Read chapter Two from Kothar and the Conjurer’s Curse

Chapter Two

Digitally transcribed for the Gardner Francis Fox Adventure Library

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At the same moment, Kothar heard the thumping of heavy feet on the floorboards over his head. They were not the feet of a man; they were too heavy, too ponderous for that. An itch of uneasiness crept along his flesh, making him raise his head and stare hard at the stairwell opening.

“Stefanya? What is it?”

“Shokkoth!” she wailed.

Kothar swung upward. He moved lightly for all his size up those stair treads so that they held his weight; for he rested it an instant only on any step. The charred wood powdered and cracked, but it did not fall, and then his head was at the level of the upper floor.

A living statue stood in the center of this room that had been the necromantic chamber of the wizard Zoqquanor. It was squat and thick, it was of colored stone, it was malignant of feature and gave of a sense of awesome power. As if moved, it’s Stone-feet crushed: the glass of what had been vials and alembics in this conjuration chamber where Zoqquanor had worked his wizardries. There were pools of acids and unknown liquids spilled upon the floor, as the monstrous statue swung away from an object on a refectory table.

The huge bulk of the living statue had hidden the body of Zoqquanor, Kothar saw as he came up into the room and drew his sword. Stefanya crouched at his right war-boot, sobbing softly.

“It is Shokkoth, a demon from some hell that Zoqquanor had summoned up to slay his mortal body before the villagers got to him.” She moaned her words, shaking her head back and forth. “Stop him, barbarian—if you would keep me alive!”

Kothar rasped, “Why should the mage order that thing to kill him? It doesn’t make sense!”

“The kind of death Shokkoth gives will allow Zoqquanor to go on living, in a sense. After a lapse of time, he will be able to return to his former body, alive and well—though I myself will not!”

The Cumberian hunched his broad, muscular shoulders. He did not like this talk of wizards and demons. It made him uneasy. Yet, he knew that to save the girl, he would do his best to slay this Shokkoth. Frostfire held out before him, he advanced upon the monster being.

He leaped, steel swinging in an arc. His blade rang on a stone neck, bounced off. Kothar jerked to a stab of pain as his steel met that stone throat. The shock of contact sent a spasm of agony up his sword-arm. Shokkoth turned from the comatose body of the sorcerer, aiming a great stone arm at the barbarian.

Kothar ducked and lunged. His sword-point hit the statue a little above its middle. The blade bent, making a strange singing sound. The being swung its arm again, hit the blade and sent it flying through the air out of Kothar’s hand.

The barbarian Crouched on bent knees, staring up at this awesome thing on which even the steel of Frostfire had no effect. There was no change in the malign stone face as the body moved toward the barbarian.

Slowly the Cumberian backed away from the oncoming monster. His war-boots crunched, glass and splashed in puddles of acids and serums. So, too, did the statue’s feet as it pursued him slowly but inexorably across the floor of the circular room. Kothar’s eyes went this way and that as the barbarian sought for some weapon with which to defeat this demoniac evocation.

He saw nothing that might aid him. Against a rounded wall of the chamber, Stefanya wept and moaned as if in acknowledgment of his helplessness, even as Kothar discovered an iron tripod on which had rested a glass container. His big hands went out, raised and swing the tripod, brought it down across the stone head of the squat statue. The iron bent to that frightful blow, but the thing called Shokkoth merely laughed and jeered in a croaking voice that resembled the language of frogs.

“Foolish mortal! Nothing can harm Shokkoth of the Red Spheres!”

“I shall,” Kothar panted, not knowing how.

Even more he retreated before those jarring footsteps that splashed the acids and ground the vials that had contained them into powder. The townspeople who had burned the dwelling of the wizard had ravened here, breaking all they could lay hands on. They had tried to slay the wizard, but some necromantic spell had protected Zoqquanor and left him in that frozen state, not alive and not dead.

As he retreated before the juggernaut Kothar found himself slipping on more than puddles of acids. He glanced down, saw that grains of sand were mixed in with those liquids. At first he did not understand what it was he was seeing; he went back and back, grateful that the circular room held no corners in which Shokkoth might trap him and close those rock hands about his windpipe.

The statue-being rumbled laughter and planted his feet om either side of the open trapdoor, straddling it like a colossus. Where his stone eyes were, Kothar could see faint white flashes of light, deep inside. The deep, croaking voice mocked him, telling him that Shokkoth might stand here until, weakened by lack of food and water, Kothar must fall, unable to prevent himself from being killed.

The barbarian realized this; so, too, did Stefanya. “What can we do?” she wailed. Again that sand ground under his war-boots as Kothar moved. He growled, “There must be away!”

He saw Frostfire on the floor, bent to pick it up. Armed once more, but knowing how useless was his steel against the statue, he stood and panted, staring at Shokkoth who looked back at him with flashing white eyes.

Up and down that rock body the barbarian ran his gaze.

And, suddenly—

He started in excitement. Where its feet had been set into those liquid pools, some of the stone had dissolved. The conjuring acids and mixtures of the wizard were potent, filled with sorcerous spells and ultra-mundane necromancies.

Against cold steel, Shokkoth was invulnerable! But against those serums on the floor, the rock structure of his body was weak! Kothar bellowed, “Gods of Thuum! There is a way!”

Desperately, his stare went about the room. The villagers had left little in their frightened fury; the room was a shambles of shattered containers and alembics. Yet they must have missed something. Something!

Closets had been built into one wall. Some of those closet doors were open, showing empty shelves. Kothar leaped toward the closed shutters, yanking them wide.

Inside one were curiously shaped retorts and crucibles. Each of these held elixirs and draughts. His big hands went out, grasping at those-cruets. He whirled and showed his teeth in a mirthless grin. His right arm went back.

A flagon filled with reddish liquid flew through the air. It hit the face of the statue-being. It shattered, splashing its contents across that rock face, covering forehead, eyes and nose.

For a moment Shokkoth did not react. Then its stone arms went up its stone fingers spread apart to cover that marred face. A cry of inhuman agony ripped upward through its stone throat.

“Aaaaaaaggghhh!”

Stefanya shrieked happily in answer to that scream. “Barbarian—you’ve won! You’ve destroyed Shokkoth!”

The acids were steaming on that crumbling rock head, little tendrils of gray mist rose upward toward the vaulted roof. The statue shuddered and howled in the terrible agony of lost eyes and nose, and between the interstices of its fingers, Kothar could see where those malefic liquids were eating into its brain. What was left of its mouth opened, releasing an ear-shattering wail of pain.

Shokkoth took two steps forward and fell. The shock of its impact on the wooden floorboards almost tore them loose from their rock moorings. The girl was on her feet now, staring with wide brown, eyes. Slowly, she crept across the floor toward Kothar, putting her hand in his big one.

“I never thought anything could harm him. Who are you, that you knew that one simple way?”

The Cumberian grinned. “I’m Kothar out of Grondel Bay to the far north. I’m a sell-sword, girl and you’ve hired me for a little while.”

“I have no money,” she breathed. His grin was disarming. “I’ll take my reward when the time comes.” His hand clapped her buttock, making her yelp. “Now let’s go look at that magician of yours.”

Zoqquanor lay mute and white, as if frozen to the frigidity of polar snows. His graying hair was tousled on his large head, his eyelids were closed over big eyeballs. There was a peaceful expression on his face, as if he dreamed of faraway places and pleasant things. He lay on a long refectory table, one which he had used for scores of years to hold crucibles and retorts, but which had been swept clean of everything but his body, which was clad in a simple white chiton.

The barbarian touched Zoqquanor’s cold arm, grimacing.

“The man’s dead. His chest does not move, and his nostrils give off no sign of breath.” Kothar lifted Frostfire, held its bright blade near the magician’s nostrils. “You see? No mist on the steel. You’ve made a mistake, Stefanya.”

She shook her head stubbornly, “There’s no mistake. He’s alive, but in a deep trance brought on by the same conjuration that fetched Shokkoth here. Zoqquanor has told me of the spell a number of times.”

Kothar sighed, “Well, if you want his corpse as a companion, I’ll indulge your whim but—by the ten red toenails of titian-haired Hastarth!—when he begins to stink, we leave him!”

He put his big hands to the body and heaved upward, lifting it easily to one wide shoulder. Like a log the wizard lay, unmoving, stiff unto death in his rigidity of arm and leg and body. Kothar waved the girl to precede him, which she did after gingerly stepping over what remained of the statue on the floor.

Stefanya had to turn on the stairs and lend a hand to keep the body from touching the sides of the trapdoor as Kothar came down with it. Then, once his war-booted feet were planted firmly on the steps, he shouldered the corpse once more.

As they came out into the twilight of the day, with the setting sun no more than a faint redness to the west, Kothar shook his head and grunted, “I don’t know how were going to carry this thing. I have one horse.”

“We aren’t going to leave it,” the girl flared. “I could make a travois.”

“Then make one.”

“Tomorrow, girl, not now.” Stefanya glowered at him, fists on hips. Her head jerked toward the stone keep out of which they had taken the body of the wizard. “Do you want to stay here this night? Do you want to face other demons whom Zoqquanor may have summoned up to protect him if Shokkoth failed?”

Kothar rubbed his jaw thoughtfully. The girl made sense, of a sort. He stared down at the rigid white body at his feet, wishing he might pour acids over it as he had splashed acids over Shokkoth.

Stefanya swung her hips as she strode back and forth. “We can be well on our way within two hours time. There is a place I know, not far away, where a forest glade can shelter us and I can cook a meal.”

“A meal? You make it sound tempting, girl.”

She ran from him toward the burned timbers still projecting upward from the ground. Into the ruin on the great hall she went, toward what used to be the buttery when she and Zoqquanor lived here. She fumbled for a while, throwing things, and then Kothar saw her rise to her feet and run for a small hill with a wooden door set into its slope.

She returned from the hill with her arms filled with meats and round bread-loafs, and big wedges of uncut cheese. Her dusky face was flushed triumphantly.

“The spring house keeps these things fresh. And the townsfolk never thought of it, nor of the food it might hold.”

Kothar ran his dagger across one of the cheeses, cutting of a slice for the girl and another for himself. “Eat, then. I’ve no mind to let my stomach wait two hours for something to digest. Its been a long time for me since breakfast.”

He went into the forest and cut two slender saps lings, trimmed them of their branches and bade Stefanya find a hide to bind to the poles. Two ends he tied together so that they might hang from Greyling’s rump, the other ends would drag, farther apart, on the ground.

When his travois was done, the moon was high in the blue sky and an azure dimness lay upon the world. He swung the body of the magician onto the hide that Stefanya had found in the spring house and tied it, then swung up into the saddle.

The girl he lifted with his left hand as she swung her right-leg up to straddle the croup. Her slender arms came about his middle, holding herself to his bulk.

“Which way, girl?”

“Northward, Kothar, along the forest road.”

It was dark in these woods, black with nighttime shadows. The road seemed plain enough, the moonlight showed its narrow ribbon as Greyling plodded patiently with his triple load. The wind through the leaves moaned faintly as if with siren voices as the breezes shared the sweet scents of sleeping flowers and slumbering grasses. The iron horseshoes thudded softly into the dirt and from time to time the walking horse shook its head, making its silver ring-bits jingle musically.

Saddle leather creaked beneath his crotch. The warmth of the girl who lay along his back with her arms about his middle and her head resting between his shoulder blades added its inducement to the soft breezes and the dark forests. His eyelids grew heavier as weariness seeped down into his muscles. His head nodded. Soon his chin was resting on his mailed chest and he dozed.

The gray warhorse walked on….

An inner sense woke Kothar, made him open his eyes and straighten in the high-peaked saddle. Stefanya still slept, her head a weight on his back. Before them was a vast, wide plain on which high grasses stirred to the wind down from the north, and where a dozen marble columns reared their broken cornices. There were other columns, shattered and half buried in the loam, and beyond them marble blocks, tumbled and eroded by time and rain and wind, telling him that here had been a magnificent structure, once and long ago.

Kothar sighed, remembering what Kylwyrren, who had been court conjurer to Tor Domnus of Urgal, had told him of the age of this, his world. Long eons ago, mankind had gone to the planets surrounding those tiny blue dots in the nighttime heavens called stars, and they had made those planets their many homes.

From time to time a building of those other-men was uncovered in this land of Yarth or half seen beneath the moving salt sea waves, or perhaps buried in the dirt and grasses, as was this marble ruin. Doubtless those men had built it, and left it here as an unwitting testimonial of their existence,

The barbarian shook himself, growling softly. He was becoming a niddering with his poetic fancies! His eyes touched the stars and the moon and he chuckled, realizing how long he and the girl must have slept.

His hand touched the silvery mane of the warhorse. “You’ve earned your rest, Greyling. We camp here, under the shadows of those columns.”

He half turned in the saddle, gathered the limp, sleeping body of the girl into his arms. For an instant he stared down at her, studying her lovely features. She was clad like a gypsy girl in a bit of wool that, being torn, showed the smooth skin of her back and breasts, but there was a kind of nobility about her, despite her crude garb.

Kothar pressed his mouth to her lips. Under his caress her own lips stirred and shared in his caress. She murmured something unintelligible in her slumber and nestled closer to his arms, her head resting on his mailed chest.

“Little gypsy wildcat,” he grinned. Holding her carefully, he got down out of the saddle, spread his cloak on the ground, and wrapped her in it. He unsaddled the horse, let it roam. The travois with the body of the wizard he propped against a broken marble column. Then he rested his spine on a shattered marble block and dozed.

The girl woke him, shaking his arm.

“Kothar—look!”

He was awake with the wariness of the barbarian warrior, his hand already on his sword. Her rigid finger caused him to swing his head and stare.

The body of the wizard was glowing with a silver radiance that spread outward like a fine mist into the night. In the silvery mist, the barbarian could make out the bloated, swollen bodies and heads of monstrous dwarfs, hairless and obscene, as they crept toward the frozen body of the sorcerer.

“Dwalka!” rasped Kothar, coming to his feet.

He moved toward the mists; sensing the evil and malefic designs of the hob-gobs They paid him no heed, their bulging blank eyes were fastened on that which was Zoqquanor, and their clawed hands were outstretched as if to shred and rend.

The barbarian bellowed and sprang. Frostfire glittered as it clove through those silver mists. Little sparkles of brightness ran from point to hilt seconds before the edge buried itself in the skull of one of the bloated beings.

As that dying hob-gob shrieked, the others turned their baleful eyes toward the huge barbarian. They chittered and leaped, lifting clawed hands to dig into the blue eyes that glared down at them.

Back and forth went Frostfire, like a scythe in the hands of a seasoned farmer cutting-down the grain. Bits of flesh and globs of blueish blood flew here and there at the trained hand of the giant swordsman. There was no time for anything but slaying at this moment, the hob-gobs were many and they were filled with a wicked will to slay. Claws scraped on his chain-mail and bloodied his legs, bare between the bearskin kilt and the furred tops of his war-boots.

These bloated beings hurled themselves upon him with utter disregard for the keen steel that stole their lifeblood, that slaughtered where it touched. Their mewlings rose up about his ears as they fell away from the barbarian to die in agonized convulsions on the ground. Back and forth wove Frostfire as it played a death song on their bodies.

Once Stefanya leaped to catch one of the hob-gobs as it would have hurled itself on Kothar’s back. Her own nails sank into its flesh as she hurled it to the side, where the point of Frostfire could dip deep between its ribs.

She watched, panting, as the Cumberian finished off the last of the dwarfs with a slashing sidestroke. Her flesh was wet and claiming where the mist touched it, and she seemed gifted with supernal vision, as she saw the body of Zoqquanor lying as he might sleep. There was no frozen quality to his flesh inside the mist, it was as warm and soft as her own.

“Dwalka’s War-Hammer!” breathed Kothar, shaking himself, bending to run the steel blade into the clean ground, cleansing it. “What were those things”

“Imps out of hell, muttered the girl. “I’ve seen Zoqquanor summon them up before times, to work his evil will.”

“He called them up to kill him, you think?”

“As he did Shokkoth to gain new life at another time.”

She shivered and lost a little of her inner fire as she pressed closer to the giant youth. “If they had killed Zoqquanor—I would have died.” Her brown eyes lifted to his face. “Twice now I owe you my life. Perhaps even three times. Shokkoth would have slain me like those men in the market square of Sfanol.”

His arm hugged her to him. “But you’re alive and safe, and dawn is breaking in the east. It’s time to go on toward Alkarion.”

She raised her hands to her tumbled brown hair, pushing it back and away from her eyes as she stared around her. The marble columns and the blocks of what had been a great edifice puzzled her. She turned her glance at the horizon, seeing the vast plain to her right and the distant forest to her left.

“Where are we, Kothar?”

He growled, “On the road to Alkarion.”

“No.” She shook her head. “I have never seen these ruins before, nor this plain. This is not the way to Alkarion.”

He scowled down at her. “We were on the road last night. Unless—” He turned his head toward Greyling, who cropped at the lush grasses close beside the base of a broken pillar. “Unless Greyling wandered off on another path while we slept.”

Stefanya moved away, knelt to fumble at the straps of worn saddlebags. She turned her head to look at the barbarian.

“I’m hungry, if you aren’t. Make me a fire, Kothar. I’ve meat to roast. Well eat before we set out.”

The morning sun warmed them and the wind off the plain came laden with sweet odors as they feasted, sitting on a long, marble building block. Kothar watched the girl as she hunted in his gear for a needle and some thread with which to repair her single garment.

When she saw him staring, she smiled. “I must do up this tunic of mine, or else watch it fall apart around me. Already the tears are wider than they were yesterday.”

She turned her back to him and bent to lift off her wool tunic. Naked she stood a moment, drawing it of over her head, her long brown hair tumbling free. Once again, the eyes of the barbarian were drawn to the dark blotch on her back, just above her left buttock.

Stefanya sat down in the grass, partially hiding her nudity and bent her face above the needle and thread and the garment she was mending. Her action hid the birthmark as well. Kothar sighed and rose to his feet. It was time to be about his own chores.

Greyling was saddled and the travois holding the rigid body of the wizard Zoqquanor was tied to the saddle stirrups when Stefanya rose, satisfied with her needlework, and draped the tunic about her body. She laughed when Kothar glanced at her and she made him a little bow.

She had cunningly altered the styling of the simple garment, putting diagonal pleats in its skirt as well as widening the low vee of her collar. Her high-held head, the brilliance of her sparkling eyes, told Kothar that she knew she was lovely and wanted to be admired.

“You look prettier,” he grunted. “Less the hoyden, almost like a fine town lady out for a romp on a feasting day.”

She laughed and ran to him, throwing her arms about his neck and pressing her lips to his. His own arms closed around her, lifting her of the ground.

“I like you, Kothar,” she laughed when he let her go. “You’re like a big, trained bear. I feel safe with you.”

He scratched his golden poll, rumbling, “I’m not sure whether I like being told that. It makes me feel stupid. Maybe I ought to throw you down on the ground and enjoy you before—”

Her laughter rang out. She caught his arm and tried to move him with her bare toes planted in the grass, but his huge bulk did not yield. He grinned down at her.

“Not now, Kothar—not now!” she panted, pushing. He swept her up with an arm and carried her, mock-struggling toward his warhorse. “You see how easy it would be for me?” he asked.

She nodded, flushing. “Yes, I know. It was mean of me to tease. Perhaps I should alter the tunic again.”

His eyes studied her bare legs and arms and the dip of the woolen, bodice. “I like you as you are, a little gypsy spitfire without any modesty. It gives my eyes something nice to look at when the sun glare hurts them”

She thrust out her tongue at him and dodged the palm he aimed at her backside. A camaraderie was developing between them, and as Kothar mounted and then swung her up behind him, she begged him to tell her something of himself.

“I know you come from Grondel Bay,” she prattled, hugging his middle with her bare arms, “but what did you do after you went away from home? And what was your home like? Did your mother cry when you left her? What was your mother like? I never had a mother that I remember, did you know that? And your father! Was he a kind man?”

“You race on with questions like trout over the bottom stones in a Cumberian stream. How can I answer them as fast as you ask?”

“Try, Kothar,” she teased.

“I was a babe cast ashore on Grondel strand in a small boat,” he replied. “I never knew my real mother either, only fair-haired Gudrunna who was wife to Elvard Forkbeard, my adoptive father.

“He was a grim, bluff man—hard and resolute, though kind enough, I suppose. When I was twelve, he put me out in the woods in the mid-winter season with only a bearskin wrapping to keep me warm.”

“How horrible!” she gasped. “It is the way of the Northland kings to test a male child for fitness. Oh, they trained us well before they gave us to the wilds. I could shoot a bow with the finest of their archers. I was big for my age. I used a sword with better than average skill, even then, with old Svairn for my teacher. Svairn fought in the Southland as a mercenary and for some reason he took a liking to me.”

“What happened? In the woods in winter, I mean?”

“I killed three wolves to get at their kill, a baby deer. I cooked my fire and roasted the venison and fed well, girl. I found a fallen log and laired there when it snowed.”

He chuckled thickly. “To wander is part of my nature, I guess. Most boys sent into those wilds are happy to come home after a night out in the open. Not me! I had always wanted to search those high hills that bordered my home and to which all youngsters were forbidden to go.”

Kothar drew breath, eyes wide as he searched his memory for those moments of exultation, with a bow on his back and a small sword at his side, with his bearskin protecting him from the wind and the fire of discovery in his heart. He felt once more the drifting snow as the mountain winds blew it like white crystals through the upper reaches of the hills. The tang of balsam was in his nostrils. Part of the dead deer hung in a sack of its own hide he had made against its carrying.

Aye, by Dwalka of the War-Hammer! Those had been glorious days, when his boyish strength was still untested and the world was his oyster for the opening.

Something shook his lean waist, bringing him back to the present. He patted Stefanya’s arms where they rocked him.

“I went up onto the mountaintops. I looked to the south where there were no snows, and I thought that some day I would go to the Southlands and become a great warrior, wealthy with gold and renown. Pah! It was the dream of a child.

“And yet—

“It was on the mountain that I met the priestess.”

He could see her before him even now, her long black hair blowing in the wind about her lovely white face, her supple body swaying to those borean blasts, wrapped in the pelt of a gigantic bear. She was standing, watching him with calm gray eyes as he came striding up the rock path where no youngling had ever walked before.

She was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen.

He had gawked at her with his young eyes, and perhaps she read the admiration in them for she laughed suddenly, a rippling torrent of delight, and she held out her hands to him. They were warm, those hands, despite the fact that they were not covered, and when she spoke, her voice made his heart sing.

“Never before has such a youthful warrior come to me. Now what is your name, and where are you from?”

He told her, walking easily beside her, knowing that even at this early age he was almost as tall as she. She listened with head bent slightly so as not to miss a word, and he understood also that she listened with amusement mixed with admiration of a sort.

“So you came where Ursla lives, just because you were curious? It’s a deed not many boys your age would attempt.”

They were at her dwelling place, a rather large hut of hewn logs with a pointed roof and two stone chimneys at either end. There were fires lighted in those hearths that shed a heady warmth, so that the young Kothar gladly let drop his bearskin wrapping and stamped about the hearth stones until his skin was flushed with throbbing blood.

Ursla said, “You shall dine with me, young one. And we shall drink a toast in southern wines to your courage.” Her gray eyes twinkled as she unfastened a brooch from the scarf at her soft white throat. “And this you shall take back with your to show to grumpy Elvard Forkbeard, your foster father, that he may know what a brave young bull he has raised for protection in his old age.”

They ate of tender venison and vegetables, seated at an oaken table before one of the fireplaces. Kothar was filled with boyish curiosity.

“I asked as many questions as you do, girl,” he chuckled, reliving those moments in the telling. “I wondered who she was, why she lived alone this high in the hills, and why she had no husband. I was very young and stupid in those days.”

She had smiled at him tenderly, staring across the emptied food platters at his intent young face. “I am a priestess of the wild, young Kothar. There are many of my kind in the world in these days hidden in the remote places where men come very seldom. My servitors are the bears that live here in these mountains, and the wild eagles and the hawks. Even the snow rabbits come to me, knowing they are safe from man or beast while in my company.”

Kothar marveled, for never had any man spoken of this Ursla to him, though Elvard Forkbeard apparently knew her.

Ursla smiled gently. “Men come to me, too, on occasion.” She gestured toward the stall bed built against the wall, hung with curtains against the mountain cold.

“Why do men come?” he had asked in his innocence. Her laughter rang out, rich and melodious. “If you were not so young, I might show you, boy. You’re big for your age, however, and handsome in a craggy sort of way—with all that yellow hair hanging down, and your blue eyes . . . I wonder . . .

“Perhaps we shall make attempt, later.” As for now, know you that there other priestesses such as I, far to the south of these frozen wilds. Some run with the deer in the forests, some with the wolves. Others to the far south have taken command over the tigers and the lions and worship our god with their aid.”

“I would not care to live alone like this,” Kothar protested, reaching to grasp the leather tankard that held the last of the warming wine she had poured.

“No, you’re a barbarian at heart, despite your ancestry.”

“Do you know my ancestry?” he asked eagerly. “Elvard Forkbeard has told me how he found me adrift in a boat, but no more.”

“There is no more—as yet. You must find your own destiny, young Kothar. And part of that destiny will be interwoven with a priestess of my own kind, to the south. Aye! You shall go south to sell your sword-arm. I see it as I see your face.”

“And what else?” he whispered.

“War and battle, girls and women to put their arms about you and fit their bodies to your own. But little treasure, because of a sword you shall carry until—”

Ursla broke off and shook her head, her gray eyes enormous and vaguely troubled, “No more, no more. The moment passes for me. Here, have a little more of this rich wine that you seem to like so much.”

Young Kothar drank greedily, for this was a potion that made the home brewed ales and meads of Elvard Forkbeard’s steading seem insipid by comparison. The wine put a flush in his cheeks and a warmth in his belly, making him feel older than his years.

Across the table he stared at her and for the first time he looked at a woman with knowledge of her as a female and himself as a male. She read his stare; she laughed softly, almost under her breath.

“Sa ha! Our boy becomes the man, I think”

She rose to her feet, her gray eyes never leaving his face, and she put her hands to the combs in her thick black hair and removed them. She shook her head, her fingers freeing those rich black strands so that they fell below her middle. Her face seemed to glow with its own beauty and young Kothar felt his heart leap and thud and dance in a feverish, excitement he had never known.

As Greyling walked beneath his weight, Kothar sat and dreamed until the girl behind him shook him again.

“Well? Well? Did she? Did she?”

“Some things I keep to myself, girl,” he growled.

“She did, she did!”

“Girl, be quiet. She was tender and sweet and kind, and I remember her so. Later, when I went back down the mountain, I found them burying me, Aye, by Dwalka! They’d made a little coffin and they were about to burn it, supposing me dead of a wild animal.

“It is considered a test of manhood, that overnight stay in the high hills: The boy who lives and returns is made ready for the weapon training and service as a warrior. He who fails—there are few who fail, they’re a hardy breed at Grondel Bay—is given a good funeral and is assumed to have died like a warrior in battle.”

Slyly, Stefanya asked, “And the brooch? Did you show it to Elvard Forkbeard? Did it make him believe what happened to you?”

Kothar grinned hugely, his thick chest quaking with silent laughter. He had come strolling down the hill path, swaggering a little, expecting the happy cries and shouts of his mother and father, sisters and brothers. Instead, he found the skalli empty, mute and deserted. He ran through the woman’s quarters, surely expecting to find Gudrunna and her servant girls knitting or stitching as was their custom in this morning time.

He went outside the hall and shouted, hands to his lips. It was then that he saw the brush-pile on the distant headland, and the men and women and children standing there about what he suddenly knew to be his empty bier. He shouted mad laughter to the sky and took off at a run, arriving seconds before Elvard Forkbeard could touch blazing torch to the dry underbrush and twigs.

Gudrunna saw him first, and screamed. Elvard Forkbeard bellowed oaths and ran to greet him. The others were with them, crowding about and marveling at how well he looked. They chorused questions at him asking him if the trolls had wined and dined him, and why he had stayed away so long, almost a week, when most boys came home next morning, glad that their ordeal was at an end?

He jested with them, telling them he enjoyed his own company and the antics of the big black-bears of the hills, whom he had made his friends. Elvard Forkbeard looked a little startled at that, with a few of the other men, the hunters and the warriors, and Kothar grinned when he saw them glance at one another.

They feasted well that night, and Kothar was given the seat of honor, to the right of his adoptive father. Not until later, when the women were gone to sleep, did he bring out the brooch and turn it over and over between his fingers.

“Where did you get that, boy?” rasped Elvard Forkbeard, staring.

“From the woman you call Ursla.”

Elvard Forkbeard glanced over his shoulder nervously, but Gudrunna had retired with her women. The room was dimly lit by flickering torches which were guttering out, one after the other. They were alone on the high seat as his father reached for the brooch.

“You’ll not tell me you spent the days with her?”

“And the nights. Ursla bid me say that you should take me with you in the spring when you go south to raid.”

“I’ll go see her about that!” growled Elvard Forkbeard, tucking the brooch into his belt pouch. He considered his young son, head tilted. Then he showed his teeth in a grin and clapped Kothar’s shoulder.

“Well done, boy. I’m proud of you,” he roared,

And as they rode northward toward Alkarion, the barbarian told Stefanya of his first raid and of the loot he gathered, and of how his father died from a war-arrow in a city on the Salt Sea coast. Kothar had stood alone on the strand and watched his father’s crew head homeward with his body for a burning burial.

He himself chose to remain here in the southern lands.

They rode onward, the man and the girl with her arms locked about him, through the morning and the afternoon. Behind them, the body of Zoqquanor shook and trembled to the rocking of the travois.

They made camp near a rock bluff out of which small, stunted trees grew at an angle. Stefanya told Kothar of her life as a child with the wizard, and of her very earliest remembrance.

“I see a street with cobblestones upon it she murmured, nestling within his arm that held her sheltered from the night cold. “And a glowing torch that shows a wagon and a horse. I see a face, a very lovely face under a spill of ebony hair. This woman is lifting me, handing me to someone.”

Her shoulders shrugged. “After that, I recall nothing.”

“My next memories concern Zoqquanor and his great hall with the stone keep attached to it where he did his magics. I was very young then, but he taught me to fetch and carry for him, vials and alembics and athanors. He beat me when I dropped one, so that in time I learned to be very careful with his necromantic properties.

“I played very little in my childhood, though I do remember a rag doll that was precious to me, and to which I would whisper of nights when the candles were out and the covers were up over my head.”

She stared into the fire-flames dreamily, filled with cooked food and red wine from the skin Kothar carried. “I suppose I thought of Zoqquanor as my father.

He taught me from horn-books to read and write, and he hired women to come and train me in certain courtly ways, as if I were a highborn child who might someday live in a palace.

“At least, this is what I told myself when I gave any thought to it at all. Not until years later did it strike me as strange that the wizard should spend good silver coins on educating me. It made no sense to me then, nor does it now.”

When her head rested too heavily into his shoulder, the barbarian knew she was asleep. He lowered her to the saddle blanket and folded it over her. His own bearskin cloak he drew out and wrapped about himself.

For three days, Kothar and the girl wandered slowly toward the north and Alkarion. The Cumberian was in no hurry, as he enjoyed the company of the girl and her happy laughter. They were in a remote corner of Phalkar, that might have been Makkadonia for all he knew, since he was lost and there were no landmarks anywhere that he could recognize. There was no need of money and his horn bow brought down a deer or two and any number of big hares when it came time to feed.

Behind them were the rolling grasslands of the plateau onto which they had wandered after leaving the great hall of Zoqquanor. They came to a series of gorges, deep and rocky dales where nothing grew and only bare, gray rock faced the sun that warmed it. Alkarion was somewhere to the north, but what lay to the east or west he could not say. The hoof-beats of the warhorse and the warm arms of the girl about his middle were enough for the barbarian.

Soon the gorges grew deeper and more numerous, and now the ground was sloping upward under the hooves of the gray warhorse. There were high hills about them, and this road that wound between those hills was littered, here and there, with a rusty weapon fallen from some dead hand, and a horse skull off beneath some bushes, and rotted things tossed aside as if discarded.

“The caravans come this way, or did, the barbarian told the girl. “It may be the north-way from Phalkar into Makkadonia and Sybaros. And if it is—”

His hand brought Frostfire about in front of him.

“There will be robber barons here who may think the magician we carry is a treasure worth the looting.”

“Nothing must happen to him, Kothar!”

“Nothing shall. Be at ease, girl.

It was in mid-morning of the fifth day of their traveling that the barbarian saw the three men in link mail sitting their horses athwart the road before them. They held lances in their hands and their faces were split with big grins. There was greed in their eyes when they stared at the sword Kothar owned, and lust when they looked at Stefanya.

One of the men shouted, “Stand and pay tribute to Torkal Moh of Raven Garde, who is lord baron of all this Gyrolois gorge country hereabouts.”

A second man raised his lance to throw.

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