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Title: The Scarlet Citadel
Author: Robert E. Howard
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Title: The Scarlet Citadel
Author: Robert E. Howard



Contents



I
II
III
IV
V




I



_They trapped the Lion on Shamu's plain;_

The roar of battle had died away; the shout of victory mingled with
the cries of the dying. Like gay-hued leaves after an autumn storm,
the fallen littered the plain; the sinking sun shimmered on burnished
helmets, gilt-worked mail, silver breastplates, broken swords and the
heavy regal folds of silken standards, overthrown in pools of curdling
crimson. In silent heaps lay war-horses and their steel-clad riders,
flowing manes and blowing plumes stained alike in the red tide. About
them and among them, like the drift of a storm, were strewn slashed
and trampled bodies in steel caps and leather jerkins--archers and
pikemen.

The oliphants sounded a fanfare of triumph all over the plain, and the
hoofs of the victors crunched in the breasts of the vanquished as all
the straggling, shining lines converged inward like the spokes of a
glittering wheel, to the spot where the last survivor still waged
unequal strife.

That day Conan, king of Aquilonia, had seen the pick of his chivalry
cut to pieces, smashed and hammered to bits, and swept into eternity.
With five thousand knights he had crossed the south-eastern border of
Aquilonia and ridden into the grassy meadowlands of Ophir, to find his
former ally, King Amalrus of Ophir, drawn up against him with the
hosts of Strabonus, king of Koth. Too late he had seen the trap. All
that a man might do he had done with his five thousand cavalrymen
against the thirty thousand knights, archers and spearmen of the
conspirators.

Without bowmen or infantry, he had hurled his armored horsemen against
the oncoming host, had seen the knights of his foes in their shining
mail go down before his lances, had torn the opposing center to bits,
driving the riven ranks headlong before him, only to find himself
caught in a vise as the untouched wings closed in. Strabonus'
Shemitish bowmen had wrought havoc among his knights, feathering them
with shafts that found every crevice in their armor, shooting down the
horses, the Kothian pikemen rushing in to spear the fallen riders. The
mailed lancers of the routed center had re-formed, reinforced by the
riders from the wings, and had charged again and again, sweeping the
field by sheer weight of numbers.

The Aquilonians had not fled; they had died on the field, and of the
five thousand knights who had followed Conan southward, not one left
the field alive. And now the king himself stood at bay among the
slashed bodies of his house troops, his back against a heap of dead
horses and men. Ophirean knights in gilded mail leaped their horses
over mounds of corpses to slash at the solitary figure; squat Shemites
with blue-black beards, and dark-faced Kothian knights ringed him on
foot. The clangor of steel rose deafeningly; the black-mailed figure
of the western king loomed among his swarming foes, dealing blows like
a butcher wielding a great cleaver. Riderless horses raced down the
field; about his iron-clad feet grew a ring of mangled corpses. His
attackers drew back from his desperate savagery, panting and livid.

Now through the yelling, cursing lines rode the lords of the
conquerors.Strabonus, with his broad dark face and crafty eyes;
Amalrus, slender, fastidious, treacherous, dangerous as a cobra; and
the lean vulture Tsotha-lanti, clad only in silken robes, his great
black eyes glittering from a face that was like that of a bird of
prey. Of this Kothian wizard dark tales were told; tousle-headed women
in northern and western villages frightened children with his name,
and rebellious slaves were brought to abased submission quicker than
by the lash, with threat of being sold to him. Men said that he had a
whole library of dark works bound in skin flayed from living human
victims, and that in nameless pits below the hill whereon his palace
sat, he trafficked with the powers of darkness, trading screaming girl
slaves for unholy secrets. He was the real ruler of Koth.

Now he grinned bleakly as the kings reined back a safe distance from
the grim iron-clad figure looming among the dead. Before the savage
blue eyes blazing murderously from beneath the crested, dented helmet,
the boldest shrank. Conan's dark scarred face was darker yet with
passion; his black armor was hacked to tatters and splashed with
blood; his great sword red to the crosspiece. In this stress all the
veneer of civilization had faded; it was a barbarian who faced his
conquerors. Conan was a Cimmerian by birth, one of those fierce moody
hillmen who dwelt in their gloomy, cloudy land in the north. His saga,
which had led him to the throne of Aquilonia, was the basis of a whole
cycle of hero tales.

So now the kings kept their distance, and Strabonus called on his
Shemitish archers to loose their arrows at his foe from a distance;
his captains had fallen like ripe grain before the Cimmerian's
broadsword, and Strabonus, penurious of his knights as of his coins,
was frothing with fury. But Tsotha shook his head.

"Take him alive."

"Easy to say!" snarled Strabonus, uneasy lest in some way the black-
mailed giant might hew a path to them through the spears. "Who can
take a man-eating tiger alive? By Ishtar, his heel is on the necks of
my finest swordsmen! It took seven years and stacks of gold to train
each, and there they lie, so much kite's meat. Arrows, I say!"

"Again, nay!" snapped Tsotha, swinging down from his horse. He laughed
coldly. "Have you not learned by this time that my brain is mightier
than any sword?"

He passed through the lines of the pikemen, and the giants in their
steel caps and mail brigandines shrank back fearfully, lest they so
much as touch the skirts of his robe. Nor were the plumed knights
slower in making room for him. He stepped over the corpses and came
face to face with the grim king. The hosts watched in tense silence,
holding their breath. The black-armored figure loomed in terrible
menace over the lean, silk-robed shape, the notched, dripping sword
hovering on high.

"I offer you life, Conan," said Tsotha, a cruel mirth bubbling at the
back of his voice.

"I give you death, wizard," snarled the king, and backed by iron
muscles and ferocious hate the great sword swung in a stroke meant to
shear Tsotha's lean torso in half. But even as the hosts cried out,
the wizard stepped in, too quick for the eye to follow, and apparently
merely laid an open hand on Conan's left forearm, from the ridged
muscles of which the mail had been hacked away. The whistling blade
veered from its arc and the mailed giant crashed heavily to earth, to
lie motionless. Tsotha laughed silently.

"Take him up and fear not; the lion's fangs are drawn."

The kings reined in and gazed in awe at the fallen lion. Conan lay
stiffly, like a dead man, but his eyes glared up at them, wide open,
and blazing with helpless fury. "What have you done to him?" asked
Amalrus uneasily.

Tsotha displayed a broad ring of curious design on his finger. He
pressed his fingers together and on the inner side of the ring a tiny
steel fang darted out like a snake's tongue.

"It is steeped in the juice of the purple lotus which grows in the
ghost-haunted swamps of southern Stygia," said the magician. "Its
touch produces temporary paralysis. Put him in chains and lay him in a
chariot. The sun sets and it is time we were on the road for
Khorshemish."

Strabonus turned to his general Arbanus.

"We return to Khorshemish with the wounded. Only a troop of the royal
cavalry will accompany us. Your orders are to march at dawn to the
Aquilonian border, and invest the city of Shamar. The Ophireans will
supply you with food along the march. We will rejoin you as soon as
possible, with reinforcements."

So the host, with its steel-sheathed knights, its pikemen and archers
and camp servants, went into camp in the meadowlands near the
battlefield. And through the starry night the two kings and the
sorcerer who was greater than any king rode to the capital of
Strabonus, in the midst of the glittering palace troop, and
accompanied by a long line of chariots, loaded with the wounded. In
one of these chariots lay Conan, king of Aquilonia, weighted with
chains, the tang of defeat in his mouth, the blind fury of a trapped
tiger in his soul.

The poison which had frozen his mighty limbs to helplessness had not
paralyzed his brain. As the chariot in which he lay rumbled over the
meadowlands, his mind revolved maddeningly about his defeat. Amalrus
had sent an emissary imploring aid against Strabonus, who, he said,
was ravaging his western domain, which lay like a tapering wedge
between the border of Aquilonia and the vast southern kingdom of Koth.
He asked only a thousand horsemen and the presence of Conan, to
hearten his demoralized subjects. Conan now mentally blasphemed. In
his generosity he had come with five times the number the treacherous
monarch had asked. In good faith he had ridden into Ophir, and had
been confronted by the supposed rivals allied against him. It spoke
significantly of his prowess that they had brought up a whole host to
trap him and his five thousand.

A red cloud veiled his vision; his veins swelled with fury and in his
temples a pulse throbbed maddeningly. In all his life he had never
known greater and more helpless wrath. In swift-moving scenes the
pageant of his life passed fleetingly before his mental eye--a
panorama wherein moved shadowy figures which were himself, in many
guises and conditions--a skin-clad barbarian; a mercenary swordsman in
horned helmet and scale-mail corselet; a corsair in a dragon-prowed
galley that trailed a crimson wake of blood and pillage along southern
coasts; a captain of hosts in burnished steel, on a rearing black
charger; a king on a golden throne with the lion banner flowing above,
and throngs of gay-hued courtiers and ladies on their knees. But
always the jouncing and rumbling of the chariot brought his thoughts
back to revolve with maddening monotony about the treachery of Amalrus
and the sorcery of Tsotha. The veins nearly burst in his temples and
cries of the wounded in the chariots filled him with ferocious
satisfaction.

Before midnight they crossed the Ophirean border and at dawn the
spires of Khorshemish stood up gleaming and rose-tinted on the south-
eastern horizon, the slim towers overawed by the grim scarlet citadel
that at a distance was like a splash of bright blood in the sky. That
was the castle of Tsotha. Only one narrow street, paved with marble
and guarded by heavy iron gates, led up to it, where it crowned the
hill dominating the city. The sides of that hill were too sheer to be
climbed elsewhere. From the walls of the citadel one could look down
on the broad white streets of the city, on minaretted mosques, shops,
temples, mansions and markets. One could look down, too, on the
palaces of the king, set in broad gardens, high­walled, luxurious
riots of fruit trees and blossoms, through which artificial streams
murmured, and silvery fountains rippled incessantly. Over all brooded
the citadel, like a condor stooping above its prey, intent on its own
dark meditations.

The mighty gates between the huge towers of the outer wall clanged
open, and the king rode into his capital between lines of glittering
spearmen, while fifty trumpets pealed salute. But no throngs swarmed
the white-paved streets to fling roses before the conqueror's hoofs.
Strabonus had raced ahead of news of the battle, and the people, just
rousing to the occupations of the day, gaped to see their king
returning with a small retinue, and were in doubt as to whether it
portended victory or defeat.

Conan, life sluggishly moving in his veins again, craned his neck from
the chariot floor to view the wonders of this city which men called
the Queen of the South. He had thought to ride some day through these
golden-chased gates at the head of his steel-clad squadrons, with the
great lion banner flowing over his helmeted head. Instead he entered
in chains, stripped of his armor, and thrown like a captive slave on
the bronze floor of his conqueror's chariot. A wayward devilish mirth
of mockery rose above his fury, but to the nervous soldiers who drove
the chariot his laughter sounded like the muttering of a rousing lion.



II



_Gleaming shell of an outworn lie; fable of Right divine_

In the citadel, in a chamber with a domed ceiling of carven jet, and
the fretted arches of doorways glimmering with strange dark jewels, a
strange conclave came to pass. Conan of Aquilonia, blood from
unbandaged wounds caking his huge limbs, faced his captors. On either
side of him stood a dozen black giants, grasping their long-shafted
axes. In front of him stood Tsotha, and on divans lounged Strabonus
and Amalrus in their silks and gold, gleaming with jewels, naked
slave boys beside them pouring wine into cups carved of a single
sapphire. In strong contrast stood Conan, grim, blood-stained, naked
but for a loincloth, shackles on his mighty limbs, his blue eyes
blazing beneath the tangled black mane which fell over his low broad
forehead. He dominated the scene, turning to tinsel the pomp of the
conquerors by the sheer vitality of his elemental personality, and the
kings in their pride and splendor were aware of it each in his secret
heart, and were not at ease. Only Tsotha was not disturbed.

"Our desires are quickly spoken, king of Aquilonia," said Tsotha. "It
is our wish to extend our empire."

"And so you want to swine my kingdom," rasped Conan.

"What are you but an adventurer, seizing a crown to which you had no
more claim than any other wandering barbarian?" parried Amalrus. "We
are prepared to offer you suitable compensation--"

"Compensation!" It was a gust of deep laughter from Conan's mighty
chest. "The price of infamy and treachery! I am a barbarian, so I
shall sell my kingdom and its people for life and your filthy gold?
Ha! How did you come to your crown, you and that black-faced pig
beside you? Your fathers did the fighting and the suffering, and
handed their crowns to you on golden platters. What you inherited
without lifting a finger--except to poison a few brothers--I fought
for.

"You sit on satin and guzzle wine the people sweat for, and talk of
divine rights of sovereignty--bah! I climbed out of the abyss of naked
barbarism to the throne and in that climb I spilt my blood as freely
as I spilt that of others. If either of us has the right to rule men,
by Crom, it is I! How have you proved yourselves my superiors?

"I found Aquilonia in the grip of a pig like you--one who traced his
genealogy for a thousand years. The land was torn with the wars of the
barons, and the people cried out under oppression and taxation. Today
no Aquilonian noble dares maltreat the humblest of my subjects, and
the taxes of the people are lighter than anywhere else in the world.

"What of you? Your brother, Amalrus, holds the eastern half of your
kingdom, and defies you. And you, Strabonus, your soldiers are even
now besieging castles of a dozen or more rebellious barons. The people
of both your kingdoms are crushed into the earth by tyrannous taxes
and levies. And you would loot mine--ha! Free my hands and I'll
varnish this floor with your brains!"

Tsotha grinned bleakly to see the rage of his kingly companions.

"All this, truthful though it be, is beside the point. Our plans are
no concern of yours. Your responsibility is at an end when you sign
this parchment, which is an abdication in favor of Prince Arpello of
Pellia. We will give you arms and horse, and five thousand golden
lunas, and escort you to the eastern frontier."

"Setting me adrift where I was when I rode into Aquilonia to take
service in her armies, except with the added burden of a traitor's
name!" Conan's laugh was like the deep short bark of a timber wolf.
"Arpello, eh? I've had suspicions of that butcher of Pellia. Can you
not even steal and pillage frankly and honestly, but you must have an
excuse, however thin? Arpello claims a trace of royal blood; so you
use him as an excuse for theft, and a satrap to rule through. I'll see
you in hell first."

"You're a fool!" exclaimed Amalrus. "You are in our hands, and we can
take both crown and life at our pleasure!"

Conan's answer was neither kingly nor dignified, but
characteristically instinctive in the man, whose barbaric nature had
never been submerged in his adopted culture. He spat full in Amalrus'
eyes. The king of Ophir leaped up with a scream of outraged fury,
groping for his slender sword. Drawing it, he rushed at the Cimmerian,
but Tsotha intervened.

"Wait, your majesty; this man is my prisoner."

"Aside, wizard!" shrieked Amalrus, maddened by the glare in the
Cimmerian's blue eyes.

"Back, I say!" roared Tsotha, roused to awesome wrath. His lean hand
came from his wide sleeve and cast a shower of dust into the
Ophirean's contorted face. Amalrus cried out and staggered back,
clutching at his eyes, the sword falling from his hand. He dropped
limply on the divan, while the Kothian guards looked on stolidly and
King Strabonus hurriedly gulped another goblet of wine, holding it
with hands that trembled. Amalrus lowered his hands and shook his head
violently, intelligence slowly sifting back into his gray eyes.

"I went blind," he growled. "What did you do to me, wizard?"

"Merely a gesture to convince you who was the real master," snapped
Tsotha, the mask of his formal pretense dropped, revealing the naked
evil personality of the man. "Strabonus has learned his lesson--let
you learn yours. It was but a dust I found in a Stygian tomb which I
flung into your eyes--if I brush out their sight again, I will leave
you to grope in darkness for the rest of your life."

Amalrus shrugged his shoulders, smiled whimsically and reached for a
goblet, dissembling his fear and fury. A polished diplomat, he was
quick to regain his poise. Tsotha turned to Conan, who had stood
imperturbably during the episode. At the wizard's gesture, the blacks
laid hold of their prisoner and marched him behind Tsotha, who led the
way out of the chamber through an arched doorway into a winding
corridor, whose floor was of many-hued mosaics, whose walls were
inlaid with gold tissue and silver chasing, and from whose fretted
arched ceiling swung golden censers, filling the corridor with dreamy
perfumed clouds. They turned down a smaller corridor, done in jet and
black jade, gloomy and awful, which ended at a brass door, over whose
arch a human skull grinned horrificly. At this door stood a fat
repellent figure, dangling a bunch of keys--Tsotha's chief eunuch,
Shukeli, of whom grisly tales were whispered--a man with whom a
bestial lust for torture took the place of normal human passions.

The brass door let onto a narrow stair that seemed to wind down into
the very bowels of the hill on which the citadel stood. Down these
stairs went the band, to halt at last at an iron door, the strength of
which seemed unnecessary. Evidently it did not open on outer air, yet
it was built as if to withstand the battering of mangonels and rams.
Shukeli opened it, and as he swung back the ponderous portal, Conan
noted the evident uneasiness among the black giants who guarded him;
nor did Shukeli seem altogether devoid of nervousness as he peered
into the darkness beyond. Inside the great door there was a second
barrier, composed of heavy steel bars. It was fastened by an ingenious
bolt which had no lock and could be worked only from the outside; this
bolt shot back, the grille slid into the wall. They passed through,
into a broad corridor, the floor, walls and arched ceiling of which
seemed to be cut out of solid stone. Conan knew he was far
underground, even below the hill itself. The darkness pressed in on
the guardsmen's torches like a sentient, animate thing.

They made the king fast to a ring in the stone wall. Above his head in
a niche in the wall they placed a torch, so that he stood in a dim
semicircle of light. The blacks were anxious to be gone; they muttered
among themselves, and cast fearful glances at the darkness. Tsotha
motioned them out, and they filed through the door in stumbling haste,
as if fearing that the darkness might take tangible form and spring
upon their backs. Tsotha turned toward Conan, and the king noticed
uneasily that the wizard's eyes shone in the semidarkness, and that
his teeth much resembled the fangs of a wolf, gleaming whitely in the
shadows.

"And so, farewell, barbarian," mocked the sorcerer. "I must ride to
Shamar, and the siege. In ten days I will be in your palace in Tamar,
with my warriors. What word from you shall I say to your women, before
I flay their dainty skins for scrolls whereon to chronicle the
triumphs of Tsotha-lanti?"

Conan answered with a searing Cimmerian curse that would have burst
the eardrums of an ordinary man, and Tsotha laughed thinly and
withdrew. Conan had a glimpse of his vulturelike figure through the
thick-set bars, as he slid home the grate; then the heavy outer door
clanged, and silence fell like a pall.



III



_The Lion strode through the Halls of Hell;_

King Conan tested the ring in the wall and the chain that bound him.
His limbs were free, but he knew that his shackles were beyond even
his iron strength. The links of the chain were as thick as his thumb
and were fastened to a band of steel about his waist, a band broad as
his hand and half an inch thick. The sheer weight of his shackles
would have slain a lesser man with exhaustion. The locks that held
band and chain were massive affairs that a sledgehammer could hardly
have dinted. As for the ring, evidently it went clear through the wall
and was clinched on the other side.

Conan cursed and panic surged through him as he glared into the
darkness that pressed against the half-circle of light. All the
superstitious dread of the barbarian slept in his soul, untouched by
civilized logic. His primitive imagination peopled the subterranean
darkness with grisly shapes. Besides, his reason told him that he had
not been placed there merely for confinement. His captors had no
reason to spare him. He had been placed in these pits for a definite
doom. He cursed himself for his refusal of their offer, even while his
stubborn manhood revolted at the thought, and he knew that were he
taken forth and given another chance, his reply would be the same. He
would not sell his subjects to the butcher. And yet it had been with
no thought of anyone's gain but his own that he had seized the kingdom
originally. Thus subtly does the instinct of sovereign responsibility
enter even a red-handed plunderer sometimes.

Conan thought of Tsotha's last abominable threat, and groaned in sick
fury, knowing it was no idle boast. Men and women were to the wizard
no more than the writhing insect is to the scientist. Soft white hands
that had caressed him, red lips that had been pressed to his, dainty
white bosoms that had quivered to his hot fierce kisses, to be
stripped of their delicate skin, white as ivory and pink as young
petals--from Conan's lips burst a yell so frightful and inhuman in its
mad fury that a listener would have stared in horror to know that it
came from a human throat.

The shuddering echoes made him start and brought back his own
situation vividly to the king. He glared fearsomely at the outer
gloom, and thought of the grisly tales he had heard of Tsotha's
necromantic cruelty, and it was with an icy sensation down his spine
that he realized that these must be the very Halls of Horror named in
shuddering legendry, the tunnels and dungeons wherein Tsotha performed
horrible experiments with beings human, bestial, and, it was
whispered, demoniac, tampering blasphemously with the naked basic
elements of life itself. Rumor said that the mad poet Rinaldo had
visited these pits, and been shown horrors by the wizard, and that the
nameless monstrosities of which he hinted in his awful poem, _The Song
of the Pit_, were no mere fantasies of a disordered brain. That brain
had crashed to dust beneath Conan's battle-ax on the night the king
had fought for his life with the assassins the mad rhymer had led into
the betrayed palace, but the shuddersome words of that grisly song
still rang in the king's ears as he stood there in his chains.

Even with the thought the Cimmerian was frozen by a soft rustling
sound, blood-freezing in its implication. He tensed in an attitude of
listening, painful in its intensity. An icy hand stroked his spine. It
was the unmistakable sound of pliant scales slithering softly over
stone. Cold sweat beaded his skin, as beyond the ring of dim light he
saw a vague and colossal form, awful even in its indistinctness. It
reared upright, swaying slightly, and yellow eyes burned icily on him
from the shadows. Slowly a huge, hideous, wedge-shaped head took form
before his dilated eyes, and from the darkness oozed, in flowing scaly
coils, the ultimate horror of reptilian development.

It was a snake that dwarfed all Conan's previous ideas of snakes.
Eighty feet it stretched from its pointed tail to its triangular head,
which was bigger than that of a horse. In the dim light its scales
glistened coldly, white as hoar-frost. Surely this reptile was one
born and grown in darkness, yet its eyes were full of evil and sure
sight. It looped its titan coils in front of the captive, and the
great head on the arching neck swayed a matter of inches from his
face. Its forked tongue almost brushed his lips as it darted in and
out, and its fetid odor made his senses reel with nausea. The great
yellow eyes burned into his, and Conan gave back the glare of a
trapped wolf. He fought against the mad impulse to grasp the great
arching neck in his tearing hands. Strong beyond the comprehension of
civilized man, he had broken the neck of a python in a fiendish battle
on the Stygian coast, in his corsair days. But this reptile was
venomous; he saw the great fangs, a foot long, curved like scimitars.
From them dripped a colorless liquid that he instinctively knew was
death. He might conceivably crush that wedge-shaped skull with a
desperate clenched fist, but he knew that at his first hint of
movement, the monster would strike like lightning.

It was not because of any logical reasoning process that Conan
remained motionless, since reason might have told him--since he was
doomed anyway--to goad the snake into striking and get it over with;
it was the blind black instinct of self-preservation that held him
rigid as a statue blasted out of iron. Now the great barrel reared up
and the head was poised high above his own, as the monster
investigated the torch. A drop of venom fell on his naked thigh, and
the feel of it was like a white-hot dagger driven into his flesh. Red
jets of agony shot through Conan's brain, yet he held himself
immovable; not by the twitching of a muscle or the flicker of an
eyelash did he betray the pain of the hurt that left a scar he bore to
the day of his death.

The serpent swayed above him, as if seeking to ascertain whether there
were in truth life in this figure which stood so deathlike still.
Then suddenly, unexpectedly, the outer door, all but invisible in the
shadows, clanged stridently. The serpent, suspicious as all its kind,
whipped about with a quickness incredible for its bulk, and vanished
with a long-drawn slithering down the corridor. The door swung open
and remained open. The grille was withdrawn and a huge dark figure was
framed in the glow of torches outside. The figure glided in, pulling
the grille partly to behind it, leaving the bolt poised. As it moved
into the light of the torch over Conan's head, the king saw that it
was a gigantic black man, stark naked, bearing in one hand a huge
sword and in the other a bunch of keys. The black spoke in a seacoast
dialect, and Conan replied; he had learned the jargon while a corsair
on the coasts of Kush.

"Long have I wished to meet you, Amra," the black gave Conan the name
Amra, the Lion--by which the Cimmerian had been known to the
Kushites in his piratical days. The slave's woolly skull split in an
animal-like grin, showing white tusks, but his eyes glinted redly in
the torchlight. "I have dared much for this meeting! Look! The keys to
your chains! I stole them from Shukeli. What will you give me for
them?"

He dangled the keys in front of Conan's eyes.

"Ten thousand golden lunas," answered the king quickly, new hope
surging fiercely in his breast.

"Not enough!" cried the black, a ferocious exultation shining on his
ebon countenance. "Not enough for the risks I take. Tsotha's pets
might come out of the dark and eat me, and if Shukeli finds out I
stole his keys, he'll hang me up by my--well, what will you give
me?"

"Fifteen thousand lunas and a palace in Poitain," offered the king.

The black yelled and stamped in a frenzy of barbaric gratification.
"More!" he cried. "Offer me more! What will you give me?"

"You black dog!" A red mist of fury swept across Conan's eyes. "Were I
free I'd give you a broken back! Did Shukeli send you here to mock
me?"

"Shukeli knows nothing of my coming, white man," answered the black,
craning his thick neck to peer into Conan's savage eyes. "I know you
from of old, since the days when I was a chief among a free people,
before the Stygians took me and sold me into the north. Do you not
remember the sack of Abombi, when your seawolves swarmed in? Before
the palace of King Ajaga you slew a chief and a chief fled from you.
It was my brother who died; it was I who fled. I demand of you a
blood-price, Amra!"

"Free me and I'll pay you your weight in gold pieces," growled Conan.

The red eyes glittered, the white teeth flashed wolfishly in the
torchlight. "Aye, you white dog, you are like all your race; but to a
black man gold can never pay for blood. The price I ask is--your
head!"

The last word was a maniacal shriek that sent the echoes shivering.
Conan tensed, unconsciously straining against his shackles in his
abhorrence of dying like a sheep; then he was frozen by a greater
horror. Over the black's shoulder he saw a vague horrific form swaying
in the darkness.

"Tsotha will never know!" laughed the black fiendishly, too engrossed
in his gloating triumph to take heed of anything else, too drunk with
hate to know that Death swayed behind his shoulder. "He will not come
into the vaults until the demons have torn your bones from their
chains. I will have your head, Amra!"

He braced his knotted legs like ebon columns and swung up the massive
sword in both hands, his great black muscles rolling and cracking in
the torchlight. And at that instant the titanic shadow behind him
darted down and out, and the wedge­shaped head smote with an impact
that re-echoed down the tunnels. Not a sound came from the thick
blubbery lips that flew wide in fleeting agony. With the thud of the
stroke, Conan saw the life go out of the wide black eyes with the
suddenness of a candle blown out. The blow knocked the great black
body clear across the corridor and horribly the gigantic sinuous shape
whipped around it in glistening coils that hid it from view, and the
snap and splintering of bones came plainly to Conan's ears. Then
something made his heart leap madly. The sword and the keys had flown
from the black's hands to crash and jangle on the stone--and the keys
lay almost at the king's feet.

He tried to bend to them, but the chain was too short; almost
suffocated by the mad pounding of his heart, he slipped one foot from
its sandal, and gripped them with his toes; drawing his foot up, he
grasped them fiercely, barely stifling the yell of ferocious
exultation that rose instinctively to his lips.

An instant's fumbling with the huge locks and he was free. He caught
up the fallen sword and glared about. Only empty darkness met his
eyes, into which the serpent had dragged a mangled, tattered object
that only faintly resembled a human body. Conan turned to the open
door. A few quick strides brought him to the threshold--a squeal of
high-pitched laughter shrilled through the vaults, and the grille shot
home under his very fingers, the bolt crashed down. Through the bars
peered a face like a fiendishly mocking carven gargoyle--Shukeli the
eunuch, who had followed his stolen keys. Surely he did not, in his
gloating, see the sword in the prisoner's hand. With a terrible curse
Conan struck as a cobra strikes; the great blade hissed between the
bars and Shukeli's laughter broke in a death scream. The fat eunuch
bent at the middle, as if bowing to his killer, and crumpled like
tallow, his pudgy hands clutching vainly at his spilling entrails.

Conan snarled in savage satisfaction; but he was still a prisoner. His
keys were futile against the bolt which could be worked only from the
outside. His experienced touch told him the bars were hard as the
sword; an attempt to hew his way to freedom would only splinter his
one weapon. Yet he found dents on those adamantine bars, like the
marks of incredible fangs, and wondered with an involuntary shudder
what nameless monsters had so terribly assailed the barriers.
Regardless, there was but one thing for him to do, and that was to
seek some other outlet. Taking the torch from the niche, he set off
down the corridor, sword in hand. He saw no sign of the serpent or its
victim, only a great smear of blood on the stone floor.

Darkness stalked on noiseless feet about him, scarcely driven back by
his flickering torch. On either hand he saw dark openings, but he kept
to the main corridor, watching the floor ahead of him carefully, lest
he fall into some pit. And suddenly he heard the sound of a woman,
weeping piteously. Another of Tsotha's victims, he thought, cursing
the wizard anew, and turning aside, followed the sound down a smaller
tunnel, dank and damp.

The weeping grew nearer as he advanced, and lifting his torch he made
out a vague shape in the shadows. Stepping closer, he halted in sudden
horror at the amorphic bulk which sprawled before him. Its unstable
outlines somewhat suggested an octopus, but its malformed tentacles
were too short for its size, and its substance was a quaking, jellylike stuff which made him physically sick to look at. From among this
loathsome gelid mass reared up a froglike head, and he was frozen
with nauseated horror to realize that the sound of weeping was coming
from those obscene blubbery lips. The noise changed to an abominable
high-pitched tittering as the great unstable eyes of the monstrosity
rested on him, and it hitched its quaking bulk toward him. He backed
away and fled up the tunnel, not trusting his sword. The creature
might be composed of terrestrial matter, but it shook his very soul to
look upon it, and he doubted the power of man-made weapons to harm it.
For a short distance he heard it flopping and floundering after him,
screaming with horrible laughter. The unmistakably human note in its
mirth almost staggered his reason. It was exactly such laughter as he
had heard bubble obscenely from the fat lips of the salacious women of
Shadizar, City of Wickedness, when captive girls were stripped naked
on the public auction block. By what hellish arts had Tsotha brought
this unnatural being into life? Conan felt vaguely that he had looked
on blasphemy against the eternal laws of nature.

He ran toward the main corridor, but before he reached it he crossed a
sort of small square chamber, where two tunnels crossed. As he reached
this chamber, he was flashingly aware of some small squat bulk on the
floor ahead of him; then before he could check his flight or swerve
aside, his foot struck something yielding that squalled shrilly, and
he was precipitated headlong, the torch flying from his hand and being
extinguished as it struck the stone floor. Half stunned by his fall,
Conan rose and groped in the darkness. His sense of direction was
confused, and he was unable to decide in which direction lay the main
corridor. He did not look for the torch, as he had no means of
rekindling it. His groping hands found the openings of the tunnels,
and he chose one at random. How long he traversed it in utter
darkness, he never knew, but suddenly his barbarian's instinct of near
peril halted him short.

He had the same feeling he had had when standing on the brink of great
precipices in the darkness. Dropping to all fours, he edged forward,
and presently his outflung hand encountered the edge of a well, into
which the tunnel floor dropped abruptly. As far down as he could reach
the sides fell away sheerly, dank and slimy to his touch. He stretched
out an arm in the darkness and could barely touch the opposite edge
with the point of his sword. He could leap across it, then, but there
was no point in that. He had taken the wrong tunnel and the main
corridor lay somewhere behind him.

Even as he thought this, he felt a faint movement of air; a shadowy
wind, rising from the well, stirred his black mane. Conan's skin
crawled. He tried to tell himself that this well connected somehow
with the outer world, but his instincts told him it was a thing
unnatural. He was not merely inside the hill; he was below it, far
below the level of the city streets. How then could an outer wind find
its way into the pits and blow up from below? A faint throbbing pulsed
on that ghostly wind, like drums beating, far, far below. A strong
shudder shook the king of Aquilonia.

He rose to his feet and backed away, and as he did something floated
up out of the well. What it was, Conan did not know. He could see
nothing in the darkness, but he distinctly felt a presence--an
invisible, intangible intelligence which hovered malignly near him.
Turning, he fled the way he had come. Far ahead he saw a tiny red
spark. He headed for it, and long before he thought to have reached
it, he caromed headlong into a solid wall, and saw the spark at his
feet. It was his torch, the flame extinguished, but the end a glowing
coal. Carefully he took it up and blew upon it, fanning it into flame
again. He gave a sigh as the tiny blaze leaped up. He was back in the
chamber where the tunnels crossed, and his sense of direction came
back.

He located the tunnel by which he had left the main corridor, and even
as he started toward it, his torch flame flickered wildly as if blown
upon by unseen lips. Again he felt a presence, and he lifted his
torch, glaring about.

He saw nothing; yet he sensed, somehow, an invisible, bodiless thing
that hovered in the air, dripping slimily and mouthing obscenities
that he could not hear but was in some instinctive way aware of. He
swung viciously with his sword and it felt as if he were cleaving
cobwebs. A cold horror shook him then, and he fled down the tunnel,
feeling a foul burning breath on his naked back as he ran.

But when he came out into the broad corridor, he was no longer aware
of any presence, visible or invisible. Down it he went, momentarily
expecting fanged and taloned fiends to leap at him from the darkness.
The tunnels were not silent. From the bowels of the earth in all
directions came sounds that did not belong in a sane world. There were
titterings, squeals of demoniac mirth, long shuddering howls, and once
the unmistakable squalling laughter of a hyena ended awfully in human
words of shrieking blasphemy. He heard the pad of stealthy feet, and
in the mouths of the tunnels caught glimpses of shadowy forms,
monstrous and abnormal in outline.

It was as if he had wandered into hell--a hell of Tsotha-lanti's
making. But the shadowy things did not come into the great corridor,
though he distinctly heard the greedy sucking-in of slavering lips,
and felt the burning glare of hungry eyes. And presently he knew why.
A slithering sound behind him electrified him, and he leaped to the
darkness of a near-by tunnel, shaking out his torch. Down the corridor
he heard the great serpent crawling, sluggish from its recent grisly
meal. From his very side something whimpered in fear and slunk away in
the darkness. Evidently the main corridor was the great snake's
hunting ground and the other monsters gave it room.

To Conan the serpent was the least horror of them; he almost felt a
kinship with it when he remembered the weeping, tittering obscenity,
and the dripping, mouthing thing that came out of the well. At least
it was of earthly matter; it was a crawling death, but it threatened
only physical extinction, whereas these other horrors menaced mind and
soul as well.

After it had passed on down the corridor he followed, at what he hoped
was a safe distance, blowing his torch into flame again. He had not
gone far when he heard a low moan that seemed to emanate from the
black entrance of a tunnel near by. Caution warned him on, but
curiosity drove him to the tunnel, holding high the torch that was now
little more than a stump. He was braced for the sight of anything, yet
what he saw was what he had least expected. He was looking into a
broad cell, and a space of this was caged off with closely set bars
extending from floor to ceiling, set firmly in the stone. Within these
bars lay a figure, which, as he approached, he saw was either a man,
or the exact likeness of a man, twined and bound about with the
tendrils of a thick vine which seemed to grow through the solid stone
of the floor. It was covered with strangely pointed leaves and crimson
blossoms--not the satiny red of natural petals, but a livid, unnatural
crimson, like a perversity of flower life. Its clinging, pliant
branches wound about the man's naked body and limbs, seeming to caress
his shrinking flesh with lustful avid kisses. One great blossom
hovered exactly over his mouth. A low bestial moaning drooled from the
loose lips; the head rolled as if in unbearable agony, and the eyes
looked full at Conan. But there was no light of intelligence in them;
they were blank, glassy, the eyes of an idiot.

Now the great crimson blossom dipped and pressed its petals over the
writhing lips. The limbs of the wretch twisted in anguish; the
tendrils of the plant quivered as if in ecstasy, vibrating their full
snaky lengths. Waves of changing hues surged over them; their color
grew deeper, more venomous.

Conan did not understand what he saw, but he knew that he looked on
Horror of some kind. Man or demon, the suffering of the captive
touched Conan's wayward and impulsive heart. He sought for entrance
and found a grillelike door in the bars, fastened with a heavy lock,
for which he found a key among the keys he carried, and entered.
Instantly the petals of the livid blossoms spread like the hood of a
cobra, the tendrils reared menacingly and the whole plant shook and
swayed toward him. Here was no blind growth of natural vegetation.
Conan sensed a malignant intelligence; the plant could see him, and he
felt its hate emanate from it in almost tangible waves. Stepping
warily nearer, he marked the root stem, a repulsively supple stalk
thicker than his thigh, and even as the long tendrils arched toward
him with a rattle of leaves and hiss, he swung his sword and cut
through the stem with a single stroke.

Instantly the wretch in its clutches was thrown violently aside as the
great vine lashed and knotted like a beheaded serpent, rolling into a
huge irregular ball. The tendrils thrashed and writhed, the leaves
shook and rattled like castanets, and the petals opened and closed
convulsively; then the whole length straightened out limply, the vivid
colors paled and dimmed, a reeking white liquid oozed from the severed
stump.

Conan stared, spellbound; then a sound brought him round, sword
lifted. The freed man was on his feet, surveying him. Conan gaped in
wonder. No longer were the eyes in the worn face expressionless. Dark
and meditative, they were alive with intelligence, and the expression
of imbecility had dropped from the face like a mask. The head was
narrow and well-formed, with a high splendid forehead. The whole build
of the man was aristocratic, evident no less in his tall slender frame
than in his small trim feet and hands. His first words were strange
and startling.

"What year is this?" he asked, speaking Kothic.

"Today is the tenth day of the month Yuluk, of the year of the
Gazelle," answered Conan.

"Yagkoolan Ishtar!" murmured the stranger. "Ten years!" He drew a hand
across his brow, shaking his head as if to clear his brain of cobwebs.
"All is dim yet. After a ten-year emptiness, the mind can not be
expected to begin functioning clearly at once. Who are you?"

"Conan, once of Cimmeria. Now king of Aquilonia."

The other's eyes showed surprize.

"Indeed? And Namedides?"

"I strangled him on his throne the night I took the royal city,"
answered Conan.

A certain naivete in the king's reply twitched the stranger's lips.

"Pardon, your majesty. I should have thanked you for the service you
have done me. I am like a man woken suddenly from sleep deeper than
death and shot with nightmares of agony more fierce than hell, but I
understand that you delivered me. Tell me--why did you cut the stem of
the plant Yothga instead of tearing it up by the roots?"

"Because I learned long ago to avoid touching with my flesh that which
I do not understand," answered the Cimmerian.

"Well for you," said the stranger. "Had you been able to tear it up,
you might have found things clinging to the roots against which not
even your sword would prevail. Yothga's roots are set in hell."

"But who are you?" demanded Conan.

"Men called me Pelias."

"What!" cried the king. "Pelias the sorcerer, Tsotha-lanti's rival,
who vanished from the earth ten years ago?"

"Not entirely from the earth," answered Pelias with a wry smile.
"Tsotha preferred to keep me alive, in shackles more grim than rusted
iron. He pent me in here with this devil flower whose seeds drifted
down through the black cosmos from Yag the Accursed, and found fertile
field only in the maggot-writhing corruption that seethes on the
floors of hell.

"I could not remember my sorcery and the words and symbols of my
power, with that cursed thing gripping me and drinking my soul with
its loathsome caresses. It sucked the contents of my mind day and
night, leaving my brain as empty as a broken wine jug. Ten years!
Ishtar preserve us!"

Conan found no reply, but stood holding the stump of the torch, and
trailing his great sword. Surely the man was mad--yet there was no
madness in the dark eyes that rested so calmly on him.

"Tell me, is the black wizard in Khorshemish? But no--you need not
reply. My powers begin to wake, and I sense in your mind a great
battle and a king trapped by treachery. And I see Tsotha-lanti riding
hard for the Tybor with Strabonus and the king of Ophir. So much the
better. My art is too frail from the long slumber to face Tsotha yet.
I need time to recruit my strength, to assemble my powers. Let us go
forth from these pits."

Conan jangled his keys discouragedly.

"The grille to the outer door is made fast by a bolt which can be
worked only from the outside. Is there no other exit from these
tunnels?"

"Only one, which neither of us would care to use, seeing that it goes
down and not up," laughed Pelias. "But no matter. Let us see to the
grille."

He moved toward the corridor with uncertain steps, as of long-unused
limbs, which gradually became more sure. As he followed Conan remarked
uneasily, "There is a cursed big snake creeping about this tunnel. Let
us be wary lest we step into his mouth."

"I remember him of old," answered Pelias grimly, "the more as I was
forced to watch while ten of my acolytes were fed to him. He is Satha,
the Old One, chiefest of Tsotha's pets."

"Did Tsotha dig these pits for no other reason than to house his
cursed monstrosities?" asked Conan.

"He did not dig them. when the city was founded three thousand years
ago there were ruins of an earlier city on and about this hill. King
Khossus V, the founder, built his palace on the hill, and digging
cellars beneath it, came upon a walled-up doorway, which he broke into
and discovered the pits, which were about as we see them now. But his
grand vizier came to such a grisly end in them that Khossus in a
fright walled up the entrance again. He said the vizier fell into a
well--but he had the cellars filled in, and later abandoned the palace
itself, and built himself another in the suburbs, from which he fled
in a panic on discovering some black mold scattered on the marble
floor of his palace one morning.

"He then departed with his whole court to the eastern corner of the
kingdom and built a new city. The palace on the hill was not used and
fell into ruins. When Akkutho I revived the lost glories of
Khorshemish, he built a fortress there. It remained for Tsotha-lanti
to rear the scarlet citadel and open the way to the pits again.
Whatever fate overtook the grand vizier of Khossus, Tsotha avoided it.
He fell into no well, though he did descend into a well he found, and
came out with a strange expression which has not since left his eyes.

"I have seen that well, but I do not care to seek in it for wisdom. I
am a sorcerer, and older than men reckon, but I am human. As for
Tsotha--men say that a dancing girl of Shadizar slept too near the
prehuman ruins on Dagoth Hill and woke in the grip of a black demon;
from that unholy union was spawned an accursed hybrid men call Tsotha-
lanti--"

Conan cried out sharply and recoiled, thrusting his companion back.
Before them rose the great shimmering white form of Satha, an ageless
hate in its eyes. Conan tensed himself for one mad berserker
onslaught--to thrust the glowing fagot into that fiendish countenance
and throw his life into the ripping sword stroke. But the snake was
not looking at him. It was glaring over his shoulder at the man called
Pelias, who stood with his arms folded, smiling. And in the great cold
yellow eyes slowly the hate died out in a glitter of pure fear--the
only time Conan ever saw such an expression in a reptile's eyes. With
a swirling rush like the sweep of a strong wind, the great snake was
gone.

"What did he see to frighten him?" asked Conan, eyeing his companion
uneasily.

"The scaled people see what escapes the mortal eye," answered Pelias,
cryptically. "You see my fleshly guise; he saw my naked soul."

An icy trickle disturbed Conan's spine, and he wondered if, after all,
Pelias were a man, or merely another demon of the pits in a mask of
humanity. He contemplated the advisability of driving his sword
through his companion's back without further hesitation. But while he
pondered, they came to the steel grille, etched blackly in the torches
beyond, and the body of Shukeli, still slumped against the bars in a
curdled welter of crimson.

Pelias laughed, and his laugh was not pleasant to hear.

"By the ivory hips of Ishtar, who is our doorman? Lo, it is no less
than the noble Shukeli, who hanged my young men by their feet and
skinned them with squeals of laughter! Do you sleep, Shukeli? Why do
you lie so stiffly, with your fat belly sunk in like a dressed pig's?"

"He is dead," muttered Conan, ill at ease to hear these wild words.

"Dead or alive," laughed Pelias, "he shall open the door for us."

He clapped his hands sharply and cried, "Rise, Shukeli! Rise from hell
and rise from the bloody floor and open the door for your masters!
Rise, I say!"

An awful groan reverberated through the vaults. Conan's hair stood on
end and he felt clammy sweat bead his hide. For the body of Shukeli
stirred and moved, with infantile gropings of the fat hands. The
laughter of Pelias was merciless as a flint hatchet, as the form of
the eunuch reeled upright, clutching at the bars of the grille. Conan,
glaring at him, felt his blood turn to ice, and the marrow of his
bones to water; for Shukeli's wide-open eyes were glassy and empty,
and from the great gash in his belly his entrails hung limply to the
floor. The eunuch's feet stumbled among his entrails as he worked the
bolt, moving like a brainless automaton. When he had first stirred,
Conan had thought that by some incredible chance the eunuch was alive;
but the man was dead--had been dead for hours.

Pelias sauntered through the opened grille, and Conan crowded through
behind him, sweat pouring from his body, shrinking away from the awful
shape that slumped on sagging legs against the grate it held open.
Pelias passed on without a backward glance, and Conan followed him, in
the grip of nightmare and nausea. He had not taken half a dozen
strides when a sodden thud brought him round. Shukeli's corpse lay
limply at the foot of the grille.

"His task is done, and hell gapes for him again," remarked Pelias
pleasantly; politely affecting not to notice the strong shudder which
shook Conan's mighty frame.

He led the way up the long stairs, and through the skull-crowned
brass door at the top. Conan gripped his sword, expecting a rush of slaves,
but silence gripped the citadel. They passed through the black
corridor and came into that in which the censers swung, billowing
forth their everlasting incense. Still they saw no one.

"The slaves and soldiers are quartered in another part of the
citadel," remarked Pelias. "Tonight, their master being away, they
doubtless lie drunk on wine or lotus juice."

Conan glanced through an arched, golden-silled window that let out
upon a broad balcony, and swore in surprize to see the dark-blue star-
flecked sky. It had been shortly after sunrise when he was thrown into
the pits. Now it was past midnight. He could scarcely realize he had
been so long underground. He was suddenly aware of thirst and a
ravenous appetite. Pelias led the way into a gold­domed chamber,
floored with silver, its lapis-lazuli walls pierced by the fretted
arches of many doors.

With a sigh Pelias sank onto a silken divan.

"Gold and silks again," he sighed. "Tsotha affects to be above the
pleasures of the flesh, but he is half devil. I am human, despite my
black arts. I love ease and good cheer--that's how Tsotha trapped me.
He caught me helpless with drink. Wine is a curse--by the ivory bosom
of Ishtar, even as I speak of it, the traitor is here! Friend, please
pour me a goblet--hold! I forgot that you are a king. I will pour."

"The devil with that," growled Conan, filling a crystal goblet and
proffering it to Pelias. Then, lifting the jug, he drank deeply from
the mouth, echoing Pelias' sigh of satisfaction.

"The dog knows good wine," said Conan, wiping his mouth with the back
of his hand. "But by Crom, Pelias, are we to sit here until his
soldiers awake and cut our throats?"

"No fear," answered Pelias. "Would you like to see how fortune holds
with Strabonus?"

Blue fire burned in Conan's eyes, and he gripped his sword until his
knuckles showed blue. "Oh, to be at sword points with him!" he
rumbled.

Pelias lifted a great shimmering globe from an ebony table.

"Tsotha's crystal. A childish toy, but useful when there is lack of
time for higher science. Look in, your majesty."

He laid it on the table before Conan's eyes. The king looked into
cloudy depths which deepened and expanded. Slowly images crystallized
out of mist and shadows. He was looking on a familiar landscape. Broad
plains ran to a wide winding river, beyond which the level lands ran
up quickly into a maze of low hills. On the northern bank of the river
stood a walled town, guarded by a moat connected at each end with the
river.

"By Crom!" ejaculated Conan. "It's Shamar! The dogs besiege it!"

The invaders had crossed the river; their pavilions stood in the
narrow plain between the city and the hills. Their warriors swarmed
about the walls, their mail gleaming palely under the moon. Arrows and
stones rained on them from the towers and they staggered back, but
came on again.

Even as Conan cursed, the scene changed. Tall spires and gleaming
domes stood up in the mist, and he looked on his own capital of Tamar,
where all was confusion. He saw the steel-clad knights of Poitain, his
staunchest supporters, riding out of the gate, hooted and hissed by
the multitude which swarmed the streets. He saw looting and rioting,
and men-at-arms whose shields bore the insignia of Pellia, manning the
towers and swaggering through the markets. Over all, like a fantasmal
mirage, he saw the dark, triumphant face of Prince Arpello of Pellia.
The images faded.

"So!" raved Conan. "My people turn on me the moment my back is turned
--"

"Not entirely," broke in Pelias. "They have heard that you are dead.
There is no one to protect them from outer enemies and civil war, they
think. Naturally, they turn to the strongest noble, to avoid the
horrors of anarchy. They do not trust the Poitanians, remembering
former wars. But Arpello is on hand, and the strongest prince of the
central provinces."

"When I come to Aquilonia again he will be but a headless corpse
rotting on Traitor's Common," Conan ground his teeth.

"Yet before you can reach your capital," reminded Pelias, "Strabonus
may be before you. At least his riders will be ravaging your kingdom."

"True!" Conan paced the chamber like a caged lion. "With the fastest
horse I could not reach Shamar before midday. Even there I could do no
good except to die with the people, when the town falls--as fall it
will in a few days at most. From Shamar to Tamar is five days' ride,
even if you kill your horses on the road. Before I could reach my
capital and raise an army, Strabonus would be hammering at the gates;
because raising an army is going to be hell--all my damnable nobles
will have scattered to their own cursed fiefs at the word of my death.
And since the people have driven out Trocero of Poitain, there's none
to keep Arpello's greedy hands off the crown--and the crown treasure.
He'll hand the country over to Strabonus, in return for a mock 
throne--and as soon as Strabonus' back is turned, he'll stir up
revolt. But the nobles won't support him, and it will only give
Strabonus excuse for annexing the kingdom openly. Oh Crom, Ymir, and
Set! If I but had wings to fly like lightning to Tamar!"

Pelias, who sat tapping the jade tabletop with his fingernails,
halted suddenly, and rose as with a definite purpose, beckoning Conan
to follow. The king complied, sunk in moody thoughts, and Pelias led
the way out of the chamber and up a flight of marble, gold-worked
stairs that let out on the pinnacle of the citadel, the roof of the
tallest tower. It was night, and a strong wind was blowing through the
star-filled skies, stirring Conan's black mane. Far below them
twinkled the lights of Khorshemish, seemingly farther away than the
stars above them. Pelias seemed withdrawn and aloof here, one in cold
unhuman greatness with the company of the stars.

"There are creatures," said Pelias, "not alone of earth and sea, but
of air and the far reaches of the skies as well, dwelling apart,
unguessed of men. Yet to him who holds the Master-words and Signs and
the Knowledge underlying all, they are not malignant nor inaccessible.
Watch, and fear not."

He lifted his hands to the skies and sounded a long weird call that
seemed to shudder endlessly out into space, dwindling and fading, yet
never dying out, only receding farther and farther into some
unreckoned cosmos. In the silence that followed, Conan heard a sudden
beat of wings in the stars, and recoiled as a huge batlike creature
alighted beside him. He saw its great calm eyes regarding him in the
starlight; he saw the forty-foot spread of its giant wings. And he saw
it was neither bat nor bird.

"Mount and ride," said Pelias. "By dawn it will bring you to Tamar."

"By Crom!" muttered Conan. "Is this all a nightmare from which I shall
presently awaken in my palace at Tamar? What of you? I would not leave
you alone among your enemies."

"Be at ease regarding me," answered Pelias. "At dawn the people of
Khorshemish will know they have a new master. Doubt not what the gods
have sent you. I will meet you in the plain by Shamar."

Doubtfully Conan clambered upon the ridged back, gripping the arched
neck, still convinced that he was in the grasp of a fantastic
nightmare. With a great rush and thunder of titan wings, the creature
took the air, and the king grew dizzy as he saw the lights of the city
dwindle far below him.





IV



_"The sword that slays the king cuts the cords of the empire." _

The streets of Tamar swarmed with howling mobs, shaking fists and
rusty pikes. It was the hour before dawn of the second day after the
battle of Shamu, and events had occurred so swiftly as to daze the
mind. By means known only to Tsotha-lanti, word had reached Tamar of
the king's death, within half a dozen hours after the battle. Chaos
had resulted. The barons had deserted the royal capital, galloping
away to secure their castles against marauding neighbors. The well-
knit kingdom Conan had built up seemed tottering on the edge of
dissolution, and commoners and merchants trembled at the imminence of
a return of the feudalistic regime. The people howled for a king to
protect them against their own aristocracy no less than foreign foes.
Count Trocero, left by Conan in charge of the city, tried to reassure
them, but in their unreasoning terror they remembered old civil wars,
and how this same count had besieged Tamar fifteen years before. It
was shouted in the streets that Trocero had betrayed the king; that he
planned to plunder the city. The mercenaries began looting the
quarters, dragging forth screaming merchants and terrified women.

Trocero swept down on the looters, littered the streets with their
corpses, drove them back into their quarter in confusion, and arrested
their leaders. Still the people rushed wildly about, with brainless
squawks, screaming that the count had incited the riot for his own
purposes.

Prince Arpello came before the distracted council and announced
himself ready to take over the government of the city until a new king
could be decided upon, Conan having no son. While they debated, his
agents stole subtly among the people, who snatched at a shred of
royalty. The council heard the storm outside the palace windows, where
the multitude roared for Arpello the Rescuer. The council surrendered.

Trocero at first refused the order to give up his baton of authority,
but the people swarmed about him, hissing and howling, hurling stones
and offal at his knights. Seeing the futility of a pitched battle in
the streets with Arpello's retainers, under such conditions, Trocero
hurled the baton in his rival's face, hanged the leaders of the
mercenaries in the market square as his last official act, and rode
out of the southern gate at the head of his fifteen hundred steel-clad
knights. The gates slammed behind him and Arpello's suave mask fell
away to reveal the grim visage of the hungry wolf.

With the mercenaries cut to pieces or hiding in their barracks, his
were the only soldiers in Tamar. Sitting his war-horse in the great
square, Arpello proclaimed himself king of Aquilonia, amid the clamor
of the deluded multitude.

Publius the Chancellor, who opposed this move, was thrown into prison.
The merchants, who had greeted the proclamation of a king with relief,
now found with consternation that the new monarch's first act was to
levy a staggering tax on them. Six rich merchants, sent as a
delegation of protest, were seized and their heads slashed off without
ceremony. A shocked and stunned silence followed this execution. The
merchants, confronted by a power they could not control with money,
fell on their fat bellies and licked their oppressor's boots.

The common people were not perturbed at the fate of the merchants, but
they began to murmur when they found that the swaggering Pellian
soldiery, pretending to maintain order, were as bad as Turanian
bandits. Complaints of extortion, murder and rape poured in to
Arpello, who had taken up his quarters in Publius' palace, because the
desperate councillors, doomed by his order, were holding the royal
palace against his soldiers. He had taken possession of the pleasure 
palace, however, and Conan's girls were dragged to his quarters. The
people muttered at the sight of the royal beauties writhing in the
brutal hands of the iron-clad retainers--dark-eyed damsels of
Poitain, slim black-haired wenches from Zamora, Zingara and Hyrkania,
Brythunian girls with tousled yellow heads, all weeping with fright
and shame, unused to brutality.

Night fell on a city of bewilderment and turmoil, and before midnight
word spread mysteriously in the street that the Kothians had followed
up their victory and were hammering at the walls of Shamar. Somebody
in Tsotha's mysterious secret service had babbled. Fear shook the
people like an earthquake, and they did not even pause to wonder at
the witchcraft by which the news had been so swiftly transmitted. They
stormed at Arpello's doors, demanding that he march southward and
drive the enemy back over the Tybor. He might have subtly pointed out
that his force was not sufficient, and that he could not raise an army
until the barons recognized his claim to the crown. But he was drunk
with power, and laughed in their faces.

A young student, Athemides, mounted a column in the market, and with
burning words accused Arpello of being a cat’s-paw for Strabonus,
painting a vivid picture of existence under Kothian rule, with Arpello
as satrap. Before he finished, the multitude was screaming with fear
and howling with rage. Arpello sent his soldiers to arrest the youth,
but the people caught him up and fled with him, deluging the pursuing
retainers with stones and dead cats. A volley of crossbow quarrels
routed the mob, and a charge of horsemen littered the market with
bodies, but Athemides was smuggled out of the city to plead with
Trocero to retake Tamar, and march to aid Shamar.

Athemides found Trocero breaking his camp outside the walls, ready to
march to Poitain, in the far southwestern corner of the kingdom. To
the youth's urgent pleas he answered that he had neither the force
necessary to storm Tamar, even with the aid of the mob inside, nor to
face Strabonus. Besides, avaricious nobles would plunder Poitain
behind his back, while he was fighting the Kothians. With the king
dead, each man must protect his own. He was riding to Poitain, there
to defend it as best he might against Arpello and his foreign allies.

While Athemides pleaded with Trocero, the mob still raved in the city
with helpless fury. Under the great tower beside the royal palace the
people swirled and milled, screaming their hate at Arpello, who stood
on the turrets and laughed down at them while his archers ranged the
parapets, bolts drawn and fingers on the triggers of their arbalests.

The prince of Pellia was a broad-built man of medium height, with a
dark stern face. He was an intriguer, but he was also a fighter. Under
his silken jupon with its gilt-braided skirts and jagged sleeves,
glimmered burnished steel. His long black hair was curled and scented,
and bound back with a cloth-of-silver band, but at his hip hung a
broadsword the jeweled hilt of which was worn with battles and
campaigns.

"Fools! Howl as you will! Conan is dead and Arpello is king!"

What if all Aquilonia were leagued against him? He had men enough to
hold the mighty walls until Strabonus came up. But Aquilonia was
divided against itself. Already the barons were girding themselves
each to seize his neighbor's treasure. Arpello had only the helpless
mob to deal with. Strabonus would carve through the loose lines of the
warring barons as a galley ram through foam, and until his coming,
Arpello had only to hold the royal capital.

"Fools! Arpello is king!"

The sun was rising over the eastern towers. Out of the crimson dawn
came a flying speck that grew to a bat, then to an eagle. Then all who
saw screamed in amazement, for over the walls of Tamar swooped a shape
such as men knew only in half-forgotten legends, and from between its
titan-wings sprang a human form as it roared over the great tower.
Then with a deafening thunder of wings it was gone, and the folk
blinked, wondering if they dreamed. But on the turret stood a wild
barbaric figure, half naked, bloodstained, brandishing a great sword.
And from the multitude rose a roar that rocked the towers, "The king!
It is the king!"

Arpello stood transfixed; then with a cry he drew and leaped at Conan.
With a lionlike roar the Cimmerian parried the whistling blade, then
dropping his own sword, gripped the prince and heaved him high above
his head by crotch and neck.

"Take your plots to hell with you!" he roared, and like a sack of
salt, he hurled the prince of Pellia far out, to fall through empty
space for a hundred and fifty feet. The people gave back as the body
came hurtling down, to smash on the marble pave, spattering blood and
brains, and lie crushed in its splintered armor, like a mangled
beetle.

The archers on the tower shrank back, their nerve broken. They fled,
and the beleaguered councilmen sallied from the palace and hewed into
them with joyous abandon. Pellian knights and men-at-arms sought
safety in the streets, and the crowd tore them to pieces. In the
streets the fighting milled and eddied, plumed helmets and steel caps
tossed among the tousled heads and then vanished; swords hacked madly
in a heaving forest of pikes, and over all rose the roar of the mob,
shouts of acclaim mingling with screams of bloodlust and howls of
agony. And high above all, the naked figure of the king rocked and
swayed on the dizzy battlements, mighty arms brandished, roaring with
gargantuan laughter that mocked all mobs and princes, even himself.



V



_A long bow and a strong bow, and let the sky grow dark!_

The midafternoon sun glinted on the placid waters of the Tybor,
washing the southern bastions of Shamar. The haggard defenders knew
that few of them would see that sun rise again. The pavilions of the
besiegers dotted the plain. The people of Shamar had not been able
successfully to dispute the crossing of the river, outnumbered as they
were. Barges, chained together, made a bridge over which the invader
poured his hordes. Strabonus had not dared march on into Aquilonia
with Shamar, unsubdued, at his back. He had sent his light riders, his
spahis, inland to ravage the country, and had reared up his siege
engines in the plain. He had anchored a flotilla of boats, furnished
him by Amalrus, in the middle of the stream, over against the river 
wall. Some of these boats had been sunk by stones from the city's
ballistas, which crashed through their decks and ripped out their
planking, but the rest held their places and from their bows and mastheads, protected by mandets, archers raked the riverward turrets.
These were Shemites, born with bows in their hands, not to be matched
by Aquilonian archers.

On the landward side mangonels rained boulders and tree trunks among
the defenders, shattering through roofs and crushing humans like
beetles; rams pounded incessantly at the stones; sappers burrowed like
moles in the earth, sinking their mines beneath the towers. The moat
had been dammed at the upper end, and emptied of its water, had been
filled up with boulders, earth and dead horses and men. Under the
walls the mailed figures swarmed, battering at the gates, rearing up
scaling ladders, pushing storming towers, thronged with spearmen,
against the turrets.

Hope had been abandoned in the city, where a bare fifteen hundred men
resisted forty thousand warriors. No word had come from the kingdom
whose outpost the city was. Conan was dead, so the invaders shouted
exultantly. Only the strong walls and the desperate courage of the
defenders had kept them so long at bay, and that could not suffice for
ever. The western wall was a mass of rubbish on which the defenders
stumbled in hand-to-hand conflict with the invaders. The other walls
were buckling from the mines beneath them, the towers leaning
drunkenly.

Now the attackers were massing for a storm. The oliphants sounded, the
steel­clad ranks drew up on the plain. The storming-towers, covered
with raw bull hides, rumbled forward. The people of Shamar saw the
banners of Koth and Ophir, flying side by side, in the center, and
made out, among their gleaming knights, the slim lethal figure of the
golden-mailed Amalrus, and the squat black-armored form of Strabonus.
And between them was a shape that made the bravest blench with
horror--a lean vulture figure in a filmy robe. The pikemen moved
forward, flowing over the ground like the glinting waves of a river of
molten steel; the knights cantered forward, lances lifted, guidons
streaming. The warriors on the walls drew a long breath, consigned
their souls to Mitra, and gripped their notched and red-stained
weapons.

Then without warning, a bugle call cut the din. A drum of hoofs rose
above the rumble of the approaching host. North of the plain across
which the army moved, rose ranges of low hills, mounting northward and
westward like giant stairsteps. Now down out of these hills, like
spume blown before a storm, shot the spahis who had been laying waste
the countryside, riding low and spurring hard, and behind them sun
shimmered on moving ranks of steel. They moved into full view, out of
the defiles--mailed horsemen, the great lion banner of Aquilonia
floating over them.

From the electrified watchers on the towers a great shout rent the
skies. In ecstasy warriors clashed their notched swords on their riven
shields, and the people of the town, ragged beggars and rich
merchants, harlots in red kirtles and dames in silks and satins, fell
to their knees and cried out for joy to Mitra, tears of gratitude
streaming down their faces.

Strabonus, frantically shouting orders, with Arbanus, that would wheel
around the ponderous lines to meet this unexpected menace, grunted,
"We still outnumber them, unless they have reserves hidden in the
hills. The men on the battle towers can mask any sorties from the
city. These are Poitanians--we might have guessed Trocero would try
some such mad gallantry."

Amalrus cried out in unbelief.

"I see Trocero and his captain Prospero--_but who rides between
them?_"

"Ishtar preserve us!" shrieked Strabonus, paling. "It is King Conan!"

"You are mad!" squalled Tsotha, starting convulsively. "Conan has been
in Satha's belly for days!" He stopped short, glaring wildly at the
host which was dropping down, file by file, into the plain. He could
not mistake the giant figure in black, gilt-worked armor on the great
black stallion, riding beneath the billowing silken folds of the great
banner. A scream of feline fury burst from Tsotha's lips, flecking his
beard with foam. For the first time in his life, Strabonus saw the
wizard completely upset, and shrank from the sight.

"Here is sorcery!" screamed Tsotha, clawing madly at his beard. "How
could he have escaped and reached his kingdom in time to return with
an army so quickly? This is the work of Pelias, curse him! I feel his
hand in this! May I be cursed for not killing him when I had the
power!"

The kings gaped at the mention of a man they believed ten years dead,
and panic, emanating from the leaders, shook the host. All recognized
the rider on the black stallion. Tsotha felt the superstitious dread
of his men, and fury made a hellish mask of his face.

"Strike home!" he screamed, brandishing his lean arms madly. "We are
still the stronger! Charge and crush these dogs! We shall yet feast in
the ruins of Shamar tonight! Oh, Set!" he lifted his hands and invoked
the serpent god to even Strabonus' horror, "grant us victory and I
swear I will offer up to thee five hundred virgins of Shamar, writhing
in their blood!"

Meanwhile the opposing host had debouched onto the plain. With the
knights came what seemed a second, irregular army on tough swift
ponies. These dismounted and formed their ranks on foot--stolid
Bossonian archers, and keen pikemen from Gunderland, their tawny locks
blowing from under their steel caps.

It was a motley army Conan had assembled, in the wild hours following
his return to his capital. He had beaten the frothing mob away from
the Pellian soldiers who held the outer walls of Tamar, and impressed
them into his service. He had sent a swift rider after Trocero to
bring him back. With these as a nucleus of an army he had raced
southward, sweeping the countryside for recruits and for mounts.
Nobles of Tamar and the surrounding countryside had augmented his
forces, and he had levied recruits from every village and castle along
his road. Yet it was but a paltry force he had gathered to dash
against the invading hosts, though of the quality of tempered steel.

Nineteen hundred armored horsemen followed him, the main bulk of which
consisted of the Poitanian knights. The remnants of the mercenaries
and professional soldiers in the trains of loyal noblemen made up his
infantry--five thousand archers and four thousand pikemen. This host
now came on in good order--first the archers, then the pikemen, behind
them the knights, moving at a walk.

Over against them Arbanus ordered his lines, and the allied army moved
forward like a shimmering ocean of steel. The watchers on the city
walls shook to see that vast host, which overshadowed the powers of
the rescuers. First marched the Shemitish archers, then the Kothian
spearmen, then the mailed knights of Strabonus and Amalrus. Arbanus'
intent was obvious--to employ his footmen to sweep away the infantry
of Conan, and open the way for an overpowering charge of his heavy
cavalry.

The Shemites opened fire at five hundred yards, and arrows flew like
hail between the hosts, darkening the sun. The western archers,
trained by a thousand years of merciless warfare with the Pictish
savages, came stolidly on, closing their ranks as their comrades fell.
They were far outnumbered, and the Shemitish bow had the longer range,
but in accuracy the Bossonians were equal to their foes, and they
balanced sheer skill in archery by superiority in morale, and in
excellency of armor. Within good range they loosed, and the Shemites
went down by whole ranks. The blue-bearded warriors in their light
mail shirts could not endure punishment as could the heavier-armored
Bossonians. They broke, throwing away their bows, and their flight
disordered the ranks of the Kothian spearmen behind them.

Without the support of the archers, these men-at-arms fell by the
hundreds before the shafts of the Bossonians, and charging madly in to
close quarters, they were met by the spears of the pikemen. No
infantry was a match for the wild Gundermen, whose homeland, the
northernmost province of Aquilonia, was but a day's ride across the
Bossonian marches from the borders of Cimmeria, and who, born and bred
to battle, were the purest blood of all the Hyborian peoples. The
Kothian spearmen, dazed by their losses from arrows, were cut to
pieces and fell back in disorder.

Strabonus roared in fury as he saw his infantry repulsed, and shouted
for a general charge. Arbanus demurred, pointing out the Bossonians
re-forming in good order before the Aquilonian knights, who had sat
their steeds motionless during the melee. The general advised a
temporary retirement, to draw the western knights out of the cover of
the bows, but Strabonus was mad with rage. He looked at the long
shimmering ranks of his knights, he glared at the handful of mailed
figures over against him, and he commanded Arbanus to give the order
to charge.

The general commended his soul to Ishtar and sounded the golden
oliphant. With a thunderous roar the forest of lances dipped, and the
great host rolled across the plain, gaining momentum as it came. The
whole plain shook to the rumbling avalanche of hoofs, and the shimmer
of gold and steel dazzled the watchers on the towers of Shamar.

The squadrons clave the loose ranks of the spearmen, riding down
friend and foe alike, and rushed into the teeth of a blast of arrows
from the Bossonians. Across the plain they thundered, grimly riding
the storm that scattered their way with gleaming knights like autumn
leaves. Another hundred paces and they would ride among the Bossonians
and cut them down like corn; but flesh and blood could not endure the
rain of death that now ripped and howled among them. Shoulder to
shoulder, feet braced wide, stood the archers, drawing shaft to ear
and loosing as one man, with deep, short shouts.

The whole front rank of the knights melted away, and over the pin-
cushioned corpses of horses and riders, their comrades stumbled and
fell headlong. Arbanus was down, an arrow through his throat, his
skull smashed by the hoofs of his dying war-horse, and confusion ran
through the disordered host. Strabonus was screaming an order, Amalrus
another, and through all ran the superstitious dread the sight of
Conan had awakened.

And while the gleaming ranks milled in confusion, the trumpets of
Conan sounded, and through the opening ranks of the archers crashed
the terrible charge of the Aquilonian knights.

The hosts met with a shock like that of an earthquake, that shook the
tottering towers of Shamar. The disorganized squadrons of the invaders
could not withstand the solid steel wedge, bristling with spears, that
rushed like a thunderbolt against them. The long lances of the
attackers ripped their ranks to pieces, and into the heart of their
host rode the knights of Poitain, swinging their terrible two-handed
swords.

The clash and clangor of steel was as that of a million sledges on as
many anvils. The watchers on the walls were stunned and deafened by
the thunder as they gripped the battlements and watched the steel
maelstrom swirl and eddy, where plumes tossed high among the flashing
swords, and standards dipped and reeled.

Amalrus went down, dying beneath the trampling hoofs, his shoulder-
bone hewn in twain by Prospero's two-handed sword. The invaders'
numbers had engulfed the nineteen hundred knights of Conan, but about
this compact wedge, which hewed deeper and deeper into the looser
formation of their foes, the knights of Koth and Ophir swirled and
smote in vain. They could not break the wedge.

Archers and pikemen, having disposed of the Kothian infantry which was
strewn in flight across the plain, came to the edges of the fight,
loosing their arrows point-blank, running in to slash at girths and
horses' bellies with their knives, thrusting upward to spit the riders
on their long pikes.

At the tip of the steel wedge Conan roared his heathen battle-cry and
swung his great sword in glittering arcs that made naught of steel
burgonet or mail habergeon. Straight through a thundering waste of
foes he rode, and the knights of Koth closed in behind him, cutting
him off from his warriors. As a thunderbolt strikes, Conan struck,
hurtling through the ranks by sheer power and velocity, until he came
to Strabonus, livid among his palace troops. Now here the battle hung
in balance, for with his superior numbers, Strabonus still had
opportunity to pluck victory from the knees of the gods.

But he screamed when he saw his archfoe within arm's length at last,
and lashed out wildly with his ax. It clanged on Conan's helmet,
striking fire, and the Cimmerian reeled and struck back. The five-foot
blade crushed Strabonus' casque and skull, and the king's charger
reared screaming, hurling a limp and sprawling corpse from the saddle.
A great cry went up from the host, which faltered and gave back.
Trocero and his house troops, hewing desperately, cut their way to
Conan's side, and the great banner of Koth went down. Then behind the
dazed and stricken invaders went up a mighty clamor and the blaze of a
huge conflagration. The defenders of Shamar had made a desperate
sortie, cut down the men masking the gates, and were raging among the
tents of the besiegers, cutting down the camp followers, burning the
pavilions, and destroying the siege engines. It was the last straw.
The gleaming army melted away in flight, and the furious conquerors
cut them down as they ran.

The fugitives raced for the river, but the men on the flotilla,
harried sorely by the stones and shafts of the revived citizens, cast
loose and pulled for the southern shore, leaving their comrades to
their fate. Of these many gained the shore, racing across the barges
that served as a bridge, until the men of Shamar cut these adrift and
severed them from the shore. Then the fight became a slaughter. Driven
into the river to drown in their armor, or hacked down along the bank,
the invaders perished by the thousands. No quarter they had promised;
no quarter they got.

From the foot of the low hills to the shores of the Tybor, the plain
was littered with corpses, and the river whose tide ran red, floated
thick with the dead. Of the nineteen hundred knights who had ridden
south with Conan, scarcely five hundred lived to boast of their scars,
and the slaughter among the archers and pikemen was ghastly. But the
great and shining host of Strabonus and Amalrus was hacked out of
existence, and those that fled were less than those that died.

While the slaughter yet went on along the river, the final act of a
grim drama was being played out in the meadowland beyond. Among those
who had crossed the barge bridge before it was destroyed was Tsotha,
riding like the wind on a gaunt weird-looking steed whose stride no
natural horse could match. Ruthlessly riding down friend and foe, he
gained the southern bank, and then a glance backward showed him a grim
figure on a great black stallion in pursuit. The lashings had already
been cut, and the barges were drifting apart, but Conan came
recklessly on, leaping his steed from boat to boat as a man might leap
from one cake of floating ice to another. Tsotha screamed a curse, but
the great stallion took the last leap with a straining groan, and
gained the southern bank. Then the wizard fled away into the empty
meadowland, and on his trail came the king, riding hard, swinging the
great sword that spattered his trail with crimson drops.

On they fled, the hunted and the hunter, and not a foot could the
black stallion gain, though he strained each nerve and thew. Through a
sunset land of dim and illusive shadows they fled, till sight and
sound of the slaughter died out behind them. Then in the sky appeared
a dot, that grew into a huge eagle as it approached. Swooping down
from the sky, it drove at the head of Tsotha's steed, which screamed
and reared, throwing its rider.

Old Tsotha rose and faced his pursuer, his eyes those of a maddened
serpent, his face an inhuman mask. In each hand he held something that
shimmered, and Conan knew he held death there.

The king dismounted and strode toward his foe, his armor clanking, his
great sword gripped high.

"Again we meet, wizard!" he grinned savagely.

"Keep off" screamed Tsotha like a blood-mad jackal. "I'll blast the
flesh from your bones! You can not conquer me--if you hack me in
pieces, the bits of flesh and bone will reunite and haunt you to your
doom! I see the hand of Pelias in this, but I defy ye both! I am
Tsotha, son of --"

Conan rushed, sword gleaming, eyes slits of wariness. Tsotha's right
hand came back and forward, and the king ducked quickly. Something
passed by his helmeted head and exploded behind him, searing the very
sands with a flash of hellish fire. Before Tsotha could toss the globe
in his left hand, Conan's sword sheared through his lean neck. The
wizard's head shot from his shoulders on an arching fount of blood,
and the robed figure staggered and crumpled drunkenly. Yet the mad
black eyes glared up at Conan with no dimming of their feral light,
the lips writhed awfully, and the hands groped, as if searching for
the severed head. Then with a swift rush of wings, something swooped
from the sky--the eagle which had attacked Tsotha's horse. In its
mighty talons it snatched up the dripping head and soared skyward, and
Conan stood struck dumb, for from the eagle's throat boomed human
laughter, in the voice of Pelias the sorcerer.

Then a hideous thing came to pass, for the headless body reared up
from the sand, and staggered away in awful flight on stiffening legs,
hands blindly outstretched toward the dot speeding and dwindling in
the dusky sky. Conan stood like one turned to stone, watching until
the swift reeling figure faded in the dusk that purpled the meadows.

"Crom!" his mighty shoulders twitched. "A murrain on these wizardly
feuds! Pelias has dealt well with me, but I care not if I see him no
more. Give me a clean sword and a clean foe to flesh it in. Damnation!
What would I not give for a flagon of wine!"



THE END




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