Digitally transcribed for the Gardner Francis Fox Adventure Library
A mutter rose and swelled behind him as the peasants saw that pile of stone and rock and the armed men who were mere winks of sunlight on steel caps as they patrolled the sidewalks. Their feet began to drag and their murmurs of sullen dismay broke out into cries of fear.
Kothar turned, putting a hand on the cantle and sweeping them with his glare. “Fools! They’ve seen you now. It’s either go forward to fight—or have them sally out and capture you.”
“My wolves are in the bushes, Kothar. Once the fight begins, they’ll join us.”
“And if any man flinches—have them pull him down,” the barbarian snarled. He felt pity for these peasants, but he knew the robber barons. They respected only force and stronger sword-arms than their own.
They were thirty men and one woman marching into the stronghold of the fiercest robber-baron between the border and Alkarion. There must be a hundred men-at-arms inside Raven Garde, tough fighting-men, every last one. Kothar wished only for one thing: Frostfire. He would have felt more secure with its hilt between his fingers.
The men pacing guard duty on the sidewalks paid no attention to these dusty travelers. They saw the armor of the riders, the weary walking of the men-at-arms. They heard the keening of the women who were chained together. There was no reason to be suspicious. Only a madman would dare Raven Garde with so few swords at his back.
Through the wooden gate they passed without incident, on to an inner courtyard paved with worn, ancient cobblestones, Their horses’ hooves struck sparks on the stone, and then they were drawing rein.
The barbarian ran his gaze across stone walls and stairways leading up to solars. The fortress had been built around a square tower that was part of the keep on which was carved the image of a saurian face of black basalt, stamped with all the lusts and desires known to the race of men. The eyes glinted as though they knew a life of their own. Where the sunlight caught them, for a moment Kothar thought he saw an entity staring down at him; in a moment, that life spark was gone and he saw only the bulging eyes.
He swung a leg over his saddle cantle. In answer to that signal the disguised peasants gripped their lances, and ran at the soldiers lounging in the shadow of the armory, wearing only cotton shirts and breeks. They were unarmed. The lance-heads went into their middles and they died squirming on the cold steel, impaled against the wooden framework of the building.
Two men from the sidewalk shouted. The wolf-woman was slipping a round stone the size of an egg into her sling-cup. Around her head she whirled those leather thongs, releasing one at the apex of its circling. The stone flew true, thudding into the forehead of a soldier lifting his bow.
Again the sling twirled; a second man died. Kothar was flinging open the armory door. A dozen men inside the dirt-floored room, polishing armor and sharpening their swords and daggers, gaped at him with bulging eyes. He was across the space that separated them, his sword cleaving the air an instant before burying itself in warm flesh. He ravened like a madman, for of all those who had ridden into Raven Garde he alone was battle-wise enough to understand that not one of this small army of brigands must be left alive to carry on their grim trade.
His blade dipped and darted. He slew coldly, without regret or compassion; to the barbarian, this was a task that must be done. And when he eased the point of his borrowed sword to the ground, so that the drops of blood fell redly to the dirt floor and were absorbed, the muscles in his sword-arm ached.
He whirled and sprang for the open door.
His eyes touched his little force, seeing that the peasants disguised as men-at-arms were giving a good account of themselves. They fought like men paid to bring death to other men, and he supposed that, to them, freedom from the tyranny of Torkal Moh was as great a price as anyone had ever paid for mercenaries.
The wolf-woman was running with her beasts along the sidewalks, pulling down any who still lived behind the merlons. The peasants were overtaking a few fleeing men-at-arms and running them through with cold steel.
Then a door swung open from the keep. Torkal Moh stood there, an amazed look on his face and a sword in his right hand. Kothar grunted when he saw the sword was not his Frostfire. He ran out into the sunlight and let the robber-baron look at him.
Torkal Moh opened his eyes wide. “You! By the dweller in the pool—I thought your bones picked clean by this time!”
Kothar ran for the stone steps. Torkal Moh took one look at him, whirled and ran back through the door way. An instant later the door slammed shut and the barbarian heard the snick of a bolt being shot home.
He paused only to scoop up a war-ax from the fingers of a dead mercenary. He shifted the ax to his right hand, placing the sword back into its scabbard as he took the steps three at a time.
On the stone landing, he swung the ax, drove its edge deep into the door. His huge hand wrenched it free; again he struck; again; again. A voice from inside the chamber shouted at him.
An arrow whizzed through an opening the ax-blade had made. The arrow-point scratched his upper arm as it whizzed past. Kothar lifted a foot, drove his heel into sagging wood; the door burst open.
He dove into the room, barely seeing the hanging drapes, rich arrases from Avalonia and massy wooden furniture carved by master craftsmen. There was a hooded chimney wide enough to hold a horse inside it, in which three great logs were burning. Torkal Moh stood before the fire, body braced, a dagger in his left fist, his sword in his right.
“You die, man!” snarled the robber-baron. Kothar rumbled laughter, advancing lightly as a panther on the prowl. The battle-ax swung loosely as he twirled it, while with his left hand he drew the sword from its scabbard.
“Ho, guards!” bellowed Torkal Moh, leaping aside. The doors at the far end of the chamber burst inward and eight brawny men-at-arms came racing in. Kothar swung his sword, hitting the blade that Torkal Moh raised in defense; so great was the blow that the robber-baron staggered backward, thrown off balance by its savage power. Before he could regain his balance, Kothar was half a room away.
The ax swept the air; the sword-point stabbed. Two men were down, and now the clash of steel on steel, the hoarse breathing of men fighting for their lives filled the room. Kothar was never still, he leaped and dodged, he fought these men as he had fought the great white bear of his northern homelands, the mighty Naanaak. Naanaak was as lightning with his massive paws, but Kothar had been faster.
Sword bit deep. Ax drank of blood.
Sword-blades swung at his dancing figure, missing, slashing only empty air. As he fought, Kothar growled softly in his throat as Naanaak had been wont to growl at the brawny young boy that dared to hunt it on the ice floes. The sound of that growling put an atavistic terror into the hearts of the men-at-arms who battled to contain this wild animal with a sword and a war-ax in his hands. They would have whirled and fled, but they dared not turn their backs to him.
And then Torkal Moh leaped. His blade was high, coming downward, when Kothar heard his footfall. Not like the ears of ordinary men were the ears of the barbarian. His hearing was a weapon that he used in hunting, and in the savage battles of his barbaric world. He heard that sandal slap the flooring and he threw himself downward, flat upon the ground; in the middle of his fall, he swung the ax behind him.
The edge of the war-ax caught the robber-baron just above each knee as it swept through the air. It slashed his legs in half.
Torkal Moh opened his mouth and screamed.
He stood a moment, but he was overbalanced. His body fell forward. Both his legs, cut off where the ax had passed, toppled sideways. A gout of blood ran across the carpeting of the room.
The men-at-arms glared in horror at their dying leader as he, writhed and twisted helplessly. They swung about and fled for the door before Kothar could come to his feet.
The barbarian panted, feeling the sweat run down his chest and back. He towered above the fainting outlaw. “My sword, man. Frostfire! And the girl, Stefanya! And that amulet! Where are they?”
Hoarse laughter interrupted him. Blood flowed from the lips of the dying man, but there was a mockery in his voice that bubbled through it.
“The dweller has it, Kothar! It hangs from the gifting tree, as a sacrifice to—to . . . .”
The body on the carpet arched. Torkal Moh cried out. For an instant his body was strutted with every muscle taut; then he went limp. Kothar bent, touched his chest with a palm.
“The dweller in the pool? The gifting tree?” he echoed. “The man was mad.”
He searched the room, muttering to himself. There were treasures here: gold and silver, a statue of a woman in polished ebony, a lamp shaped to resemble a Makkadonian war galley, golden chains and loops of pearls. Coffers of rubies, small chests filled with emeralds, loot collected over the years was on display here for the eyes of the robber-baron. Kothar passed it by, grunting.
The amulet was nowhere to be found. He went to the stair landing that looked out over the courtyard and saw the wolf woman staring up at him, surrounded by her wolves. There was blood spattered on her wolf-skin and on her cross-gartered breeks, but it was none of hers.
“The place is ours, Kothar,” she called.
“Then command it. I go to find the girl.”
He ran back through the chamber where Torkal Moh lay, and through the door beyond. The stone steps of the keep, worn with the long passing of time, knew the touch of his feet as he ran down them. On the next floor he found a woman of the fortress cowering in a corner.
His hand tightened fingers on her arm as he dragged her up to her feet. “The girl Torkal Moh captured yesterday? Where is she?”
“I know not!” the woman moaned. A woman screamed from the courtyard. Kothar grinned and jerked his head. “You hear that? The peasants have won this fight and they’re ripe for fun. The men and women they’ve captured will dance for a few agonized hours under their torture. Do you—”
She fell to her knees. Tears ran down her cheeks. “Not—the torture. I couldn’t stand the pain. The girl you seek is in the dungeon. Torkal Moh ordered her chained there—to teach her manners.”
The barbarian grunted and shoved her in front of him. “Lead woman. And play no tricks. My Sword can kill again, without regret.”
She slipped and stumbled ahead of him, down the sloping stairs that went deep, under the keep and past what had been, uncounted centuries before the cellar-ways to a forgotten chapel built to honor an evil god. The air was musty, damp, and when the barbarian commented on its foulness, the woman nodded her head.
“Centuries back,” she whispered, shivering, “they held certain rites to worship—Pthassiass.” Her shoulders moved in a convulsive spasm. “Even today —Torkal Moh honors the foul one. He makes sacrifice to it and heaps the gifting tree with loot from his robberies. “
“Where is this gifting tree?”
She turned a wan face. “Beside the pool where the dweller is. But—you aren’t going to steal those gifts? Surely not Pthassiass would prevent it. He will take you as he takes the sacrifices!”
Kothar rasped, “I’d dare a thousand dwellers to get Frostfire back. But where’s the girl? What part of these dungeons is she in?”
She ran ahead of him, until she came to a vaulted stone archway that revealed beyond it a stretch of flagging and stone walls in which were set chains and a number of wooden platforms. On the platforms were instruments of torture. The stone walls were wet, and there was a pervasive dampness in this deep cellar that made Kothar growl in revulsion.
His growl grew louder when he saw the body hanging in chains on one wall. All but naked, her long brown hair hanging loose and tangled, Stefanya dangled motionless, eyes closed, extended toes barely touching the flagstones beneath her.
Kothar roared and caught the woman by an arm. He shook her angrily, making her cry out in alarm. “The key! Where is it?”
On—on the wall yonder,” she whimpered. He was across the room, snatching loose the great key ring. Another leap and he was fitting a key to the manacle locks, turning it. His arm went about the girl, catching her as she dropped.
The chains were off, but still her eyes were closed. Kothar swung her up into his arms. “Go ahead of me, woman. Take me to this gifting tree!”
“I—I dare not,” she pleaded.
“Shall I hang you here in her chains?”
The woman gnawed a knuckle, her eyes huge and terrified above her hand. Numbly she nodded, whispering, “No—not that. At night the rats come and—”
She shuddered and turned, running ahead of the barbarian. When she came to a small wooden door she turned and stared back at him. “This is the way, through the—the gardens of the god—to his pool.”
Her long, white fingers fumbled at the three thick bolts that held the door shut. They came open, one after the other and her hand pulled back on the massive iron handle, The door creaked inward. Kothar stared at a graveled pathway that wound between strange trees and curious plants and flowers, upward along a hill. The petals of those plants and flowers were pulpy, appearing half rotten, and the stalks on which they nodded were scabrous and covered with bloated white fungi.
The barbarian snorted, “It has the look of a garden of the dead,” he muttered, “where the roots are sunk deep into the corpses of men and women.”
The sky was different, too. There was no longer the clean blue tints of the welkin beyond the fortress, nor any of the fleecy clouds in it that ran before the winds. This sky was gray, ominous, and instead of clouds there was emptiness, a vague suggestion of nothingness—beyond the distorted trees and plants and flowers. It was as if the garden had been spawned in the midst of emptiness.
Kothar grumbled, “I like not this place. See how the flowers and the leaves turn toward us—as if they watched where we walked!”
The woman cowered back against him so he could feel the trembling of her body. Sometimes Torkal Moh put a man or a woman in this garden, as a sacrifice to Pthassiass…Nobody ever saw them again.”
His sword was not Frostfire, but the barbarian brought it out into his hand, shifting the inert body of Stefanya to his left shoulder where he clamped a hand on her. When a flower or a plant swayed to close, he used the steel to slash it, leaving a bloated corruption that rotted and decayed even as they walked away from it.
To the Cumberian, it seemed that they strode endlessly along that strangely curving walk. The air about them was thick, oppressive. It grew hard to breathe after a time. An oppression of the spirit lay across this eerie garden, a sickness of the soil. It brought gloom and despair with the nodding of its flower-heads and the swaying of the tree branches where there was no wind.
The woman stumbled many times; only the hand of Kothar at her elbow kept her going. Once she whispered, “This also happens to them, I have been told. The ones Torkal Moh pushed into this garden lose all spirit, all will to live. They just lie down and beg to die—”
“… and the flowers and the plants oblige them?”
She began to sob. “Silence, woman, you’re enough to unnerve a statue!” the barbarian snarled. His own nerves were raw and open, he found. Whether it might be a gaseousness which the bloated flowers and the scabrous plants emitted that so upset his system, he did not know, but he would have given much to be safe out of this miasma and om his way to Alkarion.
They came to the crest of the hill at last, and from its crown Kothar stared down at a lake of silvery waters gleaming dully beneath the leaden sky. All around that lake were trees which were white in color, as were their leaves, drained of everything that was normal to all trees. The gravel path curved downward to a little beach where the mere waters lapped softly and insistently,
To one side of this shelving was a tall, gaunt tree of many branches, but no leaves. Instead of leaves there hung from the gifting tree a profusion of objects, some great and some small, though all were precious. A white vine had twisted itself about the bole of the white tree and dripped downward toward the ground so that the gifting tree seemed festooned with silver.
“Gods of Thuum!” breathed Kothar, almost letting go his grip on Stefanya.
The gifting tree held the treasures of the ages. First he saw Frostfire, its red jewel glittering as if with inner flames, and from this his eyes went to a necklace of giant green emeralds, each gem of which was worth a small kingdom. Golden chains were draped about the tree limbs, and on each twig had been placed rings holding red rubies, flawless diamonds, rare sapphires and emeralds. Chests and coffers were filled with over spilling golden chains and ingots, silver bars and nuggets lay in vast profusion about the base. This was the wealth of a world, gathered here on this great tree.
“Torkal Moh and his father and his father before him made a covenant with Pthassiass, who dwells in the silver lake. They agreed to heap this, tree high with their most precious possessions and send human sacrifices to the garden on which—Pthassiass feeds in some strange manner, if the beast-god would guard that treasure.
“In such a way, Torkal Moh and his robber-baron ancestors knew that no matter where they rode, their treasures would be safe from attack.”
Kothar stepped forward, walking on spilled coins and fallen ingots until he stood below the branch where Frostfire hung. He stretched out a hand, touched the scabbard, lifted it and the sword-belt free of the branch that held it.
The woman at his back whimpered. Kothar looked where she pointed. The smooth, glassy surface of the mere was disturbed by some titanic something just below its surface.
“Pthassiass comes,” she breathed.
The barbarian growled and let his eyes run over the tree. His hand darted out, found the amulet given by Merdoramon at the oasis he had conjured up in the Dying Desert. He slipped its chain about his neck. Then, with the rash impulse of his barbaric nature, that must taunt and mock a dangerous opponent, he selected the great necklace of emeralds and a dozen rings from the tree-twigs.
He hung the necklace about Stefanya’s throat. On her limp fingers he pushed rings until her fingers seemed to be all jewels. His blue eyes glanced at the frightened woman from the fortress.
He undid a golden chain, tossed it to her. “This—to help you build a new life, woman.”
She almost collapsed under its weight. Her hands closed around its huge links to which they clung convulsively. Back and forth went her head as she moaned, “It will come to stop us. Pthassiass will come. And Pthassiass will kill us.”
Kothar undid the belt at his middle, placing the limp Stefanya on the gravel for better ease of movement. About his middle he placed his sword-belt and shifted Frostfire in front of him. His eyes roved the surface of the silver lake all this time, and he saw that the ripples in the water were growing larger.
“It comes,” whimpered the woman.
Upward from the unplumbed depths of the silver lake rose a head almost as big as a house. One glittering eye stared balefully at the man and the two women on the shore. A forked tongue ran from gaping lips where great fangs gleamed, outward into the air. From its huge snout dangled thick tendrils of flesh, tinted purple, and down the long neck fluttered a crest of that same purplish tissue.
Seemingly without movement, the thing moved toward the shore.
Kothar bent and lifted the sword he had carried through the battle in the fortress. He hefted it, gauging its weight and the distance between the beast thing and himself. He waited, crouching slightly, watching the progress of the water-demon as it moved toward the shore.
The woman moaned and collapsed, falling unconscious on the graveled path. At his feet Stefanya never stirred. Kothar ignored them, putting them from his mind as if they did not exist. He would need all his power to prevent that thing from swallowing them all.
More and more of the lake-demon was emerging from the silver waters. Its bulk was titanic, nearly as huge as the entire fortress! How deep that lake must be to accommodate such a being as this Perhaps there was a subterranean sea beneath the fortress, and this was where the lake-god roamed.
The vast head was stretching outward across the water toward the shore. It cast a shadow on the gravely path and that shadow was over Kothar, broadening as the thick head lowered.
The barbarian hurled his spare sword upward. The steel made a gray glinting in the gray air, speeding point-first toward the single eye of the sea-beast.
Pthassiass saw that blade, but its nerve controls were so sluggish it took time to move its head out of the way. The point of the sword buried itself in a corner of that single eye and the demon-beast bellowed in agony, threshing its long neck here and there, attempting to rid itself of that steel sliver.
And now Kothar noticed a curious thing.
Where the shadow of the sea-beast fell on the bloated plants and flowers and the scabrous trees, those strange life organisms quivered and shook. They raised petals and pistils, leaves and stalks upward toward the writhing neck and the huge head above them as if they would fasten leech-like pores on that slug-like thing and drink its blood.
Pthassiass knew this; its contortions became less maddened. It withdrew its head and neck back over the silver waters and there it, convulsed and twisted itself about in its frantic attempts to dislodge that sword that caused it so much pain. Against the silver water it slapped its head, it brought out a great flipper from the silver lake and attempted to reach the sword with it. It lifted its head, blood oozing from its wounded eye and shook its head to free it from its neck.
Kothar did not wait. He grabbed up Stefanya, threw her over a shoulder. He lifted the woman into the crook of his arm and ran lightly up the gravel path toward the distant wooden door.
Once he turned his head to stare back at the agonized sea-demon. It had dug part of the sword from its flesh. In a moment or two the blade must fall to splash into the lake. Then the sea-slug would be stretching out its neck and its great jaws would be gaping to engulf them all.
Kothar ran faster toward the door. When he was within twenty feet of that wooden barrier, he let the woman and the girl slip from his grasp. They lay inert on the gravel path as if dead. Kothar whirled and yanked out Frostfire.
The sea-beast was coming, moving through the water, pushing its head on its long neck outward over the wide graveled path. Blood dripped from its wounded eye, but it could still see, Venom foamed on its forked tongue and spattered the gravel from its gaping jaw where the sharp fangs glearned.
Kothar breathed, “Dwalka—aid me.” He ran forward into the shadow of the vast head and great neck until its dimness was all about him. The lake-demon had come in low with its jaw, its bulk was too vast to permit it to move on the graveled walkway, broad as it was. But its long neck could reach as far as the wooden door, and it knew its victims dared not leave the sanctuary of the path.
A drop of venom fell on his arm and stung, but the barbarian was past the head now and the neck was like a titanic black canopy over his head. His fingers opened and closed on Frostfire’s hilt. One glance he risked behind him and what he saw made him cry out sharply.
Pthassiass was bent above the inert women, its jaws wide and about to engulf their soft bodies. “I will be too late,” the Cumberian thought and hurled himself forward. His feet flew so that he barely touched the path across which he ran,
The neck was before him, not scaled but of a tough leathery substance. His arm went back and his blade drove forward in a slashing cut. Deep into that leathery hide and soft blubbery flesh and oozing purplish blood sank his steel.
A bellow shook the garden. s: Pthassiass was writhing upward with its neck, attempting to pull it out of reach of the sword that nibbled at its throat, beside the edge of the silver lake where Kothar swung Frostfire like a man demented. Around and about, as if he wove a figure eight with steel, he slashed and stabbed until his body was almost covered with the purple ichor that passed for demon-blood.
And Pthassiass went mad. Its prey, still lay inert on the pathway gravel, but the man just beneath the base of its long throat was slicing that neck to ribbons of bloody flesh. Upward Pthassiass jerked its huge head and became like a flower waving in a gale, its neck jerking and swaying as the sea-thing sought to get back within the silver lake, In its agony, the creature forgot the flowers and the plants and the trees on either side of the broad gravel walk.
Its head swung low above those bloated vegetations as their leaves and petals rose upward toward that thick black throat. The plants and flowers fastened gripping suckers on the bloody throat and they drew it downward.
The sea-demon screamed like a woman in torment.
It was caught, held fast as more and more of the growths fastened leech-like petals and leaves onto its bulk. For a few seconds, as Kothar watched with Frostfire in a hand and the purple ichor dripping from its blade onto the gravel, a tugging war went on between the beast and the living plants. Slowly, slowly, the grip of the vegetation strengthened, perhaps because of the purple ichor they were drinking. Downward drooped the vast head, until the trees could fasten their leafy limbs about it and drag it down even further.
A wail burst from the sea-demon.
Its titanic bulk shuddered, sending waves up onto the shore of the silver lake, Kothar ran back along the gravel path, seeing Stefanya and the woman sitting up and staring in horror at the struggle of the dying beast.
“What is it?” Stefanya wailed.
And the woman answered her, “A thing placed here long ago by some forgotten cataclysm of nature, and hemmed in by the vegetation about the silver lake by a long-dead wizard, whose garden this once was. To punish those who offended him, the wizard made the gravel walk so that his victims died either by plunging into those plants and flowers to escape Pthassiass—or by being swallowed by the god himself.”
The woman shuddered. “To control Pthassiass, so that he did not emerge and attack the wizard himself, those plants and flowers were put about the lake. Fenced in this way, Pthassiass became content to roam his silver lake and feed on those whom Akthan the wizard fed to him.
“When Akthan became old, he allied himself with the great-great-grandfather of Torkal Moh, inviting him into his little castle, which was enlarged into this present-day fortress. Their enemies they fed to Pthassiass and their stolen treasures they set upon the gifting tree, that the sea-demon might guard them.
“Now his guardianship is ended.” The head and throat of that which had been Pthassiass lay gently shuddering as the vegetation fed upon it. The feasting would take a long time, there was much purple blood in the body of the fearsome sea-thing. Kothar rasped a curse and put a hand to Stefanya, yanking her to her bare feet.
“Kothar,” she breathed, pressing against him. “You live! I saw you stretched out on the road, pegged down—and I saw the rats gathering in the rocks and I—I wept for you.”
He hugged her trembling body to him with an arm. “Where’s my little spitfire, girl? Where’s the Stefanya who leaped on a hob-gob and tried to blind him with her fingernails? Where’s the gypsy hoyden who slapped me for giving her a kiss?”
The girl, quieted with his arm about her shoulders. Against his chest she murmured, “They tortured me a little when I would not bed down with Torkal Moh and threatened to cut his throat while he slept if he forced me.” She threw back her head and smiled weakly up at the barbarian. She smiled when he roared his laughter.
“I am a goose, Kothar. But I was so afraid.” She drew back and saw the woman of the fortress standing close by, as if afraid to move. “What about Torkal Moh?”
Kothar explained how he and Lupalina had freed the peasants of Tomillur and armed them, turning them loose against Torkal Moh and his men. “We can go to Alkarion now, you and I. There is nothing to stop us”
They walked toward the open door and through the dungeons to the worn stone stairs leading to the upper floors. The sounds of fighting were gone. All they could hear now was the occasional scream of a woman being molested by some of the peasants. They climbed the rock treads swiftly; Kothar was anxious to find the wolf-woman and be off to Alkarion.
As they came out of the doorway and onto a stone balcony overlooking the flag-stoned courtyard, they saw Lupalina standing among her gray wolves, watching the erection is of a dozen wooden crosses. She turned at the sound of their footfalls and her stare went directly to Stefanya.
“Chryasala,” she breathed.
Stefanya turned to Kothar, amazement written large on her face, “I’ve seen that woman before, Kothar. In my dreams! It was always she who took me and rode away with me!”