The Wedding of Sheila-Na-Gog

by G. Arthur Rahman and Richard L. Tierney

copyright 1985 by G. Arthur Rahman and Richard L. Tierney
reprinted by permission of G. Arthur Rahman and Richard L. Tierney

 

A ruddy glow lit the twisted canopy of the oak grove, casting strange shadows over the wolfish, expectant faces of the men squatting in a circle around the fire. All were big men with light eyes and long, fair locks that swayed as they beat their knees with horny fists in rhythm to the Gallic chant. Their garments bespoke a tribal kinship: similar tartans occasionally cut into a tunic of the Roman style, and a more prominent slashed garment with sleeves descending a little below the waist. Only a few seemed warriors, and these bore weapons in keeping with their size: long swords hanging from their belts, tall shields, javelins, bows and slings. Several other Gauls, standing and leading the chant, wore full, red-dyed robes --- red symbolizing the nature of the ceremony this night.

There was a stir as a few latecomers arrived: a half-dozen cloaked and cowled men who seemed incongruous among the Gauls. Ferchobhar, first among the Black Goat Druids, came to meet them and led them to their places without a word.

Another incongruous figure at the ritual watched their arrival suspiciously --- a black-haired man in his early thirties with high, prominent cheekbones and a square, cleanly shaven chin. His expression was controlled, in no way sharing the fanatical concentration of the Gauls, but the dark eyes in his impassive expressionless face flickered with angry fires. He wore the cloak and tunic of a Samaritan, both emblazoned with symbols indicating him to be a wandering magician.

The Samaritan shifted his stare from the cowled figures to an osier cage between the roots of a spreading oak. A tough, woven mesh that might have held the men within it even had they not been bound by heavy cords, it resembled a giant oval bird-cage piled round about with tinder and dry faggots. The captives neither begged nor cursed --- less from a fear of punishment, probably, than from a stubborn pride that would not give in to futile displays.

They were darkmen, the Samaritan observed, yet unlike the elegant Semitic type that he himself represented. Rather, they appeared akin to the Aquitani --- the ancient strain which, so the magician had heard, had ruled Spain and Gaul long before the Celts had come conquering from the east. The Romans called them Arverni --- a corruption of Averoni, the tribe's own name for itself. When the Gauls had ruled, so the story went, the Averoni were tolerated as a source of tribute; but now that both races enjoyed a kind of equality --- an equally mortifying Roman slavery --- a bitter feud raged between them in the mountains of Regio Averonum. Every captured Averoni suffered a fate similar to this one, or worse. . . .

"I am glad to see you have accepted my invitation, Simon of Gitta."

The Samaritan started from his trance of thought. Ferchobhar stood close beside him, bending near --- though only a few seconds before, the Druid had been within the circle of firelight. In this proximity the old man's eyes seemed intense, intent, darkly mystical.

"Tonight you shall learn much concerning Druid-lore," Ferchobhar went on in his low, muttering tone, "as I have promised you."

Simon the Samaritan grunted. "I hope your lore is more impressive than the trick you just used to sneak up on me. I've used it on audiences a hundred times, at least. Tell me --- who are those cloaked men who have just arrived?"

"Students of our Druid-knowledge, like yourself. They are but recently come to our land. I shall introduce you to them later. But now, you must excuse me. Soon you shall see that not all magic is mere mummery!"

So saying, Ferchobhar stood erect and strode into the circle of men --- strode tall and regal, his narrow white beard gleaming in the firelight, a straight oaken staff clutched in his fist. The other Druids ceased their chanting as he approached, then drew to him in a mass, left hands clenched and staffs held upright. When all were gathered close about him, Ferchobhar began to speak alone --- to intone a low, lilting song in a tongue unlike the Gallic Simon had been studying for the past few months.

And while the chief Druid chanted, the Samaritan magician thought, pondered, remembered. . . .

#

For three months had Simon dwelt among the Druids, more than long enough to decide he couldn't hope to learn much from them. He had hoped differently when he had first arrived and admitted to them his name --- a name much lauded by all who hated and opposed the tyranny of Rome.

The Druids, too, Ferchobhar had assured him, used their talents to resist the Romans. He had urged Simon to stay and learn from them. And the Samaritan, who was sought by the Romans as a determined rebel, had welcomed the promise of sanctuary and study.

But as the weeks passed, Simon had grown suspicious. Ferchobhar had presented him with little more than the childish mythology of the Gallic gods and heroes, some verse of a ritual nature and a few mechanical tricks, barring him from the important conclaves and mysteries. But whenever the Samaritan had chafed, Ferchobhar had affected the role of the kindest of hosts, cajoling and flattering the younger man with promises of knowledge yet to come.

"Your studies are preparing you," he had assured Simon repeatedly. "When the summer solstice comes, you shall be ready to receive all knowledge. It is not so far away."

Simon might have concluded that Ferchobhar and his Druids were charlatans and humbugs, had he not already seen the uncanny control they wielded over mist and flame during their rituals. Furthermore, they claimed to command strange creatures that haunted the hills and valleys: cloven-hooved monsters elsewhere considered only the fancies of ancient legend. He had had the inhuman tracks of these beings pointed out to him, and had been told by nervous tribesmen how the monsters were created and dispatched by the Druids to harry the Averoni and even war with that tribe's own magical agents, the mystical Cats of Sadoqua.

For the Averoni, Simon had learned, worshipped the deity Sadoqua --- the immortal enemy of the Druids' goddess, Sheila-na-gog, whose name meant "Lady of the Gods". The Gauls claimed that the Averoni protected Sadoqua's shrines from defilement by conjuring up hosts of demon felines, whose pelts were dark as the midnight sky and whose fangs gleamed as brightly as stars. An occasional cat's cry under the waxing moon, Simon had observed, was enough to turn a Gaul's blood to water. . . .

#

Suddenly his reverie was interrupted as, like a bolt of heat lightning, the heads of the staffs flamed with a brilliant blue-white light, briefly illuminating the oak grove like noonday. Simon gasped. The cowled newcomers, clearly as taken by surprise as he, lurched fearfully, one ejaculating "Jupiter!" and another letting his cowl fall back from his aquiline features when the light burst full upon him.

Romans!

Simon's month hardened with bitterness and apprehension; he had half-suspected as much when he had earlier glimpsed the legionaire-style footgear one of the men Wore under the hem of his robe. No longer did he wonder where he stood with the Black Goat Druids!

He knew he was in the acutest danger --- knew that his own presence had to do with this unnatural alliance. Why else would Ferchobhar entertain Romans in such a secretive manner? For, the emperor Tiberius had years ago outlawed the druidic religion; it was the duty of the Roman occupation troops to arrest the wonder-working priests and destroy their shrines. He would be lost if he waited until the completion of this sacrifice. Yet, how to escape, surrounded as he now was by Druids and Romans? . . .

A ready solution came to him. Although not a true magician himself, he had studied at the feet of Persian mages who had taught him many ruses and illusions that had served him well in the past. Not the least of these was a command of the ventriloquist's art.

Without the slightest alteration of expression, Simon threw a piercing wail out of steady lips --- a frenzied wail like that of a maddened cat. The Druids stopped chanting as suddenly as if choked by a strangler's knot. Warriors sprang up, groping for their weapons; the Romans followed suit, in even greater confusion. Simon, too, feigned fear, but gave a second cat's cry and then a third, imitating the continuous yowl of a bounding feline pack. The tribesmen were all jabbering panicked appeals to the Druids at once.

"The Cats of Sadoqua!" exclaimed Ferchobhar. "They're coming to save their masters from the flames! Quickly, all of you --- into the forest! We will protect you! "

The terrified Gauls needed no more urging to break into a run for the black woods beyond the spot of firelight.

Ferchobhar thrust his weirdly flaming staff into the tinder around the osier cage; the fire took quickly and threw red sparks into the darkness. Then the chief Druid whirled and followed the rout out of the grove, flanked by subordinates and bodyguards.

Simon also pretended to flee. Once out of sight in the shadows, however, he dove into the undergrowth and waited for the last Gauls to stampede past him. He hastened their retreat with several loud feline yowls, convincing the Celts that the cats were close on their heels.

Then, when the hindmost Gauls were nothing but a distant rustle in the dead leaves, the Samaritan sprang from his hiding place and ran back into the clearing. The fire Ferchobhar had kindled had grown rapidly and the trapped men were already choking on the smoke. Simon ran to the osier cage and laid to it with his Roman gladius, or short-sword; the springy wood clove asunder beneath his powerful blows and in half a minute he had opened a gap wide enough for a man to crawl through.

"Quickly, come out of there! You're free!"

Although surprised, the imprisoned and bound Averoni took Simon's offer eagerly and wriggled through the breach headfirst, like human worms.

"Come, now!" Simon hissed to them as they emerged. "The woods are full of Gauls and they won't go far once they've regained their wits. Hurry!"

The last of the four prisoners, a short swarthy man, finished squirming out of the cage, his kilts smouldering. Simon grasped his lean arm and helped him to his feet. "Let's be off!"

"Who are you? Why have you betrayed the Druids? They were treating you as a guest."

"The friends of Rome are no true hosts of mine! I will need a haven for several days --- and provisions. "

"Follow me to my village --- you may have all that I possess! But, wait --- cut these cords! It is a long walk and the woods are full of the Whore-Goddess's spawn!"

Simon nodded and whipped out his sica, or gladiator's knife --- but before he could touch its blade to the Averoni's bindings someone shouted behind him:

"Simon of Gitta, I knew you were an enemy!"

The Samaritan whirled, snarling. In the shadows stood Ferchobhar, gesturing histrionically. Beside him clustered four other men --- two armed warriors and two Druids of a lower degree.

"Run!" muttered Simon to the Averoni, shoving the closest of them away. "Into the forest! I'll hold them till you get away --- !"

"Take him alive! " shrieked Ferchobhar.

Immediately, like unleashed dogs, the two warriors bounded at him, screaming a warcry: "Gogmagog!"

Simon crouched in a fighting-stance, then darted toward the on-rushing Gauls, his gladius in one hand and the keen-bladed sica in the other.

The foremost Gaul bellowed, his bulky frame towering half a head above the more athletic compactness of the Samaritan, and swung his sword. Steel rang and sparks flew in the darkness as Simon parried expertly. Then blow followed blow with incredible swiftness. Ferchobhar, watching from a safe distance and scarcely able to follow the strokes, remembered that Simon had claimed to have spent two years of his youth as a gladiator in Italy. The Samaritan handled himself with such skill that the chief Druid could almost mistake his darting figure in the shadows for three distinct men.

"Beware!" yelled Ferchobhar. "He's arena-trained --- !"

But the two warriors, already aware of their opponent's prowess, cunningly sought to busy him while their priestly masters slipped in from the flanks to pierce his unarmored body with their long daggers. With heavy long swords they flailed away at Simon's guard, forcing him back with their greater reach --- but always the Roman sword or the sharp sica flashed before them, turning the berserk blows, while the Samaritan's lean figure eluded thrusts by the scantest margins with nimble turns and dodges. Never did their opponent set foot wrongly or waste a motion; he was always a menace, even in defense, executing his replies so precisely that the Gauls could not coordinate their attacks properly, but seemed to fight four separate duels.

Desperately Simon leapt and whirled, snarling with rage; sweat trickled under his clothing, which was ripped from the near misses of whipping blades. Just in time he caught the edge of a long sword on his gladius, then stabbed in with the knife. The Gaul bellowed at the pain of his wound, then leaped vengefully at the Samaritan. His painful lurch momentarily blocked his companion, giving Simon time to pounce upon one of the circling Druids, knock his ritual-dagger out of the way and sink the sica into his breast --- in the deft manner the gladiators knew, so that the blade did not stick between the ribs --- 

A sudden lull in the fighting. Two Gauls lay moaning underfoot. Ferchobhar looked dubiously from the wounded men to Simon, who was taxed but untouched, and hesitated. He could order his remaining priest and warrior to finish the Samaritan off, but the odds had been changed considerably. If his men did not get lucky, the high priest of the Black Goat Druids knew he might find himself standing alone before a skilled, vengeful enemy. . . .

"Back, men," he called out. "Wait for the others --- !"

Simon cursed aloud. "Your treachery is even more despicable than your cowardice, goat-priest! I thought you Druids were men when I sought you, but you've proven yourselves no better than the Roman masters you serve! I leave you to them!"

He spun and ran fleetly into the dark oaks --- but even as he did so he heard Ferchobhar cry out after him, like an incantation:

"You have not escaped us, Samaritan. You have belonged to us from the moment you discovered our village. You will yet pay the wage of your treachery!"

#

Simon made his way through the night, stumbling uncertainly in the unfamiliar forest, finding no sign of the victims he had freed. As dawn broke he recognized before him a range of blue mountains distantly merging into the mists --- peaks the Gauls regarded with aversion. There, he knew, was the Averoni stronghold.

The morning air was perfumed by the scent of crumbling rocks and damp gorse. The terrain sloped downward, over crystalline boulders covered by forest and sparse grass. Since the fight with the Gauls, Simon had seen no sign of human life. That was, in a measure, lucky; he knew now that he could expect little friendliness from either Celts or Romans in Regio Averonum.

He grumbled a curse, realizing that if he had to leave Gaul now, he would take little knowledge with him. Least of all had he discovered the nature of the cloven-hooved forest creatures or the source of the Druid's alleged power over them. Druidic myth connected the beings with the goddess Sheila-na-gog, the most important and mysterious deity of the Black Goats' pantheon. Her symbol was a crone with obscenely exaggerated genitals, as if she were nearly all womb; grotesque, perhaps, but what Simon had seen of her worship was sinister enough. Belief in this monstrous goddess set the Black Goats apart from their brother druidic societies; evidently the Wild Cats, the Beavers, the Rabbits and most other Gallic cults condemned the dark magic of the priests of Sheila-na-gog. . . .

Regio Averonum stretched league upon league, a sea of hills and forests. As Simon wended his way, the woodland floor, rent with ravines and craggy remnants of rock outcroppings, extended before him toward darker groves where pigeons cooed. The sound reminded him of his hunger. A bird might be brought down with a makeshift sling; it might be eaten raw --- or roasted, should he feel safe enough to kindle a fire.

Simon picked up a stone from the bottom of a gully and walked softly toward where the pigeons roosted. At his movements the birds stilled their peaceful cooing, and some of them warily changed their position in the branches. . . .

Although intent on his hunting, Simon was suddenly alert to a quick, stealthy sound behind him. He whirled just in time to see a glittering blade lifted menacingly above him, clenched in a gnarled fist --- and behind the fist a devil's mask. Then the dagger plunged down,

Reacting with the reflexive swiftness of the trained fighter he caught his assailant's wrist in his left hand and drove his stone-hardened right into a muscular, hairy belly. The creature bleated painfully and staggered back.

It was a wonder that the sudden shock of seeing such a creature had not stunned Simon too much to allow him to fend off the fatal blow. Even in the dim light it could not be mistaken for a man. The face, though coarsely human, had a bestial cast in the crook of its huge nose and the muzzle-like jut of its lips and teeth; the torso, too, was superficially human, though knot-like muscles moved strangely under its sallow skin. But below the waist humanity ended; the creature was a living satyr --- manlike above and a two-legged goat below.

And it was big --- almost as tall as Simon, and broader. It danced strangely from hoof to hoof, as nimble as the animal whose hind limbs it seemed to possess. Protruding eyes glared into the Samaritan's face, but Simon forced himself to watch instead the curved dagger which the monster rapidly switched from hand to hand, as quick as thought and seemingly to no purpose unless to distract and confuse its foe. . . .

The creature leaped without warning , a hard, sharp hoof aimed straight at Simon'a middle. Simon dodged the unorthodox attack barely in time. Landing nimbly upright, the satyr leaped again instantly, like a compressed spring, evading Simon's gladius and driving a hard shoulder into his chest. Both crashed into the ground, clawing at one another while rolling across a blanket of dew-wet leaves.

Simon brought up his short-sword skillfully --- but the satyr, anticipating him faster than any human could have, caught his sword-arm and stopped it as suddenly as if the air had frozen thick, then began to squeeze the captured limb with the pressure of a cart wheel. The blade tumbled out of Simon's numbed fingers.

Frantically he groped for the sica at his belt, but in doing so left an opening through which the satyr's dagger plunged. Simon felt its cold bite in his side, heard its tip grate upon a rib, then saw it flash up into the sky for a second descent --- 

But instead of striking again, the monster suddenly bleated and lurched forward, blanketing the Samaritan with its hot, reeking body. Simon stabbed it and bucked furiously, throwing it off --- but sensed immediately that it was not fighting back. Rolling on top of it, he saw why not: a Roman pilum protruded from its broad back. Simon scanned the trees; someone out there had chosen to help him at the last moment.

He spied several figures emerging from the forest. Gauls and Romans!

Urgently Simon tried to regain his feet, but a shot of pain from his wound brought him down flat. The Romans rushed him and beat the sica out of his fist. When he was unarmed and held hand and foot by several warriors, their leaders strode up.

"Mailaen," said a short Roman officer, "your monster was told to take him alive! Had I not given the order, the creature would have slain him!"

The Druid shrugged. "Sometimes, Commander Scaevola, the spawn obey their basic nature in spite of their orders. Ferchobhar shall be displeased that you destroyed the satyr. His type is very precious and it required a rare sacrifice to create him."

"Ferchobhar had better concern himself with my displeasure! My creatures must obey me absolutely!"

Simon had perked up his head upon hearing the Roman commander's name. The Druids were evidently not dealing with simple renegade Romans, for Scaevola --- Mettius Aelius Scaevola --- was proconsul of Regio Averonum. Simon knew him of old --- an agent of Caligula, until that mad emperor's demise, and now, by touch-and-go maneuverings, an officer of Claudius. Whatever the Roman-Druid conspiracy, it obviously reached to the very highest circles of the province.

Scaevola turned away from Mailaen and approached Simon, pompously, as if he considered himself a conquering emperor. He was an ungainly man, plump in the belly and skinny in the limbs. His craggy face was characteristically Roman, but sagging from dissipation. Unlike most Roman officials, he sported a beard --- a short, sparse fringe of hair that outlined his pallid face like a wreath of brittle moss. Without his uniform the keenest imagination would not have pictured him as a soldier --- but for the last generation many worthless sorts had risen to the high ranks of Roman officialdom on the strength of personal friendship with Tiberius or Caligula.

"Your recapture is a fortunate stroke for me, Samaritan," said the proconsul, grinning at Simon's look of consternation. "Oh, yes, Simon of Gitta, I know you --- by reputation. Of course the Black Goats reported your presence to me in Augustonemetum. Ferchobhar knew I needed a man like you."

"What do you want from me?" Simon demanded stiffly. "Apparently you have greater magicians than me licking your boots --- and with Caligula groping in Tartarus where he belongs, there can no longer be any great reward attached to my carcass."

'''You underestimate yourself, Simon. You are a remarkable man --- and the Druids have use for such."

Simon fell silent. He measured up Scaevola as a man who might gloat in his own self-importance for hours without answering a simple question.

"How are his wounds?" the proconsul asked.

A centurion lifted Simon's shirt and examined the gash the satyr had made. "It's not serious if it can be dressed properly."

"Permit me," volunteered Mailaen. "We have skills even your Greek physicians know not of."

"Get on with it," muttered Scaevola, "and spare me your boasting. The wound will not weaken his powers, will it?"

"Physical suffering," smiled Mailaen, "if short of killing, does not diminish one's soul. Indeed, some men's latent powers are enhanced by it. Occasionally --- when we belleve it will heighten the victim's psychic energies --- we employ torture before sacrificing him to Sheila-na-gog."

#

Wounded, bound and closely guarded by Scaevola's bodyguards, Simon found no means to escape his cage over the next two days. His wardens --- ignorant, taciturn underlings --- either knew nothing about what it meant "to be given to Sheila-na-gog" or would not say.

Then, on the third morning after his capture, he happened to overhear Scaevola and Ferchobhar arguing:

"I warn you, if I don't get what I want and return safely to Augustonemetum, a legion will burn this place out! Even if you personally escape into the hills, you'll be a hunted dog, without followers to make you feel important. "

"Your fear talks," Ferchobhar admonished softly. Scaevola's eyes flashed.

"--- No, take no offense," the Druid went on, "for even I have my fears. Sheila-na-gog is mother of all living things, all things upon this world that ever were and ever shall be. Do not, however, imagine we would betray you. Steel yourself! If you do not attend the spawning, you cannot attain power over the beast."

"I will bring my guards!"

"Bring them."

"You agree too easily," said Scaevola, suspicion in his eyes. "What of your precious secrets?"

"Every Roman who enters that place is a traitor to his emperor and his gods. If he is not mad, he will not speak of what he has seen. And if he goes mad, his words will not be believed. "

"Mad?"

"There is that danger. But the ends we pursue are great and well worth the risk. You have sworn that you will accuse the Averoni of plotting to rise as they once did under Vercingetorix, and destroy them utterly. In return, you can count upon the Gauls to march shoulder to shoulder with your own legions."

"Perhaps I would do better if the Averoni were my allies. While you Gauls were fawning at Julius Caesar's hem, the Averoni were the only ones that showed him any fight ---"

"When all the Caesars have passed away," said Ferchobhar scornfully, "there will still be Sheila-na-gog. Remember, once you are emperor, the laws of the Claudians shall be abolished and a temple of the Goddess shall be raised in Rome."

Scaevola shrugged. "I'll give you your temple. There are worse gods entering Rome every day. What do I care if Sheila-na-gog becomes first among them?"

The two conspirators walked on, still speaking in low tones. Simon watched them disappear behind a hut. So that was it --- a double treason, racial enemies embracing for narrow ends!

In less than an hour Simon again saw his foes, this time as part of a procession that was gathering in the heart of the village as the morning sun rose above the surrounding trees. The highest Druids, now robed in black, mingled with Gallic warriors and fully-armed Romans. A number of lowly acolytes leaned upon their staffs, bulging packs of provisions hanging from their backs. Another acolyte, near the head of the assembly, held a stake on which was impaled the severed head of a black goat with large, twisted horns.

Simon was then brought from his cage, chained by the wrist to a Roman on either side. His wound did not pain him much anymore, and he could walk with some confidence. Evidently the healing herbs and ointments of the Druids were as potent as they claimed.

Ferchobhar stepped to the side of the goat-head standard and beckoned the assembly to follow him.

He chose a path leading out of the village toward the volcanic hills. The route rose up through a forest of beech and juniper, over black basalt ledges and boulders largely clothed in a thick carpet of moss. As they ascended the growth thinned, but Simon saw little more; a strange mist had filled in around the group, almost as if summoned by the Druids to disguise the winding route they followed. Occasionally it thinned and the Samaritan could make out a ghostly peak in the distance, a peak he recognized as the dead crater of the ancient mountain Cantal.

The trail continued to climb for most of the day, as if seeking perhaps the very roof of the world, where waited --- what? What was the thing called Sheila-na-gog? . . .

In the gray twilight of evening, Ferchobhar at last motioned the column to a halt on a blasted ridge near the summit of a long-extinct volcano. Only a rare scrub clung here and there to the dark, cracked rocks. The valley below was shrouded in a stratum of mist through which only the evergreens on the highest bluffs managed to break. In addition to its desolate natural appearance, Simon sensed a queer presence in this landscape that chilled him to the quick. His companions evidently felt it too, for a subdued tension was apparent in the experienced Druids, a more open nervous agitation in the novice Romans.

"What is this place, Druid?" demanded Scaevola, a slight tremor in his voice.

"We have arrived," said Ferchobhar simply. "Bring the Samaritan forward."

The guards, seeming even more ill-at-ease than their captive, prodded Simon along between them.

"My warriors shall guard the entry," said the chief Druid. "Let your own men come in with us, Commander Scaevola, if you so desire. "

The proconsul nodded nervously and beckoned his bodyguards with a wave of his hand. "Let's get on with it, Druid."

Ferchobhar deployed his warriors, then led the rest of the procession along a chasm whose walls ran with greenish slime. In places it was gathered into blisterous shapes and where they stepped on it, it clung like pine gum to their boots. At the end of the rift they came upon a pit that sloped downward and gave off an acrid odor. Once it might have been a chimney channeling black lava over the mountain's steep side.

Ferchobhar descended by a narrow path into the pit, followed by Mailaen and the other Druids. The Romans' faces gawked longingly at the light they were leaving behind; then they fell in behind the priests, who advanced more confidently --- though even Ferchobhar wore a grave expression on his face. What horror, Simon wondered, could so affect even those who adored it the most? . . .

The darkness was suddenly banished by the Druids, whose staffs flamed on as if by mental command. Simon, studying the enchanted torches carefully, noticed that the smooth finish at the head of the rods was neither blackened nor consumed.

"What magic is this?" Scaevola blurted. "Those staffs --- ?"

"A magic handed down to us by the sages of ancient Acheron, who brought our Goddess here from foundering Hyperborea," muttered Ferchobhar. "But, be silent --- we approach the sacred presence."

The tunnel ended in a black, hollow space from which puffed a warm and ill-smelling draft. Blowing over the Samaritan's bare hands and face, the breeze somehow made him feel grimy and foul. The Druids, entering first, had the cavity well-lighted before the Romans and their prisoner reached it. The Samaritan, as he entered, drew up sharply in surprise and horror.

Bubbling within the vast cavern was a huge gray pool, some thirty yards across. It churned silently, constantly putting forth gigantic mouths, eyes, pseudopods and animate creatures. These last were the most incredible, swimming across the glistening surface, or flapping above it on clumsy and dripping wings. A few had escaped to the shore and grown somewhat --- but even as Simon watched, tentacles or a sucking force from underneath, pulled the rest of them back down. They resembled composites of bats, toads, birds, reptiles and less describable forms of life. Thankfully, the pool dissolved them --- but just as rapidly gave birth to more creatures, similar only in their hellishness.

The infant monsters on the scummy bank paid no attention to the intruding men; but the Romans gasped incoherent prayers and shrank back at the sight of those beasts that happened to wriggle inadvertently close.

"Begone!" commanded Ferchobhar, extending his staff toward a small, gelatinous lamia that was squirming toward the Romans. At once the thing dissolved and rilled back into the churning pool.

The chief Druid raised his arms. "Behold the womb of Sheila-na-gog, Mother of Life! Now, in the hour of the Lark, we bring to our Goddess a worthy mate. May his seed conceive in her a child of unsurpassed power. Receive him, O Goddess, into your sacred body!"

Ferchobhar then continued to speak, but in a tongue that Simon did not recognize. The remaining Druids struck up an undecipherable chant in support of him.

And Simon at last under stood --- and wished he did not! The gelatinous creatures cast off by the fiscid pool had very little physical stability to them; the Greeks knew of such things and called them "khimeras". Although a few might escape into the outer world, they could maintain a semblance of life only by vampirizing the truly living beings who had already adapted to that world.

But such entities would not suit the needs of the Black Goats, who wanted servitors of dependable physical stability. Apparently a human or animal from the outside world, cast into the pool, would provide the substance of a real monster --- such as the satyr he had fought in the woods. And especially so if the victim was animated by a strong life force. . . .

Scaevola turned and grinned wolfishly at Simon. "When you fell into the Druids power, they realized that you would provide the soul and flesh for what I demanded of them --- a servant like no man has possessed before! There are men who must be destroyed and others who must know terror before I dare make my move and overthrow that limping fool who reigns in Rome. Judging from your notoriety, Simon of Gitta, you have great spirit. Surely the Druids' slime-goddess will make of you nothing less than a demon --- perhaps a host of demons --- and then Ferchobhar's magic shall make your spawn my absolute slave!"

"Mot take you first, madman!" snarled Simon, leaping forward furiously. The guards chained to the Samaritan responded barely in time to restrain him before his hands reached the proconsul's flabby neck.

Angrily, the Roman commander struck him across the face and thrust him back.

"Take off these chains and try that again, Roman slime!" howled Simon.

"See how he fights!" Scaevola trumpeted. "What spirit! Did I not choose rightly? What he generates in union with Sheila-na-gog will shake the throne of Mars!" He signaled his guards. "Give him his wish and remove his shackles. "

One of Simon's escorts dug a key out of his pouch. As the guard opened the bracelet around his own wrist, Simon's mind raced. When his left hand was also free, he would make his move. The Romans were ill-at-ease in front of the incredible pool, partly distracted by its heavings and bubblings; he might strike one of them down with his bare hands, then seize a gladius, kill as many of his foes as he could before being hacked down --- possibly even fight his way up the tunnel. The Gauls waiting outside --- little chance to elude them, but better a fighting death than a surrender to Sheila-na-gog. . . .

Suddenly a cat's scream echoed. The Roman holding the manacle-key jerked in nervous surprise and fumbled it; it dropped into the slime underfoot. The Romans and Druids looked anxiously at one another.

"Stay where you are!" ordered Scaevola. "It's only the Samaritan! He made fools of you once!" The echo of his voice thundered between the rheumy walls of the huge cavern.

The wail of the cat was followed by the shouts of the Gallic warriors outside. Scaevola looked askance into Ferchobhar's pallid face. "We are being attacked!" exclaimed the proconsul. "Hurry --- let's get this over with!"

He gripped Simon by the shoulder and pulled him forward. The soldier still shackled to his left hand lurched behind him, cursing in protest.

"Fool!" roared Scaevola. "Remove that chain or you'll go into the pool with him!"

"It's not my fault!" the guard protested frantically. "Rufus dropped the key into'the muck!"

"Then strike off the Samaritan's hand!" barked Ferchobhar, "but in the name of the Goddess, hurry!"

Swiftly Simon shifted his weight, seized the chained guard by the wrist and upper arm, bent forward --- and expertly flung the surprised Latin over his muscular shoulders. The man crashed into two more Romans, sending them sprawling also.

"Stop him!" shrieked Scaevola, retreating behind the Druids.

Ferchobhar, showing more spine, thrust his staff flame first at Simon's chest. The Samaritan sidestepped with the agility of a trained gladiator --- barely in time, for the brand slid along his side, singeing his woolen chiton. Cursing, he struck out with the heavy manacle that dangled from his right wrist, bringing it down savagely on Ferchobhar's shoulder. The old Druid yelped and slacked his grasp on the staff. Instantly the Samaritan grabbed it and jerked it out of his hands --- but then lost his advantage as the chained Roman gave the other shackle an angry tug and pulled him down.

Simon grappled with the man on the scummy cavern floor, while the other Romans began to push through the indignant Druids with swords drawn. The foremost legionary raised his gladius over the Samaritan's head.

"No!" shrieked the proconsul. "Take him alive!"

The warning spared Simon a severed neck. Instead, the Latins seized him by the legs and his free arm, controlling him despite a struggle that would have done credit to two men.

"Hold out his hand!" yelled a Roman, his white knuckles clenched upon his sword grip. Two others forced Simon down under their combined weight and wrestled his manacled arm into a position convenient for its detachment.

Suddenly a man howled in pain. The Druids and Romans glanced toward the egress as a Gallic warrior came threshing and stumbling into the grotto. A black cat clung to his bleeding back, biting and clawing his flesh.

"The Cats of Sadoqua!" blurted Mailaen.

The Gaul, seemingly blind with terror, plunged frantically through the startled men and blundered over the edge of the pit into the churning pool, the cat leaping from his back to the bank barely in time. The living muck held the Gaul for an instant, submerged to the waist, like a berry on a steaming porridge; then, as his cries intensified in recognition of his new horror, tentacles formed out of the upper surface and dragged him under.

Frenzied yowls rang down the narrow tunnel. Fear lit up every Druid face.

Ferchobhar alone had the self-control to shout: "Defend yourselves!" and retrieve his staff from under the Romans' feet. He had scarcely done so before dozens of black feline figures gushed out of the tunnel, as nimble as bats.

They rushed and sprang straight into the mass of men, claws and fangs bared, moving so swiftly that Simon, now abandoned by his captors, could make out little of them in the uncertain light and moving shadows. He glimpsed darting, shiny pelts and large eyes gleaming like moons. The Romans and Druids fought them with steel and flaming staves, but were obviously disorganized by the inhuman manner and ferocity of the attack; even those hardened veterans seemed baffled by the smallness of their foes and the supple ease with which they evaded the weapon-thrusts.

The chained guard, forgetful of the manacle in his panic, scrambled to his feet and dodged a rushing cat; the chain brought him up short and threw him off balance. Screaming out in horror, he plunged into the pool of Sheila.na-gog, feet first.

As the man was drawn under, the manacle wrenched Simon's arm with a force that rolled him over on his belly and dragged him toward the pool. Frantically he caught hold of a scum-caked stone with his free hand and arrested his slide, but the bubbling fluid was swallowing the Roman --- and Simon, chained to him, was accompanying him down the gullet of Sheila-na-gog!

He strained and held on tenaciously. The edge of the iron wristlet cut through his skin, and some of his blood dribbled into the ichor. Pain shot up his forearm till he feared that his arm would tear off --- a severance more painful than the quick cut the Romans had intended for him. . . .

Suddenly the tension broke and the chain sprang slack. Simon lifted the manacle.

"Baal!" he gasped.

The other wristlet hung empty, not a trace of blood on it. The Roman had been swallowed alive and dissolved.

Shaking off his astonishment, Simon scrambled to his feet --- to find himself jostled and trampled by the struggling men. Except for himself, every man in the cavern had one or more cats clinging to his clothing and biting his exposed flesh. Blood reddened the black robes of the Druids and rilled down the Romans' limbs as they threshed about. Their panicked shrieks filled the grotto and mingled with the yowling of the cats --- which yelling now began to shed its feline tenor and become more like screamed syllables in a forgotten tongue!

The shrill chanting seemed to drive the beleaguered men mad. They ceased to defend themselves and began to run crazily, randomly around the narrow ledge above the pool, jostling one another in their terror, striking themselves senseless against the walls or stumbling blindly into the goddess' fluid mass.

A louder voice penetrated the commotion --- Ferchobhar's, invoking a protective spell against the cats' shrill voicings. Bright flashes of flame suddenly lit the cavern --- searing blasts from the end of the Druid's magic staff. The fire dissolved the felines it touched in the wink of an eye, but aIso charred those luckless men who were mingled with them, driving them in blind agony into the clutch of Sheila-na-gog.

Then Ferchobhar made a dash for the exit, and close behind him ran Mettius Aelius Scaevola, the cats no longer barring their escape. Quick as thought, Simon grasped a Druid's fallen staff and threw it between the proconsul's legs. Even as Ferchobhar vanished up the tunnel the Roman stumbled over the staff and crashed to the rocky floor, his armor ringing. Before he could regain his feet, he felt Simon's strong hands upon him.

"Latin dog!" hissed the Samaritan, gripping his foe's throat.

"Spare me!" Scaevola gasped against the pressure. "I had nothing to do with this! I can make you an important man --- !"

Disgust welled up in Simon's breast, and hate. It was corrupt Roman officials like this one who had plundered his home in Samaria, slain his parents, sold him into the arena.

"Scum who would rule the world," he snarled, "kiss the bride you would have given me to!"

Then with a surge of rage he heaved the man off his feet --- and straight over the brink of the pit into the pool of Sheila-na-gog.

For a moment the Roman stuck like a fly in the surface of the seething paste; then, screaming, he sank down. Simon watched, dark eyes narrowed, feeling no pity for the dying proconsul. Scaevola shrieked as his mouth filled with the gray, pulsing fluid; then his voice choked off, and his frantic eyes vanished beneath the fetid surface. The depression he left behind slowly filled in with ichor. . . .

Suddenly Simon realized he stood alone in the grotto. The cats had gone and those men who were not dead or senseless underfoot had vanished into the goddess-pool. The Samaritan felt a strange heaviness begin to take possession of him. . . .

Something huffed close by. Turning, Simon beheld a creature heaving itself out of the pasty womb of Sheila-na-gog. It was a small criosphinx --- a ram-headed beast with leonine hindquarters and wings still dripping with fluid. Other fetid monsters were similarly rising, most smaller and frailer --- amalgamations of all manner of lowly beasts, some possessed of forms that had no known equivalent in Nature. Simon recoiled; here, he realized, were the men who had gone into the pool, now remolded into abominations not of this earth.

He backed away, turned to retreat up the tunnel --- but then he heard men's shouts and footsteps coming from around a bend. Was it the rest of the Gauls? Had Ferchobhar rallied the men outside?

Simon snatched up a Roman sword. Wounded, sickened, he would yet make a fight of it. . . .

The intruders moved cautiously into view. Simon's gladius wavered unsteadily. These were not the Gauls, although Ferchobhar's face was in the forefront. . . .

Aye, in the forefront --- for in the fist of the first Averoni tribesman dangled the head of Ferchobhar, chief of the Black Goat Druids. Blood and horror had hideously changed the dead priest's face.

"Put down your weapon, Simon of Gitta," said their leader. "We surely have not done all this with the intent of harming you."

Simon recognized the newcomer as the last man he had released from the Druids' osier cage. He nodded, lowered his sword and slumped wearily against the wall.

"I thank you," he said, fighting to keep from passing into a swoon.

Several Averoni nudged past him and began to attack the creatures of the pool with spears, axes and knives, hewing them into lifeless pieces.

"Good," said their chief when the butchery was finished. "Now, let's get out of this foul place!"

They all hurried from the cavern; but as the last two torch-bearing Averoni helped Simon through the exit, he turned --- and gasped as he observed a final creature rise from the womb of Sheila-na-gog. It had just surfaced in an obscure corner, near the spot where Mettius Aelius Scaevola had disappeared; it was small and had the shape of a rat, but its pallid, bearded face and handlike forepaws were evilly human. . . .

Then a sudden bubbling of the pool seemed to frighten the risen creature, sending it scurrying into the shadows with a loathsome, piteous titter.