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A Prophet Of Evil







From: The Doomsman

Standing at Dom Gillian's side Quinton Edge bent down and whispered a
few words in his ear, inaudible even to those who stood nearest. And yet
the people knew that woe had fallen upon Doom. Like flame upon flax the
voiceless signal leaped from heart to heart; here and there in the crowd
appeared little centres of disturbance, the strong pushing the weak
forcibly aside that they might the quicker fill their own gasping lungs;
an inarticulate murmur rose and swelled, like to the stirring of forest
leaves under the breath of the rough north wind. Quinton Edge heard, and
turned to face the people.

"It is true," he said, and gripped hard upon the rail on which his hand
rested. "A child's trick it was, but the Southlanders are men of smooth
tongue and our brothers were encumbered with the cattle and perhaps
overconfident now that their faces were turned at last towards home.
Six-score brave men"--he stopped and swallowed at something in his
throat.

"The ambuscade was well-planned, and the Southlanders had enlisted the
aid of the Painted Men, to their shame be it said. So our brethren found
themselves hemmed in at every point. Yet they sold their lives at a
good price, and they are mourning to-day in the Southland, even as we
here. Not a Doomsman set out upon his long journey to the shadowland but
that a Southron was forced to bear him company. It was well done--a good
fight, the sword-point driven home, and then the dropping of the
curtain. Hail! a hail! to our brothers who have passed beyond."

A few wavering and uncertain voices took up the cry, but it quickly died
away before the uplifted hand of Prosper, the priest. He had pushed his
way through the crowd and was now standing in its outmost rank directly
opposite the platform.

"There were six-score who rode away," he said, addressing himself
directly to Quinton Edge. "Six-score, and how many have returned?"

An insolent question in the manner of its asking, but the Doomsman's
answer matched it well.

"Four that I counted, but there may be a straggler or two to come in
later. Does the Shining One no longer know where his own thunderbolts
have struck, that he sends his hired servants to gather up the gossip of
the market-place?"

"The All-Wise both sees and knows," retorted the priest. "It is the
people you deceive who have need to look and listen, if haply they may
understand. You have dared to take the name of the Shining One upon your
lips; stand forth now like a man, if you would face him in his wrath."

During the past few minutes it had grown suddenly dark; the sun had
disappeared and a curtain of opaque cloud was rapidly overcasting the
sky; a peculiar, yellowish light had replaced the radiance of day.

"And what does your god demand that his anger may be turned away?" asked
Quinton Edge. "Doubtless the daily offerings upon which his faithful
priests depend for their easy, unearned living. Sides of fat beeves and
measures of wheat, not forgetting a cask or two of apple-wine or corn
brandy."

But the priest, disdaining to answer the taunt, had turned and was
speaking directly to the people.

"Is it that you seek a deliverer and find none? But how shall the
Shining One keep faith with you who turn your feet away from his
sanctuary and bring no victims to his altars? Has he not called to you
daily, and have you not stopped your ears? And now that ye call in turn,
shall he indeed hear? Already is your woe come upon you, children of
Doom. Look and listen!"

A flash of lightning accompanied the priest's last words and the crash
of the thunder came almost simultaneously. The obscurity was momentarily
increasing, and the gigantic, nimbus cloud-band now reached far beyond
the zenith, its slate-blue edges contrasting vividly with the
green-and-saffron tints of the narrow strip of clear sky that still
remained visible. And in another moment that, too, had disappeared; such
was the darkness that a man could not see his neighbor's face, though
their elbows might be touching.

"To your holes and dens!" shouted the priest, now quite beside himself
in his fanatical exaltation. "He speaks again, he speaks again! Woe, woe
to the city of Doom!" Once more the firmament seemed cleft in twain, and
the earth trembled under the reverberations of the tremendous electrical
discharges. The effect upon the overwrought nerves of the throng was
instantaneous; as one man the crowd turned and made for the exits from
the Citadel Square. Even the personal attendants upon Dom Gillian were
affected by the panic, and leaped over the guard-rails of the platform
into the mass of humanity below. In half a score of minutes the enormous
square was deserted save for a few infirm and crippled stragglers, and
Constans himself thought it prudent to withdraw to the shelter of one of
the guard-huts from whose doorway he could still watch the progress of
events.

Only Prosper, the priest, remained in the open, standing there with
uplifted hands and gazing steadfastly into the sable vault above him.
Quinton Edge called to him, but he answered not. Then the Doomsman,
leaning far over the balustrade of the platform, struck the priest
sharply on the shoulder with his truncheon of office.

"Come up here and help me with the Lord Keeper. These dogs have all
sought their kennels and left us to shift for ourselves."

Gathering up his long, black robe, Prosper ascended the steps of the
platform and passed to the Lord Keeper's side. He looked eagerly into
Dom Gillian's eyes, but the old man's face might have been a mask in its
impassive stolidity. Plainly he had neither heard nor understood aught
of all that had passed.

"It is too late," muttered the priest. "The crash of steel is now the
only music to which the old lion will prick his ears, and the Shining
One must strike for his own honor."

Suddenly the obscurity lightened. A downpour of rain was imminent, but
the sky had lost its terrifying aspect of abnormality; the yellowish
haze that in superstitious eyes presaged some dreadful convulsion of
nature had drifted away before the rising wind--it would be a pelting
shower and nothing more. Quinton Edge looked around, smiling.

"So it was only a player's effect--a few fireworks and the rattling of a
big drum--an opportune conjunction of bad news and bad weather that is
hardly likely to occur again. The next time that the Shining One
condescends to forge his thunderbolts----"

"They will fall from out of a cloudless sky," interrupted the priest,
with a vehemence that in spite of himself shook the cool confidence of
the Doomsman. Yet the latter flung back the challenge contemptuously.

"Words, words--painted bladders with which to belabor the backs of fools
and children. It calls for a buffet of sturdier sort to convince a man."

The priest measured his adversary. "Let it be a blow, then," he said,
coldly, "since a prating mouth knows no other argument than the mailed
fist. But you shall not see the hand that smites, nor even know the
quarter from whence it comes. Build high your walls and your bulwarks;
they shall but prove the greater peril when they crumble under the
impact of our lord's hammer. You will believe; yes, when trencher-mate
and bedfellow are stricken at your side, and yet no man shall be able to
say at what instant the avenger's shadow passed between, or catch the
faintest sound of his retreating footsteps. All in his good time to whom
a day and an hour and a cycle of the ages are as one."

A dozen big raindrops splashed down, and from the distance came the
patter of the advancing hail. Quinton Edge drew himself up stiffly; the
necessity of immediate action was a relief more welcome than he would
have cared to own. He stepped to Dom Gillian's chair, and, putting his
hands under the armpits of the old man, lifted him unresisting to his
feet.

"Help me with him to the White Tower," he said, with curt command, and
Prosper obeyed in silence. Together they managed to get Dom Gillian down
the steps and across the open space to the entrance of the tower, barely
gaining the shelter when the storm broke in earnest, the rain coming
down in great, gray masses as though the clouds had been literally torn
asunder by the weight of their burden. For a few moments everything was
blotted out by the deluge, then it lightened again with the coming of
the hail, and Constans drew in his breath sharply as he saw a little
cavalcade trotting slowly through the north gate from the Palace Road.
First came a few of the escort-guard and behind them three or four
troopers, survivors of the ill-fated expedition, followed by a couple of
horse-litters, improvised from fence-poles and blankets. In these rough
beds lay two grievously wounded men, and Constans gazed, half in hope,
half in fear, upon their wan faces upon which the stinging hail beat

down. Soldierly men they were, too, for they made no complaint, but
Ulick was not one of them. A moment later Constans saw him bringing up
the rear on a big bay horse. He had a bandage about his head, and looked
thin and careworn, but he was alive, and Constans felt glad at heart for
his friend. He managed to catch Ulick's eye as the train swept by, and
for an instant the latter drew rein, bending low over his saddle-bow as
he whispered to Constans, standing in the shadow of the guard-hut:

"In half an hour at the old library," and then, with passionate
eagerness, "Esmay--have you seen her?"

"Yes," answered Constans, and the next instant could have bitten his
unthinking tongue in twain.





Next: In Quinton Edge's Garden

Previous: The Awakening



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