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Title: Rattle of Bones
Author: Robert E. Howard
* A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 0607321.txt
Language: English
Date first posted: September 2006
Date most recently updated: September 2006

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Rattle of Bones
Robert E. Howard



"Landlord, ho!" The shout broke the lowering silence and
reverberated through the black forest with sinister echoing.

"This place hath a forbidding aspect, meseemeth."

Two men stood in front of the forest tavern. The building was low,
long and rambling, built of heavy logs. Its small windows were heavily
barred and the door was closed. Above the door its sinister sign
showed faintly--a cleft skull.

This door swung slowly open and a bearded face peered out. The
owner of the face stepped back and motioned his guests to enter--with
a grudging gesture it seemed. A candle gleamed on a table; a flame
smoldered in the fireplace.

"Your names?"

"Solomon Kane," said the taller man briefly.

"Gaston l'Armon," the other spoke curtly. "But what is that to
you?"

"Strangers are few in the Black Forest," grunted the host,
"bandits many. Sit at yonder table and I will bring food."

The two men sat down, with the bearing of men who have traveled
far. One was a tall gaunt man, clad in a featherless hat and somber
black garments, which set off the dark pallor of his forbidding face.
The other was of a different type entirely, bedecked with lace and
plumes, although his finery was somewhat stained from travel. He was
handsome in a bold way, and his restless eyes shifted from side to
side, never still an instant.

The host brought wine and food to the rough-hewn table and then
stood back in the shadows, like a somber image. His features, now
receding into vagueness, now luridly etched in the firelight as it
leaped and flickered, were masked in a beard which seemed almost
animal-like in thickness. A great nose curved above this beard and two
small red eyes stared unblinkingly at his guests.

"Who are you?" suddenly asked the younger man.

"I am the host of the Cleft Skull Tavern," sullenly replied the
other. His tone seemed to challenge his questioner to ask further.

"Do you have many guests?" l'Armon pursued.

"Few come twice," the host grunted.

Kane started and glanced up straight into those small red eyes, as
if he sought for some hidden meaning in the host's words. The flaming
eyes seemed to dilate, then dropped sullenly before the Englishman's
cold stare.

"I'm for bed," said Kane abruptly, bringing his meal to a close.
"I must take up my journey by daylight."

"And I," added the Frenchman. "Host, show us to our chambers."

Black shadows wavered on the walls as the two followed their
silent host down a long, dark hall. The stocky, broad body of their
guide seemed to grow and expand in the light of the small candle which
he carried, throwing a long, grim shadow behind him.

At a certain door he halted, indicating that they were to sleep
there. They entered; the host lit a candle with the one he carried,
then lurched back the way he had come.

In the chamber the two men glanced at each other. The only
furnishings of the room were a couple of bunks, a chair or two and a
heavy table.

"Let us see if there be any way to make fast the door," said Kane.
"I like not the looks of mine host."

"There are racks on door and jamb for a bar," said Gaston, "but no
bar."

"We might break up the table and use its pieces for a bar," mused
Kane.

"_Mon Dieu_," said l'Armon, "you are timorous, _m'sieu_."

Kane scowled. "I like not being murdered in my sleep," he answered
gruffly.

"My faith!" the Frenchman laughed. "We are chance met--until I
overtook you on the forest road an hour before sunset, we had never
seen each other."

"I have seen you somewhere before," answered Kane, "though I can
not now recall where. As for the other, I assume every man is an
honest fellow until he shows me he is a rogue; moreover, I am a light
sleeper and slumber with a pistol at hand."

The Frenchman laughed again.

"I was wondering how _m'sieu_ could bring himself to sleep in the
room with a stranger! Ha! Ha! All right, _m'sieu_ Englishman, let us
go forth and take a bar from one of the other rooms."

Taking the candle with them, they went into the corridor. Utter
silence reigned and the small candle twinkled redly and evilly in the
thick darkness.

"Mine host hath neither guests nor servants," muttered Solomon
Kane. "A strange tavern! What is the name, now? These German words
come not easily to me--the Cleft Skull? A bloody name, i'faith."

They tried the rooms next to theirs, but no bar rewarded their
search. At last they came to the last room at the end of the corridor.
They entered. It was furnished like the rest, except that the door was
provided with a small barred opening, and fastened from the outside
with a heavy bolt, which was secured at one end to the door-jamb. They
raised the bolt and looked in.

"There should be an outer window, but there is not," muttered
Kane. "Look!"

The floor was stained darkly. The walls and the one bunk were
hacked in places, great splinters having been torn away.

"Men have died in here," said Kane, somberly. "Is yonder not a bar
fixed in the wall?"

"Aye, but 'tis made fast," said the Frenchman, tugging at it.
"The--"

A section of the wall swung back and Gaston gave a quick
exclamation. A small, secret room was revealed, and the two men bent
over the grisly thing that lay upon its floor.

"The skeleton of a man!" said Gaston. "And behold, how his bony
leg is shackled to the floor! He was imprisoned here and died."

"Nay," said Kane, "the skull is cleft--methinks mine host had a
grim reason for the name of his hellish tavern. This man, like us, was
no doubt a wanderer who fell into the fiend's hands."

"Likely," said Gaston without interest; he was engaged in idly
working the great iron ring from the skeleton's leg bones. Failing in
this, he drew his sword and with an exhibition of remarkable strength
cut the chain which joined the ring on the leg to a ring set deep in
the log floor.

"Why should he shackle a skeleton to the floor?" mused the
Frenchman. "_Monbleu!_ 'Tis a waste of good chain. Now, _m'sieu_," he
ironically addressed the white heap of bones, "I have freed you and
you may go where you like!"

"Have done!" Kane's voice was deep. "No good will come of mocking
the dead."

"The dead should defend themselves," laughed l'Armon. "Somehow, I
will slay the man who kills me, though my corpse climb up forty
fathoms of ocean to do it."

Kane turned toward the outer door, closing the door of the secret
room behind him. He liked not this talk which smacked of demonry and
witchcraft; and he was in haste to face the host with the charge of
his guilt.

As he turned, with his back to the Frenchman, he felt the touch of
cold steel against his neck and knew that a pistol muzzle was pressed
close beneath the base of his brain.

"Move not, _m'sieu_!" The voice was low and silky. "Move not, or I
will scatter your few brains over the room."

The Puritan, raging inwardly, stood with his hands in air while
l'Armon slipped his pistols and sword from their sheaths.

"Now you can turn," said Gaston, stepping back.

Kane bent a grim eye on the dapper fellow, who stood bareheaded
now, hat in one hand, the other hand leveling his long pistol.

"Gaston the Butcher!" said the Englishman somberly. "Fool that I
was to trust a Frenchman! You range far, murderer! I remember you now,
with that cursed great hat off--I saw you in Calais some years agone."

"Aye--and now you will see me never again. What was that?"

"Rats exploring yon skeleton," said Kane, watching the bandit like
a hawk, waiting for a single slight wavering of that black gun muzzle.
"The sound was of the rattle of bones."

"Like enough," returned the other. "Now, _M'sieu_ Kane, I know you
carry considerable money on your person. I had thought to wait until
you slept and then slay you, but the opportunity presented itself and
I took it. You trick easily."

"I had little thought that I should fear a man with whom I had
broken bread," said Kane, a deep timbre of slow fury sounding in his
voice.

The bandit laughed cynically. His eyes narrowed as he began to
back slowly toward the outer door. Kane's sinews tensed involuntarily;
he gathered himself like a giant wolf about to launch himself in a
death leap, but Gaston's hand was like a rock and the pistol never
trembled.

"We will have no death plunges after the shot," said Gaston.
"Stand still, _m'sieu_; I have seen men killed by dying men, and I
wish to have distance enough between us to preclude that possibility.
My faith--I will shoot, you will roar and charge, but you will die
before you reach me with your bare hands. And mine host will have
another skeleton in his secret niche. That is, if I do not kill him
myself. The fool knows me not nor I him, moreover--"

The Frenchman was in the doorway now, sighting along the barrel.
The candle, which had been stuck in a niche on the wall, shed a weird
and flickering light which did not extend past the doorway. And with
the suddenness of death, from the darkness behind Gaston's back, a
broad, vague form rose up and a gleaming blade swept down. The
Frenchman went to his knees like a butchered ox, his brains spilling
from his cleft skull. Above him towered the figure of the host, a wild
and terrible spectacle, still holding the hanger with which he had
slain the bandit.

"Ho! ho!" he roared. "Back!"

Kane had leaped forward as Gaston fell, but the host thrust into
his very face a long pistol which he held in his left hand.

"Back!" he repeated in a tigerish roar, and Kane retreated from
the menacing weapon and the insanity in the red eyes.

The Englishman stood silent, his flesh crawling as he sensed a
deeper and more hideous threat than the Frenchman had offered. There
was something inhuman about this man, who now swayed to and fro like
some great forest beast while his mirthless laughter boomed out again.

"Gaston the Butcher!" he shouted, kicking the corpse at his feet.
"Ho! ho! My fine brigand will hunt no more! I had heard of this fool
who roamed the Black Forest--he wished gold and he found death! Now
your gold shall be mine; and more than gold--vengeance!"

"I am no foe of yours," Kane spoke calmly.

"All men are my foes! Look--the marks on my wrists! See--the marks
on my ankles! And deep in my back--the kiss of the knout! And deep in
my brain, the wounds of the years of the cold, silent cells where I
lay as punishment for a crime I never committed!" The voice broke in a
hideous, grotesque sob.

Kane made no answer. This man was not the first he had seen whose
brain had shattered amid the horrors of the terrible Continental
prisons.

"But I escaped!" the scream rose triumphantly. "And here I make
war on all men ... What was that?"

Did Kane see a flash of fear in those hideous eyes?

"My sorcerer is rattling his bones!" whispered the host, then
laughed wildly. "Dying, he swore his very bones would weave a net of
death for me. I shackled his corpse to the floor, and now, deep in the
night, I hear his bare skeleton clash and rattle as he seeks to be
free, and I laugh, I laugh! Ho! ho! How he yearns to rise and stalk
like old King Death along these dark corridors when I sleep, to slay
me in my bed!"

Suddenly the insane eyes flared hideously: "You were in that
secret room, you and this dead fool! Did he talk to you?"

Kane shuddered in spite of himself. Was it insanity or did he
actually hear the faint rattle of bones, as if the skeleton had moved
slightly? Kane shrugged his shoulders; rats will even tug at dusty
bones.

The host was laughing again. He sidled around Kane, keeping the
Englishman always covered, and with his free hand opened the door. All
was darkness within, so that Kane could not even see the glimmer of
the bones on the floor.

"All men are my foes!" mumbled the host, in the incoherent manner
of the insane. "Why should I spare any man? Who lifted a hand to my
aid when I lay for years in the vile dungeons of Karlsruhe--and for a
deed never proven? Something happened to my brain, then. I became as a
wolf--a brother to these of the Black Forest to which I fled when I
escaped.

"They have feasted, my brothers, on all who lay in my tavern--all
except this one who now clashes his bones, this magician from Russia.
Lest he come stalking back through the black shadows when night is
over the world, and slay me--for who may slay the dead?--I stripped
his bones and shackled him. His sorcery was not powerful enough to
save him from me, but all men know that a dead magician is more evil
than a living one. Move not, Englishman! Your bones I shall leave in
this secret room beside this one, to--"

The maniac was standing partly in the doorway of the secret room,
now, his weapon still menacing Kane. Suddenly he seemed to topple
backward, and vanished in the darkness; and at the same instant a
vagrant gust of wind swept down the outer corridor and slammed the
door shut behind him. The candle on the wall flickered and went out.
Kane's groping hands, sweeping over the floor, found a pistol, and he
straightened, facing the door where the maniac had vanished. He stood
in the utter darkness, his blood freezing, while a hideous muffled
screaming came from the secret room, intermingled with the dry, grisly
rattle of fleshless bones. Then silence fell.

Kane found flint and steel and lighted the candle. Then, holding
it in one hand and the pistol in the other, he opened the secret door.

"Great God!" he muttered as cold sweat formed on his body. "This
thing is beyond all reason, yet with mine own eyes I see it! Two vows
have here been kept, for Gaston the Butcher swore that even in death
he would avenge his slaying, and his was the hand which set yon
fleshless monster free. And he--"

The host of the Cleft Skull lay lifeless on the floor of the
secret room, his bestial face set in lines of terrible fear; and deep
in his broken neck were sunk the bare fingerbones of the sorcerer's
skeleton.



THE END



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