Page:Weird Tales volume 31 number 02.djvu/56

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queen's cheeks at this impertinence. With clenched hands she faced her female warriors, but woman-like, could not resist a fleeting glance at Rald. The tall captive's head and shoulders protruded above the throng, higher than the helmets of her tallest guards; in that passing part of a second he stared straight into her eyes and the pleased smile of a child slid across his lips and was gone. She knew he was unafraid, but the pain in her breast grew greater. He did not know!

Her tones were calm and collected when she spoke again, but there was a desperate pleading in her words.

"My guards, my subjects, my friends! The rule of Hess is no more; Throal is but a name and his demons shall not plague us after this night! Somehow I know this to be true; I cannot say why, but I know! I am still, by right of ancestral lineage, queen of Ceipe!"

There was a murmur of approbation from the ranks before her next words struck them dumb.

"I renounce my title of priestess of Bubaste! I want no more of her black blood to stain my dynasty's mantle! I trust that all of you, even as I have done, will come to realize your immortal souls are of more value than the blind worship of a sadistic goddess and the rantings of an evil, degenerate wizard!"

The guards stood transfixed, frozen by uncertainty and the dramatic suddenness of the fierce dispute for power between their goddess' representative and their queen.

"Ha, Cene!" muttered Throal in tones so low that only the nearest could hear his words; "you were always difficult, even as a child. Perhaps… I should have… initiated you in the rites held in my private chambers, as I have others that questioned the rights of Bubaste; it is remarkable how swiftly they renounce their false gods and become devout worshippers of Hess!"

The queen paled but continued to ignore him. "Strike off the prisoner's chains!"

"Wait!" growled Throal, his voice suddenly harsh with command. The women advancing to free the mercenaries became motionless statues of indecision. "Hess, the sacred blood-relative of Bubaste, of Bast, daughter of Isis, has already spoken their names! You know what that means! It is too late. Or do you want an unforgiving goddess spreading destruction among the people of Ceipe, slaying wantonly and horribly, clawing your vitals, devouring with justifiable vengeance the ones from whom she expects reverence and homage? True, she has never harmed you before; but you have always obeyed her commands issued through myself, her priest. Now I warn you–forget to obey the descendant of Isis and the penalty will be frightful!"

The women's faces grew pale beneath the torchlight and some trembled so that the flames sputtered more than ever as they swayed in the night air.

"Listen!" commanded the wizard, and even Cene was silenced by the majestic power expressed on his hairless features.

For a minute they heard only the slight sigh of the desert wind as it lifted above the mountain barrier and swept down to cleanse the odors of the crater before it rose again to pursue its wayward course, the light crackling of fire devouring iron-wood, the tense breathing of someone at their side–nothing else. Then from somewhere below, where the sands of the arena were becoming faintly visible under the first lunar rays of the night, came the thin echoes of a call.

The voice held undercurrents of volume reminiscent of the great winds of the