|Chapter 9|| Almuric
written by Robert Ervin Howard
Yasmeena cupped her chin in her slim hands and fixed her great dark eyes on me. We were alone in a chamber I had never entered before. It was night. I sat on a divan opposite her, my limbs unshackled. She had offered me temporary freedom if I would promise not to harm her, and to go back into shackles when she bade me. I had promised. I was never a clever man, but my hate had sharpened my wits. I was playing a game of my own.
"What are you thinking of, Esau Ironhand?" she asked.
"I'm thirsty," I answered.
She indicated a crystal vessel near at hand. "Drink a little of the golden wine--not much, or it will make you drunk. It is the most powerful drink in the world. Not even I can quaff that vessel without lying senseless for hours. And you are unaccustomed to it."
I sipped a little of it. It was indeed heady liquor.
Yasmeena stretched her limbs out on her couch, and asked: "Why do you hate me? Have I not treated you well?"
"I have not said that I hated you," I countered. "You are very beautiful. But you are cruel."
She shrugged her winged shoulders. "Cruel? I am a goddess. What have I to do with either cruelty or mercy? Those qualities are for men. Humanity exists for my pleasure. Does not all life emanate from me?"
"Your stupid Akkis may believe that," I replied; "but I know otherwise, and so do you."
She laughed, not offended. "Well, I may not be able to create life, but I can destroy life at will. I may not be a goddess, but you would find it difficult to convince these foolish wenches who serve me that I am not all-powerful. No, Ironhand; gods are only another name for Power. I am Power on this planet; so I am a goddess. What do your hairy friends, the Guras, worship?"
"They worship Thak; at least they acknowledge Thak as the creator and preserver. They have no regular ritual of worship, no temples, altars or priests. Thak is the Hairy One, the god in the form of man. He bellows in the tempest, and thunders in the hills with the voice of the lion. He loves brave men, and hates weaklings, but he neither harms nor aids. When a male child is born, he blows into it courage and strength; when a warrior dies, he ascends to Thak's abode, which is a land of celestial plains, river and mountains, swarming with game, and inhabited by the spirits of departed warriors, who hunt, fight and revel forever as they did in life."
She laughed. "Stupid pigs. Death is oblivion. We Yagas worship only our own bodies. And to our bodies we make rich sacrifices with the bodies of the foolish little people."
"Your rule cannot last forever," I was moved to remark.
"It has lasted since beyond the gray dawn of Time's beginning. On the dark rock Yuthla my people have brooded through ages uncountable. Before the cities of the Guras dotted the plains, we dwelt in the land of Yagg. We were always masters. As we rule the Guras, so we ruled the mysterious race which possessed the land before the Guras evolved from the ape: the race which reared their cities of marble whose ruins now affright the moon, and which perished in the night.
"Tales! I could tell you tales to blast your reason! I could tell you of races which appeared from the mist of mystery, moved across the world in restless waves, and vanished in the midst of oblivion. We of Yugga have watched them come and go, each in turn bending beneath the yoke of our godship. We have endured, not centuries or millenniums, but cycles.
"Why should not our rule endure forever? How shall these Gura-fools overcome us? You have seen how it is when my hawks swoop from the air in the night on the cities of the apeman. How then shall they attack us in our eyrie? To reach the land of Yagg they must cross the Purple River, whose waters race too swiftly to be swum. Only at the Bridge of Rocks can it be crossed, and there keen-eyed guards watch night and day. Once, the Guras did try to attack us. The watchers brought word of their coming and the men of Yagg were prepared. In the midst of the desert they fell on the invaders and destroyed them by thirst and madness and arrows showering upon them from the skies.
"Suppose a horde should fight its way through the desert and reach the rock Yuthla? They have the river Yogh to cross, and when they have crossed it, in the teeth of the Akki spears, what then? They could not scale the cliffs. No; no foreign foe will ever set foot in Yugga. If, by the wildest whim of the gods, such a thing should come to pass"--her beautiful features became even more cruel and sinister--"rather than submit to conquest I would loose the Ultimate Horror, and perish in the ruins of my city," she whispered, more to herself than to me.
"What do you say?" I asked, not understanding.
"There are secrets beneath the velvet coverings of the darkest secrets," she said. "Tread not where the very gods tremble. I said nothing--you heard nothing. Remember that!"
There was silence for a space, and then I asked a question I had long mulled over: "Whence come these red girls and yellow girls among your slaves?"
"You have looked southward from the highest towers on clear days, and seen a faint blue line rimming the sky far away? That is the Girdle that bands the world. Beyond that Girdle dwell the races from which come those alien slaves. We raid across the Girdle just as we raid the Guras, though less frequently."
I was about to ask more concerning these unknown races, when a timid tap came on the outer door. Yasmeena, frowning at the interruption, called a sharp question, and a frightened feminine voice informed her that the lord Gotrah desired audience. Yasmeena spat an oath at her, and bade her tell the lord Gotrah to go to the devil.
"No, I must see the fellow," she said rising. "Theta! Oh, Theta! Where has the little minx gone? I must do my own biddings, must I? Her buttocks shall smart for her insolence. Wait here, Ironhand. I'll see to Gotrah."
She crossed the cushion-strewn chamber with her lithe long stride, and passed through the door. As it closed behind her, I was struck by what was nothing less than an inspiration. No especial reason occurred to me to urge me to feign drunkenness. It was intuition or blind chance that prompted me. Snatching up the crystal jug which contained the golden wine, I emptied it into a great golden vessel which stood half hidden beneath the fringe of a tapestry. I had drunk enough for the scent to be on my breath.
Then, as I heard footsteps and voices without, I extended myself quickly on a divan, the jug lying on its side near my outstretched hand. I heard the door open, and there was an instant's silence so intense as to be almost tangible. Then Yasmeena spat like an angry cat. "By the gods, he's emptied the jug? See how he lies in brutish slumber! Faugh! The noblest figure is abominable when besotted. Well, let us to our task. We need not fear to be overheard by him."
"Had I not better summon the guard and have him dragged to his cell?" came Gotrah's voice. "We cannot afford to take chances with this secret, which none has ever known except the Queen of Yugga and her major-domo."
I sensed that they came and stood over me, looking down. I moved vaguely and mumbled thickly, as if in drunken dreams.
"No fear. He will know nothing before dawn. Yuthla could split and fall into Yogh without breaking his sottish dreams. The fool! This night he would have been lord of the world, for I would have made him lord of the Queen of the world--for one night. But the lion changes not his mane, nor the barbarian his brutishness."
"Why not put him to the torture?" grunted Gotrah.
"Because I want a man, not a broken travesty. Besides, his is a spirit not to be conquered by fire or steel. No. I am Yasmeena and I will make him love me before I feed him to the vultures. Have you placed the Kothan Altha among the Virgins of the Moon?"
"Aye, Queen of the dusky stars. A month and a half from this night she dances the dance of the Moon with the other wenches."
"Good. Keep them guarded day and night. If this tiger learns of our plans for his sweetheart, chains and bolts will not hold him."
"A hundred and fifty men guard the virgins," answered Gotrah. "Not even the Ironhand could prevail against them."
"It is well. Now to this other matter. Have you the parchment?"
"Then I will sign it. Give me the stylus."
I heard the crackle of papyrus and the scratch of a keen point, and then the Queen said:
"Take it now, and lay it on the altar in the usual place. As I promise in the writing, I will appear in the flesh tomorrow night to my faithful subjects and worshippers, the blue pigs of Akka. Ha! ha! ha! I never fail to be amused at the animal-like awe on their stupid countenances when I emerge from the shadows of the golden screen, and spread my arms above them in blessing. What fools they are, not in all these ages, to have discovered the secret door and the shaft that leads from their temple to this chamber."
"Not so strange," grunted Gotrah. "None but the priest ever comes into the temple except by special summons, and he is far too superstitious to go meddling behind the screen. Anyway, there is no sign to mark the secret door from without."
"Very well," answered Yasmeena. "Go."
I heard Gotrah fumbling at something, then a slight grating sound. Consumed by curiosity, I dared open one eye a slit, in time to glimpse Gotrah disappearing through a black opening that gaped in the middle of the stone floor, and which closed after him. I quickly shut my eye again and lay still, listening to Yasmeena's quick pantherish tread back and forth across the floor.
Once she came and stood over me. I felt her burning gaze and heard her curse beneath her breath. Then she struck me viciously across the face with some kind of jeweled ornament that tore my skin and started a trickle of blood. But I lay without twitching a muscle, and presently she turned and left the chamber, muttering.
As the door closed behind her I rose quickly, scanning the floor for some sign of the opening through which Gotrah had gone. A furry rug had been drawn aside from the center of the floor, but in the polished black stone I searched in vain for a crevice to denote the hidden trap. I momentarily expected the return of Yasmeena, and my heart pounded within me. Suddenly, under my very hand, a section of the floor detached itself and began to move upward. A pantherish bound carried me behind a tapestried couch, where I crouched, watching the trap rise upward. The narrow head of Gotrah appeared, then his winged shoulders and body.
He climbed up into the chamber, and as he turned to lower the lifted trap, I left the floor with a cat-like leap that carried me over the couch and full on his shoulders.
He went down under my weight, and my gripping fingers crushed the yell in his throat. With a convulsive heave he twisted under me, and stark horror flooded his face as he glared up at me. He was down on the cushioned stone, pinned under my iron bulk. He clawed for the dagger at his girdle, but my knee pinned it down. And crouching on him, I gutted my mad hate for his cursed race. I strangled him slowly, gloatingly, avidly watching his features contort and his eyes glaze. He must have been dead for some minutes before I loosed my hold.
Rising, I gazed through the open trap. The light from the torches of the chamber shone down a narrow shaft, into which was cut a series of narrow steps, that evidently led down into the bowels of the rock Yuthla. From the conversation I had heard, it must lead to the temple of the Akkis, in the town below. Surely I would find Akka no harder to escape from than Yugga. Yet I hesitated, my heart torn at the thought of leaving Altha alone in Yugga. But there was no other way. I did not know in what part of that devil-city she was imprisoned, and I remembered what Gotrah had said of the great band of warriors guarding her and the other virgins.
Virgins of the Moon! Cold sweat broke out on me as the full significance of the phrase became apparent. Just what the festival of the Moon was I did not fully know, but I had heard hints and scattered comments among the Yaga women, and I knew it was a beastly saturnalia, in which the full frenzy of erotic ecstasy was reached in the dying gasps of the wretches sacrificed to the only god the winged people recognized--their own inhuman lust.
The thought of Altha being subjected to such a fate drove me into a berserk frenzy, and steeled my resolution. There was but one chance--to escape myself, and try to reach Koth and bring back enough men to attempt a rescue. My heart sank as I contemplated the difficulties in the way, but there was nothing else to be done.
Lifting Gotrah's limp body I dragged it out of the chamber through a door different from that through which Yasmeena had gone; and traversing a corridor without meeting anyone, I concealed the corpse behind some tapestries. I was certain that it would be found, but perhaps not until I had a good start. Perhaps its presence in another room than the chamber of the trap might divert suspicion from my actual means of escape, and lead Yasmeena to think that I was merely hiding somewhere in Yugga.
But I was crowding my luck. I could not long hope to avoid detection if I lingered. Returning to the chamber, I entered the shaft, lowering the trap above me. It was pitch-dark, then, but my groping fingers found the catch that worked the trap, and I felt that I could return if I found my way blocked below. Down those inky stairs I groped, with an uneasy feeling that I might fall into some pit or meet with some grisly denizen of the underworld. But nothing occurred, and at last the steps ceased and I groped my way along a short corridor that ended at a blank wall. My fingers encountered a metal catch, and I shot the bolt, feeling a section of the wall revolving under my hands. I was dazzled by a dim yet lurid light, and blinking, gazed out with some trepidation.
I was looking into a lofty chamber that was undoubtedly a shrine. My view was limited by a large screen of carved gold directly in front of me, the edges of which flamed dully in the weird light.
Gliding from the secret door, I peered around the screen. I saw a broad room, made with the same stern simplicity and awesome massiveness that characterized Almuric architecture. The ceiling was lost in the brooding shadows; the walls were black, dully gleaming, and unadorned. The shrine was empty except for a block of ebon stone, evidently an altar, on which blazed the lurid flame I had noted, and which seemed to emanate from a great somber jewel set upon the altar. I noticed darkly stained channels on the sides of that altar, and on the dusky stone lay a roll of white parchment--Yasmeena's word to her worshippers. I had stumbled into the Akka holy of holies--uncovered the very root and base on which the whole structure of Akka theology was based: the supernatural appearances of revelations from the goddess, and the appearance of the goddess herself in the temple. Strange that a whole religion should be based on the ignorance of the devotees concerning a subterranean stair! Stranger still, to an Earthly mind, that only the lowest form of humanity on Almuric should possess a systematic and ritualistic religion, which Earth people regard as sure token of the highest races!
But the cult of the Akkas was dark and weird. The whole atmosphere of the shrine was one of mystery and brooding horror. I could imagine the awe of the blue worshippers to see the winged goddess emerging from behind the golden screen, like a deity incarnated from cosmic emptiness.
Closing the door behind me, I glided stealthily across the temple. Just within the door a stocky blue man in a fantastic robe lay snoring lustily on the naked stone. Presumably he had slept tranquilly through Gotrah's ghostly visit. I stepped over him as gingerly as a cat treading wet earth, Gotrah's dagger in my hand, but he did not awaken. An instant later I stood outside, breathing deep of the river-laden night air.
The temple lay in the shadow of the great cliffs. There was no moon, only the myriad millions of stars that glimmer in the skies of Almuric. I saw no lights anywhere in the village, no movement. The sluggish Akkis slept soundly.
Stealthily as a phantom I stole through the narrow streets, hugging close to the sides of the squat stone huts. I saw no human until I reached the wall. The drawbridge that spanned the river was drawn up, and just within the gate sat a blue man, nodding over his spear. The senses of the Akkis were dull as those of any beasts of burden. I could have knifed the drowsy watchman where he sat, but I saw no need of useless murder. He did not hear me, though I passed within forty feet of him. Silently I glided over the wall, and silently I slipped into the water.
Striking out strongly, I forged across the easy current, and reached the farther bank. There I paused only long enough to drink deep of the cold river water; then I struck out across the shadowed desert at a swinging trot that eats up miles--the gait with which the Apaches of my native Southwest can wear out a horse.
In the darkness before dawn I came to the banks of the Purple River, skirting wide to avoid the watchtower which jutted dimly against the star-flecked sky. As I crouched on the steep bank and gazed down into the rushing swirling current, my heart sank. I knew that, in my fatigued condition, it was madness to plunge into the maelstrom. The strongest swimmer that either Earth or Almuric ever bred had been helpless among those eddies and whirlpools. There was but one thing to be done--try to reach the Bridge of Rocks before dawn broke, and take the desperate chance of slipping across under the eyes of the watchers. That, too, was madness, but I had no choice.
But dawn began to whiten the desert before I was within a thousand yards of the Bridge. And looking at the tower, which seemed to swim slowly into clearer outline, etched against the dim sky, I saw a shape soar up from the turrets and wing its way toward me. I had been discovered. Instantly, a desperate plan occurred to me. I began to stagger erratically, ran a few paces, and sank down in the sand near the river bank. I heard the beat of wings above me as the suspicious harpy circled; then I knew he was dropping earthward. He must have been on solitary sentry duty, and had come to investigate the matter of a lone wanderer, without waking his mates.
Watching through slitted lids, I saw him strike the earth near by, and walk about me suspiciously, scimitar in hand. At last he pushed me with his foot, as if to find if I lived. Instantly my arm hooked about his legs, bringing him down on top of me. A single cry burst from his lips, half-stifled as my fingers found his throat; then in a great heaving and fluttering of wings and lashing of limbs, I heaved him over and under me. His scimitar was useless at such close quarters. I twisted his arm until his numbed fingers slipped from the hilt; then I choked him into submission. Before he regained his full faculties, I bound his wrists in front of him with his girdle, dragged him to his feet, and perched myself astride his back, my legs locked about his torso. My left arm was hooked about his neck, my right hand pricked his hide with Gotrah's dagger.
In a few low words I told him what he must do, if he wished to live. It was not the nature of a Yaga to sacrifice himself, even for the welfare of his race. Through the rose-pink glow of dawn we soared into the sky, swept over the rushing Purple River, and vanished from the sight of the land of Yagg, into the blue mazes of the northwest.