Digitally transcribed for the Gardner Francis Fox Adventure Library
A flood of shouting men came out of the woods. Kyrik laughed, a bull bellow of mirth, as his hand lifted out his sword. It made a silver streak in the air as he moved it to knock a hastily nocked arrow to one side. Then he was yanking at his cloak, wrapping it about his left arm, a cloth shield against the bite of arrow-points
“Ride, girl—ride!” he shouted.
She needed no urging, her heels were hammering the mare’s ribs, startling it into a gallop. Ahead of her was Kyrik, his broad mailed back hiding her from the men drawing bows at them so that the very air seemed filled with flying shafts.
Bluefang moved in that air, hit the arrows, knocked them to one side. Then, so swiftly did the black stallion run, Kyrik was leaning from the saddle and swinging his blue steeled blade as though it were a feather in his huge hand.
Steel sheared through metal and flesh.
Men went down, by ones, by twos. A path was opening before them on the dusty road. Kyrik was turning, waving his bloody sword at her, yelling at her to gallop. She needed no further urging, she ducked her head close to the whipping mane of the mare and let the frightened beast run.
Aryalla pounded along that road until she reached its crown. Then she sensed she was alone, and reined in, turning her head.
She cried out in surprise. Kyrik had not come with her. He was back there in the road, using that great sword of his as a flail, slicing and slashing at an arm, a hand, a head. The stallion moved as though it understood the needs of its rider, it back-stepped away from a swordsman who came too close, it reared to lash out at a man with iron hooves.
“Fool! Oh, fool!” she cried. Yet even as she named him, Aryalla knew he could no more help staying behind and fighting than she could help her running. Kyrik was a warrior of warriors, or so the legends said. He was a fighting man, in his hands a sword—that long, wicked Bluefang—was as much a part of him as his hand and head.
And as she watched, seeing how he ducked his tawny head to avoid a sword-slash, as he returned that blow with unerring aim and swung aside to cut down another foe, she understood why the history scrolls of Tantagol were filled with his deeds. He had been a fighting king, this man, he had led his banners to victory after victory. He had not hidden in his walled palaces as was the custom of Devadonides, to send other and braver men out upon the field of battle.
Kyrik had gone before his men, not after them.
The woman sensed the love of battle that surged in his veins. She could make out the faint smile on his lips, saw the flash of his green eyes, watched the terrible might of his heavily thewed body as it rained his sword-edge down on those who crowded about him.
So fast did he move, so swift were the reactions of his black stallion to the pressures of knees and toes, that he seemed not one man but two; even, at certain times when he seemed to blur in her eyes, like three. There was a clanging of steel as sword met sword, a swirl of dust and men screaming. . .
Then Kyrik was riding toward her, swiftly, erect in the saddle, cleansing his bloodied blade upon his cloak. His face was alight with pleasure, his grin was broad.
“By the dead gods of Ilfeakol—I needed that,” he laughed.
“You might have been killed,” she scolded. “What? By a handful of bowmen? Girl, learn one thing about Kyrik now: he is a child of battle. I was born on a bloody field, I could ride when I was two, swing a real sword when I was six.”
“Besides, bowmen on foot are poor foes to a mounted warrior. They’re not swordsmen for the most part, and if you crowd them, not giving them time to let off their shafts, they’re almost helpless. I made them use their swords, you see. By using their swords against me, they were giving me the advantage.”
She eyed him with a vague wonder. “They outnumbered you! I don’t know by how many, but they did.”
“And I was on a horse. By the gods, a good horse, too. I’ll keep this one. I’ve a feeling he was trained to hold a fighting man. Now, ride, girl. I’ve slain a number of them, wounded others—but there are those who still live, who’ll come running after us when they regroup their little force. I don’t want an arrow in my spine.”
He led the way, making the black gallop with the mare coming at its rump. He stood in the leather stirrups, glancing behind him, laughing. He was a big, vital man; Aryalla sensed he was relishing this brush with death, the danger he faced. There were men like that, she knew, who only enjoyed life when it was threatened by black death.
They rode along the dusty highway for many miles. Yet still the forest was around them, growing darker as the sun set to the west, blackening the shadows of the trees and adding to the gloom of the wood. Now the iron hooves of their horses struck sparks from rocks as the road became more stony. Kyrik reined in, glanced at the ground.
“Here we can move off the road into the wild-wood! Those who follow us can’t see our tracks because this pebbled stuff won’t take hoof-marks!”
He turned the stallion, was gone between two trees. Aryalla cried out, urged the mare after him. Twenty feet inside the forest, the barbarian sat his saddle, grinning.
“I know these woods, in my time they were known as the Hanging Trees because a predecessor of mine hung a number of rebels on their branches. There’s a small cottage not too far away—if it still exists.”
He went along a path between tree-boles, beneath low-hanging branches that brushed his head and shoulders. The woman followed silently, letting the mare pick her own trail. She took time to note how the caroling of birds about them and the faint rustle of the leaves in an errant breeze were peaceful sounds. It was hard to believe, deep in these woods, that men had tried to kill her short moments before.
Her gaze touched Kyrik, studying his broad back, his easy sway to the movements of his mount. He rode with his left hand on his sword-hilt; to silence the rattle of the scabbard-chains, she realized. Aye, he was a woodsman, too. Deeper into these copses and glades he went, and swiftly, considering how thick the trees were growing, how tangled the underbrush.
The sun was setting, a reddish haze was on the land. Soon it would be twilight. Already she could see the two moons above, and a star glittering here and there in the pale blue sky. Aryalla shivered. It would be a cold, uncomfortable night in this wild-wood!
Water gurgled. They came to a spring, moved across it. Kyrik, turned in the saddle, resting a hand on the cantle. “It isn’t far now, the cottage, just a little more.”
Out of her tiredness and tautened nerves she snapped, “That cottage you speak of existed a thousand years ago. Today it is nothing but rotted wood—if, indeed, that wood hasn’t become compost on the forest floor.”
“Na, na, girl. That cottage was my hunting lodge, built of—ha! Look for yourself.” His mailed arm pointed and she gasped.
The lodge was built of field-stones, low to the ground and with a door and two windows visible on this side. Its roof had been thatched, long ago. It was rotted, but still serviceable enough, she supposed, overhung with tree-branches that would shelter it from rain in the summer and from the snows of winter. Bushes hid much of the lower structure and a dirt path overgrown by weeds was visible before the doorway, where a stone slab was laid. A thick stone chimney rose upward from the roof.
Kyrik swung from the saddle, turned to assist the sorceress. “We’ll sleep here the night, be on our way with the dawn,” he told her.
She slipped from her horse, came down into his outstretched arms. He felt her warm and soft, enjoyed the feel of her body against his own. For an instant his arms tightened about her, holding her close.
When her black eyes stared up at him questioningly, he grinned, “A thousand years is a long time without a woman, Aryalla. I find a sudden love for life and the delights that life can bring to a man, inside myself.”
“We have more important things to do,” she said curtly, freeing herself.
He watched her go, shaking his head. His head lifted, he stared up at the darkling sky, the tree-branches. Aye, he had been a long time dead-alive. His lungs drew in the scents of the woodlands, he heard the rustle of a wild animal between the stalks of the berry-bushes. These were the simple pleasures, the sight of sky and tree, the scent of clean air, the sense of stirring life all about him. Kyrik found a new enjoyment in them.
He went after the woman, pushed open the door, stepped with her into cool dimness. His stare ranged the big room, touching the fireplace, the heavy wooden table and the chairs set before it, the worn rug on the floor. There were cheeses and fruits hanging in nets from an overhead beam, there was a log placed with dried twigs below it in the fireplace that took up almost all of one wall.
The barbarian loosed the dagger in his scabbard. “Someone’s been living here,” he growled, and went to prowl about the room.
On either side of the cabin were beds sunk into the frame of the walls, low and broad. In those other years, he had slept here, sometimes with a hunting companion, more often alone. He knew this room as he knew the back of his hand. Now one bed had a blanket on it, the other a mattress. Kyrik scowled.
There was no dust on the table or the chairs, someone had used a twig broom to sweep the floor. Kyrik moved toward one of the hanging trees, tore it down, tossed it to the woman.
“At least we’ll eat when we get hungry.”
“Suppose the—the occupant of this place comes back?”
“He’ll have to fight me for it. It belongs to me.”
“A thousand years ago. A thousand years is a long time, Kyrik.”
He stared at her. “Are you saying I have no rights to the place? As I have no right to the throne Devadonides now holds? I say I do I say the lodge is mine, the throne is mine—if I want it.”
“If you want it?” His broad shoulders lifted, fell. “A throne can be an anchor to a man. Oh, I’ll not desert you in your quest for vengeance. I owe Devadonides something for what his ancestor did to me. But otherwise. . .”
He shrugged again, went to touch spark to tinder to light a flame under the log. His eyes watched the tiny flame grow into a fire, saw that fire begin to eat at the log. Outside the cottage the night was closing a blackness about the woodlands, and a cold wind was springing up.
They ate the cheese, speaking only rarely. When they were done, his hand gestured at the blanketed bed. “You sleep there. The mattress is good enough for me. I’ve slept in worse places.”
Her black eyes bored into his. “My head tells me you’ll not sleep too well, this night. You expect a visitor, don’t you?”
He rasped laughter. “The thought occurred to me. I’ll be ready for him.”
Thunder rumbled in the distance. Through the narrow-paned windows they could see flashes of lightning across a blackened sky. In a little while the first raindrops fell, spattering on the thatched roof, hissing against the windows. The room was warm, comfortable. The flames were licking all about the log, the twigs burned away.
Aryalla rose, drew her cloak more tightly around her. Her head nodded at the blanketed bed. Kyrik sat unmoving, hunched over the cheese in its netting, his long dagger close to his hand. His eyes touched her hips as she moved away, then slid sideways toward the door.
He waited with the patience of an animal as the woman made herself comfortable with the blanket thrown over her. The storm was worsening, the rain was coming down in sheets, blowing against the little windows as gusts of air drove it in wet squalls. Inside the cottage, the fire crackled and a knot in the log popped. And still Kyrik did not move.
Yet his ears were ready for the cry when it came from the depths of the forest, he heard and assessed it, stirred and put his hand on the pommel of the dagger. He rose soundlessly, moved toward the door, opened it a little. The rain came in, but he paid no attention to it. All his senses were alerted to the black wetness beyond the cottage.
Aryalla asked, “What is it? I’m awake, I heard the cry.”
He did not turn his head. “Who knows? It sounded like—but that cannot be.” His head turned, the firelight touched his green eyes, making them red. “Go to sleep.”
“Who can sleep? And don’t order me around.” He chuckled. “Was I ordering? I didn’t know.”
“You always order. Don’t you know that? It’s a habit of yours. You do always what you want to do. You never ask me what I might think.”
He turned back to the door. The sounds were louder, someone was blundering in panic-stricken haste between the tree-boles It seemed to the man standing motionless by the door that he heard something whimper, out there. His hand tightened on the dagger-hilt
Something flung itself against the door. Someone—cried out.
Kyrik threw open the door, reached forth, caught a slim wrist and yanked. A girl came flying into the room, stumbling and wailing as she fought to recover her balance. Her leg hit a chair, she skidded and fell.
The barbarian slammed the door shut, dropped the latch into place and put his shoulders to the wood.
The girl was half lying, half crouched on the worn rug. There was a poniard in her brown hand. Tumbled brown hair was plastered to an oval face in which brown eyes glared up at him and full red lips hung open. She wore a torn skirt with a laced leather bodice over a blouse that clung to her wet skin. The skirt had been ripped away so that it did little more than cover her upper thighs.
“Who are you?” she whispered. “The owner of this hunting lodge.” She gawked at him, then uttered harsh laughter. “Nobody owns this place! It’s why I use it—to hide when my services aren’t needed by the Romanoys.”
“And who are these Romanoys?” She eyed him more closely. “Where’ve you been, you’ve never heard of the Romanoy gypsies? We’re wanderers, we range the woodlands and the high hills, we keep to ourselves for the most part.”
Slowly, as though not to alarm him, she put a hand to the nearby table, yanked herself to her feet. Her clothes were sopping, they clung to her lissome body, revealing all its shapeliness. Kyrik let his eyes run over her, studied the exposed breasts where the bodice lacings had come undone. “Who’s after you?” he asked. “A guards officer. One of Devadonides’ men who saw me at the Fair this day and followed me.”
Kyrik smiled grimly, “One of Devadonides’ mercenaries.”
Under sullen brows, she glowered at him. “Aren’t you afraid? You know what happens to any who dare lift cold steel against his henchmen.”
“I don’t know, but it doesn’t frighten me.” Aryalla snapped, “Don’t be a fool, Kyrik We can get away, you and the girl and I. No need to stay here to spill more blood.”
The girl whirled, dagger up. Her eyes touched the sorceress where she sat on the edge of the bed, wrapped in her cloak.
“More blood?” she snapped. Her eyes brushed Kyrik.
“A little unpleasantness on the highway this afternoon.”
Aryalla added, “He slew a dozen of them.” The girl’s eyes popped. “By Absothoth. How many men sided you?”
“He did it with that great sword of his—alone. So what need has Kyrik to fear the coming of a lone guards officer?” asked Aryalla almost bitterly.
The girl lowered her dagger hand, brooded at the giant. “There aren’t many men left in Tantagol who would dare such a thing, let alone do it. Where are you from?”
Kyrik shrugged. He was studying the shapely brown legs of the girl, her bared shoulders and partially bared breasts, and found her good to look upon. He grinned suddenly, glancing at the sorceress.
“From Tantagol. I’ve been wandering myself.” His suddenly upraised hand held them speechless, frozen. They could hear blundering footsteps, whipping branches. Then a harsh voice hailed the lodge.
“I see the firelight in your cottage, Myrnis! You won’t escape me any more.”
He came blundering out of the rain, head down. Kyrik opened the door, watched him come nearer. Within a few feet of the yellow rectangle that was the doorway, the officer halted, looked up as though warned by instinct. His mouth fell open.
Kyrik shot out a hand, caught him by his cloak, yanked him stumbling forward. He stepped aside, and as the man began his fall, the barbarian backhanded him across the face. The man fell heavily, lay there.
The girl screeched triumphantly, lifted her dagger and dropped on him. Only Kyrik’s hand stopped that cold-blooded slaying, wrapping fingers about her wrist and lifting her up as though she were no more than a rag doll.
“Let me go,” she panted, eyes glaring. “I’ll slit his weasand for him. By Absothoth. He’ll spread the alarm if we let him live!”
Kyrik shook her. “Listen to me, wench I say the man lives—at least, until he can fight for his life. I’ll have no hand in murder.”
He thrust her back so that her rump hit the table, where she sagged and stared at him. She half raised the dagger but when her eyes met his, she dropped her arm.
“You’re a fool! A fool, you understand? That one is more mean, more vicious than any of the others. He’s Kangor, captain of the mercenaries. An Ocarian!”
She spat to indicate her fury.
Kyrik waited. Soon the man began to stir, raised his head. He turned, seeing the big barbarian. His eyes went over him slowly, taking in the mail shirt, the long sword at his side, the leather belt and fur kilt. Cautiously, he backed up and rose to his feet.
“I could have you flayed alive for striking a guards officer,” he rasped. His hand went to his face, where blood was trickling from his nose.
“In the old days, a guards officer conducted himself like a man, not a beast. Does Devadonides permit his soldiers to rape helpless girls without punishment?”
The officer laughed. “Devadonides is too busy with his spells and incantations to care what his men do. Who are you who doesn’t know his ways?”
“A stranger, a wanderer. What does Devadonides seek from his wizards?”
“Who knows? It’s rumored he wants to rule the world.”
Kyrik grinned. “By using demons?” Kangor stared at him, shrugged. He said, “I’ll be going now, since you want the land-loper for yourself.” His head jerked at the girl.
“I need sleep, captain. And if I were to turn you loose outside, you’d bring your fellows here to interrupt my dreams. So lie down, like a good fellow, and let me tie you up.”
Kangor grinned widely, showing yellow teeth. “By the gods, you’re a cool one. Lie down, you say. To me! Now you listen I—”
He leaped, fist out and cudgeling a path toward Kyrik’s face. The big man did not seem to move, but he was not there when Kangor leaped, he was sliding sideways and bringing up a fist to the other man’s jaw. Kangor’s head snapped back, he gave a muffled cry through back-drawn lips. Then he fell like a poled ox.
“Slay him,” pleaded the girl. Kyrik knelt, tied the man with his own belt and a few strips from his cloak, that he tore between his big hands. When he was done, the man lay stretched out, bound and gagged.
The barbarian looked up at the gypsy. “I ought to tie you up, as well. Otherwise when I’m asleep, you’ll slit his throat.”
She shook her head. “No. You helped me this night, I’m not ungrateful. Let him live, if that’s the way you want it. I can always kill him when he tries to rape me again.” Her dagger gleamed in the firelight as she moved it viciously.
Kyrik lay down on the floor, put his hand behind his head. “Go to sleep in the free bed, girl. The floor is good enough for me.”
She stood over him and frowned. She sighed, clicked her dagger into the scabbard at her side, hanging from a belt. “My name is Myrnis.”
Hips swaying, she walked away. Kyrik eyed her a moment, closed his eyes. A blazing knot popped in the fireplace. The rain came down, harder even than before, and lightning streaked across the black sky where thunder rolled a moment later. Slowly, the fire died out. . .
Morning sunlight showed Kyrik the beamed ceiling when he opened his eyes. Instantly he put hand to his dagger hilt, rolled over to stare around him. The trussed guards officer lay sleeping; during the night he had rolled toward the fire, apparently in an attempt to burn his bonds on the red coals. Kyrik had the suspicion that the rain coming down the chimney had put out those coals before he could do what he planned.
The room was cold without the fire. Kyrik rose to stir up the ashes, start a new one. Then he saw that the mattress was empty. The gypsy girl had gone.
He roused Aryalla with a gentle hand. Her eyes snapped open, she sat up. “The girl’s run off. It’s time for us to ride. We’ll leave him lying here. If someone finds him, he’ll live. If not. . .”
The barbarian turned away. Aryalla rose from the bed, wrapped her cloak about her and moved toward the table. She lifted the cheese, tucked it under her cloak. Then she walked after Kyrik into the sun dappled woods.
He was standing motionless, hand on his sword. “What now?” she asked. “Men come. By Illis! This isn’t a friendly world I’ve come back to. Everyone is always attacking, it seems.”
“We could mount and ride,” she suggested. He shook his head almost imperceptibly. “Too late. They’re near, they’d see us. I’d rather fight than run, anyhow.”
The gypsy girl came first, carrying two rabbits. She had donned a new blouse that hid her breasts, but her skirt was still the torn one she had worn last night. She had combed her brown hair, it hung down on either side of her piquant face.
Four men followed her, wearing woolen tunics with animal-skin capes on their shoulders; big gold rings swung from their ears. Wool leggins were strapped tightly to avoid tearing in the thick underbrush. Each gypsy carried a short bow, a dagger at his belt, a quiver of arrows over a shoulder.
They halted at sight of him. The girl came on, smiling.
“I brought you breakfast. I also brought help, in case it might be needed.”
“My thanks, Myrnis.” Her smile widened. “What of Kangor?” When he told her, she nodded. “Yes, leave him to the gods. Or demons. If one or the other want him, they can have him. Come, get your horses and follow me. We go deeper into the woods.”
Aryalla walked a little behind the gypsy girl, with Kyrik following, leading their horses. The four men trailed after the barbarian, their eyes moving between the trees, scanning the darkest shadows. The morning sunlight filtered between the leafy branches; there was a coolness and a silence in these woods that only their own sounds disturbed as they paced along a game trail.
When they came to a little copse where green grass grew between bordering trees, Myrnis held up a hand. Kyrik moved to stand beside her.
“I’ve been thinking,” she told him, frowning. “You can’t go marching into Tantagol City in those garments. You have the look of a warrior, it’s written all over you. And they clap strange warriors in the dungeons, in Tantagol town.”
Kyrik grinned, “I’ve been thinking much the same thing, myself.”
Her brown eyes went over him boldly. “You might be made into a gypsy, a Romanoy, with walnut juice to stain your skin and big gold rings in your ears.”
“And what good would such masquerade do me?”
“There’s a fair on. The people welcome the wanderers. We do tricks for them, to make them laugh.” Her brown eyes mocked him. “Can you do tricks, Kyrik?”
His laughter rang out. “Aye, girl. I know a stunt or two will open their eyes. By Illis, I do!”
“Come then, walk with me and plan our garb. And speak to me of this stunt you can do so well.”
Aryalla was frowning at the Romanoy girl, the barbarian saw, and chuckled to himself. It would serve the sorceress right if she thought Myrnis was making a play to get him into her cot of nights. He walked close to Myrnis as they moved through the woods, and from time to time his arm went about her slim middle, holding her soft body warm against his as he swung her over a rock or across a rippling brook. And Myrnis laughed and flirted with him, every step of the way.