The Holding of Kolymar
Originally printed in Fantastic, October 1972
Gardner F Fox
IT WAS AT EVENTIDE that the summons came to Conmoral.
The call came on the edge of the wind that sighed and whispered as it ran across the meadows and the tarns of fabled Kolymar, and Conmoral listened with his gray head tilted sideways and a sigh for the forgotten years gathering in his throat. There was much in the world that he had forgotten, much that was changed.
For many years, ever since he had retired from the courts of King Bellarakore, had Conmoral lived on the mountain slopes of Isfanare, removing himself from his following of the war banners and his sitting in the chairs of the high places of the world. Content with his life he was, and none might lure him from his steading with its furrowed rows of things to eat and the dark woods behind it where he hunted with his bow when he felt the need for meat.
Yet now he knew the stir of renewed life within his great frame and the itch of his palm to hold the hilt of his long-sword Fiaflane that hung upon the wall beside his shield and his silvered helm and coat of plate-mail. He listened to the wind and what it had to say, and his hand tightened on the leather tankard holding his evening ale. For the wind whispered and the breezes spoke, and with his lonely ears that knew the call of loon and cry of wolf and what the starlight says as it quests between the trees of Isfanare, he understood those winds.
"It is time, as the old prophecy said," he nodded.
He rose up from the wooden table and his meal lay uneaten while he clad himself in the shirt of plate-mail and buckled the belt of Fiaflane in its scabbard about his middle.
And the breezes blew past his window, summoning him: “Come you, Conmoral the Mighty Rouse up the demon that lay once within your chest when you were general of the royal armies of King Bellarakore. Come you with us in our questing, and bring Fiaflane with you, and your shield and silver battle-helm. For we of Kolymar have a need for you!" And the winds wept and moaned softly, and Conmoral came near to weeping, also.
His shield behind him, hung on a leather thong, his helm dangling from his sword-belt, Fiaflane a heavy weight at his side, the old warrior went away from his steading and the good things to eat nestling in the tilled earth, and the wild things awaiting his hunting arrows in the woods of Isfanare. He went sadly, but proudly, for well he knew that what the old prophecy had said would come true, was now to happen, though it never mentioned the time of its coming.
He went swiftly through the wild wood along narrow pathways known to his war-boots, and ever as he went he found himself shedding the years of his life, that showed themselves in the lines on his face and by the gray hairs amid the gold on his head. His feet walked jauntily, his armor grew less heavy, and there was a fine smile upon his mouth.
To the hut of Sylthia he went, to Sylthia who was a witch, for he had need of her warlock-shared wisdom. And on the door he rapped with the golden apple cunningly entwined in the haft of Fiaflane; and knowing that sharp pounding, Sylthia bade him enter.
The old woman was sitting in a settle beside the open hearth wherein a great fire blazed, and her ancient head was nodding, nodding to the singing of the flames. At sight of Conmoral, she tapped with her blackthorn staff upon the hearthstones, bidding him sit at her feet on the faldstool.
"You came, old man,” she cackled.
"Not half so old as you, grandam.”
"You'll be wanting the bit of glass you left with me.”
"Not glass, beldame, but a jewel, the sapphire Eye of Imbrot which I left with you long ago for the keeping.”
The blackthorn stick rose, pointed. "In the cupboard yonder, Conmoral the Conqueror. On the second from the last shelf, in the little leather pouch.”
"No conqueror I, old woman," he sighed, getting to his feet and crossing the little room to the cupboard.
"Those were long ago times, true. Yet you should remember.”
"I remember most of all your prophecy.”
“Aye, and Kyrce? remember Kyrce?"
"And how I placed her in the vault and locked the graven doors behind me, that the sigils of the gods might pen her there inside for all eternity—or until Kolymar had need of her.”
"Ah, you heard the winds. You know,” she sighed.
"They bore the smell of smoke and the screams of men and women, and even some few cries of children rudely done to death."
He fumbled for the leather sack, found it and let his fingertips press the leather until the hardness of the sapphire named the Eye of Imbrot was between his fingertips, giving him strength. He fumbled also at the drawstrings and out tumbled the jewel to blink up at him, all blue fire and blue lightnings where the candle-glows caught it, on his big, callused palm.
"The lock of the crypt," he sighed.
“Only Conmoral may use it, for it was made for the general of the armies with a drop of his blood and a fingernail paring, by wise Within of the World. And use it well, Conmoral. There are forces to be loosed with that gem.”
“I know, grandam. I know it well.” Into the almoner at his sword-belt he placed the jewel, after tumbling it back inside the leather pouch. His eyes went about the room, observed the hanging garlic and the peppers, the dried meats and the cheeses. And Conmoral sighed, remembering his forgotten meal and the unemptied tankard of nut brown ale.
At the invitation of Sylthia, Conmoral put aside his plate-mail shirt and laid his great sword and shield and the silver helm upon the rush-strewn floor. He went at her bidding and placed meat and potatoes and turnips, carrots and beans and peppers in the water filling an iron cauldron, and the cauldron he hung over the flames. In a little while the stew was done, its savory smell filling the little hut, and placing bowls before himself and old Sylthia, Conmoral feasted well.
His throat thirsted for the sweet coolness of ale, but of ale the old woman had none. She did offer the freedom of her hearth to his great bulk, if he cared to wrap himself in the bearskin she kept for cold winter nights. She herself would sit and drowse before the fire, for this was the way of witches, and Sylthia had been a dreaded witch in her younger days.
In the morning, Conmoral went on his way, along the narrow hill roads until he came to the kings' highway, and along this road he tramped, grim of face and heavy of heart for the winds were whispering to him again, blowing across all of Kolymar land, and what they said made the tears come into his old eyes.
Here was a burned farmstead and there another, and many corpses lay upon the ground, for the men of Rharm are not gentle men, and they have a cruel way with spear-points and the edges of their swords. Once he paused to cut down a hanged man, and to bury him, and again he stopped in his journeying to whisper prayers above the remains of what had been a pretty girl, before the raping and the torturing.
"Too long have I been away," said Conmoral to the wind.
'You have been away too long,' breathed the wind in his hair. And it added, 'The selfishness of man, who thinks mostly of his ease, can be his greatest folly.'
Before he came to the Kolymar City, he turned off the highway and went down to the marshes of Mindorol, and on the quaking grasses that showed the firm earth where it was safe to walk, Conmoral strode ever deeper into the gloomy fens. And when he had walked a long while in those marshlands, he came to a marble edifice that had no name upon its lintel stone but only a blank space.
Yet the bronze doors were graven with the sigils of Emmora and of Cayanon the Good, and several of the other gods whom the people of Kolymar had been wont to worship in better days. And Conmoral who had been The Conqueror in his younger years, knew well enough what lay behind these doors.
Into a recess within the bronze doors he placed the sapphire called Imbrot's Eye and waited, leaning on Fiaflane in its scabbard. Soon the bronze doors opened, silently, and Conmoral stepped within the mausoleum. Dim light showed a woman lying on a flat slab, a woman with a lovely face, whose long-lashed eyes were closed and whose full red mouth drooped sadly as though she dreamed on sorrowful things.
A long black cape wore the woman, and jeweled rings on her slender white fingers, and Conmoral sighed when he saw that her thick black hair bore not a touch of the gray that infected his own, and that hers was a young face, without line or furrow.
"Kyrce,” he whispered softly, remembering the old times.
The woman called Kyrce never stirred, so that Conmoral was forced to lift once more the blue sapphire and disarranging her clothes above her heart, placed the gem on the smooth skin between her breasts.
And now Kyrce sighed and her long eyelashes went up and she stared at him with the deep blue of her eyes that matched the tints of the great sapphire.
"I have been dreaming, Conmoral,” she whispered.
“Your dreams can come true, Kyrce,” he growled.
“Aye, now can I rule in Kolymar.”
She stretched her pale arms, she laughed softly, writhing her body before his stare, and Conmoral felt once again the sensuousness of her flesh, that he had long ago put from his mind and thought to be forgotten along with his youth. Her laughter rippled out, since her eyes were very wise and she read what he was saying with his stare.
"Fool,” she breathed. "We might have ruled together.”
“Your time has come, Kyrce.”
"And that witch, Sylthia? Lives she yet?"
Kyrce swung her legs over the edge of the stone slab on which she had lain for these many years and puzzlement showed itself in her face. "You did not free me to look once more upon my beauty, Conmoral. There was another reason.”
"The Rharm are in Kolymar, ravishing and looting.”
"And King Bellarakore?”
"Dead. Dust too, by this time.”
“And his strong son, Aldarik?”
"Gone over the sea, questing for the unattainable.”
"So. The throne is empty, and the Rharm seek to place Rhodiris on its ivory and ebony seat.”
"It is as you say.”
Her eyelids dropped as she stared at him. "And you, Conmoral? What get you from my freedom?"
"The safety of the people of Kolymar.”
Her laughter rang out, harshly triumphant. "Fool! What care I for the people of Kolymar?”
"Nothing. But you care for the throne which is the symbol of rule over the people. Your haunches ache to sit on that throne, Kyrce.”
She paced about the mausoleum, rubbing pale arms with pale hands. "Yes, yes. I care for that, certainly. But you give me a poor kingdom, Conmoral who was my lover, long ago. A land invaded, a people reaved, a kingdom looted.”
"Not yet. There is time.”
She swung about near the open bronze doors to stare at him. “You shall serve me, Conmoral—you and that long sword of yours. You shall take my orders.”
He bowed his head. "I take your orders.”
"We go first to Kolymar City. I can do nothing here. My athanors and vials of demoniac liquids? My alembic and the aludels? The psalteries and the grimoires in which are recorded my spells?"
“Locked up for many years. Untouched by my order and by command of King Bellarakore. I shall take you to them.”
“Nay, nay, man. Let me take you."
Kyrce the sorceress cried out a name, at the sound of which grim Conmoral blanched. She smiled and reached out a hand to him and caught that soft, warm hand and held it as a darkness grew within the vault, thick and black as dead of night, and that blackness gathered up Kyrce and Conmoral and held them like seawater pressing close.
Only the hand of Kryce in his fingers did the old man feel, to know he was alive and that this was happening to him. And the only sound he heard was her soft breathing.
When the darkness lightened, Conmoral saw that he was in the High House of the kings of Kolymar. Before him was the window through which he had gazed many times, that looked out upon the fair city which was that of the kings of Kolymar, and the many parks and fountains with which they had beautified their city. And the city was teeming with the people running out of their houses and through the
streets, their backs bent with the weight of their most prized possessions.
"The Rharm are close at hand,” Conmoral sighed.
"Let them come! Can they harm me—or nine?”
Kyrce stretched, her widespread fingers lifting toward the ornate ceiling that had been carved of onyx and carnelian by Afthaman and little Psisto the Dwarf whose body was so ugly that women wept at sight of it, but whose fingers were possessed of the power to make things beautiful beyond the minds of men to imagine.
"I am home, Conmoral. Here shall I stay!”
"As you will, my lady.”
Her dark eyes sought out his craggy face burned by wind and sun, and there was suspicion clear to read in her glance. "You seem subservient, who was a general of the armies of Kolymar and who hated me as no man should hate any woman.”
"You were evil, Kyrce. You are still evil.”
Her thin, plucked brows rose above mocking eyes. "Knowing that, you brought me back to life?”
"The Rharm would destroy. You at least, will keep what is, in Kolymar. Rather your hand hold it than their hands burn and loot it.”
She considered that, full lower lip jutting. At last she nodded. "I will accept that. "But if I make you my own general of the armies, I shall expect your utmost loyalty.”
"I wouldn't be here, else. I am yours to command.”
"Then take me to my rooms.”
They moved unchecked and unchallenged through the basalt and ivory halls of the High House of Kolymar, for there were no guards, no servants anywhere about. By wide halls and then by broad staircases covered with deep carpeting did Conmoral lead Kyrce ever upward until they came at last to a round tower and a wooden door barred and bolted.
From the leather purse at his sword-belt, Conmoral drew out keys and fitted them to locks. When the locks were undone, he slid back the bolts and his thickly thewed left arm, that was his shield arm in time of battle, threw open the door to show the woman that which had been hers, years on years ago.
Dust lay everywhere, but Kyrce paid this no heed but walked like the queen she would be in truth, across the grimed carpets and the soiled floors, and sighed. Her athanors and alembics were fouled and useless, her vials and aludels untouched for all the years she had lain in the vault. Sunlight came in through the leaded windows and made a haze in the air from her striding.
"Servants I need, and swabbers of floors,” she said.
Across the floor she moved to a certain brocade hanging, dark with age; and her hand closed about it, tugging, and the sound of copper bells rang out above the tower, soft and laden with forgotten wisdoms, and when the bells had ceased to ring the old man heard the sound of footsteps coming nearer.
Three women and two men came in through the door, each of them cloaked and booted for traveling, and their eyes were not the eyes of those who know what they are about, for they stared sightlessly at the lady in the long black cape.
"Clean this,” said Kyrce, and they cleaned.
"Fetch food,” ordered Kyrce, and they went a way with hands empty to hold the meats and viands that might please her appetite. To the old warrior, she breathed, "Stay you also, Conmoral. I have need of humankind after so long a sleep. Put aside your cloak and join me here, on this seat below the west window.”
And Conmoral did as bidden.
Kyrce sighed and stared from the window out toward the Mallamoran Hills, behind which the sun was setting, all red glory and shimmering heat that tinted scarlet the clouds that lie above far Indoria.
"You know what I must do, Conmoral?”
"I know, Lady."
"You will be my right hand.” Her eyes glanced at him slyly. "And you know also what that will mean. You are old. You must be young.”
"Then make me young, Kyrce.”
"First I shall do that, and you shall love me as you used to love me, Conmoral the Conqueror. And by the youth I shall hold you, you know.”
He sighed, being not so far from his dying days that he did not remember how it had been, being youthful and filled with great strength and vigor. And it might be that in his remembering he recalled also those nights with Kyrce, and how loving she had been until she chose power to that love.
"Would you be young again?” she questioned softly.
"I would, Kyrce," he said softly. She clapped her pale hands, and she laughed, and her laughter stirred the fires of unremembered manhood that were deep inside the Conqueror. She put her fingers on his and he marveled at the youthfulness of her hands beside his own brawny ones, that showed the marks of age. Long ago, Kyrce had made a bond with some demon mistress by which she had been granted eternal life. It was a good thing for the world that her beauty could be preserved, he thought idly, though it was also a sad thing that she used her wisdom and her arcane knowledge in evil ways.
"Young you shall be, this very night,” she promised.
When the servants had come with the meat and viands served on silver platters and the rare Chusthion wine served in silver goblets, and they had eaten, Kyrce went into the pentagram, and carried with her those things she might need to make strong magic. The incense in the gold vessels of Ummalthor she lighted so that a fragrant mist came into the chamber, and also the hanging lamps with their oils of Karthay which made a blue radiance in the room.
“Come you, my one-time lover and stand you here, where the lesser pentagram is placed. And do not move, on your life.”
Then Kyrce poured liquids and stirred in bits of bone and hair and flesh, and over this she chanted strange words that the Conqueror did not understand, but the blue light of the lamp changed to an angry red and the haze in the room was a scarlet fog.
Out of the fog whispered piping voices and tiny shrillings, and the hairs on Conmoral's neck stood up to hear Kyrce bargaining with the spirits and the demons of the nether places. A hard bargain did Kyrce drive and the spirits and the demons wept to find themselves out-cheated, but the voice of Kyrce was as iron and her will as the cold north wind sweeping the arctic wastes.
Conmoral stirred in the little pentagram when he felt the beating of his heart grow stronger and saw that the hairs on his arms which were golden once, long years ago, and were gray now, change back to golden once again. His blood pumped more wildly in his body and when he looked at Kyrce he saw her not with the eyes of age but with the vision of youth that is stirred by the sight of female loveliness and the shapeliness of women's bodies.
The demons and the spirits went away in a little time, and Kyrce smiled from her greater pentagram at Conmoral in his lesser, and her voice was as the sugars that are cut in the gardens of Garial, very sweet and syrupy.
"You are handsome, Conmoral. I had forgotten, but I know now why I fell in love with you. Go, look in yonder mirror.”
It was as she had said, he was big and heavily muscled and his shoulders were very wide, and he was young again. The hairs on his head were as gold as the clasps on the king's coffers, that were of red gold from Kerwyddia. His clothes were a little tight to his chest and shoulders (he had lost some of this youthful musculature across the years) and his sword seemed lighter in the scabbard and his helmet not so heavy on his head.
Kyrce came across the room and putting her bare arms about his neck, she kissed him. And Conmoral knew a fire in his veins for this woman, and he kissed her and his hands caressed her softness through the lightness of her thin garment.
"You belong to me, as Kolymar will belong to me, Conmoral,” she whispered to his mouth with her lips, before holding them against him for more kissing. “You are young, young as I. And you shall stay that way for as long as you are my man.”
And she caught him by the hand and led him out of the necromantic chamber and down the narrow steps and narrow halls to the wide staircase and the wide halls of the High House. Into the chamber of the queens of Kolymar she brought him, and to its bed.
In the morning, they who had been lovers in the night took conference together and between them it was decided that there was no need to go out and hunt down the invaders, but to wait here in Kolymar City, where the Rharm would come in their own good time for its looting. They would know that the Rharm were beyond the city gates easily enough, for their horsetail banners would blow with the wind and would make a vast stirring like unto a sea of red blood flowing.
But until that coming, Kyrce must make enchantments in the round tower at the topmost peak of the High House, which had been hers long years ago, and Conmoral would walk in the city and discover how its people fared.
With his sword at his hip and his helmet under the crook of an arm, the Conqueror walked the cobbles of the city he had saved from foreign armies and into which, on his many triumphs, he and his armies had brought the loot of many distant lands, and some even that were not so distant. For Conmoral loved Kolymar, his land and its fair city, and his heart swelled in youthful pride at the sight of statues and fountains he had carried in the army vans for their setting up in Kolymar.
There were few people on the streets, and these only poor folk who had nowhere to go, nor aught to save from the invaders. And they stared at Conmoral with eyes that did not know him, for Conmoral the Conqueror was a legend in this city, but this man with the young face and the golden hair could never have lived so long as to make of his name a legend.
Conmoral sighed as he walked between the fine houses with their walled gardens, locked now against invasion, not that locks would do any good against the Rharm invaders. He thought of the good times he had had in all those houses, of the dancing and the singing, and he came near to weeping that the friends of his youth were gone before the relentless advance of Time and Age.
To the East Gate and the West Gate he walked, and what he saw saddened the heart of him, for there was looting by the poor people who had nowhere to go and nothing in which to travel. They stole and they ate and they drank fine wines the like of which their ears had heard but their throats had never known.
Once three drunken men would have robbed him but he drew Fiaflane a few inches out of its scabbard and the men paused, for they had never met a man like this, all in armor with a silver helmet and such a sword, nor one who seemed so capable of using it. He watched them run away with sadness in his eyes.
The sadness was still there when he returned at eventide to the High House of the kings of Kolymar, and only when Kyrce met him with soft laughter
and her red mouth that burned his own with kisses, could he shake away his sorrow.
"It has changed. Changed" he grieved.
"You have still your memories of your past, Conmoral. Those I can remove and shall, when I have done with my other magicks.”
They dined in the great hall, beneath a thousand gleaming candles and with the silent servants waiting upon them, as if they were already the king and queen in Kolymar City. On fair meats and rare cheeses they feasted, and they drank the fine wines which had belonged to King Bellarakore, long and long ago.
"It is nearly done,” Kyrce said once, pausing in the sipping of her wine.
"I knew it would be,” he nodded. "But make more magic and yet more, for in your magic is the salvation of the city."
When the moons of Kolymar rose upward into the sky with its myriad stars, Kyrce and Conmoral walked the terraces of the High House hand in hand, and with them went the fragrances of illius bush and franthal tree, while the sounds of the splashing waters of marble fountains tiptoed all about them. And for a little while Kyrce and Conmoral were in love again, as they had been long ago.
They sat on ebony benches and listened to the singing of the night-birds, and their hands and fingers intertwined out of old habit. They dreamed of what was to come, of the coming back of the people of Kolymar City, the rich merchants and the princes, once the city had been made safe by the Conqueror, and they longed to hear the laughter and join in the dancing and the singing that would come on that day.
Below them, far below, for the High House of the Kolymar kings rested on a great hill in the middle of the city, they could hear the drunken revelry of the poor people with nowhere to go and no way to travel. And their eyes softened, for they could hear the sounds of love and the soft whispers of men and women snatching at little moments of happiness that did not come their way too often. Kryce even wept, once or twice, softly and with sympathy in her heart that rarely knew such an emotion.
"We shall make it up to them,” she whispered.
“Aye, we shall—and together.”
For a time, then, it was as it had been long and long ago between this man and this woman. Their kisses were as sweet, as fiery, their embraces were as hungry and as fervid. Yet with the morning came the rising sun and a parting of the lips that kissed and the arms that held, for this was the morning when the Rharm were to shake free their horsetail banners to the winds so that they would look like a sea of blood before the gates of Kolymar City.
And from the high windows of the High House of the kings, Conmoral saw those banners beating in the winds and his heart was sick within his chest for he knew that meant an end to the short happiness he had known once again with Kyrce. It was time now to gird himself for battle, to witness the result of the magicks of the sorceress, and to loose the gold and red banner of the kings of Kolymar.
Kyrce came to his side, slipping a hand into his. Her body was a fragrance in his nostrils and a warm weight to his flesh where she leaned against him. Her black hair, loosed by sleep, blew against his throat.
"We shall rule here, you and I” she whispered softly, "when this day is done. King Conmoral and Queen Kyrce! It has a glorious sound, my lover."
The heart of Conmoral wept, for he alone knew what the future must bring to them. And the bitterness of fate was on his tongue and in the hard eyes with which he scanned the hosts of the Rharm.
They were as grains along the shores of the ocean, or as the leaves on the trees of the forest in midsummer, and the magicks of Kyrce must be at their greatest if he was to snatch victory this day from the riders of the horsetail banners. His arm drew Kyrce to him, and he kissed the kiss of farewell upon her soft red mouth.
"It is time,” she sighed, stirring.
"I go to arm," he told her.
In a while he came from the chamber girt all in mail and helmeted, with the shield on its leather thong hanging down his back and his sword Fiaflane in its scabbard at his side. He strode out into the courtyard and mounted the gray warhorse, seating his great frame in the high peaked saddle as he had been wont to do in the forgotten years.
Alone, Conmoral rode down from the High House along the road leading to the city. He paced the gray along the broad Avenue of Heroes, and the clopping of its hooves awoke the distant echoes. Now to join those echoes came other sounds and cloppings and the heart of Conmoral swelled within his breast for he knew that the magicks of Kyrce were at work.
The clanking of metal, the creakings of leather, the sighs of men were carried softly by the breezes to his ears and no longer could he hear the hoof-beats of his gray warhorse, so loud were they become. Conmoral stood in his iron stirrups and looked behind him and his eyes glittered with pride and his lips curved to a smile of triumph, for he saw rank on rank of mailed men and men in plate armor, their grim faces hidden by their helmets. These were the warriors summoned up by the sorceress, but out of what distant land or forgotten age, he did not know. They were here to obey his commands and to serve the golden banner of Kolymar that he carried in his right hand on a long pole.
"Standard bearer,” he cried, and a youth came galloping.
Into his hand he passed the banner and saw that the youth accepted it with a strong left hand, for his right held a grim battle-ax which bore the marks of long fighting.
"Captains," he roared, and ten men trotted to meet him. Hardened veterans were these, wise and wary in the war arts, and when he had questioned them a little, he blessed the wisdom of Kyrce who had found them he knew not where, and brought them here to Kolymar.
Behind the captains were the horsemen, tall and lean with long spears and shields upon their left arms. And the shields bore the lion of Kolymar upon their gleaming metals. Behind the horsemen, which were as many as the cobblestones underfoot, were the pikes and the bowmen, jaunty and confident in their marching, their voices as they sang an unknown song deep-throated with that confidence which men know who have never tasted defeat.
"Arrange your array,” he said to the captains. "I will station the pike-men and the archers in thin lines before the city walls, and the horsemen I shall hold in readiness.”
The captains nodded, knowing it was a good plan.
The gates of Kolymar clanged open and the pike-men and the archers marched out upon the plain before the city. A murmur of amazement from the hide tents of the Rharm matched their coming, for the invaders had thought Kolymar to be a dead city. In thin lines the pikes planted their butts into the ground while the bowmen fitted arrows to their strings, and waited.
Foremost amid the pikes stood Conmoral as was his habit in wartime, that all men might see his silvered mail and plate armor, and the high helmet with the boar device upon his head. His sword Fiaflane flashed in the sunlight, and a host of slender arrow shafts rose into the morning sunlight and fell among the hide tents.
And many Rharm died therefrom.
Yet now the savages charged on their ponies, screaming and whirling their swords and their axes and their war-hammers. The pikes met this charge, killing many on their foot long pike-heads, and freeing those bloodied points, fell back behind the archers who sent their arrows into the massed array tumbled upon their fallen leaders.
These bowman retreated behind the next line of pikes who met the coming charge when the barbarians had brought order out of chaos. And these fell back with the second row of archers taking their place. Fast flew the arrows, like tiny chips of sunlight. And many of the Rharm died on those sharp iron arrowheads and lay stark.
A silver trumpet blew.
The pike men and the archers wheeled, opening a wide lane and through this opening came the lancers, riding hard, their long spears glittering. They met the barbarian host and cleaved a path through their ranks, even unto the hide tents. There they turned and came back whence they had come, and many were the corpses strewn lifeless in their wake.
Conmoral the Conqueror fought with Fiaflane bloody-red with Rharm gore, standing ever in his stirrups and flailing left and right with his long sword, catching the blows of sword and ax and war-hammer on its great surface so that no weapon might hurt him. His voice called courage to his men, his sword taught them that where he stood was a rock that should not fail.
All day long the battle swelled and raged, for the Rharm were many and their courage was that of the fiends and imps of hell. They hurled themselves on pikes, they felt the bite of arrows, the impalement of long spears and the flashing cuts of sword and ax And ever death rose up to embrace those barbarians, for the hosts that fought with Conmoral seemed not to feel the steel that struck them nor the blows rained upon their heads and bodies.
The dying sun flamed red as if for the blood that had been spilled this day when the invaders finally turned and ran from this host that held the gate into Kolymar City. They left behind them tents and wagons and herds of horses, for they had only one thought in mind, to flee this land where the soldiers were like the gods that did not die, each and every one of them.
For many years would the tale be told in Rharm tents of the time their warriors had fought the gods at the gates of Kolymar City, and of the man in the silver mail who had stood in his stirrups and swung a long sword that never missed its mark. And this god they knew as Conmoral, for so the soldiers named him, shouting in amaze at the manner of his fighting and his body that showed no weariness.
Yet Conmoral was weary unto death, and his body ached in arms and chest and legs, for with his terrible fighting he had lost a little of the magic which Kyrce had put into the young flesh which she had given him. He felt his age, because he still had his memories, and his shoulders were bowed and the sword Fiaflane came near to falling from his fingers.
He rested in the high-peaked saddle, with his head bent and the tears oozing from his closed eyes, for only Conmoral knew what must now follow. And in the heart of him he keened and railed against the fate which the gods decree for each and every one of us, for always there is a bitterness in each life that is not of the making of the man or woman who endures it. Sometimes in the past Conmoral had thought that the gods must hate the race of men because of the torments which the gods visit upon them.
It was dusk when Conmoral straightened his shoulders and his bitter tears dried upon his cheeks. He tightened his grip on the shaft of Fiaflane and placed the bloodied blade into its scabbard. Both hands he used to remove his silver helm with its boar device and hold it before him resting on the high pommel of his saddle.
Deep he breathed, and let the night winds come down from the hills and curl about his—sweat—wet temples and his golden hair. After a time the winds refreshed him, and whispered to him that his life was almost at an end, that the magicks of Kyrce were ephemeral things and most soon pass as all things passed with Time.
Only he was alive, only the dead bodies of the slain barbarians piled high in heaps and windrows kept him company beneath the glittering moons of Kolymar. Gone were the armies Kyrce had summoned up out of a distant place and a forgotten Time to obey his will this day.
Slowly he rode into Kolymar City.
No cheering throngs greeted his advance, as had been in the long ago times. No feasting would there be this night, and no dancing, and no laurel wreaths for his gold hair. But there was a light in the highest tower of the High House of the kings, and there would he find Kyrce practicing her magicks.
With troubled heart and grieving mien, Conmoral doffed his battle armor and put on the purple tunic with the golden braid which Kyrce had prepared for him, and purple hose and boots of soft brown leather. Around his middle he wore a belt of golden links, from which hung a scabbard holding a dagger with a golden haft.
As such, a king would array him self, Conmoral thought, moving up the steps of the worn stone staircase to the tower. He would be a king in Kolymar, with Kyrce as his queen. The merchants and the princes would come back to this city that was their home, which Conmoral and Kyrce had saved for them, and they would bend their proud knees and do them homage.
Kyrce met him with warm arms and soft lips and catching him by the hand, drew him to the lesser pentagram. With a final kiss she stepped into the greater pentagram and began to pour the oils and liquids from her alembics upon the unholy fire that shone red and purple in the silver braziers. There was no smoke from those fires that drank the oils and liquids but only a faint sighing.
"What would you, Kyrce?" he asked softly.
"I summon up the demons and the imps, my love. It is time for their rewarding. So it was in the past with Kyrce, as you may recall, so it is now and shall be again. You remember, I know, for I have not yet destroyed your memories.”
Through the narrow tower windows Conmoral could hear the screamings of the poor people, those who had nowhere to go and no way by which to travel. There was fear and horror in those voices and Conmoral knew that the demons and the imps were ravening in the poorer corners of the city where lived the only people still in Kolymar City. The beings of the nether hells were claiming their reward by feasting on human souls which they ate as wolves eat the flesh of an elk they fell with their sharp fangs.
So was the way of Kyrce in the old days, that would come again. The human sacrifices which were due of those who served her and made her magicks, this was the price she paid for her greatness.
And Conmoral stepped from the lesser pentagram to the greater. In his hand he held the dagger with the golden hilt, the blade of which was of true steel, long and very sharp.
Into Kyrce he plunged the blade, and wept to his thrusting. Deep he drove the steel and Kyrce died there on her feet.
Conmoral caught her and kissed her waxen cheeks and grieved with a sorrow that shook him as might the ague. The gods do hate men and women and torment them with the destinies their hands have written for then in the Books of the Elder Gods. And it was written on that page which belonged to Conmoral that he must slay the thing he loved, to avert a great tragedy for the people of Kolymar City.
Dead he laid the woman he loved on the tiled floor and long he knelt above her body, sorrowing in his heart for what might have been and could never be, except perhaps in some other world and in another Time. All night long he knelt, knowing the demons and the imps had fled back into their nether lands when Kyrce died and that the people of the city were safe.
When he rose in the morning light, he was an old man again, for the spells of Kyrce could last only as long as her life. Yet he did not regret the loss of his momentary youth, for now he would die the sooner and go to find Kyrce in those other worlds which the gods say exist beyond a man's dying.
Then Conmoral went home to Isfanare.
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