Digitally transcribed for the Gardner Francis Fox Adventure Library
The barbarian stood paralyzed with shock. “Red Lori!” he bellowed at last, in utter amazement.
“You know her?” Flarion wondered.
“Kothar,” breathed Red Lori, “my darling” She came off the stone bier slab, ran to the Cumberian and flung her bare arms about his neck. Against his lips she pressed her mouth, then seemed to shrink from him.
“Forgive me!” she whispered. “I could not help it. I’ve been here so long—put here by a wizard’s curse—alone in the dark. . . .”
“Poor girl,” breathed Flarion. “Damned witch-woman,” growled Kothar. Kothar fought the emotions inside his giant frame. That touch of soft lips to his, the momentary brush of female flesh and the clasp of bare arms about his neck angered him, because he liked that kiss, that embrace. And he knew Red Lori too well not to know that it must be part of an act. She wanted something of him.
Flarion reproved him. “How can you say such a thing, Kothar? She’s been here because of a curse. And—she loves you.”
“Oh, I do. I do!” Lori nodded, glancing from the younger man to Kothar. “I’ve always loved him, even when he was carrying me out of my dark tower in Commoral City to have me placed inside a silver cage.”
There were tears in her eyes as her white hands wrung together. Her warm green eyes pleaded with the Cumberian. She took two steps toward him, let him feel the softness of her body, putting both arms about his middle and hugging him. Her perfumed red hair lay pillowed on his mailed chest.
“Now you have found me, Kothar. Take me with you, out of this place. I beg it of you. Do you want to see me on my knees?”
The grip of her arms loosed and she sank downward to kneel before him, face upturned, eyes wet, tears moving down her cheeks. Kothar stared down at her, knowing dully that he was lost. He could deny this woman nothing. There was an affinity between them. The Fates had made them enemies but the Fates could not control the wild thudding of his heart at her kiss, nor still the male flames in his flesh that leaped at contact with her body.
“Here, now. Get up, Lori.” His huge hands lifted her until she rested against him on tiptoes, her palms spread on his shoulders, her wet eyes smiling, echoed by the sweet curving of her lips. Slowly her hands crept upward as her bare arms lifted to clasp him about the neck.
“Darling Kothar,” she breathed. The barbarian was of half a mind to turn her and whack her backside with a big palm, but it had been a longtime since a woman had pressed herself against him. He admitted grudgingly that he found it a pleasant thing. Her moist red mouth was close, slightly parted, as if begging for his kiss.
Kothar growled his helplessness against her allure. His arms tightened around her slim waist, his mouth closed on hers. He held her, swaying slightly, while Flarion stared at the ceiling of the tomb, at its painted walls, at the stone sarcophagus that held all that was left of King Kandakore.
Lori pushed away, flushing, lifting her hands to set to rights her long hair, smiling tenderly up at him, eyes shy and half hidden under her long lashes. She seemed like a maiden newly fallen in love. There was nothing of the arrogant witch-woman in her manner.
“What brought you here, Kothar?” she whispered.
“Treasure,” answered Flarion. “But there’s nothing here.”
Red Lori pulled her green eyes away from Kothar’s stare, turning to glance about the burial chamber. “This tomb is sacred to the death god. The royal treasures are kept in another place.”
“Where?” asked Flarion. “Why do you know so much about the burial habits of the Phyrmyran kings?” wondered Kothar.
“The demon who put me here told me of them,” said Red Lori hurriedly. “He—ah—taunted me with the fact that in the next room was enough gold and jewels to buy half a world, while I must remain here, shut in and starving.”
“You can’t have been here too long,” rumbled Kothar, running his eyes up and down her curving body, so blatantly exposed in the scanty Mongrol garb.
Lori laughed at him, lifting her arms about her head and turning to let him see what he would of her shapeliness. “Not long, no. I have an appetite for food, but I’m not starving.”
Suspicion awoke in Kothar, who still did not trust this redheaded woman. She had vowed vengeance on him, she had hated him with a furious savagery; he did not believe she could have forgiven him so easily for locking her away with dead Kalikalides.
Her bare legs shone in the lamplight under the short leather skirt, admirably rounded and enticing. Her hips swung with a wanton little wiggle, her body was all sweet curves and smooth white skin as she ran past the stone bier toward a farther wall. Her hands and fingers fumbled there until Flarion went with the brass lamp to show her the raised stonework she sought.
She turned a stone flower and part of the wall opened with a creak of unused hinges. Flarion cried out, pushing the lamp into the opening she had revealed.
“Kothar—look!” he cried.
Lori turned held out her arm to the big barbarian, clasping his fingers with her own warm hand, leading him through the opening.
They stood in a room as large as the burial chamber. Golden statues of men and women and beasts stood in orderly rows beside a painted boat in which the mummified body of a sailor sat with the helm in a dusty hand. Metal and wooden coffers lay upon long tables set flush to the walls.
The floor was unmarked, covered by a thin layer of dust. Flarion pointed at it, shouted, “No one’s been in here since they closed the place. No grave robber has ever found this place. It all belongs to us. To us!”
He ran to a table, put down the lamp so he could lift the lid of the nearest coffer resting there. He gave a cry when the lid went back, The lamplight showed hundreds of round golden coins—dildaks, they were, the forgotten coinage of ancient Phyrmyra. Each one was worth a fortune because no other coins like them existed in the present world. And also tiny bars of that same precious metal placed side by side. Flarion dug his fingers into that treasure hoard, letting coins and bars sift between them.
Red Lori drew Kothar to another coffer, extending her hand and raising the carved lid to show him red jewels and blue gems, precious diamonds and green emeralds. The ransom of ten emperors stood on this tabletop. Kothar growled his delight in what he saw, he lifted out a great ruby, held it to the lamplight. It glowed and sparkled as if with inner flames.
“It’s too bad you cannot keep it,” she whispered.
His eyes sparked. “Ah! You know about my curse?”
“You can keep no wealth but Frostfire, your sword, Oh, yes. I know all about Afgorkon and how he gave you the blade under a geis.”
The barbarian lifted her hand and dropped the giant ruby into her palm. “Then you keep this, Lori. It matches your hair.”
Her red-nailed fingers tightened on the jewel. Her glance at him was curious, enigmatical. “You would do that? Give me this ruby?”
“Why not? Help yourself.” His hand waved around the room. He chuckled, “One of us might as well share these riches. You and Flarion take what you will. I’ll content myself with a few coins here and there, enough to keep Greyling and myself in food and shelter.”
Lori narrowed her eyes, tilting her head to one side as if to study him more closely. “There is a way, you know . . . by which the spell of Afgorkon may be removed.”
He shook his head, snorting. “No man dares do that. Ulnar Themaquol told me as much, that time I solved the riddle of Pthoomol’s labyrinth. Other mages have hinted the same thing, Kylwyrren of Urgal among the rest. There is no way for me to own anything but Frostfire.”
“And I say there is, barbarian!”
A little of her old pride glared out at him as she straightened. She was a sorceress of no mean repute, he told himself. She had been the helpmate of Lord Markoth in that king’s desperate fight against Elfa” of Commoral. She had almost bested Kazazael, who served the queen in that struggle.
“How may it be done?”
“Take you what you will, and then do what I shall say,” she bade him, turning away to cross the chamber until she stood before the painted solar boat in which the embalmed sailor sat. She stood there, searching the boat, it seemed, for something which should be there.
Kothar shrugged, turned to the table. He said to Flarion, “Take only what you need. Gold and jewels weigh heavily on a walking man.”
“I’d bring it all with me if I could. Gods! Saw you ever wealth like this? Kandakore must have been a happy man.”
“Legend says he died loveless and hated by his people. No, Flarion, I don’t think wealth alone makes a man happy.”
The youthful mercenary grinned. “Then let me be unhappy, but loaded down with so much wealth one man could not spend it all in a long lifetime.”
Kothar filled his leather belt-purse with gold coins and bars, and with a few of the larger jewels. Its sides bulged when he was done. He turned to look at Red Lori.
The girl was holding a golden scepter in which was set a magnificent diamond. Her fingertips caressed the carven length of the scepter, lingered over the huge gem. Her eyes lifted to stare at Kothar when she felt his look.
“With the help of his court wizard, Kandakore is said to have stolen this scepter from the demon Bathophet,” she said softly. “It possesses strange powers. I choose it as my share.” Her cheeks dimpled in a smile. “It may come in handy when I recite the spell to Bathophet which will free you from Afgorkon’s curse.”
The barbarian grunted. Deep in his heart he did not believe there was any such spell. Surely those master magicians, Ulnar Themaquol and Kylwyrren, would have known of it. But because he wanted to believe, because of the gold and jewels making such a satisfying weight at his belt, he nodded.
“Then keep it, and whatever else you see.” She shook her head. “I choose you, Kothar, to be my share. And with you, your purse. That is one reason. why I am so anxious to cast my spells to Bathophet. Whatever is yours becomes mine, as it were.”
She laughed softly, eyes glowing. The Cumberian felt like a slave selected for the buying. He had no way to sway the Fates, he must go where bidden by this red witch, do as she would have him do.
He felt a momentary anger at this loss of his male independence. But Red Lori came close and ran her soft fingertips across his lips, and the big barbarian shivered and stared deep into her green eyes, losing himself in their promise of delights to come.
Flarion said, “I can carry no more.” They went up the stone ladder, Flarion leading the way and following him, the girl. Kothar mounted easily after them. They came out into the sunlight of high noon, with the air about them sweet with the fragrance of growing things. The sky seemed bluer, the day more lovely, because of the treasure each one carried.
Flarion came to join Kothar in his task of pushing the statue base back into place so the trapdoor would lift and lock. Now no wandering beggar would find the golden hoard which they considered their own.
Kothar said, “We stay the day, and hunt for food. We will sleep the night here, then travel in the morning. It is a long ride to Thoxon in Makkadonia.”
“Why go to Thoxon?” Flarion said. “Better to cross Tharia and head toward Zoane,” Lori nodded.
Kothar glanced at her. “Why Zoane?”
“Zoane is the largest city in Sybaros. There I can find what I’ll need to prepare those spells to Bathophet for you. Zoane borders the sea, and it is in the sea that the lost tablets of Afgorkon are to be found.”
Flarion laughed. “And Sybaros is a rich country. King Midor always seeks for soldiers to enlarge his army against attack by Makkadonia and Tharia. I have my sword to sell, so have you, Kothar.”
The Cumberian shrugged. “It matters not to Kothar where Greyling walks. I’ll get my bow, there must be a few hares in this wilderness to furnish our supper.”
He went on foot out onto the plain bordering the ruins of Phyrmyra. The vast flatland harbored no shelter for the great stags and doe that abounded in the northern forests. Here were merely hares and other small game such as the toy-deer and the addabear. Kothar was a master hunter, he walked more softly than the wind, he could freeze and wait for his prey like a statue.
Between some low bushes he sighted two big leaper hares. They nibbled the succulent fruit and the stalks of a nearby berry-bush. They did not see him, and he was downwind of them. Carefully he placed an arrow to its string, sighted. He released the catgut string, saw the arrow soar and drop.
One of the hares toppled over, impaled on that long war-arrow. The second animal froze in surprise and terror for the instant that the barbarian needed to nock and release another shaft.
He came back into their little camp oddly proud, listening to Lori exclaim over his prowess with the horn bow. Flarion had found a little stream some distance away, had filled their skins with cool liquid. Enough flour was left in Kothar’s saddle bags so that the girl could make small bread loaves.
They feasted together as the sun was setting. When darkness came, Kothar lifted his fur wrap and extended a hand toward Lori. She smiled faintly, let him help her to her feet, and walked with him into the darker shadows away from the fire where Flarion was curled up and ready for sleep.
“You share my fur,” he growled, spreading it on the ground.
Her eyebrows rose. “As free woman?” He turned to stare up at her. “Of course. You’re no slave.”
“You saved me from Kandakore’s tomb. It is the law of Yarth that when a man has saved a Woman’s life, she belongs to him unless she purchases her freedom with a gift.” Her green eyes mocked him.
“Have you a gift for me?” She shook her head, smiling. “I shall not give you the scepter which you said I could have. And that is all I own.”
“Make a gift of your body,” he told her softly. She smiled at him, head tilted to one side even as her white fingers began untying the thongs of her Mongrol jerkin. He could not read the emotion in her slanted green eyes but he had the uneasy feeling that she mocked him, though she said pleasantly enough, “Now that is a good idea, Kothar of Grondel fjord. I shall offer you my body.”
The leather thongs were undone and her breasts pushed into the opening of the jerkin. He was faintly surprised to find them so full. Then she shoved down the garment and her leather kilt and her nakedness was a gleaming ivory loveliness in the darkness. Kothar sighed, not caring whether this woman taunted him or not; he had to have her flesh in his embrace.
She laughed and stepped to him, throwing her arms about his neck and letting him feel the moist warmth of her lips. They swayed a moment, clinging tightly, before the barbarian dragged her down onto his bearskin cloak.
The fire winked and glowed in the night. The tip of a sword at his throat awoke the barbarian. He opened his eyes, but lay still. His slightest movement might drive that steel into his throat. Flarion? Was it Flarion who stood over him with a sword in his hand? Had the possession of the gold and jewels driven the youth to madness?
“Get up, you,” said a harsh voice.
The sword-point went away. Beside him, a naked Lori would have clothed herself in the Mongrol garments, but a foot kicked them away and a man laughed. Kothar rose to his feet slowly, growling.
Flarion was standing beside the fire, scowling darkly. Five men—Kothar recognized them as the bandits whom he and Flarion had driven off in the Tharian Pass—stood grinning at them. Behind him, Red Lori was tugging at a corner of the bearskin cloak to hide her body.
“You’ve found treasure,” muttered the man with a sword in his hand, grinning. He bounced the leather belt purse in his hand. As the Cumberian watched, he opened the bag, poured out a stream of gold coins and jewels onto the ground. “Where’s the rest of it?”
Kothar shook his head. A scarred man snarled to one side and lifted out a dagger. “I know ways to make him talk.”
“No, Fithrod, no violence—not yet, at least.” One of the bandits approached the leader, the tall man with the pointed steel-helmet and chain mail which he had taken from one of the Southland caravans. He offered him the sack in which Flarion had put his own coins and jewels.
“A pretty haul,” nodded the leader, watching his fellow bandit pour that treasure close to the small pile which had come from Kothar’s belt purse. “Enough here to keep a dozen men in wealth the rest of their lives.”
“Then take it and let us go,” Flarion snarled. “Why should we do that when it appears you know the secret of old King Kandakore? Show us the treasure and I’ll kill you swiftly, without pain.”
Against his arm, the Cumberian could feel Red Lori shuddering. Before she had lost her witch-like powers, she would have made short work of these bandits. A few words, a gesture in the air, and a demon such as Asumu or Omorphon or even Belthamquar, who was the father of demons, might have come at her summons to swallow the thieves. He himself was unarmed Frostfire was thrust into the belt of the man in the pointed helmet. So was Flarion.
“Stake them out,” the bandit chieftain snapped.
Two men threw Flarion to the ground, extended his arms and legs, A third man ran for wooden pegs, hammered them in with a rock. Leather thongs were attached to his spreadeagled arms and legs.
Kothar was quiet. Unarmed, he would be no match for the bandits. Yet he had no intention of lying down obediently while they tied him down for the sun to bake or to allow their knives to slice him into bloody gobbets. And so he waited, tensed, not betraying his mood. “The girl now,” said their leader. And Kothar leaped. His left fist drove into the face of the bandit chieftain as his right hand closed about the jeweled hilt of Frostfire. With a savage yank he tore it free of the leather belt as blood spurted from the crushed nose his fist had struck. The blued steel came into the sunlight.
Kothar was moving before his sword was completely free of the belt, he was grasping Red Lori, swinging her off the ground and onto his hip as his sword’s edge slashed downward across a bandit’s shoulder. Instantly Frostfire was turning, parrying a blow from a scimitar, then thrusting deep into the belly of a third outlaw.
The clang of steel on steel was music in the ears of the giant barbarian. His martial spirit reveled in these sounds of combat, the harsh breathing of fighting men, the stamp of feet along the ground, the rasp of sword-blades where they met in mid-stroke. He parried effortlessly, seeming to handle two swords at once as his massive muscles rolled beneath his tanned hide. His keen eyes, trained to swift observation along the ice fields and forested hills of the northern lands from which he came, saw openings through which Frostfire darted like the tongue of an angry snake.
Back and forth between the ruins he surged with the redhead hanging onto him, gasping at times when the steel came close to her fair skin, eyes wide under long red lashes as her naked body felt the powerful play of his own. Her arms were clasped about his throat, yet not too tightly, as she sought to make herself less of a burden for him.
As he fought, the Cumberian drove the bandits away from the youth stretched on the ground between the pegs, fearing they might slay him in an attempt to make Kothar surrender. His blade wove back and forth like the bobbin of a loom, stabbing, slashing, thrusting. Where he had been, lay the bodies of dead men, mute testimonials to the fury of his sword.
Against a marble pillar he cornered the bandit leader and the last of his men, and there he slew them with two savage swipes of his steel. A headless body leaned its shoulders against that column as a head went bounding off across the ground, gouting blood; Kothar drove Frostfire through the chest of the chieftain until its point grated against the marble behind it.
His left arm loosed its grip, Lori sank down onto her bare feet. “You fight with the fury of a desert storm, Kothar,” she whispered, awed.
He grunted, “Go put some clothes on, girl before the sunburns your backside for you.” His palm clouted a soft buttock, making her stumble.
Her laughter rang out as she whirled to face him, lifting her long red hair in her hands. “You and I—we could rule the world, if we wanted! You with your fighting ability, I with my necromantic wisdoms.”
He eyed her dubiously, “If you still possess those powers, why didn’t you use them?”
She shook her head. “I save them—for a greater need.”
“I may not tell you—just yet.” She scampered toward the sleeping fur and her leather jerkin and skirt. As she drew them on, she watched the barbarian kneel and slash the bindings that held Flarion.
They found food in the leather bags the bandits carried, and water in the skins attached to their belts. Kothar crammed one of the sacks full and tied it to Greyling’s saddle. Into the kak he hoisted Red Lori when they were done eating, and turned his face eastward toward the Sea.
Flarion trudged beside him. “Where do we go?”
“To Zoane in Sybaros.”
Zoane was the largest and richest of all the wealthy cities of rich Sybaros. It was a port city on the Outer Sea, its galleys and sailing ships plied those salt waters as far south as the Oasian jungles, as far north as Thuum, and to distant Isphahan in the east. Its taverns were floored with semiprecious stone tiles, its streets with slabs of marble. Its palace and its smaller castles were breathtaking in their loveliness. No man who ever saw Zoane walked away without a touch of awe deep inside him.
Flarion shrugged. “Zoane or another, what does it matter? I’m a rich man, and I can spend my gold there as well as elsewhere. Still, prices are always high in Zoane.”
From her perch in the saddle, Lori laughed. “Come with us, young Flarion—and be richer than you dream!”
He turned and grinned up at her. “What schemes are you plotting in that pretty redhead of yours?”
“I ride to find death—and slay it!”
Flarion gaped at her, thinking she jested.
Kothar merely scowled.