Chup spun back purposefully to the man he had struck down upon his right. It was the lieutenant of the Guards whom they had duped into letting them pass; he now had dropped his weapons and clung with blood-slippery, failing fingers to the rock. Chup cautiously pulled him in from the brink and cut his throat. Charmian watched, at first without understanding, as Chup continued cutting through the neck, gorily separating head from body.
When the collar of seamless-looking Old World metal was free, he wiped it clean on the lieutenant’s uniform and held it up. With two motions of his foot he sent the headless body into the abyss.
By now she understood, or thought she did. Anger was in her voice, perhaps from envy or from fear of being left alone. “You are a fool. The valkyrie will take no unhurt man to the Lord Draffut. And none who does not wear the collar properly around his neck.”
“You are not entirely right in that, my lady. I have talked with the soldiers. The valkyries will take a man whose collar is off. Provided he is so wounded that his head is severed from his trunk.”
Now her face showed that she fully understood his plan. Her anger grew. “Not every dead man is brought to Lord Draffut’s domain in time to be restored, nor heals properly.”
“Nor has a personal invitation from the High Lord Draffut. Listen, lady, I think you will not be worse off if I go. If more soldiers scramble down here, you may do as well with your eyelashes and sweet voice as I would with a sword. As things stand now, you can’t get out of here.”
That was true; now she was listening.
He pressed on. “Your situation may be greatly helped if I can go. What I was saying when the animal came is more important now than ever. What happened to your sister?”
“The Lord of Demons took her, as I said. Devoured her, I suppose.”
“You saw the tall black man do that?”
“I… no. He laid his hand upon her, and her screams were quieted. I did not linger to see more.”
With a quick movement Chup reversed his sword, and held the pommel of it out to Charmian. “Take this.”
She stood in hesitation.
Chup said: “If the Beast-Lord hates demons, as you say, I had better go to him, and quickly.”
“To tell him where to find the life of Zapranoth. Now take this and cut off my head.”
Holding out the sword and waiting, Chup felt content. True, she might murder him for good, or his plan might fail for other reasons. But since he had turned his back on Som and on the East, he felt like his own man again, and that feeling was enough; perhaps it was all that a man like him should try to get from life.
He fought on now to win, to live, because that was his nature. But he was tired, and saw no future beyond this battle. Death in itself had never been a terror for him. If it came now-well, he was tired. Half a year of paralytic near-death he had endured, out of sheer pride, unwillingness to give in. Then, when as if by miracle, his strength and freedom had been returned to him, he had come near throwing them away again, to serve the East -and why? What power or treasure could they offer that was worth the price they asked?
“Strike off my head,” he said to Charmian. “A valkyrie must be coming for this collar by now; there’d be one already here if they weren’t having a busy day.”
She was still hesitating, fearing, hoping, thinking, desperately deciding what course was best for her own welfare. She reached out and took the sword, then asked him: “Where is the demon’s life concealed?”
“Lady, I would not trust you with my beheading, save that you must see how it is in your own interest for me to reach Draffut with what I know. If we can kill or threaten Zapranoth, and tip the battle to the West, then you may sit here safely until Som is no longer dangerous. Unless, of course, you would ratherbear the message; in which case I must cut off your -no. I thought not.”
He turned and knelt down slowly, face toward the cliff. Charmian was at his right, holding the long blade point down on the ground. He said: “Now, about this little surgery I need… I suppose a single stroke would be too much to ask for. But more than two orthree should notbe needed, the blade is heavy and quite sharp.” Without turning to see her face, he added: “You are most beautiful, and most desirable by far, of all the women I have ever known.”
From the corner of his eye he saw Charmian losing her hesitation, gathering resolve, straightening her thin wrists in a tight two-handed grip to lift the weapon’s weight. Chup studied the details of the rock wall straight before him.
He had knelt down facing this way so that his head would not roll over-Enough of that. He was Chup. He would not even close his eyes.
On its way, the sword sang thinly. His muscles cried for the signal to roll away, his nerves screamed that there was still time to dodge. His ruling mind held his neck stretched and motionless.
Before the Citadel
Out near the middle of the tableland that divided the forces of the East and West, in a part of the rough plateau that was shattered and split into a dozen peninsulas divided by abyssal crevices, the High Lord Zapranoth came bursting up into the morning air like some foul pall of smoke, from a huge chimney-opening in the ground. Rolf, turning from his work of grappling down great gasbags, looked up at Zapranoth and saw that which made him squint his eyes half shut and turn away -though he could not have said what it was about the smoke that was so terrible. Looking around him, he could see that only Gray, and Loford who now stood beside his brother, were able to face the demon with their heads raised and eyes wide open. They were standing in the rear of the invaders’ little line, near Rolf and the balloons. The smoky image of the technology-djinn was fluttering and darting to and fro above the gasbags, like some frantic bird confined in an invisible cage.
Now Gray raised both his arms. Before the face of Zapranoth there appeared a haze or reflection of light gray, a screen as insubstantial as a rainbow, but as persistent. It stood steadily before the demon as he drifted gently nearer. Now it was possible for the soldiers of the West to look toward him-and toward the citadel, through whose open gate the Guard and its auxiliaries were pouring out, quick-march. Arrows began to fly both ways across the field. When the defenders of the citadel had finished a quick and practiced deployment in four ranks, Rolf estimated there might be nearly a thousand of them. He was too busy to give much time to pondering the odds, for the last balloons were landing now and he and his assistants had all they could do with work and dodging arrows. Each wore on his left arm a light shield woven of green limber branches; such shields were thought capable of squeezing and stopping piercing shafts that could bite through a coat of mail.
“Sound the trumpet once more!” Thomas now ordered with a shout. The Northman with the horn, his head now bandaged, turned back to face the pass -its thread of road still empty -and once more blasted out the signal.
This time there came an answering horn, though it sounded dishearteningly far away.
“There is our army coining, friends!” Thomas shouted in a great voice. “Let’s see if we can do the job before they get here!”
As if the distant horn had been a signal for them too, the Guard swayed now in formation to the shouting of its officers, and as one man stepped forward to attack. At a range of a hundred and fifty meters there came from their rear ranks a volley of arrows.
Rolf and those around him, finished at last with tying down balloons, took up their weapons and moved into their places for the fight. Some, holding shields, raised them to protect Gray and Loford. The two wizards still were standing motionless, and gazing steadfastly upon the ominous but also nearly motionless bulk of Zapranoth, high in the air above the middle of the field. Loford was swaying slightly on his feet; there was no other overt sign as yet of the struggle of invisible powers that had been joined.
The horn from down below, within the pass, now sounded once more, noticeably closer; and again as if its signal had been meant for them, the Guard of Som the Dead began to run and came on in a yelling charge.