She smiled, then in altered tones, "Do you love me, Hull?"
"Love you? I hate--" He broke off suddenly.
"Do you hate me, Hull?" she asked gently.
"No," he groaned at last. "No, I don't hate you."
"But do you love me?" Her face was saint-like, earnest, pure, even the green eyes were soft now as the green of spring. "Tell me, do you love me?"
"No!" he ground out savagely, then flushed crimson at the smile on her lips. "That isn't a lie!" he blazed. "This sorcery of yours isn't love. I don't love your beauty. It's unnatural, hellish, and the gift of Martin Sair. It's a false beauty, like your whole life!"
"Martin Sair had little to do with my appearance," she said gently. "What do you feel for me, Hull, if not love?"
"I--don't know. I don't want to think of it!" He clenched a great fist. "Love? Call it love if you wish, but it's a hell's love that would find satisfaction in killing you!" But here his heart revolted again. "That isn't so," he ended miserably. "I couldn't kill you."
"Suppose," she proceeded gently, "I were to promise to abandon Joaquin, to be no longer Black Margot and Princess of the Empire, but to be only--Hull Tarvish's wife. Between Vail and me, which would you choose?"
He said nothing for a moment. "You're unfair," he said bitterly at last. "Is it fair to compare Vail and yourself? She's sweet and loyal and innocent, but you--you are Black Margot!"
"Nevertheless," she said calmly, "I think I shall compare us. Sora!" The fat woman appeared. "Sora, the wine is gone. Send the eldarch's daughter here with another bottle and a second goblet."
Hull stared appalled. "What are you going to do?"
"No harm to your little Weed. I promise no harm."
"But--" He paused. Vail's footsteps sounded on the stairs, and she entered timidly, bearing a tray with a bottle and a metal goblet. He saw her start as she perceived him, but she only advanced quietly, set the tray on the table, and backed toward the door.
"Wait a moment," said the Princess. She rose and moved to Vail's side as if to force the comparison on Hull. He could not avoid it; he hated himself for the thought, but it came regardless. Barefooted, the Princess Margaret was exactly the height of Vail in her lowheeled sandals, and she was the merest shade slimmer. But her startling black hair and her glorious green eyes seemed almost to fade the unhappy Ormiston girl to a colorless dun, and the coppery hair and blue eyes seemed water pale. It wasn't fair; Hull realized that it was like comparing candlelight to sunbeam, and he despised himself even for gazing.
"Hull," said the Princess, "which of us is the more beautiful ?"
He saw Vail's lips twitch fearfully, and he remained stubbornly silent.
"Hull," resumed the Princess, "which of us do you love?"
"I love Vail!" he muttered.
"But do you love her more than you love me?"
Once again he had recourse to silence.
"I take it," said the Princess, smiling, "that your silence means you love me the more. Am I right?"
He said nothing.
"Or am I wrong, Hull? Surely you can give little Vail the satisfaction of answering this question! For unless you answer I shall take the liberty of assuming that you love me the more. Now do you?"
He was in utter torment. His white lips twisted in anguish as he muttered finally, "Oh, God! Then yes!"
She smiled softly. "You may go," she said to the pallid and frightened Vail.
But for a moment the girl hesitated. "Hull," she whispered, "Hull, I know you said that to save me. I don't believe it, Hull, and I love you. I blame--her!"
"Don't!" he groaned. "Don't insult her."
The Princess laughed, "Insult me! Do you think I could be insulted by a bit of creeping dust as it crawls its way from cradle to grave?" She turned contemptuous green eyes on Vail as the terrified girl backed through the door.
"Why do you delight in torture?" cried Hull. "You're cruel as a cat. You're no less than a demon."
"That wasn't cruelty," said the Princess gently. "It was but a means of proving what I said, that your mighty muscles are well-broken to my saddle."
"If that needed proof," he muttered.
"It needed none. There's proof enough, Hull, in what's happening even now, if I judge the time rightly. I mean your Harriers slipping through their ancient sewer right into my trap behind the barn."
He was thunderstruck. "You--are you--you must be a witch!" he gasped.
"Perhaps. But it wasn't witchcraft that led me to put the thought of that sewer into your head, Hull. Do you remember now that it was my suggestion, given last evening there in the hallway? I knew quite well that you'd put the bait before the Harriers."
His brain was reeling. "But why-- Why--?"
"Oh," she said indifferently, "it amuses me to see you play the traitor twice, Hull Tarvish."
Notes: 5: The field of the Erden resonator passes readily through structures and walls, but it is blocked by any considerable natural obstructions, hills, and for some reason fog-banks or low clouds.
The princess stepped close to him, her magnificent eyes gentle as an angel's, the sweet curve of her lips in the ghost of a pouting smile. "Poor, strong, weak Hull Tarvish!" she breathed. "Now you shall have a lesson in the cost of weakness. I am not Joaquin, who fights benignly with his men's slides in the third notch. When I go to battle, my beams flash full, and there is burning flesh and bursting heart. Death rides with me."
He scarcely heard her. His gyrating mind struggled with an idea. The Harriers were creeping singly into the trap, but they could not all be through the tunnel. If he could warn them-- His eyes shifted to the bell-pull in the hall beside the guard, the rope that tolled the bronze bell in the belfry to summon public gatherings, or to call aid to fight fires. Death, beyond doubt, if he rang it, but that was only a fair price to pay for expiation.
His great arm flashed suddenly, sweeping the Princess from her feet and crashing her dainty figure violently against the wall. He heard her faint "O--o--oh" of pain as breath left her and she dropped slowly to her knees, but he was already upon the startled guard, thrusting him up and over the rail of the stair-well to drop with a sullen thump below. And then he threw his weight on the bellrope, and the great voice of bronze boomed out, again, and again.
But Black Margot was on her feet, with the green hell-sparks flickering in her eyes and her face a lovely mask of fury. Men came rushing up the stairs with drawn weapons, and Hull gave a last tug on the rope and turned to face death. Half a dozen weapons were on him.
"No--no!" gasped the Princess, struggling for the breath he had knocked out of her. "Hold him--for me! Take him--to the barn!"
She darted down the stairway, her graceful legs flashing bare, her bare feet padding softly. After her six grim Empire men thrust Hull past the dazed guard sitting on the lower steps and out into a night where blue beams flashed and shots and yells sounded.
Behind the barn was comparative quiet, however, by the time Hull's captors had marched him there. A closepacked mass of dark figures huddled near the mouth of the ancient tunnel, where the bushes were trampled away, and a brown-clad file of Empire woods runners surrounded them. A few figures lay sprawled on the turf, and Hull smiled a little as he saw that some were Empire men. Then his eyes strayed to the Princess where she faced a dark-haired officer.
"How many, Lebeau?"
"A hundred and forty or fifty, Your Highness."
"Not half! Why are you not pursuing the rest through the tunnel?"
"Because, Your Highness, one of them pulled the shoring and the roof down upon himself, and blocked us off. We're digging him out now."
"By then they'll have left their burrow. Where does this tunnel end?" She strode over to Hull. "Hull, where does this tunnel end?" At his silence, she added. "No matter. They'd be through it before we could reach it." She spun back. "Lebeau! Burn down what we have and the rest we'll stamp out as we can." A murmur ran through the crowd of villagers that was collecting, and her eyes, silvery green in the moonlight, flickered over them. "And any sympathizers," she added coldly. "Except this man, Hull Tarvish."
File Ornison's great voice rumbled out of the mass of prisoners. "Hull! Hull! Was this trap your doing?"
Hull made no answer, but Black Margot herself replied. "No," she snapped, "but the warning bell was."
"Then why do you spare him?"
Her eyes glittered icy green. "To kill in my own way, Weed," she said in tones so cold that it was as if a winter wind had sent a shivering breath across the spring night. "I have my own account to collect from him."
Her eyes blazed chill emerald fire into Hull's. He met her glance squarely, and said in a low voice, "Do you grant any favors to a man about to die?"
"Not by custom," she replied indifferently. "Is it the safety of the eldarch's daughter? I plan no harm to her."
"It isn't that."
"Then ask it--though I am not disposed to grant favors to you, Hull Tarvish, who have twice laid hands of violence on me."
His voice dropped almost to a whisper. "It is the lives of my companions I ask."
She raised here eyebrows in surprise, then shook her ebony flame of hair. "How can I? I remained here purposely to wipe them out. Shall I release the half I have, only to destroy them with the rest?"
"I ask their lives," he repeated.
A curious, whimsical fire danced green in her eves. "I will try," she promised, and turned to the officer, who was ranging his men so that the cross-fire of execution could not mow down his own ranks. "Lebeau!" she snapped. "Hold back a while."
She strode into the gap between the prisoners and her own men. Hand on hip she surveyed the Harriers, while moonlight lent her beauty an aura that was incredible, unearthly. There in the dusk of night she seemed no demon at all, but a girl, almost a child, and even Hull, who had learned well enough what she was, could not but sweep fascinated eyes from her jet hair to her tiny white feet.
"Now," she said, passing her glance over the group, "on my promise of amnesty, how many of you would join me?"
A stir ran through the mass. For a moment there was utter immobility, then, very slowly, two figures moved forward, and the stir became an angry murmur. Hull recognized the men; they were stragglers of the Confederation army, Ch'cago men, good fighters but merely mercenaries, changing sides as mood or advantage moved them. The murmur of the Harriers became an angry growl.
"You two," said the Princess, "are you Ormiston men?"
"No," said one. "Both of us come from the shores of Mitchin."
"Very well," she proceeded calmly. With a movement swift as arrow flight she snatched the weapon from her belt, the blue beam spat twice, and the men crumpled, one with face burned carbon-black, and both sending forth an odorous wisp of flesh-seared smoke.
She faced the aghast group. "Now," she said, "who is your leader?"
File Ormson stepped forth, scowling and grim. "What do you want of me?"
"Will you treat with me? Will your men follow your agreements?"
File nodded. "They have small choice."
"Good. Now that I have sifted the traitors from your ranks--for I will not deal with traitors--I shall make my offer." She smiled at the squat ironsmith. "I think I've served both of us by so doing," she said softly, and Hull gasped as he perceived the sweetness of the glance she bent on the scowling File. "Would you, with your great muscles and warrior's heart, follow a woman?"
The scowl vanished in surprise. "Follow you? You?"
"Yes." Hull watched her in fascination as she used her voice, her eyes, her unearthly beauty intensified by the moonlight, all on hulking File Ormson, behind whom the Harrier prisoners stood tense and silent. "Yes, I mean to follow me," she repeated softly. "You are brave men, all of you, now that I have weeded out the two cowards." She smiled wistfully, almost tenderly at the squat figure before her. "And you--you are a warrior."
"But--" File gulped, "our others--"
"I promise you need not fight against your companions. I will release any of you who will not follow me. And your lands--it is your lands you fight for, is it not? I will not touch, not one acre save the eldarch's." She paused. "Well?"
Suddenly File's booming laugh roared out. "By God!" he swore. "If you mean what you say, there's nothing to fight about! For my part, I'm with you!" He turned on his men. "Who follows me?"
The group stirred. A few stepped forward, then a few more, and then, with a shout, the whole mass. "Good!" roared File. He raised his great hard hand to his heart in the Empire salute. "To Black--to the Princess Margaret!" he bellowed. "To a warrior!"
She smiled and dropped her eyes as if in modesty. When the cheer had passed, she addressed File Ormson again. "You will send men to your others?" she asked. "Let them come in on the same terms."
"They'll come!" growled File.
The Princess nodded. "Lebeau," she called, "order off your men. These are our allies."
The Harriers began to separate, drifting away with the crowd of villagers. The Princess stepped close to Hull, smiling maliciously up into his perplexed face. He scarcely knew whether to be glad or bitter, for indeed, though she had granted his request to spare his companions, she had granted it only at the cost of the destruction of the cause for which he had sacrificed everything. There were no Harriers any more, but he was still to die for them.
"Will you die happy now?" she cooed softly.
"No man dies happy," he growled.
"I granted your wish, Hull."
"If your promises can be trusted," he retorted bitterly. "You lied coolly enough to the Ch'cago men, and you made certain they were not loved by the Harriers before you killed them."
She shrugged. "I lie, I cheat, I swindle by whatever means comes to hand," she said indifferently, "but I do not break my given word. The Harriers are safe."
Beyond her, men came suddenly from the tunnel mouth, dragging something dark behind them.
"The Weed who pulled down the roof, Your Highness," said Lebeau.
She glanced behind her, and pursed her dainty lips in surprise. "The eldarch! The dotard died bravely enough." Then she shrugged. "He had but a few more years anyway."
But Vail slipped by with a low moan of anguish, and Hull watched her kneel desolately by her father's body. A spasm of pity shook him as he realized that now she was utterly, completely alone. Enoch had died in the ambush of the previous night, old Marcus lay dead here before her, and he was condemned to death. The three who loved her and the man she loved--all slain in two nights passing. He bent a slow, helpless, pitying smile on her, but there was nothing he could do or say.
And Black Margot, after the merest glance, turned back to Hull, "Now," she said, the ice in her voice again, "I deal with you!"
He faced her dumbly. "Will you have the mercy to deal quickly, then?" he muttered at last.
"Mercy? I do not know the word where you're concerned, Hull. Or rather I have been already too merciful. I spared your life three times--once at Joaquin's request at Eaglefoot Flow, once before the guardhouse, and once up there in the hallway." She moved closer. "I cannot bear the touch of violence, Hull, and you have laid violent hands on me twice. Twice!"
"Once was to save your life," he said, "and the other to rectify my own unwitting treason. And I spared your life three times too, Black Margot--once when I aimed from the church roof, once from the ambush in the west chamber, and once but a half hour ago, for I could have killed you with this fist of mine, had I wished to strike hard enough. I owe you nothing."
She smiled coldly. "Well argued, Hull, but you die none the less in the way I wish." She turned. "Back to the house!" she commanded, and he strode away between the six guards who still flanked him.