Digitally transcribed for the Gardner Francis Fox Adventure Library
Leithe laughed when he told her what Kyros had said. They sat once again in her dining hall, Kothar eating meat and quaffing great gulps of the chilled red wine at which Leithe merely sipped. Her black eyes were alight with triumph.
“There is a way, now that we know where the ruby is hidden,” she comforted him. “All we need do is make a plan to catch it.”
“And then, what?” the barbarian growled. “Nothing dies, here in Nirvalla! You told me so, yourself. How do I get the ruby out of Skrye except by disemboweling him—and if the bird is to live on in agony—well, I don’t know.”
Leithe laughed again. “Only those who crossed over with Phronalom are protected by his magic. Skrye was created by Thaladomis, and no such protection clings to him. No, no. You may slay Skrye—if you can.”
The woman frowned, suddenly thoughtful. She repeated softly, “If you can. Yes! For Thaladomis must have placed a powerful spell on Skrye, to save it from some such venture as you would attempt.”
“If I could not slay Kyros for fear of dying myself, why can I kill Skrye?” Kothar wondered.
“Kyros is a man, Skrye is but an animal. There are different rules for each.” Leithe smiled faintly. “If we could not—kill animals here in Nirvalla, what would we do for our meals? No, no, if you can slay Skrye, you may, safely.”
She brooded, forgetful of the man, until at last she sighed and shook her head so that her long ebon tresses danced. “I do not know the way,” she confessed.
Kothar chuckled, putting a hand on the jeweled hilt of Frostfire, drawing it upward in its scabbard until the woman could see its polished blue blade. “My Frostfire will find a way. Afgorkon made it, there is magic in that steel—a rare and terrible magic.”
He swallowed more wine, pouring it this time himself, from the big silver pitcher. He muttered, with his goblet halfway to his lips, “All I need to do is find Skrye, to get him down to the ground. Dwalka knows I can’t go flying through the air the way he does.”
Leithe nodded, “In that, at least, I can help. When Thaladomis left Skrye in Nirvalla, it was as a real eagle, with the wants of an eagle. With something like our present geeds in mind, we of Nirvalla have been feeding young lambs to Skrye, so that by now he comes unsuspectingly to a farmstead some miles from here, to feed when the hunger moves in him.
“He does not always feed at the farm, but he does come more or less regularly, seeming to know that tender food will be there for the mere taking. You shall go there, Kothar—and wait for Skrye.”
The barbarian yawned. “I’m tired,” he confessed. Leithe rose to her feet. “You shah sleep in my bed, stranger. I have me a mind to test the muscles of your body, and its strength.”
Kothar grinned, wiping his wine-wet lips with the back of a huge forearm where golden hairs glittered in the torchlight. “I’m tired, Leithe. When I sleep, I sleep. But I do thank you for the offer.”
Leithe merely stared at him, thin eyebrows lifted. Her bed was warm, soft. The coverlets were light, but they made a nest for his huge body and he slept without dreaming, but then in the night a red light made him open sleepy eyes and by the reflection of the fire flames in the graystone hearth, he saw Leithe standing, slipping down her black garments, revealing her pallid skin, the heavy breasts and smooth slopes of hips and thighs. She seemed a succubus to the drowsing giant.
Through his lashes he saw her approach the bed, smiling down at his recumbent figure. Her hand caught the coverlets, threw them back. She knelt on the bed, bending down to kiss his lips with a mouth that was fire and velvet.
“As Afgorkon put magic into your steel, so I shall put a little magic in your body, barbarian,” she whispered.
Her hand ran down his chest. . . .
Kothar woke to morning sunlight, wondering if he had dreamed last night, when Leithe had stripped off her garments and had come into this bed with him. She was not there now but the pillow beside his own was indented, where a head had lain. A long black hair rested on the pillow.
With a chuckle, Kothar reached for it, tied it on a knot about a lock of his yellow mane. “For luck,” he told himself. He felt renewed in his strength and cunning, and wondered idly if there had been any truth in what the sorceress had whispered to him about putting magic in his flesh.
Leithe was nowhere in the tower but there was food on the dining room table, hot and tasty, and outside the tower door a black horse stood, caparisoned in silvered bridle and reins, with an ornate saddle of silver and ivory for his sitting.
Drawing the cloak of Thaladomis about his great shoulders, he kicked the black stallion to a gallop.
Along the narrow, dusty little roads of Nirvalla the iron hooves of the great warhorse, carried thunder in a rolling tattoo as its long strides ate up ground. Past a hillside where a small farm lay, leaving a small castle behind on distant hills, the stallion, ran on and on.
The twisted ruin of a great tree, its limbs and twigs black against the yellow sky, told Kothar he was near his destination. He drew back on the reins and the horse slowed to a canter. A narrow trail led up into the low hills, past the tiny farm buildings. Kothar chose that pathway, letting the stallion walk.
Where a stone fence bordered a field where young lambs browsed, the Cumberian swung out of the saddle. His eyes took in the scene, saw also a small shed that held tools, and he found, upon investigation, a number of sheepskins for the tanning. One of the sheepskins was supple to the touch; Kothar dropped the cloak, tossing the woolly hide about his broad shoulders.
On hands and knees he crept into the meadow and mingled with the lambs. The sight of him did not startle them, they were reassured by the sign of the hide atop his back.
Neither was Skrye surprised, an hour later, for from the air, Kothar looked to be no more than a big ram. Downward from the clouds floated the big eagle, wings widespread as it glided like a ghost, ever earthward. Kothar saw him, grinned coldly, and crept forward like a sheep nibbling the grass.
Skrye floated thirty feet above the flock. Under his hide, the barbarian sweated. Would the eagle drop near him? Or would it swoop down for a tiny lamb on the fringe of the flock, too far away for him to reach it? He waited with the patience of the animal he so much resembled.
Skrye screeched and fell.
Straight downward he dropped, talons spread wide for a small, woolly back. Kothar grunted gratefully, edged closer.
As those talons closed, Kothar sprang. His hands went into feathers and across a golden leg. Skrye screamed, startled, turned its head, drove its sharp beak at this oddly shaped sheep. Kothar flinched and cursed as his flesh tore and blood showed but his fingers merely tightened. He rose upward to his feet, and now both hands were about the legs of Skrye as he swung him around and around over his head.
Kothar bent, drove Skrye downward at a big gray rock half-buried in the meadow-land loam. The bird bounced, when it hit, but it fought back, contorting its body, tearing with its beak at the big gash in Kothar’s forearm its first attack had caused.
Three more times Kothar swung the bird. It did no good, and now he realized that the magic of Thaladomis protected it. Perhaps not even steel could harm Skrye.
Ahhh! But he carried more than steel.
He let go the eagle. Instantly it was up, away. Yet Kothar was whipping out the blue blade of his sword,
and in that same movement, cutting upward so that the blade made a blur in the clear air.
The edge slashed into a wing of the rising eagle, it sheared away flesh and feathers. With a cry of stark fury, the bird fluttered weakly to the ground. Kothar was after it using the point. He jabbed, impaling the eagle, holding it, screaming and still struggling, to the grass.
Skrye took time to die, but when it was dead, Kothar knelt and fumbled until his bloody fingers closed on something ovoid in shape and hard to the touch. He brought it out into the sunlight, and saw that it was the ruby of Warrl. He wiped the jewel and, his hands clean on the meadow-land dirt, then crossed the fields to where a little trickle of water came along the spillway of the farm spring-house
He washed the blood and dirt from the ruby and from his hands. He slipped the jewel into a fold of his loincloth and tightened the rope belt that held it.
Then he rode to the black tower. Leithe washed his badly gashed forearm with soapy water and a soft cloth and spread a salve on the flesh which healed it within the hour. Her lips twitched from time to time at sight of the single black hair knotted into his yellow mane, and her beautiful features assumed a satisfied look.
“Without that strand of my hair, you might have died,” she told him, and broke into soft laughter. “Or if I had not come to sleep with you last night, to give your flesh a little of my own magic. I’m glad to see you are a sensible man. Now let me see the ruby.”
She took it into her palms, cupping them so the blood-red jewel glinted evilly. Long she looked into its red depths, sighing and nodding her head, before she spoke again.
“Yes, the demon is trapped inside it, where Thaladomis put him,” she murmured. “And he begs for freedom. His name is Warrl, and he burns to have revenge on the magician.”
“Dare we free him?” Kothar asked, staring at the jewel.
“We must free him, if we ever hope to get the helix back into Nirvalla. The spell that keeps the helix in your world will be broken when Warrl is loosed. But since there will be incantations on the ruby, so that it will not crack like an ordinary jewel, we must make preparations.”
In her incantation chamber, Kothar watched Leithe light the coals and toss certain herbs on them when they glowed red, so that a pungent, pleasant smell rose into the air. From one of the opened volumes, Leithe studied the magic formula that would enable her to set Warrl free.
In a golden mortar, she ground up with a golden pestle the dried hide of a frog, the eyes of a cat, nard and wolfbane, poppy seeds and black water from a witch pool, making a rich paste. Lifting the ruby, she smeared the paste over it.
“Fetch the war-hammer, Kothar,” she commanded. From its peg along the wall above a cabinet containing the gallbladder of a dog, the liver of a boar and the other herbs and spices which Leithe employed in her necromancies, the barbarian lifted down the long-handled weapon and Leithe, using a silver mortar and pestle this time, ground up purple foxglove mixed with henbane and the roots of dried Kolor beans with water, forming a purplish liquid, Kothar came at her gesture, dipping the flat end of the war-hammer into the mixture.
Leithe placed the ruby on a flat slab. “Strike!” she cried.
Kothar raised the war-hammer, brought it down upon the ruby. The jewel cracked to the sound of a thousand bells clanging, and from its red interior, amid the shards of shattered ruby, lifted a blackish smoke.
Leithe made a sign in the air. “Peace between us, Warrl—and peace between you and this warrior.”
Red eyes glowed in the midst of the black cloud, and a deep voice said, “Peace between us, Leithe, and with you, warrior. My quarrel is with Thaladomis!”
“Go, Warrl. We have freed you.” “I shall go. My gratitude to you both.” The black smoke whirled, fluttered a moment, and was gone. Kothar let out his breath slowly, aware that the hairs on the back of his neck were stiff, and that his sun-bronzed flesh crawled. He did not like demons or wizards, but they were a necessary part of his world.
Give him the cold wind blowing across the ice wastes and a white bear at bay to his hunting spears, and he was content. Give him a horse beneath him to ride, Frostfire to swing at a human foe, and he was happy.
As for warlocks and their spells—
“Fauggghh!” he growled, shaking himself.
Leithe smiled, put a pale hand on his hairy forearm. “It was necessary, Kothar. Now you can leave Nirvalla, but wear your cloak. Much of the black magic has gone out of the helix, but it is still dangerous to mortal hands. Go now, with my gratitude, and that of Phronalom and Ayatha.”
“What of Kyros?” “He stays here.” She shrugged. “He is harmless without his soldiers, and Thaladomis, being nothing but a fat little man. Let the naiads keep him for their plaything, if they will. He cannot harm anyone, now.”
“And Ayatha? Didn’t you say she was in thrall? That she sleeps in her bed like a dead woman?”
“The ruby has been shattered, Warrl freed. Ayatha too, has been freed. She is alive, and in the arms of Phronalom at this very moment.”
Kothar grinned, nodding. His big hands hitched at Frostfire, drew his cloak closer about his giant frame. “I’ll be gone, then. But—how do I get back?”
Leithe said, “Speak these words, ‘krthnol abbatt sorgik.’ Ah, and when you take the helix from the galley, say the single word ‘horthidol’!”
The barbarian nodded. As if at a sudden thought, he stepped forward, caught Leithe in his arms, and mashed her lips with his, holding her close in his embrace. He felt a fire in his flesh at the touch of her soft body to his, but this woman was not for him.
He let her go. She laughed happily and whispered the words that he repeated after her.
“Krthnol abbatt sorgik!”
Leithe and her room of incantations was gone.