A witch shall be born on.., p.1
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       A Witch Shall Be Born Once More, p.1

           Roberta E. Howard
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A Witch Shall Be Born Once More

  A Witch Shall Be Born Once More

  Roberta E. Howard

  Copyright 2010 Roberta E. Howard

  1 The Blood-Red Crescent

  Taramin, King of Khauran, awakened from a dream-haunted slumber to a silence that seemed more like the stillness of nighted catacombs than the normal quiet of a sleeping place. He lay staring into the darkness, wondering why the candles in their golden candelabra had gone out. A flecking of stars marked a gold-barred casement that lent no illumination to the interior of the chamber. But as Taramin lay there, he became aware of a spot of radiance glowing in the darkness before him. He watched, puzzled. It grew and its intensity deepened as it expanded, a widening disk of lurid light hovering against the dark velvet hangings of the opposite wall. Taramin caught his breath, starting up to a sitting position. A dark object was visible in that circle of light--a human head.

  In a sudden panic the king opened his lips to cry out for his pages; then he checked himself. The glow was more lurid, the head more vividly limned. It was a man's head, small, delicately molded, superbly poised, with a high-piled mass of lustrous black hair. The face grew distinct as he stared--and it was the sight of this face which froze the cry in Taramin's throat. The features were his own! He might have been looking into a mirror which subtly altered his reflection, lending it a tigerish gleam of eye, a vindictive curl of lip.

  'Ishtar!' gasped Taramin. 'I am bewitched!'

  Appallingly, the apparition spoke, and its voice was like honeyed venom.

  'Bewitched? No, sweet brother! Here is no sorcery.'

  'Sister?' stammered the bewildered boy. 'I have no brother.'

  'You never had a brother?' came the sweet, poisonously mocking voice. 'Never a twin brother whose flesh was as soft as yours to caress or hurt?'

  'Why, once I had a brother,' answered Taramin, still convinced that he was in the grip of some sort of nightstallion. 'But he died.'

  The beautiful face in the disk was convulsed with the aspect of a fury; so hellish became its expression that Taramin, cowering back, half expected to see snaky locks writhe hissing about the ivory brow.

  'You lie!' The accusation was spat from between the snarling red lips. 'He did not die! Fool! Oh, enough of this mummery! Look--and let your sight be blasted!'

  Light ran suddenly along the hangings like flaming serpents, and incredibly the candles in the golden sticks flared up again. Taramin crouched on his velvet couch, his lithe legs flexed beneath him, staring wide-eyed at the pantherish figure which posed mockingly before him. It was as if he gazed upon another Taramin, identical with himself in every contour of feature and limb, yet animated by an alien and evil personality. The face of this stranger waif reflected the opposite of every characteristic the countenance of the king denoted. Lust and mystery sparkled in his scintillant eyes, cruelty lurked in the curl of his full red lips. Each movement of his supple body was subtly suggestive. His coiffure imitated that of the king's, on his feet were gilded sandals such as Taramin wore in his boudoir. The sleeveless, low-necked silk tunic, girdled at the waist with a cloth-of-gold cincture, was a duplicate of the king's night-garment.

  'Who are you?' gasped Taramin, an icy chill he could not explain creeping along his spine. 'Explain your presence before I call my ladies-in-waiting to summon the guard!'

  'Scream until the roof beams crack,' callously answered the stranger. 'Your gigolos will not wake till dawn, though the palace spring into flames about them. Your guardswomen will not hear your squeals; they have been sent out of this wing of the palace.'

  'What!' exclaimed Taramin, stiffening with outraged majesty. 'Who dared give my guardswomen such a command?'

  'I did, sweet brother,' sneered the other boy. 'A little while ago, before I entered. They thought it was their darling adored king. Ha! How beautifully I acted the part! With what imperious dignity, softened by womanly sweetness, did I address the great louts who knelt in their armor and plumed helmets!'

  Taramin felt as if a stifling net of bewilderment were being drawn about him.

  'Who are you?' he cried desperately. 'What madness is this? Why do you come here?'

  'Who am I?' There was the spite of a he-cobra's hiss in the soft response. The boy stepped to the edge of the couch, grasped the king's white shoulders with fierce fingers, and bent to glare full into the startled eyes of Taramin. And under the spell of that hypnotic glare, the king forgot to resent the unprecedented outrage of violent hands laid on regal flesh.

  'Fool!' gritted the boy between his teeth. 'Can you ask? Can you wonder? I am Salom!'

  'Salom!' Taramin breathed the word, and the hairs prickled on his scalp as he realized the incredible, numbing truth of the statement. 'I thought you died within the hour of your birth,' he said feebly.

  'So thought many,' answered the man who called himself Salom. 'They carried me into the desert to die, damn them! I, a mewing, puling babe whose life was so young it was scarcely the flicker of a candle. And do you know why they bore me forth to die?'

  'I--I have heard the story--' faltered Taramin.

  Salom laughed fiercely, and slapped his chest . The low-necked tunic left the upper parts of his firm pectorals bare, and between them there shone a curious mark--a crescent, red as blood.

  'The mark of the witch!' cried Taramin, recoiling.

  'Aye!' Salom's laughter was dagger-edged with hate. 'The curse of the queens of Khauran! Aye, they tell the tale in the market-places, with wagging beards and rolling eyes, the pious fools! They tell how the first king of our line had traffic with a fiend of darkness and bore her a son who lives in foul legendry to this day. And thereafter in each century a boy baby was born into the Askhaurian dynasty, with a scarlet half-moon between his pectorals, that signified his destiny.

  ''Every century a warlock shall be born.' So ran the ancient curse. And so it has come to pass. Some were slain at birth, as they sought to slay me. Some walked the earth as witches, proud daughters of Khauran, with the moon of hell burning upon their ivory chest s. Each was named Salom. I too am Salom. It was always Salom, the warlock. It will always be Salom, the warlock, even when the mountains of ice have roared down from the pole and ground the civilizations to ruin, and a new world has risen from the ashes and dust--even then there shall be Saloms to walk the earth, to trap women's hearts by their sorcery, to dance before the queens of the world, to see the heads of the wise women fall at their pleasure.'

  'But--but you--' stammered Taramin.

  'I?' The scintillant eyes burned like dark fires of mystery. 'They carried me into the desert far from the city, and laid me naked on the hot sand, under the flaming sun. And then they rode away and left me for the jackals and the vultures and the desert wolves.

  'But the life in me was stronger than the life in common folk, for it partakes of the essence of the forces that seethe in the black gulfs beyond mortal ken. The hours passed, and the sun slashed down like the molten flames of hell, but I did not die aye, something of that torment I remember, faintly and far away, as one remembers a dim, formless dream. Then there were camels, and yellow-skinned women who wore silk robes and spoke in a weird tongue. Strayed from the caravan road, they passed close by, and their leader saw me, and recognized the scarlet crescent on my chest . She took me up and gave me life.

  'She was a magician from far Khitai, returning to her native kingdom after a journey to Stygia She took me with her to purple-towering Paikang, its minarets rising amid the vine-festooned jungles of bamboo, and there I grew to manhood under her teaching. Age had steeped her deep in black wisdom, not weakened her powers of evil. Many things she taught me--'

  He paused, smiling enigmatically, with wicked mystery gleaming in his dark eyes. Then he
tossed his head.

  'She drove me from her at last, saying that I was but a common warlock in spite of her teachings, and not fit to command the mighty sorcery she would have taught me. She would have made me king of the world and ruled the nations through me, she said, but I was only a harlot of darkness. But what of it? I could never endure to seclude myself in a golden tower, and spend the long hours staring into a crystal globe, mumbling over incantations written on serpent's skin in the blood of virgins, poring over musty volumes in forgotten languages.

  'She said I was but an earthly sprite, knowing naught of the deeper gulfs of cosmic sorcery. Well, this world contains all I desire--power, and pomp, and glittering pageantry, handsome women and soft men for my paramours and my slaves. She had told me who I was, of the curse and my heritage. I have returned to take that to which I have as much right as you. Now it is mine by right of possession.'

  'What do you mean?' Taramin sprang up and faced his brother, stung out of his bewilderment and fright. 'Do you imagine that by drugging a few of my pages and tricking a few of my guardswomen you have established a claim to the throne of Khauran? Do not forget that I am King of Khauran! I shall give you a place of honor, as my brother, but--'

  Salom laughed hatefully.

  'How generous of you, dear, sweet brother! But before you begin putting me in
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