Page:Weird Tales volume 31 number 02.djvu/58

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tims' skins, urging them to leap downward. To turn and fight would be suicide; they were weaponless and hopelessly outnumbered. There was no alternative except chancing the unknown fate below; here was certain death on cold steel. Perhaps if they rebelled their lifeless bodies would be cast down; perhaps merely crippled bodies, with less chance for defensive action against the mysterious goddess, would leave them anchored and praying for a merciful death. The two looked and read the decision in each other's eyes.

"If it be Nargarth the Devil, himself, who calls," said Rald, "at least we can spit in his face and not be skewered from behind like a pair of pigs!"

They leaped, landing in sprawling positions on soft and cushioning sand. Slowly and wordlessly they regained their feet, glancing everywhere for signs of imminent danger and perceiving none closer than the ring of torches above. Here, close to the sheer rock wall, neither the flares nor the moonlight could reveal them to the sight of the warriors, all of whom were peering down in vain efforts to view them. The mercenaries could see the women's silhouettes against the fires and the sky but remained themselves invisible. All were silent; even the weird voice was quiet now. Rald thought, uneasily, perhaps the thing knew of their arrival.

"Let us keep to the shadows of the wall and circle the pit," counseled Thwaine in a whisper. "Perhaps we can see what we have been presented to–and they will not know just where we are."

The advice was sound, but before the other could verbally agree there came a single, sharp cry from above and another body landed on the sand at their feet. Believing, with some reason, that all Ceipe held only their foes, Rald threw himself instantly upon the prostrate form of the newcomer and prepared to strangle him or her without compunction or regard for sex. His objective was the bright blade he perceived beneath an out-flung hand. The instant he touched the body he recognized it to be that of a female (mercenaries being skilled in such matters sometimes more than court nobles), but nevertheless, he hooked a powerful forearm around her neck from behind and prepared to exert pressure. The guard uttered a low, clicking cry and feebly attempted to elude his grasp. Thwaine began to tear at his arm for some reason he could not comprehend, and he was conscious of confusion above on the pathway dominated by the hoarse voice of Throal, but before him he saw a sword. He wanted it badly; his training as a thief told him to take it as simply as possible, even if he had to break this fool woman's neck.

"Rald!" snarled his friend, savagely. "Don't, you fool! It's Ating–and she has brought us weapons!"

Dumbly, the ex-thief relaxed his strangling hold. Ating sat up on the sand and clutched her bruised throat, with her large eyes fixed on Thwaine. On the space of sand which had been covered by her prone body lay another sword.

"By the Seven!" swore Rald. "Two!"

"I–snatched–one from another guard as I jumped," explained Ating, her voice still husky because of a compressed larynx, "so there would be one for each of you. But you die, anyway. I only thought perhaps you would die happier with swords in your hands."

She spoke to both men, but her eyes remained on Thwaine. Her voice betrayed hopelessness. With a curious catch in his own speech, Thwaine inquired: "And you–how can you get back? What will they do?"