A Sample of Chapter 4 from Kothar and the Conjurer’s Curse

Sword & Sorcery

Chapter 4

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A mutter rose and swelled behind him as the peasants saw that pile of stone and rock and the armed men who were mere winks of sunlight on steel caps as they patrolled the sidewalks. Their feet began to drag and their murmurs of sullen dismay broke out into cries of fear.

Kothar turned, putting a hand on the cantle and sweeping them with his glare. “Fools! They’ve seen you now. It’s either go forward to fight—or have them sally out and capture you.”

“My wolves are in the bushes, Kothar. Once the fight begins, they’ll join us.”

“And if any man flinches—have them pull him down,” the barbarian snarled. He felt pity for these peasants, but he knew the robber barons. They respected only force and stronger sword-arms than their own.

They were thirty men and one woman marching into the stronghold of the fiercest robber-baron between the border and Alkarion. There must be a hundred men-at-arms inside Raven Garde, tough fighting-men, every last one. Kothar wished only for one thing: Frostfire. He would have felt more secure with its hilt between his fingers.

The men pacing guard duty on the sidewalks paid no attention to these dusty travelers. They saw the armor of the riders, the weary walking of the men-at-arms. They heard the keening of the women who were chained together. There was no reason to be suspicious. Only a madman would dare Raven Garde with so few swords at his back.

Through the wooden gate they passed without incident, on to an inner courtyard paved with worn, ancient cobblestones, Their horses’ hooves struck sparks on the stone, and then they were drawing rein.

The barbarian ran his gaze across stone walls and stairways leading up to solars. The fortress had been built around a square tower that was part of the keep on which was carved the image of a saurian face of black basalt, stamped with all the lusts and desires known to the race of men. The eyes glinted as though they knew a life of their own. Where the sunlight caught them, for a moment Kothar thought he saw an entity staring down at him; in a moment, that life spark was gone and he saw only the bulging eyes.

He swung a leg over his saddle cantle. In answer to that signal the disguised peasants gripped their lances, and ran at the soldiers lounging in the shadow of the armory, wearing only cotton shirts and breeks. They were unarmed. The lance-heads went into their middles and they died squirming on the cold steel, impaled against the wooden framework of the building.

Two men from the sidewalk shouted. The wolf-woman was slipping a round stone the size of an egg into her sling-cup. Around her head she whirled those leather thongs, releasing one at the apex of its circling. The stone flew true, thudding into the forehead of a soldier lifting his bow.

Again the sling twirled; a second man died. Kothar was flinging open the armory door. A dozen men inside the dirt-floored room, polishing armor and sharpening their swords and daggers, gaped at him with bulging eyes. He was across the space that separated them, his sword cleaving the air an instant before burying itself in warm flesh. He ravened like a madman, for of all those who had ridden into Raven Garde he alone was battle-wise enough to understand that not one of this small army of brigands must be left alive to carry on their grim trade.

His blade dipped and darted. He slew coldly, without regret or compassion; to the barbarian, this was a task that must be done. And when he eased the point of his borrowed sword to the ground, so that the drops of blood fell redly to the dirt floor and were absorbed, the muscles in his sword-arm ached.

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A Sample of Chapter 3 from Kyrik and the Wizard’s Sword

Sword & Sorcery

A Sample of Chapter 3

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They ran before the gusts that grew in intensity as the sky darkened overhead and the waves grew rougher and wilder. The vessel was lifted by those waves and hurled forward, half out of the water at some places, as Olvia clung to the moldboards with both hands and whispered words under her breath that the wind blew away.

Only Kyrik seemed unmoved by the approaching storm. Occasionally his eyes would go to the sail where it strained against the slides and gaskets. His hand was steady on the tiller, always he kept the bow pointed away from the full force of the gale.

Olvia was a little green. When he noticed that she was swallowing hard, he called, “Lie down. Cover yourself with the spare sail you’ll find in the locker. This won’t be pleasant for you, what’s coming.”

She shook her head. “I can stand it.” He merely shrugged. The winds were blowing full force now, and the shallop was bucking and pitching as if it had become demented. Olvia made a mewling sound deep in her throat.

“Heave up, girl,” Kyrik shouted. “But mind you do it away from the wind.”

She gave a brief nod, coughed. Next moment she was hung over the edge of the boat, retching. The seawater came up to drench her wetly, so that from moment to moment she was almost out of sight beneath the waves. But in time she sat back, swallowing hard, though her features still seemed faintly greenish.

“Lie down,” he urged. “Try to rest.” She sank onto the cockpit boards and lay her head against the sack of food. She moaned, drawing up her legs, and turned on her side.

“Still want to find that treasure?” Kyrik sang Out.

She did not answer him. Kyrik lifted his face, feeling the drops of rain slam into him as the black sky opened. The wind was even fiercer, out on the open sea, and the salt spume stung where it lashed his face.

But he grinned, loving every moment of it, even when a cross-wave, wind-driven, threatened to overturn the boat. He righted it by a prodigious feat of strength, pitting his massive muscles against the pull of the waves, keeping the rudder to its proper position, whispering prayers to Illis that the sail would not blow away.

He had estimated the shallop correctly. It was a good sailor. It flew before that gale, skimming lightly through the waves, shaking them to one side or the other in masses of foaming water.

The hours went by and still he sat like a graven image, unmoving as he fought the elements. There was darkness all around him now. It was hard even to make out the sleeping shape of Olvia on the floorboards. But the storm was about to blow itself out, he could sense this in the lessening of the wind, in the ease of wave-tension against the rudder.

It would not come yet, though. These storms on the Sunless Sea were famous from Antherak to Parthenor. They took days, sometimes, before they lost their fury. It made no difference to Kyrik. He did not care whether Ammalauth-Vul were alive or dead. Only Olvia cared about that.

As the darkness faded slowly and the surging of the waves lessened, the girl sat up. Her eyes went to Kyrik, then upward toward the sky.

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A Sample of Chapter 2 from Barbary Slave

Historical Romance

Chapter 2

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It was the time of lamp lighting, one week after the day when he had killed Kefas on the street of Arcades, that Fletcher was summoned before the keeper of the house. He found Sinan ibn Ajaj seated at a teakwood desk, its top inlaid with mother of pearl. There was a large leather bag in front of the bald Turk. At sight of Fletcher, Sinan dipped his brown paw into the coins that bulged the sides of the sack. He counted out a handful, and pushed them across the table top to the American.

“Your alaik coins, Stefan. There’s a slave tavern run by Niccolo Gritti the Neapolitan, beyond the Street of the Sail-makers. You’ll find your kind there, nasrany, Christian dogs, Maybe even some Americans. Have yourself some fun.”

Fletcher stared, aware that puzzlement showed in his slack jaw and wide eyes. The Turk leaned back, thumbs hooked at his sash, grinning.

“Surprises you, doesn’t it? All slave masters aren’t as stupid as Ali ben Sidi! That’s why we hand out alaik slave money. Matter of fact, there’s a little slave community right here in the heart of Tripoli itself. Gritti runs a tavern. Carapoulous the Greek owns an odd goods shop, where an Italian can buy himself some maccaroni, or a Frenchman some pastry. I understand they have little flags for homesick Americans, too. Buy yourself one. It’ll make you feel better. And work better, too. The smart masters give their slaves a chance to let off steam by meeting at Gritti’s Olive Tree, or the Coq d’Or. Do they lay, plans to escape, there? What if they do?”

Sinan leaned forward, and his dark eyes blazed with mocking pride. “Where can they escape to, eh? The desert? They’d dry up and blow away inside two days. The sea? The corsairs own the sea hereabouts except where the cursed Americans sail their frigates! They’d bring ’em back and torture them in public. No, it doesn’t do any harm to let the slaves meet. They can’t go anywhere. They talk a lot and make plans that never come about, and are happier and healthier as a result. Their owners get out of them. Everybody’s better off, all the way around.”

Sinan pushed the silver coins forward. “So take the money and enjoy yourself. You can get drunk on whisky—mashallah! what an infidel concoction!—if you want.

Fletcher walked out of the palace to the street. Dusk was settling along the shore of North Africa, bringing the glow of lamplight from deeply recessed windows in the white walled shops and mosques. In the cool shadows he swiftly, passing a Berber tribesman newly out of the Fezzan desert sands, and a harem eunuch on his way to the sweetmeat shops.

There were a few corsair captains in turbaned helmets moving along the Street of the Sail-makers, readying equipment for fresh voyages upon the Mediterranean. Through the open doorways he saw the sellers of sails haggling over prices or displaying canvas to swarthy men with beak noses and spade beards, their left hands resting on the hilts of scimitars or curved daggers. American ships like the frigate Constitution and the schooner Enterprise maintained the blockade outside the harbor rocks, but the Mediterranean was a large sea, and the African shoreline boasted many little coves and inlets. Small feluccas and narrow barquentines could anchor unseen in the shelter of high rocks and tree-clad promontories. At night they could slip out into the sea and be a score of miles away by dawn.

The slave trade prospered at the hands of these ingenious sea captains. They brought their captives and their pirated loot overland from those hidden coves in camel caravans. Tripoli suffered from the patrolling of its coastal waters, by American ships, but not as much as it would have done without the hawk-faced corsairs.

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A Sample of Chapter 1 from L.U.S.T. be a Lady Tonight

Sexy Lady Spy

Chapter 1

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I learned about L.U.S.T. in Haiti.

The League of Underground-Spies and Terrorists, that is.

At the time, I had no thought of becoming a spy. I was on, vacation and enjoying myself as I did not do at home, with the voodoo drums throbbing in the warm night air lying heavy on the slopes of Morne à Cabrits, a sea wind off the gulf bringing with it the languid scent of jasmine.

I was watching a naked girl dance la cumbia.

La cumbia is a voodoo dance, wild and erotic.

Her dance was getting to my date, George Norman, a fellow American vacationer, in Port Au Prince. The rhythms of the rada drums, those cylinders of wood and hide consecrated to the gods on banana leaves, before lighted candles and with votive offerings of food and drink, the eerie sounds of the lambi conch shells, the chanting of the mambo priestesses, were all around us. The clatter of the organ bells, the sight of the pretty mulatto dancer shimmying ecstatically so that her breasts shook like bowls of café au lait jelly, were filling George with a magic all his own.

His arms were tight about my middle, his eyes were fastened on the loins of the dancer his body was firm against my buttocks, His breathing was uneven.

“My, my,” he kept saying.

The mulatto girl was quivering from her knees tip to her shoulders, Her eyes were wide, staring. At her feet, the six votive candles blazed with a brightness oddly appropriate in the otherwise dark jungle-night. Her feet stamped, her heavy thighs shook, her soft buttocks jiggled as she moved between the waxen tapers, uttering soft cries.

La cumbia is a dance of passion. Just as the corybantes, those priestesses of Cybele worshiped the goddess in Sumer and in Babylon with their extravagant posturings, so this young woman was adoring the life force that is in every man and woman. Her body was tuning itself to the vibrations of her gods, and because of her efforts, was glistening with sweat.

Her dance was akin to the fertility rites of the ancient religions, where the women worshiped the life principle itself, giving themselves to the embraces of strange men for the greater glory of a goddess like Mylitta. In la cumbia, there are no patterned steps, it is an individual offering by the dancer by which she hopes to free her spirit, offering it to the god, and through the god, to her loved one. The blazing candles symbolize the sun, the first life force which brings ripeness to the crops and warmth to animal life.

On spraddled legs the girl was moving above the clustered candles. Her head was thrown back, her shoulders barely moved yet her heavy breasts were leaping wildly. It was a stance by which the god was said to enter into the body of his priestess, but it was also a pose which was designed to rouse the primal lusts of the onlookers.

It was rousing George, all right.

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A Sample from Chapter 5 of Kothar and the Demon Queen

Sword & Sorcery

Chapter 5

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One moment, she was walking and the next she was sinking down into the water, crying out sharply. Kothar waded toward her, reached down, caught her by the hand, and yanked her up. She dripped wetly, her gown was plastered to her body but she laughed happily.

“It’s there, some sort of hole, an opening in the rock. I went down into it. But—but it’s dark down there.”

“I’ll go. You stay here. If it leads me beyond Urgal, I’ll come back for you.”

They heard the sound of footsteps on the distant stone staircase. Philisia shook her head. “No time for that. We go together. I’m not staying here to be caught by Tor Domnus’s soldiers.

Kothar nodded. Shifting his grip on Xixthur, he stepped forward and sank downward like a stone, vaguely aware that the woman was following after him. For fifteen-feet he went straight-down, then saw dim light through the water ahead. He swam as best he could with the great weight of the metal god in his arms, but the water shallowed ahead and he was soon standing up to his middle thighs in water, inside a huge stones walled sea cave. Philisia gripped his sword-belt, yanked herself to her feet beside him.

“Where are we?” he wondered. “Somewhere on the shoreline of Urgon-lake, where there are many cliffs.” She put her head to one side, gathering her brown hair in her hands and wringing out the droplets of water. “The lake is bordered by cliffs. This cave must be inside one of them, completely hidden from view.”

“There’s an opening of sorts up ahead. Come on.” They waded across the cave to a strip of pale water lightened by shafts of moonlight. Kothar put Xixthur down on a stone ledge and dove. He came up in lake water with the moon low in the sky and a gigantic stone cliff rising behind him. He went back for Xixthur, and told Philisa what he had seen. She nodded, “Yes, the face of the cliff must reach underwater a few feet, just enough to hide the entrance into this cave. This is the path by which Azthamur came and went. It will serve to—let us get away.”

She bent, tore the long sodden skirt of her gown until she was naked below her upper thighs. Her brown eyes flashed at him. “It makes swimming easier, with less of this thing to encumber me.” Then she turned in the water and dove. They came up alongside the cliff face, kicking to buoy themselves in the deeper water. Xixthur was so heavy, Kothar was forced to grip a jutting section of rock to keep his head in the air.

“Certainly I can’t swim with this thing,” he growled. His eyes raked the sheer face of the cliff. “And that bluff doesn’t afford any hand grips or toeholds to let me climb it.”

He began to inch his way along the base of the cliff, holding Xixthur under an arm and using his free hand to find and cling to jutting parts of the cliff. A cool wind was blowing across the lake, from the forest on the other side. It was a lonely, desolate spot, considering the fact that it was so close to the city of Urgal, which raised its walls on the other side of the cliff.

“If Azthamur used the lake for his comings and goings,” panted Philisia, “no man or woman in the city would use it. Perhaps, long ago, they did come here to swim—until the demon caught and ate a few.”

“It helps us, that fact,” Kothar admitted.

He found a narrow trail where the cliff-side ended, and lifted out of the water, putting the ray-machine on the ground and turning to lend a hand to Philisia, She sank down on solid ground at his feet, shivering. The water had been icy cold, the wind from the forests just as chilling. The myriad stars in the sky were fading from view before the first shafts of red sunlight coming from beyond distant Sybaros, which beached upon the salt waters of the Outer Sea.

“Let me rest,” she begged. “There’s no time for that. This early hour of the morning is the best time to travel, for there won’t be many folk about to see and report us to Tor Domnus.”

He bent, caught her hand, yanked her to her feet. She shivered, wet and miserable, against him. Kothar grinned, slapped her haunch.

“The sun will dry you off in the barrens between Urgal and Kor. But first we’ve got to find a stable and steal two horses.”

She nodded, sniffling. “Tor Domnus keeps horses not far from here that are used by his couriers to travel with messages to the lords of Phalkar and Sybaros.”

Kothar heaved Xixthur to a shoulder and planted his feet where Philisia walked. She went sure footedly through these woods, and there was an aliveness about her that made the barbarian realize that, for the first time in her life, she felt truly free. From time to time, she turned to flash a smile at him.

She slowed her steps as they came to the edge of the woods that bordered on a wide-road running between Urgal and Phalkar to the north. As he stood within the leafy boskage of leaves and bushes, Kothar could make out the big barns and stables, he caught the smell of horseflesh, he heard a man rattling tools about inside a large shed.

“There will be guards here and there,” she whispered.

The barbarian grunted. Alone and without Xixthur, he might have risked as direct attack, simply going into the stables, snatching a horse and galloping off. With Philisia to consider, he must use caution.

He said, “There’s a low roof there,” nodding at a thatched section of the stable roof. “I’m going up to have a look.”

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A sample from Chapter 2 of Kyrik Fights the Demon World

Sword & Sorcery

A sample from Chapter 2
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Five days later they rode to the top of a high hill and drew rein; thick mists covered the land below. Here and there a wind tossed about and the fogs parted to show black waters and breeze swayed reeds. Strange vegetation grew beside the reeds, pulpy flowers and thin stalks that waved oddly even when the wind died down.

These were the Doom-day Swamps, vast stretches of water and soft earth where strange beasts were reputed to dwell, and where men had been lost and never seen again unless some wayfarer chanced upon their skeletons.

They could not discover the island of Ikthoros, it was too well hidden by gray mists lying close above the waters. Kyrik rumbled a curse deep in his chest.

“We’ll have to find a boat, our horses can never cross that morass. They’d drown, and we along with them.”

He heeled the black stallion forward. He did not glance at Myrnis, and so did not see her body stiffen or her eyes change slowly to a brilliant emerald. Verdant with godlike life were those eyes, as though carved from the heart of a living jewel. Brilliant were those eyes, shining with iridescent lights for an instant; then their radiance dimmed, and Myrnis looked out of her ordinary green pupils again.

The girl shook herself, opened her lips to call to the warlock-warrior ahead of her, but did not. She rode with a puzzled frown on her pretty face, down to the water’s edge.

The banks of these swamp lands were soft loam, half water. The horses’ hooves sank into mushy grass and they snorted and drew back. The mists were thicker here, blowing about as if filled with avid mouths seeking to devour.

“By Illis of the soft breasts. This is a gloomy place,” muttered Kyrik as he came down out of the kak. “We’ll have to unsaddle and let them run free while we go on.”

“Without a boat?”

“There must be one somewhere near. The men of Kilgol sometimes fish these waters, those which are shallow where no big reptiles come. I’ll go look.”

“No need for that.” Myrnis stood up in the stirrups. Her arm rose; she pointed. “There to the north, beneath a tree.”

Kyrik gave her a curious glance, but he walked in that direction and came upon a shallow dugout fashioned from a log of kinna wood. His muscles bulged as he lifted and pushed it toward the water. Beneath it had been hidden two paddles.

The gypsy girl was at his side, stepping daintily into the dugout so it only swayed a little and soon was still. The warrior eased it out between the reeds, and swung himself into its bow. Myrnis crouched in the prow, dipping a paddle from time to time, her eyes scanning the mists ahead.

“To the left,” she called once, and again: “More to westward.”

Kyrik did not trouble his head about her directions. His keen eyes went between the tiny gaps in the mist even faster than hers. Yet when a certain note crept into her voice he followed her suggestions, and wondered at himself.

All about them were high swamp grasses, rustling against the keel and sides of the dugout. Rearing up out of the gray clouds they could make out a fen-tree, covered with foliage so dark a green it seemed almost black. It was a dismal place, this swamp, and the Tantagolian, who liked open spaces and a cool wind, moved uneasily as though he sensed evil lurking in the mists.

“What manner of man would build a temple in a place like this?” he wondered aloud, and Myrnis laughed softly.

“Once this swamp was lush land where good feeding grasses grew, part of the ancient kingdom of Surrillione, where Moforgon was worshiped. They held strange rites in his temple, they sacrificed beautiful virgins to the demon god. It was not a nice land, Surrillione, in those forgotten days.”

Her eyes were bright as starlight again, but Kyrik did not notice, for her face was turned from him as she watched the waterways ahead. She spoke softly, in a voice more melodious than Myrnis’ own, and it was the voice that stiffened his spine.

“You sound like . . . He shook himself against the notion that had come into his head. He knew that voice, its inflections; he had heard it often enough. In his long ago life, before the spell had been put upon him, he had worshiped the goddess Illis. And short months ago she had come to life for him, to help him defeat Devadonides and slay the demon Absothoth.

His hand reached out, caught the girl, swung her about. Myrnis turned a surprised face to him, eyebrows arched questioningly.

“What is it?” she asked. He was dreaming. It was not Illis who sat in this dugout with him, but a Romany girl. He said, “A notion I had. It’s nothing. I wondered how you knew about Surrillione.”

Myrnis frowned. “It was something I heard, I don’t remember where or when. But it’s true enough.”

She turned back to her paddling, and from time to time the warlock-warrior cast dubious looks at her. He was not satisfied with her answer; no mere gypsy knows the ancient history of this land, he told himself. But what he was beginning to suspect was—nonsense.

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A Sample from Chapter 3 of Kothar of the Magic Sword

Sword & Sorcery

A Sample from Chapter 3

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He stood on a flat rock, above a rolling grassland that stretched away toward low hills and a forested slope in the distance. Closer, where he stood with the cloak flapping in the warm wind, rocks were piled high as though a giant hand had flung them together in a playful mood.

The sky was yellow here, and the wind seemed to whisper as with many soft voices. Almost, it seemed he could understand those voices. They warned him, they counseled him, but he could not understand their words, only the mood they wrote across his mind with their faint suspirations. A shadow moved along the ground. Looking up, he saw a giant eagle soaring along on the wind currents, with widespread wings.

Kothar shook himself.

There was a black tower in the distance, and a narrow roadway leading to it, past the rock pile where the barbarian stood. He moved down, walked along to the road. There would be someone in the tower, he hoped, who could tell him where he was and how to get back into the room with the helix.

It seemed he had walked for only a little while, then the tower loomed before him, squat and low, with the mark of ineffable age on its dark stones. There were no windows in the tower, none that he could see, at least.

Only a great oaken door, hung with an iron knocker, showed that there was any way in or out of that tower.

Kothar gripped the knocker, banged it hard. The door opened soundlessly. A woman in a tight black kirtle stood there, her face white as chalk, her lips the color of fresh red blood, her eyes behind long black lashes and thin brows like burning black coals. She did not seemed surprised to see him, her lips curled into a faint smile.

“Whom seek you, stranger?”

“The emperor of Avalonia, Kyros. He has my sword Frostfire. I would win it back from him.”

The woman stood back, nodding. “Enter, then. I am Leithe, of this land Nirvalla. I know of Kyros and his golden galley, where he keeps the helix.”

Kothar moved into the hall, his bare feet touching the curious stones that formed the tower floor. Though they appeared cold, the flaggings, each one marked with a magical sign, were quite warm and comfortable. The walls were draped in thick brocades of scarlet and black, with the signs of the Seven Sisters of Salathus worked into their materials. An iron torchere on the wall held a length of glowing wood that gave off a surprising amount of bluish light.

The woman walked ahead of him, her round haunches swaying with catlike grace as she led the way into a room beyond the hall. Here was set a long banqueting table, with crystal goblets and platters of earthenware.

“Eat, stranger. While you dine, I will tell you a little tale,” Leithe murmured, moving to the table, lifting the cover from a platter and revealing steaming meat, gesturing at a salver piled with bread, removing the top of a plate that held several cheeses.

She poured red wine into a crystal goblet for him as Kothar seated himself on a bench. Her black eyes studied his great body, nodding from time to time as she mentally assayed the strength in his rolling muscles. “You may be the one,” she told him as he reached for meat and bread. “Long have I waited for you to come walking down that road.”

“The one for what?” the Cumberian asked, between bites.

“The man to break the spell of Thaladomis.” Kothar blinked, head lifting with surprise. “The emperor’s magician? What’s he got to do with Nirvilla?”

The woman seated herself at the table, reached for a crystal goblet and sipped at the red wine it contained; Her eyes brooded as she looked back into the past.

“This world of Nirvalla was created by the archmage Phronalom.

“Phronalom was the greatest wizard of his time. Only the almost mythical Afgorkon was his better, it is said. Phromalom lived in the kingdom of Althasia, long and long ago, perhaps forty thousand of your years.”

The barbarian nodded, wiping his wine-wet lips with the back of his hairy forearm. “I’ve heard of Althasia and of Phronalom. They tell fairy tales about them in Vandacia.”

The woman began to talk. Althasia in those days was a world of tyrants and warlords, of armies marching to conquest, of soldiers in little bands breaking into the homes of citizens, carrying them off with their wives and children to serve the desires, of King Drongol. To King Drongol, his people existed only to pleasure his royal whims and fulfill the needs of his kingdom.

He established breeding farms where his most valiant warriors acted as studs to the healthiest and loveliest women of the kingdom. Children and more children, demanded the king. Male children, to train as warriors, female children to bear more future warriors.

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A sample from the first story in Kothar: Barbarian Swordsman

Sword & Sorcery

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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 of 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 sellsword, 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 blooddrops 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.

And yet—

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.

Dwallka 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.

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