Digitally transcribed for the Gardner Francis Fox Adventure Library
The tavern was alive with sound in the smoking light of a thousand candles as the men at the wooden tables pounded on their tops with wood and leather ale-mugs. The slap of bare feet on wet wood, the tinkle of zither strings, the hoarse, shouts and the shrill laughter of drunken women wafted out into the marble streets of the city by the Outer Sea. Three travelers, each wrapped in long woolen cloaks against the mists of the water, paused at the door of the tavern, listening to the sounds, sniffing at the odors of roasting beef and cooking lamb.
Overhead swung a wooden sign carved to resemble a dolphin, painted black. The smallest of the three travelers waved a pale hand. “It is here, the Tavern of the Black Dolphin, that we are to meet him.”
Kothar rumbled, “All this secrecy for a ship? I could steal you one with less trouble.”
“It isn’t any ordinary ship I need, Kothar.”
The barbarian hunched his massive shoulders impatiently, went to stand at the partly opened door, looking into the seaside alehouse. His eyes saw the naked woman who danced on the tabletop, but he paid her no heed; his eyes were turned inward as if to search his own mind.
For more than a week they had been on the road to Zoane, joined together in good fellowship, with something more than fellowship between himself and the red-haired witch-woman. Yet now that they were in Zoane, Red Lori had fallen secretive, mysterious. She made plans without consulting him, without so much as a by-your-leave. He felt anger growing and was surprised to find that a faint jealousy lay inside him, as well. Oddly, he wanted the girl all to himself, he did not want to share her even with the plan she had in mind.
A soft hand touched his. He looked down, seeing her green eyes staring oddly at him. “I have my reasons, barbarian,” she whispered. “Bear with me for a little while.”
He shrugged and stood aside so that she might walk ahead of him into the tavern. Flarion came after them, treading lightly, staring with bright eyes at the belly-dancer who flaunted her flesh in the candlelight, stamping and pivoting on the tabletop.
Red Lori chose a table close to the wall, where her gaze could scan the faces of the roisterers. Kothar sat to her right, Flarion slipped onto the bench to her left. A serving maid ran to greet them, tray and wiping cloth in her hands.
“Ale,” rasped the Cumberian, “and wine for the woman. And don’t forget the food platters.”
Flarion said, “Fetch the ale in large tankards. We’ve thirst enough to empty an ocean, girl. And who’s that dancing so excitingly?”
“Cybala,” Smiled the girl and turned to go. Red Lori chuckled as she saw the eager interest of the youth. “Go talk to her, Flarion. Offer her gold, you will—but bring her to the table.”
In surprise, the mercenary glanced at the redhead. “Bring her here? But why?”
“We have a need for her.” Flarion scowled. “I can understand why I might have need for her, having been traveling companion to you two lovers all the way from Phyrmyra, but why you have a wish for her company is beyond me.”
“It will be clear, in time. Just fetch her.” The girl on the tabletop paused, arms up flung and head thrown back, her ripely curved body quivering. She was olive skinned and with long black hair, and though she was younger even than Flarion, there was an eternal wisdom in her black eyes and in the languishing smile on her red mouth. She posed, letting the shouts and the applause roll around her. Then she bent, lifted the thin wrap that she had tossed aside when mounting the table and threw it about her nudity.
Hands reached for her, voices called. She ignored them to step down onto a chair and to the rush-strewn floor. She moved through the voices and the hands, and marched toward a narrow, curtain-hung doorway on the far side of the big common room.
Suddenly, a slim mercenary in worn leather and mail shirt was before her, eyes worshipful. She paused, frowned, went to turn aside.
“She would speak to you,” said Flarion, pointing.
“She?” In surprise Cybala halted, eyebrows lifting. With female curiosity, she turned, stared where the youth gestured.
Across the room, black eyes touched green and-were held. As the snake holds the hen, she went rigid, feeling her senses slip away from her. “Come to me,” the eyes said. “You have no will, Cybala the tavern dancer. So—come to me.” And with a sigh that was half a sob, Cybala let the mercenary clasp her hand and draw her along with him through the throng.
“We would make you rich, Cybala,” said Lori softly when the girl was beside her on the bench.
“And in return for such wealth?”
“We have a need for you.” The green eyes still held her in thrall, the dancer found. There was a strange languor in her flesh born not of the physical world but of the mind. Almost against her will, she asked, “But what may I do for—such as you?”
“You will learn—in time. What will it cost to buy your bondage from the tavern owner?”
“He took me in when I was starving, and fed me. I could always dance, I was taught by slave owners from Oasia when I was a little girl. Always, I have earned my bread by dancing—ever since my first master was slain in a street brawl and I was turned loose to earn my keep.”
Red Lori held her palm out to Kothar. The barbarian took two small gold bars from his belt purse, dropped them into her hand.
“Will these buy your freedom and pay your debts?”
Cybala nodded, eyes wide. “That will be more than enough. One such bar will do it.”
“Then keep the other, Cybala. Flarion, go with her in case of trouble.” Red Lori turned to the Cumberian. “She will please him whom I shall summon up.”
“You intend to sacrifice her?” Kothar asked, dismayed.
As if she had not heard him, the witch-woman murmured, “She is a pretty little thing, still young and probably—innocent. Yes, yes, he will like her.”
“You can’t do it,” Kothar rasped, hitting the table.
“Then let us say, we bring her along for young Flarion.” Her red lips quirked to a smile in her lovely face as she studied the grim face of the barbarian. “You are a thief, Kothar, a man who has raped his share of women and slain, more than his share of men. Why then, this sudden delicacy?”
He shook his blond head. “I don’t hold with human sacrifice.”
“Then we’ll buy a lamb when the time comes.”
He glowered at her, feeling a stab of the old distrust moving in his veins. He had let himself be distracted by her lovely face and ripely curved body. He should have realized that Red Lori was still a witch-woman, a sorceress, no matter how sweetly she acted toward him. Come to think of it, how had she come to be within that tomb, alive and well, as if—waiting for him?
“A demon laid a curse on me,” she reminded him, patting his hand with hers when he questioned her. “I told you so before, and now I see you didn’t believe me.” The fingers tightened, claw-like. “Our sea captain comes, barbarian!”
A brawny man with a scar down his right cheek, his black hair close-cropped about a bullet skull, came swaggering across the floor, striped jersey tight, on a massive chest, his ragged leather sea-breeks tucked into high boots. Around his middle he wore a brass-studded belt from which hung a long dagger and a cutlass. He paused at sight of Red Lori and her beckoning hand, then nodded and moved toward her on catlike feet. He lifted off the mist-wet cloak he wore, dropped it as he crowded his bulk in beside the Cumberian.
“I got your message, I’m Grovdon Dokk of the ship Wave-skimmer The cost will be ten gold pieces”
“Abrupt, and to the point,” smiled Lori. “It’s a bargain.”
“It’s robbery,” growled Kothar.
The captain looked at him, eyebrows-arched. “Is it yourself or the lady who’s hiring me?”
“Pay him, Kothar,” smiled the woman.
The barbarian growled under his breath but he did what the witch-woman ordered. “I still say it’s robbery, man. Ten gold pieces could buy me such a scow as you probably command. Do you know the seas hereabouts?”
“Better than I know my face,” Grovdon Dokk nodded, clinking the golden pieces between his hands and smiling at them. “And I’ll have you know I run a tight ship, with accommodations for four guests.”
“Diving gear?” asked Red Lori.
“And men to dive, if you need them, at no extra cost. I’m a fair man, you’ll see. When do we sail?”
“We’ll come aboard about midnight.” The captain knuckled his brow to the witch-woman and stood up. “I’ll go along then, to make things ready. If you could tell me where it is we sail, I could plot a course.”
“I’ll tell you when we’re under way.” Kothar watched the sea captain move off with his rolling gait. He growled, “You’re cursed mysterious. Why must we keep it such a secret? Is the treasure greater than that of Kandakore?”
“Infinitely greater, barbarian, as you’ll learn when you see it.” Her smile dimpled her cheeks as her green eyes glowed. “Perhaps it is the greatest treasure in the world.”
Flarion was moving toward them, drawing the belly-dancer in his wake with a hand on her wrist. He carried a leather bag, thrown over a shoulder, that bulged with the things Cybala had so hastily thrust into it, which was all she owned in the world. He pushed her onto the bench beside Red Lori just as the serving maid came up with their tankards and a goblet of red Thosian wine.
With them she brought a wooden platter of steaming meat, with wedges of bread and cheese placed around them. Kothar pushed a gold coin at her as he reached for the food.
Cybala whispered, “What am I to do?”
“Amuse Flarion,” snapped the redhead.
The girl glanced sideways at the youth, eyebrows arching. Her shoulder lifted and she sniffed, dismissing him. Flarion flushed and stared down at his food.
When the clepsydra showed the hour to be close to midnight, Lori pushed an empty platter away and reached behind her for her heavy woolen paenula. “It is time to go, to board the ship.”
Kothar tossed his fur cloak about his massive shoulders, moving ahead of the others so that his giant frame could clear passageway for them between the diners and the revelers. Here and there a hand reached out protestingly when the patrons of the tavern recognized Cybala in a traveling cloak with her dusky face half hidden in its hood.
But Kothar was there to push away a hand, and Flarion was close beside the belly-dancer to discourage an overly resentful man with a fist in the ribs or an easily drawn dagger. Cybala walked with heavy steps, half dreading that which she went toward so easily. This going was not of her own will but by force of the green eyes that had looked deep inside her and caught hold of her soul. Only Red Lori went with an easy stride. This was her doing, this night and its events, and those which would follow. Only on her lips was there a smile, and only her feet trod lightly, with satisfaction in the way of their going.
The mists had come in off the Outer Sea, the cobbles and the marble paving slabs were wet with water. The two moons of Yarth were hidden behind dark clouds. The slap of a rising tide against the pilings and the bulkheads echoed the faint pad-pad of their boots as they hastened through the gray fog and the dampness, which the sea wind made swirl about their persons.
Red Lori reached out, caught Kothar by his sword-belt. “Not so fast, Cumberian. We others have not your long legs. It would be easy to get lost in such a fog.”
Kothar slowed his pace, letting his thoughts run faster than his feet. He knew the witch-woman was moving on a course that might not be pleasing to him. Yet she had promised to rid him of that curse of Afgorkon by which he could own no treasure but his sword Frostfire. He was a little tired of an empty belly for days on end, when his belt-purse was as flat as his middle. He would relish golden coins clinking in that almoner, and the prospects of hot meals and cold ale every night.
And so he plodded onward through the grayish mists, deeply sunk in reverie, headed nothing but his own troubled spirit, until—
Two men up ahead in the mists, one leaping at another, with the gleam of bared steel in a hand. The second man, tall and lean, shrank back, crying out in dismay.
“Die, damned sorcerer! Into the depths of Eldrak’s seven hells with you!”
To see was to act with the barbarian. He lunged forward, glad of this bit of action with which to dispel his gloom. His hand darted out, closed fingers on the wrist of the hard that held the dagger. His muscles bunched, swung the man sideways off his feet and into a building wall.
A face contorted by rage and fear stared at him in horror as the man sought to free his wrist. Haggard eyes half sunken in a skull-like face peered up at the towering barbarian. A thin mouth writhed blasphemies.
“Let me go, fool! I but rid the world of a thing better dead—a misshapen excrudescence of utter evil! Let be, I say!”
“What is it?” gasped Red Lori.
Cybala shrank backward, found an arm about her lissome waist. Her eyes turned sideways, studied the profile of the youthful warrior beside her. His sword was in his hand, there was a faint smile on his lips. Cybala was breathing harshly, leaning her weight deeper into his embracing arm.
He glanced at her; their stares locked. The dagger fell clattering to the cobbles of the narrow alleyway. With a hoarse cry of fear, the man who had held that dagger turned and ran off into the fog. They heard his footsteps pounding, then fading before the surging rush of the surf not far away. The wind moaned as it swept around the corners of these buildings.
The tall, lean man in the black mantle still leaned against the damp bricks of the house wall, breathing harshly. The barbarian bent, picked up the fallen dagger.
“Why did you let him go, Northlander? He was death—that one! Saw you not his face, his eyes?”
Kothar scowled. “Now why should he have tried to kill you? What wrong have you done him?”
“No wrong, not I. For I am Antor Nemillus, mage and necromancer to Midor, King of Sybaros!” He came away from the wall, drawing himself to his full height, his flashing eyes stabbing the mists toward Red Lori and Cybala, and drifting over Flarion for an instant.
His thin lips quirked into a smile as he swung back to the Cumberian. “I owe you a great debt, barbarian. Name your price for your service, and be not humble in your demands—or I’ll take it as an insult. The life of Antor Nemillus is worth a kingdom to that man who saves it.”
Kothar shrugged, then became aware that a hand tugged at his cloak. He turned, saw Lori oddly shy, almost cowering back into the warmth afforded by the bodies of Cybala and Flarion.
“Safe conduct, Kothar—safe passage for us anywhere in Sybaros and its adjacent waters,” she whispered.
Antor Nemillus heard her words and laughed harshly. “Are these my rescuers? More cut-purses with their doxies? Ah, but—no matter. Even a thief can earn a reward for a great service. Here….”
A hand fumbled in a belt pouch, brought out a copper disc inlaid with enamels of varying colors. “My sigil, known the length and breadth of Sybaros, on land and on the sea. It will save you even from—the king’s guardsmen. But use it wisely or—it may bring your doom.”
The lean man folded the fur mantle about his narrow shoulders and went striding off into the fog. A few moments the barbarian watched him, then those rolling mists hid him from sight. He glanced down at the copper piece he held, studied the intertwined enamels on its surfaces that so much resembled a serpent folded back upon itself.
“The amulet of dread Omorphon,” breathed the woman.
“Oh? And will this see us safe against soldiers and lesser wizards?”
“It will. Give it here.”
The Cumberian slid the disc into his purse and grinned. “Nay, now. Let me keep it, my red beauty. I’d feel safer with its weight on my person.”
She laughed up at him, caught his hand and squeezed it. “Trusting Kothar! Always you see specters where there are none. But come, it moves toward midnight.”
They went swiftly through the mists, light reading, and with their cloaks flapping about them as the wind blew more strongly at the pier where Wave-skimmer was docked. A sailor in a striped jersey and ragged culottes was waiting for them beside a crude plank. He steadied the plank as Red Lori and Cybala ran across. When Flarion and Kothar were on deck, he moved across the plank himself, and lifting it, secured it to two pins inset into the fore-rail.
“I’ll show you to your cabins,” he muttered.
Wave-skimmer as a brigantine. The two masts towered high over their heads as they made their way aft behind the sailor, the sea wind rustling between the yards and snapping the shrouds in their chocks. The salt smell of the sea was everywhere. The ship appeared to sway slightly underfoot as the waves heaved and swelled beneath the keel.
“A rough night,” whispered Cybala. The seaman heard her, laughed. “We’re still tied to the dock, mistress. Wait until we get out beyond the reefs. There’ll be rough water there or I miss my guess.”
Cybala moaned, and Flarion took advantage of her momentary weakness to slip an arm about her middle. His own belly was none too steady, he was a landsman, not a deck-swabber. He followed where the others led, enjoying this movement of intimacy with the black-haired dancing girl, the touch of her middle, the awareness of swaying hips that brushed his own her sweet scent and the soft breathing that seemed like music to his ears.
A white door opened, revealing a small cabin lit with a single candle. “Your room, master,” he said to Kothar and nodded also at the woman. “With bunks for you and your lady.”
Red Lori swept into the chamber, letting her cloak slip onto a table. She took the lone candle in a pale hand, touched its flame to other wicks set here and there. The light flooded the compartment, showed it neat and trim, with two bunks set into opposite walls and a table between, riveted to the wooden bulkhead.
She turned, ripely curved in the leather jerkin and short skirt, and gestured at the sailor before he could close the door. “I’ll want to see your captain, Grovdon Dokk. I must tell him how, to set his course.”
The barbarian followed her out into the companionway, up a flight of wooden steps and into a cabin set under the quarterdeck. Oil lamps burned brightly as Grovdon Dokk wrote with a scratchy quill pen in his open log.
He glanced up frowning as they entered, but nodded when Red Lori made their mission known. Stepping to a table fitted with boxed compartments, he selected, a scroll and bore it to a table, unrolling it, spreading it out.
“Where away, lady?” A red fingernail scratched the parchment. “Set your course here, captain.” His surprised look made her smile. “Yes, it is empty sea. But it is there I would go and—cast anchor.”
Grovdon Dokk rubbed his stubbled jaw reflectively. “You pay the fee, I’ll not quarrel with you. But it seems senseless lady. To travel to the islands now, or even south into Ispahan, would make more sense.”
“To you, perhaps. Not to me. It is there I would go, and where you shall take me.” The fingernail tapped the chart imperiously, and Grovdon Dokk shrugged.
Kothar waited until they were in their cabin before he muttered, “I’m of a mind with the captain on this, red one. What do you expect to find on the open sea?”
“Not on, dunderhead. Under!”
His face brightened. “Ah! Sunken treasure. Of course. A ship, eh? A galleass that went down beam-end first in a storm? A treasure ship of King Midor, that was making its way homeward from the spice islands?”
Her laughter rang out as her fingers went to the lacings of her placket. In a moment they were undone, and he caught the sheen of candlelight on creamy skin as the blouse slipped from a rounded shoulder. She preened a little before him, proud of her beauty, her desirability as a woman.
“None of those, Kothar,” she said softly. “What we seek has not been seen by men for many thousands of years.”
He sat up straighter on the bench where he was easing off his war-boots. “No ship? What, then?”
“The lost city of Hatharon, Kothar. Aye, that city where Afgorkon was born, where he made his spells, where he enchanted the world about him. The greatest magician of them all. Even today, fifty thousand years after Afgorkon lived, his fellow mages revere his name.”
She was lifting her short skirt, stepping out of petticoats, thrusting down the velvet placket with the loose lacings. Her body was firmly ripe, so lovely as to make the barbarian feel the tide of his manhood sweep through his veins. Long red hair hung to her hips, her skin was pale satin and gently rounded here and there.
“Girl, I don’t understand you,” he rasped.
She turned her face, staring at him inquiringly. “You should hate me, by all rights. Since, we met in Commoral in your magic tower, I’ve turned your wickedness away from those you’d injure. It was my fault you were hung in a silver cage, and later. I put you into that tomb with dead Kalikalides.
“And—yours isn’t a forgiving nature.”
Her laughter rang out. “You are mine, barbarian. I’ve told you that-even while imprisoned in that silver cage. You’ll recall how you saw my face in the bottoms of your tankards and peeping out from your campfires? How I talked to you even then?”
“Aye, you said I was yours to do with as you would.”
“And you still are.” She took the sting from her words by stepping closer, bending to catch his cheeks between her soft palms and setting her red mouth to his. “I think you have always belonged to me, Kothar—even while you were fighting me in my tower, battling the demons and goblins with which I sought to kill you.”
“You fire the blood in a man,” he rumbled.
Her nimble fingers eased the lacing of his mail shirt, held it so he could slip out of it. She aided him to remove the leather hacqueton he wore beneath the mail, and playfully tweaked the blond hairs on his deep chest. She was like a dutiful wife, he thought, tenderly loving and heedful of his every wish.
He could not still the uneasiness inside him, however, even though he feasted his eyes on her nakedness and his lips tingled to her kiss. This was not like Red Lori; it was as if—she played a part. He would almost rather see the anger-flames in her bold green eyes and hear her soft voice grow shrill with curses on his head. Yet a part of him relished this attention she gave him, even as his body hungered to draw her down between the sheets on one of the bunk-beds
Then he was naked as she and she was clasping his hand, drawing him toward the bunk, bending to blow out the candles one by one until only the moonlight came into the cabin to silver their bodies. Kothar caught her to him, held her close as his mouth feasted on her lips.
They toppled sideways onto the covers.
Some time during the night the barbarian woke to find the ship creaking, dipping to the swells of the Outer Sea as its great sails filled with the blowing winds. The rocking was pleasant to him, snug in this bunk with Red Lori within the crook of an arm. He grinned and drew her even closer. Let the gale moan and the ship lift and fall to the surge of the sea waves, he was content.
Morning was a golden radiance in the cabin as the barbarian threw back the covers and leaped to the middle of the room. Behind him Red Lori squirmed and muttered protestingly as she sought the fallen blankets and drew them closer.
Kothar said as he drew on his kilt, “It’s long past dawn, girl. Come share a platter of fish with me.”
“Go eat, you big ox. I’d rather sleep,” she murmured.
He studied her flushed face, the thick red hair spread on the pillows. By Salara of the bare breasts, she was a woman, this one! Her embraces were all any man might want, her kisses things of fire. Never yet had the barbarian sought to ally himself overlong to any one woman. Those he had known in his wanderings—Miramel and that tavern girl in Murrd, Mellicent, and Laella, who was a dancing girl out of Oasia, and Queen Candara of Kor, and the brunette woman, Philisia, who had been a king’s mistress in Urgal—had been but passing fancies, linked with the dust of the lands of their birth, so far as he was concerned.
But with Red Lori, it was different.
He shook his head against what he considered a streak of softness in himself. A sell-sword and wanderer had no time to spare for such sentimental things as love and marriage, nor a family, either. He was a mercenary, with his steel blade he earned his livelihood.
And with the curse of Afgorkon forbidding wealth to him, what sort of woman would even consider him for a husband? Nah, nah. A woman might take him for a lover, but nothing more.
In this frame of mind he went up deck-side, to pause and study the gray sea heaving on all sides. The ship rode easily, its prow cleaving the frothing waves, the white sails bellied outward with the wind. To his surprise he saw Flarion leaning against the starboard rail, staring dead abeam.
He put his hand to the youth’s shoulder. “Come join me in a platter of fish, comrade.”
“I have no appetite.”
“The ship rides smoothly enough.”
“It isn’t the ship.”
“Ah, then it must be the belly-dancer. She wasn’t kind to you last night. Did she consign you to your own bunk? And stay in hers until morning?”
“Something like that, yes.”
“It’s just as well,” the barbarian growled. Flarion swung around. “Now what, makes you say that?”
Kothar shook his head. He could scarcely tell the youth that Red Lori had marked the girl for sacrifice to one of her demon-gods. Better to let him suffer now, for a little while, then later when her death would put Cybala forever beyond his reach. He himself did not intend to let the red witch carry out that plan, but he knew her well enough to realize that if her mind were set on Cybala’s death, then Cybala would die. He moved off down the deck, his nose telling him where the galley was, the smell of cooking fish stew and broiling fish steak making his mouth water. The oceans teemed with succulent game fish, ripe for eating over hot coals or an oil flame, and few ships that plied the Outer Sea carried more than salt pork and flour and condiments in its food bins. The sea was all around them, and any sailor could dangle a line with a baited hook.
He found half a dozen men at the galley benches, and selected a wooden mug, filled it with the stew, caught up half a loaf of bread and perched his big bulk before a wooden table. He ate voraciously, for his great body needed much food to sustain it, and twice more he filled the wooden bowl before he was content.
He went out on deck and stood watching the sea toss and surge beneath the keel. He felt no sickness, he was like iron in his middle. After a time, Red Lori came to join him, wrapped in her woolen cloak.
The wind blew her red hair free, so that it tickled his face when he bent to hear her words that the same wind threatened to bear away with.
“I say that once there was a continent below our keel, Kothar. Or part of a continent. This sea here covers what was once part of Sybaros and Tharia, a massive plateau that stretched outward for many miles. At its tip, jutting into the ocean, was the port city of Hatharon.”
“Where Afgorkon was born.”
“And where he practiced his wizardries. In what remains of his ancient lodging, in that tower where he kept his chests and scrolls, I hope to find his famous coffer of magic formulas and special incantations.”
“And once you’ve done that?” She looked up at him, laughing. “Then I can free you from his curse, barbarian. And—do what I must do.”
“What goal have you set yourself, Lori the Red?”
“To save the magicians of Yarth! Or haven’t you heard that someone is slaying them all, very coldly, very systematically? Aye, last night in Zoane, when you rescued Antor Nemillus, was an instance of the wickedness now flourishing in the land.”
Kothar scowled. “Why seek you Afgorkon’s belongings?”
“He was a wizard. He must help his kind. I would summon him, Kothar, speak with him. If anyone knows how to stop this slayer of sorcerers—he will!”
The barbarian remembered the lich in the hidden tomb within the forests of Commoral, who had given him the sword Frostfire. An unease sat in his middle as he let his memory run on that rotted thing that had been a living man five hundred centuries ago.
“He will not like it,” he muttered. “But he will come. Oh, yes. He shall come to my call.”
“Only at a price!”
“The girl, Cybala. She will appease him.”
“Flarion won’t like it,” he rumbled. “The boy’s half in love with her. He moons over her constantly.”
Her green eyes flared. “You think he’d—kill me—to save her?”
The massive shoulders lifted and fell. “You do what you think is right, to save the lives of your fellow sorcerers and wizards. Perhaps Flarion may do what he thinks is right, too.”
She bit her lip, frowning thoughtfully. The ship Wave-skimmer ploughed on through the salt waters of the Outer Sea, sails fat with wind, yards and masts straining to those gusts that hurled its prow through the heaving waves. These same salt winds stirred the long blond hair that hung below the barbarian’s shoulder, which he tied behind him during battle, and made him draw his thick cloak tighter to his shoulders. He rode the heaving deck on solidly planted war-boots, a scowl on his face.
There were human undercurrents all about him that he did not like. He did not trust Red Lori, for all that he was half in love with her. There was an attitude the witch-woman seemed to have—of waiting, sniffing at the air, like a wolf on the hunt—that made him itch between his shoulder blades. And Florian, half mad himself with love for the belly-dancer, with hate in his eyes when he thought of Red Lori. Ah, and Cybala? He could not read the dancing girl. What emotion gripped her as she lay in her cabin bunk at night?
“We near our goal, Kothar. Look there!”
“A slim forefinger pointed at the waves. Kothar repressed a cry of surprise. These waters were blue, clear as the crystal-ware of Zoardar. And not so far down in those limpid depths-surely those were gardens, he was seeing? He leaned his weight upon the rail, peering downward.
“Aye, barbarian. The pleasure gardens of Afgorkon—or so the legends say Built upon the side of an ancient mountain that did not sink as completely as did all the rest of this land. Here are his artifacts, his impedimenta, the equipment which enabled him to become the most famous wizard of all.”
His eyes saw marble statues, rows of dead trees, petrified now, with sea coral and swaying anemones where flowing hibiscus. and lovely roshamores were wont to grow upon a time. He made out something that had been a labyrinth of tall hedges, a stone walkway wending in and out of these once-lovely places, part of a colonnaded temple, shattered and long in ruins.
“It is not so deep here,” the witch-woman murmured at his side. “A good diver can fetch to that place and back and bring me what it is I want. Grovdon Dokk. To me!”
And when the captain was at her side, knuckling his brow, “Anchor here! Then send to me your divers,” she ordered.
She paced up and down until two dark Tharians, lean men with their nakedness hidden in breech-clouts and belts that held long knives, stood before her. They had deep chests, powerful muscles. Men such as these earned their living off the coral banks beyond the Tharian sea-strand, diving for sponges and occasionally a wreck or two submerged among the bottom stones.
“I seek a chest of many colors,” Red Lori murmured, “a coffer in which—hermetically sealed—are certain parchments I would have for my own. It has runes worked onto its top, in bright enamels and rust-less metals. You shall know it by its brilliance. It shall draw you as might a lantern lighted below the waves. Fail me not, and two gold bars each shall be your prize.”
The Tharians grinned and went to the opening in the railing where a plank was affixed so they could dive deep. Kothar watched them, his eyes moving from them to the waters that appeared oddly cloudy, murky, where the anchor had been dropped. This cloudiness extended outward, hiding the gardens, the statuary and even the columns of the temple to some forgotten god.
The men dove.
Down they went, until they disappeared in that cloudy stirring of the sea bottom, which swallowed them up as if they had never existed. Red Lori went striding up and down the deck, hammering a fist into her palm in her excitement, but the barbarian never moved, never took his eyes from that strange murkiness that seemed so—menacing.
The water-clock dripped away the minutes. Overhead, the sun moved across the sky. It hid behind a cloud and a chill darkness came upon the ship-deck. Kothar stirred. Was the wind moaning? Rising in its intensity? He shivered and looked at Red Lori, bent above the railing, staring into those deeps with worried eyes.
The captain padded across the deck, his face echoing the anxiety in the witch-woman. “They have not come back, mistress. They are good men, strong divers. They have fought undersea things before. I do not like this.”
“They have been gone too long,” she nodded.
“Shall we up anchor and sail away?”
“No!” The word came out of her in an explosion of breath. Kothar stared hard at Red Lori, seeing tears trickling down her smooth cheeks. There was fright in the green eyes that turned to him, and a desperate appeal for help.
“Kothar! Everything depends on my getting that coffer. Everything! Including your hope to be free of Afgorkon’s curse!”
The big barbarian shook himself. All along, he had known he would be called upon to go down into those eerie deeps, as if a corner of his mind had told him so. He and Frostfire, daring the wrath of Afgorkon: This was what it meant when the chips were on the counting table.
He dropped his cloak, worked loose the leather bindings of his mail shirt. Lori came close, red-nailed fingers striving to loosen clasps. Those fingers trembled and shook so that he was forced to push her hands aside, chuckling.
“Those waters will be cold. Have hot rum waiting for me, well buttered,” he grinned, kicking free of his war-boots.
Then he drew Frostfire from its scabbard and vaulted over the rail. He went into the cloudy water, his great chest filled with precious air. The sword dragged him downward until his open eyes caught a blurry glimpse of a ruined marble statue and part of a wall and a stone archway, still standing. Then his bare feet touched bottom.
He must look for brightness, Red Lori had said. The coffer that contained the parchments glowed, she claimed—or so the tale had it. But there was no brilliance here, no hint of any light but that which seeped from the surface. Yet he moved forward, under the arch, eyes darting here and there.
Once, out of the very corner of an eye, he caught a flash of light, but it was blotted out. Yet he swung that way, swam forward toward the tumbled stone blocks of what had been a wall, blue and dim in this sea-bottom world.
A thing of blackness, ebon and threatening, rose up from those walls, a great jet outline—something bulbous, without shape, unknown and mysterious—and a length of something equally black tugged at his ankle. He fought against it, he lifted Frostfire—slashed.
Frostfire bounced on that rubbery blackness. Another tentacle and another came to wrap around his arms, his torso. Strong were those ebon things twisting about him, like constrictor snakes out of the Oasian jungles. He fought them with his own titanic thews, his muscles bulging, rolling and heaving, trying to slash with his sword-edge, seeking to thrust its sharp point into that rubbery black hide.
Kraken1 The vast beast of the sea deeps that dwelt in sea caverns and the long-forgotten ruins that dot the floor of the Outer Sea. A creature large enough to attack a ship, a being of a hundred thick tentacles each able to shatter the mast of a large ship.
He hung helpless in those things as they drew him between a stone archway, past two tumbled statues, toward a black hole in the side of a crumbled stone wall. There was a light ahead of him by which he could see the titanic bulk of the sea beast.
Its maw gaped wide to swallow him.