The long pack train approaching the high crenellated granite walls of Ianthe did not appear to be moving through a country officially at peace. Twoscore horsemen in spiked helms, dust turning their dark blue wool cloaks gray, rode in columns to either side of the long line of sumpter mules. Their eyes constantly searched even here in the very shadow of the capital. Half carried their short horse-bows at the ready. Sweaty-palmed muledrivers hurried their animals along, panting with eagerness to be done now that their goal was in sight.
Only the leader of the guards, his shouldersbroad almost to the point of busting his metal jazeraint hauberk, seemed unconcerned. His icy blue eyes showed no hint of the worry that made the others' eyes dart, yet he was as aware of his surroundings as they. Perhaps more so. Three times since leaving the gem and gold mines on the Nemedian border, the train had been attacked. Twice his barbarian senses had detected the ambush before it had time to develop, the third time his fiercely wielded broadsword smashed the attack even as it began. In the rugged mountains of his native Cimmeria, men who fell easily into ambush did not long survive. He had known battle there, and had a place at the warriors' fires, at an age when most boys were still learning at their father's knees.
Before the northeast gate of Ianthe, the Gate of Gold, the train halted. "Open the gates!" the leader shouted. Drawing off his helm, he revealed a square-cut black mane and a face that showed more experience than his youth would warrant. "Do we look like bandits? Mitra rot you, open the gates!"
A head in a steel casque, a broken-nosed face with a short beard, appeared atop the wall. "Is that you, Conan?" He turned aside to call down, "Swing back the gate!"
Slowly the right side of the iron-bound gate creaked inward. Conan galloped through, pulling his big Aquilonian black from the road just inside to let the rest of the train pass. A dozen mail-clad soldiers threw their shoulders behind the gate as soon as the last pack-laden mule ran by. The hugewooden slab closed with a hollow boom, and a great bar, thicker than a man's body, crashed down to fasten it.
The soldier who had called down from the wall appeared with his casque beneath his arm. "I should have recognized those accursed eastern helmets, Cimmerian," he laughed. "Your Free-Company makes a name for itself."
"Why are the gates shut, Junius?" Conan demanded. "Tis at least three hours till dark."
"Orders, Cimmerian. With the gates closed, perhaps we can keep the troubles out of the city." Junius looked around, then dropped his voice. "It would be better if Valdric died quickly. Then Count Tiberio could put an end to all this fighting."
"I thought General Iskandrian was keeping the army clear," Conan replied coolly. "Or have you just chosen your own side?"
The broken-nosed soldier drew back, licking his thin lips nervously. "Just talking," he muttered. Abruptly he straightened, and his voice took on a blustering tone. "You had better move on, Cimmerian. There's no loitering about the gates allowed now. Especially by mercenary companies." He fumbled his casque back onto his head as if to give himself more authority, or perhaps simply more protection from the Cimmerian's piercing gaze.
With a disgusted grunt Conan touched boot to his stallion's ribs and galloped after his company. Thus far Iskandrian--the White Eagle of Ophir, he was called; some said he was the greatestgeneral of the age--had managed to keep Ophir from open civil war by holding the army loyal to Valdric, though the King seemed not to know it, or even to know that his country was on the verge of destruction. But if the old general's grip on the army was falling ... .
Conan scowled and pressed on. The twisted maze of maneuverings for the throne was not to his liking, yet he was forced to keep an understanding of it for his own safety, and that of his company.
To the casual observer, the streets of Ianthe would have showed no sign that nobles' private armies were fighting an undeclared and unacknowledged war in the countryside. Scurrying crowds filled narrow side streets and broad thoroughfares alike, merchants in their voluminous robes and peddlers in rags, silk-clad ladies shopping with retinues of basket-carrying servants in tow, strutting lordlings in satins and brocades with scented pomanders held to their nostrils against the smell of the sewers, leatheraproned apprentices tarrying on their errands to bandy words with young girls hawking baskets of oranges and pomegranates, pears and plums. Ragged beggars, flies buzzing about blinded eyes or crudely bandaged stumps, squatted on every corner--more since the troubles had driven so many from their villages and farms. Doxies strutted in gilded bangles and sheer silks or less, often taking a stance before columned palaces or even on the broad marble steps of temples.
Yet there was that about the throng that beliedthe normalcy of the scene. A flush of cheek where there should have been only calm. A quickness of breath where there was no haste. A darting of eye where there was no visible reason for suspicion. The knowledge of what occurred beyond the walls lay heavily on Ianthe even as the city denied its happening, and the fear that it might move within the walls was in every heart.
When Conan caught up to the pack train, it was slowly wending its way through the crowds. He reined in beside his lieutenant, a grizzled Nemedian who had had the choice of deserting from the City Guard of Belverus or of being executed for performing his duty too well, to the fatal detriment of a lord of that city.
"Keep a close watch, Machaon," the Cimmerian said. "Even here we might be mobbed if this crowd knew what we carried."
Machaon spat. The nasal of his helm failed to hide the livid scar that cut across his broad nose. A blue tattoo of a six-pointed Kothian star adorned his left cheek. "I'd give a silver myself to know how Baron Timeon comes to be taking this delivery. I never knew our fat patron had any connections with the mines."
"He doesn't. A little of the gold and perhaps a few gems will stay with Timeon; the rest goes elsewhere."
The dark-eyed veteran gave him a questioning look, but Conan said no more. It had taken him no little effort to discover that Timeon was but a tool of Count Antimides. But Antimides was supposedly one of the few lords of Ophir not maneuveringto ascend the throne at the death of the King. As such he should have no need of secret supporters, and that meant he played a deeper game than any knew. Too, Antimides also had no connection with the mines, and thus as little right to pack-saddles loaded with gold bars and chests of emeralds and rubies. A second reason for a wise man to keep his tongue behind his teeth till he knew more of the way things were, yet it rankled the pride of the young Cimmerian.
Fortune as much as anything else had given him his Free-Company in Nemedia, but in a year of campaigning since crossing the border into Ophir they had built a reputation. The horse archers of Conan the Cimmerian were known for their fierceness and the skill of him who led them, respected even by those who had cause to hate them. Long and hard had been Conan's climb from a boyhood as a thief to become a captain of mercenaries at an age when most men might only dream of such a thing. It had been, he thought, a climb to freedom, for never had he liked obeying another's commands; yet here he played the game of a man he had never even met, and it set most ill with him. Most ill, indeed.
As they came in sight of Timeon's palace, a pretentiously ornamented and columned square of white marble with broad stairs, crowded between a temple of Mitra and a potter's works, Conan suddenly slid from his saddle and tossed his reins and helmet to a surprised Machaon.
"Once this is all safely in the cellars," he told his lieutenant, "let those who rode with us haveuntil dawn tomorrow for carousing. They've earned it."
"The baron may take it badly, Conan, you leaving before the gold is safely under lock and key."
Conan shook his head. "And I see him now, I may say things best left unsaid."
"He'll likely be so occupied with his latest leman that he'll not have time for two words with you."
One of the company close behind them laughed, a startling sound to come from his sephulcral face. He looked like a man ravaged nearly to death by disease. "Timeon goes through almost as many women as you, Machaon," he said. "But then, he has wealth to attract them. I still don't see how you do it."
"If you spent less time gaming, Narus," Machaon replied, "and more hunting, perhaps you'd know my secrets. Or mayhap it's because I don't have your spindly shanks."
A dozen of the company roared with laughter. Narus' successes with women came with those who wanted to fatten him up and nurse him back to health; there seemed to be a surprising number of them.
"Machaon has enough women for five men," laughed Taurianus, a lanky, dark-haired Ophirean, "Narus dices enough for ten, and Conan does enough of both for twenty." He was one of those who had joined the company since its arrival in Ophir. But nine of the original score remained. Death had done for some of the rest; others had simply tired of a steady diet of blood and danger.
Conan waited for the laughter to subside. "If Timeon's got a new mistress, and it's about time for him to if he's running true to form, he'll not notice if I'm there or no. Take them on in, Machaon." Without waiting for a reply the Cimmerian plunged into the crowd.
Other than staying away from Timeon until he was in better temper, Conan was unsure of what he sought. A woman, perhaps. Eight days the journey to the mines and back had taken, without so much as a crone to gaze on. Women were forbidden at the mines; men condemned to a life digging rock were difficult enough to control without the sight of soft flesh to incite them, and after a year or two in the pits the flesh would not have to be that soft.
A woman, then, but there was no urgency. For a time he would simply wander and drink in the bustle of the city, so different even with its taint from the open terror that permeated the countryside.
Ophir was an ancient kingdom; it had coexisted with the mage-ridden empire of Acheron, gone to dust these three millenia and more, and had been one of the few lands to resist conquest by that dark empire's hordes. Ianthe, its capital, might have been neatly planned and divided into districts at some time in its long history, but over the centuries the great city of spired towers and golden-domed palaces had grown and shifted, winding streets pushing through haphazardly, buildings going up wherever there was space. Marble temples, fronted by countless rows of flutedcolumns and silent save for the chants of priests and worshippers, sat between brick-walled brothels and smoking foundries filled with the clanging of hammers, mansions and alabaster between rough taverns and silversmiths' shops. There was a system of sewers, though more often than not the refuse thrown there simply lay, adding to the effluvia that filled the streets. And stench there was, for some were too lazy even to dispose of their offal in the sewers, emptying chamber pots and kitchen scraps into the nearest alley. But for all its smells and cramped streets, for all its fears, the city was alive.
A trull wearing a single strip of silk threaded through her belt of coins smiled invitingly at the big youth, running her hands through her dark curls to lift well-rounded breasts, wetting her lips for the breadth of his shoulders. Conan answered her inviting smile with one that sent a visible shiver through her. Marking her as likely for later, though, he moved on, the doxy's regretful gaze following him. He tossed a coin to a fruitgirl and took a handful of plums, munching as he went, tossing the seeds into a sewer drain when he saw one.
In the shop of a swordsmith he examined keen blades with an expert eye, though he had never found steel to match that of his own ancient broadsword, ever present at his side in its worn shagreen scabbard. But the thought of a woman rose up in him, the memory of the whore's thighs. Perhaps there was some small urgency to finding a woman after all.
From a silversmith he purchased a gilded brass necklace set with amber. It would go well on the neck of that curly-head wench, or if not her, about the neck of another. Jewelry, flowers and perfume, he had learned, went further with any woman, be she the most common jade of the streets or a daughter of the noblest house, than a sack of gold, though the trull would want her coins as well, of course. The perfume he obtained from a one-eyed peddler with a tray hung on a strap about his scrawny neck, a vial of something that smelled of roses. Now he was ready.
He cast about for a place to throw the last of his plum pits, and his eye fell on a barrel before the shop of a brass smith, filled with scraps of brass and bronze obviously ready for melting down. Lying atop the metallic debris was a bronze figure as long as his forearm and green with the verdigris of age. The head of it was a four-horned monstrosity, broad and flat, with three eyes above a broad, fang-filled gash of a mouth.
Chuckling, Conan straightened the statuette in the barrel. Ugly it was, without doubt. It was also naked and grotesquely male. A perfect gift for Machaon.
"The noble sir is a connoisseur, I see. That is one of my best pieces."
Conan eyed the smiling, dumpy little man who had appeared in the doorway of the shop, with his plump hands folded over a yellow tunic where it was strained by his belly. "One of your bestpieces, is it?" Amusement was plain in the Cimmerian's voice. "On the scrap heap?"
"A mistake on the part of my apprentice, noble sir. A worthless lad." The dumpy fellow's voice dripped regretful anger at the worthlessness of his apprentice. "I'll leather him well for it. A mere two gold pieces, and it is--"
Conan cut him off with a raised hand. "Any more lies, and I may not buy it at all. If you know something of it, then speak."
"I tell you, noble sir, it is easily worth--" Conan turned away, and the shopkeeper yelped. "Wait! Please! I will speak only the truth, as Mitra hears my words!"
Conan stopped and looked back, feigning doubt. This fellow, he thought, would not last a day among the peddlers of Turan.
There was sweat on the shopkeeper's face, though the day was cool. "Please, noble sir. Come into my shop, and we will talk. Please."
Still pretending reluctance, Conan allowed himself to be ushered inside, plucking the figure from the barrel as he passed. Within, the narrow shop was crowded with tables displaying examples of the smith's work. Shelves on the walls held bowls, vases, ewers and goblets in a welter of shapes and sizes. The big Cimmerian set the statuette on a table that creaked under its weight.
"Now," he said, "name me a price. And I'll hear no more mention of gold for something you were going to melt."
Avarice struggled on the smith's plump face with fear of losing a purchaser. "Ten silvers," he said finally, screwing his face into a parody of his former welcoming expression.
Deliberately Conan removed a single silver coin from his pouch and set it on the table. Crossing his massive arms across his chest, he waited.
The plump man's mouth worked, and his head moved in small jerks of negation, but at last he sighed and nodded. "Tis yours," he muttered bitterly. "For one silver. It's as much as it is worth to melt down, and without the labor. But the thing is ill luck. A peasant fleeing the troubles brought it to me. Dug it up on his scrap of land. Ancient bronzes always sell well, but none would have this. Ill favored, they called it. And naught but bad luck since it's been in my shop. One of my daughters is with child, but unmarried; the other has taken up with a panderer who sells her not three doors from here. My wife left me for a carter. A common carter, mind you. I tell you, that thing is ... ." His words wound down as he realized he might be talking himself out of a sale. Hurriedly he snatched the silver and made it disappear under his tunic. "Yours for a silver, noble sir, and a bargain greater than you can imagine."
"If you say so," Conan said drily. "But get me something to carry it through the streets in." He eyed the figure and chuckled despite himself, imagining the look on Machaon's face when he presented it to him. "The most hardened trull in the city would blush to look on it."
As the smith scurried into the back of his shop, two heavy-set men in the castoff finery of nobles swaggered in. One, in a soiled red brocade tunic, had had his ears and nose slit, the penalties for first and second offences of theft. For the next he would go to the mines. The other, bald and with a straggly black beard, wore a frayed wool cloak that had once been worked with embroidery of silver or gold, long since picked out. Their eyes went immediately to the bronze figure on the table. Conan kept his gaze on them; their swords, at least, looked well tended, and the hilts showed the wear of much use.
"Can I help you?" the shopkeeper asked, reappearing with a coarsely woven sack in his hand. There was no 'noble sir' for this sort.
"That," slit-ear said gruffly, pointing to the statuette. "A gold piece for it."
The smith coughed and spluttered, glaring reproachfully at Conan.
"It's mine," the Cimmerian said calmly, "and I've no mind to sell."
"Two gold pieces," slit-ear said. Conan shook his head.
"Five," the bald man offered.
Slit-ear rounded on his companion. "Give away your profit, an you will, but not mine! I'll make this ox an offer," he snarled and spun, his sword whispering from its sheath.
Conan made no move toward his own blade. Grasping the bronze figure by its feet, he swung it sideways. The splintering of bone blended with slit-ear's scream as his shoulder was crushed.The bald man had his sword out now, but Conan merely stepped aside from his lunge and brought the weighty statuette down like a mace, splattering blood and brains. The dead man's momentum carried him on into the tables, overturning those he did not smash, sending brass vases and bowls clattering across the floor. Conan whirled back to find the first man thrusting with a dagger held left-handed. The blade skittered off his hauberk, and the two men crashed together. For the space of a breath they were chest to chest, Conan staring into desperate black eyes. This time he disdained to use a weapon. His huge fist traveled more than half the length of his forearm, and slit-ear staggered back, his face a bloody mask, to pull shelves down atop him as he crumpled to the floor. Conan did not know if he was alive or dead, nor did he care.
The smith stood in the middle of the floor, hopping from one foot to the other. "My shop!" he wailed. "My shop is wrecked! You steal for a silver what they would have given five gold pieces for, then you destroy my place of business!"
"They have purses," Conan growled. "Take the cost of your repairs from--" He broke off with a curse as the scent of roses wafted to his nose. Delving into his pouch, he came out with a fragment of vial. Perfume was soaking into his hauberk. And his cloak. "Erlik take the pair of them," he muttered. He hefted the bronze figure that he still held in one hand. "What about this thing is worth five gold pieces? Or worth dying for?" Theshopkeeper, gingerly feeling for the ruffians' purses, did not answer.
Cursing under his breath Conan wiped the blood from the figure and thrust it into the sack the smith had let drop.
With a shout of delight the smith held up a handful of silver, then drew back as if he feared Conan might take it. He started, then stared at the two men littering his floor as if realizing where they were for the first time. "But what will I do with them?" he cried.
"Apprentice them," Conan told him. "I'll wager they won't put anything valuable in the scrap barrel."
Leaving the dumpy man kneeling on the floor with his mouth hanging open, Conan stalked into the street. It was time and more to find himself a woman.
In his haste he did not notice the heavily veiled woman whose green eyes widened in surprise at his appearance. She watched him blend into the crowd then, gathering her cloak about her, followed slowly.
Copyright © 1983, 1984 by Conan Properties, Inc.