Through the near-darkness her eyes glowed.
Faintly, and from far away, I heard a thin, trumpeting call. It was repeated.
Then silence -- and a whispering that rose to a rhythmic thudding of shod hoofs.
Past us moved a figure, a helot guardsman, unmasked, unspeaking, his gaze turned to the waiting gateway.
Then another -- and another. Until three score of soldiers had gone past, and after them nearly three score of maidens -- the slave-girls.
On a light, swift-looking roan stallion Matholch came by, stealing a glance at me from his yellow eyes. A cloak of forest green swirled from his shoulders.
Behind him, the tiny form of Edeyrn, on a pony suited to her smallness. She was still cowled, her face hidden, but she now wore a cloak of purest yellow.
Medea nodded at me. We touched our heels to the horses' flanks and took our places in the column. Behind us other figures rode, but I could not see them clearly. It was too dark.
Through the gateway in the wall we went, still in silence save for the clopping of hoofs. We rode across the plain. The edges of the forest reached out toward us and swallowed us.
I glanced behind. An enormous bulk against the sky showed the castle I had left.
We rode under heavy, drooping branches. These were not the black trees of Medea's garden, but they were not normal either. I could not tell why an indefinable sense of strangeness reached out at me from the dun shadows above and around us.
After a long time the ground dipped at our feet, and we saw below us the road's end. The moon had risen belatedly. By its yellow glare there materialized from the deep valley below us a sort of tower, a dark, windowless structure almost Gothic in plan, as though it had thrust itself from the black earth, from the dark grove of ancient and alien trees.
I had been here before. Ganelon of the Dark World knew this spot well. But I did not know it; I sensed only that unpleasant familiarity, the deja vu phenomenon, known to all psychologists, coupled with a curious depersonalization, as though my own body, my mind, my very soul, felt altered and strange.
Caer Secaire. Secaire? Somewhere, in my studies, I had encountered that name. An ancient rite, in -- in Gascony, that was it!
The Mass of Saint Secaire!
And the man for whom that Black Mass is said -- dies. That, too, I remembered. Was the Mass to be said for Ganelon tonight?
This was not the Place of Llyr. Somehow I knew that. Caer Llyr was elsewhere and otherwise, not a temple, not a place visited by worshipers. But here in Caer Secaire, as in other temples throughout the Dark Land, Llyr might be summoned to his feasting, and, summoned, would come.
Would Ganelon be his feast tonight? I clenched the reins with nervous hands. There was some tension in the air that I could not quite understand. Medea was calm beside me. Edeyrn was always calm. Matholch, I could swear, had nothing to take the place of nerves. Yet in the night there was tension, as if it breathed upon us from the dark trees along the roadside.
Before us, in a silent, submissive flock, the soldiers and the slave-girls went. Some of the soldiers were armed. They seemed to be herding the rest, their movements mechanical, as if whatever had once made them free-willed humans was now asleep. I knew without being told the purpose for which those men and maidens were being driven toward Caer Secaire. But not even these voiceless mindless victims were tense. They went blindly to their doom. No, the tension came from the dark around us.
Someone, something, waiting in the night!
VII. Men of the Forest FROM out of the dark woods, suddenly, startlingly, a trumpet-note rang upon the air. In the same instant there was a wild crashing in the underbrush, an outburst of shouts and cries, and the night was laced by the thin lightnings of unfamiliar gunfire. The road was suddenly thronging with green-clad figures who swarmed about the column of slaves ahead of us, grappling with the guards, closing in between us and the mindless victims at our forefront.
My horse reared wildly. I fought him hard, forcing him down again, while stirrings of the old red rage I had felt before mounted in my brain. Ganelon, at sight of the forest people, struggled to take control. Him too I fought. Even in my surprise and bewilderment, I saw in this interruption the possibility of succor. I cracked my rearing horse between the ears with clubbed rein-loops and struggled to keep my balance.
Beside me Medea had risen in her stirrups and was sending bolt after arrowy bolt into the green melee ahead of us, the dark rod that was her weapon leaping in her hand with every shot. Edeyrn had drawn aside, taking no part in the fight. Her small cowled figure sat crouching in the saddle, but her very stillness was alarming. I had the feeling she could end the combat in a moment if she chose.
As for Matholch, his saddle was empty. His horse was already crashing away through the woods, and Matholch had hurled himself headlong into the fight, snarling joyously. The sound sent cold shudders down my spine. I could see that his green cloak covered a shape that was not wholly manlike, and the green people veered away from him as he plunged through their throngs toward the head of the column.
The woodsfolk were trying a desperate rescue. I realized that immediately. I saw too that they dared not attack the Coven itself. All their efforts were aimed at overpowering the robot-like guards so that the equally robotlike victims might be saved from Llyr. And I could see that they were failing.
For the victims were too apathetic to scatter. All will had long ago been drained away from them. They obeyed Orders -- that was all. And the forest people were leaderless. In a moment or two I realized that, and knew why. It was my fault. Edward Bond may have planned this daring raid, but through my doing, he was not here to guide them. And already the abortive fight was nearly over.
Medea's flying fiery arrows struck down man after man. The mindless guards fired stolidly into the swarms that surged about them, and Matholch's deep-throated, exultant, snarling yells as he fought his way toward his soldiers were more potent than weapons. The raiders shrank back from the sound as they did not shrink from gunfire. In a moment, I knew, Matholch would reach his men, and organized resistance would break the back of this unguided mutiny.
For an instant my own mind was a fierce battleground. Ganelon struggled to take control, and Edward Bond resisted him savagely.
As Ganelon I knew my place was beside the wolfling; every instinct urged me forward to his side. But Edward Bond knew better. Edward Bond too knew where his rightful place should be.
I shoved up my golden mask so that my face was visible. I drove my heels into my horse's sides and urged him headlong down the road behind Matholch. The sheer weight of the horse gave me an advantage Matholch, afoot, did not have. The sound of drumming hoofs and the lunging shoulders of my mount opened a way for me. I rose in the stirrups and shouted with Ganelon's deep, carrying roar: "Bond! Bond! Edward Bond!"
The rebels heard me. For an instant the battle around the column wavered as every green-clad man paused to look back. Then they saw their lost leader, and a great echoing hail swept then- ranks.
"Bond! Edward Bond!"
The forest rang with it, and there was new courage in the sound. Matholch's wild snarl of rage was drowned in the roar of the forest men as they surged forward again to the attack.
Out of Ganelon's memories I knew what I must do. The foresters were dragging down guard after guard, careless of the gunfire that mowed their disordered ranks. But only I could save the prisoners. Only Ganelon's voice could pierce the daze that held them.
I kicked my frantic horse forward, knocking guards left and right, and gained the head of the column.
"In the forest!" I shouted. "Waken and run! Run hard!"
There was an instant forward surge as the slaves, still tranced in their dreadful dream, but obedient to the voice of a Coven member, lurched through the thin rank of their guard. The whole shape of the struggle changed as the core of it streamed irresistibly forward across the road and into the darkness of the woods.
The green-clad attackers fell back to let the slaves through. It was a strange, voiceless flight they made. Not even the guards shouted, though they fired and fired again upon the retreating column, their faces as blank as if they slept without dreams.
My flesh crawled as I watched that sight -- the men and women fleeing for their lives, the armed soldiers shooting them down, and the faces of them all utterly without expression. Voiceless they ran and voiceless they died when the gun-bolts found them.
I wrenched my horse around and kicked him in the wake of the fleeing column. My golden mask slipped sidewise and I tore it off, waving to the scattering foresters, the moonlight catching brightly on its gold.
"Save yourselves!" I shouted, "Scatter and follow me!"
Behind me I heard Matholch's deep snarl, very near. I glanced over one shoulder as my horse plunged across the road. The shape-changer's tall figure faced me across the heads of several of his soldiers. His face was a wolflike snarling mask, and as I looked he lifted a dark rod like the one Medea had been using. I saw the arrow of white fire leap from it, and ducked in the saddle.
The movement saved me. I felt a strong tug at my shoulders where the blue cape swirled out, and heard the tear of fabric as the bolt ripped through it and plunged hissing into the dark beyond. My horse lunged on into the woods.
Then the trees were rustling all about me, and my bewildered horse stumbled and tossed up his head, whinnying in terror. Beside me in the dark a soft voice spoke softly.
"This way," it said, and a hand seized the bridle.
I let the woodsman lead me into the darkness.
It was just dawn when our weary column came at last to the end of the journey, to the valley between cliffs where the woodsmen had established their stronghold. All of us were tired, though the blank-faced slaves we had rescued trudged on in an irregular column behind me, unaware that then" feet were torn and their bodies drooping with exhaustion.
The forest men slipped through the trees around us, alert for followers. We had no wounded with us. The bolts the Coven shot never wounded. Whoever was struck fell dead in his tracks.
In the pale dawn I would not have known the valley before me for the headquarters of a populous clan. It looked quite empty except for scattered boulders, mossy slopes, and a small stream that trickled down the middle, pink in the light of sunrise.
One of the men took my horse then, and we went on foot up the valley, the robot slaves crowding behind. We seemed to be advancing up an empty valley. But when we had gone half its length, suddenly the woodsman at my right laid his hand upon my arm, and we paused, the rabble behind us jostling together without a murmur. Around me the woodsmen laughed softly. I looked up.
She stood high upon a boulder that overhung the stream. She was dressed like a man in a tunic of soft, velvety green, cross-belted with a weapon swinging at each hip, but her hair was a fabulous mantle streaming down over her shoulders and hanging almost to her knees in a cascade of pale gold that rippled like water. A crown of pale gold leaves the color of the hair held it away from her face, and under the shining chaplet she looked down and smiled at us. Especially she smiled at me -- at Edward Bond.
And her face was very lovely. It had the strength and innocence and calm serenity of a saint's face, but there was warmth and humor in the red lips. Her eyes were the same color as her tunic, deep green, a color I had never seen before in my own world.
"Welcome back, Edward Bond," she said in a clear, sweet gently hushed voice, as if she had spoken softly for so many years that even now she did not dare speak aloud.
She jumped down from the boulder, very lightly, moving with the sureness of a wild creature that had lived all its lifetime in the woods, as indeed I suppose she had. Her hair floated about her as lightly as a web, settling only slowly about her shoulders as she came forward, so that she seemed to walk in a halo of her own pale gold.
I remembered what the woodsman Ertu had said to me in Medea's garden before her arrow struck him down.
"Aries could convince you, Edward! Even if you're Ganelon, let me take you to Aries!"
I stood before Aries now. Of that I was sure. And if I had needed any conviction before that the woodsmen's cause was mine, this haloed girl would have convinced me with her first words. But as for Ganelon -- How could I know what Ganelon would do?
That question was answered for me. Before my lips could frame words, before I could plan my next reaction, Aries came toward me, utterly without pretense or consciousness of the watching eyes. She put her hands on my shoulders and kissed me on the mouth.
And that was not like Medea's kiss -- no! Aries' lips were cool and sweet, not warm with the dangerous, alluring honey-musk of the red witch. That intoxication of strange passion I remembered when I had held Medea in my arms did not sweep me now. There was a -- a purity about Aries, an honesty that made me suddenly, horribly homesick for Earth.
She drew back. Her moss-green eyes met mine with quiet understanding. She seemed to be waiting.
"Aries," I said, after a moment.
And that seemed to satisfy her. The vague question that had begun to show on her face was gone.
"I wondered," she said. "They didn't hurt you, Edward?"
Instinctively I knew what I had to say.
"No. We hadn't reached Caer Secaire. If the woodsmen hadn't attacked -- well, there'd have been a sacrifice."
Aries reached out and lifted a corner of my torn cloak, her slim fingers light on the silken fabric.
"The blue robe," she said. "Yes, that is the color the sacrifice wears. The gods cast their dice on our side tonight, Edward. Now as for this foul thing, we must get rid of it."
Her green eyes blazed. She ripped the cloak from me, tore it across and dropped it to the ground.
"You will not go hunting again alone," she added. "I told you it was dangerous. But you laughed at me. I'll wager you didn't laugh when the Coven slaves caught you! Or was that the way of it?"
I nodded. A slow, deep fury was rising within me. So blue was the color of sacrifice, was it? My fears hadn't been groundless. At Caer Secaire I would have been the offering, going blindly to my doom. Matholch had known, of course. Trust his wolf-mind to appreciate the joke. Edeyrn, thinking her cool, inhuman thoughts in the shadow of her hood, she had known too. And Medea?
She had dared betray me! Me, Ganelon!
The Opener of the Gate, the Chose of Llyr, the great Lord Ganelon! They dared! Black thunder roared through my brain. I thought: By Llyr, but they'll suffer for this! They'll crawl to my feet like dogs. Begging my mercy!
Rage had opened the floodgates, and Edward Bond was no more than a set of thin memories that had slipped from me as the blue cloak had slipped from my shoulders -- the blue cloak of the chosen sacrifice, on the shoulders of the Lord Ganelon!
I blinked blindly around the green-clad circle. How had I come here? How dared these woodsrunners stand in defiance before me? Blood roared in my ears and the woodland swam around me. When it steadied I would draw my weapon and reap these upstarts as a mower reaps his wheat.
First, the Coven, my sworn comrades, had betrayed me. Why, why! They had been glad enough to see me when they brought me back from the other world, the alien land of Earth. The woodsmen I could slay whenever I wished it -- the other problem came first. And Ganelon was a wise man. I might need these woods-people to help me in my vengeance. Afterward -- ah, afterward!
I strove hard with memory. What could have happened to turn the Coven against me? I could have sworn this had not been Medea's original intention -- she had welcomed me back too sincerely for that. Matholch could have influenced her, but again, why, why? Or perhaps it was Edeyrn, or the Old One himself, Ghast Rhymi.-In any case, by the Golden Window that opens on the Abyss, they'd learn their error!
"Edward!" a woman's voice, sweet and frightened, came to me as if from a great distance. I fought my way up through a whirlpool of fury and hatred. I saw a pale face haloed in floating hair, the green eyes troubled. I remembered.
Beside Aries stood a stranger, a man whose cold gray eyes upon mine provided the shock I needed to bring me back to sanity. He looked at me as if he knew me -- knew Ganelon. I had never seen the man before.
He was short and sturdy, young-looking in spite of the gray flecks in his close-cropped beard. His face was tanned so deeply it had almost the color of the brown earth. In his close-fitting green suit he was the perfect personification of a woodsrunner, a glider through the forest, unseen and dangerous. Watching the powerful flex of his muscles when he moved, I knew he would be a bad antagonist. And there was deep antagonism in the way he looked at me.
A white, jagged scar had knotted his right cheek, quirking up his thin mouth so that he wore a perpetual crooked, sardonic half-grin. There was no laughter in those gelid gray eyes, though.
And I saw that the circle of woodsmen had drawn back, ringing us, watching.
The bearded man put out his arm and swept Aries behind him. Unarmed, he stepped forward, toward me.
"No, Lorryn," Aries cried. "Don't hurt him."
Lorryn thrust his face into mine.
"Ganelon!" he said.
And at the name a whisper of fear, of hatred, murmured around the circle of woodsfolk. I saw furtive movements, hands slipping quietly toward the hilts of weapons. I saw Aries' face change.
The old-time cunning of Ganelon came to my aid.
"No," I said, rubbing my forehead. "I'm Bond, all right. It was the drug the Coven gave me. It's still working."
"I don't know," I told Lorryn. "It was in Medea's wine that I drank. And the long journey tonight has tired me."
I took a few unsteady paces aside and leaned against the boulder, shaking my head as though to clear it. But my ears were alert. The low murmur of suspicion was dying.
Cool fingers touched mine.
"Oh, my dear," Aries said, and whirled on Lorryn. "Do you think I don't know Edward Bond from Ganelon? Lorryn, you're a fool!"
"If the two weren't identical, we'd never have switched them in the first place," Lorryn said roughly. "Be sure, Aries. Very sure!"
Now the whispering grew again. "Better to be sure," the woodsmen murmured. "No risks, Aries! If this is Ganelon, he must die."
The doubt came back into Aries' green eyes. She thrust my hands away and stared at me. And the doubt did not fade.
I gave her glance for glance.