A vulture circled high above the dead bodies scattered here and there around the burning wagons. In time it was joined by other great, black birds, that circled lower and lower on their pinions, about to drop earthward to rip and tear and rend dead flesh.
Something stirred between two bodies and the vultures took alarm, rising higher into the sky and continuing their circling. An arm came up between those bodies, a heavily thewed arm, the fingers open and clawing as though they gripped at air.
In a moment, a dead body moved, was heaved aside as a giant of a man came up from beneath it. He was mightily muscled under his bronzed skin, and his tawny hair, long uncut, was caught at the nape of his neck with silver threads. He wore a mail shirt, dirty with caked blood, and under it a quilted gambeson. A kilt of black and yellow tiger skin encased his loins above furred war-boots.
He staggered when he was on his feet and his dazed eyes took in the dead bodies and the burning wagons of the caravan. His hand fumbled for the sword that usually hung at his side, but the scabbard was empty.
“By Illis,” he muttered. “This was a slaying.” His hand ran through his thick hair, and he winced when he touched the huge bump that an enemy mace had made. He could remember that blow very well, up to a point. He had been fighting two men from the robber baron band that had chosen this caravan from Thakispan to attack and loot. His sword was caught in the rib-cage of one of those men, when the other man had swung his mace.
Kyrik had seen the blow, had tried to dodge to avoid it. His lips twisted wryly as his fingers touched the wound. "I didn't dodge fast enough," he growled.
Still, if he hadn't moved, that savage swing would have crushed in his skull. Kyrik chuckled, shaking his head. Illis of the soft breasts had been watching over him.
The dryness of his mouth reminded him that he was badly in need of water. He licked dry lips and looked about him. He saw only dead bodies and what was left of the proud wagons that had come out of distant Thakispan, bound for Tantagol and Antherak.
The lack of a sword at his side made him feel half naked. He searched for Bluefang, but it was not to be seen. The robber barons had known a good sword when they saw one. Still, there ought to be a blade somewhere in this wreckage.
He searched for an hour, before the stench of dead flesh and the blazing wagons drove him reeling to the comparative safety of the rocky region about him. There had been no weapons in the caravan, and the robber barons had taken away their own dead. They had looted the wagons so thoroughly before they had fired them that nothing was left.
Nothing. Not so much as a pannikin of water. Kyrik scowled blackly as he studied the terrain where he stood. He was somewhere between Domilik and Sokarjus, he knew that much. But just where, he had no idea.
He thought longingly of Myrnis, the gypsy girl who had been with him when they had fought Eldrak and Moforgon in the Doom-day Wastes. Myrnis had gone back to her gypsy clan, summoned by a death of a relative. They had parted in the market square of Domilik, where Kyrik had joined this merchant caravan traveling northward toward Sokarjus.
He would have been grateful for her company, but as his eyes took in the rocky ground, he told himself it was just as well she was not with him. It was bad enough for him to suffer the pangs of hunger and thirst; he would not have wished the gypsy girl to suffer also.
His hand touched the dagger in its sheath at his side. At least he had that. He would miss Bluefang, the sword was close to two thousand years old and had been forged by a mighty smith, long ago. He would have to make do without it.
Which way to go? He bent, yanked a blade of tall grass free and tossed it to the wind. It blew eastward, toward the Sunless Sea. It was as good a direction as any other.
He began his walk with long strides, wanting to put the stench of death behind him. From here to the sea, so far as he knew, there was no city, no shelter. Only these same barren wastes were to be seen, rocky and uninhabitable, since no food could be grown and few animals were ever seen.
A vulture swept above him, its shadow on the ground. Kyrik grinned coldly, and glanced upward. Come down here, bird with your long wingspan, and I'll eat your flesh and drink your blood, if I must, to stay alive.
The vulture must have given him up, for it soared away, backwards toward the caravan where its fellows were even now settling down on the dead bodies to rend and eat them. Kyrik gave it one last glance before he turned his gaze to the east.
He walked for many hours, tirelessly, but as the shadows lengthened among the rocks, even his massive frame knew the bite of weariness and his eves roved the wasteland for some sign of shelter.
A cool wind had sprung up, easing the heat of the day, and he went on, walking into the darkness of the night and the brilliance of the twin moons of Terra which made silver of the stones past which he moved. When the moons were high in the sky, Kyrik found a patch of grass close beside a great, sloping rock. He crawled in under the rock and lifting his dagger into a hand against possible wolves, he fell into a dreamless sleep.
He awoke at dawn, the hunger and the thirst in him becoming a pain in his belly and his throat. His keen eyes scanned the sky for clouds, hoping that a rainstorm might come lashing these rocky stretches. He saw no clouds, the sky was clear and blue.
He went on through the heat of the day, but now his steps were slower, and a sense of frustration was growing in him. Hunger he could abide, he was used to hunger on the battle marches he had made in those years when he had been known as Kyrik of the Victories and had been king in Tantagol. But thirst was something else again. He could not even spit now, and his tongue felt swollen.
All day he walked, and into part of the night. He had become an automaton, his legs bearing him along as though they were not even a part of him, while he thirsted and his empty belly snarled its disquietude.
This night he dreamed of Illis, that goddess whom he worshiped, and who had come to him in human guise to help him in the past. Illis walked with him as he walked now, in his dream, and her hand was cool and her smile bright and encouraging. She kissed him once, wetly, with her lips wide open . . .
And Kyrik woke to the beat of rain on his cheeks, his lips. He laughed harshly and stood up, opening his mouth to those drops, cupping his hands to catch and drink them. He sought no shelter. The rain was cool and soothing to his flesh, burned a dark mahogany by the daytime sun.
His clothes he removed to stand naked in the downpour, reveling in the rivulets of water that cascaded down his head and shoulders to run upon his chest and middle. His hand balled into a fist, he shook it at a flash of lightning that blazed across the black sky.
“My thanks, Illis! A gift to your altar when I come upon a fane dedicated to your name!"
In a few hours the rain was gone, but Kyrik was refreshed, he had drunk his fill. He lay down naked upon the wet ground and in moments, was asleep.
Next morning he walked a far distance, until an errant breeze brought air to his nostrils that was tipped with the faint smell of salt. The Sunless Sea was not so far away now.
All afternoon he walked and the hell of salt water grew stronger. When he made his bed that night on the open ground, he told himself that tomorrow he would swim in that vast inland sea which was almost large enough to be an ocean.
He was up at dawn. Now as he walked his eyes were keen for the sight of a wild animal, or its tracks, and the dagger was naked in his huge hand for a swift killing. But he saw no rabbit, no hare, not even a rodent or a snake. Kyrik was past the niceties of human behavior at this point. He would have scorned no meat except human flesh. He was not quite at that point, though, he told himself glumly, it might not be long away.
It was late in the afternoon when he saw the stake and the figure bound to it, arms and legs, and the fallen head that told of death. He angled his walk toward the stake, growling under his breath.
Here was meat. Still—it was human. He came closer, and now he saw that the figure was that of a woman. She was young, her hair was long and thick and black, and she wore some ragged garment that left her all but naked. Kyrik could see slender legs naked to the hip, and bared shoulders, even the full swell of a breast.
"Now who were the beasts who left you there to die?” he asked the air.
She must have heard him. She lifted her head and he could see her face. Kyrik came to a stop, for hers was an exceptional beauty, with full red mouth and slanted eyes, and features fashioned as by a master artist. Her tumbled black hair fell about her eyes, but since her arms were pinioned to the stake, she could not move them to brush it away.
"So then. You're not dead yet," he growled. She smiled wryly. "Not yet. But almost." Her black eyes watched the manner in which he held his dagger. From it, they turned to his face.
"You're hungry," she whispered. "Half starved. I think you saw in me—something to eat."
"Pah. I'm no cannibal."
"But—almost." He laughed harshly, though it cost him an effort of will. "I'll find other food. And tastier."
Kyrik moved forward, knife-blade up to cut her bonds. The girl eyed him, then cried out, "I must tell you I am a witch. I have been put here by the people of a small fishing village as sacrifice to the demon that roams this part of the world."
"What do I care for demons?"
"You'd care about this one," she told him darkly. "It slays and slays, it is like a mad thing, ravening here and there. They have even sent soldiers from Sokarjus to hunt it down and slay it."
Kyrik shrugged. His dagger flashed in the sunlight as it slashed through the ropes that held her. She fell forward into his arms, soft and limp.
"I'm—sorry. I—cannot stand." The feel of her flesh against his own told him that he missed Myrnis more than he had guessed. It was little enough she wore, a plain brown wool tunic, torn here and there, and beneath it was only her naked body.
She must have felt his male interest, for she flashed him a faint smile, and Kyrik noted that she did not pull away.
"Don't stand here hugging me," she whispered. "Not that I am averse to having a man's arms around me, but there may be soldiers coming. They sent for warriors from Sokarjus, as I told you. And they won't like the idea of your setting free the sacrifice."
Kyrik shrugged. His belly was too empty for him to care very much about soldiers. All he could think of right now was food. Even the witch-girl's near nakedness was not as tempting as the thought of a crust of bread and a slice of meat, with a leather jack filled with ale to quench his thirst.
"Come then," he told her. "I'm near to starving, and since you know this countryside, mayhap you can tell me where there's a farm so we can beg our bread."
"No need to go searching. Just beyond those hills is the black tower where the magician Upanokol dwells. He will have food. He may even share it with us if we ask him for it."
Kyrik fingered his long knife. "Ask or beg, one way or another, I mean to get it."
They moved off side by side. They had only gone a short distance from the stake when a horseman came to the top of a nearby hill and drew rein. Kyrik scanned his mail, his cloak, his horned helmet, recognizing the garb of the Sokarjus coldiery. The lone horseman was joined by others.
They heeled their horses forward, down the slope toward Kyrik and the girl. They were big men, arrogant in their strength. Kyrik felt the anger in him at his fate growing into madness.
When the captain reined up a few feet away, the Tantagolian knew they were in danger. The sneer on the officer's mouth told him as much.
"What's this? Two travelers from far places wandering in Ocar?"
"I was part of a caravan that the robber barons looted. I seek no more than food or drink."
"And the girl?"
"My—companion." The captain turned and stared at the empty stake. His mouth twitched. "I see the demon has come for the girl the villagers hung there for him. Or—was it that knife you have in your hand that freed her?"
Kyrik shrugged. This officer was an impudent one, seeking only an excuse to use his authority. He said, "I freed her, yes. She's too pretty to be eaten by a demon."
The captain grinned coldly. "But you're not." His men had moved their horses closer about them, so that he was ringed in. Kyrik tightened his grip on his knife. If it came to a fight, weak as he was he meant to take as many of these mercenaries with him as he could. The captain lifted an arm. Every man flung himself on Kyrik. The giant staggered under the impact of that weight, but he did not lose his balance. His huge fist struck a face, then his dagger was stabbing into an arm. No sense to strike at the mail shirts they wore, they would turn his most savage dagger blow. And so he aimed for arms or legs or faces, and for a time, dancing about like a wounded bear, he fought them as he had fought other fights, fiercely and without sound, intent only on killing or maiming as many of his foes as he could reach.
He shook some of them off him by the sheer power of his muscles. He was not above using his booted feet, driving a heel or a toe into a belly or a groin. The captain kept trying to force his horse into that wild melee of shouting, cursing men, his sword naked in a fist. But there was no opportunity to use it.
Kyrik fought on, baring his teeth in a feral grin. This was living, this giving and taking of blows He had been a long time entombed in that statue —a thousand years, by Illis—so that this battling was as bread and ale to him.
But he could not stand against them all. For the more he knocked backward off their feet, the more he stabbed with his long knife, the nearer did the captain bring his horse. When he was close enough, he raised his sword and brought it down upon Kyrik's head.
The giant crumpled. He was still vaguely conscious. He heard the girl scream and men cursing. But he was too weak from that blow and the lack of food to do more than struggle up to an elbow. A dagger pommel caught him between the eyes and he fell backward, the snarl fading from his throat.
When he opened his eyes, he was tied to the stake, and the girl was tied behind him, with the great pole between them. Agony was in his head where the sword-blade and the dagger pommel had hit, but he shrugged off the pain and looked about him.
They were alone here at the top of the hill. The soldiers had long since gone. And a cold wind was coming in off the Sunless Sea, as the sound of breakers slamming into those cliffs came to his ears.
"Are you all right?" asked the girl. "I've felt better." He sought to move the pole and found the task too much for him. "A lot of help I've been. Well, at least you'll have a companion to die beside you when the demon comes for us."
They had tied his arms flat to his sides, but by wriggling them, he found he could place his palms flat against the stake. He braced his thickly thewed legs, pushed hard with his hands, and sought to loosen the huge pole in the ground.
He struggled until the sweat came out on his forehead and his muscles cracked. After a time he desisted. The wind was stronger off the sea. It almost amounted to a gale. At least it was refreshing.
When he said something of this to the girl, she murmured, "There's another wind coming off the land. I can see it since I'm facing that way, but your back is to it."
"Little good it will do us."
"It looks very ominous." Kyrik turned his head, stared at a thin black funnel of twirling darkness that hovered like a giant's top above the rocky barrens over which he had walked. He knew the awesome power of those whirlwinds, knew that nothing was safe where they touched.
“By Illis! If it should veer this way—it might do what I can't."
"It might also kill us." He grinned wolfishly. "I'd rather take my chances with that thing than with an angry demon."
They fell silent, but from time to time Kyrik turned his head to watch the progress of that blackness, saw it twisting, moaning, coming nearer, nearer. He sought to judge where it would touch, and decided that it would miss them by a goodly distance.
The sea winds were stronger, whipping and buffeting them. There was salt spray in their touch, that Kyrik could taste when he licked his lips.
He said, "If sea wind meets land wind, maybe it will divert it."
"It's turning this way," the girl cried. The moaning was louder, though it was almost drowned out by the fury of the sea gale. Kyrik bent his legs slightly, pressing his spine against the stake, flattening his hands.
"Brace yourself, girl. When it hits, it won't be gentle."
Then it was on them, a roaring, slamming, screaming madness of grit and stone. Darkness enveloped them, and Kyrik heard the girl cry out. He himself was lifting, fighting the stake, trying to make the whirlwind's task easier.
It gave a little, shifting. Kyrik bellowed, forced himself more and more against that stake. The base was deep, but the winds were strong, and what his muscles lacked, the blackness provided. The pole gave more, a little more during each straining moment.
He could hardly breathe, the gale seemed to drive the air from his nostrils, his gaping mouth. But he fought on against the stake as though it were a human adversary, neither giving against the cyclonic fury of the winds nor relaxing his pressure against the stake.
The dirt swirled at his feet as minute bits of rock and earth were dislodged. It seemed to Kyrik that tiny hands were at work, there where the pole was rammed deep into the ground.
Suddenly the stake lurched. Kyrik heaved, not shouting, gritting his teeth together, wasting no breath. The stake came upward. The winds caught it, tilted it, drove it sideways.
Kyrik and the girl went with it, end over end. The ground battered them when they hit it, as they were lifted only to be slammed down again. Aye! They were free of one danger, the Tantagolian thought, but likely to die from another.
Then the winds lessened, the blackness faded away, roaring out toward the Sunless Sea where it met and fought with the sea gale. Kyrik and the girl lay motionless for a time. Then he stirred and moved his arms.
The ropes were loose, now. He slid an arm free, then a leg. In a moment he was standing, undoing the ropes that still held the girl, who seemed limp and lifeless. But as he lifted her to her feet, her eyes opened.
"You did it," she whispered. "You freed me a second time."
"The wind did it."
"No, no. It was you, your strength." Her soft hands touched his bare arms, ran up and down them. She was very close. He could feel the tips of her breasts touching his chest, and she had fine big breasts. He showed his teeth in a grin.
"You were saying something about a magician before the soldiers came, girl."
She did not move away. "My name is Olvia. And you’re right, I was.” Her head jerked eastward. "His tower's over there beyond the hill, close to the edge of the sea."
He clapped a hand to her soft buttock. "Then let's go have a look at the place."
She laughed and walked beside him with a swinging stride. The movement made her full breasts bounce gently inside the worn tunic. Kyrik eyed them sideways, admitting to himself that he had been a long time without a woman. And this one did not seem averse to a bit of dalliance.
They walked up a hill and down it. A higher hill was before them, and when they came to its crown, they could see the black tower, gaunt against the dark sky to the east where the storm clouds were roiling. Kyrik scowled. It was not an inviting place, that tower. An air of evil seemed to hang about it.
Olvia halted, put a hand to his arm.
"Suppose the demon is inside the tower? It would make a fine hiding place for a demon. No one dares go near it, even before Upanokol died."
Kyrik heard his stomach rumble. "I dare," he growled, "if there's any food inside it."
He caught the girl by the wrist and drew her with him.