Read chapter Four of Kothar and the Demon Queen

CHAPTER FOUR

Digitally transcribed for the Gardner Francis Fox Adventure Library
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One moment, she was walking and the next she was sinking down into the water, crying out sharply. Kothar waded toward her, reached down, caught her by the hand, and yanked her up. She dripped wetly, her gown was plastered to her body but she laughed happily.

“It’s there, some sort of hole, an opening in the rock. I went down into it. But—but it’s dark down there.”

“I’ll go. You stay here. If it leads me beyond Urgal, I’ll come back for you.”

They heard the sound of footsteps on the distant stone staircase. Philisia shook her head. “No time for that. We go together. I’m not staying here to be caught by Tor Domnus’s soldiers.

Kothar nodded. Shifting his grip on Xixthur, he stepped forward and sank downward like a stone, vaguely aware that the woman was following after him. For fifteen-feet he went straight-down, then saw dim light through the water ahead. He swam as best he could with the great weight of the metal god in his arms, but the water shallowed ahead and he was soon standing up to his middle thighs in water, inside a huge stones walled sea cave. Philisia gripped his sword-belt, yanked herself to her feet beside him.

“Where are we?” he wondered. “Somewhere on the shoreline of Urgon-lake, where there are many cliffs.” She put her head to one side, gathering her brown hair in her hands and wringing out the droplets of water. “The lake is bordered by cliffs. This cave must be inside one of them, completely hidden from view.”

“There’s an opening of sorts up ahead. Come on.” They waded across the cave to a strip of pale water lightened by shafts of moonlight. Kothar put Xixthur down on a stone ledge and dove. He came up in lake water with the moon low in the sky and a gigantic stone cliff rising behind him. He went back for Xixthur, and told Philisia what he had seen. She nodded, “Yes, the face of the cliff must reach underwater a few feet, just enough to hide the entrance into this cave. This is the path by which Azthamur came and went. It will serve to—let us get away.”

She bent, tore the long sodden skirt of her gown until she was naked below her upper thighs. Her brown eyes flashed at him. “It makes swimming easier, with less of this thing to encumber me.” Then she turned in the water and dove. They came up alongside the cliff face, kicking to buoy themselves in the deeper water. Xixthur was so heavy, Kothar was forced to grip a jutting section of rock to keep his head in the air.

“Certainly I can’t swim with this thing,” he growled. His eyes raked the sheer face of the cliff. “And that bluff doesn’t afford any hand grips or toeholds to let me climb it.”

He began to inch his way along the base of the cliff, holding Xixthur under an arm and using his free hand to find and cling to jutting parts of the cliff. A cool wind was blowing across the lake, from the forest on the other side. It was a lonely, desolate spot, considering the fact that it was so close to the city of Urgal, which raised its walls on the other side of the cliff.

“If Azthamur used the lake for his comings and goings,” panted Philisia, “no man or woman in the city would use it. Perhaps, long ago, they did come here to swim—until the demon caught and ate a few.”

“It helps us, that fact,” Kothar admitted.

He found a narrow trail where the cliff-side ended, and lifted out of the water, putting the ray-machine on the ground and turning to lend a hand to Philisia, She sank down on solid ground at his feet, shivering. The water had been icy cold, the wind from the forests just as chilling. The myriad stars in the sky were fading from view before the first shafts of red sunlight coming from beyond distant Sybaros, which beached upon the salt waters of the Outer Sea.

“Let me rest,” she begged. “There’s no time for that. This early hour of the morning is the best time to travel, for there won’t be many folk about to see and report us to Tor Domnus.”

He bent, caught her hand, yanked her to her feet. She shivered, wet and miserable, against him. Kothar grinned, slapped her haunch.

“The sun will dry you off in the barrens between Urgal and Kor. But first we’ve got to find a stable and steal two horses.”

She nodded, sniffling. “Tor Domnus keeps horses not far from here that are used by his couriers to travel with messages to the lords of Phalkar and Sybaros.”

Kothar heaved Xixthur to a shoulder and planted his feet where Philisia walked. She went sure footedly through these woods, and there was an aliveness about her that made the barbarian realize that, for the first time in her life, she felt truly free. From time to time, she turned to flash a smile at him.

She slowed her steps as they came to the edge of the woods that bordered on a wide-road running between Urgal and Phalkar to the north. As he stood within the leafy boskage of leaves and bushes, Kothar could make out the big barns and stables, he caught the smell of horseflesh, he heard a man rattling tools about inside a large shed.

“There will be guards here and there,” she whispered.

The barbarian grunted. Alone and without Xixthur, he might have risked as direct attack, simply going into the stables, snatching a horse and galloping off. With Philisia to consider, he must use caution.

He said, “There’s a low roof there,” nodding at a thatched section of the stable roof. “I’m going up to have a look.”

He was catlike in his leap to the eaves, swinging up easily, with a bunching of muscles-beneath his tanned hide. Then he was moving over the stable roof to another roof and down that until the watching woman lost sight of him.

His eyes took in the big yard, the troughs, the bales of hay piled close to the wall of the big barn. The sunlight was a hot warmth bathing fences and well-stones with the buckets resting on their cappings. The heat of this early morning sun drew the sweat from a man and caused heat waves to dance across the distant desert.

His hand touched the thatching of the roof, brushed over it. It had been baked by that hot sunlight until it crackled with dryness. Thatch would burn like tinder, he thought, as would the bales of hay just below his perch on the roof. Kothar grinned and his fingers went hunting in his belt-purse for steel and flint.

He crouched, struck a spark, another spark, then blew as it caught fire. He made a hasty torch of the thatch-work and, waving it above his head to make that fire blaze, he tossed it downward.

An instant later a thin thread of gray smoke was rising upward from the hay. Kothar turned and scrambled across the rooftop to the low edge, from which he leaped. He ran to find Philisia hidden in some berry bushes.

“I’ll fetch three horses,” he told her. “Be ready to mount.”

He whirled and ran. By this time a stable-hand had seen the smoke, had sensed the gathering flames inside the hay. His hoarse shouts brought men and boys at the run.

Their first concern was the horses. They ran inside the stables, drove out every mount. Kothar watched those horses run, his eyes taking in their legs, their glossy coats, the depth of their barrels. He selected a big roan for himself, a smaller mare for Philisia. He needed a third horse to carry Xixthur; he would use reins or straps to fasten it on.

He was up and running, bent over. His hands went to the reddish mane of the big, rangy roan; an instant later his leg was swinging over his back and he thumped down onto its bare back. The roan wore no bridle but the mare did, and so did the heavyset brown stallion he had chosen to carry Xixthur.

The men and boys were too busy inside the stables and the barns to notice him as he galloped off with the mare and the brown behind him. Only when he paused to snatch up a fallen bridle did a youngster see him and open his mouth to yell a warning.

Kothar leaped. The back of his hand took the youth across the jaw, toppled him backward into a water trough. The boy would recover soon enough, and yell the warning, but Kothar had had some few precious minutes in which to seat Philisia and fasten Xixthur on the brown horse.

The woman came at the run, bare white legs below her torn gown flashing whitely in the sunlight. She let Kothar throw her upward onto the mare; she caught the reins expertly; she was a good horsewoman, he saw. Then she called out instructions to Kothar as to how to lash the metal object inside a fold of the stolen reins. When it was done, the barbarian tested the tightened knots and nodded. Xixthur should stay put, no matter how fast the brown horse had to gallop.

He swung up onto the roan. An instant later they were pounding out across the fields east of the stables, heading toward the edge of the farm fields and beyond them, the desert.

They rode swiftly, but not at any killing pace. It would take time for the stable hands to alert the soldiers of Tor Domnus that the man they hunted was mounted now and on his way into the desert. By that time, they should be far ahead.

Past farmhouses and hay ricks they rode, and through fields furrowed to a nicety by a plow. While they cantered through an orchard, Kothar pulled down as many apples, as he could reach and stuffed them inside his boar’s head leather jerkin. They would need food until they reached the ruined chapel where he had left Greyling and his weapons.

It was past noon when they came to the vast stretch of rock and sand that was the rim of the Barren Desert. Ahead lay a sea of sand and a few rocks, baking in the hot sunlight.

Philisia shivered and made a soft, whimpering sound, seeing all that desert lying before her. “I’ll cook to death,” she breathed, indicating the scantiness of her gown. Its low collar revealed her shoulders, white and smooth, its thinness emphasized the thrust of her breasts, the slenderness of her waist. Where she had torn its skirt, her legs showed pale almost to her hips.

Kothar barked, “Would you stay behind?” She bit her lower lip, shook her head. Then they were cantering out across the pebbles, seeking to conserve their strength and that of their horses. It was a long pull to Kor from Urgal; the way was broken only by the ruins of the ancient chapel where the barbarian had left Greyling. With the instinct of those who live their years in the wild, he guided the roan toward those ruins.

The blinding sunlight baked them. Sweat ran down their backs and along their faces. Kothar felt the bite of thirst and glanced at Philisia, seeing how she suffered. By Salara! Her skin would be burned red by nightfall! He yanked free his bearskin cloak, and with rough grace tossed it about her near nakedness.

She flashed him a weak, grateful glance. They rode on through the heat. Toward noon, Philisia moaned and swayed on her horse. The Cumberian urged the roan closer, reached out, gathered the girl up in a thickly thewed arm.

“You’ll be easier, this way,” he told her.

She cuddled against his chest, though the hot steel of his chain-mail shirt was like fire to her skin. She pillowed her head on his chest and let her body go limp. In moments she was asleep, utterly exhausted.

Staring straight ahead, bringing the mare and the brown horse behind him at the length of their tethers, he rode onward.

Instinct made him turn when he did to survey their back trail. His keen eyes made out four dots, far away. Kothar scowled, remembering that Tor Domnus kept fast horses for his couriers in those royal stables. The men following him would be riding the fastest horses the prince of Urgal owned.

He kicked the roan to a gallop from its slow canter. There was distance between himself and the men who followed and he wanted to maintain that distance as best he could.

He was many miles from the ruined chapel. His horn bow and long war-arrows in their quiver were at the chapel with Greyling. Until he held his horn bow in his hand, he would have no defense against those oncoming riders, other than his sword.

Grimly, Kothar stared straight ahead. The soft soughing of the sand under hoof, the hot wind burning his cheeks, the constant burning of the sun on his body, were the only indications the Cumberian had that he was trapped inside a nightmare. The weight of the sleeping girl in his arms was another guidepost to reality, as was the gnawing worry in his brain.

Those riders behind him would be coming fast. Faster than he dared drive the, roan and the other horses. They might overtake him before he came to the chapel. Then they could stand off at a distance and pick off the horses with arrows, and then feather their shafts in his chest.

He rode facing forward until he could hold back no longer. Then he swung about in the saddle and stared at the four men who were behind him.

“By Dwalka,” he growled. They were almost within bow shot range. One of them, probably the best archer, was bringing his bow off his shoulder and reaching for an arrow with a hand. First shot for the brown horse, with Xixthur on it. Xixthur was more important than the man or the woman.

After that . . .

2.

Mindos Omthol was weeping softly in chagrin.

“So near, so near! Another few miles and he would be at the ancient chapel of Randolphus. Then with his bow he could stand off those men, maybe slay them so he could get away.”

The demon Abathon snorted.

“You are a fool, magician,” he snapped. “You pride yourself on being able to make magic. Well, make a spell to aid him. It’s that simple.”

Mindos Omthol stared at the creature he had summoned up. He shook his head, muttering, “I am a fool, indeed. But you said yourself that I could not steal from a demon and—”

“Kothar has done your stealing for you; mage. No need to try and take Xixthur from him. In time, he will bring that metal thing to you, I believe. But right now, he needs a helping hand. Look!”

Mindos Omthol craned his leathery neck, saw the mailed chest of the barbarian and the woman who slept nestled within his arm. As he watched, an arrow-shaft flew overhead, winking brightly in the desert sunlight.

“A helping hand, yes. But I must not reveal to anyone that I’ve had a hand in it. I don’t want Tor Domnus nor Queen Candara to come seeking me.”

Abathon asked, “How about a rainstorm?” The magician took thought, finally nodding. “Yes. A heavy storm with rain like a cloudburst that will hide man and woman and horses from those who pursue.”

He turned to his vials and alembics resting on a nearby tabletop. His big-veined hands darted out, closed on glass and marble. From each he poured noisome liquids into a chalcedony bowl, and into the pool of wetness he dropped pinches of ground wort-bane and hazel roots. Steam rose upward from the crucible.

Mindos Omthol began to chant. . . .

3.

The black cloud was on the horizon to the south. It came fast, and as it came, it spread out, and now Kothar could hear the rumble of distant thunder and see the flash of lightning inside that moving darkness. He had no suspicion of wizardry in the sight. Storms had been known before over desert lands. It was only the timing of the approaching storm that made him wonder.

An arrow missed the brown horse. “By Dwalka,” snarled the barbarian, kicking the roan to a faster pace “if that cloud brings rain to hide us, we may still make it.”

The cloud was overhead. It came to a stop. Those black, fluffy masses opened up and water came down. Like a flood in spate was that water, that drenched man and woman and beast, until it grew hard to breathe.

Kothar turned the roan aside, angled its walk in a slightly different direction. Now if those riders should gallop forward, blind in this drenching downpour, they would never be able to find them.

The rain woke Philisia. She lifted her head, letting the cool moisture drench her skin and hair and the thin stuff of her torn gown until the samite was plastered to her generous curves.

“Do I dream?” she asked.

“If you do, I dream myself. It’s rain, right enough. And it couldn’t have come at a better time.”

Her laughter rang out. “I’m cool again, and not thirsty any more.” She opened her red mouth and let the water drops beat down inside her throat, swallowing greedily from moment to moment.

The horses moved at a walk, now that there was no immediate reason for haste. In such a downpour, Kothar could not see the ruined chapel until he was upon it, he knew. But as long-as the rain continued, he was safe, and it showed no sign of stopping.

All he had to guide him now was his instinct. He remembered where the chapel was, and his knees turned the roan in that direction. Greyling had been too well trained to whinny at approaching horses, and so he knew he could not count on guidance from his warhorse. He did not want his own mounts to whinny for fear they might attract the attention of the four men who pursued them.

It was an eternity in the downpour, with all that wet grayness deluging the desert around them, making tiny pools where the stones and pebbles were clustered. The horses plodded, splashing through those pools, shaking their heads and blowing their delight in the cool wetness, that steamed on their hides.

The graystone arch loomed black in the rain, and beside it the crumbling wall of what had been a monastery showed long and low. Kothar grinned his pleasure through tight lips.

“He urged the roan toward the tiny roof of the old shed where he had stored his weapons and left Greyling. As the roan neared the fallen timbers, Kothar heard a faint nicker. He let his laughter out softly, below his breath.

Then he was lowering Philisia to the ground and swinging down, finding Greyling at his elbow, bumping his back with his Roman nose, in affectionate greeting. Kothar rubbed fingers along the gray nose, whispered words into the silky gray ears.

Philisia murmured, “This is Randolphus’s chapel. I saw it once, long ago, in a picture book. What are we doing here?”

“Recovering my weapons,” the Cumberian grinned.

He moved to a wrapping and unrolled it, disclosing the horn-bow that he had from old Pahk Mah when he had rescued his daughter. He bent the bow, fitted the string to it. Then he set the bow and his quiver of war-arrows against a well-wall protected from the rain by the leaded-roof.

“If those men find us now, I’m not completely helpless. I, too, can fire war-arrows—and I’m a better shot than that lout who was shooting at our horses.”

She crowded against him, shivering, seeking warmth and courage from his nearness. This huge barbarian was like a rock pillar to Philisia. His keen wits and bulging muscles had delivered her from dreaded Azthamur, he had brought her safely out of Tor Domnus’s castle with the metal object which Candara called a god. He had, by some trick she could not understand, made it rain, and then had found shelter here in this old chapel.

Philisia was grateful. She slipped her bare arms upward about his neck, dragged his mouth down to her soft lips. They clung together in their kiss for long moments.

Then Kothar growled, “We have no time for foolishness, girl. Much as I’d enjoy bedding you down, that is. First, we’ll ride to Kor and then we’ll beg a bed of Candara where we can frolic as we will.”

She sighed and nodded, nestling her head to his chest but still clinging to his neck with her arms. “You are my lord, Kothar. I’ll go and do whatever you say.”

Kothar wondered if the prohibition Afgorkon had laid on him extended to women. This Philisia was a treasure of sorts, but as long as he carried Frostfire by his side, he could own no treasure. He sighed. He would have to wait and see, where Philisia was concerned.

The rain was letting up.

He could see a hundred yards from the chapel now, and soon, almost to the horizon. A faint white mist clung to the ground where the rain made steam on the hot desert sands. That mist would be almost as good as rain in hiding them from the four warriors who wore the boar’s head device.

From a saddlebag on Greyling’s saddle, he drew out cold meat and bread and a flagon of cool water. Philisia seated herself on a stone bench and munched happily, eyes glowing as they studied the graceful bulk of the Cumberian moving to and fro, preparing for their departure.

“It will be night, soon. That rain lasted all afternoon. Our horses’ hoofs will make little sound on the desert sands. By dawn, if we ride all night, we ought to be in Kor.”

When the meat and bread were gone and the flagon empty, Kothar rose to his feet and stretched out a hand to the girl. Overhead the stars were appearing, scattered across the blue sky with a myriad generosity that made the evening heavens brilliant above them.

“There’ll be moonlight too, but the moons of Yarth don’t show the desert as clearly as does the sun. I think we’ll be all right.”

The barbarian mounted on Greyling, he helped Philisia up on her mare. He reached for the reins to draw the brown horse after them, letting the roan trail free.

He turned the gray toward Kor.

4.

And in the city of Kor, Queen Candara brooded.

She sat cross-legged on a stool in the necromancer chamber of hunchbacked Zordanor watching the misshapen man as he peered into a bowl of molten silver where gleamed the night stars and the two moons of Yarth and the vast stretches of the Barren Desert.

Candara rested her dimpled chin on a fist, while her black eyes seemed to stare at far-off visions. Truly, she had never really expected the barbarian to steal Xixthur from the demon Azthamur. She had been hopeful, yes; she had counted on the magicks of the mage Zordanor, who had predicted success; yet in her heart, since she knew the strength and wicked wiles of Azthamur, she had resigned herself to defeat and the resultant aging process which would, in time, turn her into an old woman.

“What do I do with him now?” she asked querulously.

Zordanor waved an impatient hand, gesturing her to silence. “They come, the barbarian and the prince’s former mistress. They will be before the city gate by sunrise. The four men who trailed them have turned back to meet Tor Domnus and the soldiers he is bringing with him.”

Candara straightened. Her fist hit her thigh angrily. “To wage war with me? He would dare?”

“Who can read the mind of a man like Tor Domnus? Not I, nor any magician alive. But if Tor Domnus knows the value of Xixthur, as I am sure he must—since Azthamur will have told him of its value—then I feel confident he will hurl his soldiery at your walls, to secure the metal god for his own use.”

“I must prevent him, Zordanor I am not so strong in Kor, as I would like, and the loyalty of my hired mercenaries is a chancy thing, at best.”

The hunchback nodded. “Aye. But how?” Candara tossed her foot as her brows furrowed. She was not often given to thought, she cared more for the carnal pleasures of the flesh than the cerebral enjoyments of the mind. Yet her mind was good. She was no fool, for all her follies, and when she reasoned, she thought much as a man will think.

“I need help, Zordanor. Greater help than you can give.”

His ugly face showed surprise. “And who in these Haunted Lands can give you aid that is beyond my powers?”

“Mindos Omthol, the necromancer.”

The misshapen man gasped. His eyes narrowed and his nostrils flared to his breathing. He swayed back and forth, oddly toad-like, but his huge head nodded slowly.

The old mage lived in a remote corner of the Haunted Lands, beside the Sunken Sea bottom out of which the first life on Yarth was said to have crawled eons ago, in a gaunt black tower filled with the secrets of necromancy and old wizardry. No man traveled near the black tower, for an certain nights hellish fires could be glimpsed from its narrow windows and more than one traveler told of screams of fear and agony resounding from its walls.

It was common knowledge in the Haunted Lands that Mindos Omthol knew all there was to know of arcane wisdom. His vials contained elixirs, and nostrums, lenitives and concoctions which had no like anywhere in the lands between the Salt Ocean and the Outer Seas. With such materia medica, the old Image could perform any incantation.

“Certainly he knows more than I,” muttered Zordanor, “and far more than Kylwyrren who serves Prince Tor Domnus.”

“You approve my choice, then?”

“I do—under the circumstances. Mindos Omthol can summon up demons from the lowest tiers of the nether worlds. Awful demons.” Zordanor shuddered. “But he demands a high price for his enchantments. A price you may not be willing to pay.”

Candara made a grimace. “It is pay his price—or that of Tor Domnus. I would rather trust the old man than the young.”

She stood, regal in a black gown that clung faithfully to her splendid body. “You shall accompany me, Zordanor. You and Mindos Omthol can make wizard talk together. Perhaps you can make him name a sensible price for his labors.”

The hunchback shook his head dubiously, “Mindos Omthol cannot be swayed by words. But we shall see.”

Within the hour two fast horses were saddled and bridled at the postern gate of the castle, that faced the more desolate areas of the Haunted Lands. Zordanor came first, peering quickly with his eyes, then swinging his neck about so he could see Queen Candara, wrapped in a black wool robe, descend the two stone steps and place a sandaled foot in the ivory stirrup of her saddle.

Moments later, they galloped out across the wastes.

They rode swiftly, for Zordanor had prepared certain spells that shrank the land beneath their horses’ hoofs. Before noon, they were reining-up before the red metal door set in the black stone wall of the ancient tower.

“Who comes before Mindos Omthol?” boomed a voice.

“Queen Candara of Kor,” answered Zordanor, “together with her court magician. We would ask help of Mindos Omthol against our mutual enemy.”

“Mindos Omthol has no enemies.”

“I speak of Tor Domnus of Urgal.”

“There was a little silence. Then the red door slid back and a brass man moved from its shadows, clanking out onto the rocky ground surrounding the tower. The metal giant made a bow and its voice boomed out like thunder muffled in a narrow gorge.

“Mindos Omthol will see you. Follow me.”

Candara slipped from the saddle and walked with Zordanor across the pebbles toward the opening of the red door. Inside herself, she was frightened. She knew the powers of a mage like Mindos Omthol, she understood that by coming to see him to beg his help she well might be placing herself within his necromantic powers.

She told herself she had no choice. Well enough she knew that Tor Domnus would follow Kothar to the gates of Kor and inside them, to wrest Xixthur from his grasp. And Candara could not give up Xixthur! She would die, were she to do that. And the queen of Kor found life very sweet and satisfying to her senses.

Inside the black tower it was cool, the air was scented sweetly; by magic, she was sure. Ahead of her, the metallic man clanked up the narrow stone staircase. Slightly below her came Zordanor who was no match for Mindos Omthol in the casting of spells and wizardries. She had poor weapons to serve her, she told herself.

The brass man halted on a little landing. Its gleaming arm drew back certain draperies and Candara stepped forward into a round chamber with stone walls covered with cabinets holding any number of necromantic volumes and vials, alembics and philtre pots.

The mage himself stood grim and tall beside a golden pillar that supported a large crystal ball. He was poised within the red lines of a pentagram, at which sight Zordanor gasped and shrank back, for no magician stood inside the pentagram unless he summoned evil demons.

“Be not afraid,” Mindos Omthol cried. “I have sent the demon Abathon back into his own hells. I am alone.”

As if to display the truth of his assertion, he stepped over the red pentagram on the floor and advanced upon Queen Candara. His old eyes glowed at sight of her sultry beauty, for upon entering the room the queen had slipped back the hood of her robe.

She held out her hands. The magician caught them in his own, bent and kissed each one.

“I am here to serve you, highness,” he murmured. Candara admitted surprise. This old man was courtly, polite, vastly different from most of the mages she had known in her lifetime. There was none of the arrogance of someone like Kazazael, the magician who served Queen Elfa of Commoral, for instance, or even of Zordanor, for that matter.

“I must defend my city against Tor Domnus,” she said simply, walking where he gestured, to seat herself on an X-chair. She threw open her robe, revealing her body clad in the scantiest of black gossamer, under which her nudity, might be glimpsed.

With a faint smile, she watched the mage scan her loveliness. He was too old for fleshly desires, she thought, but no one ever really knew about such things where a magician was concerned. She was glad now that she had donned this dark flimsiness that showed so much of her beauty.

“Tor Domnus is a greedy man,” the magician admitted.

“He seeks to conquer Kor. He may not stop with that. He may want all the Haunted Lands for his own, including even this black tower and the great magician who lives inside it.”

Mindos Omthol paced back and forth. His long cloak flapped to his stridings and it seemed to Zordanor, who eyed him closely, that the hundred signs of the demons of Alpalomnia fluttered and writhed as if alive. When he came to a bronze amillary, he halted and leaned his elbows on a bronze band.

“Xixthur,” he said suddenly, and Queen Candara started.

“Xixthur is the cause of Tor Domnus leading his warriors against Kor. So the demon voices tell me.”

Candara glanced about her fearfully. Demon-queen she might be, for her father was Hasthar, who lived in one of the eleven hel-worlds and visited her from time to time as he had visited her mother before her, though not in such an intimate way. It had been Hasthar, centuries ago, who had brought Xixthur to her, so that she might live forever.

“Azthamur stole Xixthur from me,” she whispered.

“And you would have him back—safely?”

“Yes. Without the threat of Tor Domnus hanging above my head! Tor Domnus knows that Xixthur will give eternal life, and wants my god for his own.”

“I too, would like eternal life.”

Candara drew a deep breath. “I will—share—my god with you, magician. If you help me drive Tor Domnus away.”

His grin was wolfish. “I could take Xixthur away from you, you know. A mere sharing is not enough.”

Her back straightened. “What else is there? Would you deny Xixthur to me?”

“By no means. You shall keep Xixthur in the little alcove of your bedchamber. But the man who shares your bed of nights will be me, your highness.

I am sick of loneliness. I would go out into the world again.

“I would be king in Kor!”

Zordanor gasped, leaning forward from the shadows to study the dusky face of his queen. Candara was a woman jealous of her queenly rule, of the city that paid her its allegiance. She would never share her throne with such as Mindos Omthol, let alone her bed. Candara liked young lovers.

Her soft laughter rang out. “But Mindos Omthol, you are old.” His smile was mirthless. His scrawny neck shot forward so that he seemed to Zordanor like a hungry vulture about to feast on female flesh.

“I am not so much older than you, Candara,” he snapped. “Indeed, I do—believe you have a few years on me, say four or five centuries. It was long before my time that you were born of a princess of Vanda cia and the demon Hasthar. Long before my time.”

His laughter cackled in the air. “You have remained youthful for—how long has it been?—surely more than a thousand years. Xixthur has done that for you, Xixthur the god. Xixthur could do he same for me. I will be youthful and strong. You will be happy to have me in your arms on cold winter nights.”

Candara made her face smooth. She did not want to offend this old man, even by a facial grimace that might let him know his presence would not be welcome in Kor. No, she must pretend, she must agree to all his suggestions, until the threat of Tor Domnus was no more.

Then she could deal with Mindos Omthol. “I would be happy to share my crown with such as you, magician,” she said, “And who knows? With you beside me, perhaps we might extend our rule to that of Urgal, and beyond Urgal into Phalkar and Sybaros.”

Her lips smiled a promise that her heart denied.

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