of THE HELIX FROM BEYOND
from Kothar of the Magic Sword
Digitally transcribed for the Gardner Francis Fox Adventure Library
Kothar shook his head. He was on his feet, still dazed from the double blows his head had taken. His eyes opened and closed as he sought to focus his blurred vision. Gods, but Frostfire was heavy! It seemed to weigh him down as might an anchor chain.
His eyes cleared.
He was standing in front of the emperor, who sat grinning at him while his pudgy fingers fondled the great-hilt of Frostfire. Kothar blinked. If Kyros held his sword, what weighted his hands so much?
He looked down at a heavy iron chain. His wrists were manacled to it, it dangled there before him, black and thick and cumbersome. While he had been unconscious, the Prokorian Guards had fettered him.
“So,” Kyros said softly, “we have captured ourselves a tiger.”
Kothar stared at him unwinkingly. “What were you after, stupid man? The helix?” Jeering laughter struck his ears. The nobles and their women crowded about, echoing the royal mirth. The barbarian stared at them, seeing the pasty faces of the men and their soft bodies hidden behind silken robes that had come by the caravan roads from beyond the Sysyphean Hills.
His eyes touched the women, flickering. Aye, these women of Avalonia were fair, their flesh smooth as satin. They did not hide their bodies behind silk, they showed them proudly, half-naked in breastplates of thin gold and golden belts from which a few transparent garments floated. Their faces were regal, proud, their breasts stood up firmly, only slightly hidden by the golden cups. Excitement flared in their eyes, the desire to see a man baited, tortured and slain before them.
Kothar rumbled angrily, “I came for the helix. It will fetch me a fortune in the trade marts.” He said no word of Nestorius; he felt he owed the merchant that much loyalty, since he was here to earn his gold.
Kyros barked laughter. “Fool! If you dared go into that room—but never mind that. You laid hands on my person, and for that you must die. And yet—I know not how to order your death.”
“Torture him! Give him the death of the thousand cuts!”
“No—the water torture! Kyros, the water torture.”
“Lash him to death at the mast!”
“Drag him below the keel as a starter.” Kyros leaned chin on fist, elbow on the arm of his throne as he studied the big barbarian. He shook his head petulantly. “No, no. None of these methods please me. I have seen men die that way. I want—something new.”
Behind the emperor stood a tall, lean man, robed in black velvet covered with mystic signs and sigils. His black hair hung free to the breezes sweeping the galley deck, and there was a dark, evil look about his thin lips and narrowed eyes. Kothar knew him for a magician; probably that great necromancer Thaladomis, on whose prophecies and stargazings the emperor so depended, he whom Rufflod claimed had cheated Nestorius.
Thaladomis stirred. His dry voice rasped, “Slay him out of hand, sire—or he will be your doom! I vow this, on the silent voices of the stars which speak to me.”
“I heed your counsel in all things, Thaladomis. But not in this. No! My party was lagging, that dancer from Oasia ruined it with her stupid posturings. Where did she run to, the slut? Eh? Fetch her, someone!”
Thaladomis shook his head glumly, but he made no other protest except to make a sorcerous sign in the air. Gazing steadily at him, Kothar saw the air turn faintly red about that moving finger.
Bare feet padded on the deck planks and the Oasian dancing girl was flung forward by a Prokorian Guard. She was very lovely, Kothar thought, staring down into her dusky face and the thick black hair that framed it.
Her red mouth, full and open in her fear, was enriched by henna. Her slanted eyes touched the big barbarian, then she went to her knees before the emperor.
“Great lord, I did my best,” she whispered.
“Your best is not good enough for Kyros. For the ruler of the world, you must do better than that!”
Kyros was leaning forward, eyes bright. “What? Still in that cloak that covers you from toes to head? You wore enough clothing while you danced, but to see you shrouded like a mummy out of Aegypton turns my blood cold. Are you too lovely for my eyes and the eyes of my noble men and women to see?”
“No, lord,” she whimpered, head bent low.
“Then off with the cloak. Off with it, I say!” Her trembling fingers loosed the strings. A hand reached out from the crowd and caught it, yanking it off her body. She knelt there in her dancing costume, fine legs bare to hips, a mere length of silk tied-about her loins and dangling between her thighs.
Kothar blinked. The girl was all but naked. Kyros gestured impatiently. “The rest of it, the rest of it! Am I served by dead men? Strip her down, the clumsy slut!”
A hand caught her thick black hair, tugged her to her feet. Other hands seized the tinted dancing silks that were her only garment. In a moment she shrank naked against Kothar, as if imploring him for help.
“Look at them—beauty and her beast!” Kyros jeered.
He paused suddenly and lifted a great, flat emerald to his eye. Through it he squinted at the couple, his thick lips curving into a smile.
“I have it, I have it! We shall sentence the both of them together. Hey? Is not your ruler a genius? A twin death for twin annoyances!”
Excited voices babbled praise for Kyros, ruler of the world. The emperor sank back against the high back of the ivory throne, a pleased smile on his petulant mouth, nodding to himself. Two soldiers stepped forward in answer to his gesture.
“Seize the wench, strap her to his back,” he ordered.
The numbed dancing girl was lifted high, swung down so her body fell atop the broad back of the Cumberian. Kothar quivered at that touch of female flesh, but he made so other move, standing as might a giant rock while straps were brought and her wrists and arms fastened to his own thick wrists and heavily muscled biceps.
A broader strap was brought and her middle was tied against his own, just above the loincloth he wore. Smaller thongs were used to fasten her shapely legs to his thickly thewed thighs and calves.
They stood there, when the Prokorian Guards were done, like some strange and monstrous beast. The men and women crowding about were interested, all of them eager to see the sharp edge of the imperial whimsy. They waited almost breathlessly.
“You can protect your back, barbarian—by letting Laella take the punishment while you try to save both your skins. However, if she is harmed, the fight shall be stopped and you shall be strung up and whipped.
“Now—bring out Gorth!” A roar went up from the courtiers and their women crowding about the throne. To one side, there was a creak of rolling wheels, a deep rumble, and then a cage with silver bars came into view.
A sob sounded in Kothar’s ear. “Gorth. He will kill us both together! He will fasten his claws in my back and—“
Kothar tried to stare between the pressing bodies of the men and women. What manner of beast was this Gorth? There was no sound, no snarl nor coughing rumble that might tell him whether the thing inside the bars was leopard or lion.
Two women drew apart, suddenly. Through the space where they had stood, the barbarian could see the oncoming cage and the huge, hairy body inside it. A bear! A great brown bear from the mountains known as the Roof of The World. These brown bears were gigantic beasts, and although Kothar had never seen one, he knew they towered eight feet from claw to furry ears when standing on their hind legs.
His skin crawled. Alone and unburdened, he would have had a hard time staying alive against such an opponent. Tethered by chains in front and by a naked woman on his back, his task was all but hopeless. Yet a savage rumble began deep in his throat as his eyes met the small eyes of the giant bear, standing erect behind the silver bars now, sensing its momentary freedom.
The bear made a small, angry thunder in its hairy chest as it studied the big man it was to slay. Other times, other faces, Gorth had known, when his master had brought him out to fight picked slaves for the amusement of the men and women his master entertained, Gorth shifted uneasily on its paws, he had never fought on a ship before, and though the waters of Lake Lotusine were calm and placid, the galley did roll slightly, and this troubled the big bear.
A grate of metal, and the barred door rose. Gorth lumbered out onto the deck planks, its huge head turning this way and then that, as its nostrils grew to know these man-smells and female perfumes. Then its head lowered and its ears pricked forward. It eyed the strange thing it was to kill.
Gorth, rose upward, eight feet and a few inches of furred savagery, studying the man and woman fastened together, rumbling angrily in its throat. They did not look so dangerous. True, the man was crouching, putting his hands together to gather the heavy iron chains in his hands so it made a dangling length of black metal, but otherwise” he did not seem so formidable. At least, he did not hold one of those shining lengths of sharp metal whose bite Gorth had tasted in the past; during a fight.
The bear dropped to all fours, shuffled forward. Kothar waited quietly, tensed and motionless on bent legs. He must not let the animal put its arms about him. It might well crush both Laella and him to death, if it were allowed to—
“Hai!”he bellowed, leaping.
The black chain whipped like a leather thong in his great hands. Its links drove down and onto the furred head. There was a crunch, a ripping sound, and when the chain was yanked away, a strip of fur and red blood went with it.
Gorth reared up, roaring with pain and fury. “First blood to the barbarian!” screamed a woman. Kyros was leaning forward on his throne, eyes brilliant. His spirit thrilled to such unequal contests, because his was not the soul of the sportsman who reveled in a battle between well-matched opponents, but that of a weakling who delights in seeing another human being, more powerful and braver than he, go down before too-great-odds.
Kothar bounded catlike away from a return swipe with a huge paw that Gorth sent out at him. He circled on bare feet, making the animal turn. The chain was ready in his hands, it was a great weight but it was not too much for his muscles. For a little while, at least.
He knew he would tire in time. With Laella on his back and the chains about his wrists, he could not long continue this fight.
There might be a chance, however. If he could madden the beast, divert it from its primary target, it might go berserk and attack anyone within claw-reach. Kothar tensed, leaped again.
His foot hit a little pool of blood, landing on the torn bit of fur the chain had ripped from Gorth’s head. “Kothar lost his balance, fell heavily on his side.
Laella screamed, taking part of that fall. Gorth dropped toward his victims, long claws extended.
Kothar rolled over, under the extended forelegs. His hands shot up, gripped the fur on the side of the bear, yanked upward. Gorth swiped at him, but missed, and then Kothar was rising, planting himself on his bare feet.
The bear lifted into the air, towering above the man-thing
Fast was Kothar, like lightning his movements. He had fought the great white bears of the northern ice wastes in his youth, with spear and club, he knew the speed of the beasts and their weaknesses.
In this moment of its rising, the bear could not protect its face. The heavy chain whipped sideways, through the air like a flail, cutting down across the little red eyes.
Gorth screamed in agony as those links bit deep. Kothar was in and out, gathering up the chain, waiting as he panted for the beast to come for him again. The bear was in too much agony for this, it rubbed at its bleeding eyes with its paws, it made small, whimpering sounds from its froth-flecked jaws.
In a moment, Gorth would feel the pain, when the shock wore off. Then indeed, would he go mad. Slowly, step by step, the barbarian backed away from the beast. On top of him, Laella moaned, Her long black hair hung over his shoulders, tickling his sweating flesh when the wind blew. Her body shook steadily.
She stirred, moving her head. The Cumberian could hear her in-drawn breath rasp in sudden terror.
“What happened?” she asked. “I’ve blinded him—I think.” “Even if you kill it, what good will it do?” Kothar showed his teeth in a cold grin. “Can you swim, girl?”
“Like a fish, usually. But this way fastened to you— I am not sure. You cannot carry me—and the chain, in the water.”
“HSSSSt!” Gorth was making roaring sounds now, lifting a bloody face and opening its jaws. The bear could see, faintly, as through a bloody film, but it felt far more the stabs of pain driving like red hot pokers into its skull, taking away its reason.
Forgotten were its opponents, all it wanted at this moment was to pay back humankind for this agony it had given him. It sniffed the air about him. Humankind was everywhere, soft and weak and perfumed.
Gorth lunged. Great jaws opened and closed on a man in the bright silks of a nobleman of the court of Kyros. Flesh and bone cracked as he bit deep. At the same time, a right forearm shot out, claws bedding themselves in female flesh and ripping.
Kyros was on his feet, quivering in terror. “Slay it, slay the beast!”
A dozen Prokorian Guards leaped to obey, spears out and stabbing, shields up to protect themselves from the clawed fury that ravened on the deck planks. Everywhere, men and women were turning to run, witless in their terror.
Nobody remembered Kothar.
The barbarian had backed up until Laella’s spine was rammed into the cold metal of a guardsman’s shield. He felt her stiffen from that contact, then he was whirling, setting both hands to that shield and the shield to its left, yanking them apart. Kothar was between and past the startled guardsmen, running on bare feet for the rail. He knew he risked a thrown javelin that might impale both the girl and himself, but if he did not make this attempt, certain death remained for him on the galley deck.
He did not bother to put foot on the rail molding. He dove over the balustrade, flattened out. A spear went past his shoulder. Then he was falling for the blackish waters, arms out in front of him. Atop him, he felt the softness of Laella’s naked body tighten as she steeled her flesh to the shock of entry into that water.
They hit the water and went down into Stygian blackness. Deep they went, dragged along by the heavy chain, but Kothar and Laella were used to swimming, each had taken a deep breath before splashing down. They began to swim in unison, as if their minds were locked together; actually, the dancing girl took her cues from the powerfully muscled body of the blond barbarian, as if she danced with him.
They moved upward, slowly, slowly, for the weight of the chain was awful, and their human lungs could scarcely contain enough air to counterbalance its drag. Yet they succeeded, their wet hands bobbing into view a few yards from the galley.
They could hear the screams of the women, the shouts of the men aboard the galley, and the more thunderous roars of Gorth, biting, striking, slaying as he moved through a red haze of pain against these man-things, one of whom had hurt him.
To Laella’s amazement, Kothar struck out for the galley.
“Are you mad?” she asked, moving arms and legs with his.
His hands went up, stabbed at an oar-blade Hand over hand, he moved along the oars, knowing full well that the slaves chained to these oars were deep in sleep, snatching what slumber they could while their owners, were busy overhead with their entertainments.
“We have to cut free of each other,” Kothar growled. He reached the last oar, sought for a hand-grip on the carvings decorating the apostis, that part of the galley jutting outward above the bulwarks. He swung on these carvings, his body straining to the utmost with the weight of chain and girl, until he touched the lower part of the ram, which thrust forward a foot above the water.
“Hang on, now,” he panted. The girl did her best to fasten fingers on the carvings. Her breath sobbed in her throat, her long hair floated in the cold waters. She managed to get hand-grips, and she sought to hang there, freeing Kothar’s hands. He had tossed the heavy chain over the ram, so it did not drag on them too much.
He was working his long, strong fingers on the strap fittings. The straps were buckled, she saw, and after a moment of fierce tugging, the buckle parted. She sagged downward, her strength hardly enough to keep her body afloat. Luckily, her middle and her legs were still tied to those of this giant barbarian.
Her other arm was free; she felt his feet fumbling for toeholds on the rough boarding of the beak; to ease her weight on his back, she threw the arm over the ram. When he got his feet securely wedged into niches, it made it easier for him to undo the buckle on his left wrist.
“I belong to you,” Laella whispered, kissing his shoulder.
Kothar grunted. “You belong to yourself, girl.”
“You freed me from my master. They would ha-have tor-tortured me up there, if the bear hadn’t killed me. Kyros does that at times, claiming that certain slaves of merchants do not please him and demanding they be punished by some sort of awful death, to amuse himself and his court.
“Of course, afterward, he makes a recompense of sorts to the merchants, for he enjoys his little entertainments and he knows if he is too severe, no traders will bring any more trained animals or dancing girls to Romm.”
Kothar felt her breasts move as her shoulders shrugged. “That does the dead slave no good, but it insures that Kyros will have plenty of pretty slave-girls to make die in convulsions of agony before his gloating eyes.
“I hate Kyros!” Kothar grinned, “Good. I despise him, myself. That is why I am going to take his precious helix away from him.”
He felt her body stiffen against his as he unbuckled the strap about their middles. “Take the helix? You must be mad! Do you know what that is, that helix? I heard the mage Thaladomis speak of it, to my master.”
She shivered. He waited, then muttered, “Well? What is it?”
His fingers worked on the straps holding their legs together as she breathed, “It is a magical doorway into—into some other world. It gives of a white radiance. Wrapped in a cloak, Kyros can enter that radiance, which destroys human flesh and bones, otherwise. He disappears, still wearing the cloak, and wanders amid lands of strange and terrible beauty. Inside the cloak, he is safe from danger in that other world, which Thaladomis calls Nirvalla.”
The last strap fell away. Kothar put his arm about the shivering girl and hoisted her up to the ram, plopping her down so she sat there, both hands fastened to the bronze plates covering that long wooden beak. Her eyes were enormous, staring down at him.
“You don’t mean it? You’re not really going after the helix?”
“You’re safe, you can swim to shore from here.”
“I can’t leave you. I belong to you.”
Kothar grinned and clapped her wet thigh with a big hand. “Then wait for me, girl. I won’t be long. If Kyros has a cloak, I mean to take it away from him just as I’ll take away the helix.”
Like a big cat he began to climb the curving prow of the golden galley, hand over hand and with his toes seeking holds by stabbing blindly. Upward he went with pantherish ease as the naked girl clung to the ram and watched.
His head lifted above the cabin window. Not daring to enter the cabin where Rufflod had disappeared so mysteriously, he waited, patient as a tiger on the prowl. He heard the sound of voices, the sharp cries and grunts of fighting men, the bellowing of a wounded, blinded bear as it sought to take as many human lives as it could before the stabbing swords of the guardsmen reached its heart.
Now he could hear the emperor, babbling with fright.
“Around me! Form a ring around me, get me to the stern cabin,” Kyros cried.
A man screamed as the bear clawed his face. Then the measured tramp of disciplined guards told Kothar the emperor was being herded toward the cabin door. The Cumberian shifted his weight on his bare feet. His hands raised the long chain to which he was still manacled.
The cabin door opened. Kyros stood framed for a moment against the torchlight visible through that long rectangular doorway. A thick scarlet cloak, marked with mystic symbols worked in silver thread, had been tossed about his shoulders. A cowl, decorated by runes and amulets pinned to its surface, shadowed the emperor’s face until only a white blob was visible.
Kyros moved into the room of the white mists. From the window, Kothar watched with wide eyes, half expecting him to vanish as Rufflod had vanished. The emperor walked straight forward toward the helix, cloak wrapped tightly about him.
Balanced on his toes, his hands and arms free, Kothar waited.
The chain of black links was gathered in his two hands. Kyros was close, now. A long sweep of that chain would hit him, stun him.
Another few steps, and Kyros would be in range. The barbarian rose up, hurled his chain. Below him the water rippled at the stern. A false move would overbalance him, send him down into those cold waters. But Kothar had a body trained to cling to small perches since boyhood, when he had hunted mountain goats in Cumberia. His leg muscles swelled. He hung there, casting that chain into the room of the white fogs.
The links hit the cowl. The cowl crumpled, caught in the black links. It leaped as Kothar made the chain leap backward toward him. The cloak with the magic sigils seemed almost to fly through the air at him.
Where Kyros had been—was nothingness! Only the white mist floated there. The emperor of Avalonia was gone. Kothar gulped, catching the cloak and dragging it through the window.
Hurriedly, he threw the cloak about him, feeling its material send a tingling shock through his flesh. Grunting against this seeming result of magical incantations, he drew the, cowl down about his head wondering if Kyros still had the sword Frostfire, if he had suffered Rufflod’s fate, or if he wandered somewhere in that hidden world Laella had named Nirvalla.
He threw a leg, protected by the cloak, over the sill. He stepped into the room. Kothar saw, as he wrapped himself deeper in the folds of the cloak, that the mists seemed thinner, The helix still blazed with a golden refulgence, looked at from the shadowed recesses of the cowl, but the white fog was dissipating.
He strode forward. Hands outstretched, he reached for the helix. There was a blaze of white-hot brilliance, and Kothar felt the floor go out from under his bare feet. He poised a moment in that yellow radiance, floating between the opening corners of reality.
A face appeared before him.
“Red Lori” he bellowed.
Mocking laughter shook him, inside the protective cloak. Her eyes were wide, gleeful, taunting. He noticed her long red lashes, like tiny fans, that seemed to regard him as if he were some kind of pet.
“Yes, Kothar, my hated one, my foe! I am Red Lori. Oh, don’t worry—I’m safely locked behind silver bars, I still hang from the ceiling in Queen Elfa’s audience hall. But my spirit can go where I will it—and I will it now to let you see it.
“Foolish man! Did you think the words I spoke were empty as the breeze that sweeps across the meadows? I meant them, Kothar!
“When you overcame me and put me here, you earned my hate. You belong to me, barbarian—to be punished. I have not chosen yet to punish you—but be punished you will, in time. So for now, go into Nirvalla—but know that I go with you in spirit. What happens to you will be the result of what I want to happen!”
Her laughter rang out again, from the red mouth that formed a wide oval, so that Kothar could see her tongue. Her slanted green eyes blazed with mockery.
Then she was gone. Kothar felt something firm into existence under his feet.