Digitally transcribed for the Gardner Francis Fox Adventure Library
They saw the wagon first, a weather-beaten contraption with warped wooden sides and roof, but painted bright colors, set upon four big wheels. It rested in a forest glade, with others like it not too far away. These Romanoys were new to Kyrik, in his time there had been no wanderers such as this, and he wanted to know more about them.
“In time, in time,” Myrnis promised as she walked with him toward that wagon. “First you must be made into a gypsy fellow, a vagrant with a brightly colored band about that tawny hair of yours. Mmmmm, we’ll have to dye it black, too. But when I’m done, even your woman won’t know you.”
Her head jerked at Aryalla. Kyrik chuckled, “No woman of mine. We’re partners, is all. Now, let’s to business.”
“Inside my wagon, then.”
He went up the few wooden steps, bent to move into cool dimness. Myrnis swung in after him, turned to lift a wooden chest inside which were stop leather bottles of varying liquids. Her eyes stared at him gleefully.
“Strip down, giant,” she laughed. And when he was naked, his mail shirt and fur kilt forgotten on the floor, the girl nodded in delight. “A real man, by all the old gods. When I’m done with you, you’ll be a man I’d be proud to call my chal.”
“Chal? What’s that mean?”
“Lover,” she smiled slyly, and pouring dark juice on her cupped palm, began to smear it over his flesh.
She stood close to him, perfumed and warm, bare flesh under the thin blouse and torn skirt, with the laced bodice that did little more than push her breasts up into the blouse. Kyrik could not help his male reaction to her nearness and she laughed softly, knowing it.
“You’ve been a long time without a woman, warrior,” she giggled.
A thousand years, he thought. He said, “You speak the truth, girl. A long time.”
“Well, the gypsies are hot-blooded, you’ll fit right in.”
When she was done, he saw in a cracked mirror she lugged into view that he was like a bronzed statue once again. His flesh was a pale brown, his green eyes stood out with startling clarity in his face. And when she smeared black juices into his hair and mustache, and affixed gold earrings to his ears, no man could have said he was not a true Romanoy.
He dressed in loose shirt and breeks, with a rope belt. Over his head he wore a red bandanna, set at an angle. Aryalla did not know him when he stepped from the wagon. Her eyes went this way and that about the camp until he sank beside her and said, “There, now. I have a way of entering Tantagol City. What about you?”
Her eyes grew big as they searched his face. She nodded. “Yes. No one would ever guess you for Kyrik. It will be a good disguise. I shall do the same.”
Myrnis would not smear on the juices for her as she had done for Kyrik. She handed over the wooden coffer and let her go into the wagon by herself. When she was gone, Myrnis caught Kyrik by a hand and drew him with her toward the woods.
“There is a woodland shrine deep in these trees,” she murmured. “Often I come there to whisper prayers to Illis.”
Kyrik showed surprise. “To Illis? Yet Illis is not a goddess of the forests.”
“Still, there is an altar of sorts built to her. Come, see for yourself.”
And when they had moved between the tree-boles, stepped across two little streams and had come to a small glade where the sunlight gleamed like gold, Kyrik saw the shrine. It was of stones laced together with mortar in the shape of a seashell, and on the flat stone that served as an altar he saw a rectangle of what seemed to be glass. It was colorless, dead, yet he knew that at one time it might have gleamed with life.
“Illis is dead,” he said hoarsely. She eyed him thoughtfully. “Now how can you know that, warrior? It’s true that that glass, that bit of substance, is allied to the goddess of the flesh lusts. I’ve heard legends about the thing from the charcoal burners who live in the high hills behind here and come to worship, from time to time. How did you know?”
“I too worship Illis.” His hand fumbled in the belt purse which he had transferred from his sword-belt to the length of rope about his middle now. “Turn away, Myrnis. This jewel I’m uncovering has—strange powers.”
His hand took it out, placed it on the glass rectangle. Myrnis stared at it, entranced. The red gem seemed to be on fire deep inside. She stared at a naked woman, a tiny simulacra of a living woman, who twisted and turned in lascivious poses. Waves of that desire beat out of her, touched her womanhood, her body.
Her hand caught his arm. “Kyrik. . .”
“Turn away your eyes!”
“I cannot Kooshti duuvell! What is that thing?”
“It is the Lust-stone, it belongs to Illis.” Now the glass rectangle came to life. It grew lighter, it glowed with pearly luminescence. And a faint, sensuous music came from its depths. Music that throbbed in the air, that stirred the blood in both man and woman. The rectangle coruscated, it whispered with arpeggios of sweetness. It flooded the air, the forest glade where they stood. Myrnis shivered.
A sweet voice whispered, “Who is this who holds the Lust-stone?”
“I do, Illis of the tinted breasts.”
“That voice I know it. From long and long ago, when it was raised in worship of my beauty. Yes, yes. This is Kyrik. Kyrik of the Victories. You have been-long dead, Kyrik.”
“Under a spell, great Illis.” There was a silence. Then: “Yes. Cast by Devadonides, aided by his wizard Jokaline. I could not prevent it, I was powerless in your world without the Lust-stone! Yet now. . .”
Triumph throbbed in that godlike throat. “Yet now, Kyrik Place you the Lust-stone where it was meant to be, and I shall be your protector once again. How did you find it?”
“Long ago, I knew a thief. The thief I caught, and caused to be tortured until he told me where he hid the jewel—I set out to get it, to place it on your altar and—was turned into a six inch high bronze statue. A sorceress named Aryalla searched for me, found me and restored me to life.”
“Blessed be Aryalla. I shall not forget.” Kyrik caught Myrnis where she huddled against him, shivering. She was moving her palms over his chest, sliding her hands into the blouse so she might caress his massive chest. With a hand about her arm, he swung her toward the rectangle that was glowing a deep rose.
“This one helped too, Illis. Keep her well.”
“I see. I shall throw my mantle about her.” Myrnis stared with wide eyes at the glass embedded in the stone altar. Before it was the Lust-stone, red and brilliant, flaring to that power which was inside it. She moved back against the barbarian, used his body as a leaning post, so weak had her knees become. Then the rose color faded, the glass emptied of its power. Kyrik, aware of the girl who pressed her softness against him, reached for the Lust-stone, wrapped the kerchief about it, thrust it into his purse.
“Who are you?” she whimpered, turning and throwing her arms about his neck. “Who is Kyrik of the Victories? You said the stone was stolen—a long time ago. How long? And what you said about being a statue? Can that be true?”
His mouth covered her soft lips.
She arched against him, felt his hands slide down her back to grip at her buttocks, to lift and hold her against him. She felt the power and the might of him and this touch did what the Lust-stone had begun.
“Take me, Kyrik. Take me!”
“In worship of Illis?”
“Yes, yes, yes. . .”
He drew her down with him upon the grass.
Later, when the shadows were lengthening, Myrnis drew the blouse about her nakedness, for the sun was setting and the day had grown chill. There was a glistening in her eyes where tears of happiness gathered, and she bent her head to kiss his lips, gently.
“I’ve never known a chal like you,” she breathed. “A thousand years is a long time, girl. I find myself new-born into a world that has changed while I was gone. There is a need to enjoy life inside me, not from the throne where I once sat but out here in this wild-wood or in a town tavern, where red wine warms a man’s insides.”
His hand tousled her brown hair that hung long about her shoulders and veiled her breasts. “This is life, this sharing of our bodies, this rapture of the senses. I find a need for it in me.”
“So soon—again?” she asked slyly. He rumbled laughter. “Na, na. Not now. But again, yes.” He stared up at the darkening sky. “For now, I must go into Tantagol, and place the Lust-stone in its place, if I’m ever to succeed against Devadonides.” He sighed, “I had not thought it possible, I believed Illis to have gone back into her own worlds after so long a time—and without her help, I could never do what must be done. So the Lust-stone goes to Illis.”
“Couldn’t you keep it, just a little longer?”
“I need it not. Do you?” Myrnis laid her head on his bared chest, whispering, “Not I. It’s enough just to have you near me.”
“Come, then. I’m starving.” She rose and pulled her skirt about her, watched as he slid into the Romanoy garments he had discarded. Then her small hand sought his larger one and clasped it all the way back to the gypsy camp between the trees.
The moon was in the sky and the smell of roasting pig was in the air as they came to the fire where Aryalla crouched, staring into the flames. She did not raise her eyes, she merely nodded when they halted near her.
“You used the Lust-stone—with her,” she whispered.
“I only fight for you, woman.” Her eyelids lifted and Kyrik was surprised at the heat and fury in them. By Illis. If she came to his bed with that fire showing, she might prove to be an even better bed-mate than the gypsy girl. She turned her head and sorceress and Romanoy girl stared hard at one another. Jealousy flared between them so Kyrik clapped a hand to the gypsy’s behind, half lifting her off her feet.
“I starve, Myrnis,” he growled. She laughed and ran to slice pork for him, and a heap of steaming beans flavored with spices. She ran back and seated herself beside him, handing him the plate.
“Eat, then—lover.” Aryalla hissed. Yet they ate together that night in seeming friendship, though the sorceress said little. Myrnis could not have enough of waiting upon Kyrik, bringing him a wine-skin chilled in a cold brook. She watched as he drank deep, arms clasped about her knees.
“I shall dance for you,” she told him. “Na, na. Tomorrow will be a hard day, girl. Save your strength—as I intend to hoard my own.”
He rose to his feet, caught up a horse blanket, and walked toward the edge of the forest. He stretched out like a big animal, and was soon asleep.
Myrnis stood, looked down at the sorceress. With a sniff, she walked to where the man lay and curled up beside him. Aryalla watched them for a long time, then with a faint smile, came up from the ground to join them. She lay down on the other side of the man, and tossed an arm about him.
Kyrik woke to the touch of two female bodies, with a shaft of sunlight tickling his eyelids. He lay a moment, remembering, then lifted on an elbow, turning to stare at the gypsy girl where she lay doubled up, smiling faintly in her sleep. He swung about to look at Aryalla, her curving red mouth and long-lashed eyelids.
He grunted and slid from between them, moved to the campfire, put new branches on the coals, watched them flare to flame. By this time, the camp was stirring; Myrnis and Aryalla had come to lend their hands with the cooking.
“We leave soon,” Myrnis said, gnawing on a bone. “We’re due in Tantagol within the hour.” She viewed Kyrik tenderly. “Are you sure you can perform tricks that will draw a crowd and put silver rhodanthes in our wallets?”
Kyrik nodded, too busy eating to answer. Aryalla laughed softly. “Watch me, gypsy.” There were horses for them to ride, and as they swung up, Myrnis said again to Aryalla, “That black cloak you wear. It’s morbid. People like to see gypsies in gay colors. There’s enough drabness in their lives because of Devadonides.”
The sorceress put a hand to the silver clasp that held her cloak. It slid away from her. Kyrik drew a deep breath, staring. She wore gypsy garments, a torn blouse that showed her full breasts, a tattered skirt that bared the loveliness of her legs. His eyes slid toward Myrnis who was biting her lip and scowling. Kyrik laughed, head thrown back, hanging the sack with his mail shirt and weapons about the saddle pommel by a thong.
“She shows a real woman, Myrnis,” he grinned. “Ride,” the gypsy cried, and banged heels to her mount.
They cantered along the dusty road that wound between the trees of the Hanging Forest. Here and there, where the woodlands had been cleared, they could see neat farmhouses and fields of waving grain, of corn, of growing things. Carts were creaking, too, laden with vegetables and fruit for the city marketplaces.
Where the road made a bend and straightened for the city gates, Kyrik saw the city itself, broad and wide, with high stone walls and leaded roof tiles glittering in the early morning sun. This was a bigger, larger city than he remembered from those days when he had ruled here in the palace whose spires rose upward toward the sky.
They rode more slowly, for the dusty road was crowding now with farm wagons and with carts, there were people walking along the sides of the road, and here and there were mountebanks and strolling players cavorting and strumming tunes upon their harps. Kyrik let his eyes rove to the tinkling bells of a jester in red and yellow, he peeped down the low-cut bodice of a passing girl, spying out her pale breasts, he tossed a coin to a carter for a leathern jack filled with foaming ale.
He sniffed in the smells of human sweat and dusty road, the fragrance of the wildflowers bordering the highway. This was life. This was why a man was born, to drink at the wine of living, at the pleasures —aye, and even at the pains it brought. Otherwise, a man was a dead thing. As he had been dead, for a thousand years.
In this flush of enthusiasm, he touched the crenelated walls and towers of the grim barbarian and adjoining keep of Tantagol with his eyes, recognizing them from the days when he had ruled this world about him. Newer walls had been added over the centuries, the old city was ringed in by a newer. Sunlight winked on the helmets and spear-points of the soldiers who strode the wall walkways, who were clustered outside the open city gates. None challenged, none suspected, as he rode over cobblestones into the city. He followed Myrnis, letting her lead the way, swaying gracefully in the saddle she straddled. Aryalla stayed close to his left, her bared leg brushing his upon occasion, when the press about them grew too thick.
Along a main thoroughfare the gypsy took them to a great city square in which colored booths had been set up, where fruits and vegetables were displayed on long boards, in wicker baskets. Here Myrnis swung from her saddle but Kyrik sat a moment, head turned so that he might see the great castle that towered above the city on what had been a hill covered with flowers in ancient times. His heart thudded in his rib-cage. He knew those walls. Often at night he had stared from those arrow-slits, looking out over the city and the land that owed him allegiance. Another sat his throne, another had taken it from him by sorcery. By Illis! His descendant should not keep it long.
Myrnis said, “Now live up to your boasts, Kyrik. Amuse us!”
The crowds recognized the gypsy girl, the other Romanoys with her. They called for her to dance, for the men to turn cartwheels.
Myrnis cried out, laying a hand on Kyrik’s foot where the stirrup held it, “Another comes to amuse you this day, a woodlands stranger. And with him, a woman who has sworn to delight you.”
Kyrik looked around him, saw an archer leaning on a longbow. “You, friend. A loan of your bow, your arrows.”
The man laughed, tossed them. Kyrik came down off his horse, caught Myrnis and swung her so that her back was to a wooden table that was set on end before being righted to hold offerings for sale. The tabletop rested on its narrow end, its height was greater than that of the gypsy girl.
“Move not,” he told her. He ran fifty paces away, whirled and set arrow to bow. An instant later that arrow thudded into the tabletop, just grazing her hip. Her brown eyes glared at him, but she stood proudly, unwilling to show fear. Again and again he shot, so swiftly that the eyes could not follow his movements. And when he was done, Myrnis was ringed about with arrows sunk deep into the wood.
The awed archer stared at him, making the sign of Abakkon in the air. “What manner of man are you, who can shoot so true and so swiftly? I’ve never seen anybody draw bow like that.”
Kyrik pulled the arrows from the tabletop, tossed them toward the bowman who slid them into his quiver. “A master of weapons, at sword and dagger, at bow and pike, I take no back step to any man.”
“Devadonides would give much to see you in his guard.”
Kyrik shrugged. “I like the free life, the wandering from city to city. No walls shall hem me in.”
Myrnis was scampering about, picking up coins that had been thrown in appreciation of the show Kyrik had put on. Aryalla in her torn gypsy dress was at her side, helping.
“What does the black-haired one do?” asked the archer, unstringing his bow.
“Aryalla,” Kyrik called. “Show the man!”
The sorceress walked toward the bowman, put a hand to his ear, drew out a wriggling, twisting snake. Men and women cried out on seeing this, they stared and drew closer. Aryalla laughed, tossed the snake high—the onlookers saw it change into a stick of solid gold—and caught it with a deft hand as it came down.
Myrnis pressed to Kyrik. “How did she do that?”
“A trick of conjuring. Nothing more.” Aryalla was breaking the gold stick, snapping it, turning each broken portion into a bit of sweetmeat that she tossed to the gawking onlookers. The more she broke off, however, the longer the gold stick was becoming. It grew even as she snapped it.
Myrnis was muttering, “She’s a witch!”
Kyrik pinched her rump. “Enough of that talk!” Coins were falling at Aryalla’s bare feet. Kyrik pushed Myrnis, said, “Go pick up the money. Get rich.”
Common sense took hold of the Romanoy girl. She nodded, ran. And while the sorceress made more sweetmeats and then still more, Myrnis busied herself in gathering up the money flung in testimony of the crowd’s enjoyment.
Eventually Aryalla tired, threw the golden stick high. It glittered, turned into a puff of smoke, blew away. Kyrik caught her hand, drew her out of the crowd toward his black stallion. He took down the sack in which were his mail shirt and weapons.
“Let the gypsies perform now,” he told her. “We have work to do.”
“I must get inside the palace.”
“Join the guard. That bowman as good as invited you.
His teeth glistened as he grinned. “A slow process. I’ve a better. I’ll get myself arrested.”
The sorceress whirled on him. “Are you mad? Do you know what they do to prisoners in Tantagol City? They are beheaded.”
“What? For a harmless little drunkenness? Na, na. Even this Devadonides cannot be so stupid.”
She glared at him, white hands clenched into fists. “You fool! You promised to help me. Is this the way of your helping? To get yourself tossed into a dungeon?”
“I’ve given it thought,” he told her, urging her to turn and walk with him by a hand on her elbow. “I can scarcely go before the king and proclaim him to be an impostor and myself the rightful ruler.”
“I know then—inside and out. Aye! There’s no part of the old stone walls that have not known my foot, in times long forgotten. Now come along, like a good girl. You’ll be my excuse for a quarrel.”
“Not I!” she exclaimed, and pulled free. When she would have fled, he cried out, “Wait! What will you be doing while I’m in gaol? How can I find you when I need you?”
“I have a hiding place. I’ll whisper it to Myrnis. When you need me, come to me. I’ll be waiting.”
She turned and ran as if he were a madman. And may-hap I am, thought Kyrik, smiling wryly, staring after her. And yet, this is the one thing that must be done, if ever I can hope to pull Devadonides off his golden throne. Aryalla does not know it, nor Myrnis, nor any living man or woman; but the way to topple Devadonides lies within the stone walls of his cellar ways.
He laughed and examined the few coins in his belt purse. Enough for a wine-skin and a leathern jack or two or ale. Enough to pretend to be drunk, most certainly. He walked on, found that the twisting streets of this older city were shaping themselves in his mind once more, as they had been long ago.
At a corner where a wooden sign in the shape of an ale barrel hung on creaking chains, he turned aside, entered the cool dimness. He staggered in his gait, he saw sharp-eyed men stiffen, saw the blowsy women near the bar break into smiles at sight of this drunken gypsy. A chicken running to its plucking, a drunk about to be robbed. He was no more than that in their eyes. He paid silver rhodanthes for a bulging wine-skin, carried it to a dark corner where he began drinking steadily. The men and women watched him, their eyes unblinking. Once a woman crossed the sawdust floor to him, offered to bed him down in an upstairs room. Kyrik pushed her away, muttered thickly that he wanted no woman, all he wanted was the wine-skin! He dozed, after a time, the skin half full.
It was now that the sharp-eyed men glanced at one another, rose to their feet. They came at him slowly, from all directions, sauntering leisurely. Not until they were three feet away did they leap.
Hands closed on his arms, to hold him. Other hands reached for his belt purse. And Kyrik rose up, bellowing happily, and his fingers clamped like iron vises on wrists and forearms. Some men he slung over the table, others he caught with his left hand and hammered at their faces with his right fist. A man broke a chair over his broad back. Kyrik caught that man by his hair and pounded his head against the tabletop. He grabbed a foot that would have kicked him and twisted it, snapping an ankle. Ten men had come at him, five lay moaning on the floor, the other five were trying to turn and flee.
And Kyrik would not permit them. He was savoring the joys of battle, there was a grim smile on his mouth even as his knuckles bloodied faces and his massive hands snapped bones. He drove now—terrified men into tables and chairs, splintering wood.
“By Illis!” he roared. “Fight, man, fight!” And again: “Call yourselves thieves and robbers, do you? In my time such as you would be no more than beggars. Aye, Tantagol City has fallen on lean and awful days under Devadonides!”
He toyed with them, not hurrying, enjoying the battle that raged the length and breadth of the tavern. And when the doorway was darkened by the city watchmen drawn to the ale house by the sound of shattering furniture, Kyrik turned on them with a whoop and a laugh.
His fists drove them reeling back. Sweeping them off their feet, he tossed them aside as a man might throw away an empty fruit-skin. He scorned them, he insulted them with shouted words and knocked them senseless. And when he was done, he alone stood upon his feet.
“By the gods,” he growled, staring around him at the ruined tavern, the limp and inert bodies. “Men have forgotten how to fight.”
A horn called somewhere along the street and feet pounded in his direction. Kyrik picked up his sack and pushed his way to the door, opened it and stepped out into the sunlight. He let out a shout as he saw more watchmen, and behind them, soldiers of Devadonides’ guard, attracted to the scene by the sounds of fierce fighting.
“One man?” roared a big watchman. “One man did all that damage?”
Kyrik bellowed with laughter and ran to meet him.
In later years, men told the story of that fight outside the ale house; they made poems about it, and songs, and so many were the cantos that men grew drunk over their wine-cups, toasting every one. For two hours the fight raged, and when it ended, when Kyrik sank at last to the ground and lay senseless because a bludgeon had caught him across the back of his head, more than forty men lay on the cobbled street around him.
One guardsman nursed a broken jaw, whispering, “That one isn’t human. I’d swear he fights like a wounded bear, mad in his joy of battle.”
Another growled, “He’ll lose his happiness in the cells.”
“Too bad, Lyssop. I’d like a friend like that when I go into battle. Gods! Can you imagine what he’d have done to us if he’d had a sword in his hand?”
Ten men carried Kyrik with his arms and legs strapped, and with his sack tied around his neck, through the streets on a shattered tabletop. They went through the older city, pausing not to heed the inquiries of curious men and women that thronged the walkways. By alleyways and narrow streets where the houses leaned together they went, and Kyrik noted that this part of the city which he had known so well, was not so much changed as he had feared. And so he smiled to secret thoughts.
To the ancient iron grille gate known as the Victory Arch they carried him, and along a court into a corridor dimly lighted all by oil lamps. To a room they brought him, propping him on his feet before an officer in a guard uniform who looked up at him with something like awe in his eyes.
“You’re a big one,” the officer muttered, turning from the sack he had been examining.
There was a silence. Then: “From whence come you, stranger?”
“From shipboard at the wharves of Pthesk. I’m a gypsy mercenary, I sell my sword to any man who needs a good one.”
“So you can use that blade in your carryall can you, as well as you do your fists?”
Kyrik grinned. “Better. I have no equal in any land.”
The officer raised his eyebrows. “Sa—ha! Is this truth or braggadocio?”
“Oh, I mean to. But not yet a while. I’ll let your spirit simmer a bit in the darkness of a dungeon.” He leaned across the tabletop confidentially. “If you can use that blade half so well as your tongue clacks about it, Devadonides might have a place for you in his guards corps.”
“I’ll take his gold. Why not?”
“For now, a cell to teach you not to drink too much. Take him away. I’ll store your sack here until you sober up. Your personal property you can keep, we aren’t robbers here.”
He only promised that because if he became a guardsman, he might break a few heads to get it back, Kyrik told himself. He went meekly, as the sheep follows the bellwether. His furred boots moved along stone floors only slightly more worn than he had known them, ten centuries before. He sniffed the old, familiar odors—a bit of stale food, the stench of prisoners kept chained overlong, the damp wind that came from no man knew where, since it rose between the paving-stones of the floor where they had loosened.
His eyes gleamed when he saw where they took him: into the cells kept—in his time—for prisoners of repute, who might manage to pay a gold griff or two for good treatment. He waited patiently as the cell door was unlocked, endured the knife between his wrists that severed his binding ropes. He walked into the cell with a sigh. A guardsman growled, “You take this lightly enough. There are rats in these walls, and insects that bite to draw blood.”
Kyrik said, “It’s no worse than other places I’ve been. So treat me well, man, for I may be a companion in arms to you sooner than you know.”
The man chuckled. “Aye, I’d enjoy having you at my side.”
He put the lantern on the floor. “You can take it into your cell if you want light. You have a tinder box? Good. Then—pleasant dreams.”
The man walked away. Kyrik took the lantern, blew out the flame. He was in almost total darkness, for the torchlight that illumined the corridors only touched this cell very faintly. Kyrik found the cot, lay back on it, put his hands behind his head.
He was right where he wanted to be. He slept until men came to wake him, one bearing a tray with food and drink on it, the other remaining in the corridor. They went away. Kyrik lit his lantern and devoured the stew and bread, drank from the leather jack that held cool ale. Then he lay back and slept some more.
Three men woke him, standing in the cell. One man said, “Time to come and test your swordsmanship, stranger. Kangor who is our captain would see the manner of your weapon-play Though I must warn you, he’s in a rare mood since some of our fellows found him in a cottage trussed like a fowl for the roasting.”
Kyrik smiled, yawned, rose upward. Once his feet were on the solid stone, his huge hands shot out to catch the heads of two of the guards. He rammed their foreheads together so hard the sound was like a shattering of a gourd dropped from a high place. The third man gaped, mouth open to shout. Kyrik caught his jaw with a fist. He lifted the lantern and locked the cell door behind him. Then he went swiftly, down one corridor and turning left at another until he came to a thick stone wall that was part of the castle foundations. He put down the lantern, placed his hands on the cold stone.
He fumbled a moment—a thousand years is a long time in the memory of a man—and then his fingers settled on a bit of masonry. He turned the stone, hard. It resisted his efforts and he thought that none had come this way in a long time. Indeed, he doubted whether Devadonides or any who served him knew of this secret way.
The mechanism functioned after a time, for Kyrik was a strong man and his muscles bulged with the effort he exerted. A part of the wall opened inward into blackness. Swiftly he stooped, caught up the lantern, stepped into that darkness. His hand pushed the wall-door shut. Kyrik lifted the lantern. There was thick dust on the stone floor, it showed no mark of any footprint. He grinned and moved forward confidently.
In a short time he came to a chamber enclosed on all sides by walls hung with draperies, molded and rotting now, but when he had known them rich and costly tapestries. An altar loomed before him, close to the farther wall, and behind the altar on a dais covered with once-red velvet long since turned to dusty nothingness, stood the statue of a naked woman.
Kyrik walked forward, lantern lifted. In the rays of that glow, the statue seemed alive. The woman was of a supernal loveliness, her high breasts arched outward invitingly, her smooth hips and dimpled belly, her slimly curved thighs and legs an invitation to venery. Her face was oval, framed by long golden hair that fell almost to the tips of her breasts. The full red mouth was pouting, the nostrils flared proudly. And the slanted gray eyes seemed to turn and study the barbarian as he advanced.
“Illis,” he whispered. “It’s been a long time.” His hand set the lantern down, reached into his belt purse. Almost reverently he brought out the Lust-stone, placed it into a hollow in the dais before the statue. Kyrik stepped back, hardly breathing.
Slowly, very slowly, the pink tints of the statue flushed with life. It grew radiant, the rosy nipples stiffened, the firm thighs stirred. The hands that had been at rest beside the shapely hips lifted, went to her outer thighs. The red lips came apart in a smile.
“Kyrik of the Victories. It is good to see you again.”
“You saw me in the forest glade with the gypsy girl.”
Her laughter rang out as her palms lifted to her breasts, which she cupped. Tenderly she asked, “Is it the same thing, my worshiper?”
His grunt made her hold out her hands. He caught them, brought her down off the dais. His arms went about her nakedness, held her close as his mouth sought hers.
After a time she drew back. “Not many men can have the goddesses they worship come naked into their embrace, Kyrik. I hope you appreciate it.”
He swung her up, carried her toward a marble bench. He sat down with her on his lap, kissed her lips lingeringly.
“I have often wondered what shape you are in the world from which you come, Illis.”
The goddess gurgled laughter. “If I showed you, you might not be so attentive with your caresses. I was—jealous—of the way you took that gypsy girl.”
“By doing that, I worshiped you.”
“It’s not the same thing, not at all!”
“Come, then. I’ll make amends here and now.” She sniffed, glancing about her. “The years have not been kind to my little fane. You must refurbish it, Kyrik. Make it beautiful as it was those years ago. Then. . .”
When his arms tightened, she put her fingers to his lips. Her smile vanished and her eyes grew sober. “Wait, Kyrik—wait. There are strange forces at work in Tantagol. It will not be as easy as you thought to push Devadonides off the throne that properly belongs to you. I must warn you.”
It seemed to Kyrik that the room grew cold.