SHADOW OF A DEMON
He came into Angalore from the eastern deserts, a big man wearing a kaunake of spotted fur over his link-mail, his legs bare above war-boots trimmed with miniver, with a sense of his own doom riding him. Niall of the Far Travels had not wanted to come to Angalore, for an old seeress had prophesied that he would be taken from this world by demons, should those war-boots carry him into that ancient, brooding city.
Yet he had come here because his fate had so decreed.
He was a mercenary, a sell-sword, a barbarian out of the forested mountains of Norumbria. A wanderer by nature, he earned his keep wherever he went by the might of his sword-arm, by his skill with weapons. He feared no living thing, man or animal, though the thought of demons put a coldness down his spine.
Now he paused on the crest of a hill and stared at the city. Massive it was, and old, so old that some men said it had been here since men had first learned to walk upright. It lay between the river and the desert over which the caravans came from Sensanall to the south and Urgrik to the north. Ships lay in the little harbor that was formed by the river, riding easily to the lift and fall of its tides.
Angalore was the city of Maylok the magician.
An evil man, Maylok. Niall had heard tales about him, over campfires and in the taverns where men drank wine and watched dancing girls perform. Rumor had it that he used demons as men used pawns when they played their games of chance. Gossips also said that in the dungeons and stone labyrinths below his palace, Maylok had stored the treasures of his world, gold and silver, diamonds and rubies and emeralds, and golden vessels carved and fashioned by famous sculptors.
Niall moved his heavily muscled shoulders, uneasy as a wild animal might be, walking into strange country where it knew nothing of the dangers to be faced. Yet he had to go to Angalore. There was no way out, if he wanted to eat and drink. The desert had offered no oasis, no plant from which to pull the roots to allay his hunger. He had been offered employment by a captain of mercenaries, and was on his way to join up with the black eagle banner of Lurlyr Manakor of Urgrik when he had been attacked by a huge mountain lion out of the Styrethian Hills. He had killed the lion but not before it had broken the neck of his horse.
On foot, he could never reach Urgrik. He had known that, and so he had set his feet to the westward, to reach the river that ran through these lands. On the river he might find a boat to carry him to Urgrik.
His wandering had brought him to Angalore, instead.
Niall hitched at his sword-belt and gave the city a hard grin. There would be food in Angalore, and cold wine. Niall had a need for both, maybe even a wench if he could find an agreeable one.
His feet carried him down the slope toward the landward gate. Niall was not a fearful man, nothing frightened him; still, that threat of demons made him wary. He was not one to put overmuch confidence in the babblings of soothsayers, but old Thallia was not your usual prophetess.
He had stumbled onto Thallia in Cassamunda, where he had met that mercenary captain. She was an old woman, clad in rags, but she carried a small bag that clinked as she moved, and two ruffians had tried to take it from her. Niall had been passing, had leaped to her protection, had buffeted the ruffians with his big fist and knocked them senseless.
Old Thallia had been grateful. Her bag held her wealth, such as it was, a few coins and some jewels which she kept by her to sell when she needed food. He had escorted her to the cheap little room above the tavern where she lived, and she had insisted on giving him some wine and a barley-cake.
She had read his fortune, too.
'Beware of Angalore,' she had whispered, her rheumy eyes wide and fear-filled. 'There are demons there, who serve Maylok the wizard. They will snatch you away with them when they come. And — there is no return from a demon world.'
The landward gate was closed, at this time of day, with the late afternoon shadows black and ominous. No caravans were expected in before the morrow, and guards stood their watch on the walls, half drowsing in the sunset. Niall stopped before the wall and shouted upward that he was a stranger in need of food and drink, and desired also a cot on which to lay his body.
After a time, a small door inset in a larger one creaked open. Two warriors wearing the griffin insignia of Angalore scowled at him suspiciously. Niall grinned and moved forward.
"There is a fee to be paid," one of them said, "It is after the hour when we admit travelers."
Niall shrugged. He had no wish to remain outside these high stone walls, knowing that inside them he would find what his belly told him he so desperately needed. His big hand fumbled at his worn leather belt-pouch, extracted a few coins, and dribbled them into the outstretched palms. The stink of bribery was strong in his nostrils, but beggars had little choice.
He moved off along a cobbled street, his eyes hunting a sign that might tell him where a tavern waited with its warmth and merriment. These buildings past which he walked were warehouses where were stored the goods that came by caravan, with no hint of roasting meat nor smell of chilling wine.
Niall had never been in Angalore before and so he lost his way, moving down narrow little alleys and into cul-de-sacs, always aware that his hunger and his thirst were growing with the darkness. And then in a narrow passageway between buildings which seemed to lean their walls together, he saw the girl.
She was clad in leather rags that fluttered in the wind moving off the river. Her long legs were brown and shapely, and the hair that fell almost to her haunches was black as Corassian ebony. She was turning her head to stare back at him, shrinking against the wall behind her.
Niall grinned. "You seem as lost as I am."
Green eyes studied him. "I am not lost. I know my way." She added, almost ominously, "To where I want to go."
"There's no need for hurry." His gaze took her in, seeing the tatterings of her worn leather tunic, its stains and spottings, the manner in which it failed to hide the curve of her breasts and revealed almost the complete length of a bare leg. "Come eat with me, I'll pay the fare. And I'll give you as much wine as you might care to drink."
The green eyes softened, but her voice was cold. "Go your way, barbarian. Let me go mine..."
Niall shrugged. It mattered little to him whether she went with him or not, but she was pretty enough, with full lips and a tilted nose. She would have made a good bed-companion for the night. He might even have taken her to Urgrik with him and — if he could afford it — buy her some decent clothes.
He walked away, putting her from his mind.
And then he heard the clank of metal.
The Far-traveler turned his head. Behind him four men were moving out of a little alley toward the girl. She had seen them and was shrinking back, away from them. The men were grinning at her.
"Come along now," one said, putting out a hand to grasp her arm.
The barbarian turned and waited.
"No," she whispered. "I know you men. You serve Maylok."
"And Maylok needs female blood for his incantations."
They leaped, all four of them, and the girl disappeared behind their big bodies. Niall snarled and went on the run, not bothering to draw his sword. His big fist should be able to handle these carrion.
He caught a man, swung him about, drove knuckles against his face, pulping his nose. A second one he caught and rammed his head against the stone wall so that he went limp and crumpled.
The other two yanked out their blades, swung them at him. Niall laughed softly, put his own hand to sword-hilt and drew out Blood-drinker. The barbarian had little wealth, except for his sword, that had been forged long ago and far away and that Niall had found in a tomb which he had looted, early in his youth. He had been offered fortunes for that blade, he had always refused to part with it.
He fought swiftly and terribly, did Niall of the Far Travels. With parry and thrust and overhead blows he drove the two ruffians before him until their backs were to the building wall, and there he ran them through.
The girl had never moved, but stood erect and as coldly disdainful as ever. Niall felt surprise at sight of her, he was certain she would have run away when given the opportunity. He growled as he wiped his steel clean, "What are you waiting for? Why didn't you run?"
"You fool," she breathed. "You fool!"
She stamped her sandaled foot. Her cold anger beat out at him like a living entity, and the sell-sword stared. "Has Emelkartha the Evil stolen your wits? Or did you want to go with those men to be sucked dry of blood for Maylok's wizardries?"
Her eyes lidded over and she drew a deep breath. "You would not understand. You are only a common warrior. Besides, what do you know of Emelkartha?"
"She is the mother of demons, that one. I've heard it said that all demons regard her wishes as commands."
The girl shrugged. "I pray to her for vengeance."
"She ought to hear your prayers, then. She's malevolent, that one."
The green eyes glowed. "Is she, warrior? I hope so. Perhaps she will grant me my revenge on Maylok then."
He caught her bare arm, drew her with him. "Tell me about it. Mayhap I can help a little, though I've no fancy for wizards myself, and usually I stay clear of them."
She went with him readily enough, but cast a look behind her where two men were stirring and two others lay in pools of then-own blood. Was it only fancy, or did that face of hers mirror a faint regret?
"What's your name? Where are you from?" he asked.
The green eyes slid sideways at him from under long black lashes. "Call me — Lylthia. And — does it matter where I come from?"
"Not to me," he chuckled. "Are you hungry? Thirsty?"
His eyes ran over the cheap leather tunic that barely hid her body. She carried no money pouch, the only thing on her besides the tunic and her tattered sandals was a rope belt about her slim middle. As the river-wind grew cooler, she began to shiver.
"We'll get you into a warm tavern and put some meat in you," he said. "Also some Kallarian wine."
"Little good it will do you," she muttered.
Niall grinned. He had a way with wenches like this. Yet as he walked with her along the torch-lit streets, he failed to notice that while those torch flames cast his shadow, there was no shadow for the girl.