|Chapter 6|| Almuric
written by Robert Ervin Howard
It was past sunrise when we started back on the long trek toward Koth, swinging far to the west to avoid the devil city from which we had escaped. The sun came up unusually hot. The air was breathless, the light morning wind blew fitfully, and then died down entirely. The always cloudless sky had a faint copperish tint. Altha eyed that sky apprehensively, and in answer to my question said she feared a storm. I had supposed the weather to be always clear and calm and hot on the plains, clear and windy and cold in the hills. Storms had not entered into my calculation.
The beasts we saw shared her uneasiness. We skirted the edge of the forest, for Altha refused to traverse it until the storm had passed. Like most plains-dwellers, she had an instinctive distrust of thick woods. As we strode over the grassy undulations, we saw the herds of grazers milling confusedly. A drove of jumping pigs passed us, covering the ground with gargantuan bounds of thirty and forty feet. A lion started up in front of us with a roar, but dropped his massive head and slunk hurriedly away through the tall grass.
I kept looking for clouds, but saw none. Only the copperish tint about the horizons grew, discoloring the whole sky. It turned from light color to dull bronze, and from bronze to black. The sun smoldered for a little like a veiled torch, veining the dusky dome with fire, then it was blotted out. A tangible darkness seemed to hover an instant in the sky, then rush down, cloaking the world in utter blackness, through which shone neither sun, moon, nor stars. I had never guessed how impenetrable darkness could be. I might have been a blind, disembodied spirit wandering through unlighted space, but for the swish of the grasses under my feet, and the soft warm contact of Altha's body against mine. I began to fear we might fall into a river, or blunder against some equally blind beast of prey.
I had been making for a mass of broken boulders, such a formation as occasionally occurs on the plains. Darkness fell before we reached them, but groping on, I stumbled upon a sizable rock, and placing my back to it, drew Altha against it and stood sheltering her with my body as well as I could. Out on the dark plains breathless silence alternated with the sounds of varied and widespread movement--rustling of grass, shuffle of padded hoofs, weird lowing and low-pitched roaring. Once a vast herd of some sort swept by us, and I was thankful for the protection of the boulders that kept us from being trampled. Again all sounds ceased and the silence was as complete as the darkness. Then from somewhere came a weird howling.
"What's that?" I asked uneasily, unable to classify it.
"The wind!" she shivered, snuggling closer to me.
It did not blow with a steady blast; here and there it swept in mad fitful gusts. Like lost souls it wailed and moaned. It ripped the grasses near us, and finally a puff of it struck us squarely, knocking us off our feet and bruising us against the boulder behind us. Just that one abrupt blast, like a buffet from an unseen giant's fist.
As we regained our feet I froze. Something was passing near our refuge--something mountain-huge, beneath whose tread the earth trembled. Altha caught me in a desperate clutch, and I felt the pounding of her heart. My hair prickled with nameless fear. The thing was even with us. It halted, as if sensing our presence. There was a curious leathery sound, as of the movement of great limbs. Something waved in the air above us; then I felt a touch on my elbow. The same object touched Altha's bare arm, and she screamed, her taut nerves snapping.
Instantly our ears were deafened by an awful bellow above us, and something swept down through the darkness with a clashing of gigantic teeth. Blindly I lashed out and upward, feeling my sword-edge meet tangible substance. A warm liquid spurted along my arm, and with another terrible roar, this time more of pain than rage, the invisible monster shambled away, shaking the earth with its tread, dimming the shrieking wind with its bellowing.
"What was it, in God's name?" I panted.
"It was one of the Blind Ones," she whispered. "No man has ever seen them; they dwell in the darkness of the storm. Whence they come, whither they go, none knows. But look, the darkness melts."
"Melts" was the right word. It seemed to shred out, to tear in long streamers. The sun came out, the sky showed blue from horizon to horizon. But the earth was barred fantastically with long strips of darkness, tangible shadows floating on the plain, with broad spaces of sunlight between. The scene might have been a dream landscape of an opium-eater. A hurrying deer flitted across a sunlight band and vanished abruptly in a broad streamer of black; as suddenly it flashed into light and sight again. There was no gradual shaking into darkness; the borders of the torn strips of blackness were as clear-cut and definite as ribbons of ebony on a background of gold and emerald. As far as I could see, the world was stripped and barred with those black ribbons. Sight could not pierce them, but they were thinning, dividing, vanishing.
Directly before one of the streamers of darkness ripped apart and disappeared, revealing the figure of a man--a hairy giant, who stood glaring at me, sword in hand, as surprised as I. Then several things happened all at once. Altha screamed: "A Thugran!" the stranger leaped and slashed, and his sword clanged on my lifted blade.
I have only a brief chaotic memory of the next few seconds. There was a whirl of strokes and parries, a brief clanging of steel; then my sword-point sank under his heart and stood out behind his back. I wrenched the blade free as he sank down, and stood glaring down at him bewilderedly. I had secretly wondered what the outcome would be when I was called upon to face a seasoned warrior with naked steel. Now it had occurred and was over with, and I was absolutely unable to remember how I had won. It had been too fast and furious for conscious thought; my fighting instincts had acted for me.
A clamor of angry cries burst on me, and wheeling I saw a score of hairy warriors swarming out from among the rocks. It was too late to flee. In an instant they were on me, and I was the center of a whirling, flashing, maelstrom of swords. How I parried them even for a few seconds I cannot say. But I did, and even had the satisfaction of feeling my blade grate around another, and sever the wielder's shoulder-bone. A moment later one stooped beneath my thrust and drove the spear through the calf of my leg. Maddened by the pain, I dealt him a stroke that split his skull to the chin, and then a carbine stock descended on my head. I partially parried the blow, else it had smashed my skull. But even so, it beat down on my crown with thunderous and murderous impact, and the lights went out.
I came to with the impression that I was lying in a small boat which was rocking and tossing in a storm. Then I discovered that I was bound hand and foot, and being borne on a litter made of spear-shafts. Two huge warriors were bearing me between them, and they made no effort to make the traveling any easier for me. I could see only the sky, the hairy back of the warrior in front of me, and by drawing back my head the bearded face of the warrior behind. This person, seeing my eyes open, growled a word to his mate, and they promptly dropped the litter. The jolt set my damaged head to throbbing, and the wound in my leg to hurting abominably.
"Logar!" bawled one of them. "The dog is conscious. Make him walk, if you must bring him to Thugra. I've carried him far as I'm going to."
I heard footsteps, and then above me towered a giant form and a face that seemed familiar. It was a fierce, brutal face, and from the corner of the snarling mouth to the rim of the square jaw, ran a livid scar.
"Well, Esau Cairn," said this individual, "we meet again."
I made no reply to this obvious comment.
"What?" he sneered, "do you not remember Logar the Bonecrusher, you hairless dog?"
He punctuated his remarks by a savage kick in my ribs. Somewhere there rang out a feminine shriek of protest, the sound of a scuffle, and Altha broke through the ring of warriors and fell to her knees beside me.
"Beast!" she cried, her beautiful eyes blazing. "You kick him when he is helpless, when you would not dare face him in fair battle."
"Who let this Kothan cat loose?" roared Logar. "Thal, I told you to keep her away from this dog."
"She bit my hand," snarled the big warrior, striding forward, and shaking a drop of blood from his hairy paw. "I'd as soon try to hold a spitting wildcat."
"Well, haul him to his feet." directed Logar. "He walks the rest of the way."
"But he is wounded in the leg!" wailed Altha. "He cannot walk."
"Why don't you finish him here?" demanded one of the warriors.
"Because that would be too easy!" roared Logar, red lights flickering in his blood-shot eyes. "The thief struck me foully with a stone, from behind, and stole my poniard."--here I saw that he was wearing it once more at his girdle. "He shall go to Thugra, and there I'll take my time about killing him. Drag him up!"
They loosened my legs, none too gently, but the wounded one was so stiff I could hardly stand, much less walk. They encouraged me with blows, kicks, and prods from spears and swords, while Altha wept in helpless fury, and at last turned on Logar.
"You are both a liar and a coward!" she screamed. "He did not strike you with a stone--he beat you down with his naked fists, as all men know, though your slaves dare not acknowledge it--"
Logar's knotty fist crashed against her jaw, knocking her off her feet, to fall in a crumpled heap a dozen feet away. She lay without moving, blood trickling from her lips. Logar grunted in savage satisfaction, but his warriors were silent. Moderate corporal correction for women was not unknown among the Guras, but such excessive and wanton brutality was repugnant to any warrior of average decency. So Logar's braves looked glum, though they made no verbal protest.
As for me, I went momentarily blind with the red madness of fury that swept over me. With a blood-thirsty snarl I jerked convulsively, upsetting the two men who held me; so we all went down in a heap. The other Thugrans came and boosted us up, glad to vent their outraged feelings on my carcass, which they did lustily, with sandal heels and sword-hilts. But I did not feel the blows that rained upon me. The whole world was swimming red to my sight, and speech had utterly failed me. I could only snarl bestially as I tore in vain at the thongs which bound me. When I lay exhausted, my captors hauled me up and began beating me to make me walk.
"You can beat me to death," I snarled, finding my voice at last, "but I won't move until some of you see to the girl."
"The slut's dead," growled Logar.
"You lie, you dog!" I spat. "You miserable weakling, you couldn't hit hard enough to kill a new-born babe!"
Logar bellowed in wordless fury, but one of the others, panting from his exertions of hammering me, stepped over to Altha, who was showing signs of life.
"Let her lie!" roared Logar.
"Go to the devil!" snarled his warrior. "I love her no more than you do, but if bringing her along will make that smooth-skinned devil walk of his own accord, I'll bring her, if I have to carry her all the way. He's not human; I've pummeled him till I'm ready to drop dead, and he's in better shape than I."
So Altha, wobbly on her legs and very groggy, accompanied us as we marched to Thugra.
We were on the road several days, during which time walking was agony to my wounded leg. Altha persuaded the warriors to let her bandage my wounds, and but for that I very probably should have died. I was marked in many places by the gashes received in the haunted ruins, battered and bruised from head to foot by the beating the Thugrans gave me. Just enough food and water was given me to keep me alive. And so, dazed, weary, harassed by thirst and hunger, crippled, stumbling along over those endless rolling plains, I was even glad at last to see the walls of Thugra looming in the distance, even though I knew they spelled my doom. Altha had not been badly treated on the march, but she had been prevented from giving me aid and comfort, beyond bandaging my wounds, and all through the nights, waking from the beast-like sleep of utter exhaustion, I heard her sobbing. Among the hazy, tortured impression of that dreary treck, that stands out most clearly--Altha sobbing in the night, terrible with loneliness and despair in the immensity of shadowed world and moaning darkness.
And so we came to Thugra. The city was almost exactly like Koth--the same huge tower-flanked gates, massive walls built of rugged green stone, and all. The people, too, differed none in the main essentials from the Kothans. But I found that their government was more like an absolute monarchy than was Koth's. Logar was a primitive despot, and his will was the last power. He was cruel, merciless, lustful and arrogant. I will say this for him: he upheld his rule by personal strength and courage. Thrice during my captivity in Thugra I saw him kill a rebellious warrior in hand-to-hand combat--once with his naked hands against the other's sword. Despite his faults, there was force in the man, a gusty, driving, dynamic power that beat down opposition with sheer brutality. He was like a roaring wind, bending or breaking all that stood before him.
Possessed of incredible vitality, he was intensely vain of his physical prowess--in which, I believe, his superiority of personality was rooted. That was why he hated me so terribly. That was why he lied to his people and told them that I struck him with a stone. That was why, too, he refused to put the matter to test. In his heart lurked fear--not of any bodily harm I might do him, but fear lest I overcome him again, and discredit him in the eyes of his subjects. It was his vanity that made a beast of Logar.
I was confined in a cell, chained to the wall. Logar came every day to curse and taunt me. It was evident that he wished to exhaust all mental forms of torment before he proceeded to physical torture. I did not know what had become of Altha. I had not seen her since first we entered the city. He swore that he had taken her to his palace and described to me with great detail the salacious indignities to which he swore he subjected her. I did not believe him, for I felt he would be more likely to bring her to my cell and torture her before me. But the fury into which his obscene narrations threw me could not have been much more violent if the scenes he described had been enacted before me.
It was easy to see that the Thugrans did not relish Logar's humor, for they were no worse than other Guras, and all Guras possess, as a race, an innate decency in regard to women. But Logar's power was too complete for any to venture a protest. At last, however, the warrior who brought me food told me that Altha had disappeared immediately after we reached the city, and that Logar was searching for her, but unable to find her. Apparently she had either escaped from Thugra, or was hiding somewhere in the city.
And so the slow days crawled by.