Hormud heard a gabble of voices, the whisper as his words were translated, and Ostromo’s pleading before the bear throne. He ignored it all, kept his eyes focused above Aosoka’s head, until one of the red guards returned with such a whip as he demanded. The spear points ringed him in and Hormud was marched away again through the perfumed court where the priest of ears laughed his senseless laughter beside the pyramid, then through the fur hung antechamber and out into the broad avenue before the palace. Despite his efforts his feet stumbled where there was nothing to trip him, and the hand which he forced to grip the whip almost lost its hold a dozen times. Beside him, Ostromo scuttled and danced ahead to peer up into the cracked and bloodied darkness that was Hormud’s face. His voice was a constant thin complaint.
“You do not trust me, Hormud, yet I have done what is necessary. Had I not ordered you bound they would have killed you where you lay, stricken on the road by the magic of the Tinsunchi. Had I not spoken the language of their masters, they would not have obeyed even me. So, master, you have me to thank for this chance your magic will surely seize.”
“So you believe in my magic.”
“Have I not linked my fate with yours?”
Hormud snorted. “Or the throne ordered it against your will. Best for him that he doesn’t swallow that ruby.” Hormud’s gaze ranged the throngs of the avenue and the eyes of its people were bright and coquettish upon him. Overhead, the sun bore down on them all, and the pricks of spears turned Hormud in through a columned facade and down a flight of stone stairs so that he confronted a narrow door of bronze. At his side Ostromo yelped in Tinsunchi.
Leaning in close and low, the wizard said “I have gained you some moments for your spells, master, weave them strongly or we both will die.”
Hormud grunted and took the whip in both of his awkward hands, and felt his blunt fingers without power.
“Tie this about my wrist with the knot I will teach you. As you love you worthless life make it strong. Then, in the other end, but close to that knot, make a loop as the horsemen do. I shall weave my own spells—” He threw back his head and begun to roar out in a great voice, a mocking song once used to taunt his people:
“On Chorazin Rock lives the coward,
Whose cowardly lord teaches them
“Do not hesitate, pull off quickly,
While their decedents riddle the ground——”
The spear guards eyed him suspiciously and made curious signs with their hands as they warded off his spells. His voice deepened and he chanted on, pausing only to admonish Ostromo.
“Tighter or the Heaven-Bear will bite you off at the shin.”
Hormud took the loop in the hand to which it was bound. It was a small loop, not big enough to fit around a man’s head, and Ostromo stared at it with reverent eyes.
“I shall weave more spells for you, master, while you fight,” he said softly, still looking at the knot. “Together, our might of magic—”
Hormud snorted, shook the leather loop above his head and picked up his chant, now in the language of the southern cities, letting the chirruping lilt further confound his guards.
“See me, you men of my father. See Hormud fight your battle for you. See him crush the Heaven Bear as only a true horse son can. See him shake the roots of the bear throne.”
He finished and spat upon the earth. “I am ready”.
Instantly, above him, trumpets blared and the narrow door before him swung wide— Hormud stalked through with Ostromo scuttling at his side, mumbling his charms, but keeping close. Inside the arena Hormud halted and heard the roar of a myriad voices beat down upon him, and his beard thrust fiercely. How many times in far lands had he heard the roar that greeted the gladiators? Yet he stared not up at the sea of waiting faces, but swiftly eyed the narrow circuit of the arena. It was no more than a pit among banked seats, but the barriers were high and for this moment he was alone with the wizard-priest beside him. Almost, he had reached out to wring that wry, treacherous neck, but Ostromo began to scrawl cabalistic figures in the sand and Hormud shrugged and went on in springing strides, feeling the good stretch and pull of muscles in his thighs— and stumbling with his wooden feet. He cursed, paused on braced legs, to press his forearm against the amulet about his throat.
“Now, Father,” said Hormud reasonably, “I know that my vow lacks fulfilment. A hundred thousands to bow before you, I promised, if needs be I must slit all their throats to bring them to reason. Fifty thousands I gave you at Turghol, and here, Father, are another fifty thousand. But they will be stubborn, you understand, and unless I conquer this Heaven-Bear they send against me, these idolators will never see the light of reason.” He grinned and his dry lips cracked with fresh blood as he smiled. “So, Father, if you want a kingdom that will praise your name carved out of this heathen land, lend a little help now.”
Hormud rolled his shoulders and his arms swung at his sides, one with the leather thong knotted hard about his forearm and carrying the loop, his other flexing with slow tension. A murmur rose from the banked throng above and he saw that a bronze door had swung open and through it, ponderously, shuffled the very grandfather of bears. Though massive, his sides were gaunt, his small eyes vicious with hunger and, when he saw Hormud, he reared on his hind legs and so towered above the barbarian’s head, letting him see the great girth of the beast’s chest, the power of the short, massive forelegs with their sabre claws.
Hormud delayed a moment there in the middle of the arena. “As you see Father.”
He looked down at the loop of woven leather on his wrist and then at the bear across the arena. Slowly then, on his stumbling feet, he marched toward the bear that sat on its haunches like a man, fanning the air with his paws to suck in the scent of this man that came towards him so boldly. And the bear uttered a roar that drowned all other sound.
The barbarian did not waver in his forward stride. He heard the thin chanting of Ostromo’s spells, louder since the murmur of the spectators above him had ceased, replaced with the breathless blood-hungry wait. Eyes never shifting from the bear, now mere feet away, Hormud gathered his strength as a man might suck in a great breath and leaped. With a shout that rivalled that of the beast he hurled himself squarely into the embrace of the great Heaven-Bear.