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The Dancing Floor
The morning sun was brighttoo bright for eyes that had looked upon no light save the torches of the prison guards for days unnumbered. A gray morning would have been kinder, but this was not a morning for kindness. The line of condemned prisoners pressed their eyes shut against the painful glare, stumbled blindly forward to the waiting scaffold. By the time they had crossed the prison yard, they were able to see the dangling nooses and the exuberant mob of onlookers.
Conan squinted toward the gibbet, a black line against the climbing sun, seven coils of hemp trailing like sooty cobweb from the span overhead. To his nostrils came the acrid sweetness of carrionwafted from the rotting corpses of last week's condemned criminals, left to swing above the scaffold until seven new partners were brought to dance with death. It melded with the sweaty stench of the crowd's anticipation.
A halbard spike dug into his back. "Get on there, ravenbait!" growled one of the prison guards.
Conan snarled an obscenity and shuffled forward. Unkempt and unshaven, hobbled by the heavy chains that shackled his wrists and ankles, the Cimmerian nonetheless walked without a limp. A month in Kordava's dungeons had seen his wounds slowly heal, although that was due far more to his savage vitality than to any ministrations of his warders. That same vitality had brought him through the degradation of his captivity with spirit unbroken, head unbowed.
like a captured wild thing, Conan had licked his wounds and awaited his chance to break free of his cage. Stealthily, so that the rasp should not alert his guards, he had crouched throughout the night hours rubbing the links of his fetters one against the other, scraping them against the stone, striving to break free of the heavy chains that shackled hand and foot. Once free of his chains, there remained the iron bars of his cell, the vigilant guards beyondthese must be dealt with in their time. Conan only asked for a chance to win free, to avenge himself upon his captorsany chance, however slim. That chance had never come. Now, even as he and his fellow prisoners walked to the gibbet, the Cimmerian's angry gaze studied the crowded square, while his brain searched desperately for some last instant means to cheat the hangman.
The prison yardthe Dancing Floor, they called it here in Kordavawas rank with jostling humanity on this, the morning of market day. Each week they streamed into Zingara's capital city from the outlying towns and villages, to fill the marketplace with their wares and their cries: produce from the inland farms, merchandise from the city guilds, fish and exotic goods from the Western Ocean. What better way to add zest to a day of bargaining than the free spectacle of an execution on the Dancing Floor?
An undulating sea of massed bodies, peering facesall eyes turned upon the seven doomed men who trudged through their press and toward the scaffold. Seven men, seemingly no different from the hundreds of their fellows who had come to enjoy their final moments. Seven to dance for them. The crowd was not hostile, but neither was it sympathetic. Its mood was one of expectancy, of impatience for the show to begin. The beast would not lift its thousand arms to wrest the condemned from their fate; if at all, it would howl in anger should its anticipated enjoyment be denied it.
Moving throughout the milling throng, peddlers and mountebanks hawked their wares. Less open in their larceny, thieves and cutpurses prowled like wary jackals. Portable braziers spat fumes from grilling skewers of meat and vegetablesreminding Conan that he had not eaten since the day before.
"We don't waste good food on gallowsbait!" a warder had sneered, as they came to his cell this morning. It had cost the guard a broken tooth when they unshackled Conan from the wall.
Halbard butts had quickly drubbed the Cimmerian to unconsciousness. "For that," promised the warder, spitting bloody froth into Conan's battered face, "you get to wait to the last! You'll watch these other rats kick on their strings, and then we'll hoist you nice and easy, so you can show us all the new steps you'll have learned from your fellows."
It was, withal, a certain victory for the Cimmerian. The other prisoners had their manacles removed, their wrists pulled behind their backs and tied with rope. Wary of the powerful barbarian's berserk frenzy, the guards were loath to risk removing his prison shackles, so that Conan walked to the gallows in chains.
With a barbarian's stoicism, Conan resigned himself to die with dignityif die he must He would march to the scaffold, if the alternative was to be dragged. That his belly growled from hunger pains as he walked to his death was but one final insult after many before it, and the Cimmerian swore vengeance in that hour when most men would be begging their gods for forgiveness and mercy.
The stench of carrion was heavier now. Stiffly sprawled before the scaffold, seven corpses stared heavenward through eyeless sockets. Rooks had feasted well upon their features, obliterating recognition. Their week-long sentence as object lesson to fellow miscreants now fulfilled, the dead had been lowered from their nooses, laid out for a last farewell to the crowd. Laborers dragged them one by one to a small anvil, where the leg shackles of the dead were struck off. They had no further need for them, and there were others whose steps wanted confining.
By royal concession, mountebanks peddled charms and souvenirs from the hanged men. A pack of children struggled and giggled about the scaffold, pressing closer for a better look.
"Lock of dead man's hair for you, lasses?" teased a hawker, yanking a tuft loose and dangling it before them. "It'll keep the lads following after you, if you pin it over your heart!"
With shrill laughter the children dashed away, began to play a darting game of tag beneath the scaffold timbers.
"Dead man's hand! Who'll be first to buy?" A stroke of the axe, and the trophy came free. "Hand of a hanged murderer!" the mountebank shouted, holding the decaying fist on high. "Corpse-fat for candles! Do you seek hidden treasure? Here's the charm you'll need! Who will pay me silver to find gold?"
"Seed of a dead man!" cried another, brandishing a small phial. "The death-spend of Vulosis, the famous murderer-rapist! Men! The vitality of a young stallion is yours! Ladies! Restore your man to the ardour of a young bull! Hanged man's seed! Who will buy?"
Through it all, the key players of the morning's spectacle slowly made their way. Before the halbards of the guards, the mob broke apart to let them pass. A thousand faces craned and peered, examining the seven players in their costumes of rags and chains. Parents lifted children to their shoulders for a better view. Shoulders, elbows and knees propelled latecomers through the press. They fed on skewers of meat and lumps of bread and fists of fruit. Their arms hugged their bundles and purses and baskets to their bodies. As the condemned men reached the scaffold, the frolicking band of children yelled and danced about them. Pedlars lost interest in their frenetic hawking, turned to watch the sordid drama they had seen performed so many times before.
Climbing the steps to the scaffold was no easy task with leg-irons, but the guards plied their halbards with a will to urge them upward. The man in front of Conan stumbledunable to catch himself with his hands tied behind his back. A halbard spike goaded him as he struggled to rise. Conan, his hands manacled before him, reached out to the limit of the chain that connected wrist and leg-irons, caught the back of his jerkin and hauled the smaller man to his feet. Ignoring the abuse of the guards and the laughter of the crowd, they took their places beneath the gallows.
"Thanks," muttered his companion automatically. He seemed no more than Conan's agea slender youth with aristocratic features and feverish dark eyes.
"Little cause for thanks," the Cimmerian pointed out.
"One likes to do these things with a certain dignity," returned the other, echoing Conan's thoughts. He nodded distastefully toward some of those near the head of their line: one man had fainted and had to be supported by the guards; another was pleading tearfully for mercy to the jeering mob.
"Let those who will continue our battle see that we do not tremble to give our life to our cause," he concluded. Conan wondered to whom these brave words were directed, decided the youth was but speaking to himself.
They stood upon a long scaffold, the faces of the crowd on a level below their feet. Massive uprights at either end supported a huge overhead beammore than sturdy enough to bear the weight of seven men. There was no trap to the scaffold. Instead, each waiting noose was passed through an overhead iron hook, with the other end of the rope secured to a windlass and rachet apparatus. No sudden drop and quick death from a broken neck here. This was the Dancing Floor, where the recipients of Zingaran justice were slowly hoisted from the scaffold and left to writhe and kick until strangled.
Passing along the row of the condemned, a warder solemnly hung a placard about the neck of each man. Pausing before Conan, he took care to stand clear of the Cimmerian's manacled hands.
Conan scowled down at the placard that lay upon his broad chest. He tried to spell out the inverted letters, but his ability to read Zingaran was dubious under any circumstances. "What does it say?" he asked his companion.
The thin youth glanced at the placard with ironic interest. "It says: Conan Mutineer. Congratulations."
"What does yours say?" Conan wanted to know.
"Mine proclaims: Santiddio Seditionary. Our companions are sundry thieves, murderers and publishers."
"No, I wasn't merely being redundant. The fellow on the end there had the misfortune to publish my little political treatise that so incensed our beloved King Rimanendo."
"May your beloved king catch the pox from his catamites!" snarled Conan. "I killed an officer in a fair fight of his asking, and Rimanendo's laws declare that to be mutiny and murder!"
"Ah!" Santiddio's feverish eyes studied him with sudden respect "Then you're that barbarian mercenary who gutted the dashing Captain Rinnova! Korst's chief butcher, that one. I'd shake your hand, if these ropes would permit it The people will mourn the loss of two heroes of their struggle this day."
"Cut the chatter, you two!" a guard warned, as he fitted nooses about their necks. "You'll wish you'd saved that breath before long!"
The crowd didn't look mournful just now, Conan decided. Stoically he gazed out across the morass of bodies. Arguments and angry scuffles broke out as latecomers forced their way to the front of the crowd. Glancing down at their surly faces and rough clothes, Conan judged that many of these late arrivals could as easily be standing upon the gallows as amongst the throng. He wondered at the morbid curiosity that compelled them to watch the execution of their fellow brigands.
A cheer from the crowd broke off Conan's musings. Anonymous in his black mask, the king's executioner ascended the scaffold and returned the applause with a grandiose bow. Swaggering across the platform, he inspected the preparations of his assistants with the businesslike air of a director who surveys the stage and the players before lifting the curtain on his drama. His smile was polished, with just the right inflection of suave boredom. It was a professional touch that seemed to bestow confidence upon the players. Conan had seen that same smile on a day when the royal executioner had broken a man on the wheel.
A harsh rattle of the rachets brought Conan's gaze aroundeven as the hemp noose about his throat suddenly bit into his flesh. Under the royal executioner's supervision, the guards were completing final preparationsturning the seven windlasses so that each of the condemned prisoners stood straight upon his toes beneath the tautly stretched rope.
Beneath his outward impassivity, Conan's mind grappled with the hopelessness of his plight. Until this moment, he had been unable to accept the reality of his situation. Always there had been the false hope of escape, the lingering sense of outraged justice that argued that this could not be happening to him. Conan had faced death uncounted times since his childhood in the savage northlands. Always he had escaped; it bred for a certain contempt of death as an adversary. As the noose tightened about his neck, Conan fought down a rush of despair. Cimmerian warriors had them without a groan upon the torture stakes of the Picts, and Conan now stood straight and glowered his silent contempt upon the mob.
"In the name of his Royal Majesty, King Rimanendo," proclaimed the executioner above the vibration of the crowd, "let the sentences of his royal court be carried out!"
Abruptly there was silence, Conan sensed that the crowd was holding its breathas was he. A dreamlike stillness seemed to grip those upon the scaffold.
Then the gnashing of the rachet's teeth, as the executioner cranked the first windlass. Neatly he coiled the hemp upon the horizontal barrel as it spun. Effortlessly, almost magically, the first of the condemned was levitated from the scaffold floorto hang suspended beneath the gallows beam. Neck stretched impossibly, head twisted, eyes and tongue bulging from grimacing face, body writhing, leg-irons clattering: the first dance began.
There was a sighing murmur, then a rumble of harsh soundslike surf soughing across sand to crash against the rocks. It was the chorus of the mob, letting out its breath and breaking into a babble of excited cries.
The second in line broke down then, shrieked mindlessly for mercy. The breath of the crowd smothered his sobs, and then came the laughter of the rachet wheelas the noose lifted him toward the heavens that ignored him.
Tearing away from the morbid fascination that had bound his gaze upon the kicking puppets, Conan turned his face toward the crowd. Behind him, the executioner crawled like a great black spider upon its webmoving between the pieces of his apparatus, skillfully setting one rachet, then moving to the next windlass. Again the chatter of gears, and a third dancer twitched into the air.
Three more. And then…
But Hell was not waiting. Hell had come to the Dancing Floor.
Across the squarebawling howls of pain and terror, shrill trumpeting of panic-stricken horses. From one, then another, of the narrow streets that opened into the prison yardbillowing gouts of flame burst full into the screaming crowd.
Intent upon the hangman's inexorable approach, Conan's brain groped drunkenly to assimilate the sudden explosion of violence that erupted within the square. Two hay wagons, piled high with straw, spewed flame from out of the adjacent streets and into the packed square, as their fear-maddened teams tore into the ranks of onlookers. Black smoke boiled from the splashing streamers of yellow incandescence that engulfed both wagonsa glance told Conan that someone had thrown oil upon the hayracks before igniting themas the blazing wagons ripped like vengeful comets into the horrified masses upon the Dancing Floor.
A glance impinged the flaming chaos upon his brain, but could not explain its sudden eruption. And as the stricken mob spun around from the gallows, to gape without comprehension upon the unforeseen terror that had burst upon them, another explosion of violence swept across the scaffold itself.
From the corner of his eye, Conan saw the blur of steel as it left the hand of one of those who had pushed to the foot of the scaffold only moments before. The hangman, poised beside the windlass of his fourth victim, straightened to gawk at the uproar across the square. The heavy-bladed throwing knife struck him full in the chestits crimson haft a bursting flower upon his black velvet robe.
Carried back by the impact, the hangman maintained his death-grip upon the windlass crank. Death rattle and chatter of rachet blended, as the weight of his crumpling body spun the mechanismwrenching the condemned man just beyond toes' reach of the scaffold. And King Rimanendo's royal executioner performed his office even as Death came for him.
Conan's gallowsmate was the first to recover from the paralysis of astonishment "Mordermi! Mordermi!" he roared in glee. "Mordermi, you bloody bastard, I love you!"
"What's happening, Santiddio?" Conan demanded, as a riot broke out before the scaffold.
"It's Mordermi! These are Mordermi's men!" Santiddio yelled, struggling to slip his noose. "Sandokazi won him over!"
Conan knew Mordermi to be the boldest rogue among Kordava's not inconsiderable criminal populace, but the remainder of Santiddio's exultant outburst was beyond his comprehension. It was enough for Conan to understand that a desperate attempt to free the condemned prisoners was being madealbeit somewhat tardilyand the reasons behind such a move concerned him not.
The strangling noose bit into his throat. The hangman had previously taken in all slack in the ropes, so that his clients must stand on their toes to draw breath. It was a refinement that made it impossible for a frantic prisoner to duck out of his noose and make a futile leap into the crowd. Unless another hand freed him from the noose, Conan realized he could only stand helplessly beneath the gibbet while the melee raged about him.
Conan's wrists were chained in front of him, but the restraining length that connected manacles and leg-irons effectively prevented him from raising his hands above the level of his waist. Desperately Conan strained his powerful muscles in an effort to break one of the partially filed links of chain. His exertions were instantly halted by the noose, which all but throttled the Cimmerian into unconsciousness as he doggedly continued to strain against the heavy fetters.
Relaxing his muscles to gulp for breath, Conan took in the struggle within the prison yard. For a moment his vision blurred, throbbed agonizingly from the occluded circulation to his head. Beside him, Santiddio was dancing on his toes and howling like a madmanevidently a rescue did not demand the aloof dignity of an execution.
Across the square the mob surged and roiled in mindless panic to escape the frantic rush of the terrified draft horses and their juggernaut conflagration. Maddened by pain and fear, the teams could only plunge desperately forwardseeking to escape the blazing pyre that pursued them, heedless of the screaming masses of humanity that ripped apart be-needy their smashing hooves. Made helpless by its panic-stricken myriads, the crowd flung itself to the outlying streets with all the blind impetus of a beheaded pythontrampling scores of the less agile in its frenzy to escape. Blocked in by the press of the frantic mob, reinforcements from the prison itself were unable to force their way across the Dancing Floor.
Beneath the scaffold, Mordermi's brigands fought an uncertain battle with the guards who had been posted there for the execution. The initial surprise and confusion gave an advantage to the attackersConan judged there must be a score of them; in the chaos that ensued it was impossible to be certain. That any organized force would have the temerity, let alone the motive, to attempt to rescue any of these common felons from the public gallows was an eventuality that the prison officials would have deemed absurd. Now, as the beleaguered guards wielded their halbards in frantic defense against an unexpected assault, it would take time for a reserve force to breach the panic-stricken masses.
Backs to the scaffold, the remnant of the guard met sword and knife with their long-shafted halbards. Upon the scaffold itself: three bodies swung lazily, a fourth kicked frenetically an inch above the platform, and the hangman's corpse glared at the three men who yet waited beneath their hempen tethers. The initial attack had cleared the scaffold of all others.
One of the attackers burst past the faltering circle of guards, dashed up the scaffold steps toward the helpless captives there. Santiddio shouted a cheerthen cursed impotently, as a halbard blade swept up out of the melee to sever their rescuer's leg at midcalf. Screaming, the crippled man pinwheeled back down the steps and into the struggle below.
"Santiddio!" Conan bellowed. "Stretch out your wrists toward me!"
Despite his excitement, the other man instantly understood. Turning his back to Conan, Santiddio extended his bound wrists toward the Cimmerian's manacled fists. By straining to the limits of their nooses, they were just able to bring their hands together. Setting his teeth against the throttling agony of the noose, Conan tore at the knots that held the other's wrists. The knots were hard, the cord tightly bound, cutting deep into Santiddio's wrists. Conan cursed and broke his nails digging against the knots. His temples dirobbed with congested blood.
An angry shout penetrated Conan's consciousness for all his maniacal concentration on the knots: "Kill the prisoners! Kill the prisoners!"
Either to foil the escape attempt, or to cause the wouldbe rescuers to withdrawthe order had been given. Forcing his way out of the tumult below, a blood-spattered guard heaved himself onto the scaffold. An assailant from below seized the man's legs as they cleared the platform edge, tumbled onto the scaffold behind him. The guard dropped his halbard as they grappled. In a writhing heap, the two rolled across the timber planksknives stabbing for flesh.
Conan clawed at the stubborn knots with bleeding nails, finally loosening the tight cords. With a savage wrench, he dug his fingers into the loosened coils, tore the bonds away from the livid flesh.
Santiddio yelped, hastily flung off his loosened bonds. In another instant the slim youth was grasping the hempen rope, lifting himself clear of the scaffold. The slack he gained thereby took the tension from the noose, and after a frantic scramble, Santiddio slipped his noose and dropped back onto the platform.
"Free me!" Conan shouted. In the seconds that had elapsed, the guard had dispatched his opponent, and now stumbled toward them with lowered halbard. Santiddio could easily leap from the scaffold and disappear into the milling fray within the square. Conan would not have blamed the manneither would he have forgiven him.
Instead Santiddio darted to Conan's side, turning his back on the swiftly advancing guard. "Just give me some slack!" he yelled.
Conan lifted himself onto his boot toes, as Santiddio wrestled to loosen the noose enough to slip it past the Cimmerian's chin.
The guard rushed past the third surviving prisoner, intent on impaling the freed Santiddio. The other condemned man lashed out his foot, tripped the unsuspecting guard. The guard staggered, whirled aboutthen drove his halbard spike through the helpless man's breast.
It gained them only a short breath of time, but that was enough for Santiddio to slip the hempen noose over Conan's jaw. Heedless of abraded skin, Conan dragged his head out of the noose.
In a frenzy, Santiddio flung himself against the guardConan thought of an alley cat attacking a coach doggripping the halbard shaft as the other yanked its spike free of the entrapping ribcage and spun to face him. Not troubling to break the smaller man's grip and bring the halbard blade to play, the burly guard simply rolled over Santiddioforcing him onto his back against the platform. Astride the youth's chest, the guard pressed the halbard shaft across Santiddio's throatbearing down with killing pressure despite the other's frantic resistance.
Free of the noose, Conan was nonetheless far from a free man. Hobbled by his prison chains, he knew there was no chance to escape the circle of guards. Even as Santiddio went down, another guard was breaking away from the hard fighting at the scaffold steps to join his comrade in finishing off the prisoners.
Conan threw every ounce of his great strength against his iron fettersbracing legs and shoulders to draw maximum tension upon the length of chain that joined wrist and ankle chains. Massive knots of muscle bunched upon naked torso and shoulders, strained against the confines of his tattered leather trousers. Iron cuffs gouged into wrists and ankles, grinding flesh against bone. Bright blood trickled from torn skinat once diluted by the glistening sweat that poured from his straining flesh. The footsteps of the onrushing guard reached his brain but dimly through the sledging pulse of his heart
Muscle against ironone or the other must soon break under the unendurable stress. Iron was the weaker.
A link of the chain, eroded by hours of stealthy abrasion against its adjacent link, parted with a sudden wrenching. Conan's wrists were flung upward by the recoilstill chained together. To his disgust, Conan realized that only the connecting chain had partedhis wrists, his ankles were still fettered.
It was enough to save his life. As the second guard rushed upon his back, Conan whirled and sidesteppedswinging the length of chain between his wrists as if it were a flail. The chain snapped into the startled guard's face, ripping away his eyes and crushing the thin bone of the orbit. The guard howled and plummeted from the scaffold.
With a quick leap, Conan was upon the other guardtoo intent upon strangling Santiddio to recognize the sudden threat. In an instant, Conan had twisted his wrist chain about the guard's thick neck. Driving a knee into the man's back, Conan jerked savagely. The guard's head all but tore away from his smashed vertebrae.
Santiddio, face livid and gagging for breath, rolled out from under the halbard shaft. Conan dragged him to his feet, held him there until his knees grew steady. A quick look told Conan that the prison yard was emptying. A company of guards was pushing its way across the square through the thinning press of the mob. About the scaffold, the small remnant of their guards were concerned only with staying alive until reinforcements could relieve them, while their rescuers showed a growing inclination to withdraw and lose themselves in the fleeing crowd.
As the square began to clear, a small band of riders thundered their way against the flow of humanity. They led other mounts with saddles empty, and Conan saw that they were making for the gallows. Pounding hooves cleared a path through the dwindling crowd, as the mob had no thought save to take cover.
"It's Mordermi!" croaked Santiddio, still half-strangled. "Mitra! That's Sandokazi riding with him! They've brought us mounts! We're going to make it!"
"If they reach us before the guard regroups," Conan rumbled. He caught up the fallen halbard, shortened his grip on its shaft, and swung the blade between his legs with all his strength. The axe blade bit into the chain of his leg-irons. Striking with precision, Conan repeated the blow. The link parted, freeing his ankles.
Conan grunted in satisfaction. Grounding the weapon, he braced its butt between his feet, then pierced the halbard spike through one of the weakened links of his wrist chains. Using leverage, Conan drew his arms back, twisting the chain link against the steel awl. For a moment it seemed that the spike would snap under the strain. Then the weld parted and the link twisted open.
With a harsh laugh, Conan waved his freed wrists, brandished the halbard. "Bring on your new hangman, you yapping pack of jackals! I'll hang him up by his own entrails!"
None of the guards remained to answer his challenge.
Conan started. It was a woman's voice that hailed his comrade. Her hair a black banner beneath a red scarf, she rode at the head of the mounted band that plunged toward them, breaking past the fringes of the mob.
"Sandokazi! You did it!" Santiddio exulted, as they drew rein before the gallows.
"Hurry! The others will be on us in another moment! When the square clears, they'll not hesitate to use archers!" This from the leader of the horsemenConan took him to be Mordermi from the descriptions he'd heard of the infamous rogue. Mordermi took in the five dangling corpses and swore. "Mitra! I cut it close, my friend!"
"Come on, Conan!" Santiddio shouted. "We've a horse for you!"
The new force of guards was only moments away. Conan needed no second to the invitation. Vaulting onto the proffered saddle, he joined the tumultous charge back across the Dancing Floor and into the twisting streets beyond.
Copyright © 1979 by Conan Properties, Inc.