|Chapter 1|| Almuric
written by Robert Ervin Howard
Dawn Found Me on my way across the plain. It may seem like the height of folly to have gone striding openly toward the city, which might be full of hostile beings, but I had learned to take desperate chances, and I was consumed with curiosity; weary at last of my lonely life.
The nearer I approached, the more rugged the details stood out. There was more of the fortress than the city about the walls, which, with the tower that loomed behind and above them, seemed to have been built of huge blocks of greenish stone, very roughly cut. There was no apparent attempt at smoothing, polishing, or otherwise adorning this stone. The whole appearance was rude and savage, suggesting a wild fierce people heaping up rocks as a defense against enemies.
As yet I had seen nothing of the inhabitants. The city might have been empty of human life. But a broad road leading to the massive gate was beaten bare of grass, as if by the constant impact of many feet. There were no fields or gardens about the city; the grass waved to the foot of the walls. All during that long march across the plain to the gates, I saw nothing resembling a human being. But as I came under the shadow of the great gate, which was flanked on either hand by a massive tower, I caught a glimpse of tousled black heads moving along the squat battlements. I halted and threw back my head to hail them. The sun had just topped the towers and its glare was full in my eyes. Even as I opened my lips, there was a cracking report like a rifle shot, a jet of white smoke spurted from a tower, and a terrific impact against my head dashed me into unconsciousness.
When I came to my senses it was not slowly, but quickly and clear-headedly, what with my immense recuperative powers. I was lying on a bare stone floor in a large chamber, the walls, ceiling and floor of which were composed of huge blocks of green stone. From a barred window high up in one wall sunlight poured to illuminate the room, which was without furnishing, except for a bench, crudely and massively built.
A heavy chain was looped about my waist and made fast with a strange, heavy lock. The other end of the chain was fastened to a thick ring set in the wall. Everything about the fantastic city seemed massive.
Lifting a hand to my head, I found it was bandaged with something that felt like silk. My head throbbed. Evidently whatever missile it was that had been fired at me from the wall, had only grazed my head, inflicting a scalp wound and knocking me senseless. I felt for my poniard, but naturally it was gone.
I cursed heartily. When I had found myself on Almuric I had been appalled by my prospects; but then at least I had been free. Now I was in the hands of God only knew what manner of beings. All I knew was that they were hostile. But my inordinate self-confidence would not down, and I felt no great fear. I did feel a rush of panic, common to all wild things, at being confined and shackled, but I fought down this feeling and it was succeeded by one of red unreasoning rage. Springing to my feet, which movement the chain was long enough to allow, I began jerking and tearing at my shackle.
It was while engaged in this fruitless exhibition of primitive resentment that a slight noise caused me to wheel, snarling, my muscles tensed for attack or defense. What I saw froze me in my tracks.
Just within the doorway stood a girl. Except in her garments she differed little from the type of girls I had known on Earth, except that her slim figure exhibited a suppleness superior to theirs. Her hair was intensely black, her skin white as alabaster. Her lissome limbs were barely concealed by a light, tuniclike garment, sleeveless, low-necked, revealing the greater part of her ivory breasts. This garment was girdled at her lithe waist, and came to within a few inches above her knees. Soft sandals encased her slender feet. She was standing in an attitude of awed fascination, her dark eyes wide, her crimson lips parted. As I wheeled and glared at her she gave back with a quick gasp of surprise or fear, and fled lightly from the chamber.
I stared after her. If she were typical of the people of the city, then surely the effect produced by the brutish masonry was an illusion, for she seemed the product of some gentle and refined civilization, allowing for a certain barbaric suggestion about her costume.
While so musing, I heard the tramp of feet, harsh voices were lifted in argument, and the next instant a group of men strode into the chamber, halting as they saw me conscious and on my feet. Still thinking of the girl, I glared at them in surprise. They were of the same type as the others I had seen, huge, hairy, ferocious, with the same apelike forward-thrust heads and formidable faces. Some, I noticed, were darker than others, but all were dark and fierce, and the whole effect was one of somber and ferocious savagery. They were instinct with ferocity; it blazed in their icy-gray eyes, reflected in the snarling lift of their bristling lips, rumbled in their rough voices.
All were armed, and their hands seemed instinctively to seek their hilts as they stood glaring at me, their shaggy heads thrust forward in their apelike manner.
"Thak!" one exclaimed, or rather roared--all their voices were as gusty as a sea wind--"he's conscious!"
"Do you suppose he can speak or understand human language?" rumbled another.
All this while I had stood glaring back at them, wondering anew at their speech. Now I realized that they were not speaking English.
The thing was so unnatural that it gave me a shock. They were not speaking any Earthly language, and I realized it, yet I understood them, except for various words which apparently had no counterpart on Earth. I made no attempt to understand this seemingly impossible phenomenon, but answered the last speaker.
"I can speak and understand." I grunted. "Who are you? What city is this? Why did you attack me? Why am I in chains?"
They rumbled in amazement, with much tugging of mustaches, shaking of heads, and uncouth profanity.
"He talks, by Thak!" said one. "I tell you, he is from beyond the Girdle!"
"From beyond my hip!" broke in another rudely. "He is a freak, a damned, smooth-skinned degenerate misfit which should not have been born, or allowed to exist."
"Ask him how he came by the Bonecrusher's poniard," requested yet another.
"Did you steal this from Logar?" he demanded.
"I stole nothing!" I snapped, feeling like a wild beast being prodded through the bars of a cage by unfeeling and critical spectators. My rages, like all the emotions on that wild planet, were without restraint.
"I took that poniard from the man who carried it, and I took it in a fair fight," I added.
"Did you slay him?" they demanded unbelievingly.
"No," I growled. "We fought with our bare hands, until he tried to knife me. Then I knocked him senseless."
A roar greeted my words. I thought at first they were clamoring with rage; then I made out that they were arguing among themselves.
"I tell you he lies!" one bull's bellow rose above the tumult. "We all know that Logar the Bonecrusher is not the man to be thrashed and stripped by a smooth-skinned hairless brown man like this. Ghor the Bear might be a match for Logar. No one else."
"Well, there's the poniard," someone pointed out.
The clamor rose again, and in an instant the disputants were yelling and cursing, and brandishing their hairy fists in one another's faces, hands fumbled at swordhilts, and challenges and defiances were exchanged freely.
I looked to see a general throat-cutting, but presently one who seemed in some authority drew his sword and began banging the hilt on the rude bench, at the same time drowning out the voices of the others with his bull-like bellowing.
"Shut up! Shut up! Let another man open his mouth and I'll split his head!" As the clamor subsided and the disputants glared venomously at him, he continued in a voice as calm as if nothing had occurred. "It's neither here nor there about the poniard. He might have caught Logar sleeping and brained him, or he might have stolen it, or found it. Are we Logar's brothers, that we should seek after his welfare?"
A general snarl answered this. Evidently the man called Logar was not popular among them.
"The question is, what shall we do with this creature? We've got to hold a council and decide. He's evidently uneatable." He grinned as he said this, which was apparently meant as a bit of grim humor.
"His hide would make good leather." suggested another in a tone that did not sound as though he was joking.
"Too soft," protested another.
"He didn't feel soft while we were carrying him in," returned the first speaker. "He was hard as steel springs."
"Tush," deprecated the other. "I'll show you how tender his flesh is. Watch me slice off a few strips." He drew his dagger and approached me while the others watched with interest.
All this time my rage had been growing until the chamber seemed to swim in a red mist. Now, as I realized that the fellow really intended trying the edge of his steel on my skin I went berserk. Wheeling, I gripped the chain with both hands, wrapping it around my wrists for more leverage. Then, bracing my feet against the floor and walls I began to strain with all my strength. All over my body the great muscles coiled and knotted; sweat broke out on my skin, and then with a shattering crash the stone gave way, the iron ring was torn out bodily, and I was catapulted on my back onto the floor, at the feet of my captors who roared with amazement and fell on me *en masse*.
I answered their bellows with one strident yell of blood-thirsty gratification, and heaving up through the melee, began swinging my heavy fists like caulking mallets. Oh, that was a rough-house while it lasted! They made no attempt to knife me, striving to swamp me with numbers. We rolled from one side of the chamber to the other, a gasping, thrashing, cursing, hammering mass, while with the yells, howls, earnest profanity, and impact of heavy bodies, it was a perfect bedlam. Once I seemed to catch a fleeting glimpse of the door thronged with the heads of women similar to the one I had seen, but I could not be sure; my teeth were set in a hairy ear, my eyes were full of sweat and stars from a vicious punch on the nose, and what with a gang of heavy forms romping all over me my sight was none too good.
Yet, I gave a good account of myself. Ears split, noses crumpled and teeth splintered under the crushing impact of my iron-hard fists, and the yells of the wounded were music to my battered ears. But that damnable chain about my waist kept tripping me and coiling about my legs, and pretty soon the bandage was ripped from my head, my scalp wound opened anew and deluged me with blood. Blinded by this I floundered and stumbled, and gasping and panting they bore me down and bound my arms and legs.
The survivors then fell away from me and lay or sat in positions of pain and exhaustion while I, finding my voice, cursed them luridly. I derived ferocious satisfaction at the sight of all the bloody noses, black eyes, torn ears and smashed teeth which were in evidence, and barked in vicious laughter when one announced with many curses that his arm was broken. One of them was out cold, and had to be revived, which they did by dumping over him a vessel of cold water that was fetched by someone I could not see from where I lay. I had no idea that it was a woman who came in answer to a harsh roar of command.
"His wound is open again," said one, pointing at me. "He'll bleed to death."
"I hope he does," snarled another, lying doubled up on the floor. "He's burst my belly. I'm dying. Get me some wine."
"If you're dying you don't need wine," brutally answered the one who seemed a chief, as he spat out bits of splintered teeth. "Tie up his wound, Akra."
Akra limped over to me with no great enthusiasm and bent down.
"Hold your damnable head still," he growled.
"Keep off!" I snarled. "I'll have nothing from you. Touch me at your peril."
He exasperatedly grabbed my face in his broad hand and shoved me violently-down. That was a mistake. My jaws locked on his thumb, evoking an ear-splitting howl, and it was only with the aid of his comrades that he extricated the mangled member. Maddened by the pain, he howled wordlessly, then suddenly gave me a terrific kick in the temple, driving my wounded head with great violence back against the massive bench leg. Once again I lost consciousness.
When I came to myself again I was once more bandaged, shackled by the wrists and ankles, and made fast to a fresh ring, newly set in the stone, and apparently more firmly fixed than the other had been. It was night. Through the window I glimpsed the stardotted sky. A torch which burned with a peculiar white flame was thrust into a niche in the wall, and a man sat on the bench, elbows on knees and chin on fists, regarding me intently. On the bench near him stood a huge gold vessel.
"I doubted if you'd come to after that last crack," he said at last.
"It would take more than that to finish me," I snarled. "You are a pack of cursed weaklings. But for my wound and that infernal chain, I'd have bested the whole mob of you."
My insults seemed to interest rather than anger him. He absently fingered a large bump on his head on which blood was thickly clotted, and asked: "Who are you? Whence do you come?"
"None of your business," I snapped.
He shrugged his shoulders, and lifting the vessel in one hand drew his dagger with the other.
"In Koth none goes hungry," he said, "I'm going to place this food near your hand and you can eat. But I warn you, if you try to strike or bite me, I'll stab you."
I merely snarled truculently, and he bent and set down the bowl, hastily withdrawing. I found the food to be a kind of stew, satisfying both thirst and hunger. Having eaten I felt in somewhat better mood, and my guard renewed his questions, I answered: "My name is Esau Cairn. I am an American, from the planet Earth."
He mulled over my statements for a space, then asked: "Are these places beyond the Girdle?"
"I don't understand you," I answered.
He shook his head. "Nor I you. But if you do not know of the Girdle, you cannot be from beyond it. Doubtless it is all fable, anyway. But whence did you come when we saw you approaching across the plain? Was that your fire we glimpsed from the towers last night?"
"I suppose so," I replied. "For many months I have lived in the hills to the west. It was only a few weeks ago that I descended into the plains."
He stared and stared at me.
"In the hills? Alone, and with only a poniard?"
"Well, what about it?" I demanded.
He shook his head as if in doubt or wonder. "A few hours ago I would have called you a liar. Now I am not sure."
"What is the name of this city?" I asked.
"Koth, of the Kothan tribe. Our chief is Khossuth Skull-splitter. I am Thab the Swift. I am detailed to guard you while the warriors hold council."
"What's the nature of their council?" I inquired.
"They discuss what shall be done with you; and they have been arguing since sunset, and are no nearer a solution than before."
"What is their disagreement?"
"Well," he answered. "Some want to hang you, and some want to shoot you."
"I don't suppose it's occurred to them that they might let me go," I suggested with some bitterness.
He gave me a cold look. "Don't be a fool," he said reprovingly.
At that moment a light step sounded outside, and the girl I had seen before tiptoed into the chamber. Thab eyed her disapprovingly.
"What are you doing here, Altha?" he demanded.
"I came to look again at the stranger," she answered in a soft musical voice. "I never saw a man like him. His skin is nearly as smooth as mine, and he has no hair on his countenance. How strange are his eyes! Whence does he come?"
"From the hills, he says," grunted Thab.
Her eyes widened. "Why, none dwells in the Hills, except wild beasts! Can it be that he is some sort of animal? They say he speaks and understands speech."
"So he does," growled Thab, fingering his bruises. "He also knocks out men's brains with his naked fists, which are harder and heavier than maces. Get away from there. He's a rampaging devil. If he gets his hands on you he won't leave enough of you for the vultures to pick."
"I won't get near him," she assured him. "But, Thab, he does not look so terrible. See, there is no anger in the gaze he fixes on me. What will be done with him?"
"The tribe will decide," he answered. "Probably let him fight a sabertooth leopard bare-handed."
She clasped her own hands with more human feeling than I had yet seen shown on .
"Oh, Thab, why? He has done no harm; he came alone and with empty hands. The warriors shot him down without warning--and now--"
He glanced at her in irritation. "If I told your father you were pleading for a captive--"
Evidently the threat carried weight. She visibly wilted.
"Don't tell him," she pleaded. Then she flared up again. "Whatever you say, it's beastly! If my father whips me until the blood runs over my heels, I'll still say so!"
And so saying, she ran quickly out of the chamber.
"Who is that girl?" I asked.
"Altha, the daughter of Zal the Thrower."
"Who is he?"
"One of those you battled so viciously a short time ago."
"You mean to tell me a girl like that is the daughter of a man like--" Words failed me.
"What's wrong with her?" he demanded. "She differs none from the rest of our women."
"You mean all the women look like her, and all the men look like you?"
"Certainly--allowing for their individual characteristics. Is it otherwise among your people? That is, if you are not a solitary freak."
"Well, I'll be--" I began in bewilderment, when another warrior appeared in the door, saying. "I'm to relieve you, Thab. The warriors have decide to leave the matter to Khossuth when he returns on the morrow."
Thab departed and the other seated himself on the bench. I made no attempt to talk to him. My head was swimming with the contradictory phenomena I had heard and observed, and I felt the need of sleep. I soon sank into dreamless slumber.
Doubtless my wits were still addled from the battering I had received. Otherwise I would have snapped awake when I felt something touch my hair. As it was, I woke only partly. From under drooping lids I glimpsed, as in a dream, a girlish face bent close to mine, dark eyes wide with frightened fascination, red lips parted. The fragrance of her foamy black hair was in my nostrils. She timidly touched my face, then drew back with a quick soft intake of breath, as if frightened by her action. The guard snored on the bench. The torch had burned to a stub that cast a weird dull glow over the chamber. Outside, the moon had set. This much I vaguely realized before I sank back into slumber again, to be haunted by a dim beautiful face that shimmered through my dreams.