Page:Weird Tales volume 31 number 02.djvu/49

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had served as pointed tools that delved beneath his skin to the inner nerves. Now he became berserk. Disregarding the swords at his back he dived onto the shoulders of one of the unsuspecting guards before him and in an instant wrenched her sword from her hand. Half falling because of the clumsiness of the chains about his ankles, he managed nevertheless to gain the rocky wall. Once there, he turned and fixed all enemies with a tigerish, defiant eye as he assumed a protective crouch.

"Women or not, I'll kill the first one to move!"

"Rald!" exclaimed Thwaine, his voice low but desperate.

The smaller captive had not moved an inch when Rald made his daring bid for freedom; amazed at this lack of co-operation, the rebellious one noted that neither had the women–not even the one whose sword he had confiscated. Then his eyes swung, before Thwaine's pleading guidance, to the opposite wall of the blind gulch, and he saw the reason. Ten female warriors stood along the cliff holding poised spears, all of which were pointed at him as they awaited the order to throw. Escape was impossible. Should he take but one step, he would be impaled by a series of shafts–if these women's ability to throw straight upheld the confident bearing implied by their postures.

"Hold!" ordered the figure on the throne. "Do not kill him–now."

"You are–Queen Cene?" asked Rald.

Ggravely, the woman nodded her head in assent. Even in this tense moment the mercenary observed and inwardly complimented her attractiveness–the raven-black curls, the long-lashed eyes, the curves of cheek and chin and crimson lips. Her corset of mail failed to conceal her femininity; its shining surface merely enhanced the smoothness and transparency of the skin on the throat and face. There was an air of regality about her person, some trick of mannerism or posture that plainly made evident her right to sit upon the throne. She had inherited royal blood along with the invisible purple mantle bestowed by the Seven Gods on men or women who were rulers among their kind, the mantle so often stained crimson by the blood of both fools and heroes.

"I am Cene," she said, "Queen of Ceipe and Priestess of the Temple of Bast."

"Bast!" cried Thwaine with horror in his voice.

Rald made no sound, but his eyes widened as he studied the queen's face. Echoes of gossip garnered from the streets and taverns of Ygoth flooded his brain–tales told above the flowing of the wine; of a lost, virtually inaccessible kingdom in the mountains beyond the Livian plains where women were of warrior stock. It was said that the people there bowed to a dreadful goddess, called Bubaste, the same that ruled in a far-off land known to few, in a strange country by a sluggish river named the Nile. A cat-goddess! Bubaste, or Bast, as this goddess was sometimes known, was not as harmless as many of the other gods men worshipped, according to the tales; for gruesome stories abounded of half-devoured bodies left by her after frequent repasts, and how shrieking, insane, cruelly clawed men had staggered out of the desert at night, babbling deliriously, before they died, of a great black panther. Always their stories were the same. Gradually men began to believe, knowing such repetition must be based on fact. The huge cat they described had spoken to them with a human voice, so they declared, and had addressed them by name. Some of these men had been criminals with prices on their heads, some escaping slaves, and others honest