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Authors: Leonard Carpenter

Conan the Savage

BOOK: Conan the Savage
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Prologue

 

The Trap of Darkness

 

“Well, now... a haughty Priest, a Prince, and the King himself!” The gambler’s voice rang out exultant over the click of draughts on the marble-topped table. “My royal entourage sweeps all before it.”

The dealer arrayed in front of him the white stone tiles engraved with regally costumed figures. He himself, clad in silk and grimy lace, smiled with the arrogance of a slumming noble. “Play if you think you can, barbarian, or else yield up your bet!”

“Nay, Caspius.” The player opposite him shook his black-maned head. “Sure as I am Conan of Cimmeria, I have vanquished mightier hosts than that.” Hunching his strong neck between muscular shoulders, he peered at the row of tiles he kept concealed beneath a thick, sun-bronzed hand.

“You would do well to yield,” the bushy-bearded gambler to his right whispered to him. “Rich as these stakes are, a Royal House is nigh impossible to beat.” He slid his own handful of stone draughts forward, blank sides up. “I, of a certainty, have nothing that can match it.”

“Nor I.” The gambler on his left, a lean, moustachioed officer of the Brythunian cavalry, retired his hand likewise with a glance to Conan. “Once again I must yield, as any seasoned player would.”

“Hmm.” His advice was met with only a grunt from the frowning Cimmerian.

“You would be wise to heed them, Conan,” murmured the tavern wench who sat at the Cimmerian’s elbow. “Stem your losses now, while you can still afford my night’s hire, at least.” As she spoke, she massaged his thin-shirted back with lithe arms whose coppery bracelets sparkled. Meanwhile leaned low in an effort to glimpse his hand.

“Nay,”, the one called Conan decided, “I shall purchase one more lot.” Digging into the pouch at his waist with his free hand, he produced an unmounted ruby, pear-cut. Held up between his thick fingertips, the gem glinted in the dimness, drawing an appreciative sigh from the woman at his side.

“This bauble should suffice, as you can see. Taverner, more light here!” the better called impatiently over one burly shoulder. “It grows accursed gloomy in this musty comer of your cellar!”

“Very well, barbarian,” the dealer proclaimed. “One lot for you, and one more for me as well.” Reaching to the stack of tiles before him, he dispensed two with expert ease. “And what is mine? Ho-ho, the Sorcerer, the mightiest servant of the House of Maces!” The lace-garbed aristocrat laughed imperiously as he filled in the row of draughts. “You may as well throw up your hand, out-lander. Nothing beats this combination!”

“Does it not, then?” the northerner grumbled. “What of this august gathering of Kings?” So saying, he flipped over four of his tiles, including the newly purchased one, advancing them as if to claim the prize. “Their might would prevail in any encounter on the field of battle.” “Why, nonsense,” the aristocrat said. “A full Royal House beats four of any rank! Every fool knows that, even a barbaric one!” He stretched his lace-cuffed arms forward to rake in the accumulated treasure.

“Not in this affray, lordling—since your Sorcerer is. as false as you are, drawn from your foppish sleeve rather than the deck!” With lightning swiftness, the Cimmerian’s hand shot out, striking aside the soiled ruffles of the dealer’s arm, and laid hold of the stack of tiles. “True, ’twas hard to see in the dimness—but here is the proof!”

So saying, he spread the draughts out on the tabletop, exposing the sneering face of a second Wizard of Maces.

“Are you saying our friend Caspius is a cheat?” the cavalry officer cried out. “Sully his name at your peril!” “Aye, truly!” The bearded gambler, scarcely glancing down at the table, spoke swiftly in defence of the dealer. “You could have palmed that second Wizard tile. How do we know you are not the sharpster?”

“What? Are you three in league, then, that you defend his thievery?” Conan shifted on his wooden stool, getting his legs beneath him as he eyed the trio. “You and the tavern-keep too, perhaps, with his low-guttering candles?” The ruffled noble made a sudden movement in his place, reaching toward his other sleeve, and Conan caught the flash of a knife—a short, heavy blade it appeared to be, made for throwing. The dealer’s motion halted abruptly as the Cimmerian gripped the tabletop and threw his full weight against it. His powerful lunge slid the heavy marble slab forward on its trestle into the dealer’s chest, driving him back against the stone wall.

“Uh-urk!” the false noble gasped, finding himself suddenly deprived of wind. He tried to draw breath, and coughing shallowly, stared down in amazement as drops of bright blood dribbled from his lips, pattering on the white wafers of the playing tiles before him.

Conan’s own view of the scene was jarred at that moment, and damned by the rain of baked clay fragments of a heavy wine jar the tavern wench had shattered over his head from behind.

Dully, doggedly, he shook off the blow. Only half-feigning stupor, he hunched forward across the table and raked the gold and jewels of the game treasury toward him with one hand, drawing open the pouch at his waist with the other.

“What! Seize that devil, he’s taken the whole pot!”

Conan bounded back from the table, waylaid only by the tavern-trollop's tenacious grip on his sword-arm. Failing to pry her loose, he lifted her up bodily and flung her heels-over-head at the pair of gamblers who were rushing toward him, drawing their weapons. She and the bearded henchman tumbled to the floor in a tangle of limbs and curses. Meanwhile, Conan’s heavy-bladed short sword rang out of its scabbard to clash with the cavalryman’s scything sabre.

Parry, cut, kick, and thrust; Conan fought the man back swiftly. The officer was a skilled fencer, but hardly equal to the Cimmerian’s ferocious strength. A hammer-like stroke of Conan’s heavy blade, lashing down as from nowhere, broke both the cavalry sword and the wrist that upheld it. Following that, a blow across the face from Conan’s hilt-guard was enough to send the officer sprawling senseless to the floor.

The other tavern patrons were exiting through the kitchen, and an outcry had risen. As the bearded gambler recovered his sword, Conan strode for the exit.

Once up the stone stair and onto the landing, he turned— and saw no pursuers framed in the tunnel-arch of the stairway. No surprise, that. With two of his henchmen down or dead, the bearded man would be unlikely to follow their vanquisher—at least not too closely—into narrow alleyways smothered under the dark canopy of Brythunian night.

Satisfied, Conan sheathed his weapon and turned. He pushed out through the heavy curtain that served as a door—straight into a band of armoured figures waiting silently in the dark.

Here were city proctors, he knew at once, the guards assigned to keep order in this Brythunian capital. The Cimmerian’s sudden blind dash for freedom was halted by three of the burly, black-clad guards. Two pinioned his elbows tightly beside him, while a third crooked a mailed forearm around his muscle-corded neck.

“What ho, then... a late roisterer, is it? And a foreigner!” The fourth proctor, a bronze-crested sergeant, spoke low and gruffly in the dimness. “Say, stranger—in the name of the city of Sargossa and its ruler, King Typhas—what can you tell me of theft, and of foul murder? For know you, screams and sword-strokes were heard in this vicinity mere moments agone.”

“By Bel’s purse, I saw nothing and I heard nothing!” The Cimmerian bucked and strove against the clutch of his captors’ iron gauntlets. “Unhand me, or I’ll teach you all I know of murder in one simple lesson!”

“Oho,” the guardsman cannily said, “do you expect me to believe an oath sworn in the name of the God of Thieves? And speaking of purses, what of this fat one here at your waist?” Bending forward, the proctor hefted the thick reticule and made it jingle, meanwhile dodging a low kick from the captive. Then, with the lightning flick of a hidden knife-blade, he slit the thong that bound the pouch to its owner and bore it away into the light of the tavern archway.

“Oh so, a trove of gold and gems, is it?” the proctor said with dire humour in his gruff voice. “Very dubious, outlander. These would appear to be stolen goods. What say you?” “Aye, stolen they are,” the angry Cimmerian growled, “but only this very minute, by black-cloaked cutpurses lying in ambush, and taken from their rightful owner— myself!” His words were punctuated by another savage lunge in the alley gloom, almost breaking his captors’ hold. “By Crom and Mitra, I’ll have them back or I’ll have your rotty gizzards for breakfast!”

“Now, now, outlander,” the rough voice cajoled him, “calm your struggles. If you want your rightful property back, tell me how you came by it—for know you, if it was duly taxed on your entry into the city, there will be record and remembrance of it.” The proctor cleared his throat meaningfully. “If you came by it honestly since you arrived—why then, simply tell us how.”

“By Gwanatha’s hairy tail,” the prisoner cursed. “But then, I suppose your question is fair enough. I came here to Sargossa yesterday with a fraction of that wealth. The rest of it is one night’s gambling winnings.”

“What, you mean you have gambled for profit? Here in Sargossa, during our hallowed Feast of Amalias?” The sound of the proctor’s gruff amazement covered, until too late, the clank of iron shackles, which Conan now felt clapped about his ankles, presumably by an unseen fifth man who had crept up behind him in the darkness. “For know you, this is a high holy day, on which all such vices are forbidden! Do you mean to flout the harsh penalties for profaning a high festival?—aside from the forfeit of any illegal gains, I mean.”

“Curse you for a hell hound’s three-tailed whelp!” the Cimmerian roared, kicking out against the shackles and almost toppling himself and his captors. “Do you mean to tell me that this open sewer, this foul stew of dives and brothels, has renounced its vices for this one night? Nay, ’tis just another form of legalized theft, like your city’s confounded entry tithes—” “Enough riot and seditious talk!” the proctor barked at the struggling Cimmerian. “Such an ill-mannered ruffian as you has no rightful business in Sargossa. There is none here who could speak for you or plead your case, I suppose? No person of high status?” He cleared his gravelly throat while waiting for the prisoner, who now writhed sullen and wordless amid his captors. “No, I thought not. No matter, we can find a suitable place for you.” He jingled the purse in his hand. “You have a liking for gems and gold, it would seem. Good, then. You may yet acquire them beyond your grandest wishes!”

I

 

Plunderers from the Border

 

“Tamsin, daughter of mine, where are you? Come and help your mother, child. It’s time to feed the chickens!”

The voice rang out across the meadow, chiming melodious in the early light. But small Tamsin, where she crouched inside the burned hollow stump a stone’s cast from the cottage, gave no answer. She did not stir or smile. She sat hugging her rag doll, watching her mother’s sun-bright shape through the bark crevices and a screen of pale, dewy grass blades.

“Tam dear, come and help spread the grain. I know how you love to feed the rooster.” The woman’s voice sounded patient and untroubled as she scooped meal into her apron from the earthen granary in the cottage yard. “If I thought you had wandered away, I would go and search the forest. But I think you’re somewhere nearby, and I know you would love to come and help me.” The sound of her voice receded as she turned and moved gracefully past the dwelling, toward the slatted wooden coop. “After that, Tam, there is bread for us to roll out. And if you want to make some tarts...” The squawks and flappings of the half-wild fowl obscured her words at that point.

Still Tamsin did not stir, but watched the cottage pensively. She felt vaguely bored and discontented. She would not have known how to put it into words, but the very grace and patience of her mother somehow seemed a burden, a weary trial that a stubborn part of her sought to resist.

Crouching in damp shadow, she hugged the makeshift doll tight against her side, whispering to it. “We don’t want to go back now, do we, Ninga? When Papa comes home from the fields for midday dinner, then we will go. But not before.”

The chickens’ raucous noise must have drowned out other distant happenings, for at that moment old Higgin came limping out of the ox bam, calling out something and looking toward the head of the meadow beyond the house. And one of the dogs commenced barking; it was soon joined by the other two, the trio of them raising up a defiant clamour at the edge of the meadow beyond the bam. Even Velda shuffled out to wait behind her husband, staring in the same direction.

Than at last Tamsin saw what it was. From beyond the trees that formed the meadow’s angle there emerged a lofty banner-bright yellow, a flapping triangle of fabric. Painted all in black at its centre was the silhouette of a strange animal. It had die body, tail, and hinder paws of a lion, attached to the head, hooked beak, and flaring wings of a bird of prey. Its forelegs, one of which was raised high, were large, birdlike claws, resembling those of the rooster Mama was feeding.

The banner was borne at the end of a long pole held upright by a rider astride a beautiful reddish-gold horse.

BOOK: Conan the Savage
3.88Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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