Digitally transcribed for the Gardner Francis Fox Adventure Library
Alone, Kothar would have charged like a mad tiger at those men, ignoring their lances as if they had been no more than splinters. But there was Stefanya to consider, and the comatose body of the mage. With anger flooding his face redly, biting his lip to smother the challenge that rose inside him, he toed Greyling forward.
His hand was about the hilt of Frostfire, in case soft words proved of no avail. He called, “We are simple travelers on our way to Alkarion.”
A big man with thick yellow hair showing under his rounded helmet roared, “Fool! You are far of the track to Alkarion, which is to the west. Now disarm yourself and step down off that horse, which catches my eye.”
A man growled, “Take the horse, Xenic! I’m for the sword, myself!”
“Well said, Thadrum. I, Richol, choose the wench!”
Kothar rasped to Stefanya. “Slip down, girl. Run into those hills. I can fight them better without you clinging to my back. After I’ve killed them I’ll come hunting for you.”
He heard her sob, an instant before her arms fell away, and then she was gone. Kothar saw her running out of the corner of his eye as he urged Greyling forward with a softly spoken word. One of the three armed men had seen Stefanya drop from the warhorse, and shouted his worry that she might escape.
The robber called Richol forgot the barbarian. It was a mistake. His spurs sank into his mount’s side. The horse lunged forward. head jerking against the stab of pain at his barrel where the spurs scraped bloody furrows. To reach the girl, he must go past the Cumberian.
Greyling thudded into the smaller horse. At the same instant, the blue steel of Frostfire drove deep into link armor. Kothar stood erect in his stirrups and vented the fury of his rage in his awesome swing. Richol made, a gurgling gesture, but no more, as his arms flung wide, apart while that blade bit deep through mail and leather into living flesh.
Kothar rasped a curse and yanked on his sword, freeing it from the dead body on the galloping horse.
The other two men were coming for him at the gallop.
At the same moment, he heard Stefanya scream, He whirled in the stirrups and saw a horde of armed horsemen coming at a run down the hill up which Stefanya was scrambling. The girl was turning, trying to evade their rush. At the same time, the two men were almost on top of the barbarian.
Kothar flailed with his sword, beating aside one lance-head.
He threw himself sideways in the saddle, but not fast enough. A lance tip scratched a bloody gouge in his bare thigh, slashing the bearskin kaunake that he wore. The barbarian bellowed in pain. He drove sideways with his blade, catching the lancer between jaw and throat. The head leaped from the body even as a sword crashed down against the plate mail that he wore. The blow rammed him forward onto the high pommel of his saddle.
He raised Frostfire and hewed savagely, seeing only enemy faces, ringed with mail or enclosed by the nose-pieces and combs of a dozen helmets. Frostfire was red with blood that flew in all directions. He slew and slew, until his thickly muscled arm ached with the shock of each succeeding blow. Without the girl to worry about, he might have broken free by charging Greyling through the press. But when he decided that he might do her more good free and began his run, half a dozen swords and axes crashed home on him.
Stunned, bleeding, he swayed like a dead weight in his saddle. Voices shouted and bellowed about him. He saw steel flashing and strove to parry it with his own blade. Something crashed into the back of his head. Another something rammed his belly. Blinded by his sweat and the blood—his or other’s, he could not tell—he was like the rag doll that had been Stefanya’s play thing long ago.
Hands tugged him from the kak. He could not resist them. Men pushed him to the ground and the bloody dirt was like a cradle holding his body. Voices were sounds without direction or intonation.
“Gorthol, lord of gods,” breathed someone.
“Fifteen dead and more than that with blood wounds—all from one man!”
“Too bad he isn’t one of us. I’d relish a sword-companion like that.”
“Stake him out. It’s Torkal Moh’s command.”
“Too bad. He’s a man worth saving.” Fingers came and stripped away his kilt and war-boots, his leather hacqueton and plate mail. Naked but for a cotton loincloth, Kothar found himself tied down with leather thongs to four deep-driven wooden stakes. He felt the rays of the dying sun, the beginning of the cool wind off the hill slopes.
The sky swam lazily in circles to his open eyes. He became aware of pain, of a hot redness running down his thigh and a calf, a weakness in his middle and a thudding ache at the back of his head. He lay there spread-eagled, unable to move a muscle, so tightly were the thongs that held his wrists and ankles stretched.
A face came into view, appearing out of the sky. A man with long black hair and clad in a red velvet jupon was bending over him. Black eyes stared down coldly into his own, like the flat orbs of a cockatrice or basilisk.
“Barbarian, I am Torkal Moh.”
Kothar would have spat, but his throat was too dry, his tongue too swollen. He could make only a croaking sound which made the thin, red lips above him curve into a smile.
“I leave you here for the rats to eat, barbarian. There are many rats in these gorges. They came in the past because we robber barons made of this caravan road a graveyard of rotting corpses. Aye, the rats fed well—and since they clean the road of carrion, we have never bothered them.
“Once in a while, such as now—I find a whimsy in me to punish a man who displeases me. You killed my men this day and wounded others. You shall regret your temerity. Kothar!”
A man came running, bearing a large jar. “Cover him well with those slops, off our table and smearing a little honey to make the eating more palatable. I should judge a man with your bulk to last a long time, barbarian.
“While I am enjoying that little girl who was your companion, I shall think of your sufferings. I shall try to last until the dawn in my lovemaking, to match the length of time it will take the rats to eat enough of your body to be fatal.”
Footsteps went away.
“Water” bellowed Kothar. “Water for love of whatever gods you worship!”
Laughter rose up from half a hundred throats.
“Give him water, someone,” called a man.
Torkal Moh came striding back, carrying a jar and a water-skin. So that Kothar might see, he poured water into the jar and placed it close to the extended left hand of the barbarian. By reaching and stretching his fingers, the Cumberian could not touch it by the matter of an inch.
The robber-baron laughed, watching.
“You shall die, barbarian—with that water jug almost within your grasp. It will make your thirst the more torture-some, knowing that. I am pleased that you called for water. It’s a refinement I never thought of.”
Around him was the creak of saddle leather and the ring of metal as men mounted into their saddles. He heard Stefanya crying out in pain and he bulged his muscles, testing the leather thongs and the stakes that held him to the ground. They did not yield. Deep in his throat Kothar rasped curses, until he realized that any form of speech only tormented his throat the more.
He lay and watched the shadows gather on the highest rocks about him, and saw the bright blue of the sky change slowly to a deep purple. The sun was going down to the west, somewhere in the Salt Sea. He could hear furtive little rustlings and the muscles tensed in his body. He knew the sound rats made when they were coming through the underbrush.
A big, gray rat ran down onto the road and stared at him. Others join edit, waiting. A few came forward to sniff at his huge body that was coated with refuse and dabs of gravy. He would make a fine meal for the rats of the Gyrolois gorges.
One rat could not wait. It scurried forward, crouching to nibble at his leg. Kothar rumbled anger in his throat and felt the sharp teeth of the rodent. He knew it would not be long before the others, crazed by hunger, would scamper to the side of the more adventuresome rat and also begin feasting.
He turned his head to the left, where three fat rats were advancing on him. Waiting with the patience of a wild animal, he steeled himself to the pain the rat teeth soon would be inflicting. Now, the other rats were gathering up their courage. They were coming toward him, big and gray, and their hairless tails were poised swiftly, ready for instant flight.
Teeth bit into him. His blood flowed. Several of the rats leaped onto his chest and began feasting there on the slops that covered him. A few were already fastening teeth in his flesh and tugging.
The three fat, rats were very close, almost within reach of his left hand. It would do no good to grab one of them and squeeze the life from it, the others might-run away, but they would be back. It would only be delaying the inevitable.
One of the fat rats came to his fingers, sniffing. Its fellows were devouring the refuse spilled on him. Their teeth were uncaring if they ate a little of him as they finished off the swill before they settled down to eat the man. This was an old story to these rodents, finding a man pegged out naked for the eating. Kothar supposed that the robber barons gave many travelers to these rats. It was an enjoyable way to get rid of prisoners.
His teeth were sunk into his lower lip as the rats ate on. Now they were tearing his flesh, and the pain was fiery, agonizing.
Still, Kothar watched the gray rat beside him.
It was sniffing at his fingers. Satisfied there was no danger from them, the rodent waddled-away. Kothar groaned. The thing had been so close. Not quite satisfied, the beast began to circle suspiciously. Its beady little eyes saw the crock of water. It moved toward it, rearing up and sniffing.
The sound was an outburst of fury from the bound man. The rat leaped, instinctively pushing against the earthenware jug with its fore-paws. The carafe toppled, fell and spilled its water.
Kothar closed iron fingers about the lip of the jar. He lifted it, slammed it against the stone of the road. The container shattered.
He held a piece of broken jug between his fingers. Bending those fingers, he found he could bring the sharpened edge of the crock against the thongs that held his left wrist. Sweating, his great frame quivering from the bitings of the feasting rats, he sawed away.
Back and forth went the sharp jug edge. Up and down, down and up, he worked steadily.
Then he caught the thong at the right spot and it parted with a snap, freeing his arm. The rats felt his huge hand sweep them from his chest as he swung it. Then he was jabbing the shattered chard at the thong holding his right wrist. The rats were scampering off, chittering among themselves.
In a few seconds Kothar stood up. He stared down at his bleeding, refuse-covered body. He was in pain, but the barbarian warrior was used to pain. It hurt him more to think of the loss of Frostfire and Stefanya and Greyling than to dwell on his bleeding body. He turned his shaggy golden head and stared along the road where the robber barons had gone. First he needed to bathe his body and to find something to shelter his skin against the chill blasts that came over the rock gorges on either side of the caravan road. He was weak and needed to strengthen his body.
He began walking, his bare feet making no sound on the roadbed. The night was black about him; in the distance he heard the faint wail of a wolf on the hunt. His lips curved in a grim smile. Weaponless, he would fall easy prey to a wolf-pack.
The night was cold. He felt half frozen, but he was used to cold, having been bred in the frozen Northlands.
Once he lifted his head, nostrils quivering. An animal can smell water. Kothar was not an animal, but there was much wisdom of the wild in him. Ah, there! Beyond that ridge of rocks he could hear the sound a beast makes as it laps. On horseback or walking in boots, he might never have made out that sound. But being barefoot in the stillness of the night, he could hear it. With the sound came a faint drift of the water smell.
He angled his feet off the road and climbed in among the rocks until he stood on the tallest clump of twisted granite and stared down at a forest world where a small pool made little ripples as a deer nosed at it.
Kothar went down the rocks, leaping from one stone to a boulder and then downward onto the smaller rocks at the base. He ran for the pool. The deer caught his scent; it raised its antlered head and stared an instant, then it was off between the trees at a dead
The Cumberian hurled himself into the pool, diving deep. The shock of the cold water was numbing, but it took a little of his pain away and washed him clean of the last bits of refuse. He swam back and forth, luxuriating in the coldness of the pool. Just so had been the Northland lakes where he learned to swim.
He came out of the water and stood, a great naked man, on a flat shelf of rock that ran down into the mere. His palms slapped away the water from his flesh. Some of his cuts still bled, but he was invigorated, renewed of his barbaric energies. “I’ll need a weapon,” he told himself. He walked through the woods toward the road. It was not in his nature to hide or skulk, and he walked boldly with his head high. He paused to listen again and again to the hunting cry of a wolf-pack, and it seemed to Kothar that the wolves were a little nearer each time he paused. He growled low in his throat, his right hand opening and closing as it itched to feel the hilt of Frostfire. Kothar began to trot. And yet the wolves came closer, closer, He ran swiftly now, as fast as any deer. Though he was not afraid of the wolves—he feared nothing that lived—it was just as well to show a little caution. He came to a long straightaway of road. In the distance he could see more hills, foliaged with pine and balsam trees. He set off at a trot for that distant forest.
A wolf called, ululating and savage, behind him. Kothar whirled, stood on tensed legs as a big gray wolf came leaping from the rocky gorges, followed by another and another until there were a score of them bounding along on his trail. The barbarian turned his eyes to the side of the road, hoping to see broken bits of rock with which he might defend himself.
This far along the straightaway there were no rocks, only a rolling slope of grassy meadow stretching away into the distance. He worked his long fingers, knowing he must depend on them to preserve his life. Against two wolves or even three, he might do that, just with his bare hands. Against twenty, the task was hopeless.
Still, he did not run. His teeth showed themselves in a savage snarl, and he crouched, waiting for the onslaught. He would die swiftly beneath the fangs and slavering jaws of wolves. It would not be a slow, agonizing death such as that to which Torkal Moh had condemned him.
The first wolf leaped. Kothar stabbed with his hands, one for a hairy throat, another for a leg. He caught the beast, swung it yelping downward into the red eyes of two other wolves just beginning their own jump. Then the others were around him.
He felt his forearm tear, a leg knew the slash of razor-sharp fangs. His hands gripped two beasts, choked their lives out in his palms.
“Drop them,” a voice cried. In complete surprise, Kothar opened his hands. A woman was standing twenty paces away, staring at him. In response to her softly voiced command, the wolves fell away from him and retreated a dozen feet, there to sit and regard him with salivating hunger.
“Who are you?” Kothar rasped.
The woman made a little gesture with her hand. She wore a wolf pelt over her shapely body, which otherwise was clad in cross-gartered leggins and a linen shirt. The head of a wolf was drawn over her head, part of the hood of a wolf-skin cape. Under it, Kothar saw black hair piled on her head and spilling downward to her shoulders. Her eyes were green and faintly slanted, and her mouth was large and appeared purple in the night darkness.
“I am Lupalina, the wolf mistress,” she declared proudly.
Kothar blinked, remembering those almost forgotten days when he had shared her mountain cabin with Ursla of the bear folk. He ran his fingers through his shaggy yellow mane.
“You probably saved my life,” he muttered. “I’m grateful.”
Her eyes brooded on him. “You were caught by Torkal Moh and staked out to be eaten by the rats. How did you get away?”
He told her, observing her graceful body and the spear she carried in one hand. Attached to a belt, at her middle was a leather sling and a pouch containing stones to be whirled about her head as ammunition. Kothar wondered if she were good at it.
When he was done, she said, “And this girl you speak of, this Stefanya, she was taken by Torkal Moh to his fortress?”
“With my sword, Frostfire. I go to get them both.”
Her eyebrows rose mockingly. “Alone? And naked?”
“I can do it,” Kothar snarled. “Besides, they took an amulet from me which I am to deliver to the regent of Phalkar.”
Her green eyes flickered in something approaching surprise. “What amulet is that? And why to Themas Herklar?”
His great shoulders lifted in a casual shrug. “The whys and wherefores, I never ask. I’ve been paid to deliver the amulet and—by Dwalka of the War-Hammer—I mean to do it.”
She considered him, standing hip-shot with her spear-butt resting on the road. “It may be that I can help you, barbarian. At least, I can tend to those wounds of yours so that you can go healthy into Torkal Moh’s stronghold.”
“I could use a cloak to keep off the wind.”
She laughed, head thrown back. “Well said! Come with me, then to my lair.” She turned and whistled up her wolves.
Kothar ran with her across the grassy meadows to one side of the road and through the forest, until they came to a sod hut. A lamp showed yellow through a greased-paper window and from the small chimney, smoke came fluttering.
She opened the wooden door, beckoning him inside. “It is not the sort of place I would choose as a dwelling, but it serves me well enough—while I plan my vengeance.”
Kothar strode to the fireplace and stood there, letting the warmth of the flames seep through his flesh. The woman crossed the bare dirt floor to a small wooden chest, threw back the lid. From the garments piled inside, she turned her stare to the barbarian,
“You’re big,” she commented. “I don’t know if I have anything to fit you. Still . . . here—try these breeks and this cross-gartering, and here’s a shirt that may not button on that chest of yours. For greater warmth—this wolf-skin cloak.”
He dressed before the hearth while Lupalina busied herself beside him, putting meat and vegetables and water into an iron cauldron that she hung on a swinging crane and pushed over the hottest part of the fire. She made bread and placed the loaves inside a baking tin on the brickwork.
Lupalina smiled at him. “There’s wine. Fine red Massimia from Makkadonia. I’ll pour you a goblet.”
They ate at a wooden table before the hearth. The wolf-woman was filled with questions which Kothar answered as best he could, between mouthfuls of the stew and bread. He spoke of Zoqquanor and how the robber barons had dumped his comatose body in a rocky gorge, of pretty Stefanya who believed that if the old magician died, she would also die.
The woman shook her long black hair, freed of the wolf-head covering and glinting brightly in the fire-flames.
“She may be right. Zoqquanor is a great mage, and it would be like him to doom the girl.” She hesitated, rolling a bit of bread between her fingertips.
“This Stefanya you mention—has she a birthmark?” The barbarian stared at her. Low on her back, just above her buttock.”
Her thin black brows rose upward. “You’ve seen it? You two must have become quite intimate on the road.”
He growled, “When I saved her from the mob in Sfanol, they’d all but ripped the clothes from her back.”
Her green eyes were narrowed in thought so that her eyelashes were ebon feathers half hiding her curious stare. “I am interested in seeing this girl, Stefanya. I may know of her—from long ago.”
She would not answer any of his questions, but merely smiled enigmatically. She promised that on the morrow they would go together to the stone fortress which Torkal Moh used as a base for his raids and forays into Phalkar and Makkadonia.
“You are east of Alkarion by about a hundred miles,” she went on, rising and gathering up the wooden platters, empty now of the stew and bread. “If you can recover Stefanya and that sword of yours, with your amulet, I will show you the way to the city ruled by Themas Herklar.”
She brought him a bear-hide and a blanket. “Sleep before the fire, Kothar. I will be in my bunk bed.”
He told himself he would slumber like one of the vampires of Abathor, which are reputed to come forth from their grave-beds only when the smell of fresh blood allures them to the feasting. His eyelids closed, and he dreamed he was in the Northland once again, meeting Ursla on the high crags and speaking of Lupalina to her. The bear-woman urged him to reveal to Lupalina that she, Ursla, was a protectress of his in those northern wilds.
In the morning Kothar spoke of Ursla and the wolf-woman listened, nodding her head from time to time.
She was combing her thick black hair as Kothar spoke to her, and braiding it on either side of her head so that the braids fell down almost to her hips.
“I was not always a woman who lived with wolves, she said when he was done. “Years ago, I lived in Alkarion itself.” She smiled at his start of surprise. “Aye! In Alkarion of the marble streets, where I was friend and confidante of Themas Herklar.“
She paused, frowning.
She went on, “There were two wizards in Alkarion, fellows of mine in the magic we made in the service of the regent.” Her green eyes danced as she studied his face. “Yes, yes. I am a sorceress as well as a priestess of the wild things, Kothar. But I no longer practice my necromancies because if I did so, the wizards Thalkalides and Elviriom would know I yet live— they now think me dead.”
“If they knew you were alive?” She put down her comb and swung about to face him. “They would kill me—whom they know as Samandra-—to prevent my telling what I know. Thalkalides and Elviriom are very ambitious men. They scheme to rule all Phalkar—after they depose the regent, Themas Herklar.“
Kothar grinned coldly. “Then I’d best be off to find Torkal Moh and win back that protective amulet. It seems this regent could use a little help against those sorcerers.”
Lupalina threw back her thick black braids as her oval face, tanned by the sun and the winds of this vast moor where she ran with her wolves, broke into a faint smile. For a moment, her green eyes seemed to dream.
“I shall go with you, then. For I have a score to pay Thalkalides and Elviriom, and it comes to me that through you. I may repay that debt.”
She moved gracefully to a wooden rack where she kept her weapons and took down three light throwing spears. About her slim middle she fastened a long dagger, with a curiously wrought handle in the shape of a serpent entwined about the haft, beside her sling and the pouch of stones.
“We shall attack Raven Garde this day,” she murmured.
Kothar grinned, “By Dwalka!—I like your spirit—if not your wisdom. You—me—and a handful of wolves? What kind of fortress is this Raven Garde?”
“Strong, Kothar. Its stone walls tower to three times the height of a very tall man. It has one gate that is always barred.” She bit her lip, frowning. “You may be right. Raven Garde may be too strong for us.”
“Then we won’t attempt it,” he laughed.
Her green eyes showed her puzzlement. Then they blazed with scorn, and she would have opened her mouth to protest when the barbarian lifted a hand.
“Oh, I mean to attack the place. But in my own way.”
He buckled his sword-belt about his middle, chuckling at the manner in which his garments all but split in response to the heavy muscles rolling beneath his tanned hide. His body longed for the weight of his mail shirt and leather hacqueton, his upper thighs for the warmth of his bearskin kaunake. He shrugged and heard a seam of the linen shirt tear.
“The sooner I find my own garments, the sooner I’ll be at ease. A good fight would leave me all but naked, I think.”
Her laughter came with him through the door, and in the morning sunlight she whistled up her wolves who came trotting from the edge of the forest, feral eyes gleaming and red tongues lolling. They were big brutes, gray and bulky, and their fangs were like small ivory swords set in their great jaws.
“They will make good allies,” grunted the Cumberian.
He set off at a trot, with the woman elbow to elbow with him and the wolves romping all about them. Kothar lead the pack to the edge of the road and then along it, until the wolf-woman stretched out her hand and caught him by the arm.
“Tell me your plan, barbarian. I will not throw my pack against the stone walls of Raven Garde.”
“You need not. This is the only road to Torkal Moh’s fortress. Sooner or later, a band of robber barons will come riding. We shall attack them, stripped of the safety of their high walls.”
She nodded, showing her teeth in a pleased smile. “Ah! Then you and I, in their garb, will enter the gate. We shall slay and be slain.”
“I have no desire to die, Lupalina. I mean to live and reach Alkarion. But in that disguise, I can come within sword-swing of Torkal Moh. This will be enough.”
As the sun rose higher into the sky, they took up their positions behind rocks and trees, the wolves sitting silent, sheltered by the underbrush. They were hidden from view of the wall-walks of the outlaw fortress, yet they commanded a view of the road for several miles.
The hours dragged, as legend says Time must drag in the haunted halls of Ombremol, where the gods hold congress beneath a starless sky. Twice the wolf-woman was on the verge of giving up, twice Kothar beat her down with words and promises.
“There will be loot in Raven Garde, Gold for your arms and silver combs for that black hair of yours,” he breathed. “And magical vials and alembics too, may-hap, by which you can practice your sorceries. Think of Elviriom and Thalkalides and be patient.”
The sound came first, a low hum that became the weeping of women and the hopeless groans of men, along the road from the south. A dust cloud appeared on the horizon, and with it the clank of armor and the thudding of horses’ hooves. The barbarian straightened his back, leaning against the tree bole behind which he was crouched.
“They come,” Lupalina breathed beside him. “And in great numbers! But why are they moaning so? And who are the women who weep?”
The woman shook her head, her right hand moving its fingers up and down the serpent haft of her long dagger. “We shall know soon enough. They come close.”
Six men in link-mail armor rode big warhorses that clomped slowly along the dusty highway, maintaining this slow pace because a score of men-at-arms in mail shirts and metal caps, trailing lances and with swords hanging, at their hips, brought up the rear. Between the horsemen and the men-at-arms were two score men and women in chains, with another threescore children wailing and walking beside them.
Lupalina growled in her throat, like a wolf. “I know those men, those women. They come from a village between here and Thankarol called Tomillur. Those men are peasants, farmers They pose no threat to the robber barons.”
Her forehead wrinkled. “Though now I think on it, I do recall some story of how the serfs have banded together to drive off Torkal Moh’s men who come seeking their pretty wives and daughters to take back to Raven Garde for their high revels. And sometimes they take a man as well—for a sacrifice of some sort, it has been whispered.
“I suppose Torkal Moh sent these men out to destroy Tomillur and teach the other peasants a lesson.” Her green eyes slid sideways at the big barbarian who towered above her. “Well? Do we still attack? The odds are desperate.”
He made no answer other than the angry rumble in his throat. His hand brought out his borrowed sword. “Order your wolves to attack when they see me leap for those horsemen.”
Thin eyebrows lifted. “One-against six?”
“Three will be dead before they know what’s happening.”
“It will be a pleasure to watch you fight, I assure you.”
They lowered behind the tree bole and the rock that hid them, and the wolves crouched even lower so that their hairy bellies scraped the soil. On came the little cavalcade, and now Kothar blessed the men and women who cried and moaned for that keening deafened the ears of the men-at-arms to the faint rustlings of bush and twig alongside the road. Beneath him, his thick thighs gathered for the leap; his blue eyes blazed with the lust of battle; his breathing was deep, silent.
Kothar lunged. He made no battle-cry, he had no wind to spare for this refinement. He was off the ground and the fingers of his left hand went around the throat of the horseman nearest him even as he leaned across him and smote with his sword-edge at the second man, catching him between neck and shoulder with his blade.
The man in his fist raised hands to rear away the iron fingers that choked his windpipe. Kothar yanked free his blade and toppled the man from the saddle, landing atop the struggling robber soldier with his sword-blade at his throat. The barbarian tensed his muscles and the sword went through flesh and cartilage.
Instantly, the barbarian was up, flinging himself beneath the barrel of a riderless horse and striking upward with the point. Into the belly of a third man it went. That man died while Kothar was leaping to parry a slashing blade and driving his steel into a startled face.
The two remaining horsemen were fighting maddened mounts by this time, for there was the smell of wolves all about. The savage beasts dove for the throats of the startled men-at-arms who were too taken by surprise to bring their lances into play. They were down and writhing in the dust, bleeding out their lives as the gaunt gray shapes of their attackers whirled to finish off any man left standing.
One man would have fled to give the alarm at Raven Garde, but Kothar caught him with a big hand and yanked him backward from the saddle. His bloody sword spitted him from backbone to navel with one savage swing.
The barbarian whirled to face the last horseman.
A voice called sweetly, “Leave one, barbarian—to me!”
He saw the wolf-woman at the edge of the road, right arm coming forward, hurling her long dagger. There was a wink of steel and the thin blade drove deep into the throat of the man who was still fighting his panicked horse.
The fight was over, and the men and women in chains were silent, staring at the half-naked man whose clothes flapped about him, with the bloody sword in his hand, and at the woman who walked among the gaunt wolves, quieting them. There was terror in their stares, and a few of them shuffled backward as if they would turn to flee.
Kothar moved toward them. “Who bears the keys to your chains?” he asked. He stooped above a fallen horseman at their direction, lifted an iron key and went among the peasants, setting them free. A man growled, “Why did you do this?”
Another muttered, “Torkal Moh will burn you alive for it.”
“We are going to kill Torkal Moh, you and I,” grinned the Cumberian, clapping the serf on a shoulder.
They drew away from him as if he were mad. One of the women whispered, “Torkal Moh lives in a great fortress. Nobody would dare attack it.”
Kothar threw back his head and sniffed. “I smell blood, the blood of dead outlaws. What will Torkal Moh do, think you, when he finds these men of his slain on the high road he considers to be his own?”
“He will come for us again.”
“Aye, by the gods of Thuum! So to prevent that we shall go to him. Now, now! No need for panic. Four of you men and Lupalina there shall go disguised as horsemen—in the armor of these six we have slain. You others—you men who can use swords—will put on the caps and mail shirts of the dead men-at-arms!”
They began to understand him, and they drew together in dismay, looking from one face to the other. The barbarian read their timidity and would have snarled his scorn, but the wolf-woman was beside him, a hand on his forearm and a smile on her lips.
“It is the only way,” she explained gently to the frightened people. “You women who were to be his lemans, the playthings of his men-will you fight for your honor You men—some of whom are marked for sacrifice to whatever evil god it is that Torkal Moh worships—will surely fight to meet a clean death?”
Their panic gave way to doubt and from doubt their faces changed to a kind of sullen resignation. The men nodded slowly and swung their eyes to the dead bodies sprawled on the roadbed.
“Some of you will stay in your chains,” the barbarian said, “so that it will appear we have captives to offer Torkal Moh. The chains will not be fastened securely. You men will snatch up swords when they fall from the robbers’ hands and aid in the attack. And remember—you’re fighting for your families!”
It took only moments to strip the dead and don their armor. The wolf-woman rode beside Kothar at the head of their little troop, swaying easily to the walking horse; Kothar noticed that she still had her throwing spears in her hand, but that she had added a sword-belt and sword to her armament.
At the bend in the road they saw Raven Garde.