Conan: Sword of Skelos

Conan

Andrew Offutt

Tor Fantasy

I

Conan of Cimmeria
The big youth gave the girl’s tawny arm a squeeze and swatted her backside. She danced a step from the slap, tossing long hair the color of a roan horse, and gave him a look that combined taunt and caress. He’d done with her, this night. With a jingle of her belt of coins, she went her way while he went his.
She hurried to reach a better lighted area, for this was the very worst section of the City of the Wicked. Throats were swiftly slit in these dim narrow streets of the area called The Desert, and even more swiftly in the darkness of alleys slippery with refuse and vomit.
The big youth walked no more than four swinging strides before he turned to enter just such a narrow alley. Visibility might have been a bit less at the bottom of a well. The best light was at the corner of the street behind him, from a pair of lion-lamps outside a noisy tavern. Their light attempted to follow him, and soon gave it up.
Odor assaulted and tried to overwhelm his nostrils with the miasma of decaying garbage and old wine, sour from stomachs; and damp earth over against the buildings, even as the darkness sought to whelm his smoldering blue eyes. The lack of lines in this one’s face proclaimed him youth. Something akin to sword-steel hardness in those eyes gave that the lie. The more careful observer would know that this near-giant of less than twenty years had seen much, had experienced and endured…and prevailed. None could be so stupid as to believe that his dagger and the sword in its worn old shagreen sheath had not been blooded.
All that, and his size, lent him confidence; he swung his big frame into the alley almost without slowing.
His was the swaggery confidence of youth, of a wolf among dogs. He had laid two ghastly liches, this wight born on a battlefield; he had thieved while the victim lay sleeping mere feet away; he had slain two several wizards bent on his death and aye, a highborn lord of Koth as well, and he had broken sorceries, and had sent ahead into another life so many arms-wielding men that he had lost count, despite his lack of years. They were but dogs yapping at the wolf, and the wolf was larger, and swifter, and more feral and vicious, and radiated the confidence of competence as a candle sends its nimbus all about it.
Into the alley swung the wolf, and the dogs awaited.
One step the rangy cat-sinuous man took from the black shadows against one wall, and his swordpoint creased the tunic over the youth’s muscular stomach.
“Be still and do not reach for your hilt, Conan, or I lean on this blade and give you a second naval.”
Cold blue eyes glared fiercely at the man behind the sword. He was of medium height, meaning his prey was a foot taller. The man wore a long dark cloak with its hood up; in the darkness of the alley not even the young Cimmerian’s keen eyes could see the face of his accoster. Conan stood still, his brain sending messages of looseness throughout his big frame. Very slowly, he eased one foot back. And then the other, and as the pressure left his tunic’s front, he pushed out his muscular midsection to hold the point and make the man think he was an inch or two closer than he was.
“By Bel, god of all thieves,” he said, “what sort of treacherous idiocy is this? What of the Code of Bel, fellow; thieves do not rob thieves!”
“Just…be quite still, Conan, if you value your belly.”
“I never move when a sword is trying to open my tunic,” Conan said, and just as he ended the lie he heard the rustle of cloth behind him.
It was not the time for further playing. Conan was not the sort to let himself be skewered or bashed from behind because of menace in front. At least he could see the cloaked man’s blade; the one behind would end his life without his ever seeing it. If luck were with him this night, he thought, his accoster would lunge automatically and stick the treacherous wight behind him! Darkness, the sages of the east said, baffled rogues as well as honest men. Nor did Conan pause to reflect that all here were rogues.
Already he was dropping into a squat, and he did not stop moving to wait for that possible stab over his head; just before his buttocks came down onto his knotty calves, he lunged sidewise. At the same time his arm swept across his midsection to the pommel of his sword.
He heard the wheeping whine in the air and knew by the sound that it was not sword the man behind him had swung at his head; the wind resistance was too strong. His sword scraping out, he saw that it was a cudgel. The man wielded a five-foot staff thick as a woman’s wrist. Conan saw, too, that the hooded man had not lunged with his sword.
Odd, Conan thought, never having ceased moving. When one had me at sword’s point, why sought the other to club me from behind—and why didn’t the swordsman lunge to spit or at least wound me when I moved?
As he came up into a combative crouch he sent his own blade sweeping out. The hooded man elected to spring back rather than try to block such a stroke with his sword. Moving, ever moving, Conan continued that swing—and his tip angled unerringly up to slash open the cudgel-wielder’s throat. The man staggered back and for the first time Conan noted the coil of rope in his left hand.
The man fell back against a wall, still standing while his life ran out of his neck in a scarlet tide. Conan held his ready crouch, showing his teeth in a feral grin, facing the other man…who fell to his knees. The sword clanked to the filth of the alley.
“Do not kill me, Conan. Please. I did not try to slay you…I would not have. See? I am unarmed. See? You would not slay an unarmed man?”
“I might,” Conan said, concealing his surprise. “Stand up.”
The man in the long dark cloak obeyed.
“Turn. Put back that cowl and walk before me, out into some light.”
The man stood, and was most hesitant about turning his back.
A wolf snarled: “Move.”
“I—I…please…”
“Move, damn you. I do not stab backs. If I meant to kill you, I’d do it face to face. I’d take pleasure in the look in your eyes and the blood burbling out of your mouth like vomited wine.”
The man seemed to reel at the Cimmerian’s deliberately horrendous words. He’d put back his hood, and Conan was able to see the brightness of his eyes, staring in horror and fear. He saw too that a scar ran down the fellow’s face and parted his beard. With a sound like a sob, he turned shakily. Conan squatted briefly to wipe his blade on the other, now fallen and still, unbreathing. And he picked up the dropped sword.
Conan rose and took a step. The cloaked man heard and hurried, without running, down the alley ahead of the Cimmerian.
In The Desert of Shadizar where no men of the Watch came, people melted off the street the moment a frightened man appeared, followed by a huge other carrying not one but two bared swords. The man in the cloak stepped under the glim of an oily torch that flared in a cresset mounted over a red-painted door.
“Stand right there,” Conan said. “A whorehouse door is a good place for you. What’s your name?”
“Yavuz,” the fellow said, watching the giant examine the sword whose tip had so recently disturbed the hand of his open-front tunic, though not his mental equilibrium.
“We never intended to kill you,” Yavuz added, in a pleading voice.
“No,” Conan said. “And you knew me. You were waiting for me, not just any passerby. You were sent for me. The man who hired you loaned you this blade, didn’t he? He wanted me alive, didn’t he? I was to be struck from behind while you held me nice and still like a steer stupidly facing the butcher’s hammer. The rope your comrade carried was for binding me.”
Conan looked up. Yavuz’s eyes were even larger. “By Bel…how know you all this? Was I duped?”
“Only in thinking a wight like you could take me, hireling. A man from Iranistan hired you to fetch me to him, alive but trussed like an unbroken stallion…so that he could ply me with a few questions.”
The man’s eyes told Conan he was right. “Mitra’s name—that Iranistani dog sent us for a sorcerer, didn’t he?”
“Of course,” Conan said smiling. He hefted Yavuz’s sword. “This knife comes from the Ilbars Mountains. I’ve seen one aforenow, in the fist of a man of Iranistan. Now where were you to take me? Speak, or…”
“You are not going to kill me?”
“I see no reason for it. Do you?”
“No! None!”
“Take off your left buskin.”
“My…left buskin?”
“Aye. Hurry! We haven’t all night. I have no patience, and your employer will be growing impatient ere we reach him.”
“Ah! You want me to lead you to him. Aye!”
Seeing that his life was to be continued for the time required to lead his intended quarry to the foreigner who had hired him—and affording opportunity to dodge into an alley and run for all he was worth—Yavuz squatted. Hurriedly he loosened the laces of one short, soft boot. This would not slow him down, he thought, almost smiling; he would show the big tough giant some running, one foot bare or no!
“Into the doorway,” Conan said, sheathing his sword and transferring the Ilbarsi knife into his right fist. It looked big enough to bludgeon an ox.
Yavuz obeyed. Squatting, never taking his menacing gaze off the man, Conan felt about the hardpacked earth of the street until his fingers encountered a piece of bone. “Ah.” It was the thighbone of a chicken he found there on the street in that low and lawless area of Shadizar, and he picked it up. Grinning wolfishly and totally without humor at the staring Yavuz, he dropped the bone into the buskin. Conan rose and kicked the short boot over to its owner.
“Put it on. Tie the lace.”
Yavuz’s scar-split beard quivered as he chewed his lip. He was visibly trembling. “Is this…sorcery?”
“Aye. Try to run as you and I walk to meet your employer, and the bone will kill you.”
Trembling, Yavuz pulled on the buskin. He tied its rawhide lace. When he straightened and put his weight on that foot, he winced. And he understood. He would not be running.
“You see? As I said. Try to flee and the bone will slow you by making you limp—and I shall kill you. Sorcery. Now give me that cloak, so that as I walk beside you with this blade in my hand, no one will see it under the cloak. You walk beside me, Yavuz, not ahead like a captive. And do not fall behind.”
“But…my tunic is torn in back.”
Conan showed the man his teeth, and a look of evil from cold blue eyes beneath black brows. “Fine. It is not a cool night, and you seem to be sweating in all that cloak. Off with it!”
Moments later Conan, having violently shaken the long dark brown cloak in hopes of ridding it of any small six-legged inhabitants, made the garment look short by wearing it. It fluttered about his upper calves as he walked beside the smaller man, who was of perfectly normal size. No casual observer would take note that the cloak never belled away from the big youth’s right side; there he held it with two fingers to cover the long weapon he also held.
“We are heading toward the bazaar,” Conan observed.
“Aye,” Yavuz said, limping. “The Iranistani dog is in a good inn, out of The Desert.”
“Do not call him dog, dog; you worked for him! Let’s see your wallet.”
Automatically Yavuz’s hand clapped protectively to the square pouch he wore slung from his belt, on a double thong; Yavuz was thief-wary.
A hand closed on his arm. His eyes widened as the fingers tightened. Pain began, very quickly. The hireling of a far eastern foreigner knew that considerable additional strength remained in that big hand. One-handed, Yavuz loosed his pouch. He handed it across him to the other man. The clamping grip left his arm and Yavuz looked down to see four distinct white marks; while he looked, they reddened with the rushing of blood back into that area of his arm. A hand big enough to bludgeon an ox, he thought. Why, the overgrown lad could strangle one!
“Mitra,” Yavuz muttered.
“No, Crom,” Conan said.
“What?”
“I swear by Crom.”
Gods were plentiful in Shadizar, and some were weird and others obscene and their rites worse. “Crom then,” Yavuz said, and thought: Who’s Crom?
“Junk,” Conan muttered, going through the other man’s pouch. “Junk…nice ring. Stolen so recently you’ve not had time to fence it, eh? And some coppers…what’s this? Two gold pieces! Hoho, still warm from an Iranistani hand, I’ll wager! I’ll soon return them. You did not earn them, did you. Here; I do not want the rest of this junk.”
“Junk!”
“Aye. The emerald in that brass ring is so tiny it won’t bring enough to feed you for two days.”
“Brass!”
“Take it out again and fondle it as we walk. See if your fingers are not green when we reach our destination. How much farther?”
Yavuz doubly fastened his purse to his belt again, and did not open it to “fondle” the ring. “Not…too much farther,” he said. “You who hand back coppers and a ring you know is stolen…it is good walking with one your size. No one challenges. All step aside.”
Conan grinned.
“You do not happen to need a bravo, do you? Swift-fingered, quiet; discreet?”
“Hardly. Besides, you’re a cripple.”
“I walk this way because of that bone you put in my buskin! I am sound as a Turanian gold piece!”
“Well, you’re in Zamora, now. Walk, Yavuz. I want to talk with an Iranistani, not a limpy scarface from Shadizar’s cesspools!”
“You are not going to kill me, are you, Conan?”
“Probably not. But I am growing impatient.”
Despite his limp, Yavuz speeded his gait. They turned onto a street a block beyond the bazaar, which marked the beginning of better Shadizar. A pair of uniformed men of the city’s Watch ambled along toward them, glanced at the pair without interrupting their quiet conversation. To say that Conan did not like such men was an understatement. Yet this night he was most definitely not looking for trouble with the enforcers of the laws of Shadizar. He made a great concession, gritting his teeth; he stepped streetward, to let the men of the Watch pass on the inside. They did, and went on.
A sign swung on creaky old chains; on it was depicted the head of a snarling lion. Head and mane were painted scarlet.
“Here,” Yavuz said.
“Peer within. See if you see our man.”
Yavuz did, briefly, and back-paced hurriedly. Coming thus down on his bone-lined buskin, he winced.
“Aye. He is there. In the back to the left near the keg, wearing a green kaffia.”
Conan’s hand again clamped Yavuz’s arm while the Cimmerian looked within. “Um.” He turned. “Your cloak will be hanging on a peg just inside the door on the morrow, Yavuz. You will need only give the taverner your name.”
“But—”
“It is not cold, and I need it just now while I walk back to that jackal’s table—to conceal his blade in my hand.”
“Mitra!” Yavuz said, and amended: “Crom! You are not just going to go in and stick him!”
“Whether I do or not does not concern you, little Yavuz, very little Yavuz. You are free, and alive. I bid you fly, and burrow deep.”
Released and so bidden, Yavuz wasted no time staring or expressing gratitude for his life. He scuttled—limping.
Conan entered the inn of the sign of the Red Lion.
 
Copyright © 1979 by Conan Properties, Inc.