There was a curious expression in the face of the conqueror. "Well," he said almost gently, "it was not my intention to torture you, but merely to have you killed for your treason. It may be that you will soon wish that my orders had been left unaltered." He strode on into the eldarch's dooryard, with his silent men following.
Hull turned his steps toward the center of the village. Everywhere he passed Empire men scurrying about the tasks of encampment, and supply wagons rumbled and jolted in the streets. He saw files of the soldiers passing slowly before cook-wagons and the smell of food floated on the air, reminding him that he was ravenously hungry. He hurried toward his room beside File Ormiston's shop, and there, tragic-eyed and mist-pale, he found Vail Ormiston.
She was huddled on the doorstep with sour Enoch holding her against him. It was Enoch who first perceived Hull, and his jaw dropped and his eyes bulged, and a gurgling sound issued from his throat. And Vail looked up with uncomprehending eyes, stared for a moment without expression, and then, with a little moan, crumpled and fainted.
She was unconscious only a few moments, scarcely long enough for Hull to bear her into his room. There she lay now on his couch, clinging to his great hand, convinced at last of his living presence.
"I think," she murmured, "that you're as deathless as Joaquin Smith, Hull. I'll never believe you dead again. Tell me--tell me how it happened."
He told her. "Black Margot's to thank for it," he finished.
But the very name frightened Vail. "She means evil, Hull. She terrifies me with her witch's eyes and her hellstained hair. I haven't even dared go home for fear of her."
He laughed. "Don't worry about me, Vail. I'm safe enough."
Enoch cut in. "Here's one for the Harriers, then," he said sourly. "The pack needs him."
"The Harriers?" Hull looked up puzzled.
"Oh, Hull, yes!" said Vail. "File Ormson's been busy. The Harriers are what's left of the army--the better citizens of Ormiston. The Master's magic didn't reach beyond the ridge, and over the hills there's still powder and rifles. And the spell is no longer in the valley, either. One of the men carried a cup of powder across the ridge, and it didn't burn."
The better citizens, Hull thought smiling. She meant, of course, those who owned land and feared a division of it such as Marcus Ormiston had suffered. But aloud he said only, "How many men have you?"
"Oh, there'll be several hundred with the farmers across the hills." She looked into his eyes, "I know it's a forlorn hope, Hull, but--we've got to try. You'll help, won't you?"
"Of course. But all your Harriers can attempt is raids. They can't fight the Master's army."
"I know. I know it, Hull. It's a desperate hope."
"Desperate?" said Enoch suddenly. "Hull, didn't you say you were ordered to Black Margot's quarters this evening?"
"Then--see here! You'll carry a knife in your armpit. Sooner or later she'll want you alone with her, and when that happens, you'll slide the knife quietly into her ruthless heart! There's a hope for you--if you've courage!"
"Courage!" he growled. "To murder a woman?"
"Black Margot's a devil!"
"Devil or not, what's the good of it? It's Joaquin Smith that's building the Empire, not the Princess."
"Yes," said Enoch, "but half his power is the art of the witch. Once she's gone the Confederation could blast his army like ducks in a frog pond."
"It's true!" gasped Vail. "What Enoch says is true!"
Hull scowled. "I swore not to bear weapons!"
"Swore to her!" snapped Enoch. "That needn't bind you."
"My word's given," said Hull firmly. "I do not lie."
Vail smiled. "You're right," she whispered, and as Enoch's face darkened, "I love you for it, Hull."
"Then," grunted Enoch, "if it's not lack of courage, do this. Lure her somehow across the west windows. We can slip two or three Harriers to the edge of the woodlot, and if she passes a window with the light behind her--well, they won't miss."
"Oh, I won't," said Hull wearily. "I won't fight women, nor betray even Black Margot to death."
But Vail's blue eyes pleaded. "That won't be breaking your word, Hull. Please. It isn't betraying a woman. She's a sorceress. She's evil. Please, Hull."
Bitterly he yielded. "I'll try, then." He frowned gloomily. "She saved my life, and--Well, which room is hers?"
"My father's. Mine is the western chamber, which she took for her--her maid," Vail's eyes misted at the indignity of it. "We," she said, "are left to sleep in the kitchen."
An hour later, having eaten, he walked somberly home with Vail while Enoch slipped away toward the hills. There were tents in the dooryard, and lights glowed in every window, and before the door stood two dark Empire men who passed the girl readily enough, but halted Hull with small ceremony. Vail cast him a wistful backward glance as she disappeared toward the rear, and he submitted grimly to the questioning of the guards.
"On what business?"
"To see the Princess Margaret."
"Are you Hull Tarvish?"
One of the men stepped to his side and ran exploratory hands about his body. "Orders of Her Highness," he explained gruffly.
Hull smiled. The Princess had not trusted his word too implicitly. In a moment the fellow had finished his search and swung the door open.
Hull entered. He had never seen the interior of the house, and for a moment its splendor dazzled him. Carved ancient furniture, woven carpets, intricately worked standards for the oil lamps, and even--for an instant he failed to comprehend it--a full-length mirror of ancient workmanship wherein his own image faced him. Until now he had seen only bits and fragments of mirrors.
To his left a guard blocked an open door whence voices issued. Old Marcus Ormiston's voice. "But I'll pay for it. I'll buy it with all I have." His tones were wheedling.
"No." Cool finality in the voice of Joaquin Smith. "Long ago I swore to Martin Sair never to grant immortality to any who have not proved themselves worthy." A note of sarcasm edged his voice. "Go prove yourself deserving of it, old man, in the few years left to you."
Hull sniffed contemptuously. There seemed something debased in the old man's whining before his conqueror. "The Princess Margaret?" he asked, and followed the guard's gesture.
Upstairs was a dimly lit hall where another guard stood silently. Hull repeated his query, but in place of an answer came the liquid tones of Margaret herself. "Let him come in, Corlin."
A screen within the door blocked sight of the room. Hull circled it, steeling himself against the memory of that soul-burning loveliness he remembered. But his defense was shattered by the shock that awaited him.
The screen, indeed, shielded the Princess from the sight of the guard in the hall, but not from Hull's eyes. He stared utterly appalled at the sight of her lying in complete indifference in a great tub of water, while a fat woman scrubbed assiduously at her bare body. He could not avoid a single glimpse of her exquisite form, then he turned and stared deliberately from the east windows, knowing that he was furiously crimson even to his shoulders.
"Oh, sit down!" she said contemptuously. "This will be over in a moment."
He kept his eyes averted while water splashed and a towel whisked sibilantly. When he heard her footsteps beside him he glanced up tentatively, still fearful of what he might see, but she was covered now in a full robe of shiny black and gold that made her seem taller, though its filmy delicacy by no means concealed what was beneath. Instead of the cothurns she wore when on the march, she had slipped her feet into tiny high-heeled sandals that were reminiscent of the footgear he had seen in ancient pictures. The black robe and her demure coif of short ebony hair gave her an appearance of almost nunlike purity, save for the green hell-fires that danced in her eyes.
In his heart Hull cursed that false aura of innocence, for he felt again the fascination against which he had steeled himself.
"So," she said. "You may sit down again. I do not demand court etiquette in the field." She sat opposite, and produced a black cigarette, lighting it at the chimney of the lamp on the table. Hull stared; not that he was unaccustomed to seeing women smoke, for every mountainy woman had her pipe, and every cottage its tobacco patch, but cigarettes were new to him.
"Now," she said with a faintly ironic smile, "tell me what they say of me here."
"They call you witch."
"And do they hate me?"
"Hate you?" he echoed thoughtfully. "At least they will fight you and the Master to the last feather on the last arrow."
"Of course. The young men will fight--except those that Joaquin has bought with the eldarch's lands--because they know that once within the Empire, fighting is no more to be had. No more joyous, thrilling little wars between the cities, no more boasting and parading before the pretty provincial girls." She paused. "And you, Hull Tarvish--what do you think of me?"
"I call you witch for other reasons."
"There is no magic," said Hull, echoing the words of Old Einar in Selui. "There is only knowledge."
The Princess looked narrowly at him. "A wise thought for one of you," she murmured, and then, "You came weaponless."
"I keep my word."
"You owe me that. I spared your life."
"And I," declared Hull defiantly, "spared yours. I could have sped an arrow through that white throat of yours, there on the church roof. I aimed one."
She smiled. "What held you?"
"I do not fight women." He winced as he thought of what mission he was on, for it belied his words.
"Tell me," she said, "was that the eldarch's pretty daughter who cried so piteously after you there before the church?"
"And do you love her?"
"Yes." This was the opening he had sought, but it came bitterly now, facing her. He took the opportunity grimly. "I should like to ask one favor."
"I should like to see"--lies were not in him but this was no lie--"the chamber that was to have been our bridal room. The west chamber." That might be--should be--truth.
The Princess laughed disdainfully. "Go see it then."
For a moment he feared, or hoped, perhaps, that she was going to let him go alone. Then she rose and followed him to the hall, and to the door of the west chamber.
Hull paused at the door of the west chamber to permit the Princess to enter. For the merest fraction of a second her glorious green eyes flashed speculatively to his face, then she stepped back. "You first, Weed," she commanded.
He did not hesitate. He turned and strode into the room, hoping that the Harrier riflemen, if indeed they lurked in the copse, might recognize his mighty figure in time to stay their eager trigger fingers. His scalp prickled as he moved steadily across the window, but nothing happened.
Behind him the Princess laughed softly. "I have lived too long in the aura of plot and counterplot in N'Orleans," she said. "I mistrust you without cause, honest Hull Tarvish."
Her words tortured him. He turned to see her black robe mold itself to her body as she moved, and, as sometimes happens in moments of stress, he caught an instantaneous picture of her with his senses so quickened that it seemed as if she, himself, and the world were frozen into immobility. He remembered her forever as she was then, with her limbs in the act of striding, her green eyes soft in the lamplight, and her perfect lips in a smile that had a coloring of wistfulness. Witch and devil she might be, but she looked like a dark-haired angel, and in that moment his spirit revolted.
"No!" he bellowed, and sprang toward her, striking her slim shoulders with both hands in a thrust that sent her staggering back into the hallway, there to sit hard and suddenly on the floor beside the amazed guard.
She sprang up instantly, and there was nothing angelic now in 'her face. "You--hurt me!" she hissed. "Me! Now, I'll--" She snatched the guard's weapon from his belt, thrust it full at Hull's chest, and sent the blue beam humming upon him.
It was pain far worse than that at Eaglefoot Flow. He bore it stolidly, grinding into silence the groan that rose in his throat, and in a moment she flicked it off and slapped it angrily into the guard's holster. "Treachery again!" she said. "I won't kill you, Hull Tarvish. I know a better way." She whirled toward the stair-well. "Lebeau!" she called. "Lebeau! There's--" She glanced sharply at Hull, and continued, "Il y a des tirailleurs dans le bois. Je vais les tireer en avant!" It was the French of N'Orleans, as incomprehensible to Hull as Aramaic.
She spun back. "Sora!" she snapped, and then, as the fat woman appeared, "Never mind. You're far too heavy." Then back to Hull. "I've a mind," she blazed, "to strip the Weed clothes from the eldarch's daughter and send her marching across the window!"
He was utterly appalled. "She--she was in town!" he gasped, then fell silent at the sound of feet below.
"Well, there's no time," she retorted. "So, if I must--" She strode steadily into the west chamber, paused a moment, and then stepped deliberately in front of the window!
Hull was aghast. He watched her stand so that the lamplight must have cast her perfect silhouette full on the pane, stand tense and motionless for the fraction of a breath, and then leap back so sharply that her robe billowed away from her body.
She had timed it to perfection. Two shots crashed almost together, and the glass shattered. And then, out in the night, a dozen beams crisscrossed, and, thin and clear in the silence after the shots, a yell of mortal anguish drifted up, and another, and a third.
"There are snipers in the copse. I'll draw them out!"
The Princess Margaret smiled in malice, and licked a crimson drop from a finger gashed by flying glass. "Your treachery reacts," she said in the tones of a sneer. "Instead of my betrayal, you have betrayed your own men."
"I need no accusation from you," he said gloomily. "I am my own accuser, and my own judge. Yes, and my own executioner as well. I will not live a traitor."
She raised her dainty eyebrows, and blew a puff of grey smoke from the cigarette still in her hand. "So strong Hull Tarvish will die a suicide," she remarked indifferently. "I had intended to kill you now. Should I leave you to be your own victim?"
He shrugged. "What matter to me?"
"Well," she said musingly, "you're rather more entertaining than I had expected. You're strong, you're stubborn, and you're dangerous. I give you the right to do what you wish with your own life, but"--her green eyes flickered mockingly--"if I were Hull Tarvish, I should live on the chance of justifying myself. You can wipe out the disgrace of your weakness by an equal courage. You can sell your life in your own cause, and who knows?--perhaps for Joaquin's--or mine!"
He chose to ignore the mockery in her voice. "Perhaps," he said grimly, "I will."
"Why, then, did you weaken, Hull Tarvish? You might have had my life."
"I do not fight women," he said despondently. "I looked at you--and turned weak." A question formed in his mind. "But why did you risk your life before the window? You could have had fifty woods runners scour the copse. That was brave, but unnecessary."
She smiled, but there was a shrewd narrowness in her eyes. "Because so many of these villages are built above the underground ways of the Ancients--the subways, the sewers. How did I know but that your assassins might slip into some burrow and escape? It was necessary to lure them into disclosure."
Hull shadowed the gleam that shot into his own eyes. He remembered suddenly the ancient sewer in which the child Vail had wandered, whose entrance was hidden by blackberry bushes. Then the Empire men were unaware of it! He visioned the Harriers creeping through it with bow and sword--yes, and rifle, now that the spell was off the valley--springing suddenly into the center of the camp, finding the Master's army, sleeping, disorganized, unwary. What a plan for a surprise attack!
"Your Highness," he said grimly, "I think of suicide no more, and unless you kill me now, I will be a bitter enemy to your Empire army."
"Perhaps less bitter than you think," she said softly. "See, Hull, the only three that know of your weakness are dead. No one can name you traitor or weakling."
"But I can," he returned somberly. "And you."