Conan The Swordsman

Conan

L. Sprague de Camp, Lin Carter & Björn Nyberg

Tor Books

The People Of The Summit
 
After a year or two of felonious life as a thief in Zamora, Corinthia, and Nemedia, Conan, who has just about turned twenty, undertakes to earn a more or less honest living as a mercenary soldier serving King Yildiz of Turan. Following the events of the story “The City of Skulls,” the mighty Cimmerian, as a reward for his services to the king’s daughter Zosara, is given a noncommissioned rank corresponding to that of sergeant. In this capacity he goes to the Khozgari Hills as part of the military escort of an emissary sent by the king to the restless tribesmen of that region, in hope of dissuading them by bribes and threats from raiding and plundering the Turanians of the lowlands. But the Khozgarians are warlike barbarians who respect only immediate and overwhelming force. They treacherously attack the detachment, killing the emissary and all but two of the soldiers. These two, Conan andjamal, escape.
* * *
The lean Turanian, whose dusty crimson jerkin and stained white breeches testified to the rigors of his flight, reined in his mare at the signal. Turning questing black eyes upon his giant leader, he asked:
“Dare we tarry here?”
His companion, similarly garbed, save that the flowing left sleeve of his woolen shirt bore the golden scimitar of a sergeant in the Turanian frontier cavalry, scowled. Blue eyes blazing beneath the crimson turban that bound his spired helmet, he tossed aside the flap of cloth that protected his face from the swirling dust and spat before he answered.
“The beasts must rest.”
The heaving flanks of the two animals and their foam-flecked mouths made plain the need for a halt.
“But, Conan,” protested the Turanian, “what if those Khozgari devils still follow us?” Uneasily he studied the curved scimitar thrust into his sash, and his grip tightened on the lance resting in its leathern pouch beside his right stirrup. He was comforted by the weight of the double-curved bow and the full quiver of arrows slung upon his back.
“Damn that stupid emissary!” growled the Cimmerian. “Jamal, thrice I warned him of the treacherous Khozgari tribesmen; but his head was so full of trade treaties and caravan routes that he would not listen. Now that thick-skulled head of his hangs in the smokeroom of a chief’s hut, along with seven of our company. Damn him to Hell, and damn the lieutenant for permitting the palaver in the rock village!”
“Aye, Conan, but what could our lieutenant do? The emissary had full power to command. Our task was to protect him and obey him, only. Had he countered the emissary’s orders, the captain would have snapped his scimitar before the regiment and reduced him to the ranks. You know the captain’s temper.”
“Better broken to the ranks than dead,” growled Conan, scowling. “We two were lucky to escape when the devils rushed us! Listen!” He held up his hand. “What was that?”
Conan rose in his stirrups, blue eyes sweeping the gorges and crevices for the source of the faint sound he had heard. As his companion silently unslung his great bow and nocked an arrow, Conan’s hand closed on the hilt of his scimitar.
A moment later, he flung himself from the saddle and, like a charging bull, rushed toward the nearby rock wall; for in that fleeting space of time, a youth had raced across the narrow gorge and scaled the steep cliff with the agility of a monkey.
Conan swept to the granite wall, found purchase for reaching hands and feet, and clambered upward with the assurance born of long experience. He heaved himself over the rim of the rock and cast himself aside just as a club descended on the spot where, a moment earlier, his head had been. Rolling to his knees, he rose and gripped the arms of his assailant before another blow could fall. Then he stared.
It was a girl he held, dirty and disheveled but nevertheless a girl, and her body would have graced the statues of a king’s sculptor. Her face was pretty even through the grime, although she was sobbing now in impotent rage as she twisted her slim arms savagely against the fierce grip of her captor.
Conan’s voice was rough with suspicion. “You are a spy! What tribe?”
The girl’s emerald eyes flamed as she hurled back her defiance:
“I am Shanya, daughter of Shaf Karaz, chief of the Khozgari and ruler of the mountains! He will spit you on his lance and roast you over his council fire for daring to lay hands on me!”
“A likely story!” taunted the Cimmerian. “A chiefs daughter without an armed following, here, alone?”
“No one dares lay violent hands on Shanya. The Theggir and the Ghoufags cower in their huts as Shanya, daughter of Shaf Karaz, rides abroad to hunt the mountain goat. Dog of a Turanian! Let me loose!”
She twisted angrily, but Conan held her slim body in the vise of his arms.
“Not so fast, my pretty one! You’ll make a fine hostage for our safe passage back to Samara. You will ride before me on the saddle all the way; and you’d best sit still, lest you make the journey bound and gagged.” He grinned in cold indifference to her hot temper.
“Dog!” she cried. “I do as you say for the present. But have a care that you fall not into the hands of the Khozgari in the future!”
“We were surrounded by your tribesmen a scant two hours past,” growled Conan. “But their bowmen could not hit the wall of a canyon. Jamal here could outshoot a dozen of them. Enough of this chatter! We move, and move fast. Keep your pretty mouth shut from now on; it is easy enough to gag.”
The girl’s lips curled with unspoken ire as the horses picked their careful way between the rocks and boulders.
“Which way do you plan to go, Conan?” Jamal’s voice was anxious.
“We cannot go back. I don’t trust this hostage business too much in the heat of ambush. We will ride straight south to the road of Garma and cross the Misty Mountains through the Bhambar Pass. That should put us within two days’ journey of Samara.”
The girl turned to stare at him, her face blanched with sudden fright.
“You fool! Are you so careless of life as to try to cross the Misty Mountains? They are the haunts of the People of the Summit. No traveler has ever entered their land and returned. The People emerged but once out of the mists during the reign of Angharzeb of Turan, and they defeated his whole army by magic and monsters, as the king strove to recover the burial grounds of the ancient Turanians. ’Tis a land of terror and death! Do not go there!”
Conan’s reply was indifferent. “Everywhere there are old wives’ tales of demons and monsters that no one living has ever seen. This is the safest and shortest way. If we make a detour, we shall have to spend a week in the guardhouse for dallying along the road.” He urged his horse forward. The clatter of hooves on stone alone broke the silence as they wove their way among the towering cliffs.
* * *
This blasted fog is as thick as mare’s milk!” exclaimed Jamal some time later.
The mist hung dank and impenetrable; the travelers could see a scant two yards ahead. The horses walked slowly, side by side, occasionally touching, feeling their way forward with careful steps. The thickness of the milky mist was inconstant; the whiteness wavered and billowed, and now and then the bleak walls of the mountain pass appeared for a fleeting moment.
Conan’s senses were sharply tuned. One hand held the bared scimitar; the other clutched Shanya firmly. His eyes ranged the small field of vision, taking advantage of every opening to reconnoiter.
The girl’s scream, ringing out with sudden shock, brought them to a halt. She pointed with a trembling finger, cowering in the saddle against Conan’s massive chest.
“I saw something move! Just for a second! It was not human!”
Conan swept the scene with narrowed lids as a random billowing of the mist cleared the roadway in front for a moment. He stiffened in the saddle, then relaxed and urged the horses forward, saying:
“Naught for the daughter of a Khozgari chief to worry about!”
But the shape at the roadside was disturbing. A human skeleton danced from two poles, crossed slantwise. The bones were held together by some fluttering rags, bits of tendon, and shriveled skin. The skull lay on the ground, grinning, snapped from the neckbones and cracked open like a coconut.
A sound floated through the mists. It began as a demonic laugh that rose and fell, changing into angry chattering, and ending in an ululating wail. The girl responded with keening. Stiff with terror, her lips moved dryly.
“The—the demons of the Summit are calling for our flesh! Our bones will lie stripped in their stone dwelling before evening. Oh, save me! I do not want to die!”
Conan felt the hair rise on the nape of his neck; and chills ran down his spine on little lizard feet. But he shook off his fear of the unknown with a shrug of his great shoulders.
“We are here, and we have to get through. Let that howler come within reach of my blade, and he’ll scream in another key.”
As his horse stepped forward, a heavy crash and a groan caused Conan to glance back. At that moment, he felt a tug upon his weeping captive. Before he could grasp her more firmly, she rose screaming into the mists on the end of a snakelike rope. Conan’s horse reared wildly, flinging him to the ground, and the clatter of its hooves died away as he staggered to his feet.
Nearby lay Jamal and his horse, both crushed beneath a giant boulder. The man’s dead hand protruded from under the gray stone, still clutching the war bow and a quiver of arrows. These Conan scooped up in one swift motion. He wasted no time in mourning the death of his comrade; for here was deadly danger. Snarling like an angry panther, he slung the bow over his shoulder, stuck the arrows in his sash, and gripped his bared scimitar.
The thick mist swirled around him as he felt a noose drop over his head. Moving with the speed of lightning, he ducked, then seized the rope with his free hand, gave a tug, and voiced a gurgling cry like that of a strangling man. His eyes were slitted as he swung upward, hauled by an immense power whose source he knew not. The feel of the mist was wet in his nostrils.
Heavy hands gripped him as he reached the edge of the escarpment, but the figures he discerned in the thinning mist were shadows only. He shrugged free of the clutching fingers and drove in silent deadliness at the nearest shadow. Soft resistance and a shriek told him that his scimitar had entered living flesh. Then the shadows closed around him. Standing with his back to the edge of the abyss, he swung his great blade in devastating arcs.
Never had Conan battled in such eerie surroundings. His enemies disappeared into the misty whirls, only to return again and again, like insubstantial ghosts. Their blades flicked out like serpents’ tongues, but he soon took the measure of their clumsy swordsmanship. With renewed self-confidence, he taunted his silent attackers.
“Time you learned something of the way of the sword, you jackals of the mist! Ambushing travelers does not make for skill with the scimitar. You need lessons. The undercut—like this! The overhand slash-there! The upward rip with the point into the throat—watch!”
His exclamations were accompanied by demonstrations that left many shadowy figures gurgling or shrieking on the rocks. The Cimmerian fought with cold and terrible control, and suddenly he carried the fight to his assailants in a swift and devastating charge. Two more figures fell to his vicious slashes, their crimson guts spilling out upon the moss. Suddenly the remaining foemen melted away in panicky flight.
Conan wiped the sweat off his forehead with the wide sleeve of his uniform. Then, bending down to stare at one of the corpses, he grunted in surprise. It was no human being that sprawled there with small, sightless eyes and flaring nostrils. The low forehead and receding jaw were those of an ape, but an ape unlike any he had seen in the forests on the shores of the Sea of Vilayet. This ape was hairless from head to toe, and its only accouterment was a heavy rope twisted around its bulging swagbelly.
Conan was puzzled. The great Vilayet apes never hunted in packs and lacked the intelligence to use arms and tools, save when trained for performances before the royal court in Aghrapur. Nor was the creature’s sword of a crude design. Forged of the best Turanian steel, its curved blade was honed to a razor’s edge. Conan noticed a penetrating, musky odor emanating from the dead ape. His nostrils widened as he inhaled the scent with care. He would smell out his escaped prey and, following its trail, win a path through the milky mist.
“I shall have to save that fool of a girl,” he muttered in an undertone. “She may be the daughter of an enemy, but I will not leave a woman in the hands of hairless apes.” Like a hunting leopard, he moved forward on the scent.
As the mists began to thin, he trod more carefully. The spoor of the scent twisted and turned, as if panic had wrought havoc with his quarry’s sense of direction. Conan smiled grimly. Better to be the hunter than the hunted.
Here and there beside the path small pyramids of spherical stones the size of a man’s head rose above the low-lying mists. These, Conan knew, were ancient places of the dead, graves of the chiefs of the early Turanian tribes. Neither time nor the apes had managed to demolish them. The Cimmerian stepped carefully around each grave, not only to avoid a possible ambush, but also to show reverence for those who rested there.
Only torn shreds of mist remained as he reached the upper heights. Here the path became a narrow walkway atop a mountain wall, which bisected a dizzying abyss. At the end of the walkway, at the very summit of the mountain, an imposing keep of mottled serpentine loomed like an index finger of evil against the backdrop of bleak and distant mountain ranges. Conan hid behind one of the graves along the path to spy out the situation. But he saw no sign of life.
* * *
Shanya woke in odd surroundings. She lay upon a divan draped in a rough black cloth. No fetters bound her, but she had been deprived of all her clothing. She stretched her supple body upon this strange bed to look around and recoiled from what she saw.
In a wooden armchair, curiously carved, sat a man, but he was like no man that she had ever seen. His ashen face seemed made of chalk and strangely stiff; his eyes were black with no white showing around the iris; his head was bald. He wore a kaftan of coarse black cloth and hid his hands within the ebon sleeves.
“It has been many long years since a beautiful woman last came to the abode of Shangara,” he said in a sibilant whisper. “No new blood has infused the race of the People of the Summit for twice a hundred years. You are a fit mate for me and for my son.”
Horror ignited a bright flame of anger in the breast of the proud barbarian girl.
“Think you that a daughter of a hundred chiefs would mate with one of your abominable race? Rather would I fling myself into the nearest gorge than dwell within your house! Release me, or these walls will tremble to the thunder of a thousand Khozgari spears!”
A mocking smile parted the pale lips of the ancient, pallid face.
“You are a headstrong hussy! No spears reach through the Bhambar mists. No mortal lives who dares to cross these mountains. Come to your senses, girl! Should you persist in stubbornness, no easy leap from a cliff’s edge will be your fate. Your body will, instead, be used to nourish the most ancient inhabitant of this forgotten land—one who is bound in serfdom to the People of the Summit.
“He it was who helped smite down the Turanian king who once endeavored to conquer our domain. Then we, ourselves, were strong and could do battle. Now we are few, our number dwindling through the centuries to a bare dozen who dwell here guarded by our cliff apes.
“Still we have no fear of enemies, for the ancient one lives, ready to come forth when peril threatens. You shall gaze upon his countenance. Then choose your fate!”
The aged man arose, shaking back the folds of kaftan, and clapped his clawlike hands. At the summons, two other white-faced, skull-eyed men entered the room, bowed, and grasped a pair of handles set into the stone wall. Two massive door halves rolled smoothly back, revealing a chamber filled with billowing mist. Like a scudding cloud, it swirled into the room, and as it thinned revealed the vague outline of a huge, unmoving shape.
As the mist roiled out, the girl perceived the thing inside. She screamed and fainted. Then the heavy doors were closed.
* * *
Conan, hidden behind a grave mound, fretted with impatience. During his long wait, no sign of life had appeared around the forbidding tower. Had he not scented the reek of musky ape, he would have deemed the tower to be deserted. Tensely he fondled the hilt of his scimitar and ran a hand along the curve of his bow.
At length a figure strode to the battlements and gazed out upon the crumpled brown terrain. Conan could not discern details at so great a distance, but the lean contours beneath the flowing robe revealed a human shape. Conan’s mouth curved in a grim half-smile.
With a single motion, he drew and loosed an arrow; and the figure on the battlement flung up its arms and toppled, limp as a broken doll, over the crenellated wall into the depths below. He nocked another arrow and waited.
This time he had not long to wait. A pierced stone portal slowly opened, and a group of apes ran out, padding splayfooted along the narrow walkway. Conan loosed again and yet again, his marksmanship unerring. His merciless hail of arrows pitched them one after another into the shadowy gorge. But still the apes came on, with lolling tongues and slavering jaws.
Conan shot his last arrow and flung the bow aside. He rushed, sword raised, to meet the two that still defended the narrow, cliffside path. Ducking, he avoided the sword thrust of the first and lunged, shearing through flesh and bone. The remaining ape proved quicker. Conan had scarcely time to wrench his reddened blade from the hairless corpse and parry a vicious swipe aimed at his head. He staggered at the impact of the great ape’s blow and fell to his knees. He saw with horror the dizzying depths of the precipice that beckoned him to doom. The ape’s dull mind perceived the situation, and the creature rushed forward to sweep him into the bottomless abyss.
Still on his knees, Conan feinted swiftly and lashed out with a disembowling thrust, too fast for the eye to follow. His adversary, bellowing, pitched forward and, trailing a receding cry, plummeted into the shadowy depths.
Surefooted as a mountain goat, Conan dashed up the unprotected walkway and reached the open portal. Something hissed past his head as he threw himself sidewise, and in swift retaliation, he thrust his scimitar at a black-clad figure lurking in the gloom of the entrance. A muted gurgle was followed by the clatter of a fallen weapon.
Conan bent down to peer at the corpse. A tall, skeletal man with a curiously stiff face stared up at him through sightless eyes. He saw that the face was covered by a peculiar mask of some translucent substance. He snatched it off and studied it.
The Cimmerian had never seen anything remotely like it nor like the material of which it was fashioned. He tucked it into his sash and strode on into the silent hall.
Conan moved more warily along a curving corridor that he encountered farther on. The stones were damp when he laid a hand upon them, and the clammy air reminded him of the chill of morning fog. Then suddenly the circular passageway widened into a great chamber, where a strange assemblage confronted him.
Ten black-clad, corpselike people faced him, among whom he saw two women whose stringy, colorless hair framed chalky features. They stood like painted ghosts, save that each held a murderous knife with a sawtoothed edge.
Behind them on a black-draped catafalque, set in the middle of the chamber, reclined the naked body of a girl whom he recognized as Shanya. Motionless she lay, her heavy-lidded eyes closed beneath long fringed lashes, save that her full breasts rose and fell with her even breathing. And Conan knew that she was either drugged or in a faint.
He gripped his sword more firmly as he studied the spectral group, whose coal-black eyes burned with the fire of commingled fear and hatred.
A tall, bald man began to speak. Although his voice was but a whisper borne upon the wind, it carried with bell-like clarity.
“What is your purpose here? You are no Hyrkanian, nor are you a mountain man, although you wear the garb of a Turanian.”
“I am Conan, a Cimmerian. That girl is my hostage, and I have come to take her back that I may continue on my journey.”
“Cimmeria—a tongue-twisting name for a land we know not of. Do you jest with us?” whispered the strange man.
“Had you voyaged to the frozen North, you would know I do not jest. We are a fighting people. With half my tribe at my elbow, I should be ruler of Turan!” growled Conan.
“You lie,” hissed the old man. “The land of the north wind is the edge of the world and stretches beneath a starless, eternal night. The girl is ours by right of conquest. She shall give our race new strength, breeding strong men from her youthful womb. You, who have dared to intrude upon the People of the Summit, shall feed the maw of our defender, the ancient one.”
“If I die, you will precede me into Hell,” growled the Cimmerian, raising his sword.
In answer, the ghostly man struck a silver gong a single blow that reverberated from the rafters. Two men silently left the group and, moving together to the farther wall, grasped the iron handles and began to open the heavy doors. Like a great calla lily unfolding at dawn, a thick white vapor billowed from the opening and swirled toward the center of the room.
Moving in unison, the beady-eyed ancients passed their left hands across their faces. Before the thickening vapor blotted out his view, Conan saw that each had donned a curious transparent mask like that worn by his earlier assailant.
Impelled by an instinct as old as time, the barbarian reached into his sash, snatched up the mask, and managed to put it on before the cloying mists swirled and eddied around him, hiding his sable-clad enemies. To his surprise, the substance of the mask hugged the skin of his forehead, cheeks, and lids and lay like gossamer across his very eyes. Looking around the room, he was astounded to discover that he could see clearly, as if a puff of campfire smoke had vanished into the ambient darkness.
His adversaries had crept forward behind their misty shield, and now two were almost upon him. Moving on a thread of time, Conan’s curved steel blade whistled through the damp air of the misty hall.
It was a massacre. The remnants of a once powerful race stood little chance against the fury of the vengeful Cimmerian. Undulating knives glanced harmlessly off the whirling streak of his restless scimitar. Each time his blade licked out, a dark-robed figure sank dying to the floor. His rough code of chivalry tempted him to spare the white-haired crones; but when the women flung themselves upon him in unrelenting frenzy, he returned blow for blow.
At last Conan stood alone in the vaulted chamber, save for ten supine bodies and the still unconscious girl. Resting on his long, curved sword, he surveyed the scene with satisfaction. Then one of the bodies writhed and raised a gaunt, accusing hand. The head man, rekindling the last sparks of his departing life, glared and spoke through lips twisted with pain.
“Barbarian cur!” he hissed. “You have destroyed our race. But you shall not live to savor your victory. The ancient one will strip the meat from your foul bones and suck the marrow from their innards. Give me strength, O Ancient One…”
As Conan watched in fascination, the lean man with a hideous groan rose to his knees and exerted his last powers. He struggled, half crawling, to the scarcely opened doors, and with a clawlike hand tugged at one of the twin handles on the pair of heavy doors. With a roll of thunder, the door opened wide.
Conan’s hair rose on his nape as he glimpsed the hulking form within the cavernous chamber. Huge and many-limbed was the body, and spiderlike, or like an egg with legs. Its stalked eyeballs and gaping jaw exuded an almost tangible power of evil, for it was a thing conceived in the dark eons before man ever walked the earth.
Mastering his horror, the Cimmerian flung himself forward and scooped up the body of Shanya, while a clawed and hairless limb fumbled at the other door to enlarge the opening. Bearing the limp body of the girl upon his shoulder, he sprinted down the long corridor leading to the outer portal. A wheezing snuffle followed him.
Conan had almost transversed the elongated walkway, balancing precariously in his great haste, when he ventured to look back. The monster, running agilely on its ten powerful legs, had reached the midpoint of the narrow path. Panting, Conan forced himself onward until he stood between two pyramidal grave mounds. Gently laying the unconscious girl at the foot of one mound, he turned to give battle.
Conan met the first onrush of the monster with a savage cut at one of the grasping limbs, but his blade splintered against the impenetrable horny hide of the creature. Although it fell back for a moment, it came on again with its weaving gait.
Desperate, Conan cast about for any weapon, and his eyes fastened upon the nearest mound of rounded stones. Flexing his great muscles, he lifted one of the spherical boulders above his head. And, straining his mighty thews, he hurled it at the terrible apparition that was almost upon him.
The forgotten spells chanted by unremembered Turanian sorcerers over the graves of long-dead chieftains had not lost their power against a monster that roamed the mountains before mankind was young. For, with a bloodcurdling shriek, the creature, half paralyzed, tugged at a limb crushed beneath insensate rock.
Conan snatched up a second boulder and flung it; pushed yet another, rolling it toward the thrashing monster; and hurled still another. Then the undermined pyramid of ponderous stones collapsed in a hurtling avalanche, which carried the many-limbed creature down into the abyss in a cloud of dust and shards.
* * *
Conan wiped his sweaty brow with a hand that trembled as much from revulsion as from exertion. He heard a stirring behind him and swung around. Shanya’s eyes were open, and she gazed around her in bewilderment.
“Where am I? Where is the white-faced, evil man?” She shuddered. “He was going to feed me to…”
Conan’s voice broke in roughly upon her. “I cleaned up that nest of mummified robbers. Their evil thing I returned to the abyss whence it came. Lucky for you that I arrived in time to save your pretty skin.”
Shanya’s emerald eyes flashed with haughty anger. “I should have managed to outwit them. My father would have saved me.”
Conan grunted. “Had he found his way hither, that monster would have made mincemeat of his warriors. Only by luck I discovered a weapon that could kill the overgrown cockroach. Now we must move fast. I have to be in Samara before week’s end. And I still need you as a hostage. Come!”
Shanya stared at the rugged barbarian as he stood outlined against the indigo sky, one strong arm outstretched to help her rise. Her green eyes softened. For a moment her lids drooped, and she blushed, suddenly aware of her nakedness. Then she tossed her proud head, shrugged her bare shoulders, and said:
“I will come, Conan, not as your hostage, but as your guide to the border region. You saved my life, and you shall have safe conduct through Khozgari country as your reward.”
Conan caught a new, warm undertone in her now-gentled voice, as she added with a ghost of a smile: “It will be interesting to learn something of the ways of a northern barbarian.”
Shanya stretched her splendid body, rose-tinted by the setting sun, and reached for his outstretched hand.
Conan looked at her with appreciation. “By the bones of Crom! Perhaps dallying a few days along the way will be worth a week in the guardhouse!”
 
Copyright ©1978 by Conan Properties, Inc.