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Title: Almuric
Author:Robert E. Howard
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Language: English
Date first posted: October 2007
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Title: Almuric
Author:Robert E. Howard




Foreword

It was not my original intention ever to divulge the whereabouts of
Esau Cairn, or the mystery surrounding him. My change of mind was
brought about by Cairn himself, who retained a perhaps natural and
human desire to give his strange story to the world which had disowned
him and whose members can now never reach him. What he wishes to tell
is his affair. One phase of my part of the transaction I refuse to
divulge; I will not make public the means by which I transported Esau
Cairn from his native Earth to a planet in a solar system undreamed of
by even the wildest astronomical theorists. Nor will I divulge by what
means I later achieved communication with him, and heard his story
from his own lips, whispering ghostily across the cosmos.

Let me say that it was not premeditated. I stumbled upon the Great
Secret quite by accident in the midst of a scientific experiment, and
never thought of putting it to any practical use, until that night
when Esau Cairn groped his way into my darkened observatory, a hunted
man, with the blood of a human being on his hands. It was chance led
him there, the blind instinct of the hunted thing to find a den
wherein to turn at bay.

Let me state definitely and flatly, that, whatever the appearances
against him, Esau Cairn is not, and was never, a criminal. In that
specific case he was merely the pawn of a corrupt political machine
which turned on him when he realized his position and refused to
comply further with its demands. In general, the acts of his life
which might suggest a violent and unruly nature simply sprang from his
peculiar mental make-up.

Science is at last beginning to perceive that there is sound truth
in the popular phrase, "born out of his time." Certain natures are
attuned to certain phases or epochs of history, and these natures,
when cast by chance into an age alien to their reactions and emotions,
find difficulty in adapting themselves to their surroundings. It is
but another example of nature's inscrutable laws, which sometimes are
thrown out of stride by some cosmic friction or rift, and result in
havoc to the individual and the mass.

Many men are born outside their century; Esau Cairn was born outside
his epoch. Neither a moron nor a low-class primitive, possessing a
mind well above the average, he was, nevertheless, distinctly out of
place in the modern age. I never knew a man of intelligence so little
fitted for adjustment in a machine-made civilization. (Let it be noted
that I speak of him in the past tense; Esau Cairn lives, as far as the
cosmos is concerned; as far as the Earth is concerned, he is dead, for
he will never again set foot upon it.)

He was of a restless mold, impatient of restraint and resentful of
authority. Not by any means a bully, he at the same time refused to
countenance what he considered to be the slightest infringement on his
rights. He was primitive in his passions, with a gusty temper and a
courage inferior to none on this planet. His life was a series of
repressions. Even in athletic contests he was forced to hold himself
in, lest he injure his opponents. Esau Cairn was, in short, a freak--a
man whose physical body and mental bent leaned back to the primordial.

Born in the Southwest, of old frontier stock, he came of a race
whose characteristics were inclined toward violence, and whose
traditions were of war and feud and battle against man and nature. The
mountain country in which he spent his boyhood carried out the
tradition. Contest--physical contest--was the breath of life to him.
Without it he was unstable and uncertain. Because of his peculiar
physical make-up, full enjoyment in a legitimate way, in the ring or
on the football field was denied him. His career as a football player
was marked by crippling injuries received by men playing against him,
and he was branded as an unnecessarily brutal man, who fought to maim
his opponents rather than win games. This was unfair. The injuries
were simply resultant from the use of his great strength, always so
far superior to that of the men opposed to him. Cairn was not a great
sluggish lethargic giant as so many powerful men are; he was vibrant
with fierce life, ablaze with dynamic energy. Carried away by the lust
of combat, he forgot to control his powers, and the result was broken
limbs or fractured skulls for his opponents.

It was for this reason that he withdrew from college life,
unsatisfied and embittered, and entered the professional ring. Again
his fate dogged him. In his training-quarters, before he had had a
single match, he almost fatally injured a sparring partner. Instantly
the papers pounced upon the incident, and played it up beyond its
natural proportions. As a result Cairn's license was revoked.

Bewildered, unsatisfied, he wandered over the world, a restless
Hercules, seeking outlet for the immense vitality that surged
tumultuously within him, searching vainly for some form of life wild
and strenuous enough to satisfy his cravings, born in the dim red days
of the world's youth.

Of the final burst of blind passion that banished him for ever from
the life wherein he roamed, a stranger, I need say little. It was a
nine-days' wonder, and the papers exploited it with screaming
headlines. It was an old story--a rotten city government, a crooked
political boss, a man chosen, unwittingly on his part, to be used as a
tool and serve as a puppet.

Cairn, restless, weary of the monotony of a life for which he was
unsuited, was an ideal tool--for a while. But Cairn was neither a
criminal nor a fool. He understood their game quicker than they
expected, and took a stand surprisingly firm to them, who did not know
the real man.

Yet, even so, the result would not have been so violent if the man
who had used and ruined Cairn had any real intelligence. Used to
grinding men under his feet and seeing them cringe and beg for mercy,
Boss Blaine could not understand that he was dealing with a man to
whom his power and wealth meant nothing. Yet so schooled was Cairn to
iron self-control that it required first a gross insult, then an actual
blow on the part of Blaine, to rouse him. Then for the first time in
his life, his wild nature blazed into full being. All his thwarted and
repressed life surged up behind the clenched fist that broke Blaine's
skull like an eggshell and stretched him lifeless on the floor, behind
the desk from which he had for years ruled a whole district.

Cairn was no fool. With the red haze of fury fading from his glare,
he realized that he could not hope to escape the vengeance of the
machine that controlled the city. It was not because of fear that he
fled Blaine's house. It was simply because of his primitive instinct
to find a more convenient place to turn at bay and fight out his death
fight.

So it was that chance led him to my observatory.

He would have left, instantly, not wishing to embroil me in his
trouble, but I persuaded him to remain and tell me his story. I had
long expected some catastrophe of the sort. That he had repressed
himself as long as he did, shows something of his iron character. His
nature was as wild and untamed as that of a maned lion.

He had no plan--he simply intended to fortify himself somewhere and
fight it out with the police until he was riddled with lead.

I at first agreed with him, seeing no better alternative. I was not
so naive as to believe he had any chance in the courts with the
evidence that would be presented against him. Then a sudden thought
occurred to me, so fantastic and alien, and yet so logical, that I
instantly propounded it to my companion. I told him of the Great
Secret, and gave him proof of its possibilities.

In short, I urged him to take the chance of a flight through space,
rather than meet the certain death that awaited him.

And he agreed. There was no place in the universe which would
support human life. But I had looked beyond the knowledge of men, in
universes beyond universes. And I chose the only planet I knew on
which a human being could exist--the wild, primitive, and strange
planet I named Almuric.

Cairn understood the risks and uncertainties as well as I. But he
was utterly fearless--and the thing was done. Esau Cairn left the
planet of his birth, for a world swimming afar in space, alien, aloof,
strange.


Esau Cairn's Narrative



Chapter 01


The Transition was so swift and brief, that it seemed less than a
tick of time lay between the moment I placed myself in Professor
Hildebrand's strange machine, and the instant when I found myself
standing upright in the clear sunlight that flooded a broad plain. I
could not doubt that I had indeed been transported to another world.
The landscape was not so grotesque and fantastic as I might have
supposed, but it was indisputably alien to anything existing on the
Earth.

But before I gave much heed to my surroundings, I examined my own
person to learn if I had survived that awful flight without injury.
Apparently I had. My various parts functioned with their accustomed
vigor. But I was naked. Hildebrand had told me that inorganic
substance could not survive the transmutation. Only vibrant, living
matter could pass unchanged through the unthinkable gulfs which lie
between the planets. I was grateful that I had not fallen into a land
of ice and snow. The plain seemed filled with a lazy summerlike heat.
The warmth of the sun was pleasant on my bare limbs.

On every side stretched away a vast level plain, thickly grown with
short green grass. In the distance this grass attained a greater
height, and through it I caught the glint of water. Here and there
throughout the plain this phenomenon was repeated, and I traced the
meandering course of several rivers, apparently of no great width.
Black dots moved through the grass near the rivers, but their nature I
could not determine. However, it was quite evident that my lot had not
been cast on an uninhabited planet, though I could not guess the
nature of the inhabitants. My imagination peopled the distances with
nightmare shapes.

It is an awesome sensation to be suddenly hurled from one's native
world into a new strange alien sphere. To say that I was not appalled
at the prospect, that I did not shrink and shudder in spite of the
peaceful quiet of my environs, would be hypocrisy. I, who had never
known fear, was transformed into a mass of quivering, cowering nerves,
starting at my own shadow. It was that man's utter helplessness was
borne in upon me, and my mighty frame and massive thews seemed frail
and brittle as the body of a child. How could I pit them against an
unknown world? In that instant I would gladly have returned to Earth
and the gallows that awaited me, rather than face the nameless terrors
with which imagination peopled my new-found world. But I was soon to
learn that those thews I now despised were capable of carrying me
through greater perils than I dreamed.

A slight sound behind me brought me around to stare amazedly at the
first inhabitant of Almuric I was to encounter. And the sight, awesome
and menacing as it was, yet drove the ice from my veins and brought
back some of my dwindling courage. The tangible and material can never
be as grisly as the unknown, however perilous.

At my first startled glance I thought it was a gorilla which stood
before me. Even with the thought I realized that it was a man, but
such a man as neither I nor any other Earthman had ever looked upon.

He was not much taller than I, but broader and heavier, with a great
spread of shoulders, and thick limbs knotted with muscles. He wore a
loincloth of some silklike material girdled with a broad belt which
supported a long knife in a leather sheath. High-strapped sandals were
on his feet. These details I took in at a glance, my attention being
instantly fixed in fascination on his face.

Such a countenance it is difficult to imagine or describe. The head
was set squarely between the massive shoulders, the neck so squat as
to be scarcely apparent. The jaw was square and powerful, and as the
wide thin lips lifted in a snarl, I glimpsed brutal tusklike teeth. A
short bristly beard masked the jaw, set off by fierce, up-curving
mustaches. The nose was almost rudimentary, with wide flaring
nostrils. The eyes were small, bloodshot, and an icy gray in color.
From the thick black brows the forehead, low and receding, sloped back
into a tangle of coarse, bushy hair. The ears were small and very
close-set.

The mane and beard were very blue-black, and the creature's limbs
and body were almost covered with hair of the same hue. He was not,
indeed, as hairy as an ape, but he was hairier than any human being I
had ever seen.

I instantly realized that the being, hostile or not, was a
formidable figure. He fairly emanated strength--hard, raw, brutal
power. There was not an ounce of surplus flesh on him. His frame was
massive, with heavy bones. His hairy skin rippled with muscles that
looked iron-hard. Yet it was not altogether his body that spoke of
dangerous power. His look, his carriage, his whole manner reflected a
terrible physical might backed by a cruel and implacable mind. As I
met the blaze of his bloodshot eyes, I felt a wave of corresponding
anger. The stranger's attitude was arrogant and provocative beyond
description. I felt my muscles tense and harden instinctively.

But for an instant my resentment was submerged by the amazement with
which I heard him speak in perfect English!

"Thak! What manner of man are you?"

His voice was harsh, grating and insulting. There was nothing
subdued or restrained about him. Here were the naked primitive
instincts and manners, unmodified. Again I felt the old red fury
rising in me, but I fought it down.

"I am Esau Cairn," I answered shortly, and halted, at a loss how to
explain my presence on his planet.

His arrogant eyes roved contemptuously over my hairless limbs and
smooth face, and when he spoke, it was with unbearable scorn.

"By Thak, are you a man or a woman?"

My answer was a smash of my clenched fist that sent him rolling on
the sward.

The act was instinctive. Again my primitive wrath had betrayed me.
But I had no time for self-reproach. With a scream of bestial rage my
enemy sprang up and rushed at me, roaring and frothing. I met him
breast to breast, as reckless in my wrath as he, and in an instant was
fighting for my life.

I, who had always had to restrain and hold down my strength lest I
injure my fellow men, for the first time in my life found myself in
the clutches of a man stronger than myself. This I realized in the
first instant of impact, and it was only by the most desperate efforts
that I fought clear of his crushing embrace.

The fight was short and deadly. The only thing that saved me was the
fact that my antagonist knew nothing of boxing. He could--and did--
strike powerful blows with his clenched fists, but they were clumsy,
ill-timed and erratic. Thrice I mauled my way out of grapples that
would have ended with the snapping of my spine. He had no knack of
avoiding blows; no man on Earth could have survived the terrible
battering I gave him. Yet he incessantly surged in on me, his mighty
hands spread to drag me down. His nails were almost like talons, and I
was quickly bleeding from a score of places where they had torn the
skin.

Why he did not draw his dagger I could not understand, unless it was
because he considered himself capable of crushing me with his bare
hands--which proved to be the case. At last, half blinded by my
smashes, blood gushing from his split ears and splintered teeth, he
did reach for his weapon, and the move won the fight for me.

Breaking out of a half-clinch, he straightened out of his defensive
crouch and drew his dagger. And as he did so, I hooked my left into
his belly with all the might of my heavy shoulders and powerfully
driving legs behind it. The breath went out of him in an explosive
gasp, and my fist sank to the wrist in his belly. He swayed, his mouth
flying open, and I smashed my right to his sagging jaw. The punch
started at my hip, and carried every ounce of my weight and strength.
He went down like a slaughtered ox and lay without twitching, blood
spreading out over his beard. That last smash had torn his lip open
from the corner of his mouth to the rim of his chin, and must surely
have fractured his jawbone as well.

Panting from the fury of the bout, my muscles aching from his
crushing grasp, I worked my raw, skinned knuckles, and stared down at
my victim, wondering if I had sealed my doom. Surely, I could expect
nothing now but hostility from the people of Almuric. Well, I thought,
as well be hanged for a sheep as a goat. Stooping, I despoiled my
adversary of his single garment, belt and weapon, and transferred them
to my own frame. This done, I felt some slight renewal of confidence.
At least I was partly clothed and armed.

I examined the dagger with much interest. A more murderous weapon I
have never seen. The blade was perhaps nineteen inches in length,
double-edged, and sharp as a razor. It was broad at the haft, tapering
to a diamond point. The guard and pommel were of silver, the hilt
covered with a substance somewhat like shagreen. The blade was
indisputably steel, but of a quality I had never before encountered.
The whole was a triumph of the weapon-maker's art, and seemed to
indicate a high order of culture.

From my admiration of my newly acquired weapon, I turned again to my
victim, who was beginning to show signs of returning consciousness.
Instinct caused me to sweep the grasslands, and in the distance, to
the south, I saw a group of figures moving toward me. They were surely
men, and armed men. I caught the flash of the sunlight on steel.
Perhaps they were of the tribe of my adversary. If they found me
standing over their senseless comrade, wearing the spoils of conquest,
their attitude toward me was not hard to visualize.

I cast my eyes about for some avenue of escape or refuge, and saw
that the plain, some distance away, ran up into low green-clad
foothills. Beyond these in turn, I saw larger hills, marching up and
up in serried ranges. Another glance showed the distant figures to
have vanished among the tall grass along one of the river courses,
which they must cross before they reached the spot where I stood.

Waiting for no more, I turned and ran swiftly toward the hills. I
did not lessen my pace until I reached the foot of the first
foothills, where I ventured to look back, my breath coming in gasps,
and my heart pounding suffocatingly from my exertions. I could see my
antagonist, a small shape in the vastness of the plain. Further on,
the group I was seeking to avoid had come into the open and were
hastening toward him.

I hurried up the low slope, drenched with sweat and trembling with
fatigue. At the crest I looked back once more, to see the figures
clustered about my vanquished opponent. Then I went down the opposite
slope quickly, and saw them no more.

An hour's journeying brought me into as rugged a country as I have
ever seen. On all sides rose steep slopes, littered with loose
boulders, which threatened to roll down upon the wayfarer. Bare stone
cliffs, reddish in color, were much in evidence. There was little
vegetation, except for low stunted trees, of which the spread of their
branches was equal to the height of the trunk, and several varieties
of thorny bushes, upon some of which grew nuts of peculiar shape and
color. I broke open several of these, finding the kernel to be rich
and meaty in appearance, but I dared not eat it, although I was
feeling the bite of hunger.

My thirst bothered me more than my hunger, and this at least I was
able to satisfy, although the satisfying nearly cost me my life. I
clambered down a precipitous steep and entered a narrow valley,
enclosed by lofty cliffs, at the foot of which the nut-bearing bushes
grew in great abundance. In the middle of the valley lay a broad pool,
apparently fed by a spring. In the center of the pool the water
bubbled continuously, and a small stream led off down the valley.

I approached the pool eagerly, and lying on my belly at its
lush-grown marge, plunged my muzzle into the crystal-clear water. It, too,
might be lethal for an Earthman, for all I knew, but I was so maddened
with thirst that I risked it. It had an unusual tang, a quality I have
always found present in Almuric water, but it was deliciously cold and
satisfying. So pleasant it was to my parched lips that after I had
satisfied my thirst, I lay there enjoying the sensation of
tranquility. That was a mistake. Eat quickly, drink quickly, sleep
lightly, and linger not over anything--those are the first rules of
the wild, and his life is not long who fails to observe them.

The warmth of the sun, the bubbling of the water, the sensuous
feeling of relaxation and satiation after fatigue and thirst--these
wrought on me like an opiate to lull me into semislumber. It must have
been some subconscious instinct that warned me, when a faint swishing
reached my ears that was not part of the rippling of the spring. Even
before my mind translated the sound as the passing of a heavy body
through the tall grass, I whirled on my side, snatching at my poniard.

Simultaneously my ears were stunned with a deafening roar, there was
a rushing through the air, and a giant form crashed down where I had
lain an instant before, so close to me that its outspread talons raked
my thigh. I had no time to tell the nature of my attacker--I had only
a dazed impression that it was huge, supple, and catlike. I rolled
frantically aside as it spat and struck at me sidewise; then it was on
me, and even as I felt its claws tear agonizingly into my flesh, the
ice-cold water engulfed us both. A catlike yowl rose half strangled,
as if the yowler had swallowed a large amount of water. There was a
great splashing and thrashing about me; then as I rose to the surface,
I saw a long, bedraggled shape disappearing around the bushes near the
cliffs. What it was I could not say, but it looked more like a leopard
than anything else, though it was bigger than any leopard I had ever
seen.

Scanning the shore carefully, I saw no other enemy, and crawled out
of the pool, shivering from my icy plunge. My poniard was still in its
scabbard. I had had no time to draw it, which was just as well. If I
had not rolled into the pool, just when I did, dragging my attacker
with me, it would have been my finish. Evidently the beast had a true
catlike distaste for water.

I found that I had a deep gash in my thigh and four lesser abrasions
on my shoulder, where a great talon-armed paw had closed. The gash in
my leg was pouring blood, and I thrust the limb deep into the icy
pool, swearing at the excruciating sting of the cold water on the raw
flesh. My leg was nearly numb when the bleeding ceased.

I now found myself in a quandary. I was hungry, night was coming on,
there was no telling when the leopard-beast might return, or another
predatory animal attack me; more than that, I was wounded. Civilized
man is soft and easily disabled. I had a wound such as would be
considered, among civilized people, ample reason for weeks of an
invalid's existence. Strong and rugged as I was, according to Earth
standards, I despaired when I surveyed the wound, and wondered how I
was to treat it. The matter was quickly taken out of my hands.

I had started across the valley toward the cliffs, hoping I might
find a cave there, for the nip of the air warned me that the night
would not be as warm as the day, when a hellish clamor up near the
mouth of the valley caused me to wheel and glare in that direction.
Over the ridge came what I thought to be a pack of hyenas, except for
their noise, which was more infernal than an Earthly hyena, even,
could produce. I had no illusions as to their purpose. It was I they
were after.

Necessity recognizes few limitations. An instant before I had been
limping painfully and slowly. Now I set out on a mad race for the
cliff as if I were fresh and unwounded. With every step a spasm of
agony shot along my thigh, and the wound, bleeding afresh, spurted
red, but I gritted my teeth and increased my efforts.

My pursuers gave tongue and raced after me with such appalling speed
that I had almost given up hope of reaching the trees beneath the
cliffs before they pulled me down. They were snapping at my heels when
I lurched into the low stunted growths, and swarmed up the spreading
branches with a gasp of relief. But to my horror the hyenas climbed
after me! A desperate downward glance showed me that they were not
true hyenas; they differed from the breed I had known just as
everything on Almuric differed subtly from its nearest counterpart on
Earth. These beasts had curving catlike claws, and their bodily
structure was catlike enough to allow them to climb as well as a lynx.

Despairingly, I was about to turn at bay, when I saw a ledge on the
cliff above my head. There the cliff was deeply weathered, and the
branches pressed against it. A desperate scramble up the perilous
slant, and I had dragged my scratched and bruised body up on the ledge
and lay glaring down at my pursuers, who loaded the topmost branches
and howled up at me like lost souls. Evidently their climbing ability
did not include cliffs, because after one attempt, in which one sprang
up toward the ledge, clawed frantically for an instant on the sloping
stone wall, and then fell off with an awful shriek, they made no
effort to reach me.

Neither did they abandon their post. Stars came out, strange
unfamiliar constellations, that blazed whitely in the dark velvet
skies, and a broad golden moon rose above the cliffs, and flooded the
hills with weird light; but still my sentinels sat on the branches
below me and howled up at me their hatred and belly-hunger.

The air was icy, and frost formed on the bare stone where I lay. My
limbs became stiff and numb. I had knotted my girdle about my leg for
a tourniquet; the run had apparently ruptured some small veins laid
bare by the wound, because the blood flowed from it in an alarming
manner.

I never spent a more miserable night. I lay on the frosty stone
ledge, shaking with cold. Below me the eyes of my hunters burned up at
me. Throughout the shadowy hills sounded the roaring and bellowing of
unknown monsters. Howls, screams and yapping cut the night. And there
I lay, naked, wounded, freezing, hungry, terrified, just as one of my
remote ancestors might have lain in the Paleolithic Age of my own
planet.

I can understand why our heathen ancestors worshipped the sun. When
at last the cold moon sank and the sun of Almuric pushed its golden
rim above the distant cliffs, I could have wept for sheer joy. Below
me the hyenas snarled and stretched themselves, bayed up at me
briefly, and loped away in search of easier prey. Slowly the warmth of
the sun stole through my cramped, numbed limbs, and I rose stiffly up
to greet the day, just as that forgotten forbear of mine might have
stood up in the youthdawn of the Earth.

After a while I descended, and fell upon the nuts clustered in the
bushes near by. I was faint from hunger, and decided that I had as
soon die from poisoning as from starvation. I broke open the thick
shells and munched the meaty kernels eagerly, and I cannot recall any
Earthly meal, howsoever elaborate, that tasted half as good. No ill
effects followed; the nuts were good and nutritious. I was beginning
to overcome my surroundings, at least so far as food was concerned. I
had surmounted one obstacle of life on Almuric.

It is needless for me to narrate the details of the following
months. I dwelt among the hills in such suffering and peril as no man
on Earth has experienced for thousands of years. I make bold to say
that only a man of extraordinary strength and ruggedness could have
survived as I did. I did more than survive. I came at last to thrive
on the existence.

At first I dared not leave the valley, where I was sure of food and
water. I built a sort of nest of branches and leaves on the ledge, and
slept there at night. Slept? The word is misleading. I crouched there,
trying to keep from freezing, grimly lasting out the night. In the
daytime I snatched naps, learning to sleep anywhere, or at any time,
and so lightly that the slightest unusual noise would awaken me. The
rest of the time I explored my valley and the hills about, and picked
and ate nuts. Nor were my humble explorations uneventful. Time and
again I raced for the cliffs or the trees, winning sometimes by
shuddering hairbreadths. The hills swarmed with beasts, and all seemed
predatory.

It was that fact which held me to my valley, where I at least had a
bit of safety. What drove me forth at last was the same reason that
has always driven forth the human race, from the first apeman down to
the last European colonist--the search for food. My supply of nuts
became exhausted. The trees were stripped. This was not altogether on
my account, although I developed a most ravenous hunger, what of my
constant exertions; but others came to eat the nuts--huge shaggy
bearlike creatures, and things that looked like fur-clad baboons.
These animals ate nuts, but they were omnivorous, to judge by the
attention they accorded me. The bears were comparatively easy to
avoid; they were mountains of flesh and muscle, but they could not
climb, and their eyes were none too good. It was the baboons I learned
to fear and hate. They pursued me on sight, they could both run and
climb, and they were not balked by the cliff.

One pursued me to my eyrie, and swarmed up onto the ledge with me.
At least such was his intention, but man is always most dangerous when
cornered. I was weary of being hunted. As the frothing apish
monstrosity hauled himself up over my ledge, manlike, I drove my
poniard down between his shoulders with such fury that I literally
pinned him to the ledge; the keen point sinking a full inch into the
solid stone beneath him.

The incident showed me both the temper of my steel, and the growing
quality of my own muscles. I who had been among the strongest on my
own planet, found myself a weakling on primordial Almuric. Yet the
potentiality of mastery was in my brain and my thews, and I was
beginning to find myself.

Since survival was dependent on toughening, I toughened. My skin,
burnt brown by the sun and hardened by the elements, became more
impervious to both heat and cold than I had deemed possible. Muscles I
had not known I possessed became evident. Such strength and suppleness
became mine as Earthmen have not known for ages.

A short time before I had been transported from my native planet, a
noted physical culture expert had pronounced me the most perfectly
developed man on Earth. As I hardened with my fierce life on Almuric,
I realized that the expert honestly had not known what physical
development was. Nor had I. Had it been possible to divide my being
and set opposite each other the man that expert praised, and the man I
had become, the former would have seemed ridiculously soft, sluggish
and clumsy in comparison to the brown, sinewy giant opposed to him.

I no longer turned blue with the cold at night, nor did the rockiest
way bruise my naked feet. I could swarm up an almost sheer cliff with
the ease of a monkey, I could run for hours without exhaustion; in
short dashes it would have taken a racehorse to outfoot me. My wounds,
untended except for washing in cold water, healed of themselves, as
Nature is prone to heal the hurts of such as live close to her.

All this I narrate in order that it may be seen what sort of a man
was formed in the savage mold. Had it not been for the fierce forging
that made me steel and rawhide, I could not have survived the grim
bloody episodes through which I was to pass on that wild planet.

With new realization of power came confidence. I stood on my feet
and stared at my bestial neighbors with defiance. I no longer fled
from a frothing, champing baboon. With them, at least, I declared
feud, growing to hate the abominable beasts as I might have hated
human enemies. Besides, they ate the nuts I wished for myself.

They soon learned not to follow me to my eyrie, and the day came
when I dared to meet one on even terms, I will never forget the sight
of him frothing and roaring as he charged out of a clump of bushes,
and the awful glare in his manlike eyes. My resolution wavered, but it
was too late to retreat, and I met him squarely, skewering him through
the heart as he closed in with his long clutching arms.

But there were other beasts which frequented the valley, and which I
did not attempt to meet on any terms: the hyenas, the sabertooth
leopards, longer and heavier than an Earthly tiger and more ferocious;
giant mooselike creatures, carnivorous, with alligator-like tusks; the
monstrous bears; gigantic boars, with bristly hair which looked
impervious to a swordcut. There were other monsters, which appeared
only at night, and the details of which I was not able to make out.
These mysterious beasts moved mostly in silence, though some emitted
high-pitched weird wails, or low Earth-shaking rumbles. As the unknown
is most menacing, I had a feeling that these nighted monsters were
even more terrible than the familiar horrors which harried my day-life.

I remember one occasion on which I awoke suddenly and found myself
lying tensely on my ledge, my ears strained to a night suddenly and
breathlessly silent. The moon had set and the valley was veiled in
darkness. Not a chattering baboon, not a yelping hyena disturbed the
sinister stillness. *Something* was moving through the valley; I heard
the faint rhythmic swishing of the grass that marked the passing of
some huge body, but in the darkness I made out only a dim gigantic
shape, which somehow seemed infinitely longer than it was broad--out
of natural proportion, somehow. It passed away up the valley, and with
its going, it was as if the night audibly expelled a gusty sigh of
relief. The nocturnal noises started up again, and I lay back to sleep
once more with a vague feeling that some grisly horror had passed me
in the night.

I have said that I strove with the baboons over the possession of
the life-giving nuts. What of my own appetite and those of the beasts,
there came a time when I was forced to leave my valley and seek far
afield in search of nutriment. My explorations had become broader and
broader, until I had exhausted the resources of the country close
about. So I set forth at random through the hills in a southerly and
easterly direction. Of my wanderings I will deal briefly. For many
weeks I roamed through the hills, starving, feasting, threatened by
savage beasts sleeping in trees or perilously on tall rocks when night
fell. I fled, I fought, I slew, I suffered wounds. Oh, I can tell you
my life was neither dull nor uneventful.

I was living the life of the most primitive savage; I had neither
companionship, books, clothing, nor any of the things which go to make
up civilization. According to the cultured viewpoint, I should have
been most miserable. I was not. I revelled in my existence. My being
grew and expanded. I tell you, the natural life of mankind is a grim
battle for existence against the forces of nature, and any other form
of life is artificial and without realistic meaning.

My life was not empty; it was crowded with adventures calling on
every ounce of intelligence and physical power. When I swung down from
my chosen eyrie at dawn, I knew that I would see the sun set only
through my personal craft and strength and speed. I came to read the
meaning of every waving grass tuft, each masking bush, each towering
boulder. On every hand lurked Death in a thousand forms. My vigilance
could not be relaxed, even in sleep. When I closed my eyes at night it
was with no assurance that I would open them at dawn. I was fully
alive. That phrase has more meaning than appears on the surface. The
average civilized man is never fully alive; he is burdened with masses
of atrophied tissue and useless matter. Life flickers feebly in him;
his senses are dull and torpid. In developing his intellect he has
sacrificed far more than he realizes.

I realized that I, too, had been partly dead on my native planet.
But now I was alive in every sense of the word; I tingled and burned
and stung with life to the finger tips and the ends of my toes. Every
sinew, vein, and springy bone was vibrant with the dynamic flood of
singing, pulsing, humming life. My time was too much occupied with
food-getting and preserving my skin to allow the developing of the
morbid and intricate complexes and inhibitions which torment the
civilized individual. To those highly complex persons who would
complain that the psychology of such a life is over-simple, I can but
reply that in my life at that time, violent and continual action and
the necessity of action crowded out most of the gropings and
soul-searchings common to those whose safety and daily meals are assured
them by the toil of others. My life *was* primitively simple; I dwelt
altogether in the present. My life on Earth already seemed like a
dream, dim and far away.

All my life I had held down my instincts, had chained and enthralled
my over-abundant vitalities. Now I was free to hurl all my mental and
physical powers into the untamed struggle for existence, and I knew
such zest and freedom as I had never dreamed of.

In all my wanderings--and since leaving the valley I had covered an
enormous distance--I had seen no sign of humanity, or anything
remotely resembling humanity.

It was the day I glimpsed a vista of rolling grassland beyond the
peaks, that I suddenly encountered a human being. The meeting was
unexpected. As I strode along an upland plateau, thickly grown with
bushes and littered with boulders, I came abruptly on a scene striking
in its primordial significance.

Ahead of me the Earth sloped down to form a shallow bowl, the floor
of which was thickly grown with tall grass, indicating the presence of
a spring. In the midst of this bowl a figure similar to the one I had
encountered on my arrival on Almuric was waging an unequal battle with
a sabertooth leopard. I stared in amazement, for I had not supposed
that any human could stand before the great cat and live.

Always the glittering wheel of a sword shimmered between the monster
and its prey, and blood on the spotted hide showed that the blade had
been fleshed more than once. But it could not last; at any instant I
expected to see the swordsman go down beneath the giant body.

Even with the thought, I was running fleetly down the shallow slope.
I owed nothing to the unknown man, but his valiant battle stirred
newly plumbed depths in my soul. I did not shout but rushed in
silently and murderously, my poniard gleaming in my hand. Even as I
reached them, the great cat sprang, the sword went spinning from the
wielder's hand, and he went down beneath the hurtling bulk. And almost
simultaneously I disembowled the sabertooth with one tremendous
ripping stroke.

With a scream it lurched off its victim, slashing murderously as I
leaped back, and then it began rolling and tumbling over the grass,
roaring hideously and ripping up the Earth with its frantic talons, in
a ghastly welter of blood and streaming entrails.

It was a sight to sicken the hardiest, and I was glad when the
mangled beast stiffened convulsively and lay still.

I turned to the man, but with little hope of finding life in him. I
had seen the terrible saberlike fangs of the giant carnivore tear into
his throat as he went down.

He was lying in a wide pool of blood, his throat horribly mangled. I
could see the pulsing of the great jugular vein which had been laid
bare, though not severed. One of the huge taloned paws had raked down
his side from arm-pit to hip, and his thigh had been laid open in a
frightful manner; I could see the naked bone, and from the ruptured
veins blood was gushing. Yet to my amazement the man was not only
living, but conscious. Yet even as I looked, his eyes glazed and the
light faded in them.

I tore a strip from his loincloth and made a tourniquet about his
thigh which somewhat slackened the flow of blood; then I looked down
at him helplessly. He was apparently dying, though I knew something of
the stamina and vitality of the wild and its people. And such
evidently this man was; he was as savage and hairy in appearance,
though not quite so bulky, as the man I had fought during my first day
on Almuric.

As I stood there helplessly, something whistled venomously past my
ear and thudded into the slope behind me. I saw a long arrow quivering
there, and a fierce shout reached my ears. Glaring about, I saw half a
dozen hairy men running fleetly toward me, fitting shafts to their
bows as they came.

With an instinctive snarl I bounded up the short slope, the whistle
of the missiles about my head lending wings to my heels. I did not
stop, once I had gained the cover of the bushes surrounding the bowl,
but went straight on, wrathful and disgusted. Evidently men as well as
beasts were hostile on Almuric, and I would do well to avoid them in
the future.

Then I found my anger submerged in a fantastic problem. I had
understood some of the shouts of the men as they rushed toward me. The
words had been in English, just as the antagonist of my first
encounter had spoken and understood that language. In vain I cudgeled
my mind for a solution. I had found that while animate and inanimate
objects on Almuric often closely copied things on Earth, yet there was
almost a striking difference somewhere, in substance, quality, shape
or mode of action. It was preposterous that certain conditions on the
separate planets could run such a perfect parallel as to produce an
identical language. Yet I could not doubt the evidence of my ears.
With a curse I abandoned the problem as too fantastic to waste time
on.

Perhaps it was this incident, perhaps the glimpse of the distant
savannas, which filled me with a restlessness and distaste for the
barren hill country where I had fared so hardily. The sight of men,
strange and alien as they were, stirred in my breast a desire for
human companionship, and this frustrated longing became in turn a
sudden feeling of repulsion for my surroundings. I did not hope to
meet friendly humans on the plains; but I determined to try my chances
upon them, nevertheless, though what perils I might meet there I could
not know. Before I left the hills some whim caused me to scrape from
my face my heavy growth and trim my shaggy hair with my poniard, which
had lost none of its razor edge. Why I did this I cannot say, unless
it was the natural instinct of a man setting forth into new country to
look his "best."

The next morning I descended into the grassy plains, which swept
eastward and southward as far as sight could reach. I continued
eastward and covered many miles that day, without any unusual
incident. I encountered several small winding rivers, along whose
margins the grass stood taller than my head. Among this grass I heard
the snorting and thrashing of heavy animals of some sort, and gave
them a wide berth--for which caution I was later thankful.

The rivers were thronged in many cases with gaily colored birds of
many shapes and hues, some silent, others continually giving forth
strident cries as they wheeled above the waters or dipped down to
snatch their prey from its depths.

Further out on the plain I came upon herds of grazing animals--small
deerlike creatures, and a curious animal that looked like a
pot-bellied pig with abnormally long hind legs, and that progressed in
enormous bounds, after the fashion of a kangaroo. It was a most
ludicrous sight, and I laughed until my belly ached. Later I reflected
that it was the first time I had laughed--outside of a few short barks
of savage satisfaction at the discomfiture of an enemy--since I had
set foot on Almuric.

That night I slept in the tall grass not far from a water course,
and might have been made the prey of any wandering meat-eater. But
fortune was with me that night. All across the plains sounded the
thunderous roaring of stalking monsters, but none came near my frail
retreat. The night was warm and pleasant, strikingly in contrast with
the nights in the chill grim hills.

The next day a momentous thing occurred. I had had no meat on
Almuric, except when ravenous hunger had driven me to eat raw flesh. I
had searched in vain for some stone that would strike a spark. The
rocks were of a peculiar nature, unknown to Earth. But that morning on
the plains, I found a bit of greenish-looking stone lying in the
grass, and experiments showed that it had some of the qualities of
flint. Patient effort, in which I clinked my poniard against the
stone, rewarded me with a spark of fire in the dry grass, which I soon
fanned to a blaze--and had some difficulty in extinguishing.

That night I surrounded myself with a ring of fire which I fed with
dry grass and stalked plants which burned slowly and I felt
comparatively safe, though huge forms moved about me in the darkness,
and I caught the stealthy pad of great paws, and the glimmer of wicked
eyes.

On my journey across the plains I subsisted on fruit I found growing
on green stalks, which I saw the birds eating. It was pleasant to the
taste, though lacking in the nutritive qualities of the nuts in the
hills. I looked longingly at the scampering deerlike animals, now that
I had the means of cooking their flesh, but saw no way of securing
them.

And so for days I wandered aimlessly across those vast plains, until
I came in sight of a massive walled city.

I sighted it just at nightfall, and eager though I was to
investigate it further, I made my camp and waited for morning. I
wondered if my fire would be seen by the inhabitants, and if they
would send out a party to discover my nature and purpose.

With the fall of night I could no longer make it out, but the last
waning light had shown it plainly, rising stark and somber against the
eastern sky. At that distance no evidence of life was visible, but I
had a dim impression of huge walls and massive towers, all of a
greenish tint.

I lay within my circle of fire, while great sinuous bodies rustled
through the grass and fierce eyes glared at me, and my imagination was
at work as I strove to visualize the possible inhabitants of that
mysterious city. Would they be of the same race as the hairy ferocious
troglodytes I had encountered? I doubted it, for it hardly seemed
possible that these primitive creatures would be capable of rearing
such a structure. Perhaps there I would find a highly developed type
of cultured man. Perhaps--here imaginings too dark and shadowy for
description whispered at the back of my consciousness.

Then the moon rose behind the city, etching its massive outlines in
the weird golden glow. It looked black and somber in the moonlight;
there was something distinctly brutish and forbidding about its
contours. As I sank into slumber I reflected that if apemen could
build a city, it would surely resemble that colossus in the moon.



Chapter 02


Dawn Found Me on my way across the plain. It may seem like the
height of folly to have gone striding openly toward the city, which
might be full of hostile beings, but I had learned to take desperate
chances, and I was consumed with curiosity; weary at last of my lonely
life.

The nearer I approached, the more rugged the details stood out.
There was more of the fortress than the city about the walls, which,
with the tower that loomed behind and above them, seemed to have been
built of huge blocks of greenish stone, very roughly cut. There was no
apparent attempt at smoothing, polishing, or otherwise adorning this
stone. The whole appearance was rude and savage, suggesting a wild
fierce people heaping up rocks as a defense against enemies.

As yet I had seen nothing of the inhabitants. The city might have
been empty of human life. But a broad road leading to the massive gate
was beaten bare of grass, as if by the constant impact of many feet.
There were no fields or gardens about the city; the grass waved to the
foot of the walls. All during that long march across the plain to the
gates, I saw nothing resembling a human being. But as I came under the
shadow of the great gate, which was flanked on either hand by a
massive tower, I caught a glimpse of tousled black heads moving along
the squat battlements. I halted and threw back my head to hail them.
The sun had just topped the towers and its glare was full in my eyes.
Even as I opened my lips, there was a cracking report like a rifle
shot, a jet of white smoke spurted from a tower, and a terrific impact
against my head dashed me into unconsciousness.

When I came to my senses it was not slowly, but quickly and
clear-headedly, what with my immense recuperative powers. I was lying on a
bare stone floor in a large chamber, the walls, ceiling and floor of
which were composed of huge blocks of green stone. From a barred
window high up in one wall sunlight poured to illuminate the room,
which was without furnishing, except for a bench, crudely and
massively built.

A heavy chain was looped about my waist and made fast with a
strange, heavy lock. The other end of the chain was fastened to a
thick ring set in the wall. Everything about the fantastic city seemed
massive.

Lifting a hand to my head, I found it was bandaged with something
that felt like silk. My head throbbed. Evidently whatever missile it
was that had been fired at me from the wall, had only grazed my head,
inflicting a scalp wound and knocking me senseless. I felt for my
poniard, but naturally it was gone.

I cursed heartily. When I had found myself on Almuric I had been
appalled by my prospects; but then at least I had been free. Now I was
in the hands of God only knew what manner of beings. All I knew was
that they were hostile. But my inordinate self-confidence would not
down, and I felt no great fear. I did feel a rush of panic, common to
all wild things, at being confined and shackled, but I fought down
this feeling and it was succeeded by one of red unreasoning rage.
Springing to my feet, which movement the chain was long enough to
allow, I began jerking and tearing at my shackle.

It was while engaged in this fruitless exhibition of primitive
resentment that a slight noise caused me to wheel, snarling, my
muscles tensed for attack or defense. What I saw froze me in my
tracks.

Just within the doorway stood a girl. Except in her garments she
differed little from the type of girls I had known on Earth, except
that her slim figure exhibited a suppleness superior to theirs. Her
hair was intensely black, her skin white as alabaster. Her lissome
limbs were barely concealed by a light, tuniclike garment, sleeveless,
low-necked, revealing the greater part of her ivory breasts. This
garment was girdled at her lithe waist, and came to within a few
inches above her knees. Soft sandals encased her slender feet. She was
standing in an attitude of awed fascination, her dark eyes wide, her
crimson lips parted. As I wheeled and glared at her, she gave back with
a quick gasp of surprise or fear, and fled lightly from the chamber.

I stared after her. If she were typical of the people of the city,
then surely the effect produced by the brutish masonry was an
illusion, for she seemed the product of some gentle and refined
civilization, allowing for a certain barbaric suggestion about her
costume.

While so musing, I heard the tramp of feet, harsh voices were lifted
in argument, and the next instant a group of men strode into the
chamber, halting as they saw me conscious and on my feet. Still
thinking of the girl, I glared at them in surprise. They were of the
same type as the others I had seen, huge, hairy, ferocious, with the
same apelike forward-thrust heads and formidable faces. Some, I
noticed, were darker than others, but all were dark and fierce, and
the whole effect was one of somber and ferocious savagery. They were
instinct with ferocity; it blazed in their icy-gray eyes, reflected in
the snarling lift of their bristling lips, rumbled in their rough
voices.

All were armed, and their hands seemed instinctively to seek their
hilts as they stood glaring at me, their shaggy heads thrust forward
in their apelike manner.

"Thak!" one exclaimed, or rather roared--all their voices were as
gusty as a sea wind--"he's conscious!"

"Do you suppose he can speak or understand human language?" rumbled
another.

All this while I had stood glaring back at them, wondering anew at
their speech. Now I realized that they were not speaking English.

The thing was so unnatural that it gave me a shock. They were not
speaking any Earthly language, and I realized it, yet I understood
them, except for various words which apparently had no counterpart on
Earth. I made no attempt to understand this seemingly impossible
phenomenon, but answered the last speaker.

"I can speak and understand." I grunted. "Who are you? What city is
this? Why did you attack me? Why am I in chains?"

They rumbled in amazement, with much tugging of mustaches, shaking
of heads, and uncouth profanity.

"He talks, by Thak!" said one. "I tell you, he is from beyond the
Girdle!"

"From beyond my hip!" broke in another rudely. "He is a freak, a
damned, smooth-skinned degenerate misfit which should not have been
born, or allowed to exist."

"Ask him how he came by the Bonecrusher's poniard," requested yet
another.

"Did you steal this from Logar?" he demanded.

"I stole nothing!" I snapped, feeling like a wild beast being
prodded through the bars of a cage by unfeeling and critical
spectators. My rages, like all the emotions on that wild planet, were
without restraint.

"I took that poniard from the man who carried it, and I took it in a
fair fight," I added.

"Did you slay him?" they demanded unbelievingly.

"No," I growled. "We fought with our bare hands, until he tried to
knife me. Then I knocked him senseless."

A roar greeted my words. I thought at first they were clamoring with
rage; then I made out that they were arguing among themselves.

"I tell you he lies!" one bull's bellow rose above the tumult. "We
all know that Logar the Bonecrusher is not the man to be thrashed and
stripped by a smooth-skinned hairless brown man like this. Ghor the
Bear might be a match for Logar. No one else."

"Well, there's the poniard," someone pointed out.

The clamor rose again, and in an instant the disputants were yelling
and cursing, and brandishing their hairy fists in one another's faces,
hands fumbled at sword hilts, and challenges and defiances were
exchanged freely.

I looked to see a general throat-cutting, but presently one who
seemed in some authority drew his sword and began banging the hilt on
the rude bench, at the same time drowning out the voices of the others
with his bull-like bellowing.

"Shut up! Shut up! Let another man open his mouth and I'll split his
head!" As the clamor subsided and the disputants glared venomously at
him, he continued in a voice as calm as if nothing had occurred. "It's
neither here nor there about the poniard. He might have caught Logar
sleeping and brained him, or he might have stolen it, or found it. Are
we Logar's brothers, that we should seek after his welfare?"

A general snarl answered this. Evidently the man called Logar was
not popular among them.

"The question is, what shall we do with this creature? We've got to
hold a council and decide. He's evidently uneatable." He grinned as he
said this, which was apparently meant as a bit of grim humor.

"His hide would make good leather." suggested another in a tone that
did not sound as though he was joking.

"Too soft," protested another.

"He didn't feel soft while we were carrying him in," returned the
first speaker. "He was hard as steel springs."

"Tush," deprecated the other. "I'll show you how tender his flesh
is. Watch me slice off a few strips." He drew his dagger and
approached me while the others watched with interest.

All this time my rage had been growing until the chamber seemed to
swim in a red mist. Now, as I realized that the fellow really intended
trying the edge of his steel on my skin I went berserk. Wheeling, I
gripped the chain with both hands, wrapping it around my wrists for
more leverage. Then, bracing my feet against the floor and walls I
began to strain with all my strength. All over my body the great
muscles coiled and knotted; sweat broke out on my skin, and then with
a shattering crash the stone gave way, the iron ring was torn out
bodily, and I was catapulted on my back onto the floor, at the feet of
my captors who roared with amazement and fell on me *en masse*.

I answered their bellows with one strident yell of blood-thirsty
gratification, and heaving up through the melee, began swinging my
heavy fists like caulking mallets. Oh, that was a rough-house while it
lasted! They made no attempt to knife me, striving to swamp me with
numbers. We rolled from one side of the chamber to the other, a
gasping, thrashing, cursing, hammering mass, while with the yells,
howls, earnest profanity, and impact of heavy bodies, it was a perfect
bedlam. Once I seemed to catch a fleeting glimpse of the door thronged
with the heads of women similar to the one I had seen, but I could not
be sure; my teeth were set in a hairy ear, my eyes were full of sweat
and stars from a vicious punch on the nose, and what with a gang of
heavy forms romping all over me my sight was none too good.

Yet, I gave a good account of myself. Ears split, noses crumpled and
teeth splintered under the crushing impact of my iron-hard fists, and
the yells of the wounded were music to my battered ears. But that
damnable chain about my waist kept tripping me and coiling about my
legs, and pretty soon the bandage was ripped from my head, my scalp
wound opened anew and deluged me with blood. Blinded by this I
floundered and stumbled, and gasping and panting they bore me down and
bound my arms and legs.

The survivors then fell away from me and lay or sat in positions of
pain and exhaustion while I, finding my voice, cursed them luridly. I
derived ferocious satisfaction at the sight of all the bloody noses,
black eyes, torn ears and smashed teeth which were in evidence, and
barked in vicious laughter when one announced with many curses that
his arm was broken. One of them was out cold, and had to be revived,
which they did by dumping over him a vessel of cold water that was
fetched by someone I could not see from where I lay. I had no idea
that it was a woman who came in answer to a harsh roar of command.

"His wound is open again," said one, pointing at me. "He'll bleed to
death."

"I hope he does," snarled another, lying doubled up on the floor.
"He's burst my belly. I'm dying. Get me some wine."

"If you're dying you don't need wine," brutally answered the one who
seemed a chief, as he spat out bits of splintered teeth. "Tie up his
wound, Akra."

Akra limped over to me with no great enthusiasm and bent down.

"Hold your damnable head still," he growled.

"Keep off!" I snarled. "I'll have nothing from you. Touch me at your
peril."

He exasperatedly grabbed my face in his broad hand and shoved me
violently down. That was a mistake. My jaws locked on his thumb,
evoking an ear-splitting howl, and it was only with the aid of his
comrades that he extricated the mangled member. Maddened by the pain,
he howled wordlessly, then suddenly gave me a terrific kick in the
temple, driving my wounded head with great violence back against the
massive bench leg. Once again I lost consciousness.

When I came to myself again I was once more bandaged, shackled by
the wrists and ankles, and made fast to a fresh ring, newly set in the
stone, and apparently more firmly fixed than the other had been. It
was night. Through the window I glimpsed the star-dotted sky. A torch
which burned with a peculiar white flame was thrust into a niche in
the wall, and a man sat on the bench, elbows on knees and chin on
fists, regarding me intently. On the bench near him stood a huge gold
vessel.

"I doubted if you'd come to after that last crack," he said at last.

"It would take more than that to finish me," I snarled. "You are a
pack of cursed weaklings. But for my wound and that infernal chain,
I'd have bested the whole mob of you."

My insults seemed to interest rather than anger him. He absently
fingered a large bump on his head on which blood was thickly clotted,
and asked: "Who are you? Whence do you come?"

"None of your business," I snapped.

He shrugged his shoulders, and lifting the vessel in one hand drew
his dagger with the other.

"In Koth none goes hungry," he said, "I'm going to place this food
near your hand and you can eat. But I warn you, if you try to strike
or bite me, I'll stab you."

I merely snarled truculently, and he bent and set down the bowl,
hastily withdrawing. I found the food to be a kind of stew, satisfying
both thirst and hunger. Having eaten I felt in somewhat better mood,
and my guard renewed his questions, I answered: "My name is Esau
Cairn. I am an American, from the planet Earth."

He mulled over my statements for a space, then asked: "Are these
places beyond the Girdle?"

"I don't understand you," I answered.

He shook his head. "Nor I you. But if you do not know of the Girdle,
you cannot be from beyond it. Doubtless it is all fable, anyway. But
whence did you come when we saw you approaching across the plain? Was
that your fire we glimpsed from the towers last night?"

"I suppose so," I replied. "For many months I have lived in the
hills to the west. It was only a few weeks ago that I descended into
the plains."

He stared and stared at me.

"In the hills? Alone, and with only a poniard?"

"Well, what about it?" I demanded.

He shook his head as if in doubt or wonder. "A few hours ago I would
have called you a liar. Now I am not sure."

"What is the name of this city?" I asked.

"Koth, of the Kothan tribe. Our chief is Khossuth Skull-splitter. I
am Thab the Swift. I am detailed to guard you while the warriors hold
council."

"What's the nature of their council?" I inquired.

"They discuss what shall be done with you; and they have been
arguing since sunset, and are no nearer a solution than before."

"What is their disagreement?"

"Well," he answered. "Some want to hang you, and some want to shoot
you."

"I don't suppose it's occurred to them that they might let me go," I
suggested with some bitterness.

He gave me a cold look. "Don't be a fool," he said reprovingly.

At that moment a light step sounded outside, and the girl I had seen
before tiptoed into the chamber. Thab eyed her disapprovingly.

"What are you doing here, Altha?" he demanded.

"I came to look again at the stranger," she answered in a soft
musical voice. "I never saw a man like him. His skin is nearly as
smooth as mine, and he has no hair on his countenance. How strange are
his eyes! Whence does he come?"

"From the hills, he says," grunted Thab. Her eyes widened. "Why,
none dwells in the hills, except wild beasts! Can it be that he is
some sort of animal? They say he speaks and understands speech."

"So he does," growled Thab, fingering his bruises. "He also knocks
out men's brains with his naked fists, which are harder and heavier
than maces. Get away from there.

"He's a rampaging devil. If he gets his hands on you he won't leave
enough of you for the vultures to pick."

"I won't get near him," she assured him. "But, Thab, he does not
look so terrible. See, there is no anger in the gaze he fixes on me.
What will be done with him?"

"The tribe will decide," he answered. "Probably let him fight a
sabertooth leopard bare-handed."

She clasped her own hands with more human feeling than I had yet
seen shown on Almuric.

"Oh, Thab, why? He has done no harm; he came alone and with empty
hands. The warriors shot him down without warning--and now--"

He glanced at her in irritation. "If I told your father you were
pleading for a captive--"

Evidently the threat carried weight. She visibly wilted.

"Don't tell him," she pleaded. Then she flared up again. "Whatever
you say, it's beastly! If my father whips me until the blood runs over
my heels, I'll still say so!"

And so saying, she ran quickly out of the chamber.

"Who is that girl?" I asked.

"Altha, the daughter of Zal the Thrower."

"Who is he?"

"One of those you battled so viciously a short time ago."

"You mean to tell me a girl like that is the daughter of a man
like--" Words failed me.

"What's wrong with her?" he demanded. "She differs none from the
rest of our women."

"You mean all the women look like her, and all the men look like
you?"

"Certainly--allowing for their individual characteristics. Is it
otherwise among your people? That is, if you are not a solitary
freak."

"Well, I'll be--" I began in bewilderment, when another warrior
appeared in the door, saying.

"I'm to relieve you, Thab. The warriors
have decide to leave the matter to Khossuth when he returns on the
morrow."

Thab departed and the other seated himself on the bench. I made no
attempt to talk to him. My head was swimming with the contradictory
phenomena I had heard and observed, and I felt the need of sleep. I
soon sank into dreamless slumber.

Doubtless my wits were still addled from the battering I had
received. Otherwise I would have snapped awake when I felt something
touch my hair. As it was, I woke only partly. From under drooping lids
I glimpsed, as in a dream, a girlish face bent close to mine, dark
eyes wide with frightened fascination, red lips parted. The fragrance
of her foamy black hair was in my nostrils. She timidly touched my
face, then drew back with a quick soft intake of breath, as if
frightened by her action. The guard snored on the bench. The torch had
burned to a stub that cast a weird dull glow over the chamber.
Outside, the moon had set. This much I vaguely realized before I sank
back into slumber again, to be haunted by a dim beautiful face that
shimmered through my dreams.



Chapter 03


I Awoke Again in the cold gray light of dawn, at a time when the
condemned meet their executioners. A group of men stood over me, and
one I knew was Khossuth the Skullsplitter.

He was taller than most, and leaner--almost gaunt in comparison to
the others. This circumstance made his broad shoulders seem abnormally
huge. His face and body were seamed with old scars. He was very dark,
and apparently old; an impressive and terrible image of somber
savagery.

He stood looking down at me, fingering the hilt of his great sword.
His gaze was gloomy and detached.

"They say you claim to have beaten Logar of Thurga in open fight,"
he said at last, and his voice was cavernous and ghostly in a manner I
cannot describe.

I did not reply, but lay staring up at him, partly in fascination at
his strange and menacing appearance, partly in the anger that seemed
generally to be with me during those times.

"Why do you not answer?" he rumbled.

"Because I'm weary of being called a liar," I snarled.

"Why did you come to Koth?"

"Because I was tired of living alone among wild beasts. I was a
fool. I thought I would find human beings whose company was preferable
to the leopards and baboons. I find I was wrong."

He tugged his bristling mustaches.

"Men say you fight like a mad leopard. Thab says that you did not
come to the gates as an enemy comes. I love brave men. But what can we
do? If we free you, you will hate us because of what has passed, and
your hate is not lightly to be loosed."

"Why not take me into the tribe?" I remarked, at random.

He shook his head. "We are not Yagas, to keep slaves."

"Nor am I a slave," I grunted. "Let me live among you as an equal. I
will hunt and fight with you. I am as good a man as any of your
warriors."

At this another pushed past Khossuth. This fellow was bigger than
any I had yet seen in Koth--not taller, but broader, more massive. His
hair was thicker on his limbs, and of a peculiar rusty cast instead of
black.

"That you must prove!" he roared, with an oath. "Loose him,
Khossuth! The warriors have been praising his power until my belly
revolts! Loose him and let us have a grapple!"

"The man is wounded, Ghor," answered Khossuth.

"Then let him be cared for until his wound is healed," urged the
warrior eagerly, spreading his arms in a curious grappling gesture.

"His fists are like hammers," warned another.

"Thak's devils!" roared Ghor, his eyes glaring, his hairy arms
brandished. "Admit him into the tribe, Khossuth! Let him endure the
test! If he survives--well, by Thak, he'll be worthy even to be called
a man of Koth!"

"I will go and think upon the matter," answered Khossuth after a
long deliberation.

That settled the matter for the time being. All trooped out after
him. Thab was last, and at the door he turned and made a gesture which
I took to be one of encouragement. These strange people seemed not
entirely without feelings of pity and friendship.

The day passed uneventfully. Thab did not return. Other warriors
brought me food and drink, and I allowed them to bandage my scalp.
With more human treatment the wild-beast fury in me had been
subordinated to my human reason. But that fury lurked close to the
surface of my soul, ready to blaze into ferocious life at the
slightest encroachment.

I did not see the girl Altha, though I heard light footsteps outside
the chamber several times, whether hers or another's I could not know.

About nightfall a group of warriors came into the room and announced
that I was to be taken to the council, where Khossuth would listen to
all arguments and decide my fate. I was surprised to learn that
arguments would be presented on my behalf. They got my promise not to
attack them, and loosed me from the chain that bound me to the wall,
but they did not remove the shackles on my wrists and ankles.

I was escorted out of the chamber into a vast hall, lighted by white
fire torches. There were no hangings or furnishings, nor any sort of
ornamentation--just an almost oppressive sense of massive
architecture.

We traversed several halls, all equally huge and windy, with rugged
walls and lofty ceilings, and came at last into a vast circular space,
roofed with a dome. Against the back wall a stone throne stood on a
block-like dais, and on the throne sat old Khossuth in gloomy majesty,
clad in a spotted leopardskin. Before him in a vast three-quarters
circle sat the tribe, the men cross-legged on skins spread on the
stone floor, and behind them the women and children seated on
fur-covered benches.

It was a strange concourse. The contrast was startling between the
hairy males and the slender, white-skinned, dainty women. The men were
clad in loincloths and high-strapped sandals; some had thrown
pantherskins over their massive shoulders. The women were dressed
similar to the girl Altha, whom I saw sitting with the others. They
wore soft sandals or none, and scanty tunics girdled about their
waists. That was all. The difference of the sexes was carried out down
to the smallest babies. The girl children were quiet, dainty and
pretty. The young males looked even more like monkeys than did their
elders.

I was told to take my seat on a block of stone in front and somewhat
to the side of the dais. Sitting among the warriors I saw Ghor,
squirming impatiently as he unconsciously flexed his thick biceps.

As soon as I had taken my seat, the proceedings went forward.
Khossuth simply announced that he would hear the arguments, and
pointed out a man to represent me, at which I was again surprised, but
this apparently was a regular custom among these people. The man
chosen was the lesser chief who had commanded the warriors I had
battled in the cell, and they called him Gutchluk Tigerwrath. He eyed
me venemously as he limped forward with no great enthusiasm, bearing
the marks of our encounter.

He laid his sword and dagger on the dais, and the foremost warriors
did likewise. Then he glared at the rest truculently, and Khossuth
called for arguments to show why Esau Cairn--he made a marvelous
jumble of the pronunciation--should not be taken into the tribe.

Apparently the reasons were legion. Half a dozen warriors sprang up
and began shouting at the top of their voice, while Gutchluk dutifully
strove to answer them. I felt already doomed. But the game was not
played out, or even well begun. At first Gutchluk went at it only
half-heartedly, but opposition heated him to his talk. His eyes
blazed, his jaw jutted, and he began to roar and bellow with the best
of them. From the arguments he presented, or rather thundered, one
would have thought he and I were lifelong friends.

No particular person was designated to protest against me. Everybody
who wished took a hand. And if Gutchluk won over anyone, that person
joined his voice to Gutchluk's. Already there were men on my side.
Thab's shout and Ghor's bellow vied with my attorney's roar, and soon
others took up my defense.

That debate is impossible for an Earthman to conceive of, without
having witnessed it. It was sheer bedlam, with from three voices to
five hundred voices clamoring at once. How Khossuth sifted any sense
out of it, I cannot even guess. But he brooded somberly above the
tumult, like a grim god over the paltry aspirations of mankind.

There was wisdom in the discarding of weapons. Dispute frequently
became biting, and criticisms of ancestors and personal habits entered
into it. Hands clutched at empty belts and mustaches bristled
belligerently. Occasionally Khossuth lifted his weird voice across the
clamor and restored a semblance of order.

My attempts to follow the arguments were vain. My opponents went
into matters seemingly utterly irrelevant, and were met by rebuttals
just as illogical. Authorities of antiquity were dragged out, to be
refuted by records equally musty.

To further complicate matters, disputants frequently snared
themselves in their own arguments, or forgot which side they were on,
and found themselves raging frenziedly on the other. There seemed no
end to the debate, and no limit to the endurance of the debaters. At
midnight they were still yelling as loudly, and shaking their fists in
one another's beards as violently as ever.

The women took no part in the arguments.

They began to glide away about midnight, with the children. Finally
only one small figure was left among the benches. It was Altha, who
was following--or trying to follow--the proceedings with a surprising
interest.

I had long since given up the attempt. Gutchluk was holding the
floor valiantly, his veins swelling and his hair and beard bristling
with his exertions. Ghor was actually weeping with rage and begging
Khossuth to let him break a few necks. Oh, that he had lived to see
the men of Koth become adders and snakes, with the hearts of buzzards
and the guts of toads! he bawled, brandishing his huge arms to high
heaven.

It was all a senseless madhouse to me. Finally, in spite of the
clamor, and the fact that my life was being weighed in the balance, I
fell asleep on my block and snored peacefully while the men of Koth
raged and pounded their hairy breasts and bellowed, and the strange
planet of Almuric whirled on its way under the stars that neither knew
nor cared for men, Earthly or otherwise.

It was dawn when Thab shook me awake and shouted in my ear: "We have
won! You enter the tribe, if you'll wrestle Ghor!"

"I'll break his back!" I grunted, and went back to sleep again.



Chapter 04


So began my life as a man among men on Almuric. I who had begun my
new life as a naked savage, now took the next step on the ladder of
evolution and became a barbarian. For the men of Koth were barbarians,
for all their silks and steel and stone towers. Their counterpart is
not on Earth today, nor has it ever been. But of that later. Let me
tell first of my battle with Ghor the Bear.

My chains were removed and I was taken to a stone tower on the wall,
there to dwell until my wounds had healed. I was still a prisoner.
Food and drink were brought me regularly by the tribesmen, who also
tended carefully to my wounds, which were unimportant, considering the
hurts I had had from wild beasts, and had recovered from unaided. But
they wished me to be in prime condition for the wrestling, which was
to decide whether I should be admitted to the tribe of Koth, or--well,
from what they said of Ghor, if I lost there would be no problem as to
my disposition. The wolves and vultures would take care of that.

Their manner toward me was noncommittal, with the exception of Thab
the Swift, who was frankly cordial to me. I saw neither Khossuth, Ghor
nor Gutchluk during the time I was imprisoned in the tower, nor did I
see the girl Altha.

I do not remember a more tedious and wearisome time. I was not
nervous because of any fear of Ghor; I frankly doubted my ability to
beat him, but I had risked my life so often and against such fearful
odds, that personal fear had been stamped out of my soul. But for
months I had lived like a mountain panther, and now to be caged up in
a stone tower, where my movements were limited, bounded and
restricted--it was intolerable, and if I had been forced to put up
with it a day longer, I would have lost control of myself, and either
fought my way to freedom or perished in the attempt. As it was, all
the constrained energy in me was pent up almost to the snapping point,
giving me a terrific store of nervous power which stood me in good
stead in my battle.

There is no man on Earth equal in sheer strength to any man of Koth.
They lived barbaric lives, filled with continuous peril and warfare
against foes human and bestial. But after all, they lived the lives of
men, and I had been living the life of a wild beast.

As I paced my tower chamber, I thought of a certain great wrestling
champion of Europe with whom I had once contested in a friendly
private bout, and who pronounced me the strongest man he had ever
encountered. Could he have seen me now, in the tower of Koth! I am
certain that I could have torn out his biceps like rotten cloth,
broken his spine across my knee, or caved in his breastbone with my
clenched fist; and as for speed, the most finely trained Earth athlete
would have seemed awkward and sluggish in comparison to the tigerish
quickness lurking in my rippling sinews.

Yet for all that, I knew that I would be strained to the uttermost
even to hold my own with the giant they called Ghor the Bear. He did,
indeed, resemble a shaggy rusty-hued cave-bear.

Thab the Swift narrated some of his triumphs to me, and such a
record of personal mayhem I never heard; the man's progress through
life was marked by broken limbs, backs and necks. No man had yet stood
before him in barehanded battle, though some swore Logar the
Bonecrusher was his equal.

Logar, I learned, was chief of Thugra, a city hostile to Koth. All
cities on Almuric seemed to be hostile to each other, the people of
the planet being divided into many small tribes, incessantly at war.
The chief of Thugra was called the Bonecrusher because of his terrible
strength. The poniard I had taken from him had been his favorite
weapon, a famous blade, forged, Thab said, by a supernatural smith.
Thab called this being a *gorka*, and I found in tales concerning the
creature an analogy to the dwarfish metalworkers of the ancient
Germanic myths of my own world.

Thab told me much concerning his people and his planet, but of these
things I will deal later. At last Khossuth came, found my wounds
completely cured, eyed my bronzed sinews with a shadow of respect in
his cold brooding eyes, and pronounced me fit for battle.

Night had fallen when I was led into the streets of Koth. I looked
with wonder at the giant walls towering above me, dwarfing their human
inhabitants. Everything in Koth was built on a heroic scale. Neither
the walls nor the edifices were unusually high, in comparison to their
bulk, but they were so massive. My guides led me to a sort of
amphitheater near the outer wall. It was an oval space surrounded by
huge stone blocks, rising tier upon tier, and forming seats for the
spectators. The open space in the center was hard ground, covered with
short grass. A sort of bulwark was formed about it out of woven
leather thongs, apparently to keep the contestants from dashing their
heads against the surrounding stones. Torches lighted the scene.

The spectators were already there, the men occupying the lower
blocks, the women and children the upper. My gaze roved over the sea
of faces, hairy or smooth, until it rested on one I recognized, and I
felt a strange throb of pleasure at the sight of Altha sitting there
watching me with her intent dark eyes.

Thab indicated for me to enter the arena, and I did so, thinking of
the old-time bare-knuckled bouts of my own planet, which were fought
in crude rings pitched, like this, on the naked turf. Thab and the
other warriors who had escorted me remained outside. Above us brooded
old Khossuth on a carven stone elevated above the first tier, and
covered with leopard-skins.

I glanced beyond him to that dusky star-filled sky whose strange
beauty never failed to fascinate me, and I laughed at the fantasy of
it all--where I, Esau Cairn, was to earn by sweat and blood my right
to exist on this alien world, the existence of which was undreamed by
the people of my own planet.

I saw a group of warriors approaching from the other side, a giant
form looming among them. Ghor the Bear glared at me across the ring,
his hairy paws grasping the thongs, then with a roar he vaulted over
them and stood before me, an image of truculence incarnate--angry
because I had chanced to reach the ring before him.

On his rude throne above us, old Khossuth lifted a spear and cast it
earthward. Our eyes followed its flight, and as it sheathed its
shining blade in the turf outside the ring, we hurled ourselves at
each other, iron masses of bone and thew, vibrant with fierce life and
the lust to destroy.

We were each naked except for a sort of leather loin-clout, which
was more brace than garment. The rules of the match were simple, we
were not to strike with our fists or open hands, knees or elbows,
kick, bite or gouge. Outside of that, anything went.

At the first impact of his hairy body against mine, I realized that
Ghor was stronger than Logar. Without my best natural weapons--my
fists--Ghor had the advantage.

He was a hairy mountain of iron muscle, and he moved with the
quickness of a huge cat. Accustomed to such fighting, he knew tricks
of which I was ignorant. Lastly, his bullet head was set so squarely
on his shoulders that it was practically impossible to strangle that
thick squat neck of his.

What saved me was the wild life I had lived which had toughened me
as no man, living as a man, can be toughened. Mine was the superior
quickness, and ultimately, the superior endurance.

There is little to be said of that fight. Time ceased to be composed
of intervals of change, and merged into a blind mist of tearing,
snarling eternity. There was no sound except our panting gasps, the
guttering of the torches in the light wind, and the impact of our feet
on the turf, of our hard bodies against each other. We were too evenly
matched for either to gain a quick advantage. There was no pinning of
shoulders, as in an Earthly wrestling match. The fight would continue
until one or both of the contestants were dead or senseless.

When I think of our endurance and stamina, I stand appalled. At
midnight we were still rending and tearing at each other. The whole
world was swimming red when I broke free out of a murderous grapple.
My whole frame was a throb of wrenched, twisted agony. Some of my
muscles were numbed and useless. Blood poured from my nose and mouth.
I was half blind and dizzy from the impact of my head against the hard
earth. My legs trembled and my breath came in great gulps. But I saw
that Ghor was in no better case. He too bled at the nose and mouth,
and more, blood trickled from his ears. He reeled as he faced me, and
his hairy chest heaved spasmodically. He spat out a mouthful of blood,
and with a roar that was more a gasp, he hurled himself at me again.
And steeling my ebbing strength for one last effort, I caught his
outstretched wrist, wheeled, ducking low and bringing his arm over my
shoulder, and heaved with all my last ounce of power.

The impetus of his rush helped my throw. He whirled headlong over my
back and crashed to the turf on his neck and shoulder, slumped over
and lay still. An instant I stood swaying above him, while a sudden
deep-throated roar rose from the people of Koth, and then a rush of
darkness blotted out the stars and the flickering torches, and I fell
senseless across the still body of my antagonist.

Later they told me that they thought both Ghor and I were dead. They
worked over us for hours. How our hearts resisted the terrible strain
of our exertions is a matter of wonder to me. Men said it was by far
the longest fight ever waged in the arena.

Ghor was badly hurt, even for a Kothan. That last fall had broken
his shoulder bone and fractured his skull, to say nothing of the minor
injuries he had received before the climax. Three of my ribs were
broken, and my joints, limbs and muscles so twisted and wrenched that
for days I was unable even to rise from my couch. The men of Koth
treated our wounds and bruises with all their skill, which far
transcends that of the Earth; but in the main it was our remarkable
primitive vitality that put us back on our feet. When a creature of
the wild is wounded, he generally either dies quickly or recovers
quickly.

I asked Thab if Ghor would hate me for his defeat, and Thab was at a
loss; Ghor had never been defeated before.

But my mind was soon put to rest on this score. Seven brawny
warriors entered the chamber in which I had been placed, bearing a
litter on which lay my late foe, wrapped in so many bandages he was
scarcely recognizable. But his bellowing voice was familiar. He had
forced his friends to bring him to see me as soon as he was able to
stir on his couch. He held no malice. In his great, simple, primitive
heart there was only admiration for the man who had given him his
first defeat. He recounted our Homeric struggle with a gusto that made
the roof reverberate, and roared his impatient eagerness for us to
fare forth and do battle together against the foes of Koth.

He was borne back to his own chamber, still bellowing his admiration
and gory plans for the future, and I experienced a warm glow in my
heart for this great-hearted child of nature, who was far more of a
man than many sophisticated scions of civilization that I had met.

And so I, Esau Cairn, took the step from savagery to barbarism. In
the vast domed council hall before the assembled tribesmen, as soon as
I was able, I stood before the throne of Khossuth Skullsplitter, and
he cut the mysterious symbol of Koth above my head with his sword.
Then with his own hands he buckled on me the harness of a warrior--the
broad leather belt with the iron buckle, supporting my poniard and a
long straight sword with a broad silver guard. Then the warriors filed
past me, and each chief placed his palm against mine, and spoke his
name, and I repeated it, and he repeated the name they had given me:
Ironhand. That part was most wearisome for there were some four
thousand warriors, and four hundred of these were chiefs of various
rank. But it was part of the ritual of initiation, and when it was
over I was as much a Kothan as if I had been born into the tribe.

In the tower chamber, pacing like a caged tiger while Thab talked,
and later as a member of the tribe, I learned all that the people of
Koth knew of their strange planet.

They and their kind, they said, were the only true humans on
Almuric, though there was a mysterious race of beings dwelling far to
the south called Yagas. The Kothans called themselves Guras, which
applied to all cast in their mold, and meant no more than "man" does
on Earth. There were many tribes of Guras, each dwelling in its
separate city, each of which was a counterpart of Koth. No tribe
numbered more than four or five thousand fighting-men, with the
appropriate number of women and children.

No man of Koth had ever circled the globe, but they ranged far in
their hunts and raids, and legends had been handed down concerning
their world--which, naturally, they called by a name simply
corresponding to the word "Earth"; though after a while some of them
took up my habit of speaking of the planet as Almuric. Far to the
north there was a land of ice and snow, uninhabited by human beings,
though men spoke of weird cries shuddering by night from the ice
crags, and of shadows falling across the snow. A lesser distance to
the south rose a barrier no man had ever passed--a gigantic wall of
rock which legend said girdled the planet; it was called, therefore,
the Girdle. What lay beyond that Girdle, none knew. Some believed it
was the rim of the world, and beyond it lay only empty space. Others
maintained that another hemisphere lay beyond it. They believed, as
seemed to me most logical, that the Girdle separated the northern and
southern halves of the world, and that the southern hemisphere was
inhabited by men and animals, though the exponents of their theory
could give no proof, and were generally scoffed at as over-imaginative
romanticists.

At any rate, the cities of the Guras dotted the vast expanse that
lay between the Girdle and the land of ice. The northern hemisphere
possessed no great body of water. There were rivers, great plains, a
few scattered lakes, occasional stretches of dark, thick forests, long
ranges of barren hills, and a few mountains. The larger rivers ran
southward, to plunge into chasms in the Girdle.

The cities of the Guras were invariably built on the open plains,
and always far apart. Their architecture was the result of the
peculiar evolution of their builders--they were, basically, fortresses
of rocks heaped up for defense. They reflected the nature of their
builders, being rude, stalwart, massive, despising gaudy show and
ornamentation, and knowing nothing of the arts.

In many ways the Guras are like the men of Earth, in other ways
bafflingly different. Some of the lines on which they have evolved are
so alien to Earthly evolution that I find it difficult to explain
their ways and their development.

Specifically, Koth--and what is said of Koth can be said of every
other Gura city:--the men of Koth are, skilled in war, the hunt, and
weapon-making. The latter science is taught to each male child, but
now seldom used. It is seldom found necessary to manufacture new arms,
because of the durability of the material used. Weapons are handed
down from generation to generation, or captured from enemies.

Metal is used only for weapons, in building, and for clasps and
buckles on garments. No ornaments are worn, either by men or women,
and there are no such things as coins. There is no medium of exchange.
No trade between cities exists, and such "business" as goes on within
the city is a matter of barter. The only cloth worn is a kind of silk,
made from the fiber of a curious plant grown within the city walls.
Other plants furnish wine, fruit, and seasonings. Fresh meat, the
principal food of the Guras, is furnished by hunting, a pastime at
once a sport and an occupation.

The folk of Koth, then, are highly skilled in metal-working, in
silk-weaving, and in their peculiar form of agriculture. They have a
written language, a simple hieroglyphic form, scrawled on leaves like
papyrus, with a daggerlike pen dipped in the crimson juice of a
curious blossom, but few except the chiefs can read or write.
Literature they have none; they know nothing of painting, sculpturing,
or the "higher" learning. They have evolved to the point of culture
needful for the necessities of life, and they progress no further.
Seemingly defying laws we on Earth have come to regard as immutable,
they remain stationary, neither advancing nor retrogressing.

Like most barbaric people, they have a form of rude poetry, dealing
almost exclusively with battle, mayhem and rapine. They have no bards
or minstrels, but every man of the tribe knows the popular ballads of
his clan, and after a few jacks of ale is prone to bellow them forth
in a voice fit to burst one's eardrums.

These songs are never written down, and there is no written history.
As a result, events of antiquity are hazy, and mixed with improbable
legends.

No one knows how old is the city of Koth. Its gigantic stones are
impervious to the elements, and might have stood there ten years or
ten thousand years. I am of the opinion that the city is at least
fifteen thousand years old. The Guras are an ancient race, in spite of
their exuberant barbarism which gives them the atmosphere of a new
young people. Of the evolution of the race from whatever beast was
their common ancestor, of their racial splittings off and tribal
drifts, of their development to their present condition, nothing
whatever is known. The Guras themselves have no idea of evolution.
They suppose that, like eternity, their race is without beginning and
without end, that they have always been exactly as they are now. They
have no legends to explain their creation.

I have devoted most of my remarks to the men of Koth. The women of
Koth are no less worthy of detailed comment. I found the difference in
the appearance of the sexes not so inexplicable after all. It is
simply the result of natural evolution, and its roots lie in a fierce
tenderness on the part of the Gura males for their women. It was to
protect their women that they first, I am certain, built those brutish
heaps of stone and dwelt among them; for the innate nature of the
Gura male is definitely nomadic.

The woman, carefully guarded and shielded both from danger and from
the hard work that is the natural portion of the women of Earthly
barbarians, evolved by natural process into the type I have described.
The men, on the other hand, lead incredibly active and strenuous
lives. Their existence has been a savage battle for survival, ever
since the first ape stood upright on Almuric. And they have evolved
into a special type to fit their needs. Their peculiar appearance is
not a result of degeneration or underdevelopment. They are, indeed, a
highly specialized type, finely adapted to the wild life they follow.

As the men assume all risks and responsibility, they naturally
assume all authority. The Gura woman has no say whatever in the
government of the city and tribe, and her mate's authority over her is
absolute, with the exception that she has the right to appeal to the
council and chief in case of oppression. Her scope is narrow; few
women ever set foot outside the city in which they are born, unless
they are carried off in a raid.

Yet her lot is not so unhappy as it might seem. I have said that one
of the characteristics of the Gura male is a savage tenderness for his
women. Mistreatment of a woman is very rare, not tolerated by the
tribe.

Monogamy is the rule. The Guras are not given to hand-kissing and
pretty compliments, and the other superficial adjuncts of chivalry,
but there is justice and a rough kindness in their dealing with women,
somewhat similar to the attitude of the American frontiersman.

The duties of the Gura women are few, concerned mainly with
child-bearing and child-rearing. They do no work heavier than the
manufacturing of silk from the silk plants. They are musically
inclined, and play on a small, stringed affair, resembling a lute, and
they sing. They are quicker-witted, and of much more sensitive mind
than the men. They are witty, merry, affectionate, playful and docile.
They have their own amusements, and time does not seem to drag for
them. The average woman could not be persuaded to set foot outside the
city walls. They well know the perils that hem the cities in, and they
are content in the protection of their ferocious mates and masters.

The men are, as I have said, in many ways like barbaric peoples on
Earth. In some respects they resemble, I imagine, the ancient Vikings.
They are honest, scorning theft and deceit. They delight in war and
the hunt, but are not wantonly cruel, except when maddened by rage or
bloodlust. Then they can be screaming fiends. They are blunt in
speech, rough in their manners, easily angered, but as easily
pacified, except when confronted by an hereditary enemy. They have a
definite, though crude, sense of humor, a ferocious love for tribe and
city, and a passion for personal freedom.

Their weapons consist of swords, daggers, spears, and a firearm
something like a carbine--a single-shot, breech-loading weapon of no
great range. The combustible material is not powder, as we know it.
Its counterpart is not found on Earth. It possesses both percussion
and explosive qualities. The bullet is of a substance much like lead.
These weapons were used mainly in war with men; for hunting, bows and
arrows were most often used.

Hunting parties are always going forth, so that the full force of
warriors is seldom in the city at once. Hunters are often gone for
weeks or months. But there are always a thousand fighting men in the
city to repel possible attack, though it is not often that the Guras
lay siege to a hostile city. Those cities are difficult to storm, and
it is impossible to starve out the inhabitants, since they produce so
much of their food supply within the walls, and in each city is an
unfailing spring of pure water. The hunters frequently sought their
prey in the hills which I had haunted, and which were reputed to
contain more and varied forms of ferocious bestial life than any other
section of the globe. The boldest hunters went in strong parties to
the ills, and seldom roamed there more than a few days. The fact that
I had lived among the hills alone for months won me even more respect
and admiration among those wild fighting men than had my fight with
Ghor.

Oh, I learned much of Almuric. As this is a chronicle and not an
essay, I can scarcely skim the surface of customs, ways and
traditions. I learned all they could tell me, and I learned much more.
The Guras were not first on Almuric, though they considered themselves
to be. They told me of ancient ruins, never built by Guras, relics of
vanished races, who, they supposed, were contemporary with their
distant ancestors, but which, as I came to learn, had risen and
vanished awfully before the first Gura began to heap up stones to
build his primordial city. And how I learned what no Gura knew is
part of this strange narrative.

But they spoke of strange unhuman beings or survivals. They told me
of the Yagas, a terrible race of winged black men, dwelling far to the
south, within sight of the Girdle, in the grim city of Yugga, on the
rock Yuthla, by the River Yogh, in the land of Yagg, where living man
had never set foot. The Yagas, the Guras said, were not true men, but
devils in a human form. From Yugga they swooped periodically, bearing
the sword of slaughter and the torch of destruction, to carry young
Gura girls into a slavery the manner of which none knew, because none
had ever escaped from the land of Yagg. Some men thought that they
were fed to a monster worshiped by the Yagas as a god, though some
swore that the fiends worshiped nothing except themselves. This was
known: their ruler was a black queen, named Yasmeena, and for more
than a thousand years she had reigned on the grim rock of Yuthla, her
shadow falling across the world to make men shudder.

The Guras told me other things, things weird and terrible: of
dog-headed monstrosities skulking beneath the ruins of nameless cities; of
earth-shaking colossals stalking through the night; of fires flitting
like flaming bats through the shadowy skies; of things that haunted
midnight forests, crawling, squamous things that were never seen, but
which tracked men down in the dank depths. They told me of great bats
whose laughter drove men mad, and of gaunt shapes shambling hideously
through the dusk of the hills. They told me of such things as do not
even haunt the dreams of men on my native planet. For Life has taken
strange shapes on Almuric, and natural Life is not the only Life
there.

But the nightmares told to me and the nightmares seen by me unfold
in their place, and I have already lingered too long in my narrative.
Be patient a little, because events move swiftly on Almuric, and my
chronicle moves no less swiftly when well under way.

For months I dwelt in Koth, fitting into the life of hunting,
feasting, ale-guzzling, and brawling, as if I had been born into it.
There life was not restrained and bound down, as it is on Earth. As
yet no tribal war had tested my powers, but there was fighting enough
in the city with naked hands, in friendly bouts, and drunken brawls,
when the fighting-men dashed down their foaming jacks and bellowed
their challenges across the ale-stained boards. I revelled in my new
existence. Here, as in the hills, I threw my full powers unleashed
into life; and here, unlike as in the hills, I had human
companionship, of a sort that suited my particular make-up. I felt no
need of art, literature or intellectuality; I hunted, I gorged, I
guzzled, I fought; I spread my massive arms and clutched at life like
a glutton. And in my brawling and revelling I all but forgot the
slender figure which had sat so patiently in the council chamber
beneath the great dome.



Chapter 05


I had wandered far in my hunting. Alone I had spent several nights
on the plains. Now I was returning leisurely, but I was still many
miles from Koth, whose massive towers I could not yet glimpse across
the waving savannas. I cannot say what my thoughts were as I swung
along, my carbine in the crook of my arm, but they were likely
concerned with spoors in the water's edge, crushed-down grass marking
the passing of some large animal, or the scents borne on the light
wind.

Whatever my thoughts may have been, they were interrupted by a
shrill cry. Wheeling, I saw a slim white figure racing across the
grassy level toward me. Behind her, gaining with every stride, came
one of those giant carnivorous birds which are among the most
dangerous of all the grisly denizens of the grasslands. They tower ten
feet in height and somewhat resemble an ostrich except for the beak,
which is a huge curving weapon, three feet in length, pointed and
edged like a scimitar. A stroke of that beak can slash a man asunder,
and the great taloned feet of the monster can tear a human limb from
limb.

This mountain of destruction was hurtling along behind the flying
girl at appalling speed, and I knew it would overtake her long before
I could hope to reach them. Cursing the necessity for depending on my
none too accurate marksmanship, I lifted my carbine and took as steady
an aim as possible. The girl was directly in line with the brute, and
I could not risk a shot at the huge body, lest I hit her instead. I
had to chance a shot at the great head that bobbed bafflingly on the
long arching neck.

It was more luck than skill that sent my bullet home. At the crack
of the shot the giant head jerked backward as if the monster had run
into an unseen wall. The stumpy wings thrashed thunderously, and
staggering erratically, the brute pitched to the earth.

The girl fell at the same instant, as if the same bullet had brought
them both down. Running forward to bend over her, I was surprised to
see Altha, daughter of Zal, looking up at me with her dark enigmatic
eyes. Quickly satisfying myself that she was not injured, outside of
fright and exhaustion, I turned to the thunderbird and found it quite
dead, its few brains oozing out of a hole in its narrow skull.

Turning back to Altha, I scowled down at her.

"What are you doing outside the city?" I demanded. "Are you quite
mad, to venture so far into the wilderness alone?"

She made no reply, but I sensed a hurt in her dark eyes, and I
repented the roughness of my speech. I dropped down on one knee beside
her.

"You are a strange girl, Altha," I said. "You are not like the other
women of Koth. Folk say you are wilful and rebellious, without reason.
I do not understand you. Why should you risk your life like this?"

"What will you do now?" she demanded.

"Why, take you back to the city, of course."

Her eyes smoldered with a curious sullenness.

"You will take me back, and my father will whip me. But I will run
away again--and again--and again!"

"But why should you run away?" I asked in bewilderment. "There is
nowhere for you to go. Some beast will devour you."

"So!" she answered. "Perhaps it is my wish to be devoured."

"Then why did you run from the thunderbird?"

"The instinct to live is hard to conquer," she admitted.

"But why should you wish to die?" I expostulated. "The women of Koth
are happy, and you have as much as any."

She looked away from me, out across the broad plains.

"To eat, drink and sleep is not all," she answered in a strange
voice. "The beasts do that."

I ran my fingers through my thick hair in perplexity. I had hard
similar sentiments voiced in many different ways on Earth, but it was
the first time I had ever heard them from the lips of an inhabitant on
Almuric. Altha continued in a low detached voice, almost as if she
were speaking to herself rather than to me:

"Life is too hard for me. I do not fit, somehow, as the others do. I
bruise myself on its rough edges. I look for something that is not and
never was."

Uneasy at her strange words, I caught her heavy locks in my hands
and forced back her head to look into her face. Her enigmatic eyes met
mine with a strange glimmer in them such as I had never seen.

"It was hard before you came," she said. "It is harder now."

Startled, I released her, and she turned her head away.

"Why should I make it harder?" I asked bewilderedly.

"What constitutes life?" she countered. "Is the life we live all
there is? Is there nothing outside and beyond our material
aspirations?"

I scratched my head in added perplexity.

"Why," I said, "on Earth I met many people who were always following
some nebulous dream or ideal, but I never observed that they were
happy. On my planet there is much grasping and groping for unseen
things, but I never knew there was such full content as I have known
on Almuric."

"I thought you different," she said, still looking away from me.
"When I saw you lying wounded and in chains, with your smooth skin and
strange eyes, I thought you were more gentle than other men. But you
are as rough and fierce as the rest. You spend your days and nights in
slaying beasts, fighting men, and in riotous wassail."

"But they all do," I protested.

She nodded. "And so I do not fit in life, and were better dead."

I felt unreasonably ashamed. It had occurred to me that an
Earthwoman would find life on Almuric intolerably crude and narrow,
but it seemed beyond reason that a native woman would have such
feelings. If the other women I had seen desired more superficial
gentleness on the part of their men, they had not made it known. They
seemed content with shelter and protection, and cheerfully resigned to
the rough manners of the males. I sought for words but found none,
unskilled as I was in polite discourse. I suddenly felt my roughness,
crudity and raw barbarism, and stood abashed.

"I'll take you back to Koth," I said helplessly.

She shrugged her shapely shoulders. "And you can watch my father
whip me, if you will."

At that I found my tongue.

"He won't whip you," I retorted angrily. "Let him lay a hand on you,
and I'll break his back."

She looked up at me quickly, with eyes widened in sudden interest.
My arm had found its way about her slim form, and I was glaring into
her eyes, with my face very close to hers. Her lips parted, and had
that breathless instant lasted a little longer, I know not what would
have happened. But suddenly the color went from her face, and from her
parted lips rang a terrible scream. Her gaze was fixed on something
beyond and above me, and the thrash of wings suddenly filled the air.

I wheeled on one knee, to see the air above me thronged with dark
shapes. The Yagas! The winged men of Almuric! I had half believed them
a myth; yet here they were in all their mysterious terror.

I had but a glance as I reared up, clubbing my empty carbine. I saw
that they were tall and rangy in build, sinewy and powerful, with ebon
skins. They seemed made like ordinary men, except for the great
leathery batlike wings which grew from their shoulders. They were
naked except for loincloths, and were armed with short curved blades.

I rose on my toes as the first swooped in, scimitar lifted, and met
him with a swing of my carbine that broke off the stock and crushed
his narrow skull like an eggshell. The next instant they were whirling
and thrashing about me, their curved blades licking at me like jets of
lightning from all sides, the very number of their broad wings
hampering them.

Whirling the carbine barrel in a wheel about me, I broke and beat
back the flickering blades, and in a furious exchange of strokes,
caught another a glancing blow on the head that stretched him
senseless at my feet. Then a wild despairing cry rang out behind me,
and abruptly the rush slackened.

The whole pack was in the air, racing southward, and I stood frozen.
In the arms of one of them writhed and shrieked a slender white
figure, stretching out imploring arms to me. Altha! They had snatched
her up from behind my back, and were carrying her away to whatever
doom awaited her in that black citadel of mystery far to the south.
The terrific velocity with which the Yagas raced through the sky was
already taking them out of my sight.

As I stood there baffled, I felt a movement at my feet. Looking down
I saw one of my victims sit up and feel his head dazedly. I vengefully
lifted my carbine barrel to dash out his brains; then a sudden thought
struck me, inspired by the ease with which Altha's captor had carried
both his weight and hers in the air.

Drawing my poniard, I dragged my captive to his feet. Standing erect
he was taller than I, with shoulders equally broad, though his limbs
were lean and wiry rather than massive. His dark eyes, which slanted
slightly, regarded me with the unblinking stare of a venomous serpent.

The Guras had told me the Yagas spoke a tongue similar to their own.

"You are going to carry me through the air in pursuit of your
companions," I said.

He shrugged his shoulders and spoke in a peculiarly harsh voice.

"I cannot carry your weight."

"Then that's too bad for you," I answered grimly, and whirling him
about, I leaped upon his back, locking my legs about his waist. My
left arm was hooked about his neck, the poniard in my right hand
pricked his side. He had kept his feet under the impact of my bulk,
spreading his great wings.

"Take the air!" I snarled in his ear, sinking the dagger point into
his flesh. "Fly, damn you, or I'll cut your heart out!"

His wings began to thrash the air, and we rose slowly from the
earth. It was a most sensational experience, but one to which I gave
scant thought at the time, being so engrossed in my fury at the
abduction of Altha.

When we had risen to a height of about a thousand feet, I looked for
the abductors, and saw them far away, a mere group of black dots in
the southern sky. After them I steered my reluctant steed.

In spite of my threats and urging for greater speed the flying dots
soon vanished. Still I kept on due southward, feeling that even if I
failed to overtake them, I would eventually come to the great dusky
rock where legend placed their habitation.

Inspired by my poniard, my bearer made good time, considering the
burden he was carrying. For hours we sped over the savannas, and by
the middle of the afternoon, the landscape changed. We were flying
over a forest, the first I had seen on Almuric. The trees seemed to
tower to a vast height.

It was near sundown when I saw the farther limits of the forest, and
in the grasslands beyond, the ruins of a city. From among these ruins
smoke curled upward, and I asked my steed if his companions were
cooking their evening meal there. His only answer was a snarl.

We were flying low over the forest, when a sudden uproar caused me
to look down. We were just passing over a narrow glade, and in it a
terrific battle was taking place. A pack of hyenas had attacked a
giant unicornlike beast, as big as a bison. Half a dozen mangled,
trampled bodies attested the fury of the beast's defense, and even as
I peered down, he caught the single survivor on his swordlike ivory
horn, and cast it a score of feet in the air, broken and torn.

In the brief fascination of the sight, I must have involuntarily
loosened my grasp on my captive. For at that instant, with a
convulsive bucking heave and twist, he wrenched free and hurled me
sideways. Caught off guard, I clutched vainly at empty air, and
rushing earthward, crashed with a stunning impact on the loamy
leaf-carpeted earth, directly in front of the maddened unicorn!

I had a dazed brief glimpse of his mountainous bulk looming over me,
as his massive lowered head drove his horn at my breast. Then I
lurched up on one knee, simultaneously grasping that ivory sword with
my left hand and seeking to deflect it, while my right hand drove my
poniard up toward the great jugular. Then there came a terrific impact
against my skull, and consciousness was blotted out in darkness.



Chapter 06


I could have been senseless only a few minutes. When I regained
consciousness my first sensation was that of a crushing weight upon my
limbs and body. Struggling weakly, I found that I was lying beneath
the lifeless body of a unicorn. At the instant my poniard had torn
open his great jugular vein, the base of his horn must have struck my
head, while the vast body collapsed upon me. Only the soft spongy
ground beneath me had saved me from being crushed to a pulp. Working
myself out from under that bulk was a herculean task, but eventually I
accomplished it, and stood up, bruised and breathless, with the
half-dried blood of the monster clotted in my hair and smearing my limbs.
I was a grisly sight to look at, but I wasted no time on my appearance.
My erstwhile steed was nowhere in evidence, and the circling trees
limited my view of the sky.

Selecting the tallest of these trees, I climbed it as swiftly as
possible, and on the topmost branches, looked out over the forest. The
sun was setting. I saw that perhaps an hour's swift walk to the south,
the forest thinned out and ceased. Smoke still drifted thinly up from
the deserted city. And I saw my former captive just dropping down
among the ruins. He must have lingered, after he had overthrown me,
possibly to see if I showed any signs of life, probably to rest his
wings after that long grind.

I cursed; there went my chance of stealing up on them unsuspected.
Then I got a surprise. No sooner had the Yaga vanished than he
reappeared, shooting up out of the city like a rocket. Without
hesitation he raced off southward, speeding through the sky at a rate
that left me gaping. What was the reason for his flight? If it had
been his companions who were among the ruins, why had he not alighted?
Perhaps he had found them gone, and was merely following them. Yet his
actions seemed strange, considering the leisurely way he had
approached the ruins. His flight had the earmarks of panic.

Shaking my head in puzzlement, I descended the tree and set out for
the ruins as swiftly as I could make my way through the dense growth,
paying no heed to the rustling in the leaves about me, and the
muttering of rousing life, that grew as the shadows deepened.

Night had fallen when I emerged from the forest, but the moon was
rising, casting a weird unreal glow over the plains. The ruins
glimmered ghostily in the near distance. The walls were not of the
rough greenish material used by the Guras. As I approached I saw they
were of marble, and that fact caused a vague uneasiness to stir in my
mind. I remembered legends told by the Kothans of ruined marble cities
haunted by ghoulish beings. Such ruins were found in certain
uninhabited places, and none knew their origin.

A brooding silence lay over the broken walls and columns as I
entered the ruins. Between the gleaming white tusks and surfaces deep
black shadow floated, almost liquid in its quality. From one dusky
pool to the other I glided silently, sword in hand, expecting anything
from an ambush by the Yagas to an attack by some lurking beast of
prey. Utter silence reigned, as I had never encountered it anywhere on
Almuric before. Not a distant lion roared, not a night fowl voiced its
weird cry. I might have been the last survivor on a dead world.

In silence I came to a great open space, flanked by a circle of
broken pillars, which must have been a plaza. Here I halted,
motionless, my skin crawling.

In the midst of the plaza smoldered the dying coals of a fire over
which, on spits planted in the earth, were roasting pieces of meat.
The Yagas had evidently built that fire and--prepared to sup; but they
had not eaten of their meal. They lay strewn about the plaza in a way
to appall the hardiest.

I had never gazed on such a scene of organic devastation. Hands,
feet, grinning heads, bits of flesh, entrails, clots of blood littered
the whole plaza. The heads were like balls of blackness, rolled out of
the shadows against the snowy marble; their teeth grinned, their eyes
glimmered palely in the moonlight. *Something* had come upon the
winged men as they sat about their fire and had torn them limb from
limb. On the remnants of flesh were the marks of fangs, and some of
the bones had been broken, apparently to get the marrow.

A cold ripple went up and down my spine. What animal but man breaks
bones in that fashion? But the scattering of the bloody remnants
seemed not the work of beasts; it seemed too vindictive, as if it were
the work of vengeance, fury or bestial blood-thirstiness.

Where, then, was Altha? Her remains were not among those of her
captors. Glancing at the flesh on the spit, the configuration of the
pieces set me to shuddering. Shaken with horror, I saw that my dark
suspicions were correct. It was parts of a human body the accursed
Yagas had been roasting for their meal. Sick with revulsion and dread,
I examined the pitiful remnants more closely, and breathed a deep sigh
of relief to see the thick muscular limbs of a man, and not the
slender parts of a woman. But after that I looked unmoved at the torn
bloody bits that had been Yagas.

But where was the girl? Had she escaped the slaughter and hidden
herself, or had she been taken by the slayers? Looking about at the
towers and fallen blocks and pillars, bathed in the weird moonlight, I
was aware of a distinct aura of evil, of lurking menace. I felt the
glare of hidden eyes.

But I began casting about the plaza, and came upon a trail of blood
drops, lying blackly in the moon, leading through a maze of drunken
pillars, and for want of better occupation, I followed it. At least it
might lead me to the slayers of the winged men.

I passed under the shadows of leaning pillars which dwarfed my human
frame with their brute massiveness, and came into a crumbling edifice,
overgrown with lichen. Through the broken roof and the gaping windows
the moon poured a fungus-white light that served to make the shadows
blacker. But a square of moonlight fell across the entrance of a
corridor, and leading into it, I saw the sprinkle of dark clotted
drops on the cracked vine-grown marble. Into the corridor I groped,
and almost broke my neck on the stairs that lay within. Down them I
went, and striking a level, hesitated and was about to retrace my
steps when I was electrified by a sound that stopped my heart, and
then sent the blood pounding madly through my veins. Through the
darkness, faint and far away, sounded the call: "Esau! Esau Cairn!"

Altha! Who else could it be? Why should an icy shuddering pass over
me, and the short hairs bristle at the back of my neck? I started to
answer; then caution clutched my tongue. She could not know I was
within hearing, surely. Perhaps she was calling as a frightened child
will cry for someone far out of hearing. I went as swiftly down the
black tunnel as I dared, in the direction I had heard the cry. And was
gagged by a tendency toward nausea.

My groping hand encountered a doorway and I halted, sensing, as a
wild thing does; a living presence of some sort near me. Straining my
eyes in the pitch dark, I spoke Altha's name in a low urgent voice.
Instantly two lights burned in the darkness, yellowish glows at which
I stared for an instant before I realized that they were two eyes.
They were broad as my hand, round and of a scintillance I cannot
describe. Behind them I got a vague impression of a huge shapeless
bulk. Simultaneously such a wave of instinctive fear swept over me,
that I withdrew quickly into the tunnel and hastened along it in the
direction I had been going. Back in the cell I heard a faint movement,
like the shifting of some great pulpy mass, mingled with a soft
rasping sound, as of bristles scraping against stone.

A few score paces more and I halted. The tunnel seemed endless, and
besides, judging from the feel, other tunnels branched off from it in
the darkness, and I had no way of knowing which was the right one. As
I stood there I again heard the call: "Esau! Esau Cairn!"

Steeling myself against something, I knew not what, I set off once
more in the direction of the ghostly voice. How far I went I do not
know, until I stopped once more baffled. Then from nearby the voice
rang out again: "Esau! Esau CairNNNN!" It rose to a high-pitched note,
trailing off into an awful burst of inhuman laughter that froze the
blood in my veins.

That was not Altha's voice. I had known all the time that it was
not--that it could not be. Yet the alternative was so inexplicable
that I had refused to heed what my intuition affirmed and my reason
denied.

Now from every direction, on every hand rose a medley of shrill
demoniac voices, all shrieking my name with the mockery of devils. The
tunnels that had been so silent now rang and re-echoed with strident
clamor. I stood bewildered and terrified, as the damned must stand in
the clamorous halls of hell. I passed through the stages of icy
terror, bewildered horror, desperation, berserk fury. With a maddened
roar I plunged blindly at the sounds that seemed nearest, only to
collide with a solid wall, while a thousand inhuman voices rose in
hideous mirth. Wheeling like a wounded bull, I charged again, this
time into the mouth of another tunnel. Racing down this, mad to come
to grips with my tormenters, I burst into a vast shadowy space, into
which a beam of moonlight cast a ghostly shaft. And again I heard my
name called, but in human tones of fear and anguish:

"Esau! Oh, Esau!"

Even as I answered the piteous cry with a savage bellow, I saw her.
Altha, etched in the dim moonlight. She was stretched out on the
floor, her hands and feet in the shadow. But I saw that at each
outstretched member squatted a dim misshapen figure.

With a blood-thirsty yell I charged, and the darkness sprang into
nauseous life, flooding my knees with tangible shapes. Sharp fangs
gashed me, apish hands clawed at me. They could not halt me. Swinging
my sword in great arcs that cut a path through solid masses of
writhing shapes, I forged toward the girl that twisted and screamed on
the floor in that square of moonlight.

I waded through a rolling, surging mire of squirming biting things
that washed about me waist-high, but they could not drag me down. I
reached the moonlit square, and the creatures that held Altha gave
back before the whistling menace of my sword edge, and the girl sprang
up and clung to me. Even as the shadowy horde rolled in to drag us
down I saw a crumbling stair leading up, and I thrust her upon it,
wheeling to cover her retreat.

It was dark on the stairs, though they led up into a chamber flooded
with light through a broken roof. That battle was fought in utter
darkness, with only my senses of feeling and hearing to guide my
strokes. And it was fought in silence, too, except for my panting, and
the whir and crunch of my blade.

Up that drunken stair I backed, battling every inch of the way, the
skin between my shoulders crawling with the expectancy of an attack
from the rear. If they had come upon us from above, we had been lost,
but evidently all were below me. What manner of creatures I was
fighting I did not know, except that they were taloned and fanged.
Otherwise, from the feel of them, they were stunted and misshapen,
furry and apish.

When I came out into the chamber above the tunnels I could see
little more. The moonlight streaming through the broken roof made only
a white shaft in the darkness. I could only make out vague forms in
the dimness about me--a heaving, writhing and lashing of shadows, that
surged up against me, clawing and tearing, and fell back beneath my
lashing sword.

Thrusting Altha behind me, I backed across that shadowy chamber
toward a wide rift that showed in the crumbling wall, reeling and
stumbling in the whirlpool of battle that swirled and eddied about me.
As I reached the rift through which Altha had already slipped, there
was a concerted rush to drag me down. Panic swept over me at the
thought of being pulled down in that shadowy room by that dim horde. A
blasting burst of fury, a gasping, straining plunge, and I catapulted
through the rift, carrying half a dozen attackers with me.

Reeling up, I shook the clinging horrors from my shoulders as a bear
might shake off wolves, and bracing my feet slashed right and left.
Now for the first time I saw the nature of my foes.

The bodies were like those of deformed apes, covered with sparse
dirty white fur. Their heads were doglike, with small close-set ears.
But their eyes were those of serpents--the same venomous steady
lidless stare.

Of all the forms of life I had encountered on that strange planet,
none filled me with as much loathing as these dwarfish monstrosities.
I backed away from the mangled heap on the earth, as a nauseous flood
poured through the rift in the wall.

The effect of those vermin emerging from that broken wall was almost
intolerably sickening; the suggestion was that of maggots squirming
out of a cracked and bleached skull.

Turning, I caught Altha up in one arm and raced across the open
space. They followed fleetingly, running now on all fours, and now
upright like a man. And suddenly they broke out into their hellish
laughter again, and I saw we were trapped. Ahead of me were more
emerging from some other subterranean entrance. We were cut off.

A giant pedestal, from which the column had been broken, stood
before us. With a bound I reached it, set the girl on the jagged
pinnacle, and wheeled on the lower base to take such toll of our
pursuers as I might. Blood streaming from a score of gashes trickled
down the pedestal on which I stood, and I shook my head violently to
rid my eyes of blinding sweat.

They ringed me in a wide semicircle, deliberate now that their prey
seemed certain, and I cannot recall a time when I was more revolted by
horror and disgust, than when I stood with my back to that marble
pillar and faced those verminous monsters of the lower world.

Then my attention was caught by a movement in the shadows under the
wall through which we had just come. Something was emerging from the
rift--something huge and black and bulky. I caught the glitter of a
yellowish spark. Fascinated, I watched, even while the furred devils
were closing in. Now the thing had emerged entirely from the rift. I
saw it crouching in the shadow of the wall, a squat mass of blackness
from which glimmered a pair of yellowish lights. With a start I
recognized the eyes I had seen in the subterranean cell.

With a clamor of fiendish yells the furry devils rushed in, and at
the same instant the unknown creature ran out into the moonlight with
surprising speed and agility. I saw it plainly then--a gigantic
spider, bigger than an ox. Moving with the swiftness characteristic of
its breed, it was among the dog-heads before the first had felt my
lifted sword. An awful scream rose from its first victim, and the
rest, turning, broke and fled shrieking in all directions. The monster
raged among them with appalling quickness and ferocity. Its huge jaws
crunched their skulls, its dripping mandibles skewered them, it
crushed their bodies by its sheer weight. In an instant the place was
a shambles, inhabited only by the dead and dying. Crouching among its
victims, the great black hairy thing fixed its horribly intelligent
eyes on me.

I was the one it was trailing. I had awakened it underground, and it
had followed the scent of the dried blood on my sandals. It had
slaughtered the others simply because they stood in its way.

As it crouched on its eight bent legs, I saw that it differed from
Earthly spiders not only in size, but in the number of its eyes and
the shape of its jaws. Now Altha screamed as it ran swiftly toward me.

But where the fangs and claws of a thousand beast-things were futile
against the venom dripping from those black mandibles, the brain and
thews of a single man prevailed. Catching up a heavy block of masonry,
I poised it for an instant, and then hurled it straight into the
onrushing bulk. Full among those branching hairy legs it crushed, and
a jet of nauseous green stuff gushed into the air from the torn torso.
The monster, halted in his rush, writhed under the pinning stone, cast
it aside and staggered toward me again, dragging broken legs, its eyes
glittering hellishly. I tore another missile from the crumbling stone,
and another and another, raining huge chunks of marble on the writhing
horror until it lay still in a ghastly mess of squirming hairy black
legs, entrails and blood.

Then catching Altha in my arms, I raced away through the shadows of
monolith and tower and pillar, nor did I halt until the city of
silence and mystery lay behind us, and we saw the moon setting across
the broad waving grasslands.

No word had passed between us since I had first come upon the girl
in that ghoulish tunnel. Now when I looked down to speak to her I saw
her dark head drooping against my arm; her white face was upturned,
her eyes shut. A quick throb of fear went through me, but a swift
examination showed me that she had merely fainted. That fact showed
the horror of what she had been through. The women of Koth do not
faint easily.

I laid her at full length on the turf, and gazed at her helplessly,
noting, as if for the first time, the white firmness of her slender
limbs, the exquisite molding of her supple figure. Her dark hair fell
in thick glossy clusters about her alabaster shoulders, a strap of her
tunic, slipped down, revealed her firm, pink-tipped young breasts. I
was aware of a vague unrest that was almost a pain.

Altha opened her eyes and looked up at me. Then her dark eyes flared
with terror, and she cried out and clutched at me frantically. My arms
closed about her instinctively, and within their iron-thewed clasp I
felt the pulsating of her lithe body, the wild fluttering of her
heart.

"Don't be afraid." My voice sounded strange, scarcely articulate.
"Nothing is going to harm you."

I could feel her heart resuming its normal beat, so closely she
clung to me, before her quick pants of fright ceased. But for a while
she lay in my arms, looking up at me without speaking, until,
embarrassed, I released her and lifted her to a sitting position on
the grass.

"As soon as you feel fit," I said, "we'll put more distance between
us and--that." I jerked my head in the direction of the distant ruins.

"You are hurt," she exclaimed suddenly, tears filling her eyes. "You
are bleeding! Oh, I am to blame. If I had not run away--" She was
weeping now in earnest, like any Earthly girl.

"Don't worry about these scratches," I answered, though privately I
was wondering if the fangs of the vermin were venomous. "They are only
flesh wounds. Stop crying, will you?"

She obediently stifled her sobs, and naively dried her eyes with her
skirt. I did not wish to remind her of her horrible experience, but I
was curious on one point.

"Why did the Yagas halt at the ruins?" I asked. "Surely they knew of
the things that haunt such cities."

"They were hungry," she answered with a shudder. "They had captured
a youth--they dismembered him alive, but never a cry for mercy they
got, only curses. Then they roasted--" She gagged, smitten with
nausea.

"So the Yagas are cannibals." I muttered.

"No. They are devils. While they sat about the fire the dog-heads
fell upon them. I did not see them until they were on us. They swarmed
over the Yagas like jackals over deer. Then they dragged me into the
darkness. What they meant to do, Thak only knows. I have heard--but it
is too obscene to repeat."

"But why did they shriek my name?" I marveled.

"I cried it aloud in my terror," she answered. "They heard and
mimicked me. When you came, they knew you. Do not ask me how. They too
are devils."

"This planet is infested with devils," I muttered. "But why did you
call on me, in your fright, instead of your father?"

She colored slightly, and instead of answering, began pulling her
tunic straps in place.

Seeing that one of her sandals had slipped off, I replaced it on her
small foot, and while I was so occupied she asked unexpectedly: "Why
do they call you Ironhand? Your fingers are hard, but their touch is
as gentle as a woman's. I never had men's fingers touch me so lightly
before. More often they have hurt me."

I clenched my fist and regarded it moodily--a knotted iron mallet of
a fist. She touched it timidly.

"It's the feeling behind the hand." I answered. "No man I ever
fought complained that my fists were gentle. But it is my enemies I
wish to hurt, not you."

Her eyes lighted. "You would not hurt me? Why?"

The absurdity of the question left me speechless.



Chapter 07


It was past sunrise when we started back on the long trek toward
Koth, swinging far to the west to avoid the devil city from which we
had escaped. The sun came up unusually hot. The air was breathless,
the light morning wind blew fitfully, and then died down entirely. The
always cloudless sky had a faint copperish tint. Altha eyed that sky
apprehensively, and in answer to my question said she feared a storm.
I had supposed the weather to be always clear and calm and hot on the
plains, clear and windy and cold in the hills. Storms had not entered
into my calculation.

The beasts we saw shared her uneasiness. We skirted the edge of the
forest, for Altha refused to traverse it until the storm had passed.
Like most plains-dwellers, she had an instinctive distrust of thick
woods. As we strode over the grassy undulations, we saw the herds of
grazers milling confusedly. A drove of jumping pigs passed us,
covering the ground with gargantuan bounds of thirty and forty feet. A
lion started up in front of us with a roar, but dropped his massive
head and slunk hurriedly away through the tall grass.

I kept looking for clouds, but saw none. Only the copperish tint
about the horizons grew, discoloring the whole sky. It turned from
light color to dull bronze, and from bronze to black. The sun
smoldered for a little like a veiled torch, veining the dusky dome
with fire, then it was blotted out. A tangible darkness seemed to
hover an instant in the sky, then rush down, cloaking the world in
utter blackness, through which shone neither sun, moon, nor stars. I
had never guessed how impenetrable darkness could be. I might have
been a blind, disembodied spirit wandering through unlighted space,
but for the swish of the grasses under my feet, and the soft warm
contact of Altha's body against mine. I began to fear we might fall
into a river, or blunder against some equally blind beast of prey.

I had been making for a mass of broken boulders, such a formation as
occasionally occurs on the plains. Darkness fell before we reached
them, but groping on, I stumbled upon a sizable rock, and placing my
back to it, drew Altha against it and stood sheltering her with my
body as well as I could. Out on the dark plains breathless silence
alternated with the sounds of varied and widespread movement--rustling
of grass, shuffle of padded hoofs, weird lowing and low-pitched
roaring. Once a vast herd of some sort swept by us, and I was thankful
for the protection of the boulders that kept us from being trampled.
Again all sounds ceased and the silence was as complete as the
darkness. Then from somewhere came a weird howling.

"What's that?" I asked uneasily, unable to classify it.

"The wind!" she shivered, snuggling closer to me.

It did not blow with a steady blast; here and there it swept in mad
fitful gusts. Like lost souls it wailed and moaned. It ripped the
grasses near us, and finally a puff of it struck us squarely, knocking
us off our feet and bruising us against the boulder behind us. Just
that one abrupt blast, like a buffet from an unseen giant's fist.

As we regained our feet I froze. Something was passing near our
refuge--something mountain-huge, beneath whose tread the earth
trembled. Altha caught me in a desperate clutch, and I felt the
pounding of her heart. My hair prickled with nameless fear. The
*thing* was even with us. It halted, as if sensing our presence. There
was a curious leathery sound, as of the movement of great limbs.
Something waved in the air above us; then I felt a touch on my elbow.
The same object touched Altha's bare arm, and she screamed, her taut
nerves snapping.

Instantly our ears were deafened by an awful bellow above us, and
something swept down through the darkness with a clashing of gigantic
teeth. Blindly I lashed out and upward, feeling my sword-edge meet
tangible substance. A warm liquid spurted along my arm, and with
another terrible roar, this time more of pain than rage, the invisible
monster shambled away, shaking the earth with its tread, dimming the
shrieking wind with its bellowing.

"What was it, in God's name?" I panted.

"It was one of the Blind Ones," she whispered. "No man has ever seen
them; they dwell in the darkness of the storm. Whence they come,
whither they go, none knows. But look, the darkness melts."

"Melts" was the right word. It seemed to shred out, to tear in long
streamers. The sun came out, the sky showed blue from horizon to
horizon. But the earth was barred fantastically with long strips of
darkness, tangible shadows floating on the plain, with broad spaces of
sunlight between. The scene might have been a dream landscape of an
opium-eater. A hurrying deer flitted across a sunlight band and
vanished abruptly in a broad streamer of black; as suddenly it flashed
into light and sight again. There was no gradual shaking into
darkness; the borders of the torn strips of blackness were as
clear-cut and definite as ribbons of ebony on a background of gold and
emerald. As far as I could see, the world was stripped and barred with
those black ribbons. Sight could not pierce them, but they were
thinning, dividing, vanishing.

Directly before one of the streamers of darkness ripped apart and
disappeared, revealing the figure of a man--a hairy giant, who stood
glaring at me, sword in hand, as surprised as I. Then several things
happened all at once. Altha screamed: "A Thugran!" the stranger leaped
and slashed, and his sword clanged on my lifted blade.

I have only a brief chaotic memory of the next few seconds. There
was a whirl of strokes and parries, a brief clanging of steel; then my
sword-point sank under his heart and stood out behind his back. I
wrenched the blade free as he sank down, and stood glaring down at him
bewilderedly. I had secretly wondered what the outcome would be when I
was called upon to face a seasoned warrior with naked steel. Now it
had occurred and was over with, and I was absolutely unable to
remember how I had won. It had been too fast and furious for conscious
thought; my fighting instincts had acted for me.

A clamor of angry cries burst on me, and wheeling I saw a score of
hairy warriors swarming out from among the rocks. It was too late to
flee. In an instant they were on me, and I was the center of a
whirling, flashing, maelstrom of swords. How I parried them even for a
few seconds I cannot say. But I did, and even had the satisfaction of
feeling my blade grate around another, and sever the wielder's
shoulder bone. A moment later one stooped beneath my thrust and drove
the spear through the calf of my leg. Maddened by the pain, I dealt
him a stroke that split his skull to the chin, and then a carbine
stock descended on my head. I partially parried the blow, else it had
smashed my skull. But even so, it beat down on my crown with
thunderous and murderous impact, and the lights went out.

I came to with the impression that I was lying in a small boat which
was rocking and tossing in a storm. Then I discovered that I was bound
hand and foot, and being borne on a litter made of spear-shafts. Two
huge warriors were bearing me between them, and they made no effort to
make the traveling any easier for me. I could see only the sky, the
hairy back of the warrior in front of me, and by drawing back my head
the bearded face of the warrior behind. This person, seeing my eyes
open, growled a word to his mate, and they promptly dropped the
litter. The jolt set my damaged head to throbbing, and the wound in my
leg to hurting abominably.

"Logar!" bawled one of them. "The dog is conscious. Make him walk,
if you must bring him to Thugra. I've carried him far as I'm going
to."

I heard footsteps, and then above me towered a giant form and a face
that seemed familiar. It was a fierce, brutal face, and from the
corner of the snarling mouth to the rim of the square jaw, ran a livid
scar.

"Well, Esau Cairn," said this individual, "we meet again."

I made no reply to this obvious comment.

"What?" he sneered, "do you not remember Logar the Bonecrusher, you
hairless dog?"

He punctuated his remarks by a savage kick in my ribs. Somewhere
there rang out a feminine shriek of protest, the sound of a scuffle,
and Altha broke through the ring of warriors and fell to her knees
beside me.

"Beast!" she cried, her beautiful eyes blazing. "You kick him when
he is helpless, when you would not dare face him in fair battle."

"Who let this Kothan cat loose?" roared Logar. "Thal, I told you to
keep her away from this dog."

"She bit my hand," snarled the big warrior, striding forward, and
shaking a drop of blood from his hairy paw. "I'd as soon try to hold a
spitting wildcat."

"Well, haul him to his feet." directed Logar. "He walks the rest of
the way."

"But he is wounded in the leg!" wailed Altha. "He cannot walk."

"Why don't you finish him here?" demanded one of the warriors.

"Because that would be too easy!" roared Logar, red lights
flickering in his blood-shot eyes. "The thief struck me foully with a
stone, from behind, and stole my poniard."--here I saw that he was
wearing it once more at his girdle. "He shall go to Thugra, and there
I'll take my time about killing him. Drag him up!"

They loosened my legs, none too gently, but the wounded one was so
stiff I could hardly stand, much less walk. They encouraged me with
blows, kicks, and prods from spears and swords, while Altha wept in
helpless fury, and at last turned on Logar.

"You are both a liar and a coward!" she screamed. "He did not strike
you with a stone--he beat you down with his naked fists, as all men
know, though your slaves dare not acknowledge it--"

Logar's knotty fist crashed against her jaw, knocking her off her
feet, to fall in a crumpled heap a dozen feet away. She lay without
moving, blood trickling from her lips. Logar grunted in savage
satisfaction, but his warriors were silent. Moderate corporal
correction for women was not unknown among the Guras, but such
excessive and wanton brutality was repugnant to any warrior of average
decency. So Logar's braves looked glum, though they made no verbal
protest.

As for me, I went momentarily blind with the red madness of fury
that swept over me. With a blood-thirsty snarl I jerked convulsively,
upsetting the two men who held me; so we all went down in a heap. The
other Thugrans came and boosted us up, glad to vent their outraged
feelings on my carcass, which they did lustily, with sandal heels and
sword hilts. But I did not feel the blows that rained upon me. The
whole world was swimming red to my sight, and speech had utterly
failed me. I could only snarl bestially as I tore in vain at the
thongs which bound me. When I lay exhausted, my captors hauled me up
and began beating me to make me walk.

"You can beat me to death," I snarled, finding my voice at last,
"but I won't move until some of you see to the girl."

"The slut's dead," growled Logar.

"You lie, you dog!" I spat. "You miserable weakling, you couldn't
hit hard enough to kill a new-born babe!"

Logar bellowed in wordless fury, but one of the others, panting from
his exertions of hammering me, stepped over to Altha, who was showing
signs of life.

"Let her lie!" roared Logar.

"Go to the devil!" snarled his warrior. "I love her no more than you
do, but if bringing her along will make that smooth-skinned devil walk
of his own accord, I'll bring her, if I have to carry her all the way.
He's not human; I've pummeled him till I'm ready to drop dead, and
he's in better shape than I."

So Altha, wobbly on her legs and very groggy, accompanied us as we
marched to Thugra.

We were on the road several days, during which time walking was
agony to my wounded leg. Altha persuaded the warriors to let her
bandage my wounds, and but for that I very probably should have died.
I was marked in many places by the gashes received in the haunted
ruins, battered and bruised from head to foot by the beating the
Thugrans gave me. Just enough food and water was given me to keep me
alive. And so, dazed, weary, harassed by thirst and hunger, crippled,
stumbling along over those endless rolling plains, I was even glad at
last to see the walls of Thugra looming in the distance, even though I
knew they spelled my doom. Altha had not been badly treated on the
march, but she had been prevented from giving me aid and comfort,
beyond bandaging my wounds, and all through the nights, waking from
the beastlike sleep of utter exhaustion, I heard her sobbing. Among
the hazy, tortured impression of that dreary trek, that stands out
most clearly--Altha sobbing in the night, terrible with loneliness and
despair in the immensity of shadowed world and moaning darkness.

And so we came to Thugra. The city was almost exactly like Koth--the
same huge tower-flanked gates, massive walls built of rugged green
stone, and all. The people, too, differed none in the main essentials
from the Kothans. But I found that their government was more like an
absolute monarchy than was Koth's. Logar was a primitive despot, and
his will was the last power. He was cruel, merciless, lustful and
arrogant. I will say this for him: he upheld his rule by personal
strength and courage. Thrice during my captivity in Thugra I saw him
kill a rebellious warrior in hand-to-hand combat--once with his naked
hands against the other's sword. Despite his faults, there was force
in the man, a gusty, driving, dynamic power that beat down opposition
with sheer brutality. He was like a roaring wind, bending or breaking
all that stood before him.

Possessed of incredible vitality, he was intensely vain of his
physical prowess--in which, I believe, his superiority of personality
was rooted. That was why he hated me so terribly. That was why he lied
to his people and told them that I struck him with a stone. That was
why, too, he refused to put the matter to test. In his heart lurked
fear--not of any bodily harm I might do him, but fear lest I overcome
him again, and discredit him in the eyes of his subjects. It was his
vanity that made a beast of Logar.

I was confined in a cell, chained to the wall. Logar came every day
to curse and taunt me. It was evident that he wished to exhaust all
mental forms of torment before he proceeded to physical torture. I did
not know what had become of Altha. I had not seen her since first we
entered the city. He swore that he had taken her to his palace and
described to me with great detail the salacious indignities to which
he swore he subjected her. I did not believe him, for I felt he would
be more likely to bring her to my cell and torture her before me. But
the fury into which his obscene narrations threw me could not have
been much more violent if the scenes he described had been enacted
before me.

It was easy to see that the Thugrans did not relish Logar's humor,
for they were no worse than other Guras, and all Guras possess, as a
race, an innate decency in regard to women. But Logar's power was too
complete for any to venture a protest. At last, however, the warrior
who brought me food told me that Altha had disappeared immediately
after we reached the city, and that Logar was searching for her, but
unable to find her. Apparently she had either escaped from Thugra, or
was hiding somewhere in the city.

And so the slow days crawled by.



Chapter 08


It was midnight when I awoke suddenly. The torch in my cell was
flickering and guttering. The guard was gone from my door. Outside,
the night was full of noise. Curses, yells, and shots mingled with the
clash of steel, and over all rose the screaming of women. This was
accompanied by a curious thrashing sound in the air above. I tore at
my bonds, mad to know what was happening. There was fighting in the
city, beyond the shadow of a doubt, but whether civil war or alien
invasion, I could not know.

Then quick light steps sounded outside, and Altha ran swiftly into
my cell. Her hair was in wild disorder, her scanty garment torn, her
eyes ablaze with terror.

"Esau!" she cried. "Doom from the sky has fallen on Thugra! The
Yagas have descended on the city by the thousands! There is fighting
in the streets and on the house tops--the gutters are running red, and
the streets are strewn with corpses! Look! The city is burning!"

Through the high-set barred windows I saw a smoldering glow.
Somewhere sounded the dry crackling of flames. Altha was sobbing as
she fumbled vainly at my bonds. That day Logar had begun the physical
torture, and had had me hauled upright and suspended from the roof by
a rawhide thong bound about my wrists, my toes just touching a huge
block of granite. But Logar had not been so wise. They had used a new
thong of hide, and it had stretched, allowing my feet to rest on the
block, in which position I had suffered no unbearable anguish, and had
even fallen asleep, though naturally the attitude was not conducive to
great comfort.

As Altha worked futilely to free me, I asked her where she had been,
and she answered that she had slipped away from Logar when we had
reached the city, and that kind women, pitying her, had hidden and fed
her. She had been waiting for an opportunity to aid me in escaping.
"And now," she wailed, wringing her hands, "I can do nothing! I cannot
untie this wretched noose!"

"Go find a knife!" I directed. "Quick!"

Even as she turned, she cried out and shrank back, trembling, as a
terrible figure lurched through the door.

It was Logar, his mane and beard matted and singed, the hair on his
great breast crisped and blackened, blood streaming from his limbs.
His blood-shot eyes glared madness as he reeled toward me, lifting the
poniard I had taken from him so long before.

"Dog!" he croaked. "Thugra is doomed! The winged devils drop from
the skies like vultures on a dead ox! I have slain until I die of
weariness, yet still they come. But I remembered you. I could not rest
easy in Hell, knowing you still lived. Before I go forth again to die,
I'll send you before me!"

Altha shrieked and ran to shield me, but he was before her. Rising
on his toes he caught at my girdle, lifting the poniard on high. And
as he did so, I drove my knee with terrific force up against his jaw.
The impact must have broken his bull-neck like a twig. His shaggy head
shot back between his shoulders, his bearded chin pointing straight
up. He went down like a slaughtered ox, his head crashing hard on the
stone floor.

A low laugh sounded from the doorway. Etched in the opening stood a
tall ebony shape, wings half lifted, a dripping scimitar in a
crimsoned hand. Limned in the murky red glare behind him, the effect
was that of a black-winged demon standing in the flame-lit door of
Hell. The passionless eyes regarded me enigmatically, flitted across
the crumpled form on the floor, then rested on Altha, cowering at my
feet.

Calling something over his shoulder, the Yaga advanced into the
room, followed by a score of his kind. Many of them bore wounds, and
their swords were notched and dripping.

"Take them," the first comer indicated Altha and myself.

"Why the man?" demurred one.

"Who ever saw a white man with blue eyes before? He will interest
Yasmeena. But be careful. He has the thews of a lion."

One of them grasped Altha's arm and dragged her away, struggling
vainly and twisting her head to stare back at me with terrified eyes,
and the others from a safe distance cast a silken net about my feet.
While my limbs were so enmeshed, they seized me, bound me with silken
cords that a lion could not have broken, and cut the thong by which I
was suspended. Then two of them lifted me and bore me out of the cell.
We emerged into a scene of frenzy in the streets.

The stone walls were of course immune to flame, but the woodwork of
the buildings was ablaze. Smoke rolled up in great billowing clouds,
shot and veined by tongues of flame, and against this murky background
black shapes twisted and contorted like figments of nightmare. Through
the black clouds shot what appeared to be blazing meteors, until I saw
they were winged men bearing torches.

In the streets, among falling sparks and crashing walls, in the
burning buildings, on the roofs, desperate scenes were being hideously
enacted. The men of Thugra were fighting with the fury of dying
panthers. Any one of them was more than a match for a single Yaga, but
the winged devils far outnumbered them, and their fiendish agility in
the air balanced the superior strength and courage of the apemen.
Swooping down through the air, they slashed with their curved swords,
soaring out of reach again before the victim could return the stroke.
When three or four devils were striking thus at a single enemy, the
butchery was certain and swift. The smoke did not seem to bother them
as it did their human adversaries. Some, perched on points of vantage,
bent bows and sent arrows singing down into the struggling masses in
the streets.

The killing was not all on one side. Winged bodies as well as hairy
shapes lay strewn in the blood-splashed streets. Carbines cracked and
more than a few flying fiends crashed earthward in a frantic thrashing
of wings. Madly lashing swords found their target, and when the
desperate hands of a Gura closed on a Yaga, that Yaga died horribly.

But by far the greater slaughter was among the Thugrans. Blinded and
half strangled, most of their bullets and arrows went wild.
Outnumbered and bewildered by the hawklike tactics of their merciless
foes, they fought vainly, were cut down or feathered with arrows.

The main object of the Yagas seemed to be women captives. Again and
again I saw a winged man soar up through the whirling smoke, gripping
a shrieking girl in his arms.

Oh, it was a sickening sight! I do not believe that the utter
barbarism and demoniac cruelty of the scene could be duplicated on
Earth, vicious as its inhabitants can be at times. It was not like
humans fighting humans, but like members of two different forms of
life at war, utterly without sympathy or any common plane of
understanding.

But the massacre was not complete. The Yagas were quitting the city
they had ruined, sweeping up into the skies laden with naked writhing
captives. The survivors still held the streets, and fired blindly at
the departing victors, evidently preferring to risk killing their
captives rather than to let them be carried to the fate that awaited
them.

I saw a knot of perhaps a hundred struggling fighters slashing and
gasping on the highest roof in the city, the Yagas to tear away and
escape, the Guras to drag them down. Smoke billowed about them, flames
caught at their hair; then with a thunderous roar the roof fell in,
bearing victors and vanquished alike to a fiery death. The deafening
thunder of the devouring flames was in my ears as my captors whirled
me through the air away from the reeking city of Thugra.

When my dazed faculties adjusted themselves sufficiently for me to
take note of my surroundings, I found myself sailing through the sky
at terrific speed, while below, above and about me sounded the steady
beat of mighty wings. Two Yagas were bearing me with perfect ease, and
I was in the midst of the band, which was flying southward in a
wedge-shaped formation, like that of wild geese. There were fully ten
thousand of them. They darkened the morning sky, and their gigantic
shadow swept over the plain beneath them as the sun rose.

We were flying at an altitude of about a thousand feet. Many of the
winged men bore girls and young women, and carried them with an ease
that spoke of incredible wing-power. No match in sheer muscularity for
the Guras, yet these winged devils have unbelievable powers of
endurance in the air. They can fly for hours at top speed, and in the
wedge formation, with unburdened leaders cleaving the air ahead of
them, can carry weights almost equal their own at almost the same
velocity.

We did not pause to rest or eat until nightfall, when our captors
descended to the plain, where they built fires and spent the night.
That night lives in my memory as one of the greatest horrors I have
ever endured. We captives were given no food, but the Yagas ate. And
their food was their miserable captives. Lying helpless, I shut my
eyes to that butchery, wished that I were deaf that I might not hear
the heart-rending cries. The butchery of men I can endure, in battle,
even in red massacre. The wanton slaughter of helpless women who can
only shriek for mercy until the knife silences their wails, that is
more than I can stand. Nor did I know but that Altha was among those
chosen for the grisly feast. With each hiss and crunch of the
beheading blade I winced, seeing in fancy her lovely dark head roll on
the blood-soaked ground. For what was going on at the other fires I
could not know.

After it was over and the gorged demons lay about the fires in
slumber, I lay sick at heart, listening to the roaring of the prowling
lions, and reflecting how kinder and more gentle is any beast, than
any thing molded in the form of man. And out of my sick horror grew a
hate that steeled me for whatever might come, in the grim
determination to ultimately repay these winged monsters for all the
suffering they had inflicted.

Dawn was only a hint in the sky when we took the air again. There
was no morning meal. I was to learn that the Yagas ate only at
intervals, gorging themselves to capacity every few days. After
several hours hurtling over the usual grasslands, we came suddenly in
sight of a broad river spanning the savannas from horizon to horizon,
fringed on the northern bank by a narrow belt of forest. The waters
were of a curious purple, glimmering like watered silk. On the farther
bank appeared a tall thin tower of a black shiny material that
glittered like polished steel.

As we whirled over the river I saw that it was rushing with terrific
velocity. Its roar came up to us, and I saw the seething of eddying
whirlpools in its racing current. Crossing the stream at the point
where the tower stood, reared numbers of huge stones, among which the
waters foamed and thundered. Looking down at the tower, I saw half a
dozen winged men on the battlemented roof, who tossed up their arms as
if hailing our captors. From the river southward stretched desert--
bare, dusty, grayish, strewn occasionally with bleached bones here and
there. Far away on the horizon I saw a giant black bulk growing in the
sky.

It stood out boldly as we raced toward it. In a few hours we had
reached it, and I was able to make out all its details. It was a
gigantic block of black basaltlike rock rising sheer out of the
desert, a broad river flowing about its feet, its summit crowned with
black towers, minarets and castles. It was no myth, then, but a
fantastic reality--Yugga, the Black City, the stronghold of the winged
people.

The river, cutting through the naked desert, split on that great
rock and passed about it on either side, forming a natural moat. On
every side but one the waters lapped the sheer walls of the cliffs.
But on one side a broad beach had been formed, and there stood another
town. Its style of architecture was very different from that of the
edifices on the rock. The houses were mere stone huts, squat,
flat-roofed, and one-storied. Only one building had any pretensions--a
black templelike edifice built against the cliff wall. This lower town
was protected by a strong stone wall built about it at the water's
edge, and connecting at each end with the cliff behind the town.

I saw the inhabitants, and saw that they were neither Yagas nor
Guras. They were short and squat of build, and of a peculiar blue
color. Their faces, while more like those of Earthly humans than were
those of the Gura males, lacked the intelligence of the latter. The
countenances were dull, stupid and vicious, the women being little
more prepossessing than the men. I saw these curious people, not only
in their town at the foot of the cliff, but at work in fields along
the river.

I had little opportunity for observing them, however, since the
Yagas swept straight up to the citadel, which towered five hundred
feet above the river. I was bewildered by the array of battlements,
pinnacles, minarets and roof gardens that met my gaze, but got the
impression that the city on the rock was built like one huge palace,
each part connected with the rest. Figures lounging on couches on the
flat roofs lifted themselves on elbow, and from scores of casements
the faces of women looked at us as we sank down on a broad flat roof
that was something like a landing-field. There many of the winged men
dispersed, leaving the captives guarded by three or four hundred
warriors, who herded them through a gigantic door. There were about
five hundred of these wretched girls, Altha among them. I was carried,
still bound, along with them. By this time my whole body was numb from
having circulation cut off so long, but my mind was intensely active.

We traversed a stairway down which half a dozen elephants could have
stalked abreast, and came into a corridor of corresponding vastness.
Walls, stair, ceiling and floor were all of the gleaming black stone,
which I decided had been cut out of the rock on which Yugga was built,
and highly polished. So far I had seen no carvings, tapestries, or any
attempt at ornamentation; yet it could not be denied that the effect
of those lofty walls and vaulted ceilings of polished ebony was
distinctly one of splendor. There was an awe-inspiring majesty about
the architecture which seemed incongruous, considering the beastliness
of the builders. Yet the tall black figures did not seem out of place,
moving somberly through those great ebony halls. The Black City--not
alone because its walls were dusky hued did humans give it that
sinister name.

As we passed through those lofty halls I saw many of the inhabitants
of Yugga. Besides the winged men, I saw, for the first time, the women
of the Yagas. Theirs was the same lithe build, the same glossy black
skin, the same faintly hawklike cast of countenance. But the women
were not winged. They were clad in short silken skirts held up with
jewel-crusted girdles, and in filmy sashes bound about their breasts.
But for the almost intangible cruelty of their faces, they were
beautiful. Their dusky features were straight and clear-cut, their
hair was not kinky.

I saw other women, hundreds of the black-haired, white-skinned
daughters of the Guras. But there were others: small, dainty,
yellow-skinned girls, and copper-colored women--all, apparently, slaves
to the black people. These women were something new and unexpected. All
the fantastic forms of life I had encountered so far had been
mentioned in tales or legends of the Kothans. The dog-heads, the giant
spider, the winged people with their black citadel and their
blue-skinned slaves--all these had been named in legendry, at least. But
no man or woman of Koth had ever spoken of women with yellow or copper
skins. Were these exotic prisoners from another planet, just as I was
from an alien world?

While meditating the matter I was carried through a great bronze
portal at which stood a score of winged warriors on guard, and found
myself with the captive girls in a vast chamber, octagonal in shape,
the walls hung with dusky tapestries. It was carpeted with some sort
of rich furlike stuff, and the air was heavy with perfumes and
incense.

Toward the back of the chamber, broad steps of beaten gold led up to
a fur-covered dais, on which lounged a young black woman. She alone,
of all the Yaga women, was winged. She was dressed like the rest,
wearing no ornaments except her gem-crusted girdle, from which jutted
a jeweled dagger hilt. Her beauty was marvelous and disquieting, like
the beauty of a soulless statue. I sensed that of all the inhuman
denizens of Yugga, she was least human. Her brooding eyes spoke of
dreams beyond the boundaries of human consciousness. Her face was the
face of a goddess, knowing neither fear nor mercy.

Ranged about her couch in attitudes of humility and servitude were
twenty naked girls, white-, yellow- and copper-skinned.

The leader of our captors advanced toward the royal dais, and bowing
low, at the same time extending his hands, palms down and fingers
spread wide, he said: "Oh, Yasmeena, Queen of the Night, we bring you
the fruits of conquest."

She raised herself on her elbow, and as her terribly personal gaze
passed over her cringing captives, a shudder swept across their ranks
as a wind passes over rows of wheat. From earliest childhood Gura
girls were taught, by tales and tradition, that the worst fate that
could befall them was to be captured by the people of the Black City.
Yugga was a misty land of horror, ruled by the archfiend Yasmeena.
Now those trembling girls were face to face with the vampire herself.
What wonder that many of them fainted outright?

But her eyes passed over them and rested on me, where I stood
propped up between a couple of warriors. I saw interest grow in those
dark luminous eyes, and she spoke to the chief:

"Who is that barbarian, whose skin is white, yet almost as hairless
as ours, who is clad like a Gura, and yet unlike them?"

"We found him a captive among the Thugrans, oh mistress of Night,"
he answered. "Your majesty shall herself question him. And now, oh
dark beauty, be pleased to designate the miserable wenches who shall
serve your loveliness, that the rest may be apportioned among the
warriors who made the raid."

Yasmeena nodded, her eyes still on me, and with a few waves of her
hand she indicated a dozen or so of the handsomest girls, among these
being Altha. They were drawn aside, and the rest were herded out.

Yasmeena eyed me a space without speaking, and then said to him who
appeared to be her major-domo: "Gotrah, this man is weary and stained
with travel and captivity, and there is an unhealed wound in his leg.
The sight of him, as he now is, offends me. Take him away, let him
bathe and eat and drink, and let his leg be bandaged. Then bring him
to me again."

So my captors with a weary sigh, heaved me up again, and carried me
from the royal chamber, down a winding corridor, along a flight of
stairs, and halted finally in a chamber where a fountain bubbled in
the floor. There they fastened gold chains to my wrists and ankles and
then cut the cords that bound me. In the excruciating pain of the
returning circulation, I scarcely noticed when they splashed me in the
fountain, bathing the sweat, dirt and dried blood from my limbs and
body, and clad me in a new loincloth of scarlet silk. They likewise
dressed the wound in my calf, and then a copper-skinned slave-girl
entered with gold vessels of food. I would not touch the meat, what
with my grisly suspicions, but I ate ravenously of the fruits and
nuts, and drank deeply of a green wine, which I found most delicious
and refreshing.

After that I felt so drowsy that I sank down on a velvet couch and
passed instantly into deep slumber, from which I was roused by someone
shaking me. It was Gotrah bending over me with a short knife in his
hand; and, all my wild instincts aroused, I did my best to brain him
with my clenched fist, and failed only because of the chain on my
wrist. He recoiled, cursing.

"I have not come to cut your throat, barbarian," he snapped, "though
nothing would please me better. The Kothan girl has told Yasmeena that
it is your habit to scrape the hair from your face, and it is the
Queen's desire to see you thus. Here, take this knife and scrape
yourself. It has no point, and I will be careful to stay out of your
reach. Here is a mirror."

Still half asleep--by which I believe the green wine was drugged,
though for what reason I cannot say--I propped the silver mirror up
against the wall, and went to work on my beard, which had reached no
mean proportions during my captivities. It was a dry shave, but my
skin is as durable as tanned leather, and the knife had an edge keener
than I ever found on an Earthly razor. When I had finished, Gotrah
grunted at my changed appearance and demanded the knife again. As
there was no point in retaining it, it being useless as a weapon, I
threw it at him, and immediately fell asleep again.

The next time I awoke naturally, and rising, took in my surroundings
more minutely. The chamber was unadorned, furnished only with the
couch, a small ebony table, and a fur-covered bench. There was a
single door, which was closed and doubtless bolted on the outside, and
one window. My chains were fastened to a gold ring in the wall behind
the couch, but the strand that linked me to it was long enough to
allow me to take a few steps to the fountain, and to the window. This
window was barred with gold, and I looked out over flat roofs, at
towers and minarets which limited my view.

So far the Yagas had treated me well enough; I wondered how Altha
was faring, and if the position of member of the Queen's retinue
carried any special privileges or safety.

Then Gotrah entered again, with half a dozen warriors, and they
unlocked my chain from the wall and escorted me down the corridor, up
the winding stair. I was not taken back to the great throne chamber,
but to a smaller room high up in a tower. This room was so littered
with furs and cushions that it was almost stuffed. I was reminded of
the soft, padded nest of a spider, and the black spider was there--
lounging on a velvet couch and staring at me with avid curiosity. This
time she was not attended by slaves. The warriors chained me to the
wall--every wall in that accursed palace seemed to have rings for
captives--and left us alone.

I leaned back among the furs and pillows, finding their downy
contact irksome to my iron-hard frame, unaccustomed to soft living of
any kind, and for a wearisome time the Queen of Yugga surveyed me
without speaking. Her eyes had a hypnotic quality; I distinctly felt
their impact. But I felt too much like a chained beast on exhibition
to be aware of any feeling but one of rising resentment. I fought it
down. A burst of berserk fury might break the slender chains that held
me, and rid the world of Yasmeena, but Altha and I would still be
prisoners on that accursed rock from which legend said there was no
escape save through the air.

"Who are you?" Yasmeena demanded abruptly. "I have seen men with
skins smoother even than yours, but never a hairless white man
before."

Before I could ask her where she had seen hairless men, if not among
her own people, she continued: "Nor have I seen eyes like yours. They
are like a deep cold lake, yet they blaze and smolder like the cold
blue flame that dances forever above Xathar. What is your name? Whence
come you? The girl Altha said you came out of the wilderness and dwelt
in her city, defeating its mighty men in single combat. But she does
not know from what land you came, she says. Speak, and do not lie."

"I'll speak but you'll think I lie," I grunted. "I am Esau Cairn,
whom the men of Koth call Ironhand. I come from another world in
another solar system. Chance, or the whim of a scientist whom you
would call a magician, cast me on this planet. Chance again threw me
among the Kothans. Chance carried me to Yugga. Now I have spoken.
Believe me or not, as you will."

"I believe you," she answered. "Of old, men passed from star to
star, There are beings now which traverse the cosmos. I would study
you. You shall live--for a while, at least. But you must wear those
chains, for I read the fury of the beast in your eyes, and know you
would rend me if you could."

"What of Altha!" I asked.

"Well, what of her?" She seemed surprised at the question.

"What have you done with her?" I demanded.

"She will serve me with the rest, until she displeases me. Why do
you speak of another woman, when you are talking to me? I am not
pleased."

Her eyes began to glitter. I never saw eyes like Yasmeena's. They
changed with every shift of mood and whim, and they mirrored passions
and angers and desires beyond the maddest dreams of humanity.

"You do not blench," she said softly. "Man, do you know what it is
for Yasmeena to be displeased? Then blood flows like water, Yugga
rings with screams of agony, and the very gods hide their heads in
horror."

The way she said it turned my blood cold, but the red anger of the
primitive would not down. The feel of my strength came upon me, and I
knew that I could tear that golden ring from the stone and rip out her
life before she could leap from her couch, if it came to that. So I
laughed, and my laughter thrummed with blood-lust. She started up and
eyed me closely.

"Are you mad, to laugh?" she asked. "No, that was not mirth--it was
the growl of a hunting leopard. It is in your mind to leap and kill
me, but if you do, the girl Altha will suffer for your crime. Yet you
interest me. No man has ever laughed at me before. You shall live--for
a while." She clapped her hands and the warriors entered. "Take him
back to his chamber," she directed. "Keep him chained there until I
send for him again."

And so began my third captivity on Almuric, in the black citadel of
Yugga, on the rock Yuthla, by the river of Yogh, in the land of Yagg.



Chapter 09


Much I learned of the ways of that terrible people, who have reigned
over Almuric since ages beyond the memory of man. They might have been
human once, long ago, but I doubt it. I believe they represented a
separate branch on the tree of evolution, and that it is only an
incredible freak of coincidence which cast them in a mold so similar
to man, instead of the shapes of the abysmal, howling, blasphemous
dwellers of Outer Darkness.

In many ways they seemed, superficially, human enough, but if one
followed their lines of consciousness far enough, he would come upon
phases inexplicable and alien to humanity. As far as pure intellect
went, they were superior to the hairy Guras. But they lacked
altogether the decency, honesty, courage, and general manliness of the
apemen. The Guras were quick to wrath, savage and brutal in their
anger; but there was a studied cruelty about the Yagas which made the
others seem like mere rough children. The Yagas were merciless in
their calmest moments; roused to anger, their excesses were horrible
to behold.

They were a numerous horde, the warriors alone numbering some twenty
thousand. There were more women than men, and with their slaves, of
which each male and female Yaga possessed a goodly number, the city of
Yugga was fully occupied. Indeed, I was surprised to learn of the
multitudes of people who dwelt there, considering the comparative
smallness of the rock Yuthla on which the city was built. But its
space was greater vertically than horizontally. The castles and towers
soared high into the air, and several tiers of chambers and corridors
were sunk into the rock itself. When the Yagas felt themselves crowded
for space, they simply butchered their slaves. I saw no children;
losses in war were comparatively slight, and plagues and diseases
unknown. Children were produced only at regular intervals, some three
centuries apart. The last flock had come of age; the next brood was
somewhere in the dim distance of the future.

The lords of Yugga did no sort of work, but passed their lives in
sensual pleasures. Their knowledge and adeptness at debauchery would
have shamed the most voluptuous libertine in later Rome. Their
debauches were interrupted only by raids on the outer world in order
to procure women slaves.

The town at the foot of the cliff was called Akka, the blue people
Akki, or Akkas. They had been subject to the Yagas as far back as
tradition extended. They were merely stupid work-animals, laboring in
the irrigated fields of fruits and edible plants, and otherwise doing
the will of their masters, whom they considered superior beings, if
not veritable gods. They worshipped Yasmeena as a deity. Outside of
continual toil, they were not mistreated. Their women were ugly and
beastlike. The winged people had a keen asthetic sense, though their
interest in the beauty of the lower orders was sadistic and altogether
beastly. The Akkas never came into the upper city, except when there
was work to be done there, too heavy for the women slaves. Then they
ascended and descended by means of great silken ladders let down from
the rock. There was no road leading up from below, since the Yagas
needed none. The cliffs could not be scaled; so the winged people had
no fear of an Akka uprising.

The Yaga women were likewise prisoners on the rock Yuthla. Their
wings were carefully removed at birth. Only the infants destined to
become queens of Yugga were spared. This was done in order to keep the
male sex in supremacy, and indeed, I was never able to learn how, and
at what distant date, the men of Yugga gained supremacy over their
women; for, judging from Yasmeena, the winged women were superior to
their mates in agility, endurance, courage and even in strength.
Clipping their wings kept them from developing their full superiority.

Yasmeena was an example of what a winged woman could be. She was
taller than the other Yaga females, who in turn were taller than the
Gura women, and though voluptuously shaped, the steel thews of a
wildcat lurked in her slender rounded limbs. She was young--all the
women of Yugga looked young. The average life-span of the Yaga was
nine hundred years. Yasmeena had reigned over Yugga for four hundred
years. Three winged princesses of royal blood had contested with her
for the right to rule, and she had slain each of them, fighting with
naked hands in the regal octagonal chamber. As long as she could
defend her crown against young claimants, she would rule.

The lot of the slaves in Yugga was hideous. None ever knew when she
would be dismembered for the cooking-pot, and the lives of all were
tormented by the cruel whims of their masters and mistresses. Yugga
was as like Hell as any place could be. I do not know what went on in
the palaces of the nobles and warriors, but I do know what took place
daily in the palace of the Queen. There was never a day or night that
those dusky walls did not re-echo screams of agony and piteous wails
for mercy, mingled with vindictive maledictions, or lascivious
laughter.

I never became accustomed to it, hard as I was physically and
mentally. I think the only thing that kept me from going mad was the
feeling that I must keep my sanity in order to protect Altha if I
could. That was precious little; I was chained in my chamber; where
the Kothan girl was, I had not the slightest idea, except that she was
somewhere in the palace of Yasmeena, where she was protected from the
lust of the winged men, but not from the cruelty of her mistress.

In Yugga I heard sounds and saw sights not to be repeated--not even
to be remembered in dreams. Men and women, the Yagas were open and
candid in their evil. Their utter cynicism banished ordinary scruples
of modesty and common decency. Their bestialities were naked, unhidden
and shameless. They followed their desires with one another, and
practised their tortures on their wretched slaves with no attempt at
concealment. Deeming themselves gods, they considered themselves above
the considerations that guide ordinary humans. The women were more
vicious than the men, if such a thing were possible. The refinements
of their cruelties toward their trembling slaves cannot be even hinted
at. They were versed in every art of torture, both mental and
physical. But enough. I can but hint at what is unrepeatable.

Those days of captivity seem like a dim nightmare. I was not badly
treated, personally. Each day I was escorted on a sort of promenade
about the palace--something on the order of giving a confined animal
exercise. I was always accompanied by seven or eight warriors armed to
the teeth, and always wore my chains. Several times on these
promenades I saw Altha, going about her duties, but she always averted
her gaze and hurried by. I understood and made no attempt to speak to
her. I had placed her in jeopardy already by speaking of her to
Yasmeena. Better let the queen forget about her, if possible. Slaves
were safest when the Queen of Yagg remembered them least.

Somewhere, somehow, I found in me power to throttle my red rage and
blind fury. When my very brain reeled with the lust to break my chains
and explode into a holocaust of slaughter, I held myself with iron
grasp. And the fury ate inward into my soul, crystallizing my hate. So
the days passed, until the night that Yasmeena again sent for me.



Chapter 10


Yasmeena cupped her chin in her slim hands and fixed her great dark
eyes on me. We were alone in a chamber I had never entered before. It
was night. I sat on a divan opposite her, my limbs unshackled. She had
offered me temporary freedom if I would promise not to harm her, and
to go back into shackles when she bade me. I had promised. I was never
a clever man, but my hate had sharpened my wits. I was playing a game
of my own.

"What are you thinking of, Esau Ironhand?" she asked.

"I'm thirsty," I answered.

She indicated a crystal vessel near at hand. "Drink a little of the
golden wine--not much, or it will make you drunk. It is the most
powerful drink in the world. Not even I can quaff that vessel without
lying senseless for hours. And you are unaccustomed to it."

I sipped a little of it. It was indeed heady liquor.

Yasmeena stretched her limbs out on her couch, and asked: "Why do
you hate me? Have I not treated you well?"

"I have not said that I hated you," I countered. "You are very
beautiful. But you are cruel."

She shrugged her winged shoulders. "Cruel? I am a goddess. What have
I to do with either cruelty or mercy? Those qualities are for men.
Humanity exists for my pleasure. Does not all life emanate from me?"

"Your stupid Akkas may believe that," I replied; "but I know
otherwise, and so do you."

She laughed, not offended. "Well, I may not be able to create life,
but I can destroy life at will. I may not be a goddess, but you would
find it difficult to convince these foolish wenches who serve me that
I am not all-powerful. No, Ironhand; gods are only another name for
*Power*. I am Power on this planet; so I am a goddess. What do your
hairy friends, the Guras, worship?"

"They worship Thak; at least they acknowledge Thak as the creator
and preserver. They have no regular ritual of worship, no temples,
altars or priests. Thak is the Hairy One, the god in the form of man.
He bellows in the tempest, and thunders in the hills with the voice of
the lion. He loves brave men, and hates weaklings, but he neither
harms nor aids. When a male child is born, he blows into it courage
and strength; when a warrior dies, he ascends to Thak's abode, which
is a land of celestial plains, river and mountains, swarming with
game, and inhabited by the spirits of departed warriors, who hunt,
fight and revel forever as they did in life."

She laughed. "Stupid pigs. Death is oblivion. We Yagas worship only
our own bodies. And to our bodies we make rich sacrifices with the
bodies of the foolish little people."

"Your rule cannot last forever," I was moved to remark.

"It *has* lasted since beyond the gray dawn of Time's beginning. On
the dark rock Yuthla my people have brooded through ages uncountable.
Before the cities of the Guras dotted the plains, we dwelt in the land
of Yagg. We were always masters. As we rule the Guras, so we ruled the
mysterious race which possessed the land before the Guras evolved from
the ape: the race which reared their cities of marble whose ruins now
affright the moon, and which perished in the night.

"Tales! I could tell you tales to blast your reason! I could tell
you of races which appeared from the mist of mystery, moved across the
world in restless waves, and vanished in the midst of oblivion. We of
Yugga have watched them come and go, each in turn bending beneath the
yoke of our godship. We have endured, not centuries or millenniums,
but cycles.

"Why should not our rule endure forever? How shall these Gura-fools
overcome us? You have seen how it is when my hawks swoop from the air
in the night on the cities of the apeman. How then shall they attack
us in our eyrie? To reach the land of Yagg they must cross the Purple
River, whose waters race too swiftly to be swum. Only at the Bridge of
Rocks can it be crossed, and there keen-eyed guards watch night and
day. Once, the Guras did try to attack us. The watchers brought word
of their coming and the men of Yagg were prepared. In the midst of the
desert they fell on the invaders and destroyed them by thirst and
madness and arrows showering upon them from the skies.

"Suppose a horde should fight its way through the desert and reach
the rock Yuthla? They have the river Yogh to cross, and when they have
crossed it, in the teeth of the Akki spears, what then? They could not
scale the cliffs. No; no foreign foe will ever set foot in Yugga. If,
by the wildest whim of the gods, such a thing *should* come to pass"--
her beautiful features became even more cruel and sinister--"rather
than submit to conquest I would loose the *Ultimate Horror*, and
perish in the ruins of my city," she whispered, more to herself than
to me.

"What do you say?" I asked, not understanding.

"There are secrets beneath the velvet coverings of the darkest
secrets," she said. "Tread not where the very gods tremble. I said
nothing--you heard nothing. Remember that!"

There was silence for a space, and then I asked a question I had
long mulled over: "Whence come these red girls and yellow girls among
your slaves?"

"You have looked southward from the highest towers on clear days,
and seen a faint blue line rimming the sky far away? That is the
Girdle that bands the world. Beyond that Girdle dwell the races from
which come those alien slaves. We raid across the Girdle just as we
raid the Guras, though less frequently."

I was about to ask more concerning these unknown races, when a timid
tap came on the outer door. Yasmeena, frowning at the interruption,
called a sharp question, and a frightened feminine voice informed her
that the lord Gotrah desired audience. Yasmeena spat an oath at her,
and bade her tell the lord Gotrah to go to the devil.

"No, I must see the fellow," she said rising. "Theta! Oh, Theta!
Where has the little minx gone? I must do my own biddings, must I? Her
buttocks shall smart for her insolence. Wait here, Ironhand. I'll see
to Gotrah."

She crossed the cushion-strewn chamber with her lithe, long stride,
and passed through the door. As it closed behind her, I was struck by
what was nothing less than an inspiration. No especial reason occurred
to me to urge me to feign drunkenness. It was intuition or blind
chance that prompted me. Snatching up the crystal jug which contained
the golden wine, I emptied it into a great golden vessel which stood
half hidden beneath the fringe of a tapestry. I had drunk enough for
the scent to be on my breath.

Then, as I heard footsteps and voices without, I extended myself
quickly on a divan, the jug lying on its side near my outstretched
hand. I heard the door open, and there was an instant's silence so
intense as to be almost tangible. Then Yasmeena spat like an angry
cat. "By the gods, he's emptied the jug? See how he lies in brutish
slumber! Faugh! The noblest figure is abominable when besotted. Well,
let us to our task. We need not fear to be overheard by him."

"Had I not better summon the guard and have him dragged to his
cell?" came Gotrah's voice. "We cannot afford to take chances with
this secret, which none has ever known except the Queen of Yugga and
her major-domo."

I sensed that they came and stood over me, looking down. I moved
vaguely and mumbled thickly, as if in drunken dreams.

Yasmeena laughed.

"No fear. He will know nothing before dawn. Yuthla could split and
fall into Yogh without breaking his sottish dreams. The fool! This
night he would have been lord of the world, for I would have made him
lord of the Queen of the world--for one night. But the lion changes
not his mane, nor the barbarian his brutishness."

"Why not put him to the torture?" grunted Gotrah.

"Because I want a man, not a broken travesty. Besides, his is a
spirit not to be conquered by fire or steel. No. I am Yasmeena and I
will make him love me before I feed him to the vultures. Have you
placed the Kothan Altha among the Virgins of the Moon?"

"Aye, Queen of the dusky stars. A month and a half from this night
she dances the dance of the Moon with the other wenches."

"Good. Keep them guarded day and night. If this tiger learns of our
plans for his sweetheart, chains and bolts will not hold him."

"A hundred and fifty men guard the virgins," answered Gotrah. "Not
even the Ironhand could prevail against them."

"It is well. Now to this other matter. Have you the parchment?"

"Aye."

"Then I will sign it. Give me the stylus."

I heard the crackle of papyrus and the scratch of a keen point, and
then the Queen said:

"Take it now, and lay it on the altar in the usual place. As I
promise in the writing, I will appear in the flesh tomorrow night to
my faithful subjects and worshippers, the blue pigs of Akka. Ha! ha!
ha! I never fail to be amused at the animal-like awe on their stupid
countenances when I emerge from the shadows of the golden screen, and
spread my arms above them in blessing. What fools they are, not in all
these ages, to have discovered the secret door and the shaft that
leads from their temple to this chamber."

"Not so strange," grunted Gotrah. "None but the priest ever comes
into the temple except by special summons, and he is far too
superstitious to go meddling behind the screen. Anyway, there is no
sign to mark the secret door from without."

"Very well," answered Yasmeena. "Go."

I heard Gotrah fumbling at something, then a slight grating sound.
Consumed by curiosity, I dared open one eye a slit, in time to glimpse
Gotrah disappearing through a black opening that gaped in the middle
of the stone floor, and which closed after him. I quickly shut my eye
again and lay still, listening to Yasmeena's quick pantherish tread
back and forth across the floor.

Once she came and stood over me. I felt her burning gaze and heard
her curse beneath her breath. Then she struck me viciously across the
face with some kind of jeweled ornament that tore my skin and started
a trickle of blood. But I lay without twitching a muscle, and
presently she turned and left the chamber, muttering.

As the door closed behind her I rose quickly, scanning the floor for
some sign of the opening through which Gotrah had gone. A furry rug
had been drawn aside from the center of the floor, but in the polished
black stone I searched in vain for a crevice to denote the hidden
trap. I momentarily expected the return of Yasmeena, and my heart
pounded within me. Suddenly, under my very hand, a section of the
floor detached itself and began to move upward. A pantherish bound
carried me behind a tapestried couch, where I crouched, watching the
trap rise upward. The narrow head of Gotrah appeared, then his winged
shoulders and body.

He climbed up into the chamber, and as he turned to lower the lifted
trap, I left the floor with a catlike leap that carried me over the
couch and full on his shoulders.

He went down under my weight, and my gripping fingers crushed the
yell in his throat. With a convulsive heave he twisted under me, and
stark horror flooded his face as he glared up at me. He was down on
the cushioned stone, pinned under my iron bulk. He clawed for the
dagger at his girdle, but my knee pinned it down. And crouching on
him, I gutted my mad hate for his cursed race. I strangled him slowly,
gloatingly, avidly watching his features contort and his eyes glaze.
He must have been dead for some minutes before I loosed my hold.

Rising, I gazed through the open trap. The light from the torches of
the chamber shone down a narrow shaft, into which was cut a series of
narrow steps, that evidently led down into the bowels of the rock
Yuthla. From the conversation I had heard, it must lead to the temple
of the Akkas, in the town below. Surely I would find Akka no harder to
escape from than Yugga. Yet I hesitated, my heart torn at the thought
of leaving Altha alone in Yugga. But there was no other way. I did not
know in what part of that devil-city she was imprisoned, and I
remembered what Gotrah had said of the great band of warriors guarding
her and the other virgins.

Virgins of the Moon! Cold sweat broke out on me as the full
significance of the phrase became apparent. Just what the festival of
the Moon was I did not fully know, but I had heard hints and scattered
comments among the Yaga women, and I knew it was a beastly saturnalia,
in which the full frenzy of erotic ecstasy was reached in the dying
gasps of the wretches sacrificed to the only god the winged people
recognized--their own inhuman lust.

The thought of Altha being subjected to such a fate drove me into a
berserk frenzy, and steeled my resolution. There was but one chance--
to escape myself, and try to reach Koth and bring back enough men to
attempt a rescue. My heart sank as I contemplated the difficulties in
the way, but there was nothing else to be done.

Lifting Gotrah's limp body I dragged it out of the chamber through a
door different from that through which Yasmeena had gone; and
traversing a corridor without meeting anyone, I concealed the corpse
behind some tapestries. I was certain that it would be found, but
perhaps not until I had a good start. Perhaps its presence in another
room than the chamber of the trap might divert suspicion from my
actual means of escape, and lead Yasmeena to think that I was merely
hiding somewhere in Yugga.

But I was crowding my luck. I could not long hope to avoid detection
if I lingered. Returning to the chamber, I entered the shaft, lowering
the trap above me. It was pitch-dark, then, but my groping fingers
found the catch that worked the trap, and I felt that I could return
if I found my way blocked below. Down those inky stairs I groped, with
an uneasy feeling that I might fall into some pit or meet with some
grisly denizen of the underworld. But nothing occurred, and at last
the steps ceased and I groped my way along a short corridor that ended
at a blank wall. My fingers encountered a metal catch, and I shot the
bolt, feeling a section of the wall revolving under my hands. I was
dazzled by a dim yet lurid light, and blinking, gazed out with some
trepidation.

I was looking into a lofty chamber that was undoubtedly a shrine. My
view was limited by a large screen of carved gold directly in front of
me, the edges of which flamed dully in the weird light.

Gliding from the secret door, I peered around the screen. I saw a
broad room, made with the same stern simplicity and awesome
massiveness that characterized Almuric architecture. The ceiling was
lost in the brooding shadows; the walls were black, dully gleaming,
and unadorned. The shrine was empty except for a block of ebon stone,
evidently an altar, on which blazed the lurid flame I had noted, and
which seemed to emanate from a great somber jewel set upon the altar.
I noticed darkly stained channels on the sides of that altar, and on
the dusky stone lay a roll of white parchment--Yasmeena's word to her
worshippers. I had stumbled into the Akka holy of holies--uncovered
the very root and base on which the whole structure of Akka theology
was based: the supernatural appearances of revelations from the
goddess, and the appearance of the goddess herself in the temple.
Strange that a whole religion should be based on the ignorance of the
devotees concerning a subterranean stair! Stranger still, to an
Earthly mind, that only the lowest form of humanity on Almuric should
possess a systematic and ritualistic religion, which Earth people
regard as sure token of the highest races!

But the cult of the Akkas was dark and weird. The whole atmosphere
of the shrine was one of mystery and brooding horror. I could imagine
the awe of the blue worshippers to see the winged goddess emerging
from behind the golden screen, like a deity incarnated from cosmic
emptiness.

Closing the door behind me, I glided stealthily across the temple.
Just within the door a stocky blue man in a fantastic robe lay snoring
lustily on the naked stone. Presumably he had slept tranquilly through
Gotrah's ghostly visit. I stepped over him as gingerly as a cat
treading wet earth, Gotrah's dagger in my hand, but he did not awaken.
An instant later I stood outside, breathing deep of the river-laden
night air.

The temple lay in the shadow of the great cliffs. There was no moon,
only the myriad millions of stars that glimmer in the skies of
Almuric. I saw no lights anywhere in the village, no movement. The
sluggish Akkas slept soundly.

Stealthily as a phantom I stole through the narrow streets, hugging
close to the sides of the squat stone huts. I saw no human until I
reached the wall. The drawbridge that spanned the river was drawn up,
and just within the gate sat a blue man, nodding over his spear. The
senses of the Akkas were dull as those of any beasts of burden. I
could have knifed the drowsy watchman where he sat, but I saw no need
of useless murder. He did not hear me, though I passed within forty
feet of him. Silently I glided over the wall, and silently I slipped
into the water.

Striking out strongly, I forged across the easy current, and reached
the farther bank. There I paused only long enough to drink deep of the
cold river water; then I struck out across the shadowed desert at a
swinging trot that eats up miles--the gait with which the Apaches of
my native Southwest can wear out a horse.

In the darkness before dawn I came to the banks of the Purple River,
skirting wide to avoid the watchtower which jutted dimly against the
star-flecked sky. As I crouched on the steep bank and gazed down into
the rushing swirling current, my heart sank. I knew that, in my
fatigued condition, it was madness to plunge into the maelstrom. The
strongest swimmer that either Earth or Almuric ever bred had been
helpless among those eddies and whirlpools. There was but one thing to
be done--try to reach the Bridge of Rocks before dawn broke, and take
the desperate chance of slipping across under the eyes of the
watchers. That, too, was madness, but I had no choice.

But dawn began to whiten the desert before I was within a thousand
yards of the Bridge. And looking at the tower, which seemed to swim
slowly into clearer outline, etched against the dim sky, I saw a shape
soar up from the turrets and wing its way toward me. I had been
discovered. Instantly, a desperate plan occurred to me. I began to
stagger erratically, ran a few paces, and sank down in the sand near
the river bank. I heard the beat of wings above me as the suspicious
harpy circled; then I knew he was dropping earthward. He must have
been on solitary sentry duty, and had come to investigate the matter
of a lone wanderer, without waking his mates.

Watching through slitted lids, I saw him strike the earth near by,
and walk about me suspiciously, scimitar in hand. At last he pushed me
with his foot, as if to find if I lived. Instantly my arm hooked about
his legs, bringing him down on top of me. A single cry burst from his
lips, half-stifled as my fingers found his throat; then in a great
heaving and fluttering of wings and lashing of limbs, I heaved him
over and under me. His scimitar was useless at such close quarters. I
twisted his arm until his numbed fingers slipped from the hilt; then I
choked him into submission. Before he regained his full faculties, I
bound his wrists in front of him with his girdle, dragged him to his
feet, and perched myself astride his back, my legs locked about his
torso. My left arm was hooked about his neck, my right hand pricked
his hide with Gotrah's dagger.

In a few low words I told him what he must do, if he wished to live.
It was not the nature of a Yaga to sacrifice himself, even for the
welfare of his race. Through the rose-pink glow of dawn we soared into
the sky, swept over the rushing Purple River, and vanished from the
sight of the land of Yagg, into the blue mazes of the northwest.



Chapter 11


I drove that winged devil unmercifully. Not until sunset did I allow
him to drop earthward. Then I bound his feet and wings so he could not
escape, and gathered fruit and nuts for our meal. I fed him as well as
I fed myself. He needed strength for the flight. That night the beasts
of prey roared perilously close to us, and my captive turned ashy with
fright, for we had no way of making a protecting fire, but none
attacked us. We had left the forest of the Purple River far, far
behind, and were among the grasslands. I was taking the most direct
route to Koth, led by the unerring instinct of the wild. I continually
scanned the skies behind me for some sign of pursuit, but no winged
shapes darkened the southern horizon.

It was on the fourth day that I spied a dark moving mass in the
plains below, which I believed was an army of men marching. I ordered
the Yaga to fly over them. I knew that I had reached the vicinity of
the wide territory dominated by the city of Koth, and there was a
chance that these might be men of Koth. If so, they were in force, for
as we approached I saw there were several thousand men, marching in
some order.

So intense was my interest that it almost proved my undoing. During
the day I left the Yaga's legs unbound, as he swore that he could not
fly otherwise, but I kept his wrists bound. In my engrossment I did
not notice him furtively gnawing at the thong. My dagger was in its
sheath, since he had shown no recent sign of rebellion. My first
intimation of revolt was when he wheeled suddenly sidewise, so that I
lurched and almost lost my grip on him. His long arm curled about my
torso and tore at my girdle, and the next instant my own dagger
gleamed in his hand.

There ensued one of the most desperate struggles in which I have
ever participated. My near fall had swung me around, so that instead
of being on his back, I was in front of him, maintaining my position
only by one hand clutching his hair, and one knee crooked about his
leg. My other hand was locked on his dagger wrist, and there we tore
and twisted, a thousand feet in the air, he to break away and let me
fall to my death, or to drive home the dagger in my breast, I to
maintain my grip and fend off the gleaming blade.

On the ground my superior weight and strength would quickly have
settled the issue, but in the air he had the advantage. His free hand
beat and tore at my face, while his unimprisoned knee drove viciously
again and again for my groin. I hung grimly on, taking the punishment
without flinching, seeing that our struggles were dragging us lower
and lower toward the earth.

Realizing this, he made a final desperate effort. Shifting the
dagger to his free hand, he stabbed furiously at my throat. At the
same instant I gave his head a terrific downward wrench. The impetus
of both our exertions whirled us down and over, and his stroke, thrown
out of line by our erratic convulsion, missed its mark and sheathed
the dagger in his own thigh. A terrible cry burst from his lips, his
grasp went limp as he half fainted from the pain and shock, and we
rushed plummetlike earthward. I strove to turn him beneath me, and
even as I did, we struck the earth with a terrific concussion.

From that impact I reeled up dizzily. The Yaga did not move; his
body had cushioned mine, and half the bones in his frame must have
been splintered.

A clamor of voices rang on my ears, and turning, I saw a horde of
hairy figures rushing toward me. I heard my own name bellowed by a
thousand tongues. I had found the men of Koth.

A hairy giant was alternately pumping my hand and beating me on the
back with blows that would have staggered a horse, while bellowing:
"Ironhand! By Thak's jawbones, *Ironhand*! Grip my hand, old war-dog!
Hell's thunders, I've known no such joyful hour since the day I broke
old Khush of Tanga's back!"

There was old Khossuth Skullsplitter, somber as ever, Thab the
Swift, Gutchluk Tigerwrath--nearly all the mighty men of Koth. And the
way they smote my back and roared their welcome warmed my heart as it
was never warmed on Earth, for I knew there was no room for
insincerity in their great simple hearts.

"Where have you been, Ironhand?" exclaimed Thab the Swift. "We found
your broken carbine out on the plains, and a Yaga lying near it with
his skull smashed; so we concluded that you had been done away with by
those winged devils. But we never found your body--and now you come
tumbling through the skies locked in combat with another flying fiend!
Say, have you been to Yugga?" He laughed as a man laughs when he
speaks a jest.

"Aye to Yugga, on the rock Yuthla, by the river Yogh, in the land of
Yagg," I answered. "Where is Zal the Thrower?"

"He guards the city with the thousand we left behind," answered
Khossuth.

"His daughter languishes in the Black City," I said. "On the night
of the full moon, Altha, Zal's daughter, dies with five hundred other
girls of the Guras--unless we prevent it."

A murmur of wrath and horror swept along the ranks. I glanced over
the savage array. There were a good four thousand of them; no bows
were in evidence, but each man bore his carbine. That meant war, and
their numbers proved it was no minor raid.

"Where are you going?" I asked.

"The men of Khor move against us, five thousand strong," answered
Khossuth. "It is the death grapple of the tribes. We march to meet
them afar off from our walls, and spare our women the horrors of the
war."

"Forget the men of Khor!" I cried passionately. "You would spare the
feelings of your women--yet thousands of your women suffer the
tortures of the damned on the ebon rock of Yuthla! Follow me! I will
lead you to the stronghold of the devils who have harried Almuric for
a thousand ages!"

"How many warriors?" asked Khossuth uncertainly.

"Twenty thousand."

A groan rose from the listeners.

"What could our handful do against that horde?"

"I'll show you!" I exclaimed. "I'll lead you into the heart of their
citadel!"

"Hai!" roared Ghor the Bear, brandishing his broadsword, always
quick to take fire from my suggestions. "That's the word! Come on, sir
brothers! Follow Ironhand! He'll show us the way!"

"But what of the men of Khor?" expostulated Khossuth. "They are
marching to attack us. We must meet them."

Ghor grunted explosively as the truth of this assertion came home to
him and all eyes turned toward me.

"Leave them to me," I proposed desperately. "Let me talk with them--"

"They'll hack off your head before you can open your mouth," grunted
Khossuth.

"That's right," admitted Ghor. "We've been fighting the men of Khor
for fifty thousand years. Don't trust them, comrade."

"I'll take the chance," I answered.

"The chance you shall have, then," said Gutchluk grimly. "For there
they come!" In the distance we saw a dark moving mass.

"Carbines ready!" barked old Khossuth, his cold eyes gleaming.
"Loosen your blades, and follow me."

"Will you join battle tonight?" I asked. He glanced at the sun. "No.
We'll march to meet them, and pitch camp just out of gunshot. Then
with dawn we'll rush them and cut their throats."

"They'll have the same idea," explained Thab. "Oh, it will be great
fun!"

"And while you revel in senseless bloodshed," I answered bitterly,
"your daughters and theirs will be screaming vainly under the tortures
of the winged people over the river Yogh. Fools! Oh, you fools!"

"But what can we do?" expostulated Gutchluk.

"Follow me!" I yelled passionately. "We'll march to meet them, and
I'll go on to them alone."

I wheeled and strode across the plain, and the hairy men of Koth
fell in behind me, with many headshakes and mutterings. I saw the
oncoming mass, first as a mingled blur; then the details stood out--
hairy bodies, fierce faces, gleaming weapons--but I swung on
heedlessly. I knew neither fear nor caution; my whole being seemed on
fire with the urgency of my need and desire.

Several hundred yards separated the two hosts when I dashed down my
single weapon--the Yaga dagger--and shaking off Ghor's protesting
hands, advanced alone and unarmed, my hands in the air; palms toward
the enemy.

These had halted, drawn up ready for action. The unusualness of my
actions and appearance puzzled them. I momentarily expected the crack
of a carbine, but nothing happened until I was within a few yards of
the foremost group, the mightiest men clustered about a tall figure
that was their chief--old Bragi, Khossuth had told me. I had heard of
him, a hard, cruel man, moody and fanatical in his hatreds.

"Stand!" he shouted, lifting his sword. "What trick is this? Who are
you who comes with empty hands in the teeth of war?"

"I am Esau Ironhand, of the tribe of Koth," I answered. "I would
parley with you."

"What madman is this?" growled Bragi. "Than--a bullet through his
head."

But the man called Than, who had been staring eagerly at me, gave a
shout instead and threw down his carbine.

"Not if I live!" he exclaimed, advancing toward me his arms
outstretched. "By Thak, it is he! Do you not remember me, Than
Swordswinger, whose life you saved in the hills?"

He lifted his chin to display a great scar on his corded neck.

"You are he who fought the sabertooth! I had not dreamed you
survived those awful wounds."

"We men of Khor are hard to kill!" he laughed joyously, throwing his
arms about me in a bearlike embrace. "What are you doing among the
dogs of Koth? You should be fighting with us!"

"If I have my way there will be no fighting," I answered. "I wish
only to talk with your chiefs and warriors. There is nothing out of
the way about that."

"True!" agreed Than Swordswinger. "Bragi, you will not refuse him
this?"

Bragi growled in his beard, glaring at me.

"Let your warriors advance to that spot." I indicated the place I
meant. "Khossuth's men will come up on the other side. There both
hordes will listen to what I have to say. Then, if no agreement can be
reached, each side shall withdraw five hundred yards and after that
follow its own initiative."

"You are mad!" Old Bragi jerked his beard with a shaking hand of
rage. "It is treachery. Back to your kennel, dog!"

"I am your hostage," I answered. "I am unarmed. I will not move out
of your sword reach. If there is treachery, strike me down on the
spot."

"But why?"

"I have been captive among the Yagas!" I exclaimed. "I have come to
tell the Guras what things occur in the land of Yagg!"

"The Yagas took my daughter!" exclaimed a warrior, pushing through
the ranks. "Did you see her in Yagg?"

"They took my sister!"--"And my young bride"--"And my niece!" shouts
rose in chorus, as men swarmed about me, forgetful of their enemies,
shaking me in the intensity of their feeling.

"Back, you fools!" roared Bragi, smiting with the flat of his sword.
"Will you break your ranks and let the Kothans cut you down? Do you
not see it is a trick?"

"It is no trick!" I cried. "Only listen to me, in God's name!"

They swept away Bragi's protests. There was a milling and stamping,
during which only a kindly Providence kept the nerve-taut Kothans from
pouring a volley into the surging mass of their enemies, and presently
a sort of order was evolved. A shouted conference finally resulted in
approximately the position I had asked for--a semicircle of Khorans
over against a similar formation composed of Kothans. The close
proximity almost caused the tribal wrath to boil over. Jaws jutted,
eyes blazed, hairy hands clutched convulsively at carbine stocks. Like
wild dogs those wild men glared at each other, and I hastened to begin
my say.

I was never much of a talker, and as I strode between those hostile
hordes I felt my fire die out in cold ague of helplessness. A million
ages of traditional war and feud rose up to confound me. One man
against the accumulated ideas, inhibitions, and customs of a whole
world, built up through countless millenniums--the thought crushed and
paralyzed me. Then blind rage swept me at the memory of the horrors of
Yugga, and the fire blazed up again and enveloped the world and made
it small, and on the wings of that conflagration I was borne to
heights of which I had never dreamed.

No need for fiery oratory to tell the tale I had to tell. I told it
in the plainest, bluntest language possible, and the knowledge and
feeling that lay behind the telling made those naked words pulse, and
burn like acid.

I told of the hell that was Yugga. I told of young girls dying
beneath the excesses of black demons--of women lashed to gory ribbons,
mangled on the wheel, sundered on the rack, flayed alive, dismembered
alive--of the torments that left the body unharmed, but sucked the
mind empty of reason and left the victim a blind, mewing imbecile. I
told them--oh God, I cannot repeat all I told them, at the memory of
which I am even now sickened almost unto death.

Before I had finished, men were bellowing and beating their breasts
with their clenched fists, and weeping in agony of grief and fury.

I lashed them with a last whip of scorpions. "These are your women,
your own flesh and blood, who scream on the racks of Yugga! You call
yourselves men--you strut and boast and swagger, while these winged
devils mock you. Men! Ha!" I laughed as a wolf barks, from the depths
of my bitter rage, and agony. "Men! Go home and don the skirts of
women!"

A terrible yell arose. Clenched fists were brandished, bloodshot
eyes flamed at me, hairy throats bayed their anguished fury. "You lie,
you dog! Damn you, you lie! We *are* men! Lead us against these devils
or we will rend you!"

"If you follow me," I yelled, "few of you will return. You will
suffer and you will die in hordes. But if you had seen what I have
seen, you would not wish to live. Soon approaches the time when the
Yagas will clean their house. They are weary of their slaves. They
will destroy those they have, and fare forth into the world for more.
I have told you of the destruction of Thugra. So it will be with Khor;
so it will be with Koth--when winged devils swoop out of the night.
Follow me to Yugga--I will show you the way. If you are men, follow
me!"

Blood burst from my lips in the intensity of my appeal, and as I
reeled back, in a state of complete collapse from overwrought nerves
and strain, Ghor caught me in his mighty arms.

Khossuth rose like a gaunt ghost. His ghostly voice soared out
across the tumult.

"I will follow Esau Ironhand to Yugga, if the men of Khor will agree
to a truce until our return. What is your answer, Bragi?"

"No!" roared Bragi. "There can be no peace between Khor and Koth.
The women in Yugga are lost. Who can war against demons? Up, men, back
to your place! No man can twist me with mad words to forget old
hates."

He lifted his sword, and Than Swordswinger, tears of grief and fury
running down his face, jerked out his poniard and drove it to the hilt
in the heart of his king. Wheeling to the bewildered horde,
brandishing the bloody dagger, his body shaken with sobs of frenzy, he
yelled:

"So die all who would make us traitors to our own women! Draw your
swords, all men of Khor who will follow me to Yugga!"

Five thousand swords flamed in the sun, and a deep-throated
thunderous roar shook the very sky. Then wheeling to me, his eyes
coals of madness:

"Lead us to Yugga, Esau Ironhand!" cried Than Swordswinger. "Lead us
to Yagg, or lead us to Hell! We will stain the waters of Yogh with
blood, and the Yagas will speak of us with shudders for ten thousand
times a thousand years!"

Again the clangor of swords and the roar of frenzied men maddened
the sky.



Chapter 12


Runners were sent to the cities, to give word of what went forward.
Southward we marched, four thousand men of Koth, five thousand of
Khor. We moved in separate columns, for I deemed it wise to keep the
tribes apart until the sight of their oppressors should again drown
tribal feelings.

Our pace was much swifter than that of an equal body of Earth
soldiers. We had no supply trains. We lived off the land through which
we passed. Each man bore his own armament--carbine, sword, dagger,
canteen, and ammunition pouch. But I chafed at every mile. Sailing
through the air on the back of a captive Yaga had spoiled me for
marching. It took us days to cover ground the flying men had passed
over in hours. Yet we progressed, and some three weeks from the time
we began the march, we entered the forest beyond which lay the Purple
River and the desert that borders the land of Yagg.

We had seen no Yagas, but we went cautiously now. Leaving the bulk
of our force encamped deep in the forest, I went forward with thirty
men, timing our march so that we reached the bank of the Purple River
a short time after midnight, just before the setting of the Moon. My
purpose was to find a way to prevent the tower guard from carrying the
news of our coming to Yugga, so that we might cross the desert without
being attacked in the open, where the numbers and tactics of the Yagas
would weigh most heavily against us.

Khossuth suggested that we lie in wait among the trees along the
bank, and pick the watchers off at long range at dawn, but this I knew
to be impossible. There was no cover along the water's edge, and the
river lay between. The men in the tower were out of our range. We
might creep near enough to pick off one or two, but it was imperative
that all should perish, since the escape of one would be enough to
ruin our plans.

So we stole through the woods until we reached a point a mile
upstream, opposite a jutting tongue of rock, toward which, I believed,
a current set in from the center of the stream. There we placed in the
water a heavy, strong catamaran we had constructed, with a long
powerful rope. I got upon the craft with four of the best marksmen of
the combined horde--Thab the Swift, Skel the Hawk, and two warriors of
Khor. Each of us bore two carbines, strapped to our backs.

We bent to work with crude oars, though our efforts seemed
ludicrously futile in the teeth of that flood. But the raft was long
enough and heavy enough not to be spun by every whirlpool we crossed,
and by dint of herculean effort we worked out toward the middle of the
stream. The men on shore paid out the rope, and it acted as a sort of
brace, swinging us around in a wide arc that would have eventually
brought us back to the bank we had left, had not the current we hoped
for suddenly caught us and hurled us at dizzy speed toward the
projecting tongue of rock. The raft reeled and pitched, driving its
nose under repeatedly, until sometimes we were fully submerged. But
our ammunition was waterproof, and we had lashed ourselves to the
logs; so we hung on like drowned rats, until our craft was dashed
against the rocky point.

It hung there for a breathless instant, in which time it was touch
and go. We slashed ourselves loose, jumped into the water which
swirled arm-pit deep about us, and fought our way along the point,
clinging tooth and nail to every niche or projection, while the
foaming current threatened momentarily to tear us away and send us
after our raft which had slid off the ledge and was dancing away down
the river.

We did make it, though, and hauled ourselves upon the shore at last,
half dead from buffeting and exhaustion But we could not stop to rest,
for the most delicate part of our scheme was before us. It was
necessary that we should not be discovered before dawn gave us light
enough to see the sights of our carbines, for the best marksman in the
world is erratic by starlight. But I trusted to the chance that the
Yagas would be watching the river, and paying scant heed to the desert
behind them.

So in the darkness that precedes dawn, we stole around in a wide
circle, and the first hint of light found us lying in a depression we
had scraped in the sand not over four hundred yards to the south of
the tower.

It was tense waiting, while the dawn lifted slowly over the land,
and objects became more and more distinct. The roar of the water over
the Bridge of Rocks reached us plainly, and at last we were aware of
another sound. The clash of steel reached us faintly through the water
tumult. Ghor and others were advancing to the river bank, according to
my instructions. We could not see any Yagas on the tower; only hints
of movement along the turrets. But suddenly one whirled up into the
morning sky and started south at headlong speed. Skel's carbine
cracked and the winged man, with a loud cry, pitched sideways and
tumbled to earth.

There followed an instant of silence; then five winged shapes darted
into the air, soaring high. The Yagas sensed what was occurring, and
were chancing all on a desperate rush, hoping that at least one might
get through. We all fired, but I scored a complete miss, and Thab only
slightly wounded his man. But the others brought down the man I had
missed, while Thab's second shot dropped the wounded Yaga. We reloaded
hastily, but no more came from the tower. Six men watched there,
Yasmeena had said. She had spoken the truth.

We cast the bodies into the river. I crossed the Bridge of Rocks,
leaping from boulder to boulder, and told Ghor to take his men back
into the forest, and to bring up the host. They were to camp just
within the fringe of woods, out of sight from the sky. I did not
intend to start across the desert until nightfall.

Then I returned to the tower and attempted to gain entrance, but
found no doors, only a few small barred windows. The Yagas had entered
it from the top. It was too tall and smooth to be climbed, so we did
the only thing left to do. We dug pits in the sand and covered them
with branches, over which we scattered dust. In these pits we
concealed our best marksmen, who lay all day, patiently scanning the
sky. Only one Yaga came winging across the desert. No human was in
sight, and he was not suspicious until he poised directly over the
tower. Then, when he saw no watchmen, he became alarmed, but before he
could race away, the reports of half a dozen carbines brought him
tumbling to the earth in a whirl of limbs and wings.

As the sun sank, we brought the warriors across the Bridge of Rocks,
an accomplishment which required some time. But at last they all stood
on the Yaga side of the river, and with our canteens well filled, we
started at quick pace across the narrow desert. Before dawn we were
within striking distance of the river.

Having crossed the desert under cover of darkness, I was not
surprised that we were able to approach the river without being
discovered. If any had been watching from the citadel, alert for
anything suspicious, they would have discerned our dark mass moving
across the sands under the dim starlight. But I knew that in Yugga no
such watch was ever kept, secure as the winged people felt in the
protection of the Purple River, of the watchmen in the tower, and of
the fact that for centuries no Gura raid had dared the bloody doom of
former invaders. Nights were spent in frenzied debauchery, followed by
sodden sleep. As for the men of Akka, these slow-witted drudges were
too habitually drowsy to constitute much menace against our approach,
though I knew that once roused they would fight like animals.

So three hundred yards from the river we halted, and eight thousand
men under Khossuth took cover in the irrigation ditches that traversed
the fields of fruit. The waving fronds of the squat trees likewise
aided in their concealment. This was done in almost complete silence.
Far above us towered the somber rock Yuthla. A faint breeze sprang up,
forerunner of dawn. I led the remaining thousand warriors toward the
river bank. Halting them a short distance from it, I wriggled forward
on my belly until my hands were at the water's edge. I thanked the
Fates that had given me such men to lead. Where civilized men would
have floundered and blundered, the Guras moved as easily and
noiselessly as stalking panthers.

Across from me rose the wall, sheer from the steep bank, that
guarded Akka. It would be hard to climb in the teeth of spears. At the
first crack of dawn, the bridge, which towered gauntly against the
stars, would be lowered so that Akkas might go into the fields to
work. But before then the rising light would betray our forces.

With a word to Ghor, who lay at my side, I slid into the water and
struck out for the farther shore, he following. Reaching a point
directly below the bridge, we hung in the water, clutching the
slippery wall, and looked about for some way of climbing it. There the
water, near the bank, was almost as deep as in midstream. At last Ghor
found a crevice in the masonry, wide enough to give him a grip for his
hands. Then bracing himself, he held fast while I clambered on his
shoulders. Standing thus I managed to reach the lower part of the
lifted bridge, and an instant later I drew myself up. The erected
bridge closed the gap in the wall. I had to clamber over the barrier.
One leg was across, when a figure sprang out of the shadows, yelling a
warning. The watchman had not been as drowsy as I had expected.

He leaped at me, the starlight glinting on his spear. With a
desperate twist of my body, I avoided the whistling blade, though the
effort almost toppled me from the wall. My out-thrown hand gripped his
lank hair as he fell against the coping with the fury of his wasted
thrust, and jerking myself back into balance, I dealt him a crushing
buffet on the ear with my clenched fist. He crumpled, and the next
instant I was over the wall.

Ghor was bellowing like a bull in the river, mad to know what was
taking place above him, and in the dim light the Akkas were swarming
like bees out of their stony hives. Leaning over the barrier I
stretched Ghor the shaft of the watchman's spear, and he came heaving
and scrambling up beside me. The Akkas had stared stupidly for an
instant; then realizing they were being invaded, they rushed, howling
madly.

As Ghor sprang to meet them, I leaped to the great windlass that
controlled the bridge. I heard the Bear's thunderous war cry boom
above the squalling of the Akkas, the strident clash of steel and the
crunch of splintered bone. But I had no time to look; it was taking
all my strength to work the windlass. I had seen five Akkas toiling
together at it; yet in the stress of the moment I accomplished its
lowering single-handed, though sweat burst out on my forehead and my
muscles trembled with the effort. But down it came, and the farther
end touched the other bank in time to accommodate the feet of the
warriors who sprang up and rushed for it.

I wheeled to aid Ghor, whose panting gasps I still heard amidst the
clamor of the melee. I knew the din in the lower town would soon rouse
the Yagas and it was imperative that we gain a foothold in Akka before
the shafts of the winged men began to rain among us.

Ghor was hard pressed when I turned from the bridge-head. Half a
dozen corpses lay under his feet, and he wielded his great sword with
a berserk lustiness that sheared through flesh and bone like butter,
but he was streaming blood, and the Akkas were closing in on him.

I had no weapon but Gotrah's dagger, but I sprang into the fray and
ripped a sword from the sinking hand of one whose heart my slim blade
found. It was a crude weapon, such as the Akkas forge, but it had edge
and weight, and swinging it like a club, I wrought havoc among the
swarming blue men. Ghor greeted my arrival with a gasping roar of
pleasure, and redoubled the fury of his tremendous strokes, so that
the dazed Akkas momentarily gave back.

And in that fleeting interval, the first of the Guras swarmed across
the bridge. In an instant fifty men had joined us. But there the
matter was deadlocked. Swarm after swarm of blue men rushed from their
huts to fall on us with reckless fury. One Gura was a match for three
or four Akkas, but they swamped us by numbers. They crushed us back
into the bridge mouth, and strive as we could, we could not advance
enough to clear the way for the hundreds of warriors behind us who
yelled and struggled to come to sword-strokes with the enemy. The
Akkas pressed in on us in a great crescent, almost crushing us against
the men behind us. They lined the walls, yelling and screaming and
brandishing their weapons. There were no bows or missiles among them;
their winged masters were careful to keep such things out of their
hands.

In the midst of the carnage dawn broke, and the struggling hordes
saw their enemies. Above us, I knew, the Yagas would be stirring.
Indeed I thought I could already hear the thrash of wings above the
roar of battle, but I could not look up. Breast to breast we were
locked with the heaving, grunting hordes, so closely there was no room
for sword-strokes. Their teeth and filthy nails tore at us beastlike;
their repulsive body odor was in our nostrils. In the crush we writhed
and cursed, each man striving to free a hand to strike.

My flesh crawled in dread of the arrows I knew must soon be raining
from above, and even with the thought the first volley came like a
whistling sheet of sleet. At my side and behind me men cried out,
clutching at the feathered ends protruding from their bodies. But then
the men on the bridge and on the farther bank, who had held their fire
for fear of hitting their comrades in the uncertain light, began
loosing their carbines at the Akkas. At that range their fire was
devastating. The first volley cleared the wall, and climbing on the
bridge rails the carbineers poured a withering fusillade over our
heads into the close-massed horde that barred our way. The result was
appalling. Great gaps were torn in the struggling mob, and the whole
horde staggered and tore apart. Unsupported by the mass behind, the
front ranks caved in, and over their mangled bodies we rushed into the
narrow streets of Akka.

Opposition was not at an end. The stocky blue men still fought back.
Up and down the streets sounded the clash of steel, crack of shots,
and yells of pain and fury. But our greatest peril was from above.

The winged men were swarming out of their citadel like hornets out
of a nest. Several hundred of them dropped swiftly down into Akka,
swords in their hands, while others lined the rim of the cliff and
poured down showers of arrows. Now the warriors hidden in the
shrub-masked ditches opened fire, and as that volley thundered, a rain of
mangled forms fell on the flat roofs of Akka. The survivors wheeled
and raced back to cover as swiftly as their wings could carry them.

But they were more deadly in defense than in attack. From every
casement, tower and battlement above they rained their arrows; a hail
of death showered Akka, striking down foe and serf alike. Guras and
Akkas took refuge in the stone-roofed huts, where the battling
continued in the low-ceilinged chambers until the gutters of Akka ran
red. Four thousand Guras battled four times their number of Akkas, but
the size, ferocity and superior weapons of the apemen balanced the
advantage of numbers.

Across the river Khossuth's carbineers kept up an incessant fire at
the towers of Yugga, but with scant avail. The Yagas kept well
covered, and their arrows, arching down from the sky, had a greater
range and accuracy than the carbines of the Guras. But for their
position among the ditches, Khossuth's men would have been wiped out
in short order, and as it was, they suffered terribly. They could not
join us in Akka; it would have been madness to try to cross the bridge
in the teeth of that fire.

Meanwhile, I ran straight for the temple of Yasmeena, cutting down
those who stood in my way. I had discarded the clumsy Akka sword for a
fine blade dropped by a slain Gura, and with this in my hand I cut my
way through a swarm of blue spearmen who made a determined stand
before the temple. With me were Ghor, Thab the Swift, Than
Swordswinger and a hundred other picked warriors.

As the last of our foes were trampled under foot, I sprang up the
black stone steps to the massive door, where the bizarre figure of the
Akka priest barred my way with shield and spear. I parried his spear
and feinted a thrust at his thigh. He lowered the great gold-scrolled
shield, and before he could lift it again I slashed off his head,
which rolled grinning down the steps. I caught up the shield as I
rushed into the temple.

I rushed across the temple and tore aside the golden screen. My men
crowded in behind me, panting, blood-stained, their fierce faces
lighted by the weird flame from the altar jewel. Fumbling in my haste,
I found and worked the secret catch. The door began to give,
reluctantly. It was this reluctance which fired my brain with sudden
suspicion, as I remembered how easily it had opened before. Even with
the thought I yelled, "Back!" and hurled myself backward as the door
gaped suddenly.

Instantly my ears were deafened by an awful roar, my eyes blinded by
a terrible flash. Something like a spurt of hell's fire passed so
close by me it seared my hair in passing. Only my recoil, which
carried me behind the opening door, saved me from the torrent of
liquid fire which flooded the temple from the secret shaft.

There was a blind chaotic instant of frenzy, shot through with awful
screams. Then through the din I heard Ghor loudly bellowing my name,
and saw him stumbling blindly through the whirling smoke, his beard
and bristling hair burned crisp. As the lurid murk cleared somewhat, I
saw the remnants of my band--Ghor, Thab and a few others who by
quickness or luck had escaped. Than Swordswinger had been directly
behind me, and was knocked out of harm's way when I leaped back. But
on the blackened floor of the temple lay three-score shriveled forms,
burned and charred out of all human recognition. They had been
directly in the path of that devouring sheet of flame as it rushed to
dissipate itself in the outer air.

The shaft seemed empty now. Fool to think that Yasmeena would leave
it unguarded, when she must have suspected that I escaped by that
route. On the edges of the door and the jamb I found bits of stuff
like wax. Some mysterious element had been sealed into the shaft which
the opening of the door ignited, sending it toward the outer air in a
rush of flame.

I knew the upper trap would be made fast. I shouted for Thab to find
and light a torch, and for Ghor to procure a heavy beam for a ram.
Then, telling Than to gather all the men he could find in the streets
and follow, I raced up the stair in the blackness. As I thought, I
found the upper trap fastened--bolted above, I suspected; and
listening closely, I caught a confused mumbling above my head, and
knew the chamber must be filled with Yagas.

An erratic flame bobbing below me drew my attention, and quickly
Thab reached my side with a torch. He was followed by Ghor and a score
of others, grunting under the weight of a heavy loglike beam, torn
from some Akka hut. He reported that fighting was still going on in
the streets and buildings, but that most of the Akka males had been
put to the sword, and others, with their women and children, had
leaped into the river and swum for the south shore. He said some five
hundred swordsmen were thronging the temple.

"Then burst this trap above our heads," I exclaimed, "and follow me
through. We must win our way into the heart of the hold, before the
arrows of the Yagas on the tower overwhelm Khossuth."

It was difficult in that narrow shaft, where only one man could
stand on each step, but gripping the heavy beam like a ram, we swung
it and dashed it against the trap. The thunder of the blows filled the
shaft deafeningly, the jarring impact stung our hands and quivered the
wood, but the trap held. Again--and again--panting, grunting, thews
cracking, we swung the beam--and with a final terrific drive of
hard-braced knotty legs and iron shoulders, the trap gave with a
splintering crash, and light flooded the shaft.

With a wordless yell I heaved up through the splinters of the trap,
the gold shield held above my head. A score of swords descended on it,
staggering me; but desperately keeping my feet, I heaved up through a
veritable rain of shattering blades, and burst into the chamber of
Yasmeena. With a yell the Yagas swarmed on me, and I cast the bent and
shattered shield in their faces, and swung my sword in the wheel that
flashed through breasts and throats like a mowing blade through corn.
I should have died there, but from the opening behind me crashed a
dozen carbines, and the winged men went down in heaps.

Then up into the chamber came Ghor the Bear, bellowing and terrible,
and after him the killers of Khor and of Koth, thirsting for blood.

That chamber was full of Yagas, and so were the adjoining rooms and
corridors. But in a compact circle, back to back, we held the shaft
entrance, while scores of warriors swarmed up the stair to join us,
widening and pushing out the rim of the circle. In that comparatively
small chamber the din was deafening and terrifying--the clang of
swords, the yelling, the butcher's sound of flesh and bones parting
beneath the chopping edge.

We quickly cleared the chamber, and held the doors against attack.
As more and more men came up from below, we advanced into the
adjoining rooms, and after perhaps a half-hour of desperate fighting,
we held a circle of chambers and corridors, like a wheel of which the
chamber of the shaft was the axle, and more and more Yagas were
leaving the turrets to take part in the hand-to-hand fighting. There
were some three thousand of us in the upper chambers now, and no more
came up the shaft. I sent Thab to tell Khossuth to bring his men
across the river.

I believed that most of the Yagas had left the turrets. They were
massed thick in the chambers and corridors ahead of us, and were
fighting like demons. I have mentioned that their courage was not of
the type of the Guras', but any race will fight when a foe has invaded
its last stronghold, and these winged devils were no weaklings.

For a time the battle was at a gasping deadlock. We could advance no
farther in any direction, nor could they thrust us back. The doorways
through which we slashed and thrust were heaped high with bodies, both
hairy and black. Our ammunition was exhausted, and the Yagas could use
their bows to no advantage. It was hand to hand and sword to sword,
men stumbling among the dead to come to hand grips.

Then, just when it seemed that flesh and blood could stand no more,
a thunderous roar rose to the vaulted ceilings, and up through the
shaft and out through the chambers poured streams of fresh, eager
warriors to take our places. Old Khossuth and his men, maddened to
frenzy by the arrows that had been showering upon them as they lay
partly hidden in the ditches, foamed like rabid dogs to come to hand
grips and glut their fury. Thab was not with them, and Khossuth said
he had been struck down by an arrow in his leg, as he was following
his king across the bridge in that dash from the ditches to the
temple. There had been few losses in that reckless rush, however; as I
had suspected, most of the Yagas had entered the chambers, leaving
only a few archers on the towers.

Now began the most bloody and desperate melee I have ever witnessed.
Under the impact of the fresh forces, the weary Yagas gave way, and
the battle streamed out through the halls and rooms. The chiefs tried
in vain to keep the maddened Guras together. Struggling groups split
off the main body, men ran singly down twisting corridors. Throughout
all the citadel thundered the rush of trampling feet, shouts, and din
of steel.

Few shots were fired, few arrows winged. It was hand to hand with a
vengeance. In the roofed chambers and halls, the Yagas could not
spread their wings and dart down on their foes from above. They were
forced to stand on their feet, meeting their ancient enemies on even
terms. It was out on the rooftops and the open courts that our losses
were greatest, for in the open the winged men could resort to their
accustomed tactics.

But we avoided such places as much as possible, and man to man, the
Guras were invincible. Oh, they died by scores, but under their
lashing swords the Yagas died by hundreds. A thousand ages of cruelty
and oppression were being repaid, and red was the payment. The sword
was blind; Yaga women as well as men fell beneath it. But knowing the
fiendishness of those sleek black females, I could not pity them.

I was looking for Altha.

Slaves there were, thousands of them, dazed by the battle, cowering
in terror, too bewildered to realize its portent, or to recognize
their rescuers. Yet several times I saw a woman cry out in sudden joy
and run forward to throw her arms about the bull-neck of some hairy,
panting swordsman, as she recognized a brother, husband, or father. In
the midst of agony and travail there was joy and reuniting, and it
warmed my heart to see it. Only the little yellow slaves and the red
woman crouched in terror, as fearful of these roaring hairy giants as
of their winged masters.

Hacking and slashing my way through the knots of struggling
warriors, I sought for the chamber where were imprisoned the Virgins
of the Moon. At last I caught the shoulder of a Gura girl, cowering on
the floor to avoid chance blows of the men battling above her, and
shouted a question in her ear. She understood and pointed, unable to
make herself heard above the din. Catching her up under one arm, I
slashed a path for us, and in a chamber beyond I set her down, and she
ran swiftly down a corridor, crying for me to follow. I raced after
her, down that corridor, up a winding stair, across a roof-garden
where Guras and Yagas fought, and finally she halted in an open court.
It was the highest point of the city, besides the minarets. In the
midst rose the dome of the Moon, and at the foot of the dome she
showed me a chamber. The door was locked, but I shattered it with
blows of my sword, and glared in. In the semidarkness I saw the gleam
of white limbs huddled close together against the opposite wall. As my
eyes became accustomed to the dimness I saw that some hundred and
fifty girls were cowering in terror against the wall. And as I called
Altha's name, I heard a voice cry, "Esau! Oh, Esau!" and a slim white
figure hurled itself across the chamber to throw white arms about my
neck and rain passionate kisses on my bronzed features. For an instant
I crushed her close, returning her kisses with hungry lips; then the
roar of battle outside roused me. Turning I saw a swarm of Yagas,
pressed close by five hundred swords, being forced out of a great
doorway near by. Abandoning the fray suddenly they took to flight,
their assailants flowing out into the court with yells of triumph.

And then before me I heard a light mocking laugh, and saw the lithe
figure of Yasmeena, Queen of Yagg.

"So you have returned, Ironhand?" Her voice was like poisoned honey.
"You have returned with your slayers to break the reign of the gods?
Yet you have not conquered, oh fool."

Without a word I drove at her, silently and murderously, but she
sprang lightly into the air, avoiding my thrust. Her laughter rose to
an insane scream.

"Fool!" she shrieked. "You have not conquered! Did I not say I would
perish in the ruins of my kingdom? Dogs, you are all dead men!"

Whirling in midair she rushed with appalling speed straight for the
dome. The Yagas seemed to sense her intention, for they cried out in
horror and protest, but she did not pause. Lighting on the smooth
slope of the dome, keeping her perch by the use of her wings, she
turned, shook a hand at us in mockery, and then, gripping some bolt or
handle set in the dome, braced both her feet against the ivory slope
and pulled with all her strength.

A section of the dome gave way, catapulting her into the air. The
next instant a huge misshapen bulk came rushing from the opening. And
as it rushed, the impact of its body against the edges of the door was
like the crash of a thunderbolt. The dome split in a hundred places
from base to pinnacle, and fell in with a thunderous roar. Through a
cloud of dust and debris and falling stone the huge figure burst into
the open. A yell went up from the watchers.

The thing that had emerged from the dome was bigger than an
elephant, and in shape something like a gigantic slug, except that it
had a fringe of tentacles all about its body. And from these writhing
tentacles crackled sparks and flashes of blue flame. It spread its
writhing arms, and at their touch stone walls crashed to ruin and
masonry burst apart. It was brainless, sightless--elemental force
incorporated in the lowest form of animation--power gone mad and run
amuck in a senseless fury of destruction.

There was neither plan nor direction to its plunges. It rushed
erratically, literally plowing through solid walls which buckled and
gave way, falling on it in showers which did not seem to injure it. On
all sides men fled aghast.

"Get back through the shaft, all who can!" I yelled. "Take the
girls--get them out first!" I was dragging the dazed creatures from
the prison chamber and thrusting them into the arms of the nearest
warriors, who carried them away. On all sides of us the towers and
minarets were crumbling and roaring down in ruin.

"Make ropes of the tapestries," I yelled. "Slide down the cliff! In
God's name, hasten! This fiend will destroy the whole city before it
is done!"

"I've found a bunch of rope ladders," shouted a warrior. "They'll
reach to the water's edge, but--"

"Then fasten them and send the women down them," I shrieked. "Better
take the chance of the river, then--here, Ghor, take Altha!"

I threw her into the arms of the bloodstained giant, and rushed
toward the mountain of destruction which was crashing through the
walls of Yugga.

Of that cataclysmic frenzy I have only a confused memory, an
impression of crashing walls, howling humans, and that engine of doom
roaring through all, with a ghastly aurora playing about it, as the
electric power in its awful body blasted its way through solid stone.

How many Yagas, warriors and women slaves died in the falling
castles is not to be known. Some hundreds had escaped down the shaft
when falling roofs and walls blocked that way, crushing scores who
were trying to reach it. Our warriors worked frenziedly, and the
silken ladders were strung down the cliffs, some over the town of
Akka, some in haste, over the river, and down these the warriors
carried the slave-girls--Guras, red and yellow girls alike.

After I had seen Ghor carry Altha away I wheeled and ran straight
toward that electric horror. It was not intelligent, and what I
expected to accomplish I do not know. But through the reeling walls
and among the rocking towers that spilled down showers of stone blocks
I raced, until I stood before the rearing horror. Blind and brainless
though it was, yet it possessed some form of sensibility, because
instantly, as I hurled a heavy stone at it, its movements ceased to be
erratic. It charged straight for me, casting splintered masonry right
and left, as foam is thrown by the rush of an ox through a stream.

I ran fleetly from it, leading it away from the screaming masses of
humanity that struggled and fled along the rim of the cliff, and
suddenly found myself on a battlement on the edge of the cliff, with a
sheer drop of five hundred feet beneath me to the river Yogh. Behind
me came the monster. As I turned desperately, it reared up and plunged
at me. In the middle of its gigantic slug-like body I saw a dark spot
as big as my hand pulsing. I knew that this must be the center of the
being's life, and I sprang at it like a wounded tiger, plunging my
sword into that dark spot.

Whether I reached it or not, I did not know. Even as I leaped, the
whole universe exploded in one burst of blinding white flame and
thunder, followed instantly by the blackness of oblivion.

They say that at the instant my sword sank into the body of the
fire-monster, both it and I were enveloped in a blinding blue flame.
There was a deafening report, like a thunderclap, that tore the
creature asunder, and hurled its mangled form, with my body, far out
over the cliff, to fall five hundred feet into the deep blue waters of
Yogh.

It was Thab who saved me from drowning, leaping into the river
despite his crippled condition, to dive until he found and dragged my
senseless body from the water.

You will say, perhaps, that it is impossible for a man to fall five
hundred feet into water and live. My only reply is that I did it, and
I live; though I doubt if there is any man on Earth who could do it.

For a long time I was senseless and for longer I lay in delirium;
for longer again, I lay completely paralyzed, my disrupted and numbed
nerves slowly coming back into life again.

I came to myself on a couch in Koth. I knew nothing of the long trek
back through the forests and across the plains from the doomed city of
Yugga. Of the nine thousand men who marched to Yagg, only five
thousand returned, wounded, weary, bloodstained, but triumphant. With
them came fifty thousand women, the freed slaves of the vanquished
Yagas. Those who were neither Kothan nor Khoran were escorted to their
own cities--a thing unique in the history of Almuric. The little
yellow and red women were given the freedom of either city, and
allowed to dwell there in full freedom.

As for me, I have Altha--and she has me. The glamor of her, akin to
glory, dazzled me with its brilliance, when first I saw her bending
over my couch after my return from Yagg. Her features seemed to
glimmer and float above me; then they coalesced into a vision of
transcendent loveliness, yet strangely familiar to me. Our love will
last forever, for it has been annealed in the white-hot fires of a
mutual experience--of a savage ordeal and a great suffering.

Now, for the first time, there is peace between the cities of Khor
and Koth, which have sworn eternal friendship to each other; and the
only warfare is the unremitting struggle waged against the ferocious
wild beasts and weird forms of animal life that abound in much of the
planet. And we two--I an Earthman born, and Altha, a daughter of
Almuric who possesses the gentler instincts of an Earthwoman--we hope
to instill some of the culture of my native planet into this erstwhile
savage people before we die and become as the dust of my adopted
planet, Almuric.



THE END




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