Authors: John Maddox Roberts
Behind him were the hills, hills that would have been mountains in comparison to the puny elevations of the west. Beyond them towered the true mountains, climbing level upon level, growing white with snow as they rose. The mountains ascended seemingly without end until they reached the roof of the world, Mount Pajaram, Pillar of the Gods.
Before him lay the steppe, a sea of grass stretching from the Vilayet to distant Khitai, from the northern border of Vendhya to the pine forests of the far north. It was a land of few rivers, much of it semi-desert during the long dry season, when its parched grasses could become a terrifying ocean of flame, ignited by lightning or the actions of men. Few but steppe nomads roamed the vastnesses of the plain, but its southern periphery was criss-crossed by the ancient caravan routes that linked the lands of east and west, and at intervals along these routes, wherever there was an abundance of water, there were the legendary cities of the caravans: Lakmashi of the Silver Gates, where precious metals were worked
before transshipment to east and west; Malikta, where the jewels, stones, pearls and jade of the east were traded by the hundredweight; Bukhrosha, city of incense and spices; and lordly Sogaria, where the silks of Khitai were dyed with pigments from Vendhya and the far isles of the eastern sea, and then woven into wondrous fabrics by the artisans of the city.
Conan thought of these far places as he made his leisurely way westward. For years he had heard tales of the caravan cities, told around the camp fires of the Kozaki, in the cave lairs of the Himelian hillmen, and on the starlit decks of the shark-like galleys of the Red Brotherhood. Predictably, all of these men had spun dreams of sacking those rich, soft cities. But the steppe was vast, and only a well-organized expedition of experienced caravaneers could hope even to cross the enormous distances between those cities, much less conduct a siege at the end of the journey.
The Cimmerian adventurer hoped to visit those places someday, when his ever-restless spirit led his steps in that direction. Just now, though, he was of a mind to go back to the western kingdoms. He had been living among primitive raiders in the high hills, until the great cosmopolitan cities of the Hyborian lands had beckoned him. He would find which of them had a war in the offing, and there he would surely find an army in need of an experienced officer.
As was his usual practice, the Cimmerian was travelling light. A broad-bladed Zhaibar knife, sword-long and razor-sharp, hung from his wide, silver-nailed belt in a cunningly worked scabbard of carved leather. Its bone hilt showed the wear of much handling. A short, curved dagger and sheath were thrust through the belt in front. Over his tunic he wore a shirt of the lightest Turanian mail, silver-washed to prevent rust. A fluted helmet of steel with a neck guard of similar mail covered his thick black hair. The season was warm, and besides the tunic, he wore only a loincloth and sandals. A case slung from his saddle bore a short bow of layered horn and wood, and its arrows fletched with eagle feathers.
As he rode, Conan pondered his course. A few days' ride would bring him to the southern shore of the Vilayet, in a region often fought over by Turan and Iranistan. There he would meet his old friends, the Kozaki, and would share their fires and tents. He would have to cross Turanian territory, and he did not wish to fall afoul of King Yezdigerd's patrols. Little fear of that. A man who had led Afghuli tribesmen would have no difficulty in avoiding the over-manned, lumbering horse-squadrons of a civilized army.
Such were the thoughts with which Conan passed his hours upon his journey westward. Rolled behind his saddle in a spare cloak were his sparse camping gear, his means of making fire and a few days' supply of emergency rations. He would depend upon wild game for most of his food. The only lack that bothered him was that of a remount. He had lost his spare mount to the bite of a deadly serpent not long after entering the steppe. This would be an unforgiving land for a man afoot, but there was no sense in worrying about it now. He would do all he could to spare the horse until he could trade for another, and should something happen in the meantime, he would walk and make the best of it.
On the dawn of his sixth day upon the steppe, he rose with the first grey light, rolled up his few possessions and kicked out the embers of his small fire. He saddled his horse and prepared to mount when a tiny movement far to the east drew his eagle gaze. Eyes less keen than the Cimmerian's would never have seen the distant figures. Against the bloody shield of the rising sun, he descried five riders, and behind them were more horses, at least four or five beasts for each horseman.
Before he mounted, Conan strung his bow and replaced it in its case. Perhaps the newcomers were of peaceful intent, but he had not reached his present age by making such assumptions. Once in his saddle, he urged his mount westward. There was no sense in running just yet. They had seen him by now. If they wished to pursue him, he had little chance of avoiding them. As his horse tired, they could switch to fresh mounts.
As the sun climbed across the blue cloak of the sky, Conan paused occasionally to rest his horse and to scan to his rear to see whether he were being pursued. By midday the riders had closed the distance by half, but when next he looked, they were nowhere to be seen. Conan shrugged, thinking that perhaps they had no interest in him and had gone on their way. Still, he did not unstring his bow.
As the sun was beginning its long descent to the west, Conan saw a movement to his left and bit off a curse as two riders began closing upon, him. They were no more than a half-mile away and shortening the distance by the minute. He began to wheel his mount to the right when he saw three more horsemen bearing down upon him from that direction. It had to be straight ahead, and he spurred his mount into a rapid trot as he sought to leave his pursuers behind.
How had they flanked him so neatly? The question burned in his mind as he looked for an easy route. Obviously they were familiar with this stretch of steppe. Nowhere is the steppeland truly flat, but always gently rolling. They had taken advantage of that and had ridden in natural declivities while catching up with him.
Now they had him herded onto a long slope that would tire his mount quickly. What manner of men was he dealing with? As they rode closer, he saw that three of them wore leather armour; the two others were naked except for loincloths and knee-high boots of felted leather. Across their backs were curved sabres, and at their saddles were bows larger than Conan's.
Hyrkanians! From their headgear—tall pointed caps with dangling ear-flaps—he judged them to be of one of the south-western tribes. As he watched, he saw one of the armoured men leap with insolent ease from a tiring horse to a remount, taking his cased bow and arrows with him. Hyrkanians were said to be the finest horsemen in the world, and Conan was beginning to believe it.
Now he knew whom he fled, but why? Surely they were not wasting a whole day just to take his horse. They could see that he had little worth stealing. Perhaps this was their idea of sport. He vowed that should they run him down, he would teach them how high was the price for their amusement.
As his mount's sides began to work like a bellows and foam from its jaws lashed back over him, Conan was forced to admit that there was no use in further flight. There was no sense in riding the brave beast to death and then having to fight on foot. He scanned the ground near him and saw that there was nothing resembling an elevation to yield him any advantage. He slowed his horse to a canter and pulled his bow from its case. Fitting arrow to string, he turned in his saddle and let fly at the nearest pursuer.
The man had a small shield of Vendhyan steel, barbarically ornamented with fur around its edge. As Conan's arrow streaked between them, he raised the shield almost lazily and deflected the missile. The Cimmerian tried again, this time shooting at one of the unarmoured riders. This one deflected his arrow as well, with the same contemptuous ease. The glancing arrow flew straight for one of the other riders, but that one merely leaned aside and let it pass.
"Crom!" Conan swore. Compared to these men, his old companions, the Kozaki, were children when it came to mounted fighting. But why were they not using their bows? Little question about that: They could have only one use for a live prisoner. He smiled grimly. Before they hauled him to some slave market, they would have a fight on their hands. He slowed his horse to a halt and drew steel. Matchless horsemen they might be, and legendary archers, but the Hyrkanians had no reputation as swordsmen.
"Come and let us discuss this matter man-to-man," Conan called out. He thumbed the edge of his Zhaibar knife. "I have here an argument that will let some light into your skulls."
The riders began to trot around him in a wide circle. They twirled something in their hands, but so swiftly did these objects move that he could not make out their nature. He did not waste time seeking to keep all of the men in view at once. His ears would tell him should one of those behind ride too close. He had a single advantage: He knew that they wished to keep him alive. He had no such benevolent intentions toward them.
One of the riders called out, and Conan saw something long and thin pass before his eyes before jerking tightly around his arms and chest. Instantly he knew it was a rope. He flexed his arms from his sides, expecting the rope to break. It merely bit into the flesh of his arms below the short sleeves of his mail shirt. Awkwardly he sought to twist around and cut the rope with his knife, but one of the riders streaked in and lashed out with a long whip. It wrapped around his sword wrist just as two more nooses descended over him.
With a mighty heave Conan managed to jerk the whip-wielder from his saddle, but then another loop circled his neck and drew tight, cutting off his wind. A redness descended before his eyes as he fought the ropes. They were no thicker than his little finger, but they were stronger than any cords he had ever known. A concerted pull from three horses brought him crashing to the ground, and his last sight before he lost consciousness was the grinning face of one of the Hyrkanians, framed by a drooping brown moustache.
When he awoke, it was dusk and the last lurid rays of the sun stained the western horizon. Conan found that he was lying on his left side and that his left arm had gone numb. His head throbbed like a Vendhyan war gong, and his throat was swollen and sore, making his breathing raspy. He tried to swallow, but between the swelling of his throat and its excessive dryness, he could not. He tested his arms and legs and found that his arms were firmly pinioned to his sides. His wrists were lashed together as well. The bonds were tight, though not so tight as to cut off circulation completely. These men were experienced and knew that no one bought a limbless slave.
Awkwardly Conan lurched to a sitting position. He found that his feet were unbound, for obvious reasons. Where could he flee on this steppe that a horseman could not ran him down? He wore only his loincloth and sandals. That came as no surprise either. He heard voices behind him, and he twisted around to face them.
Four of the Hyrkanians were seated around a low fire, grilling quartered sections of a small animal. Each had a single horse picketed within a few paces, and Conan surmised that the fifth man was away with the other mounts, probably taking them to water. The men were conversing among themselves, sometimes laughing quietly, and paying him not the slightest attention. The smell of cooking meat reached Conan and his stomach rumbled.
"You!" Conan called, his voice a rusty croak. He recognized their language as a distant relation of Iranistani, and he assumed that they would speak the trade tongue of the borders. "Yes, you, oh long-moustached father of children who resemble the village shaman. Are you going to feed me or do you expect to obtain a good price for a skeleton?"
All four faces turned toward him. He saw that their complexions were fair but darkened by sun and wind, and two of them had blue eyes. A brown-haired man who had set aside his armour stood and walked over to the Cimmerian. His bandy-legged waddle bespoke a life spent in the saddle. He wore a thin tunic of felt and the inevitable cap, which exposed only the thin braids that fell nearly to his waist in back.
"It is not fitting that the hulking ape of the Vendhyan jungles should address the lordly riders of Hyrkania. Be still, oh pursuer of hairy, tree-dwelling females, and perhaps tomorrow or the next day we shall toss you a well-gnawed bone." He kicked Conan in the jaw and the Cimmerian fell onto his back.
The Hyrkanian was too busy laughing to notice that Conan had drawn his legs in toward his chest as he rolled back. Then, as the Cimmerian rolled forward, he lashed out with both feet, catching the Hyrkanian squarely in the stomach. The wind went out of the man with a loud whoosh and he flew backward, tumbling end-over-end to roll over the fire as his friends snatched their skewers of meat out of harm's way. The three seated
men laughed uproariously at their companion's discomfiture.