The rider on the gray horse was a mere midge on the vast-sea of sand between the city of Kor and Alkarion. The big warhorse walked slowly and with effort, kicking up puffs of sand with its hooves. Like its rider in the mailed shirt, it was worn with exhaustion and its mouth was swollen with thirst.
The man in the high-peaked saddle turned often to stare behind, at the dancing sand demons that crept after him, their red eyes glistening with a hunger for human blood that chilled the spine. These were the yemli, the spirits of the desert which were dreaded even by the Mongrol horsemen who sometimes rode this way to raid in Phalkar to the north or Makkadon, is to the east.
No other than those dreaded Mongrol horsemen and this rider out of the Haunted Lands dared use this corner of the sandy wastes. Bleached skeletons of men and animals along this trackless trail to far Alkarion told of other men at other times who had traveled these pathless sands, and of what had befallen them.
The rider twisted his sword across the high pommel of his saddle, ready to be drawn from its scabbard. His huge hand, tanned by tropic suns and polar winds to the color of soft leather, closed down on the hilt that held a huge red jewel.
He was a giant in stature with a mane of golden hair hanging to his shoulders. Over a cotton hacqueton he wore a shirt of chain-mail forged by the artisans of Abathor, great workers in iron and armor. A bearskin kilt hid his upper thighs, heavy with rolling muscles, while leather war-boots encased his feet. His eyes stared out from under golden brows, blazing blue with barbaric fury and a sense of utter helplessness.
"By Dwalka and his War-Hammer!" Kothar snarled.
He was tempted to step down off Greyling and test the power of his great blade, Frostfire, against those sand demons. He was not afraid of anything human, but this evidence of witchcraft and sorcery put a coldness down his spine. To his surprise, the yemli had kept their distance, but day by day they grew greater in number.
Kothar stood in the leather stirrups and sent his gaze left and right. Aye! They were there on the horizon, like drifting swirls of sand, coming ever nearer. To east and west and south they ringed him in, giving him only the north to know the hoof-beats of his horse.
“As the sheepdog herds his flock," Kothar rumbled.
His hand swung the reins, turning his warhorse northward. He would delay the inevitable for a little while; the love for life beat fiercely in his deep chest. To the north was Phalkar and Alkarion, and while he had hoped to make for Makkadonia and war in that vast land, he would be satisfied with the taverns of Alkarion—and life.
His throat was raw, swollen. Thirst was a kind of madness in him. His tongue was twice its normal size, and his lips were blistered and stinging. The sun was a ball of fire overhead, baking the sands beneath. When Greyling stumbled, he came down out of the saddle and walked beside him, gripping the reins with one hand, his sword-hilt with the other.
Twice he fell and picked himself up. The sand devils waited closer than they had been, but not so close as to give him the opportunity to use his sword on them. In something of a stupor he staggered on and on.
Toward sunset he saw the palm trees and made out the glint of dying sunlight on water. The sand demons were herding him toward that oasis. Kothar rasped a curse in his throat and walked where the yemli wanted him to walk.
Many times had the barbarian scanned the few parchment maps that showed this section of the Dying Desert. None of those scrolls had ever shown an oasis. From Niemm almost to Makarios this sandy sea was an eternity of barren emptiness where men died because there was no way to maintain life upon it,
His eyes made out a seated figure or a flat rock, close beside a pool of water that appeared more real at every step. Thanks to Dwalka! Water! These were trees above the head of a man who sat there looking at him. Waiting.
It was unreal. It was a fragment out of a day-mare, a wish grown to reality. An oasis where no oasis should be; water, where only sand existed; a man without horse or caravan, sitting calmly and staring back at him. He was dreaming all of this, most certainly. The yemli had stolen his wits before they destroyed his body.
Yet dream or no—
He stumbled the last few feet, ignoring the man, and fell face down in the water. It closed about his head and he felt coolness and soothing moisture. Beside him Greyling dipped a muzzle daintily to drink.
Kothar pulled back out of the water and knelt, crouched over, filling his palms with the liquid. sweeter than any wine. He drank sparingly, he did not feast as his parched flesh bade him feast. Enough for now to drink a little and bathe his sun-baked face and lips.
He got to his feet and pulled Greyling from the water. "Easy now, easy now,” he said, turning to look at the seated man.
The man inclined his head. "Greetings to Kothar the barbarian.”
“Who offers greetings?"
"Merdoramon the magician.”
He was a short, plump man clad in an ankle-length silken robe, under which he wore a kalisiris belted with silver balls. A pointed cidaris protected his balding head. His face was as round as a happy child's, beardless and plump from good foods and excellent wines.
"A magician," Kothar shrugged.
He knelt again and drank even deeper, easing his tensed muscles and parched membranes. As he turned from the water, reaching for the leather wine skin that had held water until two days ago, he saw Merdoramon whisk a large kerchief off a platter of meat and bread. There was a flagon of wine within hand-reach of the platter.
"Come eat with me, barbarian," invited the magician.
Kothar filled the water-skin and hung it on the high peaked saddle.
"Oats for your horse,” said Merdoramon.
A second kerchief covered a canvas bag that was filled with oats. Kothar nodded his thanks and fitted the bag over the horse's head. Then he swung about and strode toward the plump man.
"The price for this food, magician?”
Merdoramon smiled genially as he waved a soft, plump hand. Eat, eat. We shall discuss price and payment when your belly is filled . . . and by the way, look yonder.”
The desert was empty of the sand demons.
“You sent them,” nodded Kothar biting deep, "to bring me here. Very well. I accept it as a grim jest. I am grateful."
Merdoramon said slowly, "I have watched you, Kothar—needing a brave mam to carry something for me north into Phalkar. I summoned up the sand demons to fetch you, that I might make my offer”
Broad shoulders shrugged. “I am a sell-sword, and have no employment at the moment. What is it I am to carry?"
A plump hand reached into a purse hanging at the belt of silver balls. It lifted out a cube of transparent, yellow amber in which was imprisoned a tongue of blue fire. The fire was alive, burning in some dimensional world at which Kothar could only guess.
"An amulet of awesome powers, barbarian. It must be delivered to Themas Herklar, who is regent in the land of Phalkar.”
"A simple matter Kothar muttered, finishing the last of the food and stretching out a big hand for the wine flagon.
"Not so simple, not so simple." demurred Merdoramon, shaking his head gravely. “The regent has two sorcerers beside him day and night who protect him from other evil influences.” The mage chuckled. "They even protect him from good influences, such as this amulet.”
“Why are you sending it to him?”
Because he asked for it. This amulet will protect him from the acts of sorcerers, no matter how evil. Themas Herklar dreads those magicians whose black arts he has used to raise himself to the supreme ruler-ship of Phalkar. They have done wicked things for him, and now Themas Herklar suspects they intend to become king regent in his place."
“Why pick me to carry it?" Merdoramon chuckled. "I watched as you fought the demon-queen of Kor, man from Cumberia. I have seen and admired your courage, your resourcefulness. You will need all your courage and wits to bring the amulet to Themas Herklar. It is not an easy task I set you.”
Kothar stared at the plump man. "You have hired me, Merdoramon. I will be worthy of the hire—but what is that hire? How do you intend to pay me?”
“With your life, Kothar. Deliver the amulet and you shall live. Fail, and you shall die.”
The barbarian showed his teeth in a mirthless smile. "Poor pay for a warrior. A man must eat to live and I have few coins in my belt-bag.”
"Oh, that!" The magician reached once more to his ball-girdle and freed the velvet almoner he carried. He tossed it across the sand at the barbarian who caught it deftly. “Take it. There is no treasure in it such as Afgorkon forbids you to possess while you bear the sword Frostfire, just enough to enable you to eat and drink and may-hap buy a wench or two on the road to Alkarion.”
Kothar felt the hardness of the golden dinars inside the purple velvet. They made a satisfactory weight in his palm. This might be no treasure to Merdoramon, but it was a treasure of sorts to a man who sometimes did not know whether he would eat or not when the sun went down. He hefted the bag in his hand and nodded his thanks as he tucked it into the worn leather purse hanging at his sword-belt.
"I will deliver the amulet,” he growled. He turned away, unsaddled Greyling and drew his saddle blanket to the ground, where it would serve to cover him as he slept. The oats bag was empty and the warhorse muzzled his arm in gratitude. Kothar slapped its gray shoulder and rumbled laughter.
"We are employed again, Greyling. We shall eat well, for a little while, once more.”
He turned from the horse, staring about the oasis. The magician was gone, faded out as if he had never existed. Kothar shrugged, seeing no foot marks in the sand but his own and those of his warhorse. The magician had come here by magic and had departed in the same manner.
Kothar lay down and drew the saddle blanket up over his big body. It grew cold on the desert of nights, and the blanket would keep him warm against the cool winds. He slept deeply, but with a hand near the hilt of Frostfire. He did not anticipate attack, but he was always ready for it.
The morning sunlight made a golden pallor on the pool as Kothar went to sip deeply, moments after he opened his eyes. He was surprised to find the oasis remained; he was positive Merdoramon had conjured it up to serve his needs. There were two kerchiefs covering another platter of food and a bag of oats, such as there had been last night.
Kothar dined on the flat stone where the mage had sat. He scanned the desert for signs of the yemli, but apparently they were gone as was Merdoramon himself. He drank half the flagon of fresh wine. Merdoramon took good care of his hirelings.
An hour's ride from the oasis, Kothar turned in the saddle to stare back at it. There was only a stretch of empty waste. Where the palm trees had been, where the pool of water had reflected back the morning sunlight, there was dry desert sand. Kothar put his hand to his belt-bag, felt the outline of the amber cube that held the blue fire. This, at least, was reality.
Greyling walked on toward Alkarion.
Kothar heard a scream as he came into Sfanol. He reined up his warhorse, leaning his rump against the high cantle to rest his legs, looking down the dusty street that divided the houses and the taverns of this little town. The cobblestones were empty of all life.
Between the edge of the Dying Desert and the great, city of Alkarion, there are a number of small villages such as Sfanol, each with public hostelries to service the caravans that travel the southerly routes into Makkadonia and Sybaros. Their few houses seem almost to lean with the wind, bent with years and the usage of unremembered generations, and their tavern signs creak when they sway on chains rusted with the weight of time.
Kothar drew a deep breath. Surely he had not imagined that scream! It had come ripping through the silence, as a girl will scream when attacked.
"Aiiieeee! Have mercy! I am not guilty. . . .” Kothar growled. He heard the jeers of men and the cruel laughter of women. He toed the horse forward; its hooves made dull thuds on the cobbled street.
Man and rider came around a wooden building into the town square. A fountain gurgled water, and at one side a tall pole had been erected. Against the pole was tied the body of a young woman, little more than a girl, with loose brown hair half veiling a face contorted in fear and abysmal terror.
Men and women were piling underbrush and small logs about the girl's bare feet, carrying them from a nearby wagon. The girl was sobbing, her head down, her long brown hair drooped below her breasts. Her brown dress was half rent from her body and bare skin glinted in the light, revealing swelling, rounded breasts and slim bare legs.
Suddenly her head lifted. Her terror and fright were less than the stark fury of her anger. Boldly, she screamed, "Beasts of hell Torturers! You know Zoqquanor was a good man. He fed you when—"
A man stepped forward and smashed her mouth. Her head banged into the wooden pole. She strained at her bonds as her blazing eyes raked the faces of the men and women who had paused to listen.
"He fed you when the caravans came not! He caused water to flow in the fountain when it ran dry! He shared his wealth with you in times of need! Yet you—”
Again the hand clipped her cheek. The burly man who swung it turned to the men and women. "She lies! She is a familiar of the sorcerer. She deserves to die as we have killed Zoqquanor. Burn her as we burned her master, and good times will come again to Sfanol!”
Other voices agreed.
“Burn the witch!”
“We must not suffer her to live!"
Slay Zoqquanor, slay Stefanya!”
Kothar scowled and lifted his great blade free of its scabbard. His quick wits saw these men plotted to burn the girl alive for what reason he knew not. The townspeople were all piling underbrush at the stake, it was true, but they moved in fear of the shouting men. Nervous, frightened, the townsfolk were under the control of their leaders.
Kothar growled, "Leave the girl be.” The girl lifted her head, shaking it to free her eyes of her tumbled hair. Her mouth hung open. She breathed faster, and Kothar saw hope dawn in her brown eyes before he glanced at the five men who were turning toward him and putting hands on their sword-hilts.
"The girl dies!” one of the men growled. "She is a sorcerer's familiar. She served Zoqquanor the wizard.”
"I know nothing of Zoqquanor, but the girl goes free!” Kothar snarled. His eyes ran over her sweet shapeliness disclosed by her torn garment, and he grinned. "It would be a waste of wench-hood to burn, her.”
The five men moved forward, separating and drawing their swords. They planned to attack him from five sides at once. He had fought with such men before, many times since his earliest years in Grondel when men had come out of the sea mists with swords and axes to loot and raven. He felt no fear of their kind, only contempt.
Yet their steel could cut, and he shouted to Greyling. The warhorse surged forward. To left and right Kothar laid his sword and two men went down with cloven skulls erupting blood and brains.
The gray warhorse reared high.
Kothar met a sword swing with the flat of his blade. The steel sprang and sang a metallic war cry. Kothar turning the edge, driving it downward through flesh and blood into the shoulder of a third man.
As he pulled his steel free, he saw that the other two men were backing away from him, glancing at one another. The fight was gone out of them, having seen how easily this huge man in the mail shirt had slain their companions. They turned their backs and Kothar dismounted, knelt to clean Frostfire on a garment one of the dead men had worn. All around him the men and women stared, never moving, watching him with emotionless eyes. Their hands still retained bundles of underbrush and twigs to place be fore the girl tied to the pole, but they merely held them, waiting.
Kothar stood upright. He growled, "The girl goes free!”
A woman said, “We do not want her kind in Sfanol.”
"I shall take her with me to Alkarion.”
A townsman nodded."So be it. Take her, then." The barbarian stepped to the wooden pole, slashed twice with his sword's edge. The girl crumbled, her knees giving way as she slid down the pole. The Cumberian moved with the swiftness of a wild animal; his arm encircled her middle and he raised her, holding her upright.
She lifted her face and looked at him. To his surprise, she was even prettier than he had thought when his eyes had first studied her. A straight nose, tipped slightly upward, a mouth like a rich red fruit, a dimpled chin and wide forehead with bright brown eyes glaring back at him—this was Stefanya.
“You heard them. You ride with me, girl.” She did not move for a moment, but her eyes were alive as they ate into his stare with doubt and suspicion, Slowly, she modded, sighing.
"I ride with you, barbarian. Only take me away from here.”
He freed her. She turned and walked to the warhorse. As she walked, she sought to fasten the brown wool tunic about her otherwise naked body. Kothar saw all of her shapely back, faintly tan and smooth, before his eyes halted on a brown splotch to one side of her spine and just above her left buttock.
Then she had the woolen thing fitted more closely about her so that her nakedness was hidden by its folds. She paced to the great warhorse and turned. Her gaze went among the townspeople of Sfanol and showed them her scorn. She could not mount, Kothar saw; her hands held her tunic at front and back, so that it might hide her body.
The barbarian grinned, eyeing her smooth, dusky flesh. This Stefanya would while away the long hours of the ride to Alkarion. She was a pretty thing with a curved body that showed she was no child. Defiance and outrage glittered in her brown eyes as she faced the people. If she had not needed to hold her garment together, he felt she sure would have hurled herself upon a man, or two with clawing fingernails and biting teeth.
He said as he came up to her, "You can ride behind me, girl. And don't worry about those people. They won't harm you."
She spat, "I'm not afraid of them! I was never afraid of them—only of what they meant to do to me. But I shall return—some day! And I shall make them pay for what they did to Zoqquanor.”
Kothar lifted easily to the saddle. He reached down and caught Stefanya by a wrist, hoisting her upward behind him so that she sat with both legs dangling. Instantly, she put both arms about his lean middle and leaned against him so that he felt the impress of her breasts.
"Now they won't see my flesh," she breathed. “Ride, barbarian!”
Kothar smothered a grin and toed the warhorse to a walk and then a canter. He eyed a swinging sign; Tavern of the Ringing Bell. They went past it, and the faint breeze carried to his nostrils the smell of nut-brown ale.
He rasped, "I'd hoped to quaff a jack or two of mead, girl. I've been a long time on the desert and water merely quenches thirst, it doesn't put iron into a man's backbone”
"There are other towns between here and Alkarion.”
“Aye, but how far?” She was silent, clinging to him until they came to a fork in the dusty road. Then, when Kothar would have swung the gray northward toward Alkarion, she cried out in remonstrance,
"No! Not that way. To the right”
"Alkarion lies northward.”
“And the great hall where I lived with Zoqquanor is to the east!"
Kothar drew rein. “What do I want with dead Zoqquanor and his great hall? The wizard is dead.”
The girl slipped from the horse and dropped to the dusty road. She ignored her torn garment to plant brown fists on her hips and glare up at him.
“Zoqquanor lives" she snapped. "Otherwise, I'd be dead myself.”
Kothar blinked. "Tell me that again, girl.”
She walked about in the dust, ignoring the fact that her feet and ankles grew grimy with dirt. She was equally careless of the tunic that was her sole covering so that the barbarian was able to study her flesh with an admiration that might have startled her, had she looked at him.
"There was a spell put on me at birth, Zoqquanor has told me. As long as he lives, I shall live. If he dies, then I shall die.”
Kothar scoffed, "A great wizard like that—unable to remove such a spell? Pah, he was no more than a new comer to necromancy!”
"He is a great magician!” she snapped, turning to scowl blackly up at him.
"Then why didn't he remove the spell?" he jibed.
"Because—Zoqquanor put it on me himself!" Kothar folded his hands on the tall saddle pommel as he stared down at her. "Now why should he do a thing like that?”
She kicked at the dust with bare toes. "To insure my good behavior—and to prevent my sticking a dagger between his ribs while he slept!”
A bellow of laughter rose from the barbarian as he slapped his thigh with a big hand. "Girl, I like you. By the gods of Thuum, I do. So you'd have killed the magician, would you?”
"Twice over, she nodded angrily. He treated me like a charwoman, to sweep and clean for him—and sometimes he used me in some of his sorceries.” She shuddered at her memories and brushed a hand across her forehead to remove a strand of her long brown hair.
"That is why I must go to him, to put his body somewhere where it will be safe. Nothing must happen to it or I will die, And I have no wish to die, man of the north
Kothar considered, turning his head to study the forking roads. There were deep forests, here at this cross spot, that extended almost to Alkarion. They went eastward into Makkadonia as well, judging by the maps he had studied. He did not know these roads hereabouts, but he supposed he would not become lost were he to do what Stefanya asked.
"After we dispose of Zoqquanor safely,” he growled down at her, "then we will ride on to Alkarion.”
She nodded, not looking at him. "Yes. It is a debt I owe you.” She turned and her eyes glinted at him, and Kothar could not tell whether there was fleshy promise or lethal glare in their brown depths.
She mounted up behind him and clasped his middle and her soft words in his ear directed him to guide Greyling to the right, along a narrow road between the tall trees. For a mile they moved in silence, with the deep hush of the woods all around them. The road grew small at this point, it was scarcely wide enough for a man to walk so that twigs and branches slapped their bodies at every step.
They came to the end of the forest in time, and before them spread a vast grasslands. In the distance, smoke was rising from a charred ruin.
"Where Zoqquanor lived,” murmured Stefanya. As they neared that pile of charred timbers and smoke-stained rocks, Kothar saw that at one time this had been a noble dwelling. A roundhouse of gray stone and rock had been built at the back end of the great hall, behind what had been the dais where the dining tables were set. Nothing of this stone building had been destroyed. It loomed above the charred remnants of the great, hall as if in defiance of the flames that had come and gone.
Kothar eased the girl to the ground. A moment later he swung down to stand beside her. "There's not much hope of finding a body in this ruin, he pointed out.
"They caught Zoqquanor in the roundhouse. I saw its door burning as they carried me off. I don't know what they did to him, but they didn't kill him. Now let us go and see.”
The wooden floor and what was left of the walls still smoldered, powdering underfoot as the barbarian and Stefanya went through the opening where had hung the door into the great hall. Smoke still rose, black and odorous, from the remains. The girl halted and turned her eyes this way and that, remembering the hall as it had been. In her sudden sorrow, she brushed closer to Kothar as if seeking solace from his companionship.
When he put his arm about her shoulders she turned on him, teeth bared and hand-up for the slapping."Not yet, barbarian!” she snarled. "You haven't helped me move Zoqquanor Until, then, don't touch me.
He grinned down at her, rubbing a hand across his cheek where her swinging palm had caught him, “I meant nothing but friendship, girl,” he growled. And then he added, "If I wanted you now, I would take you and that would be the end of it.”
She faced up to him, straight as a war-arrow, small beside his muscular bulk. Her eyes could read the friendliness in his own; they saw no lust. She shrugged, saying, “I’m sorry. It's just that I’ve had to fend for myself all my life—Zoqquanor was no help against visiting men-at-arms or an occasional sorcerer. I see every man as I remember them to be.”
His big palm clapped her rump, half toppling her off her bare feet. "Then get on with it. I've no desire to spend the night in this ruin. There is evil here. I can't see it—but I sense it.”
She nodded and walked ahead of him, placing her feet carefully to avoid a smoldering bit of wood or fallen timber prickly with splinters. Her hips swayed gracefully and she walked as might a courtesan, with flirtation in her every step. Kothar chuckled, following after; the girl was walking temptation to a man, though she did not appear to realize it.
They came to the burned door, half fallen from its iron hinges. With a heave of his hands and mighty shoulders, the barbarian dislodged it and stepped into a small hallway. What remained of a partially burned wooden stairway, that was set into the stone wall with rock dowels, still clung to the western wall of the room. Stefanya brushed past the barbarian, began running up the steps.
She was light compared to his bulk, but even so the burned-out staircase trembled and Kothar was forced to lay a hand on the charred wood to steady it. His eyes followed her slim brown legs up those treads. Then she was hooking a hand on the edge of the upstairs floor and swinging through the opening.
An instant later, she screamed in horror.