Upon reaching the street, they started for the palace, its white wall_leaming under the mid-morning sun. No citizen of Sephar was abroad; but th_arching men were conscious of watching eyes at windows of the buildings o_ither side.
The palace grounds, too, were deserted as they swept across the palace ground_nd dashed against the great double doors. They might as well have sought t_orce the palace walls so strongly barred were the heavy planks.
As they stood debating their next step, a shower of spears, arrows and club_ell suddenly upon them from above, killing several before Tharn could giv_he order to withdraw.
At a safe distance from the windows, Tharn, Vulcar and Katon held a brie_ouncil of war, finally agreeing upon a strategic maneuver that held promis_f being effective.
Eight warriors left the group, returning with a heavy log, free of branches.
This was carried, four men to a side, to within a short distance from th_arred entranceway. Now, eight replacements came forward, took up the massiv_ree trunk and started at a run toward the doors, the log's heavy base aime_t a point where the two rough-hewn sections joined.
Within a dozen paces of their objective, they swerved sharply to their lef_nd sent the great timber crashing through the slender stone columns of _arge window.
Following the log came those who had carried it, pouring through to th_allway beyond. It was deserted; evidently the defenders were grouped at th_pstairs windows, intending to stage their defense from that point.
A second later the palace doors were thrown wide and, notwithstanding a heav_arrage from overhead, the rebels soon over-ran the central hallway.
Halfway up the wide staircase they were met by a withering volley from th_pper passageway and stairhead. But Tharn raised his voice once more in th_wesome war challenge of his people, and which seemed to lift his follower_odily to the top of the steps.
Here, fighting was fast and furious. Although outnumbered at first by four t_ne, the insurgents made up that handicap by the intensity of their assault; and slowly but steadily Pryak's loyal troops were being pushed back.
Tharn was in his element! Knife and spear had been cast aside or lost; hi_nly weapons were his mighty hands. Yet his was the most feared figure amon_he rebels, as was attested to by the mound of strangled and broken guard_trewn about him.
Several times he saw Katon battling away close by, a long knife in eithe_and. Once, an enemy in a badly torn tunic was preparing to drive a knife int_is unsuspecting back. Tharn had torn a spear from the fingers of _eighboring comrade and without pausing to judge distance, had thrown i_cross the hall to pass half its length into the side of Katon's would-b_layer. The man had fallen, while Katon, unaware of his narrow escape, wa_inishing the warrior with whom he had been engaged.
Of Vulcar, Brutan and Rotark, Tharn had seen nothing since the battle began.
During momentary lulls he had time to wonder how they were faring—if, somewhere in this madhouse of fighting, bellowing men, they were managing t_eep their skins whole.
Gradually the palace defenders were weakening, losing heart as their list o_asualties grew. Already, the men of Tharn's party had sensed victory wa_lowly but surely passing into their hands.
And then came the unexpected, the one contingency which none of the rebe_eaders had forseen.
A ringing shout sounded from the open doorway, and through the gap cam_riests from the temple of Sephar's God. Instead of waiting for the freedom- hungry prisoners to take their first objective, then march against the Hous_f God, the cunning arch priest had sent every man he could muster t_einforce the palace garrison.
There must have been a hundred of them, fresh and—for priests—eager fo_attle. They fell upon the revolters from behind, spreading death an_onsternation in the thinning ranks of those from Sephar's pits.
Encouraged by aid from this wholly unexpected quarter, the palace defender_egained their fading morale and renewed the attack with reckless fury.
The end had come. Bitter was the realization to Tharn who, until now, had bee_ertain nothing could prevent his men from taking Sephar. He smarted under th_nowledge that wily old Pryak had outwitted them after all.
He might, under cover of the raging turmoil, have turned his back on friend_nd supporters to seek out Dylara's cell and escape with her from Sephar. Bu_he thought was gone as it was born; and the Cro-Magnard sought to rally hi_haken followers to the task of cutting a pathway back to the street. Onc_utside, some of them might manage to flee into the jungle—a far cry fro_heir ambitious dream of taking Sephar!
It began to appear, however, that leaving the palace was to be infinitely mor_ifficult than forcing an entrance had been. Again and again his men wer_epulsed by the white-faced but unflinching priests at the foot of th_taircase. Steadily the number of rebels grew less; and while they took mor_ives than they gave, there were too many to outlast.
Suddenly there rose above the pandemonium within, a chorus of savage crie_rom outside the open doors. Tharn straightened as though struck by an unsee_pear. His eyes went wide with incredulous astonishment bordering o_isbelief; then from his powerful lungs broke an answering shout that paled t_nsignificance the tumult about him.
Swarming into the hall below, came a host of strange, warlike fighting-men, naked except for panther- and leopard-skins about their loins. Splendid, beautifully proportioned barbarians they were, heavy war-spears gripped i_owerful right hands, sun-bronzed skins rippling under the play of corde_uscles.
At their head was the stalwart figure of a man such as never before had bee_een within Sephar's borders. Four inches above six feet he stood, slim of hi_nd broad of shoulder—a wealth of black hair held from his eyes by a strip o_ured snakeskin.
"Father!" burst from Tharn's lips.
At sound of his cry, the leader of the newcomers looked sharply in hi_irection.
"Kill!" shouted young Tharn, bringing one hand out in a sweeping gestur_oward the frozen ranks of priests.
In response, the Cro-Magnards threw themselves at the white-clad enemy. At th_ame time Tharn, the younger, leaped into action, shouting words o_nstruction and encouragement to his friends.
The end came quickly. Torn at from two sides, the priests broke and fled i_ll directions, the cave-men in hot pursuit. At sight of this, the origina_efenders threw down their weapons and surrendered on the spot.
Now came Tharn, the elder, striding forward to greet his son. Behind hi_rowded others of the tribe, wide smiles on their lips.
"We have searched long for you, my son," said the chief. "At times we wer_lose to giving up; it was not until yesterday that one of us found where yo_nd a girl had followed a game trail leading to this place."
"You could not have arrived at a better time!"
The chief smiled. Katon, watching from the background, marveled at th_triking resemblance of father to son when both smiled.
"At first," said the Cro-Magnard leader, "we were almost afraid to leave th_ungle's edge. But no one was about the openings in the walls, and as you_rail led straight toward one of them, we decided to follow it. Then, too, al_f us were curious to see what manner of people lived in such strange caves.
"No one tried to stop us. In fact, we saw no one at all. I was beginning t_onder if we were the only ones here until we heard sounds of fighting comin_rom here. The rest you know."
His son nodded. "Soon I shall tell you what I have gone through since I las_aw you. But first I have something to do."
He hesitated. How should he go about telling his father? He hoped Dylara woul_ot exhibit that temper of hers the first time she met the chief.
"What must you do?" the chief asked, glancing sharply at the face of his son.
"I have taken a mate!" There—it was out!
His father never batted an eye.
"Where is she?"
"Somewhere in this place. A prisoner, I suppose. Katon, here, may be able t_ind her. She—she may not seem pleased that I have come for her."
Those last words came out with an effort. But sooner or later his father wa_ound to learn he had taken a mate by force.
The elder man pursed his lips to keep from smiling. He was shrewd enough t_ome very close to the true state of affairs. But what of it? His ow_ourtship had been none too easy. Afterward, Nada and he had been closer tha_ords could express. He had never, nor would ever, lose the pain that had com_hen she had been taken captive by some strange tribe so many years ago.
Katon, at mention of his name, had stepped forward.
"This," Tharn said, "is Katon—my friend."
There was immediate approval in the eyes of both the blue-eyed Sepharian an_he Cro-Magnard chief.
"Dylara probably is in the slave quarters," Katon said. "If you will come wit_e, I will lead you there."
And shortly thereafter, father and son stood before a great door while Kato_emoved its heavy bar.
They entered a huge, sunlit room crowded with women, young and old, who shran_way from them in alarm.
There was one, however, who did not draw away. Her lovely face was registerin_stonishment and disbelief—and hope. One hand lifted slowly to her throat a_he stared into the eyes of Tharn's father.
Nor was she alone in displaying tangled emotions. Tharn, the elder, was gazin_t the woman as though unable to credit the evidence of his own eyes.
And then the man found his voice.
"Nada!" It was more gasp than a word.
An instant later she was caught up in his arms.
Young Tharn looked on in bewilderment, not grasping, at first, th_ignificance of that single word his father had uttered. Then, as the chie_urned toward him, an arm about the woman's shoulders, he understood.
Then his arm, too, was about her: and after twelve long years, father, son, and mother were reunited.
None of the three had much to say during the next few minutes. There was a_normous lump in Nada's throat, making speech impossible. She could not tak_er eyes from the splendid young man who, until a few days ago, she ha_hought to be dead. He was everything Dylara had said he was. She remembere_im as she had last seen him—a straight-backed, sturdy-legged youngster, whos_nquisitive nature and complete lack of fear had given her so many anxiou_oments. Even at that early age he had shown promise of the extraordinar_hysical development he now possessed.
But her greatest pride and satisfaction came from what she could see in thos_rank, compelling gray eyes—eyes mirroring a fine, sensitive soul and a_qually fine mind.
"Tell me," Nada said at last, "how did you know I was here?"
"I did not know," admitted her mate. "Did you, Tharn?"
Their son shook his head. "I never dreamed you were in Sephar. As a matter o_act, we came here to find a girl—Dylara, my—my mate. We thought she would b_ith the slaves."
Then it was that he saw a shadow come into Nada's eyes—a shadow which wipe_way his smile and closed a cold hand about his heart.
"Nada!" he exclaimed. "What is wrong? Has something happened to her?"
"She is … gone," his mother said dully.
"Yes. Pryak gave her to a man from a land far to the south of Sephar. He ha_aken her there with him."
Tharn's face was white beneath its layer of tan. "How long since?" he demande_oarsely.
"This is the third day."
Without another word the young man wheeled and started for the door. Before h_ould reach it, however, strong fingers closed on his arm.
His father had stopped him. "Wait, Tharn. Where are you going?"
"After Dylara," said his son grimly.
"Of course; but do not leave so—so abruptly. Let us talk this over before yo_tart. Some of our men will go with you, once we have eaten and slept."
"I am neither tired nor hungry," retorted his son. "I am going alone; other_ould only delay me."
Katon chose this moment to intervene. "Wait a few hours, Tharn. There is muc_eft to be done here, and we need your help. A new king must be chosen an_rder restored to the palace and city. Once that is done there will be a feas_or all of us; then, after a good sleep, you can set out after Dylara. You ca_vertake those who have her within two or three suns."
Nada ended the discussion. "Stay until morning, my son," she pleaded. "I hav_ut found you; I cannot bear to let you go so soon."
The smile came back to Tharn's face. "As you will," he conceded. "But whe_yta comes again, I must leave you."
So it was decided, and the four went down to the lower floor to join th_thers.
That night, in the great dininghall of Sephar's palace, a happy throng sa_bout a long, wide table laden to its edges with an abundance of foods. At th_ead sat Katon; at his right hand was Tharn, the elder; and, on his left, wa_harn, the younger, his mother beside him.
Earlier that afternoon the former prisoners and those nobles who had no_allen in defense of Pryak's government, had assembled in the great centra_allway to elect a new king. Tharn, to his honest surprise, had been thei_nstant and unanimous choice. But he had declined the honor, saying:
"There is one among you who has every right to rule over you. He, himself, i_he son of a king—one who understands all those things expected of a ruler.
That man is Katon of Huxla!"
The roar of approval which followed his words reached far beyond Sephar'_alls. Katon would have protested but he had no chance of making himsel_eard, and he accepted—hiding his pleasure as best he could. He did not drea_hat a pang that speech had cost his Cro-Magnard friend, for with those word_harn had relinquished his hope of taking the Sepharian back with him to th_aves of his father.
Later in the day an armed force had entered the temple of Sephar's God; an_hile the feet of those faint-hearted members in the group had dragge_omewhat, none had turned back.
However, no resistance had materialized; instead, a horde of priests, arm_eld high, hands empty, had welled up from the subterranean maze below th_emple and begged the new ruler to accept them as his own loyal followers.
Among them was the Council of Priests, intact to a man—except for one. Bu_hat one was he whom Katon—and Vulcar!—had desired most to see: Pryak, hig_riest and Sephar's former king.
It was then that the new king displayed his ability to make sensibl_ecisions. Before leaving the temple he had appointed Cardon as high priest t_he God-Whose-Name-May-Not-Be-Spoken. Nor could he have made a wiser choice; for Cardon was possessor of a rugged honesty as well as a lack of ambitio_eyond his position. The long-standing feud between Church and State wa_nded.
Once these matters had been disposed of, Katon had sent his soldiery t_ssemble the residents of Sephar at the palace grounds. When a huge throng ha_illed not only the grassy expanse but the street as well, Katon, as ruler o_ephar, had proclaimed the new government and asked that they acknowledge, a_heir king, a warrior in place of a priest.
The thunderous, welcoming roar which greeted his words was all that was neede_o make of Sephar a unified community. Katon had immediately proclaimed a tw_ay holiday, to be given over to feasting and drinking; and, because he was _hrewd judge of human nature, he had announced that every citizen mus_acrifice some valued article to the God, whose help had made the revolt _uccess.
And so it was that on this night all Sephar, from palace to city walls, was i_ merry-making mood. Within the palace dininghall, there was only a singl_iny cloud to mar the clear sky of happiness; a cloud fast losing the dark hu_t at first had assumed.
This bit of gloom was caused by the absence of Dylara. But when young Thar_ad had an opportunity to reflect, there had come the certainty that Dylar_ould be back with him before many suns. Tharn knew he could cover in one da_hree times the distance that the slow-moving men from Ammad could travel i_hat same period of time. And while they must camp while Dyta slept, Thar_ould go on across nocturnal jungles and plains without being forced to slac_is speed.
Vulcar, earthen goblet in hand, was bellowing out an anecdote of the days whe_e had been a young warrior, when the hangings behind Tharn's bench swayed a_hough touched by a random current of air.
Because all eyes were fixed on the speaker, and because the faint candle ligh_ailed to reach much beyond the table, none saw the half crouched figure tha_tealthily pushed aside the curtain and tip-toed into the room. The intruder'_ips were curled in a crazed grimace of hate; in one hand was clutched a lon_lade of polished stone.
Nada, pausing in her eating from time to time to gaze fondly at her broad- shouldered son, caught a glimpse of something moving among the shadow_irectly behind the young man. What was it that lurked there?
Suddenly Nada screamed—a high-pitched, tearing sound that cut through th_abble of voices about the table.
With the first notes of the scream, a figure behind Tharn bounded forward an_rove a flint knife deep into the naked back of the surprised Cro-Magnard.
Nada's terrified cry was all that saved Tharn from instant death. For he wa_ising from his stool and turning as the scream left her lips. As a result, the knife point entered his back at an angle, ripping through the muscle_here to enter the lower tip of one lung.
Tharn, despite his agony, reached for the would-be assassin. But another wa_here before him—Vulcar, the hawk-faced.
The one-time captain of Urim's guards had vaulted the table in a flying lea_nd with a powerful sweep of his arm, knocked away the knife. Then he caugh_he man about the neck and forced him into a kneeling position.
"So, Pryak," cried the hawk-faced one, "you would add another killing to you_ist! Long have I waited for this—now comes your reward for the death o_rim!"
Pryak opened his lips to plead for mercy, but before the words could come h_as whirled up from the floor as though he were a figure of straw. Then, a_he others watched in awe, Vulcar brought the screaming man down on the edg_f the massive table.
There was a crunching sound from splintering bones, one last nerve-tearing cr_f agony and fear—and Pryak, the ambitious, was gone to his reward.
As the guests stood staring down at the broken form, a thin trickle of bloo_ppeared at one corner of Tharn's mouth and coursed to his chin. Dazedly h_ifted a hand to wipe away the stain, then his knees gave way, and before th_aralyzed company could prevent, Tharn, the son of Tharn, had pitched to th_loor.
When complete consciousness first returned, he was aware of a great mound o_oft skins beneath him; and he opened tired eyes to a sun-flooded room. For _ittle while he was content to remain so, staring at the stone ceiling.
Later, he slowly turned his head and looked into the eyes of Nada. For a fe_inutes mother and son did not speak; then she reached out to touch his hand.
"You have come back to us, Tharn," she said softly.
Tharn pondered over her remark. When he spoke he was startled by th_eebleness of his voice.
"How long have I lain here?"
"Half a moon."
"Half a—!" He sought to sit up, but sank back as a stabbing pain shot throug_is chest.
"No, no, Tharn!" cried Nada. "You still are not well. The wound in your bac_s not completely healed, and the jungle fever left you only a little whil_go."
Tharn frowned. He was so very tired. "But—Dylara … I must go after her. _hould have found her before this. I must not lie here while she—"
Then, as an unsupportable weariness flooded his body, he closed his eyes. I_nother moment he was sleeping soundly.
Another half moon had passed. Today had dawned bright and fair. Dyta, the sun, had pulled his blazing head above the eastern earth-line an hour before, tearing the jungle fog into rapidly dissolving streamers of mist.
A group of three—two men and a woman—walked through twin gates in Sephar'_ock walls and moved slowly toward the somber shadows of the jungle south o_he city. A few yards short of the green wall they came to a halt on a slight, grass-covered elevation.
"I must leave you here," said young Tharn. "Within a few suns—a moon, a_ost—I will return. Dylara will be with me."
The older man nodded. "Your mother and I leave for home before long. We shal_ait there for you and your mate."
"You will not need to wait long," said the young man confidently.
He placed an arm about the man's wide shoulders, pressed the hand of hi_other in silent farewell, then turned and strode toward the wall of verdur_nd towering forest giants to the south.
Together, Tharn, the elder, and Nada, his mate stood on the little gree_ound, watching the lithe figure of their only son until it disappeared int_he forbidding jungle. Beyond that first rampart of lofty trees, of tangle_ines and creepers, lay a mysterious land, never before trod by any know_ember of their world. What hidden dangers lurked there? What savage tribes?
What unknown and terrible beasts?
A shudder passed through the woman's slender body. The man at her side slippe_ strong arm about the trembling shoulders in unspoken understanding.
"He will come back?" she asked, her voice unsteady. It was half question, hal_tatement; and in those words ran an undercurrent of mingled hope and fear.
"Yes," said the man, his own voice strong and very certain. "He will com_ack."