|Chapter 4|| Almuric
written by Robert Ervin Howard
I had wandered far in my hunting. Alone I had spent several nights on the plains. Now I was returning leisurely, but I was still many miles from Koth, whose massive towers I could not yet glimpse across the waving savannas. I cannot say what my thoughts were as I swung along, my carbine in the crook of my arm, but they were likely concerned with spoors in the water's edge, crushed-down grass marking the passing of some large animal, or the scents born on the light wind.
Whatever my thoughts may have been, they were interrupted by a shrill cry. Wheeling, I saw a slim white figure racing across the grassy level toward me. Behind her, gaining with every stride, came one of those giant carnivorous birds which are among the most dangerous of all the grisly denizens of the grasslands. They tower ten feet in height and somewhat resemble an ostrich except for the beak, which is a huge curving weapon, three feet in length, pointed and edged like a scimitar. A stroke of that beak can slash a man asunder, and the great taloned feet of the monster can tear a human limb from limb.
This mountain of destruction was hurtling along behind the flying girl at appalling speed, and I knew it would overtake her long before I could hope to reach them. Cursing the necessity for depending on my none too accurate marksmanship, I lifted my carbine and took as steady an aim as possible. The girl was directly in line with the brute, and I could not risk a shot at the huge body, lest I hit her instead. I had to chance a shot at the great head that bobbed bafflingly on the long arching neck.
It was more luck than skill that sent my bullet home. At the crack of the shot the giant head jerked backward as if the monster had run into an unseen wall. The stumpy wings thrashed thunderously, and staggering erratically, the brute pitched to the earth.
The girl fell at the same instant, as if the same bullet had brought them both down. Running forward to bend over her, I was surprised to see Altha, daughter of Zal, looking up at me with her dark enigmatic eyes. Quickly satisfying myself that she was not injured, outside of fright and exhaustion, I turned to the thunderbird and found it quite dead, its few brains oozing out of a hole in its narrow skull.
Turning back to Altha, I scowled down at her.
"What are you doing outside the city?" I demanded. "Are you quite mad, to venture so far into the wilderness alone?"
She made no reply, but I sensed a hurt in her dark eyes, and I repented the roughness of my speech. I dropped down on one knee beside her.
"You are a strange girl, Altha," I said. "You are not like the other women of Koth. Folk say you are wilful and rebellious, without reason. I do not understand you. Why should you risk your life like this?"
"What will you do now?" she demanded.
"Why, take you back to the city, of course."
Her eyes smoldered with a curious sullenness.
"You will take me back, and my father will whip me. But I will run away again--and again--and again!"
"But why should you run away?" I asked in bewilderment. "There is nowhere for you to go. Some beast will devour you."
"So!" she answered. "Perhaps it is my wish to be devoured."
"Then why did you run from the thunderbird?"
"The instinct to live is hard to conquer," she admitted.
"But why should you wish to die?" I expostulated. "The women of Koth are happy, and you have as much as any."
She looked away from me, out across the broad plains.
"To eat, drink and sleep is not all," she answered in a strange voice. "The beasts do that."
I ran my fingers through my thick hair in perplexity. I had heard similar sentiments voiced in many different ways on Earth, but it was the first time I had ever heard them from the lips of an inhabitant on Almuric. Altha continued in a low detached voice, almost as if she were speaking to herself rather than to me:
"Life is too hard for me. I do not fit, somehow, as the others do. I bruise myself on its rough edges. I look for something that is not and never was."
Uneasy at her strange words, I caught her heavy locks in my hands and forced back her head to look into her face. Her enigmatic eyes met mine with a strange glimmer in them such as I had never seen.
"It was hard before you came," she said. "It is harder now."
Startled, I released her, and she turned her head away.
"Why should I make it harder?" I asked bewilderedly.
"What constitutes life?" she countered. "Is the life we live all there is? Is there nothing outside and beyond our material aspirations?"
I scratched my head in added perplexity.
"Why," I said, "on Earth I met many people who were always following some nebulous dream or ideal, but I never observed that they were happy. On my planet there is much grasping and groping for unseen things, but I never knew there was such full content as I have known on Almuric."
"I thought you different," she said, still looking away from me. "When I saw you lying wounded and in chains, with your smooth skin and strange eyes, I thought you were more gentle than other men. But you are as rough and fierce as the rest. You spend your days and nights in slaying beasts, fighting men, and in riotous wassail."
"But they all do," I protested.
She nodded. "And so I do not fit in life, and were better dead."
I felt unreasonably ashamed. It had occurred to me that an Earthwoman would find life on Almuric intolerably crude and narrow, but it seemed beyond reason that a native woman would have such feelings. If the other women I had seen desired more superficial gentleness on the part of their men, they had not made it known. They seemed content with shelter and protection, and cheerfully resigned to the rough manners of the males. I sought for words but found none, unskilled as I was in polite discourse. I suddenly felt my roughness, crudity and raw barbarism, and stood abashed.
"I'll take you back to Koth," I said helplessly.
She shrugged her shapely shoulders. "And you can watch my father whip me, if you will."
At that I found my tongue.
"He won't whip you," I retorted angrily. "Let him lay a hand on you, and I'll break his back."
She looked up at me quickly, with eyes widened in sudden interest. My arm had found its way about her slim form, and I was glaring into her eyes, with my face very close to hers. Her lips parted, and had that breathless instant lasted a little longer, I know not what would have happened. But suddenly the color went from her face, and from her parted lips rang a terrible scream. Her gaze was fixed on something beyond and above me, and the thrash of wings suddenly filled the air.
I wheeled on one knee, to see the air above me thronged with dark shapes. The Yagas! The winged men of Almuric! I had half believed them a myth; yet here they were in all their mysterious terror.
I had but a glance as I reared up, clubbing my empty carbine. I saw that they were tall and rangy in build, sinewy and powerful, with ebon skins. They seemed made like ordinary men, except for the great leathery bat-like wings which grew from their shoulders. They were naked except for loin-cloths, and were armed with short curved blades.
I rose on my toes as the first swooped in, scimitar lifted, and met him with a swing of my carbine that broke off the stock and crushed his narrow skull like an eggshell. The next instant they were whirling and thrashing about me, their curved blades licking at me like jets of lightning from all sides, the very number of their broad wings hampering them.
Whirling the carbine barrel in a wheel about me, I broke and beat back the flickering blades, and in a furious exchange of strokes, caught another a glancing blow on the head that stretched him senseless at my feet. Then a wild despairing cry rang out behind me, and abruptly the rush slackened.
The whole pack was in the air, racing southward, and I stood frozen. In the arms of one of them writhed and shrieked a slender white figure, stretching out imploring arms to me. Altha! They had snatched her up from behind my back, and were carrying her away to whatever doom awaited her in that black citadel of mystery far to the south. The terrific velocity with which the Yagas raced through the sky was already taking them out of my sight.
As I stood there baffled, I felt a movement at my feet. Looking down I saw one of my victims sit up and feel his head dazedly. I vengefully lifted my carbine barrel to dash out his brains; then a sudden thought struck me, inspired by the ease with which Altha's captor had carried both his weight and hers in the air.
Drawing my poniard, I dragged my captive to his feet. Standing erect he was taller than I, with shoulders equally broad, though his limbs were lean and wiry rather than massive. His dark eyes, which slanted slightly, regarded me with the unblinking stare of a venomous serpent.
The Guras had told me the Yagas spoke a tongue similar to their own.
"You are going to carry me through the air in pursuit of your companions," I said.
He shrugged his shoulders and spoke in a peculiarly harsh voice.
"I cannot carry your weight."
"Then that's too bad for you," I answered grimly, and whirling him about, I leaped upon his back, locking my legs about his waist. My left arm was hooked about his neck, the poniard in my right hand pricked his side. He had kept his feet under the impact of my bulk, spreading his great wings.
"Take the air!" I snarled in his ear, sinking the dagger point into his flesh. "Fly, damn you, or I'll cut your heart out!"
His wings began to thrash the air, and we rose slowly from the earth. It was a most sensational experience, but one to which I gave scant thought at the time, being so engrossed in my fury at the abduction of Altha.
When we had risen to a height of about a thousand feet, I looked for the abductors, and saw them far away, a mere group of black dots in the southern sky. After them I steered my reluctant steed.
In spite of my threats and urging for greater speed the flying dots soon vanished. Still I kept on due southward, feeling that even if I failed to overtake them, I would eventually come to the great dusky rock where legend placed their habitation.
Inspired by my poniard, my bearer made good time, considering the burden he was carrying. For hours we sped over the savannas, and by the middle of the afternoon, the landscape changed. We were flying over a forest, the first I had seen on Almuric. The trees seemed to tower to a vast height.
It was near sundown when I saw the farther limits of the forest, and in the grasslands beyond, the ruins of a city. From among these ruins smoke curled upward, and I asked my steed if his companions were cooking their evening meal there. His only answer was a snarl.
We were flying low over the forest, when a sudden uproar caused me to look down. We were just passing over a narrow glade, and in it a terrific battle was taking place. A pack of hyenas had attacked a giant unicorn-like beast, as big as a bison. Half a dozen mangled, trampled bodies attested the fury of the beast's defense, and even as I peered down, he caught the single survivor on his swordlike ivory horn, and cast it a score of feet in the air, broken and torn.
In the brief fascination of the sight, I must have involuntarily loosened my grasp on my captive. For at that instant, with a convulsive bucking heave and twist, he wrenched free and hurled me sideways. Caught off guard, I clutched vainly at empty air, and rushing earthward, crashed with a stunning impact on the loamy leaf-carpeted earth, directly in front of the maddened unicorn!
I had a dazed brief glimpse of his mountainous bulk looming over me, as his massive lowered head drove his horn at my breast. Then I lurched up on one knee, simultaneously grasping that ivory sword with my left hand and seeking to deflect it, while my right hand drove my poniard up toward the great jugular. Then there came a terrific impact against my skull, and consciousness was blotted out in darkness.