A voice sounded at his side. "Hull! Big Hull Tarvish! Are you too proud to notice humble folk?"
It was Vail Ormiston, her violet eyes whimsical below her smooth copper hair. He flushed; he was not used to the ways of these valley girls, who flirted frankly and openly in a manner impossible to the shy girls of the mountains. Yet he--well, in a way, he liked it, and he liked Vail Ormiston, and he remembered pleasantly an evening two days ago when he had sat and talked a full three hours with her on the bench by the tree that shaded Ormiston well. And he remembered the walk through the fields when she had shown him the mouth of the great ancient storm sewer that had run under the dead city, and that still stretched crumbling for miles underground toward the hills, and he recalled her story of how, when a child, she had lost herself in it, so that her father had planted the tangle of blackberry bushes that still concealed the opening.
He grinned, "Is it the eldarch's daughter speaking of humble folk? Your father will be taxing me double if he hears of this."
She tossed her helmet of metallic hair. "He will if he sees you in that Selui finery of yours." Her eyes twinkled. "For whose eyes was it bought, Hull? For you'd be better saving your money."
"Save silver, lose luck," he retorted. After all, it wasn't so difficult a task to talk to her. "Anyway, better a smile from you than the glitter of money."
She laughed. "But how quickly you learn, mountainy! Still, what if I say I liked you better in tatters, with your powerful brown muscles quivering through the rips?"
"Do you say it, Vail?"
He chuckled, raising his great hands to his shoulders. There was the rasp of tearing cloth, and a long rent gleamed in the back of his Selui shirt. "There, Vail!"
"Oh!" she gasped. "Hull, you wastrel! But it's only a seam." She fumbled in the bag at her belt. "Let me stitch it back for you."
She bent behind him, and he could feel her breath on his skin, warm as spring sunshine. He set his jaw, scowled, and then plunged determinedly into what he had to say. "I'd like to talk to you again this evening, Vail."
He sensed her smile at his back. "Would you?" she murmured demurely.
"Yes, if Enoch Ormiston hasn't spoken first for your time."
"But he has, Hull."
He knew she was teasing him deliberately. "I'm sorry," he said shortly.
"But--I told him I was busy," she finished.
"And are you?"
Her voice was a whisper behind him. "No. Not unless you tell me I am."
His great roar of a laugh sounded. "Then I tell you so, Vail."
He felt her tug at the seam, then she leaned very close to his neck, but it was only to bite the thread with her white teeth. "So!" she said gaily. "Once mended, twice new."
Before Hull could answer there came the clang of File Ormson's sledge, and the measured bellow of his Forge Song. They listened as his resounding strokes beat time to the song.
"Then it's ho--oh--ho--oh--ho! While I'm singing to the ringing Of each blow--blow--blow! Till the metal's soft as butter Let my forge and bellows sputter Like the revels of the devils down below--low--LOW! Like the revels of the devils down below!"
"I must go," said Hull, smiling reluctantly. "There's work for me now."
"What does File make?" asked Vail.
Instantly Hull's smile faded. "He forges--a sword!"
Vail too was no longer the joyous one of a moment ago. Over both of them had come a shadow, the shadow of the Empire. Out in the blue hills of Ozarky Joaquin Smith was marching.
Evening. Hull watched the glint of a copper moon on Vail's copper hair, and leaned back on the bench. Not the one near the pump this time; that had been already occupied by two laughing couples, and though they had been welcomed eagerly enough, Hull had preferred to be alone. It wasn't mountain shyness any more, for his great, good-natured presence had found ready friendship in Ormiston village; it was merely the projection of that moodiness that had settled over both of them at parting, and so they sat now on the bench near Vail Ormiston's gate at the edge of town. Behind them the stone house loomed dark, for her father was scurrying about in town on Confederation business, and the help had availed themselves of the evening of freedom to join the crowd in the village square. But the yellow daylight of the oil lamp showed across the road in the house of Hue Helm, the farmer who had brought Hull from Norse to Ormiston.
It was at this light that Hull stared thoughtfully. "I like fighting," he repeated, "but somehow the joy has gone out of this. It's as if one waited an approaching thunder cloud."
"How," asked Vail in a timid, small voice, "can one fight magic?"
"There is no magic," said the youth, echoing Old Einar's words. "There is no such thing--"
"Hull! How can you say such stupid words?"
"I say what was told me by one who knows."
"No magic!" echoed Vail. "Then tell me what gives the wizards of the south their power. Why is it that Joaquin Smith has never lost a battle? What stole away the courage of the men of the Memphis League, who are good fighting men? And what--for this I have seen with my own eyes--pushes the horseless wagons of N'Orleans through the streets, and what lights that city by night? If not magic, then what?"
"Knowledge," said Hull. "The knowledge of the Ancients."
"The knowledge of the Ancients was magic," said the girl. "Everyone knows that the Ancients were wizards, warlocks, and sorcerers. If Holland, Olin, and Martin Sair are not sorcerers, then what are they? If Black Margot is no witch, then my eyes never looked on one."
"Have you seen them?" queried Hull.
"Of course, all but Holland, who is dead. Three years ago during the Peace of Memphis my father and I traveled into the Empire. I saw all of them about the city of N'Orleans."
"And is she--what they say she is?"
"The Princess?" Vail's eyes dropped. "Men say she is beautiful."
"But you think not?"
"What if she is?" snapped the girl almost defiantly. "Her beauty is like her youth, like her very life--artificial, preserved after its allotted time, frozen. That's it--frozen by sorcery. And as for the rest of her--" Vail's voice lowered, hesitated, for not even the plain-spoken valley girls discussed such things with men. "They say she has outworn a dozen lovers," she whispered.
Hull was startled, shocked. "Vail!" he muttered.
She swung the subject back to safer ground, but he saw her flush red. "Don't tell me there's no magic!" she said sharply.
"At least," he returned, "there's no magic will stop a bullet save flesh and bone. Yes, and the wizard who stops one with his skull lies just as dead as an honest man."
"I hope you're right," she breathed timidly. "Hull, he must be stopped! He must!"
"But why feel so strongly, Vail? I like a fight--but men say that life in the Empire is much like life without, and who cares to whom he pays his taxes if only--" He broke off suddenly, remembering. "Your father!" he exclaimed. "The eldarch!"
"Yes, my father, Hull. If Joaquin Smith takes Ormison, my father is the one to suffer. His taxes will be gone, his lands parceled out, and he's old, Hull--old. What will become of him then? I know many people feel the way you--the way you said, and so they fight halfheartedly, and the Master takes town after town without killing a single man. And then they think there is magic in the very name of Joaquin Smith, and he marches through armies that outnumber him ten to one." She paused. "But not Ormiston!" she cried fiercely. "Not if the women have to bear arms!"
"Not Ormiston," he agreed gently.
"You'll fight, Hull, won't you? Even though you're not Ormiston born?"
"Of course. I have bow and sword, and a good pistol. I'll fight."
"But no rifle? Wait, Hull." She rose and slipped away in the darkness.
In a moment she was back again. "Here. Here is rifle and horn and ball. Do you know its use?"
He smiled proudly. "What I can see I can hit," he said, "like any mountain man."
"Then," she whispered with fire in her voice, "send me a bullet through the Master's skull. And one besides between the eyes of Black Margot--for me!"
"I do not fight women," he said.
"Not woman but witch!"
"None the less, Vail, it must be two bullets for the Master and only the captive's chains for Princess Margaret, at least so far as Hull Tarvish is concerned. But wouldn't it please you fully as well to watch her draw water from your pump, or shine pots in your kitchen?" He was jollying her, trying to paint fanciful pictures to lift her spirit from the somber depths.
But she read it otherwise. "Yes!" she blazed. "Oh, yes, Hull, that's better. If I could ever hope to see that--" She rose suddenly, and he followed her to the gate. "You must go," she murmured, "but before you leave, you can--if you wish it, Hull--kiss me."
Of a sudden he was all shy mountainy again. He set the rifle against the fence with its horn swinging from the trigger guard. He faced her flushing a furious red, but only half from embarrassment, for the rest was happiness. He circled her with his great arms and very hastily, fire touched his lips to her soft ones.
"Now," he said exultantly, "now I will fight if I have to charge the men of the Empire alone."
THE BATTLE OF EAGLEFOOT FLOW.
The men of the Confederation were pouring into Ormiston all night long, the little dark men of Ch'cago and Selui, the tall blond ones from the regions of Iowa, where Dutch blood still survived, mingled now with a Scandinavian infusion from the upper rivers. All night there was a rumble of wagons, bringing powder and ball from Selui, and food as well for Ormiston couldn't even attempt to feed so many ravenous mouths. A magnificent army, ten thousand strong, and all of them seasoned fighting men, trained in a dozen little wars and in the bloody War of the Lakes and Rivers, when Ch'cago had bitten so large a piece from Selui territories.
The stand was to be at Ormiston, and Norse, the only settlement now between Joaquin Smith and the Confederation, was left to its fate. Experienced leaders had examined the territory, and had agreed on a plan. Three miles south of the town, the road followed an ancient railroad cut, with fifty-foot embankments on either side, heavily wooded for a mile north and south of the bridge across Eaglefoot Flow.
Along this course they were to distribute their men, a single line where the bluffs were high and steep, massed forces where the terrain permitted. Joaquin Smith must follow the road; there was no other. An ideal situation for ambush, and a magnificently simple plan. So magnificent and so simple that it could not fail, they said, and forgot completely that they were facing the supreme military genius of the entire Age of the Enlightenment.
It was mid-morning when the woods-runners that had been sent into Ozarky returned with breath-taking news. Joaquin Smith had received the Selui defiance of his representations, and was marching. The Master was marching, and though they had come swiftly and had ridden horseback from Norse, he could not now be far distant. His forces? The runners estimated them at four thousand men, all mounted, with perhaps another thousand auxiliaries. Outnumbered two to one! But Hull Tarvish remembered tales of other encounters where Joaquin Smith had overcome greater odds than these.
The time was at hand. In the little room beside File Ormson's workshop, Hull was going over his weapons while Vail Ormiston, pale and nervous and very lovely, watched him. He drew a bit of oiled rag through the bore of the rifle she had given him, rubbed a spot of rust from the hammer, blew a speck of dust from the pan. Beside him on the table lay powder horn and ball, and his steel bow leaned against his chair.
"A sweet weapon!" he said admiringly, sighting down the long barrel.
"I--I hope it serves you well," murmured Vail tremulously. "Hull, he must be stopped. He must!"
"We'll try, Vail." He rose. "It's time I started."
She was facing him. "Then, before you go, will you--kiss me, Hull?"
He strode toward her, then recoiled in sudden alarm, for it was at that instant that the thing happened. There was a series of the faintest possible clicks, and Hull fancied that he saw for an instant a glistening of tiny blue sparks on candle-sticks and metal objects about the room, and that he felt for a brief moment a curious tingling. Then he forgot all of these strange trifles as the powder horn on the table roared into terrific flame, and flaming wads of powder shot meteor-like around him.
For an instant he froze rigid. Vail was screaming; her dress was burning. He moved into sudden action, sweeping her from her feet, crashing her sideways to the floor, where his great hands beat out the fire. Then he slapped table and floor; he brought his ample sandals down on flaming spots, and finally there were no more flames.
He turned coughing and choking in the black smoke, and bent over Vail, who gasped half overcome. Her skirt had burned to her knees, and for the moment she was too distraught to cover them, though there was no modesty in the world in those days like that of the women of the middle river regions. But as Hull leaned above her she huddled back.
"Are you hurt?" he cried. "Vail, are you burned?"
"No--no!" she panted.
"Then outside!" he snapped, reaching down to lift her.
"Not--not like this!"
He understood. He snatched his leather smith's apron from the wall, whipped it around her, and bore her into the clearer air of the street.
Outside there was chaos. He set Vail gently on the step and surveyed a scene of turmoil. Men ran shouting, and from windows along the street black smoke poured. A dozen yards away a powder wagon had blasted itself into a vast mushroom of smoke, incinerating horses and driver alike. On the porch across the way lay a writhing man, torn by the rifle that had burst in his hands.
He comprehended suddenly. "The sparkers!" he roared. "Joaquin Smith's sparkers! Old Einar told me about them." He groaned. "There goes our ammunition."
The girl made a great effort to control herself. "Joaquin Smith's sorcery," she said dully. "And there goes hope as well."
He started. "Hope? No! Wait, Vail."
He rushed toward the milling group that surrounded bearded old Marcus Ormiston and the Confederation leaders. He plowed his way fiercely through, and seized the panic-stricken greybeard. "What now?" he roared. "What are you going to do?"
"Do? Do?" The old man was beyond comprehending.
"Yes, do! I'll tell you." He glared at the five leaders. "You'll carry through. Do you see? For powder and ball there's bow and sword, and just as good for the range we need. Gather your men! Gather your men and march!"
And such, within the hour, was the decision. Hull marched first with the Ormiston men, and he carried with him the memory of Vail's farewell. It embarrassed him cruelly to be kissed thus in public, but there was great pleasure in the glimpse of Enoch Ormiston's sour face as he had watched her.
The Ormiston men were first on the line of the Master's approach, and they filtered to their forest-hidden places as silently as foxes. Hull let his eyes wander back along the cut and what he saw pleased him, for no eye could have detected that along the deserted road lay ten thousand fighting men. They were good woodsmen too, these fellows from the upper rivers and the saltless seas.
Down the way from Norse a single horseman came galloping. Old Marcus Ormiston recognized him, stood erect, and hailed him. They talked; Hull could hear the words. The Master had passed through Norse, pausing only long enough to notify the eldarch that henceforth his taxes must be transmitted to N'Orleans, and then had moved leisurely onward. No, there had been no sign of sorcery, nor had he even seen any trace of the witch Black Margot, but then, he had ridden away before the Master had well arrived.
Their informant rode on toward Ormiston, and the men fell to their quiet waiting. A half hour passed, and then, faintly drifting on the silent air, came the sound of music. Singing; men's voices in song. Hull listened intently, and his skin crept and his hair prickled as he made out the words of the Battle Song of N'Orleans: "Queen of cities, reigning Empress, starry pearled See our arms sustaining Battle flags unfurled!
Hear our song rise higher, Fierce as battle fire, Death our one desire Or the Empire of the World!"
Hull gripped his bow and set feather to cord. He knew well enough that the plan was to permit the enemy to pass unmolested until his whole line was within the span of the ambush, but the rumble of that distant song was like spark to powder. And now, far down the way beyond the cut, he saw the dust rising. Joaquin Smith was at hand.
Then--the unexpected! Ever afterward Hull told himself that it should have been the expected, that the Master's reputation should have warned them that so simple a plan as theirs must fail. There was no time now for such vain thoughts, for suddenly, through the trees to his right, brown-clothed, lithe little men were slipping like charging shadows, horns sounding, whistles shrilling. The woods runners of the Master! Joaquin Smith had anticipated just such an ambush.
Instantly Hull saw their own weakness. They were ten thousand, true enough, but here they were strung thinly over a distance of two miles, and now the woods runners were at a vast advantage in numbers, with the main body approaching. One chance! Fight it out, drive off the scouts, and retire into the woods. While the army existed, even though Ormiston fell, there was hope.
He shouted, strung his arrow, and sent it flashing through the leaves. A bad place for arrows; their arching flight was always deflected by the tangled branches. He slung bow on shoulder and gripped his sword; close quarters was the solution, the sort of fight that made blood tingle and life seem joyous.
Then--the second surprise! The woods runners had flashed their own weapons, little blunt revolvers. But they sent no bullets; only pale beams darted through leaves and branches, faint blue streaks of light. Sorcery? And to what avail?
He learned instantly. His sword grew suddenly scorching hot in his hands, and a moment later the queerest pain he had ever encountered racked his body. A violent, stinging, inward tingle that twitched his muscles and paralyzed his movements. A brief second and the shock ceased, but his sword lay smoking in the leaves, and his steel bow had seared his shoulders. Around him men were yelling in pain, writhing on the ground, running back into the forest depths. He cursed the beams; they flicked like sunlight through branched and leafy tangles where an honest arrow could find no passage.
Yet apparently no man had been killed. Hands were seared and blistered by weapons that grew hot under the blue beams, bodies were racked by the torture that Hull could not know was electric shock, but none was slain. Hope flared again, and he ran to head off a retreating group.
"To the road!" he roared. "Out where our arrows can fly free! Charge the column!"