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Title: Queen Of The Black Coast
Author: Robert E. Howard
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QUEEN OF THE BACK COAST



1 Conan Joins the Pirates

Believe green buds awaken in the spring,
  That autumn paints the leaves with somber fire;
Believe I held my heart inviolate
  To lavish on one man my hot desire.

                        The Song of Belit

Hoofs drummed down the street that sloped to the wharfs. The folk that
yelled and scattered had only a fleeting glimpse of a mailed figure on
a black stallion, a wide scarlet cloak flowing out on the wind. Far up
the street came the shout and clatter of pursuit, but the horseman did
not look back. He swept out onto the wharfs and jerked the plunging
stallion back on its haunches at the very lip of the pier. Seamen
gaped up at him, as they stood to the sweep and striped sail of a
high-prowed, broad-waisted galley. The master, sturdy and black-
bearded, stood in the bows, easing her away from the piles with a
boathook. He yelled angrily as the horseman sprang from the saddle
and with a long leap landed squarely on the middeck.

"Who invited you aboard?"

"Get under way!" roared the intruder with a fierce gesture that
spattered red drops from his broadsword.

"But we're bound for the coasts of Kush!" expostulated the master.

"Then I'm for Kush! Push off, I tell you!" The other cast a quick
glance up the street, along which a squad of horsemen were galloping;
far behind them toiled a group of archers, crossbows on their
shoulders.

"Can you pay for your passage?" demanded the master.

"I pay my way with steel!" roared the man in armor, brandishing the
great sword that glittered bluely in the sun. "By Crom, yin, if you
don't get under way, I'll drench this galley in the blood of its
crew!"

The shipmaster was a good judge of men. One glance at the irk-scarred
face of the swordsman, hardened with passion, and he shouted a quick
order, thrusting strongly against the piles. The galley wallowed out
into clear water, the oars began to clack rhythmically; then a puff of
wind filled the shimmering sail, the light ship heeled to the gust,
then took her course like a swan, gathering headway as she skimmed
along.

On the wharfs the riders were shaking their swords and shouting
threats and commands that the ship put about, and yelling for the
bowmen to hasten before the craft was out of arbalest range.

"Let them rave," grinned the swordsman hardily. "Do you keep her on
her course, master steersman."

The master descended from the small deck between the bows, made his
way between the rows of oarsmen, and mounted the middeck. The
stranger stood there with his back to the mast, eyes narrowed alertly,
sword ready. The shipman eyed him steadily, careful not to make any
move toward the long knife in his belt. He saw a tall powerfully built
figure in a black scale-mail hauberk, burnished greaves and a blue-
steel helmet from which jutted bull's horns highly polished. From the
mailed shoulders fell the scarlet cloak, blowing in the sea-wind. A
broad shagreen belt with a golden buckle held the scabbard of the
broadsword he bore. Under the horned helmet a square-cut black mane
contrasted with smoldering blue eyes.

"If we must travel together," said the master, "we may as well be at
peace with each other. My name is Tito, licensed mastershipman of the
ports of Argos. I am bound for Kush, to trade beads and silks and
sugar and brass-hilted swords to the black kings for ivory, copra,
copper ore, slaves and pearls."

The swordsman glanced back at the rapidly receding docks, where the
figures still gesticulated helplessly, evidently having trouble in
finding a boat swift enough to overhaul the fast-sailing galley.

"I am Conan, a Cimmerian," he answered. "I came into Argos seeking
employment, but with no wars forward, there was nothing to which I
might turn my hand."

"Why do the guardsman pursue you?" asked Tito. "Not that it's any of
my business, but I thought perhaps--"

"I've nothing to conceal," replied the Cimmerian. "By Crom, though
I've spent considerable time among you civilized peoples, your ways
are still beyond my comprehension.

"Well, last night in a tavern, a captain in the king's guard offered
violence to the sweetheart of a young soldier, who naturally ran him
through. But it seems there is some cursed law against killing
guardsmen, and the boy and his girl fled away. It was bruited about
that I was seen with them, and so today I was haled into court, and a
judge asked me where the lad had gone. I replied that since he was a
friend of mine, I could not betray him. Then the court waxed wroth,
and the judge talked a great deal about my duty to the state, and
society, and other things I did not understand, and bade me tell where
my friend had flown. By this time I was becoming wrathful myself, for
I had explained my position.

"But I choked my ire and held my peace, and the judge squalled that I
had shown contempt for the court, and that I should be hurled into a
dungeon to rot until I betrayed my friend. So then, seeing they were
all mad, I drew my sword and cleft the judge's skull; then I cut my
way out of the court, and seeing the high constable's stallion tied
near by, I rode for the wharfs, where I thought to find a ship bound
for foreign parts."

"Well," said Tito hardily, "the courts have fleeced me too often in
suits with rich merchants for me to owe them any love. I'll have
questions to answer if I ever anchor in that port again, but I can
prove I acted under compulsion. You may as well put up your sword.
We're peaceable sailors, and have nothing against you. Besides, it's
as well to have a fighting-man like yourself on board. Come up to the
poop-deck and we'll have a tankard of ale."

"Good enough," readily responded the Cimmerian, sheathing his sword.

The Argus was a small sturdy ship, typical of those trading-craft
which ply between the ports of Zingara and Argos and the southern
coasts, hugging the shoreline and seldom venturing far into the open
ocean. It was high of stern, with a tall curving prow; broad in the
waist, sloping beautifully to stem and stern. It was guided by the
long sweep from the poop, and propulsion was furnished mainly by the
broad striped silk sail, aided by a jibsail. The oars were for use in
tacking out of creeks and bays, and during calms. There were ten to
the side, five fore and five aft of the small mid-deck. The most
precious part of the cargo was lashed under this deck, and under the
fore-deck. The men slept on deck or between the rowers' benches,
protected in bad weather by canopies. With twenty men at the oars,
three at the sweep, and the shipmaster, the crew was complete.

So the Argus pushed steadily southward, with consistently fair
weather. The sun beat down from day to day with fiercer heat, and the
canopies were run up--striped silken cloths that matched the
shimmering sail and the shining goldwork on the prow and along the
gunwales.

They sighted the coast of Shem--long rolling meadowlands with the
white crowns of the towers of cities in the distance, and horsemen
with blue-black beards and hooked noses, who sat their steeds along
the shore and eyed the galley with suspicion. She did not put in;
there was scant profit in trade with the sons of Shem.

Nor did master Tito pull into the broad bay where the Styx river
emptied its gigantic flood into the ocean, and the massive black
castles of Khemi loomed over the blue waters. Ships did not put
unasked into this port, where dusky sorcerers wove awful spells in the
murk of sacrificial smoke mounting eternally from bloodstained altars
where naked women screamed, and where Set, the Old Serpent, archdemon
of the Hyborians but god of the Stygians, was said to writhe his
shining coils among his worshippers.

Master Tito gave that dreamy glass-floored bay a wide berth, even when
a serpent-prowed gondola shot from behind a castellated point of land,
and naked dusky women, with great red blossoms in their hair, stood
and called to his sailors, and posed and postured brazenly.

Now no more shining towers rose inland. They had passed the southern
borders of Stygia and were cruising along the coasts of Kush. The sea
and the ways of the sea were neverending mysteries to Conan, whose
homeland was among the high hills of the northern uplands. The
wanderer was no less of interest to the sturdy seamen, few of whom had
ever seen one of his race.

They were characteristic Argosean sailors, short and stockily built.
Conan towered above them, and no two of them could match his strength.
They were hardy and robust, but his was the endurance and vitality of
a wolf, his thews steeled and his nerves whetted by the hardness of
his life in the world's wastelands. He was quick to laugh, quick and
terrible in his wrath. He was a valiant trencherman, and strong drink
was a passion and a weakness with him. Naive as a child in many ways,
unfamiliar with the sophistry of civilization, he was naturally
intelligent, jealous of his rights, and dangerous as a hungry tiger.
Young in years, he was hardened in warfare and wandering, and his
sojourns in many lands were evident in his apparel. His horned helmet
was such as was worn by the golden-haired AEsir of Nordheim; his
hauberk and greaves were of the finest workmanship of Koth; the fine
ring mail which sheathed his arms and legs was of Nemedia; the blade
at his girdle was a great Aquilonian broadsword; and his gorgeous
scarlet cloak could have been spun nowhere but in Ophir.

So they beat southward, and master Tito began to look for the high-
walled villages of the black people. But they found only smoking ruins
on the shore of a bay, littered with naked black bodies. Tito swore.

"I had good trade here, aforetime. This is the work of pirates."

"And if we meet them?" Conan loosened his great blade in its scabbard.

"Mine is no warship. We run, not fight. Yet if it came to a pinch, we
have beaten off reavers before, and might do it again; unless it were
Belit's Tigress."

"Who is Belit?"

"The wildest she-devil unhanged. Unless I read the signs awrong, it
was her butchers who destroyed that village on the bay. May I some day
see her dangling from the yardarm! She is called the queen of the
black coast. She is a Shemite woman, who leads black raiders. They
harry the shipping and have sent many a good tradesman to the bottom."

From under the poop-deck Tito brought out quilted jerkins, steel caps,
bows and arrows.

"Little use to resist if we're run down," he grunted. "But it rasps
the soul to give up life without a struggle."

It was just at sunrise when the lookout shouted a warning. Around the
long point of an island off the starboard bow glided a long lethal
shape, a slender serpentine galley, with a raised deck that ran from
stem to stern. Forty oars on each side drove her swiftly through the
water, and the low rail swarmed with naked blacks that chanted and
clashed spears on oval shields. From the masthead floated a long
crimson pennon.

"Belit!" yelled Tito, paling. "Yare! Put her about! Into that creek 
mouth! If we can beach her before they run us down, we have a chance
to escape with our lives!"

So, veering sharply, the Argus ran for the line of surf that boomed
along the palm-fringed shore, Tito striding back and forth, exhorting
the panting rowers to greater efforts. The master's black beard
bristled, his eyes glared.

"Give me a bow," requested Conan. "It's not my idea of a manly weapon,
but I learned archery among the Hyrkanians, and it will go hard if I
can't feather a man or so on yonder deck."

Standing on the poop, he watched the serpentlike ship skimming
lightly over the waters, and landsman though he was, it was evident to
him that the Argus would never win that race. Already arrows, arching
from the pirate's deck, were falling with a hiss into the sea, not
twenty paces astern.

"We'd best stand to it," growled the Cimmerian; "else we'll all die
with shafts in our backs, and not a blow dealt."

"Bend to it, dogs!" roared Tito with a passionate gesture of his
brawny fist. The bearded rowers grunted, heaved at the oars, while
their muscles coiled and knotted, and sweat started out on their
hides. The timbers of the stout little galley creaked and groaned as
the men fairly ripped her through the water. The wind had fallen; the
sail hung limp. Nearer crept the inexorable raiders, and they were
still a good mile from the surf when one of the steersmen fell gagging
across a sweep, a long arrow through his neck. Tito sprang to take his
place, and Conan, bracing his feet wide on the heaving poop-deck,
lifted his bow. He could see the details of the pirate plainly now.
The rowers were protected by a line of raised mantelets along the
sides, but the warriors dancing on the narrow deck were in full view.
These were painted and plumed, and mostly naked, brandishing spears
and spotted shields.

On the raised platform in the bows stood a slim figure whose white
skin glistened in dazzling contrast to the glossy ebon hides about it.
Belit, without a doubt. Conan drew the shaft to his ear--then some
whim or qualm stayed his hand and sent the arrow through the body of a
tall plumed spearman beside her.

Hand over hand the pirate galley was overhauling the lighter ship.
Arrows fell in a rain about the Argus, and men cried out. All the
steersmen were down, pincushioned, and Tito was handling the massive
sweep alone, gasping black curses, his braced legs knots of straining
thews. Then with a sob he sank down, a long shaft quivering in his
sturdy heart. The Argus lost headway and rolled in the swell. The men
shouted in confusion, and Conan took command in characteristic
fashion.

"Up, lads!" he roared, loosing with a vicious twang of cord. "Grab
your steel and give these dogs a few knocks before they cut our
throats! Useless to bend your backs any more: they'll board us ere we
can row another fifty paces!"

In desperation the sailors abandoned their oars and snatched up their
weapons. It was valiant, but useless. They had time for one flight of
arrows before the pirate was upon them. With no one at the sweep, the
Argus rolled broadside, and the steel-baked prow of the raider crashed
into her amidships. Grappling irons crunched into the side. From the
lofty gunwales, the black pirates drove down a volley of shafts that
tore through the quilted jackets of the doomed sailormen, then sprang
down spears in hand to complete the slaughter. On the deck of the
pirate lay half a dozen bodies, an earnest of Conan's archery.

The fight on the Argus was short and bloody. The stocky sailors, no
match for the tall barbarians, were cut down to a man. Elsewhere the
battle had taken a peculiar turn. Conan, on the high-pitched poop, was
on a level with the pirate's deck. As the steel prow slashed into the
Argus, he braced himself and kept his feet under the shock, casting
away his bow. A tall corsair, bounding over the rail, was met in
midair by the Cimmerian's great sword, which sheared him cleanly
through the torso, so that his body fell one way and his legs another.
Then, with a burst of fury that left a heap of mangled corpses along
the gunwales, Conan was over the rail and on the deck of the Tigress.

In an instant he was the center of a hurricane of stabbing spears and
lashing clubs. But he moved in a blinding blur of steel. Spears bent
on his armor or swished empty air, and his sword sang its death-song.
The fighting-madness of his race was upon him, and with a red mist of
unreasoning fury wavering before his blazing eyes, he cleft skulls,
smashed breasts, severed limbs, ripped out entrails, and littered the
deck like a shambles with a ghastly harvest of brains and blood.

Invulnerable in his armor, his back against the mast, he heaped
mangled corpses at his feet until his enemies gave back panting in
rage and fear. Then as they lifted their spears to cast them, and he
tensed himself to leap and die in the midst of them, a shrill cry
froze the lifted arms. They stood like statues, the black giants
poised for the spearcasts, the mailed swordsman with his dripping
blade.

Befit sprang before the blacks, beating down their spears. She turned
toward Conan, her bosom heaving, her eyes flashing. Fierce fingers of
wonder caught at his heart. She was slender, yet formed like a
goddess: at once lithe and voluptuous. Her only garment was a broad
silken girdle. Her white ivory limbs and the ivory globes of her
breasts drove a beat of fierce passion through the Cimmerian's pulse,
even in the panting fury of battle. Her rich black hair, black as a
Stygian night, fell in rippling burnished clusters down her supple
back. Her dark eyes burned on the Cimmerian.

She was untamed as a desert wind, supple and dangerous as a she-
panther. She came close to him, heedless of his great blade, dripping
with blood of her warriors. Her supple thigh brushed against it, so
close she came to the tall warrior. Her red lips parted as she stared
up into his somber menacing eyes.

"Who are you?" she demanded. "By Ishtar, I have never seen your like,
though I have ranged the sea from the coasts of Zingara to the fires
of the ultimate south. Whence come you?"

"From Argos," he answered shortly, alert for treachery. Let her slim
hand move toward the jeweled dagger in her girdle, and a buffet of his
open hand would stretch her senseless on the deck. Yet in his heart he
did not fear; he had held too many women, civilized or barbaric, in
his iron-thewed arms, not to recognize the light that burned in the
eyes of this one.

"You are no soft Hyborian!" she exclaimed. "You are fierce and hard as
a gray wolf. Those eyes were never dimmed by city lights; those thews
were never softened by life amid marble walls."

"I am Conan, a Cimmerian," he answered.

To the people of the exotic climes, the north was a mazy half-mythical
realm, peopled with ferocious blue-eyed giants who occasionally
descended from their icy fastnesses with torch and sword. Their raids
had never taken them as far south as Shem, and this daughter of Shem
made no distinction between AEsir, Vanir or Cimmerian. With the
unerring instinct of the elemental feminine, she knew she had found
her lover, and his race meant naught, save as it invested him with the
glamor of far lands.

"And I am Belit," she cried, as one might say, "I am queen."

"Look at me, Conan!" She threw wide her arms. "I am Belit, queen of
the black coast. Oh, tiger of the North, you are cold as the snowy
mountains which bred you. Take me and crush me with your fierce love!
Go with me to the ends of the earth and the ends of the sea! I am a
queen by fire and steel and slaughter--be thou my king!"

His eyes swept the bloodstained ranks, seeking expressions of wrath
or jealousy. He saw none. The fury was gone from the ebon faces. He
realized that to these men Belit was more than a woman: a goddess
whose will was unquestioned. He glanced at the Argus, wallowing in the
crimson sea-wash, heeling far over, her decks awash, held up by the
grappling irons. He glanced at the blue-fringed shore, at the far
green hazes of the ocean, at the vibrant figure which stood before
him; and his barbaric soul stirred within him. To quest these shining
blue realms with that white-skinned young tiger-cat--to love, laugh,
wander and pillage--"I'll sail with you," he grunted, shaking the red
drops from his blade.

"Ho, N'Yaga!" her voice twanged like a bowstring. "Fetch herbs and
dress your master's wounds! The rest of you bring aboard the plunder
and cast off."

As Conan sat with his back against the poop-rail, while the old shaman
attended to the cuts on his hands and limbs, the cargo of the ill-
fated Argus was quickly shifted aboard the Tigress and stored in small
cabins below deck. Bodies of the crew and of fallen pirates were cast
overboard to the swarming sharks, while wounded blacks were laid in
the waist to be bandaged. Then the grappling irons were cast off, and
as the Argus sank silently into the blood-flecked waters, the Tigress
moved off southward to the rhythmic clack of the oars.

As they moved out over the glassy blue deep, Belit came to the poop.
Her eyes were burning like those of a she-panther in the dark as she
tore off her ornaments, her sandals and her silken girdle and cast
them at his feet. Rising on tiptoe, arms stretched upward, a quivering
line of naked white, she cried to the desperate horde: "Wolves of the
blue sea, behold ye now the dance--the mating-dance of Belit, whose
fathers were kings of Askalon!"

And she danced, like the spin of a desert whirlwind, like the leaping
of a quenchless flame, like the urge of creation and the urge of
death. Her white feet spurned the bloodstained deck and dying men
forgot death as they gazed frozen at her. Then, as the white stars
glimmered through the blue velvet dusk, making her whirling body a
blur of ivory fire, with a wild cry she threw herself at Conan's feet,
and the blind flood of the Cimmerian's desire swept all else away as
he crushed her panting form against the black plates of his corseleted
breast.



2 The Black Lotus

In that dead citadel of crumbling stone.
 Her eyes were snared by that unholy sheen,
And curious madness took me by the throat,
 As of a rival lover thrust between.

                 The Song of Belit

The Tigress ranged the sea, and the black villages shuddered. Tomtoms
beat in the night, with a tale that the she-devil of the sea had found
a mate, an iron man whose wrath was as that of a wounded lion. And
survivors of butchered Stygian ships named Belit with curses, and a
white warrior with fierce blue eyes; so the Stygian princes remembered
this man long and long, and their memory was a bitter tree which bore
crimson fruit in the years to come.

But heedless as a vagrant wind, the Tigress cruised the southern
coasts, until she anchored at the mouth of a broad sullen river, whose
banks were jungle-clouded walls of mystery.

"This is the river Zarkheba, which is Death," said Belit. "Its waters
are poisonous. See how dark and murky they run? Only venomous reptiles
live in that river. The black people shun it. Once a Stygian galley,
fleeing from me, fled up the river and vanished. I anchored in this
very spot, and days later, the galley came floating down the dark
waters, its decks bloodstained and deserted. Only one man was on
board, and he was mad and died gibbering. The cargo was intact, but
the crew had vanished into silence and mystery.

"My lover, I believe there is a city somewhere on that river. I have
heard tales of giant towers and walls glimpsed afar off by sailors who
dared go partway up the river. We fear nothing: Conan, let us go and
sack that city."

Conan agreed. He generally agreed to her plans. Hers was the mind that
directed their raids, his the arm that carried out her ideas. It
mattered little to him where they sailed or whom they fought, so long
as they sailed and fought. He found the life good.

Battle and raid had thinned their crew; only some eighty spearmen
remained, scarcely enough to work the long galley. But Belit would
not take the time to make the long cruise southward to the island
kingdoms where she recruited her buccaneers. She was afire with
eagerness for her latest venture; so the Tigress swung into the river
mouth, the oarsmen pulling strongly as she breasted the broad current.

They rounded the mysterious bend that shut out the sight of the sea,
and sunset found them forging steadily against the sluggish flow,
avoiding sandbars where strange reptiles coiled. Not even a crocodile
did they see, nor any four-legged beast or winged bird coming down to
the water's edge to drink. On through the blackness that preceded
moonrise they drove, between banks that were solid palisades of
darkness, whence came mysterious rustlings and stealthy footfalls, and
the gleam of grim eyes. And once an inhuman voice was lifted in awful
mockery the cry of an ape, Belit said, adding that the souls of evil
men were imprisoned in these manlike animals as punishment for past
crimes. But Conan doubted, for once, in a gold-barred cage in an
Hyrkanian city, he had seen an abysmal sad-eyed beast which men told
him was an ape, and there had been about it naught of the demoniac
malevolence which vibrated in the shrieking laughter that echoed from
the black jungle.

Then the moon rose, a splash of blood, ebony-barred, and the jungle
awoke in horrific bedlam to greet it. Roars and howls and yells set
the black warriors to trembling, but all this noise, Conan noted, came
from farther back in the jungle, as if the beasts no less than men
shunned the black waters of Zarkheba.

Rising above the black denseness of the trees and above the waving
fronds, the moon silvered the river, and their wake became a rippling
scintillation of phosphorescent bubbles that widened like a shining
road of bursting jewels. The oars dipped into the shining water and
came up sheathed in frosty silver. The plumes on the warrior's head-
piece nodded in the wind, and the gems on sword hilts and harness
sparkled frostily.

The cold light struck icy fire from the jewels in Belitís clustered
black locks as she stretched her lithe figure on a leopardskin thrown
on the deck. Supported on her elbows, her chin resting on her slim
hands, she gazed up into the face of Conan, who lounged beside her,
his black mane stirring in the faint breeze. Belit's eyes were dark
jewels burning in the moonlight.

"Mystery and terror are about us, Conan, and we glide into the realm
of horror and death," she said. "Are you afraid?"

A shrug of his mailed shoulders was his only answer.

"I am not afraid either," she said meditatively. "I was never afraid.
I have looked into the naked fangs of Death too often. Conan, do you
fear the gods?"

"I would not tread on their shadow," answered the barbarian
conservatively. "Some gods are strong to harm, others, to aid; at
least so say their priests. Mitra of the Hyborians must be a strong
god, because his people have builded their cities over the world. But
even the Hyborians fear Set. And Bel, god of thieves, is a good god.
When I was a thief in Zamora, I learned of him."

"What of your own gods? I have never heard you call on them."

"Their chief is Crom. He dwells on a great mountain. What use to call
on him? Little he cares if men live or die. Better to be silent than
to call his attention to you; he will send you dooms, not fortune! He
is grim and loveless, but at birth he breathes power to strive and
slay into a man's soul. What else shall men ask of the gods?"

"But what of the worlds beyond the river of death?" she persisted.

"There is no hope here or hereafter in the cult of my people,"
answered Conan. "In this world men struggle and suffer vainly, finding
pleasure only in the bright madness of battle; dying, their souls
enter a gray misty realm of clouds and icy winds, to wander
cheerlessly throughout eternity."

Belit shuddered. "Life, bad as it is, is better than such a destiny.
What do you believe, Conan?"

He shrugged his shoulders. "I have known many gods. He who denies them
is as blind as he who trusts them too deeply. I seek not beyond death.
It may be the blackness averred by the Nemedian skeptics, or Crom's
realm of ice and cloud, or the snowy plains and vaulted halls of the
Nordheimer's Valhalla. I know not, nor do I care. Let me live deep
while I live; let me know the rich juices of red meat and stinging
wine on my palate, the hot embrace of white arms, the mad exultation
of battle when the blue blades flame and crimson, and I am content.
Let teachers and priests and philosophers brood over questions of
reality and illusion. I know this: if life is illusion, then I am no
less an illusion, and being thus, the illusion is real to me. I live,
I burn with life, I love, I slay, and am content."

"But the gods are real," she said, pursuing her own line of thought.
"And above all are the gods of the Shemites--Ishtar and Ashtoreth and
Derketo and Adonis. Bel, too, is Shemitish, for he was born in ancient
Shumir, long, long ago and went forth laughing, with curled beard and
impish wise eyes, to steal the gems of the kings of old times."

"There is life beyond death, I know, and I know this, too, Conan of
Cimmeria--" she rose lithely to her knees and caught him in a
pantherish embrace--"my love is stronger than any death! I have lain
in your arms, panting with the violence of our love; you have held and
crushed and conquered me, drawing my soul to your lips with the
fierceness of your bruising kisses. My heart is welded to your heart,
my soul is part of your soul! Were I still in death and you fighting
for life, I would come back from the abyss to aid you--aye, whether my
spirit floated with the purple sails on the crystal sea of paradise,
or writhed in the molten flames of hell! I am yours, and all the gods
and all their eternities shall not sever us!"

A scream rang from the lookout in the bows. Thrusting Belit aside,
Conan bounded up, his sword a long silver glitter in the moonlight,
his hair bristling at what he saw. The black warrior dangled above the
deck, supported by what seemed a dark pliant tree trunk arching over
the rail. Then he realized that it was a gigantic serpent which had
writhed its glistening length up the side of the bow and gripped the
luckless warrior in its jaws. Its dripping scales shone leprously in
the moonlight as it reared its form high above the deck, while the
stricken man screamed and writhed like a mouse in the fangs of a
python. Conan rushed into the bows, and swinging his great sword,
hewed nearly through the giant trunk, which was thicker than a man's
body. Blood drenched the rails as the dying monster swayed far out,
still gripping its victim, and sank into the river, coil by coil,
lashing the water to bloody foam, in which man and reptile vanished
together.

Thereafter Conan kept the lookout watch himself, but no other horror
came crawling up from the murky depths, and as dawn whitened over the
jungle, he sighted the black fangs of towers jutting up among the
trees. He called Belit, who slept on the deck, wrapped in his scarlet
cloak; and she sprang to his side, eyes blazing. Her lips were parted
to call orders to her warriors to take up bow and spears; then her
lovely eyes widened.

It was but the ghost of a city on which they looked when they cleared
a jutting jungle-clad point and swung in toward the incurving shore.
Weeds and rank river grass grew between the stones of broken piers and
shattered paves that had once been streets anal spacious plazas and
broad courts. From all sides except that toward the river, the jungle
crept in, masking fallen columns and crumbling mounds with poisonous
green. Here and there buckling towers reeled drunkenly against the
morning sky, and broken pillars jutted up among the decaying walls. In
the center space a marble pyramid was spired by a slim column, and on
its pinnacle sat or squatted something that Conan supposed to be an
image until his keen eyes detected life in it.

"It is a great bird," said one of the warriors, standing in the bows.

"It is a monster bat," insisted another.

"It is an ape," said Belit.

Just then the creature spread broad wings and flapped off into the
jungle.

"A winged ape," said old N'Yaga uneasily. "Better we had cut our
throats than come to this place. It is haunted."

Belit mocked at his superstitions and ordered the galley run inshore
and tied to the crumbling wharfs. She was the first to spring ashore,
closely followed by Conan, and after them trooped the ebon-skinned
pirates, white plumes waving in the morning wind, spears ready, eyes
rolling dubiously at the surrounding jungle.

Over all brooded a silence as sinister as that of a sleeping serpent.
Belit posed picturesquely among the ruins, the vibrant life in her
lithe figure contrasting strangely with the desolation and decay about
her. The sun flamed up slowly, sullenly, above the jungle, flooding
the towers with a dull gold that left shadows lurking beneath the
tottering walls. Belit pointed to a slim round tower that reeled on
its rotting base. A broad expanse of cracked, grass-grown slabs led up
to it, flanked by fallen columns, and before it stood a massive altar.
Belit went swiftly along the ancient floor and stood before it.

"This was the temple of the old ones," she said. "Look--you can see
the channels for the blood along the sides of the altar, and the rains
of ten thousand years have not washed the dark stains from them. The
walls have all fallen away, but this stone block defies time and the
elements."

"But who were these old ones?" demanded Conan.

She spread her slim hands helplessly. "Not even in legendry is this
city mentioned. But look at the handholes at either end of the altar!
Priests often conceal their treasures beneath their altars. Four of
you lay hold and see if you can lift it."

She stepped back to make room for them, glancing up at the tower which
loomed drunkenly above them. Three of the strongest blacks had gripped
the handholes cut into the stone curiously unsuited to human hands--
when Belit sprang back with a sharp cry. They froze in their places,
and Conan, bending to aid them, wheeled with a startled curse.

"A snake in the grass," she said, backing away. "Come and slay it; the
rest of you bend your backs to the stone."

Conan came quickly toward her, another taking his place. As he
impatiently scanned the grass for the reptile, the giant blacks braced
their feet, grunted and heaved with their huge muscles coiling and
straining under their ebon skin. The altar did not come off the
ground, but it revolved suddenly on its side. And simultaneously there
was a grinding rumble above and the tower came crashing down, covering
the four black men with broken masonry.

A cry of horror rose from their comrades. Belit's slim fingers dug
into Conan's arm muscles. "There was no serpent," she whispered. "It
was but a ruse to call you away. I feared; the old ones guarded their
treasure well. Let us clear away the stones."

With herculean labor they did so, and lifted out the mangled bodies of
the four men. And under them, stained with their blood, the pirates
found a crypt carved in the solid stone. The altar, hinged curiously
with stone rods and sockets on one side, had served as its lid. And at
first glance the crypt seemed brimming with liquid fire, catching the
early light with a million blazing facets. Undreamable wealth lay
before the eyes of the gaping pirates; diamonds, rubies, bloodstones,
sapphires, turquoises, moonstones, opals, emeralds, amethysts, unknown
gems that shone like the eyes of evil women. The crypt was filled to
the brim with bright stones that the morning sun struck into lambent
flame.

With a cry Belit dropped to her knees among the bloodstained rubble on
the brink and thrust her white arms shoulder-deep into that pool of
splendor. She withdrew them, clutching something that brought another
cry to her lips--a long string of crimson stones that were like clots
of frozen blood strung on a thick gold wire. In their glow the golden
sunlight changed to bloody haze.

Belit's eyes were like a woman's in a trance. The Shemite soul finds a
bright drunkenness in riches and material splendor, and the sight of
this treasure might have shaken the soul of a sated emperor of
Shushan.

"Take up the jewels, dogs!" her voice was shrill with her emotions.

"Look!" a muscular black arm stabbed toward the Tigress, and Belit
wheeled, her crimson lips a-snarl, as if she expected to see a rival
corsair sweeping in to despoil her of her plunder. But from the
gunwales of the ship a dark shape rose, soaring away over the jungle.

"The devil-ape has been investigating the ship," muttered the blacks
uneasily.

"What matter?" cried Belit with a curse, raking back a rebellious lock
with an impatient hand. "Make a litter of spears and mantles to bear
these jewels--where the devil are you going?"

"To look to the galley," grunted Conan. "That bat-thing might have
knocked a hole in the bottom, for all we know."

He ran swiftly down the cracked wharf and sprang aboard. A moment's
swift examination below decks, and he swore heartily, casting a
clouded glance in the direction the bat-being had vanished. He
returned hastily to Belit, superintending the plundering of the crypt.
She had looped the necklace about her neck, and on her naked white
bosom the red clots glimmered darkly. A huge naked black stood crotch-
deep in the jewel-brimming crypt, scooping up great handfuls of
splendor to pass them to eager hands above. Strings of frozen
iridescence hung between his dusky fingers; drops of red fire dripped
from his hands, piled high with starlight and rainbow. It was as if a
black titan stood straddle-legged in the bright pits of hell, his
lifted hands full of stars.

"That flying devil has staved in the water casks," said Conan. "If we
hadn't been so dazed by these stones we'd have heard the noise. We
were fools not to have left a man on guard. We can't drink this river
water. I'll take twenty men and search for fresh water in the jungle."

She looked at him vaguely, in her eyes the blank blaze of her strange
passion, her fingers working at the gems on her breast.

"Very well," she said absently, hardly heeding him. "I'll get the loot
aboard."

The jungle closed quickly about them, changing the light from gold to
gray. From the arching green branches, creepers dangled like pythons.
The warriors fell into single file, creeping through the primordial
twilights like black phantoms following a white ghost.

Underbrush was not so thick as Conan had anticipated. The ground was
spongy but not slushy. Away from the river, it sloped gradually
upward. Deeper and deeper they plunged into the green waving depths,
and still there was no sign of water, either running stream or
stagnant pool. Conan halted suddenly, his warriors freezing into
basaltic statues. In the tense silence that followed, the Cimmerian
shook his head irritably.

"Go ahead," he grunted to a sub-chief, N'Gora. "March straight on
until you can no longer see me; then stop and wait for me. I believe
we're being followed. I heard something."

The blacks shuffled their feet uneasily, but did as they were told. As
they swung onward, Conan stepped quickly behind a great tree, glaring
back along the way they had come. From that leafy fastness anything
might emerge. Nothing occurred; the faint sounds of the marching
spearmen faded in the distance. Conan suddenly realized that the air
was impregnated with an alien and exotic scent. Something gently
brushed his temple. He turned quickly. From a cluster of green,
curiously leafed stalks, great black blossoms nodded at him. One of
these had touched him. They seemed to beckon him, to arch their pliant
stems toward him. They spread and rustled, though no wind blew.

He recoiled, recognizing the black lotus, whose juice was death, and
whose scent brought dream-haunted slumber. But already he felt a
subtle lethargy stealing over him. He sought to lift his sword, to hew
down the serpentine stalks, but his arm hung lifeless at his side. He
opened his mouth to shout to his warriors, but only a faint rattle
issued. The next instant, with appalling suddenness, the jungle waved
and dimmed out before his eyes; he did not hear the screams that burst
out awfully not far away, as his knees collapsed, letting him pitch
limply to the earth. Above his prostrate form the great black blossoms
nodded in the windless air.



3 The Horror in the Jungle

Was it a dream the nighted lotus brought?
  Then curst the dream that bought my sluggish life;
And curst each laggard hour that does not see
  Hot blood drip blackly from the crimsoned knife.

                            The Song of Belit

First there was the blackness of an utter void, with the cold winds of
cosmic space blowing through it. Then shapes, vague, monstrous and
evanescent, rolled in dim panorama through the expanse of nothingness,
as if the darkness were taking material form. The winds blew and a
vortex formed, a whirling pyramid of roaring blackness. From it grew
Shape and Dimension; then suddenly, like clouds dispersing, the
darkness rolled away on either hand and a huge city of dark green
stone rose on the bank of a wide river, flowing through an illimitable
plain. Through this city moved beings of alien configuration.

Cast in the mold of humanity, they were distinctly not men. They were
winged and of heroic proportions; not a branch on the mysterious stalk
of evolution that culminated in man, but the ripe blossom on an alien
tree, separate and apart from that stalk. Aside from their wings, in
physical appearance they resembled man only as man in his highest form
resembles the great apes. In spiritual, esthetic and intellectual
development they were superior to man as man is superior to the
gorilla. But when they reared their colossal city, man's primal
ancestors had not yet risen from the slime of the primordial seas.

These beings were mortal, as are all things built of flesh and blood.
They lived, loved and died, though the individual span of life was
enormous. Then, after uncounted millions of years, the Change began.
The vista shimmered and wavered, like a picture thrown on a windblown
curtain. Over the city and the land the ages flowed as waves flow over
a beach, and each wave brought alterations. Somewhere on the planet
the magnetic centers were shifting; the great glaciers and ice fields
were withdrawing toward the new poles.

The littoral of the great river altered. Plains turned into swamps
that stank with reptilian life. Where fertile meadows had rolled,
forests reared up, growing into dank jungles. The changing ages
wrought on the inhabitants of the city as well. They did not migrate
to fresher lands. Reasons inexplicable to humanity held them to the
ancient city and their doom. And as that once rich and mighty land
sank deeper and deeper into the black mire of the sunless jungle, so
into the chaos of squalling jungle life sank the people of the city.
Terrific convulsions shook the earth; the nights were lurid with
spouting volcanoes that fringed the dark horizons with red pillars.

After an earthquake that shook down the outer walls and highest towers
of the city, and caused the river to run black for days with some
lethal substance spewed up from the subterranean depths, a frightful
chemical change became apparent in the waters the folk had drunk for
millenniums uncountable.

Many died who drank of it; and in those who lived, the drinking
wrought change, subtle, gradual and grisly. In adapting themselves to
the changing conditions, they had sunk far below their original level.
But the lethal waters altered them even more horribly, from generation
to more bestial generation. They who had been winged gods became
pinioned demons, with all that remained of their ancestors' vast
knowledge distorted and perverted and twisted into ghastly paths. As
they had risen higher than mankind might dream, so they sank lower
than man's maddest nightmares reach. They died fast, by cannibalism,
and horrible feuds fought out in the murk of the midnight jungle. And
at last among the lichen-grown ruins of their city only a single shape
lurked, a stunted abhorrent perversion of nature.

Then for the first time humans appeared: dark-skinned, hawk-faced men
in copper and leather harness, bearing bows--the warriors of prehistoric Stygia. There were only fifty of them, and they were haggard
and gaunt with starvation and prolonged effort, stained and scratched
with jungle wandering, with blood-crusted bandages that told of fierce
fighting. In their minds was a tale of warfare and defeat, and flight
before a stronger tribe, which drove them ever southward, until they
lost themselves in the green ocean of jungle and river.

Exhausted they lay down among the ruins where red blossoms that bloom
but once in a century waved in the full moon, and sleep fell upon
them. And as they slept, a hideous shape crept red-eyed from the
shadows and performed weird and awful rites about and above each
sleeper. The moon hung in the shadowy sky, painting the jungle red and
black; above the sleepers glimmered the crimson blossoms, like
splashes of blood. Then the moon went down and the eyes of the
necromancer were red jewels set in the ebony of night.

When dawn spread its white veil over the river, there were no men to
be seen: only a hairy, winged horror that squatted in the center of a
ring of fifty great spotted hyenas that pointed quivering muzzles to
the ghastly sky and howled like souls in hell.

Then scene followed scene so swiftly that each tripped over the heels
of its predecessor. There was a confusion of movement, a writhing and
melting of lights and shadows, against a background of black jungle,
green stone ruins and murky river. Black men came up the river in long
boats with skulls grinning on the prows, or stole stooping through the
trees, spear in hand. They fled screaming through the dark from red
eyes and slavering fangs. Howls of dying men shook the shadows;
stealthy feet padded through the gloom, vampire eyes blazed redly.
There were grisly feasts beneath the moon, across whose red disk a
batlike shadow incessantly swept.

Then abruptly, etched clearly in contrast to these impressionistic
glimpses, around the jungled point in the whitening dawn swept a long
galley, thronged with shining ebon figures, and in the bows stood a
white-skinned ghost in blue steel.

It was at this point that Conan first realized that he was dreaming.
Until that instant he had had no consciousness of individual
existence. But as he saw himself treading the boards of the Tigress,
he recognized both the existence and the dream, although he did not
awaken.

Even as he wondered, the scene shifted abruptly to a jungle glade
where N'Gora and nineteen black spearmen stood, as if awaiting
someone. Even as he realized that it was he for whom they waited, a
horror swooped down from the skies and their stolidity was broken by
yells of fear. Like men maddened by terror, they threw away their
weapons and raced wildly through the jungle, pressed close by the
slavering monstrosity that flapped its wings above them.

Chaos and confusion followed this vision, during which Conan feebly
struggled to awake. Dimly he seemed to see himself lying under a
nodding cluster of black blossoms, while from the bushes a hideous
shape crept toward him. With a savage effort he broke the unseen bonds
which held him to his dreams, and started upright.

Bewilderment was in the glare he cast about him. Near him swayed the
dusky lotus, and he hastened to draw away from it.

In the spongy soil near by there was a track as if an animal had put
out a foot, preparatory to emerging from the bushes, then had
withdrawn it. It looked like the spoor of an unbelievably large hyena.

He yelled for N'Gora. Primordial silence brooded over the jungle, in
which his yells sounded brittle and hollow as mockery. He could not
see the sun, but his wilderness-trained instinct told him the day was
near its end. A panic rose in him at the thought that he had lain
senseless for hours. He hastily followed the tracks of the spearmen,
which lay plain in the damp loam before him. They ran in single file,
and he soon emerged into a glade--to stop short, the skin crawling
between his shoulders as he recognized it as the glade he had seen in
his lotus-drugged dream. Shields and spears lay scattered about as if
dropped in headlong flight.

And from the tracks which led out of the glade and deeper into the
fastnesses, Conan knew that the spearmen had fled, wildly. The
footprints overlay one another; they weaved blindly among the trees.
And with startling suddenness the hastening Cimmerian came out of the
jungle onto a hill-like rock which sloped steeply, to break off
abruptly in a sheer precipice forty feet high. And something crouched
on the brink.

At first Conan thought it to be a great black gorilla. Then he saw
that it was a giant black man that crouched apelike, long arms
dangling, froth dripping from the loose lips. It was not until, with a
sobbing cry, the creature lifted huge hands and rushed toward him,
that Conan recognized N'Gora. The black man gave no heed to Conan's
shout as he charged, eyes rolled up to display the whites, teeth
gleaming, face an inhuman mask.

With his skin crawling with the horror that madness always instils in
the sane, Conan passed his sword through the black man's body; then,
avoiding the hooked hands that clawed at him as N'Gora sank down, he
strode to the edge of the cliff.

For an instant he stood looking down into the jagged rocks below,
where lay N'Gora's spearmen, in limp, distorted attitudes that told of
crushed limbs and splintered bones. Not one moved. A cloud of huge
black flies buzzed loudly above the bloods-plashed stones; the ants
had already begun to gnaw at the corpses. On the trees about sat birds
of prey, and a jackal, looking up and seeing the man on the cliff,
slunk furtively away.

For a little space Conan stood motionless. Then he wheeled and ran
back the way he had come, flinging himself with reckless haste through
the tall grass and bushes, hurdling creepers that sprawled snakelike
across his path. His sword swung low in his right hand, and an
unaccustomed pallor tinged his dark face.

The silence that reigned in the jungle was not broken. The sun had set
and great shadows rushed upward from the slime of the black earth.
Through the gigantic shades of lurking death and grim desolation Conan
was a speeding glimmer of scarlet and blue steel. No sound in all the
solitude was heard except his own quick panting as he burst from the
shadows into the dim twilight of the river shore.

He saw the galley shouldering the rotten wharf, the ruins reeling
drunkenly in the gray half-light.

And here and there among the stones were spots of raw bright color, as
if a careless hand had splashed with a crimson brush.

Again Conan looked on death and destruction. Before him lay his
spearmen, nor did they rise to salute him. From the jungle edge to the
riverbank, among the rotting pillars and along the broken piers they
lay, torn and mangled and half devoured, chewed travesties of men.

All about the bodies and pieces of bodies were swarms of huge
footprints, like those of hyenas.

Conan came silently upon the pier, approaching the galley above whose
deck was suspended something that glimmered ivory-white in the faint
twilight. Speechless, the Cimmerian looked on the Queen of the Black
Coast as she hung from the yardarm of her own galley. Between the
yard and her white throat stretched a line of crimson clots that shone
like blood in the gray light.



4 The Attack from the Air

The shadows were black around him,
 The dripping jaws gaped wide,
Thicker than rain the red drops fell;
But my love was fiercer than Death's black spell,
Nor all the iron walls of hell
  Could keep me from his side.

                   The Song of Belit

The jungle was a black colossus that locked the ruin-littered glade in
ebon arms. The moon had not risen; the stars were flecks of hot amber
in a breathless sky that reeked of death. On the pyramid among the
fallen towers sat Conan the Cimmerian like an iron statue, chin
propped on massive fists. Out in the black shadows stealthy feet
padded and red eyes glimmered. The dead lay as they had fallen. But on
the deck of the Tigress, on a pyre of broken benches, spear shafts and
leopardskins, lay the Queen of the Black Coast in her last sleep,
wrapped in Conan's scarlet cloak. Like a true queen she lay, with her
plunder heaped high about her: silks, cloth-of-gold, silver braid,
casks of gems and golden coins, silver ingots, jeweled daggers and
teocallis of gold wedges.

But of the plunder of the accursed city, only the sullen waters of 
Zarkheba could tell where Conan had thrown it with a heathen curse.
Now he sat grimly on the pyramid, waiting for his unseen foes. The
black fury in his soul drove out all fear. What shapes would emerge
from the blackness he knew not, nor did he care.

He no longer doubted the visions of the black lotus. He understood
that while waiting for him in the glade, N'Gora and his comrades had
been terror-stricken by the winged monster swooping upon them from the
sky, and fleeing in blind panic, had fallen over the cliff, all except
their chief, who had somehow escaped their fate, though not madness.
Meanwhile, or immediately after, or perhaps before, the destruction of
those on the riverbank had been accomplished. Conan did not doubt that
the slaughter along the river had been massacre rather than battle.
Already unmanned by their superstitious fears, the blacks might well
have died without striking a blow in their own defense when attacked
by their inhuman foes.

Why he had been spared so long, he did not understand, unless the
malign entity which ruled the river meant to keep him alive to torture
him with grief and fear. All pointed to a human or superhuman
intelligence--the breaking of the water casks to divide the forces, the
driving of the blacks over the cliff, and last and greatest, the grim
jest of the crimson necklace knotted like a hangman's noose about
Belit's white neck.

Having apparently saved the Cimmerian for the choicest victim, and
extracted the last ounce of exquisite mental torture, it was likely
that the unknown enemy would conclude the drama by sending him after
the other victims. No smile bent Conan's grim lips at the thought, but
his eyes were lit with iron laughter.

The moon rose, striking fire from the Cimmerian's horned helmet. No
call awoke the echoes; yet suddenly the night grew tense and the
jungle held its breath. Instinctively Conan loosened the great sword
in its sheath. The pyramid on which he rested was four-sided, one--the
side toward the jungle carved in broad steps. In his hand was a
Shemite bow, such as Belit had taught her pirates to use. A heap of
arrows lay at his feet, feathered ends toward him, as he rested on
one knee.

Something moved in the blackness under the trees. Etched abruptly in
the rising moon, Conan saw a darkly blocked-out head and shoulders,
brutish in outline. And now from the shadows dark shapes came
silently, swiftly, running low--twenty great spotted hyenas. Their
slavering fangs flashed in the moonlight, their eyes blazed as no true
beast's eyes ever blazed.

Twenty: then the spears of the pirates had taken toll of the pack,
after all. Even as he thought this, Conan drew nock to ear, and at the
twang of the string a flame-eyed shadow bounded high and fell
writhing. The rest did not falter; on they came, and like a rain of
death among them fell the arrows of the Cimmerian, driven with all the
force and accuracy of steely thews backed by a hate hot as the slag-
heaps of hell.

In his berserk fury he did not miss; the air was filled with feathered
destruction. The havoc wrought among the onrushing pack was
breathtaking. Less than half of them reached the foot of the pyramid.
Others dropped upon the broad steps. Glaring down into the blazing
eyes, Conan knew these creatures were not beasts; it was not merely in
their unnatural size that he sensed a blasphemous difference. They
exuded an aura tangible as the black mist rising from a corpse-
littered swamp. By what godless alchemy these beings had been brought
into existence, he could not guess; but he knew he faced diabolism
blacker than the Well of Skelos.

Springing to his feet, he bent his bow powerfully and drove his last
shaft point blank at a great hairy shape that soared up at his throat.
The arrow was a flying beam of moonlight that flashed onward with but
a blur in its course, but the were-beast plunged convulsively in
midair and crashed headlong, shot through and through.

Then the rest were on him, in a nightmare rush of blazing eyes and
dripping fangs. His fiercely driven sword shore the first asunder;
then the desperate impact of the others bore him down. He crushed a
narrow skull with the pommel of his hilt, feeling the bone splinter
and blood and brains gush over his hand; then, dropping the sword,
useless at such deadly close quarters, he caught at the throats of the
two horrors which were ripping and tearing at him in silent fury. A
foul acrid scent almost stifled him, his own sweat blinded him. Only
his mail saved him from being ripped to ribbons in an instant. The
next, his naked right hand locked on a hairy throat and tore it open.
His left hand, missing the throat of the other beast, caught and broke
its foreleg. A short yelp, the only cry in that grim battle, and
hideously humanlike, burst from the maimed beast. At the sick horror
of that cry from a bestial throat, Conan involuntarily relaxed his
grip.

One, blood gushing from its torn jugular, lunged at him in a last
spasm of ferocity, and fastened its fangs on his throat--to fall back
dead, even as Conan felt the tearing agony of its grip.

The other, springing forward on three legs, was slashing at his belly
as a wolf slashes, actually rending the links of his mail. Flinging
aside the dying beast, Conan grappled the crippled horror and, with a
muscular effort that brought a groan from his blood-flecked lips, he
heaved upright, gripping the struggling, rearing fiend in his arms. An
instant he reeled off balance, its fetid breath hot on his nostrils;
its jaws snapping at his neck; then he hurled it from him, to crash
with bone-splintering force down the marble steps.

As he reeled on wide-braced legs, sobbing for breath, the jungle and
the moon swimming bloodily to his sight, the thrash of bat-wings was
loud in his ears. Stooping, he groped for his sword, and swaying
upright, braced his feet drunkenly and heaved the great blade above
his head with both hands, shaking the blood from his eyes as he sought
the air above him for his foe.

Instead of attack from the air, the pyramid staggered suddenly and
awfully beneath his feet. He heard a rumbling crackle and saw the tall
column above him wave like a wand. Stung to galvanized life, he
bounded far out; his feet hit a step, halfway down, which rocked
beneath him, and his next desperate leap carried him clear. But even
as his heels hit the earth, with a shattering crash like a breaking
mountain the pyramid crumpled, the column came thundering down in
bursting fragments. For a blind cataclysmic instant the sky seemed to
rain shards of marble. Then a rubble of shattered stone lay whitely
under the moon.

Conan stirred, throwing off the splinters that half covered him. A
glancing blow had knocked off his helmet and momentarily stunned him.
Across his legs lay a great piece of the column, pinning him down. He
was not sure that his legs were unbroken. His black locks were
plastered with sweat; blood trickled from the wounds in his throat and
hands. He hitched up on one arm, struggling with the debris that
prisoned him.

Then something swept down across the stars and struck the sward near
him. Twisting about, he saw it--the winged one!

With fearful speed it was rushing upon him, and in that instant Conan
had only a confused impression of a gigantic manlike shape hurtling
along on bowed and stunted legs; of huge hairy arms outstretching
misshapen black-nailed paws; of a malformed head, in whose broad face
the only features recognizable as such were a pair of blood-red eyes.
It was a thing neither man, beast, nor devil, imbued with
characteristics subhuman as well as characteristics superhuman.

But Conan had no time for conscious consecutive thought. He threw
himself toward his fallen sword, and his clawing fingers missed it by
inches. Desperately he grasped the shard which pinned his legs, and
the veins swelled in his temples as he strove to thrust it off him. It
gave slowly, but he knew that before he could free himself the monster
would be upon him, and he knew that those black-taloned hands were
death.

The headlong rush of the winged one had not wavered. It towered over
the prostrate Cimmerian like a black shadow, arms thrown wide--a
glimmer of white flashed between it and its victim.

In one mad instant she was there--a tense white shape, vibrant with
love fierce as a she-panther's. The dazed Cimmerian saw between him
and the onrushing death, her lithe figure, shimmering like ivory
beneath the moon; he saw the blaze of her dark eyes, the thick cluster
of her burnished hair; her bosom heaved, her red lips were parted, she
cried out sharp and ringing at the ring of steel as she thrust at the
winged monster's breast.

"Belit!" screamed Conan. She flashed a quick glance at him, and in her
dark eyes he saw her love flaming, a naked elemental thing of raw fire
and molten lava. Then she was gone, and the Cimmerian saw only the
winged fiend, which had staggered back in unwonted fear, arms lifted as
if to fend off attack. And he knew that Belit in truth lay on her pyre
on the Tigress's deck. In his ears rang her passionate cry: "Were I
still in death and you fighting for life I would come back from the
abyss--"

With a terrible cry he heaved upward hurling the stone aside. The
winged one came on again, and Conan sprang to meet it, his veins on
fire with madness. The thews started out like cords on his forearms as
he swung his great sword, pivoting on his heel with the force of the
sweeping arc. Just above the hips it caught the hurtling shape, and
the knotted legs fell one way, the torso another as the blade sheared
clear through its hairy body.

Conan stood in the moonlit silence, the dripping sword sagging in his
hand, staring down at the remnants of his enemy. The red eyes glared
up at him with awful life, then glazed and set; the great hands
knotted spasmodically and stiffened. And the oldest race in the world
was extinct.

Conan lifted his head, mechanically searching for the beast-things
that had been its slaves and executioners. None met his gaze. The
bodies he saw littering the moon-splashed grass were of men, not
beasts: hawk-faced, dark skinned men, naked, transfixed by arrows or
mangled by sword strokes. And they were crumbling into dust before his
eyes.

Why had not the winged master come to the aid of its slaves when he
struggled with them? Had it feared to come within reach of fangs that
might turn and rend it? Craft and caution had lurked in that misshapen
skull, but had not availed in the end.

Turning on his heel, the Cimmerian strode down the rotting wharfs and
stepped aboard the galley. A few strokes of his sword cut her adrift,
and he went to the sweep-head. The Tigress rocked slowly in the sullen
water, sliding out sluggishly toward the middle of the river, until
the broad current caught her. Conan leaned on the sweep, his somber
gaze fixed on the cloak-wrapped shape that lay in state on the pyre
the richness of which was equal to the ransom of an empress.



5 The Funeral Pyre

Now we are done with roaming, evermore;
  No more the oars, the windy harp's refrain;
Nor crimson pennon frights the dusky shore;
  Blue girdle of the world, receive again
Her whom thou gavest me.

                   The Song of Belit

Again dawn tinged the ocean. A redder glow lit the river mouth. Conan
of Cimmeria leaned on his great sword upon the white beach, watching
the Tigress swinging out on her last voyage. There was no light in his
eyes that contemplated the glassy swells. Out of the rolling blue
wastes all glory and wonder had gone. A fierce revulsion shook him as
he gazed at the green surges that deepened into purple hazes of
mystery.

Belit had been of the sea; she had lent it splendor and allure.
Without her it rolled a barren, dreary and desolate waste from pole to
pole. She belonged to the sea; to its everlasting mystery he returned
her. He could do no more. For himself, its glittering blue splendor
was more repellent than the leafy fronds which rustled and whispered
behind him of vast mysterious wilds beyond them, and into which he
must plunge.

No hand was at the sweep of the Tigress, no oars drove her through the
green water. But a clean tanging wind bellied her silken sail, and as
a wild swan cleaves the sky to her nest, she sped seaward, flames
mounting higher and higher from her deck to lick at the mast and
envelop the figure that lay lapped in scarlet on the shining pyre.

So passed the Queen of the Black Coast, and leaning on his red-stained
sword, Conan stood silently until the red glow had faded far out in
the blue hazes and dawn splashed its rose and gold over the ocean.



THE END




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