Digitally transcribed for the Gardner Francis Fox Adventure Library
Deep within the pile of stone that was the palace of the queen in Kor was a small round chamber with a dirt floor and a tier of several seats rising upward from a ten foot wall around the small arena. More than a hundred torches glowed along the wall, so that the arena itself was lighted brightly while the tier of seats was in dark shadows.
Kothar came out of a doorway in the round stone wall, carrying Frostfire and a shield that Zordanor had handed him. He stepped onto the hard packed dirt and let his stare range upward toward the box bearing the royal arms, a spotted leopard rampant on an azure field. Candara sat there, shrouded in her black woolen robe, though the hood was down to show her glossy hair and her exquisitely beautiful face.
A clang of metal alerted him. He swung about as the largest man he had ever seen stepped from a dark doorway behind a raised iron grille. The man was a Makkadonian, with auburn hair beneath a high-crested helmet, wearing a mail shirt to his middle thighs and below that, red leggings strapped with brown leather. He towered half a foot above Kothar, and Kothar was himself a giant, while his arms were each a foot longer than those of the barbarian.
Kothar grunted. He had his task cut out for him, to stay alive this day. No pampered city soldier, this one; he was what the queen had named him: a brute. There was brutish intelligence beneath the shaggy brows, glinting out at him from dull blue eyes, but no wit, no understanding of anything beyond his own muscles.
Japthon let out a bull bellow and charged. In either hand, he carried a gigantic battle-ax, huge weapons made especially for his titanic strength. He swung one ax, Kothar raised his shield to block it and was rocked back on his heels by the sheer power of the arm that swung it. At almost the same moment, the other ax darted for his skull.
Kothar rasped a curse and ducked. He swung the glade in his hand, watched Japthon cross his right arm over to catch the blow on the flat of his ax-helm and deflect it. Japthon brought his left hand ax upward toward Kothar’s jaw.
The barbarian leaped back, feeling shame that he must yield before the awesome strength of this other man. The shame ate in him, gnawing away even as he strove with shield and blade to turn the frightful blows raining at him from either side.
Back he was pushed, and back until his spine felt the round stone wall beyond which he could not go. The Cumberian knew the black eyes of the queen were blazing down at them and thought of the promise in those eyes when Candara had looked at him.
Slowly the shame turned to anger, to that barbarian madness with which he was wont to fight. His teeth gritted together and his lips writhed back. Though he was a giant in strength and statue, this man who opposed him was a freak in his musculature. Ambidextrous, he used either hand equally well and his great battle-axes were like darting steel petrels that would slay if they could penetrate his defenses.
Kothar lunged, driving his point straight before him. He caught Japthon poised for a double swing. The monster could not move quickly enough to prevent that steel from stabbing into his side.
The Makkadonian howled in fury. Blood came out where Frostfire had sheared through chain-mail and the cotton hacqueton beneath it, so that his mail ran red and the leather thongs that held his leggings changed their tint to scarlet. The wound was not deep but it would bother Japthon.
Japthon leaped, both axes swinging. Kothar retreated, parrying every blow. He would exhaust the bigger man, cause the loss of blood to weaken him. It was folly to stand toe to toe with him and let mere chance decide the battle by a lucky blow. Better to give ground, to let the Makkadonian tire himself.
This time, Kothar chose the way of his retreat, avoiding the round stone wall, keeping empty air at his backbone and using Frostfire as a shield. The shield Zordanor had given him was a mass of crushed wood and ripped steel, somewhere on the arena floor. Above his head, he could hear Candara crying out words, but he could not understand them.
The blows came more slowly, now. The fire was running out of the bigger man with each beating of his heart that forced the blood from the torn flesh in his side. There was a glaze over the hard blue eyes that stared at Kothar.
When he was just below the royal box, Candara leaned far out and shouted down at the Cumberian.
“Do not kill him, barbarian! He’s too good a man to die like this. I will keep him as a bodyguard and send you to Urgal.”
Kothar lowered his great blade, but Japthon would have none of it. The man had never met defeat, he would not accept it now. He came forward, swinging his axes for the killing stroke.
The Cumberian lashed out with Frostfire. Through a wooden haft he drove his blade, splintering it so that the ax-head fell thudding to the ground. He stabbed sideways, saw his point drive into the bulging muscles of an arm, watched the blood well and spurt.
Japthon let go his ax! He stood staring at Kothar with wide, disbelieving eyes.
He growled, “Kill cleanly, man!” His head lifted. His blue eyes blazed up at Candara. Kothar leaped, his blade flashing like blood in the red torch-lights! The flat of the blade took the bigger man on top of his head, making a sodden thunk. A moment Japthon stood upright, then slowly toppled backward, the senses knocked out of him.
Candara was on her feet. “I told you not to slay him!” she screeched. “I dazed him only,” Kothar bellowed back.
“Fetch your leech, he’ll have him good as new by morning—or almost.”
Anger at this female crowded out his barbarian sense of caution. He growled, “If you think so much of him, let Japthon go to Urgal. I’ll be gone from Kor by dawn!”
The fury faded slowly from her face. She shook her head, “No, stranger. You go to Urgal to do battle with Azthamur.”
“And when I get this Xixthur for you?” She waved a ringed hand. Two men in chain-mail came to the wooden door and beckoned to him. Candara called, “Come to my bedchamber, stranger. There I shall tell you about Xixthur—and why I want him back.”
Kothar shrugged and sheathing Frostfire, followed the soldiers out of the arena. As he walked along a corridor, a man carrying the little black sack of a leech hurried past him to attend to Japthon. The soldiers brought him up two flights of stairs to a door before which two burly men, heavily armed, stood guard.
One of the guards opened the door. Kothar stepped into a huge room dominated by a great four-poster bed, the coverlets of which were pale blue satin. There were lounges and cushions thrown about the chamber, the air of which was lightly perfumed. Tall windows peered out over Kor toward the misted Haunted Lands. Kothar stared out at those distant mists, remembering the beast he had encountered, and shivered.
“What? Afraid after the fighting is over?” Candara stood in a doorway leading from the bedchamber into a small anteroom. She still wore the black wool robe, with the hood thrown back, and behind her, the barbarian could see Zordanor.
She came into the room, loosening the clasps of the cloak, letting it slip from her shoulders downward. Kothar goggled. The queen was naked under a thin black thing that only pretended to hide her from neck to sandaled feet. It was a nightdress of some sort, he guessed, and its gossamer was stitched with golden threadings in cabalistic fashion.
Zordanor closed the door behind her, remaining in the outer room, leaving Candara alone with her champion. She saw the manner in which his eyes ran over her shapely legs and curving hips; and she laughed a little, as if this worship were her due.
“What reward will you ask for bringing Xixthur to me?” she murmured.
“A hundred gold pieces,” he growled. Her thin black-eyebrows rose. “So little? I was prepared to pay far more.”
Her hips swung lazily, challengingly, as she moved past the barbarian to a little table of ebony inlaid with ivory. An iron casket rested on its top. With a ringed hand, the queen threw back its cover.
Kothar saw that the coffer was filled with bright golden coins. Candara turned and stared at him. “This is but a partial payment, stranger—if you succeed in your venture.”
The Cumberian eyed the gold with mingled feelings. The curse of Afgorkon was still on him, he knew. So long as he carried the great sword Frostfire, which was a present from that long-dead necromancer, he could own no other treasure. To Kothar, who was a fighting man above everything else, Frostfire was enough treasure to own. Yet he did not deny that so much gold would weigh heavily in his money-purse.
He sighed, knowing that this wealth could give him everything he might ever need, plenty of fine food, enough ale and wine to quench his thirsts, a woman or two to occupy his bed of nights. He was a simple man, and so he was honestly surprised when the queen spoke again.
“You might win a crown, Kothar—and me to go with it,” she said softly, lifting her bare arms and stretching, moving her fully curved body from side to side beneath the thin black gossamer, so that he saw how finely formed were her legs and hips, how full and womanly her firm breasts.
The barbarian did not laugh. He had given no thought to becoming prince of Kor, but the notion appealed to him suddenly. With this woman for his queen, he might have all the wealth any man might want, for the wealth would be in the name of Candara his queen and not in his own. It was a way of getting around the curse of Afgorkon.
He grinned at Candara, stretched out a hand to ward her.
She slid aside to avoid him, but Kothar with a woman was like the tiger when it hunted. His hand veered, changing direction. His big fingers closed down on her wrists and yanked her toward him. Against his chest he crushed her, staring down into her black eyes.
“I would make you a good prince,” he murmured.
“Let me go,” she commanded. “You are not yet prince in Kor! And Kor is my city.”
He grinned. The softness of her perfumed skin, which he could feel as his palms slid up and down her back, was borning a hunger in the barbarian. Aye, by Salara of the bare breasts. This was a woman to keep a man warm on a cold winter night.
“You’re too used to a man who stands in awe of you,” he grumbled, and clapped a hand to her buttock, forcing her against him. At the same time his mouth crushed her soft red-lips. She stiffened in outraged pride, but she sensed the manhood of the big barbarian and her femininity responded to it. Her bare arms came up about his neck and her soft loins plastered their curves to his hips.
“And you aren’t afraid of me, are you?” she breathed.
“Nor of those soft-muscled louts you call your guards. If you want me punished for kissing you, call them in.”
“For you to slay them? No, Kothar. The demon Azthamur will slay you—horribly and in dreadful enough fashion if you fail. So awfully that even my queenly pride will be satisfied for your daring to kiss me without permission.”
He kissed her again, slamming her against his hard body. When he let her go, she was shivering. Her full mouth curved into a faint smile.
“And if you succeed, if you bring Xixthur back to me, then I shall be your queen, and no harm’s been done.”
“Who is Xixthur?” he asked. “A god of strange shape and mien. Eternally quiet, yet possessed of powers to keep me young and beautiful for many, many years.”
“You want me to capture a god?”
“Xixthur cannot harm you. He is a beneficent god, who confers long life to those who keep him.
Which is why old Azthamur wants Xixthur, of course. For eons, Azthamur has dwelt in Urgal, where he serves the lords of Urgal with grim faithfulness.
“Let me warn you of Azthamur. He may not be slain—at least if he can—no living man knows how. Yet you must find a way to slay him, or failing that, to trick him into letting you take Xixthur away from him.
“But be warned! Unless you slay Azthamur, he will follow you to the very rim of Yarth itself, to claim your life as payment for your sacrilege. Once, long ago, as the story has it, one man bested Azthamur in battle and fled away with the royal princess of Urgal, Athalia the Angelic. Azthamur went after him and in the deserts south of Vandacia, caught up with him.
“The man put up a very terrible fight, but Azthamur conquered, and whatever fate then befell the man, no one knows except the princess herself, but she went mad at sight of it. Babbling horribly, she was brought back to Urgal by Azthamur, and given to her brother who was king in Urgal. No man ever saw her again, but the legend is told that she haunts the battlements of Urgal on moonless nights, howling like the doomed spirit she is.”
“Tales to frighten babies!” Her lovely shoulders rose and fell. “Perhaps. I but repeat what is known of Azthamur, so you may be warned. Do not hesitate. Slay Azthamur, if you want to go on living. There is no other way.”
“And how did the demon steal Xixthur?”
“It was a stormy night, very dark, with only the scratchings of yellow lightnings in the sky to give light to the people of Kor. Perhaps the darkness that came upon my city was the result of a demon-spell, but whatever was the reason, men and women in Kor moved in a black fog that night. I myself was inside a fog, even in this bedchamber. I could not see my hand before my face.
“Sometime on that night, Azthamur came.
“When I went next day to commune with Xixthur, as is my habit, the god was gone from the little alcove off my bedchamber, that none can enter but I.”
She moved gently and Kothar freed her, to watch her walk across the room to a hanging drape that showed the many loves of Salara. Clutching a pull rope, Candara whisked back the drapery to reveal a door locked and bolted by chains and bars. The chains hung loose, the bars free of the metal slots that held them.
Candara put a hand on the iron latch; she tugged. The door swung open. Past the queen, who stood to one side of the doorway, Kothar could see an alcove walled solidly with stone, the floor of which supported a stone dais. On that dais had rested the god Xixthur. It was empty, now.
“I put spells on the chains and bars of the door,” Candara said softly. “It was as if the door were wide open. Azthamur went in as freely as he might walk down a street in Urgal. He took Xixthur and left the alcove. I do not know how it was done.
“Even though I am part demon, as an inheritance from my ancestors, and know many terrifying spells and conjurations, I do not know how he managed to do it. Perhaps I do not want to know, really.”
She shivered. Kothar felt the hairs on the back of his thick neck rise up, bristling. He did not care for all this talk of demons. He relished a good fight with a man, but witches and warlocks were an ilk he could do without.
And yet, it was his task to slay Azthamur. “Most demons have a weakness of a sort,” he grumbled. “Has this Azthamur such a weakness?”
“None that I know.” The barbarian put his hand on his sword-hilt! Ah, well Frostfire had served him at other times, in other ways against demons and warlocks. It might serve him so, once again: His gray eyes brooded at Candara, studying her flesh beneath the black gossamer. He sighed. She was a prize worth fighting a demon to win.
As if she read his thought, she smiled. “Win Xixthur, win me. It is that easy, barbarian.”
She turned toward her great bed, dismissing him with a wave of her hand. Kothar chuckled and moved toward her with his catlike tread. She turned, fire in her glare.
“I am not yet your queen,” she snapped. Kothar laughed, “With a man, I would demand a hand fasting on our agreement. With a woman, I ask for something else.”
He swept her off her feet with a motion of his big arms and tossed her onto the bed. Then he was with her, and though she screamed at first and fought, soon enough her arms were about him and her lips drank thirstily of his kisses.
On Greyling, Kothar rode through the rocky wastes that day for leagues between Kor and Urgal. The scraping of iron hoofs on stones and pebbles, the beating of the hot sun down on his chain-mail shirt, were his only companions in this vast barren world. This rocky waste was part of the Haunted Lands, which stretched from Windmere Wood in Commoral as far as the rich city-state of Sybarps. It was not a kind land, to man nor beast. Until Sunset, the barbarian rode. The black ruins of a chapel rose upward from the pebbly sands, gaunt and eerie against the redness of the setting sun. This was formerly the chapel of Blessed Randolphus, his parchment map told him when he brought it out of a saddlebag and unrolled it. There was good water here and the remains of a shed were he could stable Greyling.
He had ridden the gray warhorse from Kor, intending to leave it here, against the possibility of a sudden flight from Urgal. By a long rope he had led a big roan stallion on which he would ride into Urgal. With Greyling he would leave his horn-bow and his quiver of war-arrows.
Kothar cooked his meat over a glowing fire and sat his rump on an overturned pedestal to eat it. The cool desert winds blew through the ruins at night like the screechings of a lost soul, but the barbarian heeded them not, other than by tugging his bearskin, cloak tighter about his great body.
Next day he sat the roan as it kicked up dirt and pebbles on the way to Urgal. The roan was a good horse, the sort a wandering mercenary might own.
His possession of such an animal would not arouse suspicion.
All day long he rode, into the twilight of the day. Then, when he was about to make camp, he saw the lights of distant Urgal. They were red and tiny in the far stretches between where he stood, about to make his campfire, and the city itself, and he recalled the tales of Urgal, he had heard long ago and far away in his youth at Grondel Bay. Demons dwelled in Urgal, which was a city more wicked even than Kor, for it was ruled by Prince Tor Domnus, of whom strange tales were told.
Tor Domnus kept armed men in his palace, as did Queen Candara, but where Candara contented herself with robbing an occasional caravan, Tor Domnus sold the services of his warriors to princes in the countries beyond the Haunted Lands. If a prince wanted a man slain, that prince sought out Tor Domnus and paid his price, and soon, that man who was marked for death, would die.
For a greater fee, Tor Domnus rented out his hard-bitten soldiers by the regiment. There were many barons and smaller lords in the bordering domains of Gwyn Caer and Phalkar, Sybaros and Makkadonia, who ruled in castles won with the air of Urgalian troops. Urgal and Kor existed inside the Haunted Lands because neither was quite certain of victory in any war where the other was concerned.
As he roasted his small slabs of meat over a slow fire, Kothar pondered ways and means of entering into Urgal and spiriting out Xixthur without disturbing the demon Azthamur. A bold approach was still the best. He would ride in according to his plan and seek employment as a mercenary. Once in Urgal, he would make inquiries, learn where the demon kept itself.
He ate his meat and bread, a few chunks of cheese. His wine, in a dusty bottle that had been the gift of Candara, he tilted to his lips again and again. The warmth of the fire felt good; he inched closer to it, sat huddled before the dancing flames.
It was as he swallowed the last of the wine and was about to pitch the bottle into a small stone cairn that stood beside the fire-stones, that he heard the click of footsteps.
He whirled, Frostfire half out of the scabbard. A skeleton in female garb was walking toward him. The sound he had heard was that of her bony feet striking the stones. Kothar rasped a curse and lunged upward. Frostfire came out into the firelight.
“No need for weapons between us,” said a sweet voice.
“Lich!” he growled.
“Keep your distance!”
Soft laughter rose into the night. “So, a barbarian out of the northern snowfields. A fine giant of a man, but too weak to slay Azthamur. Too small, too frail!”
“What know you of Azthamur, dead one?”
“Too much, too much! What would you know?”
“How to find him, how to slay him!”
“There is no way to slay him. Yet I could show you a way into his lair whereby you might have your chance at it.”
“And your fee?”
“His death, man of the north. I wait for his death without hope, as I have waited these many centuries. None may slay Azthamur, yet I go on hoping.”
Kothar gestured with his free hand at a flat stone beside the fire. “Come sit you beside me, lich. Tell me of this way into Azthamur’s lair.”
“I may not come near the fire. I dread the heat. I move best where the night winds blow, with frost in their touch, out here on the barrens, or on the battlements of Urgal on winter nights.”
“Ahhh! You’re Athalia, who was princess in Urgal long ago?”
“I am Athalia—but no longer am I the Angelic One. Nowadays—or I should say—now-a-nights, I haunt the city and the castle, seeking vengeance on Azthamur who slew my lover. I have searched and searched, but none has ever come my way with any hope of victory.”
“Until now,” Kothar rumbled.
“Perhaps. I always, hope. I’ll do what, I can, I promise. Keep you on your way, Northman. We shall meet again.”
The skeletal figure in the rotted rags turned and walked off into the night desert. Kothar stared after her. She took only a few steps, she walked as normally as any woman, yet her figure receded swiftly as if Time itself hastened her departure.
Kothar shook his giant frame. There was no sight of the lich. He went toward the spot where she had stood, but there was no mark on the stone or in the dust to show that she had been here at all. Perhaps he had dreamed it. The wine Candara had given him might have been very strong, perhaps even drugged.
The Cumberian shrugged and rolled himself up in his saddle blankets. The roan would stand guard, whinnying if any came that way. Before, he fell asleep he pulled Frostfire out of the scabbard and placed it close to his hand.
Next day at noon—Urgal being farther away than he had thought last nights—he came in through the wide city gate, slouched in the high peaked saddle. His eyes went to the sellers of trade goods just outside the city gate, to the boards on which naked dancing girls postured before the flesh-tents where they welcomed their clients, to the traders in clay urns and vases, to the vendors of fruits and meats and cheeses, to the bakers of breads and sweet stuffs.
Kothar was surprised at the size and extent of the city. Kor was tiny, compared to Urgal. Urgal was closer to the borders of Phalkar and Gwyn Caer; perhaps this accounted for the greater number of traders and merchants. Besides, it was easier for a criminal to slip through the marshes of Phalkar or over the mountain passes of Gwyn Caer and arrive in Urgal, than it was to brave the empty wastes to come to Kor.
A man in armor moved from a sentry box at sight of the barbarian, hailing him. “State your business in Urgal, man. Tor Domnus takes not kindly to wanderers without a name.”
“My name is Kothar, and I’m a sell-sword out of Grondel Bay where the land is too poor and the sea too rough for my stomach. I like soft lands and soft women in my life.”
The officer was staring at Frostfire. “Can you use that blade you carry? Or is it loot you stole from a better man?”
“Try me,” the barbarian grunted. “Not me. I’ll let Evmor do that, he handles the recruits. If you’ve come to join the bandits our prince calls his army, that is.”
“It was in my mind when I set out for Urgal.”
“Straight ahead, then, until you come to the Street of Wine-sellers Turn right and travel until you see a low brick building. That’s where Evmor trains his rookies.”
Kothar nodded, swinging the roan about. The officer yelled after him not to waste too much time and money in the stew-pots. Evmor might want to test his swordplay, and an unmuddled head was a necessity against a swordsman as good as Evimor.
Kothar grinned his thanks for the advice. A man in half-armor, lounging in the doorway of the low brick barracks, waved a hand toward the dark recesses of the building when Kothar drew rein and asked the whereabouts of the fencing master.
“He’s yonder, teaching boys to use a sword. He’s in a hot temper, I’d wait until tomorrow if I were you.”
The Cumberian swung from the saddle. “Damn his temper. I come seeking employment as a soldier. If some ninny named Evmor can best me—with either fist or sword, mind—I’ll go away meekly.”
The soldier laughed. “Yours is the casket at the funeral, stranger. Do what you want.” Kothar noticed that he pulled his shoulder from the door lintel and came after him at a distance as the barbarian walked toward a sunny spot in the open courtyard behind the brick wall.
There were perhaps half a dozen youths with wooden blades in their hands facing a squat, muscular man whose left eye was covered with a black patch. The short man was naked to the waist, and held a wooden sword in a hairy right hand. His voice was thickened by long years of quaffing the inferior wines of Urgal, and his face showed red in the sunlight.
Evmor was saying, “—pale pimps and sons of whores! I might as well try teaching the Naniko harlots to use a blade as you spineless spittles. Oh, come along. Line up and have at it again. I need a laugh to put me in a better humor.”
Kothar cleared his throat. The squat man swung about, his one good eye taking in the muscular-bigness of the barbarian. He showed small teeth in a mirthless grin.
“What’s this, another babe come to cut his teeth on a sword’s edge? By the Kraken! I truly earn the little that Tor Domnus pays me.”
Kothar rasped, “Save your breath, Evmor. I’ve killed better men than you with my bare hands. I’m here to wear the boar’s head of Urgal on my jacket. Just show me where the armor is so I can go to work.”
Evmor gaped. “So ho! A wit who can skip the training, he knows so much. He thinks that Evmor is
The man leaped, wooden blade slashing downward.
Kothar sprang inside the sweep of the blade. His left hand went up to catch Evmor’s sword-wrist; his right fist slammed deep into the belly of the shorter man.
Evmor rocked back on his heels, waving his arms, mouths open and eyes bulging. He sat down abruptly on the courtyard cobbles and slid for three feet.
Evmor shook his head, then stared shrewdly up at Kothar.
“You may do, stranger. It’s the first time that ruse has failed to work. You have good reactions, I’ll say that. Do you know how to use that blade you carry as well as you do your fists?”
‘Better.” Evmor pulled himself to his feet by a hand on a weapon-rack. “Do you, now? Would you care to match me with the steel?”
The barbarian turned, yanked free a blade as long as his own, with a leather wrapping about the hilt, and tossed it at the squat man. Evmor caught it handily.
“Scratch me if you can,” the barbarian grinned. Evmor flung himself at him. Kothar parried his blade with ease, for he had been schooled in use of the sword since childhood, first by his adoptive father—Kothar had never known his real father, nor his mother—and then by an old man-at-arms who had come back to Grondel Bay after a lifetime of serving the Southland kings as a warrior, who delighted in imparting all his weapon-wisdom to the boy Kothar.
“Three times Kothar parried before he struck back with the flat of the blade atop the skull, as he had done to Japthon. Evmor flung his arms wide, turned twice, witlessly, before he fell face down in the courtyard dust.
Kothar reached for a water-bucket, doused Evmor with its contents. Then he put a hand down and brought the man to his feet, where he swayed dizzily.
“No man’s ever treated me so,” Evmor complained ruefully, rubbing the top of his poll. His eyes watched the recruits gathered in a group, staring with big eyes and broad grins.
“Laugh now, you whore-sons,” he growled. “This one’s a man. You want me to turn him loose on you for weapon-play targets?”
He barked laughter when they shook their heads, their grins fading. Evmor put an arm about the barbarian. “You come with me, stranger. I want to talk to you about that trick you used just then, over a mug of ale in the buttery.”
Kothar rumbled, “It was taught me by a man named Svairn. He fought much of his life in the Southlands.”
“Did he now? Svairn of Grondel Bay? I knew him well. My treat for the ale, man of the north. Come along. You others—back to your wooden blades. And I hope you knock each others’ skulls in.”
Over their ale mugs, Evmor promised Kothar a jacket with the boar’s head on it, and a shirt of mail to wear instead of his own. He vowed the barbarian he would be an officer in the riffraff Tor Domnus surrounded himself with, before the first fall winds came down from the hills.
Evmor complained about the recruits the prince of Urgal supplied him with, expecting him to make soldiers of them and the lack of honest fighting men in the army itself. He drank the strong ale with gusto, so much so that Kothar had to support him back to the little room that was his home in Urgal.
When the squat man invited him to share his comforts, Kothar nodded, loosed his mail shirt, casting it aside, and with Frostfire on the cot beside him, fell into a sound sleep. Time enough tomorrow, he told himself, to go hunting up the demon.
He woke to the smell of cooking meats and baking bread. Evmor was crouched at the brick hearth, busying himself with skillet and baking tins. When he saw Kothar yawn and toss his legs over the side of his cot, the squat man nodded:
“Food that sits well on an ale-tossed belly, this. Come and find a platter and heap it high. I eat best at an early hour, and enough to keep me going all the day.”
“What about my uniform?” Kothar asked. He wanted battlement patrol duty. From the battlements where Athalia was said to walk, he could learn where Azthamur laired and visit him. He could not stroll about the battlements in his worn chain-mail shirt and bearskin cloak; he needed the disguise of the boar’s head jacket.
Evmor waved a huge hand. “Later, later. Come and eat now, and tell me more of Svairn.”
They feasted together, then Evmor took Kothar to the weapons room and fitted him out with a new chain-mail shirt and the leather jerkin with the insignia of Tor Domnus on it.
“You wear those well,” commented Evmor. “I’ve lived my life as a fighting man. I was captain of the Foreign Guard for Queen Elfa of Commoral.”
“Ah! Then you’ve good prospects for advancement here in Urgal. We’ve too few trained soldiers.”
His duties on this first day were so light as to chafe the spirits of the big blond barbarian. He helped Evmor train the rookies, using a wooden sword, then polished his own weapons side by side with a couple of the castle guards. Kothar spoke little, except when spoken to; he used his ears to learn what he might of Azthamur.
During the conversation he swung the talk toward demons. “I sought employment by Candara of Kor, but I got into trouble during a fight at one of the taverns there. I made it out of the city two jumps ahead of her city guards.”
A big Phalkaran chuckled. “Candara won’t bother you much longer. Tor Domnus has plans for Kor.”
“You make it sound as if I can expect good fighting. It’s what I live for, a good fight.”
“Her demoniac powers won’t help her against Azthamur,” grinned a scarred veteran of many wars. “We have our own demon, here in Urgal. He serves Tor Domnus well.”
Kothar murmured, “Azthamur? I’ve never heard of that particular demon.”
“You will if you stay here long enough.”
“Azthamur lives in the caverns below the west battlement,” muttered the veteran, making the sign of the ax that was the protective sign of Huldor, a beneficent demon who guarded innocent men and women from the wrath of other demons. “No one dares go there, excepting maybe Tor Domnus.”
The west battlement. He was making progress, Kothar thought. He would ask Evmor for guard duty on that wall-walk during the night. He had no need to stay in Urgal long; his role of soldier under the boar’s head banner was but a ruse. He lifted the shirt of chain-mail he had been polishing, studying it.
“Who guards the western bastion?” he asked casually.
The veteran hooted. “No need for a guard there, even if Evmor assigns one to the job. The demon patrols his own. No man would be fool enough to put his footprints there unless ordered to do so. Every so often Azthamur emerges and nobody ever sees the guard on duty again.”
Better and better, the barbarian thought. This night I will walk those walks and go down the stairs to the lair where Azthamur guards the stolen god Xixthur. He felt tension creep into his muscles. Quite freely, Kothar would admit to a dislike for matching strengths with a demon, but it was his task to steal Xixthur, and this he meant to do.
Later, after the evening meal, he sought out Evmor.
“I am restless, friend. Give me a task to do that I may sleep better when I hit my pallet.”
With a little persuasion, he got Evmor to agree to let him stand the watch. He ate early, of meat and bread and berry tarts, and when he moved up the narrow stone steps to the wall-walk, he felt strong and confident.
The night was cool, the winds over the Haunted Lands were blowing northward, carrying a dampness with them that chilled the bones in a man’s body. Overhead the two moons of Yarth were bright silver against a dark sky in which thousands upon thousands of stars were visible. At one time, so the legends said, these stars were few and far between; now they were everywhere, like glistening pebbles on a beach.
Kothar paced up and down a few times, slowly. He carried the boar’s head shield and the spear of the watchman, and Frostfire hung at his side. He must wait until the candle-lights, making the castle windows glow yellow in the night, were out before he dared leave his post and descend the narrow stairs.
It was as he was turning the corner to come back along the wall-walk that he saw her. She was standing, wrapped in a long cloak that hid everything but her white skull and the bones of her skeletal feet. She was staring at him with black, empty eye-sockets that were like pools of blackness, and when she moved, Kothar heard the grate of bones rubbing against bones.
“You came, Northman. Good!” she said.
“I wait for the castle to sleep.”
“Pah! No need for that. Nobody dares come this way to see if you’re on duty. The captain of the guards is a bloated thing, fat with rich foods and ale, who likes his comfort above all else.”
Kothar moved to the narrow staircase door. The skeleton was there before him, in some eerie manner the barbarian could not explain; she seemed not to walk but rather to float.
“Let me go first, man from Cumberia. Azthamur knows me. I go often to bait him, to assure him that some day there will come one who will find a way to slay him.”
“He does not harm you?”
“A demon like Azthamur cannot harm the dead.” The door opened to her touch. Kothar watched her float through the opening with the short hairs on his neck standing stiffly. He liked not this consorting with a dead spirit, but Athalia was an ally of sorts, and he would accept her help if she chose to give it.
There were no torches on the stairs, only ebon blackness. But the bones of the skeleton gave off a subdued radiance by which Kothar could see to plant his feet. Down they went, ever downward, past the ground floor of the castle and into regions where a charnel smell added its odors to the mustiness of the air.
“By Dwalka! A man might rot here if he stayed very long. Get me out of this place, woman.”
“Soon, Northman. Soon.”
The stairs led down into water. The skeletal figure floated above those waters, but she assured Kothar that they were shallow, and he moved on catlike feet through the wetness until a low archway showed ahead. Now the stink was more noisome than ever, and the barbarian, who loved the clean air of mountainside and plain, came close to retching.
Here and there, Kothar could see human and animal bones scattered about indiscriminately. There were some bodies that still had flesh upon their bones, half eaten, rotting. Kothar cursed the demon beneath his breath.
“Aye, he is a curse on mankind,” whispered the spirit woman. “He has lived so long in Urgal, feasting at first on human blood, that he has acquired a taste for flesh, which is why he sometimes goes out upon the wall-walk and devours a guard.”
Kothar stepped under the archway, seeing a faint blue light coming from the walls. He was surprised, for the chamber before him was like a great room in the castle above, walled with woods of varying hues, with a rock ceiling overhead and a smooth floor underfoot.
A hundred chests and coffers stood about the room, thrust back against the wooden walls. Some of their lids were up, revealing ropes of pearls and golden urns, chalices and coins. He was a little dazzled by such wealth; demons had no need for riches.
“Of all the loot taken by Tor Domnus, a part is granted to the demon, who lends his help when the prince goes forth to rob a caravan. Tor Domnus, though very greedy, does not mind. Azthamur is his insurance against defeat. Besides, the loot never really leaves his castle, since the demon dwells here in its sub-cellars.”
Kothar heard a footstep. His hand, went to his sword-hilt and very slowly, without noise, he drew Frostfire naked from its scabbard. He waited, listening to those footfalls. Beside him, the skeleton that had been the Princess Athalia did not stir.
The air in this cavern chamber was sweet, it had none of the charnal odor of the outer caves. A sweet wind swept through the room, carrying the salt scent of musk and incense. It was the lair of a sybarite and sensualist.
Then a woman stepped into the room.