|Chapter 2|| Almuric
written by Robert Ervin Howard
I Awoke Again in the cold gray light of dawn, at a time when the condemned meet their executioners. A group of men stood over me, and one I knew was Khossuth the Skullsplitter.
He was taller than most, and leaner--almost gaunt in comparison to the others. This circumstance made his broad shoulders seem abnormally huge. His face and body were seamed with old scars. He was very dark, and apparently old; an impressive and terrible image of somber savagery.
He stood looking down at me, fingering the hilt of his great sword. His gaze was gloomy and detached.
"They say you claim to have beaten Logar of Thurga in open fight," he said at last, and his voice was cavernous and ghostly in a manner I cannot describe.
I did not reply, but lay staring up at him, partly in fascination at his strange and menacing appearance, partly in the anger that seemed generally to be with me during those times.
"Why do you not answer?" he rumbled.
"Because I'm weary of being called a liar," I snarled.
"Why did you come to Koth?"
"Because I was tired of living alone among wild beasts. I was a fool. I thought I would find human beings whose company was preferable to the leopards and baboons. I find I was wrong."
He tugged his bristling mustaches.
"Men say you fight like a mad leopard. Thab says that you did not come to the gates as an enemy comes. I love brave men. But what can we do? If we free you, you will hate us because of what has passed, and your hate is not lightly to be loosed."
"Why not take me into the tribe?" I remarked, at random.
He shook his head. "We are not Yagas, to keep slaves."
"Nor am I a slave," I grunted. "Let me live among you as an equal. I will hunt and fight with you. I am as good a man as any of your warriors."
At this another pushed past Khossuth. This fellow was bigger than any I had yet seen in Koth--not taller, but broader, more massive. His hair was thicker on his limbs, and of a peculiar rusty cast instead of black.
"That you must prove!" he roared, with an oath. "Loose him, Khossuth! The warriors have been praising his power until my belly revolts! Loose him and let us have a grapple!"
"The man is wounded, Ghor," answered Khossuth.
"Then let him be cared for until his wound is healed," urged the warrior eagerly, spreading his arms in a curious grappling gesture.
"His fists are like hammers," warned another.
"Thak's devils!" roared Ghor, his eyes glaring, his hairy arms brandished. "Admit him into the tribe, Khossuth! Let him endure the test! If he survives-well, by Thak, he'll be worthy even to be called a man of Koth!"
"I will go and think upon the matter," answered Khossuth after a long deliberation.
That settled the matter for the time being. All trooped out after him. Thab was last, and at the door he turned and made a gesture which I took to be one of encouragement. These strange people seemed not entirely without feelings of pity and friendship.
The day passed uneventfully. Thab did not return. Other warriors brought me food and drink, and I allowed them to bandage my scalp. With more human treatment the wild beast fury in me had been subordinated to my human reason. But that fury lurked close to the surface of my soul, ready to blaze into ferocious life at the slightest encroachment.
I did not see the girl Altha, though I heard light footsteps outside the chamber several times, whether hers or another's I could not know.
About nightfall a group of warriors came into the room and announced that I was to be taken to the council, where Khossuth would listen to all arguments and decide my fate. I was surprised to learn that arguments would be presented on my behalf. They got my promise not to attack them, and loosed me from the chain that bound me to the wall, but they did not remove the shackles on my wrists and ankles.
I was escorted out of the chamber into a vast hall, lighted by white fire torches. There were no hangings or furnishings, nor any sort of ornamentation--just an almost oppressive sense of massive architecture.
We traversed several halls, all equally huge and windy, with rugged walls and lofty ceilings, and came at last into a vast circular space, roofed with a dome. Against the back wall a stone throne stood on a block-like dais, and on the throne sat old Khossuth in gloomy majesty, clad in a spotted leopardskin. Before him in a vast three-quarters circle sat the tribe, the men cross-legged on skins spread on the stone floor, and behind them the women and children seated on fur-covered benches.
It was a strange concourse. The contrast was startling between the hairy males and the slender, white-skinned, dainty women. The men were clad in loin-cloths and high-strapped sandals; some had thrown pantherskins over their massive shoulders. The women were dressed similar to the girl Altha, whom I saw sitting with the others. They wore soft sandals or none, and scanty tunics girdled about their waists. That was all. The difference of the sexes was carried out down to the smallest babies. The girl children were quiet, dainty and pretty. The young males looked even more like monkeys than did their elders.
I was told to take my seat on a block of stone in front and somewhat to the side of the dais. Sitting among the warriors I saw Ghor, squirming impatiently as he unconsciously flexed his thick biceps.
As soon as I had taken my seat, the proceedings went forward. Khossuth simply announced that he would hear the arguments, and pointed out a man to represent me, at which I was again surprised, but this apparently was a regular custom among these people. The man chosen was the lesser chief who had commanded the warriors I had battled in the cell, and they called him Gutchluk Tigerwrath. He eyed me venemously as he limped forward with no great enthusiasm, bearing the marks of our encounter.
He laid his sword and dagger on the dais, and the foremost warriors did likewise. Then he glared at the rest truculently, and Khossuth called for arguments to show why Esau Cairn--he made a marvelous jumble of the pronunciation--should not be taken into the tribe.
Apparently the reasons were legion. Half a dozen warriors sprang up and began shouting at the top of their voice, while Gutchluk dutifully strove to answer them. I felt already doomed. But the game was not played out, or even well begun. At first Gutchluk went at it only half-heartedly, but opposition heated him to his talk. His eyes blazed, his jaw jutted, and he began to roar and bellow with the best of them. From the arguments he presented, or rather thundered, one would have thought he and I were lifelong friends.
No particular person was designated to protest against me. Everybody who wished took a hand. And if Gutchluk won over anyone, that person joined his voice to Gutchluk's. Already there were men on my side. Thab's shout and Ghor's bellow vied with my attorney's roar, and soon others took up my defense.
That debate is impossible for an Earth man to conceive of, without having witnessed it. It was sheer bedlam, with from three voices to five hundred voices clamoring at once. How Khossuth sifted any sense out of it, I cannot even guess. But he brooded somberly above the tumult, like a grim god over the paltry aspirations of mankind.
There was wisdom in the discarding of weapons. Dispute frequently became biting, and criticisms of ancestors and personal habits entered into it. Hands clutched at empty belts and mustaches bristled belligerently. Occasionally Khossuth lifted his weird voice across the clamor and restored a semblance of order.
My attempts to follow the arguments were vain. My opponents went into matters seemingly utterly irrelevant, and were met by rebuttals just as illogical. Authorities of antiquity were dragged out, to be refuted by records equally musty.
To further complicate matters, disputants frequently snared themselves in their own arguments, or forgot which side they were on, and found themselves raging frenziedly on the other. There seemed no end to the debate, and no limit to the endurance of the debaters. At midnight they were still yelling as loudly, and shaking their fists in one another's beards as violently as ever.
The women took no part in the arguments.
They began to glide away about midnight, with the children. Finally only one small figure was left among the benches. It was Altha, who was following--or trying to follow--the proceedings with a surprising interest.
I had long since given up the attempt. Gutchluk was holding the floor valiantly, his veins swelling and his hair and beard bristling with his exertions. Ghor was actually weeping with rage and begging Khossuth to let him break a few necks. Oh, that he had lived to see the men of Koth become adders and snakes, with the hearts of buzzards and the guts of toads! he bawled, brandishing his huge arms to high heaven.
It was all a senseless madhouse to me. Finally, in spite of the clamor, and the fact that my life was being weighed in the balance, I fell asleep on my block and snored peacefully while the men of Koth raged and pounded their hairy breasts and bellowed, and the strange planet of Almuric whirled on its way under the stars that neither knew nor cared for men, Earthly or otherwise.
It was dawn when Thab shook me awake and shouted in my ear: "We have won! You enter the tribe, if you'll wrestle Ghor!"
"I'll break his back!" I grunted, and went back to sleep again.