Digitally transcribed for the Gardner Francis Fox Adventure Library
The sun beat down with fury upon the golden sands of the desert which ran from the great rock scarps of the Haunted Regions as far eastward as the vast meadow-lands of Sybaros, and which, some men said, once had been an inland sea-bottom. On that vast sand sea, a horse and its rider moved slowly, steadily southward toward a range of low hills marking the southern boundary of this vast wasteland.
The rider was a huge man in mail shirt and with thick, sun-browned thighs showing between a plain leather war-kilt and tan leather war-boots. The muscles rolled in his arms and his long blond hair was caught in a leather thong knotted to keep the hair from getting in his eyes, for the wind whipped across these sandy wastes in a steady blow.
Beneath him the big gray warhorse moved with steady gait, walking leisurely in the heat, with a faint jingle of ring-bits and harness brasses. A sword with a red gem in its hilt, long in the blade and with a gently curving cross-hilt, gathered sunbeams to it and reflected them.
There were reflections of that same strong sunlight off metallic surfaces in the distance, where the rocks made a jagged carpet around a thin ribbon of road. Kothar the barbarian had seen those dancing motes of sunlight hours before; he had frowned suspiciously and watched them with hard blue eyes. His warrior instincts told him those bits of unusual brightness must be made by spear points and helmets where a body of men lay hidden among the crags.
Did any but himself know why he rode this way, southeastward through the desert sands and toward the rocky pass leading into Tharia? He had kept the secret to himself, trusting no man.
And yet—those bright sparkles amid the rocks spoke to him of an ambush in which he was to play the part of victim. He growled low in his throat, loosed the blade in its ornate scabbard, and shifted so that he might bring the quiver of arrows hanging behind him within easier hand-reach. The great horn bow, which had been a gift of the merchant Pahk Mah when he had rescued his daughter Mahla from the ensorcelments of Red Lori, was unstrung but close to his left thigh.
He rode on, alert and waiting. Where the sand made an upward slope before merging with the rock-land of the Tharian Pass, he drew rein and reached for a water-skin hung from the saddle pommel. He yanked the cork, tilted the bag to his lips.
“Half a mile ahead, Greyling, that’s where they wait.”
His mouth twisted into a wry grin. An itch was in his palm to hold his sword Frostfire against his enemies, he had been peaceful too long in Zoane and Atlakka, those cities of Sybaros where he had first learned of the ancient grave of Kandakore. Apparently others had heard of the grave and of his search for it.
Kothar lifted the horn bow into his hand, strung it with muscles bulging in his long arms—for the horn was tough and bent not easily—so that he might set the catgut string in place. Bow in his big left hand, he toed Greyling to a canter.
The hidden men planned to surprise him, but the barbarian swordsman would furnish the surprise. At least, this was his plan. But as he rode forward, he soon heard the ring of weapons clashing ahead of him and the shouts of warring men.
“By Dwalka, they’ve marked another for the slaying!”
His laughter boomed out and now the warhorse went at the gallop along the abandoned roadbed, for few travelers moved along this highway that had been built when Kandakore had ruled in long-forgotten Phyrmyra. From the hide quiver he drew out a long war-arrow and fitted it to the bowstring.
The clash of ringing swords was close, now. As Kothar rounded the bend in the old highway, he saw one man fighting off a dozen, a slender youth in mail and helmet, with a broken sword in his hand. He was dismounted and moving backward toward a high stone boulder where he could make a stand.
Kothar bent his bow, let loose the arrow. Straight it flew to bury itself in the chest of a burly man with a black beard. Again he fired, and now a lean man dropped. The grass grew thinner about the lone youth who fought so bravely with The broken sword. Some of his attackers turned toward the giant in the mail shirt galloping down on them.
The barbarian fired two more arrows, saw two more men drop. Then he was casting the bow aside, drawing Frostfire. The long blade lifted as he reined the gray horse to the side of the road and sent him thundering past three of the men who leaped for him.
A shearing swing of the steel and one man fell headless. Past a second bandit he drove the stallion, and this time the point stabbed into a throat just under a mail apron hanging from a helmet.
The galloping horse was past the melee now, turning to the hand on the worn leather reins. Kothar saw that the young man had thrown aside his broken sword, had snatched up another blade from the fingers of a dead man and was leaping forward on the attack.
The bandits did not wait to stand before these swordsmen. They scattered, running in among the rocks, slipping and sliding a path across them until they disappeared in the distance. Kothar reined up Greyling, let the horse snort and dance until its battle fever cooled. The youth before him stared up at the rider in the mail shift and grinned.
“My thanks, warrior. It was touch and go for a while there, after I broke my blade on a helmet.”
Kothar stared down at a slim young man whose face was split with a reckless smile, whose long brown hair hung to his shoulders. He wore a mail shirt, a sword-belt about his middle. His red leather boots were dusty and split, here and there, by long usage. On the far side of the road was a sack he had dropped when the bandits came charging from the rocks.
“The name is Flarion,” the youth informed him, bending to cleanse his bloody steel on the cloak of a fallen cut-purse.
“You don’t look rich to me,” the barbarian rumbled, dismounting to wipe his own blade dry. “So why should those bandits have attacked you? Unless you have stolen jewels in your sack or hidden on your person.”
“Not I! lost all I owned in a game of dice in a Grandthal tavern. Now I’m just a wanderer. Like yourself.” His grin showed fine teeth in a nut-brown face.
Kothar scowled. “They must have been after something.”
“Oh, they were, they were. My life. I—er—angered a fat merchant by making love to his pretty wife before I knew that the merchant was not on caravan but merely in his counting house, and soon due home.”
His laughter rang out, carefree and careless. “By Salara of the bare breasts! She was a woman, that one. Ignored by her fat husband. Too bad he interrupted us. I was about to make her disclose the hiding place of her jewels.
could have used the coins they’d fetch in a shop I know.”
The brown head tilted sideways. “And you? No man rides this old road any more, unless he’s running from an angry husband of King Midor’s soldiery.”
Kothar chuckled. “Or bound into Tharia to the haunted ruins of Phyrmyra, where Kandakore is said to have ordered his burial ten thousand years ago.”
Flarion gaped, jaw dropping.
“The lost tomb of Kandakore! Is that your goal?”
“I’m tired of an empty belly, of a purse that’s so lean all it holds is air. It’s been a month since my throat tasted ale, or anything but a slab or two of dry bread and drier cheese. Gods, for a bit of meat and may-hap even a beaker of wine! The sell-sword business is poor, these days.”
Flarion muttered, “They say his tomb is haunted.”
“Aye, by ghouls and goblins, or worse.” Brown eyes glinted through narrowed lids. “The old tales don’t bother you? You’d risk being drained of blood or eaten in some dusty mausoleum?”
“If I could get a handful of gems or golden coins, it would be worth the risk.”
He did not add that Afgorkon the Ancient had given him the choice of owning the sword Frostfire and little else; and that since he bore the sword, he had never been able to own more than a few silver deniers to rub together in his purse. Afgorkon had lived, a most potent sorcerer and wizard, more than fifty thousand years ago. His spirit still existed in a world of his own magical creation, across the abysses of astral Space.
His curse was as strong today as the big barbarian over whom it hung, however. So Kothar carried Frostfire while poverty was an ache in his empty belly. He paused now, letting go the edge of the dusty cloak that had served to clean his blade.
“And you? Where are you bound?”
Flarion shrugged. “Anywhere. I have no goal, except to find a wench to kiss and a pallet to bed her on after washing the dusts from my throat with a panniker of Tharian ale. If you want company, I’m your man. If you’ll dare ghouls and hob-gobs, so will I.”
“If the old stories are true; the tomb of Kandakore holds much treasure, more than enough to make two men rich beyond their dreams.”
“Kandakore hid his tomb well, the tales say.”
“Where treasure is hidden, there are maps to show its hiding place.”
Flarion Snorted. “Aye, I know maps like that.”
“But not—like this.”
The barbarian reached into his leather belt-wallet, drew out a folded bit of parchment, tossed it across to the waiting youth. Flarion caught it deftly, opened it, his fingertips running over the smooth surface.
His eyebrows arched. “Sheepskin?”
“Human skin, or I miss my guess.”
“Gods, maybe there is something to the old tales, after all. I suppose you’ve heard them, that Kandakore empowered Ebboxor, who was his mage to build his tomb well and hide it, then mark its location on the skin of his favorite slave-girl.”
“I’ve heard rumors and legends.”
Flarion knelt in the dust and spread the map on the road. “I wonder … if this be the skin of that girl, then perhaps . . .” His fingertip scratched at a thin black line that showed where a road had been, long ago. “Dried blood, treated in some manner . . . by Ebboxor? It might be. And if this really is human skin, and I think as you do that it is, then . . . .”
His grin was broad. “Then by Salara’s creamy bosom, I think you’ve got hold of something. How’d you come by it?”
“In Makkadonia where I was serving as sergeant of guards, following a little adventure of mine with Queen Stefanya of Phalkar, whereby I set her on her throne. It seems that King Horthon of Makkadonia has a few hated enemies. Among them was a certain Jokathides, one of the richer merchant princes.
“Well, King Horthon sent a few of his chosen guardsmen to loot the cellars beneath Jokathides’ vast town house, which is so big it’s practically a palace. At one time, his basements were part of the palace of the Sassanidon line, which ruled Makkadonia long ago.
“We looted it, all right, and helped ourselves into the bargain to a few treasures we felt Horthon wouldn’t miss. But Horthon is no fool, he knows what poor wages he pays his warriors, so he had other warriors intercept us before we could leave the cellars with our loot. The men were searched, all their little trinkets were taken away from them.”
Flarion laughed softly. “But—not you!” Kothar rumbled laughter. “Well, I admit I heard what was happening, so I started off into another corner of the tunnels so I could hide the few things I’d managed to take. I went into another part of that basement where we hadn’t been, and from the dust on the place nobody else had been there since the Sassanids were, dust, I’d wager. A part of the wall was cracked, broken.”
He had peered into the darkness beyond the crack, smelling the dankness of old age, the mustiness. His hand slipped, and he saw that the brick against which he leaned his weight was loose. A few moments later he had made a hole wide enough to squeeze through, and when he was inside the hidden chamber, he struck sparks from flint and steel, lighted his tinder, and held up his small lamps.
There were tumbled, chests and dusty coffers here and there, with bars of gold and silver making small mountains. Dust lay thick over everything, so that he choked and coughed and had to spit to clear his throat. He moved about the chamber, examining everything. On the metal clasp of a small coffer, he had found carved the name: Ebboxor.
A blow from his dagger pommel snapped the rusted lock. Opening the coffer, Kothar found the parchment inside it. One touch of his fingers and he had known that this was human skin. Spreading out the vellum, he saw there was a map scrolled on that smooth surface.
Kothar chuckled. “I hid the thing flat against my chest under my mail shirt. It was so thin, nobody among the royal guards suspected I carried anything there.
“Soon after, I found an excuse to give up my employment and set out for these rocky wastes, beyond which the tomb of Kandakore is hidden.”
“If you were in the royal guard, why is your purse so empty?”
“I spend the coins I earn as fast as my fists can close about them. I can’t gather treasure and keep it—Afgorkon the Ancient sees to that—and so I enjoy life when life is good. When it isn’t, I cut new holes in my belt.”
Flarion nodded, folding over the map and handing it back. “I know the feeling. But if you’ve a mind to share your luck in exchange for a sword to stand beside your own, Flarion’s your man.”
Kothar watched while the youthful mercenary picked up his traveling sack, tossed it over a shoulder. Kothar put a foot into his stirrup, swung up on his horse. From here, the ride to the fabled tomb of Kandakore was but a league, not too far for a man who had walked across the western desert of Sybaros, all the way from Grandthal.
Their way led through the rock country and down a long slope toward the ruins of ancient Phyrmyra. The grave he sought was in Phyrmyra, if his map were true. As they came to a crown in the road, by standing in his iron stirrups the barbarian could make out the few columns and the tumbled building stones that were all that was left of once-great Phyrmyra, faint in the distant haze of twilight.
“We’ll camp and eat, first,” he said to Flarion trudging beside him in the dust. “There’s a fountain in the city that still gives water, travelers have told me.”
“There’s also a curse on Phyrmyra,” grinned the youth, shifting his sack to the other shoulder. “Something about, a leech that sucks the blood from a man and leaves him to die in raving madness.”
The barbarian snorted. “I never heard anything about a leech. The traders I’ve spoken with said only that there was an evil in the old city which made them happy to shake its dust from their boots. They didn’t linger long.”
‘We’ll have to linger if we want to find that grave.”
The barbarian merely grunted.
The came along the road into the twilight of the day, when the setting sun was a red ball low in the west beyond the Misty Swamps and the lands of the baron lords, The jagged rocks were behind them, while before them was a great plain where stood lonely orthon trees and berry-bushes, which gave ripe fruit now as they had when Phyrmyra had swarmed with people. It was a quiet, dreaming kind of day, and Kothar found himself beset by memories of past encounters with demons such as Azthamur, Abathon and Belthamquar. Those dread beings from beyond the spatial gulfs had good reason to hate Kothar the barbarian; he wondered if one or all of them might come to him in Phyrmyra.
He moved his shoulders angrily, as if to rid himself of phantoms. His hand touched his sword hilt lightly, then fell away. The gibbering imps of his imagination would not let him go: Something waited for him in the ruined city, of this he was sure.
The city stood a mile eastward of the road which at one time, according to old legend, had run through its foreign market-square. Now the columns and fallen pediments of the ruins showed only where a palace or a temple had been, with smaller buildings around it. Kothar turned Greyling toward the dead city.
Beside him, Flarion stumbled. “Hells of Eldrak,” he rasped. “What’s this?” His toe kicked sand, showing part of a bone gleaming whitely in the dusk of evening. Flarion spat. “A dead man, his skeleton.”
There were other skeletons, the barbarian saw, shifting his glance downward and along the sands where his companion walked. Whitened bones, bits of rib-cases, a hip bone, ulnar and tibia here and there made a trail out of Phyrmyra toward the road.
“They can’t hurt us,” he snarled. Flarion laughed softly. “What made them bones—can! Still, for a treasure, a man must take risks.”
They came among the standing columns and the fallen stone lintels in the first night darkness, with the stars glittering overhead and a wind moaning off the plain. “A dismal place,” thought the barbarian, glancing around him as he came down out of the kak, “and if it were not for the map and the tomb it shows, I’d bed down on the clean dirt beside the highway.”
He tossed a food bag to Flarion, with a wine-skin. He unsaddled Greyling, rubbed him down, fed him oats in a leather pouch. The tinkle of water caught his ears, he turned from the horse and moved along what had been a wide road once but was no more than blocks of stone, tilted and awry, between which the sands had settled.
The water was coming from a rock wall out of which a worn stone conduit jutted. The water was probably forced upward from pressures below the ground, he told himself. He was about to sip when a voice breathed words into his ears.
“No, barbarian!” Kothar jerked erect, hand on his dagger pommel.
“Who spoke?” he growled. Soft laughter mocked him, and the barbarian showed his teeth in a cold grin. “Red Lori! I’d know that laugh in the deeps of hell where it belongs.”
“The water—slays, Kothar!”
He scowled at the conduit, at the crystal stream flowing from its length. He turned and glanced at Greyling and at Flarion, crouched before the fire which he had begun with dried twigs collected from below some orthon trees.
“You have water in your skins. Use that. Drink not this, on peril of your life.”
He rubbed his blond head with his hand, scowling. He knew Red Lori well enough to understand that she considered him to be her own special property, to be executed and tortured in her own good time, to pay him back for the things he had done to her.
He knew also that she was still imprisoned in Kalikalides’ tomb in Xythoron. Well, she had come to him at other times in his wanderings over the face of Yarth. Inside ale tankards, in the leaping red flames of his campfires, in dreams, he had seen her beautiful face and heard her words inside his head.
“You have seen the skeletons. Those belonged to men who came here parched with thirst and drank the waters of Phyrmyra. Be warned.”
Kothar scowled, shrugged. He turned away, went back to the campfire, where Flarion was turning slabs of meat above the flames on a crude spit. “Ware the water. It’s poisoned,’ he muttered, reaching for his water-skin. “Now how would you know that?”
“I have a personal demon all my own. She helps me stay alive, from time to time. It is a whim of hers, because she hates me very much.”
The mercenary considered this, squinting up at the giant on the other side of the fire. He nodded slowly. “If you say so.”
They ate sitting on the ground, slowly and with relish, and drained more than half the contents of the wine-skin. Cold was in the air here, for with the passing of the sun the ground lost much of its heat, and the wind was off the sea to the west, tainted with salt and chill.
With a muttered word, Kothar reached for the fur wrap that served him as cloak and saddle blanket. He drew it about his huge body, lay down with his feet toward the fire. A moment more Flarion waited, then drew a worn military cloak from his own sack and lay back, eyes closed.
The fire crackled, popped. Kothar slept as does an animal, with only half his mind, his ears alive to the night sounds about him. Once during the night he rose from his fur wrapping and placed more twigs and branches on the fire. He stood a moment, staring about him at the distant rocks, the vast plain on which ancient Phyrmyra had rested. Then he slipped back into the fur wrapping.
He did not see the men who waited among the rocks and watched. They were crouched low with the rocks between them and the distant ruins. They could not be seen, but they watched the wink of red that was the campfire.
The morning sun was minutes old when the barbarian stirred and threw aside the big bearskin covering. He lay a moment, staring at the blue sky shot with red streamers. Then he was up and moving about the little camp, building up the fire, lifting, the spade and pick he had brought with him from Zoane.
The smell of roasting meat roused Flarion, who came to stretch and yawn beside the flames, then bent to mix flour from a sack and water from his skin container, placing the biscuits on flat rocks to bake. He took the map. Kothar handed him and spread it out on the ground so they might examine it while they ate.
“Here,” said Kothar as he munched, tapping the human skin with a forefinger, “is The Temple of Salara. You’ll note that it’s right beside the water fountain. Now eastward from the temple, five hundred paces, is the statue built to honor Kandakore.”
“And below the statue, his grave.”
We’ll dig when we’re done eating.”
Kothar swallowed a final sip of wine before tossing the skin to his companion and rising to his feet. In his big hands the spade and pick seemed almost tiny as he walked across the tumbled flagstones of this old city square toward the wind-eroded remnant of what had been a carving of the love goddess.
His eyes measured the distance between the statue and the flowing water of the stone pipe. Five hundred paces; he marked them off slowly, thoughtfully.
With his spade, he dug out dirt and sand until the base of what had been a statue of Kandakore was revealed. He labored for close to an hour until the sweat dripped from his face. Then Flarion came to spell him.
When the flagstones all around the statue were cleared, the mercenary leaned on the spade. “There’s no opening in the flagstones,” he pointed out, tapping them with the edge of the spade.
“I can see that for myself. It comes to my mind that the statue itself may hold a clue as to its opening.”
“You mean, it could be lifted, to disclose a hole?”
“Something of the sort, yes.” They strove until their muscles creaked, but the granite base could not be budged. Kothar Snarled and moved back, walking all around that stone weight. The sun was higher in the morning sky, it cast dark shadows beyond the base. Kothar studied those shadows a moment, frowning, running his eyes along the edges of the giant block.
There appeared to be a space between the statue and the flagstones, just the merest fraction of an inch. The barbarian knelt, let his eyes run there. He nodded, rose to his feet.
“The base doesn’t set flat,” he said. “It’s raised above the flagstones. Now I wonder why.”
“Could we put a metal bar under it? Wedge and lift?”
“No, no. Perhaps the statue swings.”
They set hands to the warm stone base and thrust hard. Nothing happened. “The joinings may be rusted,” Kothar growled, and heaved again.
They were rewarded by the faint rasp of old metal. At the same time, the block gave, slipped sideways. Flarion yelled encouragement. They dug their toes into the sand tranches between the flagstones of this square, and their muscles swelled.
Slowly, as rusted metal grated, the thing moved, ponderously, with a muffled clank of hidden machinery. And Kothar felt the pavement under his war-boots sink.
“Get back,” he cried, pausing to stare downward.
A section of the paving-stones was tilted at an angle, forming a trapdoor. Dirt and sand ran down into the small opening before the stone base. Flarion moved to the other side of the block, put palms to its roughened surface.
“We can get better purchase here he called. Kothar nodded, stepped around to join him. Once begun, the further moving of the rock slab on its metal fulcrum was much easier. In moments it was swung completely sideways. The section of paving-stone had fallen downward, hung on stone hinges. As he came around to stare down into that dark abyss, he saw stone steps inset into a rock wall.
He swung down onto that ladder, began to descend into darkness. Flarion was on hands and knees, following his progress. “Do you have a lamp of some sort? A torch in your bags?”
“I was hoping to find a torch or two down here. There’s a small oil lamp in my gear. Will you fetch it?”
Flarion ran, Snatched up a tiny brass lamp, touched flame to its wick. With the lamp in hand he went down the ladder until he stood on a stone floor beside the Cumberian.
“Gods of Thuum,” breathed Flarion, staring. They stood inside a small chamber the walls of which were painted to represent scenes and incidents out of the life of the long-dead Kandakore. Here he stood with a foot upon the neck of an enemy bowed before him, there he sat his throne, receiving gifts from groups of travelers from foreign countries. A long marble table held jars and pots in which food had been sealed.
Beyond this dusty antechamber stood a door studded with brass fittings, proclaiming the fact that beyond the door was the burial tomb of Kandakore the Unconquered. For uncounted ages, this room had known not the footsteps of men, it had stood lost to the world, remote, part of the almost forgotten, fabulous realm of Phyrmyra.
Kothar shook his shoulders against his awe. He moved toward the door with Flarion at his heels, clasping the lamp. A touch of the hand pushed open that brass-hung doorway on its copper hinges.
Flarion lifted the lamp, held it high. “By Dwalka!” bellowed Kothar.
A woman sat on the bier, slab, knees together, hands folded in her lap. She wore the garments of a Mongrolian maiden, leather jerkin thonged to contain the fullness of her breasts, a short leather skirt, neat leather sandals. Long red hair tumbled down over her shoulders. Her face, in the golden lamplight, was very lovely.