For uncounted years the mage Mindos Omthol had lived by the side of the Sunken Sea, in a gaunt black-tower that had been built in the forgotten years when there had been water in that ancient sea-bottom. For all those years, while he had performed conjurations for the wealthy merchants and the noblemen of Thankarol and Niemm, he had dreamed of the lost spell of Baithorion, which was said to give the performer of that necromancy the lost secret of eternal youth.
Mindos Omthol was an old man, wrinkled and bent. He had few years left in which to find the lost parchments of Baithorion. His chests and coffers were heavy with the gold and jewels he had amassed over the years; he had no more need for wealth; the only thing he wanted, and needed with an almost insane desperation, was his departed youth. Here and there in the great metropoli of his world, in Romm and in Memphor, in Thankarol and in Niemm, he had agents searching relentlessly for some hint of those almost legendary scrolls.
At long last, in ghoul-haunted Anthom, which was little more than a city of the dead, an agent came across a forgotten passageway, discovered when the bricks of a cellar were knocked down to extend an aqueduct. The passageway, its floor thick with dust, its walls hidden by spiderwebs, led to a circular stone room that turned out to be a depository of much forgotten, arcane lore. Encased in an ivory cylinder were the lost conjurations of the long dead Baithorion.
With quivering fingers Mindos Omthol unscrewed the ivory cylinder and gently removed the crackling parchments. His rheumy eyes scanned the sheets of vellum, widening in disbelieving delight. At last, he had the secret of eternal youth in his hands. The sigils and scrawlings that marked these sheets were in the very handwriting of Baithorion himself!
Eagerly he set up his alembics, the great phials which contained the gore of fifty virgins, and the golden censers which held a potent incense made from dead men's bones. He planted his sandaled feet inside the red pentagram drawn with the blood of a recently deceased high priest and which Mindos Omthol himself had extracted before the high priest had been laid to rest.
In a quavering voice he chanted from the forgotten language, known these days only to Mindos Omthol himself. His hand swung the censer, his eyes beheld the gray incense smoke rising and spreading, his ears heard—
There was a rustle as of dried leather. Ahh! Something was forming in the shadows beyond the pentagram, where all was black as ebony out of the jungle worlds of Oasia. A living presence was shaping there, a sentience which betrayed itself at first only by two blazing red eyes.
The spell of Baithorion was working! His old heart thudded inside his rib cage as the mage leaned forward, looking toward those glaring orbs. "Are you. Abathon? The demon of the ten hells of Kryth?”
"I am Abathon," was a whisper in the blackness. "Who summons Abathon from his eternal pleasures?”
"Mindos Omthol, the magician of Niemm.”
“What would you of Abathon?”
"Youth! I want—youth a strong young heart, a powerful young body to enjoy the wealth and knowledge I have amassed over the years.”
There was a little silence. When the demon spoke, it was with obvious reluctance. "Dread and dangerous are the spells of Baithorion! Be warned, mage. Better to let Abathon go back to his pleasures in awesome Kryth than to dare what has been forbidden for all men to know since Baithorion died in screaming madness. Let me go, I say, and I shall forget what—”
“No!” shouted Mindos Omthol. His scrawny hand reached for a vial of virgins' blood. With a scream of lust greater than the lust of any man for any woman, he hurled the glass vial across the room, past the red mark of the pentagram and at the shadowy thing that was red-eyed Abathon.
The vial was deftly caught. The demon breathed in the smell of the blood and was lost. Muttering, "Long have I gone unfed on nectar such as this,” he raised the vial to his grotesque mouth and drank.
"You must serve me now,” the mage screeched, dancing in his triumph. “You have drunk the blood, you have committed yourself to my command.”
The demon did not answer, being busy with the vial. His long tongue came out to lap away the last traces of that red substance and then he lowered the cruet.
"I have drunk the blood. I am yours to command,” he said simply. Yet to the mage, there seemed to be a hesitancy about Abathon that put him on his guard.
"Make me young. Eternally young—like Baithorion!" he shouted.
"Not so fast. Young I can make you, but only for an hour. You see, there is a—"
"No,” screamed Mindos Omthol angrily. "The spell is for eternal youth! I have read of it in the books of Gronlex Storbon, in his Dialogue of Demons and in his scarce Nights of Necromancy, which I possess. The spell is for eternal youth.”
The demon snorted. “As if Gronlex Storbon knew everything! He knew little of the magician who was Baithorion. Ten times ten thousand years lay between their lifetimes. Gronlex Storbon worked from manuscripts as dusty as that from which you read! Some words he could not understand, some words were erased by the brush of Time that destroys everything.
"I, Abathon the demon god of Kryth, tell you this, that to complete your spell you need the aid of the god Xixthur.”
The mage licked his thin blue lips. His heart, which had sunk with despair, now beat madly with renewed hope. His shaking hand he raised, to point at the horror crouching in the corner of his solar. “Tell me, how may I raise this god Xixthur?”
"By stealing him.”
Mindos Omthol goggled. "Steal a god?”
"Xixthur is owned by Queen Candara of Kor. He rests within her most private bedchamber, to which she admits no one but herself—not even her lovers. In this room, hidden away at the very topmost chamber in the highest tower in the city of Kor, is Xixthur.”
"I cannot enchant the god away from her?”
"Candara is part woman, part demon. She knows protective spells herself, with which she shelters Xixthur. No, no, Mindos Omthol. You cannot perform any known incantation which will release her hold on him.”
"Then—then how can I get him?”
"Only a demon can steal the god, a demon who seeks the god for himself, not for any living man. And so I am afraid your quest is useless. If you should ensorcell up a demon, and order it to steal Xixthur for you, he would fail because he would not be stealing the god for his own use.”
"No, I am afraid you have wasted your time. However. . . “
“Yes?” quavered Mindos Omthol hopefully. "There may be a way. I can sense the conjunction of strange and eerie forces in your world. I seem to see the figure of a man striding across the mists of the Haunted Lands, a man with a great sword.”
“What do I want with a man?” snorted the baffled mage.
"Do not scorn that which you do not understand! I see also, in the city of Urgal an old, old demon—a demon even older than you, magician. His strength and powers are on the wane. He may do you a favor —and steal the god Xixthur for his own use.”
Mindos Omthol clapped his old hands. "Then you can steal Xixthur away from him? Is this what you are telling me, Abathon?”
"Know you anyone who can rob from a demon? No, no-don't ask me to do it. I do not prey on my own kind. You must find another.”
The sorcerer wailed, "But what else is there but demons who can help me? My agents are no help, they possess neither the strength nor the will to steal from demons. And as for the race of men—bah!”
Abathon chuckled. “The man I see in the mists is big and strong, Mindos Omthol. He carries, a magic sword. It may be that he—might help.”
The magician needed no further hint. He whirled toward a great crystal globe, making sure not to step beyond the red lines of the sacred pentagram, for then Abathon would be under no compulsion to serve him, despite having drunk the blood of the fifty virgins; and might attack and destroy him, treachery being the main characteristic of all demons.
His withered hands made cryptic signs above the crystal, his mouth uttered harsh, blasphemous words. His old eyes watched as the crystal grew less clear, turned cloudy and became the mists of the Haunted Lands.
Mindos Omthol stared at a figure of a giant youth, small inside the crystal but huge by comparison with the stone blocks past which he walked, leading a gray horse. He wore a mail shirt that glittered as if newly polished, there was a leather kilt about his loins, and a great sword with a red gem set into its hilt bobbed at his side. A yellow mane of uncut hair hung down to his shoulders, hair that blew this way and that to the strong winds sweeping the barren plains of the wasteland through which he moved.
“Is this the man?”
The demon nodded. "I sense strange powers about him. If I knew not better I would say he is under the protection of Afgorkon himself, beside whose arcane wisdom even Baithorion was but a babe, while you yourself might as well not have been born.”
At sound of that dread name, Mindos Omthol made a protective sign with his fingers in the air. He wheezed, "If Afgorkon protects him, what use is he to me?”
“Afgorkon sleeps, at times. If you dare . . .”
Mindos Omthol gibbered in his eagerness. "I dare, I dare,” he cried, leaping from one foot to the other. “I dare anything to be young once more. Tell me what to do, Abathon. Tell me!”
The demon began to speak.
Kothar had walked for hours through the white mists of the Haunted Lands. Beside him were the gray stone blocks which, rumor said, had been used to build the lost city of Dru in the days of its greatest glory, half a million years before. The barbarian swordsman was not interested in lost cities; his belly was too empty for that, he needed food badly.
It had been a hare-brained impulse that had brought him across the Rooftop of the World and down those mountain slopes into the Haunted Lands where lived demons and ghouls who ate the flesh from a man's bones even while he was still alive. Kothar was fleeing from the thought of Red Lori, the sorceress who hated him and whom he had imprisoned in the tomb of Kalikalides and sealed therein with solid silver along the edges of the mausoleum door. He had ridden away, leaving her a prisoner with the lich of dead Kalikalides, and Kothar felt vaguely uneasy about the whole thing.
Oh, yes. He had tricked her. But since then Red Lori had been silent. She had not appeared to him in the ale cups he had downed in the taverns of Balthogar and Romm on his way toward the high mountains known as the Rooftop of the World, nor even in the fires he set at night in his lonely camps. And this was the way of Red Lori, so that Kothar had become accustomed to it, ever since Queen Elfa of Commoral had put Red Lori in a silver cage and hung her in her audience hall.
It had been Kothar who had captured Red Lori, the sorceress. It had been Kothar who had stolen her naked body out of the silver cage to save the life of Mahla, daughter of old Pahk Mah. He had ridden into Memphor where the mausoleum of long-dead Kalikalides stood, so that Red Lori could recapture her lost magics.
Now he was fleeing from his memories. At any time he expected to see the woman of the red hair step out from behind a boulder and confront him. His palm itched and burned to grasp the pommel of his sword Frostfire and test its steel against her woman-flesh Yet she did not appear, neither in mist nor ale cup nor campfires, and so Kothar, worried.
"It isn't like her,” he muttered to his gray warhorse, Greyling. "She should be cursing me up and down and through the middle. And she's silent. What evil can she be cooking up?”
The big gray shook its head and silver mane, making its ring-bits jingle. Kothar rumbled laughter. “You don't know either, do you? Still, we'll both be on our guard.”
All men of Yarth hated and feared the Haunted Lands, through which the blond giant strode. There were devils and worse in these mists that seeped eternally from cracks in the rocks and crevasses in the ground, and that came down from the very clouds to add their moisture to the rest. A wanderer might make only a weak fire in this wilderness of tumbled stone and gravelly ground. It was a dead, barren world, and what little vegetation grew here was sparse and stunted, and oddly distorted.
Men said there was a city in the Haunted Lands. Its name was Kor. Its queen was beautiful Candara.
Kothar had hopes of finding Kor, of taking service with Queen Candara, whom men said was a demon. Demon or woman, it made no difference to the blond barbarian so long as she paid her soldiers in good gold. And gossip had it that she did this, robbing the gold from the merchant caravans that skirted her borders in abject terror.
The mists appeared to be thickening around him, the deeper into the Haunted Lands he went. They billowed and eddied in the wind. From time to time the Cumberian fancied he could see faces there, and that he could hear voices warning him to go back, go back, this land was not for him.
Kothar grinned coldly. Maybe this was why Red Lori was letting him alone. He was walking toward a fate more awful than any she might conjure up for him.
Now he heard strange sounds, like wet mud being squelched and trodden as if by some mighty beast. Kothar held his breath, listening. He turned suddenly and caught at Greyling, pressing his hands to its nostrils that it might not whinny out its fear.
“Easy, easy,” he begged.
“By Dwalka! We’re in a very hell, inside this place. Be quiet, Greyling—on both our lives.”
He dropped the reins, knowing the warhorse would wait patiently and silently for his return. On war-booted feet he moved forward, drawing Frostfire from the scabbard with but a whisper of steel on metal.
Past a huge boulder that bore cryptic carvings, put there by a hand that Yarth had long ago forgotten, he inched his way over wet stones and a pallid moss that grew between them. Inside him, he knew, a primeval fear, the fright man has always had before the unknown, the mysterious. His mighty fingers tightened on his sword-hilt.
A wind blew up, moaning about his ears. The mists eddied around him, parting. There was a dark something beyond those mists, half glimpsed, half hidden by them. A gigantic something that moved, that made those squelching noises. Kothar felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand up. In the name of his Northland god, Dwalka—what was this thing?
It towered up, higher than a city wall. It was black and scaly, and its bulk was ten times greater than a house. It was the size of a small palace! Kothar choked back a curse.
The beast-dragon behemoth—paused as if the wind that shook the mists carried with it his man-smell to its nostrils. A great mouth yawned, disclosing huge teeth. And then its bellow shook the ground beneath Kothar's war-boots
Sweat stood out on his brow. He dared not move, he was frozen motionless. Slowly Kothar backed, until his spine was touching the side of a huge gray boulder. The beast could not swallow him and the rock, not together. His fingers tightened his grip on the Sword-hilt.
The beast moved its head from side to side, questing for that elusive scent. Tiring of its pastime, it moved on through the noisome swamps, feet lifting from the mud and water with those loud, squelching sounds.
Kothar heaved a sigh. "By Dwalka! This is no place for us to be, Greyling.”
Catching up, the reins of the terrified beast, he moved on carefully, walking always on the firmest sections of ground where the greenest grass grew, for a misstep in any other direction might mean their deaths. For miles they walked, the big man and the warhorse, but at length the mists fell away to reveal the slopes of distant hills and a grassy plain between.
Kothar swung into the saddle and rode. Kor lay beyond the hills, not far away. In other lands, the name of Kor was dreaded and reviled. It had been founded many centuries ago by mutinous soldiers from Avalonia and Vandacia, together with a mixed crew of criminals and riffraff out of Commoral carrying the leopard banner of an exiled queen named Candara. There were women with the men, camp followers and harlots who were themselves thieves and cut-purses.
Such as these had laid the first stones of Kor, with the help of a god, some men said, named Xixthur. It was the largest city in the haunted lands, there were few who dared attack it. And so, in its way, it prospered. Oddly enough, Kor had always been ruled by a woman whose name was Candara.
The first Candara had been sister to the king of Vandacia. The demon served her whim, history said, and had suggested that she flee away from Vandacia with its malcontents and rebels to set up her own realm. She was reputedly a beautiful woman, dusky of skin with hair the tint of a blackbird's wing, and glossy, with eyes that resembled the black of pure obsidian.
Kothar came through the hills at sunset. Below him lay the plain of Kor and on it lay the city. It was a vast, walled place with leaden roofs alternating with red tiles and blue, the houses themselves being of gray stone. The barbarian stared down at Kor and grimaced. Leaning over the saddle, he spat in disgust.
"A vile place, that stinks,” he growled. “My better judgment tells me to ride on, to skirt those walls. But my belly is empty, needing food, and my mouth would not object to a washing down with ale.”
He grinned at the thought, and straightened. He was becoming an old lady! He supposed it had to do with Red Lori, whom he had left sealed up in the tomb of dread Kalikalides to share eternity with the dead mage. He had been uneasy about it, ever since.
His war-boot toed Greyling to a canter. The sun was setting behind his back as it lowered over the peaks of the Roof of the World. Shadows were long and ominous as the gray horse cantered between the huge wooden gates which men were beginning to close even now, while there was still light on the plain of Kor by which to see.
Kothar asked, "A good inn? That doesn't rob a man?”
An officer in worn armor waved an arm, grinning. "The Queen's Navel, on the first street to your left past the square. Good supping, stranger!”
The Cumberian thought it a bit odd that he was not interrogated more thoroughly; he was a stranger and well armed with a long-sword at his side and a horn bow and quiver on his horse, but he guessed Kor welcomed whatever visitors it might get, for it was not a pleasant place to be.
The air smelled of wine and garbage, since this was the windless season, and the mists came up to the walls of the city like an attacking army every night, as if to pen those stinks inside. Kothar blew his nose and toed Greyling to a faster run.
As he moved down the Street of Wine-sellers and away from the gate square, the air became fresher, sweeter. His eyes sparkled. Lovely women moved along the narrow walks, hips swinging, and sometimes one or two of them turned to smile at the huge blond stranger. Doors opened onto common rooms where the fragrance of baking bread mingled with that of roasting meats and freshly sliced cheeses.
Kothar grinned, coming to a sign that showed the supposed belly of the queen, and a deep-set navel. There was a tiny stable to one side of the inn, which a man, could reach by walking below a wooden archway into an inner court.
A boy ran to snatch the reins of the warhorse and catch the copper coin Kothar flipped through the air at him. He nodded when the barbarian told him he wanted good oats, clean water, and a dry place for Greyling to rest.
Kothar lifted a muscular arm, pushed open a door.
He did not see the thing in black rags that snuffled and lurched along the corridor to his right. It stiffened at the scent of the Cumberian, lifting its head almost out of the hood of the tattered cloak that hid its body. Red eyes blazed at sight of the young giant, and what seemed to be a forked tongue ran slowly about its lips.
With something of a limp, it turned and scurried for the darker shadows of the street. The patter of its feet made oddly metallic sounds.
Kothar strode into the common room, into the smells of bread and meat and cheese. A dozen men turned their heads at sight of him; they were burly men, coopers and wainwrights and a blacksmith or two. Their eyes held steady as they scanned him. He read neither friendship nor enmity in their eyes. A woman stepped from around a wooden tun which a man in a leather apron was broaching, and advanced on him.
“Where'll you sit?" she asked.
"Is there a difference?” he wondered, intrigued.
She waved a bare arm to her left. “Over there's where the girls come to dance. A strong man like you can get the woman of your choice if she must pass by you, instead of running across half the room.” She turned and gestured to her right. “That's the place where the food is served. We make plenty but there are always men to eat it and to drink the ale and such whiskey as we serve, and there are some who may take it away from you.”
The woman laughed, her eyes flirtatious. She was pretty enough, but a little old and shopworn for Kothar, though there were times when he would not have scorned her body in his bed. A simple tunic covered her body from shoulders to knees and was held at her middle by a broad leather belt.
"So which is it, my young giant? Food? Or Women?”
Kothar grinned. "Sit me where the women walk. I can always get what food I need. And right now, I need plenty.”
The woman said softly, "Don't be too sure about the food. The men who come to the Navel are strong and fearless. They fear nothing, except perhaps Zordanor.”
"Who's this Zordanor?” he asked, but she had turned on a slippered heel, to march him across the room toward a small table set near an open space on the floor.
He noticed a curtain hung to one side of and almost directly behind his chair. Apparently the dancing girls came from the curtained doorway, passing by his table to reach the space where they would dance. Kothar grinned hugely. He was not thinking of wenches, but more of his empty belly; still, when he had eaten and drunk enough, he might be interested in a female.
He slipped a copper coin to the woman, who looked surprised. Then she smiled in a friendly way and said, "Pick up a platter at yonder table, go to the long counter set close to the far wall and bang on it with a spoon. I'll see that a girl attends you.”
The barbarian nodded. His stomach rumbled. He growled, “Fetch me a tankard of ale. I die of thirst from a long ride.”
The woman shook her head. "I seat the men, to prevent quarrels. The girl who brings you meat will fetch you ale.”
She walked away. Kothar rubbed his chin thoughtfully. He was a stranger, he would follow these customs of Kor, being a polite man when it suited him. He moved like a tiger to the table filled with wooden platters and selected one, then a spoon. His dagger would serve for knife and fork.
He banged the spoon on the counter. As he did so, the door swung inward and four big men came striding in off the street. The woman hurried forward, but the men waved her away, looking hard at Kothar. They seated themselves at a table not far from the food counter.
A pretty girl with long yellow hair came running as the spoon banged. Her face was a little frightened, Kothar thought, so he tried to reassure her.
"Meat, my pretty. Roasting meat, with the blood running from it. And plenty of it. With freshly baked bread and a wedge of strong cheese. And a big tankard of ale.”
She bobbed her head and ran. Kothar felt the eyes on his back with the instinct of a wild animal. The skin crawled between his shoulder blades. Slowly he let his eyes roam about the room. The dozen early eaters had forgotten the food on their plates, they were more interested in him and in the men who sat at a table near the counter.
He stared at the men. They were big, heavily muscled. Their faces were pitted and scarred, and their eyes were the eyes of pigs, though merciless. He knew their kind. They hungered for amusement, and they had settled on him as the man most likely to give it to them, despite his muscular bulk.
The girl came back, holding his platter laden with newly sliced meat and bread, with a large chunk of cheese. She told him the price and he paid her in the silver dinars of Balthogar.
She scooped up the coins and ran. Kothar turned, the platter in his big hands. The four men at the nearby table were rising to their feet, grinning. They were moving apart, by two's. Kothar saw that when he walked between them, they would move in on him.
He stepped forward, as if ignoring them. One of the men said, "Put it on my table, stranger. That is just about the sort of supper I'd have chosen for myself.”
Kothar lifted his eyebrows, halting. “What table is that, friend?"
The man laughed contemptuously, pointing. Kothar moved as does the hunting cat in the jungles of Oasia, gracefully and with blinding speed. The platter of hot meats he rammed into the face of his tormentor. In almost the same motion his big hand gripped the edge of the wooden table and drove it up and sideways into the bellies of the two bullies to his right. They went down gasping, with sick groans.
One man remained untouched. Him Kothar caught by the collar of his woolen jerkin and by the leather belt at his waist. He swung him upward without effort, drove him downward into the man whose face was red from hot meat and scalding gravies. Then he lifted them and slammed their heads together.
"You've spoiled my meal, the lot of you,” rumbled Kothar.
The heads cracked together again. "I'm not a rich man, I can't pay for this entertainment you're giving me.”
Crack went the unshaven polls. "You'll pay for my meal, you shall, and add in some fine wine to quench the thirst you've raised."
He let the men sag to the floor by opening his fingers. They lay like scarecrows placed in a cornfield to fright off the birds. Grunting, he stared down at them, then reached for a fat leather purse attached by chains to the belt of his chief tormentor. He opened the purse, grinned when he saw all the fine silver, and tossed a handful of coins on the counter-top.
"Fill me another plate, dumpling,” her told the blonde girl. "And this time, add a bottle of your best wine to my mug of ale.”
He carried his platter and the wine bottle to his table, and began to eat. Kothar was possessed of a barbarian's prodigious appetite, he relished every mouthful as if it might be his last. He drained his mug of ale, then scorned a glass to tip the wine bottle to his lips and drink.
By this time, the four men were stirring, rising to their feet and looking blearily about them. Kothar waved a big hand.
"Come sit on the floor at my feet, dogs. I don't want you baying to the street watch about my having stolen your silver.”
The men advanced on him with a hangdog air. One of them blustered, “You can't keep us sitting at your feet, stranger.”
"Sit,” said Kothar, and the men sat. When the bottle was almost empty, the Cumberian said, "I thank you for the gift of dinner. It tasted especially good because it was your coins that made it possible.”
"You robbed my purse,” said one of the four.
"It was a gift, friend, to make up for my meal you spilled. You gave me the silver with a free hand and a generous heart.”
The man at his feet saw the cold bleakness of the eyes that glared down at him. His mouth went dry and he nodded, "It was a gift, freely given,” he nodded.
Kothar tilted the bottle to his lips, He was in the act of draining the last bit of wine when the unnatural silence of the tavern alerted his animal-like senses. He glanced about him casually, and discovered two newcomers standing just inside the tavern doorway.
One of the newcomers was a man, misshaped with a huge hump to his back and a crouch to his stance. Shaggy hair hung below his shoulders and his wide gash of a mouth was rimmed with bulging purple lips through which a forked tongue showed as it ran about his mouth. He wore filthy rags, but the eyes that peered out from that grotesquerie of a face were bright and intelligent.
Beside this human travesty stood a woman, garbed in black hood and robe so that only her face and sandaled feet showed. Kothar stared into her face, seeing a sultry loveliness, dusky skin and a few strands of glossy black hair and large eyes in which the black pupils seemed like coals out of Hell.
She stirred faintly under his stare. "Is this the one, Zordanor?” The misshapen thing nodded its shaggy head, “The prophesying sticks said two men would come to Kor and that one of them would be of service to you. This is the other.”
"Yes, the Makkadonian we already have.” Kothar felt his belly muscles tense. This woman and that monster beside her meant no good to him. He might have to use Frostfire on them before he could win free. He waited warily as the woman walked toward him, the black woolen robe faintly swinging to her stride. There was something so essentially female about her walking that his eyes tried to burn through the black wool to see her body.
She said, "I will hire you, stranger.”
"I came to serve Candara the queen, lady.”
"Fool! Who do you think I am?” Kothar grinned. “All the queens I ever knew came with retinues of servants and many soldiers to protect them and enhance their glory.”
Her laughter rang out. "I need no protection with Zordanor beside me. And being Candara, I have all the glory I can possibly use. Everything inside the walls of Kor is mine,”
"Excepting only me.” Her black eyes brooded at him. “If you take my gold, you belong to me, stranger. Well? Do you accept my service?”
She made a gesture with a ringed hand. The hunchback put a paw into a velvet purse hanging at his side and lifted out a dozen gold pieces. He dropped them casually on the tabletop.
"A pledge of my generosity,” the woman breathed.
The barbarian stared at the gold, remembering the three copper soltars in his leathern almoner, which was all his wealth. He nodded his blond head, and put out a hand to gather in the coins.
"Aren't you interested in the sort of employment I offer?”
Broad shoulders lifted and fell. "One task is much like another, when queens select them. I do what I'm paid to do.” He picked up the gold pieces, one by one, rubbing them between forefinger and thumb before dropping them into his own purse.
"Come with us,” Candara said, and turned on a heel.
Kothar went after them, tossing his cloak about his shoulders against the night chill beyond the tavern walls. He towered above the hunchback and the woman, and he wondered, as the wind came down the street and blew against his wine-warmed cheeks, if he had been hired as a bodyguard.
The woman ignored his presence, walking with her regal stride over swill-wet cobblestones and past little stone ditches filled with slops and water. The hunchback hobbled along at her side, ignoring the barbarian as totally as did Candara herself.
They came to a broad oaken gate set with brass studs, that formed the only opening in a graystone wall. Two men in armor nodded to the queen and opened the doers. They went into the outer court yard of the palace of Kor, that was bounded by a high stone wall and towered high above the smaller, meaner hovels of the citizenry of the city. Here the air was sweeter, and the torches flaring in their iron holders showed neat paving stones. Some soldiers in half-armor stood at the open armory door and stared at the little cortege. Kothar fancied he could read fear and something of sympathy in their eyes when they looked at him.
They went up a narrow stone staircase and through a wooden door into a stone chamber hung with heavy brocade draperies. A fire below a hooded chimney made a warmth in the room. A large chair was perched beside the hearth, and across the room, beside a prie-dieu holding a psaltery, was a writing desk and chair.
Candara seated herself in the easy chair. She threw back her hood. Kothar stifled a grunt of sheer admiration. By Salara of the bared breasts! This was one beautiful woman. Her face was dusky of skin, like that of a woman of Memphor, and her hair was the color of a raven wing, black and glossy, and fell to below her shoulders. Her mouth was red as newly spilled blood, and seemed made for kisses.
"Have you ever fought a demon, stranger?”
“Now and again,” the Cumberian shrugged. Her laughter rippled out. "You do not fear them, then?” She leaned forward, holding her breath as she awaited his answer.
"I avoid them when I can. I fight them when I must.”
"I would order you to go to the city of Urgal and either kill the demon that protects it—Azthamur—or steal from it that which Azthamur robbed from me."
“Then I shall obey.”
“Or die in the attempt?”
Kothar shrugged. The queen ran her eyes over his muscular bulk and the Cumberian fancied that he could read desire for his barbarian body in her stare.
He wondered if her lust was fed on the thought that he might be a dead man in a few days.
“There is one thing. I must tell you," she said slowly. "I have chosen another to do this task for me.”
"Then why seek me out?"
The hunchback; who had been standing in the shadows to one side of the hooded fireplace, spoke softly. "I have recited the incantations and cast the prophecy sticks, but I cannot tell, which one."
"Send him. If he fails, I'll go," Kothar growled. She shook her head. "No. Were I to warn Azthamur that I seek Xixthur from him, he would come at night to Kor and eat the flesh from my bones. I do not—dare to do that.”
She smiled faintly. “I shall tell you about Xixthur—if I choose you to go to Urgal.”
There was a promise in her eyes that, touched sparks to the hot blood beating in his veins. Kothar rumbled, "Let there be a contest, then, between this other and myself. Whoever lives, shall go to Urgal.”
Candara shook her head as amusement glinted in her black eyes. "You could never defeat Japthon in a combat, stranger. No man born of woman can do that. And yet, I know no other way to decide. Perhaps you are smarter than Japthon, who is a brute with the brains of a pig and the body of a war-god.”
"Let them fight,” said Zordanor.
Regretfully, as her eyes studied the handsome bulk of the young blond giant, Queen Candara nodded her lovely head. Kothar realized she believed that she was sentencing him to death.
“When do we fight?” asked the barbarian. “Within the hour. Zordanor will show you the way.”
Candara rose and smiled sadly at him.