Digitally transcribed for the Gardner Francis Fox Adventure Library
The tavern was warm and noisy, filled with seafarers of the Aztallic Sea, with wanderers from the western lands, with mercenary warriors and with women who plied their ancient trade between the tables, to sit where they were welcomed and join in the feasting and the drinking. A great hearth held a huge log that blazed with a sullen roar and threw a scarlet hue across those nearest it.
Niall pushed Lylthia onto a bench and waved an arm at a serving-maid.
“Thort steaks and Kallarian,” he ordered, then turned his attention to the girl. She was staring around her with wide eyes, almost as though she had never been in such a hospice before.
“So you seek vengeance on Maylok,” he murmured. “But why? What has Maylok done to you?”
The green eyes regarded him. “He has taken that which was mine. He has not offered to pay for it, nor will he.”
“What could you own that’s so valuable?”
Her leather tunic was stained and discolored, it hardly hid the swells of her breasts nor the lengths of her supple thighs. She was a poor girl, that much Niall would swear on the War-god’s sword.
She shrugged. “You would not understand.”
Something about those green eyes made him murmur, “If I can help you, I shall. Though I don’t fancy warlocks.”
She smiled suddenly, and those eyes lost their coldness. “I need no help. Though I thank you.”
Niall was not so sure that she could not use a blade like Blood-drinker to side her when she went hunting Maylok in his palace, and said so. “No man can take him by surprise, it’s rumored. He has set spells and cantraips on all the doors and windows so nothing can catch him unawares. At least, so I’ve been told. Only by his will can a man or a woman enter his stronghold.”
“That is true enough.”
“Yet you think you can gain revenge on him? Unarmed and — well, practically naked? Without coins with which to bribe a way in?”
“I need neither sword nor gold. Here’s your food. Eat it.”
Niall glanced at her in surprise. There had been an imperiousness in the way she had spoken that indicated she expected to be obeyed. It was almost as if she were a princess in disguise. Niall felt uneasy at that, he had no experience with people of royal blood. Serving maids and tavern wenches were more his familiars.
Still, he ate the savory meat, slicing it with his knife, using his fingers to wolf down the blood-dripping meat. He loaned his knife to Lylthia, watched how daintily she ate. He filled her leathern jack with wine, drank his own empty and then refilled it.
Lylthia drank sparingly, as if not quite trusting the Kallarian. There was suspicion in her, he knew; she expected him to take her into a bed and enjoy her body. Well, that was what he meant to do, all right; he didn’t blame her for eyeing him so watchfully.
By the War-god! She was a pretty thing. He liked her. And she had a body on her, he could tell that easily enough because of that scanty leather tunic. She would be fun when he got his arms around her. If she was enough fun, he would carry her to Urgrik.
An almost naked woman came into a cleared space and danced. Niall was torn between the dancer and watching the disdain that was so easy to read in Lylthia’s pretty face. As applause rang out and the girl sniffed, Niall leaned close to her.
“You can do better, I suppose?”
“I would drive you mad were I to dance for you.”
She said it calmly, but there was a ring of truth in her voice. Niall shifted uneasily on the bench. There was a mystery about this girl, he knew that much; she was not as other women he had met in his far travelings, willing to offer smiles and a soft body for a good meal and some glasses of wine, and a part of him regretted that. He thought of Lylthia in a warm bed with himself beside her, and stirred restlessly.
He asked, “Will you stay the night with me? It grows late, and Maylok may have other men searching the streets.”
She nodded. “I will stay with you.”
He paid for the meal with the last of his gold coins, accepting silver in change. Then he walked behind Lylthia’s swinging hips along the narrow stairway to the upper rooms.
There was a bed and a washstand in the room he selected, and a single window that looked out on the stars and the glittering ring of matter which wise men said was the remains of the moon which had circled this world once, and had been shattered many eons ago, to be caught and held by gravity in the sky. Niall unbuckled his sword-belt and hung it over the back of a chair, slipped out of his link-mail shirt and kicked off his war-boots
He lay down on the bed and beckoned to the girl. “Come here, Lylthia. I want to taste the sweetness of your mouth.”
To his surprise she walked toward him and sat on the edge of the bed. She leaned closer as if to kiss him, but his gaze was caught and held by her green eyes that seemed to swell and swell until they were all that existed in the room.
“Sleep, Niall of the Far Travels,” those eyes commanded. “Sleep!”
And Niall slept, and Niall dreamed.
He sat on a stone throne in his dream in a great hall, dark except where tall torches glowed in sconces, forming a pool of light in which Lylthia danced. Naked she danced, and her body was a pallid white and disturbingly sensual. She was all the lusts, all the sensuous dreams of man, every need he had for that which would satisfy his animal nature.
In that dream, Niall hungered for her flesh but he could not leave the stone throne which seemed almost to hold him back. His arms stretched out, he called to her to come to him. She was a dainty promise whispered in the ear, a shapely seduction with her white legs and quivering haunches. She turned and dipped, pranced and swirled, and always the need in him for her flesh grew more sharp.
Niall woke to the first pink rays of dawn, sitting up in bed and gasping. His dream was still strong upon him, his eyes went around the room hunting for the girl. She was not here, he was alone.
He shook himself as might a shaggy mountain bear roused from its winter sleep, Under his breath he muttered curses as he stumbled to the washbasin and poured cold water from the pitcher over his head. The water shocked him to full wakefulness and he lifted his head and stared out the window.
She was out there, in this city. He knew that. He thought he also knew where she had gone. He could not see Maylok’s palace but he would find her there. He reached for his sword-belt and buckled it about his middle. A flash of light from the corners of his eyes caught his attention and he stared into a cracked minor, seeing his face.
His skin was bronzed and his black hair hung uncut almost to his shoulders. A scar was white against the dark sun-darkened skin of his chin. A swordsman in the hire of the Great Kham had bloodied his face, and had paid with his life for scarring him. His shoulders were so wide they could scarcely fit between the lintels of a wide door, ridged with muscles standing out like ropes beneath his sun-burnt skin.
Niall was a mercenary, a sell-sword, but he had a code of sorts. Lylthia had made him a promise last night, or as good as. He would go find her and bring her back to this tavern and throw her down on that rumpled bed. The barbarian chuckled. But he must not gaze into her eyes. No. It might be best to blindfold that one.
Well, he was going after her. Now. No matter where his war-boots took him.
He ate sausages and eggs in the common room, making plans in his head. She wanted vengeance on Maylok. The only place she could get that would be in his palace. He, Niall, would go also to that palace and find her and bring Lylthia out of it on a shoulder.
Uneasily, he remembered old Thallia and her prophecy. Demons would carry him off in Angalore, she had said. No matter. Maylok would have to cast a spell on him before he could summon up demons to take him away, and by that time, Maylok would be dead.
He went out into the sunlight and walked the streets of this ancient city, angling his feet always toward the huge pile of masonry standing close to the river’s edge, that was the wizard’s palace. It was built against the outer wall, and had a wall of its own, but smaller than the city wall, surrounding it and its gardens. Niall stood a long time studying that wall.
He could go over it easily enough. But what would he find when he dropped down onto the other side? He was no fool to go rushing into danger when there was a safe way out of it. Maylok would have guards posted. And, probably, big Commopore hounds trained to drag down any intruder and fang-slay him.
There was a huge oaken door set flush with the cobblestones of the street. Niall studied it for a moment, hitched at his sword-belt, then walked toward it. With the pommel of a dagger, he rapped on the plankings.
After a time the door swung open and two men with naked swords in their hands stood scowling at him. “What want you at the walls of Maylok, stranger?” asked the larger man.
“Money to put in my pouch.” Niall grinned and rattled the little leather sack so they could hear his few coins clinking. “I’m told the wizard pays well.” His eyes ran over their fleshy bodies. “Men say also that those who work for Maylok eat only thort steaks and pasties, and drink wine instead of water.”
“Maylok has enough servants.”
“None like me.”
The man went to close the door but Niall put out his brawny arm and held the door open, using his eyes on the neat grass and carefully tended bushes that formed these outer gardens. He noted that the men grew angry, but he paid no heed to that, for he was noting the thickness of the walls and surmising that there would be rooms between outer and inner walls.
The other man came to add his muscles to the first, but Niall was a strong man whose full strength had never yet been tested, and he held that door open against both of them.
“Well, if he won’t, he won’t,” he muttered, and released the door.
It banged shut and Niall grinned. He had seen enough. When darkness was upon Angalore he would return. Somehow, he would find a way inside that palace.
He walked around the walls and noted that a big tree grew outside a portion of those parapets. A nimble man could climb that tree, move out along a thick branch. It would be a good jump from the branch to reach the wall, but he could do it.
Whistling, he moved off toward the river gate and through it to the quays where a dozen ships were loading or unloading cargoes. He watched them, savoring the hot sunlight on his back, and fell into converse with two seamen munching on some fruit.
“Your crew works hard,” he commented.
“This is Angalore. The sooner out of it, the better.”
Niall pondered that. He asked slyly, “Is it because of Maylok?”
“Aye. The mage is like a spider in its web, peering out and taking that which he covets, be it gold or silver or a man and a maid. Right now he may be listening to us.”
“I tried to gain employment from him.”
“Count yourself lucky you didn’t. He’d offer you up as a sacrifice to his demon-gods, in time.”
“I think I’ll sail with you, then. I’m for Urgrik to the north.”
“We lift anchor tomorrow, a little past dawn. Ask for the Hyssop, bound for the cold countries. We make a stop at Urgrik.”
Niall ate at a seaside tavern, using his ears to feed on words as he did his mouth to savor the kama-fish flavored with leeks and spices. He heard one man tell how he had seen a pretty girl being pushed into the wall-door of Maylok’s palace just before down, a girl in ragged leather tunic and with black hair almost to her haunches. Six men had hold of her, were forcing her along.
“She’s dead by now,” someone muttered.
“Too bad. She was a pretty thing.”
Niall did not betray himself by the slightest quiver of flesh, but fury was alive inside him. He had liked Lylthia. By the War-god! She had been a fool, but his flesh had lusted after her. If she’d been sensible and spent the night in his arms, she’d be alive, now. Aye, and happy!
It might be too late to save Lylthia, but maybe he could find a way to avenge her.
He sat on a piling and watched the sun sink, telling himself that he was as much of a fool as Lylthia herself. Old Thallia had warned him that demons would carry him off in Angalore. If he were sensible, he’d walk over to the Hyssop right now and get himself a good sleep in a hammock below-decks, and forget Lylthia.
Still, no one had ever praised his brains.
When the quays were in total darkness outside the faint starlight, Niall began his walk. He was in no hurry, indeed, he was rather reluctant to clamber onto that wall. He could think of better ways to die than to be captured by demons. Still! A man had to do what he felt was right.
The tree was big, but his muscles carried him up the thick bole and in between the heavy branches as though he were a monkey out of the jungles of Poranga. He ran out on the branch he had selected earlier in the day and paused.
The gardens were dark, the wall was empty. Lights were on in the palace, he could see flickering candles and torches through open windows, and once he thought to hear a scream of agony, dulled by distance and the palace walls. He trotted forward, swaying as the branch moved, and leaped.
For an instant he was in the air, then he was dropping down onto the parapet, clinging to its rough stone with both hands and swinging himself onto the wall-walk where he crouched, peering about and listening.
There was no one in sight, neither guards nor watchdogs, that he could discover. It might be a trap, but he had fought his way out of traps before. And if by any chance Lylthia were still alive, then he would bring her out of this pile of stones and carry her with him to Urgrik. His hand loosed Blood-drinker in its scabbard, made certain that his Orravian dagger was ready to his grip, and then slid forward between the merlon-shadows.
No sentinel walked these walls, as far as he could tell. Now why was that? Did some awesome fiend patrol these pathways after dark, lurking to attack and perhaps devour — or carry off — some luckless trespasser? It might be Maylok’s whim to use demons as his watchdogs. His hand tightened on the dagger-hilt as he moved.
At length he came to a doorway set into a tiny shed built against an inner wall. His hand opened that door, he stepped into Stygian darkness and down a flight of worn stone steps. His war-boots made no sound, nor was there any clank of sword-chain or link-mail, yet the hairs at the base of his neck bristled.
It was too easy!
There should have been an alarm, an attack, before this. The wizard was no simpleton, he must have known that the tales of his ill-gotten treasures would tempt thieves and foot-pads They would be protected, by what grim guardian he had no way of knowing.
Men and hounds he did not fear. His steel could handle those. It was the thought of demons which bothered him. Sooner or later he would meet some snuffling cacodemon in this blackness and be forced to fight for his life.
Yet he strode on, down the ancient steps and along a narrow corridor which must run beneath the gardens. From far away he could hear the dripping of water and nearer at hand the click of rats’ nails along a stonework floor. Rats? Or — devil imps?
He lifted out Blood-drinker and moved with the blade always before him, as a blind man uses a wooden stick. He saw nothing, the ebon gloom was everywhere, pressing in upon him. And yet — as he turned a corner of the passageway, he beheld a redness up ahead.
It was only a wink of light, shifting, quivering. It seemed like a tiny corner of the Eleven Hells of Emelkartha broken free of the barriers that kept them from this world. Yet it served as a beacon to draw his footsteps forward.
He came into a low-ceilinged chamber, the walls of which were purplish in the radiance of flickering torch-flames set into that stone. A carved and runed altar stood upon a dais reached by stonework steps, and on the flat surface of that shrine to devilry lay a naked woman.
Niall took a step forward, and another. He growled low in his throat. That lifeless body at which he stared belonged to—