Authors: Robert E. Howard
Copyright © 2005 by Paul Herman.
Cover art copyright © 2005 by Stephen Fabian.
All rights reserved.
Published by Wildside Press LLC
, by Paul Herman
Wings in the Night
An Open Window
Worms of the Earth
The Phoenix on the Sword
The Scarlet Citadel
The Cairn on the Headland
The Tower of the Elephant
Moonlight on a Skull
How does one justify violence? Robert E. Howard (“REH”), as an author, almost always preferred to create stories based on physical conflict. And as REH wanted to constantly expand his skills and improve his workmanship, REH faced the challenge of utilizing new and different reasons for the violence and strife he preferred in his works. By the year 1932, REH had already used boxing, the fall of civilizations, treachery, survival and even Lovecraftian horror. But now he would come up with a reason that he could turn into a great set of stories: Revenge! Revenge works well for the short story format, as the situation is quickly created, the evil deed done, and the revenge unleashed, strongly justified, to the hero if not to the reader. First used so skillfully in the incredible “The Dark Man,” REH in short order turned out a focused number of new gems, each of which regularly make fans Top 20 lists of REH stories. These include “Wings in the Night,” “Worms of the Earth,” “The Scarlet Citadel,” and “The Tower of the Elephant,” all of which are presented in this volume.
“Wings in the Night” may be REH’s ultimate presentation of the failed and now angry and avenging angel story. REH’s religious hero, Solomon Kane, goes clean berserk, and finds a way to destroy an entire race, in what is arguably the best of the Solomon Kane stories. “Worms of the Earth” sees REH moving away from the simplicity of the hero being the executioner, and instead making the hero become the catalyst to set the revenge in motion. In “Worms of the Earth,” Pictish king Bran Mak Morn unleashes unspeakable evil to kill a single man, a Roman leader. Then in “The Scarlet Citadel” and “The Tower of the Elephant,” REH’s greatest hero, Conan, is the unwitting catalyst for the revenge of others, though of course it works out to his benefit as well.
REH would wind his way through other justifications for violence as his skills evolved, though revenge would remain a touchstone he would return to again and again, including in several of his Crusader and El Borak stories.
The other two stories in this volume show some other story types REH was working on. “The Cairn on the Headland” is almost contrary to revenge, as the man who hates so much, and wants to kill, in the end tries to save, his love of humanity rising in the face of supernatural risk. It makes for an interesting counterpoint to “Worms of the Earth,” in which the hero recognizes the risks that will be unleashed, and does it anyway. What it says about REH’s fans, that “Worms of the Earth” is sometimes considered the best REH story ever, and “Cairn” is not among the Top 20, would be an interesting bit of analysis.
“Phoenix on the Sword” is the historically important first Conan story. While it started life as a rewrite of an unsold Kull story, “Phoenix” establishes the very unique character of Conan, and sets in place the history and many of the attributes of the Hyborian Age, from which all the later stories would flow. Conan would consume REH for a couple years, with REH generating an enormous volume of work based on the character.
This volume also contains the last of REH’s poetry that would be published in Weird Tales during his lifetime. REH quit sending poetry to Weird Tales, as he was paid by the word, and he quickly found out that a simple 16 line poem doesn’t pay nearly as well as a 10,000 word story, especially when the editor will only include one work per author per issue.
All stories and poetry in this volume have been restored to the first published version. So you will get to read them just as the pulp readers of the 1930s did. It is hoped you will find them as exciting, fascinating, and emotionally gripping as they and innumerable later fans have found them to be.
1. The Horror on the Stake
Solomon Kane leaned on his strangely carved staff and gazed in scowling perplexity at the mystery which spread silently before him. Many a deserted village Kane had seen in the months that had passed since he turned his face east from the Slave Coast and lost himself in the mazes of jungle and river, but never one like this. It was not famine that had driven away the inhabitants, for yonder the wild rice still grew rank and unkempt in the untilled fields. There were no Arab slave-raiders in this nameless land—it must have been a tribal war that devastated the village, Kane decided, as he gazed somberly at the scattered bones and grinning skulls that littered the space among the rank weeds and grasses. These bones were shattered and splintered and Kane saw jackals and a hyena furtively slinking among the ruined huts. But why had the slayers left the spoils? There lay war spears, their shafts crumbling before the attacks of the white ants. There lay shields, moldering in the rains and sun. There lay the cooking-pots, and about the neck-bones of a shattered skeleton glistened a necklace of gaudily painted pebbles and shells—surely rare loot for any savage conqueror.
He gazed at the huts, wondering why the thatch roofs of so many were torn and rent, as if by taloned things seeking entrance. Then something made his cold eyes narrow in startled unbelief. Just outside the moldering mound that was once the village wall towered a gigantic baobab tree, branchless for sixty feet, its mighty bole too large to be gripped and scaled. Yet in the topmost branches dangled a skeleton, apparently impaled on a broken limb. The cold hand of mystery touched the shoulder of Solomon Kane. How came those pitiful remains in that tree? Had some monstrous ogre’s inhuman hand flung them there?
Kane shrugged his broad shoulders and his hand unconsciously touched the black butts of his heavy pistols, the hilt of his long rapier, and the dirk in his belt. Kane felt no fear as an ordinary man would feel, confronted with the Unknown and Nameless. Years of wandering in strange lands and warring with strange creatures had melted away from brain, soul and body all that was not steel and whalebone. He was tall and spare, almost gaunt, built with the savage economy of the wolf. Broad-shouldered, long-armed, with nerves of ice and thews of spring steel, he was no less the natural killer than the born swordsman.
The brambles and thorns of the jungle had dealt hardly with him; his garments hung in tatters, his featherless slouch hat was torn and his boots of Cordovan leather were scratched and worn. The sun had baked his chest and limbs to a deep bronze but his ascetically lean face was impervious to its rays. His complexion was still of that strange dark pallor which gave him an almost corpse-like appearance, belied only by his cold, light eyes.
And now Kane, sweeping the village once more with his searching gaze, pulled his belt into a more comfortable position, shifted to his left hand the cat-headed stave N’Longa had given him, and took up his way again.
To the west lay a strip of thin forest, sloping downward to a broad belt of savannas, a waving sea of grass waist-deep and deeper. Beyond that rose another narrow strip of woodlands, deepening rapidly into dense jungle. Out of that jungle Kane had fled like a hunted wolf with pointed-toothed men hot on his trail. Even now a vagrant breeze brought faintly the throb of a savage drum which whispered its obscene tale of hate and blood-hunger and belly-lust across miles of jungle and grassland.
The memory of his flight and narrow escape was vivid in Kane’s mind, for only the day before had he realized too late that he was in cannibal country, and all that afternoon in the reeking stench of the thick jungle, he had crept and run and hidden and doubled and twisted on his track with the fierce hunters ever close behind him, until night fell and he gained and crossed the grasslands under cover of darkness. Now in the late morning he had seen nothing, heard nothing of his pursuers, yet he had no reason to believe that they had abandoned the chase. They had been close on his heels when he took to the savannas.
So Kane surveyed the land in front of him. To the east, curving from north to south ran a straggling range of hills, for the most part dry and barren, rising in the south to a jagged black skyline that reminded Kane of the black hills of Negari. Between him and these hills stretched a broad expanse of gently rolling country, thickly treed, but nowhere approaching the density of a jungle. Kane got the impression of a vast upland plateau, bounded by the curving hills to the east and by the savannas to the west.
Kane set out for the hills with his long, swinging, tireless stride. Surely somewhere behind him the black demons were stealing after him, and he had no desire to be driven to bay. A shot might send them flying in sudden terror, but on the other hand, so low they were in the scale of humanity, it might transmit no supernatural fear to their dull brains. And not even Solomon Kane, whom Sir Francis Drake had called Devon’s king of swords, could win in a pitched battle with a whole tribe.
The silent village with its burden of death and mystery faded out behind him. Utter silence reigned among these mysterious uplands where no birds sang and only a silent macaw flitted among the great trees. The only sounds were Kane’s catlike tread, and the whisper of the drum-haunted breeze.
And then Kane caught a glimpse among the trees that made his heart leap with a sudden, nameless horror, and a few moments later he stood before Horror itself, stark and grisly. In a wide clearing, on a rather bold incline stood a grim stake, and to this stake was bound a thing that had once been a black man. Kane had rowed, chained to the bench of a Turkish galley, and he had toiled in Barbary vineyards; he had battled red Indians in the New Lands and had languished in the dungeons of Spain’s Inquisition. He knew much of the fiendishness of man’s inhumanity, but now he shuddered and grew sick. Yet it was not so much the ghastliness of the mutilations, horrible as they were, that shook Kane’s soul, but the knowledge that the wretch still lived.
For as he drew near, the gory head that lolled on the butchered breast lifted and tossed from side to side, spattering blood from the stumps of ears, while a bestial, rattling whimper drooled from the shredded lips.
Kane spoke to the ghastly thing and it screamed unbearably, writhing in incredible contortions, while its head jerked up and down with the jerking of mangled nerves, and the empty, gaping eye-sockets seemed striving to see from their emptiness. And moaning low and brain-shatteringly it huddled its outraged self against the stake where it was bound and lifted its head in a grisly attitude of listening, as if it expected something out of the skies.
“Listen,” said Kane, in the dialect of the river-tribes. “Do not fear me—I will not harm you and nothing else shall harm you anymore. I am going to loose you.”
Even as he spoke Kane was bitterly aware of the emptiness of his words. But his voice had filtered dimly into the crumbling, agony-shot brain of the black man. From between splintered teeth fell words, faltering and uncertain, mixed and mingled with the slavering droolings of imbecility. He spoke a language akin to the dialects Kane had learned from friendly river-folk on his wanderings, and Kane gathered that he had been bound to the stake for a long time—many moons, he whimpered in the delirium of approaching death; and all this time, inhuman, evil things had worked their monstrous will upon him. These things he mentioned by name, but Kane could make nothing of it for he used an unfamiliar term that sounded like akaana. But these things had not bound him to the stake, for the torn wretch slavered the name of Goru, who was a priest and who had drawn a cord too tight about his legs—and Kane wondered that the memory of this small pain should linger through the red mazes of agony that the dying man should whimper over it.
And to Kane’s horror, the black spoke of his brother who had aided in the binding of him, and he wept with infantile sobs, and moisture formed in the empty sockets and made tears of blood. And he muttered of a spear broken long ago in some dim hunt, and while he muttered in his delirium, Kane gently cut his bonds and eased his broken body to the grass. But even at the Englishman’s careful touch, the poor wretch writhed and howled like a dying dog, while blood started anew from a score of ghastly gashes, which, Kane noted, were more like the wounds made by fang and talon than by knife or spear. But at last it was done and the bloody, torn thing lay on the soft grass with Kane’s old slouch hat beneath its death’s-head, breathing in great, rattling gasps.
Kane poured water from his canteen between the mangled lips, and bending close, said: “Tell me more of these devils, for by the God of my people, this deed shall not go unavenged, though Satan himself bar my way.”
It is doubtful if the dying man heard. But he heard something else. The macaw, with the curiosity of its breed, swept from a nearby grove and passed so close its great wings fanned Kane’s hair. And at the sound of those wings, the butchered black man heaved upright and screamed in a voice that haunted Kane’s dreams to the day of his death: “The wings! The wings! They come again! Ahhhh, mercy, the wings!”
And the blood burst in a torrent from his lips and so he died.
Kane rose and wiped the cold sweat from his forehead. The upland forest shimmered in the noonday heat. Silence lay over the land like an enchantment of dreams. Kane’s brooding eyes ranged to the black, malevolent hills crouching in the distance and back to the faraway savannas. An ancient curse lay over that mysterious land and the shadow of it fell across the soul of Solomon Kane.
Tenderly he lifted the red ruin that had once pulsed with life and youth and vitality, and carried it to the edge of the glade, where arranging the cold limbs as best he might, and shuddering once again at the unnamable mutilations, he piled stones above it till even a prowling jackal would find it hard to get at the flesh below.
And he had scarcely finished when something jerked him back out of his somber broodings to a realization of his own position. A slight sound—or his own wolf-like instinct—made him whirl. On the other side of the glade he caught a movement among the tall grasses—the glimpse of a hideous black face, with an ivory ring in the flat nose, thick lips parted to reveal teeth whose filed points were apparent even at that distance, beady eyes and a low slanting forehead topped by a mop of frizzy hair. Even as the face faded from view Kane leaped back into the shelter of the ring of trees which circled the glade, and ran like a deer-hound, flitting from tree to tree and expecting each moment to hear the exultant clamor of the braves and to see them break cover at his back.
But soon he decided that they were content to hunt him down as certain beasts track their prey, slowly and inevitably. He hastened through the upland forest, taking advantage of every bit of cover, and he saw no more of his pursuers; yet he knew, as a hunted wolf knows, that they hovered close behind him, waiting their moment to strike him down without risk to their own hides. Kane smiled bleakly and without mirth. If it was to be a test of endurance, he would see how savage thews compared with his own spring-steel resilience. Let night come and he might yet give them the slip. If not—Kane knew in his heart that the savage essence of the Anglo-Saxon which chafed at his flight would make him soon turn at bay, though his pursuers outnumbered him a hundred to one.
The sun sank westward. Kane was hungry, for he had not eaten since early morning when he wolfed down the last of his dried meat. An occasional spring had given him water, and once he thought he glimpsed the roof of a large hut far away through the trees. But he gave it a wide berth. It was hard to believe that this silent plateau was inhabited, but if it were, the natives were doubtless as ferocious as those hunting him. Ahead of him the land grew rougher, with broken boulders and steep slopes as he neared the lower reaches of the brooding hills. And still no sight of his hunters except for faint glimpses caught by wary backward glances—a drifting shadow, the bending of the grass, the sudden straightening of a trodden twig, a rustle of leaves. Why should they be so cautious? Why did they not close in and have it over?
Night fell and Kane reached the first long slopes which led upward to the foot of the hills which now brooded black and menacing above him. They were his goal, where he hoped to shake off his persistent foes at last, yet a nameless aversion warned him away from them. They were pregnant with hidden evil, repellent as the coil of a great sleeping serpent, glimpsed in the tall grass.
Darkness fell heavily. The stars winked redly in the thick heat of the tropic night. And Kane, halting for a moment in an unusually dense grove, beyond which the trees thinned out on the slopes, heard a stealthy movement that was not the night wind—for no breath of air stirred the heavy leaves. And even as he turned, there was a rush in the dark, under the trees. A shadow that merged with the shadows flung itself on Kane with a bestial mouthing and a rattle of iron, and the Englishman, parrying by the gleam of the stars on the weapon, felt his assailant duck into close quarters and meet him chest to chest. Lean wiry arms locked about him, pointed teeth gnashed at him as Kane returned the fierce grapple. His tattered shirt ripped beneath a jagged edge, and by blind chance Kane found and pinioned the hand that held the iron knife, and drew his own dirk, flesh crawling in anticipation of a spear in the back.
But even as the Englishman wondered why the others did not come to their comrade’s aid, he threw all of his iron muscles into the single combat. Close-clinched they swayed and writhed in the darkness, each striving to drive his blade into the other’s flesh, and as the superior strength of the white man began to assert itself, the cannibal howled like a rabid dog, tore and bit. A convulsive spin-wheel of effort pivoted them out into the starlit glade where Kane saw the ivory nose-ring and the pointed teeth that snapped beast-like at his throat. And simultaneously he forced back and down the hand that gripped his knife-wrist, and drove the dirk deep into the black ribs. The warrior screamed and the raw acrid scent of blood flooded the night air. And in that instant Kane was stunned by a sudden savage rush and beat of mighty wings that dashed him to earth, and the black man was torn from his grip and vanished with a scream of mortal agony. Kane leaped to his feet, shaken to his foundation. The dwindling scream of the wretched black sounded faintly and from above him.