In those Eldertimes there existed other menother Empires. The March of Time observes the turning of the clockthe spinning of orbs in spaceand makes mute comment as these men and Empires fallto be consumed by the dust of ages.
A FIGHT IN THE FOREST
David Bruce Bozarth
Copyright © 1997
Illustrations by Tangor
Copyright © 2000
Bal Maka most malevolent wizardcelebrated his victory over the aging barbarian by entrapping the long-haired giant in a stasis spell. "As long as the lamp of Goha shines will you, my enemy, be frozen in time!"
And the flickering light of the tiny lamp illuminated the hoary figure through 12,000 years--years which saw the passing of one age to another.
Elmo was in no hurry. The sun filled the morning with a golden effluence but it was not the sun of his beloved Africa. Here, in the forests not far from his friend D'Arnot's family home, the young man sought to unburden his thoughts--thoughts chaotic and heart-rending as he considered the American girl he had saved in the West African jungles. She was gone to America, and she was to be another's. Elmo was very sad.
D'Arnot had suggested the outing, "You bring a cloud of despair into my home!" the Frenchman had cried. "Go! Hunt! Kill something! You must shake this depression, mon ami!"
The ape man, so recently introduced to civilization, did not hunt for sport. To kill Elmo must be hungry or in battle. There were no foes surrounding him and the breakfast at the D'Arnot table still filled his stomach. But he was moody and angry and despairing. The woman--she had his heart!
The first sensation was cold. Utter chill so deep the bones ached. The second was panic--though it was controlled by a hard, hot will. The brain screamed: "Move! Avoid!" but the body creaked like a bundle of dried faggots broken for the fire.
Fire...flickering...light...there was none. There had been a fire, a devilish green glow that entered into the long sleep from which he had awakened.
That voice could not be his! It crackled like desiccated leather--dry, dusty, unused.
By supreme will the figure rolled to the left. A trembling hand pushed against cold stone. The giant, clad in cloak, tunic and kilt, sat up. The effort left the man weak--weaker than he had ever felt in all his 45 years.
"Too old," the rusty voice murmured. "Too slow..."
Bal Mak had taken him and had taken all that was his. He knew this as surely as he knew his world was no more. Beside him lay a great broadsword. He used that tarnished blade as a crutch to move toward a lesser darkness, which proved to be a tunnel turn leading toward a grotto opening upon a hillside covered with trees. The point of the sword scrapped across the black rock with a spine-tingling sound.
"Not my world," the giant scowled.
Elmo's head turned sharply to the left and up. That sound, metal upon rock, was not natural. Curious, the ape man left the forest floor and ascended the hillside through the trees. He moved across the closely interlaced limbs as easily as D'Arnot might walk the streets of Paris.
The hill was steep, yet softly contoured, unlike the mountains of his beloved Africa. These hills and mountains were old and eroded but still had dangerous approaches. They were cloaked with mysteries which only time may impart upon a land. The mountains of Africa seemed raw and new compared to these tree-covered ranges.
The sound was not repeated but Elmo moved toward that initial source unerringly. Slowing, he saw a line of ancient trees marching over the slope then, again to the left and above, he saw the opening to a cave. He saw something else: the hem of a cloak edging over the rim.
Approaching with the caution of a wild animal, Elmo circled around until he could see the figure inside the cave. The stranger was a giant, taller and heavier than Elmo himself, who was not an average man. The gray-haired man had thick, powerful arms and legs like the trunks of the trees in the forest. His broad chest was covered by a coarse-woven tunic. His head was bowed.
"Are you well, sir?" Elmo called out, in French.
As sudden as the eruption of a volcano, the giant surged upwards, flinging the cloak back to free his arms. Both hands gripped the long haft of the broadsword and there was no hint of weakness about the man. The stranger voiced a series of sounds which did not resemble French or English.
Elmo tried again, speaking the only other language he knew, that of his mother, Kala the ape. "Ho, tarmangani."
"Where are you, hairy one?" the man replied in the same language.
Elmo dropped to the ground and walked forward. "I am Elmo. Mighty hunter."
"You're no ape, but you speak like the apes of the southern lands."
"I am a man, raised by apes. Who are you?"
"You should know, minion of Bal Mak!"
The giant lunged without warning. Had Elmo been a lesser man, he would have died instantly, but the heavy sword passed through air rather than a man's flesh.
"Hold still, demon!" the giant bellowed like a berserker and swung again.
Elmo eluded the man, though it was not easy. The jungle creature realized that had they met in the giant's youth, Elmo would have died. Rather than feel angered by the attack, Elmo was curious. "Who is Bal Mak?"
The big barbarian struck twice more then, as abruptly as it began it was over. "Kill me. Be done with it once and for all. I am too weary. Weary unto death with all the fighting, killing, the lost treasure... Take my life. She is gone, so end my pain now!"
Elmo frowned thoughtfully. "I have no wish to kill you."
It was the giant's turn to be confused. "Who are you?"
"Elmo of the Apes."
"Crom!" the barbarian swore. "What hear you of Hyboria?"
"My friend D'Arnot has taught me many things about the peoples of the world, but he has not mentioned Hyboria."
"So--that long is it?" The giant turned away, shoulders slumped. He began walking down hill, directed by gravity rather than a deliberate choice. "Gone. All of it--and her with it, too. Damn you, Bal Mak!" he whispered. "Damn you to hell!"
Elmo followed close by, but not so close the barbarian could catch him unawares. "Where are you from, old one?"
The giant stopped, straightened, and glared at the young man. He suddenly barked a harsh laugh. "Old? I suppose I am. I have lived ten years longer than most men. I have seen things others only dream of. I have fought wild animals and wilder men. I have defeated demons, and sprites, warlocks and wizards. I have--"
The man staggered abruptly, his face suddenly pale. Leaning against the sword the giant hobbled to a fallen tree and sat down. "I am tired," he said, perplexed. "So very tired... You, boy, come here."
Elmo bristled. He was not a boy, though he was at least half the age of the giant figure. He approached the barbarian. "Yes?"
"Do not, if you value anything in this life, forego what is yours or what you can take, or you that can hold. Do not become complacent in your strength or your past victories, or your friends. Do not--" the man wheezed and slumped toward the ground.
Elmo moved forward the catch the man before he fell backwards over the fallen tree. The ape man helped the giant sit on the earth so that the man leaned against the bole.
"You are dying," Elmo said.
The man was unsurprised. "I was dead when Bal Mak won. How bitter it is--not dying; knowing you survived when the world you knew has gone to dust."
"I know something of worlds dying," Elmo mused. "The tarmangani come into my jungle and kill and take and--"
The barbarian laughed. It was an unpleasant sound. "Ah, I see my kind live on." The stranger gripped Elmo's forearm. "Do you know my greatest regret? I loved a woman. I fathered a child. I abandoned them for riches and adventure. I won a kingdom. But when I went for her and the child..." the man closed his eyes against a shadow of personal pain.
Shaking the vision off, the man continued: "Kingdoms and wealth and power mean nothing, boy, nothing if you have no one to pass it to! The love of a woman is more lasting and brilliant than all the glittering treasure in the world. If you love a woman you have a reason for being--and if she loves you--well then the world is already yours! This," the stranger sighed, "I learned too late."
Elmo listened to the old warrior's impassioned speech. He knew such phrases came only from the heart, and such a heart it was that beat in this man's breast!
"Do you believe in an after life?" Elmo asked.
The giant grinned, though it was oddly distorted, as if the left side of his body was not cooperating with his desires. The reply was slurred. "Ha! Every man believes in a life after death when they face death. Of course, boy--Elmo--and I am happy I shall soon met her again..."
The coarse voice had grown weak. Elmo leaned down to hear more clearly. At that moment the giant's eyes flickered wide and, faster than a striking serpent, the right hand drew and threw a heavy knife. At the same instant a shot rang out and the giant convulsed as the bullet, intended for Elmo, smashed into his chest.
Elmo wheeled about, knife in hand, but the brigand's two cowardly friends were well away, fleeing the scene of attempted murder and robbery. The brigand was dead, the barbarian's knife had entered at the junction between the neck and shoulder, releasing a flood of blood that darkened the ground. The ape man silently withdrew the knife and returned to the gasping barbarian.
"Your knife," Elmo said, pressing it into the man's nerveless hand. It was his way of acknowledging the barbarian's act. "What name for your grave, warrior?"
"No grave," the man replied, "though I would like my name to live a while longer with you."
"What is it?"
Elmo sat with the barbarian until he died. No other words were exchanged, there being nothing either had to say. Later, Elmo buried the man inside the cave where Conan had emerged into a world so different from his own.
"Farewell, stranger," Elmo said, looking back to the cave. "I take your words to heart. I go to America to claim what is mine!"