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THE DEMON HAUNTED REALM

Andy Nunez

A tale of Conan


Sharp spears of blue-white lightning split the black dome of sky in jagged forks, highlighting the clouds in dazzling flashes of purple. Wind buffeted the wide river, and among the gray highlights of foam-topped swells swept a small boat, no more than twenty feet in length. Its mainsail long shattered, the boat had no motive power save the swift current, and besides its stump of a mast, the only feature breaking its lines was a section of the rear covered with sailcloth and hides.

Beneath this rude shelter squatted the boat's lone occupant, a black sailor's cloak wrapped tightly about him. He peered out into the gloom, burning blue eyes straining as the lightning's actinic glare gave the surroundings an unreal cast before dying out. The man saw a rough shoreline and a grim smile played across his features. After hours of being pummeled by an unexpected summer storm, land was in sight.

Conan, barbarian of wild Cimmeria, stood up and tested his legs against the heaving of his craft. Gaining solid footing, he gripped the tiller in both his scarred hands and swung it to gain the uneven black line silhouetted by the slashing pulses of lightning. Thunder tore at him as the rain stung his face. He pulled the oiled cloak tighter and heaved with all his hill-born might against the protesting tiller. The rudder obeyed with reluctance, and Conan now saw juts of rock well ahead of the cresting breakers.

The bolting crests of waves shoved his boat back and forth as he made for a large promontory where the breaking rollers looked less violent. As he drew close, a flash revealed the slimy heads of rocks jutting forth as if to observe this new arrival. Before Conan could veer away, he was among them, tossed and bumped, the planks of his craft splintering against the unyielding obstacles. A huge breaker slapped against the doomed boat like a hand of the gods and the ship capsized, hurling Conan into the boiling surf.

He sank quickly, the black cloak spreading out like the wings of a ray. Dressed otherwise in a loincloth and sandals and wearing a sword belt from which hung an incongruously jeweled broadsword and a plain hill man's knife, Conan was barely encumbered, and he sent himself upward again with powerful strokes. Breaking the surface, he was thrown headlong by the violent waves and lay coughing on a pebble-strewn beach while new lines of water broke over him as the river receded and charged again.

Conan's robust frame summoned the strength to crawl away from the churning edge and he found a line of worn rocks that hedged soft grasses from the river's eroding tides. Here, his strength left him and he slept amid the heavenly barrage, cloak thrown over his head to turn back the rain. He was still asleep when the storm broke with the same suddenness as it arrived and the sun rolled forth amid the retreating purple banks of clouds. The summer's warmth returned, and when Conan awoke, he found it receding as the sun sank into the western haze.

Wet and hungry, Conan sat up and surveyed his surroundings. He had sailed along the Koratos River for a day after finding his erstwhile ride mostly unattended. He was heading for Messantia, capital of Argos, after hearing that its king was hiring mercenaries. The Cimmerian was confident that his reputation would precede him and that the previous unpleasantness that resulted in the death of a local judge would be forgotten in the need for seasoned warriors. Now, he was but a piece of flotsam upon an unknown shore.

He reasoned that he was somewhere in the Northwest of Argos, not far from where the borders of Zingara and Aquilonia met. Across the river, he could see only a dim expanse of plains. To the west, dark and jagged in blackening relief lay hills, their crests red-limned in the sunset. He went down to the beach to slake his thirst. Stiff and sore, he bent to drink. The water here was still fresh enough to sustain him, and strewn along the shore were the remains of his boat. He found the aft section mostly intact, and was able to retrieve his helmet and a small sack of odd coins. His coat of scale mail, wrapped in his under-tunic against the damp, was nowhere to be seen and he reasoned it was at the bottom of the Koratos.

Seeing a line of trees in front of the hills, he made for them, hoping to find fruit or game to still his rumbling stomach. He had not advanced a quarter mile toward his goal when he saw a horseman galloping out of the gloom. The man was dressed in a mail hauberk, his features largely hidden behind a banded steel cap with a broad nasal. At his saddle hung a lance and a broadsword. Conan's hand went to his own weapon, a trophy of his last escapade in the east.

The rider drew rein within ten paces of the barbarian and couched his lance. On his left arm, Conan noted a round shield carrying a device unfamiliar to him. Suspicion flashed in the brown eyes and the rider's mouth remained a hard line within his umber beard.

"Damn me for a Stygian, what have we here?" he barked in Argossean. "A barbarian of some sort. Make no move and tell me your business."

"My business is none of yours," growled Conan. "I have no quarrel with you and am up to no mischief other than finding food. Leave me be."

"As a guard in the service of Baron Zirkan of Laon, I give the orders. Unless you want your guts splashed from here back to your ignorant homeland, you will obey them. That sword of yours is much too fancy for the likes of you. Surely you stole it. In the name of the baron, you will accompany me after I relieve you of your weapons. Now, stand still."

"I will stand still while I run you through!" Conan snarled and charged the horseman, sword naked and gleaming in the fading light. Instead of skewering the Cimmerian, the guard had only time to parry a savage stroke of Conan's sword. The iron hand guard of the lance absorbed the blow and took a deep crease. The rider wheeled his horse to gain enough distance to charge Conan. The barbarian waited in a half crouch, knife drawn as well.

The charge was never delivered. From the dark woods came a steam-whistle shriek and a gray-shape hurtled toward them. Conan thought it resembled a giant toad, over twenty feet in length. Great horns curled forward from above its oily black eyes and fangs like Zingaran poniards stabbed down at odd angles from its slavering jaws. Beneath a warty, squamous skin rolled giant muscles that propelled it forward in a series of running leaps. First, it plunged for the Argossean and his mount. Conan saw the horse's eyes roll in terror and it bolted in what must have been the direction of home. The creature started pursuit, giving Conan a moment to look for shelter. He ran for the first outcropping of rocks he saw.

Not stopping to see the fate of the guardsman, Conan hazarded a backward glance, only to see the black shape of the creature bounding toward him. Redoubling his efforts, the Cimmerian ran until his lungs began to burn, and then he dove between two rocks, as the creature's teakettle scream seemed at his very shoulder. The monster stopped at the rocks and began to work its way upward. Conan climbed with all the skill of his youth in mountainous Cimmeria, while the monster painfully dragged its bulk along the large boulders at the hill's base.

Conan saw little hope of eluding the creature until the dark mouth of a cave suddenly appeared. Uncaring as to possible denizens, he jammed himself into its entrance, scraping his skin, but gaining its depths just ahead of the doom behind him. He plunged deeper into the blackness, half-tripping on an uneven surface while the opening was filled with the blunt snout of the monster, its fetid breath making Conan choke in the cave's confines.

The cave was too small for Conan to swing his sword, but he sliced upward with his thick-bladed knife drawing a black line of blood across the monsters upper lip and nostrils. Its pained ululation nearly deafened the barbarian and the creature withdrew only to charge again, trying to get close enough to Conan. Conan stabbed down this time, then stepped back. He lost his footing on the sloped floor and went rolling backward, the creature's cry bouncing off the walls around him as he hurtled downward.

His progress stopped when the cave floor leveled, and Conan found himself in a dark chamber, lit only by a faint glow opposite him. Bruised and bleeding from a few minor scrapes, Conan picked himself up and groped around for his sword, which had been torn from his grasp. Ignoring his hurts, the barbarian moved toward the glow. As his eyes became accustomed to the dark, he could see that the radiance was coming from a tunnel feeding into this larger area. When closer, he noted that the light wavered, indicating it came from torches. Conan became wary at this, since torches denoted people. Sheathing his knife, he moved through the darkness with one hand to steady himself.

The tunnel was tall enough to admit him at first, but it rapidly shrunk until soon he was crawling along, skinned elbows and knees adding to his growing list of injuries. Smoke assailed his nostrils, but the air stayed fresh enough for him to continue and soon he was at an opening. Peering out, he saw a small chamber, mostly natural, but with a door carved into the living rock. In the chamber was a lone figure, prostrate before an idol. The illumination came from some twenty torches ringing the altar of the idol. The figure at the altar was dressed in gray cloth, a hood concealing his features.

Conan could not turn in the tunnel and the exit was some eight feet from the chamber's floor. The Cimmerian preferred to come out of the opening on his feet instead of his head, so he was forced to retrace part of his path, turn around, and slowly propel himself backward until he could exit the tunnel's portal. He replaced his sword in its metal bound leather scabbard and pushed backward so first his feet, then his knees, and finally his stomach cleared the entrance. He slowly let them fall and his purchase in the tunnel became precarious as his balance shifted. Fingers scrambling on the smooth rock, he tried a slow exit for the rest of his body, but there were no good handholds and he slithered out of the tunnel to fall the rest of the way.

Luckily, it was a short fall at that point and caused him little strain. He whirled to face the altar as its supplicant turned and rose. In the torchlight, Conan could see a hawkish face, dusky, with deep-set black eyes, half concealed by the robe's overhang. Beyond him, Conan recognized the figure on the altar as that of Mitra, but curiously, it was upended. Wary, Conan kept his sword ready, its tip wavering like a steel cobra. The man's stern expression turned to one of almost comic fear.

"Ah!" the dark one screamed. "A demon from the pit, come to steal poor Kaffro's soul! The bloody ghost of a fiend! Take pity on this humble supplicant, I pray you!" He threw up two thin arms that looked as supple and dark as a serpent from Kush.

"Hold your tongue, you scarecrow!" barked the Cimmerian. "I am flesh and blood, though a bit banged about after tumbling down a thrice-cursed cave floor. Now, if you would point me the way out of this mole's den, I'll not trouble you or your upside-down Mitra."

"There!" The man stabbed a bony forefinger past him and Conan saw a path leading into a dark sinus, framed by a doorway made of rough timbers wedged into the rock. The door, of iron-banded wood, lay ajar. "Though it would be better if you slit your own throat first."

"Crom! Tell me why, or I will slit yours!"

The dark priest shed some of his agitation and his face grew grave. His darksome eyes seemed to have a baleful glow around the black irises as he spoke. "These hills are haunted by beasts and men that are no better than beasts. I believe that the last dragon in Argos lurks among the trees, and there are such men that make the Picts look civilized, great hairy brutes separated from apes only by their knowledge to wear skins about their waists and to carry clubs. This is a forgotten corner between Aquilonia, Zingara, Argos and Ophir. Go out of here if you dare, but you will come back screaming, or not at all."

"Priestly moonshine!" snapped Conan. "How did you get here with nothing more than a robe and staff?" Conan's ever-watchful gaze drank in the chamber's details, and near the doorway he saw a staff, some six feet in length, its head of gnarled sapling carved into the loathsome likeness of some serpent. He shuddered involuntarily as he noticed the staff-head's eyes were of some red jewels that sparkled in the torchlight like living things.

"I have the charm of the silver moon-globe," Kaffro admitted, drawing a silver amulet from its chain about his neck. The round talisman was nearly the size of Conan's palm, inscribed with symbols in a widdershins pattern around the disk's edge. "During the three nights of the full moon, I cannot be harmed by any creature in this wood. At the sight of this device, they flee."

"A handy thing, by Crom," Conan rumbled. "I suppose you wouldn't let me borrow it?"

"No, and you needn't think of killing me, either, to take it," the priest snapped. "The spell is woven so that it protects only myself. Unless I were to remove the spell, none could ever gain its protection. Torture will not reveal it, for it would be death for me to leave this chamber without it."

Conan considered this for a moment. "Very well, then you will leave the chamber with it and with me. Refuse and you will be meeting Mitra suddenly."

Kaffro bowed and spread his hands. "I have no choice. My ritual must be restarted, now. Would you care for some food and wine while I wait? There is some in my pack by the doorway."

The Cimmerian grunted and strode to the door. He had no relish to endure the priest's mummery, but the promise of food after his pummeling was hard to resist. Halfway to the door, he glanced back at the priest, who had turned again to the altar. Conan saw the pack leaning against the doorframe opposite the side where the staff rested. He stooped to pick it up, not noticing that the staff had suddenly levitated from its position and whirled in the air behind him.

He first felt the impact of the snakehead between his shoulder blades, driving him stumblingly forward across the doorsill. As he turned to see what happened, the door slammed shut in his startled face. He heard a bolt slam home. Charging the portal, he beat his sword hilt against it futilely.

"Lir and Mannanan mac Lir!" he swore. "Treachery! I'll kill you priest, when next we meet."

"We shall not meet again, you stupid barbarian," came the priest's brittle cackle. "The beast men of the hills will tear you limb from limb, and the dragon of Argos will crush the marrow from your bones as he feasts on your remains. As I pray here that Set grows and Mitra is confounded, I will laugh as I consider your fate, barbarian. Perhaps the beast men will leave your sword, so that I may use the jewels to help outfit a temple for Set."

A harsh laugh filtered through the rough wood and then Conan could hear a strange, rhythmic chanting. Giving the panel one last thump with his sword hilt, the Cimmerian turned to see that the tunnel had grown black after the door was shut. Picking up the priest's pack, he groped about for the left wall and used it to guide along, sword out before him in his right hand. All the while he cursed the priest and swore hideous vengeance. Soon an awful stench assailed his nostrils and his guiding fingertips encountered a slimy substance. Above him he heard dry rustling as if a dead tree were being shaken by the wind.

Wary, Conan took his guiding hand away and inched forward, eyes straining in the sooty darkness to see where the noise came from. He stumbled against the far wall and the shock caused him to drop his sword with a loud clatter. He hurriedly stooped to pick it up, and as he did so, the sound above him became magnified a thousand fold. Suddenly, he was pelted with something wet and the leathery; sounds rushed toward him, then out and away. Standing straight after retrieving his blade, Conan heard the sounds die out.

"Bats, by Crom," he gritted.

He moved on cautiously, this time using his sword point to tap along the tunnel's wall. After agonizing minutes, he finally saw an oval of deep blue sprinkled with stars. Just within the cave's mouth, Conan squatted and examined the contents of Kaffro's sack. Besides bread and cheese was a bottle of wine, such as Conan had not tasted for many a month. Feeling secure, he devoured the food, drinking half the bottle of wine with it. He felt refreshed, and used his vantage to survey the landscape. Below him the land spread out in a series of knife-cut draws before smoothing into a wide, thick forest. Beyond that, he saw a twinkling that his keen senses perceived to be a city of some sort.

Conan rose, the bottle in one hand and sword in the other and began his descent. He would head for the city and sell his sword there until he could find passage to the coast. If they were not hiring guardsmen, he could always steal another boat, he reasoned. The way was steep, but held little danger to one born in the wild hills of Cimmeria. He traveled along in the darkness more rapidly that most could in broad daylight.

He was near the edge of the forest when the beast-men struck. The hills had seeped into green grassland, with only a few jumbled ridges of granite rising above the waving leaves. The first three were behind one of these ridges, and Conan had only the merest whisper of loose stones to warn him. He had sheathed his sword, but it was out in a blur of steel flashing in the moonlight. One beast-man hurled a watermelon-sized rock as the others charged. The boulder did not have enough force behind it to travel very fast, and Conan ducked it, bringing his sword around in a glittering arc that ended above the hip of the nearest attacker, folding him like a thing of paper as the keen edge sliced through flesh and bone.

The next one raised his club and struck, but Conan twisted so that his left forearm received a glancing blow instead of his head. His arm went numb from shock, but it was better than having his skull caved in, helmet or not. Sadly, he dropped the wine and it shattered on the stone below. The beast-man swung again, but Conan's sword licked out, and his antagonist went down holding his throat as blood sprayed on the gray stone and trampled grass. The third snatched up his club and launched himself at the Cimmerian. Conan managed to slice the club at its rough-hewn haft, but the hulking beast-man was upon him, furry arms clawing with hands that ended in black, broken nails.

Conan dropped his sword and clutched his opponent's throat, snarling with equal ferocity as the talons of his foe bit into his flesh. The broad, apelike face stared at him with hatred in the small red pig-eyes, but the flesh of that face was turning dark as Conan's steely fingers dug into the thing's windpipe. With his other hand, Conan searched for the broad, single-edged hillman knife. His fingers closed about it and he tore it from its scabbard to plunge the blade remorselessly into his enemy's side. The beast-man stiffened and fell away.

Shaken, Conan strove for air as he retrieved his sword. From the opposite hillock surged another trio, but having seen the fate of their comrades, they launched their clubs in a ragged fusillade before charging. The Cimmerian dodged one, batted a second away with his sword, but the third struck him obliquely across his helmet, sending it away to clatter among the stones. The blow sent sparks flashing across Conan's vision. With bestial cries, they attacked. Conan shook off his pain and drove his sword into the first beast-man's chest. He pulled it out, and then dove between the other two, sword and knife making bright semi-circles in the night that ended in bone-jarring crunches as each impacted with a foe.

As soon as it began, the fight was over. Conan stood amid a ring of fallen attackers, all either dead or dying. He retrieved his dented helmet and ran for the trees, fearful that another wave of the beast-men would appear. His barbaric sense of direction sent him toward the city he had seen, and the way became easier as dawn began to leach the deepness of color from the sky. The woods were mostly first growth, giant trees like columns in a temple, their entwining branches making a not unpleasant ceiling. Conan followed his instinct, using his knife to cut brambles until he saw a clearing ahead.

In the clearing toiled a young woman. She was intent upon collecting nuts into an apron tied around her simple homespun dress. The Cimmerian noted a couple of slim silver bangles on her wrists, but she was otherwise unadorned. He found her rather pretty in spite of her plain garment, tall with flowing dark hair and a generous, athletic build. She looked up at his sudden approach, and he saw that her surprised face was even lovelier the closer he got. Conan sheathed his knife and advanced with hands spread before him.

"Good morning," he said, smiling, though he knew that his ragged and bloody appearance was anything but good on this morning. "I'm lost. Chased by beast-men. What city is that yonder?"

Instead of answering, the girl wheeled on slim bare feet and broke for the opposite side of the clearing. Conan's smiling expression turned to dismay.

"What did I say?" He called after her. "Wait, girl! I won't hurt you!"

The forest along the far edge parted into a path and the woman hurled herself along, scattering nuts in her flight. Conan, attracted by her beauty and equally fearful she'd raise the town watch, plunged after her. The woods along the path were like a leafy curtain, and Conan pursued his prey heedless now, blood singing with adrenalin. He had not made a hundred yards, losing her from view in the twisted deer track, when he nearly ran himself through as a glittering sword suddenly thrust out before him from one side.

Conan stopped. Half a dozen men slipped from the verdant undergrowth to surround him. One was the man who had held out the sword. He was nearly as tall as the Cimmerian with bushy red hair and beard that looked more like a mass of finely drawn copper wire. Blue eyes a few shades darker than Conan's own stared at him with steely resolve. The sword was simply made, matching the clothes of his would-be captors. Like the girl, they were all clothed like peasants; save they bristled with weapons far beyond a peasant's finances.

"Crom's guts," Conan grunted. "I meant no harm."

"We'll see," the stranger said, voice as grim as his countenance. His arms bulged and Conan knew that of all of them, this would be the man he'd have the most trouble killing. "Why are you chasing Dagsemara? She is not some wench for you to paw."

"Damn you, I said I meant no harm. I am Conan, a Cimmerian. My boat cracked up on the river and I was heading for a town to see about getting on to Messantia. I saw the girl, and was just going to ask some questions." Conan inched his hand toward his sword hilt, in case his story was unwelcome. He saw a slim form waft up toward the large redhead. It was the woman Dagsemara. Her hair was a deeper red than the man's, and her large gray eyes were steady as she gazed upon Conan. He liked what he saw and if he had to kill six men to possess her, well, that was the price he'd have to pay.

"That is what he said," she said, turning her face up to the large man who was a head taller. "He also said he fought the beast-men. Look at him. He looks as if he has been dragged down a mountain by all his bruises and yet he still stares at me like a wolf does a herd."

Conan grinned. By her tone, she was not affronted and she returned his stare calmly.

"I am Nakri, and I am chief," The redhead stated.

"Chief of what?" Conan asked. "Five bumpkins and a woman? Is she your wife or are you all her husbands?"

"That's it, I'll just kill you now," Nakri snarled. "I was going to invite you to our camp and share our bounty, but you are just some barbarian."

He waved his men back, dropped his sword and rushed at Conan barehanded. Conan had no time to grab his own blade, and he went down under Nakri's bulk. The man was every bit as strong as Conan assumed. He managed to avoid the first blow by twisting, then he was kicking his way out. Staggering, he got up but could not avoid another fist to his jaw. Stars and purple flashes rang in his skull. He swung back, but the man ducked and got him in a forward bear hug.

Nakri squeezed and Conan barely had time to inhale. His arms pinned, he could only head butt, however his helmet was harder than Nakri's head and the woodsman's grip loosened. Conan got one arm up and under Nakri's chin. He bent the copper bearded visage back and would have snapped his neck had Nakri not released his grip to stagger back. He danced back in, one meaty fist impacting Conan's ribs. Conan let his own right fly and Nakri reeled back, a ropy line of blood drooping from his mouth.

Nakri spat. "Had enough?" He asked.

"Not yet?" Conan said. "You?"

"No, but I could use a drink."

"There's nothing wrong with that," Conan said, checking to see if any of his teeth were loose. "We can always finish this later. You certainly don't fight like a bumpkin."

"You fight like a barbarian, though," Nakri said and drew his mouth up in a crimson-stained grin. "Come then. Let's see if you can drink like you fight."

Conan grunted. The man was no killer, at least not an arbitrary one. Though his men eyed the barbarian warily, Nakri retrieved his sword and belted it before proceeding. He did, however, make sure he interposed himself between Conan and Dagsemara. The party left the path and traversed some thick undergrowth to an artificial clearing some 100 yards in diameter. No clear path could be seen, but there were horses and even a couple of wagons, along with makeshift tents. Conan estimated nearly 50 people, men, women, and children crammed into this small opening.

In the center was a ring of stones that served as a central bonfire. Rude-made cooking racks and pots were being cleaned by some women while others mended clothes. The men tinkered with equipment and sharpened their weapons. Conan found the group interesting, but hiding in the woods was not his style.

"Did you found this, whatever it is?" he asked Nakri.

"No, actually my mother did," Nakri said. "When I was just a baby, she fled here to escape a brutal master, and found others hiding in the woods who had escaped the baron's justice. She married one of them."

"Which is where I came from," Dagsemara said. "Our mother was a Vanir, captured in some raid on Aquilonians and sold here, to the baron of Laon."

"Was?" Conan asked.

"Aye, she died bearing me," Dagsemara said. "We had no healers or midwives then, and so I was raised by my father, then later, when he was killed by the baron's guards, Nakri here."

They stopped at a large wagon, slab sided with rough-hewn wood and having a top. It reminded Conan of a hovel on wheels. Nakri slipped inside and returned with a large wineskin. He knocked off the stopper and offered Conan the first pull. While not as good as the priest's vintage, it was plenty good after a fight.

"Wild grapes," Nakri said. "Still, not bad. We learn as we go." Dagsemara wiped his mouth with a damp cloth after a few swallows. "How are you with a bow?"

"Well enough," Conan said. "I have shot men and beasts. Which would you have me slay?"

"None of us are exceptional bowmen," Nakri said, smiling. "Most are city-bred. Ex-thieves, runaway slaves and the like. Good craftsmen and skilled women, but we are still learning in some ways. Trapping rabbits and fowl are one thing. Stalking and bringing down a deer is something else again."

"Done," Conan agreed. "In exchange for information and some rest, I will bag you a hart."

The hunt took the rest of the day. Conan, with only Nakri at his side, searched until he found a recent spoor. The hill-raised barbarian tracked his prey and dispatched it with two arrows, one in the neck and the other in the side. Conan and Nakri took turns carrying the deer back to camp. The women delighted in their prize and went into a veritable assembly line, gutting, skinning and butchering the animal while saving all useful parts. Hide for clothing, bone for a variety of uses, fat for tallow and cooking, horn for handles and the meat to be cooked and prepared for a feast.

The cooking did not start until after dark so that the smoke could not be seen. There was little chance the firelight could be seen, Nakri explained, this deep in the forest and this close to the beast-men. Conan's unease was lightened by more wine. He sat cross-legged by the blazing fire, Nakri by his side. Nakri and his men plied him with questions, but the Cimmerian kept the details thin. Several towns and a few countries had sizeable bounties on his head. He barely noticed the plate of roasted deer meet and edible tubers until it was under his nose. He did not, however, fail to notice it was Dagsemara who proffered it, an inviting smile on her lips.

"How do you come by the wine and your equipment?" Conan asked between bites.

"We trade with farmers," Nakri said. "Many of our folk arrived here with coins and other valuables. Having little in the way of woodcraft, we barter a lot. Our hunt today means that I will have a better chance of bagging a deer myself."

"I see you wear some adornments, though simple."

"In case one of us is taken, greed may not urge brigands to seek further for us. The only gold we display is my talisman." With that, Nakri drew from his shirt a disk of gold set in a silver border shaped like stylized sun rays with a heavy silver chain to match. The gold was engraved with some sort of symbols. "It has the name of my father on it, but I cannot read it."

Conan made a show of examining the medallion. "Nor I."

After dinner, one of the men of Nakri's band brought forth a set of pipes while another produced a small drum and the two began a wild tune. The younger women flocked together near the flames and began to sway to the rhythm as the men clapped their hands. The hems of their skirts flared and belled as their feet spurned the earth. Arms seemed boneless, waving like serpents. Faster went the song, and faster danced the women, sweat glistening in the leaping glow.

Conan saw naught but Dagsemara. As she twirled, he saw that her legs were long and shapely. Her teeth gleamed in the firelight and her eyes drew in the Cimmerian until he felt himself clapping and yelling with the rest. The revelry ended all too soon. Nakri feared the noise might be detected. The little band turned to their tents and wagons, while Nakri tossed Conan some blankets to roll up in. He lay by the fire, soothed by the wine, and half-dozed. Across the flaring and crackling blaze he saw a hooded shape drift toward him, seeming to float across a mist that was coming up from the ground.

He feared it was the Stygian priest coming for him and his hand went to his sword. Conan grunted in surprise, though, when he saw the apparition was Dagsemara, cloaked and bearing a basin over the lip of which was draped a cloth. She knelt down and began to clean his wounds, producing a jar of ointment that she applied to the worse ones. The balm stung at first, but then seemed to burn away the pain. She rinsed the bloody cloth and wiped his face. As she did, he caught her wrist.

"A healer as well as a dancer," he said. "You are more supple than the most wanton performer in King Yildiz's court. In Shadizar and Messantia I have not seen the like." He fell silent as the shadow of his lost Shemite love Belit flitted across his memory, and how she swayed before him like a woman without bones. He reasoned that she returned from the grave so that he could live his life, and live it he intended to do.

"How now?" she asked as his brow clouded. "Your tongue has fled? I sense an emptiness."

"Nay," he said, a grim smile coming to his lips. "It is a roaring flame higher than yon bonfire and has not been quenched in a fortnight. Come here."

That night a fire died out before a passion was sated.

* * *

Conan was awakened by a scream and the keening of horses. He bolted upright, naked save for his loincloth and paused only to rip the longsword from its sheath. Dagsemara shrank and pulled the cloak about her ivory body as he stood over her. The Cimmerian saw two knights bearing the same device he had seen on the shield of the horseman who battled him before being accosted by the dragon. These were better dressed than that worthy. Black surcoats were thrown over steel breastplates, though chain mail predominated on arms, legs, and a coif that hung below a winged helm with an open face. Leather backed gauntlets with steel facings and steel greaves over boots completed their apparel. Banded armor covered their horses. Like their other fellow, they sported lances and broadswords.

The tribe of Nakri came out in small knots of twos and threes, none armored to deal with this threat, though several of the men brandished swords and poniards, while Nakri appeared with a great axe and a battered conical helm. The two horsemen sat their mounts in a V-shape, and one leaned forward across the high pommel of his saddle.

"So, that tinker who passed her was right," he said, mouth twisted in a snarl of contempt. "You were warned. The baron of Laon has long decreed that your band has no business so close to the city. You shall pay dearly for flouting his authority."

"This is forest land," Conan said in Argossean. "Who can own it? These folk have as much right to live in peace as does your baron. Come down off your horse and let us discuss it."

"You would like that," the knight said. "These creatures have no right here because it is the baron's wood and it does not need to be fouled by scum like you."

"By Crom!" Blue eyes flashed like shards from a shattered icicle. In an instant he closed the distance with a savage leap and pulled the speaker from his horse. Using his sword pommel Conan buffeted the man's face, smashing lips and teeth in a spray of gore. Dazed, the knight snatched at his dagger with his left hand while his right caught Conan's before he could strike again.

The other knight drew rein and wheeled his horse about, gaining distance enough to couch his lance and charge. Conan danced with his antagonist, seeing the hurtling destrier out of the corner of his eye. At the last second, he swung his opponent about and the lance caught him between the shoulder blades, stopping only when the iron point scraped the inside of the man's breastplate. Before it could be unfouled, Conan hacked through the shaft with his sword. Blanching, the knight dropped the lance and clawed at his broadsword. Before he could bring it forth, however, the whirling half-moon of Nakri's axe caught the knight in the neck and sheared through his jugular and windpipe. Gurgling and flailing, the knight toppled from the saddle and his boot caught in his stirrup. The horse turned and fled, dragging the body from view, followed closely by its companion.

Winded, Conan leaned upon his blade as the sound of the horses faded from view. Nakri tore the other knight's surcoat and wiped his blade on it. The rest cheered. Nakri turned then, and Conan saw anguish on his face.

"No good will come of this," he said. "More will follow."

"And we shall kill them as well," Conan said. "What would you do, flee? You killed a man who would have killed you. Fear not, my friend. Belike the horses will be snatched by some quick minded fellow and the other corpse will fall off into a ditch and not be found."

"What if that does not happen? The baron's dogs can track a rabbit to Hell's door. They can follow the trail back to us with ease."

Conan wiped his sword on the remnant of the surcoat. "I'll get into the city. If there is an alarm raised, I'll return and warn you. It's the least I can do to repay your hospitality, and I need to steal – ah - acquire a boat to continue to Messantia."

"How can we know? What if something happens to you?"

The barbarian smiled. "Give me two days. If you have no word from me by then, trouble is brewing and you had best flee."

"It is we who are in your debt," Nakri said. "We have some leather clothes that are surely warmer than your loincloth, and boots instead of sandals."

He nodded shortly and soon he was dressed in a supple shirt and pants. The dead man's boots fit him well enough. Nakri provided some belts and pouches. Eating more deer meat and washing it down with wine, Conan prepared to leave. Nakri and Dagsemara accompanied him to the clearing's edge.

"You don't have to do this," Nakri said.

"Oh, I do," Conan replied, but he was looking at Dagsemara. "No harm must befall you."

"Go with our thanks, then," Nakri said, and clasped his hand.

"And mine." Dagsemara reached up on tiptoe and kissed his cheek, whispering in his ear "and my heart as well."

Conan started at her entreaty, but had nothing more to say. He threw his worn cloak about his new apparel and turned to leave. He cursed the gods of several different religions for how they designed females. Always having to mention love!

His hill-born senses easily followed the horses' trail to a worn path through the forest. Occasionally he saw the turrets and spires of Laon between the clumps of the taller trees. The day was warm enough and soon the brawny Cimmerian had thrown back his cloak. He thought about hiring on at Laon to be a guardsman, but he felt it would betray Nakri and his band. Well, at best, he would discover if the horses turned up, then procure a sailboat and continue to Messantia, or worst, steal a horse and ride back to warn Nakri before the baron could mount a raiding force.

Conan had little thought beyond these alternatives. His mind, while far from dull, was uncomplicated. While traveling, he thought of past escapades, dead enemies, warm women. About him the forest pulsed with the song of birds and the rustle of animals in the dense undergrowth. Far from the hills, he did not fear the savage beast-men or the gigantic lizard that they called a dragon. He did think about the Stygian Kaffro, and then his thoughts turned red with a desire for revenge.

He found Laon to be a small city, a semicircular wall protecting it by land and the river forming a barrier for the rear. Squat turrets were placed at intervals, and beyond he could see a main citadel with two towering spires. The banners and pennants all carried the same device as he had seen before. A single gate allowed entrance from the landward side. Two stolid pikemen in chain hauberks and surcoats crossed their weapons before Conan as he tried to pass through.

"Your name and your business," one blurted, hands tight on his weapon.

"I am Conan, a Cimmerian," Conan said. "I am on my way to Messantia and wish to see if I can hire on to a merchantman going down river."

"We do not take kindly to vagabonds," the other snapped. "This very day two knights were killed in the forest, and one was dragged back here by his horse, torn to shreds. Do you know anything about that, barbarian?"

"I came from upriver," Conan said. "My boat was wrecked in a storm two days ago." The men refused to move. Conan considered killing them, but that would just bring on more trouble. He fished in his pouch for two large coins.

"Here," he said. "One for each of you to show that I am no vagrant."

"This here is a fine gentleman," the first said, examining the coin, which turned out to be Kothian silver.

"So he is," the other remarked. "I was mistaken to think he was a barbarian. By all means, sir, pass."

The pikes went vertical and Conan passed out with a curt nod. Bribery worked better than threats in cities, Conan had learned. Threats were cheaper, though, he had to admit. Once within the city, he inquired about the location of the barracks. If a sally were to be made, news would originate from there. He looked up at the forbidding citadel. From one window he heard angry voices, but he could not make out the words. Down by the barracks he found a tavern full of off-duty soldiers and buxom wenches. He sat by a window and rested from his travels.

* * *

A guard brought the news of the hapless knights to Zirkan, Baron of Laon. Well into middle age, he was still hale. Slate gray eyes narrowed beneath bushy white brows. In his youth, Zirkan had been a large man, and his power had kept Laon free of interlopers from neighboring countries. Now, his paunch protruded, and muscles had begun to soften under his arms. He dismissed the guard with a wave and sank into his carved oaken throne, hands tapping on its curling arms.

Behind him, at his right hand, was Bonerges, captain of his guard. A deadly fighter, Bonerges was lightning to Zirkan's thunder. At the guard's departure, Bonerges came forward to face his lord, only the clink of chain and plate marring his wolfish gait.

"Your Grace," he said, hawkish face bent slightly so as not to stare his master in the eye. "These knights were sent to investigate a tinker's tale of ruffians camped in your woods. One has died horribly and the other's fate is unknown, though splashes of blood on his horse give little confidence. Let me lead twenty of your warriors and bring the murderer's heads back in a basket for you to adorn the city's gates."

"They are but starvelings," Zirkan said with a grimace. "Take your party and drive them out of our woods, but kill only those who resist."

"Why tolerate these filth?" Bonerges face grew dark with rage. His dark eyes flashed like a night storm upon the ocean. "They are leeches upon the carcass of society. They grow in numbers and now are led by a red-haired giant, I am told. How soon before they raid us?"

Zirkan's eyes turned down beneath their jutting snowy ledges. One shriveling finger plucked absently and a gold chain about his neck that fell beneath the opening of his tunic. Baron of Laon, Zirkan Koth-killer, decisive, bold and fearless, now hesitated. His eyes then went to a rusting battle-axe on one wall, grip smooth from many uses. Then, he looked up to Bonerges' hovering form, lean face struggling for composure behind its thin, pointed beard.

"I have spoken," Zirkan said. "Be it as I command or I shall find one who obeys whilst your head adorns the gate."

"As you wish," Bonerges said, and with a whirl of crimson as his cloak billowed, he turned and stomped down the throne room and out. He did not stop until he was at his own house, a small square of stucco and brick with a thatched roof that was within bowshot of the barracks. He had a slave girl to cook, clean, and otherwise keep him happy. When he arrived, she was hurrying to put food on the table, a joint of beef, cheese and a small loaf of bread. She was setting down a bottle of wine and a cup when he backhanded her across the room.

"Get out, you bitch," he ordered and she cringed in the corner. Seldom had he struck her, and never for anything she had or had not done. "I do not require you for the rest of the day. Go and visit your sister at the barracks. Do not come back this night!"

She fled and he sat at meat, mood darkening with each bite. He savagely tore at the seared flesh, hardly tasting it, the thought of his audience with the baron tearing at his mind with equal force. So engrossed in his thoughts of revenge and humiliation that he did not notice his company until a shadow passed across the table as something eclipsed the lamp. He looked up and saw a thin man in the garments of a priest of Mitra. The face was as hawkish as his own, but several shades darker.

"What news?" asked the priest.

"The rot continues," Bonerges muttered. "Would that Mitra could intervene and uncloud our baron's mind. He sees no threats when destruction breeds beneath our walls. Ten years have I served him, and ten years have I seen him go from lord of the battlefield to confused old man. Any other enemy he would send me forth with sword and torch to rend and slay, but these woodland ruffians make him shake with the palsy. I do not understand it, Kaffro."

"His time has passed," Kaffro said. "You have said so yourself. Rot has set in; age has taken its toll. He must be put away, and soon, before the city is ruined."

"You talk of mutiny. His guard is loyal. I could easily slay him, but my life would end shortly after his own. Do you mean poison?"

Kaffro smiled, oily eyes glittering. "I mean a warg."

"A warg? A man who thinks he is a beast?"

"You fool," Kaffro sneered between the black rat-tails of his mustaches. "I did not dwell beneath the crumbling temples and tombs of Stygia to use a tool some halfwit who can be agitated to kill by the fumes of the Purple Lotus. I did not toil among the dead and undead, listening to whispers both human and inhuman, learning secrets that would blast the souls of those who rightly wear this gaudy robe, to slay with a dullard. Nay, my warg can change and take on the characteristics of whatever animal I choose. This one will be a wolf, as befits the legends here."

Bonerges blanched in spite of his rage. "Loins of Ishtar! Can he be controlled? Do not such things turn their skin only under the full moon?"

"Those cursed so, indeed, change with the wax and wane of the moon. This is my creature, a Kushite that I purchased in Messantia. The people about here see him not, because he a slave, and care not that screams come from the pits beneath the temple of Mitra, thinking that he is a churl and is being beaten. Not beaten, no! Trained, yes, trained to rend and tear at my command, trained to sprout hair and fangs and claws! My predecessor as priest of Mitra here was his first victim. Now, there is no more of him than gnawed bones."

"When, then?" Bonerges demanded. "I leave in an hour to beat the bushes for the gang of woods dwellers that deplete the deer of the baron's forest land. He does not even order me to avenge the two knights slain by them this very morning."

"Will he not review your band before they set forth?"

"Aye, it is his custom. Even now I am bound to see them armed and horsed after my meal."

Kaffro smiled, but it was more the leer of a fleshless skull. "In an hour then, the deed will be done. Look not for me. Steel will not kill this thing. Fire and silver. Make sure none of your men think of either. Enjoy your meal, for it will be your last as captain of the guard. When next you dine, it will be as Baron of Laon."

With a rustle of stiff cloth and brocade, the priest was gone. Bonerges put knife to meat and ate thoughtlessly, alternately elated and repulsed by his conversation with the Stygian and what he might be witness to in an hour's time. Baron of Laon! He let that title blanket any trepidation, along with a hefty outpouring of wine.

* * *

Conan of Cimmeria filled his belly with much the same fare as Bonerges. Seeming to be resting in the afternoon sun that streamed into the window, the tall barbarian ate and drank twice what Bonerges had been served, paying for it with another silver. The size of it caused the serving wench to take interest, but Conan had no time for her. Instead, he listened to the soldiers' talk of the coming raid. Most ate and drank hastily, leaving for the barracks to don their armor and prepare their horses. His plan was half-formed. He reasoned getting hold of a good horse, not a heavy one bred to carry an armored knight, then racing past the guards and warn Nakri.

He left the tavern after he saw an officer in a red cloak stride down to the barracks. He assumed there would be a review or inspection, during which he could take care of grabbing a horse and riding out. He was going up the street to where he had noted a stable on the way in when he saw two knights preceding an older man in the ornamental armor of a ruler. This, he decided, was Zirkan, Baron of Laon. He was a large man and, in his youth Conan speculated, he would have been a man to reckon with. There was something familiar in the cast of his face, but Conan could not place him. Perhaps he had been a captain during some battle that Conan had hired on for in the past.

What happened next was too much even for the savagely quick reflexes of the Cimmerian. As the baron's horse passed a narrow cross street, from a pile of refuse leaped a manlike shape, iron gray with oddly twisted arms. The thing missed the baron and slid down the horse's barding, leaving three long slashes along its withers. Before it could pounce again, the horse fled down the cross street, heedless to the baron's shouts. Conan saw the doughty guardsmen agape trying to control their own mounts, turned, and hurled himself after the beastly assassin.

Conan had thrown his plan away, forming a new one as he ran. He would rescue the baron and have him make peace with Nakri. The alley was dark and twisted, pools of stagnant water and clumps of offal making for treacherous footing. Above the stench, Conan's nostrils whiffed something rank like a dog with mange. His sword was a gray streak in the gloom and he turned a corner to see a small cul de sac. The baron's horse had thrown him, and rearing up on its hindquarters was lashing out at the maimed thing that sought its master. Behind the assailant a large bonfire was being created by some merchant burning trash. He and his assistant cringed, eyes huge and glimmering beyond in the firelight as they watched the tableau.

Again struck the ragged talons, this time across the horse's chest, where the armor failed to cover. Blood splashed the antagonist, then the horse leaped clear and thundered past Conan, eyes rolling, the bit clenched between its teeth.

Unencumbered, the assassin creature compressed upon its malformed haunches and launched itself at the baron, who lay gasping in the muck. One splayed hand caught at the baron's surcoat, lifting him up as if he were a child. The other whipped back to strike.

Conan was faster. He drove his blade through the gray, matted back and the monster howled like a huge wolf as Conan pulled out his sword. Dropping its prey, the beast turned to face the Cimmerian. He saw now the head of the thing, a horrid cross between a wolf and a man's, causing the hair on the back of his neck to stand up. Baleful yellow eyes glared at him above a blackish wolf snout full of crooked fangs. Then, it dove at him.

Conan spitted the beast again, sidestepping as it stumbled past, the sword nearly being wrenched from his hand as he twisted it free. Instead of dying, the creature regained its footing and turned again. Conan looked and the gaping wounds were already closing. While he had not fought such a beast, he had fought enough magical things to know they have their own dooms. He stepped back and felt the heat of the bonfire, his ears catching the crackle of sticks.

The thing rushed him again. Conan barely sidestepped, taking a slash that opened his left arm below his leather sleeve, a shallow but painful wound. As it passed, Conan swung around and delivered the pommel of his sword against the back of the beast's neck, driving it forward toward the flame. The thing tried to catch itself, but Conan put a boot in its back. The monster tumbled into the bonfire, howling and shrieking alternately. It writhed in the conflagration, as it tried to get up. Conan's sword licked out and severed the wolf head from its shoulders, suffering a scorching along his arm as he did. Even so, the body did not die, but groped for the head as the flames devoured it.

Boots rang against the stone walls. A party of guards, the captain at their head, rushed forward. Conan saw the baron struggling. He looked like his arm was broken and he was torn, but probably no worse. In the fire burst a gout of flame along with a manlike wail. Then something shaped like a man, though made of black smoke, rushed up out of the bonfire and was gone. Conan found himself ringed by the guards. The captain came forth. All had their blades ready.

"Why did you wish to kill our baron?" the captain demanded. "Speak, or die! Who hired you?"

"Crom's bones, I'm no assassin!" Conan thundered. "It was a were-beast, a man who could turn to a wolf. I threw him in the fire and he burned up."

"More likely it is your tale that has burned up," the captain said. "I am Bonerges, Captain of the Guard. Will you put down your sword and come peacefully?"

"Damn you to the blackest hell if I will," Conan challenged. "Ask yon shopkeeper. He saw it all. He is right…"

Conan pointed a grimy finger past the bonfire, but nobody was there.

"Take him," Bonerges commanded.

Two men died in that alley, a third later, and two more bore scars that would last the rest of their lives, but finally Bonerges struck the barbarbian a glancing blow with the guard of his sword. Conan's world exploded into blackness.

* * *

Bonerges needed little urging to feign righteous anger. The scene was bedlam. Dying men, the baron wounded, and this great loon of a barbarian senseless in the filth. He needed to get control of things and do so quickly. He considered silencing the baron but there were too many witnesses. He would have to find another time. More men arrived, and he set them to carrying off the dead and wounded. He also sent a runner for the baron's healer and the high priest of Mitra. The damned Stygian would answer for this fiasco. Bonerges bent to Zirkan.

"My lord," he said, "help is coming. Allow me to get you to your feet."

Gingerly, he assisted Zirkan to rise. As soon as he gained his feet, Zirkan shook him off.

"I can walk, though my shield arm will be useless for a while," he said. "The rest are just scratches." He held up his other arm, which was bathed in crimson that dripped into the churned mud of the alley. "I was wounded worse than this against those Kothian swine. You were there, Bonerges. You were…"

Zirkan swayed and Bonerges barely caught him. Bawling for help, the captain got two more guards to assist him and they bore their master to the porch of a public house. Another guard rode up with the baron's healer in tow. This small, fussy man went right to work, binding the baron's many wounds and applying salves when needed. He spoke little until he was finished, then turned to Bonerges, the setting sun glancing from his balding head.

"He has lost a lot of blood," the healer said. "His wounds are not deep and he should recover, but it will be slow. Have your men prepare a litter and bear him to the palace. There, I will get him out of his armor, clean him, and set that arm. I will tell you that he could still die, but I doubt it. I understand this was an assassination attempt?"

"It was," Bonerges said. "I will assign trusted guards. Let it be as you say."

A store awning was dismantled to construct the litter and four guards carried Zirkan's unconscious form to his palace. There, the physician worked on him longer. Bonerges, from the throne room, heard his master cry out as his arm was set. Bonerges sat upon the baron's throne, chin upon his hand. The seat felt good beneath him. Save for Kaffro, he was alone.

"This would be mine if not for that meddling barbarian," Bonerges said. "Your warg was somewhat less than I anticipated."

"He is a dangerous man," Kaffro admitted, spreading his hands. "I encountered him during my pilgrimage to the sacred caves of Mitra. How he escaped the beast men is beyond me. I should have killed him myself when I had the chance. Perhaps I need to rectify that mistake."

Bonerges rose. "You have done enough. Turn your skill to a way to kill the baron under the noses of his guard if you wish to apply yourself. I will see if I cannot accomplish by wile what you have failed to do by magic."

"Where are you going?"

"To visit the barbarian," Bonerges threw over his shoulder.

* * *

Conan had awakened to discover he was in chains and inside a room barely large enough to hold chickens. There was a door with a small opening to spy through and window opposite, which was too small to crawl through even were it not covered with iron bars. Conan tried the bars and they were loose. The stones might give if enough strength were brought to bear. He worked on them slowly, using an old bone he found in one corner to dig into the soft mortar joining the stones. In the darkness he could not tell if the bone belonged to the former occupant or one of his meals--and he didn't care. A clatter of boots in the hallway forced him to stop.

The small peephole in the door was obscured. There was a rattle of keys, the sound of the lock tumbler turning, then the door opened to reveal a sliver of light. A swift glance showed Conan his cell was full of musty straw and a skeleton. He had his back against the work he had done to the wall.

Hunkering in the smoky radiance of the torches in the hall was Bonerges, backed by a large, oafish looking man with a truncheon and ring of keys. The truncheon had a large spike driven through its head that protruded from the wood like an iron fang.

"I understand you are Conan, a Cimmerian." Bonerges had a passive look on his face, as if he were giving an order to a barmaid.

"I am," Conan said. "Did your guards also mention the silver I gave them to keep them from making further inquiries?"

"I'll have them beaten later," Bonerges said, face remaining motionless. "Your reputation is not unknown to me. A reaver, a thief, and a mercenary captain. The kept man of Yasmela of Khoraja, as well, I understand."

Conan lunged, but Bonerges slid back. The hulking guard waded in and dealt the Cimmerian a blow with the truncheon's non-lethal side, driving him back into the cell. Pain shot through his temple and the Cimmerian nearly swooned. He shook his head to clear it. The pain receded to a dull throb.

"You Argossean bastard! Remove these chains and take away your shaved ape and I will show you how a kept man fights!" Conan swiped outward again, but the guard blocked it with his weapon slashing the heel of Conan's palm deep enough to penetrate its callus and drawn a thin line of blood.

"This gets us nowhere," Bonerges said, waving away the guard. "You are all that has been said of you. Strong, quick, and foul tempered. Would you like your freedom again? Perhaps your curiously gaudy sword?"

"At what price?" Conan quieted, but his face remained grim. "Let me guess. Replace your were-beast as the baron's assassin. You accused me of it, now you beg it of me."

Bonerges scowled, contemplating the savage man before him with a new appreciation. "It appears you are far from stupid, Cimmerian. The baron has become weak of mind. He has no stomach for killing. A strong hand is needed to keep this city free from incursion and from the brigands that roam the forests. Kill the baron and you shall have your freedom and my old position as captain of the guard."

"So, I go to the baron's room, swat aside his guards and slay him, just in time for you and your picked killers to catch me in the act, claim I escaped the dungeon, and then kill me before anyone is the wiser. That blow your man dealt me has stung like a leech, but has not dulled my wit. Kill him yourself."

Chagrined that the barbarian's mind was as swift as his reflexes, Bonerges clamped down on his anger. Hissing, he said: "You could have had a good future as my man, but instead, your bones will soon mix with those of your cell mate." Bonerges turned to leave. "I would stay and hear you beg for mercy as the rats gnaw your tender parts, but I have a barony to run. Farewell, barbarian."

With that, the door slammed shut and the key turned in the lock. Conan rubbed his temple, feeling a lump, while he waited for Bonerges' footsteps to dwindle, then he turned back to his labor. With luck, he should be free shortly, though saving the baron was probably a moot point. He worked until late in the evening, stopping only when the day's labors made him sleepy. No food and no water in half a day gnawed at his guts, but he ignored it and decided to sleep for a bit.

A beam of light awoke him. It lanced down on his face from the window. He grimaced and shoved himself up. The light seemed to be from a bull's-eye lantern.

"Conan," a voice whispered. "It is I, Nakri. Dagsemara is with me. The rest are without the city wall, waiting for my signal. "We had given up hearing from you when a merchant's servant found us. He told us of how you saved the baron and were thrown in here. We are here to get you out."

"Bend your thews, then, Nakri," Conan said, gripping the bars. "Pull as I push. They mean to finish the baron, perhaps tonight."

The pale, freckled hands of the Vanr took their place alongside his own grip on the pitted iron. Conan braced his feet against the far wall of his cell and pushed, blood running from his hand and arm as he strained. His head stung anew and suddenly one of the bars gave way. They went to the next bar, and it squealed itself free as well, then the rest in turn. Nakri passed Conan a dagger, and they attacked the stones until a hole was made large enough for Conan to wriggle through. He was halfway out when he heard the door open behind him. He held his arms flat against the wall. He could hear the guard grunt, then a hand grasped his sword belt.

"Cut the chain near my left wrist," he snapped to Nakri.

"What if I miss?" Nakri asked, pulling his axe and taking a stance.

"Don't." Conan felt the guard yank at him, heard his halfwit curses. He knew the truncheon would be next. "Now!"

Nakri swung the double-headed axe and it rang against the stone, severing the iron links of Conan's chains. As they parted, he let go the hole's edge and was pulled backward so hard that he bowled the guard over and out into the hall. The guard rose quickly for all his bulk, charging in with truncheon raised to strike. The blow never landed. Conan wrapped the length of chain around his right hand and whipped the remainder across the guard's face.

Blood and teeth flew as the iron smashed against the bloated cheek. The guard staggered, and Conan slipped behind him, taking the chain in both hands like a garrote. Placing his knee in the guard's back, the Cimmerian whipped the chain over the guard's head and yanked back as it found his throat. The guard's head flopped unnaturally with a snap, and Conan spurned the still twitching body with his foot. Without further pause, he threw himself into the hole in the wall and exited it with a few new scratches from the tight fit.

"We must get your men over the walls," Conan said.

"I have a rope," Nakri said, snatching up a coil that lay nearby. "The guard has been silenced at our point of entry. Lead us, Conan."

Conan growled. "First, to your men, then I have a score to settle at the palace!"

Nakri led the Cimmerian to a certain section of wall. The burly Vanr produced a grappling hook and tied it to the rope. Whirling the grapple over his head, he launched it to the wall. Making sure its purchase was firm, he handed it over to the Cimmerian. Conan braced himself as Nakri swarmed up the rope. Once he gained the top, he waved to the barbarian, who let it loose. Nakri hauled up the stout cord then dropped it over the other side.

Conan turned to Dagsemara, who pressed a long dagger into the palm of his hand. "Tell them to follow me to the palace. If they hear the sound of battle enter at once and slay all who oppose you." Sticking the dagger in his belt, Conan turned to go. Dagsemara caught him, planting her lips full upon his own. He had no time for such and tore away from her, face dark.

Along the wall's base he ran, the weariness of battle ignored. He came to the gate and stole into the shadows, slinking from one black patch to another as he retraced his route past the palace. He reached the palace wall in time to hear a horrific scream from the upper window. Conan did not hesitate. He pulled a bench beneath the balcony and leaped upon it, springing to grab at the balcony's lip. He managed a tenuous hold, but it was enough for the hill-born Cimmerian. He struggled up, then swung his body until his legs came over the railing. The doors leading inside the palace were shut. Conan drew his dagger and twisted his right arm to wind the chain around it. Setting himself before the double doors, he lashed out with one booted foot. Yielding to this buffet, the doors sprang open with a splintering sound.

Conan took in the room in a glance. Baron Zirkan was struggling on the floor, while above him hovered the cobra-headed staff of Kaffro. Bonerges stood by the door leading to the hall, while the Stygian wizard lurked in the shadows, eyes bright as he concentrated on directing his staff. The head of the stick seemed to wave as if alive, then it struck down against the baron's naked back. It left a raw welt, one of several criss-crossing the old warrior's body. When Kaffro saw Conan break into the room, he sent the stick flying toward the Cimmerian, cracking him under the left ear and sending him spinning. Bonerges used the moment to step forward and turn the baron over.

"The medallion of Laon!" Bonerges grabbed at a thick gold chain about the baron's neck. "He who wears this is ruler. You pathetic old man, your guards sleep under the spell of the Black Lotus and now your throne is mine!"

Conan regained his footing, but the priest's staff darted in again, like a mad hornet, striking him across the back of his head and sending him to the thick carpet next to the nearly unconscious baron. Bonerges triumphantly held the medallion aloft, a disk of gold bordered with silver sunrays. Conan had seen its like before, but was currently too pressed to remember where as the magically animated staff slammed across his mid-back to drive the air from his lungs. Conan rolled toward the throne as the thing rapped down like a blind man feeling his way with a stick.

Snatching up a footstool, the Cimmerian tossed it at the stick, but Kaffro's control was so fine that it easily dodged the makeshift missile. The Cimmerian rolled again, this time toward the Stygian wizard. Conan flipped the dagger in his hand, gripped the blade tightly, then, from an awkward position, flung it at Kaffro. The keen blade tore into the wizard's shoulder, instantly leaking red ichor. His concentration broken, the deadly staff fell with a clatter as if invisible strings had been cut. Conan threw himself upon the staff, then shattered it upon the marble floor with a terrific heave of his rolling muscles.

Kaffro removed the dagger from his shoulder, producing another spout of dark blood. Scowling, the Stygian advanced on the unarmed Cimmerian as Bonerges moved in from the other side, sword out and ready. Conan tossed the staff's fragments at the latter and dove behind the throne. Bonerges threw down the medallion, landing upon the baron's chest, and deliberately advanced upon the Cimmerian. But even as he moved he paused by the balcony doors, through which came a rising clash of steel and shouts from below.

Bonerges glanced down into the street and raged. "The brigands! They assault the palace!"

"The guards will deal with them," Kaffro said. "Let us finish this barbarian clod."

"You stupid old fool! I sent most of the guards away and the rest are asleep!" Bonerges turned away from the balcony, fear tingeing his features. "If the alarm is not raised, they will be upon us in moments."

"First we deal with the Cimmerian," Kaffro hissed. "You are not afraid are you? He isn't even armed."

"Gods curse me if I am afraid!" Bonerges said.

Conan ducked as Bonerges' sword hacked into the throne's back. He saw the baron out of the corner of his eye. The dying man was looking at him, gesturing feebly toward something behind him. Conan whirled to avoid Kaffro's clumsy stab and turned enough to see the wall. Above him was an old battleaxe, rusty of blade and smooth of handle. At that moment Kaffro lunged, but the old wizard lacked the predator swift reflexes possessed by the Cimmerian. Conan grabbed Kaffro by his robe and hurled the wizard into Bonerges path. While they tangled, Conan snatched up the baron's axe from its pegs.

His two antagonists, seeing him pull down the weapon charged him in concert. Conan lashed out with the axe, catching Bonerges' sword arm just below the wrist. In a shower of blood, the hand whirled away. Conan's return stroke broke the Argossean's plate mail and crunched through his breastbone. Not waiting to pull the weapon free, Conan again ducked Kaffro's desperate swing and caught up the spindly wizard. Holding him up in both hands, the Cimmerian tossed him the length of the room, through the balcony doors. The startled wizard slammed against the railing and, with a flailing of claw-like hands, he tumbled over. Kaffro's shriek ended in mid-wail as he struck the unyielding pavement.

No sooner had the barbarian dealt with his foes then the hallway doors burst open. In rushed Nakri leading twenty of his men. He rushed to the baron and fell to examine him. The baron reached up his unbroken arm and grabbed at Nakri's tunic. As he did so, Nakri's medallion fell out of his collar and clattered against the baron's. Conan saw they were identical. Nakri saw the same and held one in each hand.

"You are my father," he whispered. The old man nodded.

"Your mother was my slave," the old man wheezed, a drop of blood trickling from one corner of his mouth. He coughed, then continued. "I wanted her to come to me willingly, but she did not. She would not. I forced her. By the time I found she was with child, I was betrothed. I turned her out at the gate, huge with you, and gave her the medallion. Whatever issue was my heir, and might someday need such a talisman. Your mother cursed me, and I spurned her with the back of my hand.

"I learned later that a woodsman took her in and made a wife of her. Meanwhile, my own wife died in childbirth. I always believed it was your mother's curse. For a time, I would leave items in the woods, food, cloth, tools, anything I thought might help. She never came to thank me, though no gift made was ever spurned. Still, once I found out about you, I made sure that you were never seriously threatened. Until Bonerges. He wanted you and your clan wiped out. I didn't know he would try this. He and a priest of Mitra, no less…."

He coughed again, flecks of blood mixed in with the spittle.

"He was no priest of Mitra," Conan said, hands on his knees as he recovered his wits. "He was a Stygian, supplanting Mitra with Set. You city was full of rot, crumbling beneath your feet."

Suddenly, there was shouting in the hall. Nakri's men were thrown back and a solid wedge of guards marched in, weapons out and ready. Conan raised himself and he freed the axe from Bonerges's chest.

"Hold!" he commanded and his voice rang in the high-ceilinged room. "These men are not your enemies. Here is your traitor." He indicated the still form of Bonerges. "He plotted with the priest of Mitra to usurp your baron. Behold how they tortured him."

The guards sheathed their weapons and Nakri's men did likewise. They surrounded the old baron, whose chest heaved as Nakri held his bloodied head.

"It is true," Zirkan said in a half-whisper. "Look upon the medallion of Laon and see its twin upon the breast of this man. He is my true heir, bastard son of my evil. He is your leader, his skills bred in the forests of Laon. Swear to me you will obey him." He shuddered and coughed, blood pulsing anew. "Swear it!"

All raised their swords at his command. "We swear it," said one of them, and the rest nodded.

The old man nodded, seemingly satisfied, and closed his eyes. One hand held his son's wrist, then it dropped away, to move no more. Conan felt a hand in his. He looked sideways to see Dagsemara wriggle through the press to stand with him. He put one hand around her waist. Nakri stood, and as he did, all those in the room, save Conan and his sister, fell to their knees, heads bowed. Nakri, in homespun, covered in blood, held out both his arms.

"Rise," he said. "I know not what it means to rule as baron, but I swear to you that loyalty will be met with loyalty. The woodsmen are pardoned and I will make them rangers of the realm."

Conan handed the red headed man his father's battle axe. Nakri held it aloft. "As long as I live, this axe will not grow rust!" At that, the men cheered. "Now, let us drink and have fellowship as citizens of Laon!"

The gathering broke into a mass of heartened men, guards slapping the backs of former brigands, and all heading for the feasting hall. Conan ignored the dead bodies and turned to Dagsemara. She smiled and rubbed her slender fingers along his scarred forearms.

"You need some tending to," she said.

"Aye, but first some of your brother's wine, and tonight we sleep in the baron's guest chamber and not before some bonfire, by Crom!"

Conan swept the willing girl into his arms and bore the new baron's sister from the room.