is where he
should have been, there with the mountainy men, but by the time the
tired rider had brought the news to Selui, and by the time Hull had
reached Ormiston, it was already too late, and Ozarky was but an
outlying province of the expanding Empire, while the Master camped there
above Norse, and sent representations to Selui.

Selui wasn't going to yield. Already the towns of the three months old
Selui Confederation were sending in their men, from Bloom'ton, from
Cairo, even from distant Ch'cago on the shores of the saltless sea
Mitchin. The men of the Confederation hated the little, slender, dark
Ch'cagoans, for they had not yet forgotten the disastrous battle at
Starved Rock, but any allies were welcome against Joaquin Smith. The
Ch'cagoans were good enough fighters, too, and heart and soul in the
cause, for if the Master took Selui, his Empire would reach dangerously
close to the saltless seas, spreading from the ocean on the east to the
mountains on the west, and north as far as the great confluence of the
M'sippi and M'souri.

Hull knew there was fighting ahead, and he relished it. It was too bad
that he couldn't have fought in Ozarky for his own people, but Ormiston
would do. That was his home for the present, since he'd found work here
with File Ormson, the squat iron-worker, broad-shouldered as Hull
himself and a head shorter. Pleasant work for his mighty muscles, though
at the moment there was nothing to do.

He stared at the peaceful countryside. Joaquin Smith was marching, and
beyond the village, the farmers were still working in their fields. Hull
listened to the slow Sowing Song:

"This is what the ground needs:
First the plow and then the seeds,
Then the harrow and then the hoe,
And rain to make the harvest grow.

"This is what the man needs:
First the promises, then the deeds,
Then the arrow and then the blade,
And last the digger with his black spade.

"This is what his wife needs:
First a garden free of weeds,
Then the daughter, and their the son,
And a fireplace warm when the work is done.

"This is what his son needs--"

Hull ceased to listen. They were singing, but Joaquin Smith was
marching, marching with the men of a hundred cities, with his black
banner and its golden serpent fluttering. That serpent, Old Einar had
said, was the Midgard Serpent, which ancient legend related had
encircled the earth. It was the symbol of the Master's dream, and for a
moment Hull had a stirring of sympathy for that dream.

"No!" he growled to himself. "Freedom's better, and it's for us to blow
the head from the Midgard Serpent."

A voice sounded at his side. "Hull! Big Hull Tarvish! Are you too proud
to notice humble folk?"

It was Vail Ormiston, her violet eyes whimsical below her smooth copper
hair. He flushed; he was not used to the ways of these valley girls, who
flirted frankly and openly in a manner impossible to the shy girls of
the mountains. Yet he--well, in a way, he liked it, and he liked Vail
Ormiston, and he remembered pleasantly an evening two days ago when he
had sat and talked a full three hours with her on the bench by the tree
that shaded Ormiston well. And he remembered the walk through the fields
when she had shown him the mouth of the great ancient storm sewer that
had run under the dead city, and that still stretched crumbling for
miles underground toward the hills, and he recalled her story of how,
when a child, she had lost herself in it, so that her father had planted
the tangle of blackberry bushes that still concealed the opening.

He grinned, "Is it the eldarch's daughter speaking of humble folk? Your
father will be taxing me double if he hears of this."

She tossed her helmet of metallic hair. "He will if he sees you in that
Selui finery of yours." Her eyes twinkled. "For whose eyes was it
bought, Hull? For you'd be better saving your money."

"Save silver, lose luck," he retorted. After all, it wasn't so difficult
a task to talk to her. "Anyway, better a smile from you than the glitter
of money."

She laughed. "But how quickly you learn, mountainy! Still, what if I say
I liked you better in tatters, with your powerful brown muscles
quivering through the rips?"

"Do you say it, Vail?"

"Yes, then!"

He chuckled, raising his great hands to his shoulders. There was the
rasp of tearing cloth, and a long rent gleamed in the back of his Selui
shirt. "There, Vail!"

"Oh!" she gasped. "Hull, you wastrel! But it's only a seam." She fumbled
in the bag at her belt. "Let me stitch it back for you."

She bent behind him, and he could feel her breath on his skin, warm as
spring sunshine. He set his jaw, scowled, and then plunged determinedly
into what he had to say. "I'd like to talk to you again this evening,

He sensed her smile at his back. "Would you?" she murmured demurely.

"Yes, if Enoch Ormiston hasn't spoken first for your time."

"But he has, Hull."

He knew she was teasing him deliberately. "I'm sorry," he said shortly.

"But--I told him I was busy," she finished.

"And are you?"

Her voice was a whisper behind him. "No. Not unless you tell me I am."

His great roar of a laugh sounded. "Then I tell you so, Vail."

He felt her tug at the seam, then she leaned very close to his neck, but
it was only to bite the thread with her white teeth. "So!" she said
gaily. "Once mended, twice new."

Before Hull could answer there came the clang of File Ormson's sledge,
and the measured bellow of his Forge Song. They listened as his
resounding strokes beat time to the song.

"Then it's ho--oh--ho--oh--ho!
While I'm singing to the ringing
Of each blow--blow--blow!
Till the metal's soft as butter
Let my forge and bellows sputter
Like the revels of the devils down below--low--LOW!
Like the revels of the devils down below!"

"I must go," said Hull, smiling reluctantly. "There's work for me now."

"What does File make?" asked Vail.

Instantly Hull's smile faded. "He forges--a sword!"

Vail too was no longer the joyous one of a moment ago. Over both of them
had come a shadow, the shadow of the Empire. Out in the blue hills of
Ozarky Joaquin Smith was marching.

* * *

Evening. Hull watched the glint of a copper moon on Vail's copper hair,
and leaned back on the bench. Not the one near the pump this time; that
had been already occupied by two laughing couples, and though they had
been welcomed eagerly enough, Hull had preferred to be alone. It wasn't
mountain shyness any more, for his great, good-natured presence had
found ready friendship in Ormiston village; it was merely the projection
of that moodiness that had settled over both of them at parting, and so
they sat now on the bench near Vail Ormiston's gate at the edge of town.
Behind them the stone house loomed dark, for her father was scurrying
about in town on Confederation business, and the help had availed
themselves of the evening of freedom to join the crowd in the village
square. But the yellow daylight of the oil lamp showed across the road
in the house of Hue Helm, the farmer who had brought Hull from Norse to

It was at this light that Hull stared thoughtfully. "I like fighting,"
he repeated, "but somehow the joy has gone out of this. It's as if one
waited an approaching thunder cloud."

"How," asked Vail in a timid, small voice, "can one fight magic?"

"There is no magic," said the youth, echoing Old Einar's words. "There
is no such thing--"

"Hull! How can you say such stupid words?"

"I say what was told me by one who knows."

"No magic!" echoed Vail. "Then tell me what gives the wizards of the
south their power. Why is it that Joaquin Smith has never lost a battle?
What stole away the courage of the men of the Memphis League, who are
good fighting men? And what--for this I have seen with my own
eyes--pushes the horseless wagons of N'Orleans through the streets, and
what lights that city by night? If not magic, then what?"

"Knowledge," said Hull. "The knowledge of the Ancients."

"The knowledge of the Ancients was magic," said the girl. "Everyone
knows that the Ancients were wizards, warlocks, and sorcerers. If
Holland, Olin, and Martin Sair are not sorcerers, then what are they? If
Black Margot is no witch, then my eyes never looked on one."

"Have you seen them?" queried Hull.

"Of course, all but Holland, who is dead. Three years ago during the
Peace of Memphis my father and I traveled into the Empire. I saw all of
them about the city of N'Orleans."

"And is she--what they say she is?"

"The Princess?" Vail's eyes dropped. "Men say she is beautiful."

"But you think not?"

"What if she is?" snapped the girl almost defiantly. "Her beauty is like
her youth, like her very life--artificial, preserved after its allotted
time, frozen. That's it--frozen by sorcery. And as for the rest of
her--" Vail's voice lowered, hesitated, for not even the plain-spoken
valley girls discussed such things with men. "They say she has outworn a
dozen lovers," she whispered.

Hull was startled, shocked. "Vail!" he muttered.

She swung the subject back to safer ground, but he saw her flush red.
"Don't tell me there's no magic!" she said sharply.

"At least," he returned, "there's no magic will stop a bullet save flesh
and bone. Yes, and the wizard who stops one with his skull lies just as
dead as an honest man."

"I hope you're right," she breathed timidly. "Hull, he must be stopped!
He must!"

"But why feel so strongly, Vail? I like a fight--but men say that life
in the Empire is much like life without, and who cares to whom he pays
his taxes if only--" He broke off suddenly, remembering. "Your father!"
he exclaimed. "The eldarch!"

"Yes, my father, Hull. If Joaquin Smith takes Ormison, my father is the
one to suffer. His taxes will be gone, his lands parceled out, and he's
old, Hull--old. What will become of him then? I know many people feel
the way you--the way you said, and so they fight halfheartedly, and the
Master takes town after town without killing a single man. And then they
think there is magic in the very name of Joaquin Smith, and he marches
through armies that outnumber him ten to one." She paused. "But not
Ormiston!" she cried fiercely. "Not if the women have to bear arms!"

"Not Ormiston," he agreed gently.

"You'll fight, Hull, won't you? Even though you're not Ormiston born?"

"Of course. I have bow and sword, and a good pistol. I'll fight."

"But no rifle? Wait, Hull." She rose and slipped away in the darkness.

In a moment she was back again. "Here. Here is rifle and horn and ball.
Do you know its use?"

He smiled proudly. "What I can see I can hit," he said, "like any
mountain man."

"Then," she whispered with fire in her voice, "send me a bullet through
the Master's skull. And one besides between the eyes of Black
Margot--for me!"

"I do not fight women," he said.

"Not woman but witch!"

"None the less, Vail, it must be two bullets for the Master and only the
captive's chains for Princess Margaret, at least so far as Hull Tarvish
is concerned. But wouldn't it please you fully as well to watch her draw
water from your pump, or shine pots in your kitchen?" He was jollying
her, trying to paint fanciful pictures to lift her spirit from the
somber depths.

But she read it otherwise. "Yes!" she blazed. "Oh, yes, Hull, that's
better. If I could ever hope to see that--" She rose suddenly, and he
followed her to the gate. "You must go," she murmured, "but before you
leave, you can--if you wish it, Hull--kiss me."

Of a sudden he was all shy mountainy again. He set the rifle against the
fence with its horn swinging from the trigger guard. He faced her
flushing a furious red, but only half from embarrassment, for the rest
was happiness. He circled her with his great arms and very hastily, fire
touched his lips to her soft ones.

"Now," he said exultantly, "now I will fight if I have to charge the men
of the Empire alone."



The men of the Confederation were pouring into Ormiston all night long,
the little dark men of Ch'cago and Selui, the tall blond ones from the
regions of Iowa, where Dutch blood still survived, mingled now with a
Scandinavian infusion from the upper rivers. All night there was a
rumble of wagons, bringing powder and ball from Selui, and food as well
for Ormiston couldn't even attempt to feed so many ravenous mouths. A
magnificent army, ten thousand strong, and all of them seasoned fighting
men, trained in a dozen little wars and in the bloody War of the Lakes
and Rivers, when Ch'cago had bitten so large a piece from Selui

The stand was to be at Ormiston, and Norse, the only settlement now
between Joaquin Smith and the Confederation, was left to its fate.
Experienced leaders had examined the territory, and had agreed on a
plan. Three miles south of the town, the road followed an ancient
railroad cut, with fifty-foot embankments on either side, heavily wooded
for a mile north and south of the bridge across Eaglefoot Flow.

Along this course they were to distribute their men, a single line where
the bluffs were high and steep, massed forces where the terrain
permitted. Joaquin Smith must follow the road; there was no other. An
ideal situation for ambush, and a magnificently simple plan. So
magnificent and so simple that it could not fail, they said, and forgot
completely that they were facing the supreme military genius of the
entire Age of the Enlightenment.

It was mid-morning when the woods-runners that had been sent into Ozarky
returned with breath-taking news. Joaquin Smith had received the Selui
defiance of his representations, and was marching. The Master was
marching, and though they had come swiftly and had ridden horseback from
Norse, he could not now be far distant. His forces? The runners
estimated them at four thousand men, all mounted, with perhaps another
thousand auxiliaries. Outnumbered two to one! But Hull Tarvish
remembered tales of other encounters where Joaquin Smith had overcome
greater odds than these.

The time was at hand. In the little room beside File Ormson's workshop,
Hull was going over his weapons while Vail Ormiston, pale and nervous
and very lovely, watched him. He drew a bit of oiled rag through the
bore of the rifle she had given him, rubbed a spot of rust from the
hammer, blew a speck of dust from the pan. Beside him on the table lay
powder horn and ball, and his steel bow leaned against his chair.

"A sweet weapon!" he said admiringly, sighting down the long barrel.

"I--I hope it serves you well," murmured Vail tremulously. "Hull, he
must be stopped. He must!"

"We'll try, Vail." He rose. "It's time I started."

She was facing him. "Then, before you go, will you--kiss me, Hull?"

He strode toward her, then recoiled in sudden alarm, for it was at that
instant that the thing happened. There was a series of the faintest
possible clicks, and Hull fancied that he saw for an instant a
glistening of tiny blue sparks on candle-sticks and metal objects about
the room, and that he felt for a brief moment a curious tingling. Then
he forgot all of these strange trifles as the powder horn on the table
roared into terrific flame, and flaming wads of powder shot meteor-like
around him.

For an instant he froze rigid. Vail was screaming; her dress was
burning. He moved into sudden action, sweeping her from her feet,
crashing her sideways to the floor, where his great hands beat out the
fire. Then he slapped table and floor; he brought his ample sandals down
on flaming spots, and finally there were no more flames.

He turned coughing and choking in the black smoke, and bent over Vail,
who gasped half overcome. Her skirt had burned to her knees, and for the
moment she was too distraught to cover them, though there was no modesty
in the world in those days like that of the women of the middle river
regions. But as Hull leaned above her she huddled back.

"Are you hurt?" he cried. "Vail, are you burned?"

"No--no!" she panted.

"Then outside!" he snapped, reaching down to lift her.

"Not--not like this!"

He understood. He snatched his leather smith's apron from the wall,
whipped it around her, and bore her into the clearer air of the street.

Outside there was chaos. He set Vail gently on the step and surveyed a
scene of turmoil. Men ran shouting, and from windows along the street
black smoke poured. A dozen yards away a powder wagon had blasted itself
into a vast mushroom of smoke, incinerating horses and driver alike. On
the porch across the way lay a writhing man, torn by the rifle that had
burst in his hands.

He comprehended suddenly. "The sparkers!" he roared. "Joaquin Smith's
sparkers! Old Einar told me about them." He groaned. "There goes our

The girl made a great effort to control herself. "Joaquin Smith's
sorcery," she said dully. "And there goes hope as well."

He started. "Hope? No! Wait, Vail."

He rushed toward the milling group that surrounded bearded old Marcus
Ormiston and the Confederation leaders. He plowed his way fiercely
through, and seized the panic-stricken greybeard. "What now?" he roared.
"What are you going to do?"

"Do? Do?" The old man was beyond comprehending.

"Yes, do! I'll tell you." He glared at the five leaders. "You'll carry
through. Do you see? For powder and ball there's bow and sword, and just
as good for the range we need. Gather your men! Gather your men and

And such, within the hour, was the decision. Hull marched first with the
Ormiston men, and he carried with him the memory of Vail's farewell. It
embarrassed him cruelly to be kissed thus in public, but there was great
pleasure in the glimpse of Enoch Ormiston's sour face as he had watched

The Ormiston men were first on the line of the Master's approach, and
they filtered to their forest-hidden places as silently as foxes. Hull
let his eyes wander back along the cut and what he saw pleased him, for
no eye could have detected that along the deserted road lay ten thousand
fighting men. They were good woodsmen too, these fellows from the upper
rivers and the saltless seas.

Down the way from Norse a single horseman came galloping. Old Marcus
Ormiston recognized him, stood erect, and hailed him. They talked; Hull
could hear the words. The Master had passed through Norse, pausing only
long enough to notify the eldarch that henceforth his taxes must be
transmitted to N'Orleans, and then had moved leisurely onward. No, there
had been no sign of sorcery, nor had he even seen any trace of the witch
Black Margot, but then, he had ridden away before the Master had well

Their informant rode on toward Ormiston, and the men fell to their quiet
waiting. A half hour passed, and then, faintly drifting on the silent
air, came the sound of music. Singing; men's voices in song. Hull
listened intently, and his skin crept and his hair prickled as he made
out the words of the Battle Song of N'Orleans:

"Queen of cities, reigning
Empress, starry pearled
See our arms sustaining
Battle flags unfurled!
Hear our song rise higher,
Fierce as battle fire,
Death our one desire
Or the Empire of the World!"

Hull gripped his bow and set feather to cord. He knew well enough that
the plan was to permit the enemy to pass unmolested until his whole line
was within the span of the ambush, but the rumble of that distant song
was like spark to powder. And now, far down the way beyond the cut, he
saw the dust rising. Joaquin Smith was at hand.

Then--the unexpected! Ever afterward Hull told himself that it should
have been the expected, that the Master's reputation should have warned
them that so simple a plan as theirs must fail. There was no time now
for such vain thoughts, for suddenly, through the trees to his right,
brown-clothed, lithe little men were slipping like charging shadows,
horns sounding, whistles shrilling. The woods runners of the Master!
Joaquin Smith had anticipated just such an ambush.

Instantly Hull saw their own weakness. They were ten thousand, true
enough, but here they were strung thinly over a distance of two miles,
and now the woods runners were at a vast advantage in numbers, with the
main body approaching. One chance! Fight it out, drive off the scouts,
and retire into the woods. While the army existed, even though Ormiston
fell, there was hope.

He shouted, strung his arrow, and sent it flashing through the leaves. A
bad place for arrows; their arching flight was always deflected by the
tangled branches. He slung bow on shoulder and gripped his sword; close
quarters was the solution, the sort of fight that made blood tingle and
life seem joyous.

Then--the second surprise! The woods runners had flashed their own
weapons, little blunt revolvers.[3] But they sent no bullets; only pale
beams darted through leaves and branches, faint blue streaks of light.
Sorcery? And to what avail?

He learned instantly. His sword grew suddenly scorching hot in his
hands, and a moment later the queerest pain he had ever encountered
racked his body. A violent, stinging, inward tingle that twitched his
muscles and paralyzed his movements. A brief second and the shock
ceased, but his sword lay smoking in the leaves, and his steel bow had
seared his shoulders. Around him men were yelling in pain, writhing on
the ground, running back into the forest depths. He cursed the beams;
they flicked like sunlight through branched and leafy tangles where an
honest arrow could find no passage.

Yet apparently no man had been killed. Hands were seared and blistered
by weapons that grew hot under the blue beams, bodies were racked by the
torture that Hull could not know was electric shock, but none was slain.
Hope flared again, and he ran to head off a retreating group.

"To the road!" he roared. "Out where our arrows can fly free! Charge the

For a moment the group halted. Hull seized a yet unheated sword from
someone, and turned back. "Come on!" he bellowed. "Come on! We'll have a
fight of this yet!"

Behind him he heard the trample of feet. The beams flicked out again,
but he held his sword in the shadow of his own body, gritted his teeth,
and bore the pain that twisted him. He rushed on; he heard his own name
bellowed in the booming voice of File Ormson, but he only shouted
encouragement and burst out into the full sunlight of the road.

Below in the cut was the head of the column, advancing placidly. He
glimpsed a silver helmeted, black haired man on a great white mare at
its head, and beside him a slighter figure on a black stallion. Joaquin
Smith! Hull roared down the embankment toward him.

Four men spurred instantly between him and the figure with the silver
helmet. A beam flicked; his sword scorched his skin and he flung it
away. "Come on!" he bellowed. "Here's a fight!"

Strangely, in curious clarity, he saw the eyes of the Empire men, a
smile in them, mysteriously amused. No anger, no fear--just amusement.
Hull felt a sudden surge of trepidation, glanced quickly behind him, and
knew finally the cause of that amusement. No one had followed him; he
had charged the Master's army alone!

Now the fiercest anger he had ever known gripped Hull. Deserted!
Abandoned by those for whom he fought. He roared his rage to the echoing
bluffs, and sprang at the horseman nearest him.

The horse reared, pawing the air. Hull thrust his mighty arms below its
belly and heaved with a convulsion of his great muscles. Backward
toppled steed and rider, and all about the Master was a milling turmoil
where a man scrambled desperately to escape the clashing hooves. But
Hull glimpsed Joaquin Smith sitting statuelike and smiling on his great
white mare.

He tore another rider from his saddle, and then caught from the corner
of his eye, he saw the slim youth at the Master's side raise a weapon,
coolly, methodically. For the barest instant Hull faced icy green eyes
where cold, passionless death threatened. He flung himself aside as a
beam spat smoking against the dust of the road.

"Don't!" snapped Joaquin Smith, his low voice clear through the turmoil.
"The youth is splendid!"

But Hull had no mind to die uselessly. He bent, flung himself halfway up
the bluff in a mighty leap, caught a dragging branch, and swung into the
forest. A startled woods runner faced him; he flung the fellow behind
him down the slope, and slipped into the shelter of leaves. "The wise
warrior fights pride," he muttered to himself. "It's no disgrace for one
man to run from an army."

He was mountain bred. He circled silently through the forest, avoiding
the woods runners who were herding the Confederation army back towards
Ormiston. He smiled grimly as he recalled the words he had spoken to
Vail. He had justified them; he had charged the army of the Master


2: The Erden resonators. A device, now obsolete, that projected an
inductive field sufficient to induce tiny electrical discharges in metal
objects up to a distance of many miles. Thus it ignited inflammables
like gunpowder.

3: Koblmar's ionic beams. Two parallel beams of highly actinic light
ionize a path of air, and along these conductive lanes of gas an
electric current can he passed, powerful enough to kill or merely
intense enough to punish.



Hull circled wide through the forest, and it took all his mountain craft
to slip free through the files of woods runners. He came at last to the
fields east of Ormiston, and there made the road, entering from the
direction of Selui.

Everywhere were evidences of rout. Wagons lay overturned, their teams
doubtless used to further the escape of their drivers. Guns and rifles,
many of them burst, littered the roadside, and now and again he passed
black smoking piles and charred areas that marked the resting place of
an ammunition cart.

Yet Ormiston was little damaged. He saw the firegutted remains of a shed
or two where powder had been stored, and down the street a house roof
still smoked. But there was no sign of battle carnage, and only the
crowded street gave evidence of the unusual.

He found File Ormson in the group that stared across town to where the
road from Norse elbowed east to enter. Hull had outsped the leisurely
march of the Master, for there at the bend was the glittering army, now
halted. Not even the woods runners had come into Ormiston town, for
there they were too, lined in a brown-clad rank along the edge of the
wood-lots beyond the nearer fields. They had made no effort, apparently,
to take prisoners but had simply herded the terrified defenders into the
village. Joaquin Smith had done it again; he had taken a town without a
single death, or at least no casualties other than whatever injuries had
come from bursting rifles and blazing powder.

Suddenly Hull noticed something. "Where are the Confederation men?" he
asked sharply.

File Ormson turned gloomy eyes on him. "Gone. Flying back to Selui like
scared gophers to their holes." He scowled, then smiled. "That was a
fool's gesture of yours at Eaglefoot Flow, Hull. A fool's gesture, but

The youth grimaced wryly. "I thought I was followed."

"And so you should have been, but that those fiendish ticklers tickled
away our courage. But they can kill as well as tickle; when there was
need of it before Memphis they killed quickly enough."

Hull thought of the green-eyed youth. "I think I nearly learned that,"
he said smiling.

Down the way there was some sort of stir. Hull narrowed his eyes to
watch, and descried the silver helmet of the Master. He dismounted and
faced someone; it was--yes, old Marcus Ormiston. He left File Ormson and
shouldered his way to the edge of the crowd that circled the two.

Joaquin Smith was speaking. "And," he said, "all taxes are to be
forwarded to N'Orleans, including those on your own lands. Half of them
I shall use to maintain my government, but half will revert to your own
district, which will be under a governor I shall appoint in Selui when
that city is taken. You are no longer eldarch, but for the present you
may collect the taxes at the rate I prescribe."

Old Marcus was bitterly afraid; Hull could see his beard waggling like
an oriole's nest in a breeze. Yet there was a shrewd, bargaining streak
in him. "You are very hard," he whined. "You left Pace Helm as eldarch
undisturbed in Norse. Why do you punish me because I fought to hold what
was mine? Why should that anger you so?"

"I am not angry," said the Master passively. "I never blame any for
fighting against me, but it is my policy to favor those eldarchs who
yield peacefully." He paused. "Those are my terms, and generous enough."

They were generous, thought Hull, especially to the people of Ormiston,
who received back much less than half their taxes from the eldarch as
roads, bridges, or wells.

"My--my lands?" faltered the old man.

"Keep what you till," said Joaquin Smith indifferently. "The rest of
them go to their tenants." He turned away, placed foot to stirrup, and
swung upon his great white mare.

Hull caught his first fair glimpse of the conqueror. Black hair cropped
below his ears, cool greenish grey eyes, a mouth with something faintly
humorous about it. He was tall as Hull himself, more slender, but with
powerful shoulders, and he seemed no older than the late twenties, or no
more than thirty at most, though that was only the magic of Martin Sair,
since more than eighty years had passed since his birth in the mountains
of Mexico. He wore the warrior's garb of the southlands, a shirt of
metallic silver scales, short thigh-length trousers of some shiny,
silken material, cothurns on his feet. His bronzed body was like the
ancient statues Hull had seen in Selui, and he looked hardly the fiend
that most people thought him. A pleasant seeming man, save for something
faintly arrogant in his face--no, not arrogant, exactly, but proud or
confident, as if he felt himself a being driven by fate, as perhaps he

He spoke again, now to his men. "Camp there," he ordered, waving at
Ormiston square, "and there," pointing at a fallow field. "Do not damage
the crops." He rode forward, and a dozen officers followed. "The
Church," he said.

A voice, a tense, shrieking voice behind Hull. "You! It is, Hull! It's
you!" It was Vail, teary eyed and pale. "They said you were--" She broke
off sobbing, clinging to him, while Enoch Ormiston watched sourly.

He held her. "It seems I failed you," he said ruefully. "But I did do my
best, Vail."

"Failed? I don't care." She calmed. "I don't care, Hull, since you're

"And it isn't as bad as it might be," he consoled. "He wasn't as severe
as I feared."

"Severe !" she echoed. "Do you believe those mild words of his, Hull?
First our taxes then our lands, and next it will be our lives--or at
least my father's life. Don't you understand? That was no eldarch from
some enemy town, Hull--that was Joaquin Smith. Joaquin Smith! Do you
trust him?"

"Vail, do you believe that?"

"Of course I believe it!" She began to sob again. "See how he has
already won over half the town with--with that about the taxes. Don't
you be won over, Hull. I--couldn't stand it!"

"I will not," he promised.

"He and Black Margot and their craft! I hate them, Hull. I--Look there!
Look there!"

He spun around. For a moment he saw nothing save the green-eyed youth
who had turned death-laden eyes on him at Eaglefoot Flow, mounted on the
mighty black stallion. Youth! He saw suddenly that it was a woman--a
girl rather. Eighteen--twenty-five? He couldn't tell. Her face was
averted as she scanned the crowd that lined the opposite side of the
street, but the sunset fell on a flaming black mop of hair, so black
that it glinted blue--an intense, unbelievable black. Like Joaquin Smith
she wore only a shirt and very abbreviated shorts, but a caparison
protected the slim daintiness of her legs from any contact with the
mount's ribs. There was a curious grace in the way she sat the idling
steed, one hand on its haunches, the other on withers, the bridle
dangling loose. Her Spanish mother's blood showed only in the clear,
transparent olive of her skin, and of course, in the startling ebony of
her hair.

"Black Margot!" Hull whispered, "Brazen! Half naked! What's so beautiful
about her?"

As if she heard his whisper, she turned suddenly, her emerald eyes
sweeping the crowd about him, and he felt his question answered. Her
beauty was starkly incredible--audacious, outrageous. It was more than a
mere lack of flaws; it was a sultry, flaming positive beauty with a hint
of sullenness in it. The humor of the Master's mouth lurked about hers
as mockery; her perfect lips seemed always about to smile, but to smile
cruelly and sardonically. Hers was a ruthless and pitiless perfection,
but it was nevertheless perfection, even to the faintly Oriental cast
given by her black hair and sea-green eyes.

Those eyes met Hull's and it was almost as if he heard an audible click.
He saw recognition in her face, and she passed her glance casually over
his mighty figure. He stiffened, stared defiantly back, and swept his
own gaze insolently over her body from the midnight hair to the
diminutive cothurns on her feet. If she acknowledged his gaze at all, it
was by the faintest of all possible smiles of mockery as she rode coolly
away toward Joaquin Smith.

Vail was trembling against him, and it was a great relief to look into
her deep but not at all mysterious blue eyes, and to see the quite
understandable loveliness of her pale features. What if she hadn't the
insolent brilliance of the Princess, he thought fiercely. She was sweet
and honest and loyal to her beliefs, and he loved her. Yet he could not
keep his eyes from straying once more to the figure on the black

"She--she smiled at you, Hull!" gasped Vail. "I'm frightened. I'm
terribly frightened."

His fascination was yielding now to a surge of hatred for Joaquin Smith,
for the Princess, for the whole Empire. It was Vail he loved, and she
was being crushed by these. An idea formed slowly as he stared down the
street to where Joaquin Smith had dismounted and was now striding into
the little church. He heard an approving murmur sweep the crowd, already
half won over by the distribution of land. That was simply policy, the
Master's worshipping in Ormiston church, a gesture to the crowd.

He lifted the steel bow from his back and bent it. The spring was still
in it; it had been heated enough to scorch his skin but not enough to
untemper it. "Wait here!" he snapped to Vail, and strode up the street
toward the church.

Outside stood a dozen Empire men, and the Princess idled on her great
black horse. He slipped across the churchyard, around behind where a
tangle of vines stretched toward the roof. Would they support his
weight? They did, and he pulled himself hand over hand to the eaves, and
thence to the peak. The spire hid him from the Master's men, and not one
of the Ormiston folk glanced his way.

He crept forward to the base of the steeple. Now he must leave the peak
and creep precariously along the steep slope around it. He reached the
street edge and peered cautiously over.

The Master was still within. Against his will he glanced at Black
Margot, and even put cord to feather and sighted at her ivory throat.
But he could not. He could not loose the shaft.

Below him there was a stir. Joaquin Smith came out and swung to his
white horse. Now was the moment. Hull rose to his knees, hoping that he
could remain steady on the sharp pitch of the roof. Carefully,
carefully, he drew the steel arrow back.

There was a shout. He had been seen, and a blue beam sent racking pain
through his body. For an instant he bore it, then loosed his arrow and
went sliding down the roof edge and over.

He fell on soft loam. A dozen hands seized him, dragged him upright,
thrust him out into the street. He saw Joaquin Smith still on his horse,
but the glistening arrow stood upright like a plume in his silver
helmet, and a trickle of blood was red on his cheek.

But he wasn't killed. He raised the helmet from his head, waved aside
the cluster of officers, and with his own hands bound a white cloth
about his forehead. Then he turned cool grey eyes on Hull.

"You drive a strong shaft," he said, and then recognition flickered in
his eyes. "I spared your life some hours ago, did I not?"

Hull said nothing.

"Why," resumed the Master, "do you seek to kill me after your eldarch
has made peace with me? You are part of the Empire now, and this is

"I made no peace!" growled Hull.

"But your leader did, thereby binding you."

Hull could not keep his gaze from the emerald eyes of the Princess, who
was watching him without expression save faint mockery.

"Have you nothing to say," asked Joaquin Smith.


The Master's eyes slid over him. "Are you Ormiston born?" he asked.
"What is your name?"

No need to bring troubles on his friends. "No," said Hull. "I am called
Hull Tarvish."

The conqueror turned away. "Lock him up," he ordered coolly. "Let him
make whatever preparations his religion requires, and then--execute

Above the murmur of the crowd Hull heard Vail Ormiston's cry of anguish.
He turned to smile at her, watched her held by two Empire men as she
struggled to reach him. "I'm sorry," he called gently. "I love you,
Vail." Then he was being thrust away down the street.

He was pushed into Hue Helm's stonewalled tool shed. It had been cleared
of everything, doubtless for some officer's quarters. Hull drew himself
up and stood passively in the gathering darkness where a single shaft of
sunset light angled through the door, before which stood two grim Empire

One of them spoke. "Keep peaceful, Weed," he said in his N'Orleans
drawl.[4] "Go ahead with your praying, or whatever it is you do."

"I do nothing," said Hull. "The mountainies believe that a right life is
better than a right ending, and right or wrong a ghost's but a ghost

The guard laughed. "And a ghost you'll be."

"If a ghost I'll be," retorted Hull, turning slowly toward him, "I'd
sooner turn one--fighting!"

He sprang suddenly, crashed a mighty fist against the arm that bore the
weapon, thrust one guard upon the other, and overleaped the tangle into
the dusk. As he spun to circle the house, something very hard smashed
viciously against the back of his skull, sending him sprawling half
dazed against the wall.


4: Weed: The term applied by Dominists [the Master's partisans] to their
opposers. It originated in Joaquin Smith's remark before the Battle of
Memphis: "Even the weeds of the fields have taken arms against me."



After a brief moment Hull sprawled half stunned, then his muscles lost
their paralysis and he thrust himself to his feet, whirling to face
whatever assault threatened. In the doorway the guards still scrambled,
but directly before him towered a rider on a black mount, and two men on
foot flanked him. The rider, of course, was the Princess, her glorious
green eyes luminous as a cat's in the dusk as she slapped a short sword
into its scabbard. It was a blow from the flat of its blade that had
felled him.

She held now the blunt weapon of the blue beam. It came to him that he
had never heard her speak, but she spoke now in a voice low and liquid,
yet cold, cold as the flow of an ice-crusted winter stream. "Stand
quiet, Hull Tarvish," she said. "One flash will burst that stubborn
heart of yours forever."

Perforce he stood quiet, his back to the wall of the shed. He had no
doubt at all that the Princess would kill him if he moved; he couldn't
doubt it with her icy eyes upon him. He stared sullenly back, and a
phrase of Old Einar's came strangely to his memory. "Satanically
beautiful," the old man had called her, and so she was. Hell or the art
of Martin Sair had so fashioned her that no man could gaze unmoved on
the false purity of her face, no man at least in whom flowed red blood.

She spoke again, letting her glance flicker disdainfully over the two
appalled guards. "The Master will be pleased," she said contemptuously,
"to learn that one unarmed Weed outmatches two men of his own cohort."

The nearer man faltered, "But your Highness, he rushed us unexpect--"

"No matter," she cut in, and turned back to Hull. For the first time now
he really felt the presence of death as she said coolly, "I am minded to
kill you."

"Then do it!" he snapped.

"I came here to watch you die," she observed calmly. "It interests me to
see men die, boldly or cowardly or resignedly. I think you would die

It seemed to Hull that she was deliberately torturing him by this
procrastination. "Try me!" he growled.

"But I think also," she resumed, "that your living might amuse me more
than your death, and"--for the first time there was a breath of feeling
in her voice--"God knows I need amusement!" Her tones chilled again. "I
give you your life."

"Your Highness," muttered the cowed guard, "the Master has ordered--"

"I countermand the orders," she said shortly. And then to Hull. "You are
a fighter. Are you also a man of honor?"

"If I'm not," he retorted, "the lie that says I am would mean nothing to

She smiled coldly. "Well, I think you are, Hull Tarvish. You go free on
your word to carry no weapons, and your promise to visit me this evening
in my quarters at the eldarch's home." She paused. "Well?"

"I give my word."

"And I take it." She crashed her heels against the ribs of the great
stallion, and the beast reared and whirled. "Away, all of you!" she
ordered. "You two, carry tub and water for my bath." She rode off toward
the street.

Hull let himself relax against the wall with a low "whew!" Sweat started
on his cold forehead, and his mighty muscles felt almost weak. It wasn't
that he had feared death, he told himself, but the strain of facing
those glorious, devilish emerald eyes, and the cold torment of the voice
of Black Margot, and the sense of her taunting him, mocking him, even
her last careless gesture of freeing him. He drew himself erect. After
all, fear of death or none, he loved life, and let that be enough.

He walked slowly toward the street. Across the way lights glowed in
Marcus Orison's home, and he wondered if Vail were there, perhaps
serving the Princess Margaret as he had so lately suggested the
contrary. He wanted to find Vail; he wanted to use her cool loveliness
as an antidote for the dark poison of the beauty he had been facing. And
then, at the gate, he drew back suddenly. A group of men in Empire garb
came striding by, and among them, helmetless and with his head bound,
moved the Master.

His eyes fell on Hull. He paused suddenly and frowned. "You again!" he
said. "How is it that you still live, Hull Tarvish?"

"The Princess ordered it."

The frown faded. "So," said Joaquin Smith slowly, "Margaret takes it
upon herself to interfere somewhat too frequently. I suppose she also
freed you?"

"Yes, on my promise not to bear arms."

There was a curious expression in the face of the conqueror. "Well," he
said almost gently, "it was not my intention to torture you, but merely
to have you killed for your treason. It may be that you will soon wish
that my orders had been left unaltered." He strode on into the eldarch's
dooryard, with his silent men following.

Hull turned his steps toward the center of the village. Everywhere he
passed Empire men scurrying about the tasks of encampment, and supply
wagons rumbled and jolted in the streets. He saw files of the soldiers
passing slowly before cook-wagons and the smell of food floated on the
air, reminding him that he was ravenously hungry. He hurried toward his
room beside File Ormiston's shop, and there, tragic-eyed and mist-pale,
he found Vail Ormiston.

She was huddled on the doorstep with sour Enoch holding her against him.
It was Enoch who first perceived Hull, and his jaw dropped and his eyes
bulged, and a gurgling sound issued from his throat. And Vail looked up
with uncomprehending eyes, stared for a moment without expression, and
then, with a little moan, crumpled and fainted.

She was unconscious only a few moments, scarcely long enough for Hull to
bear her into his room. There she lay now on his couch, clinging to his
great hand, convinced at last of his living presence.

"I think," she murmured, "that you're as deathless as Joaquin Smith,
Hull. I'll never believe you dead again. Tell me--tell me how it

He told her. "Black Margot's to thank for it," he finished.

But the very name frightened Vail. "She means evil, Hull. She terrifies
me with her witch's eyes and her hellstained hair. I haven't even dared
go home for fear of her."

He laughed. "Don't worry about me, Vail. I'm safe enough."

Enoch cut in. "Here's one for the Harriers, then," he said sourly. "The
pack needs him."

"The Harriers?" Hull looked up puzzled.

"Oh, Hull, yes!" said Vail. "File Ormson's been busy. The Harriers are
what's left of the army--the better citizens of Ormiston. The Master's
magic didn't reach beyond the ridge, and over the hills there's still
powder and rifles. And the spell is no longer in the valley, either. One
of the men carried a cup of powder across the ridge, and it didn't

The better citizens, Hull thought smiling. She meant, of course, those
who owned land and feared a division of it such as Marcus Ormiston had
suffered. But aloud he said only, "How many men have you?"

"Oh, there'll be several hundred with the farmers across the hills." She
looked into his eyes, "I know it's a forlorn hope, Hull, but--we've got
to try. You'll help, won't you?"

"Of course. But all your Harriers can attempt is raids. They can't fight
the Master's army."

"I know. I know it, Hull. It's a desperate hope."

"Desperate?" said Enoch suddenly. "Hull, didn't you say you were ordered
to Black Margot's quarters this evening?"


"Then--see here! You'll carry a knife in your armpit. Sooner or later
she'll want you alone with her, and when that happens, you'll slide the
knife quietly into her ruthless heart! There's a hope for you--if you've

"Courage!" he growled. "To murder a woman?"

"Black Margot's a devil!"

"Devil or not, what's the good of it? It's Joaquin Smith that's building
the Empire, not the Princess."

"Yes," said Enoch, "but half his power is the art of the witch. Once
she's gone the Confederation could blast his army like ducks in a frog

"It's true!" gasped Vail. "What Enoch says is true!"

Hull scowled. "I swore not to bear weapons!"

"Swore to her!" snapped Enoch. "That needn't bind you."

"My word's given," said Hull firmly. "I do not lie."

Vail smiled. "You're right," she whispered, and as Enoch's face
darkened, "I love you for it, Hull."

"Then," grunted Enoch, "if it's not lack of courage, do this. Lure her
somehow across the west windows. We can slip two or three Harriers to
the edge of the woodlot, and if she passes a window with the light
behind her--well, they won't miss."

"Oh, I won't," said Hull wearily. "I won't fight women, nor betray even
Black Margot to death."

But Vail's blue eyes pleaded. "That won't be breaking your word, Hull.
Please. It isn't betraying a woman. She's a sorceress. She's evil.
Please, Hull."

Bitterly he yielded. "I'll try, then." He frowned gloomily. "She saved
my life, and--Well, which room is hers?"

"My father's. Mine is the western chamber, which she took for her--her
maid," Vail's eyes misted at the indignity of it. "We," she said, "are
left to sleep in the kitchen."

An hour later, having eaten, he walked somberly home with Vail while
Enoch slipped away toward the hills. There were tents in the dooryard,
and lights glowed in every window, and before the door stood two dark
Empire men who passed the girl readily enough, but halted Hull with
small ceremony. Vail cast him a wistful backward glance as she
disappeared toward the rear, and he submitted grimly to the questioning
of the guards.

"On what business?"

"To see the Princess Margaret."

"Are you Hull Tarvish?"


One of the men stepped to his side and ran exploratory hands about his
body. "Orders of Her Highness," he explained gruffly.

Hull smiled. The Princess had not trusted his word too implicitly. In a
moment the fellow had finished his search and swung the door open.

Hull entered. He had never seen the interior of the house, and for a
moment its splendor dazzled him. Carved ancient furniture, woven
carpets, intricately worked standards for the oil lamps, and even--for
an instant he failed to comprehend it--a full-length mirror of ancient
workmanship wherein his own image faced him. Until now he had seen only
bits and fragments of mirrors.

To his left a guard blocked an open door whence voices issued. Old
Marcus Ormiston's voice. "But I'll pay for it. I'll buy it with all I
have." His tones were wheedling.

"No." Cool finality in the voice of Joaquin Smith. "Long ago I swore to
Martin Sair never to grant immortality to any who have not proved
themselves worthy." A note of sarcasm edged his voice. "Go prove
yourself deserving of it, old man, in the few years left to you."

Hull sniffed contemptuously. There seemed something debased in the old
man's whining before his conqueror. "The Princess Margaret?" he asked,
and followed the guard's gesture.

Upstairs was a dimly lit hall where another guard stood silently. Hull
repeated his query, but in place of an answer came the liquid tones of
Margaret herself. "Let him come in, Corlin."

A screen within the door blocked sight of the room. Hull circled it,
steeling himself against the memory of that soul-burning loveliness he
remembered. But his defense was shattered by the shock that awaited him.

The screen, indeed, shielded the Princess from the sight of the guard in
the hall, but not from Hull's eyes. He stared utterly appalled at the
sight of her lying in complete indifference in a great tub of water,
while a fat woman scrubbed assiduously at her bare body. He could not
avoid a single glimpse of her exquisite form, then he turned and stared
deliberately from the east windows, knowing that he was furiously
crimson even to his shoulders.

"Oh, sit down!" she said contemptuously. "This will be over in a

He kept his eyes averted while water splashed and a towel whisked
sibilantly. When he heard her footsteps beside him he glanced up
tentatively, still fearful of what he might see, but she was covered now
in a full robe of shiny black and gold that made her seem taller, though
its filmy delicacy by no means concealed what was beneath. Instead of
the cothurns she wore when on the march, she had slipped her feet into
tiny high-heeled sandals that were reminiscent of the footgear he had
seen in ancient pictures. The black robe and her demure coif of short
ebony hair gave her an appearance of almost nunlike purity, save for the
green hell-fires that danced in her eyes.

In his heart Hull cursed that false aura of innocence, for he felt again
the fascination against which he had steeled himself.

"So," she said. "You may sit down again. I do not demand court etiquette
in the field." She sat opposite, and produced a black cigarette,
lighting it at the chimney of the lamp on the table. Hull stared; not
that he was unaccustomed to seeing women smoke, for every mountainy
woman had her pipe, and every cottage its tobacco patch, but cigarettes
were new to him.

"Now," she said with a faintly ironic smile, "tell me what they say of
me here."

"They call you witch."

"And do they hate me?"

"Hate you?" he echoed thoughtfully. "At least they will fight you and
the Master to the last feather on the last arrow."

"Of course. The young men will fight--except those that Joaquin has
bought with the eldarch's lands--because they know that once within the
Empire, fighting is no more to be had. No more joyous, thrilling little
wars between the cities, no more boasting and parading before the pretty
provincial girls." She paused. "And you, Hull Tarvish--what do you think
of me?"

"I call you witch for other reasons."

"Other reasons?"

"There is no magic," said Hull, echoing the words of Old Einar in Selui.
"There is only knowledge."

The Princess looked narrowly at him. "A wise thought for one of you,"
she murmured, and then, "You came weaponless."

"I keep my word."

"You owe me that. I spared your life."

"And I," declared Hull defiantly, "spared yours. I could have sped an
arrow through that white throat of yours, there on the church roof. I
aimed one."

She smiled. "What held you?"

"I do not fight women." He winced as he thought of what mission he was
on, for it belied his words.

"Tell me," she said, "was that the eldarch's pretty daughter who cried
so piteously after you there before the church?"


"And do you love her?"

"Yes." This was the opening he had sought, but it came bitterly now,
facing her. He took the opportunity grimly. "I should like to ask one

"Ask it."

"I should like to see"--lies were not in him but this was no lie--"the
chamber that was to have been our bridal room. The west chamber." That
might be--should be--truth.

The Princess laughed disdainfully. "Go see it then."

For a moment he feared, or hoped, perhaps, that she was going to let him
go alone. Then she rose and followed him to the hall, and to the door of
the west chamber.



Hull paused at the door of the west chamber to permit the Princess to
enter. For the merest fraction of a second her glorious green eyes
flashed speculatively to his face, then she stepped back. "You first,
Weed," she commanded.

He did not hesitate. He turned and strode into the room, hoping that the
Harrier riflemen, if indeed they lurked in the copse, might recognize
his mighty figure in time to stay their eager trigger fingers. His scalp
prickled as he moved steadily across the window, but nothing happened.

Behind him the Princess laughed softly. "I have lived too long in the
aura of plot and counterplot in N'Orleans," she said. "I mistrust you
without cause, honest Hull Tarvish."

Her words tortured him. He turned to see her black robe mold itself to
her body as she moved, and, as sometimes happens in moments of stress,
he caught an instantaneous picture of her with his senses so quickened
that it seemed as if she, himself, and the world were frozen into
immobility. He remembered her forever as she was then, with her limbs in
the act of striding, her green eyes soft in the lamplight, and her
perfect lips in a smile that had a coloring of wistfulness. Witch and
devil she might be, but she looked like a dark-haired angel, and in that
moment his spirit revolted.

"No!" he bellowed, and sprang toward her, striking her slim shoulders
with both hands in a thrust that sent her staggering back into the
hallway, there to sit hard and suddenly on the floor beside the amazed

She sprang up instantly, and there was nothing angelic now in 'her face.
"You--hurt me!" she hissed. "Me! Now, I'll--" She snatched the guard's
weapon from his belt, thrust it full at Hull's chest, and sent the blue
beam humming upon him.

It was pain far worse than that at Eaglefoot Flow. He bore it stolidly,
grinding into silence the groan that rose in his throat, and in a moment
she flicked it off and slapped it angrily into the guard's holster.
"Treachery again!" she said. "I won't kill you, Hull Tarvish. I know a
better way." She whirled toward the stair-well. "Lebeau!" she called.
"Lebeau! There's--" She glanced sharply at Hull, and continued, "Il y a
des tirailleurs dans le bois. Je vais les tireer en avant!" It was the
French of N'Orleans, as incomprehensible to Hull as Aramaic.

She spun back. "Sora!" she snapped, and then, as the fat woman appeared,
"Never mind. You're far too heavy." Then back to Hull. "I've a mind,"
she blazed, "to strip the Weed clothes from the eldarch's daughter and
send her marching across the window!"

He was utterly appalled. "She--she was in town!" he gasped, then fell
silent at the sound of feet below.

"Well, there's no time," she retorted. "So, if I must--" She strode
steadily into the west chamber, paused a moment, and then stepped
deliberately in front of the window!

Hull was aghast. He watched her stand so that the lamplight must have
cast her perfect silhouette full on the pane, stand tense and motionless
for the fraction of a breath, and then leap back so sharply that her
robe billowed away from her body.

She had timed it to perfection. Two shots crashed almost together, and
the glass shattered. And then, out in the night, a dozen beams
crisscrossed, and, thin and clear in the silence after the shots, a yell
of mortal anguish drifted up, and another, and a third.

"There are snipers in the copse. I'll draw them out!"

The Princess Margaret smiled in malice, and licked a crimson drop from a
finger gashed by flying glass. "Your treachery reacts," she said in the
tones of a sneer. "Instead of my betrayal, you have betrayed your own

"I need no accusation from you," he said gloomily. "I am my own accuser,
and my own judge. Yes, and my own executioner as well. I will not live a

She raised her dainty eyebrows, and blew a puff of grey smoke from the
cigarette still in her hand. "So strong Hull Tarvish will die a
suicide," she remarked indifferently. "I had intended to kill you now.
Should I leave you to be your own victim?"

He shrugged. "What matter to me?"

"Well," she said musingly, "you're rather more entertaining than I had
expected. You're strong, you're stubborn, and you're dangerous. I give
you the right to do what you wish with your own life, but"--her green
eyes flickered mockingly--"if I were Hull Tarvish, I should live on the
chance of justifying myself. You can wipe out the disgrace of your
weakness by an equal courage. You can sell your life in your own cause,
and who knows?--perhaps for Joaquin's--or mine!"

He chose to ignore the mockery in her voice. "Perhaps," he said grimly,
"I will."

"Why, then, did you weaken, Hull Tarvish? You might have had my life."

"I do not fight women," he said despondently. "I looked at you--and
turned weak." A question formed in his mind. "But why did you risk your
life before the window? You could have had fifty woods runners scour the
copse. That was brave, but unnecessary."

She smiled, but there was a shrewd narrowness in her eyes. "Because so
many of these villages are built above the underground ways of the
Ancients--the subways, the sewers. How did I know but that your
assassins might slip into some burrow and escape? It was necessary to
lure them into disclosure."

Hull shadowed the gleam that shot into his own eyes. He remembered
suddenly the ancient sewer in which the child Vail had wandered, whose
entrance was hidden by blackberry bushes. Then the Empire men were
unaware of it! He visioned the Harriers creeping through it with bow and
sword--yes, and rifle, now that the spell was off the valley--springing
suddenly into the center of the camp, finding the Master's army,
sleeping, disorganized, unwary. What a plan for a surprise attack!

"Your Highness," he said grimly, "I think of suicide no more, and unless
you kill me now, I will be a bitter enemy to your Empire army."

"Perhaps less bitter than you think," she said softly. "See, Hull, the
only three that know of your weakness are dead. No one can name you
traitor or weakling."

"But I can," he returned somberly. "And you."

"Not I, Hull," she murmured. "I never blame a man who weakens because of
me--there have been many. Men as strong as you, Hull, and some that the
world still calls great." She turned toward her own chamber. "Come in
here," she said in altered tones. "I will have some wine. Sora!" As the
fat woman padded off, she took another cigarette and lit it above the
lamp, wrinkling her dainty nose distastefully at the night-flying
insects that circled it.

"What a place!" she snapped impatiently.

"It is the finest house I have ever seen," said Hull stolidly.

She laughed. "It's a hovel. I sigh for the day we return to N'Orleans,
where windows are screened, where water flows hot at will, where lights
do not flicker as yellow oil lamps nor send heat to stifle one. Would
you like to see the Great City, Hull?"

"You know I would."

"What if I say you may?"

"What could keep me from it if I go in peace?"

She shrugged. "Oh, you can visit N'Orleans, of course, but suppose I
offered you the chance to go as the--the guest, we'll say, of the
Princess Margaret. What would you give for that privilege?"

Was she mocking him again? "What would you ask for it?" he rejoined

"Oh, your allegiance, perhaps. Or perhaps the betrayal of your little
band of Harriers, who will be the devil's own nuisance to stamp out of
these hills."

He looked up startled that she knew the name. "The Harriers? How?"

She smiled. "We have friends among the Ormiston men. Friends bought with
land," she added contemptuously. "But what of my offer, Hull?"

He scowled. "You say as your guest. What am I to understand by that?"

She leaned across the table, her exquisite green eyes on his, her hair
flaming blue-black, her perfect lips in a faint smile. "What you please,
Hull. Whatever you please."

Anger was rising. "Do you mean," he asked huskily, "that you'd do that
for so small a thing as the destruction of a little enemy band? You,
with the whole Empire at your back?"

She nodded. "It saves trouble, doesn't it?"

"And honesty, virtue, honor, mean as little to you as that? Is this one
of your usual means of conquest? Do you ordinarily sell your--your
favors for--?"

"Not ordinarily," she interrupted coolly. "First I must like my
co-partner in the trade. You, Hull--I like those vast muscles of yours,
and your stubborn courage, and your slow, clear mind. You are not a
great man, Hull, for your mind has not the cold fire of genius, but you
are a strong one, and I like you for it."

"Like me!" he roared, starting up in his chair. "Yet you think I'll
trade what honor's left me for--that! You think I'll betray my cause!
You think-- Well, you're wrong, that's all. You're wrong!"

She shook her head, smiling. "No. I wasn't wrong, for I thought you

"Oh, you did!" he snarled. "Then what if I'd accepted? What would you
have done then?"

"What I promised." She laughed at his angry, incredulous face. "Don't
look so shocked, Hull. I'm not little Vail Ormiston. I'm the Princess
Margaret of N'Orleans, called Margaret the Divine by those who love me,
and by those who hate me called-- Well, you must know what my enemies
call me."

"I do!" he blazed. "Black Margot, I do!"

"Black Margot!" she echoed smiling. "Yes, so called because a poet once
amused me, and because there was once a very ancient, very great French
poet named Franšois Villon, who loved a harlot called Black Margot." She
sighed. "But my poet was no Villon; already his works are nearly

"A good name!" he rasped. "A good name for you!"

"Doubtless. But you fail to understand, Hull. I'm an Immortal. My years
are three times yours. Would you have me follow the standards of
death-bound Vail Ormiston?"

"Yes! By what right are you superior to all standards?"

Her lips had ceased to smile, and her deep green eyes turned wistful.
"By the right that I can act in no other way, Hull," she said softly. A
tinge of emotion quavered in her voice. "Immortality!" she whispered.
"Year after year after year of sameness, tramping up and down the world
on conquest! What do I care for conquest? I have no sense of destiny
like Joaquin, who sees before him Empire--Empire--Empire, ever larger,
ever growing. What's Empire to me? And year by year I grow bored until
fighting, killing, danger, and love are all that keep me breathing!"

His anger had drained away. He was staring at her aghast, appalled.

"And then they fail me!" she murmured. "When killing palls and love
grows stale, what's left? Did I say love? How can there be love for me
when I know that if I love a man, it will be only to watch him age and
turn wrinkled, weak, and flabby? And when I beg Joaquin for immortality
for him, he flaunts before me that promise of his to Martin Sair, to
grant it only to those already proved worthy. By the time a man's worthy
he's old." She went on tensely, "I tell you, Hull, that I'm so
friendless and alone that I envy you death-bound ones! Yes, and one of
these days I'll join you!"

He gulped. "My God!" he muttered. "Better for you if you'd stayed in
your native mountains with friends, home, husband, and children."

"Children!" she echoed, her eyes misting with tears. "Immortals can't
have children. They're sterile; they should be nothing but brains like
Joaquin and Martin Sair, not beings with feelings--like me. Sometimes I
curse Martin Sair and his hard rays. I don't want immortality; I want

Hull found his mind in a whirl. The impossible beauty of the girl he
faced, her green eyes now soft and moist and unhappy, her lips
quivering, the glisten of a tear on her cheek--these things tore at him
so powerfully that he scarcely knew his own allegiance. "God!" he
whispered. "I'm sorry!"

"And you, Hull--will you help me--a little?"

"But we're enemies--enemies!"

"Can't we be--something else?" A sob shook her.

"How can we be?" he groaned.

Suddenly some quirk to her dainty lips caught his attention. He stared
incredulously into the green depths of her eyes. It was true. There was
laughter there. She had been mocking him! And as she perceived his
realization, her soft laughter rippled like rain on water.

"You--devil!" he choked. "You black witch! I wish I'd let you be

"Oh, no," she said demurely. "Look at me, Hull."

The command was needless. He couldn't take his fascinated gaze from her
exquisite face.

"Do you love me, Hull?"

"I love Vail Ormiston," he rasped.

"But do you love me?"

"I hate you!"

"But do you love me as well?"

He groaned. "This is bitterly unfair," he muttered.

She knew what he meant. He was crying out against the circumstances that
had brought the Princess Margaret--the most brilliant woman of all that
brilliant age, and one of the most brilliant of any age--to flash all
her fascination on a simple mountainy from Ozarky. It wasn't fair; her
smile admitted it, but there was triumph there, too.

"May I go?" he asked stonily.

She nodded. "But you will be a little less my enemy, won't you, Hull?"

He rose. "Whatever harm I can do your cause," he said, "that harm will I
do. I will not be twice a traitor." But he fancied a puzzling gleam of
satisfaction in her green eyes at his words.



Hull looked down at noon over Ormiston valley, where Joaquin Smith was
marching. At his side Vail paused, and together they gazed silently over
Selui road, now black with riding men and rumbling wagons on their way
to attack the remnant of the Confederation army in Selui. But Ormiston
was not entirely abandoned, for three hundred soldiers and two hundred
horsemen remained to deal with the Harriers, under Black Margot herself.
It was not the policy of the Master to permit so large a rebel band to
gather unopposed in conquered territory; within the Empire, despite the
mutual hatred among rival cities, there existed a sort of enforced

"Our moment comes tonight," Hull said soberly. "We'll never have a
better chance than now, with our numbers all but equal to theirs, and
surprise on our side."

Vail nodded. "The ancient tunnel was a bold thought, Hull. The Harriers
are shoring up the crumbled places. Father is with them."

"He shouldn't be. The aged have no place in the field."

"But this is his hope, Hull. He lives for this."

"Small enough hope! Suppose we're successful, Vail. What will it mean
save the return of Joaquin Smith and his army? Common sense tells me
this is a fool's hunt, and if it were not for you and the chance of
fairer fighting than we've had until now--well, I'd be tempted to
concede the Master his victory."

"Oh, no!" cried Vail. "If our success means the end of Black Margot,
isn't that enough? Besides, you know that half the Master's powers are
the work of the witch. Enoch--poor Enoch--said so."

Hull winced. Enoch had been one of the three marksmen slain outside the
west windows, and the girl's words brought memory of his own part in
that. But her words pricked painfully in yet another direction, for the
vision of the Princess that had plagued him all night long still rose
powerfully in his mind, nor could he face the mention of her death

But Vail read only distress for Enoch in his face. "Enoch," she repeated
softly. "He loved me in his sour way, Hull, but once I had known you, I
had no thoughts for him."

Hull slipped his arm about her, cursing himself that he could not steal
his thought away from Margaret of N'Orleans, because it was Vail he
loved, and Vail he wanted to love. Whatever spell the Princess had cast
about him, he knew her to be evil, ruthless, and inhumanly cold--a
sorceress, a devil. But he could not blot her Satanic loveliness from
his inward gaze.

"Well," he sighed, "let it be tonight, then. Was it four hours past
sunset? Good. The Empire men should be sleeping or gaming in Tigh's
tavern by that time. It's for us to pray for our gunpowder."

"Gunpowder? Oh, but didn't you hear what I told File Ormson and the
Harriers, back there on the ridge? The casters of the spell are gone;
Joaquin Smith has taken them to Selui. I watched and listened from the
kitchen this morning."

"The sparkers? They're gone?"

"Yes. They called them reson--resators--"

"Resonators," said Hull, recalling Old Einar's words.

"Something like that. There were two of them, great iron barrels on
swivels, full of some humming and clicking magic, and they swept the
valley north and south, and east and west, and over toward Norse there
was the sound of shots and the smoke of a burning building. They loaded
them on wagons and dragged them away toward Selui."

"They didn't cross the ridge with their spell," said Hull.[5] "The
Harriers still have powder."

"Yes," murmured Vail, drawing his arm closer about her. "Tell me," she
said suddenly, "what did she want of you last night?"

Hull grimaced. He had told Vail little enough of that discreditable
evening, and he had been fearing her question. "Treason," he said
finally. "She wanted me to betray the Harriers."

"You? She asked that of you?"

"Do you think I would?" countered Hull.

"I know you never would. But what did she offer you for betrayal?"

Again he hesitated. "A great reward," he answered at last. "A reward out
of all proportion to the task."

"Tell me, Hull, what is she like face to face?"

"A demon. She isn't exactly human."

"But in what way? Men say so much of her beauty, of her deadly charm.
Hull--did you feel it?"

"I love you, Vail."

She sighed, and drew yet closer. "I think you're the strongest man in
the world, Hull. The very strongest."

"I'll need to be," he muttered, staring gloomily over the valley. Then
he smiled faintly as he saw men plowing, for it was late in the season
for such occupation. Old Marcus Ormiston was playing safe; remembering
the Master's words, he was tilling every acre across which a horse could
drag a blade.

Vail left him in Ormiston village and took her way hesitantly homeward.
Hull did what he could about the idle shop, and when the sun slanted
low, bought himself a square loaf of brown bread, a great slice of
cheese, and a bottle of the still, clear wine of the region. It was just
as he finished his meal in his room that a pounding on the door of the
shop summoned him.

It was an Empire man. "Hull Tarvish?" he asked shortly. At Hull's nod he
continued, "From Her Highness," and handed him a folded slip of black

The mountain youth stared at it. On one side, in raised gold, was the
form of a serpent circling a globe, its tail in its mouth--the Midgard
Serpent. He slipped a finger through the fold, opened the message, and
squinted helplessly at the characters written in gold on the black inner

"This scratching means nothing to me," he said.

The Empire man sniffed contemptuously. "I'll read it," he said, taking
the missive. "It says, 'Follow the messenger to our quarters,' and it's
signed Margarita Imperii Regina, which means Margaret, Princess of the
Empire. Is that plain?" He handed back the note. "I've been looking an
hour for you."

"Suppose I won't go," growled Hull.

"This isn't an invitation, Weed. It's a command."

Hull shrugged. He had small inclination to face Black Margot again,
especially with his knowledge of the Harriers' plans. Her complex
personality baffled and fascinated him, and he could not help fearing
that somehow, by some subtle art, she might wring that secret from him.
Torture wouldn't force it out of him, but those green eyes might read
it. Yet--better to go quietly than be dragged or driven; he grunted
assent and followed the messenger.

He found the house quiet. The lower room where Joaquin Smith had rested
was empty now, and he mounted the stairs again steeling himself against
the expected shock of Black Margot's presence. This time, however, he
found her clothed, or half clothed by Ormiston standards, for she wore
only the diminutive shorts and shirt that were her riding costume, and
her dainty feet were bare. She sat in a deep chair beside the table, a
flagon of wine at hand and a black cigarette in her fingers. Her jet
hair was like a helmet of ebony against the ivory of her forehead and
throat, and her green eyes like twin emeralds.

"Sit down," she said as he stood before her. "The delay is your loss,
Hull. I would have dined with you."

"I grow strong enough on bread and cheese," he growled.

"You seem to." Fire danced in her eyes. "Hull, I am as strong as most
men, but I believe those vast muscles of yours could overpower me as if
I were some shrinking provincial girl. And yet--"

"And yet what?"

"And yet you are much like my black stallion Eblis. Your muscles are
nearly as strong, but like him, I can goad you, drive you, lash you, and
set you galloping in whatever direction I choose."

"Can you?" he snapped. "Don't try it." But the spell of her unearthly
beauty was hard to face.

"But I think I shall try it," she cooed gently. "Hull, do you ever lie?"

"I do not."

"Shall I make you lie, then, Hull? Shall I make you swear such
falsehoods that you will redden forever afterward at the thought of
them? Shall I?"

"You can't!"

She smiled, then in altered tones, "Do you love me, Hull?"

"Love you? I hate--" He broke off suddenly.

"Do you hate me, Hull?" she asked gently.

"No," he groaned at last. "No, I don't hate you."

"But do you love me?" Her face was saint-like, earnest, pure, even the
green eyes were soft now as the green of spring. "Tell me, do you love

"No!" he ground out savagely, then flushed crimson at the smile on her
lips. "That isn't a lie!" he blazed. "This sorcery of yours isn't love.
I don't love your beauty. It's unnatural, hellish, and the gift of
Martin Sair. It's a false beauty, like your whole life!"

"Martin Sair had little to do with my appearance," she said gently.
"What do you feel for me, Hull, if not love?"

"I--don't know. I don't want to think of it!" He clenched a great fist.
"Love? Call it love if you wish, but it's a hell's love that would find
satisfaction in killing you!" But here his heart revolted again. "That
isn't so," he ended miserably. "I couldn't kill you."

"Suppose," she proceeded gently, "I were to promise to abandon Joaquin,
to be no longer Black Margot and Princess of the Empire, but to be
only--Hull Tarvish's wife. Between Vail and me, which would you choose?"

He said nothing for a moment. "You're unfair," he said bitterly at last.
"Is it fair to compare Vail and yourself? She's sweet and loyal and
innocent, but you--you are Black Margot!"

"Nevertheless," she said calmly, "I think I shall compare us. Sora!" The
fat woman appeared. "Sora, the wine is gone. Send the eldarch's daughter
here with another bottle and a second goblet."

Hull stared appalled. "What are you going to do?"

"No harm to your little Weed. I promise no harm."

"But--" He paused. Vail's footsteps sounded on the stairs, and she
entered timidly, bearing a tray with a bottle and a metal goblet. He saw
her start as she perceived him, but she only advanced quietly, set the
tray on the table, and backed toward the door.

"Wait a moment," said the Princess. She rose and moved to Vail's side as
if to force the comparison on Hull. He could not avoid it; he hated
himself for the thought, but it came regardless. Barefooted, the
Princess Margaret was exactly the height of Vail in her lowheeled
sandals, and she was the merest shade slimmer. But her startling black
hair and her glorious green eyes seemed almost to fade the unhappy
Ormiston girl to a colorless dun, and the coppery hair and blue eyes
seemed water pale. It wasn't fair; Hull realized that it was like
comparing candlelight to sunbeam, and he despised himself even for

"Hull," said the Princess, "which of us is the more beautiful ?"

He saw Vail's lips twitch fearfully, and he remained stubbornly silent.

"Hull," resumed the Princess, "which of us do you love?"

"I love Vail!" he muttered.

"But do you love her more than you love me?"

Once again he had recourse to silence.

"I take it," said the Princess, smiling, "that your silence means you
love me the more. Am I right?"

He said nothing.

"Or am I wrong, Hull? Surely you can give little Vail the satisfaction
of answering this question! For unless you answer I shall take the
liberty of assuming that you love me the more. Now do you?"

He was in utter torment. His white lips twisted in anguish as he
muttered finally, "Oh, God! Then yes!"

She smiled softly. "You may go," she said to the pallid and frightened

But for a moment the girl hesitated. "Hull," she whispered, "Hull, I
know you said that to save me. I don't believe it, Hull, and I love you.
I blame--her!"

"Don't!" he groaned. "Don't insult her."

The Princess laughed, "Insult me! Do you think I could be insulted by a
bit of creeping dust as it crawls its way from cradle to grave?" She
turned contemptuous green eyes on Vail as the terrified girl backed
through the door.

"Why do you delight in torture?" cried Hull. "You're cruel as a cat.
You're no less than a demon."

"That wasn't cruelty," said the Princess gently. "It was but a means of
proving what I said, that your mighty muscles are well-broken to my

"If that needed proof," he muttered.

"It needed none. There's proof enough, Hull, in what's happening even
now, if I judge the time rightly. I mean your Harriers slipping through
their ancient sewer right into my trap behind the barn."

He was thunderstruck. "You--are you--you must be a witch!" he gasped.

"Perhaps. But it wasn't witchcraft that led me to put the thought of
that sewer into your head, Hull. Do you remember now that it was my
suggestion, given last evening there in the hallway? I knew quite well
that you'd put the bait before the Harriers."

His brain was reeling. "But why-- Why--?"

"Oh," she said indifferently, "it amuses me to see you play the traitor
twice, Hull Tarvish."


5: The field of the Erden resonator passes readily through structures
and walls, but it is blocked by any considerable natural obstructions,
hills, and for some reason fog-banks or low clouds.



The princess stepped close to him, her magnificent eyes gentle as an
angel's, the sweet curve of her lips in the ghost of a pouting smile.
"Poor, strong, weak Hull Tarvish!" she breathed. "Now you shall have a
lesson in the cost of weakness. I am not Joaquin, who fights benignly
with his men's slides in the third notch. When I go to battle, my beams
flash full, and there is burning flesh and bursting heart. Death rides
with me."

He scarcely heard her. His gyrating mind struggled with an idea. The
Harriers were creeping singly into the trap, but they could not all be
through the tunnel. If he could warn them-- His eyes shifted to the
bell-pull in the hall beside the guard, the rope that tolled the bronze
bell in the belfry to summon public gatherings, or to call aid to fight
fires. Death, beyond doubt, if he rang it, but that was only a fair
price to pay for expiation.

His great arm flashed suddenly, sweeping the Princess from her feet and
crashing her dainty figure violently against the wall. He heard her
faint "O--o--oh" of pain as breath left her and she dropped slowly to
her knees, but he was already upon the startled guard, thrusting him up
and over the rail of the stair-well to drop with a sullen thump below.
And then he threw his weight on the bellrope, and the great voice of
bronze boomed out, again, and again.

But Black Margot was on her feet, with the green hell-sparks flickering
in her eyes and her face a lovely mask of fury. Men came rushing up the
stairs with drawn weapons, and Hull gave a last tug on the rope and
turned to face death. Half a dozen weapons were on him.

"No--no!" gasped the Princess, struggling for the breath he had knocked
out of her. "Hold him--for me! Take him--to the barn!"

She darted down the stairway, her graceful legs flashing bare, her bare
feet padding softly. After her six grim Empire men thrust Hull past the
dazed guard sitting on the lower steps and out into a night where blue
beams flashed and shots and yells sounded.

Behind the barn was comparative quiet, however, by the time Hull's
captors had marched him there. A closepacked mass of dark figures
huddled near the mouth of the ancient tunnel, where the bushes were
trampled away, and a brown-clad file of Empire woods runners surrounded
them. A few figures lay sprawled on the turf, and Hull smiled a little
as he saw that some were Empire men. Then his eyes strayed to the
Princess where she faced a dark-haired officer.

"How many, Lebeau?"

"A hundred and forty or fifty, Your Highness."

"Not half! Why are you not pursuing the rest through the tunnel?"

"Because, Your Highness, one of them pulled the shoring and the roof
down upon himself, and blocked us off. We're digging him out now."

"By then they'll have left their burrow. Where does this tunnel end?"
She strode over to Hull. "Hull, where does this tunnel end?" At his
silence, she added. "No matter. They'd be through it before we could
reach it." She spun back. "Lebeau! Burn down what we have and the rest
we'll stamp out as we can." A murmur ran through the crowd of villagers
that was collecting, and her eyes, silvery green in the moonlight,
flickered over them. "And any sympathizers," she added coldly. "Except
this man, Hull Tarvish."

File Ornison's great voice rumbled out of the mass of prisoners. "Hull!
Hull! Was this trap your doing?"

Hull made no answer, but Black Margot herself replied. "No," she
snapped, "but the warning bell was."

"Then why do you spare him?"

Her eyes glittered icy green. "To kill in my own way, Weed," she said in
tones so cold that it was as if a winter wind had sent a shivering
breath across the spring night. "I have my own account to collect from

Her eyes blazed chill emerald fire into Hull's. He met her glance
squarely, and said in a low voice, "Do you grant any favors to a man
about to die?"

"Not by custom," she replied indifferently. "Is it the safety of the
eldarch's daughter? I plan no harm to her."

"It isn't that."

"Then ask it--though I am not disposed to grant favors to you, Hull
Tarvish, who have twice laid hands of violence on me."

His voice dropped almost to a whisper. "It is the lives of my companions
I ask."

She raised here eyebrows in surprise, then shook her ebony flame of
hair. "How can I? I remained here purposely to wipe them out. Shall I
release the half I have, only to destroy them with the rest?"

"I ask their lives," he repeated.

A curious, whimsical fire danced green in her eves. "I will try," she
promised, and turned to the officer, who was ranging his men so that the
cross-fire of execution could not mow down his own ranks. "Lebeau!" she
snapped. "Hold back a while."

She strode into the gap between the prisoners and her own men. Hand on
hip she surveyed the Harriers, while moonlight lent her beauty an aura
that was incredible, unearthly. There in the dusk of night she seemed no
demon at all, but a girl, almost a child, and even Hull, who had learned
well enough what she was, could not but sweep fascinated eyes from her
jet hair to her tiny white feet.

"Now," she said, passing her glance over the group, "on my promise of
amnesty, how many of you would join me?"

A stir ran through the mass. For a moment there was utter immobility,
then, very slowly, two figures moved forward, and the stir became an
angry murmur. Hull recognized the men; they were stragglers of the
Confederation army, Ch'cago men, good fighters but merely mercenaries,
changing sides as mood or advantage moved them. The murmur of the
Harriers became an angry growl.

"You two," said the Princess, "are you Ormiston men?"

"No," said one. "Both of us come from the shores of Mitchin."

"Very well," she proceeded calmly. With a movement swift as arrow flight
she snatched the weapon from her belt, the blue beam spat twice, and the
men crumpled, one with face burned carbon-black, and both sending forth
an odorous wisp of flesh-seared smoke.

She faced the aghast group. "Now," she said, "who is your leader?"

File Ormson stepped forth, scowling and grim. "What do you want of me?"

"Will you treat with me? Will your men follow your agreements?"

File nodded. "They have small choice."

"Good. Now that I have sifted the traitors from your ranks--for I will
not deal with traitors--I shall make my offer." She smiled at the squat
ironsmith. "I think I've served both of us by so doing," she said
softly, and Hull gasped as he perceived the sweetness of the glance she
bent on the scowling File. "Would you, with your great muscles and
warrior's heart, follow a woman?"

The scowl vanished in surprise. "Follow you? You?"

"Yes." Hull watched her in fascination as she used her voice, her eyes,
her unearthly beauty intensified by the moonlight, all on hulking File
Ormson, behind whom the Harrier prisoners stood tense and silent. "Yes,
I mean to follow me," she repeated softly. "You are brave men, all of
you, now that I have weeded out the two cowards." She smiled wistfully,
almost tenderly at the squat figure before her. "And you--you are a

"But--" File gulped, "our others--"

"I promise you need not fight against your companions. I will release
any of you who will not follow me. And your lands--it is your lands you
fight for, is it not? I will not touch, not one acre save the
eldarch's." She paused. "Well?"

Suddenly File's booming laugh roared out. "By God!" he swore. "If you
mean what you say, there's nothing to fight about! For my part, I'm with
you!" He turned on his men. "Who follows me?"

The group stirred. A few stepped forward, then a few more, and then,
with a shout, the whole mass. "Good!" roared File. He raised his great
hard hand to his heart in the Empire salute. "To Black--to the Princess
Margaret!" he bellowed. "To a warrior!"

She smiled and dropped her eyes as if in modesty. When the cheer had
passed, she addressed File Ormson again. "You will send men to your
others?" she asked. "Let them come in on the same terms."

"They'll come!" growled File.

The Princess nodded. "Lebeau," she called, "order off your men. These
are our allies."

The Harriers began to separate, drifting away with the crowd of
villagers. The Princess stepped close to Hull, smiling maliciously up
into his perplexed face. He scarcely knew whether to be glad or bitter,
for indeed, though she had granted his request to spare his companions,
she had granted it only at the cost of the destruction of the cause for
which he had sacrificed everything. There were no Harriers any more, but
he was still to die for them.

"Will you die happy now?" she cooed softly.

"No man dies happy," he growled.

"I granted your wish, Hull."

"If your promises can be trusted," he retorted bitterly. "You lied
coolly enough to the Ch'cago men, and you made certain they were not
loved by the Harriers before you killed them."

She shrugged. "I lie, I cheat, I swindle by whatever means comes to
hand," she said indifferently, "but I do not break my given word. The
Harriers are safe."

Beyond her, men came suddenly from the tunnel mouth, dragging something
dark behind them.

"The Weed who pulled down the roof, Your Highness," said Lebeau.

She glanced behind her, and pursed her dainty lips in surprise. "The
eldarch! The dotard died bravely enough." Then she shrugged. "He had but
a few more years anyway."

But Vail slipped by with a low moan of anguish, and Hull watched her
kneel desolately by her father's body. A spasm of pity shook him as he
realized that now she was utterly, completely alone. Enoch had died in
the ambush of the previous night, old Marcus lay dead here before her,
and he was condemned to death. The three who loved her and the man she
loved--all slain in two nights passing. He bent a slow, helpless,
pitying smile on her, but there was nothing he could do or say.

And Black Margot, after the merest glance, turned back to Hull, "Now,"
she said, the ice in her voice again, "I deal with you!"

He faced her dumbly. "Will you have the mercy to deal quickly, then?" he
muttered at last.

"Mercy? I do not know the word where you're concerned, Hull. Or rather I
have been already too merciful. I spared your life three times--once at
Joaquin's request at Eaglefoot Flow, once before the guardhouse, and
once up there in the hallway." She moved closer. "I cannot bear the
touch of violence, Hull, and you have laid violent hands on me twice.

"Once was to save your life," he said, "and the other to rectify my own
unwitting treason. And I spared your life three times too, Black
Margot--once when I aimed from the church roof, once from the ambush in
the west chamber, and once but a half hour ago, for I could have killed
you with this fist of mine, had I wished to strike hard enough. I owe
you nothing."

She smiled coldly. "Well argued, Hull, but you die none the less in the
way I wish." She turned. "Back to the house!" she commanded, and he
strode away between the six guards who still flanked him.

She led them into the lower room that had been the Master's. There she
sat idly in a deep chair of ancient craftsmanship, lit a black cigarette
at the lamp, and thrust her slim legs carelessly before her, gazing at
Hull. But he, staring through the window behind her, could see the dark
blot that was Vail Ormiston weeping beside the body of her father.

"Now," said the Princess, "how would you like to die, Hull?"

"Of old age!" he snapped. "And if you will not permit that, then as
quickly as possible."

"I might grant the second," she observed. "I might."

The thought of Vail was still torturing him. At last he said, "Your
Highness, is your courage equal to the ordeal of facing me alone? I want
to ask something that I will not ask in others' ears."

She laughed contemptuously. "Get out," she snapped at the silent guards.
"Hull, do you think I fear you? I tell you your great muscles and
stubborn heart are no more than those of Eblis, the black stallion. Must
I prove it again to you?"

"No," he muttered. "God help me, but I know it's true. I'm not the match
for Black Margot."

"Nor is any other man," she countered. Then, more softly, "But if ever I
do meet the man who can conquer me, if ever he exists, he will have
something of you in him, Hull. Your great, slow strength, and your
stubborn honesty, and your courage. I promise that." She paused, her
face now pure as a marble saint's. "So say what you have to say, Hull.
What do you ask?"

"My life," he said bluntly.

Her green eyes widened in surprise. "You, Hull? You beg your life? You?"

"Not for myself," he muttered. "There's Vail Ormiston weeping over her
father. Enoch, who would have married her and loved her, is dead in last
night's ambush, and if I die, she's left alone. I ask my life for her."

"Her troubles mean nothing to me," said Margaret of N'Orleans coldly.

"She'll die without someone--someone to help her through this time of

"Let her die, then. Why do you death-bound cling so desperately to life,
only to age and die anyway? Sometimes I myself would welcome death, and
I have infinitely more to live for than you. Let her die, Hull, as I
think you'll die in the next moment or so!"

Her hand rested on the stock of the weapon at her belt. "I grant your
second choice," she said coolly. "The quick death."



Black Margot ground out her cigarette with her left hand against the
polished wood of the table top, but her right rested inexorably on her
weapon. Hull knew beyond doubt or question that he was about to die, and
for a moment he considered the thought of dying fighting, of being
blasted by the beam as he flung himself at her. Then he shook his head;
he revolted at the idea of again trying violence on the exquisite figure
he faced, who, though witch or demon, had the passionless purity and
loveliness of divinity. It was easier to die passively, simply losing
his thoughts in the glare of her unearthly beauty.

She spoke. "So die, Hull Tarvish," she said gently, and drew the blunt

A voice spoke behind him, a familiar, pleasant voice. "Do I intrude,

He whirled. It was Old Einar, thrusting his good-humored, wrinkled visage
through the opening he had made in the doorway. He grinned at Hull,
flung the door wider, and slipped into the room.

"Einar!" cried the Princess, springing from her chair. "Einar Olin! Are
you still in the world?" Her tones took on suddenly the note of deep
pity. "But so old--so old!"

The old man took her free hand. "It is forty years since last I saw you,
Margaret--and I was fifty then."

"But so old!" she repeated. "Einar, have I changed?"

He peered at her. "Not physically, my dear. But from the stories that go
up and down the continent, you are hardly the gay madcap that N'Orleans
worshipped as the Princess Peggy, nor even the valiant little warrior
they used to call the Maid of Orleans."

She had forgotten Hull, but the guards visible through the half open
door still blocked escape. He listened fascinated, for it was almost as
if he saw a new Black Margot.

"Was I ever the Princess Peggy?" she murmured. "I had forgotten--Well,
Martin Sair can stave off age but he cannot halt the flow of time. But
Einar--Einar, you were wrong to refuse him!"

"Seeing you, Margaret, I wonder instead if I were not very wise. Youth
is too great a restlessness to bear for so long a time, and you have
borne it less than a century. What will you be in another fifty years?
In another hundred, if Martin Sair's art keeps its power? What will you

She shook her head; her green eyes grew deep and sorrowful. "I don't
know, Einar. I don't know."

"Well," he said placidly, "I am old, but I am contented. I wonder if you
can say as much."

"I might have been different, Einar, had you joined us. I could have
loved you, Einar."

"Yes," he agreed wryly. "I was afraid of that, and it was one of the
reasons for my refusal. You see, I did love you, Margaret, and I chose
to outgrow the torture rather than perpetuate it. That was a painful
malady, loving you, and it took all of us at one time or another.
'Flame-struck', we used to call it." He smiled reflectively. "Are any
left save me of all those who loved you?"

"Just Jorgensen," she answered sadly. "That is if he has not yet killed
himself in his quest for the secret of the Ancient's wings. But he

"Well," said Olin dryly, "my years will yet make a mock of their
immortality." He pointed a gnarled finger at Hull. "What do you want of
my young friend here?"

Her eyes flashed emerald, and she drew her hand from that of Old Einar.
"I plan to kill him."

"Indeed? And why?"

"Why?" Her voice chilled. "Because he struck me with his hands. Twice."

The old man smiled. "I shouldn't wonder if he had cause enough,
Margaret. Memory tells me that I myself have had the same impulse."

"Then it's well you never yielded, Einar. Even you."

"Doubtless. But I think I shall ask you to forgive young Hull Tarvish."

"You know his name! Is he really your friend?"

Old Einar nodded. "I ask you to forgive him."

"Why should I?" asked the Princess. "Why do you think a word from you
can save him?"

"I am still Olin," said the aged one, meeting her green eyes steadily
with his watery blue ones. "I still carry Joaquin's seal."

"As if that could stop me!" But the cold fire died slowly in her gaze,
and again her eyes were sad. "But you are still Olin, the Father of
Power," she murmured. With a sudden gesture she thrust her weapon back
into her belt. "I spare him again," she said, and then, in tones gone
strangely dull, "I suppose I wouldn't have killed him anyway. It is a
weakness of mine that I cannot kill those who love me in a certain
way--a weakness that will cost me dear some day."

Olin twisted his lips in that skull-like smile, turning to the silent
youth. "Hull," he said kindly, "you must have been born under fortunate
stars. But if you're curious enough to tempt your luck further, listen
to this old man's advice." His smile became a grin. "Beyond the western
mountains there are some very powerful, very rare hunting cats called
lions, which Martin Sair says are not native to this continent, but were
brought here by the Ancients to be caged and gazed at, and occasionally
trained. As to that I know nothing, but I do say this, Hull--go twist
the tail of a lion before you again try the wrath of Black Margot. And
now get out of here."

"Not yet, Hull," snapped the Princess. "I have still my score to settle
with you." She turned back to Olin. "Where do you wander now, Einar?"

"To N'Orleans. I have some knowledge to give Jorgensen, and I am
homesick besides for the Great City."

He paused. "I have seen Joaquin. Selui has fallen."

"I know. I ride to meet him tonight."

"He has sent representations to Ch'cago."

"Good!" she flashed. "Then there will be fighting." Then her eyes turned
dreamy. "I have never seen the saltless seas," she added wistfully, "but
I wonder if they can be as beautiful as the blue Gulf beyond N'Orleans."

But Old Einar shook his thin white hair. "What will be the end of this,
Margaret?" he asked gently. "After Ch'cago is taken--for you will take
it--what then?"

"Then the land north of the saltless seas, and east of them. N'York, and
all the cities on the ocean shore."

"And then?"

"Then South America, I suppose."

"And then, Margaret?"

"Then? There is still Europe veiled in mystery, and Asia, Africa--all
the lands known to the Ancients."

"And after all of them?"

"Afterwards," she replied wearily, "we can rest. The fierce destiny that
drives Joaquin surely cannot drive him beyond the boundaries of the

"And so," said Olin, "you fight your way around the world so you can
rest at the end of the journey. Then why not rest now, Margaret? Must
you pillow your head on the globe of the planet?"

Fury flamed green in her eyes. She raised her hand and struck the old
man across his lips, but it must have been lightly, for he still smiled.

"Fool!" she cried. "Then I will see to it that there is always war!
Between me and Joaquin, if need be--or between me and anyone--anyone--so
that I fight!" She paused panting. "Leave me, Einar," she said tensely.
"I do not like the things you bring to mind."

Still smiling, the old man backed away. At the door he paused. "I will
see you before I die, Margaret," he promised, and was gone.

She followed him to the doorway. "Sora!" she called. "Sora! I ride!"

Hull heard the heavy tread of the fat Sora, and in a moment she entered
bearing the diminutive cothurns and a pair of glistening silver
gauntlets on her hands, and then she too was gone.

Slowly, almost wearily, the Princess turned to face Hull, who had as yet
permitted no gleam of hope to enter his soul, for he had experienced too
much of her mockery to trust the promise of safety Old Einar had won for
him. He felt only the fascination that she always bound about him, the
spell of her unbelievable black hair and her glorious sea-green eyes,
and all her unearthly beauty.

"Hull," she said gently, "what do you think of me now?"

"I think you are a black flame blowing cold across the world. I think a
demon drives you."

"And do you hate me so bitterly?"

"I pray every second to hate you."

"Then see, Hull." With her little gauntleted fingers she took his great
hands and placed them about the perfect curve of her throat. "Here I
give you my life for the taking. You have only to twist once with these
mighty hands of yours and Black Margot will be out of the world
forever." She paused. "Must I beg you?"

Hull felt as if molten metal flowed upward through his arms from the
touch of her white skin. His fingers were rigid as metal bars, and all
the great strength of them could not put one feather's weight of
pressure on the soft throat they circled. And deep in the lambent
emerald flames that burned in her eyes he saw again the fire of
mockery--jeering, taunting.

"You will not?" she said, lifting away his hands, but holding them in
hers. "Then you do not hate me?"

"You know I don't," he groaned.

"And you do love me?"

"Please," he muttered. "Is it necessary again to torture me? I need no
proof of your mastery."

"Then say you love me."

"Heaven forgive me for it;" he whispered, "but I do!"

She dropped his hands and smiled. "Then listen to me, Hull. You love
little Vail with a truer love, and month by month memory fades before
reality. After a while there will be nothing left in you of Black
Margot, but there will be always Vail. I go now hoping never to see you
again, but"--and her eyes chilled to green ice--"before I go I settle my
score with you."

She raised her gauntleted hand. "This for your treachery!" she said, and
struck him savagely across his right check. Blood spouted, there would
be scars, but he stood stolid. "This for your violence!" she said, and
the silver gauntlet tore his left check. Then her eyes softened. "And
this," she murmured, "for your love!"

Her arms circled him, her body was warm against him, and her exquisite
lips burned against his. He felt as if he embraced a flame for a moment,
and then she was gone, and a part of his soul went with her. When he
heard the hooves of the stallion Eblis pounding beyond the window, he
turned and walked slowly out of the house to where Vail still crouched
beside her father's body. She clung to him, wiped the blood from his
cheeks, and strangely, her words were not of her father, nor of the
sparing of Hull's life, but of Black Margot.

"I knew you lied to save me," she murmured. "I knew you never loved

And Hull, in whom there was no falsehood, drew her close to him and said

But Black Margot rode north from Selui through the night. In the sky
before her were thin shadows leading phantom armies, Alexander the
Great, Attila, Genghis Khan, Tamerlane, Napoleon, and clearer than all,
the battle queen Semiramis. All the mighty conquerors of the past, and
where were they, where were their empires, and where, even, were their
bones? Far in the south were the graves of men who had loved her, all
except Old Einar, who tottered like a feeble grey ghost across the world
to find his.

At her side Joaquin Smith turned as if to speak, stared, and remained
silent. He was not accustomed to the sight of tears in the eyes and on
the cheeks of Black Margot.

(All conversation ascribed to the Princess Margaret in this story is
taken verbatim from an anonymous volume published in Urbs in the year
186, called "Loves of the Black Flame." It is credited to Jacques
Lebeau, officer in command of the Black Flame's personal guard.)


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