THE SWORD OF THE SORCERER
The blood lay red upon his dented mail shirt and spotted his yellow hair in ghastly fashion. It ran wetly, redly, from the worn sleeve of his leather hacqueton to drop upon his big hand and ooze across the pommel of his shattered sword. It stained his fur kilt and riding boots and dripped steadily with every step he took.
Kothar staggered from the field of battle where men lay staring sightlessly up at the darkening sky, rigid now in death, and where other men were gasping out their lives. He alone of the loyal Foreign Guard was still alive, he alone still held a sword in his hand, though it was a broken one. And behind him, men were coming fast to finish off the youthful guards commander.
He was a big, brawny youth. His shock of yellow hair framed a face burned brown by desert suns and polar winds. Under his smooth hide giant muscles rippled, and normally he walked with the springy gait of a man whose body was in perfect fighting trim. A broad leather belt fitted his lean waist, from which hung an empty scabbard. Now that belt was red with blood.
Kothar was a barbarian out of the northern world of Cumberia. He was a sell-sword, a mercenary whose life was given over to the god of war, that he might have food for his belly and a pillow at times for his head. There was no fear in him as he jogged along, he was afraid of no living man—or woman, for that matter—though he did admit to a kind of queasiness when magic, witches and warlocks were involved.
And a witch had given Lord Markoth the victory this day.
Rage was a rumble in his thickly thewed throat. Red Lori, the witch! Aie, she was lovely, with her long red hair and slanted green eyes, her body all white flesh and perfumed skin. Kothar had never seen a woman who made him know he was a man as Red Lori did, with her slim white legs and swinging hips.
But she was a witch! Gossip said she would be queen in Commoral when Elfa died. Her sorceries had given Markoth the victory this day and as a reward she would ascend the throne.
He toyed with the idea of walking into the royal palace in some sort of disguise and throwing Red Lori over a broad shoulder and making off with her. His large white teeth showed themselves as his lips drew back in an amused grin. Hai, but that would put a bee in her thick red hair!
Suddenly he staggered, recovering his balance with an effort. His wounds had become an agony, of a sudden.
In his eyes, sky reeled dizzily with ground, and death swooped low above the corpses cluttering the wide Plain of Dead Trees, reaching out invisible talons to sink them in his flesh. His throat was dry—gods of Thuum—what he would give for one lone sip of water—and the pain of his wounds made him shudder, every now and again.
He was angling his feeble steps toward a corner of the forest, the great dark weald that stretched from Phalkarr as far as distant Abathor, for in between those boles and beneath those low hanging branches was his only hope of hiding. The mercenaries of Lord Markoth should have spotted him by this time, they should have raised the howl of pursuit. No doubt they were running for hounds to follow the trail of his riding boots. He tried to stop the flow of blood, for the drops were arrows beckoning all to follow, but the task was too great for his reddened hands and fingers.
He leaned against a tree, breathing deeply. I must run like the wounded deer from the hunters, or else I too shall be stretched out flat upon the ground, my wrists and ankles fettered, and I shall be flayed, as is the custom of the Lord Markoth with his enemies.
The thought was a goad in his ribs, urging him forward. A red hand-print, the spill of bloody drops, were the signposts which would show the way. Ah, well, it could not be helped. He was wounded. He had fought hard and long this day to bring victory to the cause of Queen Elfa, and where men fought so desperately, men knew the bite of steel.
The agony of his flesh, the uneasiness in him at the thought of torture, drove him staggering through the underbrush, ducking to avoid a leafy branch, reeling aside from a thick tree trunk directly in his path. In the distance he heard a voice cry out halloo. They had found his red blood trail
They were coming fast, fresh with renewed vigor, unwounded and eager to win the silver deniers Lord Markoth would pay for his body so his skinners could flay the skin from it. He could imagine their hard faces and their bulging muscles as they loped along the trail of blood-drops from his body.
Kothar ran on and on. Above his yellow poll the trees made a green canopy that hid everything from his eyes but a patch of white cloud and a bit of blue sky. Would that the leaves might also hide his tracks! He blundered on, head down and gasping, blind to everything but the pain and the voices growing louder and more confident behind him.
He ran for a long time; there was still strength left in his big, muscular body with the broken sword gripped in his fingers. He would sell his life as dearly as possible; these men of the southlands would never forget his dying battle. Aie! He would make the name of Kothar long remembered in this kingdom of Commoral.
Finally he slid to a halt and leaned a bloody hand against a tree bole. He shook his head like an animal brought to bay. His glaring eyes peered around him in the dense forest at a spray of red and white flowers hanging from a gigantic rock like a colored waterfall.
Kothar blinked in disbelief. Was he delirious with loss of blood and the pain of his wounds—or was that an iron door behind those vine flowers? He licked his lips with a swollen tongue, aware that hope was surging up into his huge chest. An iron door in solid rock? It could not be. It was a mere trick of his failing senses, of his blurring eyes with the blood dripping into them from a scalp wound.
Kothar straightened his body slowly, daring to hope. There was a door there, rusted and disused for centuries, perhaps—but still a door. The youthful giant pushed away from the tree. Yes, the fading sunlight made it dimly visible; it was almost unseeable behind its vine and flower curtain, but it was there.
“Thanks to Dwalka," he gasped, and ran. His arm in its leather hacqueton and mailed sleeve brushed the flower vines away. He could see the ancient metal door more clearly now and could read the forgotten sigils on its rusted surface. He could not understand them; they were written in a language dead for more than a hundred centuries, but his barbarian senses were aware of awesome magic in their twistings.
Kothar shook his wide shoulders. He did not care for magic, but he cared even less for the baying hounds and the huntsmen loping along his bloody back trail. He lurched forward, a quivering hand stretched out to touch the rusted metal and seek across it for a ring or handle to open that ancient adit. The vines and flowers closed in behind him, leaving him in a cool, faintly hushed sanctuary.
What was this door? Where did it lead? No matter what! No matter where! Anywhere was better than out here with the mercenaries and their yapping dogs following his footprints. His huge brown hand caught hold of an iron bolt, slid it back with a wrench of muscles so painful as to make him groan. It had been long years since anyone had walked this way. Unused metal screeched in protest to his tug, but the bolt yielded and the door swung inward onto blackness.
Kothar stumbled into that welcoming dark. The sole of his war-boot touched a hard dirt floor. It was cool in the gloom, and his eyes could see nothing at all. He stood swaying like a giant tree about to topple, his fingers loosing their grip on his broken sword.
Slowly the darkness died away before a pallid green radiance that seemed to fill the chamber. The light came from nowhere and everywhere. It did not ease the chill bite of the air, it was like the coldness of the grave, that air. It made Kothar shiver, accustomed as he was to the snow-cold of the northern wastes.
An angry growl rose into his throat. He found himself staring at a flat slab of stone that rested on marble amphoras. It was a crypt, this place in hollow rock. And that dead thing wrapped in funereal garments, brown with age, was what lay buried in it. He had blundered into a tomb.
His lips twisted in a grin. Let the dead shelter him who sought life in this sanctuary. He was about to turn and close the iron door when the hairs on the back of his neck stood up.
The withered brown body on the slab—he could make out bits of whitened bone and grisly fragments of flesh and hair protruding from the rotted cloth—was moving. It sighed, as if it breathed immeasurable distances away. Its chest lifted and fell in a slow pulsing.
Dwalka of the War Hammer! What was this thing? The corpse turned its head so that it could look at Kothar out of its empty eye-sockets. The barbarian felt the touch of eyes, even though there were no eyes to see or be seen. He stiffened, his flesh crawled, his long fingers took a firmer grip on his sword-haft. Even as he stared, the lich sat up.
“You came at last, Kothar. I had almost given up hope for you.”
The young giant opened his mouth to speak, and could not. The cadaver swing what was left of its legs over the side of the stone slab and stepped down onto the hard dirt floor. A peculiar sound rose upward from the bones of its throat.
A lassitude came upon Kothar. He began to sway back and forth, as if tired in every muscle. Hai! He was weak, too. So weak he could not stand up. The lich was doing this to him in some hellish manner he did not understand.
It was too much to stand up. He could not do it. He fell forward slowly, his legs did not bend, he simply toppled downward like a tree cut off at its roots.
Kothar lay frozen motionless on the dirt. He was alive and possessed of all his senses but that of movement. He could not so much as flick a finger. His cheek was pressed to the ground, he could feel a pebble pressing into his temple. He could hear the savage thumping of his heart, and he was aware that the corpse was moving. This was worse—than anything the Lord Markoth might do to him! Flaying knives he could understand. He had lost to the king of Commoral, and he was paying the penalty for failure. This made sense to his barbarian mind.
But this was foul. Unclean! The tomb had opened for him who was alive, and now it sought to drag him down into the coldness, into the utter absence of all life.
Kothar fought, as much as he could fight. His spirit, his savage soul, writhed and tugged to force his huge muscles to obey the dictates of his brain. They would not. He must lie here and—what?
The dead-thing was approaching him with a dry rustle of brown winding sheets. It walked as if its weight were that of the fabled Jugnoth, with heavy thumpings of the ground. It breathed with a harsh wheezing and a vast rush of air like the huge bellows which had hung before the forge at Grondel when Kothar had been a boy.
The giant lay waiting for the eldritch being to clasp him and drag his limp body toward the slab. If he was going to die here in this tomb, he wanted to bellow out his defiance, but he could make no more than a croaking noise.
Behind him, metal rasped and the iron door swung inward again. Kothar felt the fresh forest air drift past his body.
There was a silence. The dead thing stared at the mercenaries crowding the doorway, and the soldiers of the Lord Markoth, after one horrified glance at the inert Kothar, stared back at the standing mummy.
"Great Eldrak,” a man breathed.
A hollow voice murmured, "Call not on Eldrak of the Seven Hells. He listens not to carrion such as you. He is my friend, as are all the ancient gods.” There was an illusion of vast distance behind the voice of the cadaver that stood on rotting feet and showing the whiteness of bones protruding through its burial garments.
A mercenary screamed and would have run except that the dead thing held him as he held the giant Kothar flat upon the ground. Terrifying laughter lifted into its throat as it began to glow with inner green fire.
The eerie radiance became brighter, and as it pulsed throughout the ancient grave, Kothar felt energy flow into his body. His wounds closed over, his blood caked and hardened, and anger rose into his brain like a madness. He stirred, he moved his hand, he rose upward.
On his feet he looked at the dead thing without fear, though with revulsion. It gleamed with verdant brightness, illuming the death chamber and the mercenaries in their mail shirts and metal helmets, with swords naked in their hands.
“Slay them,” said the lich, and Kothar leaped. His broken sword was still sharp. It could cleave through flesh and mail and leather, it could slay. The mercenaries tried to fight, but it was as if they moved in sleep, slowly and without a sense of danger. Their faces showed green from the pulsing dead thing, and their eyes bulged with the horror in their brains.
The shattered steel drove deep, again and again. When he was finished, seven men lay dead between the iron door and the forest. Kothar stood panting over them, staring down at his red blade.
The forest was quiet; not even a jay chattered from its leafy deeps. The Cumberian drew a deep breath. It was as if the green pulsations had reached out and touched all life within the wood, and as it had touched, it had slain. "Let drop the sword, Kothar,” said the hollow voice. He did as it commanded, without thought. He turned and stared back, into the dark tomb and saw the dead thing standing in the darkness, rotted and ugly in its cerements. The green brilliance was fading slowly. It was just a corpse, a corpse that walked and spoke and seemed to be alive.
“Who are you?' Kothar growled. "My name was Afgorkon, long and long ago.” Kothar scowled. Afgorkon? Surely he had heard Queen Elfa speak of Afgorkon who had been a mighty magician fifty thousand years ago. He tried to think, but could not, being held in thrall by the black, empty eye holes of the dead thing standing before him, bent and brown and old.
If it could have smiled, the lich might have quirked its lips.
"In the days when this land was known as Yarth, I was a sorcerer renowned from frozen Thuum in the north to tropical Azynyssa at the equator. My spells could level a city or raise up a tempest on the sea. Even now, after five hundred centuries of sleep, I still come to the call of witch and warlock, to teach the ancient mysteries or to help a suppliant in trouble. Such a suppliant is the Lady Elfa.”
"Queen or witch-woman, what's the difference? Yes, it is Elfa whose call I heard, whose call roused up this rottedness which is all that is left of the man I once was. She has need of a champion, has queen Elfa—and you are the only man of the Foreign Guard left alive. You must go to her, there is a way to reverse what has happened, to snatch victory from defeat. I have shown her the way.”
Kothar grumbled, “What is that way?"
“Only the sword Frostfire can do what must be done.”
"Frostfire was forged in the primal ooze by the devils summoned up by me five hundred centuries before. It was wrought of a metal fallen from the skies, it was dipped in the molten middle of the world, it was cooled in the snows on a mountain so high nothing but a sylph—a winged spirit of the air—could take it there. It can pierce any armor, any helm. It can be carried only by a man who has no other wealth.”
Kothar scowled. "I'm a mercenary. I sell my sword for gold and silver. Someday I shall be rich. What then?”
The lich chuckled. "For the past five years you have been selling yourself as a soldier. Are you rich?”
“I own nothing but the mail I wear, this broken sword, and my boots. But somewhere I shall find a treasure.
"Nothing man can own is like the sword Frostfire. Alone, it makes a man a giant among other men. But enough of this! Will you accept the sword and the task its ownership imposes to help queen Elfa?"
Kothar grinned wryly, “And after I have helped queen Elfa, what of the sword?”
“It shall be your fee.” The young barbarian nodded, “It shall be my fee.” The lich turned and moved with those strangely thumping footsteps across the tomb. Its rotted hands moved and its withered tongue clacked, and sounds issued from the throat that was little more than bones. The words it spoke reverberated throughout the cairn, they brought down tiny showers of dirt from the root-pierced ceiling, they made the death-slab shake.
Yet they also opened an invisible door and caused a pallid glimmer by which Kothar could see, past the burial garments which still encased Afgorkon, an opening door and a chamber where lay a sword in a scabbard chained to a great leather belt on top of two chests heavy with jewels and golden coins of a kind no man had looked upon for half a million years.
"Stand,” growled Afgorkon, and Kothar went rigid. The lich stepped into that dim-light and lifted up the scabbard and the sword Frostfire with its thick leather belt and carried them on the bones and dried flesh of its hands out into the dimmer light of the tomb, and placed them in the outstretched palms of the Cumberian.
The sword made a solid weight in his hands; its length was of bluish steel, and it had a golden cross-hilt. Witch-blade it might be, yet it had weight and substance, and its hilt made of silvery gold contained an angry red jewel set in its pommel. His big hand went around the haft and drew the shining blade partially from the scabbard. There were rune words there, words in a language so old no man could know their meaning. The edges looked biting sharp, boned to the keenness of a razor.
His hand clanged the blade back into its scabbard. Afgorkon watched him with empty eye sockets. "The words say, I was made before the world was born, for the mage Afgorkon. Aie, the sword was mine, for I was a warrior as well as a magician in that long-ago time. Though it was made by magic, there is no magic in it, or at least I do not think so, though magic can enter it and be retained by it, as no ordinary steel will do.”
The barbarian asked, “How can you part with it?” A dry chuckle resounded in the crypt. "I have other weapons now that I am dead to this world. Where I exist, the blade Frostfire cannot, and so—I give it to you who are without wealth. See it slays those who need slaying, boy of the sea.”
Kothar froze, still with his hand on the sword-hilt “What know you of the sea that flung me as a babe on the shore at Grondel bay?"
“I know, what the dead know.”
“My real family? Where was I born?”
“It is not for me to tell. You must live your life as the gods have decreed. That which you will do, your deeds and misdeeds, are written in the scrolls of the gods in the imperishable script of Rath. No living man can read them. Only the gods whom men worship, and the dead, can scan those lines.”
“You are dead,” Kothar pointed out. "True. But were I to sin in this regard, the gods might give me life and I who have been dead fifty thousand of your years do not desire to live again, other than as now —fleetingly, for moments out of Time.” The dry chuckle was soft with distance. “I am content in the place where I am. Very content, Kothar the sell-sword But now, go. The queen is waiting.”
A rotted hand lifted, pointing. The iron door gaped. Kothar moved out into the air that was fragrant with the vine-flowers. Yet the voice of Afgorkon followed him. "Go to the hut of the witch Fristhia. There shall you find the queen.”
The iron door slammed shut behind him. The rusted bolt clicked into place.