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Title: The Virgin Of Valkarion
Author: Anderson, Poul
Language: English
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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 "The Virgin Of Valkarion" ***

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                        The VIRGIN of VALKARION

                           By POUL ANDERSON

                _Tonight, so spake the Temple Prophecy,
                 a sword-scarred Outlander would come
                 riding, a Queen would play the tavern
               bawd, and the Thirty-ninth Dynasty should
                  fall with the Mating of the Moons!_

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


The sun was low in the west and a thin chill wind was blowing along the
hills when Alfric saw Valkarion below him. He reined in his hengist and
sat for a moment scouting the terrain with the hard-learned caution of
many wandering years.

Save for himself, the broad highway that flung its time-raddled length
down the rock slope was empty. On either hand, the harsh gullied
hills stretched away to the dusky horizon, wind whispering in gray
scrub and low twisted trees. Here and there, evening fires glimmered
red from peasants' huts, or the broken columns of temples in ruins
these many thousand years loomed against the darkening greenish-blue.
Behind him, the land faded toward the raw naked desert from which he
had come. A falkh hovered on silent wings far above him, watching for a
movement that might mean prey--otherwise he was alone.

Still--he felt uneasy. A prickling not due to the gathering cold
tingled along his spine, and he had spent too much of his life in the
nearness of death to ignore such warnings.

       *       *       *       *       *

He looked ahead, down the great road. It twisted and swooped between
the fantastically wind-carven crags, a dim white ribbon in the
deepening twilight. The smooth stone blocks were cracked apart by
ages so long that the thought made his head reel, and in places the
harsh wiry vegetation had grown through and over it, but still the old
Imperial Way was there. The ancients had built mightily.

Halfway down the huge slope of hillside, the road ran into Valkarion
city. Below that level, the cliffs dropped sharply, white with old
salt-streaks, to the dead sea-bottoms--a vast depression, sand and salt
and thin bitter plant-growth, reaching out to the sunset horizon.

Lights were winking on in the city. It was not far, and Alfric had
no wish to sleep in the open or under some peasant's stinking roof.
So--why not go ahead? The city, his goal, was there, and naught to hold
him from it save--

The hengist whickered and stamped its broad cloven hoofs. Its eyes
rolled uneasily, and Alfric's hand slid to his sword hilt. If the beast
also sensed a watchfulness--

He caught the stir in the thick brush-clump out of the corner of one
eye. Only a hunter would have noticed it; only a rover at once, without
stopping to think, would have struck spurs into his mount. The hengist
leaped, and the dart whispered past Alfric's face.

One scratch from the poisoned missile of the southern blowguns was
enough to kill a man. Alfric yelled, and flung his hengist at the
brush. The sword whined from its scabbard, flamed in his hand.

Two men slipped from the thicket as he crashed into it. They were
of a race foreign even to these southlands, small and lithe and
amber-skinned. They wore only loincloths; all hair had been shaved from
their heads and bodies, and the iron slave-collars were about their
necks. Vaguely, Alfric was aware of the brands on their foreheads, but
at the moment he was only concerned with their weapons.

One skipped aside, raising the blowgun to his lips. Alfric yanked
the javelin from its holster by his saddle and launched it
left-handed--through the slave's belly and out his back.

Steel hissed beside him as the other swung with a scimitar. The hengist
screamed as the blade cut its sleek gray hide. The forehoofs lashed
out, the great hooked beak snapped, and the slave lay a bloody ruin on
the Imperial Way.

Alfric reined in his prancing mount and looked around, breathing hard.
An ambush--by the bear of Ruho, they'd meant to kill him!

But--why?

A poor solitary wanderer was no worthwhile quarry for footpads--anyway,
these weren't outlaws but slaves; they must have been set here with
orders to destroy some specific person. But no one in Valkarion knew
Alfric--he was a stranger without friend or enemy.

Had they mistaken him for someone else? That would be hard to do even
in this dim light; he was too plainly a barbarian outlander. It made no
sense. By Luigur, it made no sense!

He leaned over, studying the dead men. They were secretive even in the
sprawled puppet-like helplessness of death; he could learn nothing.
Except--hold, what was that owner's brand--

A double crescent.

_The_ double crescent!

The knowledge shocked home like a spear-thrust, and Alfric sat silent
for a long moment with the wind ruffling his night-black hair. The
double crescent--the sign of the Two Moons--that meant the slaves were
Temple property. They'd been under orders of the priesthood of the
Moons, which was the old Imperial faith and still the state religion of
Valkarion.

But if the Temple sent out assassins--

       *       *       *       *       *

Alfric's eyes traveled up to Amaris, the farther moon, high in the
darkening heavens. The nearer one, Dannos, had not yet risen--out of
the west, as was its strange wont--but its rocket-like speed would
carry it up to and beyond the farther before dawn.

Aye--aye, now he remembered that tonight the moons would mate. On such
nights the Temple no doubt had great ceremonies afoot; perhaps this
matter of the assassination was involved in some religious proceeding.

Whispered legend and the moldering history books alike agreed that the
turning points of the old Empire's fate had come on nights when the
moons mated. No doubt that still held good for the withered remnant of
territory which Valkarion still ruled.

The moons were not important in the religion of the Aslakan barbarians,
whose chief gods were the wind and the stars and nameless powers of
winter and death. But a tingle of fear ran along Alfric's spine at the
thought of what might be abroad that night.

To Luigur with it! His lean face twisted in a snarl, and he snapped
sword and javelin back in place and rode trotting on toward Valkarion.
Come ambush or priesthood or the Moons themselves, he meant to sleep in
the city tonight.

Behind him, the hovering falkh wheeled down toward the two still forms
sprawled on the highway.

The sun slipped into the dead sea-bottom, and night came with a silent
rush. Amaris rode high in a froth of stars, painting the hills with
a dim eerie silver in which monstrous shadows lurked. The wind blew
stronger, colder, with a faint smell of salt like the ghost of the
long-dried ocean. Alfric wrapped his worn cloak tighter about him
against its searching chill. Save for the vast echoing howl of the
wind, the hiss of sand and rustle of leaves, he was alone in the dark.
He heard the creak and jingle of his harness, the rapid _clopclop_ of
the hengist's hoofs, against a background of hooting night.

The crumbling city walls loomed darkly before him, rearing enormously
against the myriad brilliant, unwinking stars. He had half expected to
find the gates closed, but instead a fire blazed in the tunnel which
the gateway made through the walls. A dozen city guards stood about it.

They sprang to alertness as he rode up, a sudden wall of spears leaning
forth in front of him. Behind that shining steel, the light picked out
helmets and corselets and faces drawn tight with strain.

"Who goes?" called one. His voice shook a little.

"A stranger, but a friend," said Alfric in his north-accented
Valkariona.

He rode into the circle of firelight and sat in a watchful quiet as
their eyes raked him. Plainly he was an outland barbarian--taller by
a head than most of the southerners, his hard-thewed body clad in
the plain leather and ring-mail of a northern warrior, his sword a
double-edged claymore rather than the scimitar or shortsword of the
south. His skin was a sunburned leathery brown where theirs was tawny,
his long slant eyes a brilliant green where theirs were dark, and
there were jeweled rings in his pointed ears. He went cleanshaven in
accordance with southern custom, but the high cheekbones, thin straight
nose, and long jaw were not theirs.

"Who are you, stranger," demanded the guard captain, "and what is your
errand?"

"I am Alfric, Beodan's son, of Aslak," he answered truthfully enough,
"and am simply wandering about in search of employment. Perhaps
Valkarion could use another sword-arm, or some merchant may want a
good warrior to help guard his caravan, or--" he spread his calloused
hands in a general gesture. No need to add that perhaps some highwayman
was in town recruiting or some would-be rebel was in search of an
experienced war-captain who would help for the loot. In his years of
adventuring, Alfric had held most jobs, lawful or otherwise.

The guards seemed more taut and wary than the occasion warranted.
Surely they had passed stranger and more dubious visitors than a single
barbarian. Perhaps they wanted a bribe to let him by, or--

The captain nodded stiffly. "You may enter, since you are alone," he
said; and then, with a friendliness not quite natural: "If you wish
good cheap lodging, and a place where men come who might want to hire a
fighter, try the Falkh and Firedrake. First turn to your right, three
streets down, one to your left. Good luck, stranger."

Alfric scowled. For a moment he paused, tensing. There was something
here--To Luigur with it. His nerves were still on edge from the fight.
If something was supposed to happen, let it.

"Thanks," he said, and rode into the city.

       *       *       *       *       *

It was like most of the old Imperial towns--somewhat larger and busier
than the rest, no more. On either side of the broad paved street rose
the ancient, columned facades of the Empire, proud building even now
when their treasures were long gone and their corners worn smooth by
the winds of millennia. There were lamps lighting the main ways, their
yellow glow splashing on a milling throng of folk.

Most were native Valkarionas--merchants in their flowing cloaks
and fur-trimmed silken robes, workers and artisans in tunics of
blue or gray, peasants in clumsy homespun garments and fur caps,
swaggering young soldiers in red tunics and polished metal, painted
harlots, ragged beggars, near-naked slaves, the others of a city
where life still pulsed strong though the days of glory were more
thousands of years behind than it was pleasant to count. But there
were strangers--robed traders from Tsungchi and Begh Sarrah riding
their humped dromads, black-skinned men of Suda and Astrak, coppery
feather-cloaked mercenaries from Tollaciuatl, fair-haired barbarians
from Valmannstad and the Marskan hills--all the world seemed met at
Valkarion, in a babble of tongues and a swirl of colors.

There were many of the tonsured priests of the Moons abroad in long red
and black robes with the double crescent hanging from a silver chain
about the neck. After each shaven-pate padded one or more of the yellow
slaves, silent and watchful, hand on knife or blowgun. Alfric scowled,
and decided he had best find lodging before venturing out into such
company. A trading center like Valkarion necessarily tolerated all
creeds--still, someone _had_ tried to kill him--

He edged out of the throng and followed the captain's directions. They
brought him into an unsavory part of town, where moldering blank-walled
houses crowded a winding labyrinth of narrow, unlighted streets and
stinking alleys. Men of dubious aspect moved furtively through the
shadowy maze, or brawled drunkenly before the tawdry inns and bawdy
houses. Strange place for a city guardsman to direct him to--

But no priests or soldiers were in sight, which was recommendation
enough. Alfric rode on until he saw the sign of the Falkh and Firedrake
creaking in the chill gusty wind above a gloomy doorway.

He dismounted and knocked, one hand on his dagger. The door groaned
open a crack and a thin scar-faced man looked out, his own hand on a
knife.

"I want lodging for myself and my hengist," said Alfric.

The landlord's hooded eyes slid up and down the barbarian's tall
form. An indrawn breath hissed through his lips. "Are you from the
northlands?" he asked.

"Aye." Alfric flung open the door and stepped into the taproom.

It was dim and dirty and low-ceiled, a few smoky torches throwing a
guttering light on the hard-faced men who sat at the tables drinking
the sour yellow wine of the south. They were all armed, all wary--the
place was plainly a hangout of thieves and murderers.

Alfric shrugged broad shoulders. He'd stayed in such places often
enough. "How much do you want?" he asked.

"Ah--" The landlord licked his lips, nervously. "Two chrysterces for
supper now and breakfast tomorrow, one soldar room and girl."

The rate was so low that Alfric's eyes narrowed and his ears cocked
forward in an instinctive gesture of suspicion. These southerners all
named several times the price they expected to get, but he had never
haggled one down as far as this fellow's asking price.

"Done," he said at last. "But if the food is bad or the bed lousy or
the woman diseased, I'll throw you in your own pot and cut my breakfast
off your ribs."

"'Twill not be needful, noble sir," whined the landlord. He waved a
thin little slave boy over. "Take care of the gentleman's hengist."

       *       *       *       *       *

Alfric sat down at a corner table and ate his meal alone. The food was
greasy, but not bad. From the shadows he watched his fellow guests,
sizing up their possibilities. That big spade-bearded fellow--he might
be the head of a gang which would find an expert sword-swinger useful.
And the little wizened man in the gray cloak might be a charlatan in
need of a bodyguard--

He grew slowly aware of their own unease. There were too many sharp
glances thrown in his own direction, entirely too many--too much
whispering behind hands, too much furtive loosening of sheathed
daggers. There was something infernally strange going on in Valkarion.

Alfric bristled like an angry jaccur, but throttled impatience and got
up. Time enough to find all that out tomorrow--he was tired now from
his long ride; he would sleep and then in the morning look the city
over.

He mounted the stairs, conscious of the glances following him, and
opened the door the boy showed to him. There he paused, and his hard
jaw fell.

The room was just a room, small, lit by one stump of candle, no
furniture save a bed. Its window looked out on an alley which was like
a river of darkness.

It was the woman who held Alfric's eyes.

She was clad only in the usual gaudy silken shift, and she sat plucking
thin chords from the usual one-stringed harp. Her rings and bracelets
were ordinary cheap gewgaws. But she was no common tavern bawd--not
she!

Tall and lithe and tawny-skinned, she rose to face him. Her shining
blue-black hair tumbled silkily to her slim waist, framing a face as
finely and proudly chiseled as a piece of ancient sculpture--broad
clear forehead, delicately arched nose, full mobile mouth, stubborn
chin, long smooth throat running down toward her high firm breasts. Her
eyes were wide-set, dark and starry brilliant as the desert nights; her
lips were like red flame.

When she spoke, it was music purring under the wind that whimpered
outside and rattled the window sash.

"Welcome, stranger."

Alfric gulped, licked his lips, and slowly recovered his voice: "Thank
you, my lovely." He moved closer to her. "I had not--not thought to
find one like you--here."

"But now that you have--" She came closer, and her smile blinded
him--"now that you have, what will you do?"

"What do you think?" he laughed.

She bent over and blew out the candle.


                                  II

Alfric lost desire for sleep, the girl being as skilled in the arts of
love as she was beautiful. But later they fell to talking.

A dim shaft of moonlight streamed through the window and etched her
face against the dark, a faint mysterious rippling of light and shadow
and loveliness. He drew her closer, kissed the smooth cheek, and
murmured puzzledly: "Who are you? Why are you working in a place like
this, when you could be the greatest courtesan in the world? Kings
would be your slaves, and armies would go to battle with your name on
their lips--if they only knew you."

She shrugged. "Fortune does strange things sometimes," she said. "I am
Freha, and I am here because I must be." Her slim fingers ruffled his
harsh black hair. "But tonight," she breathed, "I am glad of it, since
you came. And who are you, stranger?"

"I am Alfric, called the Wanderer, son of Beodan the Bold, son of Asgar
the Tall, from the hills and lakes of Aslak."

"And why did you leave your home, Alfric?"

"I was restless." For a bleak moment, he wondered why, indeed, he had
ever longed to get away from the wind-whispering trees and the cool
blue hills and the small, salty, sun-glinting lakes of home--from his
father's great hall and farmstead, from the brawling lusty warriors who
were his comrades, from the tall sweet girls and joys of the hunt and
feast--Well, it was past now, many years past.

"You must have come far," said Freha.

"Far indeed. Over most of the world, I imagine." From Aslak, pasture
lands of hengists, to the acrid red deserts of Begh Sarrah, the
scrub forests of Astrak and Tollaciuatl, the towered cities of
Tsungchi--along the great canals which the ancient Empire had built in
its last days, still bringing a trickle of water from the polar snows
to the starved southlands--through ruins, always ruins, the crumbling
sand-filled bones of cities which had been like jewels a hundred
thousand years ago and more--

Her cool hands passed over his face, pausing at the long dull-white
scar which slashed across his forehead and left cheek. "You have
fought," she said. "How you have fought!"

"Aye. All my life. That scar--? I got it at Altaris, when I led the
Bonsonian spears at the storming of the gates. I have been war-captain,
sitting beside kings, and I have been hunted outlaw with the garms
baying at my heels. I have drunk the wine of war-lords and eaten the
gruel of peasants and stalked my own game through the rime-white
highlands of Larkin. I have pulled down cities, and been flung into
the meanest jails. One king put a price on my head, another wanted me
to take over his throne, and a third went down the streets before me,
ringing a bell and crying that I was a god. But enough." Alfric stirred
restlessly. Somehow, he felt again uneasy, as if--

Freha pulled his face to hers, and the kiss lasted a long time.
Presently she murmured, "We have heard some rumors of great deeds and
clashing swords, here in Valkarion. The story of the fall of Altaris is
told in the marketplaces, and folk listen till far into the night. But
why did you not stay with your kings and war-lords and captured cities?
You could have been a king yourself."

"I grew weary of it," he answered shortly.

"Weary--of kingly power?"

"Why not? Those courts are nothing--a barbarian ruling over one or two
cities, and calling himself a king and trying drearily to hold a court
worthy of the title. The same, always the same endless squabbling,
carrion birds quarreling among the bones of the Empire. I went on the
next war, or to see the next part of the world, and erelong I learned
never to stay too long in one place lest the newness of it wear off."

"Valkarion is ever new, Alfric. A man could live his life here and
never see all there was."

"Perhaps. So they told me. And it was, after all, the old seat of
the Empire, and its shrunken remnant of territory is still greater
than any other domain. So I came here to see for myself." Alfric
grinned, a wolfish gleam of teeth in the night. "Also, I heard
tales--restlessness, a struggle for power between Temple and Imperium,
with the Emperor an old man and the last of his line, unable to get a
child on his young queen Hildaborg. It seemed opportune."

"How so?" He thought she breathed faster, lying there beside him.

       *       *       *       *       *

He chuckled, a harsh iron sound in his corded throat. "How should I
know? Except that when such a hell's broth is bubbling, a fighting man
can always scoop up loot or power or--at the very least--adventure.
If nothing else, there might be the Empress. They say she's a half
barbarian herself, a princess of Choredon, and a lusty wench giving
hospitality to every visiting noble or knight." He felt Freha stiffen a
little, and added: "But that doesn't interest me now, when I've found
you. Freha, leave this place with me tomorrow and you'll wear the crown
jewels of Valkarion."

"Or else see your head on a pike above the walls," she said.

Faintly through the window and the whining night-wind, they heard the
crash of a great gong.

"Dannos is rising," whispered Freha. "Tonight he mates with Mother
Amaris. It is said that the Fates walk through the streets of Valkarion
on such nights." She shivered. "Indeed they do on this eve."

"Perhaps," said Alfric, though the hackles rose on his neck. "But how
do you know?"

"Have you not heard?" Her voice shuddered, seeming to blend with the
moan of wind and steady, slow boom of gong. "Have you not heard? The
Emperor Aureon is dying. He is not expected to last till dawn. The
Thirty-ninth Dynasty dies with him, and--and there is no successor!"

The wind mumbled under the eaves, rattling the window frame and flowing
darkly through the alley.

"Ha!" Alfric laughed harshly, exultantly. "A chance--by Ruho, what a
chance!"

Of a sudden he stiffened, and the voice of danger was a great shout in
his head. He sat up, cocking his ears, and heard the faint scratch and
scrape--aye, under the window, coming close--

He slid from the covers and drew his sword where it lay on the floor.
The boards felt cold under his bare feet, the night air fingered his
skin with icy hands. "What is it?" whispered Freha. She sat up, the
dark hair tumbling past her frightened face. "What is it, Alfric?"

He made no answer, but padded over to the window. Flattened against the
wall, he stood waiting as a hand raised the sash from outside.

The pale cold light of Amaris fell on the hand that now gripped the
sill. A body lifted itself, one-handed, the other clutching a knife.
For an instant Alfric saw the flat hairless face in the moonlight, the
double crescent brand livid against its horrible blankness. Then in one
rippling motion the slave was inside the room.

Alfric thrust, slicing his heart. As the man fell, another swarmed up
behind him. He and Alfric faced each other, tableau for one instant of
rivering moonlight and whining wind and remotely beating gong. Then the
barbarian's long arm shot out, yanked the slave in, and twisted him in
an unbreakable wrestler's grip.

"Talk!" he hissed into the ear of the writhing creature. "Talk, or I'll
break you bone by bone. Why are you here?"

"He can't," said Freha. She came up to them, white in the moonlight,
her long hair blowing loose about her shoulders. "The Temple breeds
these slaves, raises them from birth to utter, fanatical obedience.
And--see--" She pointed to the dead man gaping under the window.

Stooping over, Alfric saw that he had no tongue.

       *       *       *       *       *

The northerner shuddered. With a convulsive movement, he broke the
neck of his prisoner and flung the body aside. "What do they want?" he
panted. "Why are they after me?"

"There is a prophecy--but quick, there will be others. Out, down to the
taproom--we must have protection--"

"The assassins would hardly be so stupid as to leave us a way out,"
grunted Alfric. "Any down there who might help us are probably dead
or made prisoner now. No doubt these men have friends on guard, just
outside the door--men who'll come in pretty soon when these don't come
out--"

"Aye--that would be the way of the Temple--but where, then, where?"

Alfric flung on his kilt, dagger belt, and baldric. "Out the window!"
He whipped the girl to him, held her supple body against his, kissed
her hard and swift as the swoop of a hunting falkh. "Goodbye, Freha,
you have been a wonderful companion. I'll see you again--if I live."

"But--you can't leave me!" she gasped. "The slaves will burst through--"

"Why should they harm you? They're after me."

"They will." He felt her shaking against him. "They will, that's their
way--oh!"

The door shuddered as a heavy weight was flung against it. "That's
they," snarled Alfric. "And the bolt won't hold very long. I'd like
to stay and fight, but--Come!" He grabbed his cloak off the floor and
buckled it across Freha's slim naked shoulders. "I'll go first--then
you jump."

He balanced on the window-sill, then leaped. Even as he fell, he
wondered at the agility of the slaves who had crawled up the wall. It
was of roughset stones, but even so--

He hit the muck and cobblestones of the alley with the silent poise of
a jaccur, and turned up to the window. It was just above the pit-black
shadows, a square of darkness in the moon-whitened wall. "Come!" he
called softly.

Freha's body gleamed briefly in the moonlight as she sprang. He caught
her in his arms, set her down, and drew his sword. "Let's go," he
growled. Then suddenly: "But where? Will the city guards protect us?"

"Some might," she answered shakily, "but most are controlled by fear
of the Temple's curse. Best we go toward the palace. The Emperor's
Household troops are loyal to him and hate the priesthood which seeks
to usurp his power."

"We can head that way," he nodded, "meanwhile looking for a place to
hide." He took her hand and they trotted through the thick darkness
toward the dim light marking the end of the alley.

Other feet padded in the gloom. Alfric snarled soundlessly and pulled
himself and the girl against a wall. He was almost blind in the dark,
but he strained his ears, pointing them this way and that in search of
the enemy.

The others had also stopped moving. They would be waiting for him
to stir, and their own motionlessness could surely outlast the
girl's--anyway, the pursuit from the room would be after him in another
moment, when the door gave way--

"Run!" he snapped.

       *       *       *       *       *

He felt a dart blow by the spot where he had spoken, and lengthened his
frantic stride. A form rose before him, vague in the night. He chopped
down with his sword, and felt a grim joy at the ripping of flesh and
sundering of bone.

Now--out of the alley, into a street not much wider or lighter, and
down its shadowy length. The slaves would be behind, but--

There was a one-story house ahead, of the usual flat-roofed
construction. "Up!" gasped Alfric, and made a stirrup of his hands. He
fairly flung the girl onto the roof. She gave him a hand up, bracing
her feet against the parapet, and they fell down together behind it.

Alfric heard the slaves' bare feet trotting below him, but dared not
risk a glance. Snakelike, he and Freha slithered across the housetop.
Only a narrow space separated them from the next; they jumped that and
crossed over to another and higher roof. From this, Alfric peered into
the street beyond.

A couple of city guards were walking down it, spears at the ready.
Alfric wondered whether he should join them--no, they would be no
shield against a blowgun dart sent from an alley--anyway, they might be
priest-loyal.

He put his mouth to Freha's ear, even then aware of the dark silky hair
tickling his lips, and whispered: "What next?"

"I don't know." She looked ahead over the nighted roofs to the great
central forum, still ruddy-bright with torches. Beyond it, the city
climbed toward a double hill, on either crest of which was a building.
One must be the palace, thought Alfric--it was in the graceful
colonnaded style of the later Empire, white marble under Amaris. Nearly
all its windows were dark; but he thought, puzzledly, that it was
surrounded by a ring of fires.

The other building was a great gray pile, sprawling its grim
massiveness in a red blaze of light. From it came the steady gong-beat
and a rising chant--the Temple of the Two Moons, holding vigil at their
wedding.

The night was huge above them, a vault of infinite crystal black in
which the stars glittered in their frosty myriads and the Milky Way
tumbled its bright mysterious cataract between the constellations. The
pale disc of Amaris rode high, painting the city and the hills and the
dead sea-floor with its cold ghostly light. And now Dannos was swinging
rapidly out of the west, brightening the dark and casting weird double
shadows that slowly writhed with its changing position.

It was bitter chill. The wind blew and blew, hooting down the streets,
banging signs and driving dead leaves and sand and bits of parchment
before it. Alfric shivered, wishing for the rest of his clothes.
In the waxing moonlight, he could see sand-devils whirling on the
sea-bottom, a witches' dance--and on such a night, trolls and ghosts
and the Fates themselves might well be abroad.

He set his teeth against chattering and tried to fix his mind on real
and desperately urgent problems. "The priests seemed able to trace us,"
he said. "At least, they knew where I went for lodging. Best we work
toward the palace as you say, but look for a ruined house or some such
place to hide in till morning."


                                  III

The street below was deserted now. They jumped down to it and
darted into the shadows on the other side. Slipping along the walls
of buildings they followed its twisting length for some time. An
occasional cloaked form passed silently by; otherwise there was only
the bitter wind echoing hollowly along the tunnel-like streets.

Of a sudden Alfric stiffened. He heard the measured tramp of feet--a
city patrol approaching, just around the next corner. Whirling, he led
the way into an alley black as a cave mouth. It was blind, but there
was a door at the end, from behind which came the twanging of harps and
the thin evil whine of desert flutes. A tavern--shelter, of a sort--

Moonlight glistened on steel as the half-dozen guardsmen passed the
alley--passed, stopped, and turned back. "They may be here," Alfric
heard a voice.

Cursing under his breath, the northerner opened the door and stepped
through, into a room barely lit by a few tapers, thick with smoke and
the smell of unwashed bodies. Alfric's nostrils quivered at the heavy
sweet odor of shivash, and he noticed the floor covered with stupefied
smokers. A little yellow man scurried back and forth, filling the
pipes. At the farther end, with music and girls, were wine-drinkers,
ragged men of ill aspect who looked up with hands on knives.

Freha slammed the bolt down behind them, and Alfric brandished his
great sword and said to them all: "Show us a way out."

A fist beat on the door, a voice shouted: "Open, in the name of the
Holy Temple!"

"No way out," gasped the landlord.

"There is always an exit to these dens," snapped Freha. "Show us, or we
split your skull."

A man's knife-hand moved with blurring speed. Alfric stopped the thrown
dagger with his sword-blade in a clang of steel, caught it in midair,
and hurled it back. The man screamed as it thunked into his belly.

"Out!" snarled the barbarian, and his glaive sang about the landlord's
ears.

"Here," cried the little man, running toward the end of the room.

The door groaned as the guardsmen hurled themselves against it.

The landlord opened a concealed trapdoor. Only darkness was visible
below. Alfric snatched a torch from the wall and saw a tunnel of dark
stone. "Down!" he rapped, and Freha jumped. He followed, bolting the
trap behind him. It was of heavy iron--the soldiers would have to work
to break through it.

The tunnel stretched hollowly away on either side. Freha broke into a
run and Alfric loped beside her, the torch streaming in one hand and
the sword agleam in the other. Their footfalls echoed through the cold
moist dark.

"What is this?" he asked.

"Old sewers--not used now when water is scarce--a warren under the
city--" gasped Freha.

"We can hide here, then," he panted.

"No--only the Temple knows all the passages--they'll have slaves
guarding every exit--we'll be trapped unless we get out soon--"

Dim sky showed ahead, a hole with a rusted iron ladder leading up into
it. Alfric doused his torch and swung noiselessly up the rungs to peer
out.

The manhole opened into one of the ruinous abandoned districts,
crumbling structures and shards of stone half buried by the drifting
sand. Three guardsmen stood watching, spears at the ready. Otherwise
there were only the moons and the wind and the silently watching stars.

Alfric's lip twisted in a snarl. So--the holes were already plugged!
But--wait, all egresses could not be guarded yet; best to go on in
search of another--no, by the time the fugitives got there it might be
watched too. Here there was as least an absence of people to interfere.

       *       *       *       *       *

He sprang out and rushed at the three, so swiftly that they were hardly
aware of him before his blade was shrieking about them. One man tumbled
with his head nearly sheared off. Another yelled, leaping back to
thrust with his spear. Alfric dodged the jab, grabbed the shaft in one
hand and pulled. The guardsman stumbled forward and Alfric's sword rang
on his helmet. He dropped, stunned by the fury of the blow.

[Illustration: _Alfric jumped out and rushed at the three, his blade
shrieking...._]

The third was on Alfric like an angry jaccur. His spear-thrust furrowed
along the barbarian's ribs. Alfric closed in, grinning savagely in the
cold white moonlight, and thrust with his sword. The guard parried
the blow with his small buckler, dropped his spear, and drew his
shortsword. Bending low, he rushed in, probing for Alfric's guts, and
the northerner skipped aside barely in time. The broadsword chopped
down, through the guard's left leg. Blood spurted, the man crashed to
earth, and Alfric stabbed him through the face before he could scream.

The second was climbing dizzily to his feet. Alfric knocked the sword
from a nerveless hand and brought his own blade against the guardsman's
throat. "Hold," he said. "One word, one movement, and you'll roll in
the gutter with your comrades."

Freha came up, the cloak blowing about her wonderful naked body in
the wild wind. She was a fay sight under the moons, and the prisoner
groaned as he saw her. "Lady--lady, forgive--"

"Forgive a traitor?" she asked, wrath sparking in her voice.

"Why are the priests after me?" rapped Alfric.

The guard stared. "Surely--surely you know--"

"I know nothing. Speak, if you want to remain a man."

"The prophecy--the priests warned us about you, that you were the
heathen conqueror of the prophecy.... Later they said that--" the
guard's desperate eyes turned to Freha. "They said you, your majesty--"
His voice trailed off.

"Say on," she snapped. "Give me the priests' own words. By Dannos,
they'll all swing for this! I am still Empress of Valkarion!"

Alfric looked at her in sudden shock, as if he had been clubbed.
Empress--the Empress of Valkarion--

"But--they said you were not, your majesty ... the Emperor is dead, he
died soon after sundown--"

"As soon as I was gone, eh? A priest's work, I am thinking. Someone
will answer for that. Go on!"

"The High Priest sent word over the city. He told of the prophecy--we
all knew of that, but he told it anew. But he said the heathen king
could still be slain, and offered a thousand gildars to the man who
did it." The guard gulped. "Then he said you--forgive me, lady, you
asked for his words--he said since the Dynasty was now dead, the Temple
would rule till further arrangements could be made. But the Empress
Hildaborg, half barbarian, idolatrous witch--those were his words, your
majesty--she lay under the Temple's ban. He said she was to be killed,
or better captured, with the heathen stranger, with whom she would
probably join forces. He put the most solemn curse of the Two Moons on
anyone who should aid you and the man, or even fail to help hunt for
you--" The guardsman sank to his knees, shaking. "Lady, forgive me! I
have a family, I was afraid to refuse--"

"What of my Household troops?" she snapped.

"The priests sent a detachment of the city guards against them--a
dreadful battle. The Household repelled the attack, but now they are
besieged in the palace--"

"Little help there, then." Hildaborg laughed mirthlessly. "All the city
against us, and our only friends bottled in a ring of spears. You chose
an unlucky time to enter Valkarion, Alfric."

The barbarian's head was spinning. "You are--the Empress," he gasped,
"and there's some nonsense about me.... What is this prophecy? Why
did you--" his voice, helpless with bewilderment, faded off into the
moaning wind.

"No time now, someone may be along any moment.... Where to hide, where
to hide?"

       *       *       *       *       *

Alfric's eyes traveled down to the two bodies sprawled on the street.
Suddenly he laughed, a harsh metallic bark. "Why, in the very lair of
the foe!" he said. "As good citizens, it behooves us to join the hunt
for the outlaws. Here is suitable clothing for us."

She nodded, and fell at once to stripping the corpses. Alfric looked
narrowly at the prisoner. "If you betray us--" he murmured.

"I won't--by the Moons, I swear I won't--"

"Indeed you won't," said Alfric, and lifted sword to cut him down.

Hildaborg sprang up and grabbed his arm. "That's a barbarous trick,"
she exclaimed angrily. "You need only bind and gag him, and hide him in
one of these ruins."

"Why worry about the life of a guardsman?" he asked contemptuously.

Her dark head lifted in pride. "I am Empress of the guardsmen too," she
said.

"As you like," shrugged Alfric.

The captive turned a face of utter worship to the woman. "You must
secure me," he said, his voice shaking. "But when I am released, my
body and soul are yours forever, my lady."

Hildaborg smiled, and proceeded to cut strips of cloth and dispose of
the guard as she had said. Then she turned to Alfric. "You are hard of
heart," she murmured, "but perhaps Valkarion needs one like you, strong
and ruthless." Her deep eyes glowed. "How you fought, Alfric! How you
fought!"

The barbarian squatted down and began wiping blood off the looted
armor. "I've had enough," he growled. "I've been hoodwinked and hounded
over the whole damned city, I've been thrown into a broil I never heard
of, and now I want some truth. What is this prophecy? Why are you here?
What does everyone want--" he laughed humorlessly--"besides our heads?"

"The prophecy--it is in the Book of the Sibyl, Alfric. It was made I
know not how many thousands or tens of thousands of years ago, at the
time of the Empire's greatest glory. There was a half-mad priestess
who chanted songs of ruin and desolation, which few believed--what
could harm the Empire? But the songs were handed down through many
generations by a few who had some faith, and slowly it was seen that
the songs spoke truth. One thing came to pass after another, just as it
was foretold. Then the songs were collected by the priesthood, who use
the book to guide their policies."

"Hmmmm--I wonder. I've no great faith in spaedom myself."

"These prophecies are true, Alfric! Now and again they have erred, but
I think that is simply because the songs had become garbled in the long
time they were handed down without much belief. All too often, the
future history in the Book has been written anew by time's own pen."
Hildaborg slipped a guardsman's tunic over her slim form. Her eyes were
half-shut, dreaming. "They say the Sibyl was loved by Dannos, who gave
her the gift of prophecy, and that Amaris jealously decreed she should
foretell evil oftener than good. But a wise man at court, who had
read much of the almost forgotten science of the ancients, told me he
thought the prophecies could be explained rationally. He said sometimes
the mind can slip forward along the--the world line, he called it,
the body's path through a space and time that are one space-time.
Sometimes, he said, one can 'remember' the future. He said the Sibyl's
mind could have followed the world lines of her descendants too, thus
traveling many ages ahead ... but be that as it may, she spaed truly,
and her prophecy of tonight is of--you!"

The warrior shook his dark head, feeling a sudden eerie weight of
destiny. "What was the tale?" he whispered. The wind whipped the words
from his mouth and whirled them down the empty street.

       *       *       *       *       *

Hildaborg stood while he buckled the corselet on her, and her voice
rose in a weird chant that sang raggedly across the ruined buildings,
under the stars and the two flying moons. Even Alfric's hardy soul was
shaken by the ominous words, his hands trembling ever so faintly as he
worked.

"_Woe, woe to Dannos and to Amaris and to those who serve them, cry
woe on Valkarion and the world! The Thirty-ninth Dynasty shall end on
the night when Dannos weds again with Amaris; winds shall howl in the
streets and bear away his soul. Childless shall the Emperor die, the
Imperial line shall die with him, and a stranger shall sit in the high
throne of Valkarion._

"_He shall come riding alone and friendless, riding a gray hengist into
Valkarion on the evening of that night. A heathen from the north is he,
a worshipper of the wind and the stars, a storm which shall blow out
the last guttering candles of the Empire. From the boundless wastes of
the desert shall he ride, ruin and darkness in his train, and the last
long night of the Empire will fall when he comes._

"_Woe, Dannos, your temple will stand in flames when the heathen king
is come! Woe, Mother Amaris, he will defile your holy altars and break
them down! Gods themselves must die, their dust will whirl, on the
breath of his wind-god, the last blood of the Empire will be swallowed
by the thirsty desert._

"_Woe, for the heathen night which falls! Woe, for the bitter gray dawn
which follows! The Moons of the Empire have set, and an alien sun rides
baleful over Valkarion._"

There was silence after that, save for the hooting of wind and the thin
dry whisper of blowing sand. Dannos swung higher, a pale cold eye in
the frosty heavens. Alfric clamped his teeth together and finished the
disguise.

The armor and clothing were strained on his tall form, ill-fitting,
but with the cloak draped over, and the helmet shadowing his face,
he should pass muster. Under the cloak, across his back, he had his
broadsword--these short southern stabbers were no good.

Hildaborg was better fitted. Slim and boyish in the shining steel, her
long hair tucked under the crested helm, spear carried proudly erect,
she seemed a young goddess of war. Alfric thought dizzily that no such
woman had ever crossed even his dreams.

He hid the corpses in the ruins and they started down the street
together. "We'll try to work through the line of siege, into the
palace," he said. "Once we're with your troops, something may still be
done."

"I doubt it. They are brave men, but few--few." Her voice was bitter.

"If we can--" Alfric sank into thought for a while. Then suddenly he
said: "Now I know why the priests are after me. But what of you? Where
do you come into this picture?"

"I knew about the prophecy," she replied. "Also, I knew what my fate
was likely to be when Aureon died. The Temple and the Imperium,
ostensibly the two pillars of the Empire, have long been struggling
for power. Each side has its warriors and spies, its adherents among
the nobles and commons--oh, the last several generations have been a
weary tale of intrigue, murder, corruption, with first one side and now
another on top. The Temple wants a figurehead Emperor, the Imperium
wants a subservient priesthood--well, you know the story."

"Aye. A sorry one. It should be ended with the sword. Wipe both
miserable factions out and start anew."

       *       *       *       *       *

She looked curiously at him. "So the Sibyl was not wrong," she
murmured. "The heathen come out of the north with destruction alike for
the Empire and the gods."

"Luigur take it, I don't care about Valkarion! Not even enough to
destroy it. I only want to save my own neck." His hand stroked her arm,
softly. "And yours. But go on."

"The Thirty-ninth Dynasty was the last family with any pretensions
to even a trace of the legendary Imperial blood, the line of Dannos
himself. And Aureon was the last of them--his sons slain in war,
himself an old man without relatives. The Imperial line had been
weakening and dying for generations--inbred, enfeebled, degenerate, the
blood of Dannos running thinner in each new birth. Aureon had sense
enough to take a second wife of different stock--myself, princess of
Choredon. Thereby he gained a valuable ally for Valkarion--but no
children, and now he is dead." Hildaborg sighed. "So the Imperium
is gone, the Temple is the sole power, and a strong and unscrupling
High Priest rules Valkarion. I think the Priest, Therokos, intends to
proclaim Valkarion a theocracy with himself as the head. But first, for
reasons of politics and personal hatred, he must get rid of me."

"Why should he hate you?"

Hildaborg smiled twistedly. "He disapproves of barbarians, and my
mother was from Valmannstad. He disapproves of my laxness in religious
matters. He knows I stand between him and absolute power. I gave Aureon
strength to oppose him and thwarted many of his measures. The commons
think well of me, I have done what I could to improve their lot, and he
hates any hold on Valkarion's soul other than his own.

"I knew that with Aureon dead and no heir of the blood, Therokos would
feel free to strike. I could not hope to match him for long, especially
since the law is that no woman may rule in Valkarion. My one chance
seemed to lie in the new conqueror who was to come. Yet I could not
approach him openly--the Temple spies were everywhere, and anyway the
prophecy was that he would be a destroying fury, worse perhaps than the
priests. I had to sound him out first, and secretly.

"So I put a trustworthy guards-captain in charge of the gate today,
with instructions to direct the stranger to the Falkh and Firedrake.
The landlord there was paid to make sure you would stay, and would take
the room where I was in my guise of tavern girl.

"So you came. But now it seems the priests were ware to my plan. They
have acted swifter than I thought, striking instantly at my men--I
expected at least a few days of truce. And I played into their hands by
thus cutting myself off from all help. Now they need only hunt us down
and kill us."

"'Twill take some doing," growled Alfric. "Ha, we may yet pull their
cursed temple down about their shaven skulls!"

"And so the prophecy would be fulfilled--you would blow out the last
dim flicker of light--" She stopped, staring at him, and her voice came
slowly: "Valkarion, the last citadel of civilization, the last hope of
the dying world, to be wasted by a heathen bandit--perhaps the priests
are right, Alfric of Aslak. Perhaps you should die."

"Luigur take your damned prophecy!" he snarled.

       *       *       *       *       *

They stood tautly facing each other in the thin chill moonlight. The
wind blew and blew, whining between the empty ruins of houses, blowing
the dust of their erosion along the empty street.

"I know your old Imperial towns," said Alfric savagely. "I've seen
them, moldering shells, half the place deserted because the population
has shrunk so far--wearily dreaming of a dead past, grubbing up the old
works and sitting with noses buried in the old books, while robbers
howl in the deserts and thieving politicians loot the treasury. Year
by year, the towns crumble, bridges fall, canals dry up, people grow
fewer--and nobody cares. A world is blowing away in red dust, and
nobody stirs to help. By the winds of Ruho, it's about time someone
pulled down that tottering wreck you call Imperial civilization!
It's about time we forgot the past and started thinking--and
doing--something about the present. The man who burns Valkarion will be
doing the world a service!"

Silence, under the wind and the stars and the two moons marching toward
their union. Hildaborg hefted her spear until the point gleamed near
Alfric's throat.

He sneered, out of bitterness and despair and a sudden longing for her
lips. "Don't try to stick me with that toy. You saw what happened to
the guards."

"And you would kill me?" Her voice was all at once desolate; she
dropped the spearhead to the ground.

"No. But I would leave you--no, by the Holy Well, I wouldn't. But
I'd leave the damned city." He stepped forward, laying his hands on
her mailed shoulders, and his voice rang with sudden earnestness.
"Hildaborg, that is your answer. No need to stay in this place of
death. We can steal hengists and bluff our way past the gates and be
in the hills ere dawn. If you fear for Valkarion at my hands, leave
it--leave it to rot and come with me."

"Come--where?"

"Home, back to Aslak. Back to the blue hills and the windy trees and
the little lakes dancing in the sun--to an open heaven and a wide land
and free folk who look you honestly in the eye. Luigur take the Empire,
as he will whatever we do." He laughed, a joyous sound echoing in the
night. "We'll build our own stead and live as freefolk and raise a
dozen tall sons. Hildaborg, let's go!"

For a moment she stood silent. When she spoke, her voice trembled a
little, and the moonlight glinted off tears in her eyes.

"I love you for it, Alfric, and gladly would go. But Therokos is
besieging the palace--he is gathering in all who ever spoke well of
me ... shall my friends be hanged and burned and hacked to bits, and I
safe in Aslak?"

"You're a fool. What could you do for them?"

"Die. But this is no quarrel of yours, Alfric. If you wish, go, and I
shall not think of the less of you. Go--my dearest--"

He laughed again, and kissed her for a very long moment. "You are a
fool and a madwoman, and I love you for that," he said. "Come--we can
still show these priests the color of steel!"


                                  IV

They trotted rapidly along the ways, their mail clanking. Erelong they
were out of the deserted district and approaching the central forum.

It seethed with people. All Valkarion seemed to be out tonight, moving
slowly, aimlessly, under the compulsion of a nameless fear. The town
buzzed with voices, low, secretive, and the shuffle of thousands of
feet under the lamps and the bobbing torches. High over the muted
tumult, blown on the harrying wind, chant and gong-beat came from the
Temple.

Alfric and Hildaborg pushed their way through the milling, murmuring
tide. The unease, the rising wave of fear, was like a tangible force;
the northerner's skin prickled with it. Eyes, thousands of eyes,
shifting and staring out of pale faces--the city was full of eyes.

He heard a voice as he came to the edge of the great plaza. Thrusting
forward, the tall barbarian looked over the heads of the crowd. There
was a rostrum, surrounded by a tight ring of Temple guards, and from
atop it a robed priest was haranguing the throng.

"--the Dynasty is dead, and the wrath of the Moons lies heavy over
Valkarion. Woe to the world, for the heathen fiend, the scourge of
Dannos, is loose!

"Yet I bring hope--aye, from all-merciful Mother Amaris I bring cheer
in this darkest hour. There is time, still time to seize the barbarian
ere his power grows. There is still time, too, to seize and disown the
half-caste witch Hildaborg. There is time to submit to the wise rule of
the Temple, that the High Priest may intercede with All-father Dannos.
Repent and be forgiven--destroy the evilworkers who brought this
trouble on you, and the Mating of the Moons will yet bring forth a new
birth of hope!"

Alfric grew aware of the muttering about him--the commons of Valkarion,
laborer, artisan, merchant, peasant, turning thought over and growling
it to his neighbor.

"--an ill choice, to see the city ruined or bow to the shavepates."

"I am afraid. The Moons are high and bitter bright now, they are
looking down on us. I am afraid."

"'Twas Hildaborg who lowered the taxes. 'Twas Hildaborg, and not dotard
Aureon or thieving Therokos, who whipped the army into shape and beat
off the Savonnian invaders. What has the Temple ever done for us, save
milk us for our tithes and frighten our babes with stories of godly
wrath?"

"Hush! The Moons are watching!"

"Hildaborg is beautiful, she is like a goddess as she rides through the
streets and smiles on us. Amaris herself is not more beautiful."

"The Temple is holy."

"The priests burned my brother for sorcery. He had one of the old
books, that is all; he tried to build the machine it told of--and they
burned him."

"They have enough old books themselves. They sit on all the wisdom of
the ancients, and none of us can so much as read."

"The Fates are abroad tonight. I am afraid."

"My son is in the Household. They're after his skin--he'll hang if he
isn't dead already--unless--"

"Aye, my son is in the city guards. They told him to go hunt down the
stranger and the Empress--the _Empress_!--and off he went." A grim
chuckle. "But I think he is sitting quietly in some corner, waiting."

"There is an old battle ax at home. My grandfather bore it in the
Rurian war. I think I could still swing it if need be."

"I am afraid--"

       *       *       *       *       *

Alfric smiled, a steely grimace in the shadow of his visor, and led the
way onward.

But he was not to pass easily. He thrust aside a burly peasant, who
turned on him with a snarl. "Mind your manners, guardsman! Is't not
enough you should be traitor to the Empress?"

"Aye, the city guards have sat about drinking and gaming and making
the streets unsafe for our daughters," said another man harshly. "They
didn't get off their fat butts till this chance came to go yapping
after Hildaborg."

Alfric tried to shoulder past the ring of angry folk who gathered.
"Aside!" he called. "Aside, or I use my spear!"

"Mind your manners, guardsman," grinned the peasant. He came closer,
and Alfric smelled the wine on his breath. "What say we have a little
fun with these priest-lovers, comrades? Will they squeal when we pummel
'em?"

Alfric's fist shot out like a ball of iron. There was a dull smack, and
the peasant flew back against the man behind. The barbarian flailed out
with his spear butt, and the crowd gave way.

"Through!" he muttered to Hildaborg. "Quick, we have to get away."

"They're our friends," she whispered frantically. "Can't we reveal--"

"And bring the guard down on this unarmed mob? We wouldn't last a
moment. Come!"

A stone clanged against the girl's helmet. She staggered, half
collapsing into Alfric's arms. The crowd growled, beast-like, and
shoved in closer.

"Aside!" shouted Alfric. "Make way, or the curse of the Moons is on
you!"

"You talk like a priest," said a laborer thickly. He lifted a heavy
billet of wood. "On them, boys! Kill them!"

Alfric laid the half-stunned girl on the ground, stood over her, and
drew his broadsword. "An outlander!" shouted someone, back in the sea
of shadowy, torch-lit, hating faces. "A mercenary, hunting our empress!"

The mob surged against him. He thrust around with the sword, striking
to disable but not to kill--though he'd slay if he had to, he thought
desperately.

Stones were flying. One hit him on the cheek. Pain knifed through his
head. "Hai, Ruho!" he roared, and banged a skull. The mob edged away a
little. Eyes and teeth gleamed white in the bloody torchlight.

A trumpet-blast sounded, harsh and arrogant over the rising voices.
Someone screamed. Alfric saw spears aloft, steel gleaming red--a squad
of guardsmen to the rescue.

The rescue! He groaned, lifted Hildaborg, and sought to retreat through
the crowd.

Too late. The guards were hacking a bloody way through the mob; it
scattered in panic and the squad was there.

"Just in time," panted its chief. "The folk are ugly. They've killed a
dozen guardsmen already, to my knowledge, a couple of priests, I don't
know how many Temple slaves--Dannos smite the blasphemers!"

"Thanks." Alfric set the reviving girl on her feet. "Now I have to
go--special mission, urgent--"

The chief looked sharply at him. "You have a barbarous accent," he said
slowly, "and you're no Valkariona. Who--"

Hildaborg groaned, stirring back to consciousness. "Alfric--"

"A boy--no--" The officer stepped forth. Hildaborg's lovely face turned
toward the light, and he gasped. "_She_--"

       *       *       *       *       *

Alfric picked up his spear and hurled it through the chief's throat.
Then he lifted his dripping sword and stood by Hildaborg, waiting for
the end.

"The Empress--the Empress, and the heathen--_We've found them_--"

The crowd had withdrawn, milling around the edges of the forum, too
frightened and confused to help. The priest and his guards were coming
on the double, yelling for help. Other armed men seemed to be springing
from the ground.

"Alive!" shrilled the priest. "Take them alive if you can! A thousand
gildars!"

The guards were well disciplined. They locked shields in a ring about
Alfric and closed in. Man for man, he could have laughed at them--but
this way--

Hildaborg swayed on her feet beside him. "So this is the end?" she
whispered. "I love you, Alfric--"

He howled his rage, and sprang forward. The sword blurred in his hands,
ringing on shields and helmets. A guard fell, shrieking, his right arm
sheared off. Alfric stabbed another in the neck, kicked a third in the
groin, and roared.

They surged around him, hemming him in with their shields. Clubbed
spears thudded against his helmet, and it rang like a brazen gong. He
staggered, shouted, struck out again--the sword fell from his hands--he
toppled into a clamoring darkness--

Dimly, he was aware of being stripped of armor, chained hand and
foot, hauled roughly to his feet. He lurched mechanically along, and
slowly his head cleared. Through a mist of throbbing pain, he saw that
Hildaborg walked beside him. Spears pricked their backs, the chains
rattled on ankles and wrists. They were in the middle of a tight triple
ring of guards, marching up the hill toward the Temple.

The villas of the mighty lay around them, white in the moonlight,
fragrant with gardens. Alfric saw fountains splashing, and even then
thought of the parched land beyond the walls, land that might flower
again if it had that water.

But that would never be. He would swing high above the city, the falkhs
would pick out his eyes--Hildaborg would die, and the grip of the
Temple would be locked on Valkarion till its last stones were dust on
the wind.

Strength came back, a bleak resolve not to go down without one more
fight. His brain began whirring, the old cold craftiness of his
turbulent lifetime surged forward ... hopeless. They were caught, they
were done; all his struggles were the vain writhings of a beast in a
cage.

"So this ends it." Hildaborg's voice was weary. Then she smiled a
little. "But we made a good try, Alfric." And warmly: "And we have
loved each other. That is enough."

"It is not," he answered. "But it is something."

"Silence!" commanded the priest.

Now they were on the hillcrest, the mighty walls of the Temple looming
before them. Alfric saw it aswarm with slaves and guards and priests of
all degrees. The gong-beat was a steady, tremendous crashing--it seemed
to fill the world with its brazen clamor. High rose the chant of the
Moon Wedding.

The warrior glanced aside, over to the palace. There was a bridge
spanning the gully between the two hillcrests, and guards were on it.
Other guards, city and Temple, were besieging the palace; he saw their
fires in a ring about it. They were setting up a great ballista whose
stones, he knew, would bring the walls down in ruin.

From the hilltop he could see over the moon-whitened desert and the
vast reach of the old sea-bottom. Once it had been blue and alive,
glittering with sunlight, the long waves rolling in to crash in foam
and thunder on a dazzling beach. The harbor of Valkarion had been
crowded with ships from all the world, a forest of tall masts, a wild
perfumery of salt and tar and the spices of the south. And beyond, the
land had been green, and white clouds had sailed through a soft blue
summer sky.

       *       *       *       *       *

Well, it was gone--the world was dried into desert and scrubby forest
and harsh meadowland, sand blew in the ancient beds of rivers and seas,
the air was thin and chill and held a bitter tang of rust. The cities
were in ruins, the Empire was a shadow, and man was gone back to a few
wretched remnants, sinking into barbarism and death.

Alfric looked up to the cold, splendid night sky. There was a tradition
from the wise ancients, he had once been told, that those swarming
bright star-hosts were other worlds and suns, happier, maybe, than
this. It was some consolation.

The Moons were near their mating now. Bright Dannos was sweeping
triumphantly down on pale Mother Amaris; he would cover her and then
pass on, and out of that wedding would come the fate of the world. Cold
fate, dark destiny--night and famine and death, the moons hurtling over
a world sunk into final oblivion.

Well, men died, sometime or other, and all they could do about it was
to meet the end bravely. Alfric squared his shoulders and marched into
the Temple.

There was a long corridor, at the end of which he saw a vast room
flashing in gold and silver and fiery jewels, draped with the costliest
ancient tapestries. Even then, Alfric's eyes gleamed greenly. To loot
that room!

They turned off along another hall, and then down a stone-cut flight of
steps into the Temple dungeons. Alfric had been in enough jails before
not to find the damp, rough-hewn rock tunnels strange, but Hildaborg
shuddered and pressed closer to him.

A scream echoed down the corridor, rose and fell and died raggedly into
the echoes. The priest smirked. "A heretic is being shown the error of
his ways," he said unctuously. "He blasphemed against the Moons and
swore he would abide by the Empress."

"Then the gods abide by him," said Hildaborg defiantly.

The guards thrust them into a cell, little more than a cave chipped
out of the hill's heart, and locked their chains to staples in the
walls. They were held barely able to move, facing each other with a few
scant inches between--miles between, a world between, thought Alfric
wearily--he would never kiss her again--

The guards clanged the door shut and left them in utter darkness.
Hildaborg's voice trembled, but she spoke bravely: "What can we do?"

"Nothing, now." The barbarian strained against his chains, felt their
solidity, and relaxed. "Wait for a chance, maybe. Otherwise--die."

"I don't want to die, Alfric. I want to live, I want to see the sky and
feel the wind and bear your sons."

"I don't enjoy the thought of death either, dearest. If we had fled to
Aslak--"

"But we didn't, and for myself I am still glad. Though that you should
die too--" Her voice broke, and he heard her quiet sobbing in the dark.

He tried to find words, but they were awkward. So he fell into silence.

Presently the door opened again. A man came in with only two
torch-bearing Temple slaves accompanying. Alfric looked at his
magnificent robes and knew him for Therokos the High Priest.

       *       *       *       *       *

He was tall, stoop-shouldered, a little on the fat side but well
muscled underneath. His face was wide and heavy, sallow under the high
shaven forehead, the mouth hard and thin, the eyes small and black and
glittering-cold. When he spoke, his voice was wondrous, a deep organ
which he played like a master musician.

"So we meet again, your majesty," he said, and bowed. There was little
mockery in his tones; he seemed straightforward and businesslike.

Hildaborg did not answer. She stood with her beauteous form in its
ragged soldier's tunic pressed against the wall. Her sweat-dampened
black hair clung to her forehead, fell down her shoulders in a shining
wave. In the restless torchlight, her face was white and drawn,
streaked with blood and dirt and the tracks of tears, but she gave the
High Priest glance for glance and her lips were steady.

Therokos looked Alfric's tall form up and down. "And so you are the
conqueror of the prophecy," he murmured. "A mighty man--but just how
did you think you could do it? Who are your allies in the city? What
was your plan?"

"I am Alfric of Aslak, and I came here without friends or plan, knowing
nothing of any prophecy," answered the barbarian coldly. "And you
are a misbegotten son of a she-garm, with whose head I will yet play
football."

"Come now," said Therokos softly, "surely you do not expect me to
believe you are here by mere chance? Your cause is lost, you are
doomed, but you can save yourself the inquisition and die easily if
you will tell us what you know."

"I know nothing, you jerrad!"

"You may know more after the inquisitioners have worked on you awhile,"
said Therokos coldly. Then turning to Hildaborg, his voice suddenly
rich and warm, throbbing with love and pity: "My lady, my lady, you do
not know how I regret this. That the Empress of Valkarion should, even
for dire necessity, be thus humiliated is the greatest sorrow of my
life."

Hildaborg's lip curled. "I see you weeping," she said coldly.

"But I do, my lady--my heart is ashes within me. Only need drove me
to this--and it is not yet too late to repent, your majesty. What the
Moons have taken, the Moons can restore.

"Surely, my lady," said Therokos reasonably, "you can see the absolute
necessity of my actions. Under the law, you could not rule, and there
was no Imperial heir. Without a strong hand, leaderless Valkarion would
have split under the quarreling of the nobles and the lawlessness of
the commons, easy prey for barbarian enemies such as this man--and
the Sibyl's warning would have come true. With the Imperium gone, the
Temple, sole remaining pillar of Valkarion, _must_ bear the burden of
state."

"In other words," said Hildaborg coldly, "you will have yourself
anointed Theocrat."

"The Moons have seen fit thus to honor my unworthiness," said Therokos.
"But it would still be well if we should unite our forces. You have
many loyal friends, my lady, myself not the least of them. If you will
but wed me, we can together unite the factions in the city and build
the Empire anew."

She smiled, almost a sneer. "Yours was a strange courtship."

"I have told you how the necessity grieved me," said the priest.
Suddenly his voice came hard as steel, cold as winter and death:
"It is now my duty to offer you a choice. Call on your troops to
surrender, your followers in the city to desist from their treasonous
activities, and wed me this night, or--" he paused--"burn at the stake
for blasphemy and witchcraft. But first you will be tied down and every
slave in the Temple have his way with you."

"That might not be worse than leading my men into your hands," she
flared. But her face was suddenly bloodless.

"You will be surprised how much worse it will be--especially since your
men will die anyway. But I will offer you this, too: if you call on
them to surrender, those who do may go into exile."

She stood a moment in silence, and Alfric knew what a horror must be
clawing her heart. Then she nodded toward him: "What of my protector
here?"

"The heathen bandit must die in any case, that the city may know
itself safe from him and the prophecy," said Therokos. "He still has
his choice of easy hanging or slow torture. But if you refuse me,
Hildaborg, he will no longer have the choice; he will go to hell by
inches, cursing you for it."

The lovely dark head bowed. It was as if a flame had gone out. Alfric
felt ill at seeing her thus broken, given over to a lifetime's
prisoning--golden chains they would be, but no less heavy and galling.
"Goodbye, my dear," he whispered. "Goodbye, I will always love you."

She made no reply, but said to Therokos, tonelessly: "I yield me, lord."


                                   V

The high priest's face lit, and Alfric realized dully that Therokos,
too, loved the queen--in his own cold way. "You do well, beautiful
one," he said shakily. He came over and kissed her and fondled her
stiff body. "You have never done better, black witch. Now come--to your
wedding."

He signed to the two slaves, who sconced their torches and took a key
from their master. They unlocked Hildaborg's chains, and she almost
fell into Therokos' arms.

He caressed her, murmuring softly. "There, dear, easy--you will wash
and eat and rest, you will wear the robes of honor--be at ease, you are
safe now, you are mine forever."

"Aye--" She braced herself, every muscle tautened under the silken
skin, and suddenly she hurled the priest from her--sent him staggering
against Alfric. "_Kill!_" she screamed.

The barbarian snarled, wild with a sudden murderous glory, and his
manacled hands shot out. One gripped Therokos over the mouth, and the
other sank steely fingers into the wattled throat.

The two slaves sprang at him like wild garms. Knives flashed in the
bloody light. Hildaborg snatched a torch and swept its flaming end
across the eyes of one. He screamed wordlessly, rolling over and over,
clawing at his face. Hildaborg snatched up his dagger and lunged at the
other.

Alfric groaned. What chance did she have against the deadly experience
of a Temple assassin?--Therokos had gone limp. Alfric flung the heavy
body crashing into the slave. They went down together. Hildaborg leaped
in, her knife rising and falling and rising again, streaming red.

Then she was in his arms, shaken by wild sobbing. He held her close,
kissed her, stroked her hair, and had time for a dim wondering
amazement that such a woman should have lain in his--_his_--fate.

There was no time to lose. "Unlock me," he said. "Unlock me and let's
get out of this den of Luigur."

She searched Therokos' robes for the key, found it, and cast the chains
rattling aside. Alfric snatched up a knife, with an uneasy glance at
the door. But the noise had drawn no guards. They must be used to
screams in this part of the Temple.

Therokos stirred, groaning. Alfric's big brown form stooped over
him, dagger against throat. "Up with you, fat jerrad," hissed the
northerner. "Up, and not a word, or you'll be spilling guts over the
floor."

The High Priest climbed unsteadily to his feet. "Now lead us out by a
secret way," rasped Alfric.

"There is none--" groaned Therokos.

Alfric slapped him with savage fury. "Shut up! I know there is. You
priests are like all burrowing snakes, you've more than one exit to
your holes. March! And if we meet guards, you'll die first."

Therokos flung him a glance of utter hate, but stumbled obediently
ahead. The empty corridor echoed dully to their footfalls. Near its
end, Therokos pressed a camouflaged stud, and a section of the rock
wall swung aside on noiseless hinges.

Hildaborg took a torch from the wall and closed the door behind them.
They went down a long sloping tunnel, so low that Alfric had to stoop.
"You cannot hope to escape," said Therokos, his voice again under his
wondrous control. "Best you give up peaceably, saving trouble and lives
on both sides. In exchange, I will offer better terms than before."

"What?" asked Alfric skeptically.

"Weapons, money, and hengists--then you can leave the city for the hell
that awaits you."

"And my men?" insisted Hildaborg.

"Exile, with you."

       *       *       *       *       *

Alfric pondered the proposal. If they could get free, with men at their
back, they could always raise an army for a new attempt. But surely
Therokos was aware of that. So if he had some trick--and it would be
strange if he did not--

"How do we know you'll keep the bargain?" he asked coldly.

"You have the honor of the High Priest," answered Therokos loftily.
Alfric sneered, and Therokos added: "Also, I assume you keep me
prisoner until you are safe."

"It does not sound ill--" mused Hildaborg.

Nor did it to Alfric. But he shook his head, stubbornly. "I mistrust
him. Moreover, a new war, after he had time to get ready, would take
time and lives, and might fail. If tonight is indeed the night of
destiny, we can still strike."

"With what?" jeered Therokos.

Alfric was not quite sure himself, but prodded the captive ungently
onward. They came to another hinged rock, and Therokos opened that door
for them. Alfric's spine crawled with the thought of what might lie
beyond; he kept the dagger against Therokos' back as they stepped out.

They were in the shadows of a ruined portico, in a deserted section
near the bottom of the hill. White and serene, the ancient columns
lifted toward the two moons. The gracious remnants of elder days
stretched on either side, half buried by drifting sand. Black against
the sky, the Temple loomed on the hillcrest, but Alfric saw no movement.

Hildaborg slipped against him. "Now what shall we do?" she whispered.

He laughed softly, the old grim battle joy flowing up in him. Weariness
and despair fell off like an outworn cloak--there was new strength in
his thews and a goal in his mind.

"I heard, down there, how Valkarion really hates the priests," he said.
"The city is seething with revolt which wants only a leader. Could the
common folk rise, I think nigh all the city guards, impressed into
priest service by fear, would come over to their side. And you--they
love you, Hildaborg. Could you go to sure friends?"

"Aye--there is old Bronnes the merchant and Captain Hassalon of the
guard, and--many."

"Then go. Slip down to them, give them word and tell them to pass it
on, to shout it over the city. You, the Empress, the divinely appointed
lady of Valkarion, tell the folk to rise against the Temple. Let them
storm the citadel, and they may have the looting of it!" He chuckled.
"That should bring in the laggards."

"But--untrained mobs, against the guards--"

"There will be other guardsmen on your side. And--this is my part--your
Household will also be there."

"But--they're besieged--"

"I'll get them out." Alfric stripped off Therokos' gold-braided cloak,
and slung it over her shoulders. "This will cover you well enough so
you can get to your friends unharmed. Now go, Hildaborg, and Ruho go
with you."

He kissed her, with a wild hunger that dissolved into tenderness. "Stay
out of danger," he whispered. "Stay in a safe place till I come for
you--Hildaborg--"

Therokos scuttled aside. "Oh, no!" snarled Alfric, and stabbed. The
priest tumbled, with blood rivering from his stomach, choking his
screams. Alfric took Hildaborg again in his arms. "Goodbye, my dearest
dear--"

She slipped into the shadows. Alfric sighed, wondering with a brief
heaviness if he would ever see her again. He knew full well how
desperate his gamble was.

Well, there was work to be done. He turned and ran crouched along the
hillside, weaving in and out of darkness. The Moons were almost at
their mating now, flooding the city with chill silver radiance.

He grinned up at them. And what did they think of this ruination of
their ancient godhead? He could hardly imagine them caring about it.
Surely Dannos, the swift warrior, and bright Mother Amaris had more use
for an honest fighting man and his warm-hearted love than for a bunch
of sniveling shavepates. All honor to the Moons, but not to tyrants and
murderers in their name.

He was in the gully now, between Temple and palace. Snakelike, he
crawled under the shadow of the bridge to its farther end, where he
peered cautiously around an abutment.

The trampled gardens were full of city and Temple guards, whose
watchfires ringed the palace. He saw the light agleam on spears and
swords and armor, and had time to wonder if he would ever make it past
them.

But he had to try. He drew a deep breath, tightened his muscles, and
ran.

       *       *       *       *       *

Like a flying arrow he ran, noiseless on bare feet, and none saw him
before he was hugged against a low thorn-tree near one of the fires. Up
it he went, wincing as the thorns raked him, and slipped along a branch
almost overhanging the blaze.

He caught a snatch of muttered conversation. "--when they finish those
siege engines, down the palace goes. But the Household will be out like
a swarm of stinger asts. I don't relish fighting the best swords in
Valkarion."

"No, but we outnumber them."

"My cousin is in there. I hate to think of--"

Alfric sprang! He soared from his perch and crashed into the chest of
the man he had picked. The guard went down in a clang of armor and dry
snap of breaking ribs. Alfric snatched his spear and jabbed it through
the groin of another. Through that gap, then, he raced, low and zigzag
among the bushes.

The siege line roared. The air was suddenly thick with spears and
arrows. Alfric felt one rake his leg, and cursed between gasps. To the
palace!

"Open!" he howled. "Open, let me by, in the name of the Empress!"

If the garrison took this for a ruse and shot him, it was all over. He
plunged up the long staircase, past the crouching craven sphinxes of
the Empire. The doors had been broken down in the first assault, but
the Imperials had put up a barricade. He saw steel flash as he neared
it.

"Hildaborg!" he bawled. "Live the Empress!"

They held their fire. He fell under the barricade while their arrows
hummed overhead. The disorderly Temple pursuit broke into retreat, back
out of bowshot.

Alfric climbed over the barricade into the great palace antechamber.
Its golden glory was gutted by fighting, splashed with dry blood,
the tapestries in rags and the furniture splintered. Dead men and
wounded lay side by side against the walls, under the ancient murals
of the Empire's greatness. A dozen tall cuirassiers in gold and purple
uniforms--now torn and blood-stained--stood waiting for him. Their
spears and swords, axes and bows were at the ready, their haggard faces
bleak with suspicion.

"Who are you?" demanded the captain. "What is this?"

"I am Alfric of Aslak--" panted the newcomer.

"_A barbarian_--the _barbarian_--_the outlander of the prophecy_--"
They hefted their weapons, eyes narrowing, mouths drawing into taut
lines.

"I am with Hildaborg, against the Temple," said Alfric. "'Twas with my
help she escaped their net. Now she leads all of us to overthrow her
foes."

"How do we know you speak truth?" snapped the captain.

"You'll know it when I lead you out against the Temple!"

"Out--to be cut down by thrice our number? Go to!"

"They'll have more to worry about than us," said Alfric. In hard brief
words, he told them the plan.

At the end of it, the tall captain clapped his shoulder and said in
a voice suddenly warm: "That is a tale whose truth we can see for
ourselves, when the Empress' folk come up against the Temple. So I'll
believe it, for one. I am Ganimos of the Imperial Household. Welcome,
Alfric of Aslak!"

The barbarian nodded, too weary for speechmaking. "Give me some water
and wine and a little to eat," he said. "I'll wash, refresh myself,
and be ready to go with you at the time of the uprising. If we hit the
Temple from the side then, it will fall."

But he had scarcely gotten clean, donned a guardsman's armor, and
stretched himself on a couch for a moment's nap, when he heard the
blare of trumpets. Ganimos burst into the room where he lay, shouting:
"The Temple's men are storming us again in full force, and no help from
the city in sight. Up--up and die!"


                                  VI

Alfric swung to his feet, suddenly raging. "Therokos!" he growled. "I
thought the devil was left dying, but someone must have found him. He
knows the plan, means to thwart it by taking us before Hildaborg's
force can be raised. Without us to attack from the flank, the Temple
may well drive off her assault."

Ganimos fingered his shortsword with an ominous side glance. "Unless
this be some treachery of yours, barbarian--" he murmured.

"What difference has my coming made in your actions so far?" snapped
Alfric. "Were I of the enemy camp, would I have come here to fight on
your side when they attacked?"

"Aye--truth, truth. But come!" Ganimos smiled twistedly. "If this is
your night of destiny as they say, Alfric, the Fates have their work
cut out for them!"

A roar of battle rose as they came out into the antechamber. Ganimos
groaned. "There are too many ways into this damned building--we have to
guard them all and we lost a quarter of our men the first time. If the
Temple men assault one point in strength, they'll be inside!"

"Let them!" blazed Alfric. His eyes were like green fire under the
swaying crystal candelabra. "Send messengers to all entrances,
Ganimos--tell the men there to retreat, firing the palace to hinder
pursuit. We'll gather all our forces here--"

"Burn the palace?" cried the guardsman. "I swore to defend it!"

"You swore to defend the Imperial family too, didn't you? If we can't
get outside to help the Empress, you'll be a hell of a use to her! Now
go!"

There was no gainsaying the wild power which blazed in the northerner.
Ganimos went, shouting. Alfric swung joyously to the barricade, lifting
the battle ax he had taken in preference to a shortsword.

The archers and spearmen were sending forth a deadly hail, but they
could not halt the enemy charge. Alfric saw that there was cavalry
coming against the main entrance, with foot soldiers behind. If they
got over or through the flimsy barrier--

"Spears!" he roared. "Spearmen, hold firm!"

He led the way to the barricade top and ranked his guardsmen--they were
_his_ now, he was again master of war and equal of kings--in a tight
line, with spears braced outward. "Now hold!" he shouted. "Hold, for
the sake of Ruho!"

The hengists thundered up the stairs, across the portico, against and
up the sides of the barricade in a living wave. For a moment battle
raged. The heap of wood and stone chunks broke some of the speed of the
charge, but still it shocked against the spear line with a fury that
trembled in the walls. Metal clanged, men shouted, hengists screamed
in a boiling tide of struggle. Alfric saw a spearman fall, spitted on
a lance. He snatched the shaft and thrust it into the throat of the
hengist breaking through--with all his straining force he rammed it
home, and steed and rider tumbled back.

The cavalry broke, hengists bucking, refusing to hit that gleaming
line again. The Temple infantry line scattered as the maddened animals
trampled into it. Householders were streaming into the antechamber, and
Alfric's nostrils quivered to the first acrid whiffs of smoke. With a
burning palace behind them, the Imperials need have less fear of an
attack from the rear.

"The infantry will be up against us in a moment," panted Ganimos.

"Aye, we'd better charge out while they're still disorganized," said
Alfric. "We'll assault the Temple itself. And pray your Moons help
comes ere we're cut down!"

"We'll die like men, anyway," said Ganimos, "not like beasts in a trap.
Thank you for that, Stranger."

"Then--_hai, Hildaborg_!" Alfric plunged over the barricade.

The Household guards followed, a wave that formed into a wedge and
plunged across the gardens. The finest warriors of Valkarion hit the
wavering Temple forces like a spear going home.

       *       *       *       *       *

Ax and sword! Spear and arrow! Clang and roar of metal, whirring
weapons, rushing blood--shouts and curses, screams, deep-throated
oaths--death unchained in the gardens of Valkarion!

Alfric led the way at the point of the wedge, smiting, smiting. No man
could stand before his raging fury--his ax was a dazzle and thunder
before him. Hewing, hewing, he led the Household forth.

"_Hildaborg! Hai, Hildaborg!_" The war cry shouted over the hills, rang
in echoes with the clamor of metal and shock of combat. "_Hildaborg!_"

These Householders fought like demons, thought Alfric dimly as he
struck at the faces and bodies which loomed briefly out of night and
shadow into the red dance of fire. How they fought! But--Ruho, if he
only had a levy of Aslakan axmen behind him now!

They won through to the bridge--through and over, in a dash that drove
the few guards before it like dry leaves before a gale. Alfric turned
gasping to Ganimos. "Hold the bridge," he said. "As soon as we're all
over, hold the bridge. That'll protect our rear from cavalry--hengists
can't go through that steep gully. And when the foot soldiers have
gathered enough wits to come after us that way, you can throw spears
down on top of them."

"Aye, your majesty." The title came without thought to the soldier's
lips, as he saluted and turned to hail a squad to stay with him.

Alfric led the assault of the rest on the Temple. There were fewer
guards on this side of the gully. He hewed at one and felt the shock of
the splitting skull through his arms and shoulders, rattling his teeth.
Howling, he yanked the weapon free and brought it up to knock aside a
sword-thrust and beat the foeman to earth.

Back the Household drove the guards, back to the scowling walls of the
Temple. Weird battle, in darkness and cold, with the moons and the
great rising flames for fitful illumination. Strange, to trade blows
with men who were only red highlights against the roaring night. For a
timeless interval, it was all clamor and death and flying steel.

But the Household was being carved away--man after man fell--and now
the palace besiegers were streaming through the gully, Ganimos and his
squad cut off on the bridge--hai, Hildaborg, it had been a lovely fight
but it was nearing its end.

Alfric looked up at the mighty sky, and he saw the majestic shield
of Dannos slip over Amaris. Her light was cut off, the hilltop grew
dimmer--the Moons were mated.

"O Hildaborg, if only--"

He looked along the wall, against which he now had his back, and saw
the torches which swept up the hill, saw the dark mass of humanity and
heard its beast cry for blood. And his heart leaped into his throat,
and he laughed aloud under Dannos, for here was life again.

"_Hai, Hildaborg!_" he roared.

The remaining troopers heard him and lifted their weary heads to see.
They answered his cry, then, and hewed a way to where he stood. And now
the dismayed Temple forces were breaking--the Household swept along
the walls toward the Temple gates.

Battle raged there, as the rebel guards and the blood-howling mob bore
down on the garrison. Fire was already licking at the rafters where
flame arrows had struck; the Temple would soon stand aflame even as the
palace was burning, as the Empire was burning and sundering. The two
pillars of Valkarion were crashing to earth, and what would be left
when they were gone?

By the leaping fire-blaze, Alfric saw the torn and trampled bodies of
priests and slaves. He recognized one battered face and stooped over
for a closer look. Therokos lay dead. His wound somehow bandaged and
braced, his body cased in armor, he lay where he had fallen.

Well, the High Priest had been a brave man in his way--Alfric gave him
warrior's salute and passed on to join the fight.

An armored figure astride a great war-hengist was leading the charge.
Even without hearing that lovely voice crying its challenge, Alfric
would have known her. He sprang forward, crying out, and seized the
bridle, pulling her aside just as the gate defense broke and the
attackers burst into the Temple.

"I told you to stay in a safe place!" he raged. Huge and bloodsmeared,
his lean face painted red by the rising fires, his eyes like green ice
in the moonlight, he stood looking up at her.

Hildaborg laughed. "You're still a poor fool, Alfric," she said. "Could
I stay at home while you were fighting for me?"

She took off her helmet. Her dark hair streamed down over his face as
she leaned forward to kiss him.

In the sky, Dannos swept past Amaris and swung eastward toward the
horizon.

       *       *       *       *       *

Dawn came, chill and gray, full of weariness and the sobbing of women.
Alfric stood leaning on a spear, atop the flat roof of Bronnes the
merchant, and looked out over the city. A leather cloak hung from his
broad shoulders against the thin bitter dawn-wind. His face was drawn
into bleak lines.

To him came Hildaborg, lovely in the cold colorless light, her unbound
locks floating in the breeze. He looked at her in a vague wonder as to
how many women she really was. The passionate lover of the tavern, the
haughty queen who had faced the captive guard and the captor priest,
the wild war-goddess of the battle--and now this girl, slim and fair
and mysterious, with wind-cooled cheeks and a secret laughter behind
her eyes--which was the real one? Or were they all Hildaborg? And would
he ever know?

She touched his arm. "We've won," she whispered.

"Aye--won," said Alfric tiredly. "Won what? The Temple is down, but so
is the palace, and there's still riot and looting in the city."

"It will pass. Victory was dearly bought, but now it is ours. And you,
Alfric, are ruler of Valkarion."

"I--a heathen outlander?"

"After last night, the Household and the guards will follow you to hell
and back. And the rest--" she smiled shyly--"will follow me, who follow
you myself."

"A big task. Too big, perhaps, for the son of an Aslakan peasant."
Alfric smiled crookedly down at Hildaborg. "Tis more for you, who are
born a queen. Best I continue my travels."

"The queen," she said firmly, "needs a king. You have come to the end
of your wandering, Alfric." She laughed, a clear beautiful sound in
the quiet morning. "You have no choice, my dear. The Sibyl grudgingly
admits that the Fortieth Dynasty, 'sons of the heathen,' will be among
the greatest. But how can you have sons without--"

Alfric grinned. "I surrender," he said. "Who am I to challenge the
Fates?"

Down in the street a hengist, escaped from his owner in the rioting,
whinnied his greeting to the early sun.





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