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´╗┐Title: Black Amazon of Mars
Author: Brackett, Leigh Douglass, 1915-1978
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Black Amazon of Mars" ***

This book is indexed by ISYS Web Indexing system to allow the reader find any word or number within the document.



                           Black Amazon of Mars

                         A Novel by LEIGH BRACKETT

[Transcriber Note: This etext was produced from Planet Stories March
1951. Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the U.S.
copyright on this publication was renewed.]


[Sidenote: _Grimly Eric John Stark slogged toward that ancient Martian
city--with every step he cursed the talisman of Ban Cruach that flamed
in his blood-stained belt. Behind him screamed the hordes of Ciaran,
hungering for that magic jewel--ahead lay the dread abode of the Ice
Creatures--at his side stalked the whispering spectre of Ban Cruach,
urging him on to a battle Stark knew he must lose!_]



I


Through all the long cold hours of the Norland night the Martian had not
moved nor spoken. At dusk of the day before Eric John Stark had brought
him into the ruined tower and laid him down, wrapped in blankets, on the
snow. He had built a fire of dead brush, and since then the two men had
waited, alone in the vast wasteland that girdles the polar cap of Mars.

Now, just before dawn, Camar the Martian spoke.

"Stark."

"Yes?"

"I am dying."

"Yes."

"I will not reach Kushat."

"No."

Camar nodded. He was silent again.

The wind howled down from the northern ice, and the broken walls rose up
against it, brooding, gigantic, roofless now but so huge and sprawling
that they seemed less like walls than cliffs of ebon stone. Stark would
not have gone near them but for Camar. They were wrong, somehow, with a
taint of forgotten evil still about them.

The big Earthman glanced at Camar, and his face was sad. "A man likes to
die in his own place," he said abruptly. "I am sorry."

"The Lord of Silence is a great personage," Camar answered. "He does not
mind the meeting place. No. It was not for that I came back into the
Norlands."

He was shaken by an agony that was not of the body. "And I shall not
reach Kushat!"

Stark spoke quietly, using the courtly High Martian almost as fluently
as Camar.

"I have known that there was a burden heavier than death upon my
brother's soul."

He leaned over, placing one large hand on the Martian's shoulder. "My
brother has given his life for mine. Therefore, I will take his burden
upon myself, if I can."

He did not want Camar's burden, whatever it might be. But the Martian
had fought beside him through a long guerilla campaign among the harried
tribes of the nearer moon. He was a good man of his hands, and in the
end had taken the bullet that was meant for Stark, knowing quite well
what he was doing. They were friends.

That was why Stark had brought Camar into the bleak north country,
trying to reach the city of his birth. The Martian was driven by some
secret demon. He was afraid to die before he reached Kushat.

And now he had no choice.

"I have sinned, Stark. I have stolen a holy thing. You're an outlander,
you would not know of Ban Cruach, and the talisman that he left when he
went away forever beyond the Gates of Death."

Camar flung aside the blankets and sat up, his voice gaining a febrile
strength.

"I was born and bred in the Thieves' Quarter under the Wall. I was proud
of my skill. And the talisman was a challenge. It was a treasured
thing--so treasured that hardly a man has touched it since the days of
Ban Cruach who made it. And that was in the days when men still had the
lustre on them, before they forgot that they were gods.

"'Guard well the Gates of Death,' he said, 'that is the city's trust.
And keep the talisman always, for the day may come when you will need
its strength. Who holds Kushat holds Mars--and the talisman will keep
the city safe.'

"I was a thief, and proud. And I stole the talisman."

His hands went to his girdle, a belt of worn leather with a boss of
battered steel. But his fingers were already numb.

"Take it, Stark. Open the boss--there, on the side, where the beast's
head is carved...."

       *       *       *       *       *

Stark took the belt from Camar and found the hidden spring. The rounded
top of the boss came free. Inside it was something wrapped in a scrap of
silk.

"I had to leave Kushat," Camar whispered. "I could never go back. But it
was enough--to have taken that."

He watched, shaken between awe and pride and remorse, as Stark unwrapped
the bit of silk.

Stark had discounted most of Camar's talk as superstition, but even so
he had expected something more spectacular than the object he held in
his palm.

It was a lens, some four inches across--man-made, and made with great
skill, but still only a bit of crystal. Turning it about, Stark saw that
it was not a simple lens, but an intricate interlocking of many facets.
Incredibly complicated, hypnotic if one looked at it too long.

"What is its use?" he asked of Camar.

"We are as children. We have forgotten. But there is a legend, a
belief--that Ban Cruach himself made the talisman as a sign that he
would not forget us, and would come back when Kushat is threatened. Back
through the Gates of Death, to teach us again the power that was his!"

"I do not understand," said Stark. "What are the Gates of Death?"

Camar answered, "It is a pass that opens into the black mountains beyond
Kushat. The city stands guard before it--why, no man remembers, except
that it is a great trust."

His gaze feasted on the talisman.

Stark said, "You wish me to take this to Kushat?"

"Yes. Yes! And yet...." Camar looked at Stark, his eyes filling suddenly
with tears. "No. The North is not used to strangers. With me, you might
have been safe. But alone.... No, Stark. You have risked too much
already. Go back, out of the Norlands, while you can."

He lay back on the blankets. Stark saw that a bluish pallor had come
into the hollows of his cheeks.

"Camar," he said. And again, "Camar!"

"Yes?"

"Go in peace, Camar. I will take the talisman to Kushat."

The Martian sighed, and smiled, and Stark was glad that he had made the
promise.

"The riders of Mekh are wolves," said Camar suddenly. "They hunt these
gorges. Look out for them."

"I will."

Stark's knowledge of the geography of this part of Mars was vague
indeed, but he knew that the mountain valleys of Mekh lay ahead and to
the north, between him and Kushat. Camar had told him of these upland
warriors. He was willing to heed the warning.

Camar had done with talking. Stark knew that he had not long to wait.
The wind spoke with the voice of a great organ. The moons had set and it
was very dark outside the tower, except for the white glimmering of the
snow. Stark looked up at the brooding walls, and shivered. There was a
smell of death already in the air.

To keep from thinking, he bent closer to the fire, studying the lens.
There were scratches on the bezel, as though it had been held sometime
in a clamp, or setting, like a jewel. An ornament, probably, worn as a
badge of rank. Strange ornament for a barbarian king, in the dawn of
Mars. The firelight made tiny dancing sparks in the endless inner
facets. Quite suddenly, he had a curious feeling that the thing was
alive.

A pang of primitive and unreasoning fear shot through him, and he fought
it down. His vision was beginning to blur, and he shut his eyes, and in
the darkness it seemed to him that he could see and hear....

       *       *       *       *       *

He started up, shaken now with an eerie terror, and raised his hand to
hurl the talisman away. But the part of him that had learned with much
pain and effort to be civilized made him stop, and think.

He sat down again. An instrument of hypnosis? Possibly. And yet that
fleeting touch of sight and sound had not been his own, out of his own
memories.

He was tempted now, fascinated, like a child that plays with fire. The
talisman had been worn somehow. Where? On the breast? On the brow?

He tried the first, with no result. Then he touched the flat surface of
the lens to his forehead.

_The great tower of stone rose up monstrous to the sky. It was whole,
and there were pallid lights within that stirred and flickered, and it
was crowned with a shimmering darkness._

He lay outside the tower, on his belly, and he was filled with fear and
a great anger, and a loathing such as turns the bones to water. There
was no snow. There was ice everywhere, rising to half the tower's
height, sheathing the ground.

Ice. Cold and clear and beautiful--and deadly.

He moved. He glided snakelike, with infinite caution, over the smooth
surface. The tower was gone, and far below him was a city. He saw the
temples and the palaces, the glittering lovely city beneath him in the
ice, blurred and fairylike and strange, a dream half glimpsed through
crystal.

He saw the Ones that lived there, moving slowly through the streets. He
could not see them clearly, only the vague shining of their bodies, and
he was glad.

He hated them, with a hatred that conquered even his fear, which was
great indeed.

He was not Eric John Stark. He was Ban Cruach.

The tower and the city vanished, swept away on a reeling tide.

He stood beneath a scarp of black rock, notched with a single pass. The
cliffs hung over him, leaning out their vast bulk as though to crush
him, and the narrow mouth of the pass was full of evil laughter where
the wind went by.

He began to walk forward, into the pass. He was quite alone.

The light was dim and strange at the bottom of that cleft. Little veils
of mist crept and clung between the ice and the rock, thickened, became
more dense as he went farther and farther into the pass. He could not
see, and the wind spoke with many tongues, piping in the crevices of the
cliffs.

All at once there was a shadow in the mist before him, a dim gigantic
shape that moved toward him, and he knew that he looked at death. He
cried out....

It was Stark who yelled in blind atavistic fear, and the echo of his own
cry brought him up standing, shaking in every limb. He had dropped the
talisman. It lay gleaming in the snow at his feet, and the alien
memories were gone--and Camar was dead.

After a time he crouched down, breathing harshly. He did not want to
touch the lens again. The part of him that had learned to fear strange
gods and evil spirits with every step he took, the primitive aboriginal
that lay so close under the surface of his mind, warned him to leave it,
to run away, to desert this place of death and ruined stone.

He forced himself to take it up. He did not look at it. He wrapped it in
the bit of silk and replaced it inside the iron boss, and clasped the
belt around his waist. Then he found the small flask that lay with his
gear beside the fire and took a long pull, and tried to think rationally
of the thing that had happened.

Memories. Not his own, but the memories of Ban Cruach, a million years
ago in the morning of a world. Memories of hate, a secret war against
unhuman beings that dwelt in crystal cities cut in the living ice, and
used these ruined towers for some dark purpose of their own.

Was that the meaning of the talisman, the power that lay within it? Had
Ban Cruach, by some elder and forgotten science, imprisoned the echoes
of his own mind in the crystal?

Why? Perhaps as a warning, as a reminder of ageless, alien danger beyond
the Gates of Death?

Suddenly one of the beasts tethered outside the ruined tower started up
from its sleep with a hissing snarl.

Instantly Stark became motionless.

They came silently on their padded feet, the rangy mountain brutes
moving daintily through the sprawling ruin. Their riders too were
silent--tall men with fierce eyes and russet hair, wearing leather coats
and carrying each a long, straight spear.

There were a score of them around the tower in the windy gloom. Stark
did not bother to draw his gun. He had learned very young the difference
between courage and idiocy.

He walked out toward them, slowly lest one of them be startled into
spearing him, yet not slowly enough to denote fear. And he held up his
right hand and gave them greeting.

They did not answer him. They sat their restive mounts and stared at
him, and Stark knew that Camar had spoken the truth. These were the
riders of Mekh, and they were wolves.



II


Stark waited, until they should tire of their own silence.

Finally one demanded, "Of what country are you?"

He answered, "I am called N'Chaka, the Man-Without-a-Tribe."

It was the name they had given him, the half-human aboriginals who had
raised him in the blaze and thunder and bitter frosts of Mercury.

"A stranger," said the leader, and smiled. He pointed at the dead Camar
and asked, "Did you slay him?"

"He was my friend," said Stark, "I was bringing him home to die."

Two riders dismounted to inspect the body. One called up to the leader,
"He was from Kushat, if I know the breed, Thord! And he has not been
robbed." He proceeded to take care of that detail himself.

"A stranger," repeated the leader, Thord. "Bound for Kushat, with a man
of Kushat. Well. I think you will come with us, stranger."

Stark shrugged. And with the long spears pricking him, he did not resist
when the tall Thord plundered him of all he owned except his
clothes--and Camar's belt, which was not worth the stealing. His gun
Thord flung contemptuously away.

One of the men brought Stark's beast and Camar's from where they were
tethered, and the Earthman mounted--as usual, over the violent protest
of the creature, which did not like the smell of him. They moved out
from under the shelter of the walls, into the full fury of the wind.

For the rest of that night, and through the next day and the night that
followed it they rode eastward, stopping only to rest the beasts and
chew on their rations of jerked meat.

To Stark, riding a prisoner, it came with full force that this was the
North country, half a world away from the Mars of spaceships and
commerce and visitors from other planets. The future had never touched
these wild mountains and barren plains. The past held pride enough.

To the north, the horizon showed a strange and ghostly glimmer where the
barrier wall of the polar pack reared up, gigantic against the sky. The
wind blew, down from the ice, through the mountain gorges, across the
plains, never ceasing. And here and there the cryptic towers rose,
broken monoliths of stone. Stark remembered the vision of the talisman,
the huge structure crowned with eerie darkness. He looked upon the ruins
with loathing and curiosity. The men of Mekh could tell him nothing.

Thord did not tell Stark where they were taking him, and Stark did not
ask. It would have been an admission of fear.

In mid-afternoon of the second day they came to a lip of rock where the
snow was swept clean, and below it was a sheer drop into a narrow
valley. Looking down, Stark saw that on the floor of the valley, up and
down as far as he could see, were men and beasts and shelters of hide
and brush, and fires burning. By the hundreds, by the several thousand,
they camped under the cliffs, and their voices rose up on the thin air
in a vast deep murmur that was deafening after the silence of the
plains.

A war party, gathered now, before the thaw. Stark smiled. He became
curious to meet the leader of this army.

They found their way single file along a winding track that dropped down
the cliff face. The wind stopped abruptly, cut off by the valley walls.
They came in among the shelters of the camp.

Here the snow was churned and soiled and melted to slush by the fires.
There were no women in the camp, no sign of the usual cheerful rabble
that follows a barbarian army. There were only men--hillmen and warriors
all, tough-handed killers with no thought but battle.

They came out of their holes to shout at Thord and his men, and stare at
the stranger. Thord was flushed and jovial with importance.

"I have no time for you," he shouted back. "I go to speak with the Lord
Ciaran."

Stark rode impassively, a dark giant with a face of stone. From time to
time he made his beast curvet, and laughed at himself inwardly for doing
it.

They came at length to a shelter larger than the others, but built
exactly the same and no more comfortable. A spear was thrust into the
snow beside the entrance, and from it hung a black pennant with a single
bar of silver across it, like lightning in a night sky. Beside it was a
shield with the same device. There were no guards.

Thord dismounted, bidding Stark to do the same. He hammered on the
shield with the hilt of his sword, announcing himself.

"Lord Ciaran! It is Thord--with a captive."

A voice, toneless and strangely muffled, spoke from within.

"Enter, Thord."

Thord pushed aside the hide curtain and went in, with Stark at his
heels.

       *       *       *       *       *

The dim daylight did not penetrate the interior. Cressets burned, giving
off a flickering brilliance and a smell of strong oil. The floor of
packed snow was carpeted with furs, much worn. Otherwise there was no
adornment, and no furniture but a chair and a table, both dark with age
and use, and a pallet of skins in one shadowy corner with what seemed to
be a heap of rags upon it.

In the chair sat a man.

He seemed very tall, in the shaking light of the cressets. From neck to
thigh his lean body was cased in black link mail, and under that a tunic
of leather, dyed black. Across his knees he held a sable axe, a great
thing made for the shearing of skulls, and his hands lay upon it gently,
as though it were a toy he loved.

His head and face were covered by a thing that Stark had seen before
only in very old paintings--the ancient war-mask of the inland Kings of
Mars. Wrought of black and gleaming steel, it presented an unhuman
visage of slitted eyeholes and a barred slot for breathing. Behind, it
sprang out in a thin, soaring sweep, like a dark wing edge-on in flight.

The intent, expressionless scrutiny of that mask was bent, not upon
Thord, but upon Eric John Stark.

The hollow voice spoke again, from behind the mask. "Well?"

"We were hunting in the gorges to the south," said Thord. "We saw a
fire...." He told the story, of how they had found the stranger and the
body of the man from Kushat.

"Kushat!" said the Lord Ciaran softly. "Ah! And why, stranger, were you
going to Kushat?"

"My name is Stark. Eric John Stark, Earthman, out of Mercury." He was
tired of being called stranger. Quite suddenly, he was tired of the
whole business.

"Why should I not go to Kushat? Is it against some law, that a man may
not go there in peace without being hounded all over the Norlands? And
why do the men of Mekh make it their business? They have nothing to do
with the city."

Thord held his breath, watching with delighted anticipation.

The hands of the man in armor caressed the axe. They were slender hands,
smooth and sinewy--small hands, it seemed, for such a weapon.

"We make what we will our business, Eric John Stark." He spoke with a
peculiar gentleness. "I have asked you. Why were you going to Kushat?"

"Because," Stark answered with equal restraint, "my comrade wanted to go
home to die."

"It seems a long, hard journey, just for dying." The black helm bent
forward, in an attitude of thought. "Only the condemned or banished
leave their cities, or their clans. Why did your comrade flee Kushat?"

A voice spoke suddenly from out of the heap of rags that lay on the
pallet in the shadows of the corner. A man's voice, deep and husky, with
the harsh quaver of age or madness in it.

"Three men beside myself have fled Kushat, over the years that matter.
One died in the spring floods. One was caught in the moving ice of
winter. One lived. A thief named Camar, who stole a certain talisman."

Stark said, "My comrade was called Greshi." The leather belt weighed
heavy about him, and the iron boss seemed hot against his belly. He was
beginning, now, to be afraid.

       *       *       *       *       *

The Lord Ciaran spoke, ignoring Stark. "It was the sacred talisman of
Kushat. Without it, the city is like a man without a soul."

As the Veil of Tanit was to Carthage, Stark thought, and reflected on
the fate of that city after the Veil was stolen.

"The nobles were afraid of their own people," the man in armor said.
"They did not dare to tell that it was gone. But we know."

"And," said Stark, "you will attack Kushat before the thaw, when they
least expect you."

"You have a sharp mind, stranger. Yes. But the great wall will be hard
to carry, even so. If I came, bearing in _my_ hands the talisman of Ban
Cruach...."

He did not finish, but turned instead to Thord. "When you plundered the
dead man's body, what did you find?"

"Nothing, Lord. A few coins, a knife, hardly worth the taking."

"And you, Eric John Stark. What did you take from the body?"

With perfect truth he answered, "Nothing."

"Thord," said the Lord Ciaran, "search him."

Thord came smiling up to Stark and ripped his jacket open.

With uncanny swiftness, the Earthman moved. The edge of one broad hand
took Thord under the ear, and before the man's knees had time to sag
Stark had caught his arm. He turned, crouching forward, and pitched
Thord headlong through the door flap.

He straightened and turned again. His eyes held a feral glint. "The man
has robbed me once," he said. "It is enough."

He heard Thord's men coming. Three of them tried to jam through the
entrance at once, and he sprang at them. He made no sound. His fists did
the talking for him, and then his feet, as he kicked the stunned
barbarians back upon their leader.

"Now," he said to the Lord Ciaran, "will we talk as men?"

The man in armor laughed, a sound of pure enjoyment. It seemed that the
gaze behind the mask studied Stark's savage face, and then lifted to
greet the sullen Thord who came back into the shelter, his cheeks
flushed crimson with rage.

"Go," said the Lord Ciaran. "The stranger and I will talk."

"But Lord," he protested, glaring at Stark, "it is not safe...."

"My dark mistress looks after my safety," said Ciaran, stroking the axe
across his knees. "Go."

Thord went.

The man in armor was silent then, the blind mask turned to Stark, who
met that eyeless gaze and was silent also. And the bundle of rags in the
shadows straightened slowly and became a tall old man with rusty hair
and beard, through which peered craggy juts of bone and two bright,
small points of fire, as though some wicked flame burned within him.

He shuffled over and crouched at the feet of the Lord Ciaran, watching
the Earthman. And the man in armor leaned forward.

"I will tell you something, Eric John Stark. I am a bastard, but I come
of the blood of kings. My name and rank I must make with my own hands.
But I will set them high, and my name will ring in the Norlands!

"I will take Kushat. Who holds Kushat, holds Mars--and the power and the
riches that lie beyond the Gates of Death!"

"I have seen them," said the old man, and his eyes blazed. "I have seen
Ban Cruach the mighty. I have seen the temples and the palaces glitter
in the ice. I have seen _Them_, the shining ones. Oh, I have seen them,
the beautiful, hideous ones!"

He glanced sidelong at Stark, very cunning. "That is why Otar is mad,
stranger. _He has seen._"

A chill swept Stark. He too had seen, not with his own eyes but with the
mind and memories of Ban Cruach, of a million years ago.

Then it had been no illusion, the fantastic vision opened to him by the
talisman now hidden in his belt! If this old madman had seen....

"What beings lurk beyond the Gates of Death I do not know," said Ciaran.
"But my dark mistress will test their strength--and I think my red
wolves will hunt them down, once they get a smell of plunder."

"The beautiful, terrible ones," whispered Otar. "And oh, the temples and
the palaces, and the great towers of stone!"

"Ride with me, Stark," said the Lord Ciaran abruptly. "Yield up the
talisman, and be the shield at my back. I have offered no other man that
honor."

Stark asked slowly, "Why do you choose me?"

"We are of one blood, Stark, though we be strangers."

The Earthman's cold eyes narrowed. "What would your red wolves say to
that? And what would Otar say? Look at him, already stiff with jealousy,
and fear lest I answer, 'Yes'."

"I do not think you would be afraid of either of them."

"On the contrary," said Stark, "I am a prudent man." He paused. "There
is one other thing. I will bargain with no man until I have looked into
his eyes. Take off your helm, Ciaran--and then perhaps we will talk!"

Otar's breath made a snakelike hissing between his toothless gums, and
the hands of the Lord Ciaran tightened on the haft of the axe.

"No!" he whispered. "That I can never do."

Otar rose to his feet, and for the first time Stark felt the full
strength that lay in this strange old man.

"Would you look upon the face of destruction?" he thundered. "Do you ask
for death? Do you think a thing is hidden behind a mask of steel without
a reason, that you demand to see it?"

He turned. "My Lord," he said. "By tomorrow the last of the clans will
have joined us. After that, we must march. Give this Earthman to Thord,
for the time that remains--and you will have the talisman."

The blank, blind mask was unmoving, turned toward Stark, and the
Earthman thought that from behind it came a faint sound that might have
been a sigh.

Then....

"Thord!" cried the Lord Ciaran, and lifted up the axe.



III


The flames leaped high from the fire in the windless gorge. Men sat
around it in a great circle, the wild riders out of the mountain valleys
of Mekh. They sat with the curbed and shivering eagerness of wolves
around a dying quarry. Now and again their white teeth showed in a kind
of silent laughter, and their eyes watched.

"He is strong," they whispered, one to the other. "He will live the
night out, surely!"

On an outcrop of rock sat the Lord Ciaran, wrapped in a black cloak,
holding the great axe in the crook of his arm. Beside him, Otar huddled
in the snow.

Close by, the long spears had been driven deep and lashed together to
make a scaffolding, and upon this frame was hung a man. A big man,
iron-muscled and very lean, the bulk of his shoulders filling the space
between the bending shafts. Eric John Stark of Earth, out of Mercury.

He had already been scourged without mercy. He sagged of his own weight
between the spears, breathing in harsh sobs, and the trampled snow
around him was spotted red.

Thord was wielding the lash. He had stripped off his own coat, and his
body glistened with sweat in spite of the cold. He cut his victim with
great care, making the long lash sing and crack. He was proud of his
skill.

Stark did not cry out.

Presently Thord stepped back, panting, and looked at the Lord Ciaran.
And the black helm nodded.

Thord dropped the whip. He went up to the big dark man and lifted his
head by the hair.

"Stark," he said, and shook the head roughly. "Stranger!"

Eyes opened and stared at him, and Thord could not repress a slight
shiver. It seemed that the pain and indignity had wrought some evil
magic on this man he had ridden with, and thought he knew. He had seen
exactly the same gaze in a big snow-cat caught in a trap, and he felt
suddenly that it was not a man he spoke to, but a predatory beast.

"Stark," he said. "Where is the talisman of Ban Cruach?"

The Earthman did not answer.

Thord laughed. He glanced up at the sky, where the moons rode low and
swift.

"The night is only half gone. Do you think you can last it out?"

The cold, cruel, patient eyes watched Thord. There was no reply.

Some quality of pride in that gaze angered the barbarian. It seemed to
mock him, who was so sure of his ability to loosen a reluctant tongue.

"You think I cannot make you talk, don't you? You don't know me,
stranger! You don't know Thord, who can make the rocks speak out if he
will!"

He reached out with his free hand and struck Stark across the face.

It seemed impossible that anything so still could move so quickly. There
was an ugly flash of teeth, and Thord's wrist was caught above the
thumb-joint. He bellowed, and the iron jaws closed down, worrying the
bone.

Quite suddenly, Thord screamed. Not for pain, but for panic. And the
rows of watching men swayed forward, and even the Lord Ciaran rose up,
startled.

"_Hark!_" ran the whispering around the fire. "Hark how he growls!"

Thord had let go of Stark's hair and was beating him about the head with
his clenched fist. His face was white.

"Werewolf!" he screamed. "Let me go, beast-thing! Let me go!"

But the dark man clung to Thord's wrist, snarling, and did not hear.
After a bit there came the dull crack of bone.

Stark opened his jaws. Thord ceased to strike him. He backed off slowly,
staring at the torn flesh. Stark had sunk down to the length of his
arms.

With his left hand, Thord drew his knife. The Lord Ciaran stepped
forward. "Wait, Thord!"

"It is a thing of evil," whispered the barbarian. "Warlock. Werewolf.
Beast."

He sprang at Stark.

       *       *       *       *       *

The man in armor moved, very swiftly, and the great axe went whirling
through the air. It caught Thord squarely where the cords of his neck
ran into the shoulder--caught, and shore on through.

There was a silence in the valley.

The Lord Ciaran walked slowly across the trampled snow and took up his
axe again.

"I will be obeyed," he said. "And I will not stand for fear, not of god,
man, nor devil." He gestured toward Stark. "Cut him down. And see that
he does not die."

He strode away, and Otar began to laugh.

From a vast distance, Stark heard that shrill, wild laughter. His mouth
was full of blood, and he was mad with a cold fury.

A cunning that was purely animal guided his movements then. His head
fell forward, and his body hung inert against the thongs. He might
almost have been dead.

A knot of men came toward him. He listened to them. They were hesitant
and afraid. Then, as he did not move, they plucked up courage and came
closer, and one prodded him gently with the point of his spear.

"Prick him well," said another. "Let us be sure!"

The sharp point bit a little deeper. A few drops of blood welled out and
joined the small red streams that ran from the weals of the lash. Stark
did not stir.

The spearman grunted. "He is safe enough now."

Stark felt the knife blades working at the thongs. He waited. The
rawhide snapped, and he was free.

He did not fall. He would not have fallen then if he had taken a death
wound. He gathered his legs under him and sprang.

He picked up the spearman in that first rush and flung him into the
fire. Then he began to run toward the place where the scaly mounts were
herded, leaving a trail of blood behind him on the snow.

A man loomed up in front of him. He saw the shadow of a spear and
swerved, and caught the haft in his two hands. He wrenched it free and
struck down with the butt of it, and went on. Behind him he heard voices
shouting and the beginning of turmoil.

The Lord Ciaran turned and came back, striding fast.

There were men before Stark now, many men, the circle of watchers
breaking up because there had been nothing more to watch. He gripped the
long spear. It was a good weapon, better than the flint-tipped stick
with which the boy N'Chaka had hunted the giant lizard of the rocks.

His body curved into a half crouch. He voiced one cry, the challenging
scream of a predatory killer, and went in among the men.

He did slaughter with that spear. They were not expecting attack. They
were not expecting anything. Stark had sprung to life too quickly. And
they were afraid of him. He could smell the fear on them. Fear not of a
man like themselves, but of a creature less and more than man.

He killed, and was happy.

They fell away from him, the wild riders of Mekh. They were sure now
that he was a demon. He raged among them with the bright spear, and they
heard again that sound that should not have come from a human throat,
and their superstitious terror rose and sent them scrambling out of his
path, trampling on each other in childish panic.

He broke through, and now there was nothing between him and escape but
two mounted men who guarded the herd.

Being mounted, they had more courage. They felt that even a warlock
could not stand against their charge. They came at him as he ran, the
padded feet of their beasts making a muffled drumming in the snow.

Without breaking stride, Stark hurled his spear.

       *       *       *       *       *

It drove through one man's body and tumbled him off, so that he fell
under his comrade's mount and fouled its legs. It staggered and reared
up, hissing, and Stark fled on.

Once he glanced over his shoulder. Through the milling, shouting crowd
of men he glimpsed a dark, mailed figure with a winged mask, going
through the ruck with a loping stride and bearing a sable axe raised
high for the throwing.

Stark was close to the herd now. And they caught his scent.

The Norland brutes had never liked the smell of him, and now the reek of
blood upon him was enough in itself to set them wild. They began to hiss
and snarl uneasily, rubbing their reptilian flanks together as they
wheeled around, staring at him with lambent eyes.

He rushed them, before they should quite decide to break. He was quick
enough to catch one by the fleshy comb that served it for a forelock,
held it with savage indifference to its squealing, and leaped to its
back. Then he let it bolt, and as he rode it he yelled, a shrill brute
cry that urged the creatures on to panic.

The herd broke, stampeding outward from its center like a bursting
shell.

Stark was in the forefront. Clinging low to the scaly neck, he saw the
men of Mekh scattered and churned and tramped into the snow by the
flying pads. In and out of the shelters, kicking the brush walls down,
lifting up their harsh reptilian voices, they went racketing through the
camp, leaving behind them wreckage as of a storm. And Stark went with
them.

He snatched a cloak from off the shoulders of some petty chieftain as he
went by, and then, twisting cruelly on the fleshy comb, beating with his
fist at the creature's head, he got his mount turned in the way he
wanted it to go, down the valley.

He caught one last glimpse of the Lord Ciaran, fighting to hold one of
the creatures long enough to mount, and then a dozen striving bodies
surged around him, and Stark was gone.

The beast did not slacken pace. It was as though it thought it could
outrun the alien, bloody thing that clung to its back. The last fringes
of the camp shot by and vanished in the gloom, and the clean snow of the
lower valley lay open before it. The creature laid its belly to the
ground and went, the white spray spurting from its heels.

Stark hung on. His strength was gone now, run out suddenly with the
battle-madness. He became conscious now that he was sick and bleeding,
that his body was one cruel pain. In that moment, more than in the hours
that had gone before, he hated the black leader of the clans of Mekh.

That flight down the valley became a sort of ugly dream. Stark was aware
of rock walls reeling past, and then they seemed to widen away and the
wind came out of nowhere like the stroke of a great hammer, and he was
on the open moors again.

The beast began to falter and slow down. Presently it stopped.

Stark scooped up snow to rub on his wounds. He came near to fainting,
but the bleeding stopped and after that the pain was numbed to a dull
ache. He wrapped the cloak around him and urged the beast to go on,
gently this time, patiently, and after it had breathed it obeyed him,
settling into the shuffling pace it could keep up for hours.

He was three days on the moors. Part of the time he rode in a sort of
stupor, and part of the time he was feverishly alert, watching the
skyline. Frequently he took the shapes of thrusting rocks for riders,
and found what cover he could until he was sure they did not move. He
was afraid to dismount, for the beast had no bridle. When it halted to
rest he remained upon its back, shaking, his brow beaded with sweat.

The wind scoured his tracks clean as soon as he made them. Twice, in the
distance, he did see riders, and one of those times he burrowed into a
tall drift and stayed there for several hours.

The ruined towers marched with him across the bitter land, lonely giants
fifty miles apart. He did not go near them.

He knew that he wandered a good bit, but he could not help it, and it
was probably his salvation. In those tortured badlands, riven by ages of
frost and flood, one might follow a man on a straight track between two
points. But to find a single rider lost in that wilderness was a matter
of sheer luck, and the odds were with Stark.

One evening at sunset he came out upon a plain that sloped upward to a
black and towering scarp, notched with a single pass.

The light was level and blood-red, glittering on the frosty rock so that
it seemed the throat of the pass was aflame with evil fires. To Stark's
mind, essentially primitive and stripped now of all its acquired reason,
that narrow cleft appeared as the doorway to the dwelling place of
demons as horrible as the fabled creatures that roam the Darkside of his
native world.

He looked long at the Gates of Death, and a dark memory crept into his
brain. Memory of that nightmare experience when the talisman had made
him seem to walk into that frightful pass, not as Stark, but as Ban
Cruach.

He remembered Otar's words--_I have seen Ban Cruach the mighty_. Was he
still there beyond those darkling gates, fighting his unimagined war,
alone?

Again, in memory, Stark heard the evil piping of the wind. Again, the
shadow of a dim and terrible shape loomed up before him....

He forced remembrance of that vision from his mind, by a great effort.
He could not turn back now. There was no place to go.

His weary beast plodded on, and now Stark saw as in a dream that a great
walled city stood guard before that awful Gate. He watched the city
glide toward him through a crimson haze, and fancied he could see the
ages clustered like birds around the towers.

He had reached Kushat, with the talisman of Ban Cruach still strapped in
the blood-stained belt around his waist.



IV


He stood in a large square, lined about with huckster's stalls and the
booths of wine-sellers. Beyond were buildings, streets, a city. Stark
got a blurred impression of a grand and brooding darkness, bulking huge
against the mountains, as bleak and proud as they, and quite as ancient,
with many ruins and deserted quarters.

He was not sure how he had come there, but he was standing on his own
feet, and someone was pouring sour wine into his mouth. He drank it
greedily. There were people around him, jostling, chattering, demanding
answers to their questions. A girl's voice said sharply, "Let him be!
Can't you see he's hurt?"

Stark looked down. She was slim and ragged, with black hair and large
eyes yellow as a cat's. She held a leather bottle in her hands. She
smiled at him and said, "I'm Thanis. Will you drink more wine?"

"I will," said Stark, and did, and then said, "Thank you, Thanis." He
put his hand on her shoulder, to steady himself. It was a supple
shoulder, surprisingly strong. He liked the feel of it.

The crowd was still churning around him, growing larger, and now he
heard the tramp of military feet. A small detachment of men in light
armor pushed their way through.

A very young officer whose breastplate hurt the eye with brightness
demanded to be told at once who Stark was and why he had come there.

"No one crosses the moors in winter," he said, as though that in itself
were a sign of evil intent.

"The clans of Mekh are crossing them," Stark answered. "An army, to take
Kushat--one, two days behind me."

The crowd picked that up. Excited voices tossed it back and forth, and
clamored for more news. Stark spoke to the officer.

"I will see your captain, and at once."

"You'll see the inside of a prison, more likely!" snapped the young man.
"What's this nonsense about the clans of Mekh?"

Stark regarded him. He looked so long and so curiously that the crowd
began to snicker and the officer's beardless face flushed pink to the
ears.

"I have fought in many wars," said Stark gently. "And long ago I learned
to listen, when someone came to warn me of attack."

"Better take him to the captain, Lugh," cried Thanis. "It's our skins
too, you know, if there is war."

The crowd began to shout. They were all poor folk, wrapped in threadbare
cloaks or tattered leather. They had no love for the guards. And whether
there was war or not, their winter had been long and dull, and they were
going to make the most of this excitement.

"Take him, Lugh! Let him warn the nobles. Let them think how they'll
defend Kushat and the Gates of Death, now that the talisman is gone!"

"That is a lie!" Lugh shouted. "And you know the penalty for telling it.
Hold your tongues, or I'll have you all whipped." He gestured angrily at
Stark. "See if he is armed."

One of the soldiers stepped forward, but Stark was quicker. He slipped
the thong and let the cloak fall, baring his upper body.

"The clansmen have already taken everything I owned," he said. "But they
gave me something, in return."

The crowd stared at the half healed stripes that scarred him, and there
was a drawing in of breath.

The soldier picked up the cloak and laid it over the Earthman's
shoulders. And Lugh said sullenly, "Come, then."

Stark's fingers tightened on Thanis' shoulder. "Come with me, little
one," he whispered. "Otherwise, I must crawl."

She smiled at him and came. The crowd followed.

The captain of the guards was a fleshy man with a smell of wine about
him and a face already crumbling apart though his hair was not yet grey.
He sat in a squat tower above the square, and he observed Stark with no
particular interest.

"You had something to tell," said Lugh. "Tell it."

       *       *       *       *       *

Stark told them, leaving out all mention of Camar and the talisman. This
was neither the time nor the man to hear that story. The captain
listened to all he had to say about the gathering of the clans of Mekh,
and then sat studying him with a bleary shrewdness.

"You have proof of all this?"

"These stripes. Their leader Ciaran ordered them laid on himself."

The captain sighed, and leaned back.

"Any wandering band of hunters could have scourged you," he said. "A
nameless vagabond from the gods know where, and a lawless one at that,
if I'm any judge of men--you probably deserved it."

He reached for wine, and smiled. "Look you, stranger. In the Norlands,
no one makes war in the winter. And no one ever heard of Ciaran. If you
hoped for a reward from the city, you overshot badly."

"The Lord Ciaran," said Stark, grimly controlling his anger, "will be
battering at your gates within two days. And you will hear of him then."

"Perhaps. You can wait for him--in a cell. And you can leave Kushat with
the first caravan after the thaw. We have enough rabble here without
taking in more."

Thanis caught Stark by the cloak and held him back.

"_Sir_," she said, as though it were an unclean word. "I will vouch for
the stranger."

The captain glanced at her. "You?"

"Sir, I am a free citizen of Kushat. According to law, I may vouch for
him."

"If you scum of the Thieves' Quarter would practice the law as well as
you prate it, we would have less trouble," growled the captain. "Very
well, take the creature, if you want him. I don't suppose you've
anything to lose."

Lugh laughed.

"Name and dwelling place," said the captain, and wrote them down.
"Remember, he is not to leave the Quarter."

Thanis nodded. "Come," she said to Stark. He did not move, and she
looked up at him. He was staring at the captain. His beard had grown in
these last days, and his face was still scarred by Thord's blows and
made wolfish with pain and fever. And now, out of this evil mask, his
eyes were peering with a chill and terrible intensity at the
soft-bellied man who sat and mocked him.

Thanis laid her hand on his rough cheek. "Come," she said. "Come and
rest."

Gently she turned his head. He blinked and swayed, and she took him
around the waist and led him unprotesting to the door.

There she paused, looking back.

"Sir," she said, very meekly, "news of this attack is being shouted
through the Quarter now. If it _should_ come, and it were known that you
had the warning and did not pass it on...." She made an expressive
gesture, and went out.

Lugh glanced uneasily at the captain. "She's right, sir. If by chance
the man did tell the truth...."

The captain swore. "Rot. A rogue's tale. And yet...." He scowled
indecisively, and then reached for parchment. "After all, it's a simple
thing. Write it up, pass it on, and let the nobles do the worrying."

His pen began to scratch.

Thanis took Stark by steep and narrow ways, darkling now in the
afterglow, where the city climbed and fell again over the uneven rock.
Stark was aware of the heavy smells of spices and unfamiliar foods, and
the musky undertones of a million generations swarmed together to spawn
and die in these crowded catacombs of slate and stone.

There was a house, blending into other houses, close under the loom of
the great Wall. There was a flight of steps, hollowed deep with use,
twisting crazily around outer corners.

There was a low room, and a slender man named Balin, vaguely glimpsed,
who said he was Thanis' brother. There was a bed of skins and woven
cloths.

Stark slept.

       *       *       *       *       *

Hands and voices called him back. Strong hands shaking him, urgent
voices. He started up growling, like an animal suddenly awaked, still
lost in the dark mists of exhaustion. Balin swore, and caught his
fingers away.

"What is this you have brought home, Thanis? By the gods, it snapped at
me!"

Thanis ignored him. "Stark," she said. "Stark! Listen. Men are coming.
Soldiers. They will question you. Do you hear me?"

Stark said heavily, "I hear."

"_Do not speak of Camar!_"

Stark got to his feet, and Balin said hastily, "Peace! The thing is
safe. I would not steal a death warrant!"

His voice had a ring of truth. Stark sat down again. It was an effort to
keep awake. There was clamor in the street below. It was still night.

Balin said carefully, "Tell them what you told the captain, nothing
more. They will kill you if they know."

A rough hand thundered at the door, and a voice cried, "Open up!"

Balin sauntered over to lift the bar. Thanis sat beside Stark, her hand
touching his. Stark rubbed his face. He had been shaved and washed, his
wounds rubbed with salve. The belt was gone, and his blood-stained
clothing. He realized only then that he was naked, and drew a cloth
around him. Thanis whispered, "The belt is there on that peg, under your
cloak."

Balin opened the door, and the room was full of men.

Stark recognized the captain. There were others, four of them, young,
old, intermediate, annoyed at being hauled away from their beds and
their gaming tables at this hour. The sixth man wore the jewelled
cuirass of a noble. He had a nice, a kind face. Grey hair, mild eyes,
soft cheeks. A fine man, but ludicrous in the trappings of a soldier.

"Is this the man?" he asked, and the captain nodded.

"Yes." It was his turn to say Sir.

Balin brought a chair. He had a fine flourish about him. He wore a
crimson jewel in his left ear, and every line of him was quick and
sensitive, instinct with mockery. His eyes were brightly cynical, in a
face worn lean with years of merry sinning. Stark liked him.

He was a civilized man. They all were--the noble, the captain, the lot
of them. So civilized that the origins of their culture were forgotten
half an age before the first clay brick was laid in Babylon.

Too civilized, Stark thought. Peace had drawn their fangs and cut their
claws. He thought of the wild clansmen coming fast across the snow, and
felt a certain pity for the men of Kushat.

The noble sat down.

"This is a strange tale you bring, wanderer. I would hear it from your
own lips."

Stark told it. He spoke slowly, watching every word, cursing the
weariness that fogged his brain.

The noble, who was called Rogain, asked him questions. Where was the
camp? How many men? What were the exact words of the Lord Ciaran, and
who was he?

Stark answered, with meticulous care.

Rogain sat for some time lost in thought. He seemed worried and upset,
one hand playing aimlessly with the hilt of his sword. A scholar's hand,
without a callous on it.

"There is one thing more," said Rogain. "What business had you on the
moors in winter?"

Stark smiled. "I am a wanderer by profession."

"Outlaw?" asked the captain, and Stark shrugged.

"Mercenary is a kinder word."

       *       *       *       *       *

Rogain studied the pattern of stripes on the Earthman's dark skin. "Why
did the Lord Ciaran, so-called, order you scourged?"

"I had thrashed one of his chieftains."

Rogain sighed and rose. He stood regarding Stark from under brooding
brows, and at length he said, "It is a wild tale. I can't believe
it--and yet, why should you lie?"

He paused, as though hoping that Stark would answer that and relieve him
of worry.

Stark yawned. "The tale is easily proved. Wait a day or two."

"I will arm the city," said Rogain. "I dare not do otherwise. But I will
tell you this." An astonishing unpleasant look came into his eyes. "If
the attack does not come--if you have set a whole city by the ears for
nothing--I will have you flayed alive and your body tumbled over the
Wall for the carrion birds to feed on."

He strode out, taking his retinue with him. Balin smiled. "He will do
it, too," he said, and dropped the bar.

Stark did not answer. He stared at Balin, and then at Thanis, and then
at the belt hanging on the peg, in a curiously blank and yet penetrating
fashion, like an animal that thinks its own thoughts. He took a deep
breath. Then, as though he found the air clean of danger, he rolled over
and went instantly to sleep.

Balin lifted his shoulders expressively. He grinned at Thanis. "Are you
positive it's human?"

"He's beautiful," said Thanis, and tucked the cloths around him. "Hold
your tongue." She continued to sit there, watching Stark's face as the
slow dreams moved across it. Balin laughed.

It was evening again when Stark awoke. He sat up, stretching lazily.
Thanis crouched by the hearthstone, stirring something savory in a
blackened pot. She wore a red kirtle and a necklet of beaten gold, and
her hair was combed out smooth and shining.

She smiled at him and rose, bringing him his own boots and trousers,
carefully cleaned, and a tunic of leather tanned fine and soft as silk.
Stark asked her where she got it.

"Balin stole it--from the baths where the nobles go. He said you might
as well have the best." She laughed. "He had a devil of a time finding
one big enough to fit you."

She watched with unashamed interest while he dressed. Stark said, "Don't
burn the soup."

She put her tongue out at him. "Better be proud of that fine hide while
you have it," she said. "There's no sign of attack."

Stark was aware of sounds that had not been there before--the pacing of
men on the Wall above the house, the calling of the watch. Kushat was
armed and ready--and his time was running out. He hoped that Ciaran had
not been delayed on the moors.

Thanis said, "I should explain about the belt. When Balin undressed you,
he saw Camar's name scratched on the inside of the boss. And, he can
open a lizard's egg without harming the shell."

"What about you?" asked Stark.

She flexed her supple fingers. "I do well enough."

       *       *       *       *       *

Balin came in. He had been seeking news, but there was little to be had.

"The soldiers are grumbling about a false alarm," he said. "The people
are excited, but more as though they were playing a game. Kushat has not
fought a war for centuries." He sighed. "The pity of it is, Stark, I
believe your story. And I'm afraid."

Thanis handed him a steaming bowl. "Here--employ your tongue with this.
Afraid, indeed! Have you forgotten the Wall? No one has carried it since
the city was built. Let them attack!"

Stark was amused. "For a child, you know much concerning war."

"I knew enough to save your skin!" she flared, and Balin smiled.

"She has you there, Stark. And speaking of skins...." He glanced up at
the belt. "Or better, speaking of talismans, which we were not. How did
you come by it?"

Stark told him. "He had a sin on his soul, did Camar. And--he was my
friend."

Balin looked at him with deep respect. "You were a fool," he said. "Look
you. The thing is returned to Kushat. Your promise is kept. There is
nothing for you here but danger, and were I you I would not wait to be
flayed, or slain, or taken in a quarrel that is not yours."

"Ah," said Stark softly, "but it is mine. The Lord Ciaran made it so."
He, too, glanced at the belt. "What of the talisman?"

"Return it where it came from," Thanis said. "My brother is a better
thief than Camar. He can certainly do that."

"No!" said Balin, with surprising force. "We will keep it, Stark and I.
Whether it has power, I do not know. But if it has--I think Kushat will
need it, and in strong hands."

Stark said somberly, "It has power, the Talisman. Whether for good or
evil, I don't know."

They looked at him, startled. But a touch of awe seemed to repress their
curiosity.

He could not tell them. He was, somehow, reluctant to tell anyone of
that dark vision of what lay beyond the Gates of Death, which the
talisman of Ban Cruach had lent him.

Balin stood up. "Well, for good or evil, at least the sacred relic of
Ban Cruach has come home." He yawned. "I am going to bed. Will you come,
Thanis, or will you stay and quarrel with our guest?"

"I will stay," she said, "and quarrel."

"Ah, well." Balin sighed puckishly. "Good night." He vanished into an
inner room. Stark looked at Thanis. She had a warm mouth, and her eyes
were beautiful, and full of light.

He smiled, holding out his hand.

The night wore on, and Stark lay drowsing. Thanis had opened the
curtains. Wind and moonlight swept together into the room, and she stood
leaning upon the sill, above the slumbering city. The smile that
lingered in the corners of her mouth was sad and far-away, and very
tender.

Stark stirred uneasily, making small sounds in his throat. His motions
grew violent. Thanis crossed the room and touched him.

Instantly he was awake.

"Animal," she said softly. "You dream."

Stark shook his head. His eyes were still clouded, though not with
sleep. "Blood," he said, "heavy in the wind."

"I smell nothing but the dawn," she said, and laughed.

Stark rose. "Get Balin. I'm going up on the Wall."

She did not know him now. "What is it, Stark? What's wrong?"

"Get Balin." Suddenly it seemed that the room stifled him. He caught up
his cloak and Camar's belt and flung open the door, standing on the
narrow steps outside. The moonlight caught in his eyes, pale as
frost-fire.

Thanis shivered. Balin joined her without being called. He, too, had
slept but lightly. Together they followed Stark up the rough-cut stair
that led to the top of the Wall.

He looked southward, where the plain ran down from the mountains and
spread away below Kushat. Nothing moved out there. Nothing marred the
empty whiteness. But Stark said,

"They will attack at dawn."



V


They waited. Some distance away a guard leaned against the parapet,
huddled in his cloak. He glanced at them incuriously. It was bitterly
cold. The wind came whistling down through the Gates of Death, and below
in the streets the watchfires shuddered and flared.

They waited, and still there was nothing.

Balin said impatiently, "How can you know they're coming?"

Stark shivered, a shallow rippling of the flesh that had nothing to do
with cold, and every muscle of his body came alive. Phobos plunged
downward. The moonlight dimmed and changed, and the plain was very
empty, very still.

"They will wait for darkness. They will have an hour or so, between
moonset and dawn."

Thanis muttered, "Dreams! Besides, I'm cold." She hesitated, and then
crept in under Balin's cloak. Stark had gone away from her. She watched
him sulkily where he leaned upon the stone. He might have been part of
it, as dark and unstirring.

Deimos sank low toward the west.

Stark turned his head, drawn inevitably to look toward the cliffs above
Kushat, soaring upward to blot out half the sky. Here, close under them,
they seemed to tower outward in a curving mass, like the last wave of
eternity rolling down, crested white with the ash of shattered worlds.

_I have stood beneath those cliffs before. I have felt them leaning down
to crush me, and I have been afraid._

He was still afraid. The mind that had poured its memories into that
crystal lens had been dead a million years, but neither time nor death
had dulled the terror that beset Ban Cruach in his journey through that
nightmare pass.

He looked into the black and narrow mouth of the Gates of Death,
cleaving the scarp like a wound, and the primitive ape-thing within him
cringed and moaned, oppressed with a sudden sense of fate.

He had come painfully across half a world, to crouch before the Gates of
Death. Some evil magic had let him see forbidden things, had linked his
mind in an unholy bond with the long-dead mind of one who had been half
a god. These evil miracles had not been for nothing. He would not be
allowed to go unscathed.

He drew himself up sharply then, and swore. He had left N'Chaka behind,
a naked boy running in a place of rocks and sun on Mercury. He had
become Eric John Stark, a man, and civilized. He thrust the senseless
premonition from him, and turned his back upon the mountains.

Deimos touched the horizon. A last gleam of reddish light tinged the
snow, and then was gone.

Thanis, who was half asleep, said with sudden irritation, "I do not
believe in your barbarians. I'm going home." She thrust Balin aside and
went away, down the steps.

The plain was now in utter darkness, under the faint, far Northern
stars.

Stark settled himself against the parapet. There was a sort of timeless
patience about him. Balin envied it. He would have liked to go with
Thanis. He was cold and doubtful, but he stayed.

Time passed, endless minutes of it, lengthening into what seemed hours.

Stark said, "Can you hear them?"

"No."

"They come." His hearing, far keener than Balin's, picked up the little
sounds, the vast inchoate rustling of an army on the move in stealth and
darkness. Light-armed men, hunters, used to stalking wild beasts in the
show. They could move softly, very softly.

"I hear nothing," Balin said, and again they waited.

The westering stars moved toward the horizon, and at length in the east
a dim pallor crept across the sky.

The plain was still shrouded in night, but now Stark could make out the
high towers of the King City of Kushat, ghostly and indistinct--the
ancient, proud high towers of the rulers and their nobles, set above the
crowded Quarters of merchants and artisans and thieves. He wondered who
would be king in Kushat by the time this unrisen sun had set.

"You were wrong," said Balin, peering. "There is nothing on the plain."

Stark said, "Wait."

       *       *       *       *       *

Swiftly now, in the thin air of Mars, the dawn came with a rush and a
leap, flooding the world with harsh light. It flashed in cruel
brilliance from sword-blades, from spearheads, from helmets and
burnished mail, from the war-harness of beasts, glistened on bare russet
heads and coats of leather, set the banners of the clans to burning,
crimson and gold and green, bright against the snow.

There was no sound, not a whisper, in all the land.

Somewhere a hunting horn sent forth one deep cry to split the morning.
Then burst out the wild skirling of the mountain pipes and the broken
thunder of drums, and a wordless scream of exultation that rang back
from the Wall of Kushat like the very voice of battle. The men of Mekh
began to move.

Raggedly, slowly at first, then more swiftly as the press of warriors
broke and flowed, the barbarians swept toward the city as water sweeps
over a broken dam.

Knots and clumps of men, tall men running like deer, leaping, shouting,
swinging their great brands. Riders, spurring their mounts until they
fled belly down. Spears, axes, sword-blades tossing, a sea of men and
beasts, rushing, trampling, shaking the ground with the thunder of their
going.

And ahead of them all came a solitary figure in black mail, riding a
raking beast trapped all in black, and bearing a sable axe.

Kushat came to life. There was a swarming and a yelling in the streets,
and soldiers began to pour up onto the Wall. A thin company, Stark
thought, and shook his head. Mobs of citizens choked the alleys, and
every rooftop was full. A troop of nobles went by, brave in their bright
mail, to take up their post in the square by the great gate.

Balin said nothing, and Stark did not disturb his thoughts. From the
look of him, they were dark indeed.

Soldiers came and ordered them off the Wall. They went back to their
own roof, where they were joined by Thanis. She was in a high state of
excitement, but unafraid.

"Let them attack!" she said. "Let them break their spears against the
Wall. They will crawl away again."

Stark began to grow restless. Up in their high emplacements, the big
ballistas creaked and thrummed. The muted song of the bows became a
wailing hum. Men fell, and were kicked off the ledges by their fellows.
The blood-howl of the clans rang unceasing on the frosty air, and Stark
heard the rap of scaling ladders against stone.

Thanis said abruptly, "What is that--that sound like thunder?"

"Rams," he answered. "They are battering the gate."

She listened, and Stark saw in her face the beginning of fear.

It was a long fight. Stark watched it hungrily from the roof all that
morning. The soldiers of Kushat did bravely and well, but they were as
folded sheep against the tall killers of the mountains. By noon the
officers were beating the Quarters for men to replace the slain.

Stark and Balin went up again, onto the Wall.

The clans had suffered. Their dead lay in windrows under the Wall, amid
the broken ladders. But Stark knew his barbarians. They had sat restless
and chafing in the valley for many days, and now the battle-madness was
on them and they were not going to be stopped.

Wave after wave of them rolled up, and was cast back, and came on again
relentlessly. The intermittent thunder boomed still from the gates,
where sweating giants swung the rams under cover of their own bowmen.
And everywhere, up and down through the forefront of the fighting, rode
the man in black armor, and wild cheering followed him.

Balin said heavily, "It is the end of Kushat."

       *       *       *       *       *

A ladder banged against the stones a few feet away. Men swarmed up the
rungs, fierce-eyed clansmen with laughter in their mouths. Stark was
first at the head.

They had given him a spear. He spitted two men through with it and lost
it, and a third man came leaping over the parapet. Stark received him
into his arms.

Balin watched. He saw the warrior go crashing back, sweeping his fellows
off the ladder. He saw Stark's face. He heard the sounds and smelled the
blood and sweat of war, and he was sick to the marrow of his bones, and
his hatred of the barbarians was a terrible thing.

Stark caught up a dead man's blade, and within ten minutes his arm was
as red as a butcher's. And ever he watched the winged helm that went
back and forth below, a standard to the clans.

By mid-afternoon the barbarians had gained the Wall in three places.
They spread inward along the ledges, pouring up in a resistless tide,
and the defenders broke. The rout became a panic.

"It's all over now," Stark said. "Find Thanis, and hide her."

Balin let fall his sword. "Give me the talisman," he whispered, and
Stark saw that he was weeping. "Give it me, and I will go beyond the
Gates of Death and rouse Ban Cruach from his sleep. And if he has
forgotten Kushat, I will take his power into my own hands. I will fling
wide the Gates of Death and loose destruction on the men of Mekh--or if
the legends are all lies, then I will die."

He was like a man crazed. "Give me the talisman!"

Stark slapped him, carefully and without heat, across the face. "Get
your sister, Balin. Hide her, unless you would be uncle to a red-haired
brat."

He went then, like a man who has been stunned. Screaming women with
their children clogged the ways that led inward from the Wall, and there
was bloody work afoot on the rooftops and in the narrow alleys.

The gate was holding, still.

       *       *       *       *       *

Stark forced his way toward the square. The booths of the hucksters were
overthrown, the wine-jars broken and the red wine spilled. Beasts
squealed and stamped, tired of their chafing harness, driven wild by the
shouting and the smell of blood. The dead were heaped high where they
had fallen from above.

They were all soldiers here, clinging grimly to their last foothold. The
deep song of the rams shook the very stones. The iron-sheathed timbers
of the gate gave back an answering scream, and toward the end all other
sounds grew hushed. The nobles came down slowly from the Wall and
mounted, and sat waiting.

There were fewer of them now. Their bright armor was dented and stained,
and their faces had a pallor on them.

One last hammer-stroke of the rams.

With a bitter shriek the weakened bolts tore out, and the great gate was
broken through.

The nobles of Kushat made their first, and final charge.

As soldiers they went up against the riders of Mekh, and as soldiers
they held them until they died. Those that were left were borne back
into the square, caught as in the crest of an avalanche. And first
through the gates came the winged battle-mask of the Lord Ciaran, and
the sable axe that drank men's lives where it hewed.

There was a beast with no rider to claim it, tugging at its headrope.
Stark swung onto the saddle pad and cut it free. Where the press was
thickest, a welter of struggling brutes and men fighting knee to knee,
there was the man in black armor, riding like a god, magnificent, born
to war. Stark's eyes shone with a strange, cold light. He struck his
heels hard into the scaly flanks. The beast plunged forward.

In and over and through, making the long sword sing. The beast was
strong, and frightened beyond fear. It bit and trampled, and Stark cut a
path for them, and presently he shouted above the din,

"Ho, there! _Ciaran!_"

The black mask turned toward him, and the remembered voice spoke from
behind the barred slot, joyously.

"The wanderer. The wild man!"

Their two mounts shocked together. The axe came down in a whistling
curve, and a red sword-blade flashed to meet it. Swift, swift, a ringing
clash of steel, and the blade was shattered and the axe fallen to the
ground.

Stark pressed in.

Ciaran reached for his sword, but his hand was numbed by the force of
that blow and he was slow, a split second. The hilt of Stark's weapon,
still clutched in his own numbed grip, fetched him a stunning blow on
the helm, so that the metal rang like a flawed bell.

The Lord Ciaran reeled back, only for a moment, but long enough. Stark
grasped the war-mask and ripped it off, and got his hands around the
naked throat.

He did not break that neck, as he had planned. And the Clansmen who had
started in to save their leader stopped and did not move.

Stark knew now why the Lord Ciaran had never shown his face.

The throat he held was white and strong, and his hands around it were
buried in a mane of red-gold hair that fell down over the shirt of mail.
A red mouth passionate with fury, wonderful curving bone under
sculptured flesh, eyes fierce and proud and tameless as the eyes of a
young eagle, fire-blue, defying him, hating him....

"By the gods," said Stark, very softly. "By the eternal gods!"



VI

A woman! And in that moment of amazement, she was quicker than he.

There was nothing to warn him, no least flicker of expression. Her two
fists came up together between his outstretched arms and caught him
under the jaw with a force that nearly snapped his neck. He went over
backward, clean out of the saddle, and lay sprawled on the bloody
stones, half stunned, the wind knocked out of him.

The woman wheeled her mount. Bending low, she took up the axe from where
it had fallen, and faced her warriors, who were as dazed as Stark.

"I have led you well," she said. "I have taken you Kushat. Will any man
dispute me?"

They knew the axe, if they did not know her. They looked from side to
side uneasily, completely at a loss, and Stark, still gasping on the
ground, thought that he had never seen anything as proud and beautiful
as she was then in her black mail, with her bright hair blowing and her
glance like blue lightning.

The nobles of Kushat chose that moment to charge. This strange unmasking
of the Mekhish lord had given them time to rally, and now they thought
that the Gods had wrought a miracle to help them. They found hope, where
they had lost everything but courage.

"A wench!" they cried. "A strumpet of the camps. _A woman!_"

They howled it like an epithet, and tore into the barbarians.

She who had been the Lord Ciaran drove the spurs in deep, so that the
beast leaped forward screaming. She went, and did not look to see if any
had followed, in among the men of Kushat. And the great axe rose and
fell, and rose again.

She killed three, and left two others bleeding on the stones, and not
once did she look back.

The clansmen found their tongues.

"_Ciaran! Ciaran!_"

The crashing shout drowned out the sound of battle. As one man, they
turned and followed her.

Stark, scrambling for his life underfoot, could not forbear smiling.
Their childlike minds could see only two alternatives--to slay her out
of hand, or to worship her. They had chosen to worship. He thought the
bards would be singing of the Lord Ciaran of Mekh as long as there were
men to listen.

He managed to take cover behind a wrecked booth, and presently make his
way out of the square. They had forgotten him, for the moment. He did
not wish to wait, just then, until they--or she--remembered.

She.

He still did not believe it, quite. He touched the bruise under his jaw
where she had struck him, and thought of the lithe, swift strength of
her, and the way she had ridden alone into battle. He remembered the
death of Thord, and how she had kept her red wolves tamed, and he was
filled with wonder, and a deep excitement.

He remembered what she had said to him once--_We are of one blood,
though we be strangers._

He laughed, silently, and his eyes were very bright.

The tide of war had rolled on toward the King City, where from the sound
of it there was hot fighting around the castle. Eddies of the main
struggle swept shrieking through the streets, but the rat-runs under the
Wall were clear. Everyone had stampeded inward, the victims with the
victors close on their heels. The short northern day was almost gone.

He found a hiding place that offered reasonable safety, and settled
himself to wait.

Night came, but he did not move. From the sounds that reached him, the
sacking of Kushat was in full swing. They were looting the richer
streets first. Their upraised voices were thick with wine, and mingled
with the cries of women. The reflection of many fires tinged the sky.

By midnight the sounds began to slacken, and by the second hour after
the city slept, drugged with wine and blood and the weariness of battle.
Stark went silently out into the streets, toward the King City.

According to the immemorial pattern of Martian city-states, the castles
of the king and the noble families were clustered together in solitary
grandeur. Many of the towers were fallen now, the great halls open to
the sky. Time had crushed the grandeur that had been Kushat, more
fatally than the boots of any conqueror.

In the house of the king, the flamboys guttered low and the chieftains
of Mekh slept with their weary pipers among the benches of the banquet
hall. In the niches of the tall, carved portal, the guards nodded over
their spears. They, too, had fought that day. Even so, Stark did not go
near them.

Shivering slightly in the bitter wind, he followed the bulk of the
massive walls until he found a postern door, half open as some kitchen
knave had left it in his flight. Stark entered, moving like a shadow.

       *       *       *       *       *

The passageway was empty, dimly lighted by a single torch. A stairway
branched off from it, and he climbed that, picking his way by guess and
his memories of similar castles he had seen in the past.

He emerged into a narrow hall, obviously for the use of servants. A
tapestry closed the end, stirring in the chill draught that blew along
the floor. He peered around it, and saw a massive, vaulted corridor, the
stone walls panelled in wood much split and blackened by time, but still
showing forth the wonderful carvings of beasts and men, larger than life
and overlaid with gold and bright enamel.

From the corridor a single doorway opened--and Otar slept before it,
curled on a pallet like a dog.

Stark went back down the narrow hall. He was sure that there must be a
back entrance to the king's chambers, and he found the little door he
was looking for.

From there on was darkness. He felt his way, stepping with infinite
caution, and presently there was a faint gleam of light filtering around
the edges of another curtain of heavy tapestry.

He crept toward it, and heard a man's slow breathing on the other side.

He drew the curtain back, a careful inch. The man was sprawled on a
bench athwart the door. He slept the honest sleep of exhaustion, his
sword in his hand, the stains of his day's work still upon him. He was
alone in the small room. A door in the farther wall was closed.

Stark hit him, and caught the sword before it fell. The man grunted once
and became utterly relaxed. Stark bound him with his own harness and
shoved a gag in his mouth, and went on, through the door in the opposite
wall.

The room beyond was large and high and full of shadows. A fire burned
low on the hearth, and the uncertain light showed dimly the hangings and
the rich stuffs that carpeted the floor, and the dark, sparse shapes of
furniture.

Stark made out the lattice-work of a covered bed, let into the wall
after the northern fashion.

She was there, sleeping, her red-gold hair the colour of the flames.

He stood a moment, watching her, and then, as though she sensed his
presence, she stirred and opened her eyes.

She did not cry out. He had known that she would not. There was no fear
in her. She said, with a kind of wry humor, "I will have a word with my
guards about this."

       *       *       *       *       *

She flung aside the covering and rose. She was almost as tall as he,
white-skinned and very straight. He noted the long thighs, the narrow
loins and magnificent shoulders, the small virginal breasts. She moved
as a man moves, without coquetry. A long furred gown, that Stark guessed
had lately graced the shoulders of the king, lay over a chair. She put
it on.

"Well, wild man?"

"I have come to warn you." He hesitated over her name, and she said,

"My mother named me Ciara, if that seems better to you." She gave him
her falcon's glance. "I could have slain you in the square, but now I
think you did me a service. The truth would have come out
sometime--better then, when they had no time to think about it." She
laughed. "They will follow me now, over the edge of the world, if I ask
them."

Stark said slowly, "Even beyond the Gates of Death?"

"Certainly, there. Above all, there!"

She turned to one of the tall windows and looked out at the cliffs and
the high notch of the pass, touched with greenish silver by the little
moons.

"Ban Cruach was a great king. He came out of nowhere to rule the
Norlands with a rod of iron, and men speak of him still as half a god.
Where did he get his power, if not from beyond the Gates of Death? Why
did he go back there at the end of his days, if not to hide away his
secret? Why did he build Kushat to guard the pass forever, if not to
hoard that power out of reach of all the other nations of Mars?

"Yes, Stark. My men will follow me. And if they do not, I will go
alone."

"You are not Ban Cruach. Nor am I." He took her by the shoulders.
"Listen, Ciara. You're already king in the Norlands, and half a legend
as you stand. Be content."

"Content!" Her face was close to his, and he saw the blaze of it, the
white intensity of ambition and an iron pride. "Are you content?" she
asked him. "Have you ever been content?"

He smiled. "For strangers, we do know each other well. No. But the spurs
are not so deep in me."

"The wind and the fire. One spends its strength in wandering, the other
devours. But one can help the other. I made you an offer once, and you
said you would not bargain unless you could look into my eyes. Look
now!"

He did, and his hands upon her shoulders trembled.

"No," he said harshly. "You're a fool, Ciara. Would you be as Otar, mad
with what you have seen?"

"Otar is an old man, and likely crazed before he crossed the mountains.
Besides--I am not Otar."

Stark said somberly, "Even the bravest may break. Ban Cruach
himself...."

She must have seen the shadow of that horror in his eyes, for he felt
her body tense.

"What of Ban Cruach? What do you know, Stark? Tell me!"

He was silent, and she went from him angrily.

"You have the talisman," she said. "That I am sure of. And if need be, I
will flay you alive to get it!" She faced him across the room. "But
whether I get it or not, I will go through the Gates of Death. I must
wait, now, until after the thaw. The warm wind will blow soon, and the
gorges will be running full. But afterward, I will go, and no talk of
fears and demons will stop me."

She began to pace the room with long strides, and the full skirts of the
gown made a subtle whispering about her.

"You do not know," she said, in a low and bitter voice. "I was a
girl-child, without a name. By the time I could walk, I was a servant in
the house of my grandfather. The two things that kept me living were
pride and hate. I left my scrubbing of floors to practice arms with the
young boys. I was beaten for it every day, but every day I went. I knew
even then that only force would free me. And my father was a king's son,
a good man of his hands. His blood was strong in me. I learned."

She held her head very high. She had earned the right to hold it so. She
finished quietly,

"I have come a long way. I will not turn back now."

"Ciara." Stark came and stood before her. "I am talking to you as a
fighting man, an equal. There may be power behind the Gates of Death, I
do not know. But this I have seen--madness, horror, an evil that is
beyond our understanding.

"I think you will not accuse me of cowardice. And yet I would not go
into that pass for all the power of all the kings of Mars!"

Once started, he could not stop. The full force of that dark vision of
the talisman swept over him again in memory. He came closer to her,
driven by the need to make her understand.

"Yes, I have the talisman! And I have had a taste of its purpose. I
think Ban Cruach left it as a warning, so that none would follow him. I
have seen the temples and the palaces glitter in the ice. I have seen
the Gates of Death--_not with my own eyes, Ciara, but with his. With the
eyes and the memories of Ban Cruach!_"

He had caught her again, his hands strong on her strong arms.

"Will you believe me, or must you see for yourself--the dreadful things
that walk those buried streets, the shapes that rise from nowhere in the
mists of the pass?"

Her gaze burned into his. Her breath was hot and sweet upon his lips,
and she was like a sword between his hands, shining and unafraid.

"Give me the talisman. Let me see!"

He answered furiously, "You are mad. As mad as Otar." And he kissed her,
in a rage, in a panic lest all that beauty be destroyed--a kiss as
brutal as a blow, that left him shaken.

       *       *       *       *       *

She backed away slowly, one step, and he thought she would have killed
him. He said heavily:

"If you will see, you will. The thing is here."

He opened the boss and laid the crystal in her outstretched hand. He did
not meet her eyes.

"Sit down. Hold the flat side against your brow."

She sat, in a great chair of carven wood. Stark noticed that her hand
was unsteady, her face the colour of white ash. He was glad she did not
have the axe where she could reach it. She did not play at anger.

For a long moment she studied the intricate lens, the incredible
depository of a man's mind. Then she raised it slowly to her forehead.

He saw her grow rigid in the chair. How long he watched beside her he
never knew. Seconds, an eternity. He saw her eyes turn blank and
strange, and a shadow came into her face, changing it subtly, altering
the lines, so that it seemed almost a stranger was peering through her
flesh.

All at once, in a voice that was not her own, she cried out terribly,
"_Oh gods of Mars!_"

The talisman dropped rolling to the floor, and Ciara fell forward into
Stark's arms.

He thought at first that she was dead. He carried her to the bed, in an
agony of fear that surprised him with its violence, and laid her down,
and put his hand over her heart.

It was beating strongly. Relief that was almost a sickness swept over
him. He turned, searching vaguely for wine, and saw the talisman. He
picked it up and put it back inside the boss. A jewelled flagon stood on
a table across the room. He took it and started back, and then,
abruptly, there was a wild clamor in the hall outside and Otar was
shouting Ciara's name, pounding on the door.

It was not barred. In another moment they would burst through, and he
knew that they would not stop to enquire what he was doing there.

He dropped the flagon and went out swiftly, the way he had come. The
guard was still unconscious. In the narrow hall beyond, Stark hesitated.
A woman's voice was rising high above the tumult in the main corridor,
and he thought he recognized it.

He went to the tapestry curtain and looked for the second time around
its edge.

The lofty space was full of men, newly wakened from their heavy sleep
and as nervous as so many bears. Thanis struggled in the grip of two of
them. Her scarlet kirtle was torn, her hair flying in wild elf-locks,
and her face was the face of a mad thing. The whole story of the doom of
Kushat was written large upon it.

She screamed again and again, and would not be silenced.

"Tell her, the witch that leads you! Tell her that she is already doomed
to death, with all her army!"

Otar opened up the door of Ciara's room.

Thanis surged forward. She must have fled through all that castle before
she was caught, and Stark's heart ached for her.

"You!" she shrieked through the doorway, and poured out all the filth of
the quarter upon Ciara's name. "Balin has gone to bring doom upon you!
He will open wide the Gates of Death, and then you will
die!--die!--_die!_"

Stark felt the shock of a terrible dread, as he let the curtain fall.
Mad with hatred against conquerors, Balin had fulfilled his raging
promise and had gone to fling open the Gates of Death.

Remembering his nightmare vision of the shining, evil ones whom Ban
Cruach had long ago prisoned beyond those gates, Stark felt a sickness
grow within him as he went down the stair and out the postern door.

It was almost dawn. He looked up at the brooding cliffs, and it seemed
to him that the wind in the pass had a sound of laughter that mocked his
growing dread.

He knew what he must do, if an ancient, mysterious horror was not to be
released upon Kushat.

_I may still catch Balin before he has gone too far! If I don't--_

He dared not think of that. He began to walk very swiftly through the
night streets, toward the distant, towering Gates of Death.



VII


It was past noon. He had climbed high toward the saddle of the pass.
Kushat lay small below him, and he could see now the pattern of the
gorges, cut ages deep in the living rock, that carried the spring
torrents of the watershed around the mighty ledge on which the city was
built.

The pass itself was channeled, but only by its own snows and melting
ice. It was too high for a watercourse. Nevertheless, Stark thought, a
man might find it hard to stay alive if he were caught there by the
thaw.

He had seen nothing of Balin. The gods knew how many hours' start he
had. Stark imagined him, scrambling wild-eyed over the rocks, driven by
the same madness that had sent Thanis up into the castle to call down
destruction on Ciara's head.

The sun was brilliant but without warmth. Stark shivered, and the icy
wind blew strong. The cliffs hung over him, vast and sheer and crushing,
and the narrow mouth of the pass was before him. He would go no farther.
He would turn back, now.

But he did not. He began to walk forward, into the Gates of Death.

_The light was dim and strange at the bottom of that cleft. Little veils
of mist crept and clung between the ice and the rock, thickened, became
more dense as he went farther and farther into the pass. He could not
see, and the wind spoke with many tongues, piping in the crevices of the
cliffs._

The steps of the Earthman slowed and faltered. He had known fear in his
life before. But now he was carrying the burden of two men's
terrors--Ban Cruach's, and his own.

He stopped, enveloped in the clinging mist. He tried to reason with
himself--that Ban Cruach's fears had died a million years ago, that Otar
had come this way and lived, and Balin had come also.

But the thin veneer of civilization sloughed away and left him with the
naked bones of truth. His nostrils twitched to the smell of evil, the
subtle unclean taint that only a beast, or one as close to it as he, can
sense and know. Every nerve was a point of pain, raw with apprehension.
An overpowering recognition of danger, hidden somewhere, mocking at him,
made his very body change, draw in upon itself and flatten forward, so
that when at last he went on again he was more like a four-footed thing
than a man walking upright.

Infinitely wary, silent, moving surely over the ice and the tumbled
rock, he followed Balin. He had ceased to think. He was going now on
sheer instinct.

The pass led on and on. It grew darker, and in the dim uncanny twilight
there were looming shapes that menaced him, and ghostly wings that
brushed him, and a terrible stillness that was not broken by the eerie
voices of the wind.

Rock and mist and ice. Nothing that moved or lived. And yet the sense of
danger deepened, and when he paused the beating of his heart was like
thunder in his ears.

Once, far away, he thought he heard the echoes of a man's voice crying,
but he had no sight of Balin.

The pass began to drop, and the twilight deepened into a kind of sickly
night.

On and down, more slowly now, crouching, slinking, heavily oppressed,
tempted to snarl at boulders and tear at wraiths of fog. He had no idea
of the miles he had travelled. But the ice was thicker now, the cold
intense.

The rock walls broke off sharply. The mist thinned. The pallid darkness
lifted to a clear twilight. He came to the end of the Gates of Death.

Stark stopped. Ahead of him, almost blocking the end of the pass,
something dark and high and massive loomed in the thinning mists.

It was a great cairn, and upon it sat a figure, facing outward from the
Gates of Death as though it kept watch over whatever country lay beyond.

The figure of a man in antique Martian armor.

After a moment, Stark crept toward the cairn. He was still almost all
savage, torn between fear and fascination.

He was forced to scramble over the lower rocks of the cairn itself.
Quite suddenly he felt a hard shock, and a flashing sensation of warmth
that was somehow inside his own flesh, and not in any tempering of the
frozen air. He gave a startled leap forward, and whirled, looking up
into the face of the mailed figure with the confused idea that it had
reached down and struck him.

It had not moved, of course. And Stark knew, with no need of anyone to
tell him, that he looked into the face of Ban Cruach.

       *       *       *       *       *

It was a face made for battles and for ruling, the bony ridges harsh and
strong, the hollows under them worn deep with years. Those eyes, dark
shadows under the rusty helm, had dreamed high dreams, and neither age
nor death had conquered them.

And even in death, Ban Cruach was not unarmed.

Clad as for battle in his ancient mail, he held upright between his
hands a mighty sword. The pommel was a ball of crystal large as a man's
fist, that held within it a spark of intense brilliance. The little,
blinding flame throbbed with its own force, and the sword-blade blazed
with a white, cruel radiance.

Ban Cruach, dead but frozen to eternal changelessness by the bitter
cold, sitting here upon his cairn for a million years and warding
forever the inner end of the Gates of Death, as his ancient city of
Kushat warded the outer.

Stark took two cautious steps closer to Ban Cruach, and felt again the
shock and the flaring heat in his blood. He recoiled, satisfied.

The strange force in the blazing sword made an invisible barrier across
the mouth of the pass, protected Ban Cruach himself. A barrier of short
waves, he thought, of the type used in deep therapy, having no heat in
themselves but increasing the heat in body cells by increasing their
vibration. But these waves were stronger than any he had known before.

A barrier, a wall of force, closing the inner end of the Gates of Death.
A barrier that was not designed against man.

Stark shivered. He turned from the sombre, brooding form of Ban Cruach
and his eyes followed the gaze of the dead king, out beyond the cairn.

He looked across this forbidden land within the Gates of Death.

At his back was the mountain barrier. Before him, a handful of miles to
the north, the terminus of the polar cap rose like a cliff of bluish
crystal soaring up to touch the early stars. Locked in between those two
titanic walls was a great valley of ice.

White and glimmering that valley was, and very still, and very
beautiful, the ice shaped gracefully into curving domes and hollows.
And in the center of it stood a dark tower of stone, a cyclopean bulk
that Stark knew must go down an unguessable distance to its base on the
bedrock. It was like the tower in which Camar had died. But this one was
not a broken ruin. It loomed with alien arrogance, and within its bulk
pallid lights flickered eerily, and it was crowned by a cloud of
shimmering darkness.

_It was like the tower of his dread vision, the tower that he had seen,
not as Eric John Stark, but as Ban Cruach!_

Stark's gaze dropped slowly from the evil tower to the curving ice of
the valley. And the fear within him grew beyond all bounds.

He had seen that, too, in his vision. The glimmering ice, the domes and
hollows of it. He had looked down through it at the city that lay
beneath, and he had seen those who came and went in the buried streets.

Stark hunkered down. For a long while he did not stir.

He did not want to go out there. He did not want to go out from the
grim, warning figure of Ban Cruach with his blazing sword, into that
silent valley. He was afraid, afraid of what he might see if he went
there and looked down through the ice, afraid of the final dread
fulfillment of his vision.

But he had come after Balin, and Balin must be out there somewhere. He
did not want to go, but he was himself, and he must.

       *       *       *       *       *

He went, going very softly, out toward the tower of stone. And there was
no sound in all that land.

The last of the twilight had faded. The ice gleamed, faintly luminous
under the stars, and there was light beneath it, a soft radiance that
filled all the valley with the glow of a buried moon.

Stark tried to keep his eyes upon the tower. He did not wish to look
down at what lay under his stealthy feet.

Inevitably, he looked.

_The temples and the palaces glittering in the ice...._

Level upon level, going down. Wells of soft light spanned with soaring
bridges, slender spires rising, an endless variation of streets and
crystal walls exquisitely patterned, above and below and overlapping, so
that it was like looking down through a thousand giant snowflakes. A
metropolis of gossamer and frost, fragile and lovely as a dream, locked
in the clear, pure vault of the ice.

Stark saw the people of the city passing along the bright streets, their
outlines blurred by the icy vault as things are half obscured by water.
The creatures of vision, vaguely shining, infinitely evil.

He shut his eyes and waited until the shock and the dizziness left him.
Then he set his gaze resolutely on the tower, and crept on, over the
glassy sky that covered those buried streets.

Silence. Even the wind was hushed.

He had gone perhaps half the distance when the cry rang out.

It burst upon the valley with a shocking violence. "_Stark! Stark!_" The
ice rang with it, curving ridges picked up his name and flung it back
and forth with eerie crystal voices, and the echoes fled out whispering
_Stark! Stark!_ until it seemed that the very mountains spoke.

Stark whirled about. In the pallid gloom between the ice and the stars
there was light enough to see the cairn behind him, and the dim figure
atop it with the shining sword.

Light enough to see Ciara, and the dark knot of riders who had followed
her through the Gates of Death.

She cried his name again. "Come back! Come back!"

The ice of the valley answered mockingly, "_Come back! Come back!_" and
Stark was gripped with a terror that held him motionless.

She should not have called him. She should not have made a sound in that
deathly place.

A man's hoarse scream rose above the flying echoes. The riders turned
and fled suddenly, the squealing, hissing beasts crowding each other,
floundering wildly on the rocks of the cairn, stampeding back into the
pass.

Ciara was left alone. Stark saw her fight the rearing beast she rode
and then flung herself out of the saddle and let it go. She came toward
him, running, clad all in her black armor, the great axe swinging high.

"Behind you, Stark! Oh, gods of Mars!"

He turned then and saw them, coming out from the tower of stone, the
pale, shining creatures that move so swiftly across the ice, so fleet
and swift that no man living could outrun them.

       *       *       *       *       *

He shouted to Ciara to turn back. He drew his sword and over his
shoulder he cursed her in a black fury because he could hear her mailed
feet coming on behind him.

_The gliding creatures, sleek and slender, reedlike, bending, delicate
as wraiths, their bodies shaped from northern rainbows of amethyst and
rose--if they should touch Ciara, if their loathsome hands should touch
her...._

Stark let out one raging catlike scream, and rushed them.

The opalescent bodies slipped away beyond his reach. The creatures
watched him.

They had no faces, but they watched. They were eyeless but not blind,
earless, but not without hearing. The inquisitive tendrils that formed
their sensory organs stirred and shifted like the petals of ungodly
flowers, and the color of them was the white frost-fire that dances on
the snow.

"Go back, Ciara!"

But she would not go, and he knew that they would not have let her. She
reached him, and they set their backs together. The shining ones ringed
them round, many feet away across the ice, and watched the long sword
and the great hungry axe, and there was something in the lissome swaying
of their bodies that suggested laughter.

"You fool," said Stark. "You bloody fool."

"And you?" answered Ciara. "Oh, yes, I know about Balin. That mad girl,
screaming in the palace--she told me, and you were seen from the wall,
climbing to the Gates of Death. I tried to catch you."

"Why?"

She did not answer that. "They won't fight us, Stark. Do you think we
could make it back to the cairn?"

"No. But we can try."

Guarding each others' backs, they began to walk toward Ban Cruach and
the pass. If they could once reach the barrier, they would be safe.

Stark knew now what Ban Cruach's wall of force was built against. And he
began to guess the riddle of the Gates of Death.

The shining ones glided with them, out of reach. They did not try to bar
the way. They formed a circle around the man and woman, moving with them
and around them at the same time, an endless weaving chain of many
bodies shining with soft jewel tones of color.

They drew closer and closer to the cairn, to the brooding figure of Ban
Cruach and his sword. It crossed Stark's mind that the creatures were
playing with him and Ciara. Yet they had no weapons. Almost, he began to
hope....

From the tower where the shimmering cloud of darkness clung came a black
crescent of force that swept across the ice-field like a sickle and
gathered the two humans in.

Stark felt a shock of numbing cold that turned his nerves to ice. His
sword dropped from his hand, and he heard Ciara's axe go down. His body
was without strength, without feeling, dead.

He fell, and the shining ones glided in toward him.



VIII


Twice before in his life Stark had come near to freezing. It had been
like this, the numbness and the cold. And yet it seemed that the dark
force had struck rather at his nerve centers than at his flesh.

He could not see Ciara, who was behind him, but he heard the metallic
clashing of her mail and one small, whispered cry, and he knew that she
had fallen, too.

The glowing creatures surrounded him. He saw their bodies bending over
him, the frosty tendrils of their faces writhing as though in excitement
or delight.

Their hands touched him. Little hands with seven fingers, deft and
frail. Even his numbed flesh felt the terrible cold of their touch,
freezing as outer space. He yelled, or tried to, but they were not
abashed.

They lifted him and bore him toward the tower, a company of them,
bearing his heavy weight upon their gleaming shoulders.

He saw the tower loom high and higher still above him. The cloud of dark
force that crowned it blotted out the stars. It became too huge and high
to see at all, and then there was a low flat arch of stone close above
his face, and he was inside.

Straight overhead--a hundred feet, two hundred, he could not tell--was a
globe of crystal, fitted into the top of the tower as a jewel is held in
a setting.

The air around it was shadowed with the same eerie gloom that hovered
outside, but less dense, so that Stark could see the smouldering purple
spark that burned within the globe, sending out its dark vibrations.

A globe of crystal, with a heart of sullen flame. Stark remembered the
sword of Ban Cruach, and the white fire that burned in its hilt.

Two globes, the bright-cored and the dark. The sword of Ban Cruach
touched the blood with heat. The globe of the tower deadened the flesh
with cold. It was the same force, but at opposite ends of the spectrum.

Stark saw the cryptic controls of that glooming globe--a bank of them,
on a wide stone ledge just inside the tower, close beside him. There
were shining ones on that ledge tending those controls, and there were
other strange and massive mechanisms there too.

Flying spirals of ice climbed up inside the tower, spanning the great
stone well with spidery bridges, joining icy galleries. In some of those
galleries, Stark vaguely glimpsed rigid, gleaming figures like statues
of ice, but he could not see them clearly as he was carried on.

He was being carried downward. He passed slits in the wall, and knew
that the pallid lights he had seen through them were the moving bodies
of the creatures as they went up and down these high-flung, icy bridges.
He managed to turn his head to look down, and saw what was beneath him.

The well of the tower plunged down a good five hundred feet to bedrock,
widening as it went. The web of ice-bridges and the spiral ways went
down as well as up, and the creatures that carried him were moving
smoothly along a transparent ribbon of ice no more than a yard in width,
suspended over that terrible drop.

Stark was glad that he could not move just then. One instinctive start
of horror would have thrown him and his bearers to the rock below, and
would have carried Ciara with them.

Down and down, gliding in utter silence along the descending spiral
ribbon. The great glooming crystal grew remote above him. Ice was solid
now in the slots of the walls. He wondered if they had brought Balin
this way.

There were other openings, wide arches like the one they had brought
their captives through, and these gave Stark brief glimpses of broad
avenues and unguessable buildings, shaped from the pellucid ice and
flooded with the soft radiance that was like eerie moonlight.

At length, on what Stark took to be the third level of the city, the
creatures bore him through one of these archways, into the streets
beyond.

       *       *       *       *       *

Below him now was the translucent thickness of ice that formed the floor
of this level and the roof of the level beneath. He could see the
blurred tops of delicate minarets, the clustering roofs that shone like
chips of diamond.

Above him was an ice roof. Elfin spires rose toward it, delicate as
needles. Lacy battlements and little domes, buildings star-shaped,
wheel-shaped, the fantastic, lovely shapes of snow-crystals, frosted
over with a sparkling foam of light.

The people of the city gathered along the way to watch, a living,
shifting rainbow of amethyst and rose and green, against the pure
blue-white. And there was no least whisper of sound anywhere.

For some distance they went through a geometric maze of streets. And
then there was a cathedral-like building all arched and spired,
standing in the center of a twelve-pointed plaza. Here they turned, and
bore their captives in.

Stark saw a vaulted roof, very slim and high, etched with a glittering
tracery that might have been carving of an alien sort, delicate as the
weavings of spiders. The feet of his bearers were silent on the icy
paving.

At the far end of the long vault sat seven of the shining ones in high
seats marvellously shaped from the ice. And before them, grey-faced,
shuddering with cold and not noticing it, drugged with a sick horror,
stood Balin. He looked around once, and did not speak.

Stark was set on his feet, with Ciara beside him. He saw her face, and
it was terrible to see the fear in her eyes, that had never shown fear
before.

He himself was learning why men went mad beyond the Gates of Death.

Chill, dreadful fingers touched him expertly. A flash of pain drove down
his spine, and he could stand again.

The seven who sat in the high seats were motionless, their bright
tendrils stirring with infinite delicacy as though they studied the
three humans who stood before them.

Stark thought he could feel a cold, soft fingering of his brain. It came
to him that these creatures were probably telepaths. They lacked organs
of speech, and yet they must have some efficient means of
communications. Telepathy was not uncommon among the many races of the
Solar System, and Stark had had experience with it before.

He forced his mind to relax. The alien impulse was instantly stronger.
He sent out his own questing thought and felt it brush the edges of a
consciousness so utterly foreign to his own that he knew he could never
probe it, even had he had the skill.

He learned one thing--that the shining faceless ones looked upon him
with equal horror and loathing. They recoiled from the unnatural human
features, and most of all, most strongly, they abhorred the warmth of
human flesh. Even the infinitesimal amount of heat radiated by their
half-frozen human bodies caused the ice-folk discomfort.

Stark marshalled his imperfect abilities and projected a mental question
to the seven.

"What do you want of us?"

The answer came back, faint and imperfect, as though the gap between
their alien minds was almost too great to bridge. And the answer was one
word.

"_Freedom!_"

Balin spoke suddenly. He voiced only a whisper, and yet the sound was
shockingly loud in that crystal vault.

"They have asked me already. Tell them no, Stark! Tell them no!"

He looked at Ciara then, a look of murderous hatred. "If you turn them
loose upon Kushat, I will kill you with my own hands before I die."

Stark spoke again, silently, to the seven. "I do not understand."

       *       *       *       *       *

Again the struggling, difficult thought. "We are the old race, the kings
of the glacial ice. Once we held all the land beyond the mountains,
outside the pass you call the Gates of Death."

Stark had seen the ruins of the towers out on the moors. He knew how far
their kingdom had extended.

"We _controlled_ the ice, far outside the polar cap. Our towers
blanketed the land with the dark force drawn from Mars itself, from the
magnetic field of the planet. That radiation bars out heat, from the
Sun, and even from the awful winds that blow warm from the south. So
there was never any thaw. Our cities were many, and our race was great.

"Then came Ban Cruach, from the south....

"He waged a war against us. He learned the secret of the crystal globes,
and learned how to reverse their force and use it against us. He,
leading his army, destroyed our towers one by one, and drove us back....

"Mars needed water. The outer ice was melted, our lovely cities crumbled
to nothing, so that creatures like Ban Cruach might have water! And our
people died.

"We retreated at the last, to this our ancient polar citadel behind the
Gates of Death. Even here, Ban Cruach followed. He destroyed even this
tower once, at the time of the thaw. But this city is founded in polar
ice--and only the upper levels were harmed. Even Ban Cruach could not
touch the heart of the eternal polar cap of Mars!

"When he saw that he could not destroy us utterly, he set himself in
death to guard the Gates of Death with his blazing sword, that we might
never again reclaim our ancient dominion.

"That is what we mean when we ask for freedom. We ask that you take away
the sword of Ban Cruach, so that we may once again go out through the
Gates of Death!"

Stark cried aloud, hoarsely, "_No!_"

He knew the barren deserts of the south, the wastes of red dust, the
dead sea bottoms--the terrible thirst of Mars, growing greater with
every year of the million that had passed since Ban Cruach locked the
Gates of Death.

He knew the canals, the pitiful waterways that were all that stood
between the people of Mars and extinction. He remembered the yearly
release from death when the spring thaw brought the water rushing down
from the north.

He thought of these cold creatures going forth, building again their
great towers of stone, sheathing half a world in ice that would never
melt. He thought of the people of Jekkara and Valkis and Barrakesh, of
the countless cities of the south, watching for the flood that did not
come, and falling at last to mingle their bodies with the blowing dust.

He said again, "No. Never."

The distant thought-voice of the seven spoke, and this time the question
was addressed to Ciara.

Stark saw her face. She did not know the Mars he knew, but she had
memories of her own--the mountain-valleys of Mekh, the moors, the snowy
gorges. She looked at the shining ones in their high seats, and said,

"If I take that sword, it will be to use it against you as Ban Cruach
did!"

Stark knew that the seven had understood the thought behind her words.
He felt that they were amused.

"The secret of that sword was lost a million years ago, the day Ban
Cruach died. Neither you nor anyone now knows how to use it as he did.
But the sword's radiations of warmth still lock us here.

"We cannot approach that sword, for its vibrations of heat slay us if we
do. But you warm-bodied ones can approach it. And you will do so, and
take it from its place. _One of you will take it!_"

They were very sure of that.

"We can see, a little way, into your evil minds. Much we do not
understand. But--the mind of the large man is full of the woman's image,
and the mind of the woman turns to him. Also, there is a link between
the large man and the small man, less strong, but strong enough."

The thought-voice of the seven finished, "The large man will take away
the sword for us because he must--to save the other two."

Ciara turned to Stark. "They cannot force you, Stark. Don't let them. No
matter what they do to me, don't let them!"

Balin stared at her with a certain wonder. "You would die, to protect
Kushat?"

"Not Kushat alone, though its people too are human," she said, almost
angrily. "There are my red wolves--a wild pack, but my own. And others."
She looked at Balin. "What do _you_ say? Your life against the
Norlands?"

Balin made an effort to lift his head as high as hers, and the red jewel
flashed in his ear. He was a man crushed by the falling of his world,
and terrified by what his mad passion had led him into, here beyond the
Gates of Death. But he was not afraid to die.

He said so, and even Ciara knew that he spoke the truth.

But the seven were not dismayed. Stark knew that when their
thought-voice whispered in his mind,

"It is not death alone you humans have to fear, but the manner of your
dying. You shall see that, before you choose."

       *       *       *       *       *

Swiftly, silently, those of the ice-folk who had borne the captives into
the city came up from behind, where they had stood withdrawn and
waiting. And one of them bore a crystal rod like a sceptre, with a spark
of ugly purple burning in the globed end.

Stark leaped to put himself between them and Ciara. He struck out,
raging, and because he was almost as quick as they, he caught one of the
slim luminous bodies between his hands.

The utter coldness of that alien flesh burned his hands as frost will
burn. Even so, he clung on, snarling, and saw the tendrils writhe and
stiffen as though in pain.

Then, from the crystal rod, a thread of darkness spun itself to touch
his brain with silence, and the cold that lies between the worlds.

He had no memory of being carried once more through the shimmering
streets of that elfin, evil city, back to the stupendous well of the
tower, and up along the spiral path of ice that soared those dizzy
hundreds of feet from bedrock to the glooming crystal globe. But when he
again opened his eyes, he was lying on the wide stone ledge at
ice-level.

Beside him was the arch that led outside. Close above his head was the
control bank that he had seen before.

Ciara and Balin were there also, on the ledge. They leaned stiffly
against the stone wall beside the control bank, and facing them was a
squat, round mechanism from which projected a sort of wheel of crystal
rods.

Their bodies were strangely rigid, but their eyes and minds were awake.
Terribly awake. Stark saw their eyes, and his heart turned within him.

Ciara looked at him. She could not speak, but she had no need to. _No
matter what they do to me...._

She had not feared the swordsmen of Kushat. She had not feared her red
wolves, when he unmasked her in the square. She was afraid now. But she
warned him, ordered him not to save her.

_They cannot force you. Stark! Don't let them._

And Balin, too, pleaded with him for Kushat.

They were not alone on the ledge. The ice-folk clustered there, and out
upon the flying spiral pathway, on the narrow bridges and the spans of
fragile ice, they stood in hundreds watching, eyeless, faceless, their
bodies drawn in rainbow lines across the dimness of the shaft.

Stark's mind could hear the silent edges of their laughter. Secret,
knowing laughter, full of evil, full of triumph, and Stark was filled
with a corroding terror.

He tried to move, to crawl toward Ciara standing like a carven image in
her black mail. He could not.

Again her fierce, proud glance met his. And the silent laughter of the
ice-folk echoed in his mind, and he thought it very strange that in this
moment, now, he should realize that there had never been another woman
like her on all of the worlds of the Sun.

The fear she felt was not for herself. It was for him.

Apart from the multitudes of the ice-folk, the group of seven stood upon
the ledge. And now their thought-voice spoke to Stark, saying,

"Look about you. Behold the men who have come before you through the
Gates of Death!"

Stark raised his eyes to where their slender fingers pointed, and saw
the icy galleries around the tower, saw more clearly the icy statues in
them that he had only glimpsed before.

       *       *       *       *       *

Men, set like images in the galleries. Men whose bodies were sheathed in
a glittering mail of ice, sealing them forever. Warriors, nobles,
fanatics and thieves--the wanderers of a million years who had dared to
enter this forbidden valley, and had remained forever.

He saw their faces, their tortured eyes wide open, their features frozen
in the agony of a slow and awful death.

"They refused us," the seven whispered. "They would not take away the
sword. And so they died, as this woman and this man will die, unless you
choose to save them.

"We will show you, human, how they died!"

One of the ice-folk bent and touched the squat, round mechanism that
faced Balin and Ciara. Another shifted the pattern of control on the
master-bank.

The wheel of crystal rods on that squat mechanism began to turn. The
rods blurred, became a disc that spun faster and faster.

High above in the top of the tower the great globe brooded, shrouded in
its cloud of shimmering darkness. The disc became a whirling blur. The
glooming shadow of the globe deepened, coalesced. It began to lengthen
and descend, stretching itself down toward the spinning disc.

The crystal rods of the mechanism drank the shadow in. And out of that
spinning blur there came a subtle weaving of threads of darkness, a
gossamer curtain winding around Ciara and Balin so that their outlines
grew ghostly and the pallor of their flesh was as the pallor of snow at
night.

And still Stark could not move.

The veil of darkness began to sparkle faintly. Stark watched it, watched
the chill motes brighten, watched the tracery of frost whiten over
Ciara's mail, touch Balin's dark hair with silver.

Frost. Bright, sparkling, beautiful, a halo of frost around their
bodies. A dust of splintered diamond across their faces, an aureole of
brittle light to crown their heads.

Frost. Flesh slowly hardening in marbly whiteness, as the cold slowly
increased. And yet their eyes still lived, and saw, and understood.

The thought-voice of the seven spoke again.

"You have only minutes now to decide! Their bodies cannot endure too
much, and live again. Behold their eyes, and how they suffer!

"Only minutes, human! Take away the sword of Ban Cruach! Open for us the
Gates of Death, and we will release these two, alive."

Stark felt again the flashing stab of pain along his nerves, as one of
the shining creatures moved behind him. Life and feeling came back into
his limbs.

He struggled to his feet. The hundreds of the ice-folk on the bridges
and galleries watched him in an eager silence.

He did not look at them. His eyes were on Ciara's. And now, her eyes
pleaded.

"Don't, Stark! Don't barter the life of the Norlands for me!"

The thought-voice beat at Stark, cutting into his mind with cruel
urgency.

"Hurry, human! They are already beginning to die. Take away the sword,
and let them live!"

Stark turned. He cried out, in a voice that made the icy bridges
tremble:

"I will take the sword!"

He staggered out, then. Out through the archway, across the ice, toward
the distant cairn that blocked the Gates of Death.



IX


Across the glowing ice of the valley Stark went at a stumbling run that
grew swifter and more sure as his cold-numbed body began to regain its
functions. And behind him, pouring out of the tower to watch, came the
shining ones.

They followed after him, gliding lightly. He could sense their
excitement, the cold, strange ecstasy of triumph. He knew that already
they were thinking of the great towers of stone rising again above the
Norlands, the crystal cities still and beautiful under the ice, all
vestige of the ugly citadels of man gone and forgotten.

The seven spoke once more, a warning.

"If you turn toward us with the sword, the woman and the man will die.
And you will die as well. For neither you nor any other can now use the
sword as a weapon of offense."

Stark ran on. He was thinking then only of Ciara, with the
frost-crystals gleaming on her marble flesh and her eyes full of mute
torment.

The cairn loomed up ahead, dark and high. It seemed to Stark that the
brooding figure of Ban Cruach watched him coming with those shadowed
eyes beneath the rusty helm. The great sword blazed between those dead,
frozen hands.

[Illustration: _The great sword blazed between those dead, frozen
hands...._]

The ice-folk had slowed their forward rush. They stopped and waited,
well back from the cairn.

Stark reached the edge of tumbled rock. He felt the first warm flare of
the force-waves in his blood, and slowly the chill began to creep out
from his bones. He climbed, scrambling upward over the rough stones of
the cairn.

Abruptly, then, at Ban Cruach's feet, he slipped and fell. For a second
it seemed that he could not move.

His back was turned toward the ice-folk. His body was bent forward, and
shielded so, his hands worked with feverish speed.

From his cloak he tore a strip of cloth. From the iron boss he took the
glittering lens, the talisman of Ban Cruach. Stark laid the lens against
his brow, and bound it on.

_The remembered shock, the flood and sweep of memories that were not his
own. The mind of Ban Cruach thundering its warning, its hard-won
knowledge of an ancient, epic war...._

He opened his own mind wide to receive those memories. Before he had
fought against them. Now he knew that they were his one small chance in
this swift gamble with death. Two things only of his own he kept firm in
that staggering tide of another man's memories. Two names--Ciara and
Balin.

He rose up again. And now his face had a strange look, a curious
duality. The features had not changed, but somehow the lines of the
flesh had altered subtly, so that it was almost as though the old
unconquerable king himself had risen again in battle.

He mounted the last step or two and stood before Ban Cruach. A shudder
ran through him, a sort of gathering and settling of the flesh, as
though Stark's being had accepted the stranger within it. His eyes, cold
and pale as the very ice that sheathed the valley, burned with a cruel
light.

He reached and took the sword, out of the frozen hands of Ban Cruach.

As though it were his own, he knew the secret of the metal rings that
bound its hilt, below the ball of crystal. The savage throb of the
invisible radiation beat in his quickening flesh. He was warm again, his
blood running swiftly, his muscles sure and strong. He touched the rings
and turned them.

The fan-shaped aura of force that had closed the Gates of Death narrowed
in, and as it narrowed it leaped up from the blade of the sword in a
tongue of pale fire, faintly shimmering, made visible now by the full
focus of its strength.

Stark felt the wave of horror bursting from the minds of the ice-folk as
they perceived what he had done. And he laughed.

His bitter laughter rang harsh across the valley as he turned to face
them, and he heard in his brain the shuddering, silent shriek that went
up from all that gathered company....

"_Ban Cruach! Ban Cruach has returned!_"

They had touched his mind. They knew.

       *       *       *       *       *

He laughed again, and swept the sword in a flashing arc, and watched the
long bright blade of force strike out more terrible than steel, against
the rainbow bodies of the shining ones.

They fell. Like flowers under a scythe they fell, and all across the ice
the ones who were yet untouched turned about in their hundreds and fled
back toward the tower.

Stark came leaping down the cairn, the talisman of Ban Cruach bound upon
his brow, the sword of Ban Cruach blazing in his hand.

He swung that awful blade as he ran. The force-beam that sprang from it
cut through the press of creatures fleeing before him, hampered by their
own numbers as they crowded back through the archway.

He had only a few short seconds to do what he had to do.

Rushing with great strides across the ice, spurning the withered bodies
of the dead.... And then, from the glooming darkness that hovered around
the tower of stone, the black cold beam struck down.

Like a coiling whip it lashed him. The deadly numbness invaded the cells
of his flesh, ached in the marrow of his bones. The bright force of the
sword battled the chill invaders, and a corrosive agony tore at Stark's
inner body where the antipathetic radiations waged war.

His steps faltered. He gave one hoarse cry of pain, and then his limbs
failed and he went heavily to his knees.

Instinct only made him cling to the sword. Waves of blinding anguish
racked him. The coiling lash of darkness encircled him, and its touch
was the abysmal cold of outer space, striking deep into his heart.

_Hold the sword close, hold it closer, like a shield. The pain is great,
but I will not die unless I drop the sword._

Ban Cruach the mighty had fought this fight before.

Stark raised the sword again, close against his body. The fierce pulse
of its brightness drove back the cold. Not far, for the freezing touch
was very strong. But far enough so that he could rise again and stagger
on.

The dark force of the tower writhed and licked about him. He could not
escape it. He slashed it in a blind fury with the blazing sword, and
where the forces met a flicker of lightning leaped in the air, but it
would not be beaten back.

He screamed at it, a raging cat-cry that was all Stark, all primitive
fury at the necessity of pain. And he forced himself to run, to drag his
tortured body faster across the ice. _Because Ciara is dying, because
the dark cold wants me to stop...._

The ice-folk jammed and surged against the archway, in a panic hurry to
take refuge far below in their many-levelled city. He raged at them,
too. They were part of the cold, part of the pain. Because of them Ciara
and Balin were dying. He sent the blade of force lancing among them, his
hatred rising full tide to join the hatred of Ban Cruach that lodged in
his mind.

Stab and cut and slash with the long terrible beam of brightness. They
fell and fell, the hideous shining folk, and Stark sent the light of Ban
Cruach's weapon sweeping through the tower itself, through the openings
that were like windows in the stone.

Again and again, stabbing through those open slits as he ran. And
suddenly the dark beam of force ceased to move. He tore out of it, and
it did not follow him, remaining stationary as though fastened to the
ice.

The battle of forces left his flesh. The pain was gone. He sped on to
the tower.

He was close now. The withered bodies lay in heaps before the arch. The
last of the ice-folk had forced their way inside. Holding the sword
level like a lance, Stark leaped in through the arch, into the tower.

       *       *       *       *       *

The shining ones were dead where the destroying warmth had touched
them. The flying spiral ribbons of ice were swept clean of them, the
arching bridges and the galleries of that upper part of the tower.

They were dead along the ledge, under the control bank. They were dead
across the mechanism that spun the frosty doom around Ciara and Balin.
The whirling disc still hummed.

Below, in that stupendous well, the crowding ice-folk made a seething
pattern of color on the narrow ways. But Stark turned his back on them
and ran along the ledge, and in him was the heavy knowledge that he had
come too late.

The frost had thickened around Ciara and Balin. It encrusted them like
stiffened lace, and now their flesh was overlaid with a diamond shell of
ice.

Surely they could not live!

He raised the sword to smite down at the whirring disc, to smash it, but
there was no need. When the full force of that concentrated beam struck
it, meeting the focus of shadow that it held, there was a violent flare
of light and a shattering of crystal. The mechanism was silent.

The glooming veil was gone from around the ice-shelled man and woman.
Stark forgot the creatures in the shaft below him. He turned the blazing
sword full upon Ciara and Balin.

It would not affect the thin covering of ice. If the woman and the man
were dead, it would not affect their flesh, any more than it had Ban
Cruach's. But if they lived, if there was still a spark, a flicker
beneath that frozen mail, the radiation would touch their blood with
warmth, start again the pulse of life in their bodies.

He waited, watching Ciara's face. It was still as marble, and as white.

Something--instinct, or the warning mind of Ban Cruach that had learned
a million years ago to beware the creatures of the ice--made him glance
behind him.

Stealthy, swift and silent, up the winding ways they came. They had
guessed that he had forgotten them in his anxiety. The sword was turned
away from them now, and if they could take him from behind, stun him
with the chill force of the sceptre-like rods they carried....

He slashed them with the sword. He saw the flickering beam go down and
down the shaft, saw the bodies fall like drops of rain, rebounding here
and there from the flying spans and carrying the living with them.

He thought of the many levels of the city. He thought of all the
countless thousands that must inhabit them. He could hold them off in
the shaft as long as he wished if he had no other need for the sword.
But he knew that as soon as he turned his back they would be upon him
again, and if he should once fall....

He could not spare a moment, or a chance.

He looked at Ciara, not knowing what to do, and it seemed to him that
the sheathing frost had melted, just a little, around her face.

Desperately, he struck down again at the creatures in the shaft, and
then the answer came to him.

He dropped the sword. The squat, round mechanism was beside him, with
its broken crystal wheel. He picked it up.

It was heavy. It would have been heavy for two men to lift, but Stark
was a driven man. Grunting, swaying with the effort, he lifted it and
let it fall, out and down.

Like a thunderbolt it struck among those slender bridges, the spiderweb
of icy strands that spanned the shaft. Stark watched it go, and listened
to the brittle snapping of the ice, the final crashing of a million
shards at the bottom far below.

He smiled, and turned again to Ciara, picking up the sword.

       *       *       *       *       *

It was hours later. Stark walked across the glowing ice of the valley,
toward the cairn. The sword of Ban Cruach hung at his side. He had taken
the talisman and replaced it in the boss, and he was himself again.

Ciara and Balin walked beside him. The color had come back into their
faces, but faintly, and they were still weak enough to be glad of
Stark's hands to steady them.

At the foot of the cairn they stopped, and Stark mounted it alone.

He looked for a long moment into the face of Ban Cruach. Then he took
the sword, and carefully turned the rings upon it so that the radiation
spread out as it had before, to close the Gates of Death.

Almost reverently, he replaced the sword in Ban Cruach's hands. Then he
turned and went down over the tumbled stones.

The shimmering darkness brooded still over the distant tower. Underneath
the ice, the elfin city still spread downward. The shining ones would
rebuild their bridges in the shaft, and go on as they had before,
dreaming their cold dreams of ancient power.

But they would not go out through the Gates of Death. Ban Cruach in his
rusty mail was still lord of the pass, the warder of the Norlands.

Stark said to the others, "Tell the story in Kushat. Tell it through the
Norlands, the story of Ban Cruach and why he guards the Gates of Death.
Men have forgotten. And they should not forget."

They went out of the valley then, the two men and the woman. They did
not speak again, and the way out through the pass seemed endless.

Some of Ciara's chieftains met them at the mouth of the pass above
Kushat. They had waited there, ashamed to return to the city without
her, but not daring to go back into the pass again. They had seen the
creatures of the valley, and they were still afraid.

They gave mounts to the three. They themselves walked behind Ciara, and
their heads were low with shame.

They came into Kushat through the riven gate, and Stark went with Ciara
to the King City, where she made Balin follow too.

"Your sister is there," she said. "I have had her cared for."

The city was quiet, with the sullen apathy that follows after battle.
The men of Mekh cheered Ciara in the streets. She rode proudly, but
Stark saw that her face was gaunt and strained.

He, too, was marked deep by what he had seen and done, beyond the Gates
of Death.

They went up into the castle.

Thanis took Balin into her arms, and wept. She had lost her first wild
fury, and she could look at Ciara now with a restrained hatred that had
a tinge almost of admiration.

"You fought for Kushat," she said, unwillingly, when she had heard the
story. "For that, at least, I can thank you."

She went to Stark then, and looked up at him. "Kushat, and my brother's
life...." She kissed him, and there were tears on her lips. But she
turned to Ciara with a bitter smile.

"No one can hold him, any more than the wind can be held. You will learn
that."

She went out then with Balin, and left Stark and Ciara alone, in the
chambers of the king.

       *       *       *       *       *

Ciara said, "The little one is very shrewd." She unbuckled the hauberk
and let it fall, standing slim in her tunic of black leather, and walked
to the tall windows that looked out upon the mountains. She leaned her
head wearily against the stone.

"An evil day, an evil deed. And now I have Kushat to govern, with no
reward of power from beyond the Gates of Death. How man can be misled!"

Stark poured wine from the flagon and brought it to her. She looked at
him over the rim of the cup, with a certain wry amusement.

"The little one is shrewd, and she is right. I don't know that I can be
as wise as she.... Will you stay with me, Stark, or will you go?"

He did not answer at once, and she asked him, "What hunger drives you,
Stark? It is not conquest, as it was with me. What are you looking for
that you cannot find?"

He thought back across the years, back to the beginning--to the boy
N'Chaka who had once been happy with Old One and little Tika, in the
blaze and thunder and bitter frosts of a valley in the Twilight Belt of
Mercury. He remembered how all that had ended, under the guns of the
miners--the men who were his own kind.

He shook his head. "I don't know. It doesn't matter." He took her
between his two hands, feeling the strength and the splendor of her, and
it was oddly difficult to find words.

"I want to stay, Ciara. Now, this minute, I could promise that I would
stay forever. But I know myself. You belong here, you will make Kushat
your own. I don't. Someday I will go."

Ciara nodded. "My neck, also, was not made for chains, and one country
was too little to hold me. Very well, Stark. Let it be so."

She smiled, and let the wine-cup fall.





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