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Title: The Hour of the Dragon
Author: Robert E. Howard
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Title: The Hour of the Dragon
Author: Robert E. Howard



Chapter 1: O Sleeper, Awake!

THE LONG TAPERS flickered, sending the black shadows wavering along
the walls, and the velvet tapestries rippled. Yet there was no wind in
the chamber. Four men stood about the ebony table on which lay the
green sarcophagus that gleamed like carven jade. In the upraised right
hand of each man a curious black candle burned with a weird greenish
light. Outside was night and a lost wind moaning among the black
trees.

Inside the chamber was tense silence, and the wavering of the shadows,
while four pairs of eyes, burning with intensity, were fixed on the
long green case across which cryptic hieroglyphics writhed, as if lent
life and movement by the unsteady light. The man at the foot of the
sarcophagus leaned over it and moved his candle as if he were writing
with a pen, inscribing a mystic symbol in the air. Then he set down
the candle in its black gold stick at the foot of the case, and,
mumbling some formula unintelligible to his companions, he thrust a
broad white hand into his fur-trimmed robe. When he brought it forth
again it was as if he cupped in his palm a ball of living fire.

The other three drew in their breath sharply, and the dark, powerful
man who stood at the head of the sarcophagus whispered: "The Heart of
Ahriman!" The other lifted a quick hand for silence. Somewhere a dog
began howling dolefully, and a stealthy step padded outside the barred
and bolted door. But none looked aside from the mummy-case over which
the man in the ermine-trimmed robe was now moving the great flaming
jewel while he muttered an incantation that was old when Atlantis
sank. The glare of the gem dazzled their eyes, so that they could not
be sure of what they saw; but with a splintering crash, the carven lid
of the sarcophagus burst outward as if from some irresistible pressure
applied from within, and the four men, bending eagerly forward, saw
the occupant--a huddled, withered, wizened shape, with dried brown
limbs like dead wood showing through moldering bandages.

"Bring that thing back?" muttered the small dark man who stood on the
right, with a short, sardonic laugh. "It is ready to crumble at a
touch. We are fools--"

"Shhh!" It was an urgent hiss of command from the large man who held
the jewel. Perspiration stood upon his broad white forehead and his
eyes were dilated. He leaned forward, and, without touching the thing
with his hand, laid on the breast of the mummy the blazing jewel. Then
he drew back and watched with fierce intensity, his lips moving in
soundless invocation.

It was as if a globe of living fire nickered and burned on the dead,
withered bosom. And breath sucked in, hissing, through the clenched
teeth of the watchers. For as they watched, an awful transmutation
became apparent. The withered shape in the sarcophagus was expanding,
was growing, lengthening. The bandages burst and fell into brown dust.
The shriveled limbs swelled, straightened. Their dusky hue began to
fade.

"By Mitra!" whispered the tall, yellow-haired man on the left. "He was
not a Stygian. That part at least was true."

Again a trembling finger warned for silence. The hound outside was no
longer howling. He whimpered, as with an evil dream, and then that
sound, too, died away in silence, in which the yellow-haired man
plainly heard the straining of the heavy door, as if something outside
pushed powerfully upon it. He half turned, his hand at his sword, but
the man in the ermine robe hissed an urgent warning: "Stay! Do not
break the chain! And on your life do not go to the door!"

The yellow-haired man shrugged and turned back, and then he stopped
short, staring. In the jade sarcophagus lay a living man: a tall,
lusty man, naked, white of skin, and dark of hair and beard. He lay
motionless, his eyes wide open, and blank and unknowing as a newborn
babe's. On his breast the great jewel smoldered and sparkled.

The man in ermine reeled as if from some let-down of extreme tension.

"Ishtar!" he gasped. "It is Xaltotun!--and he lives! Valerius!
Tarascus! Amalric! Do you see? Do you see? You doubted me--but I have
not failed! We have been close to the open gates of hell this night,
and the shapes of darkness have gathered close about us---aye, they
followed him to the very door--but we have brought the great magician
back to life."

"And damned our souls to purgatories everlasting, I doubt not,"
muttered the small, dark man, Tarascus.

The yellow-haired man, Valerius, laughed harshly.

"What purgatory can be worse than life itself? So we are all damned
together from birth. Besides, who would not sell his miserable soul
for a throne?"

"There is no intelligence in his stare, Orastes," said the large man.

"He has long been dead," answered Orastes. "He is as one newly
awakened. His mind is empty after the long sleep--nay, he was dead,
not sleeping. We brought his spirit back over the voids and gulfs of
night and oblivion. I will speak to him."

He bent over the foot of the sarcophagus, and fixing his gaze on the
wide dark eyes of the man within, he said, slowly: "Awake, Xaltotun!"

The lips of the man moved mechanically. "Xaltotun!" he repeated in a
groping whisper.

"You are Xaltotun!" exclaimed Orastes, like a hypnotist driving home
his suggestions. "You are Xaltotun of Python, in Acheron."

A dim flame flickered in the dark eyes.

"I was Xaltotun," he whispered. "I am dead."

"You are Xaltotun!" cried Orastes. "You are not dead! You live!"

"I am Xaltotun," came the eery whisper. "But I am dead. In my house in
Khemi, in Stygia, there I died."

"And the priests who poisoned you mummified your body with their dark
arts, keeping all your organs intact!" exclaimed Orastes. "But now you
live again! The Heart of Ahriman has restored your life, drawn your
spirit back from space and eternity."

"The Heart of Ahriman!" The flame of remembrance grew stronger. "The
barbarians stole it from me!"

"He remembers," muttered Orastes. "Lift him from the case."

The others obeyed hesitantly, as if reluctant to touch the man they
had re-created, and they seemed not easier in their minds when they
felt firm muscular flesh, vibrant with blood and life, beneath their
fingers. But they lifted him upon the table, and Orastes clothed him
in a curious dark velvet robe, splashed with gold stars and crescent
moons, and fastened a cloth-of-gold fillet about his temples,
confining the black wavy locks that fell to his shoulders. He let them
do as they would, saying nothing, not even when they set him in a
carven thronelike chair with a high ebony back and wide silver arms,
and feet like golden claws. He sat there motionless, and slowly
intelligence grew in his dark eyes and made them deep and strange and
luminous. It was as if long-sunken witch-lights floated slowly up
through midnight pools of darkness.

Orastes cast a furtive glance at his companions, who stood staring in
morbid fascination at their strange guest. Their iron nerves had
withstood an ordeal that might have driven weaker men mad. He knew it
was with no weaklings that he conspired, but men whose courage was as
profound as their lawless ambitions and capacity for evil. He turned
his attention to the figure in the ebon-black chair. And this one
spoke at last.

"I remember," he said in a strong, resonant voice, speaking Nemedian
with a curious, archaic accent. "I am Xaltotun, who was high priest of
Set in Python, which was in Acheron. The Heart of Ahriman--I dreamed I
had found it again--where is it?"

Orastes placed it in his hand, and he drew breath deeply as he gazed
into the depths of the terrible jewel burning in his grasp.

"They stole it from me, long ago," he said. "The red heart of the
night it is, strong to save or to damn. It came from afar, and from
long ago. While I held it, none could stand before me. But it was
stolen from me, and Acheron fell, and I fled an exile into dark
Stygia. Much I remember, but much I have forgotten. I have been in a
far land, across misty voids and gulfs and unlit oceans. What is the
year?"

Orastes answered him. "It is the waning of the Year of the Lion, three
thousand years after the fall of Acheron."

"Three thousand years!" murmured the other. "So long? Who are you?"

"I am Orastes, once a priest of Mitra. This man is Amalric, baron of
Tor, in Nemedia; this other is Tarascus, younger brother of the king
of Nemedia; and this tall man is Valerius, rightful heir of the throne
of Aquilonia."

"Why have you given me life?" demanded Xaltotun. "What do you require
of me?"

The man was now fully alive and awake, his keen eyes reflecting the
working of an unclouded brain. There was no hesitation or uncertainty
in his manner. He came directly to the point, as one who knows that no
man gives something for nothing. Orastes met him with equal candor.

"We have opened the doors of hell this night to free your soul and
return it to your body because we need your aid. We wish to place
Tarascus on the throne of Nemedia, and to win for Valerius the crown
of Aquilonia. With your necromancy you can aid us."

Xaltotun's mind was devious and full of unexpected slants.

"You must be deep in the arts yourself, Orastes, to have been able to
restore my life. How is it that a priest of Mitra knows of the Heart
of Ahriman, and the incantations of Skelos?"

"I am no longer a priest of Mitra," answered Orastes. "I was cast
forth from my order because of my delving in black magic. But for
Amalric there I might have been burned as a magician.

"But that left me free to pursue my studies. I journeyed in Zamora, in
Vendhya, in Stygia, and among the haunted jungles of Khitai. I read
the iron-bound books of Skelos, and talked with unseen creatures in
deep wells, and faceless shapes in black reeking jungles. I obtained a
glimpse of your sarcophagus in the demon-haunted crypts below the
black giant-walled temple of Set in the hinterlands of Stygia, and I
learned of the arts that would bring back life to your shriveled
corpse. From moldering manuscripts I learned of the Heart of Ahriman.
Then for a year I sought its hiding-place, and at last I found it."

"Then why trouble to bring me back to life?" demanded Xaltotun, with
his piercing gaze fixed on the priests. "Why did you not employ the
Heart to further your own power?"

"Because no man today knows the secrets of the Heart," answered
Orastes. "Not even in legends live the arts by which to loose its full
powers. I knew it could restore life; of its deeper secrets I am
ignorant. I merely used it to bring you back to life. It is the use of
your knowledge we seek. As for the Heart, you alone know its awful
secrets."

Xaltotun shook his head, staring broodingly into the flaming depths.

"My necromantic knowledge is greater than the sum of all the knowledge
of other men," he said; "yet I do not know the full power of the
jewel. I did not invoke it in the old days; I guarded it lest it be
used against me. At last it was stolen, and in the hands of a
feathered shaman of the barbarians it defeated all my mighty sorcery.
Then it vanished, and I was poisoned by the jealous priests of Stygia
before I could learn where it was hidden."

"It was hidden in a cavern below the temple of Mitra, in Tarantia,"
said Orastes. "By devious ways I discovered this, after I had located
your remains in Set's subterranean temple in Stygia.

"Zamorian thieves, partly protected by spells I learned from sources
better left unmentioned, stole your mummy-case from under the very
talons of those which guarded it in the dark, and by camel-caravan and
galley and ox-wagon it came at last to this city.

"Those same thieves--or rather those of them who still lived after
their frightful quest--stole the Heart of Ahriman from its haunted
cavern below the temple of Mitra, and all the skill of men and the
spells of sorcerers nearly failed. One man of them lived long enough
to reach me and give the jewel into my hands, before he died slavering
and gibbering of what he had seen in that accursed crypt. The thieves
of Zamora are the most faithful of men to their trust. Even with my
conjurements, none but them could have stolen the Heart from where it
has lain in demon-guarded darkness since the fall of Acheron, three
thousand years ago."

Xaltotun lifted his lionlike head and stared far off into space, as
if plumbing the lost centuries.

"Three thousand years!" he muttered. "Set! Tell me what has chanced in
the world."

"The barbarians who overthrew Acheron set up new kingdoms," quoted
Orastes. "Where the empire had stretched now rose realms called
Aquilonia, and Nemedia, and Argos, from the tribes that founded them.
The older kingdoms of Ophir, Corinthia and western Koth, which had
been subject to the kings of Acheron, regained their independence with
the fall of the empire."

"And what of the people of Acheron?" demanded Orastes. "When I fled
into Stygia, Python was in ruins, and all the great, purple-towered
cities of Acheron fouled with blood and trampled by the sandals of the
barbarians."

"In the hills small groups of folk still boast descent from Acheron,"
answered Orastes. "For the rest, the tide of my barbarian ancestors
rolled over them and wiped them out. They--my ancestors--had suffered
much from the kings of Acheron."

A grim and terrible smile curled the Pythonian's lips.

"Aye! Many a barbarian, both man and woman, died screaming on the
altar under this hand. I have seen their heads piled to make a pyramid
in the great square in Python when the kings returned from the west
with their spoils and naked captives."

"Aye. And when the day of reckoning came, the sword was not spared. So
Acheron ceased to be, and purple-towered Python became a memory of
forgotten days. But the younger kingdoms rose on the imperial ruins
and waxed great. And now we have brought you back to aid us to rule
these kingdoms, which, if less strange and wonderful than Acheron of
old, are yet rich and powerful, well worth fighting for. Look!"
Orastes unrolled before the stranger a map drawn cunningly on vellum.

Xaltotun regarded it, and then shook his head, baffled.

"The very outlines of the land are changed. It is like some familiar
thing seen in a dream, fantastically distorted."

"Howbeit," answered Orastes, tracing with his forefinger, "here is
Belverus, the capital of Nemedia, in which we now are. Here run the
boundaries of the land of Nemedia. To the south and southeast are
Ophir and Corinthia, to the east Brythunia, to the west Aquilonia."

"It is the map of a world I do not know," said Xaltotun softly, but
Orastes did not miss the lurid fire of hate that flickered in his dark
eyes.

"It is a map you shall help us change," answered Orastes. "It is our
desire first to set Tarascus on the throne of Nemedia. We wish to
accomplish this without strife, and in such a way that no suspicion
will rest on Tarascus. We do not wish the land to be torn by civil
wars, but to reserve all our power for the conquest of Aquilonia.

"Should King Nimed and his sons die naturally, in a plague for
instance, Tarascus would mount the throne as the next heir, peacefully
and unopposed."

Xaltotun nodded, without replying, and Orastes continued.

"The other task will be more difficult. We cannot set Valerius on the
Aquilonian throne without a war, and that kingdom is a formidable foe.
Its people are a hardy, warlike race, toughened by continual wars
with the Picts, Zingarians and Cimmerians. For five hundred years
Aquilonia and Nemedia have intermittently waged war, and the ultimate
advantage has always lain with the Aquilonians.

"Their present king is the most renowned warrior among the western
nations. He is an outlander, an adventurer who seized the crown by
force during a time of civil strife, strangling King Namedides with
his own hands, upon the very throne. His name is Conan, and no man can
stand before him in battle.

"Valerius is now the rightful heir of the throne. He had been driven
into exile by his royal kinsman, Namedides, and has been away from his
native realm for years, but he is of the blood of the old dynasty, and
many of the barons would secretly hail the overthrow of Conan, who is
a nobody without royal or even noble blood. But the common people are
loyal to him, and the nobility of the outlying provinces. Yet if his
forces were overthrown in the battle that must first take place, and
Conan himself slain, I think it would not be difficult to put Valerius
on the throne. Indeed, with Conan slain, the only center of the
government would be gone. He is not part of a dynasty, but only a lone
adventurer."

"I wish that I might see this king," mused Xaltotun, glancing toward a
silvery mirror which formed one of the panels of the wall. This mirror
cast no reflection, but Xaltotun's expression showed that he
understood its purpose, and Orastes nodded with the pride a good
craftsman takes in the recognition of his accomplishments by a master
of his craft.

"I will try to show him to you," he said. And seating himself before
the mirror, he gazed hypnotically into its depths, where presently a
dim shadow began to take shape.

It was uncanny, but those watching knew it was no more than the
reflected image of Orastes' thought, embodied in that mirror as a
wizard's thoughts are embodied in a magic crystal. It floated hazily,
then leaped into startling clarity--a tall man, mightily shouldered and
deep of chest, with a massive corded neck and heavily muscled limbs.
He was clad in silk and velvet, with the royal lions of Aquilonia
worked in gold upon his rich jupon, and the crown of Aquilonia shone
on his square-cut black mane; but the great sword at his side seemed
more natural to him than the regal accouterments. His brow was low and
broad, his eyes a volcanic blue that smoldered as if with some inner
fire. His dark, scarred, almost sinister face was that of a fighting-
man, and his velvet garments could not conceal the hard, dangerous
lines of his limbs.

"That man is no Hyborian!" exclaimed Xaltotun.

"No; he is a Cimmerian, one of those wild tribesmen who dwell in the
gray hills of the north."

"I fought his ancestors of old," muttered Xaltotun. "Not even the
kings of Acheron could conquer them."

"They still remain a terror to the nations of the south," answered
Orastes. "He is a true son of that savage race, and has proved
himself, thus far, unconquerable."

Xaltotun did not reply; he sat staring down at the pool of living fire
that shimmered in his hand. Outside, the hound howled again, long and
shudderingly.

Chapter 2: The Black Wind Blows

THE YEAR OF THE DRAGON had birth in war and pestilence and unrest. The
black plague stalked through the streets of Belverus, striking down
the merchant in his stall, the serf in his kennel, the knight at his
banquet board. Before it the arts of the leeches were helpless. Men
said it had been sent from Hell as punishment for the sins of pride
and lust. It was swift and deadly as the stroke of an adder. The
victim's body turned purple and then black, and within a few minutes
he sank down dying, and the stench of his own putrefaction was in his
nostrils even before death wrenched his soul from his rotting body. A
hot, roaring wind blew incessantly from the south, and the crops
withered in the fields, the cattle sank and died in their tracks.

Men cried out on Mitra, and muttered against the king; for somehow,
throughout the kingdom, the word was whispered that the king was
secretly addicted to loathsome practises and foul debauches in the
seclusion of his nighted palace. And then in that palace death stalked
grinning on feet about which swirled the monstrous vapors of the
plague. In one night the king died with his three sons, and the drums
that thundered their dirge drowned the grim and ominous bells that
rang from the carts that lumbered through the streets gathering up the
rotting dead.

That night, just before dawn, the hot wind that had blown for weeks
ceased to rustle evilly through the silken window curtains. Out of the
north rose a great wind that roared among the towers, and there was
cataclysmic thunder, and blinding sheets of lightning, and driving
rain. But the dawn shone clean and green and clear; the scorched
ground veiled itself in grass, the thirsty crops sprang up anew, and
the plague was gone--its miasma swept clean out of the land by the
mighty wind.

Men said the gods were satisfied because the evil king and his spawn
were slain, and when his young brother Tarascus was crowned in the
great coronation hall, the populace cheered until the towers rocked,
acclaiming the monarch on whom the gods smiled.

Such a wave of enthusiasm and rejoicing as swept the land is
frequently the signal for a war of conquest. So no one was surprized
when it was announced that King Tarascus had declared the truce made
by the late king with their western neighbors void, and was gathering
his hosts to invade Aquilonia. His reason was candid; his motives,
loudly proclaimed, gilded his actions with something of the glamour of
a crusade. He espoused the cause of Valerius, "rightful heir to the
throne"; he came, he proclaimed, not as an enemy of Aquilonia, but as
a friend, to free the people from the tyranny of a usurper and a
foreigner.

If there were cynical smiles in certain quarters, and whispers
concerning the king's good friend Amalric, whose vast personal wealth
seemed to be flowing into the rather depleted royal treasury, they
were unheeded in the general wave of fervor and zeal of Tarascus'
popularity. If any shrewd individuals suspected that Amalric was the
real ruler of Nemedia, behind the scenes, they were careful not to
voice such heresy. And the war went forward with enthusiasm.

The king and his allies moved westward at the head of fifty thousand
men--knights in shining armor with their pennons streaming above their
helmets, pikemen in steel caps and brigandines, crossbowmen in
leather jerkins. They crossed the border, took a frontier castle and
burned three mountain villages, and then, in the valley of the Valkia,
ten miles west of the boundary line, they met the hosts of Conan, king
of Aquilonia--forty-five thousand knights, archers and men-at-arms, the
flower of Aquilonian strength and chivalry. Only the knights of
Poitain, under Prospero, had not yet arrived, for they had far to ride
up from the southwestern corner of the kingdom. Tarascus had struck
without warning. His invasion had come on the heels of his
proclamation, without formal declaration of war.

The two hosts confronted each other across a wide, shallow valley,
with rugged cliffs, and a shallow stream winding through masses of
reeds and willows down the middle of the vale. The camp followers of
both hosts came down to this stream for water, and shouted insults and
hurled stones across at one another. The last glints of the sun shone
on the golden banner of Nemedia with the scarlet dragon, unfurled in
the breeze above the pavilion of King Tarascus on an eminence near the
eastern cliffs. But the shadow of the western cliffs fell like a vast
purple pall across the tents and the army of Aquilonia, and upon the
black banner with its golden lion that floated above King Conan's
pavilion.

All night the fires flared the length of the valley, and the wind
brought the call of trumpets, the clangor of arms, and the sharp
challenges of the sentries who paced their horses along either edge of
the willow-grown stream.

It was in the darkness before dawn that King Conan stirred on his
couch, which was no more than a pile of silks and furs thrown on a
dais, and awakened. He started up, crying out sharply and clutching at
his sword. Pallantides, his commander, rushing in at the cry, saw his
king sitting upright, his hand on his hilt, and perspiration dripping
from his strangely pale face.

"Your Majesty!" exclaimed Pallantides. "Is aught amiss?"

"What of the camp?" demanded Conan. "Are the guards out?"

"Five hundred horsemen patrol the stream, Your Majesty," answered the
general. "The Nemedians have not offered to move against us in the
night. They wait for dawn, even as we."

"By Crom," muttered Conan. "I awoke with a feeling that doom was
creeping on me in the night."

He stared up at the great golden lamp which shed a soft glow over the
velvet hangings and carpets of the great tent. They were alone; not
even a slave or a page slept on the carpeted floor; but Conan's eyes
blazed as they were wont to blaze in the teeth of great peril, and the
sword quivered in his hand. Pallantides watched him uneasily. Conan
seemed to be listening.

"Listen!" hissed the king. "Did you hear it? A furtive step!"

"Seven knights guard your tent, Your Majesty," said Pallantides. "None
could approach it unchallenged."

"Not outside," growled Conan. "It seemed to sound inside the tent."

Pallantides cast a swift, startled look around. The velvet hangings
merged with shadows in the corners, but if there had been anyone in the
pavilion besides themselves, the general would have seen him. Again he
shook his head.

"There is no one here, sire. You sleep in the midst of your host."

"I have seen death strike a king in the midst of thousands," muttered
Conan. "Something that walks on invisible feet and is not seen--"

"Perhaps you were dreaming, Your Majesty," said Pallantides, somewhat
perturbed.

"So I was," grunted Conan. "A devilish dream it was, too. I trod again
all the long, weary roads I traveled on my way to the kingship."

He fell silent, and Pallantides stared at him unspeaking. The. king
was an enigma to the general, as to most of his civilized subjects.
Pallantides knew that Conan had walked many strange roads in his wild,
eventful life, and had been many things before a twist of Fate set him
on the throne of Aquilonia.

"I saw again in the battlefield whereon I was born," said Conan,
resting his chin moodily on a massive fist. "I saw myself in a
pantherskin loin-clout, throwing my spear at the mountain beasts.
I was a mercenary swordsman again, a hetman of the kozaki who dwell
along the Zaporoska River, a corsair looting the coasts of Kush, a
pirate of the Barachan Isles, a chief of the Himelian hillmen. All
these things I've been, and of all these things I dreamed; all the
shapes that have been I passed like an endless procession, and their
feet beat out a dirge in the sounding dust.

"But throughout my dreams moved strange, veiled figures and ghostly
shadows, and a far-away voice mocked me. And toward the last I seemed
to see myself lying on this dais in my tent, and a shape bent over me,
robed and hooded. I lay unable to move, and then the hood fell away
and a moldering skull grinned down at me. Then it was that I awoke."

"This is an evil dream, Your Majesty," said Pallantides, suppressing a
shudder. "But no more."

Conan shook his head, more in doubt than in denial. He came of a
barbaric race, and the superstitions and instincts of his heritage
lurked close beneath the surface of his consciousness.

"I've dreamed many evil dreams," he said, "and most of them were
meaningless. But by Crom, this was not like most dreams! I wish this
battle were fought and won, for I've had a grisly premonition ever
since King Nimed died in the black plague. Why did it cease when he
died?"

"Men say he sinned--"

"Men are fools, as always," grunted Conan. "If the plague struck all
who sinned, then by Crom there wouldn't be enough left to count the
living! Why should the gods--who the priests tell me are just--slay five
hundred peasants and merchants and nobles before they slew the king,
if the whole pestilence were aimed at him? Were the gods smiting
blindly, like swordsmen in a fog? By Mitra, if I aimed my strokes no
straighter, Aquilonia would have had a new king long ago.

"No! The black plague's no common pestilence. It lurks in Stygian
tombs, and is called forth into being only by wizards. I was a
swordsman in Prince Almuric's army that invaded Stygia, and of his
thirty thousand, fifteen thousand perished by Stygian arrows, and the
rest by the black plague that rolled on us like a wind out of the
south. I was the only man who lived."

"Yet only five hundred died in Nemedia," argued Pallantides.

"Whoever called it into being knew how to cut it short at will,"
answered Conan. "So I know there was something planned and diabolical
about it. Someone called it forth, someone banished it when the work
was completed--when Tarascus was safe on the throne and being hailed as
the deliverer of the people from the wrath of the gods. By Crom, I
sense a black, subtle brain behind all this. What of this stranger who
men say gives counsel to Tarascus?"

"He wears a veil," answered Pallantides; "they say he is a foreigner;
a stranger from Stygia."

"A stranger from Stygia!" repeated Conan scowling. "A stranger from
Hell, more like!--Ha! What is that?"

"The trumpets of the Nemedians!" exclaimed Pallantides. "And hark, how
our own blare upon their heels! Dawn is breaking, and the captains are
marshaling the hosts for the onset! Mitra be with them, for many will
not see the sun go down behind the crags."

"Send my squires to me!" exclaimed Conan, rising with alacrity and
casting off his velvet night-garment; he seemed to have forgotten his
forebodings at the prospect of action. "Go to the captains and see
that all is in readiness. I will be with you as soon as I don my
armor."

Many of Conan's ways were inexplicable to the civilized people he
ruled, and one of them was his insistence on sleeping alone in his
chamber or tent. Pallantides hastened from the pavilion, clanking in
the armor he had donned at midnight after a few hours' sleep. He cast
a swift glance over the camp, which was beginning to swarm with
activity, mail clinking and men moving about dimly in the uncertain
light, among the long lines of tents. Stars still glimmered palely in
the western sky, but long pink streamers stretched along the eastern
horizon, and against them the dragon banner of Nemedia flung out its
billowing silken folds.

Pallantides turned toward a smaller tent near by, where slept the
royal squires. These were tumbling out already, roused by the
trumpets. And as Pallantides called to them to hasten, he was frozen
speechless by a deep fierce shout and the impact of a heavy blow
inside the king's tent, followed by a heart-stopping crash of a
falling body. There sounded a low laugh that turned the general's
blood to ice.

Echoing the cry, Pallantides wheeled and rushed back into the
pavilion. He cried out again as he saw Conan's powerful frame
stretched out on the carpet. The king's great two-handed sword lay
near his hand, and a shattered tent-pole seemed to show where his
sword had fallen. Pallantides' sword was out, and he glared about the
tent, but nothing met his gaze. Save for the king and himself it was
empty, as it had been when he left it.

"Your Majesty!" Pallantides threw himself on his knees beside the
fallen giant.

Conan's eyes were open; they blazed up at him with full intelligence
and recognition. His lips writhed, but no sound came forth. He seemed
unable to move.

Voices sounded without. Pallantides rose swiftly and stepped to the
door. The royal squires and one of the knights who guarded the tent
stood there. "We heard a sound within," said the knight
apologetically. "Is all well with the king?"

Pallantides regarded him searchingly.

"None has entered or left the pavilion this night?"

"None save yourself, my lord," answered the knight, and Pallantides
could not doubt his honesty.

"The king stumbled and dropped his sword," said Pallantides briefly.
"Return to your post."

As the knight turned away, the general covertly motioned to the five
royal squires, and when they had followed him in, he drew the flap
closely. They turned pale at the sight of the king stretched upon the
carpet, but Pallantides' quick gesture checked their exclamations.

The general bent over him again, and again Conan made an effort to
speak. The veins in his temples and the cords in his neck swelled with
his efforts, and he lifted his head clear off the ground. Voice came
at last, mumbling and half intelligible.

"The thing--the thing in the corner!"

Pallantides lifted his head and looked fearfully about him. He saw the
pale faces of the squires in the lamplight, the velvet shadows that
lurked along the walls of the pavilion. That was all.

"There is nothing here, Your Majesty," he said.

"It was there, in the corner," muttered the king, tossing his lion-
maned head from side to side in his efforts to rise. "A man--at least
he looked like a man--wrapped in rags like a mummy's bandages, with a
moldering cloak drawn about him, and a hood. All I could see was his
eyes, as he crouched there in the shadows. I thought he was a shadow
himself, until I saw his eyes. They were like black jewels.

"I made at him and swung my sword, but I missed him clean--how, Crom
knows--and splintered that pole instead. He caught my wrist as I
staggered off balance, and his fingers burned like hot iron. All the
strength went out of me, and the floor rose and struck me like a club.
Then he was gone, and I was down, and--curse him!--I can't move! I'm
paralyzed!"

Pallantides lifted the giant's hand, and his flesh crawled. On the
king's wrist showed the blue marks of long, lean fingers. What hand
could grip so hard as to leave its print on that thick wrist?
Pallantides remembered that low laugh he had heard as he rushed into
the tent, and cold perspiration beaded his skin. It had not been Conan
who laughed.

"This is a thing diabolical!" whispered a trembling squire. "Men say
the children of darkness war for Tarascus!"

"Be silent!" ordered Pallantides sternly.

Outside, the dawn was dimming the stars. A light wind sprang up from
the peaks, and brought the fanfare of a thousand trumpets. At the
sound a convulsive shudder ran through the king's mighty form. Again
the veins in his temples knotted as he strove to break the invisible
shackles which crushed him down.

"Put my harness on me and tie me into my saddle," he whispered. "I'll
lead the charge yet!"

Pallantides shook his head, and a squire plucked his skirt.

"My lord, we are lost if the host learns the king has been smitten!
Only he could have led us to victory this day."

"Help me lift him on the dais," answered the general.

They obeyed, and laid the helpless giant on the furs, and spread a
silken cloak over him. Pallantides turned to the five squires and
searched their pale faces long before he spoke.

"Our lips must be sealed for ever as to what happens in this tent," he
said at last. "The kingdom of Aquilonia depends upon it. One of you go
and fetch me the officer Valannus, who is a captain of the Pellian
spearmen."

The squire indicated bowed and hastened from the tent, and Pallantides
stood staring down at the stricken king, while outside trumpets
blared, drums thundered, and the roar of the multitudes rose in the
growing dawn. Presently the squire returned with the officer
Pallantides had named--a tall man, broad and powerful, built much like
the king. Like him, also, he had thick black hair. But his eyes were
gray and he did not resemble Conan in his features.

"The king is stricken by a strange malady," said Pallantides briefly.
"A great honor is yours; you are to wear his armor and ride at the
head of the host today. None must know that it is not the king who
rides."

"It is an honor for which a man might gladly give up his life,"
stammered the captain, overcome by the suggestion. "Mitra grant that I
do not fail of this mighty trust!"

And while the fallen king stared with burning eyes that reflected the
bitter rage and humiliation that ate his heart, the squires stripped
Valannus of mail shirt, burganet and leg-pieces, and clad him in
Conan's armor of black plate mail, with the vizored salade, and the
dark plumes nodding over the wivern crest. Over all they put the
silken surcoat with the royal lion worked in gold upon the breast, and
they girt him with a broad gold-buckled belt which supported a jewel-
hilted broadsword in a cloth-of-gold scabbard. While they worked,
trumpets clamored outside, arms clanged, and across the river rose a
deep-throated roar as squadron after squadron swung into place.

Full-armed, Vallanus dropped to his knee and bent his plumes before
the figure that lay on the dais.

"Lord king, Mitra grant that I do not dishonor the harness I wear this
day!"

"Bring me Tarascus's head and I'll make you a baron!" In the stress of
his anguish Conan's veneer of civilization had fallen from him. His
eyes flamed, he ground his teeth in fury and blood-lust, as barbaric
as any tribesmen in the Cimmerian hills.

Chapter 3: The Cliffs Reel

THE AQUILONIAN HOST was drawn up, long serried lines of pikemen and
horsemen in gleaming steel, when a giant figure in black armor emerged
from the royal pavilion, and as he swung up into the saddle of the
black stallion held by four squires, a roar that shook the mountains
went up from the host. They shook their blades and thundered forth
their acclaim of their warrior king--knights in gold-chased armor,
pikemen in mail coats and basinets, archers in their leather jerkins,
with their longbows in their left hands.

The host on the opposite side of the valley was in motion, trotting
down the long gentle slope toward the river; their steel shone through
the mists of morning that swirled about their horses' feet.

The Aquilonian host moved leisurely to meet them. The measured tramp
of the armored horses made the ground tremble. Banners flung out long
silken folds in the morning wind; lances swayed like a bristling
forest, dipped and sank, their pennons fluttering about them.

Ten men-at-arms, grim, taciturn veterans who could hold their tongues,
guarded the royal pavilion. One squire stood in the tent, peering out
through a slit in the doorway. But for the handful in the secret, no
one else in the vast host knew that it was not Conan who rode on the
great stallion at the head of the army.

The Aquilonian host had assumed the customary formation:

The strongest part was the center, composed entirely of heavily armed
knights; the wings were made up of smaller bodies of horsemen, mounted
men-at-arms, mostly, supported by pikemen and archers. The latter were
Bossonians from the western marches, strongly built men of medium
stature, in leathern jackets and iron head-pieces.

The Nemedian army came on in similar formation and the two hosts moved
toward the river, the wings, in advance of the centers. In the center
of the Aquilonian host the great lion banner streamed its billowing
black folds over the steel-clad figure on the black stallion.

But on his dais in the royal pavilion Conan groaned in anguish of
spirit, and cursed with strange heathen oaths.

"The hosts move together," quoth the squire, watching from the door.
"Hear the trumpets peal! Ha! The rising sun strikes fire from lance 
heads and helmets until I am dazzled. It turns the river crimson--aye,
it will be truly crimson before this day is done!

"The foe have reached the river. Now arrows fly between the hosts like
stinging clouds that hide the sun. Ha! Well loosed, bowman! The
Bossonians have the better of it! Hark to them shout!"

Faintly in the ears of the king, above the din of trumpets and
clanging steel, came the deep fierce shout of the Bossonians as they
drew and loosed in perfect unison.

"Their archers seek to hold ours in play while their knights ride into
the river," said the squire. "The banks are not steep; they slope to
the water's edge. The knights come on, they crash through the willows.
By Mitra, the clothyard shafts find every crevice of their harness!
Horses and men go down, struggling and thrashing in the water. It is
not deep, nor is the current swift, but men are drowning there,
dragged under by their armor, and trampled by the frantic horses. Now
the knights of Aquilonia advance. They ride into the water and engage
the knights of Nemedia. The water swirls about their horses' bellies
and the clang of sword against sword is deafening."

"Crom!" burst in agony from Conan's lip. Life was coursing sluggishly
back into his veins, but still he could not lift his mighty frame from
the dais.

"The wings close in," said the squire. "Pikemen and swordsmen fight
hand to hand in the stream, and behind them the bowmen ply their
shafts.

"By Mitra, the Nemedian arbalesters are sorely harried, and the
Bossonians arch their arrows to drop amid the rear ranks. Their center
gains not a foot, and their wings are pushed back up from the stream
again."

"Crom, Ymir, and Mitra!" raged Conan. "Gods and devils, could I but
reach the fighting, if but to die at the first blow!"

Outside through the long hot day the battle stormed and thundered. The
valley shook to charge and countercharge, to the whistling of shafts,
and the crash of rending shields and splintering lances. But the hosts
of Aquilonia held fast. Once they were forced back from the bank, but
a countercharge, with the black banner flowing over the black
stallion, regained the lost ground. And like an iron rampart they held
the right bank of the stream, and at last the squire gave Conan the
news that the Nemedians were falling back from the river.

"Their wings are in confusion!" he cried. "Their knights reel back
from the sword play. But what is this? Your banner is in motion--the
center sweeps into the stream! By Mitra, Valannus is leading the host
across the river!"

"Fool!" groaned Conan. "It may be a trick. He should hold his
position; by dawn Prospero will be here with the Poitanian levies."

"The knights ride into a hail of arrows!" cried the squire. "But they
do not falter! They sweep on--they have crossed! They charge up the
slope! Pallantides has hurled the wings across the river to their
support! It is all he can do. The lion banner dips and staggers above
the melee.

"The knights of Nemedia make a stand. They are broken! They fall back!
Their left wing is in full flight, and our pikemen cut them down as
they run! I see Valannus, riding and smiting like a madman. He is
carried beyond himself by the fighting-lust. Men no longer look to
Pallantides. They follow Valannus, deeming him Conan, as he rides with
closed vizor.

"But look! There is method in his madness! He swings wide of the
Nemedian front, with five thousand knights, the pick of the army. The
main host of the Nemedians is in confusion--and look! Their flank is
protected by the cliffs, but there is a defile left unguarded! It is
like a great cleft in the wall that opens again behind the Nemedian
lines. By Mitra, Valannus sees and seizes the opportunity! He has
driven their wing before him, and he leads his knights toward that
defile. They swing wide of the main battle; they cut through a line of
spearmen, they charge into the defile!"

"An ambush!" cried Conan, striving to struggle upright.

"No!" shouted the squire exultantly. "The whole Nemedian host is in
full sight! They have forgotten the defile! They never expected to be
pushed back that far. Oh, fool, fool, Tarascus, to make such a
blunder! Ah, I see lances and pennons pouring from the farther mouth
of the defile, beyond the Nemedian lines. They will smite those ranks
from the rear and crumple them. Mitra, what is this?"

He staggered as the walls of the tent swayed drunkenly. Afar over the
thunder of the fight rose a deep bellowing roar, indescribably
ominous.

"The cliffs reel!" shrieked the squire. "Ah, gods, what is this? The
river foams out of its channel, and the peaks are crumbling!"

"The ground shakes and horses and riders in armor are overthrown! The
cliffs! The cliffs are falling!"

With his words there came a grinding rumble and a thunderous
concussion, and the ground trembled. Over the roar of the battle
sounded screams of mad terror.

"The cliffs have crumbled!" cried the livid squire. "They have
thundered down into the defile and crushed every living creature in
it! I saw the lion banner wave an instant amid the dust and falling
stones, and then it vanished! Ha, the Nemedians shout with triumph!
Well may they shout, for the fall of the cliffs has wiped out five
thousand of our bravest knights--hark!"

To Conan's ears came a vast torrent of sound, rising and rising in
frenzy: "The king is dead! The king is dead! Flee! Flee! The king is
dead!"

"Liars!" panted Conan. "Dogs! Knaves! Cowards! Oh, Crom, if I could
but stand--but crawl to the river with my sword in my teeth! How, boy,
do they flee?"

"Aye!" sobbed the squire. "They spur for the river; they are broken,
hurled on like spume before a storm. I see Pallantides striving to
stem the torrent--he is down, and the horses trample him! They rush
into the river, knights, bowmen, pikemen, all mixed and mingled in one
mad torrent of destruction. The Nemedians are on their heels, cutting
them down like corn."

"But they will make a stand on this side of the river!" cried the
king. With an effort that brought the sweat dripping from his temples,
he heaved himself up on his elbows.

"Nay!" cried the squire. "They cannot! They are broken! Routed! Oh
gods, that I should live to see this day!"

Then he remembered his duty and shouted to the men-at-arms who stood
stolidly watching the flight of their comrades. "Get a horse, swiftly,
and help me lift the king upon it. We dare not bide here."

But before they could do his bidding, the first drift of the storm was
upon them. Knights and spearmen and archers fled among the tents,
stumbling over ropes and baggage, and mingled with them were Nemedian
riders, who smote right and left at all alien figures. Tent ropes were
cut, fire sprang up in a hundred places, and the plundering had
already begun. The grim guardsmen about Conan's tent died where they
stood, smiting and thrusting, and over their mangled corpses beat the
hoofs of the conquerors.

But the squire had drawn the flap close, and in the confused madness
of the slaughter none realized that the pavilion held an occupant. So
the flight and the pursuit swept past, and roared away up the valley,
and the squire looked out presently to see a cluster of men
approaching the royal tent with evident purpose.

"Here comes the king of Nemedia with four companions and his squire,"
quoth he. "He will accept your surrender, my fair lord--"

"Surrender the devil's heart!" gritted the king.

He had forced himself up to a sitting posture. He swung his legs
painfully off the dais, and staggered upright, reeling drunkenly. The
squire ran to assist him, but Conan pushed him away.

"Give me that bow!" he gritted, indicating a longbow and quiver that
hung from a tent-pole.

"But Your Majesty!" cried the squire in great perturbation. "The
battle is lost! It were the part of majesty to yield with the dignity
becoming one of royal blood!"

"I have no royal blood," ground Conan. "I am a barbarian and the son
of a blacksmith."

Wrenching away the bow and an arrow, he staggered toward the opening of
the pavilion. So formidable was his appearance, naked but for short
leather breeks and sleeveless shirt, open to reveal his great, hairy
chest, with his huge limbs and his blue eyes blazing under his tangled
black mane, that the squire shrank back, more afraid of his king than
of the whole Nemedian host.

Reeling on wide-braced legs Conan drunkenly tore the door-flap open
and staggered out under the canopy. The king of Nemedia and his
companions had dismounted, and they halted short, staring in wonder at
the apparition confronting them.

"Here I am, you jackals!" roared the Cimmerian. "I am the king! Death
to you, dog-brothers!"

He jerked the arrow to its head and loosed, and the shaft feathered
itself in the breast of the knight who stood beside Tarascus. Conan
hurled the bow at the king of Nemedia.

"Curse my shaky hand! Come in and take me if you dare!"

Reeling backward on unsteady legs, he fell with his shoulders against
a tent-pole, and propped upright, he lifted his great sword with both
hands.

"By Mitra, it is the king!" swore Tarascus. He cast a swift look about
him, and laughed. "That other was a jackal in his harness! In, dogs,
and take his head!"

The three soldiers--men-at-arms wearing the emblem of the royal guards--
rushed at the king, and one felled the squire with a blow of a mace.
The other two fared less well. As the first rushed in, lifting his
sword, Conan met him with a sweeping stroke that severed mail-links
like cloth, and sheared the Nemedian's arm and shoulder clean from his
body. His corpse, pitching backward, fell across his companion's legs.
The man stumbled, and before he could recover, the great sword was
through him.

Conan wrenched out his steel with a racking gasp, and staggered back
against the tent-pole. His great limbs trembled, his chest heaved, and
sweat poured down his face and neck. But his eyes flamed with exultant
savagery and he panted: "Why do you stand afar off, dog of Belverus? I
can't reach you; come in and die!" Tarascus hesitated, glanced at the
remaining man-at-arms, and his squire, a gaunt, saturnine man in black
mail, and took a step forward. He was far inferior in size and
strength to the giant Cimmerian, but he was in full armor, and was
famed in all the western nations as a swordsman. But his squire caught
his arm.

"Nay, Your Majesty, do not throw away your life. I will summon archers
to shoot this barbarian, as we shoot lions."

Neither of them had noticed that a chariot had approached while the
fight was going on, and now came to a halt before them. But Conan saw,
looking over their shoulders, and a queer chill sensation crawled
along his spine. There was something vaguely unnatural about the
appearance of the black horses that drew the vehicle, but it was the
occupant of the chariot that arrested the king's attention.

He was a tall man, superbly built, clad in a long unadorned silk robe.
He wore a Shemitish head-dress, and its lower folds hid his features,
except for the dark, magnetic eyes. The hands that grasped the reins,
pulling the rearing horses back on their haunches, were white but
strong. Conan glared at the stranger, all his primitive instincts
roused. He sensed an aura of menace and power that exuded from this
veiled figure, a menace as definite as the windless waving of tall
grass that marks the path of the serpent.

"Hail, Xaltotun!" exclaimed Tarascus. "Here is the king of Aquilonia!
He did not die in the landslide as we thought."

"I know," answered the other, without bothering to say how he knew.
"What is your present intention?"

"I will summon the archers to slay him," answered the Nemedian. "As
long as he lives he will be dangerous to us."

"Yet even a dog has uses," answered Xaltotun. "Take him alive."

Conan laughed raspingly. "Come in and try!" he challenged. "But for my
treacherous legs I'd hew you out of that chariot like a woodman hewing
a tree. But you'll never take me alive, damn you!"

"He speaks the truth, I fear," said Tarascus. "The man is a barbarian,
with the senseless ferocity of a wounded tiger. Let me summon the
archers."

"Watch me and learn wisdom," advised Xaltotun.

His hand dipped into his robe and came out with something shining--a
glistening sphere. This he threw suddenly at Conan. The Cimmerian
contemptuously struck it aside with his sword--at the instant of
contact there was a sharp explosion, a flare of white, blinding flame,
and Conan pitched senseless to the ground.

"He is dead?" Tarascus' tone was more assertion than inquiry.

"No. He is but senseless. He will recover his senses in a few hours.
Bid your men bind his arms and legs and lift him into my chariot."

With a gesture Tarascus did so, and they heaved the senseless king
into the chariot, grunting with their burden. Xaltotun threw a velvet
cloak over his body, completely covering him from any who might peer
in. He gathered the reins in his hands.

"I'm for Belverus," he said. "Tell Amalric that I will be with him if
he needs me. But with Conan out of the way, and his army broken, lance
and sword should suffice for the rest of the conquest. Prospero cannot
be bringing more than ten thousand men to the field, and will
doubtless fall back to Tarantia when he hears the news of the battle.
Say nothing to Amalric or Valerius or anyone about our capture. Let
them think Conan died in the fall of the cliffs."

He looked at the man-at-arms for a long space, until the guardsman
moved restlessly, nervous under the scrutiny.

"What is that about your waist?" Xaltotun demanded.

"Why, my girdle, may it please you, my lord!" stuttered the amazed
guardsman.

"You lie!" Xaltotun's laugh was merciless as a sword edge. "It is a
poisonous serpent! What a fool you are, to wear a reptile about your
waist!"

With distended eyes the man looked down; and to his utter horror he
saw the buckle of his girdle rear up at him. It was a snake's head! He
saw the evil eyes and the dripping fangs, heard the hiss and felt the
loathsome contact of the thing about his body. He screamed hideously
and struck at it with his naked hand, felt its fangs flesh themselves
in that hand--and then he stiffened and fell heavily. Tarascus looked
down at him without expression. He saw only the leathern girdle and
the buckle, the pointed tongue of which was stuck in the guardsman's
palm. Xaltotun turned his hypnotic gaze on Tarascus' squire, and the
man turned ashen and began to tremble, but the king interposed: "Nay,
we can trust him."

The sorcerer tautened the reins and swung the horses around. "See that
this piece of work remains secret. If I am needed, let Altaro,
Orastes' servant, summon me as I have taught him. I will be in your
palace at Belverus."

Tarascus lifted his hand in salutation, but his expression was not
pleasant to see as he looked after the departing mesmerist.

"Why should he spare the Cimmerian?" whispered the frightened squire.

"That I am wondering myself," grunted Tarascus. Behind the rumbling
chariot the dull roar of battle and pursuit faded in the distance; the
setting sun rimmed the dins with scarlet flame, and the chariot moved
into the vast blue shadows floating up out of the east.

Chapter 4: "From What Hell Have You Crawled?"

OF THAT LONG ride in the chariot of Xaltotun, Conan knew nothing. He
lay like a dead man while the bronze wheels clashed over the stones of
mountain roads and swished through the deep grass of fertile valleys,
and finally dropping down from the rugged heights, rumbled
rhythmically along the broad white road that winds through the rich
meadowlands to the walls of Belverus.

Just before dawn some faint reviving of life touched him. He heard a
mumble of voices, the groan of ponderous hinges. Through a slit in the
cloak that covered him he saw, faintly in the lurid glare of torches,
the great black arch of a gateway, and the bearded faces of men-at-
arms, the torches striking fire from their spearheads and helmets.

"How went the battle, my fair lord?" spoke an eager voice, in the
Nemedian tongue.

"Well indeed," was the curt reply. "The king of Aquilonia lies slain
and his host is broken."

A babble of excited voices rose, drowned the next instant by the
whirling wheels of the chariot on the flags. Sparks flashed from under
the revolving rims as Xaltotun lashed his steeds through the arch. But
Conan heard one of the guardsmen mutter: "From beyond the border to
Belverus between sunset and dawn! And the horses scarcely sweating! By
Mitra, they--" Then silence drank the voices, and there was only the
clatter of hoofs and wheels along the shadowy street.

What he had heard registered itself on Conan's brain but suggested
nothing to him. He was like a mindless automaton that hears and sees,
but does not understand. Sights and sounds flowed meaninglessly about
him. He lapsed again into a deep lethargy, and was only dimly aware
when the chariot halted in a deep, high-walled court, and he was
lifted from it by many hands and borne up a winding stone stair, and
down a long dim corridor. Whispers, stealthy footsteps, unrelated
sounds surged or rustled about him, irrelevant and far away.

Yet his ultimate awakening was abrupt and crystal-clear. He possessed
full knowledge of the battle in the mountains and its sequences, and
he had a good idea of where he was.

He lay on a velvet couch, clad as he was the day before, but with his
limbs loaded with chains not even he could break. The room in which he
lay was furnished with somber magnificence, the walls covered with
black velvet tapestries, the floor with heavy purple carpets. There
was no sign of door or window, and one curiously carven gold lamp,
swinging from the fretted ceiling, shed a lurid light over all.

In that light the figure seated in a silver, thronelike chair before
him seemed unreal and fantastic, with an illusiveness of outline that
was heightened by a filmy silken robe. But the features were distinct--
unnaturally so in that uncertain light. It was almost as if a weird
nimbus played about the man's head, casting the bearded face into bold
relief, so that it was the only definite and distinct reality in that
mystic, ghostly chamber.

It was a magnificent face, with strongly chiseled features of
classical beauty. There was, indeed, something disquieting about the
calm tranquility of its aspect, a suggestion of more than human
knowledge, of a profound certitude beyond human assurance. Also an
uneasy sensation of familiarity twitched at the back of Oman's
consciousness. He had never seen this man's face before, he well knew;
yet those features reminded him of something or someone. It was like
encountering in the flesh some dream-image that had haunted one in
nightmares.

"Who are you?" demanded the king belligerently, struggling to a
sitting position in spite of his chains.

"Men call me Xaltotun," was the reply, in a strong, golden voice.

"What place is this?" the Cimmerian next demanded.

"A chamber in the palace of King Tarascus, in Belverus."

Conan was not surprized. Belverus, the capital, was at the same time
the largest Nemedian city so near the border.

"And where's Tarascus?"

"With the army."

"Well," growled Conan, "if you mean to murder me, why don't you do it
and get it over with?"

"I did not save you from the king's archers to murder you in
Belverus," answered Xaltotun.

"What the devil did you do to me?" demanded Conan.

"I blasted your consciousness," answered Xaltotun. "How, you would not
understand. Call it black magic, if you will."

Conan had already reached that conclusion, and was mulling over
something else.

"I think I understand why you spared my life," he rumbled. "Amalric
wants to keep me as a check on Valerius, in case the impossible
happens and he becomes king of Aquilonia. It's well known that the
baron of Tor is behind this move to seat Valerius on my throne. And if
I know Amalric, he doesn't intend that Valerius shall be anything more
than a figurehead, as Tarascus is now."

"Amalric knows nothing of your capture," answered Xaltotun. "Neither
does Valerius. Both think you died at Valkia."

Conan's eyes narrowed as he stared at the man in silence.

"I sensed a brain behind all this," he muttered, "but I thought it was
Amalric's. Are Amalric, Tarascus and Valerius all but puppets dancing
on your string? Who are you?"

"What does it matter? If I told you, you would not believe me. What if
I told you I might set you back on the throne of Aquilonia?"

Conan's eyes burned on him like a wolf.

"What's your price?"

"Obedience to me."

"Go to hell with your offer!" snarled Conan. "I'm no figurehead. I won
my crown with my sword. Besides, it's beyond your power to buy and
sell the throne of Aquilonia at your will. The kingdom's not
conquered; one battle doesn't decide a war."

"You war against more than swords," answered Xaltotun. "Was it a
mortal's sword that felled you in your tent before the fight? Nay, it
was a child of the dark, a waif of outer space, whose fingers were
afire with the frozen coldness of the black gulfs, which froze the
blood in your veins and the marrow of your thews. Coldness so cold it
burned your flesh like white-hot iron!"

"Was it chance that led the man who wore your harness to lead his
knights into the defile?--chance that brought the cliffs crashing down
upon them?"

Conan glared at him unspeaking, feeling a chill along his spine.
Wizards and sorcerers abounded in his barbaric mythology, and any fool
could tell that this was no common man. Conan sensed an inexplicable
something about him that set him apart--an alien aura of Time and
Space, a sense of tremendous and sinister antiquity. But his stubborn
spirit refused to flinch.

"The fall of the cliffs was chance," he muttered truculently. "The
charge into the defile was what any man would have done."

"Not so. You would not have led a charge into it. You would have
suspected a trap. You would never have crossed the river in the first
place, until you were sure the Nemedian rout was real. Hypnotic
suggestions would not have invaded your mind, even in the madness of
battle, to make you mad, and rush blindly into the trap laid for you,
as it did the lesser man who masqueraded as you."

"Then if this was all planned," Conan grunted skeptically, "all a plot
to trap my host, why did not the 'child of darkness' kill me in my
tent?"

"Because I wished to take you alive. It took no wizardry to predict
that Pallantides would send another man out in your harness. I wanted
you alive and unhurt. You may fit into my scheme of things. There is a
vital power about you greater than the craft and cunning of my allies.
You are a bad enemy, but might make a fine vassal."

Conan spat savagely at the word, and Xaltotun, ignoring his fury, took
a crystal globe from a near-by table and placed it before him. He did
not support it in any way, nor place it on anything, but it hung
motionless in midair, as solidly as if it rested on an iron pedestal.
Conan snorted at this bit of necromancy, but he was nevertheless
impressed.

"Would you know of what goes on in Aquilonia?" he asked.

Conan did not reply, but the sudden rigidity of his form betrayed his
interest.

Xaltotun stared into the cloudy depths, and spoke: "It is now the
evening of the day after the battle of Valkia. Last night the main
body of the army camped by Valkia, while squadrons of knights harried
the fleeing Aquilonians. At dawn the host broke camp and pushed
westward through the mountains. Prospero, with ten thousand
Poitanians, was miles from the battlefield when he met the fleeing
survivors in the early dawn. He had pushed on all night, hoping to
reach the field before the battle joined. Unable to rally the remnants
of the broken host, he fell back toward Tarantia. Riding hard,
replacing his wearied horses with steeds seized from the countryside,
he approaches Tarantia.

"I see his weary knights, their armor gray with dust, their pennons
drooping as they push their tired horses through the plain. I see,
also, the streets of Tarantia. The city is in turmoil. Somehow word
has reached the people of the defeat and the death of King Conan. The
mob is mad with fear, crying out that the king is dead, and there is
none to lead them against the Nemedians. Giant shadows rush on
Aquilonia from the east, and the sky is black with vultures."

Conan cursed deeply.

"What are these but words? The raggedest beggar in the street might
prophesy as much. If you say you saw all that in the glass ball, then
you're a liar as well as a knave, of which last there's no doubt!
Prospero will hold Tarantia, and the barons will rally to him. Count
Trocero of Poitain commands the kingdom in my absence, and he'll drive
these Nemedian dogs howling back to their kennels. What are fifty
thousand Nemedians? Aquilonia will swallow them up. They'll never see
Belverus again. It's not Aquilonia which was conquered at Valkia; it
was only Conan."

"Aquilonia is doomed," answered Xaltotun, unmoved. "Lance and ax and
torch shall conquer her; or if they fail, powers from the dark of ages
shall march against her. As the cliffs fell at Valkia, so shall walled
cities and mountains fall, if the need arise, and rivers roar from
their channels to drown whole provinces.

"Better if steel and bowstring prevail without further aid from the
arts, for the constant use of mighty spells sometimes sets forces in
motion that might rock the universe."

"From what hell have you crawled, you nighted dog?" muttered Conan,
staring at the man. The Cimmerian involuntarily shivered; he sensed
something incredibly ancient, incredibly evil.

Xaltotun lifted his head, as if listening to whispers across the void.
He seemed to have forgotten his prisoner. Then he shook his head
impatiently, and glanced impersonally at Conan.

"What? Why, if I told you, you would not believe me. But I am wearied
of conversation with you; it is less fatiguing to destroy a walled
city than it is to frame my thoughts in words a brainless barbarian
can understand."

"If my hands were free," opined Conan, "I'd soon make a brainless
corpse out of you."

"I do not doubt it, if I were fool enough to give you the
opportunity," answered Xaltotun, clapping his hands. His manner
had changed; there was impatience in his tone, and a certain
nervousness in his manner, though Conan did not think this attitude
was in any way connected with himself.

"Consider what I have told you, barbarian," said Xaltotun.

"You will have plenty of leisure. I have not yet decided what I shall
do with you. It depends on circumstances yet unborn. But let this be
impressed upon you: that if I decide to use you in my game, it will be
better to submit without resistance than to suffer my wrath."  Conan
spat a curse at him, just as hangings that masked a door swung apart
and four giant negroes entered. Each was clad only in a silken breech-
clout supported by a girdle, from which hung a great key.

Xaltotun gestured impatiently toward the king and turned away, as if
dismissing the matter entirely from his mind. His fingers twitched
queerly. From a carven green jade box he took a handful of shimmering
black dust, and placed it in a brazier which stood on a golden tripod
at his elbow. The crystal globe, which he seemed to have forgotten,
fell suddenly to the floor, as if its invisible support had been
removed.

Then the blacks had lifted Conan--for so loaded with chains was he that
he could not walk--and carried him from the chamber. A glance back,
before the heavy, gold-bound teak door was closed, showed him Xaltotun
leaning back in his thronelike chair, his arms folded, while a thin
wisp of smoke curled up from the brazier. Oman's scalp prickled. In
Stygia, that ancient and evil kingdom that lay far to the south, he
had seen such black dust before. It was the pollen of the black lotus,
which creates deathlike sleep and monstrous dreams; and he knew that
only the grisly wizards of the Black Ring, which is the nadir of evil,
voluntarily seek the scarlet nightmares of the black lotus, to revive
their necromantic powers.

The Black Ring was a fable and a lie to most folk of the western
world, but Conan knew of its ghastly reality, and its grim votaries
who practise their abominable sorceries amid the black vaults of
Stygia and the nighted domes of accursed Sabatea. He glanced back at
the cryptic, gold-bound door, shuddering at what it hid.

Whether it was day or night the king could not tell. The palace of
King Tarascus seemed a shadowy, nighted place, that shunned natural
illumination. The spirit of darkness and shadow hovered over it, and
that spirit, Conan felt, was embodied in the stranger Xaltotun. The
negroes carried the king along a winding corridor so dimly lighted
that they moved through it like black ghosts bearing a dead man, and
down a stone stair that wound endlessly. A torch in the hand of one
cast the great deformed shadows streaming along the wall; it was like
the descent into hell of a corpse borne by dusky demons.

At last they reached the foot of the stair, and then they traversed a
long straight corridor, with a blank wall on one hand pierced by an
occasional arched doorway with a stair leading up behind it, and on
the other hand another wall showing heavy barred doors at regular
intervals of a few feet.

Halting before one of these doors, one of the blacks produced the key
that hung at his girdle, and turned it in the lock. Then, pushing open
the grille, they entered with their captive. They were in a small
dungeon with heavy stone walls, floor and ceiling, and in the opposite
wall there was another grilled door. What lay beyond that door Conan
could not tell, but he did not believe it was another corridor. The
glimmering light of the torch, flickering through the bars, hinted at
shadowy spaciousness and echoing depths.

In one corner of the dungeon, near the door through which they had
entered, a cluster of rusty chains hung from a great iron ring set in
the stone. In these chains a skeleton dangled. Conan glared at it with
some curiosity, noticing the state of the bare bones, most of which
were splintered and broken; the skull which had fallen from the
vertebrae, was crushed as if by some savage blow of tremendous force.

Stolidly one of the blacks, not the one who had opened the door,
removed the chains from the ring, using his key on the massive lock,
and dragged the mass of rusty metal and shattered bones over to one
side. Then they fastened Conan's chains to that ring, and the third
black turned his key in the lock of the farther door, grunting when he
had assured himself that it was properly fastened.

Then they regarded Conan cryptically, slit-eyed ebony giants, the
torch striking highlights from their glossy skin.

He who held the key to the nearer door was moved to remark,
gutturally: "This your palace now, white dog-king! None but master and
we know. All palace sleep. We keep secret. You live and die here,
maybe. Like him!" He contemptuously kicked the shattered skull and
sent it clattering across the stone floor.

Conan did not deign to reply to the taunt and the black, galled
perhaps by his prisoner's silence, muttered a curse, stooped and spat
full in the king's face. It was an unfortunate move for the black.
Conan was seated on the floor, the chains about his waist; ankles and
wrists locked to the ring in the wall. He could neither rise, nor move
more than a yard out from the wall. But there was considerable slack
in the chains that shackled his wrists, and before the bullet-shaped
head could be withdrawn out of reach, the king gathered this slack in
his mighty hand and smote the black on the head. The man fell like a
butchered ox and his comrades stared to see him lying with his scalp
laid open, and blood oozing from his nose and ears.

But they attempted no reprisal, nor did they accept Conan's urgent
invitation to approach within reach of the bloody chain in his hand.
Presently, grunting in their apelike speech, they lifted the
senseless black and bore him out like a sack of wheat, arms and legs
dangling. They used his key to lock the door behind them, but did not
remove it from the gold chain that fastened it to his girdle. They
took the torch with them, and as they moved up the corridor the
darkness slunk behind them like an animate thing. Their soft padding
footsteps died away, with the glimmer of their torch, and darkness and
silence remained unchallenged.

Chapter 5: The Haunter of the Pits

CONAN LAY STILL, enduring the weight of his chains and the despair of
his position with the stoicism of the wilds that had bred him. He did
not move, because the jangle of his chains, when he shifted his body,
sounded startlingly loud in the darkness and stillness, and it was his
instinct, born of a thousand wilderness-bred ancestors, not to betray
his position in his helplessness. This did not result from a logical
reasoning process; he did not lie quiet because he reasoned that the
darkness hid lurking dangers that might discover him in his
helplessness. Xaltotun had assured him that he was not to be harmed,
and Conan believed that it was in the man's interest to preserve him,
at least for the time being. But the instincts of the wild were there,
that had caused him in his childhood to lie hidden and silent while
wild beasts prowled about his covert.

Even his keen eyes could not pierce the solid darkness. Yet after a
while, after a period of time he had no way of estimating, a faint
glow became apparent, a sort of slanting gray beam, by which Conan
could see, vaguely, the bars of the door at his elbow, and even make
out the skeleton of the other grille. This puzzled him, until at last
he realized the explanation. He was far below ground, in the pits
below the palace; yet for some reason a shaft had been constructed
from somewhere above. Outside, the moon had risen to a point where its
light slanted dimly down the shaft. He reflected that in this manner
he could tell the passing of the days and nights. Perhaps the sun,
too, would shine down that shaft, though on the other hand it might be
closed by day. Perhaps it was a subtle method of torture, allowing a
prisoner but a glimpse of daylight or moonlight.

His gaze fell on the broken bones in the farther corner, glimmering
dimly. He did not tax his brain with futile speculation as to who the
wretch had been and for what reason he had been doomed, but he
wondered at the shattered condition of the bones. They had not been
broken on a rack. Then, as he looked, another unsavory detail made
itself evident. The shin-bones were split lengthwise, and there was
but one explanation; they had been broken in that manner in order to
obtain the marrow. Yet what creature but man breaks bones for their
marrow? Perhaps those remnants were mute evidence of a horrible,
cannibalistic feast, of some wretch driven to madness by starvation.
Conan wondered if his own bones would be found at some future date,
hanging in their rusty chains. He fought down the unreasoning panic of
a trapped wolf.

The Cimmerian did not curse, scream, weep or rave as a civilized man
might have done. But the pain and turmoil in his bosom were none the
less fierce. His great limbs quivered with the intensity of his
emotions. Somewhere, far to the westward, the Nemedian host was
slashing and burning its way through the heart of his kingdom. The
small host of Poitanians could not stand before them. Prospero might
be able to hold Tarantia for weeks, or months; but eventually, if not
relieved, he must surrender to greater numbers. Surely the barons
would rally to him against the invaders. But in the meanwhile he,
Conan, must lie helpless in a darkened cell, while others led his
spears and fought for his kingdom. The king ground his powerful teeth
in red rage.

Then he stiffened as outside the farther door he heard a stealthy
step. Straining his eyes he made out a bent, indistinct figure outside
the grille. There was a rasp of metal against metal, and he heard the
clink of tumblers, as if a key had been turned in the lock. Then the
figure moved silently out of his range of vision. Some guard, he
supposed, trying the lock. After a while he heard the sound repeated
faintly somewhere farther on, and that was followed by the soft
opening of a door, and then a swift scurry of softly shod feet
retreated in the distance. Then silence fell again.

Conan listened for what seemed a long time, but which could not have
been, for the moon still shone down the hidden shaft, but he heard no
further sound. He shifted his position at last, and his chains
clanked. Then he heard another, lighter footfall--a soft step outside
the nearer door, the door though which he had entered the cell. An
instant later a slender figure was etched dimly in the gray light.

"King Conan!" a soft voice intoned urgently. "Oh, my lord, are you
there?"

"Where else?" he answered guardedly, twisting his head about to stare
at the apparition.

It was a girl who stood grasping the bars with her slender fingers.
The dim glow behind her outlined her supple figure through the wisp of
silk twisted about her loins, and shone vaguely on jeweled breast-
plates. Her dark eyes gleamed in the shadows, her white limbs
glistened softly, like alabaster. Her hair was a mass of dark foam, at
the burnished luster of which the dim light only hinted.

"The keys to your shackles and to the farther door!" she whispered,
and a slim white hand came through the bars and dropped three objects
with a clink to the flags beside him.

"What game is this?" he demanded. "You speak in the Nemedian tongue,
and I have no friends in Nemedia. What deviltry is your master up to
now? Has he sent you here to mock me?"

"It is no mockery!" The girl was trembling violently. Her bracelets
and breast-plates clinked against the bars she grasped. "I swear by
Mitra! I stole the keys from the black jailers. They are the keepers
of the pits, and each bears a key which will open only one set of
locks. I made them drunk. The one whose head you broke was carried
away to a leech, and I could not get his key. But the others I stole.
Oh, please do not loiter! Beyond these dungeons lie the pits which are
the doors to Hell."

Somewhat impressed, Conan tried the keys dubiously, expecting to meet
only failure and a burst of mocking laughter. But he was galvanized to
discover that one, indeed, loosed him of his shackles, fitting not
only the lock that held them to the ring, but the locks on his limbs
as well. A few seconds later he stood upright, exulting fiercely in
his comparative freedom. A quick stride carried him to the grille, and
his fingers closed about a bar and the slender wrist that was pressed
against it, imprisoning the owner, who lifted her face bravely to his
fierce gaze.

"Who are you, girl?" he demanded. "Why do you do this?"

"I am only Zenobia," she murmured, with a catch of breathlessness, as
if in fright; "only a girl of the king's seraglio."

"Unless this is some cursed trick," muttered Conan, "I cannot see why
you bring me these keys."

She bowed her dark head, and then lifted it and looked full into his
suspicious eyes. Tears sparkled like jewels on her long dark lashes.

"I am only a girl of the king's seraglio," she said, with a certain
humility. "He has never glanced at me, and probably never will. I am
less than one of the dogs that gnaw the bones in his banquet hall.

"But I am no painted toy; I am of flesh and blood. I breathe, hate,
fear, rejoice and love. And I have loved you. King Conan, ever since I
saw you riding at the head of your knights along the streets of
Belverus when you visited King Nimed, years ago. My heart tugged at
its strings to leap from my bosom and fall in the dust of the street
under your horse's hoofs."

Color flooded her countenance as she spoke, but her dark eyes did not
waver. Conan did not at once reply; wild and passionate and untamed he
was, yet any but the most brutish of men must be touched with a
certain awe or wonder at the baring of a woman's naked soul.

She bent her head then, and pressed her red lips to the fingers that
imprisoned her slim wrist. Then she flung up her head as if in sudden
recollection of their position, and terror flared in her dark eyes.
"Haste!" she whispered urgently. "It is past midnight. You must be
gone."

"But won't they skin you alive for stealing these keys?"

"They'll never know. If the black men remember in the morning who gave
them the wine, they will not dare admit the keys were stolen from them
while they were drunk. The key that I could not obtain is the one that
unlocks this door. You must make your way to freedom through the pits.
What awful perils lurk beyond that door I cannot even guess. But
greater danger lurks for you if you remain in this cell.

"King Tarascus has returned--"

"What? Tarascus?"

"Aye! He has returned, in great secrecy, and not long ago he descended
into the pits and then came out again, pale and shaking, like a man
who had dared a great hazard. I heard him whisper to his squire,
Arideus, that despite Xaltotun you should die."

"What of Xaltotun?" murmured Conan. He felt her shudder.

"Do not speak of him!" she whispered. "Demons are often summoned by
the sound of their names. The slaves say that he lies in his chamber,
behind a bolted door, dreaming the dreams of the black lotus. I
believe that even Tarascus secretly fears him, or he would slay you
openly. But he has been in the pits tonight, and what he did here,
only Mitra knows."

"I wonder if that could have been Tarascus who fumbled at my cell door
awhile ago?" muttered Conan.

"Here is a dagger!" she whispered, pressing something through the
bars. His eager fingers closed on an object familiar to their touch.
"Go quickly through yonder door, turn to the left and make your way
along the cells until you come to a stone stair. On your life do not
stray from the line of the cells! Climb the stair and open the door at
the top; one of the keys will fit it. If it be the will of Mitra, I
will await you there."  Then she was gone, with a patter of light
slippered feet.

Conan shrugged his shoulders, and turned toward the farther grille.
This might be some diabolical trap planned by Tarascus, but plunging
headlong into a snare was less abhorrent to Conan's temperament than
sitting meekly to await his doom. He inspected the weapon the girl had
given him, and smiled grimly. Whatever else she might be, she was
proven by that dagger to be a person of practical intelligence. It was
no slender stiletto, selected because of a jeweled hilt or gold guard,
fitted only for dainty murder in milady's boudoir; it was a forthright
poniard, a warrior's weapon, broad-bladed, fifteen inches in length,
tapering to a diamond-sharp point.

He grunted with satisfaction. The feel of the hilt cheered him and
gave him a glow of confidence. Whatever webs of conspiracy were drawn
about him, whatever trickery and treachery ensnared him, this knife
was real. The great muscles of his right arm swelled in anticipation
of murderous blows.

He tried the farther door, fumbling with the keys as he did so. It was
not locked. Yet he remembered the black man locking it. That furtive,
bent figure, then, had been no jailer seeing that the bolts were in
place. He had unlocked the door, instead. There was a sinister
suggestion about that unlocked door. But Conan did not hesitate. He
pushed open the grille and stepped from the dungeon into the outer
darkness.

As he had thought, the door did not open into another corridor. The
flagged floor stretched away under his feet, and the line of cells ran
away to right and left behind him, but he could not make out the other
limits of the place into which he had come. He could see neither the
roof nor any other wall. The moonlight filtered into that vastness
only through the grilles of the cells, and was almost lost in the
darkness. Less keen eyes than his could scarcely have discerned the
dim gray patches that floated before each cell door.

Turning to the left, he moved swiftly and noiselessly along the line
of dungeons, his bare feet making no sound on the flags. He glanced
briefly into each dungeon as he passed it. They were all empty, but
locked. In some he caught the glimmer of naked white bones. These pits
were a relic of a grimmer age, constructed long ago when Belverus was
a fortress rather than a city. But evidently their more recent use had
been more extensive than the world guessed.

Ahead of him, presently, he saw the dim outline of a stair sloping
sharply upward, and knew it must be the stair he sought. Then he
whirled suddenly, crouching in the deep shadows at its foot.

Somewhere behind him something was moving--something bulky and stealthy
that padded on feet which were not human feet. He was looking down the
long row of cells, before each one of which lay a square of dim gray
light that was little more than a patch of less dense darkness. But he
saw something moving along these squares. What it was he could not
tell, but it was heavy and huge, and yet it moved with more than human
ease and swiftness. He glimpsed it as it moved across the squares of
gray, then lost it as it merged in the expanses of shadow between. It
was uncanny, in its stealthy advance, appearing and disappearing like
a blur of the vision.

He heard the bars rattle as it tried each door in turn. Now it had
reached the cell he had so recently quitted, and the door swung open
as it tugged. He saw a great bulky shape limned faintly and briefly in
the gray doorway, and then the thing had vanished into the dungeon.
Sweat beaded Conan's face and hands. Now he knew why Tarascus had come
so subtly to his door, and later had fled so swiftly. The king had
unlocked his door, and, somewhere in these hellish pits, had opened a
cell or cage that held some grim monstrosity.

Now the thing was emerging from the cell and was again advancing up
the corridor, its misshapen head close to the ground. It paid no more
heed to the locked doors. It was smelling out his trail. He saw it
more plainly now; the gray light limned a giant anthropomorphic body,
but vaster of bulk and girth than any man. It went on two legs, though
it stooped forward, and it was grayish and shaggy, its thick coat shot
with silver. Its head was a grisly travesty of the human, its long
arms hung nearly to the ground.

Conan knew it at last--understood the meaning of those crushed and
broken bones in the dungeon, and recognized the haunter of the pits.
It was a gray ape, one of the grisly man-eaters from the forests that
wave on the mountainous eastern shores of the Sea of Vilayet. Half
mythical and altogether horrible, these apes were the goblins of
Hyborian legendry, and were in reality ogres of the natural world,
cannibals and murderers of the nighted forests.

He knew it scented his presence, for it was coming swiftly now,
rolling its barrel-like body rapidly along on its short, mighty, bowed
legs. He cast a quick glance up the long stair, but knew that the
thing would be on his back before he could mount to the distant door.
He chose to meet it face to face.

Conan stepped out into the nearest square of moonlight, so as to have
all the advantage of illumination that he could; for the beast, he
knew, could see better than himself in the dark. Instantly the brute
saw him; its great yellow tusks gleamed in the shadows, but it made no
sound. Creatures of night and the silence, the gray apes of Vilayet
were voiceless. But in its dim, hideous features, which were a bestial
travesty of a human face, showed ghastly exultation.

Conan stood poised, watching the oncoming monster without a quiver. He
knew he must stake his life on one thrust; there would be no chance
for another; nor would there be time to strike and spring away. The
first blow must kill, and kill instantly, if he hoped to survive that
awful grapple. He swept his gaze over the short, squat throat, the
hairy swagbelly, and the mighty breast, swelling in giant arches like
twin shields. It must be the heart; better to risk the blade being
deflected by the heavy ribs than to strike in where a stroke was not
instantly fatal. With full realization of the odds, Conan matched his
speed of eye and hand and his muscular power against the brute might
and ferocity of the man-eater. He must meet the brute breast to
breast, strike a deathblow, and then trust to the ruggedness of his
frame to survive the instant of manhandling that was certain to be
his.

As the ape came rolling in on him, swinging wide its terrible arms, he
plunged in between them and struck with all his desperate power. He
felt the blade sink to the hilt in the hairy breast, and instantly,
releasing it, he ducked his head and bunched his whole body into one
compact mass of knotted muscles, and as he did so he grasped the
closing arms and drove his knee fiercely into the monster's belly,
bracing himself against that crushing grapple.

For one dizzy instant he felt as if he were being dismembered in the
grip of an earthquake; then suddenly he was free, sprawling on the
floor, and the monster was gasping out its life beneath him, its red
eyes turned upward, the hilt of the poniard quivering in its breast.
His desperate stab had gone home.

Conan was panting as if after long conflict, trembling in every limb.
Some of his joints felt as if they had been dislocated, and blood
dripped from scratches on his side where the monster's talons had
ripped; his muscles and tendons had been savagely wrenched and
twisted. If the beast had lived a second longer, it would surely have
dismembered him. But the Cimmerian's mighty strength had resisted, for
the fleeting instant it had endured, the dying convulsion of the ape
that would have torn a lesser man limb from limb.

Chapter 6: The Thrust of a Knife

CONAN STOOPED AND tore the knife from the monster's breast. Then he
went swiftly up the stair. What other shapes of fear the darkness held
he could not guess, but he had no desire to encounter any more. This
touch-and-go sort of battling was too strenuous even for the giant
Cimmerian. The moonlight was fading from the floor, the darkness
closing in, and something like panic pursued him up the stair. He
breathed a gusty sigh of relief when he reached the head, and felt the
third key turn in the lock. He opened the door slightly, and craned
his neck to peer through, half expecting an attack from some human or
bestial enemy.

He looked into a bare stone corridor, dimly lighted, and a slender,
supple figure stood before the door.

"Your Majesty!" It was a low, vibrant cry, half in relief and half in
fear. The girl sprang to his side, then hesitated as if abashed.

"You bleed," she said. "You have been hurt!"

He brushed aside the implication with an impatient hand.

"Scratches that wouldn't hurt a baby. Your skewer came in handy,
though. But for it Tarascus's monkey would be cracking my shin bones
for the marrow right now. But what now?"

"Follow me," she whispered. "I will lead you outside the city wall. I
have a horse concealed there."

She turned to lead the way down the corridor, but he laid a heavy hand
on her naked shoulder.

"Walk beside me," he instructed her softly, passing his massive arm
about her lithe waist. "You've played me fair so far, and I'm inclined
to believe in you; but I've lived this long only because I've trusted
no one too far, man or woman. So! Now if you play me false you won't
live to enjoy the jest."

She did not flinch at sight of the reddened poniard or the contact of
his hard muscles about her supple body.

"Cut me down without mercy if I play you false," she answered. "The
very feel of your arm about me, even in menace, is as the fulfillment
of a dream."

The vaulted corridor ended at a door, which she opened. Outside lay
another black man, a giant in turban and silk loincloth, with a curved
sword lying on the flags near his hand. He did not move.

"I drugged his wine," she whispered, swerving to avoid the recumbent
figure. "He is the last, and outer, guard of the pits. None ever
escaped from them before, and none has ever wished to seek them; so
only these black men guard them. Only these of all the servants knew
it was King Conan that Xaltotun brought a prisoner in his chariot. I
was watching, sleepless, from an upper casement that opened into the
court, while the other girls slept; for I knew that a battle was being
fought, or had been fought, in the west, and I feared for you.

"I saw the blacks carry you up the stair, and I recognized you in the
torchlight. I slipped into this wing of the palace tonight, in time to
see them carry you to the pits. I had not dared come here before
nightfall. You must have lain in drugged senselessness all day in
Xaltotun's chamber.

"Oh, let us be wary! Strange things are afoot in the palace tonight.
The slaves said that Xaltotun slept as he often sleeps, drugged by the
lotus of Stygia, but Tarascus is in the palace. He entered secretly,
through the postern, wrapped in his cloak, which was dusty as with long
travel, and attended only by his squire, the lean silent Arideus. I
cannot understand, but I am afraid."

They came out at the foot of a narrow, winding stair, and mounting it,
passed through a narrow panel which she slid aside. When they had
passed through, she slipped it back in place, and it became merely a
portion of the ornate wall. They were in a more spacious corridor,
carpeted and tapestried, over which hanging lamps shed a golden glow.

Conan listened intently, but he heard no sound throughout the palace.
He did not know in what part of the palace he was, or in which
direction lay the chamber of Xaltotun. The girl was trembling as she
drew him along the corridor, to halt presently beside an alcove masked
with satin tapestry. Drawing this aside, she motioned for him to step
into the niche, and whispered: "Wait here! Beyond that door at the end
of the corridor we are likely to meet slaves or eunuchs at any time of
the day or night. I will go and see if the way is clear, before we
essay it."  

Instantly his hair-trigger suspicions were aroused. "Are
you leading me into a trap?"

Tears sprang into her dark eyes. She sank to her knees and seized his
muscular hand. "Oh, my king, do not mistrust me now!" Her voice shook
with desperate urgency. "If you doubt and hesitate, we are lost! Why
should I bring you up out of the pits to betray you now?"

"All right," he muttered. "I'll trust you; though, by Crom, the habits
of a lifetime are not easily put aside. Yet I wouldn't harm you now,
if you brought all the swordsmen in Nemedia upon me. But for you
Tarascus's cursed ape would have come upon me in chains and unarmed.
Do as you wish, girl."

Kissing his hands, she sprang lithely up and ran down the corridor, to
vanish through a heavy double door.

He glanced after her, wondering if he was a fool to trust her; then he
shrugged his mighty shoulders and pulled the satin hangings together,
masking his refuge. It was not strange that a passionate young beauty
should be risking her life to aid him; such things had happened often
enough in his life. Many women had looked on him with favor, in the
days of his wanderings, and in the time of his kingship.

Yet he did not remain motionless in the alcove, waiting for her
return. Following his instincts, he explored the niche for another
exit, and presently found one--the opening of a narrow passage, masked
by the tapestries, that ran to an ornately carved door, barely visible
in the dim light that filtered in from the outer corridor. And as he
stared into it, somewhere beyond that carven door he heard the sound
of another door opening and shutting, and then a low mumble of voices.
The familiar sound of one of those voices caused a sinister expression
to cross his dark face. Without hesitation he glided down the passage,
and crouched like a stalking panther beside the door. It was not
locked, and manipulating it delicately, he pushed it open a crack,
with a reckless disregard for possible consequences that only he could
have explained or defended.

It was masked on the other side by tapestries, but through a thin slit
in the velvet he looked into a chamber lit by a candle on an ebony
table. There were two men in that chamber. One was a scarred,
sinister-looking ruffian in leather breeks and ragged cloak; the other
was Tarascus, king of Nemedia.

Tarascus seemed ill at ease. He was slightly pale, and he kept
starting and glancing about him, as if expecting and fearing to hear
some sound or footstep.

"Go swiftly and at once," he was saying. "He is deep in drugged
slumber, but I know not when he may awaken."

"Strange to hear words of fear issuing from the lips of Tarascus,"
rumbled the other in a harsh, deep voice.

The king frowned.

"I fear no common man, as you well know. But when I saw the cliffs
fall at Valkia I knew that this devil we had resurrected was no
charlatan. I fear his powers, because I do not know the full extent of
them. But I know that somehow they are connected with this accursed
thing which I have stolen from him. It brought him back to life; so it
must be the source of his sorcery.

"He had it hidden well; but following my secret order a slave spied on
him and saw him place it in a golden chest, and saw where he hid the
chest. Even so, I would not have dared steal it had Xaltotun himself
not been sunk in lotus slumber.

"I believe it is the secret of his power. With it Orastes brought him
back to life. With it he will make us all slaves, if we are not wary.
So take it and cast it into the sea as I have bidden you. And be sure
you are so far from land that neither tide nor storm can wash it up on
the beach. You have been paid."

"So I have," grunted the ruffian. "And I owe more than gold to you,
king; I owe you a debt of gratitude. Even thieves can be grateful."

"Whatever debt you may feel you owe me," answered Tarascus, "will be
paid when you have hurled this thing into the sea."

"I'll ride for Zingara and take ship from Kordava," promised the
other. "I dare not show my head in Argos, because of the matter of a
murder or so--"

"I care not, so it is done. Here it is; a horse awaits you in the
court. Go, and go swiftly!"

Something passed between them, something that flamed like living fire.
Conan had only a brief glimpse of it; and then the ruffian pulled a
slouch hat over his eyes, drew his cloak about his shoulder, and
hurried from the chamber. And as the door closed behind him, Conan
moved with the devastating fury of unchained blood-lust. He had held
himself in check as long as he could. The sight of his enemy so near
him set his wild blood seething and swept away all caution and
restraint.

Tarascus was turning toward an inner door when Conan tore aside the
hangings and leaped like a blood-mad panther into the room. Tarascus
wheeled, but even before he could recognize his attacker, Conan's
poniard ripped into him.

But the blow was not mortal, as Conan knew the instant he struck. His
foot had caught in a fold of the curtains and tripped him as he
leaped. The point fleshed itself in Tarascus' shoulder and plowed
down along his ribs, and the king of Nemedia screamed.

The impact of the blow and Conan's lunging body hurled him back
against the table and it toppled and the candle went out. They were
both carried to the floor by the violence of Conan's rush, and the
foot of the tapestry hampered them both in its folds. Conan was
stabbing blindly in the dark, Tarascus screaming in a frenzy of
panicky terror. As if fear lent him superhuman energy, Tarascus tore
free and blundered away in the darkness, shrieking:

"Help! Guards! Arideus! Orastes! Orastes!"

Conan rose, kicking himself free of the tangling tapestries and the
broken table, cursing with the bitterness of his bloodthirsty
disappointment. He was confused, and ignorant of the plan of the
palace. The yells of Tarascus were still resounding in the distance,
and a wild outcry was bursting forth in answer. The Nemedian had
escaped him in the darkness, and Conan did not know which way he had
gone. The Cimmerian's rash stroke for vengeance had failed, and there
remained only the task of saving his own hide if he could.

Swearing luridly, Conan ran back down the passage and into the alcove,
glaring out into the lighted corridor, just as Zenobia came running up
it, her dark eyes dilated with terror.

"Oh, what has happened?" she cried. "The palace is roused! I swear I
have not betrayed you--"

"No, it was I who stirred up the hornet's nest," he grunted. "I tried
to pay off a score. What's the shortest way out of this?"

She caught his wrist and ran fleetly down the corridor. But before
they reached the heavy door at the other end, muffled shouts arose
from behind it and the portals began to shake under an assault from
the other side. Zenobia wrung her hands and whimpered.

"We are cut off! I locked that door as I returned through it. But they
will burst it in in a moment. The way to the postern gate lies through
it."

Conan wheeled. Up the corridor, though still out of sight, he heard a
rising clamor that told him his foes were behind as well as before
him--

"Quick! Into this door!" the girl cried desperately, running across
the corridor and throwing open the door of a chamber.

Conan followed her through, and then threw the gold catch behind them.
They stood in an ornately furnished chamber, empty but for themselves,
and she drew him to a gold-barred window, through which he saw trees
and shrubbery.

"You are strong," she panted. "If you can tear these bars away, you
may yet escape. The garden is full of guards, but the shrubs are
thick, and you may avoid them. The southern wall is also the outer
wall of the city. Once over that, you have a chance to get away. A
horse is hidden for you in a thicket beside the road that runs
westward, a few hundred paces to the south of the fountain of
Thrallos. You know where it is?"

"Aye! But what of you? I had meant to take you with me."

A flood of joy lighted her beautiful face.

"Then my cup of happiness is brimming! But I will not hamper your
escape. Burdened with me you would fail. Nay, do not fear for me. They
will never suspect that I aided you willingly. Go! What you have just
said will glorify my life throughout the long years."

He caught her up in his iron arms, crushed her slim, vibrant figure to
him and kissed her fiercely on eyes, cheeks, throat and lips, until
she lay panting in his embrace; gusty and tempestuous as a storm-wind,
even his lovemaking was violent.

"I'll go," he muttered. "But by Crom, I'll come for you some day!"

Wheeling, he gripped the gold bars and tore them from their sockets
with one tremendous wrench; threw a leg over the sill and went down
swiftly, clinging to the ornaments on the wall. He hit the ground
running and melted like a shadow into the maze of towering rosebushes
and spreading trees. The one look he cast back over his shoulder
showed him Zenobia leaning over the windowsill, her arms stretched
after him in mute farewell and renunciation.

Guards were running through the garden, all converging toward the
palace, where the clamor momentarily grew louder--tall men in burnished
cuirasses and crested helmets of polished bronze. The starlight struck
glints from their gleaming armor, among the trees, betraying their
every movement; but the sound of their coming ran far before them. To
Conan, wilderness-bred, their rush through the shrubbery was like the
blundering stampede of cattle. Some of them passed within a few feet
of where he lay flat in a thick cluster of bushes, and never guessed
his presence. With the palace as their goal, they were oblivious to
all else about them. When they had gone shouting on, he rose and fled
through the garden with no more noise than a panther would have made.

So quickly he came to the southern wall, and mounted the steps that
led to the parapet. The wall was made to keep people out, not in. No
sentry patrolling the battlements was in sight. Crouching by an
embrasure he glanced back at the great palace rearing above the
cypresses behind him. Lights blazed from every window, and he could
see figures flitting back and forth across them like puppets on
invisible strings. He grinned hardly, shook his fist in a gesture of
farewell and menace, and let himself over the outer rim of the
parapet.

A low tree, a few yards below the parapet, received Conan's weight, as
he dropped noiselessly into the branches. An instant later he was
racing through the shadows with the swinging hillman's stride that
eats up long miles.

Gardens and pleasure villas surrounded the walls of Belverus. Drowsy
slaves, sleeping by their watchman's pikes, did not see the swift and
furtive figure that scaled walls, crossed alleys made by the arching
branches of trees, and threaded a noiseless way through orchards and
vineyards. Watchdogs woke and lifted their deep-booming clamor at a
gliding shadow, half scented, half sensed, and then it was gone.

In a chamber of the palace, Tarascus writhed and cursed on a blood-
spattered couch, under the deft, quick fingers of Orastes. The palace
was thronged with wide-eyed, trembling servitors, but the chamber
where the king lay was empty save for himself and the renegade priest.

"Are you sure he still sleeps?" Tarascus demanded again, setting his
teeth against the bite of the herb juices with which Orastes was
bandaging the long, ragged gash in his shoulder and ribs. "Ishtar,
Mitra and Set! That burns like molten pitch of hell!"

"Which you would be experiencing even now, but for your good fortune,"
remarked Orastes. "Whoever wielded that knife struck to kill. Yes, I
have told you that Xaltotun still sleeps. Why are you so urgent upon
that point? What has he to do with this?"

"You know nothing of what has passed in the palace tonight?" Tarascus
searched the priest's countenance with burning intensity.

"Nothing. As you know, I have been employed in translating manuscripts
for Xaltotun, for some months now, transcribing esoteric volumes
written in the younger languages into script he can read. He was well
versed in all the tongues and scripts of his day, but he has not yet
learned all the newer languages, and to save time he has me translate
these works for him, to learn if any new knowledge has been discovered
since his time. I did not know that he had returned last night until
he sent for me and told me of the battle. Then I returned to my
studies, nor did I know that you had returned until the clamor in the
palace brought me out of my cell."  

"Then you do not know that
Xaltotun brought the king of Aquilonia a captive to this palace?"

Orastes shook his head, without particular surprize. "Xaltotun merely
said that Conan would oppose us no more. I supposed that he had
fallen, but did not ask the details."

"Xaltotun saved his life when I would have slain him," snarled
Tarascus. "I saw his purpose instantly. He would hold Conan captive to
use as a club against us--against Amalric, against Valerius, and
against myself. So long as Conan lives he is a threat, a unifying
factor for Aquilonia, that might be used to compel us into courses we
would not otherwise follow. I mistrust this undead Pythonian. Of late
I have begun to fear him.

"I followed him, some hours after he had departed eastward. I wished
to learn what he intended doing with Conan. I found that he had
imprisoned him in the pits. I intended to see that the barbarian died,
in spite of Xaltotun. And I accomplished--" A cautious knock sounded
at the door. "That's Arideus," grunted Tarascus. "Let him in."  The
saturnine squire entered, his eyes blazing with suppressed excitement.
"How, Arideus?" exclaimed Tarascus. "Have you found the man who
attacked me?"

"You did not see him, my lord?" asked Arideus, as one who would assure
himself of a fact he already knows to exist. "You did not recognize
him?"

"No. It happened so quick, and the candle was out--all I could think of
was that it was some devil loosed on me by Xaltotun's magic--"

"The Pythonian sleeps in his barred and bolted room. But I have been
in the pits."  Arideus twitched his lean shoulders excitedly.

"Well, speak, man!" exclaimed Tarascus impatiently. "What did you find
there?"

"An empty dungeon," whispered the squire. "The corpse of the great
ape!"

"What?" Tarascus started upright, and blood gushed from his opened
wound.

"Aye! The man-eater is dead--stabbed through the heart--and Conan is
gone!"

Tarascus was gray of face as he mechanically allowed Orastes to force
him prostrate again and the priest renewed work upon his mangled
flesh.

"Conan!" he repeated. "Not a crushed corpse--escaped! Mitra! He is no
man; but a devil himself! I thought Xaltotun was behind this wound. I
see now. Gods and devils! It was Conan who stabbed me! Arideus!"

"Aye, Your Majesty!"

"Search every nook in the palace. He may be skulking through the dark
corridors now like a hungry tiger. Let no niche escape your scrutiny,
and beware. It is not a civilized man you hunt, but a blood-mad
barbarian whose strength and ferocity are those of a wild beast. Scour
the palace-grounds and the city. Throw a cordon about the walls. If
you find he has escaped from the city, as he may well do, take a troop
of horsemen and follow him. Once past the walls it will be like
hunting a wolf through the hills. But haste, and you may yet catch
him."

"This is a matter which requires more than ordinary human wits," said
Orastes. "Perhaps we should seek Xaltotun's advice."

"No!" exclaimed Tarascus violently. "Let the troopers pursue Conan and
slay him. Xaltotun can hold no grudge against us if we kill a prisoner
to prevent his escape."

"Well," said Orastes, "I am no Acheronian, but I am versed in some of
the arts, and the control of certain spirits which have cloaked
themselves in material substance. Perhaps I can aid you in this
matter."

The fountain of Thrallos stood in a clustered ring of oaks beside the
road a mile from the walls of the city. Its musical tinkle reached
Conan's ears through the silence of the starlight. He drank deep of
its icy stream, and then hurried southward toward a small, dense
thicket he saw there. Rounding it, he saw a great white horse tied
among the bushes. Heaving a deep gusty sigh he reached it with one
stride--a mocking laugh brought him about, glaring.

A dully glinting, mail-clad figure moved out of the shadows into the
starlight. This was no plumed and burnished palace guardsman. It was a
tall man in morion and gray chain mail--one of the Adventurers, a class
of warriors peculiar to Nemedia; men who had not attained to the
wealth and position of knighthood, or had fallen from that estate;
hard-bitten fighters, dedicating their lives to war and adventure.
They constituted a class of their own, sometimes commanding troops,
but themselves accountable to no man but the king. Conan knew that he
could have been discovered by no more dangerous a foeman.

A quick glance among the shadows convinced him that the man was alone,
and he expanded his great chest slightly, digging his toes into the
turf, as his thews coiled tensely.

"I was riding for Belverus on Amalric's business," said the
Adventurer, advancing warily. The starlight was a long sheen on the
great two-handed sword he bore naked in his hand. "A horse whinnied to
mine from the thicket. I investigated and thought it strange a steed
should be tethered here. I waited--and lo, I have caught a rare prize!"

The Adventurers lived by their swords.

"I know you," muttered the Nemedian. "You are Conan, king of
Aquilonia. I thought I saw you die in the valley of the Valkia, but--"
Conan sprang as a dying tiger springs. Practised fighter though the
Adventurer was, he did not realize the desperate quickness that lurks
in barbaric sinews. He was caught off guard, his heavy sword half
lifted. Before he could either strike or parry, the king's poniard
sheathed itself in his throat, above the gorget, slanting downward
into his heart. With a choked gurgle he reeled and went down, and
Conan ruthlessly tore his blade free as his victim fell. The white
horse snorted violently and shied at the sight and scent of blood on
the sword.

Glaring down at his lifeless enemy, dripping poniard in hand, sweat
glistening on his broad breast, Conan poised like a statue, listening
intently. In the woods about there was no sound, save for the sleepy
cheep of awakened birds. But in the city, a mile away, he heard the
strident blare of a trumpet.

Hastily he bent over the fallen man. A few seconds' search convinced
him that whatever message the man might have borne was intended to be
conveyed by word of mouth. But he did not pause in his task. It was
not many hours until dawn. A few minutes later the white horse was
galloping westward along the white road, and the rider wore the gray
mail of a Nemedian Adventurer.

Chapter 7: The Rending of the Veil

CONAN KNEW HIS only chance of escape lay in speed. He did not even
consider hiding somewhere near Belverus until the chase passed on; he
was certain that the uncanny ally of Tarascus would be able to ferret
him out. Besides, he was not one to skulk and hide; an open fight or
an open chase, either suited his temperament better. He had a long
start, he knew. He would lead them a grinding race for the border.

Zenobia had chosen well to selecting the white horse. His speed,
toughness and endurance were obvious. The girl knew weapons and
horses, and, Conan reflected with some satisfaction, she knew men. He
rode westward at a gait that ate up the miles.

It was a sleeping land through which he rode, past grove-sheltered
villages and white-walled villas amid spacious fields and orchards
that grew sparser as he fared westward. As the villages thinned, the
land grew more rugged, and the keeps that frowned from eminences told
of centuries of border war. But none rode down from those castles to
challenge or halt him. The lords of the keeps were following the
banner of Amalric; the pennons that were wont to wave over these
towers were now floating over the Aquilonian plains.

When the last huddled village fell behind him, Conan left the road,
which was beginning to bend toward the northwest, toward the distant
passes. To keep to the road would mean to pass by border towers, still
garrisoned with armed men who would not allow him to pass
unquestioned. He knew there would be no patrols riding the border
marches on either side, as to ordinary times, but there were those
towers, and with dawn there would probably be cavalcades of returning
soldiers with wounded men to ox-carts.

This road from Belverus was the only road that crossed the border for
fifty miles from north to south. It followed a series of passes
through the hills, and on either hand lay a wide expanse of a wild,
sparsely inhabited mountains. He maintained his due westerly
direction, intending to cross the border deep to the wilds of the
hills that lay to the south of the passes. It was a shorter route,
more arduous, but safer for a hunted fugitive. One man on a horse
could traverse country an army would find impassable.

But at dawn he had not reached the hills; they were a long, low, blue
rampart stretching along the horizon ahead of him. Here there were
neither farms nor villages, no white-walled villas loomed among
clustering trees. The dawn wind stirred the tall stiff grass, and
there was nothing but the long rolling swells of brown earth, covered
with dry grass, and to the distance the gaunt walls of a stronghold on
a low hill. Too many Aquilonian raiders had crossed the mountains to
not too-distant days for the countryside to be thickly settled as it
was farther to the east.

Dawn ran like a prairie fire across the grasslands, and high overhead
sounded a weird crying as a straggling wedge of wild geese winged
swiftly southward. In a grassy swale Conan halted and unsaddled his
mount. Its sides were heaving, its coat plastered with sweat. He had
pushed it unmercifully through the hours before dawn.

While it munched the brittle grass and rolled, he lay at the crest of
the low slope, staring eastward. Far away to the northward he could
see the road he had left, streaming like a white ribbon over a distant
rise. No black dots moved along that glistening ribbon. There was no
sign about the castle to the distance to indicate that the keepers had
noticed the lone wayfarer.

An hour later the land still stretched bare. The only sign of life was
a glint of steel on the far-off battlements, a raven to the sky that
wheeled backward and forth, dipping and rising as if seeking
something. Conan saddled and rode westward at a more leisurely gait.

As he topped the farther crest of the slope, a raucous screaming burst
out over his head, and looking up, he saw the raven flapping high
above him, cawing incessantly. As he rode on, it followed him,
maintaining its position and making the morning hideous with its
strident cries, heedless of his efforts to drive it away.

This kept up for hours, until Conan's teeth were on edge, and he felt
that he would give half his kingdom to be allowed to wring that black
neck.

"Devils of hell!" he roared to futile rage, shaking his mailed fist at
the frantic bird. "Why do you harry me with your squawking? Begone,
you black spawn of perdition, and peck for wheat to the farmers'
fields!"

He was ascending the first pitch of the hills, and he seemed to hear
an echo of the bird's clamor far behind him. Turning to his saddle, he
presently made out another black dot against  the blue. Beyond that
again he caught the glint of the afternoon sun on steel. That could
mean only one thing: armed men. And they were not riding along the
beaten road, which was out of his sight beyond the horizon. They were
following him. His face grew grim and he shivered slightly as he
stared at the raven that wheeled high above him.

"So it is more than the whim of a brainless beast?" he muttered.
"Those riders cannot see you, spawn of Hell; but the other bird can
see you, and they can see him. You follow me, he follows you, and they
follow him. Are you only a craftily trained feathered creature, or
some devil in the form of a bird? Did Xaltotun set you on my trail?
Are you Xaltotun?"

Only a strident screech answered him, a screech vibrating with harsh
mockery.

Conan wasted no more breath on his dusky betrayer. Grimly he settled
to the long grind of the hills, he dared not push the horse too hard;
the rest he had allowed it had not been enough to freshen it. He was
still far ahead of his pursuers, but they would cut down that lead
steadily. It was almost a certainty that their horses were fresher
than his, for they had undoubtedly changed mounts at that castle he
had passed.

The going grew rougher, the scenery more rugged, steep grassy slopes
pitching up to densely timbered mountainsides. Here, he knew, he might
elude his hunters, but for that hellish bird that squalled incessantly
above him. He could no longer see them in this broken country, but he
was certain that they still followed him, guided unerringly by their
feathered allies. That black shape became like a demoniac incubus,
hounding him through measureless hells. The stones he hurled with a
curse went wide or fell harmless, though in his youth he had felled
hawks on the wing.

The horse was tiring fast. Conan recognized the grim finality of his
position. He sensed an inexorable driving fate behind all this. He
could not escape. He was as much a captive as he had been in the pits
of Belverus. But he was no son of the Orient to yield passively to
what seemed inevitable. If he could not escape, he would at least take
some of his foes into eternity with him. He turned into a wide thicket
of larches that masked a slope, looking for a place to turn at bay.

Then ahead of him there rang a strange, shrill scream, human yet
weirdly timbred. An instant later he had pushed through a screen of
branches, and saw the source of that eldritch cry. In a small glade
below him four soldiers in Nemedian chain mail were binding a noose
about the neck of a gaunt old woman in peasant garb. A heap of fagots,
bound with cord on the ground near by, showed what her occupation had
been when surprized by these stragglers.

Conan felt slow fury swell his heart as he looked silently down and
saw the ruffians dragging her toward a tree whose low-spreading
branches were obviously intended to act as a gibbet. He had crossed
the frontier an hour ago. He was standing on his own soil, watching
the murder of one of his own subjects. The old woman was struggling
with surprizing strength and energy, and as he watched, she lifted her
head and voiced again the strange, weird, far-carrying call he had
heard before. It was echoed as if in mockery by the raven flapping
above the trees. The soldiers laughed roughly, and one struck her in
the mouth.

Conan swung from his weary steed and dropped down the face of the
rocks, landing with a clang of mail on the grass. The four men wheeled
at the sound and drew their swords, gaping at the mailed giant who
faced them, sword in hand.

Conan laughed harshly. His eyes were bleak as flint.

"Dogs!" he said without passion and without mercy. "Do Nemedian
jackals set themselves up as executioners and hang my subjects at
will? First you must take the head of their king. Here I stand,
awaiting your lordly pleasure!"

The soldiers stared at him uncertainly as he strode toward them.

"Who is this madman?" growled a bearded ruffian. "He wears Nemedian
mail, but speaks with an Aquilonian accent."

"No matter," quoth another. "Cut him down, and then we'll hang the old
hag."

And so saying he ran at Conan, lifting his sword. But before he could
strike, the king's great blade lashed down, splitting helmet and
skull. The man fell before him, but the others were hardy rogues. They
gave tongue like wolves and surged about the lone figure in the gray
mail, and the clamor and din of steel drowned the cries of the
circling raven.

Conan did not shout. His eyes coals of blue fire and his lips smiling
bleakly, he lashed right and left with his two-handed sword. For all
his size he was quick as a cat on his feet, and he was constantly in
motion, presenting a moving target so that thrusts and swings cut
empty air oftener than not. Yet when he struck he was perfectly
balanced, and his blows fell with devastating power. Three of the four
were down, dying in their own blood, and the fourth was bleeding from
half a dozen wounds, stumbling in headlong retreat as he parried
frantically, when Conan's spur caught in the surcoat of one of the
fallen men.

The king stumbled, and before he could catch himself the Nemedian,
with the frenzy of desperation, rushed him so savagely that Conan
staggered and fell sprawling over the corpse. The Nemedian croaked in
triumph and sprang forward, lifting his great sword with both hands
over his right shoulder, as he braced his legs wide for the stroke--and
then, over the prostrate king, something huge and hairy shot like a
thunderbolt full on the soldier's breast, and his yelp of triumph
changed to a shriek of death.

Conan, scrambling up, saw the man lying dead with his throat torn out,
and a great gray wolf stood over him, head sunk as it smelt the blood
that formed a pool on the grass.

The king turned as the old woman spoke to him. She stood straight and
tall before him, and in spite of her ragged garb, her features, clear-
cut and aquiline, and her keen black eyes, were not those of a common
peasant woman. She called to the wolf and it trotted to her side like
a great dog and rubbed its giant shoulder against her knee, while it
gazed at Conan with great green lambent eyes. Absently she laid her
hand upon its mighty neck, and so the two stood regarding the king of
Aquilonia. He found their steady gaze disquieting, though there was no
hostility in it.

"Men say King Conan died beneath the stones and dirt when the cliffs
crumbled by Valkia," she said in a deep, strong, resonant voice.

"So they say," he growled. He was in no mood for controversy, and he
thought of those armored riders who were pushing nearer every moment.
The raven above him cawed stridently, and he cast an involuntary glare
upward, grinding his teeth in a spasm of nervous irritation.

Up on the ledge the white horse stood with drooping head. The old
woman looked at it, and then at the raven; and then she lifted a
strange weird cry as she had before. As if recognizing the call, the
raven wheeled, suddenly mute, and raced eastward. But before it had
got out of sight, the shadow of mighty wings fell across it. An eagle
soared up from the tangle of trees, and rising above it, swooped and
struck the black messenger to the earth. The strident voice of
betrayal was stilled for ever.

"Crom!" muttered Conan, staring at the old woman. "Are you a magician,
too?"

"I am Zeiata," she said. "The people of the valleys call me a witch.
Was that child of the night guiding armed men on your trail?"

"Aye."  She did not seem to think the answer fantastic. "They cannot
be far behind me."

"Lead your horse and follow me, King Conan," she said briefly.

Without comment he mounted the rocks and brought his horse down to the
glade by a circuitous path. As he came he saw the eagle reappear,
dropping lazily down from the sky, and rest an instant on Zeiata's
shoulder, spreading its great wings lightly so as not to crush her
with its weight.

Without a word she led the way, the great wolf trotting at her side,
the eagle soaring above her. Through deep thickets and along tortuous
ledges poised over deep ravines she led him, and finally along a
narrow precipice-edged path to a curious dwelling of stone, half hut,
half cavern, beneath a cliff hidden among the gorges and crags. The
eagle flew to the pinnacle of this cliff, and perched there like a
motionless sentinel.

Still silent, Zeiata stabled the horse in a near-by cave, with leaves
and grass piled high for provender, and a tiny spring bubbling in the
dim recesses.

In the hut she seated the king on a rude, hide-covered bench, and she
herself sat upon a low stool before the tiny fireplace, while she made
a fire of tamarisk chunks and prepared a frugal meal. The great wolf
drowsed beside her, facing the fire, his huge head sunk on his paws,
his ears twitching in his dreams.

"You do not fear to sit in the hut of a witch?" she asked, breaking
her silence at last.

An impatient shrug of his gray-mailed shoulders was her guest's only
reply. She gave into his hands a wooden dish heaped with dried fruits,
cheese and barley bread, and a great pot of the heady upland beer,
brewed from barley grown in the high valleys.

"I have found the brooding silence of the glens more pleasing than the
babble of city streets," she said. "The children of the wild are
kinder than the children of men."  Her hand briefly stroked the ruff
of the sleeping wolf. "My children were afar from me today, or I had
not needed your sword, my king. They were coming at my call."

"What grudge had those Nemedian dogs against you?" Conan demanded.

"Skulkers from the invading army straggle all over the countryside,
from the frontier to Tarantia," she answered. "The foolish villagers
in the valleys told them that I had a store of gold hidden away, so as
to divert their attentions from their villages. They demanded treasure
from me, and my answers angered them. But neither skulkers nor the men
who pursue you, nor any raven will find you here."

He shook his head, eating ravenously.

"I'm for Tarantia."

She shook her head.

"You thrust your head into the dragon's jaws. Best seek refuge abroad.
The heart is gone from your kingdom."

"What do you mean?" he demanded. "Battles have been lost before, yet
wars won. A kingdom is not lost by a single defeat."

"And you will go to Tarantia?"

"Aye. Prospero will be holding it against Amalric."

"Are you sure?"

"Hell's devils, woman!" he exclaimed wrathfully. "What else?"

She shook her head. "I feel that it is otherwise. Let us see. Not
lightly is the veil rent; yet I will rend it a little, and show you
your capital city."

Conan did not see what she cast upon the fire, but the wolf whimpered
in his dreams, and a green smoke gathered and billowed up into the
hut. And as he watched, the walls and ceiling of the hut seemed to
widen, to grow remote and vanish, merging with infinite immensities;
the smoke rolled about him, blotting out everything. And in it forms
moved and faded, and stood out in startling clarity.

He stared at the familiar towers and streets of Tarantia, where a mob
seethed and screamed, and at the same time he was somehow able to see
the banners of Nemedia moving inexorably westward through the smoke
and flame of a pillaged land. In the great square of Tarantia the
frantic throng milled and yammered, screaming that the king was dead,
that the barons were girding themselves to divide the land between
them, and that the rule of a king, even of Valerius, was better than
anarchy. Prospero, shining in his armor, rode among them, trying to
pacify them, bidding them trust Count Trocero, urging them to man the
wall and aid his knights in defending the city. They turned on him,
shrieking with fear and unreasoning rage, howling that he was
Trocero's butcher, a more evil foe than Amalric himself. Offal and
stones were hurled at his knights.

A slight blurring of the picture, that might have denoted a passing of
time, and then Conan saw Prospero and his knights filing out of the
gates and spurring southward. Behind him the city was in an uproar.

"Fools!" muttered Conan thickly. "Fools! Why could they not trust
Prospero? Zelita, if you are making game of me, with some trickery--"

"This has passed," answered Zelata imperturbably, though somberly. "It
was the evening of the day that has passed,when Prospero rode out of
Tarantia, with the hosts of Amalric almost within sight. From the
walls men saw the flame of their pillaging. So I read it in the smoke.
At sunset the Nemedians rode into Tarantia, unopposed. Look! Even now,
in the royal hall of Tarantia--"

Abruptly Conan was looking into the great coronation hall. Valerius
stood on the regal dais, clad in ermine robes, and Amalric, still in
his dusty, bloodstained armor, placed a rich and gleaming circlet on
his yellow locks--the crown of Aquilonia! The people cheered; long
lines of steel-clad Nemedian warriors looked grimly on, and nobles
long in disfavor at Conan's court strutted and swaggered with the
emblem of Valerius on their sleeves.

"Crom!" It was an explosive imprecation from Conan's lips as he
started up, his great fists clenched into hammers, his veins on his
temples knotting, his features convulsed. "A Nemedian placing the
crown of Aquilonia on that renegade--in the royal hall of Tarantia!"

As if dispelled by his violence, the smoke faded, and he saw Zeiata's
black eyes gleaming at him through the mist.

"You have seen--the people of your capital have forfeited the freedom
you won for them by sweat and blood; they have sold themselves to the
slavers and the butchers. They have shown that they do not trust their
destiny. Can you rely upon them for the winning back of your kingdom?"

"They thought I was dead," he grunted, recovering some of his poise.
"I have no son. Men can't be governed by a memory. What if the
Nemedians have taken Tarantia? There still remain the provinces, the
barons, and the people of the countrysides. Valerius has won an empty
glory."

"You are stubborn, as befits a fighter. I cannot show you the future,
I cannot show you all the past. Nay, I show you nothing. I merely make
you see windows opened in the veil by powers un-guessed. Would you
look into the past for a clue of the present?"

"Aye."  He seated himself abruptly.

Again the green smoke rose and billowed. Again images unfolded before
him, this time alien and seemingly irrelevant. He saw great towering
black walls, pedestals half hidden in the shadows upholding images of
hideous, half-bestial gods. Men moved in the shadows, dark, wiry men,
clad in red, silken loincloths. They were bearing a green jade
sarcophagus along a gigantic black corridor. But before he could tell
much about what he saw, the scene shifted. He saw a cavern, dim,
shadowy and haunted with a strange intangible horror. On an altar of
black stone stood a curious golden vessel, shaped like the shell of a
scallop. Into this cavern came some of the same dark, wiry men who had
borne the mummy-case. They seized the golden vessel, and then the
shadows swirled around them and what happened he could not say. But he
saw a glimmer in a whorl of darkness, like a ball of living fire. Then
the smoke was only smoke, drifting up from the fire of tamarisk
chunks, thinning and fading.

"But what does this portend?" he demanded, bewildered. "What I saw in
Tarantia I can understand. But what means this glimpse of Zamorian
thieves sneaking through a subterranean temple of Set, in Stygia? And
that cavern-I've never seen or heard of anything like it, in all my
wanderings. If you can show me that much, these shreds of vision which
mean nothing, disjointed, why can you not show me all that is to
occur?"

Zeiata stirred the fire without replying.

"These things are governed by immutable laws," she said at last. "I
can not make you understand; I do not altogether understand myself,
though I have sought wisdom in the silences of the high places for
more years than I can remember. I cannot save you, though I would if I
might. Man must, at last, work out his own salvation. Yet perhaps
wisdom may come to me in dreams, and in the morn I may be able to give
you the clue to the enigma."

"What enigma?" he demanded.

"The mystery that confronts you, whereby you have lost a kingdom," she
answered. And then she spread a sheepskin upon the floor before the
hearth. "Sleep," she said briefly. Without a word he stretched himself
upon it, and sank into restless but deep sleep through which phantoms
moved silently and monstrous shapeless shadows crept. Once, limned
against a purple sunless horizon, he saw the mighty walls and towers
of a great city of such as rose nowhere on the waking earth he knew.
Its colossal pylons and purple minarets lifted toward the stars, and
over it, floating like a giant mirage, hovered the bearded countenance
of the man Xaltotun.

Conan woke in the chill whiteness of early dawn, to see Zelata
crouched beside the tiny fire. He had not awakened once in the night,
and the sound of the great wolf leaving or entering should have roused
him. Yet the wolf was there, beside the hearth, with its shaggy coat
wet with dew, and with more than dew. Blood glistened wetly amid the
thick fell, and there was a cut upon his shoulder.

Zeiata nodded, without looking around, as if reading the thoughts of
her royal guest.

"He has hunted before dawn, and red was the hunting. I think the man
who hunted a king will hunt no more, neither man nor beast."

Conan stared at the great beast with strange fascination as he moved
to take the food Zelata offered him.

"When I come to my throne again I won't forget," he said briefly.
"You've befriended me--by Crom, I can't remember when I've lain down
and slept at the mercy of man or woman as I did last night. But what
of the riddle you would read me this morn?"

A long silence ensued, in which the crackle of the tamarisks was loud
on the hearth.

"Find the heart of your kingdom," she said at last. "There lies your
defeat and your power. You fight more than mortal man. You will not
possess the throne again unless you find the heart of your kingdom."

"Do you mean the city of Tarantia?"

She shook her head. "I am but an oracle, through whose lips the gods
speak. My lips are sealed by them lest I speak too much. You must find
the heart of your kingdom. I can say no more. My lips are opened and
sealed by the gods."

Dawn was still white on the peaks when Conan rode westward. A glance
back showed him Zelata standing in the door of her hut, inscrutable as
ever, the great wolf beside her.

A gray sky arched overhead, and a moaning wind was chill with a
promise of winter. Brown leaves fluttered slowly down from the bare
branches, sifting upon his mailed shoulders.

All day he pushed through the hills, avoiding roads and villages.
Toward nightfall he began to drop down from the heights, tier by tier,
and saw the broad plains of Aquilonia spread out beneath him.

Villages and farms lay close to the foot of the hills on the western
side of the mountains for, for half a century, most of the raiding
across the frontier had been done by the Aquilonians. But now only
embers and ashes showed where farm huts and villas had stood.

In the gathering darkness Conan rode slowly on. There was little fear
of discovery, which he dreaded from friend as well as from foe. The
Nemedians had remembered old scores on their westward drive, and
Valerius had made no attempt to restrain his allies. He did not count
on winning the love of the common people. A vast swath of desolation
had been cut through the country from the foothills westward. Conan
cursed as he rode over blackened expanses that had been rich fields,
and saw the gaunt gable ends of burned houses jutting against the sky.
He moved through an empty and deserted land, like a ghost out of a
forgotten and outworn past.

The speed with which the army had traversed the land showed what
little resistance it had encountered. Yet had Conan been leading his
Aquilonians the invading army would have been forced to buy every foot
they gained with their blood. The bitter realization permeated his
soul; he was not the representative of a dynasty. He was only a lone
adventurer. Even the drop of dynastic blood Valerius boasted had more
hold on the minds of men than the memory of Conan and the freedom and
power he had given the kingdom.

No pursuers followed him down out of the hills. He watched for
wandering or returning Nemedian troops, but met none. Skulkers gave
him a wide path, supposing him to be one of the conquerors, what of
his harness. Groves and rivers were far more plentiful on the western
side of the mountains, and coverts for concealment were not lacking.

So he moved across the pillaged land, halting only to rest his horse,
eating frugally of the food Zeiata had given him, until, on a dawn
when he lay hidden on a river bank where willows and oaks grew
thickly, he glimpsed, afar, across the rolling plains dotted with rich
groves, the blue and golden towers of Tarantia.

He was no longer in a deserted land, but one teeming with varied life.
His progress thenceforth was slow and cautious, through thick woods
and unfrequented byways. It was dusk when he reached the plantation of
Servius Galannus.

Chapter 8: Dying Embers

THE COUNTRYSIDE ABOUT Tarantia had escaped the fearful ravaging of the
more easterly provinces. There were evidences of the march of a
conquering army in broken hedges, plundered fields and looted
granaries, but torch and steel had not been loosed wholesale.

There was but one grim splotch on the landscape--a charred expanse of
ashes and blackened stone, where, Conan knew, had once stood the
stately villa of one of his staunchest supporters.

The king dared not openly approach the Galannus farm, which lay only a
few miles from the city. In the twilight he rode through an extensive
woodland, until he sighted a keeper's lodge through the trees.
Dismounting and tying his horse, he approached the thick, arched door
with the intention of sending the keeper after Servius. He did not
know what enemies the manor house might be sheltering. He had seen no
troops, but they might be quartered all over the countryside. But as
he drew near, he saw the door open and a compact figure in silk hose
and richly embroidered doublet stride forth and turn up a path that
wound away through the woods.

"Servius!"

At the low call the master of the plantation wheeled with a startled
exclamation. His hand flew to the short hunting sword at his hip, and
he recoiled from the tall gray steel figure standing in the dusk
before him.

"Who are you?" he demanded. "What is your--Mitra!"

His breath hissed inward and his ruddy face paled. "Avaunt!" he
ejaculated. "Why have you come back from the gray lands of death to
terrify me? I was always your true liegeman in your lifetime--"

"As I still expect you to be," answered Conan. "Stop trembling, man;
I'm flesh and blood."

Sweating with uncertainty Servius approached and stared into the face
of the mail-clad giant, and then, convinced of the reality of what he
saw, he dropped to one knee and doffed his plumed cap.

"Your Majesty! Truly, this is a miracle passing belief! The great bell
in the citadel has tolled your dirge, days agone. Men said you died at
Valkia, crushed under a million tons of earth and broken granite."

"It was another in my harness," grunted Conan. "But let us talk later.
If there is such a thing as a joint of beef on your board--"

"Forgive me, my lord!" cried Servius, springing to his feet. "The dust
of travel is gray on your mail, and I keep you standing here without
rest or sup! Mitra! I see well enough now that you are alive, but I
swear, when I turned and saw you standing all gray and dim in the
twilight, the marrow of my knees turned to water. It is an ill thing
to meet a man you thought dead in the woodland at dusk."

"Bid the keeper see to my steed which is tied behind yonder oak,"
requested Conan, and Servius nodded, drawing the king up the path. The
patrician, recovering from his supernatural fright, had become
extremely nervous.

"I will send a servant from the manor," he said. "The keeper is in his
lodge--but I dare not trust even my servants in these days. It is
better that only I know of your presence."

Approaching the great house that glimmered dimly through the trees, he
turned aside into a little-used path that ran between close-set oaks
whose intertwining branches formed a vault overhead, shutting out the
dim light of the gathering dusk. Servius hurried on through the
darkness without speaking, and with something resembling panic in his
manner, and presently led Conan through a small side door into a
narrow, dimly illuminated corridor. They traversed this in haste and
silence, and Servius brought the king into a spacious chamber with a
high, oak-beamed ceiling and richly paneled walls. Logs flamed in the
wide fireplace, for there was a frosty edge to the air, and a great
meat pasty in a stone platter stood smoking on a broad mahogany board.
Servius locked the massive door and extinguished the candles that
stood in a silver candlestick on the table, leaving the chamber
illuminated only by the fire on the hearth.

"Your pardon, Your Majesty," he apologized. "These are perilous times;
spies lurk everywhere. It were better that none be able to peer
through the windows and recognize you. This pasty, however, is just
from the oven, as I intended supping on my return from talk with my
keeper. If Your Majesty would deign--"

"The light is sufficient," grunted Conan, seating himself with scant
ceremony, and drawing his poniard.

He dug ravenously into the luscious dish, and washed it down with
great gulps of wine from grapes grown in Servius's vineyards. He
seemed oblivious to any sense of peril, but Servius shifted uneasily
on his settle by the fire, nervously fingering the heavy gold chain
about his neck. He glanced continually at the diamond panes of the
casement, gleaming dimly in the firelight, and cocked his ear toward
the door, as if half expecting to hear the pad of furtive feet in the
corridor without.

Finishing his meal, Conan rose and seated himself on another settle
before the fire.

"I won't jeopardize you long by my presence, Servius," he said
abruptly. "Dawn will find me far from your plantation."

"My lord--" Servius lifted his hands in expostulation, but Conan waved
his protests aside.

"I know your loyalty and your courage. Both are above reproach. But if
Valerius has usurped my throne, it would be death for you to shelter
me, if you were discovered."

"I am not strong enough to defy him openly," admitted Servius. "The
fifty men-at-arms I could lead to battle would be but a handful of
straws. You saw the ruins of Emilius Scavonus' plantation?"

Conan nodded, frowning darkly.

"He was the strongest patrician in this province, as you know. He
refused to give his allegiance to Valerius. The Nemedians burned him
in the ruins of his own villa. After that the rest of us saw the
futility of resistance, especially as the people of Tarantia refused
to fight. We submitted and Valerius spared our lives, though he levied
a tax upon us that will ruin many. But what could we do? We thought
you were dead. Many of the barons had been slain, others taken
prisoner. The army was shattered and scattered. You have no heir to
take the crown. There was no one to lead us--"

"Was there not Count Trocero of Poitain?" demanded Conan harshly.

Servius spread his hands helplessly.

"It is true that his general Prospero was in the field with a small
army. Retreating before Amalric, he urged men to rally to his banner.
But with Your Majesty dead, men remembered old wars and civil brawls,
and how Trocero and his Poitanians once rode through these provinces
even as Amalric was riding now, with torch and sword. The barons were
jealous of Trocero. Some men--spies of Valerius perhaps--shouted that
the Count of Poitain intended seizing the crown for himself. Old
sectional hates flared up again. If we had had one man with dynastic
blood in his veins, we would have crowned and followed him against
Nemedia. But we had none.

"The barons who followed you loyally would not follow one of their own
number, each holding himself as good as his neighbor, each fearing the
ambitions of the others. You were the cord that held the fagots
together. When the cord was cut, the fagots fell apart. If you had had
a son, the barons would have rallied loyally to him. But there was no
point for their patriotism to focus upon.

"The merchants and commoners, dreading anarchy and a return of feudal
days when each baron was his own law, cried out that any king was
better than none, even Valerius, who was at least of the blood of the
old dynasty. There was no one to oppose him when he rode up at the
head of his steel-clad hosts, with the scarlet dragon of Nemedia
floating over him, and rang his lance against the gates of Tarantia.

"Nay, the people threw open the gates and knelt in the dust before
him. They had refused to aid Prospero in holding the city. They said
they had rather be ruled by Valerius than by Trocero. They said--
truthfully--that the barons would not rally to Trocero, but that many
would accept Valerius. They said that by yielding to Valerius they
would escape the devastation of civil war, and the fury of the
Nemedians. Prospero rode southward with his ten thousand knights, and
the horsemen of the Nemedians entered the city a few hours later. They
did not follow him. They remained to see that Valerius was crowned in
Tarantia."

"Then the old witch's smoke showed the truth," muttered Conan, feeling
a queer chill along his spine. "Amalric crowned Valerius?"

"Aye, in the coronation hall, with the blood of slaughter scarcely
dried on his hands."

"And do the people thrive under his benevolent rule?" asked Conan with
angry irony.

"He lives like a foreign prince in the midst of a conquered land,"
answered Servius bitterly. "His court is filled with Nemedians, the
palace troops are of the same breed, and a large garrison of them
occupy the citadel. Aye, the hour of the Dragon has come at last.

"Nemedians swagger like lords through the streets. Women are outraged
and merchants plundered daily, and Valerius either can, or will, make
no attempt to curb them. Nay, he is but their puppet, their
figurehead. Men of sense knew he would be, and the people are
beginning to find it out.

"Amalric has ridden forth with a strong army to reduce the outlying
provinces where some of the barons have defied him. But there is no
unity among them. Their jealousy of each other is stronger than their
fear of Amalric. He will crush them one by one. Many castles and
cities, realizing that, have sent in their submission. Those who
resist fare miserably. The Nemedians are glutting their long hatred.
And their ranks are swelled by Aquilonians whom fear, gold, or
necessity of occupation are forcing into their armies. It is a natural
consequence."

Conan nodded somberly, staring at the red reflections of the firelight
on the richly carved oaken panels.

"Aquilonia has a king instead of the anarchy they feared," said
Servius at last. "Valerius does not protect his subjects against his
allies. Hundreds who could not pay the ransom imposed upon them have
been sold to the Kothic slave-traders."

Conan's head jerked up and a lethal flame lit his blue eyes. He swore
gustily, his mighty hands knotting into iron hammers.

"Aye, white men sell white men and white women, as it was in the
feudal days. In the palaces of Shem and of Turan, they will live out
the lives of slaves. Valerius is king, but the unity for which the
people looked, even though of the sword, is not complete.

"Gunderland in the north and Poitain in the south are yet unconquered, and there are unsubdued provinces in the west, where the
border barons have the backing of Bossonian bowmen. Yet these outlying
provinces are no real menace to Valerius. They must remain on the
defensive, and will be lucky if they are able to keep their
independence. Here Valerius and his foreign knights are supreme."

"Let him make the best of it then," said Conan grimly. "His time is
short. The people will rise when they learn that I'm alive. We'll take
Tarantia back before Amalric can return with his army. Then we'll
sweep these dogs from the kingdom."

Servius was silent. The crackle of the fire was loud in the stillness.

"Well," exclaimed Conan impatiently, "why do you sit with your head
bent, staring at the hearth? Do you doubt what I have said?"

Servius avoided the king's eye.

"What mortal man can do, you will do, Your Majesty," he answered. "I
have ridden behind you in battle, and I know that no mortal being can
stand before your sword."

"What, then?"

Servius drew his fur-trimmed jupon closer about him, and shivered in
spite of the flame.

"Men say your fall was occasioned by sorcery," he said presently.

"What then?"

"What mortal can fight against sorcery? Who is this veiled man who
communes at midnight with Valerius and his allies, as men say, who
appears and disappears so mysteriously? Men say in whispers that he is
a great magician who died thousands of years ago, but has returned
from death's gray lands to overthrow the king of Aquilonia and restore
the dynasty of which Valerius is heir."

"What matter?" exclaimed Conan angrily. "I escaped from the devil-
haunted pits of Belverus, and from diabolism in the mountains. If the
people rise--"

Servius shook his head.

"Your staunchest supporters in the eastern and central provinces are
dead, fled or imprisoned. Gunderland is far to the north, Poitain far
to the south. The Bossonians have retired to their marches far to the
west. It would take weeks to gather and concentrate these forces, and
before that could be done, each levy would be attacked separately by
Amalric and destroyed."

"But an uprising in the central provinces would tip the scales for
us!" exclaimed Conan. "We could seize Tarantia and hold it against
Amalric until the Gundermen and Poitanians could get here."

Servius hesitated, and his voice sank to a whisper.

"Men say you died accursed. Men say this veiled stranger cast a spell
upon you to slay you and break your army. The great bell has tolled
your dirge. Men believe you to be dead. And the central provinces
would not rise, even if they knew you lived. They would not dare.
Sorcery defeated you at Valkia. Sorcery brought the news to Tarantia,
for that very night men were shouting of it in the streets.

"A Nemedian priest loosed black magic again in the streets of Tarantia
to slay men who still were loyal to your memory. I myself saw it.
Armed men dropped like flies and died in the streets in a manner no
man could understand. And the lean priest laughed and said: 'I am only
Altaro, only an acolyte of Orastes, who is but an acolyte of him who
wears the veil; not mine is the power; the power but works through
me.'"

"Well," said Conan harshly, "is it not better to die honorably than to
live in infamy? Is death worse than oppression, slavery and ultimate
destruction?"

"When the fear of sorcery is in, reason is out," replied Servius. "The
fear of the central provinces is too great to allow them to rise for
you. The outlying provinces would fight for you--but the same sorcery
that smote your army at Valkia would smite you again. The Nemedians
hold the broadest, richest and most thickly populated sections of
Aquilonia, and they cannot be defeated by the forces which might still
be at your command. You would be sacrificing your loyal subjects
uselessly. In sorrow I say it, but it is true: King Conan, you are a
king without a kingdom."

Conan stared into the fire without replying. A smoldering log crashed
down among the flames without a bursting shower of sparks. It might
have been the crashing ruin of his kingdom.

Again Conan felt the presence of a grim reality behind the veil of
material illusion. He sensed again the inexorable drive of a ruthless
fate. A feeling of furious panic tugged at his soul, a sense of being
trapped, and a red rage that burned to destroy and kill.

"Where are the officials of my court?" he demanded at last.

"Pallantides was sorely wounded at Valkia, was ransomed by his family,
and now lies in his castle in Attains. He will be fortunate if he ever
rides again. Publius, the chancellor, has fled the kingdom in
disguise, no man knows whither. The council has been disbanded. Some
were imprisoned, some banished. Many of your loyal subjects have been
put to death. Tonight, for instance, the Countess Albiona dies under
the headsman's ax."

Conan started and stared at Servius with such anger smoldering in his
blue eyes that the patrician shrank back.

"Why?"

"Because she would not become the mistress of Valerius. Her lands are
forfeit, her henchmen sold into slavery, and at midnight, in the Iron
Tower, her head must fall. Be advised, my king--to me you will ever be
my king--and flee before you are discovered. In these days none is
safe. Spies and informers creep among us, betraying the slightest deed
or word of discontent as treason and rebellion. If you make yourself
known to your subjects, it will only end in your capture and death.

"My horses and all the men that I can trust are at your disposal.
Before dawn we can be far from Tarantia, and well on our way toward
the border. If I cannot aid you to recover your kingdom, I can at
least follow you into exile."

Conan shook his head. Servius glanced uneasily at him as he sat
staring into the fire, his chin propped on his mighty fist. The
firelight gleamed redly on his steel mail, on his baleful eyes. They
burned in the firelight like the eyes of a wolf. Servius was again
aware, as in the past, and now more strongly than ever, of something
alien about the king. That great frame under the mail mesh was too
hard and supple for a civilized man; the elemental fire of the
primitive burned in those smoldering eyes. Now the barbaric suggestion
about the king was more pronounced, as if in his extremity the outward
aspects of civilization were stripped away, to reveal the primordial
core. Conan was reverting to his pristine type. He did not act as a
civilized man would act under the same conditions, nor did his
thoughts run in the same channels. He was unpredictable. It was only a
stride from the king of Aquilonia to the skin-clad slayer of the
Cimmerian hills.

"I'll ride to Poitain, if it may be," Conan said at last. "But I'll
ride alone. And I have one last duty to perform as king of Aquilonia."

"What do you mean, your Majesty?" asked Servius, shaken by a
premonition.

"I'm going into Tarantia after Albiona tonight," answered the king.
"I've failed all my other loyal subjects, it seems--if they take her
head, they can have mine too."

"This is madness!" cried Servius, staggering up and clutching his
throat, as if he already felt the noose closing about it.

"There are secrets to the Tower which few know," said Conan. "Anyway,
I'd be a dog to leave Albiona to die because of her loyalty to me. I
may be a king without a kingdom, but I'm not a man without honor."

"It will ruin us all!" whispered Servius.

"It will ruin no one but me if I fail. You've risked enough. I ride
alone tonight. This is all I want you to do: procure me a patch for my
eye, a staff for my hand, and garments such as travelers wear."

Chapter 9: "It Is the King or His Ghost!"

MANY MEN PASSED through the great arched gates of Tarantia between
sunset and midnight--belated travelers, merchants from  afar with
heavily laden mules, free workmen from the surrounding farms and
vineyards. Now that Valerius was supreme in the central provinces,
there was no rigid scrutiny of the folk who flowed in a steady stream
through the wide gates. Discipline had been relaxed. The Nemedian
soldiers who stood on guard were half drunk, and much too busy
watching for handsome peasant girls and rich merchants who could be
bullied to notice workmen or dusty travelers, even one tall wayfarer
whose worn cloak could not conceal the hard lines of his powerful
frame.

This man carried himself with an erect, aggressive bearing that was
too natural for him to realise it himself, much less dissemble it. A
great patch covered one eye, and his leather coif, drawn low over his
brows, shadowed his features. With a long thick staff in his muscular
brown hand, he strode leisurely through the arch where the torches
flared and guttered, and, ignored by the tipsy guardsmen, emerged upon
the wide streets of Tarantia.

Upon these well-lighted thoroughfares the usual throngs went about
their business, and shops and stalls stood open, with their wares
displayed. One thread ran a constant theme through the pattern.
Nemedian soldiers, singly or in clumps, swaggered through the throngs,
shouldering their way with studied arrogance. Women scurried from
their path, and men stepped aside with darkened brows and clenched
fists. The Aquilonians were a proud race, and these were their
hereditary enemies.

The knuckles of the tall traveler knotted on his staff, but, like the
others, he stepped aside to let the men in armor have the way. Among
the motley and varied crowd he did not attract much attention in his
drab, dusty garments. But once, as he passed a sword-seller's stall
and the light that streamed from its wide door fell full upon him, he
thought he felt an intense stare upon him, and turning quickly, saw a
man in the brown jerkin of a free workman regarding him fixedly. This
man turned away with undue haste, and vanished in the shifting throng.
But Conan turned into a narrow bystreet and quickened his pace. It
might have been mere idle curiosity; but he could take no chances.

The grim Iron Tower stood apart from the citadel, amid a maze of
narrow streets and crowding houses where the meaner structures,
appropriating a space from which the more fastidious shrank, had
invaded a portion of the city ordinarily alien to them. The Tower was
in reality a castle, an ancient, formidable pile of heavy stone and
black iron, which had itself served as the citadel in an earlier,
ruder century.

Not a long distance from it, lost in a tangle of partly deserted
tenements and warehouses, stood an ancient watchtower, so old and
forgotten that it did not appear on the maps of the city for a hundred
years back. Its original purpose had been forgotten, and nobody, of
such as saw it at all, noticed that the apparently ancient lock which
kept it from being appropriated as sleeping-quarters by beggars and
thieves, was in reality comparatively new and extremely powerful,
cunningly disguised into an appearance of rusty antiquity. Not half a
dozen men in the kingdom had ever known the secret of that tower.

No keyhole showed in the massive, green-crusted lock. But Conan's
practised fingers, stealing over it, pressed here and there knobs
invisible to the casual eye. The door silently opened inward and he
entered solid blackness, pushing the door shut behind him, A light
would have showed the tower empty, a bare, cylindrical shaft of
massive stone.

Groping in a corner with the sureness of familiarity, he found the
projections for which he was feeling on a slab of the stone that
composed the floor. Quickly he lifted it, and without hesitation
lowered himself into the aperture beneath. His feet felt stone steps
leading downward into what he knew was a narrow tunnel that ran
straight toward the foundations of the Iron Tower, three streets away.

The bell on the citadel, which tolled only at the midnight hour or for
the death of a king, boomed suddenly. In a dimly lighted chamber in
the Iron Tower a door opened and a form emerged into a corridor. The
interior of the Tower was as forbidding as its external appearance.
Its massive stone walls were rough, unadorned. The flags of the floor
were worn deep by generations of faltering feet, and the vault of the
ceiling was gloomy in the dim light of torches set in niches.

The man who trudged down that grim corridor was in appearance in
keeping with his surroundings. He was a tall, powerfully-built man,
clad in close-fitting black silk. Over his head was drawn a black hood
which fell about his shoulders, having two holes for his eyes. From
his shoulders hung a loose black cloak, and over one shoulder he bore
a heavy ax, the shape of which was that of neither tool nor weapon.

As he went down the corridor, a figure came hobbling up it, a bent,
surly old man, stooping under the weight of his pike and a lantern he
bore in one hand.

"You are not as prompt as your predecessor, master headsman," he
grumbled. "Midnight has just struck, and masked men have gone to
milady's cell. They await you."

"The tones of the bell still echo among the towers," answered the
executioner. "If I am not so quick to leap and run at the beck of
Aquilonians as was the dog who held this office before me, they shall
find my arm no less ready. Get you to your duties, old watchman, and
leave me to mine. I think mine is the sweeter trade, by Mitra, for you
tramp cold corridors and peer at rusty dungeon doors, while I lop off
the fairest head in Tarantia this night."

The watchman limped on down the corridor, still grumbling, and the
headsman resumed his leisurely way. A few strides carried him around a
turn in the corridor, and he absently noted that at his left a door
stood partly open. If he had thought, he would have known that that
door had been opened since the watchman passed; but thinking was not
his trade. He was passing the unlocked door before he realized that
aught was amiss, and then it was too late.

A soft tigerish step and the rustle of a cloak warned him, but before
he could turn, a heavy arm hooked about his throat from behind,
crushing the cry before it could reach his lips. In the brief instant
that was allowed him he realized with a surge of panic the strength of
his attacker, against which his own brawny thews were helpless. He
sensed without seeing the poised dagger.

"Nemedian dog!" muttered a voice thick with passion in his ear.
"You've cut off your last Aquilonian head!"

And that was the last thing he ever heard.

In a dank dungeon, lighted only by a guttering torch, three men stood
about a young woman who knelt on the rush-strewn flags staring wildly
up at them. She was clad only in a scanty shift; her golden hair fell
in lustrous ripples about her white shoulders, and her wrists were
bound behind her. Even in the uncertain torchlight, and in spite of
her disheveled condition and pallor of fear, her beauty was striking.
She knelt mutely, staring with wide eyes up at her tormentors. The men
were closely masked and cloaked. Such a deed as this needed masks,
even in a conquered land. She knew them all nevertheless; but what she
knew would harm no one--after that night.

"Our merciful sovereign offers you one more chance, Countess," said
the tallest of the three, and he spoke Aquilonian without an accent.
"He bids me say that if you soften your proud, rebellious spirit, he
will still open his arms to you. If not--" he gestured toward a grim
wooden block in the center of the cell. It was blackly stained, and
showed many deep nicks as if a keen edge, cutting through some
yielding substance, had sunk into the wood.

Albiona shuddered and turned pale, shrinking back. Every fiber in her
vigorous young body quivered with the urge of life. Valerius was
young, too, and handsome. Many women loved him, she told herself,
fighting with herself for life. But she could not speak the word that
would ransom her soft young body from the block and the dripping ax.
She could not reason the matter. She only knew that when she thought
of the clasp of Valerius' arms, her flesh crawled with an abhorrence
greater than the fear of death. She shook her head helplessly,
compelled by an impulsion more irresistible than the instinct to live.

"Then there is no more to be said!" exclaimed one of the others
impatiently, and he spoke with a Nemedian accent. "Where is the
headsman?"

As if summoned by the word, the dungeon door opened silently, and a
great figure stood framed in it, like a black shadow from the
underworld.

Albiona voiced a low, involuntary cry at the sight of that grim shape,
and the others stared silently for a moment, perhaps themselves
daunted with superstitious awe at the silent, hooded figure. Through
the coif the eyes blazed like coals of blue fire, and as these eyes
rested on each man in turn, he felt a curious chill travel down his
spine.

Then the tall Aquilonian roughly seized the girl and dragged her to
the block. She screamed uncontrollably and fought hopelessly against
him, frantic with terror, but he ruthlessly forced her to her knees,
and bent her yellow head down to the bloody block.

"Why do you delay, headsman?" he exclaimed angrily. "Perform your
task!"

He was answered by a short, gusty boom of laughter that was
indescribably menacing. All in the dungeon froze in their places,
staring at the hooded shape--the two cloaked figures, the masked man
bending over the girl, the girl herself on her knees, twisting her
imprisoned head to look upward.

"What means this unseemly mirth, dog?" demanded the Aquilonian
uneasily.

The man in the black garb tore his hood from his head and flung it to
the ground; he set his back to the closed door and lifted the
headsman's ax.

"Do you know me, dogs?" he rumbled. "Do you know me?"

The breathless silence was broken by a scream.

"The king!" shrieked Albiona, wrenching herself free from the
slackened grasp of her captor. "Oh, Mitra, the king!"

The three men stood like statues, and then the Aquilonian started and
spoke, like a man who doubts his own senses.

"Conan!" he ejaculated. "It is the king, or his ghost! What devil's
work is this?"

"Devil's work to match devils!" mocked Conan, his lips laughing but
Hell flaming in his eyes. "Come, fall to, my gentlemen. You have your
swords, and I this cleaver. Nay, I think this butcher's tool fits the
work at hand, my fair lords!"

"At him!" muttered the Aquilonian, drawing his sword. "It is Conan and
we must kill or be killed!"

And like men waking from a trance, the Nemedians drew their blades and
rushed on the king.

The headsman's ax was not made for such work, but the king wielded the
heavy, clumsy weapon as lightly as a hatchet, and his quickness of
foot, as he constantly shifted his position, defeated their purpose of
engaging him all three at once.

He caught the sword of the first man on his ax-head and crushed in the
wielder's breast with a murderous counterstroke before he could step
back or parry. The remaining Nemedian, missing a savage swipe, had his
brains dashed out before he could recover his balance, and an instant
later the Aquilonian was backed into a corner, desperately parrying the
crashing strokes that rained about him, lacking opportunity even to
scream for help.

Suddenly Conan's long left arm shot out and ripped the mask from the
man's head, disclosing the pallid features.

"Dog!" grated the king. "I thought I knew you. Traitor! Damned
renegade! Even this base steel is too honorable for your foul head.
Nay, die as thieves die!"

The ax fell in a devastating arc, and the Aquilonian cried out and
went to his knees, grasping the severed stump of his right arm from
which blood spouted. It had been shorn away at the elbow, and the ax,
unchecked in its descent, had gashed deeply into his side, so that his
entrails bulged out.

"Lie there and bleed to death," grunted Conan, casting the ax away
disgustedly. "Come, Countess!"

Stooping, he slashed the cords that bound her wrists and lifting her
as if she had been a child, strode from the dungeon. She was sobbing
hysterically, with her arms thrown about his corded neck in a frenzied
embrace.

"Easy all," he muttered. "We're not out of this yet. If we can reach
the dungeon where the secret door opens on stairs that lead to the
tunnel--devil take it, they've heard that noise, even through these
walls."

Down the corridor arms clanged and the tramp and shouting of men
echoed under the vaulted roof. A bent figure came hobbling swiftly
along, lantern held high, and its light shone full on Conan and the
girl. With a curse the Cimmerian sprang toward him, but the old
watchman, abandoning both lantern and pike, scuttled away down the
corridor, screeching for help at the top of his cracked voice. Deeper
shouts answered him.

Conan turned swiftly and ran the other way. He was cut off from the
dungeon with the secret lock and the hidden door through which he had
entered the Tower, and by which he had hoped to leave, but he knew
this grim building well. Before he was king he had been imprisoned in
it.

He turned off into a side passage and quickly emerged into another,
broader corridor, which ran parallel to the one down which he had
come, and which was at the moment deserted. He followed this only a
few yards, when he again turned back, down another side passage. This
brought him back into the corridor he had left, but at a strategic
point. A few feet farther up the corridor there was a heavy bolted
door, and before it stood a bearded Nemedian in corselet and helmet
his back to Conan as he peered up the corridor in the direction of the
growing tumult and wildly waving lanterns.

Conan did not hesitate. Slipping the girl to the ground, he ran at the
guard swiftly and silently, sword in hand. The man turned just as the
king reached him, bawled in surprize and fright and lifted his pike;
but before he could bring the clumsy weapon into play, Conan brought
down his sword on the fellow's helmet with a force that would have
felled an ox. Helmet and skull gave way together and the guard
crumpled to the floor.

In an instant Conan had drawn the massive bolt that barred the door--
too heavy for one ordinary man to have manipulated--and called hastily
to Albiona, who ran staggering to him. Catching her up unceremoniously
with one arm, he bore her through the door and into the outer
darkness.

They had come into a narrow alley, black as pitch, walled by the side
of the Tower on one hand, and the sheer stone back of a row of
buildings on the other. Conan, hurrying through the darkness as
swiftly as he dared, felt the latter wall for doors or windows, but
found none.

The great door clanged open behind them, and men poured out, with
torches gleaming on breastplates and naked swords. They glared about,
bellowing, unable to penetrate the darkness which their torches served
to illuminate for only a few feet in any direction, and then rushed
down the alley at random--heading in the direction opposite to that
taken by Conan and Albiona.

"They'll learn their mistake quick enough," he muttered, increasing
his pace. "If we ever find a crack in this infernal wall--damn! The
street watch!"

Ahead of them a faint glow became apparent, where the alley opened
into a narrow street, and he saw dim figures looming against it with a
glimmer of steel. It was indeed the street watch, investigating the
noise they had heard echoing down the alley.

"Who goes here?" they shouted, and Conan grit his teeth at the hated
Nemedian accent.

"Keep behind me," he ordered the girl. "We've got to cut our way
through before the prison guards come back and pin us between them."

And grasping his sword, he ran straight at the oncoming figures.

The advantage of surprize was his. He could see them, limned against
the distant glow, and they could not see him coming at them out of the
black depths of the alley. He was among them before they knew it,
smiting with the silent fury of a wounded lion.

His one chance lay in hacking through before they could gather their
wits. But there were half a score of them, in full mail, hard-bitten 
veterans of the border wars, in whom the instinct for battle could
take the place of bemused wits. Three of them were down before they
realized that it was only one man who was attacking them, but even so
their reaction was instantaneous. The clangor of steel rose
deafeningly, and sparks flew as Conan's sword crashed on basinet and
hauberk. He could see better than they, and in the dim light his
swiftly moving figure was an uncertain mark. Flailing swords cut empty
air or glanced from his blade, and when he struck, it was with the
fury and certainty of a hurricane.

But behind him sounded the shouts of the prison guards, returning up
the alley at a run, and still the mailed figures before him barred his
way with a bristling wall of steel. In an instant the guards would be
on his back--in desperation he redoubled his strokes, flailing like a
smith on an anvil, and then was suddenly aware of a diversion. Out of
nowhere behind the watchmen rose a score of black figures and there
was a sound of blows, murderously driven. Steel glinted in the gloom,
and men cried out, struck mortally from behind. In an instant the
alley was littered with writhing forms. A dark, cloaked shape sprang
toward Conan, who heaved up his sword, catching a gleam of steel in
the right hand. But the other was extended to him empty and a voice
hissed urgently: "This way, Your Majesty! Quickly!"

With a muttered oath of surprize, Conan caught up Albiona in one
massive arm, and followed his unknown befriender. He was not inclined
to hesitate, with thirty prison guardsmen closing in behind him.

Surrounded by mysterious figures he hurried down the alley, carrying
the countess as if she had been a child. He could tell nothing of his
rescuers except that they wore dark cloaks and hoods. Doubt and
suspicion crossed his mind, but at least they had struck down his
enemies, and he saw no better course than to follow them.

As if sensing his doubt, the leader touched his arm lightly and said:
"Fear not, King Conan; we are your loyal subjects."  The voice was not
familiar, but the accent was Aquilonian of the central provinces.

Behind them the guards were yelling as they stumbled over the shambles
in the mud, and they came pelting vengefully down the alley, seeing
the vague dark mass moving between them and the light of the distant
street. But the hooded men turned suddenly toward the seemingly blank
wall, and Conan saw a door gape there. He muttered a curse. He had
traversed that alley by day, in times past, and had never noticed a
door there. But through it they went, and the door closed behind them
with the click of a lock. The sound was not reassuring, but his guides
were hurrying him on, moving with the precision of familiarity,
guiding Conan with a hand at either elbow. It was like traversing a
tunnel, and Conan felt Albiona's lithe limbs trembling in his arms.
Then somewhere ahead of them an opening was faintly visible, merely a
somewhat less black arch in the blackness, and through this they
filed.

After that there was a bewildering succession of dim courts and
shadowy alleys and winding corridors, all traversed in utter silence,
until at last they emerged into a broad lighted chamber, the location
of which Conan could not even guess, for their devious route had
confused even his primitive sense of direction.

Chapter 10: A Coin from Acheron

NOT ALL HIS guides entered the chamber. When the door closed, Conan
saw only one man standing before him--a slim figure, masked in a black
cloak with a hood. This the man threw back, disclosing a pale oval of
a face, with calm, delicately chiseled features.

The king set Albiona on her feet, but she still clung to him and
stared apprehensively about her. The chamber was a large one, with
marble walls partly covered with black velvet hangings and thick rich
carpets on the mosaic floor, laved in the soft golden glow of bronze
lamps.

Conan instinctively laid a hand on his hilt. There was blood on his
hand, blood clotted about the mouth of his scabbard, for he had
sheathed his blade without cleansing it.

"Where are we?" he demanded.

The stranger answered with a low, profound bow in which the suspicious
king could detect no trace of irony.

"In the temple of Asura, Your Majesty."

Albiona cried out faintly and clung closer to Conan, staring fearfully
at the black, arched doors, as if expecting the entry of some grisly
shape of darkness.

"Fear not, my lady," said their guide. "There is nothing here to harm
you, vulgar superstition to the contrary. If your monarch was
sufficiently convinced of the innocence of our religion to protect us
from the persecution of the ignorant, then certainly one of his
subjects need have no apprehensions."

"Who are you?" demanded Conan.

"I am Hadrathus, priest of Asura. One of my followers recognized you
when you entered the city, and brought the word to me."

Conan grunted profanely.

"Do not fear that others discovered your identity," Hadrathus assured
him. "Your disguise would have deceived any but a follower of Asura,
whose cult it is to seek below the aspect of illusion. You were
followed to the watchtower, and some of my people went into the
tunnel to aid you if you returned by that route. Others, myself among
them, surrounded the tower. And now, King Conan, it is yours to
command. Here in the temple of Asura you are still king."

"Why should you risk your lives for me?" asked the king.

"You were our friend when you sat upon your throne," answered
Hadrathus. "You protected us when the priests of Mitra sought to
scourge us out of the land."

Conan looked about him curiously. He had never before visited the
temple of Asura, had not certainly known that there was such a temple
in Tarantia. The priests of the religion had a habit of hiding their
temples in a remarkable fashion. The worship of Mitra was
overwhelmingly predominant in the Hyborian nations, but the cult of
Asura persisted, in spite of official ban and popular antagonism.
Conan had been told dark tales of hidden temples where intense smoke
drifted up incessantly from black altars where kidnaped humans were
sacrificed before a great coiled serpent, whose fearsome head swayed
for ever in the haunted shadows.

Persecution caused the followers of Asura to hide their temples with
cunning art, and to veil they rituals in obscurity; and this secrecy,
in turn, evoked more monstrous suspicions and tales of evil.

But Conan's was the broad tolerance of the barbarian, and he had
refused to persecute the followers of Asura or to allow the people to
do so on no better evidence than was presented against them, rumors
and accusations that could not be proven. "If they are black
magicians," he had said, "how will they suffer you to harry them? If
they are not, there is no evil in them. Crom's devils! Let men worship
what gods they will."

At a respectful invitation from Hadrathus, he seated himself on an
ivory chair, and motioned Albiona to another, but she preferred to sit
on a golden stool at his feet, pressing close against his thigh, as if
seeking security in the contact. Like most orthodox followers of
Mitra, she had an intuitive horror of the followers and cult of Asura,
instilled in her infancy and childhood by wild tales of human
sacrifice and anthropomorphic gods shambling through shadowy temples.

Hadrathus stood before them, his uncovered head bowed.

"What is your wish, Your Majesty? "

"Food first," he grunted, and the priest smote a golden gong with a
silver wand.

Scarcely had the mellow notes ceased echoing when four hooded figures
came through a curtained doorway bearing a great four-legged silver
platter of smoking dishes and crystal vessels.

This they set before Conan, bowing low, and the king wiped his hands
on the damask, and smacked his lips with unconcealed relish.

"Beware, Your Majesty!" whispered Albiona. "These folk eat human
flesh!"

"I'll stake my kingdom that this is nothing but honest roast beef,"
answered Conan. "Come, lass, fall to! You must be hungry after the
prison fare."

Thus advised, and with the example before her of one whose word was
the ultimate law to her, the countess complied, and ate ravenously
though daintily, while her liege lord tore into the meat joints and
guzzled the wine with as much gusto as if he had not already eaten
once that night.

"You priests are shrewd, Hadrathus," he said, with a great beef bone
in his hands and his mouth full of meat. "I'd welcome your service in
my campaign to regain my kingdom."

Slowly Hadrathus shook his head, and Conan slammed the beef bone down
on the table in a gust of impatient wrath.

"Crom's devils! What ails the men of Aquilonia? First Servius--now
you! Can you do nothing but wag your idiotic heads when I speak of
ousting these dogs?"

Hadrathus sighed and answered slowly: "My lord, it is ill to say, and
I fain would say otherwise. But the freedom of Aquilonia is at an end!
Nay, the freedom of the whole world may be at an end! Age follows age
in the history of the world, and now we enter an age of horror and
slavery, as it was long ago."

"What do you mean?" demanded the king uneasily.

Hadrathus dropped into a chair and rested his elbows on his thighs,
staring at the floor.

"It is not alone the rebellious lords of Aquilonia and the armies of
Nemedia which are arrayed against you," answered Hadrathus. "It is
sorcery--grisly black magic from the grim youth of the world. An awful
shape has risen out of the shades of the Past, and none can stand
before it."

"What do you mean?" Conan repeated.

"I speak of Xaltotun of Acheron, who died three thousand years ago,
yet walks the earth today."

Conan was silent, while in his mind floated an image--the image of a
bearded face of calm inhuman beauty. Again he was haunted by a sense
of uneasy familiarity. Acheron--the sound of the word roused
instinctive vibrations of memory and associations in his mind.

"Acheron," he repeated. "Xaltotun of Acheron--man, are you mad? Acheron
has been a myth for more centuries than I can remember. I've often
wondered if it ever existed at all."

"It was a black reality," answered Hadrathus, "an empire of black
magicians, steeped in evil now long forgotten. It was finally
overthrown by the Hyborian tribes of the west. The wizards of Acheron
practised foul necromancy, thaumaturgy of the most evil kind, grisly
magic taught them by devils. And of all the sorcerers of that accursed
kingdom, none was so great as Xaltotun of Python."

"Then how was he ever overthrown?" asked Conan skeptically.

"By some means a source of cosmic power which he jealously guarded was
stolen and turned against him. That source has been returned to him,
and he is invincible."

Albiona, hugging the headsman's black cloak about her, stared from the
priest to the king, not understanding the conversation. Conan shook
his head angrily.

"You are making game of me," he growled. "If Xaltotun has been dead
three thousand years, how can this man be he? It's some rogue who's
taken the old one's name."

Hadrathus leaned to an ivory table and opened a small gold chest which
stood there. From it he took something which glinted dully in the
mellow light--a broad gold coin of antique minting.

"You have seen Xaltotun unveiled? Then look upon this. It is a coin
which was stamped in ancient Acheron, before its fall. So pervaded
with sorcery was that black empire, that even this coin has its uses
in making magic."

Conan took it and scowled down at it. There was no mistaking its great
antiquity. Conan had handled many coins in the years of his
plunderings, and had a good practical knowledge of them. The edges
were worn and the inscription almost obliterated. But the countenance
stamped on one side was still clear-cut and distinct. And Conan's
breath sucked in between his clenched teeth. It was not cool in the
chamber, but he felt a prickling of his scalp, an icy contraction of
his flesh. The countenance was that of a bearded man, inscrutable,
with a calm inhuman beauty.

"By Crom! It's he!" muttered Conan. He understood, now, the sense of
familiarity that the sight of the bearded man had roused in him from
the first. He had seen a coin like this once before, long ago in a far
land.

With a shake of his shoulders he growled: "The likeness is only a
coincidence--or if he's shrewd enough to assume a forgotten wizard's
name, he's shrewd enough to assume his likeness."  But he spoke
without conviction. The sight of that coin had shaken the foundations
of his universe. He felt that reality and stability were crumbling
into an abyss of illusion and sorcery. A wizard was understandable;
but this was diabolism beyond sanity.

"We cannot doubt that it is indeed Xaltotun of Python," said
Hadrathus. "He it was who shook down the cliffs at Valkia, by his
spells that enthrall the elementals of the earth--he it was who sent
the creature of darkness into your tent before dawn."

Conan scowled at him. "How did you know that?"

"The followers of Asura have secret channels of knowledge. That does
not matter. But do you realize the futility of sacrificing your
subjects in a vain attempt to regain your crown?"

Conan rested his chin on his fist, and stared grimly into nothing.
Albiona watched him anxiously, her mind groping bewildered in the
mazes of the problem that confronted him.

"Is there no wizard in the world who could make magic to fight
Xaltotun's magic?" he asked at last.

Hadrathus shook his head. "If there were, we of Asura would know of
him. Men say our cult is a survival of the ancient Stygian serpent-
worship. That is a lie. Our ancestors came from Vendhya, beyond the
Sea of Vilayet and the blue Himelian mountains. We are sons of the
East, not the South, and we have knowledge of all the wizards of the
East, who are greater than the wizards of the West. And not one of
them but would be a straw in the wind before the black might of
Xaltotun."

"But he was conquered once," persisted Conan.

"Aye; a cosmic source was turned against him. But now that source is
again in his hands, and he will see that it is not stolen again."

"And what is this damnable source?" demanded Conan irritably.

"It is called the Heart of Ahriman. When Acheron was overthrown, the
primitive priest who had stolen it and turned it against Xaltotun hid
it in a haunted cavern and built a small temple over the cavern.
Thrice thereafter the temple was rebuilt, each time greater and more
elaborately than before, but always on the site of the original
shrine, though men forgot the reason therefor. Memory of the hidden
symbol faded from the minds of common men, and was preserved only in
priestly books and esoteric volumes. Whence it came no one knows. Some
say it is the veritable heart of a god, others that it is a star that
fell from the skies long ago. Until it was stolen, none had looked
upon it for three thousand years.

"When the magic of the Mitran priests failed against the magic of
Xaltotun's acolyte, Altaro, they remembered the ancient legend of the
Heart, and the high priest and an acolyte went down into the dark and
terrible crypt below the temple into which no priest had descended for
three thousand years. In the ancient iron-bound volumes which speak of
the Heart in their cryptic symbolism, it is also told of a creature of
darkness left by the ancient priest to guard it."

"Far down in a square chamber with arched doorways leading off into
immeasurable blackness, the priest and his acolytes found a black
stone altar that glowed dimly with inexplicable radiance.

"On that altar lay a curious gold vessel like a double-valved seashell, which clung to the stone like a barnacle. But it gaped open and
empty. The Heart of Ahriman was gone. While they stared in horror, the
keeper of the crypt, the creature of darkness, came upon them and
mangled the high priest so that he died. But the acolyte fought off
the being--a mindless, soulless waif of the pits brought long ago to
guard the Heart--and escaped up the long black narrow stairs carrying
the dying priest, who before he died, gasped out the news to his
followers, bade them submit to a power they could not overcome, and
commanded secrecy. But the word has been whispered about among the
priests, and we of Asura learned of it."

"And Xaltotun draws his power from this symbol?" asked Conan, still
skeptical.

"No. His power is drawn from the black gulf. But the Heart of Ahriman
came from some far universe of flaming light, and against it the
powers of darkness cannot stand, when it is in the hands of an adept.
It is like a sword that might smite at him, not a sword with which he
can smite. It restores life, and can destroy life. He has stolen it,
not to use it against his enemies, but to keep them from using it
against him."

"A shell-shaped bowl of gold on a black altar in a deep cavern," Conan
muttered, frowning as he sought to capture the illusive image. "That
reminds me of something I have heard or seen. But what, in Crom's
name, is this notable Heart?"

"It is in the form of a great jewel, like a ruby, but pulsing with
blinding fire with which no ruby ever burned. It glows like living
flame--"

But Conan sprang suddenly up and smote his right fist into his left
palm like a thunderclap.

"Crom!" he roared. "What a fool I've been! The Heart of Ahriman! The
heart of my kingdom! Find the heart of my kingdom, Zeiata said. By
Ymir, it was the jewel I saw in the green smoke, the jewel which
Tarascus stole from Xaltotun while he lay in the sleep of the black
lotus!"

Hadrathus was also on his feet, his calm dropped from him like a
garment.

"What are you saying? The Heart stolen from Xaltotun?"

"Aye!" Conan boomed. "Tarascus feared Xaltotun and wanted to cripple
his power, which he thought resided in the Heart. Maybe he thought the
wizard would die if the Heart was lost. By Crom--ahhh!" With a savage
grimace of disappointment and disgust he dropped his clenched hand to
his side.

"I forgot. Tarascus gave it to a thief to throw into the sea. By this
time the fellow must be almost to Kordava. Before I can follow him
he'll take ship and consign the Heart to the bottom of the ocean."

"The sea will not hold it!" exclaimed Hadrathus, quivering with
excitement. "Xaltotun would himself have cast it into the ocean long
ago, had he not known that the first storm would carry it ashore. But
on what unknown beach might it not land!"

"Well," Conan was recovering some of his resilient confidence,
"there's no assurance that the thief will throw it away. If I know
thieves--and I should, for I was a thief in Zamora in my early youth--he
won't throw it away. He'll sell it to some rich trader. By Crom!" He
strode back and forth in his growing excitement. "It's worth looking
for! Zelata bade me find the heart of my kingdom, and all else she
showed me proved to be truth. Can it be that the power to conquer
Xaltotun lurks in that crimson bauble?"

"Aye! My head upon it!" cried Hadrathus, his face lightened with
fervor, his eyes blazing, his fists clenched. "With it in our hands we
can dare the powers of Xaltotun! I swear it! If we can recover it, we
have an even chance of recovering your crown and driving the invaders
from our portals. It is not the swords of Nemedia that Aquilonia
fears, but the black arts of Xaltotun."

Conan looked at him for a space, impressed by the priest's fire.

"It's like a quest in a nightmare," he said at last. "Yet your words
echo the thought of Zeiata, and all else she said was truth. I'll seek
for this jewel."

"It holds the destiny of Aquilonia," said Hadrathus with conviction.
"I will send men with you--"

"Nay!" exclaimed the king impatiently, not caring to be hampered by
priests on his quest, however skilled in esoteric arts. "This is a
task for a fighting-man. I go alone. First to Poitain, where I'll
leave Albiona with Trocero. Then to Kordava, and to the sea beyond, if
necessary. It may be that, even if the thief intends carrying out
Tarascus' order, he'll have some difficulty finding an outbound ship
at this time of the year."

"And if you find the Heart," cried Hadrathus, "I will prepare the way
for your conquest. Before you return to Aquilonia I will spread the
word through secret channels that you live and are returning with a
magic stronger than Xaltotun's. I will have men ready to rise on your
return. They will rise, if they have assurance that they will be
protected from the black arts of Xaltotun.

"And I will aid you on your journey."

He rose and struck the gong.

"A secret tunnel leads from beneath this temple to a place outside the
city wall. You shall go to Poitain on a pilgrim's boat. None will dare
molest you."

"As you will."  With a definite purpose in mind Conan was afire with
impatience and dynamic energy. "Only let it be done swiftly."

In the meantime events were moving not slowly elsewhere in the city. A
breathless messenger had burst into the palace where Valerius was
amusing himself with his dancing girls, and throwing himself on his
knee, gasped out a garbled story of a bloody prison break and the
escape of a lovely captive. He bore also the news that Count Thespius,
to whom the execution of Albiona's sentence had been entrusted, was
dying and begging for a word with Valerius before he passed. Hurriedly
cloaking himself, Valerius accompanied the man through various winding
ways, and came to a chamber where Thespius lay. There was no doubt
that the count was dying; bloody froth bubbled from his lips at each
shuddering gasp. His severed arm had been bound to stop the flow of
blood, but even without that, the gash in his side was mortal.

Alone in the chamber with the dying man, Valerius swore softly.

"By Mitra, I had believed that only one man ever lived who could
strike such a blow."

"Valerius!" gasped the dying man. "He lives! Conan lives!"

"What are you saying?" ejaculated the other.

"I swear by Mitra!" gurgled Thespius, gagging on the blood that gushed
to his lips. "It was he who carried off Albiona! He is not dead--no
phantom come back from hell to haunt us. He is flesh and blood, and
more terrible than ever. The alley behind the tower is full of dead
men. Beware, Valerius--he has come back--to slay us all--"

A strong shudder shook the blood-smeared figure, and Count Thespius
went limp.

Valerius frowned down at the dead man, cast a swift glance about the
empty chamber, and stepping swiftly to the door, cast it open
suddenly. The messenger and a group of Nemedian guardsmen stood
several paces down the corridor. Valerius muttered something that
might have indicated satisfaction.

"Have all the gates been closed?" he demanded.

"Yes, Your Majesty."

"Triple the guards at each. Let no one enter or leave the city without
strictest investigation. Set men scouring the streets and searching
the quarters. A very valuable prisoner has escaped, with the aid of an
Aquilonian rebel. Did any of you recognize the man?"

"No, Your Majesty. The old watchman had a glimpse of him, but could
only say that he was a giant, clad in the black garb of the
executioner, whose naked body we found in an empty cell."

"He is a dangerous man," said Valerius. "Take no chances with him. You
all know the Countess Albiona. Search for her, and if you find her,
kill her and her companion instantly. Do not try to take them alive."

Returning to his palace chamber, Valerius summoned before him four men
of curious and alien aspect. They were tall, gaunt, of yellowish skin,
and immobile countenances. They were very similar in appearance, clad
alike in long black robes beneath which their sandaled feet were just
visible. Their features were shadowed by their hoods. They stood
before Valerius with their hands in their wide sleeves; their arms
folded. Valerius looked at them without pleasure. In his far
journeyings he had encountered many strange races.

"When I found you starving in the Khitan jungles," he said abruptly,
"exiles from your kingdom, you swore to serve me. You have served me
well enough, in your abominable way. One more service I require, and
then I set you free of your oath."

"Conan the Cimmerian, king of Aquilonia, still lives, in spite of
Xaltotun's sorcery--or perhaps because of it. I know not. The dark mind
of that resurrected devil is too devious and subtle for a mortal man
to fathom. But while Conan lives I am not safe. The people accepted me
as the lesser of two evils, when they thought he was dead. Let him
reappear and the throne will be rocking under my feet in revolution
before I can lift my hand.

"Perhaps my allies mean to use him to replace me, if they decide I
have served my purpose. I do not know. I do know that this planet is
too small for two kings of Aquilonia. Seek the Cimmerian. Use your
uncanny talents to ferret him out wherever he hides or runs. He has
many friends in Tarantia. He had aid when he carried off Albiona. It
took more than one man, even such a man as Conan, to wreak all that
slaughter in the alley outside the tower. But no more. Take your
staffs and strike his trail. Where that trail will lead you, I know
not. But find him! And when you find him, slay him!"

The four Khitans bowed together, and still unspeaking, turned and
padded noiselessly from the chamber.

Chapter 11: Swords of the South

DAWN THAT ROSE over the distant hills shone on the sails of a small
craft that dropped down the river which curves to within a mile of the
walls of Tarantia, and loops southward like a great shining serpent.
This boat differed from the ordinary craft plying the broad Khorotas--
fishermen and merchant barges loaded with rich goods. It was long and
slender, with a high, curving prow, and was black as ebony, with white
skulls painted along the gunwales. Amidships rose a small cabin, the
windows closely masked. Other craft gave the ominously painted boat a
wide berth; for it was obviously one of those "pilgrim boats" that
carried a lifeless follower of Asura on his last mysterious pilgrimage
southward to where, far beyond the Poitanian mountains, a river flowed
at last into the blue ocean. In that cabin undoubtedly lay the corpse
of the departed worshipper. All men were familiar with the sight of
those gloomy craft; and the most fanatical votary of Mitra would not
dare touch or interfere with their somber voyages.

Where the ultimate destination lay, men did not know. Some said
Stygia; some a nameless island lying beyond the horizon; others said
it was in the glamorous and mysterious land of Vendhya where the dead
came home at last. But none knew certainly. They only knew that when a
follower of Asura died, the corpse went southward down the great
river, in a black boat rowed by a giant slave, and neither boat nor
corpse nor slave was ever seen again; unless, indeed, certain dark
tales were true, and it was always the same slave who rowed the boats
southward.

The man who propelled this particular boat was as huge and brown as
the others, though closer scrutiny might have revealed the fact that
the hue was the result of carefully applied pigments. He was clad in
leather loin-clout and sandals, and he handled the long sweep and oars
with unusual skill and power. But none approached the grim boat
closely, for it was well known that the followers of Asura were
accursed, and that these pilgrim boats were loaded with dark magic. So
men swung their boats wide and muttered an incantation as the dark
craft slid past, and they never dreamed that they were thus assisting
in the flight of their king and the Countess Albiona.

It was a strange journey, in that black, slim craft down the great
river for nearly two hundred miles to where the Khorotas swings
eastward, skirting the Poitanian mountains. Like a dream the ever-
changing panorama glided past. During the day Albiona lay patiently in
the little cabin, as quietly as the corpse she pretended to be. Only
late at night, after the pleasure boats with their fair occupants
lounging on silken cushions in the flare of torches held by slaves had
left the river, before dawn brought the hurrying fisher-boats, did the
girl venture out. Then she held the long sweep, cunningly bound in
place by ropes to aid her, while Conan snatched a few hours of sleep.
But the king needed little rest. The ardor of his desire drove him
relentlessly; and his powerful frame was equal to the grinding test.
Without halt or pause they drove southward.

So down the river they fled, through nights when the flowing current
mirrored the million stars, and through days of golden sunlight,
leaving winter behind them as they sped southward. They passed cities
in the night, above which throbbed and pulsed; the reflection of the
myriad lights, lordly river villas and fertile fruit groves. So at
last the blue mountains of Poitain rose above them, tier above tier,
like ramparts of the gods, and the great river, swerving from those
turreted cliffs, swept thunderously through the marching hills with
many a rapid and foaming cataract.

Conan scanned the shoreline closely, and finally swung the long sweep
and headed inshore at a point where a neck of land jutted into the
water, and fir trees grew in a curiously symmetrical ring about a
gray, strangely shaped rock.

"How these boats ride those falls we hear roaring ahead of us is more
than I can see," he grunted. "Hadrathus said they did--but there's
where we halt. He said a man would be waiting for us with horses, but
I don't see anyone. How word of our coming could have preceded us I
don't know anyway."

He drove inshore and bound the prow to an arching root in the low
bank, and then, plunging into the water, washed the brown paint from
his skin and emerged dripping, and in his natural color. From the
cabin he brought forth a suit of Aquilonian ring mail which Hadrathus
had procured for him, and his sword. These he donned while Albiona put
on garments suitable for mountain travel. And when Conan was fully
armed, and turned to look toward the shore, he started and his hand
went to his sword. For on the shore, under the trees, stood a black-
cloaked figure holding the reins of a white palfrey and a bay war-
horse.

"Who are you?" demanded the king.

The other bowed low.

"A follower of Asura. A command came. I obeyed."

"How, 'came'?" inquired Conan, but the other merely bowed again.

"I have come to guide you through the mountains to the first Poitanian
stronghold."

"I don't need a guide," answered Conan. "I know these hills well. I
thank you for the horses, but the countess and I will attract less
attention alone than if we were accompanied by an acolyte of Asura."

The man bowed profoundly, and giving the reins into Conan's hands,
stepped into the boat. Casting off, he floated down the swift current,
toward the distant roar of the unseen rapids. With a baffled shake of
his head, Conan lifted the countess into the palfrey's saddle, and
then mounted the war-horse and reined toward the summits that
castellated the sky.

The rolling country at the foot of the towering mountains were now a
borderland, in a state of turmoil, where the barons reverted to feudal
practises, and bands of outlaws roamed unhindered. Poitain had not
formally declared her separation from Aquilonia, but she was now, to
all intents, a self-contained kingdom, ruled by her hereditary count,
Trocero. The rolling south country had submitted nominally to
Valerius, but he had not attempted to force the passes guarded by
strongholds where the crimson leopard banner of Poitain waved
defiantly.

The king and his fair companion rode up the long blue slopes in the
soft evening. As they mounted higher, the rolling country spread out
like a vast purple mantle far beneath them, shot with the shine of
rivers and lakes, the yellow glint of broad fields, and the white
gleam of distant towers. Ahead of them and far above, they glimpsed
the first of the Poitanian holds--a strong fortress dominating a narrow
pass, the crimson banner streaming against the clear blue sky.

Before they reached it, a band of knights in burnished armor rode from
among the trees, and their leader sternly ordered the travelers to
halt. They were tall men, with the dark eyes and raven locks of the
south.

"Halt, sir, and state your business, and why you ride toward Poitain."

"Is Poitain in revolt then," asked Conan, watching the other closely,
"that a man in Aquilonian harness is halted and questioned like a
foreigner?"

"Many rogues ride out of Aquilonia these days," answered the other
coldly. "As for revolt, if you mean the repudiation of a usurper, then
Poitain is in revolt. We had rather serve the memory of a dead man
than the scepter of a living dog."

Conan swept off his helmet, and shaking back his black mane stared
full at the speaker. The Poitanian stared violently and went livid.

"Saints of heaven!" he gasped. "It is the king--alive!"

The others stared wildly, then a roar of wonder and joy burst from
them. They swarmed about Conan, shouting their war-cries and
brandishing their swords in their extreme emotion. The acclaim of
Poitanian warriors was a thing to terrify a timid man.

"Oh, but Trocero will weep tears of joy to see you, sire!" cried one.

"Aye, and Prospero!" shouted another. "The general has been like one
wrapped in a mantle of melancholy, and curses himself night and day
that he did not reach the Valkia in time to die beside his king!"

"Now we will strike for empery!" yelled another, whirling his great
sword about his head. "Hail, Conan king of Poitain!"

The clangor of bright steel about him and the thunder of their acclaim
frightened the birds that rose in gay-hued clouds from the surrounding
trees. The hot southern blood was afire, and they desired nothing but
for their new-found sovereign to lead them to battle and pillage.

"What is your command, sire?" they cried. "Let one of us ride ahead
and bear the news of your coming into Poitain! Banners will wave from
every tower, roses will carpet the road before your horse's feet, and
all the beauty and chivalry of the south will give you the honor due
you--"

Conan shook his head.

"Who could doubt your loyalty? But winds blow over these mountains
into the countries of my enemies, and I would rather these didn't know
that I lived--yet. Take me to Trocero, and keep my identity a secret."

So what the knights would have made a triumphal procession was more in
the nature of a secret flight. They traveled in haste, speaking to no
one, except for a whisper to the captain on duty at each pass; and
Conan rode among them with his vizor lowered.

The mountains were uninhabited save by outlaws and garrisons of
soldiers who guarded the passes. The pleasure-loving Poitanians had
no need nor desire to wrest a hard and scanty living from their stern
breasts. South of the ranges the rich and beautiful plains of Poitain
stretched to the river Alimane; but beyond the river lay the land of
Zingara.

Even now, when winter was crisping the leaves beyond the mountains,
the tall rich grass waved upon the plains where grazed the horses and
cattle for which Poitain was famed. Palm trees and orange groves
smiled in the sun, and the gorgeous purple and gold and crimson towers
of castles and cities reflected the golden light. It was a land of
warmth and plenty, of beautiful men and ferocious warriors. It is not
only the hard lands that breed hard men. Poitain was surrounded by
covetous neighbors and her sons learned hardihood in incessant wars.
To the north the land was guarded by the mountains, but to the south
only the Alimane separated the plains of Poitain from the plains of
Zingara, and not once but a thousand times had that river run red. To
the east lay Argos and beyond that Ophir, proud kingdoms and
avaricious. The knights of Poitain held their lands by the weight and
edge of their swords, and little of ease and idleness they knew.

So Conan came presently to the castle of Count Trocero.

Conan sat on a silken divan in a rich chamber whose filmy curtains the
warm breeze billowed. Trocero paced the floor like a panther, a lithe,
restless man with the waist of a woman and the shoulders of a
swordsman, who carried his years lightly.

"Let us proclaim you king of Poitain!" urged the count. "Let those
northern pigs wear the yoke to which they have bent their necks. The
south is still yours. Dwell here and rule us, amid the flowers and the
palms."

But Conan shook his head. "There is no nobler land on earth than
Poitain. But it cannot stand alone, bold as are its sons."

"It did stand alone for generations," retorted Trocero, with the quick
jealous pride of his breed. "We were not always a part of Aquilonia."

"I know. But conditions are not as they were then, when all kingdoms
were broken into principalities which warred with each other. The days
of dukedoms and free cities are past, the days of empires are upon us.
Rulers are dreaming imperial dreams, and only in unity is there
strength."

"Then let us unite Zingara with Poitain," argued Trocero. "Half a
dozen princes strive against each other, and the country is torn
asunder by civil wars. We will conquer it, province by province, and
add it to your dominions. Then with the aid of the Zingarans we will
conquer Argos and Ophir. We will build an empire--"

Again Conan shook his head. "Let others dream imperial dreams. I but
wish to hold what is mine. I have no desire to rule an empire welded
together by blood and fire. It's one thing to seize a throne with the
aid of its subjects and rule them with their consent. It's another to
subjugate a foreign realm and rule it by fear. I don't wish to be
another Valerius. No, Trocero, I'll rule all Aquilonia and no more, or
I'll rule nothing."

"Then lead us over the mountains and we will smite the Nemedians."

Conan's fierce eyes glowed with appreciation. "No, Trocero. It would
be a vain sacrifice. I've told you what I must do to regain my
kingdom. I must find the Heart of Ahriman."

"But this is madness!" protested Trocero. "The maunderings of a
heretical priest, the mumblings of a mad witch-woman."

"You were not in my tent before Valkia," answered Conan grimly,
involuntarily glancing at his right wrist, on which blue marks still
showed faintly. "You didn't see the cliffs thunder down to crush the
flower of my army. No, Trocero, I've been convinced. Xaltotun's no
mortal man, and only with the Heart of Ahriman can I stand against
him. So I'm riding to Kordava, alone."

"But that is dangerous," protested Trocero.

"Life is dangerous," rumbled the king. "I won't go as king of
Aquilonia, or even as a knight of Poitain, but as a wandering
mercenary, as I rode in Zingara in the old days. Oh, I have enemies
enough south of the Alimane, in the lands and the waters of the south.
Many who won't know me as king of Aquilonia will remember me as Conan
of the Barachan pirates, or Amra of the black corsairs. But I have
friends, too, and men who'll aid me for their own private reasons."  A
faint reminiscent grin touched his lips.

Trocero dropped his hands helplessly and glanced at Albiona, who sat
on a near-by divan.

"I understand your doubts, my lord," said she. "But I too saw the coin
in the temple of Asura, and look you, Hadrathus said it was dated five
hundred years before the fall of Acheron. If Xaltotun, then, is the
man pictured on the coin, as his Majesty swears he is, that means he
was no common wizard, even in his other life, for the years of his
life were numbered by centuries, not as the lives of other men are
numbered."

Before Trocero could reply, a respectful rap was heard on the door and
a voice called: "My lord, we have caught a man skulking about the
castle, who says he wishes to speak with your guest. I await your
orders."

"A spy from Aquilonia!" hissed Trocero, catching at his dagger, but
Conan lifted his voice and called: "Open the door and let me see him."

The door was opened and a man was framed in it, grasped on either hand
by stern-looking men-at-arms. He was a slender man, clad in a dark
hooded robe.

"Are you a follower of Asura?" asked Conan.

The man nodded, and the stalwart men-at-arms looked shocked and
glanced hesitantly at Trocero.

"The word came southward," said the man. "Beyond the Alimane we cannot aid you, for our sect goes no farther southward, but stretches
eastward with the Khorotas. But this I have learned: the thief who
took the Heart of Ahriman from Tarascus never reached Kordava. In the
mountains of Poitain he was slain by robbers. The jewel fell into the
hands of their chief, who, not knowing its true nature, and being
harried after the destruction of his band by Poitanian knights, sold
it to the Kothic merchant Zorathus."

"Ha!" Conan was on his feet, galvanized. "And what of Zorathus?"

"Four days ago he crossed the Alimane, headed for Argos, with a small
band of armed servants.”

"He's a fool to cross Zingara in such times," said Trocero.

"Aye, times are troublous across the river. But Zorathus is a bold
man, and reckless in his way. He is in great haste to reach Messantia,
where he hopes to find a buyer for the jewel. Perhaps he hopes to sell
it finally in Stygia. Perhaps he guesses at its true nature. At any
rate, instead of following the long road that winds along the borders
of Poitain and so at last comes into Argos far from Messantia, he has
struck straight across eastern Zingara, following the shorter and more
direct route."

Conan smote the table with his clenched fist so that the great board
quivered.

"Then, by Crom, fortune has at last thrown the dice for me! A horse,
Trocero, and the harness of a Free Companion! Zorathus has a long
start, but not too long for me to overtake him, if I follow him to the
end of the world!"

Chapter 12: The Fang of the Dragon

AT DAWN CONAN waded his horse across the shallows of the Alimane and
struck the wide caravan trail which ran southeastward, and behind him,
on the farther bank, Trocero sat his horse silently at the head of his
steel-clad knights, with the crimson leopard of Poitain floating its
long folds over him in the morning breeze. Silently they sat, those
dark-haired men in shining steel, until the figure of their king had
vanished in the blue of distance that whitened toward sunrise.

Conan rode a great black stallion, the gift of Trocero. He no longer
wore the armor of Aquilonia. His harness proclaimed him a veteran of
the Free Companies, who were of all races. His head piece was a plain
morion, dented and battered. The leather and mail mesh of his hauberk
were worn and shiny as if by many campaigns, and the scarlet cloak
flowing carelessly from his mailed shoulders was tattered and stained.
He looked the part of the hired fighting-man, who had known all
vicissitudes of fortune, plunder and wealth one day, an empty purse
and a close-drawn belt the next.

And more than looking the part, he felt the part; the awakening of old
memories, the resurge of the wild, mad, glorious days of old before
his feet were set on the imperial path when he was a wandering
mercenary, roistering, brawling, guzzling, adventuring, with no
thought for the morrow, and no desire save sparkling ale, red lips,
and a keen sword to swing on all the battlefields of the world.

Unconsciously he reverted to the old ways; a new swagger became
evident in his bearing, in the way he sat his horse; half-forgotten
oaths rose naturally to his lips, and as he rode he hummed old songs
that he had roared in chorus with his reckless companions in many a
tavern and on many a dusty road or bloody field.

It was an unquiet land through which he rode. The companies of cavalry
which usually patrolled the river, alert for raids out of Poitain,
were nowhere in evidence. Internal strife had left the borders
unguarded: The long white road stretched bare from horizon to horizon.
No laden camel trains or rumbling wagons or lowing herds moved along
it now; only occasional groups of horsemen in leather and steel, hawk-
faced, hard-eyed men, who kept together and rode warily. These swept
Conan with their searching gaze but rode on, for the solitary rider's
harness promised no plunder, but only hard strokes.

Villages lay in ashes and deserted, the fields and meadows idle. Only
the boldest would ride the roads these days, and the native population
had been decimated in the civil wars, and by raids from across the
river. In more peaceful times the road was thronged with merchants
riding to Messantia in Argos, or back. But now these found it
wiser to follow the road that led east through Poitain, and then
turned south down across Argos. It was longer, but safer. Only an
extremely reckless man would risk his life and goods on this road
through Zingara.

The southern horizon was fringed with flame by night, and in the day
straggling pillars of smoke drifted upward; in the cities and plains
to the south men were dying, thrones were toppling and castles going
up in flames. Conan felt the old tug of the professional fighting-man,
to turn his horse and plunge into the fighting, the pillaging and the
looting as in the days of old. Why should he toil to regain the rule
of a people which had already forgotten him? why chase a will-o'-the-
wisp, why pursue a crown that was lost for ever? Why should he not
seek forgetfulness, lose himself in the red tides of war and rapine
that had engulfed him so often before? Could he not, indeed, carve out
another kingdom for himself? The world was entering an age of iron, an
age of war and imperialistic ambition; some strong man might well rise
above the ruins of nations as a supreme conqueror. Why should it not
be himself? So his familiar devil whispered in his ear, and the
phantoms of his lawless and bloody past crowded upon him. But he did
not turn aside; he rode onward, following a quest that grew dimmer and
dimmer as he advanced, until sometimes it seemed that he pursued a
dream that never was.

He pushed the black stallion as hard as he dared, but the long white
road lay before him, from horizon to horizon. It was a long start
Zorathus had, but Conan rode steadily on, knowing that he was
traveling faster than the burdened merchants could travel. And so he
came to the castle of Count Valbroso, perched like a vulture's eyrie
on a bare hill overlooking the road.

Valbroso rode down with his men-at-arms, a lean, dark man with
glittering eyes and a predatory beak of a nose. He wore black plate 
armor and was followed by thirty spearmen, black-mustached hawks of
the border wars, as avaricious and ruthless as himself. Of late the
toll of the caravans had been slim, and Valbroso cursed the civil wars
that stripped the roads of their fat traffic, even while he blessed
them for the free hand they allowed him with his neighbors.

He had not hoped much from the solitary rider he had glimpsed from his
tower, but all was grist that came to his mill. With a practised eye
he took in Conan’s worn mail and dark, scarred face, and his
conclusions were the same as those of the riders who had passed the
Cimmerian on the road--an empty purse and a ready blade.

"Who are you, knave?" he demanded.

"A mercenary, riding for Argos," answered Conan. "What matter names?"

"You are riding in the wrong direction for a Free Companion," grunted
Valbroso. "Southward the fighting is good and also the plundering.
Join my company. You won't go hungry. The road remains bare of fat
merchants to strip, but I mean to take my rogues and fare southward to
sell our swords to whichever side seems strongest."

Conan did not at once reply, knowing that if he refused outright, he
might be instantly attacked by Valbroso's men-at-arms. Before he could
make up his mind, the Zingaran spoke again:

"You rogues of the Free Companies always know tricks to make men talk.
I have a prisoner--the last merchant I caught, by Mitra, and the only
one I've seen for a week--and the knave is stubborn. He has an iron
box, the secret of which defies us, and I've been unable to persuade
him to open it. By Ishtar, I thought I knew all the modes of
persuasion there are, but perhaps you, as a veteran Free Companion,
know some that I do not. At any rate come with me and see what you may
do."

Valbroso's words instantly decided Conan. That sounded a great deal
like Zorathus. Conan did not know the merchant, but any man who was
stubborn enough to try to traverse the Zingaran road in times like
these would very probably be stubborn enough to defy torture.

He fell in beside Valbroso and rode up the straggling road to the top
of the hill where the gaunt castle stood. As a man-at-arms he should
have ridden behind the count, but force of habit made him careless and
Valbroso paid no heed. Years of life on the border had taught the
count that the frontier is not the royal court. He was aware of the
independence of the mercenaries, behind whose swords many a king had
trodden the throne-path.

There was a dry moat, half filled with debris in some places. They
clattered across the drawbridge and through the arch of the gate.
Behind them the portcullis fell with a sullen clang. They came into a
bare courtyard, grown with straggling grass, and with a well in the
middle. Shacks for the men-at-arms straggled about the bailey wall,
and women, slatternly or decked in gaudy finery, looked from the
doors. Fighting-men in rusty mail tossed dice on the flags under the
arches. It was more like a bandit's hold than the castle of a
nobleman.

Valbroso dismounted and motioned Conan to follow him. They went
through a doorway and along a vaulted corridor, where they were met by
a scarred, hard-looking man in mail descending a stone staircase--
evidently the captain of the guard.

"How, Beloso," quoth Valbroso; "has he spoken?"

"He is stubborn," muttered Beloso, shooting a glance of suspicion at
Conan.

Valbroso ripped out an oath and stamped furiously up the winding
stair, followed by Conan and the captain. As they mounted, the groans
of a man in mortal agony became audible. Valbroso's torture-room was
high above the court, instead of in a dungeon below. In that chamber,
where a gaunt, hairy beast of a man in leather breeks squatted gnawing
a beef bone voraciously, stood the machines of torture--racks, boots,
hooks and all the implements that the human mind devises to tear
flesh, break bones and rend and rupture veins and ligaments.

On a rack a man was stretched naked, and a glance told Conan that he
was dying. The unnatural elongation of his limbs and body told of
unhinged joints and unnamable ruptures. He was a dark man, with an
intelligent, aquiline face and quick dark eyes. They were glazed and
bloodshot now with pain, and the dew of agony glistened on his face.
His lips were drawn back from blackened gums.

"There is the box."  Viciously Valbroso kicked a small but heavy iron
chest that stood on the floor near by. It was intricately carved, with
tiny skulls and writhing dragons curiously intertwined, but Conan saw
no catch or hasp that might serve to unlock the lid. The marks of
fire, of ax and sledge and chisel showed on it but as scratches.

"This is the dog's treasure box," said Valbroso angrily. "All men of
the south know of Zorathus and his iron chest. Mitra knows what is in
it. But he will not give up its secret."

Zorathus! It was true, then; the man he sought lay before him. Conan's
heart beat suffocatingly as he leaned over the writhing form, though
he exhibited no evidence of his painful eagerness.

"Ease those ropes, knave!" he ordered the torturer harshly, and
Valbroso and his captain stared. In the forgetfulness of the moment
Conan had used his imperial tone, and the brute in leather
instinctively obeyed the knife edge of command in that voice. He eased
away gradually, for else the slackening of the ropes had been as great
a torment to the torn joints as further stretching.

Catching up a vessel of wine that stood near by, Conan placed the rim
to the wretch's lips. Zorathus gulped spasmodically, the liquid
slopping over on his heaving breast.

Into the bloodshot eyes came a gleam of recognition, and the froth-
smeared lips parted. From them issued a racking whimper in the Kothic
tongue.

"Is this death, then? Is the long agony ended? For this is King Conan
who died at Valkia, and I am among the dead."

"You're not dead," said Conan. "But you're dying. You'll be tortured
no more. I'll see to that. But I can't help you further. Yet before
you die, tell me how to open your iron box!"

"My iron box," mumbled Zorathus in delirious disjointed phrases. "The
chest forged in unholy fires among the flaming mountains of Khrosha;
the metal no chisel can cut. How many treasures has it borne, across
the width and the breadth of the world! But no such treasure as it now
holds."

"Tell me how to open it," urged Conan. "It can do you no good, and it
may aid me."

"Aye, you are Conan," muttered the Kothian. "I have seen you sitting
on your throne in the great public hall of Tarantia, with your crown
on your head and the scepter in your hand. But you are dead; you died
at Valkia. And so I know my own end is at hand."

"What does the dog say?" demanded Valbroso impatiently, not
understanding Kothic. "Will he tell us how to open the box?"

As if the voice roused a spark of life in the twisted breast, Zorathus
rolled his bloodshot eyes toward the speaker.

"Only Valbroso will I tell," he gasped in Zingaran. "Death is upon me.
Lean close to me, Valbroso!"

The count did so, his dark face lit with avarice; behind him his
saturnine captain, Beloso, crowded closer.

"Press the seven skulls on the rim, one after another," gasped
Zorathus. "Press then the head of the dragon that writhes across the
lid. Then press the sphere in the dragon's claws. That will release
the secret catch."

"Quick, the box!" cried Valbroso with an oath.

Conan lifted it and set it on a dais, and Valbroso shouldered him
aside.

"Let me open it!" cried Beloso, starting forward.

Valbroso cursed him back, his greed blazing in his black eyes.

"None but me shall open it!" he cried.

Conan, whose hand had instinctively gone to his hilt, glanced at
Zorathus. The man's eyes were glazed and bloodshot, but they were
fixed on Valbroso with burning intensity; and was there the shadow of
a grim twisted smile on the dying man's lips? Not until the merchant
knew he was dying had he given up the secret. Conan turned to watch
Valbroso, even as the dying man watched him.

Along the rim of the lid seven skulls were carved among intertwining
branches of strange trees. An inlaid dragon writhed its way across the
top of the lid, amid ornate arabesques. Valbroso pressed the skulls in
rumbling haste, and as he jammed his thumb down on the carved head of
the dragon he swore sharply and snatched his hand away, shaking it in
irritation.

"A sharp point on the carvings," he snarled. "I've pricked my thumb."

He pressed the gold ball clutched in the dragon's talons, and the lid
flew abruptly open. Their eyes were dazzled by a golden flame. It
seemed to their dazed minds that the carven box was full of glowing
fire that spilled over the rim and dripped through the air in
quivering flakes. Beloso cried out and Valbroso sucked in his breath.
Conan stood speechless, his brain snared by the blaze.

"Mitra, what a jewel!" Valbroso's hand dived into the chest, came out
with a great pulsing crimson sphere that filled the room with a
lambent glow. In its glare Valbroso looked like a corpse. And the
dying man on the loosened rack laughed wildly and suddenly.

"Fool!" he screamed. "The jewel is yours! I give you death with it!
The scratch on your thumb--look at the dragon's head, Valbroso!"

They all wheeled, stared. Something tiny and dully gleaming stood up
from the gaping, carved mouth.

"The dragon's fang!" shrieked Zorathus. "Steeped in the venom of the
black Stygian scorpion! Fool, fool to open the box of Zorathus with
your naked hand! Death! You are a dead man now!"

And with bloody foam on his lips he died.

Valbroso staggered, crying out. "Ah, Mitra, I burn!" he shrieked. "My
veins race with liquid fire! My joints are bursting asunder! Death!
Death!" And he reeled and crashed headlong. There was an instant of
awful convulsions, in which the limbs were twisted into hideous and
unnatural positions, and then in that posture the man froze, his glassy
eyes staring sightlessly upward, his lips drawn back from blackened
gums.

"Dead!" muttered Conan, stooping to pick up the jewel where it rolled
on the floor from Valbroso's rigid hand. It lay on the floor like a
quivering pool of sunset fire.

"Dead!" muttered Beloso, with madness in his eyes. And then he moved.

Conan was caught off guard, his eyes dazzled, his brain dazed by the
blaze of the great gem. He did not realize Beloso's intention until
something crashed with terrible force upon his helmet. The glow of the
jewel was splashed with redder flame, and he went to his knees under
the blow.

He heard a rush of feet, a bellow of oxlike agony. He was stunned but
not wholly senseless, and realized that Beloso had caught up the iron
box and crashed it down on his head as he stooped. Only his basinet
had saved his skull. He staggered up, drawing his sword, trying to
shake the dimness out of his eyes. The room swam to his dizzy gaze.
But the door was open and fleet footsteps were dwindling down the
winding stair. On the floor the brutish torturer was gasping out his
life with a great gash under his breast. And the Heart of Ahriman was
gone.

Conan reeled out of the chamber, sword in hand, blood streaming down
his face from under his burganet. He ran drunkenly down the steps,
hearing a clang of steel in the courtyard below, shouts, then the
frantic drum of hoofs. Rushing into the bailey he saw the men-at-arms
milling about confusedly, while women screeched. The postern gate
stood open and a soldier lay across his pike with his head split.
Horses, still bridled and saddled, ran neighing about the court,
Conan's black stallion among them.

"He's mad!" howled a woman, wringing her hands as she rushed
brainlessly about. "He came out of the castle like a mad dog, hewing
right and left! Beloso's mad! Where's Lord Valbroso?"

"Which way did he go?" roared Conan. All turned and stared at the
stranger's bloodstained face and naked sword. "Through the postern!"
shrilled a woman, pointing eastward, and another bawled: "Who is this
rogue?"

"Beloso has killed Valbroso!" yelled Conan, leaping and seizing the
stallion's mane, as the men-at-arms advanced uncertainly on him. A
wild outcry burst forth at his news, but their reaction was exactly as
he had anticipated. Instead of closing the gates to take him prisoner,
or pursuing the fleeing slayer to avenge their lord, they were thrown
into even greater confusion by his words. Wolves bound together only
by fear of Valbroso, they owed no allegiance to the castle or to each
other.

Swords began to clash in the courtyard, and women screamed. And in the
midst of it all, none noticed Conan as he shot through the postern gate
and thundered down the hill. The wide plain spread before him, and
beyond the hill the caravan road divided: one branch ran south, the
other east. And on the eastern road he saw another rider, bending low
and spurring hard. The plain swam to Conan's gaze, the sunlight was a
thick red haze and he reeled in his saddle, grasping the flowing mane
with his hand. Blood rained on his mail, but grimly he urged the
stallion on.

Behind him smoke began to pour out of the castle on the hill where the
count's body lay forgotten and unheeded beside that of his prisoner.
The sun was setting; against a lurid red sky the two black figures
fled. The stallion was not fresh, but neither was the horse ridden by
Beloso. But the great beast responded mightily, calling on deep
reservoirs of reserve vitality.

Why the Zingaran fled from one pursuer, Conan did not tax his bruised
brain to guess. Perhaps unreasoning panic rode Beloso, born of the
madness that lurked in that blazing jewel. The sun was gone; the white
road was a dim glimmer through a ghostly twilight fading into purple
gloom far ahead of him. The stallion panted, laboring hard. The
country was changing, in the gathering dusk. Bare plains gave way to
clumps of oaks and alders. Low hills mounted up in the distance. Stars
began to blink out. The stallion gasped and reeled in his course. But
ahead rose a dense wood that stretched to the hills on the horizon,
and between it and himself Conan glimpsed the dim form of the
fugitive. He urged on the distressed stallion, for he saw that he was
overtaking his prey, yard by yard. Above the pounding of the hoofs a
strange cry rose from the shadows, but neither pursuer nor pursued
gave heed.

As they swept in under the branches that overhung the road, they were
almost side by side. A fierce cry rose from Conan's lips as his sword
went up; a pale oval of a face was turned toward him, a sword gleamed
in a half-seen hand, and Beloso echoed the cry--and then the weary
stallion, with a lurch and a groan, missed his footing in the shadows
and went heels over head, hurling his dazed rider from the saddle.
Conan's throbbing head crashed against a stone, and the stars were
blotted out in a thicker night.

How long Conan lay senseless he never knew. His first sensation of
returning consciousness was that of being dragged by one arm over
rough and stony ground, and through dense underbrush. Then he was
thrown carelessly down, and perhaps the jolt brought back his senses.

His helmet was gone, his head ached abominably, he felt a qualm of
nausea, and blood was clotted thickly among his black locks. But with
the vitality of a wild thing, life and consciousness surged back into
him, and he became aware of his surroundings.

A broad red moon was shining through the trees, by which he knew that
it was long after midnight. He had lain senseless for hours, long
enough to have recovered from that terrible blow Beloso had dealt him,
as well as the fall which had rendered him senseless. His brain felt
clearer than it had felt during that mad ride after the fugitive.

He was not lying beside the white road, he noticed with a start of
surprize, as his surroundings began to record themselves on his
perceptions. The road was nowhere in sight. He lay on the grassy
earth, in a small glade hemmed in by a black wall of tree stems and
tangled branches. His face and hands were scratched and lacerated as
if he had been dragged through brambles. Shifting his body he looked
about him. And then he started violently--something was squatting over
him.

At first Conan doubted his consciousness, thought it was but a figment
of delirium. Surely it could not be real, that strange, motionless
gray being that squatted on its haunches and stared down at him with
unblinking soulless eyes.

Conan lay and stared, half expecting it to vanish like a figure of a
dream, and then a chill of recollection crept along his spine. Half-
forgotten memories surged back, of grisly tales whispered of the
shapes that haunted these uninhabited forests at the foot of the hills
that mark the Zingaran-Argossean border. Ghouls, men called them,
eaters of human flesh, spawn of darkness, children of unholy matings
of a lost and forgotten race with the demons of the underworld.
Somewhere in these primitive forests were the ruins of an ancient,
accursed city, men whispered, and among its tombs slunk gray,
anthropomorphic shadows--Conan shuddered strongly.

He lay staring at the malformed head that rose dimly above him, and
cautiously he extended a hand toward the sword at his hip. With a
horrible cry that the man involuntarily echoed, the monster was at his
throat.

Conan threw up his right arm, and the doglike jaws closed on it,
driving the mail links into the hard flesh. The misshapen yet manlike
hands clutched for his throat, but he evaded them with a heave and
roll of his whole body, at the same time drawing his dagger with his
left hand.

They tumbled over and over on the grass, smiting and tearing. The
muscles coiling under that gray corpselike skin were stringy and hard
as steel wires, exceeding the strength of a man. But Conan's thews
were iron too, and his mail saved him from the gnashing fangs and
ripping claws long enough for him to drive home his dagger, again and
again and again. The horrible vitality of the semihuman monstrosity
seemed inexhaustible, and the king's skin crawled at the feel of that
slick, clammy flesh. He put all his loathing and savage revulsion
behind the plunging blade, and suddenly the monster heaved up
convulsively beneath him as the point found its grisly heart, and then
lay still.

Conan rose, shaken with nausea. He stood in the center of the glade
uncertainly, sword in one hand and dagger in the other. He had not
lost his instinctive sense of direction, as far as the points of the
compass were concerned, but he did not know in which direction the
road lay. He had no way of knowing in which direction the ghoul had
dragged him. Conan glared at the silent, black, moon-dappled woods
which ringed him, and felt cold moisture bead his flesh. He was
without a horse and lost in these haunted woods, and that staring,
deformed thing at his feet was a mute evidence of the horrors that
lurked in the forest. He stood almost holding his breath in his
painful intensity, straining his ears for some crack of twig or rustle
of grass.

When a sound did come he started violently. Suddenly out on the night
air broke the scream of a terrified horse. His stallion! There were
panthers in the wood-or-ghouls ate beasts as well as men.

He broke savagely through the brush in the direction of the sound,
whistling shrilly as he ran, his fear drowned in berserk rage. If his
horse was killed, there went his last chance of following Beloso and
recovering the jewel. Again the stallion screamed with fear and fury,
somewhere nearer. There was a sound of lashing heels, and something
that was struck heavily and gave way.

Conan burst out into the wide white road without warning, and saw the
stallion plunging and rearing in the moonlight, his ears laid back,
his eyes and teeth flashing wickedly. He lashed out with his heels at
a slinking shadow that ducked and bobbed about him--and then about
Conan other shadows moved: gray, furtive shadows that closed in on all
sides. A hideous charnel-house scent reeked up in the night air.

With a curse the king hewed right and left with his broadsword, thrust
and ripped with his dagger. Dripping fangs flashed in the moonlight,
foul paws caught at him, but he hacked his way through to the
stallion, caught the rein, leaped into the saddle. His sword rose and
fell, a frosty arc in the moon, showering blood as it split misshapen
heads, clove shambling bodies. The stallion reared, biting and
kicking. They burst through and thundered down the road. On either
hand, for a short space, flitted gray abhorrent shadows. Then these
fell behind, and Conan, topping a wooded crest, saw a vast expanse of
bare slopes sweeping up and away before him.

Chapter 13: "A Ghost Out of the Past"

SOON AFTER SUNRISE Conan crossed the Argossean border. Of Beloso he
had seen no trace. Either the captain had made good his escape while
the king lay senseless, or had fallen prey to the grim man-eaters of
the Zingaran forest. But Conan had seen no signs to indicate the
latter possibility. The fact that he had lain unmolested for so long
seemed to indicate that the monsters had been engrossed in futile
pursuit of the captain. And if the man lived, Conan felt certain that
he was riding along the road somewhere ahead of him. Unless he had
intended going into Argos he would never have taken the eastward road
in the first place.

The helmeted guards at the frontier did not question the Cimmerian. A
single wandering mercenary required no passport nor safe-conduct,
especially when his unadorned mail showed him to be in the service of
no lord. Through the low, grassy hills where streams murmured and oak
groves dappled the sward with lights and shadows he rode, following
the long road that rose and fell away ahead of him over dales and
rises in the blue distance. It was an old, old road, this highway from
Poitain to the sea.

Argos was at peace; laden ox-wains rumbled along the road, and men
with bare, brown, brawny arms toiled in orchards and fields that
smiled away under the branches of the roadside trees. Old men on
settles before inns under spreading oak branches called greetings to
the wayfarer.

From the men that worked the fields, from the garrulous old men in the
inns where he slaked his thirst with great leathern jacks of foaming
ale, from the sharp-eyed silk-clad merchants he met upon the road,
Conan sought for news of Beloso.

Stories were conflicting, but this much Conan learned: that a lean,
wiry Zingaran with the dangerous black eyes and mustaches of the
western folk was somewhere on the road ahead of him, and apparently
making for Messantia. It was a logical destination; all the seaports
of Argos were cosmopolitan, in strong contrast with the inland
provinces, and Messantia was the most polyglot of all. Craft of all
the maritime nations rode in its harbor, and refugees and fugitives
from many lands gathered there. Laws were lax; for Messantia thrived
on the trade of the sea, and her citizens found it profitable to be
somewhat blind in their dealings with seamen. It was not only
legitimate trade that flowed into Messantia; smugglers and buccaneers
played their part. All this Conan knew well, for had he not, in the
days of old when he was a Barachan pirate, sailed by night into the
harbor of Messantia to discharge strange cargoes? Most of the pirates
of the Barachan Isles--small islands on the southwestern coast of
Zingara--were Argossean sailors, and as long as they confined their
attentions to the shipping of other nations, the authorities of Argos
were not too strict in their interpretation of sea-laws.

But Conan had not limited his activities to those of the Barachans. He
had also sailed with the Zingaran buccaneers, and even with those wild
black corsairs that swept up from the far south to harry the northern
coasts, and this put him beyond the pale of any law. If he were
recognized in any of the ports of Argos it would cost him his head.
But without hesitation he rode on to Messantia, halting day or night
only to rest the stallion and to snatch a few winks of sleep for
himself.

He entered the city unquestioned, merging himself with the throngs
that poured continually in and out of this great commercial center. No
walls surrounded Messantia. The sea and the ships of the sea guarded
the great southern trading city.

It was evening when Conan rode leisurely through the streets that
marched down to the waterfront. At the ends of these streets he saw
the wharves and the masts and sails of ships. He smelled salt water
for the first time in years, heard the thrum of cordage and the creak
of spars in the breeze that was kicking up whitecaps out beyond the
headlands. Again the urge of far wandering tugged at his heart.

But he did not go on to the wharves. He reined aside and rode up a
steep flight of wide, worn stone steps, to a broad street where ornate
white mansions overlooked the waterfront and the harbor below. Here
dwelt the men who had grown rich from the hard-won fat of the seas-a
few old sea-captains who had found treasure afar, many traders and
merchants who never trod the naked decks nor knew the roar of tempest
of sea-fight.

Conan turned in his horse at a certain gold-worked gate, and rode into
a court where a fountain tinkled and pigeons fluttered from marble
coping to marble flagging. A page in jagged silken jupon and hose came
forward inquiringly. The merchants of Messantia dealt with many
strange and rough characters but most of these smacked of the sea. It
was strange that a mercenary trooper should so freely ride into the
court of a lord of commerce.

"The merchant Publio dwells here?" It was more statement than
question, and something in the timbre of the voice caused the page to
doff his feathered chaperon as he bowed and replied:

"Aye, so he does, my captain."

Conan dismounted and the page called a servitor, who came running to
receive the stallion's rein.

"Your master is within?" Conan drew off his gauntlets and slapped the
dust of the road from cloak and mail.

"Aye, my captain. Whom shall I announce?"

"I'll announce myself," grunted Conan. "I know the way well enough.
Bide you here."

And obeying that peremptory command the page stood still, staring
after Conan as the latter climbed a short flight of marble steps, and
wondering what connection his master might have with this giant
fighting-man who had the aspect of a northern barbarian.

Menials at their tasks halted and gaped open-mouthed as Conan crossed
a wide, cool balcony overlooking the court and entered a broad
corridor through which the sea-breeze swept. Half-way down this he
heard a quill scratching, and turned into a broad room whose many wide
casements overlooked the harbor.

Publio sat at a carved teakwood desk writing on rich parchment with a
golden quill. He was a short man, with a massive head and quick dark
eyes. His blue robe was of the finest watered silk, trimmed with
cloth-of-gold, and from his thick white throat hung a heavy gold
chain.

As the Cimmerian entered, the merchant looked up with a gesture of
annoyance. He froze in the midst of his gesture. His mouth opened; he
stared as at a ghost out of the past. Unbelief and fear glimmered in
his wide eyes. "Well," said Conan, "have you no word of greeting,
Publio?"

Publio moistened his lips.

"Conan!" he whispered incredulously. "Mitra! Conan! Amra!" 

"Who else?"

The Cimmerian unclasped his cloak and threw it with his gauntlets down
upon the desk. "How, man?" he exclaimed irritably. "Can't you at least
offer me a beaker of wine? My throat's caked with the dust of the
highway."

"Aye, wine!" echoed Publio mechanically. Instinctively his hand
reached for a gong, then recoiled as from a hot coal, and he
shuddered.

While Conan watched him with a flicker of grim amusement in his eyes,
the merchant rose and hurriedly shut the door, first craning his neck
up and down the corridor to be sure that no slave was loitering about.
Then, returning, he took a gold vessel of wine from a near-by table
and was about to fill a slender goblet when Conan impatiently took the
vessel from him and lifting it with both hands, drank deep and with
gusto.

"Aye, it's Conan, right enough," muttered Publio. "Man, are you mad?"

"By Crom, Publio," said Conan, lowering the vessel but retaining it in
his hands, "you dwell in different quarters than of old. It takes an
Argossean merchant to wring wealth out of a little waterfront shop
that stank of rotten fish and cheap wine."

"The old days are past," muttered Publio, drawing his robe about him
with a slight involuntary shudder. "I have put off the past like a
worn-out cloak."

"Well," retorted Conan, "you can't put me off like an old cloak. It
isn't much I want of you, but that much I do want. And you can't
refuse me. We had too many dealings in the old days. Am I such a fool
that I'm not aware that this fine mansion was built on my sweat and
blood? How many cargoes from my galleys passed through your shop?"

"All merchants of Messantia have dealt with the sea-rovers at one time
or another," mumbled Publio nervously.

"But not with the black corsairs," answered Conan grimly.

"For Mitra's sake, be silent!" ejaculated Publio, sweat starting out
on his brow. His fingers jerked at the gilt-worked edge of his robe.

"Well, I only wished to recall it to your mind," answered Conan.
"Don't be so fearful. You took plenty of risks in the past, when you
were struggling for life and wealth in that lousy little shop down by
the wharves, and were hand-and-glove with every buccaneer and smuggler
and pirate from here to the Barachan Isles. Prosperity must have
softened you."

"I am respectable," began Publio.

"Meaning you're rich as hell," snorted Conan. "Why? Why did you grow
wealthy so much quicker than your competitors? Was it because you did
a big business in ivory and ostrich feathers, copper and skins and
pearls and hammered gold ornaments, and other things from the coast of
Kush? And where did you get them so cheaply, while other merchants
were paying their weight in silver to the Stygians for them? I'll tell
you, in case you've forgotten: you bought them from me, at
considerably less than their value, and I took them from the tribes of
the Black Coast, and from the ships of the Stygians--I, and the black
corsairs."

"In Mitra's name, cease!" begged Publio. "I have not forgotten. But
what are you doing here? I am the only man in Argos who knew that the
king of Aquilonia was once Conan the buccaneer, in the old days. But
word has come southward of the overthrow of Aquilonia and the death of
the king."

"My enemies have killed me a hundred times by rumors," grunted Conan.
"Yet here I sit and guzzle wine of Kyros."  And he suited the action
to the word.

Lowering the vessel, which was now nearly empty, he said: "It's but a
small thing I ask of you, Publio. I know that you're aware of
everything that goes on in Messantia. I want to know if a Zingaran
named Beloso, or he might call himself anything, is in this city. He's
tall and lean and dark like all his race, and it's likely he'll seek
to sell a very rare jewel."  Publio shook his head.

"I have not heard of such a man. But thousands come and go in
Messantia. If he is here my agents will discover him."  

"Good. Send
them to look for him. And in the meantime have my horse cared for, and
food served me here in this room."

Publio assented volubly, and Conan emptied the wine vessel, tossed it
carelessly into a corner, and strode to a near-by casement,
involuntarily expanding his chest as he breathed deep of the salt air.
He was looking down upon the meandering waterfront streets. He swept
the ships in the harbor with an appreciative glance, then lifted his
head and stared beyond the bay, far into the blue haze of the distance
where sea met sky. And his memory sped beyond that horizon, to the
golden seas of the south, under flaming suns, where laws were not and
life ran hotly. Some vagrant scent of spice or palm woke clear-etched
images of strange coasts where mangroves grew and drums thundered, of
ships locked in battle and decks running blood, of smoke and flame and
the crying of slaughter. Lost in his thoughts he scarcely noticed when
Publio stole from the chamber.

Gathering up his robe, the merchant hurried along the corridors until
he came to a certain chamber where a tall, gaunt man with a scar upon
his temple wrote continually upon parchment. There was something about
this man which made his clerkly occupation seem incongruous. To him
Publio spoke abruptly:

"Conan has returned!"

"Conan?" The gaunt man started up and the quill fell from his fingers.
"The corsair?"

"Aye!"

The gaunt man went livid. "Is he mad? If he is discovered here we are
ruined! They will hang a man who shelters or trades with a corsair as
quickly as they'll hang the corsair himself! What if the governor
should learn of our past connections with him?"

"He will not learn," answered Publio grimly. "Send your men into the
markets and wharfside dives and learn if one Beloso, a Zingaran, is in
Messantia. Conan said he had a gem, which he will probably seek to
dispose of. The jewel merchants should know of him, if any do. And
here is another task for you: pick up a dozen or so desperate villains
who can be trusted to do away with a man and hold their tongues
afterward. You understand me?"

"I understand."  The other nodded slowly and somberly.

"I have not stolen, cheated, lied and fought my way up from the gutter
to be undone now by a ghost out of my past," muttered Publio, and the
sinister darkness of his countenance at that moment would have
surprized the wealthy nobles and ladies, who bought their silks and
pearls from his many stalls. But when he returned to Conan a short
time later, bearing in his own hands a platter of fruit and meats, he
presented a placid face to his unwelcome guest.

Conan still stood at the casement, staring down into the harbor at the
purple and crimson and vermilion and scarlet sails of galleons and
carracks and galleys and dromonds.

"There's a Stygian galley, if I'm not blind," he remarked, pointing to
a long, low, slim black ship lying apart from the others, anchored off
the low broad sandy beach that curved round to the distant headland.
"Is there peace, then, between Stygia and Argos?"

"The same sort that has existed before," answered Publio, setting the
platter on the table with a sigh of relief, for it was heavily laden;
he knew his guest of old. "Stygian ports are temporarily open to our
ships, as ours to theirs. But may no craft of mine meet their cursed
galleys out of sight of land! That galley crept into the bay last
night. What its masters wish I do not know. So far they have neither
bought nor sold. I distrust those dark-skinned devils. Treachery had
its birth in that dusky land."

"I've made them howl," said Conan carelessly, turning from the window.
"In my galley manned by black corsairs I crept to the very bastions of
the sea-washed castles of black-walled Khemi by night, and burned the
galleons anchored there. And speaking of treachery, mine host, suppose
you taste these viands and sip a bit of this wine, just to show me
that your heart is on the right side."

Publio complied so readily that Conan's suspicions were lulled, and
without further hesitation he sat down and devoured enough for three
men.

And while he ate, men moved through the markets and along the
waterfront, searching for a Zingaran who had a jewel to sell or--who
sought for a ship to carry him to foreign ports. And a tall gaunt man
with a scar on his temple sat with his elbows on a wine-stained table
in a squalid cellar with a brass lantern hanging from a smoke-
blackened beam overhead, and held converse with the desperate rogues
whose sinister countenances and ragged garments proclaimed their
profession.

And as the first stars blinked out, they shone on a strange band
spurring their mounts along the white road that led to Messantia from
the west. They were four men, tall, gaunt, clad in black, hooded robes,
and they did not speak. They forced their steeds mercilessly onward,
and those steeds were gaunt as themselves, and sweat-stained and weary
as if from long travel and far wandering.

Chapter 14: The Black Hand of Set

CONAN WOKE FROM a sound sleep as quickly and instantly as a cat. And
like a cat he was on his feet with his sword out before the man who
had touched him could so much as draw back.

"What word, Publio?" demanded Conan, recognizing his host. The gold
lamp burned low, casting a mellow glow over the thick tapestries and
the rich coverings of the couch whereon he had been reposing.

Publio, recovering from the start given him by the sudden action of
his awakening guest, replied: "The Zingaran has been located. He
arrived yesterday, at dawn. Only a few hours ago he sought to sell a
huge, strange jewel to a Shemitish merchant, but the Shemite would
have naught to do with it. Men say he turned pale beneath his black
beard at the sight of it, and closing his stall, fled as from a thing
accursed."

"It must be Beloso," muttered Conan, feeling the pulse in his temples
pounding with impatient eagerness. "Where is he now?"

"He sleeps in the house of Servio."

"I know that dive of old," grunted Conan. "I'd better hasten before
some of these waterfront thieves cut his throat for the jewel."

He took up his cloak and flung it over his shoulders, then donned a
helmet Publio had procured for him.

"Have my steed saddled and ready in the court," said he. "I may return
in haste. I shall not forget this night's work, Publio."

A few moments later Publio, standing at a small outer door, watched
the king's tall figure receding down the shadowy street.

"Farewell to you, corsair," muttered the merchant. "This must be a
notable jewel, to be sought by a man who has just lost a kingdom. I
wish I had told my knaves to let him secure it before they did their
work. But then, something might have gone awry. Let Argos forget Amra,
and let my dealings with him be lost in the dust of the past. In the
alley behind the house of Servio--that is where Conan will cease to be
a peril to me."

Servio's house, a dingy, ill-famed den, was located close to the
wharves, facing the waterfront. It was a shambling building of stone
and heavy ship-beams, and a long narrow alley wandered up alongside
it. Conan made his way along the alley, and as he reached the house he
had an uneasy feeling that he was being spied upon. He stared hard
into the shadows of the squalid buildings, but saw nothing, though
once he caught the faint rasp of cloth or leather against flesh. But
that was nothing unusual. Thieves and beggars prowled these alleys all
night, and they were not likely to attack him, after one look at his
size and harness.

But suddenly a door opened in the wall ahead of him, and he slipped
into the shadow of an arch. A figure emerged from the open door and
moved along the alley, not furtively, but with a natural
noiselessness, like that of a jungle beast. Enough starlight filtered
into the alley to silhouette the man's profile dimly as he passed the
doorway where Conan lurked. The stranger was a Stygian. There was no
mistaking that hawk-faced, shaven head, even in the starlight, nor the
mantle over the broad shoulders. He passed on down the alley in the
direction of the beach, and once Conan thought he must be carrying a
lantern among his garments, for he caught a flash of lambent light,
just as the man vanished.

But the Cimmerian forgot the stranger as he noticed that the door
through which he had emerged still stood open. Conan had intended
entering by the main entrance and forcing Servio to show him the room
where the Zingaran slept. But if he could get into the house without
attracting anyone's attention, so much the better.

A few long strides brought him to the door, and as his hands fell on
the lock he stifled an involuntary grunt. His practised fingers,
skilled among the thieves of Zamora long ago, told him that the lock
had been forced, apparently by some terrific pressure from the outside
that had twisted and bent the heavy iron bolts, tearing the very
sockets loose from the jambs. How such damage could have been wrought
so violently without awakening everyone in the neighborhood Conan
could not imagine, but he felt sure that it had been done that night.
A broken lock, if discovered, would not go unmended in the house of
Servio, in this neighborhood of thieves and cutthroats.

Conan entered stealthily, poniard in hand, wondering how he was to
find the chamber of the Zingaran. Groping in total darkness he halted
suddenly. He sensed death in that room, as a wild beast senses it--not
as peril threatening him, but a dead thing, something freshly slain.
In the darkness his foot hit and recoiled from something heavy and
yielding. With a sudden premonition he groped along the wall until he
found the shelf that supported the brass lamp, with its flint, steel
and tinder beside it. A few seconds later a flickering, uncertain
light sprang up, and he stared narrowly about him.

A bunk built against the rough stone wall, a bare table and a bench
completed the furnishings of the squalid chamber. An inner door stood
closed and bolted. And on the hard-beaten dirt floor lay Beloso. On
his back he lay, with his head drawn back between his shoulders so
that he seemed to stare with his wide glassy eyes at the sooty beams
of the cobwebbed ceiling. His lips were drawn back from his teeth in a
frozen grin of agony. His sword lay near him, still in its scabbard.
His shirt was torn open, and on his brown, muscular breast was the
print of a black hand, thumb and four fingers plainly distinct.

Conan glared in silence, feeling the short hairs bristle at the back
of his neck.

"Crom!" he muttered. "The black hand of Set!"

He had seen that mark of old, the death-mark of the black priests of
Set, the grim cult that ruled in dark Stygia. And suddenly he
remembered that curious flash he had seen emanating from the
mysterious Stygian who had emerged from this chamber.

"The Heart, by Crom!" he muttered. "He was carrying it under his
mantle. He stole it. He burst that door by his magic, and slew Beloso.
He was a priest of Set."

A quick investigation confirmed at least part of his suspicions. The
jewel was not on the Zingaran's body. An uneasy feeling rose in Conan
that this had not happened by chance, or without design; a conviction
that the mysterious Stygian galley had come into the harbor of
Messantia on a definite mission. How could the priests of Set know
that the Heart had come southward? Yet the thought was no more
fantastic than the necromancy that could slay an armed man by the
touch of an open, empty hand.

A stealthy footfall outside the door brought him round like a great
cat. With one motion he extinguished the lamp and drew his sword. His
ears told him that men were out there in the darkness, were closing in
on the doorway. As his eyes became accustomed to the sudden darkness,
he could make out dim figures ringing the entrance. He could not guess
their identity, but as always he took the initiative--leaping suddenly
forth from the doorway without awaiting the attack.

His unexpected movement took the skulkers by surprise. He sensed and
heard men close about him, saw a dim masked figure in the starlight
before him; then his sword crunched home, and he was fleeting away
down the alley before the slower-thinking and slower-acting attackers
could intercept him.

As he ran he heard, somewhere ahead of him, a faint creak of oar-
locks, and he forgot the men behind him. A boat was moving out into
the bay! Gritting his teeth he increased his speed, but before he
reached the beach he heard the rasp and creak of ropes, and the grind
of the great sweep in its socket.

Thick clouds, rolling up from the sea, obscured the stars. In thick
darkness Conan came upon the strand, straining his eyes out across the
black restless water. Something was moving out there--a long, low,
black shape that receded in the darkness, gathering momentum as it
went. To his ears came the rhythmical clack of long oars. He ground
his teeth in helpless fury. It was the Stygian galley and she was
racing out to sea, bearing with her the jewel that meant to him the
throne of Aquilonia.

With a savage curse he took a step toward the waves that lapped
against the sands, catching at his hauberk and intending to rip it off
and swim after the vanishing ship. Then the crunch of a heel in the
sand brought him about. He had forgotten his pursuers.

Dark figures closed in on him with a rush of feet through the sands.
The first went down beneath the Cimmerian's flailing sword, but the
others did not falter. Blades whickered dimly about him in the
darkness or rasped on his mail. Blood and entrails spilled over his
hand and someone screamed as he ripped murderously upward. A muttered
voice spurred on the attack, and that voice sounded vaguely familiar.
Conan plowed through the clinging, hacking shapes toward the voice. A
faint light gleaming momentarily through the drifting clouds showed
him a tall gaunt man with a great livid scar on his temple. Conan's
sword sheared through his skull as through a ripe melon.

Then an ax, swung blindly in the dark, crashed on the king's basinet,
filling his eyes with sparks of fire. He lurched and lunged, felt his
sword sink deep and heard a shriek of agony. Then he stumbled over a
corpse, and a bludgeon knocked the dented helmet from his head; the
next instant the club fell full on his unprotected skull.

The king of Aquilonia crumpled into the wet sands. Over him wolfish
figures panted in the gloom.

"Strike off his head," muttered one.

"Let him be," grunted another. "Help me tie up my wounds before I
bleed to death. The tide will wash him into the bay. See, he fell at
the water's edge. His skull's split; no man could live after such
blows."

"Help me strip him," urged another. "His harness will fetch a few
pieces of silver. And haste. Tiberio is dead, and I hear seamen
singing as they reel along the strand. Let us be gone."

There followed hurried activity in the darkness, and then the sound of
quickly receding footsteps. The tipsy singing of the seamen grew
louder.

In his chamber Publio, nervously pacing back and forth before a window
that overlooked the shadowed bay, whirled suddenly, his nerves
tingling. To the best of his knowledge the door had been bolted from
within; but now it stood open and four men filed into the chamber. At
the sight of them his flesh crawled. Many strange beings Publio had
seen in his lifetime, but none before like these. They were tall and
gaunt, black-robed, and their faces were dim yellow ovals in the
shadows of their coifs. He could not tell much about their: features
and was unreasoningly glad that he could not. Each bore a long,
curiously molded staff.

"Who are you?" he demanded, and his voice sounded brittle and hollow.
"What do you wish here?"

"Where is Conan, he who was king of Aquilonia?" demanded the tallest
of the four in a passionless monotone that made Publio shudder. It was
like the hollow tone of a Khitan temple bell.

"I do not know what you mean," stammered the merchant, his customary
poise shaken by the uncanny aspect of his visitors. "I know no such
man."

"He has been here," returned the other with no change of inflection.
"His horse is in the courtyard. Tell us where he is before we do you
an injury."

"Gebal!" shouted Publio frantically, recoiling until he crouched
against the wall. "Gebal!"

The four Khitans watched him without emotion or change of expression.

"If you summon your slave, he will die," warned one of them, which only
served to terrify Publio more than ever.

"Gebal!" he screamed. "Where are you, curse you? Thieves are murdering
your master!"

Swift footsteps in the corridor outside, and Gebal burst into the
chamber--a Shemite, of medium height and mightily muscled build, his
curled blue-black beard bristling, and a short leaf-shaped sword in
his hand.

He stared in stupid amazement at the four invaders, unable to
understand their presence; dimly remembering that he had drowsed
unexplainably on the stair he was guarding and up which they must have
come. He had never slept on duty before. But his master was shrieking
with a note of hysteria in his voice, and the Shemite drove like a
bull at the strangers, his thickly muscled arm drawing back for the
disemboweling thrust. But the stroke was never dealt.

A black-sleeved arm shot out, extending the long staff. Its end but
touched the Shemite's brawny breast and was instantly withdrawn. The
stroke was horribly like the dart and recovery of a serpent's head.

Gebal halted short in his headlong plunge, as if he had encountered a
solid barrier. His bull head toppled forward on his breast, the sword
slipped from his fingers, and then he melted slowly to the floor. It
was as if all the bones of his frame had suddenly become flabby.
Publio turned sick.

"Do not shout again," advised the tallest Khitan. "Your servants sleep
soundly, but if you awaken them they will die, and you with them.
Where is Conan?"

"He is gone to the house of Servio, near the waterfront, to search for
the Zingaran Beloso," gasped Publio, all his power of resistance gone
out of him. The merchant did not lack courage; but these uncanny
visitants turned his marrow to water. He started convulsively at a
sudden noise of footsteps hurrying up the stair outside, loud in the
ominous stillness.

"Your servant?" asked the Khitan.

Publio shook his head mutely, his tongue frozen to his palate.

He could not speak.

One of the Khitans caught up a silken cover from a couch and threw it
over the corpse. Then they melted behind the tapestry, but before the
tallest man disappeared, he murmured: "Talk to this man who comes, and
send him away quickly. If you betray us, neither he nor you will live
to reach that door. Make no sign to show him that you are not alone."
And lifting his staff suggestively, the yellow man faded behind the
hangings.

Publio shuddered and choked down a desire to retch. It might have been
a trick of the light, but it seemed to him that occasionally those
staffs moved slightly of their own accord, as if possessed of an
unspeakable life of their own.

He pulled himself together with a mighty effort, and presented a
composed aspect to the ragged ruffian who burst into the chamber.

"We have done as you wished, my lord," this man exclaimed. "The
barbarian lies dead on the sands at the water's edge."

Publio felt a movement in the arras behind him, and almost burst from
fright. The man swept heedlessly on.

"Your secretary, Tiberio, is dead. The barbarian slew him, and four of
my companions. We bore their bodies to the rendezvous. There was
nothing of value on the barbarian except a few silver coins. Are there
any further orders?"

"None!" gasped Publio, white about the lips. "Go!"

The desperado bowed and hurried out, with a vague feeling that Publio
was both a man of weak stomach and few words.

The four Khitans came from behind the arras.

"Of whom did this man speak?" the taller demanded.

"Of a wandering stranger who did me an injury," panted Publio.

"You lie," said the Khitan calmly. "He spoke of the king of Aquilonia.
I read it in your expression. Sit upon that divan and do not move or
speak. I will remain with you while my three companions go search for
the body."

So Publio sat and shook with terror of the silent, inscrutable figure
which watched him, until the three Khitans filed back into the room,
with the news that Conan's body did not lie upon the sands. Publio did
not know whether to be glad or sorry.

"We found the spot where the fight was fought," they said. "Blood was
on the sand. But the king was gone."

The fourth Khitan drew imaginary symbols upon the carpet with his
staff, which glistened scalily in the lamplight.

"Did you read naught from the sands?" he asked.

"Aye," they answered. "The king lives, and he has gone southward in a
ship."

The tall Khitan lifted his head and gazed at Publio, so that the
merchant broke into a profuse sweat.

"What do you wish of me?" he stuttered.

"A ship," answered the Khitan. "A ship well manned for a very long
voyage."

"For how long a voyage?" stammered Publio, never thinking of refusing.

"To the ends of the world, perhaps," answered the Khitan, "or to the
molten seas of hell that lie beyond the sunrise."

Chapter 15: The Return of the Corsair

CONAN'S FIRST SENSATION of returning consciousness was that of motion;
under him was no solidity, but a ceaseless heaving and plunging. Then
he heard wind humming through cords and spars, and knew he was aboard
a ship even before his blurred sight cleared. He heard a mutter of
voices and then a dash of water deluged him, jerking him sharply into
full animation. He heaved up with a sulfurous curse, braced his legs
and glared about him, with a burst of coarse guffaws in his ears and
the reek of unwashed bodies in his nostrils.

He was standing on the poop-deck of a long galley, which was running
before the wind that whipped down from the north, her striped sail
bellying against the taut sheets. The sun was just rising, in a
dazzling blaze of gold and blue and green. To the left of the
shoreline was a dim purple shadow. To the right stretched the open
ocean. This much Conan saw at a glance that likewise included the ship
itself.

It was long and narrow, a typical trading ship of the southern coasts,
high of poop and stern, with cabins at either extremity. Conan looked
down into the open waist, whence wafted that sickening abominable
odor. He knew it of old. It was the body scent of the oarsmen, chained
to their benches. They were all negroes, forty men to each side, each
confined by a chain locked about his waist, with the other end welded
to a heavy ring set deep in the solid runway beam that ran between the
benches from stem to stern. The life of a slave aboard an Argossean
galley was a hell unfathomable. Most of these were Kushites, but some
thirty of the blacks who now rested on their idle oars and stared up
at the stranger with dull curiosity were from the far southern isles,
the homelands of the corsairs. Conan recognized them by their
straighter features and hair, their rangier, cleaner-limbed build. And
he saw among them men who had followed him of old.

But all this he saw and recognized in one swift, all-embracing glance
as he rose, before he turned his attention to the figures about him.
Reeling momentarily on braced legs, his fists clenched wrathfully, he
glared at the figures clustered about him. The sailor who had drenched
him stood grinning, the empty bucket still poised in his hand, and
Conan cursed him with venom, instinctively reaching for his hilt. Then
he discovered that he was weaponless and naked except for his short
leather breeks.

"What lousy tub is this?" he roared. "How did I come aboard here?"

The sailors laughed jeeringly--stocky, bearded Argosseans to a man--and
one, whose richer dress and air of command proclaimed him captain,
folded his arms and said domineeringly:

"We found you lying on the sands. Somebody had rapped you on the pate
and taken your clothes. Needing an extra man, we brought you aboard."

"What ship is this?" Conan demanded.

"The Venturer, out of Messantia, with a cargo of mirrors, scarlet silk
cloaks, shields, gilded helmets and swords to trade to the Shemites
for copper and gold ore. I am Demetrio, captain of this vessel and
your master henceforward."

"Then I'm headed in the direction I wanted to go, after all," muttered
Conan, heedless of that last remark. They were racing southeastward,
following the long curve of the Argossean coast. These trading ships
never ventured far from the shoreline. Somewhere ahead of him he knew
that low dark Stygian galley was speeding southward.

"Have you sighted a Stygian galley--" began Conan, but the beard of
the burly, brutal-faced captain bristled. He was not in the least
interested in any question his prisoner might wish to ask, and felt it
high time he reduced this independent wastrel to his proper place.

"Get for'ard!" he roared. “I’ve wasted time enough with you! I've done
you the honor of having you brought to the poop to be revived, and
answered enough of your infernal questions. Get off this poop! You'll
work your way aboard this galley--"

"I'll buy your ship--" began Conan, before he remembered that he was a
penniless wanderer.

A roar of rough mirth greeted these words, and the captain turned
purple, thinking he sensed ridicule.

"You mutinous swine!" he bellowed, taking a threatening step forward,
while he closed on his knife at his belt. "Get for'ard before I have
you flogged! You'll keep a civil tongue in your jaws, or by Mitra,
I'll have you chained among the blacks to tug an oar!"

Conan's volcanic temper, never long at best, burst into explosion. Not
in years, even before he was king, had a man spoken to him thus and
lived.

"Don't lift your voice to me, you tar-breeched dog!" he roared in a
voice as gusty as the sea-wind, while the sailors gaped dumbfounded.
"Draw that toy and I'll feed you to the fishes!"

"Who do you think you are?" gasped the captain.

"I’ll show you!" roared the maddened Cimmerian, and he wheeled and
bounded toward the rail, where weapons hung in their brackets.

The captain drew his knife and ran at him bellowing, but before he
could strike, Conan gripped his wrist with a wrench that tore the arm
clean out of the socket. The captain bellowed like an ox in agony, and
then rolled clear across the deck as he was hurled contemptuously from
his attacker. Conan ripped a heavy ax from the rail and wheeled catlike to meet the rush of the sailors. They ran in, giving tongue like
hounds, clumsy-footed and awkward in comparison to the pantherish
Cimmerian. Before they could reach him with their knives he sprang
among them, striking right and left too quickly for the eye to follow,
and blood and brains spattered as two corpses struck the deck.

Knives flailed the air wildly as Conan broke through the stumbling,
gasping mob and bounded to the narrow bridge that spanned the waist
from poop to forecastle, just out of reach of the slaves below. Behind
him the handful of sailors on the poop were floundering after him,
daunted by the destruction of their fellows, and the rest of the crew--
some thirty in all--came running across the bridge toward him, with
weapons in their hands.

Conan bounded out on the bridge and stood poised above the upturned
black faces, ax lifted, black mane blown in the wind.

"Who am I?" he yelled. "Look, you dogs! Look, Ajonga, Yasunga,
Laranga! Who am I?"

And from the waist rose a shout that swelled to a mighty roar:

"Amra! It is Amra! The Lion has returned!"

The sailors who caught and understood the burden of that awesome shout
paled and shrank back, staring in sudden fear at the wild figure on
the bridge. Was this in truth that bloodthirsty ogre of the southern
seas who had so mysteriously vanished years ago, but who still lived
in gory legends? The blacks were frothing crazy now, shaking and
tearing at their chains and shrieking the name of Amra like an
invocation. Kushites who had never seen Conan before took up the yell.
The slaves in the pen under the after-cabin began to batter at the
walls, shrieking like the damned.

Demetrio, hitching himself along the deck on one hand and his knees,
livid with the agony of his dislocated arm, screamed: "In and kill
him, dogs, before the slaves break loose!"

Fired to desperation by that word, the most dread to all galleymen,
the sailors charged on to the bridge from both ends. But with a lionlike bound Conan left the bridge and hit like a cat on his feet on the
runway between the benches.

"Death to the masters!" he thundered, and his ax rose and fell
crashingly full on a shackle-chain, severing it like matchwood. In an
instant a shrieking slave was free, splintering his oar for a
bludgeon. Men were racing frantically along the bridge above, and all
hell and bedlam broke loose on the Venturer. Conan's ax rose and fell
without pause, and with every stroke a frothing, screaming black giant
broke free, mad with hate and the fury of freedom and vengeance.

Sailors, leaping down into the waist to grapple or smite at the naked
white giant hewing like one possessed at the shackles, found
themselves dragged down by hands of slaves yet unfreed, while others,
their broken chains whipping and snapping about their limbs, came up
out of the waist like a blind, black torrent, screaming like fiends,
smiting with broken oars and pieces of iron, tearing and rending with
talons and teeth. In the midst of the melee the slaves in the pen
broke down the walls and came surging up on the decks, and with fifty
blacks freed of their benches Conan abandoned his iron-hewing and
bounded up on the bridge to add his notched ax to the bludgeons of his
partizans.

Then it was massacre. The Argosseans were strong, sturdy, fearless
like all their race, trained in the brutal school of the sea. But they
could not stand against these maddened giants, led by the tigerish
barbarian. Blows and abuse and hellish suffering were avenged in one
red gust of fury that raged like a typhoon from one end of the ship to
the other, and when it had blown itself out, but one white man lived
aboard the Venturer, and that was the bloodstained giant about whom
the chanting blacks thronged to cast themselves prostrate on the
bloody deck and beat their heads against the boards in an ecstasy of
hero worship.

Conan, his mighty chest heaving and glistening with sweat, the red ax
gripped in his blood-smeared hand, glared about him as the first of
men might have glared in some primordial dawn, and shook back his
black mane. In that moment he was not king of Aquilonia; he was again
lord of the black corsairs, who had hacked his way to lordship through
flame and blood.

"Amra! Amra!" chanted the delirious blacks, those who were left to
chant. "The Lion has returned! Now will the Stygians howl like dogs in
the night, and the black dogs of Kush will howl! Now will villages
burst in flames and ships founder! Aie, there will be wailing of women
and the thunder of the spears!"

"Cease this yammering, dogs!" Conan roared in a voice that drowned the
clap of the sail in the wind. "Ten of you go below and free the
oarsmen who are yet chained. The rest of you man the sweeps and bend
to oars and halyards. Crom's devils, don't you see we've drifted
inshore during the fight? Do you want to run aground and be retaken by
the Argosseans? Throw these carcasses overboard. Jump to it, you
rogues, or I'll notch your hides for you!"

With shouts and laughter and wild singing they leaped to do his
commands. The corpses, white and black, were hurled overboard, where
triangular fins were already cutting the water.

Conan stood on the poop, frowning down at the black men who watched
him expectantly. His heavy brown arms were folded, his black hair,
grown long in his wanderings, blew in the wind. A wilder and more
barbaric figure never trod the bridge of a ship, and in this ferocious
corsair few of the courtiers of Aquilonia would have recognized their
king.

"There's food in the hold!" he roared. "Weapons in plenty for you, for
this ship carried blades and harness to the Shemites who dwell along
the coast. There are enough of us to work ship, aye, and to fight! You
rowed in chains for the Argossean dogs: will you row as free men for
Amra?"

"Aye!" they roared. "We are thy children! Lead us where you will!"

"Then fall to and clean out that waist," he commanded. "Free men don't
labor in such fifth. Three of you come with me and break out food from
the after-cabin. By Crom, I'll pad out your ribs before this cruise is
done!"

Another yell of approbation answered him, as the half-starved blacks
scurried to do his bidding. The sail bellied as the wind swept over
the waves with renewed force, and the white crests danced along the
sweep of the wind. Conan planted his feet to the heave of the deck,
breathed deep and spread his mighty arms.

King of Aquilonia he might no longer be; king of the blue ocean he was
still.

Chapter 16: Black-Walled Khemi

THE VENTURER SWEPT southward like a living thing, her oars pulled now
by free and willing hands. She had been transformed from a peaceful
trader into a war-galley, insofar as the transformation was possible.
Men sat at the benches now with swords at their sides and gilded
helmets on their kinky heads. Shields were hung along the rails, and
sheafs of spears, bows and arrows adorned the mast. Even the elements
seemed to work for Conan now; the broad purple sail bellied to a stiff
breeze that held day by day, needing little aid from the oars.

But though Conan kept a man on the masthead day and night, they did
not sight a long, low, black galley fleeing southward ahead of them.
Day by day the blue waters rolled empty to their view, broken only by
fishing-craft which fled like frightened birds before them, at sight
of the shields hung along the rail. The season for trading was
practically over for the year, and they sighted no other ships.

When the lookout did sight a sail, it was to the north, not the south.
Far on the skyline behind them appeared a racing-galley, with full
spread of purple sail. The blacks urged Conan to turn and plunder it,
but he shook his head. Somewhere south of him a slim black galley was
racing toward the ports of Stygia. That night, before darkness shut
down, the lookout's last glimpse showed him the racing-galley on the
horizon, and at dawn it was still hanging on their tail, afar off,
tiny in the distance. Conan wondered if it was following him, though
he could think of no logical reason for such a supposition. But he
paid little heed. Each day that carried him farther southward filled
him with fiercer impatience. Doubts never assailed him. As he believed
in the rise and set of the sun he believed that a priest of Set had
stolen the Heart of Ahriman. And where would a priest of Set carry it
but to Stygia? The blacks sensed his eagerness, and toiled as they had
never toiled under the lash, though ignorant of his goal. They
anticipated a red career of pillage and plunder and were content. The
men of the southern isles knew no other trade; and the Kushites of the
crew joined whole-heartedly in the prospect of looting their own
people, with the callousness of their race. Blood-ties meant little; a
victorious chieftain and personal gain everything.

Soon the character of the coastline changed. No longer they sailed
past steep cliffs with blue hills marching behind them. Now the shore
was the edge of broad meadowlands, which barely rose above the water's
edge and swept away and away into the hazy distance. Here were few
harbors and fewer ports, but the green plain was dotted with the
cities of the Shemites; green sea, lapping the rim of the green
plains, and the zikkurats of the cities gleaming whitely in the sun,
some small in the distance.

Through the grazing-lands moved the herds of cattle, and squat, broad
riders with cylindrical helmets and curled blue-black beards, with
bows in their hands. This was the shore of the lands of Shem, where
there was no law save as each city-state could enforce its own. Far to
the eastward, Conan knew, the meadowlands gave way to desert, where
there were no cities and the nomadic tribes roamed unhindered.

Still as they plied southward, past the changeless panorama of city-
dotted meadowland, at last the scenery again began to alter. Clumps of
tamarind appeared, the palm groves grew denser. The shoreline became
more broken, a marching rampart of green fronds and trees, and behind
them rose bare, sandy hills. Streams poured into the sea, and along
their moist banks vegetation grew thick and of vast variety.

So at last they passed the mouth of a broad river that mingled its
flow with the ocean, and saw the great black walls and towers of Khemi
rise against the southern horizon.

The river was the Styx, the real border of Stygia. Khemi was Stygia's
greatest port, and at the time her most important city. The king dwelt
at more ancient Luxur, but in Khemi reigned the priestcraft; though
men said the center of their dark religion lay far inland, in a
mysterious, deserted city near the bank of the Styx. This river,
springing from some nameless source far in the unknown lands south of
Stygia, ran northward for a thousand miles before it turned and flowed
westward for some hundreds of miles, to empty at last into the ocean.

The Venturer, showing no lights, stole past the port in the night, and
before dawn discovered her, anchored in a small bay a few miles south
of the city. It was surrounded by marsh, a green tangle of mangroves,
palms and lianas, swarming with crocodiles and serpents. Discovery was
extremely unlikely. Conan knew the place of old; he had hidden there
before, in his corsair days.

As they slid silently past the city whose great black bastions rose on
the jutting prongs of land, which locked the harbor, torches gleamed
and smoldered luridly, and to their ears came the low thunder of
drums. The port was not crowded with ships, as were the harbors of
Argos. The Stygians did not base their glory and power upon ships and
fleets. Trading-vessels and war-galleys, indeed, they had, but not in
proportion to their inland strength. Many of their craft plied up and
down the great river, rather than along the seacoasts.

The Stygians were an ancient race, a dark, inscrutable people,
powerful and merciless. Long ago their rule had stretched far north of
the Styx, beyond the meadowlands of Shem, and into the fertile uplands
now inhabited by the peoples of Koth and Ophir and Argos. Their borders
had marched with those of ancient Acheron. But Acheron had fallen, and
the barbaric ancestors of the Hyborians had swept southward in
wolfskins and horned helmets, driving the ancient rulers of the land
before them. The Stygians had not forgotten.

All day the Venturer lay at anchor in the tiny bay, walled in with
green branches and tangled vines through which flitted gay-plumed,
harsh-voiced birds, and among which glided bright-scaled, silent
reptiles. Toward sundown a small boat crept out and down along the
shore, seeking and finding that which Conan desired--a Stygian
fisherman in his shallow, flat-prowed boat.

They brought him to the deck of the Venturer--a tall, dark, rangily
built man, ashy with fear of his captors, who were ogres of that
coast. He was naked except for his silken breeks, for, like the
Hyrkanians, even the commoners and slaves of Stygia wore silk; and in
his boat was a wide mantle such as these fishermen flung about their
shoulders against the chill of the night.

He fell to his knees before Conan, expecting torture and death. "Stand
on your legs, man, and quit trembling," said the Cimmerian
impatiently, who found it difficult to understand abject terror, "You
won't be harmed. Tell me but this: has a galley, a black racing-galley
returning from Argos, put into Khemi within the last few days?" 

"Aye, my lord," answered the fisherman. "Only yesterday at dawn the priest
Thutothmes returned from a voyage far to the north. Men say he has
been to Messantia."

"What did he bring from Messantia?"

"Alas, my lord, I know not."

"Why did he go to Messantia?" demanded Conan.

"Nay, my lord, I am but a common man. Who am I to know the minds of
the priests of Set? I can only speak what I have seen and what I have
heard men whisper along the wharves. Men say that news of great import
came southward, though of what none knows; and it is well known that
the lord Thutothmes put off in his black galley in great haste. Now he
is returned, but what he did in Argos, or what cargo he brought back,
none knows, not even the seamen who manned his galley. Men say that he
has opposed Thoth-Amon, who is the master of all priests of Set, and
dwells in Luxur, and that Thutothmes seeks hidden power to overthrow
the Great One. But who am I to say? When priests war with one another
a common man can but lie on his belly and hope neither treads upon
him."

Conan snarled in nervous exasperation at this servile philosophy, and
turned to his men. "I'm going alone into Khemi to find this thief
Thutothmes. Keep this man prisoner, but see that you do him no hurt.
Crom's devils, stop your yowling! Do you think we can sail into the
harbor and take the city by storm? I must go alone."

Silencing the clamor of protests, he doffed his own garments and
donned the prisoner's silk breeches and sandals, and the band from the
man's hair, but scorned the short fisherman's knife. The common men of
Stygia were not allowed to wear swords, and the mantle was not
voluminous enough to hide the Cimmerian's long blade, but Conan
buckled to his hip a Ghanta knife, a weapon borne by the fierce desert
men who dwelt to the south of the Stygians, a broad, heavy, slightly
curved blade of fine steel, edged like a razor and long enough to
dismember a man.

Then, leaving the Stygian guarded by the corsairs, Conan climbed into
the fisherman's boat.

"Wait for me until dawn," he said. "If I haven't come then, I'll never
come, so hasten southward to your own homes."

As he clambered over the rail, they set up a doleful wail at his
going, until he thrust his head back into sight to curse them into
silence. Then, dropping into the boat, he grasped the oars and sent
the tiny craft shooting over the waves more swiftly than its owner had
ever propelled it.

Chapter 17: "He Has Slain the Sacred Son of Set!"

THE HARBOR OF Khemi lay between two great jutting points of land that
ran into the ocean. He rounded the southern point, where the great
black castles rose like a man-made hill, and entered the harbor just
at dusk, when there was still enough light for the watchers to
recognize the fisherman's boat and mantle, but not enough to permit
recognition of betraying details. Unchallenged he threaded his way
among the great black war-galleys lying silent and unlighted at
anchor, and drew up to a flight of wide stone steps which mounted up
from the water's edge. There he made his boat fast to an iron ring set
in the stone, as numerous similar craft were tied. There was nothing
strange in a fisherman leaving his boat there. None but a fisherman
could find a use for such a craft, and they did not steal from one
another.

No one cast him more than a casual glance as he mounted the long
steps, unobtrusively avoiding the torches that flared at intervals
above the lapping black water. He seemed but an ordinary, empty-handed
fisherman, returning after a fruitless day along the coast. If one had
observed him closely, it might have seemed that his step was somewhat
too springy and sure, his carriage somewhat too erect and confident
for a lowly fisherman. But he passed quickly, keeping in the shadows,
and the commoners of Stygia were no more given to analysis than were
the commoners of the less exotic races.

In build he was not unlike the warrior castes of the Stygians, who
were a tall, muscular race. Bronzed by the sun, he was nearly as dark
as many of them. His black hair, square-cut and confined by a copper
band, increased the resemblance. The characteristics which set him
apart from them were the subtle difference in his walk, and his alien
features and blue eyes.

But the mantle was a good disguise, and he kept as much in the shadow
as possible, turning away his head when a native passed him too
closely.

But it was a desperate game, and he knew he could not long keep up the
deception. Khemi was not like the seaports of the Hyborians, where
types of every race swarmed. The only aliens here were negro and
Shemite slaves; and he resembled neither even as much as he resembled
the Stygians themselves. Strangers were not welcome in the cities of
Stygia; tolerated only when they came as ambassadors or licensed
traders. But even then the latter were not allowed ashore after dark.
And now there were no Hyborian ships in the harbor at all. A strange
restlessness ran through the city, a stirring of ancient ambitions, a
whispering none could define except those who whispered. This Conan
felt rather than knew, his whetted primitive instincts sensing unrest
about him.

If he were discovered his fate would be ghastly. They would slay him
merely for being a stranger; if he were recognized as Amra, the
corsair chief who had swept their coasts with steel and flame--an
involuntary shudder twitched Conan's broad shoulders. Human foes he
did not fear, nor any death by steel or fire. But this was a black
land of sorcery and nameless horror. Set the Old Serpent, men said,
banished long ago from the Hyborian races, yet lurked in the shadows
of the cryptic temples, and awful and mysterious were the deeds done
in the nighted shrines.

He had drawn away from the waterfront streets with their broad steps
leading down to the water, and was entering the long shadowy streets
of the main part of the city. There was no such scene as was offered
by any Hyborian city--no blaze of lamps and cressets, with gay-clad
people laughing and strolling along the pavements, and shops and
stalls wide open and displaying their wares.

Here the stalls were closed at dusk. The only lights along the streets
were torches, flaring smokily at wide intervals. People walking the
streets were comparatively few; they went hurriedly and unspeaking,
and their numbers decreased with the lateness of the hour. Conan found
the scene gloomy and unreal; the silence of the people, their furtive
haste, the great black stone walls that rose on each side of the
streets. There was a grim massiveness about Stygian architecture that
was overpowering and oppressive.

Few lights showed anywhere except in the upper parts of the buildings.
Conan knew that most of the people lay on the flat roofs, among the
palms of artificial gardens under the stars. There was a murmur of
weird music from somewhere. Occasionally a bronze chariot rumbled
along the flags, and there was a brief glimpse of a tall, hawk-faced
noble, with a silk cloak wrapped about him, and a gold band with a
rearing serpent-head emblem confining his black mane; of the ebon,
naked charioteer bracing his knotty legs against the straining of the
fierce Stygian horses.

But the people who yet traversed the streets on foot were commoners,
slaves, tradesmen, harlots, toilers, and they became fewer as he
progressed. He was making toward the temple of Set, where he knew he
would be likely to find the priest he sought. He believed he would
know Thutothmes if he saw him, though his one glance had been in the
semidarkness of the Messantian alley. That the man he had seen there
had been the priest he was certain. Only occultists high in the mazes
of the hideous Black Ring possessed the power of the black hand that
dealt death by its touch; and only such a man would dare defy Thoth-
Amon, whom the western world knew only as a figure of terror and myth.

The street broadened, and Conan was aware that he was getting into the
part of the city dedicated to the temples. The great structures reared
their black bulks against the dim stars, grim, indescribably menacing
in the flare of the few torches. And suddenly he heard a low scream
from--a woman on the other side of the street and somewhat ahead of
him--a naked courtezan wearing the tall plumed head-dress of her class.
She was shrinking back against the wall, staring across at something
he could not yet see. At her cry the few people on the street halted
suddenly as if frozen. At the same instant Conan was aware of a
sinister slithering ahead of him. Then about the dark corner of the
building he was approaching poked a hideous, wedge-shaped head, and
after it flowed coil after coil of rippling, darkly glistening trunk.

The Cimmerian recoiled, remembering tales he had heard--serpents were
sacred to Set, god of Stygia, who, men said, was himself a serpent.
Monsters such as this were kept in the temples of Set, and when they
hungered, were allowed to crawl forth into the streets to take what
prey they wished. Their ghastly feasts were considered a sacrifice to
the scaly god.

The Stygians within Conan's sight fell to their knees, men and women,
and passively awaited their fate. One the great serpent would select,
would lap in scaly coils, crush to a red pulp and swallow as a rat-
snake swallows a mouse. The others would live. That was the will of
the gods.

But it was not Conan's will. The python glided toward him, its
attention probably attracted by the fact that he was the only human in
sight still standing erect. Gripping his great knife under his mantle,
Conan hoped the slimy brute would pass him by. But it halted before
him and reared up horrifically in the flickering torchlight, its
forked tongue flickering in and out, its cold eyes glittering with the
ancient cruelty of the serpent-folk. Its neck arched, but before it
could dart, Conan whipped his knife from under his mantle and struck
like a flicker of lightning. The broad blade split that wedge-shaped
head and sheared deep into the thick neck.

Conan wrenched his knife free and sprang clear as the great body
knotted and looped and whipped terrifically in its death throes. In
the moment that he stood staring in morbid fascination, the only sound
was the thud and swish of the snake's tail against the stones.

Then from the shocked votaries burst a terrible cry: "Blasphemer! He
has slain the sacred son of Set! Slay him! Slay! Slay!"

Stones whizzed about him and the crazed Stygians rushed at him,
shrieking hysterically, while from all sides others emerged from their
houses and took up the cry. With a curse Conan wheeled and darted into
the black mouth of an alley. He heard the patter of bare feet on the
flags behind him as he ran more by feel than by sight, and the walls
resounded to the vengeful yells of the pursuers. Then his left hand
found a break in the wall, and he turned sharply into another,
narrower alley. On both sides rose sheer black stone walls. High above
him he could see a thin line of stars. These giant walls, he knew,
were the walls of temples. He heard, behind him, the pack sweep past
the dark mouth in full cry. Their shouts grew distant, faded away.
They had missed the smaller alley and run straight on in the
blackness. He too kept straight ahead, though the thought of
encountering another of Set's "sons" in the darkness brought a shudder
from him.

Then somewhere ahead of him he caught a moving glow, like that of a
crawling glow-worm. He halted, flattened himself against the wall and
gripped his knife. He knew what it was: a man approaching with a
torch. Now it was so close he could make out the dark hand that
gripped it, and the dim oval of a dark face. A few more steps and the
man would certainly see him. He sank into a tigerish crouch--the torch
halted. A door was briefly etched in the glow, while the torch-bearer
fumbled with it. Then it opened, the tall figure vanished through it,
and darkness closed again on the alley. There was a sinister
suggestion of furtiveness about that slinking figure, entering the
alley door in darkness; a priest, perhaps returning from some dark
errand.

But Conan groped toward the door. If one man came up that alley with a
torch, others might come at any time. To retreat the way he had come
might mean to run full into the mob from which he was fleeing. At any
moment they might return, find the narrower alley and come howling
down it. He felt hemmed in by those sheer, unscalable walls, desirous
of escape, even if escape meant invading some unknown building.

The heavy bronze door was not locked. It opened under his fingers and
he peered through the crack. He was looking into a great square
chamber of massive black stone. A torch smoldered in a niche in the
wall. The chamber was empty. He glided through the lacquered door and
closed it behind him.

His sandaled feet made no sound as he crossed the black marble floor.
A teak door stood partly open, and gliding through this, knife in
hand, he came out into a great, dim, shadowy place whose lofty ceiling
was only a hint of darkness high above him, toward which the black
walls swept upward. On all sides black-arched doorways opened into the
great still hall. It was lit by curious bronze lamps that gave a dim
weird light. On the other side of the great hall a broad black marble
stairway, without a railing, marched upward to lose itself in gloom,
and above him on all sides dun galleries hung like black stone ledges.

Conan shivered; he was in a temple of some Stygian god, if not Set
himself, then someone only less grim. And the shrine did not lack an
occupant. In the midst of the great hall stood a black stone altar,
massive, somber, without carvings or ornament, and upon it coiled one
of the great sacred serpents, its iridescent scales shimmering in the
lamplight. It did not move, and Conan remembered stories that the
priests kept these creatures drugged part of the time. The Cimmerian
took an uncertain step out from the door, then shrank back suddenly,
not into the room he had just quitted, but into a velvet-curtained
recess. He had heard a soft step somewhere near by.

From one of the black arches emerged a tall, powerful figure in
sandals and silken loincloth, with a wide mantle trailing from his
shoulders. But face and head were hidden by a monstrous mask, a half-
bestial, half-human countenance, from the crest of which floated a
mass of ostrich plumes.

In certain ceremonies the Stygian priests went masked. Conan hoped the
man would not discover him, but some instinct warned the Stygian. He
turned abruptly from his destination, which apparently was the stair,
and stepped straight to the recess. As he jerked aside the velvet
hanging, a hand darted from the shadows, crushed the cry in his throat
and jerked him headlong into the alcove, and the knife impaled him.

Conan's next move was the obvious one suggested by logic. He lifted
off the grinning mask and drew it over his own head. The fisherman's
mantle he flung over the body of the priest, which he concealed behind
the hangings, and drew the priestly mantle about his own brawny
shoulders. Fate had given him a disguise. All Khemi might well be
searching now for the blasphemer who dared defend himself against a
sacred snake; but who would dream of looking for him under the mask of
a priest?

He strode boldly from the alcove and headed for one of the arched
doorways at random; but he had not taken a dozen strides when he
wheeled again, all his senses edged for peril.

A band of masked figures filed down the stair, appareled exactly as he
was. He hesitated, caught in the open, and stood still, trusting to
his disguise, though cold sweat gathered on his forehead and the backs
of his hands. No word was spoken. Like phantoms they descended into
the great hall and moved past him toward a black arch. The leader
carried an ebon staff which supported a grinning white skull, and
Conan knew it was one of the ritualistic processions so inexplicable
to a foreigner, but which played a strong--and often sinister--part in
the Stygian religion. The last figure turned his head slightly toward
the motionless Cimmerian, as if expecting him to follow. Not to do
what was obviously expected of him would rouse instant suspicion.
Conan fell in behind the last man and suited his gait to their
measured pace.

They traversed a long, dark, vaulted corridor in which, Conan noticed
uneasily, the skull on the staff glowed phosphorescently??. He felt a
surge of unreasoning, wild animal panic that urged him to rip out his
knife and slash right and left at these uncanny figures, to flee madly
from this grim, dark temple. But he held himself in check, fighting
down the dim monstrous intuitions that rose in the back of his mind
and peopled the gloom with shadowy shapes of horror; and presently he
barely stifled a sigh of relief as they filed through a great double-
valved door which was three times higher than a man, and emerged into
the starlight.

Conan wondered if he dared fade into some dark alley; but hesitated,
uncertain, and down the long dark street they padded silently, while
such folk as they met turned their heads away and fled from them. The
procession kept far out from the walls; to turn and bolt into any of
the alleys they passed would be too conspicuous. While he mentally
fumed and cursed, they came to a low-arched gateway in the southern
wall, and through this they filed. Ahead of them and about them lay
clusters of low, flat-topped mud houses, and palm groves, shadowy in
the starlight. Now if ever, thought Conan, was his time to escape his
silent companions.

But the moment the gate was left behind them those companions were no
longer silent. They began to mutter excitedly among themselves. The
measured, ritualistic gait was abandoned, the staff with its skull was
tucked unceremoniously under the leader's arm, and the whole group
broke ranks and hurried onward. And Conan hurried with them. For in
the low murmur of speech he had caught a word that galvanized him. The
word was: "Thutothmes!"

Chapter 18: "I Am the Woman Who Never Died"

CONAN STARED WITH burning interest at his masked companions. One of
them was Thutothmes, or else the destination of the band was a
rendezvous with the man he sought. And he knew what the destination
was, when beyond the palms he glimpsed a black triangular bulk looming
against the shadowy sky.

They passed through the belt of huts and groves, and if any man saw
them he was careful not to show himself. The huts were dark. Behind
them the black towers of Khemi rose gloomily against the stars that
were mirrored in the waters of the harbor; ahead of them the desert
stretched away in dim darkness; somewhere a jackal yapped. The quick-
passing sandals of the silent neophytes made no noise in the sand.
They might have been ghosts, moving toward that colossal pyramid that
rose out of the murk of the desert. There was no sound over all the
sleeping land.

Conan's heart beat quicker as he gazed at the grim black wedge that
stood etched against the stars, and his impatience to close with
Thutothmes in whatever conflict the meeting might mean was not unmixed
with a fear of the unknown. No man could approach one of those somber
piles of black stone without apprehension. The very name was a symbol
of repellent horror among the northern nations, and legends hinted
that the Stygians did not build them; that they were in the land at
whatever immeasurably ancient date the dark-skinned people came into
the land of the great river.

As they approached the pyramid he glimpsed a dim glow near the base
which presently resolved itself into a doorway, on either side of
which brooded stone lions with the heads of women, cryptic,
inscrutable, nightmares crystallized in stone. The leader of the band
made straight for the doorway, in the deep well of which Conan saw a
shadowy figure.

The leader paused an instant beside this dim figure, and then vanished
into the dark interior, and one by one the others followed. As each
masked priest passed through the gloomy portal he was halted briefly
by the mysterious guardian and something passed between them, some
word or gesture Conan could not make out. Seeing this, the Cimmerian
purposely lagged behind, and stooping, pretended to be fumbling with
the fastening of his sandal. Not until the last of the masked figures
had disappeared did he straighten and approach the portal.

He was uneasily wondering if the guardian of the temple were human,
remembering some tales he had heard. But his doubts were set at rest.
A dim bronze cresset glowing just within the door lighted a long
narrow corridor that ran away into blackness, and a man standing
silent in the mouth of it, wrapped in a wide black cloak. No one else
was in sight. Obviously the masked priests had disappeared down the
corridor. Over the cloak that was drawn about his lower features, the
Stygian's piercing eyes regarded Conan sharply. With his left hand he
made a curious gesture. On a venture Conan imitated it. But evidently
another gesture was expected; the Stygian's right hand came from under
his cloak with a gleam of steel and his murderous stab would have
pierced the heart of an ordinary man. But he was dealing with one
whose thews were nerved to the quickness of a jungle cat. Even as the
dagger flashed in the dim light, Conan caught the dusky wrist and
smashed his clenched right fist against the Stygian's jaw. The man's
head went back against the stone wall with a dull crunch that told of
a fractured skull. Standing for an instant above him, Conan listened
intently. The cresset burned low, casting vague shadows about the
door. Nothing stirred in the blackness about the door. Nothing stirred
in the blackness beyond, though far away and below him, as it seemed,
he caught the faint, muffled note of a gong.

He stooped and dragged the body behind the great bronze door which
stood wide, opened inward, and then the Cimmerian went warily but
swiftly down the corridor, toward what doom he did not even try to
guess. He had not gone far when he halted, baffled. The corridor split
in two branches, and he had no way of knowing which the masked priests
had taken. At a venture he chose the left. The floor slanted slightly
downward and worn smooth as by many feet. Here and there a dim cresset
cast a faint nightmarish twilight. Conan wondered uneasily for what
purpose these colossal piles had been reared, in what forgotten age.
This was an ancient, ancient land. No man knew how many ages the black
temples of Stygia looked.

Against the stars, narrow black arches opened occasionally to right
and left, but he kept to the main corridor, although a conviction that
he had taken the wrong branch was growing in him. Even with their
start on him, he should have overtaken the priests by this time. He
was growing nervous. The silence was like a tangible thing, and yet he
had a feeling that he was not alone. More than once, passing a nighted
arch he seemed to feel the glare of unseen eyes fixed upon him. He
paused, half minded to turn back to where the corridor had first
branched. He wheeled abruptly, knife lifted, every nerve tingling.

A girl stood at the mouth of a smaller tunnel, staring fixedly at him.
Her ivory skin showed her to be Stygian of some ancient noble family,
and like all such women she was tall, lithe, voluptuously figured, her
hair a great pile of black foam, among which gleamed a sparkling ruby.
But for her velvet sandals and broad jewel-crusted girdle about her
supple waist she was quite nude.

"What do you here?" she demanded.

To answer would betray his alien origin. He remained motionless, a
grim, somber figure in the hideous mask with the plumes floating over
him. His alert gaze sought the shadows behind her and found them
empty. But there might be hordes of fighting-men within her call.

She advanced toward him, apparently without apprehension though with
suspicion.

"You are not a priest," she said. "You are a fighting-man. Even with
that mask that is plain. There is as much difference between you and a
priest as there is between a man and a woman. By Set!" she exclaimed,
halting suddenly, her eyes flaring wide. "I do not believe you are
even a Stygian!"

With a movement too quick for the eye to follow, his hand closed about
her round throat, lightly as a caress.

"Not a sound out of you!" he muttered.

Her smooth ivory flesh was cold as marble, yet there was no fear in
the wide, dark, marvelous eyes which regarded him.

"Do not fear," she answered calmly. "I will not betray you. But you
are mad to come, a stranger and a foreigner, to the forbidden temple
of Set."

"I'm looking for the priest Thutothmes," he answered. "Is he in this
temple?"

"Why do you seek him?" she parried. 

"He has something of mine which was stolen."

"I will lead you to him,” she volunteered, so promptly
that his suspicions were instantly aroused.

"Don't play with me, girl," he growled.

"I do not play with you. I have no love for Thutothmes."  He
hesitated, then made up his mind; after all, he was in her power as
she was in his. 

"Walk beside me," he commanded, shifting his grasp
from her throat to her wrist. "But walk with care. If you make a
move--"

She led him down the slanting corridor, down and down, until there
were no more cressets, and he groped his way in darkness, aware less
by sight than by feel and sense of the woman at his side. Once when he
spoke to her, she turned her head toward him and he was startled to
see her eyes glowing like golden fire in the dark. Dim doubts and
vague monstrous suspicions haunted his mind, but he followed her,
through a labyrinthine maze of black corridors that confused even his
primitive sense of direction. He mentally cursed himself for a fool,
allowing himself to be led into that black abode of mystery; but it
was too late to turn back now. Again he felt life and movement in the
darkness about him, sensed peril and hunger burning impatiently in the
blackness. Unless his ears deceived him he caught a faint sliding
noise that ceased and receded at a muttered command from the girl.

She led him at last into a chamber lighted by a curious seven-branched
candelabrum in which black candles burned weirdly. He knew they were
far below the earth. The chamber was square, with walls and ceilings
of polished black marble and furnished after the manner of the ancient
Stygians; there was a couch of ebony, covered with black velvet, and
on a black stone dais lay a carven mummy-case.

Conan stood waiting expectantly, staring at the various black arches
which opened into the chamber. But the girl made no move to go
farther. Stretching herself on the couch with feline suppleness, she
intertwined her fingers behind her sleek head and regarded him from
under long, drooping lashes.

"Well?" he demanded impatiently. "What are you doing?"
Where's Thutothmes?"

"There is no haste," she answered lazily. "What is an hour--or a day,
or a year, or a century, for that matter? Take off your mask. Let me
see your features."

With a grunt of annoyance Conan dragged on the bulky head-piece, and
the girl nodded as if in approval as she scanned his dark, scarred face
and blazing eyes.

"There is strength in you--great strength; you could strangle a
bullock."

He moved restlessly, his suspicion growing. With his hand on his hilt
he peered into the gloomy arches.

"If you've brought me into a trap," he said, "you won't live to enjoy
your handiwork. Are you going to get off that couch and do as you
promised, or do I have to--"

His voice trailed away. He was staring at the mummy-case, on which the
countenance of the occupant was carved in ivory with the startling
vividness of a forgotten art. There was a disquieting familiarity
about that carven mask, and with something of a shock he realized what
it was; there was a startling resemblance between it and the face of
the girl lolling on the ebon couch. She might have been the model from
which it was carved, but he knew the portrait was at least centuries
old. Archaic hieroglyphics were scrawled across the lacquered lid,
and, seeking back into his mind for tag-ends of learning, picked up
here and there as incidentals of an adventurous life, he spelled them
out, and said aloud: "Akivasha!"

"You have heard of Princess Akivasha?" inquired the girl on the couch.

"Who hasn't?" he grunted. The name of that ancient, evil, beautiful
princess still lived the world over in song and legend, though ten
thousand years had rolled their cycles since the daughter of Tuthamon
had reveled in purple feasts amid the black halls of ancient Luxur.

"Her only sin was that she loved life and all the meanings of life,"
said the Stygian girl. "To win life she courted death. She could not
bear to think of growing old and shriveled and worn, and dying at last
as hags die. She wooed Darkness like a lover and his gift was life--
life that, not being life as mortals know it, can never grow old and
fade. She went into the shadows to cheat age and death--"

Conan glared at her with eyes that were suddenly burning slits. And he
wheeled and tore the lid from the sarcophagus. It was empty. Behind
him the girl was laughing and the sound froze the blood in his veins.
He whirled back to her, the short hairs on his neck bristling.

"You are Akivasha!" he grated.

She laughed and shook back her burnished locks, spread her arms
sensuously.

"I am Akivasha! I am the woman who never died, who never grew old! Who
fools say was lifted from the earth by the gods, in the full bloom of
her youth and beauty, to queen it for ever in some celestial clime!
Nay, it is in the shadows that mortals find immortality! Ten thousand
years ago I died to live for ever! Give me your lips, strong man!"

Rising lithely she came to him, rose on tiptoe and flung her arms
about his massive neck. Scowling down into her upturned, beautiful
countenance he was aware of a fearful fascination and an icy fear.

"Love me!" she whispered, her head thrown back, eyes closed and lips
parted. "Give me of your blood to renew my youth and perpetuate my
everlasting life! I will make you, too, immortal! I will teach you the
wisdom of all the ages, all the secrets that have lasted out the eons
in the blackness beneath these dark temples. I will make you king of
that shadowy horde which revel among the tombs of the ancients when
night veils the desert and bats flit across the moon. I am weary of
priests and magicians, and captive girls dragged screaming through the
portals of death. I desire a man. Love me, barbarian!"

She pressed her dark head down against his mighty breast, and he felt
a sharp pang at the base of his throat. With a curse he tore her away
and flung her sprawling across the couch.

"Damned vampire!" Blood was trickling from a tiny wound in his throat.
She reared up on the couch like a serpent poised to strike, all the
golden fires of Hell blazing in her wide eyes. Her lips drew back,
revealing white pointed teeth.

"Fool!" she shrieked. "Do you think to escape me? You will live and
die in darkness! I have brought you far below the temple. You can
never find your way out alone. You can never cut your way through
those which guard the tunnels. But for my protection the sons of Set
would long ago have taken you into their bellies.

"Fool, I shall yet drink your blood!"

"Keep away from me or I'll slash you asunder," he grunted, his flesh
crawling with revulsion. "You may be immortal, but steel will
dismember you."

As he backed toward the arch through which he had entered, the light
went out suddenly. All the candles were extinguished at once, though
he did not know how; for Akivasha had not touched them. But the
vampire's laugh rose mockingly behind him, poison-sweet as the viols
of hell, and he sweated as he groped in the darkness for the arch in a
near-panic. His fingers encountered an opening and he plunged through
it. Whether it was the arch through which he had entered he did not
know, nor did he very much care. His one thought was to get out of the
haunted chamber which had housed that beautiful, hideous, undead fiend
for so many centuries.

His wanderings through those black, winding tunnels, were a sweating
nightmare. Behind him and about him he heard faint slitherings and
glidings, and once the echo of that sweet, hellish laughter he had
heard in the chamber of Akivasha. He slashed ferociously at sounds and
movements he heard or imagined he heard in the darkness near him, and
once his sword cut through some yielding tenuous substance that might
have been cobwebs. He had a desperate feeling that he was being played
with, lured deeper and deeper into ultimate night, before being set
upon by demoniac talon and fang.

And through his fear ran the sickening revulsion of his discovery. The
legend of Akivasha was so old, and among the evil tales told of her
ran a thread of beauty and idealism, of everlasting youth. To so many
dreamers and poets and lovers she was not alone the evil princess of
Stygian legend, but the symbol of eternal youth and beauty, shining
for ever in some far realm of the gods. And this was the hideous
reality. This foul perversion was the truth of that everlasting life.
Through his physical revulsion ran the sense of a shattered dream of
man's idolatry, its glittering gold proved slime and cosmic filth. A
wave of futility swept over him, a dim fear of the falseness of all
men's dreams and idolatries.

And now he knew that his ears were not playing him tricks. He was
being followed, and his pursuers were closing in on him. In the
darkness sounded shufflings and slidings that were never made by human
feet; no, nor by the feet of any normal animal. The underworld had its
bestial life too, perhaps. They were behind him. He turned to face
them, though he could see nothing, and slowly backed away. Then the
sounds eased, even before he turned his head and saw, somewhere down
the long corridor, a glow of light.

Chapter 19: In the Hall of the Dead

CONAN MOVED CAUTIOUSLY in the direction of the light he had seen, his
ear cocked over his shoulder, but there was no further sound of
pursuit, though he felt the darkness pregnant with sentient life.

The glow was not stationary; it moved, bobbing grotesquely along. Then
he saw the source. The tunnel he was traversing crossed another, wider
corridor some distance ahead of him. And along this latter tunnel
filed a bizarre procession--four tall, gaunt men in black, hooded
robes, leaning on staffs. The leader held a torch above his head--a
torch that burned with a curious steady glow. Like phantoms they
passed across his limited range of vision and vanished, with only a
fading glow to tell of their passing. Their appearance was
indescribably eldritch. They were not Stygians, not anything Conan had
ever seen. He doubted if they were even humans. They were like black
ghosts, stalking ghoulishly along the haunted tunnels.

But his position could be no more desperate than it was. Before the
inhuman feet behind him could resume their slithering advance at the
fading of the distant illumination, Conan was running down the
corridor. He plunged into the other tunnel and saw, far down it, small
in the distance, the weird procession moving in the glowing sphere. He
stole noiselessly after them, then shrank suddenly back against the
wall as he saw them halt and cluster together as if conferring on some
matter. They turned as if to retrace their steps, and he slipped into
the nearest archway. Groping in the darkness to which he had become so
accustomed that he could all but see through it, he discovered that
the tunnel did not run straight, but meandered, and he fell back
beyond the first turn, so that the light of the strangers should not
fall on him as they passed.

But as he stood there, he was aware of a low hum of sound from
somewhere behind him, like the murmur of human voices. Moving down the
corridor in that direction, he confirmed his first suspicion.
Abandoning his original intention of following the ghoulish travelers
to whatever destination might be theirs, he set out in the direction
of the voices.

Presently he saw a glint of light ahead of him, and turning into the
corridor from which it issued, saw a broad arch filled with a dim glow
at the other end. On his left a narrow stone stair went upward, and
instinctive caution prompted him to turn and mount the stair. The
voices he heard were coming from beyond that flame-filled arch.

The sounds fell away beneath him as he climbed, and presently he came
out through a low arched door into a vast open space glowing with a
weird radiance.

He was standing on a shadowy gallery from which he looked down into a
broad dim-lit hall of colossal proportions. It was a hall of the dead,
which few ever see but the silent priests of Stygia. Along the black
walls rose tier above tier of carven, painted sarcophagi. Each stood
in a niche in the dusky stone, and the tiers mounted up and up to be
lost in the gloom above. Thousands of carven masks stared impassively
down upon the group in the midst of the hall, rendered futile and
insignificant by that vast array of the dead.

Of this group ten were priests, and though they had discarded their
masks Conan knew they were the priests he had accompanied to the
pyramid. They stood before a tall, hawk-faced man beside a black altar
on which lay a mummy in rotting swathings. And the altar seemed to
stand in the heart of a living fire which pulsed and shimmered,
dripping flakes of quivering golden flame on the black stone about it.
This dazzling glow emanated from a great red jewel which lay upon the
altar, and in the reflection of which the faces of the priests looked
ashy and corpselike. As he looked, Conan felt the pressure of all the
weary leagues and the weary nights and days of his long quest, and he
trembled with the mad urge to rush among those silent priests, clear
his way with mighty blows of naked steel, and grasp the red gem with
passion-taut fingers. But he gripped himself with iron control, and
crouched down in the shadow of the stone balustrade. A glance showed
him that a stair led down into the hall from the gallery, hugging the
wall and half hidden in the shadows. He glared into the dimness of the
vast place, seeking other priests or votaries, but saw only the group
about the altar.

In that great emptiness the voice of the man beside the altar sounded
hollow and ghostly:

" And so the word came southward. The night wind whispered it, the
ravens croaked of it as they flew, and the grim bats told it to the
owls and the serpents that lurk in hoary ruins. Were-wolf and vampire
knew, and the ebon-bodied demons that prowl by night. The sleeping
Night of the World stirred and shook its heavy mane, and there began a
throbbing of drums in deep darkness, and the echoes of far weird cries
frightened men who walked by dusk. For the Heart of Ahriman had come
again into the world to fulfill its cryptic destiny. "Ask me not how
I, Thutothmes of Khemi and the Night, heard the word before Thoth-Amon,
who calls himself prince of all wizards. There are secrets not meet
for such ears even as yours, and Thoth-Amon is not the only lord of
the Black Ring."

"I knew, and I went to meet the Heart which came southward. It was
like a magnet which drew me, unerringly. From death to death it came,
riding on a river of human blood. Blood feeds it, blood draws it. Its
power is greatest when there is blood on the hands that grasp it, when
it is wrested by slaughter from its holder. Wherever it gleams, blood
is spilt and kingdoms totter, and the forces of nature are put in
turmoil.

"And here I stand, the master of the Heart, and have summoned you to
come secretly, who are faithful to me, to share in the black kingdom
that shall be. Tonight you shall witness the breaking of Thoth-Amon's
chains which enslave us, and the birth of empire. Who am I, even I,
Thutothmes, to know what powers lurk and dream in those crimson deeps?
It holds secrets forgotten for three thousand years. But I shall
learn. These shall tell me!" He waved his hand toward the silent
shapes that lined the hall. "See how they sleep, staring through their
carven masks! Kings, queens, generals, priests, wizards, the dynasties
and the nobility of Stygia for ten thousand years! The touch of the
Heart will awaken them from their long slumber. Long, long the Heart
throbbed and pulsed in ancient Stygia. Here was its home in the
centuries before it journeyed to Acheron. The ancients knew its full
power, and they will tell me when by its magic I restore them to life
to labor for me. "I will rouse them, will waken them, will learn their
forgotten wisdom, the knowledge locked in those withered skulls. By
the lore of the dead we shall enslave the living! Aye, kings, and
generals and wizards of old shall be our helpers and our slaves. Who
shall stand before us? "Look! This dried, shriveled thing on the altar
was once Thoth-mekri, a high priest of Set, who died three thousand
years ago."

"He was an adept of the Black Ring. He knew of the Heart. He will tell
us of its powers."

Lifting the great jewel, the speaker laid it on the withered breast of
the mummy, and lifted his hand as he began an incantation. But the
incantation was never finished. With his hand lilted and his lips
parted he froze, glaring past his acolytes, and they wheeled to stare
in the direction in which he was looking.

Through the black arch of a door four gaunt, black-robed shapes had
filed into the great hall. Their faces were dim yellow ovals in the
shadows of their hoods.

"Who are you?" ejaculated Thutothmes in a voice as pregnant with
danger as the hiss of a cobra. "Are you mad, to invade the holy shrine
of Set?"

The tallest of the strangers spoke, and his voice was toneless as a
Khitan temple bell.

"We follow Conan of Aquilonia."

"He is not here," answered Thutothmes, shaking back his mantle from
his right hand with a curious menacing gesture, like a panther
unsheathing his talons.

"You lie. He is in this temple. We tracked him from a corpse behind
the bronze door of the outer portal through a maze of corridors. We
were following his devious trail when we became aware of this
conclave. We go now to take it up again. But first give us the Heart
of Ahriman."

"Death is the portion of madmen," murmured Thutothmes, moving nearer
the speaker. His priests closed in on catlike feet, but the strangers
did not appear to heed.

"Who can look upon it without desire?" said the Khitan. "In Khitai we
have heard of it. It will give us power over the people which cast us
out. Glory and wonder dream in its crimson deeps. Give it to us,
before we slay you."

A fierce cry rang out as a priest leaped with a flicker of steel.
Before he could strike, a scaly staff licked out and touched his
breast, and he fell as a dead man falls. In an instant the mummies
were staring down on a scene of blood and horror. Curved knives
flashed and crimsoned, snaky staffs licked in and out, and whenever
they touched a man, that man screamed and died.

At the first stroke Conan had bounded up and was racing down the
stairs. He caught only glimpses of that brief, fiendish fight--saw men
swaying, locked in battle and streaming blood; saw one Khitan, fairly
hacked to pieces, yet still on his feet and dealing death, when
Thutothmes smote him on the breast with his open empty hand, and he
dropped dead, though naked steel had not been enough to destroy his
uncanny vitality.

By the time Conan's hurtling feet left the stair, the fight was all
but over. Three of the Khitans were down, and slashed and cut to
ribbons and disemboweled, but of the Stygians only Thutothmes remained
on his feet.

He rushed at the remaining Khitan, his empty hand lifted like a
weapon, and that hand was black as that of a negro. But before he
could strike, the staff in the tall Khitan's hand licked out, seeming
to elongate itself as the yellow man thrust. The point touched the
bosom of Thutothmes and he staggered; again and yet again the staff
licked out, and Thutothmes reeled and fell dead, his features blotted
out in a rush of blackness that made the whole of him the same hue as
his enchanted hand.

The Khitan turned toward the jewel that burned on the breast of the
mummy, but Conan was before him.

In a tense stillness the two faced each other, amid that shambles,
with the carven mummies staring down upon them.

"Far have I followed you, oh king of Aquilonia," said the Khitan
calmly. "Down the long river, and over the mountains, across Poitain
and Zingara and through the hills of Argos and down the coast. Not
easily did we pick up on your trail from Tarantia, for the priests of
Asura are crafty. We lost it in Zingara, but we found your helmet in
the forest below the border hills, where you had fought with the
ghouls of the forests. Almost we lost the trail tonight among these
labyrinths."

Conan reflected that he had been fortunate in returning from the
vampire's chamber by another route than that by which he had been led
to it. Otherwise he would have run full into these yellow fiends
instead of sighting them from afar as they smelled out his spoor like
human bloodhounds, with whatever uncanny gift was theirs.

The Khitan shook his head slightly, as if reading his mind.

"That is meaningless; the long trail ends here."

"Why have you hounded me?" demanded Conan, poised to move in any
direction with the celerity of a hair-trigger.

"It was a debt to pay," answered the Khitan. "To you who are about to
die, I will not withhold knowledge. We were vassals of the king of
Aquilonia, Valerius. Long we served him, but of that service we are
free now--my brothers by death, and I by the fulfilment of obligation.
I shall return to Aquilonia with two hearts; for myself the Heart of
Ahriman; for Valerius the heart of Conan. A kiss of the staff that was
cut from the living Tree of Death--"

The staff licked out like the dart of a viper, but the slash of
Conan's knife was quicker. The staff fell in writhing halves, there
was another flicker of the keen steel like a jet of lightning, and the
head of the Khitan rolled to the floor.

Conan wheeled and extended his hand toward the jewel--then he shrank
back, his hair bristling, his blood congealing idly.

For no longer a withered brown thing lay on the altar. The jewel
shimmered on the full, arching breast of a naked, living man who lay
among the moldering bandages. Living? Conan could not decide. The eyes
were like dark murky glass under which shone inhuman somber fires.

Slowly the man rose, taking the jewel in his hand. He towered beside
the altar, dusky, naked, with a face like a carven image. Mutely he
extended his hand toward Conan, with the jewel throbbing like a living
heart within it. Conan took it, with an eery sensation of receiving
gifts from the hand of the dead. He somehow realized that the proper
incantations had not been made--the conjurement had not been completed--
life had not been fully restored to his corpse.

"Who are you?" demanded the Cimmerian.

The answer came in a toneless monotone, like the dripping of water
from stalactites in subterranean caverns. "I was Thoth-mekri; I am
dead."

"Well, lead me out of this accursed temple, will you?" Conan
requested, his flesh crawling.

With measured, mechanical steps the dead man moved toward a black
arch. Conan followed him. A glance back showed him once again the
vast, shadowy hall with its tiers of sarcophagi, the dead men sprawled
about the altar; the head of the Khitan he had slain stared sightless
up at the sweeping shadows.

The glow of the jewel illuminated the black tunnels like an ensorcelled lamp, dripping golden fire. Once Conan caught a glimpse of
ivory flesh in the shadows, believed he saw the vampire that was
Akivasha shrinking back from the glow of the jewel; and with her,
other less-human shapes scuttled or shambled into the darkness.

The dead man strode straight on, looking neither to right nor left,
his pace as changeless as the tramp of doom. Cold sweat gathered thick
on Conan's flesh. Icy doubts assailed him. How could he know that this
terrible figure out of the past was leading him to freedom? But he
knew that, left to himself, he could never untangle this bewitched
maze of corridors and tunnels. He followed his awful guide through
blackness that loomed before and behind them and was filled with
skulking shapes of horror and lunacy that cringed from the blinding
glow of the Heart.

Then the bronze doorway was before him, and Conan felt the night wind
blowing across the desert, and saw the stars, and the starlit desert
across which streamed the great black shadow of the pyramid.
Thothmekri pointed silently into the desert, and then turned and
stalked soundlessly back in the darkness. Conan stared after that
silent figure that receded into the blackness on soundless, inexorable
feet as one that moves to a known and inevitable doom, or returns to
everlasting sleep.

With a curse the Cimmerian leaped from the doorway and fled into the
desert as if pursued by demons. He did not look back toward the
pyramid, or toward the black towers of Khemi looming dimly across the
sands. He headed southward toward the coast, and he ran as a man runs
in ungovernable panic. The violent exertion shook his brain free of
black cobwebs; the clean desert wind blew the nightmares from his soul
and his revulsion changed to a wild tide of exultation before the
desert gave way to a tangle of swampy growth through which he saw the
black water lying before him, and the Venturer at anchor.

He plunged through the undergrowth, hip-deep in the marshes; dived
headlong into the deep water, heedless of sharks or crocodiles, and
swam to the galley and was clambering up the chain on to the deck,
dripping and exultant, before the watch saw him.

"Awake, you dogs!" roared Conan, knocking aside the spear the startled
lookout thrust at his breast. "Heave up the anchor! Lay to the doors!
Give that fisherman a helmet full of gold and put him ashore! Dawn
will soon be breaking, and before sunrise we must be racing for the
nearest port of Zingara!"

He whirled about his head the great jewel, which threw off splashes of
light that spotted the deck with golden fire.

Chapter 20: Out of the Dust Shall Acheron Arise

WINTER HAD PASSED from Aquilonia. Leaves sprang out on the limbs of
trees, and the fresh grass smiled to the touch of the warm southern
breezes. But many a field lay idle and empty, many a charred heap of
ashes marked the spot where proud villas or prosperous towns had
stood. Wolves prowled openly along the grass-grown highways, and bands
of gaunt, masterless men slunk through the forests. Only in Tarantia
was feasting and wealth and pageantry.

Valerius ruled like one touched with madness. Even many of the barons
who had welcomed his return cried out at last against him. His tax-
gatherers crushed rich and poor alike; the wealth of a looted kingdom
poured into Tarantia, which became less like the capital of a realm
than the garrison of conquerors in a conquered land. Its merchants
waxed rich, but it was a precarious prosperity; for none knew when he
might be accused of treason on a trumped-up charge, and his property
confiscated, himself cast into prison or brought to the bloody block.

Valerius made no attempt to conciliate his subjects. He maintained
himself by means of the Nemedian soldiery and by desperate
mercenaries. He knew himself to be a puppet of Amalric. He knew that
he ruled only on the sufferance of the Nemedian. He knew that he could
never hope to unite Aquilonia under his rule and cast off the yoke of
his masters, for the outland provinces would resist him to the last
drop of blood. And for that matter the Nemedians would cast him from
his throne if he made attempt to consolidate his kingdom. He was
caught in his own vise. The gall of defeated pride corroded his soul,
and he threw himself into a reign of debauchery, as one who lives from
day to day, without thought or care for tomorrow.

Yet there was subtlety in his madness, so deep that not even Amalric
guessed it. Perhaps the wild, chaotic years of wandering as an exile
had bred in him a bitterness beyond common conception. Perhaps his
loathing of his present position increased this bitterness to a kind
of madness. At any event he lived with one desire: to cause the ruin
of all who associated with him.

He knew that his rule would be over the instant he had served
Amalric's purpose; he knew, too, that so long as he continued to
oppress his native kingdom the Nemedian would suffer him to reign, for
Amalric wished to crush Aquilonia into ultimate submission, to destroy
its last shred of independence, and then at last to seize it himself,
rebuild it after his own fashion with his vast wealth, and use its men
and natural resources to wrest the crown of Nemedia from Tarascus. For
the throne of an emperor was Amalric's ultimate ambition, and Valerius
knew it. Valerius did not know whether Tarascus suspected this, but he
knew that the king of Nemedia approved of his ruthless course.
Tarascus hated Aquilonia, with a hate born of old wars. He desired
only the destruction of the western kingdom.

And Valerius intended to ruin the country so utterly that not even
Amalric's wealth could ever rebuild it. He hated the baron quite as
much as he hated the Aquilonians, and hoped only to live to see the
day when Aquilonia lay in utter ruin, and Tarascus and Amalric were
locked in hopeless civil war that would as completely destroy Nemedia.

He believed that the conquest of the still defiant provinces of
Gunderland and Poitain and the Bossonian marches would mark his end as
king. He would then have served Amalric's purpose, and could be
discarded. So he delayed the conquest of these provinces, confining
his activities to objectless raids and forays, meeting Amalric's urges
for action with all sorts of plausible objections and postponements.

His life was a series of feasts and wild debauches. He filled his
palace with the fairest girls of the kingdom, willing or unwilling. He
blasphemed the gods and sprawled drunken on the floor of the banquet
hall wearing the golden crown, and staining his royal purple robes
with the wine he spilled. In gusts of blood-lust he festooned the
gallows in the market square with dangling corpses, glutted the axes
of the headsmen and sent his Nemedian horsemen thundering through the
land pillaging and burning. Driven to madness, the land was in a
constant upheaval of frantic revolt, savagely suppressed. Valerius
plundered and raped and looted and destroyed until even Amalric
protested, warning him that he would beggar the kingdom beyond repair,
not knowing that such was his fixed determination.

But while in both Aquilonia and Nemedia men talked of the madness of
the king, in Nemedia men talked much of Xaltotun, the masked one. Yet
few saw him on the streets of Belverus. Men said he spent much time in
the hills, in curious conclaves with surviving remnants of an old
race: dark, silent folk who claimed descent from an ancient kingdom.
Men whispered of drums beating far up in the dreaming hills, of fires
glowing in the darkness, and strange chantings borne on the winds,
chantings and rituals forgotten centuries ago except as meaningless
formulas mumbled beside mountain hearths in villages whose inhabitants
differed strangely from the people of the valleys.

The reason for these conclaves none knew, unless it was Orastes, who
frequently accompanied the Pythonian, and on whose countenance a
haggard shadow was growing.

But in the full flood of spring a sudden whisper passed over the
sinking kingdom that woke the land to eager life. It came like a
murmurous wind drifting up from the south, waking men sunk in the
apathy of despair. Yet how it first came none could truly say. Some
spoke of a strange, grim old woman who came down from the mountains
with her hair flowing in the wind, and a great gray wolf following her
like a dog. Others whispered of the priests of Asura who stole like
furtive phantoms from Gunderland to the marches of Poitain, and to the
forest villages of the Bossonians.

However the word came, revolt ran like a flame along the borders.
Outlying Nemedian garrisons were stormed and put to the sword,
foraging parties were cut to pieces; the west was up in arms, and
there was a different air about the rising, a fierce resolution and
inspired wrath rather than the frantic despair that had motivated the
preceding revolts. It was not only the common people; barons were
fortifying their castles and hurling defiance at the governors of the
provinces. Bands of Bossonians were seen moving along the edges of the
marches: stocky, resolute men in brigandines and steel caps, with
longbows in their hands. From the inert stagnation of dissolution and
ruin the realm was suddenly alive, vibrant and dangerous. So Amalric
sent in haste for Tarascus, who came with an army.

In the royal palace in Tarantia, the two kings and Amalric discussed
the rising. They had not sent for Xaltotun, immersed in his cryptic
studies in the Nemedian hills. Not since that bloody day in the valley
of the Valkia had they called upon him for aid of his magic, and he
had drawn apart, communing but little with them, apparently
indifferent to their intrigues.

Nor had they sent for Orastes, but he came, and he was white as spume
blown before the storm. He stood in the gold-domed chamber where the
kings held conclave and they beheld in amazement his haggard stare,
the fear they had never guessed the mind of Orastes could hold.

"You are weary, Orastes," said Amalric. "Sit upon this divan and I
will have a slave fetch you wine. You have ridden hard--"

Orastes waved aside the invitation.

"I have killed three horses on the road from Belverus. I cannot drink
wine, I cannot rest, until I have said what I have to say."

He paced back and forth as if some inner fire would not let him stand
motionless, and halting before his wondering companions:

"When we employed the Heart of Ahriman to bring a dead man back to
life," Orastes said abruptly, "we did not weigh the consequences of
tampering in the black dust of the past. The fault is mine, and the
sin. We thought only of our four ambitions, forgetting what ambitions
this man might himself have. And we have loosed a demon upon the
earth, a fiend inexplicable to common humanity. I have plumbed deep in
evil, but there is a limit to which I, or any man of my race and age,
can go. My ancestors were clean men, without any demoniacal taint; it
is only I who have sunk into the pits, and I can sin only to the
extent of my personal individuality. Out behind Xaltotun lie a
thousand centuries of black magic and diabolism, an ancient tradition
of evil. He is beyond our conception not only because he is a wizard
himself, but also because he is the son of a race of wizards.

"I have seen things that have blasted my soul. In the heart of the
slumbering hills I have watched Xaltotun commune with the souls of the
damned, and invoke the ancient demons of forgotten Acheron. I have
seen the accursed descendants of that accursed empire worship him and
hail him as their archpriest. I have seen what he plots--and I tell
you it is no less than the restoration of the ancient, black, grisly
kingdom of Acheron!"

"What do you mean?" demanded Amalric. "Acheron is dust. There are not
enough survivals to make an empire. Not even Xaltotun can reshape the
dust of three thousand years."

"You know little of his black powers," answered Orastes grimly. "I
have seen the very hills take on an alien and ancient aspect under the
spell of his incantations. I have glimpsed, like shadows behind the
realities, the dim shapes and outlines of valleys, forests, mountains
and lakes that are not as they are today, but as they were in that dim
yesterday--have even sensed, rather than glimpsed, the purple towers of
forgotten Python shimmering like figures of mist in the dusk.

"And in the last conclave to which I accompanied him, understanding of
his sorcery came to me at last, while the drums beat and the beastlike worshippers howled with their heads in the dust. I tell you he
would restore Acheron by his magic, by the sorcery of a gigantic
blood-sacrifice such as the world has never seen. He would enslave the
world, and with a deluge of blood wash away the present and restore
the past!"

"You are mad!" exclaimed Tarascus.

"Mad?" Orastes turned a haggard stare upon him. "Can any man see what
I have seen and remain wholly sane? Yet I speak the truth. He plots
the return of Acheron, with its towers and wizards and kings and
horrors, as it was in the long ago. The descendants of Acheron will
serve him as a nucleus upon which to build, but it is the blood and
the bodies of the people of the world today that will furnish the
mortar and the stones for the rebuilding. I cannot tell you how. My
own brain reels when I try to understand. But I have seen! Acheron
will be Acheron again, and even the hills, the forests and the rivers
will resume their ancient aspect. Why not? If I, with my tiny store of
knowledge, could bring to life a man dead three thousand years, why
cannot the greatest wizard of the world bring back to life a kingdom
dead three thousand years? Out of the dust shall Acheron arise at his
bidding."

"How can we thwart him?" asked Tarascus, impressed.

"There is but one way," answered Orastes. "We must steal the Heart of
Ahriman!"

"But I--" began Tarascus involuntarily, then closed his mouth quickly.

None had noticed him, and Orastes was continuing.

"It is a power that can be used against him. With it in my hands I
might defy him. But how shall we steal it? He has it hidden in some
secret place, from which not even a Zamorian thief might filch it. I
cannot learn its hiding-place. If he would only sleep again the sleep
of the black lotus--but the last time he slept thus was after the
battle of the Valkia, when he was weary because of the great magic he
had performed, and--"

The door was locked and bolted, but it swung silently open and
Xaltotun stood before them, calm, tranquil, stroking his patriarchal
beard; but the lambent lights of Hell flickered in his eyes.

"I have taught you too much," he said calmly, pointing a finger like
an index of doom at Orastes. And before any could move, he had cast a
handful of dust on the floor near the feet of the priest, who stood
like a man turned to marble. It flamed, smoldered; a blue serpentine
of smoke rose and swayed upward about Orastes in a slender spiral. And
when it had risen above his shoulders it curled about his neck with a
whipping suddenness like the stroke of a snake. Orastes' scream was
choked to a gurgle. His hands flew to his neck, his eyes were
distended, his tongue protruded. The smoke was like a blue rope about
his neck; then it faded and was gone, and Orastes slumped to the floor
a dead man.

Xaltotun smote his hands together and two men entered, men often
observed accompanying him--small, repulsively dark, with red, oblique
eyes and pointed, ratlike teeth. They did not speak. Lifting the
corpse, they bore it away.

Dismissing the matter with a wave of his hand, Xaltotun seated himself
at the ivory table about which sat the pale kings. "Why are you in
conclave?" he demanded. "The Aquilonians have risen in the west,"
answered Amalric, recovering from the grisly jolt the death of Orastes
had given him. "The fools believe that Conan is alive, and coming at
the head of a Poitanian army to reclaim his kingdom. If he had
reappeared immediately after Valkia, or if a rumor had been circulated
that he lived, the central provinces would not have risen under him,
they feared your powers so. But they have become so desperate under
Valerius's misrule that they are ready to follow any man who can unite
them against us, and prefer sudden death to torture and continual
misery.

"Of course the tale has lingered stubbornly in the land that Conan
was not really slain at Valkia, but not until recently have the
masses accepted it. But Pallantides is back from exile in Ophir,
swearing that the king was ill in his tent that day, and that a man-
at-arms wore his harness, and a squire who but recently recovered from
the stroke of a mace received at Valkia confirms his tale--or pretends
to.

"An old woman with a pet wolf has wandered up and down the land,
proclaiming that King Conan yet lives, and will return some day to
reclaim the crown. And of late the cursed priests of Asura sing the
same song. They claim that word has come to them by some mysterious
means that Conan is returning to reconquer his domain. I cannot catch
either her or them. This is, of course, a trick of Trocero's. My spies
tell me there is indisputable evidence that the Poitanians are
gathering to invade Aquilonia. I believe that Trocero will bring
forward some pretender who he will claim is King Conan."

Tarascus laughed, but there was no conviction in his laughter. He
surreptitiously felt a scar beneath his jupon, and remembered ravens
that cawed on the trail of a fugitive; remembered the body of his
squire, Arideus, brought back from the border mountains horribly
mangled, by a great gray wolf, his terrified soldiers said. But he
also remembered a red jewel stolen from a golden chest while a wizard
slept, and he said nothing.

And Valerius remembered a dying nobleman who gasped out a tale of
fear, and he remembered four Khitans who disappeared into the mazes of
the south and never returned. But he held his tongue, for hatred and
suspicions of his allies ate at him like a worm, and he desired
nothing so much as to see both rebels and Nemedians go down locked in
the death grip.

But Amalric exclaimed, "It is absurd to dream that Conan lives!"

For answer Xaltotun cast a roll of parchment on the table.

Amalric caught it up, glared at it. From his lips burst a furious,
incoherent cry. He read:

To Xaltotun, grand fakir of Nemedia: Dog of Acheron, I am returning to
my kingdom, and I mean to hang your hide on a bramble.

CONAN.

"A forgery!" exclaimed Amalric.

Xaltotun shook his head.

"It is genuine. I have compared it with the signature on the royal
documents in the libraries of the court. None could imitate that bold
scrawl."

"Then if Conan lives," muttered Amalric, "this uprising will not be
like the others, for he is the only man living who can unite the
Aquilonians. But," he protested, "this is not like Conan. Why should
he put us on guard with his boasting? One would think that he would
strike without warning, after the fashion of the barbarians."

"We are already warned," pointed out Xaltotun. "Our spies have told us
of preparations for war in Poitain. He could not cross the mountains
without our knowledge; so he sends his defiance in characteristic
manner."

"Why to you?" demanded Valerius. "Why not to me, or to Tarascus?"

Xaltotun turned his inscrutable gaze upon the king. "Conan is wiser
than you," he said at last. "He already knows what you kings have yet
to learn--that it is not Tarascus, nor Valerius, no, nor Amalric, but
Xaltotun who is the real master of the western nations."

They did not reply; they sat staring at him, assailed by a numbing
realization of the truth of his assertion.

"There is no road for me but the imperial highway," said Xaltotun.
"But first we must crush Conan. I do not know how he escaped me at
Belverus, for knowledge of what happened while I lay in the slumber of
the black lotus is denied me. But he is in the south, gathering an
army. It is his last, desperate blow, made possible only by the
desperation of the people who have suffered under Valerius. Let them
rise; I hold them all in the palm of my hand. We will wait until he
moves against us, and then we will crush him once and for all.

"Then we shall crush Poitain and Gunderland and the stupid Bossonians.
After them Ophir, Argos, Zingara, Koth--all the nations of the world we
shall weld into one vast empire. You shall rule as my satraps, and as
my captains shall be greater than kings are now. I am unconquerable,
for the Heart of Ahriman is hidden where no man can ever wield it
against me again."

Tarascus averted his gaze, lest Xaltotun read his thoughts. He knew
the wizard had not looked into the golden chest with its carven
serpents that had seemed to sleep, since he laid the Heart therein.
Strange as it seemed, Xaltotun did not know that the Heart had been
stolen; the strange jewel was beyond or outside the ring of his dark
wisdom; his uncanny talents did not warn him that the chest was empty.
Tarascus did not believe that Xaltotun knew the full extent of
Orastes' revelations, for the Pythonian had not mentioned the
restoration of Acheron, but only the building of a new, earthly
empire. Tarascus did not believe that Xaltotun was yet quite sure of
his power; if they needed his aid in their ambitions, no less he
needed theirs. Magic depended, to a certain extent after all, on sword
strokes and lance thrusts. The king read meaning in Amalric's furtive
glance; let the wizard use his arts to help them defeat their most
dangerous enemy. Time enough then to turn against him. There might yet
be a way to cheat this dark power they had raised.

Chapter 21: Drums of Peril

CONFIRMATION OF THE war came when the army of Poitain, ten thousand
strong, marched through the southern passes with waving banners and
shimmer of steel. And at their head, the spies swore, rode a giant
figure in black armor, with the royal lion of Aquilonia worked in gold
upon the breast of his rich silken surcoat. Conan lived! The king
lived! There was no doubt of it in men's minds now, whether friend or
foe.

With the news of the invasion from the south there also came word,
brought by hard-riding couriers, that a host of Gundermen was moving
southward, reinforced by the barons of the northwest and the northern
Bossonians. Tarascus marched with thirty-one thousand men to Galparan,
on the river Shirki, which the Gundermen must cross to strike at the
towns still held by the Nemedians. The Shirki was a swift, turbulent
river rushing south-westward through rocky gorges and canyons, and
there were few places where an army could cross at that time of the
year, when the stream was almost bank-full with the melting of the
snows. All the country east of the Shirki was in the hands of the
Nemedians, and it was logical to assume that the Gundermen would
attempt to cross either at Galparan, or at Tanasul, which lay to the
south of Galparan. Reinforcements were daily expected from Nemedia,
until word came that the king of Ophir was making hostile
demonstrations on Nemedia's southern border, and to spare any more
troops would be to expose Nemedia to the risk of an invasion from the
south.

Amalric and Valerius moved out from Tarantia with twenty-five thousand
men, leaving as large a garrison as they dared to discourage revolts
in the cities during their absence. They wished to meet and crush
Conan before he could be joined by the rebellious forces of the
kingdom.

The king and his Poitanians had crossed the mountains, but there had
been no actual clash of arms, no attack on towns or fortresses. Conan
had appeared and disappeared. Apparently he had turned westward
through the wild, thinly settled hill country, and entered the
Bossonian marches, gathering recruits as he went. Amalric and Valerius
with their host, Nemedians, Aquilonian renegades, and ferocious
mercenaries, moved through the land in baffled wrath, looking for a
foe which did not appear.

Amalric found it impossible to obtain more than vague general tidings
about Conan's movements. Scouting-parties had a way of riding out and
never returning, and it was not uncommon to find a spy crucified to an
oak. The countryside was up and striking as peasants and country-folk
strike-savagely, murderously and secretly. All that Amalric knew
certainly was that a large force of Gundermen and northern Bossonians
was somewhere to the north of him, beyond the Shirki, and that Conan
with a smaller force of Poitanians and southern Bossonians was
somewhere to the south-west of him.

He began to grow fearful that if he and Valerius advanced farther into
the wild country, Conan might elude them entirely, march around them
and invade the central provinces behind them. Amalric fell back from
the Shirki valley and camped in a plain a day's ride from Tanasul.
There he waited. Tarascus maintained his position at Galparan, for he
feared that Conan's maneuvers were intended to draw him southward, and
so let the Gundermen into the kingdom at the northern crossing.

To Amalric's camp came Xaltotun in his chariot drawn by the uncanny
horses that never tired, and he entered Amalric's tent where the baron
conferred with Valerius over a map spread on an ivory camp table.

This map Xaltotun crumpled and flung aside.

"What your scouts cannot learn for you," quoth he, "my spies tell me,
though their information is strangely blurred and imperfect, as if
unseen forces were working against me."

"Conan is advancing the Shirki river with ten thousand Poitanians,
three thousand southern Bossonians, and barons of the west and south
with the retainers to the number of five thousand. An army of thirty
thousand Gundermen and northern Bossonians is pushing southward to
join him. They have established contact by means of secret
communications used by the cursed priests of Asura, who seem to be
opposing me, and whom I will feed to a serpent when the battle is
over--I swear it by Set!

"Both armies are headed for the crossing at Tanasul, but I do not
believe that the Gundermen will cross the river. I believe that Conan
will cross, instead, and join them."

"Why should Conan cross the river?"

"Because it is to his advantage to delay the battle. The longer he
waits, the stronger he will become, the more precarious our position.
The hills on the other side of the river swarm with people
passionately loyal to his cause--broken men, refugees, fugitives from
Valerius's cruelty. From all over the kingdom men are hurrying to join
his army, singly and by companies. Daily, parties from our armies are
ambushed and cut to pieces by the country-folk. Revolt grows in the
central provinces, and will soon burst into open rebellion. The
garrisons we left there are not sufficient, and we can hope for no
reinforcements from Nemedia for the time being. I see the hand of
Pallantides in this brawling on the Ophirean frontier. He has kin in
Ophir.

"If we do not catch and crush Conan quickly the provinces will be in
blaze of revolt behind us. We shall have to fall back to Tarantia to
defend what we have taken; and we may have to fight our way through a
country in rebellion, with Conan's whole force at our heels, and then
stand siege in the city itself, with enemies within as well as
without. No, we cannot wait. We must crush Conan before his army grows
too great, before the central provinces rise. With his head hanging
above the gate at Tarantia you will see how quickly the rebellion will
fall apart."

"Why do you not put a spell on his army to slay them all?" asked
Valerius, half in mockery.

Xaltotun stared at the Aquilonian as if he read the full extent of the
mocking madness that lurked in those wayward eyes.

"Do not worry," he said at last. "My arts shall crush Conan finally
like a lizard under the heel. But even sorcery is aided by pikes and
swords."

"If he crosses the river and takes up his position in the Goralian
hills he may be hard to dislodge," said Amalric. "But if we catch him
in the valley on this side of the river we can wipe him out. How far
is Conan from Tanasul?"

"At the rate he is marching he should reach the crossing sometime
tomorrow night. His men are rugged and he is pushing them hard. He
should arrive there at least a day before the Gundermen."

"Good!" Amalric smote the table with his clenched fist. "I can reach
Tanasul before he can. I'll send a rider to Tarascus, bidding him
follow me to Tanasul. By the time he arrives I will have cut Conan off
from the crossing and destroyed him. Then our combined force can cross
the river and deal with the Gundermen."

Xaltotun shook his head impatiently.

"A good enough plan if you were dealing with anyone but Conan. But
your twenty-five thousand men are not enough to destroy his eighteen
thousand before the Gundermen come up. They will fight with the
desperation of wounded panthers. And suppose the Gundermen come up
while the hosts are locked in battle? You will be caught between two
fires and destroyed before Tarascus can arrive. He will reach Tanasul
too late to aid you."

"What then?" demanded Amalric.

"Move with your whole strength against Conan," answered the man from
Acheron. "Send a rider bidding Tarascus join us here. We will wait his
coming. Then we will march together to Tanasul."

"But while we wait," protested Amalric, "Conan will cross the river
and join the Gundermen."

"Conan will not cross the river," answered Xaltotun.

Amalric's head jerked up and he stared into the cryptic dark eyes.

"What do you mean?"

"Suppose there were torrential rains far to the north, at the head of
the Shirki? Suppose the river came down in such flood as to render the
crossing at Tanasul impassable? Could we not then bring up our entire
force at our leisure, catch Conan on this side of the river and crush
him, and then, when the flood subsided, which I think it would do the
next day, could we not cross the river and destroy the Gundermen? Thus
we could use our full strength against each of these smaller forces in
turn."

Valerius laughed as he always laughed at the prospect of the ruin of
either friend or foe, and drew a restless hand jerkily through his
unruly yellow locks. Amalric stared at the man from Acheron with
mingled fear and admiration.

"If we caught Conan in Shirki valley with the hill ridges to his right
and the river in flood to his left," he admitted, "without whole force
we could annihilate him. Do you think--are you sure--do you believe
such rains will fall?"

"I go to my tent," answered Xaltotun, rising. "Necromancy is not
accomplished by the waving of a wand. Send a rider to Tarascus. And
let none approach my tent."

That last command was unnecessary. No man in that host could have been
bribed to approach that mysterious black silken pavilion, the door-
flaps of which were always closely drawn. None but Xaltotun ever
entered it, yet voices were often heard issuing from it; its walls
billowed sometimes without a wind, and weird music came from it.
Sometimes, deep in midnight, its silken walls were lit red by flames
flickering within, limning misshapen silhouettes that passed to and
fro.

Lying in his own tent that night, Amalric heard the steady rumble of a
drum in Xaltotun's tent; through the darkness it boomed steadily, and
occasionally the Nemedian could have sworn that a deep, croaking voice
mingled with the pulse of the drum. And he shuddered, for he knew that
voice was not the voice of Xaltotun. The drum rustled and muttered on
like deep thunder, heard afar off, and before dawn Amalric, glancing
from his tent, caught the red flicker of lightning afar on the
northern horizon. In all other parts of the sky the great stars blazed
whitely. But the distant lightning flickered incessantly, like the
crimson glint of firelight on a tiny, turning blade.

At sunset of the next day Tarascus came up with his host, dusty and
weary from hard marching, the footmen straggling hours behind the
horsemen. They camped in the plain near Amalric's camp, and at dawn
the combined army moved westward.

Ahead of him roved a swarm of scouts, and Amalric waited impatiently
for them to return and tell of the Poitanians trapped beside a furious
flood. But when the scouts met the column it was with the news that
Conan had crossed the river!

"What?" exclaimed Amalric. "Did he cross before the flood?"

"There was no flood," answered the scouts, puzzled. "Late last night
he came up to Tanasul and flung his army across."

"No flood?" exclaimed Xaltotun, taken aback for the first time in
Amalric's knowledge. "Impossible! There were mighty rains upon the
headwaters of the Shirki last night and the night before that!"

"That may be, your lordship," answered the scout. "It is true the water
was muddy, and the people of Tanasul said that the river rose perhaps
a foot yesterday; but that was not enough to prevent Conan's
crossing."

Xaltotun's sorcery had failed! The thought hammered in Amalric's
brain. His horror of this strange man out of the past had grown
steadily since that night in Belverus when he had seen a brown,
shriveled mummy swell and grow into a living man. And the death of
Orastes had changed lurking horror into active fear. In his heart was
a grisly conviction that the man--or devil--was invincible. Yet now he
had undeniable proof of his failure.

Yet even the greatest of necromancers might fail occasionally, thought
the baron. At any rate, he dared not oppose the man from Acheron--yet.
Orastes was dead, writhing in Mitra only knew what nameless hell, and
Amalric knew his sword would scarcely prevail where the black wisdom
of the renegade priest had failed. What grisly abomination Xaltotun
plotted lay in the unpredictable future. Conan and his host were a
present menace against which Xaltotun's wizardry might well be needed
before the play was all played.

They came to Tanasul, a small fortified village at the spot where a
reef of rocks made a natural bridge across the river, passable always
except in times of greatest flood. Scouts brought in the news that
Conan had taken up his position in the Goralian hills, which began to
rise a few miles beyond the river. And just before sundown the
Gundermen had arrived in his camp.

Amalric looked at Xaltotun, inscrutable and alien in the light of the
flaring torches. Night had fallen.

"What now? Your magic has failed. Conan confronts us with an army
nearly as strong as our own, and he has the advantage of position. We
have a choice of two evils: to camp here and await his attack, or to
fall back toward Tarantia and await reinforcements."

"We are ruined if we wait," answered Xaltotun. "Cross the river and
camp on the plain. We will attack at dawn."

"But his position is too strong!" exclaimed Amalric.

"Fool!" A gust of passion broke the veneer of the wizard's calm. "Have
you forgotten Valkia? Because some obscure elemental principle
prevented the flood do you deem me helpless? I had intended that your
spears should exterminate our enemies; but do not fear: it is my arts
shall crush their host. Conan is in a trap. He will never see another
sunset. Cross the river!"

They crossed by the flare of torches. The hoofs of the horses clinked
on the rocky bridge, splashed through the shallows. The glint of the
torches on shields and breastplates was reflected redly in the black
water. The rock bridge was broad on which they crossed, but even so it
was past midnight before the host was camped in the plain beyond.
Above them they could see fires winking redly in the distance. Conan
had tamed a bay in the Goralian hills, which had more than once before
served as the last btand of an Aquilonian king. Amalric left his
pavilion and strode restlessly through the camp.

A weird glow flickered in Xaltotun's tent, and from time to time a
demoniacal cry slashed the silence, and there was a low sinister
muttering of a drum that rustled rather than rumbled.

Amalric, his instincts whetted by the night and the circumstances,
felt that Xaltotun was opposed by more than physical force. Doubts of
the wizard's power assailed him. He glanced at the fires high above
him, and his face set in grim lines. He and his army were deep in the
midst of a hostile country. Up there among those hills lurked
thousands of wolfish figures out of whose hearts and souls all emotion
and hope had been scourged except a frenzied hate for their
conquerors, a mad lust for vengeance. Defeat meant annihilation,
retreat through a land swarming with blood-mad enemies. And on the
morrow he must hurl his host against the grimmest fighter in the
western nations, and his desperate horde. If Xaltotun failed them now--

Half a dozen men-at-arms strode out of the shadows. The firelight
glinted on their breastplates and helmet crests. Among them they half
led, half dragged a gaunt figure in tattered rags. Saluting, they
spoke: "My lord, this man came to the outposts and said he desired
word with King Valerius. He is an Aquilonian."

He looked more like a wolf--a wolf the traps had scarred. Old sores
that only fetters make showed on his wrists and ankles. A great brand,
the mark of hot iron, disfigured his face. His eyes glared through the
tangle of his matted hair as he half crouched before the baron.

"Who are you, you filthy dog?" demanded the Nemedian. "Call me
Tiberias," answered the man, and his teeth clicked in an involuntary
spasm. "I have come to tell you how to trap Conan."

"A traitor, eh?" rumbled the baron.

"Men say you have gold," mouthed the man, shivering under his rags.
"Give some to me! Give me gold and I will show you how to defeat the
king!" His eyes glazed widely, his outstretched, upturned hands were
spread like quivering claws.

Amalric shrugged his shoulders in distaste. But no tool was too base
for his use.

"If you speak the truth you shall have more gold than you can carry,"
he said. "If you are a liar and a spy I will have you crucified head-
down. Bring him along."

In the tent of Valerius, the baron pointed to the man who crouched
shivering before them, huddling his rags about him.

"He says he knows a way to aid us on the morrow. We will need aid, if
Xaltotun's plan is no better than it has proved so far. Speak on,
dog."

The man's body writhed in strange convulsions. Words came in a
stumbling rush:

"Conan camps at the head of the Valley of Lions. It is shaped like a
fan, with steep hills on either side. If you attack him tomorrow you
will have to march straight up the valley. You cannot climb the hills
on either side. But if King Valerius will deign to accept my service,
I will guide him through the hills and show him how he can come upon
King Conan from behind. But if it is to be done at all, we must start
soon. It is many hours' riding, for one must go miles to the west,
then miles to the north, then turn eastward and so come into the
Valley of Lions from behind, as the Gundermen came."

Amalric hesitated, tugging his chin. In these chaotic times it was not
rare to find men willing to sell their souls for a few gold pieces.

"If you lead me astray you will die," said Valerius. "You are aware of
that, are you not?"

The man shivered, but his wide eyes did not waver.

"If I betray you, slay me!"

"Conan will not divide his force," mused Amalric. "He will need all
his men to repel our attack. He cannot spare any to lay ambushes in
the hills. Besides, this fellow knows his hide depends on his leading
you as he promised. Would a dog like him sacrifice himself? Nonsense!
No, Valerius, I believe the man is honest."

"Or a greater thief than most, for he would sell his liberator,"
laughed Valerius. "Very well. I will follow the dog. How many men can
you spare me?"

"Five thousand should be enough," answered Amalric. "A surprize attack
on their rear will throw them into confusion, and that will be enough.
I shall expect your attack about noon."

"You will know when I strike," answered Valerius. As Amalric returned
to his pavilion he noted with gratification that Xaltotun was still in
his tent, to judge from the blood-freezing cries that shuddered forth
into the night air from time to time. When presently he heard the
clink of steel and the jingle of bridles in the outer darkness, he
smiled grimly. Valerius had about served his purpose. The baron knew
that Conan was like a wounded lion that rends and tears even in his
death throes. When Valerius struck from the rear, the desperate
strokes of the Cimmerian might well wipe his rival out of existence
before he himself succumbed. So much the better. Amalric felt he could
well dispense with Valerius, once he had paved the way for a Nemedian
victory.

The five thousand horsemen who accompanied Valerius were hard-bitten
Aquilonian renegades for the most part. In the still starlight they
moved out of the sleeping camp, following the westward trend of the
great black masses that rose against the stars ahead of them. Valerius
rode at their head, and beside him rode Tiberias, a leather thong
about his wrist gripped by a man-at-arms who rode on the other side of
him. Others kept close behind with drawn swords.

"Play us false and you die instantly," Valerius pointed out. "I do not
know every sheep-path in these hills, but I know enough about the
general configuration of the country to know the directions we must
take to come in behind the Valley of Lions. See that you do not lead
us astray."

The man ducked his head and his teeth chattered as he volubly assured
his captor of his loyalty, staring up stupidly at the banner that
floated over him, the golden serpent of the old dynasty.

Skirting the extremities of the hills that locked the Valley of Lions,
they swung wide to the west. An hour's ride and they turned north,
forging through wild and rugged hills, following dim trails and
tortuous paths. Sunrise found them some miles northwest of Conan's
position, and here the guide turned eastward and led them through a
maze of labyrinths and crags. Valerius nodded, judging their position
by various peaks thrusting up above the others. He had kept his
bearings in a general way, and he knew they were still headed in the
right direction.

But now, without warning, a gray fleecy mass came billowing down from
the north, veiling the slopes, spreading out through the valleys. It
blotted out the sun; the world became a blind gray void in which
visibility was limited to a matter of yards. Advance became a
stumbling, groping muddle. Valerius cursed. He could no longer see the
peaks that had served him as guideposts. He must depend wholly upon
the traitorous guide. The golden serpent drooped in the windless air.

Presently Tiberias seemed himself confused; he halted, stared about
uncertainly.

"Are you lost, dog?" demanded Valerius harshly.

"Listen!"

Somewhere ahead of them a faint vibration began, the rhythmic rumble
of a drum.

"Conan's drum!" exclaimed the Aquilonian.

"If we are close enough to hear the drum," said Valerius, "why do we
not hear the shouts and the clang of arms? Surely battle has joined."

"The gorges and the winds play strange tricks," answered Tiberias, his
teeth chattering with the ague that is frequently the lot of men who
have spent much time in damp underground dungeons. “Listen!"

"They are fighting down in the valley!" cried Tiberias. "The drum is
beating on the heights. Let us hasten!"

He rode straight on toward the sound of the distant drum as one who
knows his ground at last. Valerius followed, cursing the fog. Then it
occurred to him that it would mask his advance. Conan could not see
him coming. He could be at the Cimmerian's back before the noonday sun
dispelled the mists.

Just now he could not tell what lay on either hand, whether cliffs,
thickets or gorges. The drum throbbed unceasingly, growing louder as
they advanced, but they heard no more of the battle. Valerius had no
idea toward what point of the compass they were headed. He started as
he saw gray rock walls looming through the smoky drifts on either
hand, and realized that they were riding through a narrow defile. But
the guide showed no sign of nervousness, and Valerius hove a sigh of
relief when the walls widened out and became invisible in the fog.
They were through the defile; if an ambush had been planned, it would
have been made in that pass.

But now Tiberias halted again. The drum was rumbling louder, and
Valerius could not determine from what direction the sound was coming.
Now it seemed ahead of him, now behind, now on one hand or the other.
Valerius glared about him impatiently, sitting on his war-horse with
wisps of mist curling about him and the moisture gleaming on his
armor. Behind him the long lines of steel-clad riders faded away and
away like phantoms into the mist. "Why do you tarry, dog?" he
demanded. The man seemed to be listening to the ghostly drum. Slowly
he straightened in his saddle, turned his head and faced Valerius, and
the smile on his lips was terrible to see.

"The fog is thinning, Valerius," he said in a new voice, pointing a
bony finger. "Look!"

The drum was silent. The fog was fading away. First the crests of
cliffs came in sight above the gray clouds, tall and spectral. Lower
and lower crawled the mists, shrinking, fading. Valerius started up in
his stirrups with a cry that the horsemen echoed behind him. On all
sides of them the cliffs towered. They were not in a wide, open valley
as he had supposed. They were in a blind gorge walled by sheer cliffs
hundreds of feet high. The only entrance or exit was the narrow defile
through which they had ridden.

"Dog!" Valerius struck Tiberias full in the mouth with his clenched
mailed hand. "What devil's trick is this?" Tiberias spat out a
mouthful of blood and shook with fearful laughter.

"A trick that shall rid the world of a beast! Look, dog!" Again
Valerius cried out, more in fury than in fear. The defile was blocked
by a wild and terrible band of men who stood silent as images--ragged,
shock-headed men with spears in their hands-hundreds of them. And up
on the cliffs appeared other faces--thousands of faces--wild, gaunt,
ferocious faces, marked by fire and steel and starvation. "A trick of
Conan's!" raged Valerius.

"Conan knows nothing of it," laughed Tiberias. "It was the plot of
broken men, of men you ruined and turned to beasts. Amalric was right.
Conan has not divided his army. We are the rabble who followed him,
the wolves who skulked in these hills, the homeless men, the hopeless
men. This was our plan, and the priests of Asura aided us with their
mist. Look at them, Valerius! Each bears the mark of your hand, on his
body or on his heart!

"Look at me! You do not know me, do you, what of this scar your
hangman burned upon me? Once you knew me. Once I was lord of Amilius,
the man whose sons you murdered, whose daughter your mercenaries
ravished and slew. You said I would not sacrifice myself to trap you?
Almighty gods, if I had a thousand lives I would give them all to buy
your doom!

"And I have bought it! Look on the men you broke, dead man who once
played the king! Their hour has come! This gorge is your tomb. Try to
climb the cliffs: they are steep, they are high. Try to fight your way
back through the defile: spears will block your path, boulders will
crush you from above! Dog! I will be waiting for you in Hell!"

Throwing back his head he laughed until the rocks rang. Valerius
leaned from his saddle and slashed down with his great sword, severing
shoulder bone and breast. Tiberias sank to the earth, still laughing
ghastlily through a gurgle of gushing blood.

The drums had begun again, encircling the gorge with guttural thunder;
boulders came crushing down; above the screams of dying men shrilled
the arrows in blinding clouds from the cliffs.

Chapter 22: The Road to Acheron

DAWN WAS JUST whitening the east when Amalric drew up his hosts in the
mouth of the Valley of Lions. This valley was flanked by low, rolling
but steep hills, and the floor pitched upward in a series of irregular
natural terraces. On the uppermost of these terraces Conan's army held
its position, awaiting the attack. The host that had joined him,
marching down from Gunderman, had not been composed exclusively of
spearmen. With them had come seven thousand Bossonian archers, and
four thousand barons and their retainers of the north and west,
swelling the ranks of his cavalry.

The pikemen were drawn up in a compact wedge-shaped formation at the
narrow head of the valley. There were nineteen thousand of them,
mostly Gundermen, though some four thousand were Aquilonians of the
other provinces. They were flanked on either hand by five thousand
Bossonian archers. Behind the ranks of the pikemen the knights sat,
their steeds motionless, lances raised: ten thousand knights of
Poitain, nine thousand Aquilonians, barons and their retainers.

It was a strong position. His flanks could not be turned, for that
would mean climbing the steep, wooded hills in the teeth of the arrows
and swords of the Bossonians. His camp lay directly behind him, in a
narrow, steep-walled valley which was indeed merely a continuation of
the Valley of Lions, pitching up at a higher level. He did not fear a
surprize from the rear, because the hills behind him were full of
refugees and broken men whose loyalty to him was beyond question.

But if his position was hard to shake, it was equally hard to escape
from. It was a trap as well as a fortress for the defenders, a
desperate last stand of men who did not expect to survive unless they
were victorious. The only line of retreat possible was through the
narrow valley at their rear.

Xaltotun mounted a hill on the left side of the valley, near the wide
mouth. This hill rose higher than the others, and was known as the
King's Altar, for a reason long forgotten. Only Xaltotun knew, and his
memory dated back three thousand years.

He was not alone. His two familiars, silent, hairy, furtive and dark,
were with him, and they bore a young Aquilonian girl, bound hand and
foot. They laid her on an ancient stone, which was curiously like an
altar, and which crowned the summit of the hill. For long centuries it
had stood there, worn by the elements until many doubted that it was
anything but a curiously shapen natural rock. But what it was, and why
it stood there, Xaltotun remembered from of old. The familiars went
away, with their bent backs like silent gnomes, and Xaltotun stood
alone beside the stone altar, his dark beard blown in the wind,
overlooking the valley.

He could see clear back to the winding Shirki, and up into the hills
beyond the head of the valley. He could see the gleaming wedge of
steel drawn up at the head of the terraces, the burganets of the
archers glinting among the rocks and bushes, the silent knights
motionless on their steeds, their pennons flowing above their helmets,
their lances rising in a bristling thicket.

Looking in the other direction he could see the long serried lines of
the Nemedians moving in ranks of shining steel into the mouth of the
valley. Behind them the gay pavilions of the lords and knights and the
drab tents of the common soldiers stretched back almost to the river.

Like a river of a molten steel the Nemedian host flowed into the
valley, the great scarlet dragon rippling over it. First marched the
bowmen, in even ranks, arbalests half raised, bolts nocked, fingers on
triggers. After them came the pikemen, and behind them the real
strength of the army--the mounted knights, their banners unfurled to
the wind, their lances lifted, walking their great steeds forward as
if they rode to a banquet.

And higher up on the slopes the smaller Aquilonian host stood grimly
silent.

There were thirty thousand Nemedian knights, and, as in most Hyborian
nations, it was the chivalry which was the sword of the army. The
footmen were used only to clear the way for a charge of the armored
knights. There were twenty-one thousand of these, pikemen and archers.

The bowmen began loosing as they advanced, without breaking ranks,
launching their quarrels with a whir and tang. But the bolts fell
short or rattled harmlessly from the overlapping shields of the
Gundermen. And before the arbalesters could come within killing range,
the arching shafts of the Bossonians were wreaking havoc in their
ranks.

A little of this, a futile attempt at exchanging fire, and the
Nemedian bowmen began falling back in disorder. Their armor was light,
their weapons no match for the Bossonian longbows. The western archers
were sheltered by bushes and rocks. Moreover, the Nemedian footmen
lacked something of the morale of the horsemen, knowing as they did
that they were being used merely to clear the way for the knights.

The crossbowmen fell back, and between their opening lines the pikemen
advanced. These were largely mercenaries, and their masters had no
compunction about sacrificing them. They were intended to mask the
advance of the knights until the latter were within smiting distance.
So while the arbalesters plied their bolts from either flank at long
range, the pikemen marched into the teeth of the blast from above, and
behind them the knights came on.

When the pikemen began to falter beneath the savage hail of death that
whistled down the slopes among them, a trumpet blew, their companies
divided to right and left, and through them the mailed knights
thundered.

They ran full into a cloud of stinging death. The clothyard shafts
found every crevice in their armor and the housings of the steeds.
Horses scrambling up the grassy terraces reared and plunged backward,
bearing their riders with them. Steel-clad forms littered the slopes.
The charge wavered and ebbed back.

Back down in the valley Amalric re-formed his ranks. Tarascus was
fighting with drawn sword under the scarlet dragon, but it was the
baron of Tor who commanded that day. Amalric swore as he glanced at
the forest of lance tips visible above and beyond the head-pieces of
the Gundermen. He had hoped his retirement would draw the knights out
in a charge down the slopes after him, to be raked from either flank
by his bowmen and swamped by the numbers of his horsemen. But they had
not moved. Camp servants brought skins of water from the river.
Knights doffed their helmets and drenched their sweating heads. The
wounded on the slopes screamed vainly for water. In the upper valley,
springs supplied the defenders. They did not thirst that long, hot
spring day.

On the King's Altar, beside the ancient, carven stone, Xaltotun
watched the steel tide ebb and flow. On came the knights, with waving
plumes and dipping lances. Through a whistling cloud of arrows they
plowed to break like a thundering wave on the bristling wall of spears
and shields. Axes rose and fell above the plumed helmets, spears
thrust upward, bringing down horses and riders. The pride of the
Gundermen was no less fierce than that of the knights. They were not
spear-fodder, to be sacrificed for the glory of better men. They were
the finest infantry in the world, with a tradition that made their
morale unshakable. The kings of Aquilonia had long learned the worth
of unbreakable infantry. They held their formation unshaken; over
their gleaming ranks flowed the great lion banner, and at the tip of
the wedge a giant figure in black armor roared and smote like a
hurricane, with a dripping ax that split steel and bone alike.

The Nemedians fought as gallantly as their traditions of high courage
demanded. But they could not break the iron wedge, and from the wooded
knolls on either hand arrows raked their close-packed ranks
mercilessly. Their own bowmen were useless, their pikemen unable to
climb the heights and come to grips with the Bossonians. Slowly,
stubbornly, sullenly, the grim knights fell back, counting their empty
saddles. Above them the Gundermen made no outcry of triumph. They
closed their ranks, locking up the gaps made by the fallen. Sweat ran
into their eyes from under their steel caps. They gripped their spears
and waited, their fierce hearts swelling with pride that a king should
fight on foot with them. Behind them the Aquilonian knights had not
moved. They sat their steeds, grimly immobile.

A knight spurred a sweating horse up the hill called the King's Altar,
and glared at Xaltotun with bitter eyes.

"Amalric bids me say that it is time to use your magic, wizard," he
said. "We are dying like flies down there in the valley. We cannot
break their ranks."

Xaltotun seemed to expand, to grow tall and awesome and terrible.

"Return to Amalric," he said. "Tell him to re-form his ranks for a
charge, but to await my signal. Before that signal is given he will
see a sight that he will remember until he lies dying!"

The knight saluted as if compelled against his will, and thundered
down the hill at breakneck pace.

Xaltotun stood beside the dark altarstone and stared across the
valley, at the dead and wounded men on the terraces, at the grim,
blood-stained band at the head of the slopes, at the dusty, steel-clad
ranks re-forming in the vale below. He glanced up at the sky, and he
glanced down at the slim white figure on the dark stone. And lifting a
dagger inlaid with archaic hieroglyphs, he intoned an immemorial
invocation:

"Set, god of darkness, scaly lord of the shadows, by the blood of a
virgin and the sevenfold symbol I call to your sons below the black
earth! Children of the deeps, below the red earth, under the black
earth, awaken and shake your awful manes! Let the hills rock and the
stones topple upon my enemies! Let the sky grow dark above them, the
earth unstable beneath their feet! Let a wind from the deep black
earth curl up beneath their feet, and blacken and shrivel them--"

He halted short, dagger lifted. In the tense silence the roar of the
hosts rose beneath him, borne on the wind.

On the other side of the altar stood a man in a black, hooded robe,
whose coif shadowed pale delicate features and dark eyes calm and
meditative.

"Dog of Asura!" whispered Xaltotun, his voice was like the hiss of an
angered serpent. "Are you mad, that you seek your doom? Ho, Baal!
Chiron!"

"Call again, dog of Acheron!" said the other, and laughed. "Summon
them loudly. They will not hear, unless your shouts reverberate in
Hell."

From a thicket on the edge of the crest came a somber old woman in a
peasant garb, her hair flowing over her shoulders, a great gray wolf
following at her heels.

"Witch, priest and wolf," muttered Xaltotun grimly, and laughed.
"Fools, to pit your charlatan's mummery against my arts! With a wave
of my hand I brush you from my path!"

"Your arts are straws in the wind, dog of Python," answered the
Asurian. "Have you wondered why the Shirki did not come down in flood
and trap Conan on the other bank? When I saw the lightning in the
night I guessed your plan, and my spells dispersed the clouds you had
summoned before they could empty their torrents. You did not even know
that your rain-making wizardry had failed."

"You lie!" cried Xaltotun, but the confidence in his voice was shaken.
"I have felt the impact of a powerful sorcery against mine--but no man
on earth could undo the rain-magic, once made, unless he possessed the
very heart of sorcery."

"But the flood you plotted did not come to pass," answered the priest.
"Look at your allies in the valley, Pythonian! You have led them to
the slaughter! They are caught in the fangs of the trap, and you
cannot aid them. Look!"

He pointed. Out of the narrow gorge of the upper valley, behind the
Poitanians, a horseman came flying, whirling something about his head
that flashed in the sun. Recklessly he hurled down the slopes, through
the ranks of the Gundermen, who sent up a deep-throated roar and
clashed their spears and shields like thunder in the hills. On the
terraces between the hosts the sweat-soaked horse reared and plunged,
and his wild rider yelled and brandished the thing in his hands like
one demented. It was the torn remnant of a scarlet banner, and the sun
struck dazzlingly on the golden scales of a serpent that writhed
thereon.

"Valerius is dead!" cried Hadrathus ringingly. "A fog and a drum lured
him to his doom! I gathered that fog, dog of Python, and I dispersed
it! I, with my magic, which is greater than your magic!"

"What matters it?" roared Xaltotun, a terrible sight, his eyes
blazing, his features convulsed. "Valerius was a fool. I do not need
him. I can crush Conan without human aid!"

"Why have you delayed?" mocked Hadrathus. "Why have you allowed so
many of your allies to fall pierced by arrows and spitted on spears?"

"Because blood aids great sorcery!" thundered Xaltotun, in a voice
that made the rocks quiver. A lurid nimbus played about his awful
head. "Because no wizard wastes his strength thoughtlessly. Because I
would conserve my powers for the great days to be, rather than employ
them in a hill-country brawl. But now, by Set, I shall loose them to
the uttermost! Watch, dog of Asura, false priest of an outworn god,
and see a sight that shall blast your reason forevermore!"

Hadrathus threw back his head and laughed, and hell was in his
laughter.

"Look, black devil of Python!"

His hand came from under his robe holding something that flamed and
burned in the sun, changing the light to a pulsing golden glow in
which the flesh of Xaltotun looked like the flesh of a corpse.

Xaltotun cried out as if he had been stabbed.

"The Heart! The Heart of Ahriman!"

"Aye! The one power that is greater than your power!"

Xaltotun seemed to shrivel, to grow old. Suddenly his beard was shot
with snow, his locks flecked with gray.

"The Heart!" he mumbled. "You stole it! Dog! Thief!"

"Not I! It has been on a long journey far to the southward. But now it
is in my hands, and your black arts cannot stand against it. As it
resurrected you, so shall it hurl you back into the night whence it
drew you. You shall go down the dark road to Acheron, which is the
road of silence and the night. The dark empire, unreborn, shall remain
a legend and a black memory. Conan shall reign again. And the Heart of
Ahriman shall go back into the cavern below the temple of Mitra, to
burn as a symbol of the power of Aquilonia for a thousand years!"

Xaltotun screamed inhumanly and rushed around the altar, dagger
lifted; but from somewhere--out of the sky, perhaps, or the great jewel
that blazed in the hand of Hadrathus--shot a jetting beam of blinding
blue light. Full against the breast of Xaltotun it flashed, and the
hills re-echoed the concussion. The wizard of Acheron went down as
though struck by a thunderbolt, and before he touched the ground he
was fearfully altered. Beside the altarstone lay no fresh-slain
corpse, but a shriveled mummy, a brown, dry, unrecognizable carcass
sprawling among moldering swathings.

Somberly old Zeiata looked down.

"He was not a living man," she said. "The Heart lent him a false
aspect of life, that deceived even himself. I never saw him as other
than a mummy."

Hadrathus bent to unbind the swooning girl on the altar, when from
among the trees appeared a strange apparition--Xaltotun's chariot drawn
by the weird horses. Silently they advanced to the altar and halted,
with the chariot wheel almost touching the brown withered thing on the
grass. Hadrathus lifted the body of the wizard and placed it in the
chariot. And without hesitation the uncanny steeds turned and moved
off southward, down the hill. And Hadrathus and Zeiata and the gray
wolf watched them go--down the long road to Acheron, which is beyond the
ken of men.

Down in the valley Amalric had stiffened in his saddle when he saw
that wild horseman curvetting and caracoling on the slopes while he
brandished that bloodstained serpent banner. Then some instinct
jerked his head about, toward the hill known as the King's Altar. And
his lips parted. Every man in the valley saw it--an arching shaft of
dazzling light that towered up from the summit of the hill, showering
golden fire. High above the hosts it burst in a blinding blaze that
momentarily paled the sun. 

"That's not Xaltotun's signal!" roared the baron. 

"No!" shouted Tarascus. "It's a signal to the Aquilonians!

"Look!" Above them the immobile ranks were moving at last, and a deep-
throated roar thundered across the vale.

"Xaltotun has failed us!" bellowed Amalric furiously. "Valerius has
failed us! We have been led into a trap! Mitra's curse on Xaltotun who
led us here! Sound the retreat!"

"Too late!" yelled Tarascus. "Look!"

Up on the slopes the forest of lances dipped, leveled. The ranks of
the Gundermen rolled back to right and left like a parting curtain.
And with a thunder like the rising roar of a hurricane, the knights of
Aquilonia crashed down the slopes.

The impetus of that charge was irresistible. Bolts driven by the
demoralized arbalesters glanced from their shields, their bent
helmets. Their plumes and pennons streaming out behind them, their
lances lowered, they swept over the wavering lines of pikemen and
roared down the slopes like a wave.

Amalric yelled an order to charge, and the Nemedians with desperate
courage spurred their horses at the slopes. They still outnumbered the
attackers.

But they were weary men on tired horses, charging uphill. The
onrushing knights had not struck a blow that day. Their horses were
fresh. They were coming downhill and they came like a thunderbolt. And
like a thunderbolt they smote the struggling ranks of the Nemedians-
smote them, split them apart, ripped them asunder and dashed the
remnants headlong down the slopes.

After them on foot came the Gundermen, blood-mad, and the Bossonians
were swarming down the hills, loosing as they ran at every foe that
still moved.

Down the slopes washed the tide of battle, the dazed Nemedians swept
on the crest of the wave. Their archers had thrown down their
arbalests and were fleeing. Such pikemen as had survived the blasting
charge of the knights were cut to pieces by the ruthless Gundermen.

In a wild confusion the battle swept through the wide mouth of the
valley and into the plain beyond. All over the plain swarmed the
warriors, fleeing and pursuing, broken into single combat and clumps
of smiting, hacking knights on rearing, wheeling horses. But the
Nemedians were smashed, broken, unable to re-form or make a stand. By
the hundreds they broke away, spurring for the river. Many reached it,
rushed across and rode eastward. The countryside was up behind them;
the people hunted them like wolves. Few ever reached Tarantia.

The final break did not come until the fall of Amalric. The baron,
striving in vain to rally his men, rode straight at the clump of
knights that followed the giant in black armor whose surcoat bore the
royal lion, and over whose head floated the golden lion banner with
the scarlet leopard of Poitain beside it. A tall warrior in gleaming
armor couched his lance and charged to meet the lord of Tor. They met
like a thunderclap. The Nemedian's lance, striking his foe's helmet,
snapped bolts and rivets and tore off the casque, revealing the
features of Pallantides. But the Aquilonian's lance head crashed
through shield and breastplate to transfix the baron's heart.

A roar went up as Amalric was hurled from his saddle, snapping the
lance that impaled him, and the Nemedians gave way as a barrier bursts
under the surging impact of a tidal wave. They rode for the river in a
blind stampede that swept the plain like a whirlwind. The hour of the
Dragon had passed.

Tarascus did not flee. Amalric was dead, the color-bearer slain, and
the royal Nemedian banner trampled in the blood and dust. Most of his
knights were fleeing and the Aquilonians were riding them down;
Tarascus knew the day was lost, but with a handful of faithful
followers he raged through the melee, conscious of but one desire--to
meet Conan, the Cimmerian. And at last he met him.

Formations had been destroyed utterly, close-knit bands broken asunder
and swept apart. The crest of Trocero gleamed in one part of the
plain, those of Prospero and Pallantides in others. Conan was alone.
The house-troops of Tarascus had fallen one by one. The two kings met
man to man.

Even as they rode at each other, the horse of Tarascus sobbed and sank
under him. Conan leaped from his own steed and ran at him, as the king
of Nemedia disengaged himself and rose. Steel flashed blindingly in
the sun, clashed loudly, and blue sparks flew; then a clang of armor
as Tarascus measured his full length on the earth beneath a thunderous
stroke of Conan's broadsword.

The Cimmerian paced a mail-shod foot on his enemy's breast, and lifted
his sword. His helmet was gone; he shook back his black mane and his
blue eyes blazed with their old fire.

"Do you yield?"

"Will you give me quarter?" demanded the Nemedian.

"Aye. Better than you'd have given me, you dog. Life for you and all
your men who throw down their arms. Though I ought to split your head
for an infernal thief," the Cimmerian added.

Tarascus twisted his neck and glared over the plain. The remnants of
the Nemedian host were flying across the stone bridge with swarms of
victorious Aquilonians at their heels, smiting with the fury of
glutted vengeance. Bossonians and Gundermen were swarming through the
camp of their enemies, tearing the tents to pieces in search of
plunder, seizing prisoners, ripping open the baggage and upsetting the
wagons.

Tarascus cursed fervently, and then shrugged his shoulders, as well as
he could, under the circumstances.

"Very well. I have no choice. What are your demands?"

"Surrender to me all your present holdings in Aquilonia. Order your
garrisons to march out of the castles and towns they hold, without
their arms, and get your infernal armies out of Aquilonia as quickly
as possible. In addition you shall return all Aquilonians sold as
slaves, and pay an indemnity to be designated later, when the damage
your occupation of the country has caused has been properly estimated.
You will remain as hostage until these terms have been carried out."

"Very well," surrendered Tarascus. "I will surrender all the castles
and towns now held by my garrisons without resistance, and all the
other things shall be done. What ransom for my body?"

Conan laughed and removed his foot from his foe's steel-clad breast,
grasped his shoulder and heaved him to his feet. He started to speak,
then turned to see Hadrathus approaching him. The priest was as calm
and self-possessed as ever, picking his way between rows of dead men
and horses.

Conan wiped the sweat-smeared dust from his face with bloodstained
hand. He had fought all through the day, first on foot with the
pikemen, then in the saddle, leading the charge. His surcoat was gone,
his armor splashed with blood and battered with strokes of sword, mace
and ax. He loomed gigantically against a background of blood and
slaughter, like some grim pagan hero of mythology.

"Well done, Hadrathus!" quoth he gustily. "By Crom, I am glad to see
your signal! My knights were almost mad with impatience and eating
their hearts out to be at sword strokes. I could not have held them
much longer. What of the wizard?"

"He has gone down the dim road to Acheron," answered Hadrathus. "And
I-I am for Tarantia. My work is done here, and I have a task to
perform at the temple of Mitra. All our work is done here. On this
field we have saved Aquilonia--and more than Aquilonia. Your ride to
your capital will be a triumphal procession through a kingdom mad with
joy. All Aquilonia will be cheering the return of their king. And so,
until we meet again in the great royal hall--farewell!"

Conan stood silently watching the priest as he went. From various
parts of the field knights were hurrying toward him. He saw
Pallantides, Trocero, Prospero, Servius, Gallannus, their armor
splashed with crimson. The thunder of battle was giving way to a roar
of triumph and acclaim. All eyes, hot with strife and shining with
exultation, were turned toward the great black figure of the king;
mailed arms brandished red-stained swords. A confused torrent of sound
rose, deep and thunderous as the sea-surf: "Hail, Conan, king of
Aquilonia!"

Tarascus spoke.

"You have not yet named my ransom."

Conan laughed and slapped his sword home in its scabbard. He flexed
his mighty arms, and ran his bloodstained fingers through his thick
black locks, as if feeling there his rewon crown.

"There is a girl in your seraglio named Zenobia."

"Why, yes, so there is."

"Very well."  The king smiled as at an exceedingly pleasant memory.
"She shall be your ransom, and naught else. I will come to Belverus
for her as I promised. She was a slave in Nemedia, but I will make her
queen of Aquilonia!"



THE END




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