"Not I, Hull," she murmured. "I never blame a man who weakens because of me--there have been many. Men as strong as you, Hull, and some that the world still calls great." She turned toward her own chamber. "Come in here," she said in altered tones. "I will have some wine. Sora!" As the fat woman padded off, she took another cigarette and lit it above the lamp, wrinkling her dainty nose distastefully at the night-flying insects that circled it.
"What a place!" she snapped impatiently.
"It is the finest house I have ever seen," said Hull stolidly.
She laughed. "It's a hovel. I sigh for the day we return to N'Orleans, where windows are screened, where water flows hot at will, where lights do not flicker as yellow oil lamps nor send heat to stifle one. Would you like to see the Great City, Hull?"
"You know I would."
"What if I say you may?"
"What could keep me from it if I go in peace?"
She shrugged. "Oh, you can visit N'Orleans, of course, but suppose I offered you the chance to go as the--the guest, we'll say, of the Princess Margaret. What would you give for that privilege?"
Was she mocking him again? "What would you ask for it?" he rejoined guardedly.
"Oh, your allegiance, perhaps. Or perhaps the betrayal of your little band of Harriers, who will be the devil's own nuisance to stamp out of these hills."
He looked up startled that she knew the name. "The Harriers? How?"
She smiled. "We have friends among the Ormiston men. Friends bought with land," she added contemptuously. "But what of my offer, Hull?"
He scowled. "You say as your guest. What am I to understand by that?"
She leaned across the table, her exquisite green eyes on his, her hair flaming blue-black, her perfect lips in a faint smile. "What you please, Hull. Whatever you please."
Anger was rising. "Do you mean," he asked huskily, "that you'd do that for so small a thing as the destruction of a little enemy band? You, with the whole Empire at your back?"
She nodded. "It saves trouble, doesn't it?"
"And honesty, virtue, honor, mean as little to you as that? Is this one of your usual means of conquest? Do you ordinarily sell your--your favors for--?"
"Not ordinarily," she interrupted coolly. "First I must like my co-partner in the trade. You, Hull--I like those vast muscles of yours, and your stubborn courage, and your slow, clear mind. You are not a great man, Hull, for your mind has not the cold fire of genius, but you are a strong one, and I like you for it."
"Like me!" he roared, starting up in his chair. "Yet you think I'll trade what honor's left me for--that! You think I'll betray my cause! You think-- Well, you're wrong, that's all. You're wrong!"
She shook her head, smiling. "No. I wasn't wrong, for I thought you wouldn't."
"Oh, you did!" he snarled. "Then what if I'd accepted? What would you have done then?"
"What I promised." She laughed at his angry, incredulous face. "Don't look so shocked, Hull. I'm not little Vail Ormiston. I'm the Princess Margaret of N'Orleans, called Margaret the Divine by those who love me, and by those who hate me called-- Well, you must know what my enemies call me."
"I do!" he blazed. "Black Margot, I do!"
"Black Margot!" she echoed smiling. "Yes, so called because a poet once amused me, and because there was once a very ancient, very great French poet named Francois Villon, who loved a harlot called Black Margot." She sighed. "But my poet was no Villon; already his works are nearly forgotten."
"A good name!" he rasped. "A good name for you!"
"Doubtless. But you fail to understand, Hull. I'm an Immortal. My years are three times yours. Would you have me follow the standards of death-bound Vail Ormiston?"
"Yes! By what right are you superior to all standards?"
Her lips had ceased to smile, and her deep green eyes turned wistful. "By the right that I can act in no other way, Hull," she said softly. A tinge of emotion quavered in her voice. "Immortality!" she whispered. "Year after year after year of sameness, tramping up and down the world on conquest! What do I care for conquest? I have no sense of destiny like Joaquin, who sees before him Empire--Empire--Empire, ever larger, ever growing. What's Empire to me? And year by year I grow bored until fighting, killing, danger, and love are all that keep me breathing!"
His anger had drained away. He was staring at her aghast, appalled.
"And then they fail me!" she murmured. "When killing palls and love grows stale, what's left? Did I say love? How can there be love for me when I know that if I love a man, it will be only to watch him age and turn wrinkled, weak, and flabby? And when I beg Joaquin for immortality for him, he flaunts before me that promise of his to Martin Sair, to grant it only to those already proved worthy. By the time a man's worthy he's old." She went on tensely, "I tell you, Hull, that I'm so friendless and alone that I envy you death-bound ones! Yes, and one of these days I'll join you!"
He gulped. "My God!" he muttered. "Better for you if you'd stayed in your native mountains with friends, home, husband, and children."
"Children!" she echoed, her eyes misting with tears. "Immortals can't have children. They're sterile; they should be nothing but brains like Joaquin and Martin Sair, not beings with feelings--like me. Sometimes I curse Martin Sair and his hard rays. I don't want immortality; I want life!"
Hull found his mind in a whirl. The impossible beauty of the girl he faced, her green eyes now soft and moist and unhappy, her lips quivering, the glisten of a tear on her cheek--these things tore at him so powerfully that he scarcely knew his own allegiance. "God!" he whispered. "I'm sorry!"
"And you, Hull--will you help me--a little?"
"But we're enemies--enemies!"
"Can't we be--something else?" A sob shook her.
"How can we be?" he groaned.
Suddenly some quirk to her dainty lips caught his attention. He stared incredulously into the green depths of her eyes. It was true. There was laughter there. She had been mocking him! And as she perceived his realization, her soft laughter rippled like rain on water.
"You--devil!" he choked. "You black witch! I wish I'd let you be killed!"
"Oh, no," she said demurely. "Look at me, Hull."
The command was needless. He couldn't take his fascinated gaze from her exquisite face.
"Do you love me, Hull?"
"I love Vail Ormiston," he rasped.
"But do you love me?"
"I hate you!"
"But do you love me as well?"
He groaned. "This is bitterly unfair," he muttered.
She knew what he meant. He was crying out against the circumstances that had brought the Princess Margaret--the most brilliant woman of all that brilliant age, and one of the most brilliant of any age--to flash all her fascination on a simple mountainy from Ozarky. It wasn't fair; her smile admitted it, but there was triumph there, too.
"May I go?" he asked stonily.
She nodded. "But you will be a little less my enemy, won't you, Hull?"
He rose. "Whatever harm I can do your cause," he said, "that harm will I do. I will not be twice a traitor." But he fancied a puzzling gleam of satisfaction in her green eyes at his words.
Hull looked down at noon over Ormiston valley, where Joaquin Smith was marching. At his side Vail paused, and together they gazed silently over Selui road, now black with riding men and rumbling wagons on their way to attack the remnant of the Confederation army in Selui. But Ormiston was not entirely abandoned, for three hundred soldiers and two hundred horsemen remained to deal with the Harriers, under Black Margot herself. It was not the policy of the Master to permit so large a rebel band to gather unopposed in conquered territory; within the Empire, despite the mutual hatred among rival cities, there existed a sort of enforced peace.
"Our moment comes tonight," Hull said soberly. "We'll never have a better chance than now, with our numbers all but equal to theirs, and surprise on our side."
Vail nodded. "The ancient tunnel was a bold thought, Hull. The Harriers are shoring up the crumbled places. Father is with them."
"He shouldn't be. The aged have no place in the field."
"But this is his hope, Hull. He lives for this."
"Small enough hope! Suppose we're successful, Vail. What will it mean save the return of Joaquin Smith and his army? Common sense tells me this is a fool's hunt, and if it were not for you and the chance of fairer fighting than we've had until now--well, I'd be tempted to concede the Master his victory."
"Oh, no!" cried Vail. "If our success means the end of Black Margot, isn't that enough? Besides, you know that half the Master's powers are the work of the witch. Enoch--poor Enoch--said so."
Hull winced. Enoch had been one of the three marksmen slain outside the west windows, and the girl's words brought memory of his own part in that. But her words pricked painfully in yet another direction, for the vision of the Princess that had plagued him all night long still rose powerfully in his mind, nor could he face the mention of her death unmoved.
But Vail read only distress for Enoch in his face. "Enoch," she repeated softly. "He loved me in his sour way, Hull, but once I had known you, I had no thoughts for him."
Hull slipped his arm about her, cursing himself that he could not steal his thought away from Margaret of N'Orleans, because it was Vail he loved, and Vail he wanted to love. Whatever spell the Princess had cast about him, he knew her to be evil, ruthless, and inhumanly cold--a sorceress, a devil. But he could not blot her Satanic loveliness from his inward gaze.
"Well," he sighed, "let it be tonight, then. Was it four hours past sunset? Good. The Empire men should be sleeping or gaming in Tigh's tavern by that time. It's for us to pray for our gunpowder."
"Gunpowder? Oh, but didn't you hear what I told File Ormson and the Harriers, back there on the ridge? The casters of the spell are gone; Joaquin Smith has taken them to Selui. I watched and listened from the kitchen this morning."
"The sparkers? They're gone?"
"Yes. They called them reson--resators--"
"Resonators," said Hull, recalling Old Einar's words.
"Something like that. There were two of them, great iron barrels on swivels, full of some humming and clicking magic, and they swept the valley north and south, and east and west, and over toward Norse there was the sound of shots and the smoke of a burning building. They loaded them on wagons and dragged them away toward Selui."
"They didn't cross the ridge with their spell," said Hull. "The Harriers still have powder."
"Yes," murmured Vail, drawing his arm closer about her. "Tell me," she said suddenly, "what did she want of you last night?"
Hull grimaced. He had told Vail little enough of that discreditable evening, and he had been fearing her question. "Treason," he said finally. "She wanted me to betray the Harriers."
"You? She asked that of you?"
"Do you think I would?" countered Hull.
"I know you never would. But what did she offer you for betrayal?"
Again he hesitated. "A great reward," he answered at last. "A reward out of all proportion to the task."
"Tell me, Hull, what is she like face to face?"
"A demon. She isn't exactly human."
"But in what way? Men say so much of her beauty, of her deadly charm. Hull--did you feel it?"
"I love you, Vail."
She sighed, and drew yet closer. "I think you're the strongest man in the world, Hull. The very strongest."
"I'll need to be," he muttered, staring gloomily over the valley. Then he smiled faintly as he saw men plowing, for it was late in the season for such occupation. Old Marcus Ormiston was playing safe; remembering the Master's words, he was tilling every acre across which a horse could drag a blade.
Vail left him in Ormiston village and took her way hesitantly homeward. Hull did what he could about the idle shop, and when the sun slanted low, bought himself a square loaf of brown bread, a great slice of cheese, and a bottle of the still, clear wine of the region. It was just as he finished his meal in his room that a pounding on the door of the shop summoned him.
It was an Empire man. "Hull Tarvish?" he asked shortly. At Hull's nod he continued, "From Her Highness," and handed him a folded slip of black paper.
The mountain youth stared at it. On one side, in raised gold, was the form of a serpent circling a globe, its tail in its mouth--the Midgard Serpent. He slipped a finger through the fold, opened the message, and squinted helplessly at the characters written in gold on the black inner surface.
"This scratching means nothing to me," he said.
The Empire man sniffed contemptuously. "I'll read it," he said, taking the missive. "It says, 'Follow the messenger to our quarters,' and it's signed Margarita Imperii Regina, which means Margaret, Princess of the Empire. Is that plain?" He handed back the note. "I've been looking an hour for you."
"Suppose I won't go," growled Hull.
"This isn't an invitation, Weed. It's a command."
Hull shrugged. He had small inclination to face Black Margot again, especially with his knowledge of the Harriers' plans. Her complex personality baffled and fascinated him, and he could not help fearing that somehow, by some subtle art, she might wring that secret from him. Torture wouldn't force it out of him, but those green eyes might read it. Yet--better to go quietly than be dragged or driven; he grunted assent and followed the messenger.
He found the house quiet. The lower room where Joaquin Smith had rested was empty now, and he mounted the stairs again steeling himself against the expected shock of Black Margot's presence. This time, however, he found her clothed, or half clothed by Ormiston standards, for she wore only the diminutive shorts and shirt that were her riding costume, and her dainty feet were bare. She sat in a deep chair beside the table, a flagon of wine at hand and a black cigarette in her fingers. Her jet hair was like a helmet of ebony against the ivory of her forehead and throat, and her green eyes like twin emeralds.
"Sit down," she said as he stood before her. "The delay is your loss, Hull. I would have dined with you."
"I grow strong enough on bread and cheese," he growled.
"You seem to." Fire danced in her eyes. "Hull, I am as strong as most men, but I believe those vast muscles of yours could overpower me as if I were some shrinking provincial girl. And yet--"
"And yet what?"
"And yet you are much like my black stallion Eblis. Your muscles are nearly as strong, but like him, I can goad you, drive you, lash you, and set you galloping in whatever direction I choose."
"Can you?" he snapped. "Don't try it." But the spell of her unearthly beauty was hard to face.
"But I think I shall try it," she cooed gently. "Hull, do you ever lie?"
"I do not."
"Shall I make you lie, then, Hull? Shall I make you swear such falsehoods that you will redden forever afterward at the thought of them? Shall I?"