POLARIS OF THE SNOWS by Charles B Stilson
15 Hephaistos Claims a Sacrifice
KALIN carried a bundle in his hand, and as they reached the thickets at the foot of the hill he paused.
“Now, for our purpose thou must go unknown of men. Thou canst hide thyself in one of these.”
He shook out his bundle, and revealed two of the long sable robes of his priestly order. He threw one of them over Polaris and donned the other. They were loose and cowled, and covered both men entirely. “As a priest of Hephaistos thou goest,” said Kalin. “Thou must leave the spear, but that strange club of thine thou mayest hide beneath the robe.”
“Nay, I can take the spear also,” answered Polaris, and snapped the stout shaft off short in his hands, so that the weapon was rendered little longer than the rifle, and he could hide both of them under the garment.
“Priest,” he said, as they started across the meadows toward the bridge, “but shortly I said that in anger which I fain would recall, for twice thou hast shown thyself a true man.”
Kalin waved his hand deprecatingly. “It is forgotten, as though it were not,” he said with one of his rare and melancholy smiles “Thou art as my brother.”
“But now,” persisted Polaris, “we fare on an errand to which thy feeling of brotherhood doth not bind thee. Why goest thou into danger with me, Kalin, into danger that may end in death, thou, who art of this land, and its priest?”
Kalin halted and regarded him strangely “Say, thou, Polaris, thou lovest Rose?” he questioned. Into the face of the man of the snows the red blood flamed afresh.
“Ay, so it seemeth—unto death,” he said simply.
The priest nodded slowly. “And the Rose—doth she return thy love, my brother?’ he asked.
Then was Polaris silent for a long moment.
“Nay,” he answered at length. “Nay, Kalin, the love of the Rose is not mine. Somewhat I have guessed, and the rest her own words have made plain. There is a man—a brave American—” the words cost him an effort, “whom she loveth, and whom she will wed. He leadeth the party with which she came hither. He fareth forth on a dangerous quest, to return in honour and greatness to his own land—and the Rose—”
Again Kalin looked strangely into his eyes. “And to save her for another thou darest all, even to thy life?”
“Ay, the man is worthy. And that she loveth me not, should my love for her be less that I should falter in her service? No, Kalin, that is not the way of Polaris,” answered the son of the snows.
“And when thou hast won her way home, as I think thou wilt—for thou darest all things, arid the high gods love those greatly daring—what then?”
“I have a duty laid on me, in the far North; and then—I know not.”
Once again his strange smile passed over the face of Kalin the priest. “Now, thou Polaris, we indeed are brothers in all. Know that I, too, love the Rose, and would die even as thou wouldst, to save her, even to save her for another—but I had hoped that the other might be thee—I dearly hoped it. Nor that it may not be, lesseneth not the measure of the service of Kalin.”
Polaris held out his hand, and his eyes were very bright as their fingers clasped. “Kalin, my brother, may the gods set our feet in the same path, wherever it leadeth,” he said.
As they proceeded toward the Judgment House they saw that many Sardanians were gathered there and ever among the throng passed back and forth the black-robed figures of the priests of the gateway.
Kalin stationed Polaris by a pillar in the great hall, not far from the platform. “Stay thou there, brother, and be silent, unless great need cometh,” he said, and passed up the steps to his black stone seat near the throne.
A friendly murmur arose from the Sardanians in the hall when they saw the priest throw aside his robe and take his seat. That something untoward was on foot it was easy to guess. All over the hall, the voices of men were raised in discussion, and chiming with them the voices of women also. And ever from group to group passed the priests of Kalin, exhorting here and rebuking there, setting the stage for the denouement planned by their master.
PRESENTLY entered Gardanes and a group of Sardanian nobles, among whom towered Minos, the brother of the prince—Minos, whose twin brother lay stiffening in the snow in the Hunters’ Road.
Then, after some delay, came Helicon himself. As the prince ascended the steps to his throne, Polaris leaned forward from his sheltering pillar, his whole frame taut as a bowstring, the hand that held the brown rifle clenched so that it seemed that the steel barrel itself would crumple in his terrible grip.
Helicon’s face was darkly clouded. He did not glance once in the direction of Kalin, but sat a while in thought, and in all the hall was silence. His musing ended, the prince raised his head.
“Wherefore do the people of Sardanes gather in the Judgment House and summon their ruler?” he asked harshly, and bent his stern gaze on the people below the platform.
None answered him. He smiled grimly, and again he questioned: “What matter would Sardanes’s people bring before Sardanes’ prince? Speak.”
From among the people rose a subdued murmur, a note of protest, but no man was bold enough to voice it. In a silence that followed Helicon sat impatiently, his fingers twitching on the stone arms of his throne. From his seat Kalin the priest rose and stepped to the foot of the throne.
“Thy people murmur because of a deed that to them seemeth ill, Helicon the Prince,” he said. He paused, and behind him in the hall rose another murmur of support from the people.
“They are assembled in the Judgment House to beg that Helicon the Prince shall sit in judgment on himself and render answer,” continued Kalin. “Thy people murmur because thou wouldst take to wife an alien woman and place her with thee on the throne of Sardanes, supplanting the right of a daughter of Sardanes.
“They murmur,” the priest raised his voice slightly, in a note of accusation, “because thou hast reft her from the hospitality of Sardanes’s priest with violence, under a broken pledge, and that thou hast lifted thy hand against the priests of Sardanes, the ministers of the mighty Lord Hephaistos of the Gateway, who speak the word of Hephaistos in Sardanes—”
“Enough, priest!” shouted Helicon, red with rage. “Cease thy slander of Sardanes’ ruler!” He turned his eyes on the Sardanians in the hall. “Helicon, Prince of Sardanes, rendereth account to no man,” he cried. “It is his will that he weddeth with the Rose maiden. Let the man who gainsaith look to himself!”
As the voices of the people were raised in an angry babel of protest, he lifted his hand.
“Beware,” he cried, his voice ringing through the hall. “Take warning! Helicon rules in Sardanes. Bitter shall be the punishment meted out to him that opposeth the will of the prince.”
Before his fierce eyes the people fell silent again, and he turned again to Kalin.
“As for thee, priest,” he said hoarsely, “get thee back with thy black-robed crew, to thy station, and attend thy priestly duties. Attend them well. Too long hath thy priesthood interfered in the affairs of Sardanes. It shall be so no longer. Go, ere I am moved to lessen thy number by one meddler!”
He glared at the priest, and men in the hall stood all aghast at his words. Many there were of the priest’s party, but they knew that many others were for the prince and against the priest, and none knew to what lengths Helicon might go in his anger.
STILL at the foot of the throne Kalin stood undaunted, and holding his last card in the game. A bitter smile came to his lips, and his voice was low and deep as he answered:
“Prince, thou growest mad, who would override the will of thy people and dare the anger of the god. It is the will of the god, as it is the will of the people that thou shalt wed a maid of Sardanes.”
Assuming for his own purposes that he was unaware of the fate which had been intended for Polaris, he continued:
“When the stranger with whom the maid came hither returneth from the hunt, then he shall take her and fare again to the north, as they wish—”
Helicon, secretly worried because of the long absence of Morolas and his party, yet not dreaming of the end of their mission, broke in again.
“The stranger cometh not again to Sardanes. He hath left the maid, and fared alone on his road to the north. I will wed the maid. I, Helicon, have said it, and it shall be.”
“Have thy hunters then returned?” asked Kalin pointedly.
“Be thou silent, priest!” roared Helicon. Another thought flashed into his mind. “Tarry thou here, for there shall be work for thee.” He turned to his brother Minos. “Go thou and fetch the Rose maid hither,” he said.
Kalin stood back with folded arms, his head held high. In all the hall was no sound, save the suppressed breathing of the people. Smiling, as was his wont, the tall Minos left the hall through the pillared entrance behind the throne. Helicon sat glowering, with his chin on his hand, until he heard Minos returning.
Then he sprang to his feet and stepped from the throne to the floor of the platform, fronting Kalin.
Minos and Rose Emer came into the hall. The girl’s face was white, but she did not falter as she advanced with Minos and stood near Helicon. Only once her face lighted as she saw Kalin; then she turned her eyes, and through the pillared façade of the Judgment House she scanned anxiously the reaches of the valley.
The heart of Polaris bounded as, crouched behind his pillar, he followed the course of that gaze. She was looking for him to return -he would not fail her!
“Now, whether it be the will of the god or of the people, or of the maid herself, I, Helicon, will wed the Rose,” said the prince shortly. “And thou, Kalin, of whom and of whose pratings I tire sadly, thou art still priest in Sardanes—thou shalt wed us—now! Proceed!”
An enigmatical smile overspread the face of the priest. Full in the eyes of the angry prince he looked as he towered scarce a yard away.
“Thou goest far in thy folly, Helicon,” he said, and there was a note of pity in his low tones. Then he raised his voice. “I wed thee not, nor shall such a marriage ever be!”
Helicon hissed a direction into the ear of Minos, and the tall prince, still smiling, stepped toward the edge of the platform and fronted the people in the lower section of the hall with dagger drawn and spear aloft. Helicon snatched his own ilium blade from his girdle and leaped on Kalin.
He caught the priest by the, shoulder, and sought to crush him to his knees; but, great as was his strength, he could not bend the wiry form to his will. Kalin stood firm.
One searching glance he sent down the hall, where men were shouting and urging forward, “and where the foremost were held back by the menace of Minos. Then the priest turned his gaze back to the face of Helicon.
Up flashed the bright blade in the hand of the prince and quivered over the heart of Kalin. “Choose, priest; choose or die!” he shouted hoarsely. “Wed Helicon to the Rose and go hence, or refuse and perish—and thy religion shall give way to a better!”
“Strike, fool, and thou darest,” said Kalin contemptuously, and lifted no hand to save himself.
Along the great arm of the prince the muscles tightened. The blade came flashing down. Midway in his stroke Helicon shuddered. The knife clattered on the stone floor. A crashing roar reverberated through the judgment chamber, and a cloud of dark smoke floated upward.
Helicon crashed down on his back with widespread arms—dead!
A groan of awe rose in the hall. Everywhere men fell on their knees and covered their faces. Even Kalin, greatly shaken, knelt. Rose Emer swayed where she stood, and stretched out her arms with a glad cry of “Polaris!”
With his cowl thrown back from his golden head and his topaz eyes flaming, Polaris strode onto the platform. Under the black robe he clutched the smoking rifle.
CONTINUES NEXT WEEK