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Legions of the Dead
Conan, born in the bleak, cloud-oppressed northern hills of Cimmeria, was known as a fighter around the council fires before he had seen fifteen snows. In that year, the Cimmerian tribesmen forgot their feuds and joined forces to repel the Gundermen who, pushing across the Aquilonian frontier, had built the frontier post of Venarium and begun to colonize the southern marches of Cimmeria. Conan was one of the howling, blood-mad horde that swept out of the northern hills, stormed over the stockade with sword and torch, and drove the Aquilonians back to their former border.
At the sack of Venarium, still short of his full growth, Conan already stood six feet tall and weighed 180 pounds. He had the alertness and stealth of the born woodsman, the iron-hardness of the mountain man, the Herculean physique of his blacksmith father, and a practical familiarity with knife, axe, and sword.
After the plunder of the Aquilonian outpost, Conan returns for a time to his tribe. Restless under the conflicting urges of his adolescence, his traditions, and his times, he becomes involved in a local feud and is not sorry to leave his village. He joins a band of Æsir in raiding the Vanir and the Hyperboreans. Some of the Hyperborean citadels, however, are under control of a caste of widely feared magicians, called Witchmen, and it is against one of these strongholds that Conan finds himself taking part in a foray.
1 • Blood on the Snow
A deer paused at the brink of the shallow stream and raised its head, sniffing the frosty air. Water dripped from its muzzle like beads of crystal. The lingering sun gleamed on its tawny hide and glistened on the tines of its branching antlers.
Whatever faint sound or scent had disturbed the animal was not repeated. Presently it bent to drink again from the frigid water, which rushed and bubbled amid crusts of broken ice.
On either side of the stream, steep banks of earth lay mantled in the new-fallen snow of early winter. Thickets of leafless bush grew close together under the somber boughs of the neighboring pines; and from the forest beyond, nothing could be heard but the ceaseless drip, drip of melting snow. The featureless leaden sky of the dying day scarcely seemed to clear the tops of the trees.
From the shelter of the woods, a slender javelin darted with deadly precision; and at the end of its arc, the long shaft caught the stag off guard and sank behind its shoulder. The stricken creature bolted for the far side of the creek; then staggered, coughed blood, and fell. For a moment or two it lay on its side, kicking and struggling. Then its eyes glazed, its head hung limply, and its heaving flanks grew still. Blood, mixed with froth and foam, dribbled from its sagging jaws to stain the virgin snow a brilliant crimson.
Two men emerged from the trees and studied the snowy landscape with searching eyes. The larger and older, plainly in command, was a giant of a man with massive shoulders and long, heavily muscled arms. The swell of his mighty chest and shoulders was visible beneath the cloak of fur that enveloped his stalwart figure and the coarse, baggy woolens he wore beneath the cloak. A broad belt of rawhide with a golden buckle held his garments around him, and a hood of wolf fur, forming part of the cloak, obscured his face.
Now pushing back the hood to peer about, he revealed a head of curling golden hair, slightly streaked with gray. A short, roughly trimmed beard of the same hue clothed his broad cheeks and heavy jaw. The color of his hair, his fair skin and ruddy cheeks, and his bold blue eyes marked him as one of the Æsir.
The youth beside him differed from him in many ways. Scarcely more than a boy, he was tall and brawny for his agealmost as tall as the full-grown Northman beside himbut lean and wiry rather than massive. He was dark and sullen, with straight, coarse black hair hacked off at the nape, and the skin of his somber visage was either naturally swarthy or heavily tanned. Under heavy black brows, his eyes were as blue as those of the giant at his elbow; but whereas the golden warrior's eyes sparkled with the joy of the hunt and zest for the kill, those of the dark youth glowered like the eyes of some wild and hungry predator. Unlike his bearded companion, the young man's beard was shaven clean, although a dark stubble shadowed his square jaw.
The bearded man was Njal, a jarl or chieftain of the Æsir and leader of a band of raiders known and feared on the wintry borders between Asgard and Hyperborea. The youth was Conan, a renegade from the rugged, cloud-haunted hills of Cimmeria to the south.
Satisfied that they were unobserved, the two emerged from cover, descended the bank, and waded the icy current to the place where their kill lay lifeless on the blood-spotted snow. Weighing almost as much as the two men together, the stag was too heavy and, with its branching antlers, too cumbersome to bear back to their camp. So, while the youth watched broodingly, the chieftain bent and, with a long knife, swiftly butchered the beast, peeling back the hide and separating the shoulders, haunches, and ribs from the rest of the carcass.
"Dig a hole, boy, and make it deep," grunted the man.
The youth cut into the frozen slope of the bank, using the blade of the long-handled ax that had been strapped to his back. By the time that Njal had finished dressing the stag, Conan had hacked out a pit capacious enough to hide the offal. While the Northman cleaned the bloody quarters in the rushing stream, the youth buried all that was left of the carcass, and scraped the crimson snow into the pit along with the loosened soil. Then untying his fur cloak, die Cimmerian dragged it back and forth, obliterating the traces of his handiwork.
Njal wrapped the flesh of the deer in the freshly flayed hide of the beast and tied the mouth of the improvised sack with a thong brought along for the purpose. Conan cut a sapling with his ax and trimmed it down to a pole as long as a man, while the jarl cleansed his javelin by thrusting it into the sand in the bed of the stream. Njal tied the bag to the middle of the pole, which the two then hoisted to their shoulders. Dragging Conan's cloak behind them to erase their footprints, they climbed the farther slope and reentered the woods.
Here along the Hyperborean border, the pines grew tall, thick, and dark. Wherever a break in die forest afforded a vista, the ridges could be seen to roll endlessly away, covered with snowcapped pines of a green as dark as sable. Wolves skulked along the nighted forest trails, their burning eyes lambent green coals, while above floated great white owls on silent wings.
The two well-armed hunters had no fear of die local creatures; save that, when a bear ambled across the path ahead, they gave it a respectfully wide berth. Like ghosts they glided through the darkened woods to join their fellow raiders, who lay encamped beneath the shoulder of a hill. Since both were woodsmen born and bred, they made no noise and left little trace of their swift passage. Even the scrubby bushes did not rustle as they slipped through them.
So well concealed was the Æsir camp that their first knowledge of its presence was the murmur of voices around a hidden fire; yet the watchful sentinels had seen their coming. An elderly Northman, whose locks had turned to silver, rose from the fireside to greet them silently. One of his eyes was bright and keen; the other was an empty socket concealed by a leather patch. He was Gorm, a bard of the Æsir, over whose bent shoulders slept a harp in a sack of deerskin.
"What word from Egil?" demanded the raider chief, lowering the pole from his shoulder and motioning to the cook to take it away.
"No word, Jarl," said the one-eyed man somberly. "I like it not." He moved uneasily, as does a beast at the scent of danger.
Njal exchanged a glance with the silent Conan. Two days before, an advance party had left the camp under cover of a moonless night to spy out the great castle of Haloga, which lay not far beyond the hills that ringed the horizon to the southeast.
Thirty warriors, seasoned and canny veterans all, led by Egil the huntsman, had gone to scout the way and to study the fortifications of the forbidding Hyperborean stronghold. Conan, unasked, had brashly spoken out against the imprudence of so drastically dividing their strength thus near the enemy, and Njal had roughly bade the youth to hold his tongue. Later, regretting his harshness, the jarl had brought Conan with him in search of game as his rude way of making amends.
Egil's messengers should have returned many hours since. The fact that they had not stirred fear in the mind of Njal, and in the secret places of his heart, he wished that he had harkened to the young Cimmerian's warning.
Njal's shortness of temper and the urgency with which he had driven his men across the wilderness to the Hyperborean border were not without cause. Hyperborean slavers, a fortnight sinceslavers with the red mark of Haloga on their black raimenthad carried off his only daughter, Rann.
Brooding over the fate of his beloved daughter and the whereabouts of his trusted scouts, the jarl repressed a shudder. The Witchmen of shadowy Hyperborea were feared far and wide for their uncanny mastery of the black arts; and Haloga's sadistic queen was feared like the Black Death.
Njal fought down the chill that clutched his heart and turned to Gorm the skald. "Tell the cook to broil the meat swiftlyand on charcoal, for we cannot risk the smoke of open fires. And bid the men eat fast. When night descends, we move."
2 • The Horror on the Parapet
All that night, like a band of wolves, the raiders from Asgard drifted in single file across the snowy hills into the clammy, swirling mists of Hyperborea. At first the night was star-decked only, but once they crossed the hills, cold mists blotted out even the wan and frosty glimmer of the stars. When at length the moon arose, the mists bedimmed it to a pearly blotch in the sky, like a moon reflected in wind-ruffled water.
Despite the gloom that drenched this barren, bog-infested, scantily inhabited land, the raiders took advantage of every slightest bit of cover, every leafless bush and stunted tree and inky patch of shadow. For Haloga was a mighty fortress, and doubtless guarded well. Desperate and vengeful as he was, Njal well knew in the depths of his heart that his only hope of success lay in surprise.
The moon and mists had fled together before they reached Haloga. The castle stood on a low rise in the center of a shallow, bowl-shaped valley. Huge were its frowning walls of dark stone, and massive the masonry around the lone and ponderous gate. Above the main walls rose a castellated parapet. A few windows were set high in the towers; nothing else but arrow slits broke the clifflike surface of the megalithic walls.
It would, Njal knew, be difficult to storm this place. And where were the men whom he had sent ahead to scout the way? No sign of them had been discerned, even by his keen-eyed trackers; for the newly fallen snow had obliterated their footprints.
"Shall we essay the walls, Jarl?" asked a warrior-an outlaw fled hither from Vanaheim, if his red beard was any token.
"Nay, the dawn approaches, curse the luck!" growled the chief. "We must wait for night again, or pray the gods will let the white-haired devils grow careless and raise the portcullis. Tell the men to sleep where they are and to sprinkle snow over their furs so none can see them. Tell Thror Ironhand his squad has the first watch."
Njal lay down, wrapped his furs around him, and closed his eyes. But sleep came not soon; and when it came, dreams of shadowy, chuckling menace made it hideous.
• • •
Conan slept not at all. Possessed by uneasy foreboding, the youth still resented Njal's gruff dismissal of his argument against the scouting party. He was a stranger among the Æsir freebooters, driven from his homeland by a blood feud, and had with difficulty won a precarious place among these blond warriors. They approved his ability to endure privation and hardship without complaint, and the bullies among them had learned to respect his heavy fists; for despite his youth, he fought with the ferocity of a cornered wildcat and needs must be dragged bodily from a foe once he had felled him. But still, as youths will, the Cimmerian burned to win the applause of his elders by some feat of daring or heroism.
Conan had observed the windows of the keep, which were much too high to reach by climbing, were it humanly possible to scale such walls without a ladder. He had mastered many sheer cliffs in his homeland; but those had at least afforded a toe- and finger-hold. The stones of Haloga were fitted and trimmed to a glassy smoothness that defied the climbing efforts of any creature larger than an insect.
The arrow slits, however, were set lower in the walls and thus seemed more accessible. Those of the lowest tier were little more than thrice a man's height above the ground, to give the archers a fair shot at besiegers who might cluster about the base of the wall. Plainly too narrow for a full-grown man of the bulk of most Æsir, were they too narrow for the smaller, slenderer Conan?
• • •
When dawn broke, one raider was missing from the campthe young Cimmerian outlaw, Conan. Njal had other things to think about and so had little time to ponder the fate of a surly, black-visaged young runaway, who seemed to lack the stomach for this raid.
The jarl had just discovered his missing scouts. They hung from the parapet, clearly visible as dawn lit the empty sky and dispelled the clammy fogs that shrouded the air of this accursed land. The men were still alive, dancing in their death throes at the ends of thirty ropes.
Njal stared, then cursed until his voice was hoarse, and he dug his nails into his hard palms. Although he felt sick to the roots of his soul, he could not tear his eyes away.
The eternally young queen of Haloga, Vammatar the Cruel, stood on the parapet fair as the morning, with long bright hair and full breasts, which curved sweetly beneath her heavy white robes. A lazy, languorous smile parted her full red lips: The men who attended her were true Hyperboreans, unearthly in their gaunt, long-legged stature, with pale eyes and skeins of colorless silken hair.
As the hidden Æsir, sick with rage and fury and helpless horror, watched, the men of Egil's party were slowly done to death with merciless hooks and wickedly curved knives. They squealed and flopped and wriggled, those gory, mangled things that had been stalwart warriors two days before. It took them hours to die.
Njal, his lips bitten through, aged much during that endless, terrible morn. And there was nothing at all he could do. A leader cannot throw a small band of men against high walls with only hand weapons. If he has a large, well-found army capable of keeping the field for months, he can batter down the walls with rams and catapults, or undermine them with tunnels, or roll siege towers up to them and swarm across, or surround the stronghold and starve it out. Lacking such overmastering force, he needs at least scaling ladders as long as the wall is high, a force of archers or slingers to beat the defenders back from the ramparts, and above all surprise.
Surprise, the advantage on which Njal had counted, was now lost to him. However the Hyperboreans had captured Egil's scouting party, the mere fact of their capture had alerted the people of Haloga to the presence of Æsir in the vicinity. The Witchmen of this devil-haunted land must, by their weird arts, have known of the approach of the hostile force. The sinister legends about them were now proved true by the crimson evidence hanging against the red-stained stone of the parapet. Haloga had known that the Æsir were out there all the time, and not even the cold-hearted and vengeance-loving gods of the Northlands could help them now.
Then it was that the first plume of jet-black smoke drifted from the lofty windows of the keep, and the torturers broke, crying out in amazement, and scurried away with their black gowns flapping. The lazy, catlike smile vanished from the soft, curved lips of Haloga's queen. A feeble, flickering flame of hope leaped up within the breast of Njal of Asgard.
3 • Shadow of Vengeance
Scaling the wall had been neither easier nor harder than Conan had guessed. A rain spout, curved like the mouth of a vomiting dragon, caught and held the noose of his rope on the fifteenth or sixteenth try. The rope, knotted at intervals for better purchase, neither slipped nor broke beneath his weight.
When he had ascended to the level of the slit, Conan locked his legs about the rope and rocked back and forth, like a child on a swing. By throwing his weight from one side to the other, he increased the dimensions of the arc. It was slow going; but at last, at the end of a swing to the right, he came within reach of the slit.
The next time he swung, he shot out a hand and grasped the masonry. Still holding the rope in his free hand, he thrust a booted foot into the opening and followed it with the other. Slowly and carefully he shifted his weight until he was sitting on the sill of the arrow slit with his legs inside. He still grasped the rope with his left hand, for it occurred to him that, if he released it, his lifeline would fall away and hang out of reach when he would have need of it for a hasty departure.
The slit was too narrow for Conan to pass through in his present position. Already his lean hips were wedged into the opening, the sides of which were angled outward to give the defender a wider field of arrow shot. So, turning sideways, he wriggled his hips and midsection through the aperture. But when his arms and chest reached the narrow opening, his woolen tunic, bunched up beneath his armpits, arrested further progress. Would he not look an utter fool, he thought, if the Witchmen came upon him wedged in the arrow slit? He had visions of being caught forever in this stony vise. Even if undiscovered, he would perish of hunger and thirst and make good food for the ravens.
Gathering courage, he decided that by expelling all the breath from his lungs, he might just slip through. He took several deep breaths, as if preparing to swim under water, exhaled, and pushed ahead until his thrashing feet found a firm surface to stand on. Turning his head, he wormed it through the inner edges of the slit and collapsed on a rough wooden floor. In his excitement he had released the rope, which started to snake through the slit. He caught it just before it slipped away.
Conan found himself in a small circular chamber, an archer's roost that was unoccupied. As he peered around in the gloom, he sighted a rough stool, placed there for the comfort of the defender. He pulled the stool nearer and made the rope fast to it, so that the heavy wood might serve to anchor the rope during his escape. Then he stretched his cramped muscles. He must, he thought, have left a few square palms of skin on the stonework as he scraped through.
Across the room from the arrow slit, the masonry was interrupted by an arched doorway. Conan drew his long knife from its scabbard and stole through the aperture. Beyond the doorway a spiral stair led upward, and occasional torches set in wall brackets did little to dispel the almost palpable obscurity.
Moving a step at a time and flattening himself against the wall to listen, Conan slowly worked his way through many passages to the central keep, where prisoners of rank and worth might lodge. Day had dawned long since, although little light penetrated this massive pile of stone through the arrow slits and narrow windows. From the screams that filtered faintly through the thick walls, the Cimmerian youth had a grim notion of what occupied the Witchmen on the parapet.
In a corridor intermittently lit by torches set in brackets, Conan found his prey at lasttwo of them, in fact. They were guarding a cell and, from the look of them, he knew the old stories were true. He had seen Cimmerians and Gundermen and Aquilonians and Æsir and Vanir, but never before had he set eyes upon a Hyperborean at close quarters, and the sight chilled the blood in his veins.
Like devils from some lightless hell they seemed, long-jawed faces white as fungi, pale and soulless amber eyes, and hair of colorless flax. Their gaunt bodies were clad all in black, save that the red mark of Haloga was embroidered on their bony chests. It seemed to Conan's fancy that the marks were bloody tokens of hearts that had been torn from their breasts, leaving naught but a grisly stain behind. The superstitious youth almost believed the ancient legends that these men were mere cadavers, animated by demons from the depths of some black hell.
They did have hearts, however; and when cut, they bled. They could also be killed, as he found when he hurled himself upon them from the corridor. The first one squawked and went down, sprawling awkwardly under the thunderbolt impact of Conan's catlike leap, and died bubbling as the Cimmerian's knife pierced his breast.
The second guard, staring slack-jawed and blank-eyed, gaped for a heartbeat. Then he aimed a kick at the intruder and went for his sword. But Conan's knife, a serpent's tongue, flicked out and slashed the Hyperborean's throat, leaving a mirthless, red-rimmed smile below the guard's pale thin-lipped mouth.
When the two were dead, Conan stripped them of their weapons and, dragging the bodies to an empty cell, heaped upon them the straw that lay matted on the floor. Then he peered into the small compartment that they had guarded.
A tall, milk-skinned girl with dear blue eyes and long, smooth hair the color of sun-ripened wheat stood proudly in the center of the enclosure, awaiting a fate she knew not of. Although the maiden's high young breasts rose and fell in her agitation, there was no fear in her eyes.
"Who are you?" she asked.
"Conan, a Cimmerian, a member of your father's band," he said, speaking her tongue with an accent foreign to her. "If you are Njal's daughter, that is."
She lifted her chin. "I am indeed Rann Njalsdatter."
"Good," he grunted, thrusting into the lock a key snatched from the dead Witchmen. "I have come for you."
"Alone?" Her eyes widened, incredulously.
Conan nodded. Snatching her hand, he led the Æsir girl into the corridor and gave her one of the two swords of the slain Witchmen. With her behind him and his newfound weapon readied for action, he cautiously retraced his steps along the stone passageways through which he had come.
Down the long corridor he prowled, silent and wary as a jungle cat. Moving with every sense alert, his smoldering gaze swept the walls and the doors set in them. In the flickering torchlight, his eyes burned like those of some savage creature of the wild.
At any moment, Conan knew, the Witchmen might discover them, for surely not every denizen of the castle was on the parapet with the torturers. Deep in his primal heart, he breathed an unspoken prayer to Crom, the merciless god of his shadowy homeland, that he and the girl might, unobserved, attain the arrow slit whereby he had entered.
Like an insubstantial shadow, the young Cimmerian glided through the gloomy passageways, which now curved following the girdle of the curtain wall; and Rann, on little cat feet, followed after him. Torches smoldered and smoked in their brackets, but the dark intervals between the flickering lights were alive with evil.
They met no one; yet Conan was not satisfied. True, their luck had held thus far, but it might end at any moment. If two or three Witchmen fell upon them, they might still win through; for the women of the Æsir were not pampered playthings but skilled and daring swordswomen. Often in battle they stood shoulder to shoulder with their men; and when fight they must, they fought with the ferocity of tigresses.
But what if they were set upon by six or a dozen Witchmen? Young as he was, Conan knew no mortal man, however skillful with his sword, can face at once in all directions; and whilst they thrust and parried in these dark passages, the alarm would surely sound and rouse the castle.
A diversion was needed, and one of the torches they passed gave the youth an inspiration. The torches were soaked in tarry pitch to burn long and slowly, but they burned deep and were not easily extinguished. Conan glanced about. The walls of the castle were of stone, but the floor planks and the beams supporting them were wooden. Across his grim face flitted a small smile of satisfaction.
Conan needed to find a storeroom, and as he prowled the corridors, he peered into chambers whose doors were open. One was vacant. Another contained a pair of empty beds. A third appeared to be a storage place for broken or damaged weapons and other metallic objects awaiting repair.
The door to the next room stood ajar, leaving a narrow crack of darkness in the flickering torchlight. Conan pushed it, and the door swung open with a faint squeal of hinges. Then he started back and hastily shut out the sight of that dark chamber; for the room contained a bed, and on the bed lay a sleeping Witchman. Beside him on a stool were several phials, which Conan supposed held medications for a sick man. He left the fellow snoring.
The next chamber turned out to be the sought-for storeroom. As Conan surveyed it from the hall, the rising sound of footsteps and voices caused him to whirl about, lip lifted in a snarl. He gestured frantically to Rann.
"Inside!" he breathed.
The twain slipped into the storeroom, and Conan closed the door. Since the room had no window, they waited in complete darkness, listening to the clatter of the approaching Hyperboreans. Soon the party passed the door, speaking in their guttural tongue, and their footsteps died away.
When all was silent again, Conan drew a long breath. Holding high his Hyperborean sword, he opened the door a crack, then more widely as he viewed naught but the empty corridor. With the door ajar, the dim light of the torches pierced the gloom, and he could make out the contents of the chamber. Here were a pile of fresh torches, a barrel of pitch, and in one corner, a heap of straw to garnish the cell floors in lieu of carpets.
It was but the work of a moment for Conan to toss the pile of straw about the chamber, overturn the barrel of pitch upon it, and spread the viscous stuff around. Darting out into the passageway, he snatched a torch from the nearest bracket and heaved it into the combustible mass that covered the floor of the storeroom. Crackling lustily, the flames ate their way through the straw and belched black smoke along the corridor.
Tarred from face to boots and coughing from the acrid fumes, Conan caught Rann's hand, sprinted down the winding stairs, and regained the alcove through which he had gained entry. How long before the Witchmen would discover that their castle was ablaze, Conan knew not; but he trusted this diversion to occupy their full attention while the rescuer and rescued squirmed through the narrow slit and clambered down the rope to the safety of the frozen ground.
4 • That Which Pursued
Jarl Njal bellowed with joy and seized the laughing, weeping girl in his arms, crushing her against his burly chest. But even in his joy, the chieftain paused to look deep into Conan's eyes and clap the youth on the shoulder with a friendly buffet that would have knocked most striplings off their feet.
As they hastened to the Asgard camp beneath the cover of the snow-tipped pines, the youth, in terse words, described the day's adventure. But words were scarcely needed. Behind them a raven cloud of soot besmudged the afternoon sky, and the crash of collapsing timbers and fire-blackened masonry resounded like distant thunder in the hills. The Witchmen would doubtless save part of their fortress; although many of the lank, flaxen-haired devils must have already perished in the conflagration.
Wasting no time, Njal ordered his men to begin the long trek back to Asgard. Not until he and his band were deep in their own land could the chief of the Æsir count himself safe from Hyperborean vengeance. There would, no doubt, be pursuit; but for the moment the dwellers in Haloga had other matters to busy them.
The Æsir made haste to depart, and in their hurry they sacrificed concealment to speed. Since the face of the wan sun was still pillowed on the treetops, they could with effort put leagues between themselves and the castle before the early fall of the northern night.
From the parapet of Haloga, the agelessly beautiful Queen Vammatar watched them go, her jasper eyes cold with hate as she smiled a slow and evil smile.
• • •
There was little greenery in this flat land of bog and hillock, and what there was lay blanketed in snow. As the sun neared the horizon, clammy coils of choking fog rose from the stagnant meres and laid a chill upon men's hearts. The travelers saw few signs of life, save for a couple of Hyperborean serfs who fled from the band and lost themselves in the mist.
From time to time, one or another of the Æsir set an ear to the ground, but no drumming of hooves could be heard. They hastened on, slipping and stumbling on the uncertain, frozen footing. But before day wrapped her icy cloak around her shoulders and departed, Conan glanced to the rear, and cried out: "Someone follows us!"
The Æsir halted and gazed in the direction that he indicated. At first they could see nothing but the endless, undulant plain, whose junction with the sky was hidden in the mists. Then a Northman with vision that transcended the sight of his fellows exclaimed:
"He is right. Men on foot pursue us, mayhap…mayhap a half a league behind."
"Come!" growled Njal. "We will not stop to camp this night. In these fogs, 'twere easy for a foe to creep upon us, no matter how many sentries we might post."
• • •
The band staggered on while the setting sun was swallowed by the voracious mists. After the Æsir had long trudged in darkness, a wan moon climbed above the mists that hemmed them in, and its light shone on a faint patch of rippling shade. It was the pursuing force, larger and nearer than ever.
Njal, a man of iron, strode forward with his exhausted daughter in his arms; nor would he entrust so precious a burden to another. Conan, full as he was with the vigor of youth, ached in every limb and sinew as he followed the giant jarl. The other raiders, uncomplaining, maintained the grueling pace. Yet their pursuers seemed to tire not at all. Indeed, the host from Haloga had not slowed, but was on the contrary gaining upon them. Njal cursed hoarsely and urged his men to greater speed. But however doggedly they struggled on, they were altogether played out. Soon they must turn and make a stand, albeit the jarl well knew that no seasoned warrior would choose to do battle on a strange terrain when overtaken by exhaustion. Still, their meager choice was plain: either fight or be cut down.
Each time they crested a low hill clad in winter's silvered garment, they could see the silent mass of moving men, twice their number, drawing nearer than before. There was something strange about these pursuers, but neither Njal nor Gorm nor any other of the company could quite tell what was wrong with them.
As the hunters drew closer, the hunted perceived that not all the members of the oncoming force were Witchmen, a race that tended to be taller and more slender than the Northmen. Many of the pursuing host had mighty shoulders and massive frames and wore the horned helmets of the Æsir and Vanir. Njal shivered, as from the icy touch of some uncanny premonition of despair.
The other strange thing about the pursuers was the way they walked.…
Ahead, Njal spied the loom of a hill, higher than most of the eminences of this flat land, and his weary eyes brightened. The crest of the hill would serve for a defensive position, although the chieftain wished it higher yet and steeper to force the enemy to charge uphill in the teeth of Æsir weapons. In any case, the foe was almost snapping at their heels, so stand they must, and soon.
Shouldering the girl, Njal turned to shout from a raw throat: "Men! Up yonder hill and speedily! There we shall make our stand."
The Æsir plodded up the misty slope, to assemble at the crest, well pleased to cease putting one road-weary foot before the other. And like true warriors everywhere, the prospect of a bloody battle brightened their flagging spirits.
Thror Ironhand and the other captains passed around leathern bottles of wine and water, albeit little enough was left of either. The raiders rested, caught their breath, and limbered their bows. Long shields of wicker and hide, which had been slung upon their backs, were cast loose and fitted together to form a veritable wall of shields, encircling the crest of the hill. One-eyed Gorm uncovered his harp and began in a strong, melodious voice to chant an ancient battle song:
Our blades were forged in the flames that leap
From the burning heart of Hell,
And were quenched in frozen rivers deep,
Where the icy bones of dead men sleep,
Who fought our sires and fell.
The respite was short. Shouldering through the fog, a swarm of sinister figures emerged from the murk, and with steady, rhythmic steps stalked up the slope, like men walking in their sleep or puppets worked by strings. The flight of javelins that met the shambling attackers slowed them not at all, as they hurled themselves against the ring of shields. Naked steel flashed darkly in the wan moonlight. The attackers swung high sword and axe and war hammer and brought them whistling down upon the living wall, cleaving flesh and shattering bone.
In the van Njal, bellowing an ancient Æsir war cry, hewed mightily. Then he paused, blinking, and the heart in his bosom faltered. For the man he was fighting was none other than his own captain, Egil the huntsman, who had died that morn on the end of a rope, suspended from the walls of Haloga. The light of the pallid moon shone plainly on that familiar face and turned Jarl Njal's bones to water.
5 • "Men Cannot Die Twice!"
The face that stared stonily into his own was surely that of Njal's old comrade; for the white scar athwart the brow betokened a slash that Egil, five summers before, had suffered in a raid against the Vanir. But the blue eyes of Egil knew not his jarl. Those eyes were as cold and empty as the skies above the starless, misty night.
Glancing again, Njal saw the mangled flesh of Egil's naked breast, whence hours before the living heart had been untimely torn. Revolted by the thing he saw, Njal perceived that however much he wounded his adversary's flesh, these wounds would never bleed. Neither would his old friend's corpse feel the bitter kiss of steel.
Behind the dead but battling Æsir, a half-charred Witchman stumbled up the slope, his face a grinning mask of horror. Here, thought Njal, was a denizen of Haloga who had perished in the fire set by the wily Conan.
"Forgive, brother," whispered Njal through stiffened lips, as with a backhand stroke, he hamstrung Egil's walking corpse. Like a puppet with severed strings, the dismembered body flopped backward down the hill; but instantly the cadaver of the grinning Witchman took its place.
The Æsir chieftain fought mechanically but without hope. For when your foe can summon forth the very dead from hell to fight you, what victory can ensue?
All along the line, men shouted in hoarse surprise and consternation as they found themselves fighting the walking corpses of their own dead comrades who had perished under the cruel knives of the Hyperboreans. But the host that swarmed against them numbered others in their hideous ranks. Side by side with Witchmen crushed beneath collapsing walls or burned in the day's conflagration strode corpses long buried, from whose pale and tattered flesh grave worms wriggled or fell wetly to the ground. These hurled themselves, weaponless, upon the Æsir. The stench was sickening; and terror overwhelmed all but the hardiest.
Even old Gorm felt the icy clutch of fear at his heart. His war song faltered and died.
"May the gods help us all!" he muttered. "What hope have we when we pit our steel against the walking dead? Men cannot die twice!"
The Æsir line crumbled as wave after wave of walking corpses swept the warriors down, one by one, and crushed them into the viscid earth. These attackers bore no weapons but fought with naked hands, tearing living men asunder with their frigid grip.
The Cimmerian stood in the second rank. When the stout warrior before him fell, Conan, roaring with a voice as gusty as the north wind, leaped forward to fill the gap in the swaying line. With a sweep of the Hyperborean sword he bore, he severed the neck of a skeletal thing that was squeezing the life from the Northman at his feet. The skull-like head rolled grinning down the hill.
Then Conan's blood congealed with horror: for, headless or not, the long-dead cadaver rose and groped for him with its bony hands. With the nape of his neck tingling in primordial fear, Conan kicked out and stove in ribs that showed through the tattered flesh. The corpse staggered back, then came on again, talons clutching.
Gripping his sword hilt with both hands, Conan put all his young strength into a mighty slash. The sword bit through the lean and fleshless waist, severed the half-exposed spinal column, and sent the divided cadaver tumbling earthward. For the moment, he had no opponent. Breathing hard, he shook back his raven mane.
The Cimmerian glanced along the Æsir line. Njal had fallen, taking with him a dozen of the foe, hacked, like venison, into pieces. Howling like a wolf, old Gorm took his place in the wavering line, swinging a heavy axe with deadly skill. But now the line was breaking; the battle nearly done.
"Do not slay all!" a cold voice rang in the stillness, borne upon the icy wind. "Take such as you can for the slave pens."
Peering through the murk, Conan spied the speaker. On a tall black stallion sat Queen Vammatar in her flowing snow-white robes. Trembling in every limb, he knew the legions of the walking dead obeyed her least command.
Suddenly Rann appeared at Conan's side, her face wet with tears but blue eyes unafraid. She had seen Gorm and her father fall before the onslaught of the ghastly enemy and had pushed her way through the press to the young Cimmerian. She snatched up a discarded sword and prepared to die fighting. Then, like a gift from Crom, an idea shaped itself in Conan's despairing mind. The battle was already lost. He and the surviving Æsir were bound, as surely as day follows night, for the slave pens of Hyperborea. Something, however, might be saved from the wreck of all their hopes.
Whirling, Conan lifted the girl in his arms and tossed her over his shoulder. Then he kicked and hacked a path through the foe, down the corpse-littered slope to the foot of the hill, where the queen sat on her steed awaiting the end, an evil smile on her half-parted lips.
In the stable dark beneath the swirling coils of mist, the queen, eyes raised to watch the final struggle on the hilltop, failed to mark the noiseless approach of the Cimmerian. Nor did she see the girl he set upon the trampled snow. No premonition reached her senses until iron fingers closed about her forearm and thigh and hauled her, shrieking with dismay and fury, from her mount. With a mighty heave Conan hurled the queen from him, to fall with a splash into the chilly bosom of the bog. Then Conan lifted Rann and boosted her, protesting, into the vacant saddle.
Before he could vault up behind her on the prancing animal, several of the living corpses, obeying the furious commands of their mistress, seized Conan from behind and clung, leechlike, to his left arm.
With a superhuman effort, before he was dragged earthward by the putrid monsters, Conan struck the stallion's rump with the flat of his sword. "Ride, girl, ride!" he shouted. "To Asgard and safety!"
The black horse reared, neighing, and bolted across the foggy, snow-clad plain. Rann hugged the animal's neck, pressing her tear-stained cheek against its warm hide, and her long blond hair mingled with its flying mane.
As the steed swept around the base of the hill and off to the west, she cast one backward glance, just as the brave youth who twice had saved her life went down beneath a mound of fighting cadavers. Queen Vammatar, her white robes spattered with slime, stood in the frosty moonlight, smiling her evil smile. Then the loom of the hill and the rising fogs mercifully hid the scene of the carnage.
• • •
Across the plain, a score of Æsir survivors trudged eastward in the pallid moonlight, their wrists bound behind their backs with rawhide thongs. The walking deadthose who had not been cut to pieces in the fraysurrounded the captives. At the head of the weird procession marched two figures: Conan and Queen Vammatar.
With every step the queen, her handsome face twisted with fury, slashed at the Cimmerian youth with her riding whip. Red weals crisscrossed his face and body; but he walked with shoulders squared and head held high, although he knew that none returned from the slave pens of this accursed land. Easy it would have been to slay the queen when he threw her from her stallion, but in his natal land custom demanded chivalry toward women, and he could not forsake his childhood training.
• • •
As the eastern fogs paled with the approach of dawn, Rann Njalsdatter reached the borders of Asgard. Her heart was heavy, but she remembered the last stanza of the song that Gorm had chanted beneath the fog-dimmed moon:
You can cut us down; we can bleed and die,
But men of the North are we:
You can chain our flesh; you can blind our eye;
You can break us under the iron sky,
But our hearts are proud and free!
The brave words of the song stiffened her back and lifted her spirits. With shoulders unbowed and bright head high, she rode home under the morning.
Copyright © 2004 by Conan Properties, Inc.