|Chapter 10|| Almuric
written by Robert Ervin Howard
I drove that winged devil unmercifully. Not until sunset did I allow him to drop earthward. Then I bound his feet and wings so he could not escape, and gathered fruit and nuts for our meal. I fed him as well as I fed myself. He needed strength for the flight. That night the beasts of prey roared perilously close to us, and my captive turned ashy with fright, for we had no way of making a protecting fire, but none attacked us. We had left the forest of the Purple River far, far behind, and were among the grasslands. I was taking the most direct route to Koth, led by the unerring instinct of the wild. I continually scanned the skies behind me for some sign of pursuit, but no winged shapes darkened the southern horizon.
It was on the fourth day that I spied a dark moving mass in the plains below, which I believed was an army of men marching. I ordered the Yaga to fly over them. I knew that I had reached the vicinity of the wide territory dominated by the city of Koth, and there was a chance that these might be men of Koth. If so, they were in force, for as we approached I saw there were several thousand men, marching in some order.
So intense was my interest that it almost proved my undoing. During the day I left the Yaga's legs unbound, as he swore that he could not fly otherwise, but I kept his wrists bound. In my engrossment I did not notice him furtively gnawing at the thong. My dagger was in its sheath, since he had shown no recent sign of rebellion. My first intimation of revolt was when he wheeled suddenly sidewise, so that I lurched and almost lost my grip on him. His long arm curled about my torso and tore at my girdle, and the next instant my own dagger gleamed in his hand.
There ensued one of the most desperate struggles in which I have ever participated. My near fall had swung me around, so that instead of being on his back, I was in front of him, maintaining my position only by one hand clutching his hair, and one knee crooked about his leg. My other hand was locked on his dagger wrist, and there we tore and twisted, a thousand feet in the air, he to break away and let me fall to my death, or to drive home the dagger in my breast, I to maintain my grip and fend off the gleaming blade.
On the ground my superior weight and strength would quickly have settled the issue, but in the air he had the advantage. His free hand beat and tore at my face, while his unimprisoned knee drove viciously again and again for my groin. I hung grimly on, taking the punishment without flinching, seeing that our struggles were dragging us lower and lower toward the earth.
Realizing this, he made a final desperate effort. Shifting the dagger to his free hand, he stabbed furiously at my throat. At the same instant I gave his head a terrific downward wrench. The impetus of both our exertions whirled us down and over, and his stroke, thrown out of line by our erratic convulsion, missed its mark and sheathed the dagger in his own thigh. A terrible cry burst from his lips, his grasp went limp as he half fainted from the pain and shock, and we rushed plummetlike earthward. I strove to turn him beneath me, and even as I did, we struck the earth with a terrific concussion.
From that impact I reeled up dizzily. The Yaga did not move; his body had cushioned mine, and half the bones in his frame must have been splintered.
A clamor of voices rang on my ears, and turning, I saw a horde of hairy figures rushing toward me. I heard my own name bellowed by a thousand tongues. I had found the men of Koth.
A hairy giant was alternately pumping my hand and beating me on the back with blows that would have staggered a horse, while bellowing: "Ironhand! By Thak's jawbones, Ironhand! Grip my hand, old war-dog! Hell's thunders, I've known no such joyful hour since the day I broke old Khush of Tanga's back!"
There was old Khossuth Skullsplitter, somber as ever, Thab the Swift, Gutchluk Tigerwrath--nearly all the mighty men of Koth. And the way they smote my back and roared their welcome warmed my heart as it was never warmed on Earth, for I knew there was no room for insincerity in their great simple hearts.
"Where have you been, Ironhand?" exclaimed Thab the Swift. "We found your broken carbine out on the plains, and a Yaga lying near it with his skull smashed; so we concluded that you had been done away with by those winged devils. But we never found your body--and now you come tumbling through the skies locked in combat with another flying fiend! Say, have you been to Yugga?" He laughed as a man laughs when he speaks a jest.
"Aye to Yugga, on the rock Yuthla, by the river Yogh, in the land of Yagg," I answered. "Where is Zal the Thrower?"
"He guards the city with the thousand we left behind," answered Khossuth.
"His daughter languishes in the Black City," I said. "On the night of the full moon, Altha, Zal's daughter, dies with five hundred other girls of the Guras--unless we prevent it."
A murmur of wrath and horror swept along the ranks. I glanced over the savage array. There were a good four thousand of them; no bows were in evidence, but each man bore his carbine. That meant war, and their numbers proved it was no minor raid.
"Where are you going?" I asked.
"The men of Khor move against us, five thousand strong," answered Khossuth. "It is the death grapple of the tribes. We march to meet them afar off from our walls, and spare our women the horrors of the war."
"Forget the men of Khor!" I cried passionately. "You would spare the feelings of your women--yet thousands of your women suffer the tortures of the damned on the ebon rock of Yuthla! Follow me! I will lead you to the stronghold of the devils who have harried Almuric for a thousand ages!"
"How many warriors?" asked Khossuth uncertainly.
A groan rose from the listeners.
"What could our handful do against that horde?"
"I'll show you!" I exclaimed. "I'll lead you into the heart of their citadel!"
"Hai!" roared Ghor the Bear, brandishing his broadsword, always quick to take fire from my suggestions. "That's the word! Come on, sir brothers! Follow Ironhand! He'll show us the way!"
"But what of the men of Khor?" expostulated Khossuth. "They are marching to attack us. We must meet them."
Ghor grunted explosively as the truth of this assertion came home to him and all eyes turned toward me.
"Leave them to me," I proposed desperately. "Let me talk with them--"
"They'll hack off your head before you can open your mouth," grunted Khossuth.
"That's right," admitted Ghor. "We've been fighting the men of Khor for fifty thousand years. Don't trust them, comrade."
"I'll take the chance," I answered.
"The chance you shall have, then," said Gutchluk grimly. "For there they come!" In the distance we saw a dark moving mass.
"Carbines ready!" barked old Khossuth, his cold eyes gleaming. "Loosen your blades, and follow me."
"Will you join battle tonight?" I asked. He glanced at the sun. "No. We'll march to meet them, and pitch camp just out of gunshot. Then with dawn we'll rush them and cut their throats."
"They'll have the same idea," explained Thab. "Oh, it will be great fun!"
"And while you revel in senseless bloodshed," I answered bitterly, "your daughters and theirs will be screaming vainly under the tortures of the winged people over the river Yogh. Fools! Oh, you fools!"
"But what can we do?" expostulated Gutchluk.
"Follow me!" I yelled passionately. "We'll march to meet them, and I'll go on to them alone."
I wheeled and strode across the plain, and the hairy men of Koth fell in behind me, with many headshakes and mutterings. I saw the oncoming mass, first as a mingled blur; then the details stood out--hairy bodies, fierce faces, gleaming weapons--but I swung on heedlessly. I knew neither fear nor caution; my whole being seemed on fire with the urgency of my need and desire.
Several hundred yards separated the two hosts when I dashed down my single weapon--the Yaga dagger--and shaking off Ghor's protesting hands, advanced alone and unarmed, my hands in the air; palms toward the enemy.
These had halted, drawn up ready for action. The unusualness of my actions and appearance puzzled them. I momentarily expected the crack of a carbine, but nothing happened until I was within a few yards of the foremost group, the mightiest men clustered about a tall figure that was their chief--old Bragi, Khossuth had told me. I had heard of him, a hard, cruel man, moody and fanatical in his hatreds.
"Stand!" he shouted, lifting his sword. "What trick is this? Who are you who comes with empty hands in the teeth of war?"
"I am Esau Ironhand, of the tribe of Koth," I answered. "I would parley with you."
"What madman is this?" growled Bragi. "Than--a bullet through his head."
But the man called Than, who had been staring eagerly at me, gave a shout instead and threw down his carbine.
"Not if I live!" he exclaimed, advancing toward me his arms outstretched. "By Thak, it is he! Do you not remember me, Than Swordswinger, whose life you saved in the Hills?"
He lifted his chin to display a great scar on his corded neck.
"You are he who fought the sabertooth! I had not dreamed you survived those awful wounds."
"We men of Khor are hard to kill!" he laughed joyously, throwing his arms about me in a bear-like embrace. "What are you doing among the dogs of Koth? You should be fighting with us!"
"If I have my way there will be no fighting," I answered. "I wish only to talk with your chiefs and warriors. There is nothing out of the way about that."
"True!" agreed Than Swordswinger. "Bragi, you will not refuse him this?"
Bragi growled in his beard, glaring at me.
"Let your warriors advance to that spot." I indicated the place I meant. "Khossuth's men will come up on the other side. There both hordes will listen to what I have to say. Then, if no agreement can be reached, each side shall withdraw five hundred-yards and after that follow its own initiative."
"You are mad!" Old Bragi jerked his beard with a shaking hand of rage. "It is treachery. Back to your kennel, dog!"
"I am your hostage," I answered. "I am unarmed. I will not move out of your sword reach. If there is treachery, strike me down on the spot."
"I have been captive among the Yagas!" I exclaimed. "I have come to tell the Guras what things occur in the land of Yagg!"
"The Yagas took my daughter!" exclaimed a warrior, pushing through the ranks. "Did you see her in Yagg?"
"They took my sister!"--"And my young bride"--"And my niece!" shouts rose in chorus, as men swarmed about me, forgetful of their enemies, shaking me in the intensity of their feeling.
"Back, you fools!" roared Bragi, smiting with the flat of his sword. "Will you break your ranks and let the Kothans cut you down? Do you not see it is a trick?"
"It is no trick!" I cried. "Only listen to me, in God's name!"
They swept away Bragi's protests. There was a milling and stamping, during which only a kindly Providence kept the nerve-taut Kothans from pouring a volley into the surging mass of their enemies, and presently a sort of order was evolved. A shouted conference finally resulted in approximately the position I had asked for--a semicircle of Khorans over against a similar formation composed of Kothans. The close proximity almost caused the tribal wrath to boil over. Jaws jutted, eyes blazed, hairy hands clutched convulsively at carbine stocks. Like wild dogs those wild men glared at each other, and I hastened to begin my say.
I was never much of a talker, and as I strode between those hostile hordes I felt my fire die out in cold ague of helplessness. A million ages of traditional war and feud rose up to confound me. One man against the accumulated ideas, inhibitions, and customs of a whole world, built up through countless millenniums--the thought crushed and paralyzed me. Then blind rage swept me at the memory of the horrors of Yugga, and the fire blazed up again and enveloped the world and made it small, and on the wings of that conflagration I was borne to heights of which I had never dreamed.
No need for fiery oratory to tell the tale I had to tell. I told it in the plainest, bluntest language possible, and the knowledge and feeling that lay behind the telling made those naked words pulse, and burn like acid.
I told of the hell that was Yugga. I told of young girls dying beneath the excesses of black demons--of women lashed to gory ribbons, mangled on the wheel, sundered on the rack, flayed alive, dismembered alive--of the torments that left the body unharmed, but sucked the mind empty of reason and left the victim a blind, mewing imbecile. I told them--oh God, I cannot repeat all I told them, at the memory of which I am even now sickened almost unto death.
Before I had finished, men were bellowing and beating their breasts with their clenched fists, and weeping in agony of grief and fury.
I lashed them with a last whip of scorpions. "These are your women, your own flesh and blood, who scream on the racks of Yugga! You call yourselves men--you strut and boast and swagger, while these winged devils mock you. Men! Ha!" I laughed as a wolf barks, from the depths of my bitter rage, and agony. "Men! Go home and don the skirts of women!"
A terrible yell arose. Clenched fists were brandished, bloodshot eyes flamed at me, hairy throats bayed their anguished fury. "You lie, you dog! Damn you, you lie! We are men! Lead us against these devils or we will rend you!"
"If you follow me," I yelled, "few of you will return. You will suffer and you will die in hordes. But if you had seen what I have seen, you would not wish to live. Soon approaches the time when the Yagas will clean their house. They are weary of their slaves. They will destroy those they have, and fare forth into the world for more. I have told you of the destruction of Thugra. So it will be with Khor; so it will be with Koth--when winged devils swoop out of the night. Follow me to Yugga--I will show you the way. If you are men, follow me!"
Blood burst from my lips in the intensity of my appeal, and as I reeled back, in a state of complete collapse from overwrought nerves and strain, Ghor caught me in his mighty arms.
Khossuth rose like a gaunt ghost. His ghostly voice soared out across the tumult.
"I will follow Esau Ironhand to Yugga, if the men of Khor will agree to a truce until our return. What is your answer, Bragi?"
"No!" roared Bragi. "There can be no peace between Khor and Koth. The women in Yugga are lost. Who can war against demons? Up, men, back to your place! No man can twist me with mad words to forget old hates."
He lifted his sword, and Than Swordswinger, tears of grief and fury running down his face, jerked out his poniard and drove it to the hilt in the heart of his king. Wheeling to the bewildered horde, brandishing the bloody dagger, his body shaken with sobs of frenzy, he yelled:
"So die all who would make us traitors to our own women! Draw your swords, all men of Khor who will follow me to Yugga!"
Five thousand swords flamed in the sun, and a deep-throated thunderous roar shook the very sky. Then wheeling to me, his eyes coals of madness:
"Lead us to Yugga, Esau Ironhand!" cried Than Swordswinger. "Lead us to Yagg, or lead us to Hell! We will stain the waters of Yogh with blood, and the Yagas will speak of us with shudders for ten thousand times a thousand years!"
Again the clangor of swords and the roar of frenzied men maddened the sky.