THE SWORD OF THE SORCERER
Digitally transcribed for the Gardner Francis Fox Adventure Library
A gray wolf sat on its haunches, tongue lolling.
Kothar half drew his sword, but the gaunt animal at the edge of the weald did not move and when Kothar put the sword-back in its scabbard and buckled the great belt at his lean middle, the wolf rose to its feet and trotted off along a narrow forest trail. It halted and turned its head and its glowing feral eyes seemed to call to the big barbarian.
The wolf would be his guide to the queen.
He walked through the stillness of the forest, pausing only once to glance back at the dead mercenaries piled here and there outside the iron door. Men would come and carry them off, but no one but himself would ever explain how they had come to find death here in this ancient weald.
They went for more than two hours through the woods, until the wolf came to a forest glade where stood a little hut roofed with sod, a single window open to the room inside. The wolf sat back and howled once, piercingly, then slunk away into the underbrush, leaving Kothar alone.
The young mercenary walked to the doors of the hut and lifted his knuckles to knock, but another hand was before his; the door swung open and an old hag stood staring up at him. Her ugly face was hairy, and her nose was long and pointed, but the blue eyes in her ancient face were bright and gleeful as they searched his height and his youthful strength, and they lingered long upon the sword he carried at his side.
“Kothar,” she said softly, and stepped back. He walked into the hut, finding it clean and neat and oddly fragrant because of the dried herbs that swung from little cordings at the ceiling beams. A fire burned on a round stone in its middle as a thin gray smoke rose up to pass through a hole in the sod roof.
He swayed with weariness and the witch looked at him and smiled and gestured toward a pile of fur robes which formed a bed along one wall. She said. softly, “You are tired, exhausted from the fighting and your wounds which Afgorkon healed. But now Afgorkon can do no more and you must sleep.”
He did not dispute with her. He was so weary he had seemed to stumble after the wolf in a walking slumber, so that he thought at times he was dreaming all that had happened to him. The furs beckoned him; they were soft and would warm his body, and when he closed his eyelids as he lay upon them he would dream.
Kothar fell on his back across the robes and his eyelids seemed so heavy it was painful to hold them open. Yet he must remain awake for just a little while.
“Elfa?” he asked. “What of Elfa the queen?” The hag laughed brightly. “She shall come, young man. Sleep now, sleep.” Her blue eyes flirted with him, making him think of Elfa who was queen in Commoral, for Elfa had witch-eyes such as this, that flirted with him from time to time, and in his own way, Kothar understood that he had been half in love with her.
He closed his eyes and slept. He dreamed, as he knew he would. He dreamed of the single room of this witch-hut with the sod roof and of the fire on the round stone and of the smoke and of the hag who went and breathed in the smoke and waved at it with her hands until the smoke clung to her like a gray garment made of spiderwebs, hiding her shape and the shapeless garments which she wore. As the gray smoke touched her garments they fell away, and the hag was no longer the hag but queen Elfa herself, naked in the gray smoke that hid her fair white flesh.
She turned and saw him staring, in his dream, and she smiled with her red, red lips and she lifted up her arms and turned, letting him see how fair was her body through the veil of smoke. All the while she sang a strange little song the like of which the barbarian had never heard.
The hag was gone. It was Elfa who stepped from the gray smoke, Elfa in a scarlet kyrtle trimmed in miniver fur and thick with golden threadings. There were tiny red slippers on her feet and great ruby rings on her white fingers. Her heavy golden hair was done up in a caul of red garnets on a golden chain. This was the queen of Commoral.
She came and stood beside him where he dreamed. He looked up at her, and she bent and kissed his lips with her red, red mouth, and there was a perfume and a fragrance about her which was very pleasant to young Kothar. She slipped onto the fur robes with him and took him in her soft arms and let him pillow his head so that he forgot she was Queen Elfa, she was just a beautiful woman with golden hair. His heavily muscled arm hooked her middle, yanked her down on top of him in his dream and he held her banded to his body. Delighted laughter woke him. His dream had become reality. He held Elfa in his arms, and he was kissing her and she struggled against his strength, laughing softly, for a woman likes to be thought desirable, even a queen. For an instant longer he held her, relishing the feel of her soft body before he reluctantly let her go.
“You’re a brute,” she smiled, sliding away from him. His giant chest lifted and fell, but he did not speak. Her wise green eyes studied his huge body as she replaced a few tresses in her disarranged hair with white, ringed fingers.
“Afgorkon must have put a fire in your blood,” she murmured, glancing at him sideways. Her red lips quivered with laughter. “He has told me you can save my throne for me. He did not tell me you would all but rape me at the same time.”
His barbaric blood was in a ferment. Elfa was a tease body, as was Red Lori. Were all women? Kothar was a simple person, essentially. If a woman pleased him, he took her to bed with him. If she did not, he ignored her.
“What do you want with me?” he grumbled. Her thin eyebrows lifted. “Oh, you’re angry. I didn’t mean to make you angry. I imagine you’re full of life, since you escaped from the plain of Dead Trees. I’ll have to excuse you, I suppose.”
“Afgorkon said I was to help you.”
“And you want to know how.” He swung his legs off the cot. “The sooner the better,” he muttered. He walked like a stalking cat across the room, lifted the sword Frostfire and buckled its broad belt about his lean middle. In the eyes of the woman still sitting on the cot, he was a pagan soldier, a mercenary who took her gold. And yet, there was something more in this youthful giant, Elfa thought, head cocked sideways to study him.
If she were younger—
She shook herself. It did no good to dream. “You must free my wizard, Kazazael,” she said suddenly, rising to pace back and forth in the little hut.
Kothar snorted, “Little good he did you! Him and his magic spells that didn’t work! Where’s he now?”
Her laughter tinkled out. Her fate was in the hands of a barbarian youth, a boy only lately come to manhood. Afgorkon had said this was so, and she believed the lich, Yet there was a bitterness in her mirth that rang loudly in the hut. So much at stake, so much to rest on the sword-hand of one young man!
“You must go to Windmere Wood, where Kazazael hangs suspended in the air between earth and sky—flayed of his skin by orders of King Markoth. His screams of agony—for Kazazael cannot know the mercy of death—can be heard for miles around. You must free him, restore his health to him.”
Kothar stared. “Dwalka! It’s no easy task you set me.” Elfa smiled up at him. “You can name your own reward, if you succeed. Would you like to be a duke in Commoral? A prince?”
The Cumberian scowled. It was a heady bribe she offered, if bribe were needed to win his sword-arm
“I shall make you a prince,” she said softly.
“If I succeed,” he growled.
Her golden head nodded gently. “If you win back for me my queen-ship A princedom as a reward. Isn’t it enough?”
He grinned, “It’s too much.”
“And yet—perhaps not enough. There are grave dangers in Commoral, these days. Red Lori is no sorceress to hang a necromancer in the sky without safeguards against his freedom. Should you fail, you yourself may be flayed and hung there with Kazazael for all eternity. Markoth has a strong ally in Red Lori. Her enchantments put Kazazael where he is this day, after the flaying knives were done with him. She will have put up barriers past which no ordinary man could step.”
He was no ordinary man, but she would not tell him that. As captain of her Foreign Guard, he had been brusque, caring nothing that, one or two men under his command could boast of royal blood in their veins. With a heavy hand, he had transformed her mercenaries into a real fighting force. For a while this day, it had been nip and tuck between herself and Lord Markoth, thanks to the Foreign Guard and to the zeal of its muscular young commander.
With his fists, he had trained his men. With his skill at weapon-play, he had taught them to fight almost as well as himself. No other man could do that; this young barbarian was a born fighting man. He went straight for his objective, swinging his sword; the man who got in his way, died.
She hoped he could do the same for Kazazael.
His hard blue eyes were studying her. He rasped, “How do I find Kazazael? I’ve never heard of this Windmere Wood! And if Red Lori has put up safeguards against anyone helping him-surely she’ll make it next to impossible to locate him?”
“There is a horse knows the way,” she said softly and turning, went to a little door set in the wall of the hut and pushed open that door with her hand. By bending, Kothar could see into a small stable attached to the hut. A big gray warhorse with red velvet reins and red velvet fittings on the high-peaked saddle on its back, stood patiently, waiting for a rider. There was silver on its ring bits and the nails which fastened the leather saddle were of silver also, so that Kothar thought he had never seen so handsome an animal, nor such horse trappings.
“I bought him for my husband, the king,” the queen was saying as the barbarian stared, “but now he shall belong to him who is my champion.” Elfa smiled and the witch-lights danced in her blue eyes. “I had him from the wizard Kazazael. There may be magic in his hide.”
Kothar grunted. He stepped past the queen and into the stable, lifting the red velvet reins, slipping a black leather boot into the wooden stirrup and lifting upward into the kak. He had to bend a little, for the stable roof was not very high.
“Give him his head, Kothar, the queen called from the hut doorway, as he paced the beast out into the morning sunlight where the sparrows and the jays were already chittering. He dropped the reins so they lay limp over the saddle pommel and he made no more effort to guide Greyling but sat with the small of his back to the high cantle and let the animal go where it would.
If he were a horse with any magic in him, he would find the wizard. The big gray was trotting now toward a break in the woods around the hut, and when Kothar looked closely he could make out a path between the trees that led away to the southward.
He turned to see Queen Elfa standing before the open stable door, regal in her red gown, her golden hair piled high on her head and hung with garnets. She lifted a ringed hand, waved it. Her smile was radiant with promise.
It was cool in the forest, and a little cold wind was sighing here and there through the leaves and over the rocks that peeped out from the gnarled tree-roots where they broke the ground. Sunlight came but seldom into this forest world where everything was green or brown, but when it did, it came in golden sheets with tiny dust motes dancing in its radiance.
After a time, Kothar grew hungry. He looked behind him but there was no sack or purse tied to the saddle which might hold cheese and bread, not any shield either, he noticed, and he told himself glumly that being champion to a queen might not be all he thought it. The hours went by and he grew more hungry so that he began shifting in the saddle with his annoyance like a black cloud on his face.
It was then that he heard the screaming.