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Title:  Skulls in the Stars
Author: Robert E. Howard
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Language: English
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Title:  Skulls in the Stars
Author: Robert E. Howard




He told how murders walk the earth


I


There are two roads to Torkertown. One, the shorter and more direct
route, leads across a barren upland moor, and the other, which is much
longer, winds its tortuous way in and out among the hummocks and
quagmires of the swamps, skirting the low hills to the east. It was a
dangerous and tedious trail; so Solomon Kane halted in amazement when
a breathless youth from the village he had just left, overtook him and
implored him for God's sake to take the swamp road.

"The swamp road!" Kane stared at the boy. He was a tall, gaunt man,
was Solomon Kane, his darkly pallid face and deep brooding eyes, made
more sombre by the drab Puritanical garb he affected.

"Yes, sir, 'tis far safer," the youngster answered to his surprised
exclamation.

"Then the moor road must be haunted by Satan himself, for your
townsmen warned me against traversing the other."

"Because of the quagmires, sir, that you might not see in the dark.
You had better return to the village and continue your journey in the
morning, sir."

"Taking the swamp road?"

"Yes, sir."

Kane shrugged his shoulders and shook his head.

"The moon rises almost as soon as twilight dies. By its light I can
reach Torkertown in a few hours, across the moor."

"Sir, you had better not. No one ever goes that way. There are no
houses at all upon the moor, while in the swamp there is the house of
old Ezra who lives there all alone since his maniac cousin, Gideon,
wandered off and died in the swamp and was never found--and old Ezra
though a miser would not refuse you lodging should you decide to stop
until morning. Since you must go, you had better go the swamp road."

Kane eyed the boy piercingly. The lad squirmed and shuffled his feet.

"Since this moor road is so dour to wayfarers," said the Puritan, "why
did not the villagers tell me the whole tale, instead of vague
mouthings?"

"Men like not to talk of it, sir. We hoped that you would take the
swamp road after the men advised you to, but when we watched and saw
that you turned not at the forks, they sent me to run after you and
beg you to reconsider."

"Name of the Devil!" exclaimed Kane sharply, the unaccustomed oath
showing his irritation; "the swamp road and the moor road--what is it
that threatens me and why should I go miles out of my way and risk the
bogs and mires?"

"Sir," said the boy, dropping his voice and drawing closer, "we be
simple villagers who like not to talk of such things lest foul fortune
befall us, but the moor road is a way accurst and hath not been
traversed by any of the countryside for a year or more. It is death to
walk those moors by night, as hath been found by some score of
unfortunates. Some foul horror haunts the way and claims men for his
victims."

"So? And what is this thing like?"

"No man knows. None has ever seen it and lived, but late-farers have
heard terrible laughter far out on the fen and men have heard the horrid
shrieks of its victims. Sir, in God's name return to the village, there
pass the night, and tomorrow take the swamp trail to Torkertown."

Far back in Kane's gloomy eyes a scintillant light had begun to
glimmer, like a witch's torch glinting under fathoms of cold grey ice.
His blood quickened. Adventure! The lure of life-risk and drama! Not
that Kane recognized his sensations as such. He sincerely considered
that he voiced his real feelings when he said:

"These things be deeds of some power of evil. The lords of darkness
have laid a curse upon the country. A strong man is needed to combat
Satan and his might. Therefore I go, who have defied him many a time."

"Sir," the boy began, then closed his mouth as he saw the futility of
argument. He only added, "The corpses of the victims are bruised and
torn, sir."

He stood there at the crossroads, sighing; regretfully as he watched
the tall, rangy figure swinging up the road that led toward the moors.

The sun was setting as Kane came over the brow of the low hill which
debouched into the upland fen. Huge and blood-red it sank down behind
the sullen horizon of the moors, seeming to touch the rank grass with
fire; so for a moment the watcher seemed to be gazing out across a sea
of blood. Then the dark shadows came gliding from the east, the
western blaze faded, and Solomon Kane struck out boldly in the
gathering darkness.

The road was dim from disuse but was clearly defined. Kane went
swiftly but warily, sword and pistols at hand. Stars blinked out and
night winds whispered among the grass like weeping spectres. The moon
began to rise, lean and haggard, like a skull among the stars.

Then suddenly Kane stopped short. From somewhere in front of him
sounded a strange and eery echo--or something like an echo. Again,
this time louder. Kane started forward again. Were his senses
deceiving him? No!

Far out, there pealed a whisper of frightful laughter. And again,
closer this time. No human being ever laughed like that--there was no
mirth in it, only hatred and horror and soul-destroying terror. Kane
halted. He was not afraid, but for the second he was almost unnerved.
Then, stabbing through that awesome laughter, came the sound of a
scream that was undoubtedly human. Kane started forward, increasing
his gait. He cursed the illusive lights and flickering shadows which
veiled the moor in the rising moon and made accurate sight impossible.
The laughter continued, growing louder, as did the screams. Then
sounded faintly the drum of frantic human feet. Kane broke into a run.
Some human was being hunted to death out there on the fen, and by what
manner of horror God only knew. The sound of the flying feet halted
abruptly and the screaming rose unbearably, mingled with other sounds
unnameable and hideous. Evidently the man had been overtaken, and
Kane, his flesh crawling, visualized some ghastly fiend of the
darkness crouching on the back of its victim crouching and tearing.
Then the noise of a terrible and short struggle came clearly through
the abysmal silence of the night and the footfalls began again, but
stumbling and uneven. The screaming continued, but with a gasping
gurgle. The sweat stood cold on Kane's forehead and body. This was
heaping horror on horror in an intolerable manner. God, for a moment's
clear light! The frightful drama was being enacted within a very short
distance of him, to judge by the ease with which the sounds reached
him. But this hellish half-light veiled all in shifting shadows, so
that the moors appeared a haze of blurred illusions, and stunted
trees, and bushes seemed like giants.

Kane shouted, striving to increase the speed of his advance. The
shrieks of the unknown broke into a hideous shrill squealing; again
there was the sound of a struggle, and then from the shadows of the
tall grass a thing came reeling--a thing that had once been a man--a
gore-covered, frightful thing that fell at Kane's feet and writhed and
grovelled and raised its terrible face to the rising moon, and
gibbered and yammered, and fell down again and died in its own blood.

The moon was up now and the light was better. Kane bent above the
body, which lay stark in its unnameable mutilation, and he shuddered, a
rare thing for him, who had seen the deeds of the Spanish Inquisition
and the witch-finders.

Some wayfarer, he supposed. Then like a hand of ice on his spine he
was aware that he was not alone. He looked up, his cold eyes piercing
the shadows whence the dead man had staggered. He saw nothing, but he
knew--he felt--that other eyes gave back his stare, terrible eyes not
of this earth. He straightened and drew a pistol, waiting. The
moonlight spread like a lake of pale blood over the moor, and trees
and grasses took on their proper sizes. The shadows melted, and Kane
saw! At first he thought it only a shadow of mist, a wisp of moor fog
that swayed in the tall grass before him. He gazed. More illusion, he
thought. Then the thing began to take on shape, vague and indistinct.
Two hideous eyes flamed at him--eyes which held all the stark horror
which has been the heritage of man since the fearful dawn ages--eyes
frightful and insane, with an insanity transcending earthly insanity.
The form of the thing was misty and vague, a brain-shattering travesty
on the human form, like, yet horribly unlike. The grass and bushes
beyond showed clearly through it.

Kane felt the blood pound in his temples, yet he was as cold as ice.
How such an unstable being as that which wavered before him could harm
a man in a physical way was more than he could understand, yet the red
horror at his feet gave mute testimony that the fiend could act with
terrible material effect.

Of one thing Kane was sure; there would be no hunting of him across
the dreary moors, no screaming and fleeing to be dragged down again
and again. If he must die he would die in his tracks, his wounds in
front.

Now a vague and grisly mouth gaped wide and the demoniac laughter
again shrieked but soul-shaking in its nearness. And in the midst of
that threat of doom, Kane deliberately levelled his long pistol and
fired. A maniacal yell of rage and mockery answered the report, and
the thing came at him like a flying sheet of smoke, long shadowy arms
stretched to drag him down.

Kane, moving with the dynamic speed of a famished wolf, fired the
second pistol with as little effect, snatched his long rapier from its
sheath and thrust into the centre of the misty attacker. The blade
sang as it passed clear through, encountering no solid resistance, and
Kane felt icy fingers grip his limbs, bestial talons tear his garments
and the skin beneath.

He dropped the useless sword and sought to grapple with his foe. It
was like fighting a floating mist, a flying shadow armed with dagger-like
claws. His savage blows met empty air, his leanly mighty arms, in
whose grasp strong men had died, swept nothingness and clutched
emptiness. Naught was solid or real save the flaying, apelike fingers
with their crooked talons, and the crazy eyes which burned into the
shuddering depths of his soul.

Kane realized that he was in a desperate plight indeed. Already his
garments hung in tatters and he bled from a score of deep wounds. But
he never flinched, and the thought of flight never entered his mind.
He had never fled from a single foe, and had the thought occurred to
him he would have flushed with shame.

He saw no help for it now, but that his form should lie there beside
the fragments of the other victim, but the thought held no terrors
for him. His only wish was to give as good an account of himself as
possible before the end came, and if he could, to inflict some damage
on his unearthly foe. There above the dead man's torn body, man fought
with demon under the pale light of the rising moon, with all the
advantages with the demon, save one. And that one was enough to
overcome the others. For if abstract hate may bring into material
substance a ghostly thing, may not courage, equally abstract, form a
concrete weapon to combat that ghost? Kane fought with his arms and
his feet and his hands, and he was aware at last that the ghost began
to give back before him, and the fearful laughter changed to screams
of baffled fury. For man's only weapon is courage that flinches not
from the gates of Hell itself, and against such not even the legions
of Hell can stand. Of this Kane knew nothing; he only knew that the
talons which tore and rended him seemed to grow weaker and wavering,
that a wild light grew and grew in the horrible eyes. And reeling and
gasping, he rushed in, grappled the thing at last and threw it, and as
they tumbled about on the moor and it writhed and lapped his limbs
like a serpent of smoke, his flesh crawled and his hair stood on end,
for he began to understand its gibbering. He did not hear and
comprehend as a man hears and comprehends the speech of a man, but the
frightful secrets it imparted in whisperings and yammerings and
screaming silences sank fingers of ice into his soul, and he knew.


II


The hut of old Ezra the miser stood by the road in the midst of the
swamp, half screened by the sullen trees which grew about it. The
walls were rotting, the roof crumbling, and great pallid and green
fungus-monsters clung to it and writhed about the doors and windows,
as if seeking to peer within. The trees leaned above it and their grey
branches intertwined so that it crouched in semi-darkness like a
monstrous dwarf over whose shoulder ogres leer.

The road which wound down into the swamp among rotting stumps and rank
hummocks and scummy, snake-haunted pools and bogs, crawled past the
hut. Many people passed that way these days, but few saw old Ezra,
save a glimpse of a yellow face, peering through the fungus-screened
windows, itself like an ugly fungus.

Old Ezra the miser partook much of the quality of the swamp, for he
was gnarled and bent and sullen; his fingers were like clutching
parasitic plants and his locks hung like drab moss above eyes trained
to the murk of the swamplands. His eyes were like a dead man's, yet
hinted of depths abysmal and loathsome as the dead lakes of the
swamplands.

These eyes gleamed now at the man who stood in front of his hut. This
man was tall and gaunt and dark, his face was haggard and claw-marked,
and he was bandaged of arm and leg. Somewhat behind this man stood a
number of villagers.

"You are Ezra of the swamp road?"

"Aye, and what want ye of me?"

"Where is your cousin Gideon, the maniac youth who abode with you?"

"Gideon?"

"Aye."

"He wandered away into the swamp and never came back. No doubt
he lost his way and was set upon by wolves or died in a quagmire or
was struck by an adder."

"How long ago?"

"Over a year."

"Aye. Hark ye, Ezra the miser. Soon after your cousin's disappearance,
a countryman, coming home across the moors, was set upon by some
unknown fiend and torn to pieces, and thereafter it became death to
cross those moors. First men of the countryside, then strangers who
wandered over the fen, fell to the clutches of the thing. Many men
have died, since the first one.

"Last night I crossed the moors, and heard the flight and pursuing of
another victim, a stranger who knew not the evil of the moors. Ezra
the miser, it was a fearful thing, for the wretch twice broke from the
fiend, terribly wounded, and each time the demon caught and dragged
him down again. And at last he fell dead at my very feet, done to
death in a manner that would freeze the statue of a saint."

The villagers moved restlessly and murmured fearfully to each other,
and old Ezra's eyes shifted furtively. Yet the sombre expression of
Solomon Kane never altered, and his condor-like stare seemed to
transfix the miser.

"Aye, aye!" muttered old Ezra hurriedly; "a bad thing, a bad thing!
Yet why do you tell this thing to me?"

"Aye, a sad thing. Harken further, Ezra. The fiend came out of the
shadows and I fought with it over the body of its victim. Aye, how I
overcame it, I know not, for the battle was hard and long but the
powers of good and light were on my side, which are mightier than
the powers of Hell.

"At the last I was stronger, and it broke from me and fled, and I
followed to no avail. Yet before it fled it whispered to me a
monstrous truth."

Old Ezra started, stared wildly, seemed to shrink into himself.

"Nay, why tell me this?" he muttered.

"I returned to the village and told my tale," said Kane, "for I knew
that now I had the power to rid the moors of its curse forever. Ezra,
come with us!"

"Where?" gasped the miser.

"To the rotting oak on the moors."

Ezra reeled as though struck; he screamed incoherently and turned to flee.

On the instant, at Kane's sharp order, two brawny villagers sprang
forward and seized the miser. They twisted the dagger from his
withered hand, and pinioned his arms, shuddering as their fingers
encountered his clammy flesh.

Kane motioned them to follow, and turning strode up the trail,
followed by the villagers, who found their strength taxed to the
utmost in their task of bearing their prisoner along. Through the
swamp they went and out, taking a little-used trail which led up over
the low hills and out on the moors.

The sun was sliding down the horizon and old Ezra stared at it with
bulging eyes--stared as if he could not gaze enough. Far out on the
moors reared up the great oak tree, like a gibbet, now only a decaying
shell. There Solomon Kane halted.

Old Ezra writhed in his captor's grasp and made inarticulate noises.

"Over a year ago," said Solomon Kane, "you, fearing that your insane
cousin Gideon would tell men of your cruelties to him, brought him
away from the swamp by the very trail by which we came, and murdered
him here in the night."

Ezra cringed and snarled.

"You can not prove this lie!"

Kane spoke a few words to an agile villager. The youth clambered up
the rotting bole of the tree and from a crevice, high up, dragged
something that fell with a clatter at the feet of the miser. Ezra went
limp with a terrible shriek.

The object was a man's skeleton, the skull cleft.

"You--how knew you this? You are Satan!" gibbered old Ezra.

Kane folded his arms.

"The thing I fought last night told me this thing as we reeled in
battle, and I followed it to this tree. For the fiend is Gideon's
ghost."

Ezra shrieked again and fought savagely.

"You knew," said Kane sombrely, "you knew what things did these deeds.
You feared the ghost of the maniac, and that is why you chose to leave
his body on the fen instead of concealing it in the swamp. For you
knew the ghost would haunt the place of his death. He was insane in
life, and in death he did not know where to find his slayer; else he
had come to you in your hut. He hates no man but you, but his mazed
spirit can not tell one man from another, and he slays all, lest he
let his killer escape. Yet he will know you and rest in peace, forever
after. Hate hath made of his ghost a solid thing that can rend and
slay, and though he feared you terribly in life, in death he fears you
not at all."

Kane halted. He glanced at the sun.

"All this I had from Gideon's ghost, in his yammerings and his
whisperings and his shrieking silences. Naught but your death will lay
that ghost."

Ezra listened in breathless silence and Kane pronounced the words of
his doom.

"A hard thing it is," said Kane sombrely, "to sentence a man to death
in cold blood and in such a manner as I have in mind, but you must die
that others may live--and God knoweth you deserve death.

"You shall not die by noose, bullet or sword, but at the talons of him
you slew--for naught else will satiate him."

At these words Ezra's brain shattered, his knees gave way and he fell
grovelling and screaming for death, begging them to burn him at the
stake, to flay him alive. Kane's face was set like death, and the
villagers, the fear rousing their cruelty, bound the screeching wretch
to the oak tree, and one of them bade him make his peace with God. But
Ezra made no answer, shrieking in a high shrill voice with unbearable
monotony. Then the villager would have struck the miser across
the face, but Kane stayed him.

"Let him make his peace with Satan, whom he is more like to meet, "
said the Puritan grimly. "The sun is about to set. Loose his cords so
that he may work loose by dark, since it is better to meet death free
and unshackled than bound like a sacrifice."

As they turned to leave him, old Ezra yammered and gibbered unhuman
sounds and then fell silent, staring at the sun with terrible intensity.

They walked away across the fen, and Kane flung a last look at the
grotesque form bound to the tree, seeming in the uncertain light like
a great fungus growing to the bole. And suddenly the miser screamed
hideously:

"Death! Death! There are skulls in the Stars!"

"Life was good to him, though he was gnarled and churlish and evil,"
Kane sighed. "Mayhap God has a place for such souls where fire and
sacrifice may cleanse them of their dross as fire cleans the forest or
fungus things. Yet my heart is heavy within me."

"Nay, sir," one of the villagers spoke, "you have done but the will of
God, and good alone shall come of this night's deed."

"Nay," answered Kane heavily. "I know not--I know not."

The sun had gone down and night spread with amazing swiftness, as if
great shadows came rushing down from unknown voids to cloak the world
with hurrying darkness. Through the thick night came a weird echo,
and the men halted and looked back the way they had come.

Nothing could be seen. The moor was an ocean of shadows and the tall
grass about them bent in long waves before the faint wind, breaking
the deathly stillness with breathless murmurings.

Then far away the red disk of the moon rose over the fen, and for an
instant a grim silhouette was etched blackly against it. A shape came
flying across the face of the moon--a bent, grotesque thing whose feet
seemed scarcely to touch the earth; and close behind came a thing like
a flying shadow--a nameless, shapeless horror.

A moment the racing twain stood out boldly against the moon; then they
merged into one unnameable, formless mass, and vanished in the
shadows.

Far across the fen sounded a single shriek of terrible laughter.



THE END



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