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Conan the Destroyer
By Robert Jordan
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 1984 Conan Properties, Inc.
All rights reserved.
The bloody sun baked the Zamoran plain, and baked, too, the procession that made its way across those rocky flats and rolling hills. The riders were armored in ebon breastplates and nasaled helms. Sable was the chain-mail that covered their arms, and sable the greaves that rose from booted feet to dark-breeched knees. No accoutrement of theirs but was the hue of deepest night. Their horses, too, were sheathed in black iron, chanfons and crinets covering heads and necks, peytrals protecting their chests. A long, curved sword hung at each warriors' hip, and spike-headed maces swung at every high-pommeled saddle, but the hands that should have grasped lances held instead wooden clubs and long staves. Nets did they carry, as well, thick woven and weighted, stout enough to hold tigers.
Last in the procession was a high-wheeled cart, drawn by two horses, and on it was bound a large cage of iron bars as thick as a man's wrist. The cart's driver worked his long whip ceaselessly across the backs of his team, for despite the heat of the sun and the weight of their armor the column kept a rapid pace, and it would be more than his life was worth did he delay it a moment in reaching its goal.
He who led the column was a head taller than any other man there, and broader of shoulder by more than a handspan. He was marked as a warrior of note, a man of position, by the intricate gold chasing of his gleaming sable breastplate, elaborate arabesques surrounding a leaping lion. It was a symbol he had chosen many years before, and many said he fought with the ferocity of that beast. Thin, age- whitened scars, one across the bridge of his broad nose and another running from the corner of his left eye to the point of his chin, proclaimed him no newcomer to the profession of arms. Now those scars were all but hidden under dust that clung to the sweat pouring from his face.
"Useless," he muttered beneath his breath. "No Erlik-accursed use at all."
"There is always a use in what I do, Bombatta."
The big man stiffened as one of the riders, masked in soft black leather as well as helmeted, galloped up beside him. He had not thought his voice would carry further than his own ears.
"I see no need," he began, but the other cut him off with a voice distorted by the mask, yet carrying the note of command.
"What must be done, must be done as it is written in the Scrolls of Skelos. Exactly as it is written, Bombatta."
"As you command," he replied grudgingly, "so do I obey."
"Of course, Bombatta. But I hear a question unspoken. Speak it." The tall warrior hesitated. "Speak it, Bombatta. I command you."
"What we now seek," Bombatta said slowly, "or rather where to seek ... surely that cannot be in the scrolls."
The black-masked rider's laugh was muffled behind the dark leather. Bombatta colored at the mocking tone.
"Ah, Bombatta. Think you my powers limited to knowledge of the Scrolls? Do you think I know only what is written there?"
"No." His reply was as curt as he dared make it.
"Then obey me, Bombatta. Obey, and trust that we will find what we seek."
"As you command, so do I obey."
The huge warrior dug his heels into the flanks of his mount, careless of the men behind who must keep up. More speed, he knew, would be taken as a show of obedience, a sign of trust in the commands he had been given. Let the others mutter angrily in their sweat. He kicked his horse again, ignoring the lather that was beginning to fleck the animal's neck. His doubts were unshaken, but he had been too long in climbing to his present post to lose it now, not if he had to gallop men and horses alike to their deaths.
The plains of Zamora oft saw unusual sights, so often that few were any longer truly considered unusual by those who witnessed them. Madness, bandits and holy vows had at different times produced a man in the robes of a noble who scattered gold coins to the sands, a column of naked men mounted backwards on their horses, and a procession of maidens, wearing naught but blue paint from forehead to toes, who danced and chanted their way through blistering heat. And any who sought to link event with cause would find surprises.
There had been many others, some stranger still, yet few had seemed odder than the two men laboring far from any city or village, beneath the blazing sun in a hollow at the foot of a rock-strewn hill. Their hobbled horses cropped sparse, tough grass nearby.
The first man was a tall, heavily-muscled youth. Massive arms straining, he lifted a thick, flat slab of rock, as long as a man was tall, atop four gray boulders he had rolled together. To level the slab he pushed fist-sized stones beneath it. About his neck, on a rawhide thong, hung an amulet of gold in the shape of a dragon.
The sapphire-eyed young man seemed more a warrior than a builder. A broadsword of ancient pattern hung at his belt, and both its hilt and that of his dagger showed the wear of frequent use. His face, a square-cut black mane held back from it by a leather cord, showed only a lack of years to the casual observer. Those who looked deeply, however, could see several ordinary lifetimes' experience written there, lifetimes of blood and steel.
The sky-eyed youth's companion was his antithesis both physically and in occupation. Short, wiry and black-eyed, with greasy black hair tied behind his neck to fall below his shoulders, the second man stood to his thighs in a narrow pit, laboring to deepen it with a broken-handled shovel. Two bulging leather sacks sat on the ground beside the hole. Continually the wiry fellow dashed sweat from his eyes and cursed work of a sort he was unused to, but whenever his gaze fell on those sacks he set to again with a will.
Finally, though, he tossed the broken shovel aside. "It's deep enough, eh, Conan?"
The muscular youth did not hear. He frowned at the thing he had built. It was an altar, something with which he had little experience. But in the harsh mountain wastes of his native Cimmeria he had learned that debts must be repaid, whatever the cost, whatever the difficulty.
"Conan, is it deep enough?"
The Cimmerian eyed his companion grimly. "If you hadn't opened your mouth at the wrong time, Malak, we'd not have to bury the gems. Amphrates wouldn't know who stole his jewels, the City Guard wouldn't know who stole the jewels, and we could be sitting in Abuletes' tavern drinking wine, with dancing girls on our knees, instead of sweating out on the plains. Dig it deeper."
"I did not mean to shout your name," Malak grumbled. He fumbled open one of the leather bags and scooped out a handful of sapphires and rubies, emeralds and opals. Green glittered in his eyes as he poured the polished stones back again, a sparkling stream of blue and crimson and green and gold. With a regretful sigh he tugged the drawstring tight. "I just didn't think he would have so much. I was surprised. I did not do it apurpose."
"Dig, Malak," Conan said, looking now at the altar rather than the other man.
The Cimmerian closed his big hand around the golden amulet. Valeria had given it to him, and it seemed to him he felt her near him when he touched it. Valeria, lover, warrior and thief all in one bundle of lithe golden-haired beauty. Then she died, ripping the joy from his life. He had seen her die. But as well he had seen her return, come again to fight at his side, to save his life. Debts must be repaid.
Malak had taken up the broken-handled shovel again, but instead of digging he eyed the altar. "I did not think you believed in the gods, Cimmerian. I've never seen you pray."
"The god of my land is Crom," Conan replied, "the Dark Lord of the Mound. At birth he gives a man life and will, and never another gift. He will not pay heed to votive offerings, nor listen to prayers or pleadings. What a man does with the gifts Crom has given him are his own affair."
"But the altar?" Malak prompted when he fell silent.
"This is a different land, with different gods. They are not my gods, but Valeria believed." Frowning, Conan released the dragon amulet. "Mayhap her gods listen, as the priests claim they do. Perhaps I can do something to help her fate with them."
"Who knows what will sway gods," Malak said, shrugging. The wiry thief lifted himself from the hole and sat crosslegged beside the leather sacks. "Even the priests do not agree, so how can you —" The clatter of galloping hooves from beyond the hill cut off his words.
With a yelp Malak snatched for the leather sacks. In an instant he had thrust several of the gems into his mouth — his face contorted painfully as he swallowed — and tossed the sacks into the hole. Desperately he began shoveling dirt back in, kicking in stones, anything to fill it before the riders arrived.
Conan put a hand to the leather-wrapped hilt of his broadsword and waited calmly, cool blue eyes watching the hill for the first of the newcomers. They could be anyone, he told himself. They could be concerned with matters other than Malak and himself. But he did not believe it.CHAPTER 2
As a lone horseman in black nasaled helm and gold-chased ebon breastplate crested the hill, Malak laughed shakily. "One man. He may be big, but we can handle one man, if he tries —"
"I heard more than a single horse," Conan said.
"Erlik take them," Malak groaned. Jamming the broken-handled shovel under the edge of a small boulder, he levered the stone toward the hole. "Our horses," he panted. "We can outrun them." The boulder toppled into the narrow pit, plugging it.
Conan snorted, but gave no other answer. The watcher's horse was weighed down with as much armor as its rider, it was true. The two of them would gain a lead, but a short-lived one, he knew. Their mounts were the sort available on short notice to men who had obvious need of leaving Shadizar quickly, though each had cost as much in gems as a king's charger. At a gallop the animals would founder inside half a league, leaving them afoot to be run down at their pursuer's leisure.
The watcher had stopped on the crest of the hill.
"What does he wait for?" Malak demanded, tugging two daggers from his belt. "If we are to die, I see no reason —"
Abruptly the black-armored warrior raised his arm, moved it from side to side. Over the hilltop burst more than fourscore yelling armored riders, an ebon wave that split to either side of the man who still sat with upraised arm. At a dead gallop the warriors roared to the right and left, sweeping out to encircle Conan and Malak at a distance of three hundred paces.
"You would think we were an army," Conan said. "Someone thinks we are dangerous, Malak."
"So many," Malak moaned, and cast a regretful glance at their horses, now whinnying fretfully and dancing as if they wished to run. He seemed ready to run with them. "The gold for hiring these would keep a man in luxury for months. Who would have thought Amphrates would become so angry?"
"Perhaps he did not like having his gems stolen," Conan said drily.
"We did not take all that he had," the wiry thief muttered. "He could be grateful that something was left. He could spend a coin or two for incense in the temples, to thank the gods for what remained. He did not have to. ..."
The Cimmerian was barely aware of his companion's tirade. He had learned long since to listen selectively to the small man, simply no longer hearing Malak's moans of what could have been or should have been, but obviously was not.
At the moment the steely-eyed northlander was intent on four of the encircling warriors, four men who had ridden together and now fumbled with a long bundle one of them bore before his saddle. He glanced back at the hilltop. Another rider, masked, now sat beside the first, watching what occurred below.
Abruptly the tall watcher raised a curled brass horn, like the hunting horns used by nobles. A loud note rang from the hilltop, and the four who had worked at the bundle suddenly unfurled it between them and broke into a gallop, straight for the two men afoot. Four others galloped out to join them.
The big Cimmerian's frown deepened. It was a net they held, and the outriders bore long clubs, as if they would cut off a quarry that sought to evade capture.
Malak took two nervous steps toward the horses.
"Wait." Despite Conan's youth there was a note of command in his voice that stopped the smaller man. "Wait for them, or we are meat for the taking." Malak nodded grimly and tightened his grip on his daggers.
Closer the horsemen thundered. A hundred paces. Fifty. Ten. Shouts of triumph broke from the charging warriors.
"Now," Conan said, and leaped ... toward the net. Groaning, Malak followed.
As he leaped, the Cimmerian's broadsword finally left its worn shagreen scabbard. Driven by massive shoulders the blade sheared through a corner of the net. The rider who had held that corner galloped on with a startled yell, holding only a fragment of thick rope. The warrior following behind dropped his reins and drew the curved tulwar at his belt. Conan ducked under the slash, then thrust up, his steel sliding under the black breastplate. The impaled warrior seem to leap backwards from the saddle of his charging horse.
Even as the man fell, Conan tugged free his bloodied steel and spun, warned by a primitive instinct for danger. The face looming above him was twisted with rage beneath the dark helmet's rim, contorted as if the man wished he swung a sword rather than a club. Yet that thick billet, longer than a man's arm, could crack a skull if landed hard enough, and the club-wielder swung with a will. The Cimmerian's blade flashed upward, through flesh and bone. Club and still-clutching hand sailed through the air. As the shrieking man grabbed his scarlet-fountaining wrist with his remaining hand, his horse bolted, carrying him away. Hastily Conan sought for a new enemy.
Malak was grappling with one of the net-carriers, attempting to pull him from the saddle. One of the small thief's daggers darted into the gap between helmet and breastplate. With a gurgling scream the horseman toppled, carrying Malak to the ground with him. The dark-eyed thief bounded quickly to his feet, daggers at the ready. The other man did not move.
For a frozen instant Conan and his companion faced the five remaining of their attackers. The net lay abandoned on the ground, now. The two who had helped bear the net rested their hands on their sword hilts. Those with clubs seemed more hesitant. Suddenly one man threw down his club; before his sword was half drawn another blast of the horn rang out. The sword was resheathed with an oath, and all five galloped back toward the encircling line.
Malak licked his lips. "Why are they trying to capture us? I don't understand."
"Perhaps Amphrates is even madder than we thought," Conan replied grimly. "Perhaps he wants to see how much the Torturers' Guild can make us scream before we die."
"Mitra!" Malak breathed. "Why did you have to tell me something like that?"
Conan shrugged. "You asked." Again the horn sounded. "Get ready. They're coming again."
Again four riders bore the net spread between them, but this time the outriders brought their number up to a full score. As the horsemen pounded toward them, Conan motioned unobtrusively; Malak shrugged and nodded. The two men stood, waiting, as they had before. Closer the net came, and closer. Only three strides from the men on the ground, half the outriders swung in close to the net. This time there would be no unimpeded cutting of the net or killing of its bearers.
As the outriders closed with the net, Conan leaped to the left and Malak to the right. Net-bearers and outriders galloped between them, cursing and trying to turn their horses. A club swung at Conan's head. Its wielder grunted in surprise when his wrist slapped into the Cimmerian's palm, yelled in disbelief as the massive youth jerked him from the saddle. Conan's fisted hilt struck once, spraying blood and teeth, and his opponent slumped.
Drumming hooves alerted him to an attacker coming from behind. His hand closed on the long club as it fell from nerveless fingers, and he rose, spinning into a backhand blow with the staff. The thick length of wood cracked as it slammed across the midsection of a charging horseman. Eyes bulging and air rushing from him in one long strangled gasp, the rider bent as if seeking to fold himself around the club, and his horse galloped out from under him.
Excerpted from Conan the Destroyer by Robert Jordan. Copyright © 1984 Conan Properties, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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