REAVERS OF THE COAST
THE WAVES rolled high on sand and stone, slipping between the rocks as they retreated like so many slithering vipers. Further out a pack of ships glided past, cleaving through the gem-toned water. There were five in all, triangular sails stretched full. These were shallow drafted, long keeled, sleek lined stallions of the foam; and each was acrawl with salt-hounds attending to their stations. The sun was beginning to set behind the horizon, casting shadows of the sails on the low hills as they rounded a sheer sandstone point covered with rough scrub. Every mast flew the same flag, a red pennant with a lunging snarling wolf, flapping and twisting violently in the wind.
“Steady, steady you rat-sons!” Ripped a gnarly voice over the whipping winds “Keep the bow out towards open water Bor!”
From astern came the snapped response “Aye captain” and the bow tilted out. Seeing this the other ships followed suit, imitating the leader of the pack. They were tacking hard up the coast against the wind coming from open waters, their wakes scars in the dark sea. Each ship was small but bristling with arms, the points of spears glinting in their racks.
“SHIP OFF THE BOW!” came a cry from the top of the mast. All eyes snapped forward, and wicked grins split the faces of the crew.
“Make ready!” The call erupted, a horn was blown in three bursts, each ship giving three more in return. Before them loped a wide-beamed galleon, limping along in the chop.
The galleon spotted them at the same time, heeling hard in an attempt to swing out to sea and rougher waters where the larger ship stood a better chance in the tossing waves. It was no use. The galleon’s sails flapped and slacked out in the gusts, presenting itself to the sea-wolves broadside and nearly stationary in the water. It wasn’t long before the longships were bearing down on it, lunging out on all sides closing it in.
Onboard the galleon chaos erupted, men crawling over each other to go up or down the ladders, carrying piles of loose cannonballs in their arms, tearing apart the ship looking for what little arms they had on board. The longships meanwhile had furled all their sails and run out oars. The men howled and shouted together with each stroke. They were circling the galleon, tightening upon it like a constricting snake.
From the galleon, which was called Beauty, a few haphazard cannon shots whizzed past the longships and splashed in the waves. The crew of the Beauty armed themselves as best they could with knives, boat-hooks, and hatchets. They lined the railings, preparing to toss wood and cargo overboard onto any boarders. Their captain, a small cruel man with a rodent-face, fretted and shouted, threatening any man who did not fight to his death.
The crew watched the longships grow nearer until they could see the wicked aspects and wild eyes of the men pulling at their oars. Fear of their captain kept them at the railings, but fear of the corsairs began to pull them away in a deadly tug-of-war.
The wind howled and as the longships got closer, the air buzzed with swarms of arrows and musket balls biting at the rails of the galleon. This was too much. Pulling back, the Beauty’s crew fired their last few shots which went sailing high over the longship sails. Men fell writhing with arrows in their backs, their cries drowned out by the salty gale.
The reavers were at the galleon’s guts. Plank-to-plank the ships clapped together, and just as quickly iron hooks dug into the Beauty’s railings. Knives-in-teeth the corsairs climbed, swiftly as a man could walk. Like ants crawling over a dead rat. The first to go over the railings were the most crazed members of the pirate crews; berzerkers, maniacs, and swashbucklers. A lithe, lean, hawk-faced man called Hakim was among them. Gold hoops dangled from his ears, his bald head and sharp features gave the impression of a skull with skin stretched over it. A grin like a snake’s curled his face as he brandished his short sharp sword.
“Attack! Forward damn you!” The Beauty’s captain shrieked at his terrified crew. “Cowards! Dogs!” he kicked one man forward towards the corsair boarding party who stumbled and fell flat on his face before a towering black-haired berzerker. This man was called Grim, a northerner who bore a long mustache and short spiked hair like a boar’s. He loomed two heads over the tallest of the Galleon’s crew, thin and muscular like a starved wolf. He was naked but for a sash girded about his loins.
Stepping over the groveling sailor begging for mercy Grim approached the crew, now huddled in a circle around the mainmast. Hakim was on the other side, and all around the pirates swarmed with cruel weapons at the ready.
“Fight! Fight or you’ll be flogged! I’ll kill you myself if you don’t fight!” The captain was frantic, screaming. He grabbed one of his crew and raised his sword to strike the man down as an example. Before he could deliver the blow his sword fell from his hand and he reeled, choking and gasping. He looked up in astonished fear, Grim had transfixed him with a javelin. He stumbled forward, clutching at the shaft protruding from his chest with one hand and with the other reaching out for nothing. Grim came up to him and grabbed the end of the shaft, and with one powerful movement swung him around and sent him tumbling over the railing as the javelin was ripped out.
“Not much of a captain” He smiled as he inspected the gore on his javelin “If you don't want to wind up like him throw down your arms!” Instantly the weapons of the crew clattered on the deck.
“Secure them!” Hakim called from the other side and the corsairs began tying up the crew and taking from them what meager weapons and jewelry they had.
Some went below to clear out the lower decks and once the ship was accounted for “All Clear!” was shouted down from the railings. With astonishing efficiency the sea-reavers looted the ship from top to bottom. Taking only the most valuable goods and piling the rest up in the hold or out on the deck.
The Beauty’s crew were tied together by their necks sitting in a circle on the middle deck. They muttered back and forth to each other about what might happen to them, if they were to see their homes ever again. An occasional blow from the but-end of a spear quieted their whispering. Glancing about furtively they saw men of every race and build hurrying about ransacking their vessel.
There were small delicate men from the west, with olive complexions and curly blonde hair. Large ones from the southern grasslands and jungles whose dark skin was marked with ritual scars. Tall lean northern men like grim, black-haired easterners, all of them bearing in common a wolfish expression and faces hardened by a long life at sea.
A few came out of the captain’s cabin and whispered something to Hakim, who whispered something to Grim, who in turn said something to one of the pirates with a large gold-inlaid horn at his side. He bellowed on it eight times and a few men instantly went to haul up one of the boarding ropes. They pulled it up swiftly, and lifted up a man unlike any of those crawling over the galleon.
He was tall with thick black hair held back by a silk headscarf. Clean shaven and roughly handsome. His broad hairy chest exposed by his open shirt beneath a coat of gold brocade. His eyes burned a deep gray like smoldering ashes beneath his heavy brow. His look was exacting, his presence formidable, and at his waist hung a brutally simple steel cutlass, notched and unadorned. Captain Aerin “Black” Vane, terror of empires and reaver of the coast. The Beauty’s crew had only heard of him in stories and rumors, his presence stunned them to silence.
“Something to show you in the cabin, Captain” said Grim, genuflecting to the shorter man. Vane said nothing but followed Grim aft.
The cabin was garish with trinkets and oddities, most of them worthless garbage. Vane glanced about the bric a brac with disdain, sneering “Captain must have been had by every peddler and dock-side swindler from here to the jeweled coast. Is this what you brought me to see?”
“No” said Grim, “look here.” He produced a small wooden box from underneath the central table. It was decorated with strange human figures in a style unlike any Vane had ever seen. Grim opened it on the table, and they both stared wide-eyed at its lone occupant. Inside was an idol, human like, with a large head and small body, unmistakably made of solid gold, and inlaid with jewels of every color and hue. It smiled silently at them, the gem eyes twinkling.
“Are there more like it?” Vane broke the silence.
“No, just the one” Grim replied, eyes still locked on the shimmering idol.
“I have seen jewelry and artistry of every people of the known coasts and just as many unknown, and never have I seen such a thing before. Whoever made this surely made more.” Vane asserted, the dazzling colors of the gemstones glinted in his eyes.
“A vast untouched hoard…” Grim trailed off. Vane reached out and picked up the idol, its smooth gold contrasting with his powerful weathered hand.
“Look!” Grim exclaimed, and grabbed out of the box a piece of fabric which was hidden under the idol. Unfolding it revealed a map, written in a language unfamiliar to the sea-rovers, and marked with strange symbols similar in style to the ones on the box.
“Devils take me” Vane cursed under his breath, and then spoke aloud “It must lead to the place this was taken from, to the treasure”
“What say it?” Asked Grim eagerly “Where stand that coast?”
“I don’t know.” Vane growled in frustration, “but perhaps we might find someone who does, finish up the job here! We make way north to Vernilon, move like hell’s devils are after you!”
“Aye captain!” Grim responded eagerly as he cracked a wicked smirk.
Short work was made of getting off of the Beauty, the loot was all loaded away and what of the crew who were fit enough were loaded onto the corsair’s ships to be sold in the slave markets of civilized men. The rest were pushed out to sea in one of the Beauty’s small boats to watch the galleon burn away to nothing, the calling card of the Sea Wolves. The longships hurried north up the coast under a firm wind.
They sailed a day and a night before they reached a chain of small wooded islands known as “the maze” a few days south of Vernilon, a haven for pirates and smugglers. The ships of the Sea Wolves were gliding across the water as graceful as swans, the Shark, Southern Stallion, Storm-Wind, Golden Bird, and Terror. The Shark being the oldest, built by captain Vane himself. Each ship had been made by its own crew, named for the place or circumstances of its construction.
They pulled into a small bay made by one of the myriad islands and pulled what of the ships would fit onto the small beach, the others laying at anchor a short ways off. The sun was setting, and the pirates wasted no time. Keenly shaped wooden boards were produced off the ships, in all shapes and sizes, and taken to the windward side of the island where there was a steady swell. The sea-wolves stripped to their breeches and paddled into the water with vigor, howling and laughing. They paddled with the waves until they were caught up in their pull and rode their boards with great skill, a practice they had taken from the natives of a remote and isolated isle.
They surfed until the sun set, then kindled great fires on the beach and smashed open casks of wine and beer which had been taken from the Beauty. Singing and wrestling and story-telling they passed the evening.
Darkness came on slowly. The land curved around them from a rocky point connected to the rest of the island by a low narrow spit, the sky could be seen through the tall pines before it retreated behind a granite cliff. The fires cast tall shadows onto the cliff face of dancing giants.
Vane stood on board the Shark anchored a ways off the beach, smoke curling from his pipe. A fresh cool wind poured over the island driving away the clouds and causing the ships to sway and creak. The moon shone brightly among the bright stars piercing the sky. He breathed deeply of the air and closed his eyes. Again he exhaled and inhaled harder and longer and again before drawing a long pull of his pipe and giving it up to the wind.
The idol sat facing him reflecting the moonlight.
THE HORNS OF CHALIAC
CONAN, now king of Aquilonia, is beset by traitors, aided by the neighboring kingdom of Nemedia, determined to oust him from his throne. He is aging, now in his early forties, but in his full wisdom and cunning.
News reached the Aquilonian camp of a company of Nemedian cavalry moving across the border to flank Conan's host. The king took a troop of his most worthy knights to cut them off and drive them back across the border.
Autumn had set the forest ablaze. Leaves danced in the afternoon light, coming to rest gently on the forest floor. They muffled the plod of heavy hooves stamping a sodden road. Spears and helms glinted in the light filtering between the trees. The image of a gold dragon on a black field waved on a pennant atop each lance. King Conan rode in front, looming in his dark mail, atop a powerful jet black stallion. His roughly chopped black mane lay carelessly over his mailled shoulders, and two piercing eyes like frozen blue fire scanned the woodline carefully.
The sun was setting rapidly, tinging the already ruddy forest an even deeper orange.
“This road is little taken my liege, it is faster to follow the river.” A knight broke out, cantering up alongside Conan.
“All the better, less of a chance that Nemedian dog or his men find out our plans.” Growled Conan.
“Certainly they will not expect us to come from this way, surprise will be ours” The knight said eagerly.
“And they will suffer for it” Replied Conan, full of malice and black inent “We ride through the night”.
The company rode on, and as they plunged further down the old road the light became faint and pale, and the woods grew thicker and encroached further onto the path. Not a word was spoken. The only sounds were the plod of many hooves, the creak of saddles, and the jangling of armor and weapons. A mist came up out of the wet earth and shrouded even more the thick twilight woods. The air took a chill and the breath of the horses surged in white clouds about the riders.
The road became rougher and narrower, little more than a gap between walls of tangled branches, forcing the knights to break formation until they could barely ride two abreast. Their lance points caught on overhanging branches; roots and loose stones in the path forced them to slow to a steady walk. Darkness was seeping through the wood, choking out the last tinges of light.
If any of the knights felt uneasy they would not word it, they had followed Conan into great peril before, into the thickest fray of battle, and would have followed him into the pit of hell without question, such was their loyalty. These were Conan’s best knights, the flower of his chivalry, each chosen for outstanding bravery and courage in battle.
Yet some among them grew restless and shifted in their saddles, glancing back and forth into the now endless blackness of the nightime wood. No creatures stirred beyond the trees, save for the hooting of a lone owl somewhere away off the path. The mist still hung about the wood but the sky was clear, their path now dimly illuminated by the stars which seemed far away beyond the branches reaching over them like many slender fingers.
Conan remained alone at the front of the company, his murky dark figure like a great moving shadow was all that could be seen of him by the men behind. His eyes glinted like spear-points in the sparse starlight, attempting in vain to penetrate into the woods and darkness that lay before them. He too was unsettled, but his dis-ease came from a place of primal instinct, not a civilized fear of the dark. Like a wolf detecting some unknown danger he scanned about himself carefully, perking his ears for the slightest sound, drawing each breath slowly as if to parse the air for an unfamiliar scent. Yet nothing revealed itself, only in the raw and honed instinct of the barbarian did he feel something was amiss.
The night wore on and the progress of the knights grew even slower. The forest spilled further and further out into the treacherous path with roots and ferns, the trees reaching out with slender branches now snagging at their armor. The horses too began to show fear, snorting and pulling at the reins. The men spurred them forward with much difficulty. Even Conan’s great stallion slowed his pace and nickered his dislike of their current position.
Just as they had almost slowed to a complete stop a bright light overtook the path. The moon had risen past the screen of the trees and was glowing full, huge low and yellow like the eye of a wolf, illuminating the overgrown road. The light cast a weird glow about them, sending long shadows of knights and horses twisting among the roots and brambles. The fog persisted but now glowed with a golden haze in the moonlight. They pressed on, picking up their pace again despite the growing protestation of the horses.
They had gone only a little ways when Conan abruptly halted, raising up his huge hand and staring into the woods. The knights immediately behind him reined in quickly and their horses snorted and whinnied as they halted. The knights looked about quickly and waited, a few murmuring indistinct words to each other, Conan remained still, as if in a trance, staring off ahead into the wood.
At length a knight, Robert of Valeuse, one of the bravest in their number, broke out in a low hoarse voice, “What is it my liege?”
Conan remained still for some time, Robert watching him anxiously. At length Conan responded “The owl stopped”.
The knights looked around at each other and back out into the woods, the murmuring grew slightly louder as they passed what had been said to the back of the company.
Robert looked back at his companions and then forward again to Conan, who still had not turned from where he stared away into the moonlit woods. Robert drew breath to speak, to ask what Conan wished them to do, but as his lips parted a bellowing sound filled the woods. The horses screamed and squealed and some reared up at the sudden noise, nearly tossing their riders.
The sound seemed to come from all around them, a deafening drone at first but as they listened it multiplied into many pitches and tones, like the call of many hunting horns.
“A TRAP!” Conan snarled above the clamor “RIDE!” His voice boomed down the path as he spurred his horse into a reckless gallop.
The knights quickly followed suit, barreling down the narrow path as fast as they dared, barely keeping their king within sight. They rode with such abandon that branches broke on their faces and arms but they paid little heed, only thinking to escape the snares of the trap and the bellowing of the horns.
The noises did not seem to change or grow more distant as they rode, the horns blowing at all times different calls and notes like a great unseen hunting party.
They galloped hard at the heels of Conan, his black stallion charging ahead into the night puffing steam with every snorting breath. Conan glanced about him as he rode, expecting to see scouts or enemy soldiers come at him from the surrounding wood. But the moonlight only revealed trees passing away into obscurity. Looking ahead the path narrowed until it closed off, two great fir trees growing out blocking the way ahead. Conan drew his sword and charged forward, ready to meet a host of foes beyond the trees.
He burst through the boughs like a great cat lunging at its prey, roaring and brandishing his sword, barely with enough time to stop his horse before they struck the great looming shape which jumped out at them beyond the trees.
At first he thought it was a massive stone or a cliff, but looking side to side he saw the unmistakable form of a castle looming among the trees. Its towers stood stark, mossy and overgrown with ivy and ferns silhouetted against the huge moon.
The horns still sounded all around as the first of his knights charged through the clearing. They had the same surprise as Conan, turning quickly to either side to avoid collision with the walls.
In the confusion beneath the walls Conan scanned the ramparts rapidly for awaiting enemies, seeing only mossy stones. Looking down along the walls he saw that they were in fact before the gate, the opening masked by overhanging ivy in the dark.
“Inside! Quickly!” He roared at his confused knights and charged forward, slashing down the ivy as he thrust into the courtyard. Finding this too to be free of foes, Conan wheeled his horse and filled his powerful lungs to shout over the cacophony of the horns and screaming horses, “Dismount! Dismount and fight!” he swung his huge broadsword in a circle above his head as he shouted, the blade flashing like a yellow flame in the moonlight “Dismount and hold the gate! We face them here!” his voice echoed like thunder off the walls.
Conan sprung from his saddle and landed with pantherish dexterity on the mossy cobbles. Frantic horses were stamping around the courtyard, as the knights dismounted quickly to form a defensive line at the gate. Conan looked for some way to mount the walls so that he might get a better view of the surrounds, but if there ever was any stairway outside the towers it had either crumbled or rotted away. There were holes in the masonry of the wall where beams had once been held, low enough to reach. Conan bounded over to the wall with great springing strides and clambered up using the holes as a great cat clambers up a tree. From the ramparts he gazed out into the forest beyond.
The horns rattled the trees in the surrounding wood, yet Conan saw no sign of any foe. The treetops went on seemingly forever, a vast ocean of blazing autumn leaves occasionally pierced by the points of pines and firs. Nowhere in any direction did a clearing show spear tips among the foliage, no branches stirred enough to be moved by a host of men, the horns blasted away but no shouts or hoof beats joined their blaring. Above all gleamed the massive yellow moon, now high in the night sky, casting its strange glow over the foggy woods.
Below Conan in the aperture of the wall his knights had formed a solid wall of steel. The gate bristled with lance-points, held in anxious grips as the knights scanned the woodline for any movement. The horns were blowing now in a great frenzy, a crescendo of bleating and blasting, like a hunting party closing in on its mark. Conan strained his every sense for any sign of the source of the sound, but found only the endless forest.
Then, as suddenly as it had begun, the noise ceased. The wood was silent, and suddenly every sound the knights made was like the striking of anvils to their ears. The metallic jingle of armor, even their breath was like mighty waves crashing upon rocky cliffs. The horses were calming down, but their hooves on the cobbles rang like crashing thunder and their neighs like howling winds. Conan adjusted his ears as best he could, and strained his keen eyes into the darkness beyond, but only a faint breeze in the treetops revealed itself to his refreshed senses. He leaped from the wall, landing with catlike lightness in the courtyard below. The knights held their position, but a few glanced back at the massive figure of Conan brooding in the darkness, staring off at nothing as if in deep thought.
“Break formation, we camp here tonight.” Conan finally broke the silence “If that was a Nemedian scouting troop they must have missed us in the wood, or are going back to bring reinforcements to besiege us here.” He looked around at the overgrown battlements “Set a watch at the gate and on the walls, secure the horses, we’ll have no luck trying to move in the woods at night now that we’ve lost the road, we ride at first light”.
With his order the knights busied themselves preparing camp and choosing sentries for the first watch. Conan looked around the courtyard. Towards the back opposite the gate there stood a great hall built against the outer wall. Its doors were gone and the arched entrance stood open, a black maw in the mossy stones. Conan strode toward the opening, crushing fallen leaves as he crossed the courtyard. Approaching, he noticed ornamental carvings beneath the moss. He wiped away some of the growth. The moss fell away to reveal images of wolves hunting deer and other animals. Carved with intricate detail the forms of the animals writhed and twisted together. The moonlight cast shadows in the deep valleys of the carvings, and they seemed almost to move in the eerie glow. Conan grimaced at the images and looked into the doorway.
The hall was empty, from what the moonlight could reveal. A few leaves were blown across the stone floor by a breeze coming from the doorway. The far walls were shrouded in shadow but Conan recognized it as a banquet hall by the raised stone platform and central fire pit. He perked his ears for any sound from within but only heard the gentle howl of the wind and the echoing sounds of his knights going about their duties.
He turned to the sound of footsteps approaching him from behind, it was Sir Robert, his cloak wrapped about his lean form and his deeply-lined, mustached face like the bark of an old tree in the stark light.
“What troubles you my liege?” the knight inquired, noting Conan’s furrowed brow.
“This place…” Conan paused “I do not like it. I have heard of no castle in these woods, and I feel this one is not so long abandoned as it appears”
“Truly it troubles me as well” Robert said looking off into the darkness of the hall “but I am more interested in the origin of those horns we ran from”
“Indeed” Conan shifted his gaze “Perhaps we will find something of their owners here. Get a fire going and bring torches”
“As you wish, my king” Robert bowed and made his way across the courtyard.
At length Robert returned with three other knights all bearing torches, with an extra for Conan. They passed beyond the doorway and held up their brands against the thick gloom. The light from the torches struggled to lap against the far walls, but it was enough to reveal what was there. The knights recoiled, Conan scowled at the sight. Bones, great piles of them, lay scattered around the hall.
“What animals!” Robert hissed, turning his torch to illuminate the dark corners and recesses of the hall.
Conan said nothing but advanced cautiously to the nearest skeletal mound. As his torchlight climbed up the walls it unveiled doorways out of the blackness. Two openings stood opposite each other on the two side walls of the chamber. Crouching, he looked over the bones briefly, turning a few over with his free hand.
“Animals indeed” he said, standing and holding up a femur gnawed on one end. “Wolves, by the look of it”.
“Then the horns came from elsewhere” Robert said with inquisition on the end of his tongue. His voice seemed small in the lofty chamber, stifled by the choking shadows.
“The wolves did not sound them” interjected another knight, Sir Alaric of Noet, the greatest rider among the company and likewise among the most learned. His sarcasm received only a sidelong glance from Robert as a reply. “Yet, the wolves cannot have been so far gone as to not have heard, the clamor will have drawn them back. They may even now be watching us from the trees, figuring if they will eat us or wait for us to leave”
“If they do we will give them a warm welcome at the king’s table” Conan grinned “Set a double watch on the gate, tell them to give a shout if so much as a twig snaps. Get the rest moved into the hall and get a fire in the hearth. We are the only wolves here tonight”.
The moon rose ever higher; it shone so brightly that the stars were few. A few strands of cloud passed before it and were engulfed and made thin by the consuming glow. Light flickered out of the doorway of the hall to meet it, but the pulsating light of the fire was overtaken by the yellow lunar haze. The knights passed the evening in what revelry they could, drinking sparingly of their wine skins and attempting to out-do each other's accounts of chivalrous deeds.
Conan sat on his saddle staring silently into the fire. His chin rested on his powerful fist. The light of the fire and his fur mantle gave him the appearance of a brooding bear. The light reflected in his eyes like a candle seen through a piece of ice. Alaric sat nearby, watching Conan a while before speaking below the rumble of the storytellers.
“You are troubled by it too” Conan shot his eyes over to Alaric, who continued as he caught the king’s gaze, “the noises in the wood, the overgrown path, this place itself” he looked around the fire-lit hall “I have been thinking, a shred of a story I once heard came to me when we first came here, and I have been seeking it desperately in my mind the whole night”
“Hints came to me only briefly of hunting parties and a castle left to the trees, of wolves and murder and black secrets in the night, but try as I might I could not recall the whole tale or from where it came to me”
“Cease your dramatics Alaric” Conan interrupted gruffly “I am in no mood for your pontification”
“But I have found it, liege” Alaric lowered his voice yet his eagerness made it seem louder than any in the hall, “or I should say I found something that returned the memories to me. I walked through the other chambers of the keep while the fire was made, seeking some evidence of the lost lords of this place, and found something that is better seen than described”
Conan scowled, “Damn your obscurity, yet I will see this thing.” He rose, and followed Alaric into the far door. Robert saw them go and silently followed after them.
They passed into the shadows of the passage. It was brighter than Conan expected. Great beams of moonlight shone through windows in the adjoining chambers. They passed in silence, Robert came up swiftly behind “What is it?” He whispered eagerly.
“You will see” Alaric said calmly.
They came to an arched doorway at the end of the passage, carved much like the one at the entrance of the hall. Except that carved at the peak of this door was the lifelike face of a snarling wolf.
“In here” Alaric gestured them inside. Conan made no indication, but he found the place unsettling. His instincts were roused as they were earlier in the wood, he glanced about carefully.
The chamber was brighter than the passage, lit by moonlight streaming through two massive arched windows on the inner wall. At the far end was an altar, piled all about with bones. Upon it was the effigy of a knight, as was customary in noble aquilonian burials, but the effigy was strange and half shrouded by shadow.
“It was here that I remembered” Alaric started, his voice was now grave and steady “Sir Loriot of Chaliac, steward of the Eastwold. A great knight by many accounts but an even greater hunter. He lived for the chase and his skill was unmatched. He would go out alone for days and return with boar that would have taken five men to subdue. It is this skill at the hunt which earned him the name ‘The Wolf of Chaliac’”.
“He took the moniker as his crest, and wore a wolf’s pelt upon his helm. But there are stories that it was more than just a name. It is said that in battle he would take on the form of a massive wolf, and tear men apart with nothing but his claws which were as hard and sharp as the best steel. No weapon of iron could wound him. Always after fighting his mouth would be dripping with the blood of his fallen foes…”
“The fire was a better place to tell legends” Robert scoffed. Alaric ignored him and went on,
“He was slain at the battle of Markden, some three-score years agone. His body was taken back here to be buried, we stand now before his funerary altar. He left no heirs and had no living family, and his castle was so remote no knight would take up its care, so slowly the woods took it back”.
“It was said that after his death his hunting horn could still be heard echoing through the forest. And some even claim to have been come upon by whole troops of ghostly hunters in the night, blasting their many horns as if hot on the tail of some mighty beast”
“Surely you don’t suggest…” Robert interjected indignantly
“I am only repeating what I have heard” Alaric responded patiently
“Enough.” Conan stopped both of them “I did not come here to be regaled with old woodsman’s stories”
“There is more than old woodman’s tale-weaving in this my king” Alaric said intently, “It is recorded in the Chronicle of Emperor Alesios, who reigned at the time, that the knights closest to Loriot disappeared shortly after his death. And I have heard it said that they came here to form some sort of secret pact, which they first made with Loriot in life, to something ancient and terrible which dwelt in these woods. Something that gave Loriot the wolf’s shape. They would sacrifice any wanderer unfortunate enough to get lost these tangled trees to this thing”.
“I am no child to be scared out of wandering in the woods” Conan sneered “Your knowledge of lore is great but I put no stock in fables”
“As you wish, my liege” Alaric bowed “I only thought this might clarify our situation somehow”
“If only you’d have spent as long thinking of how to get us past the Nemedian troop we certainly encountered, we would have no need of wolf-stories” Robert jabbed.
As they spoke the moonlight stretched across the stone floor to the altar, it mingled with the bones at the foot of the stone slab, which appeared different than the bones in the hall. Conan still could not shake an instinctual fear; he looked more closely at the bones beneath the altar and saw among them the hollow eyes of a human skull staring back at him. His gaze focused. The growing light of the moon slithered across the effigy, revealing the side obscured by shadow. This side was hideous and bestial, a hairy snarling creature that looked like the union of the canine and the simian. It was melded to the human side of the effigy like it was growing out and over it, strands of fur licked over the armor as if to overtake it.
“By Crom…” Conan muttered. Alaric invoked Mitra under his breath.
Suddenly from outside came a shout from one of the sentries on the wall. Conan and the knights in the altar room wheeled to face the noise, and Conan dashed out the window into the courtyard.
All was again confusion. Horses whinnying and pulling at their neck-ropes. Knights rushing this way and that to arm themselves and take up positions. Conan looked about on the walls and saw the sentry who had called waving others over to his position. Again Conan sped towards the wall and vaulted up it with cat-like ease. He stood before the man, and witnessed a gruesome scene.
The sentry who called had stumbled upon the knight he was to relieve sprawled upon the rampart in a pool of blood, his throat was open and he stared up into the sky with glassy eyes.
“Sir Gerard, my king, I found him like this. It must have been an enemy scout, they climbed the wall and slit his throat and sped away when they heard me coming”
Conan looked over the wall then knelt to inspect the corpse more closely. The man’s throat was torn open, as if by a bear, all the way back to the spine. The moon shone overhead, mirrored darkly in the pooling blood.
“No knife rips a man open like that” Conan said “Hardly the technique of a cowardly Nemedian skirmisher. Did you see anything?”
“Only a black shape jumping down from the wall into the trees, over there” The knight gestured to a spot in the woods. Conan scanned the trees, his eyes of all the men there were best at spotting movement among the branches, yet he could make out nothing. Not even the swaying of a leaf gave away any sign of life.
A few other knights had mounted the stair to the wall where Sir Gerard had been slain, others watched from down in the courtyard. From across the courtyard where they did not look came a crash, the horses screamed and frothed. Whipping around to face the sounds they saw a dark shape lying in a heap near where the horses were tied.
“Do not take your eyes off these woods!” Conan barked as he rushed back across the courtyard. The men who had watched from down below reached the shadowed shape first. “Sir Bours!” One exclaimed “He has met the same fate as Sir Gerard”.
Conan was wroth, to lose men in battle was one thing, but to see two of his best knights slaughtered from the shadows like hunted game drove him to rage. “Get every man up on the wall! We watch for the rest of the night. No Nemedian brigands will slay my men from hiding like cowards! At first light we ride out to find these dogs.”
His knights took to the ramparts, armed and weary. They were tired from a long ride but fear and apprehension kept them wrapped to their duty. Conan took a place in one of the towers, with him was Robert and Alaric. They watched in silence, any man who saw or heard so much as a rustling leaf was to call it out.
The night wore on. The moon dropped lower into the sky, growing larger with every second. Time seemed to pass unnaturally slowly. The air was sharp and brisk, and their breath steamed into the windless air.
Conan could not shake the sight of the grotesque effigy from his mind. It stalked his thoughts incessantly. He pondered Alaric’s tale and other stories he had heard of men who were said to fight like wolves or wild beasts and rip their enemies with their teeth in violent ecstasy. He wondered at the stories he had heard as a child of men who used to long ago roam the earth, half man and half beast, turning wildest under a full moon. He glanced up to the great orb watching them in the black sky and glared at it with malice. Whether man or devil he would see these foes laid low, yet he was uneasy. Trapped there in the castle like a boar in the hunter’s net, waiting for the killing stroke.
A noise reached his ears from somewhere in the trees, it was faint but steady, a continuous rustling like the stealthy movement of men. The civilized ears of his companions had not heard it yet, but Conan waited to call it out lest his shout alert the skulking foes and he lose his chance before they were close enough to be pursued. It grew steadily louder, but still was no more than a whisper amongst the trees.
“Ready yourselves, but make no sign of warning” he whispered to his companions in the tower, his words no louder than a drawn breath “Follow me when I move”
The two knights glanced around the woods, and groped nervously at the hilts of their swords, but made no shouts or signs.
Without a word Conan swiftly descended the stone stair of the tower to the connecting wall, Alaric and Robert rushed to follow him. Conan burst onto the wall and swiftly swung himself over the ramparts and lowered himself down before the gate, startling the men on watch. Robert and Alaric did their best to climb down the inner side.
“Show yourselves, dogs!” Conan roared into the wall of trees “Or be hunted down like the mongrels you are!” He brandished his longsword at the woods and strode boldly forward into the open space between the wall and the trees. Alaric and Robert now hurried out of the gate with their swords drawn and stood behind Conan. Mist swirled about their feet in the clearing.
There was a loud rustling in the branches but no words came in response. Conan readied his blade, every iron thew in his body ready to lunge at an oncoming foe. The branches before him shook and dropped a few dead leaves, a low shape emerged from the foliage.
Conan tensed his poised blade, then slowly lowered it. A great ruddy wolf emerged from the woods. It’s huge eyes flashed like gems in the moonlight. It watched him cautiously. There was another rustling of leaves and a dozen more wolves emerged into the clearing. Watching and circling Conan and the knights at his flanks.
“Ha!” Conan laughed a deep laugh “Here they are the great knights of Aquilonia held at bay by stalking wolves like shepherds!” He menaced the largest one and shouted like a lion. It bared its yellow teeth at him but gave way at his approach. “Well?” He called back to his men, help me see them off!”
The knights strode boldly forth shouting and swinging their blades and the wolves quickly backed away. The large one who first emerged let go a great howl, and the woods around them erupted in echoed calls. The sound was so great and the calls so numerous that there could have been an entire host of wolves surrounding the castle. The knights for a moment paused and looked to Conan, who laughed and doubled his roaring shouts in response. The knights were emboldened. They charged up to the edge of the trees and threw stones and jeered. They would rise up with a great cry then they heard a whimper to tell them that a stone had found its mark. The howling continued but grew more distant.
Conan watched this for awhile before he was satisfied the wolves would not return. He was about to call his men back, when a renewed commotion away on the flank caught his ear. Approaching he heard a redoubled howling from wolves who had drawn closer. His men shouted and continued throwing stones, calling out and laughing,
“Looks like they don’t know what’s good for them!”
“They’ve come back for more, here catch this doggy!”
A tall knight hurled a stone with all his might into the fog-shrouded woods and a sharp yelp came in response. The knights cheered and the howling died away. Conan stood and listened while the knights hurled taunts and mockery after the wolves. He pricked his ears at the breaking of branches and trampling of leaves, louder than any of the wolves had been and approaching swiftly.
“Something comes!” He called to his knights “Cease your jokes and ready yourselves!” Some stopped and steadied themselves, but the knight who had thrown the stone was intoxicated by his own prowess. He swaggered over to the woods and raised up another stone, “You must not have heard me doggy! I said fetch!” He whipped the stone with all his might towards the rapidly approaching sounds but no yelp came in reply, but a deep throated snarl. He fumbled for his sword, just as an immense dark shape sprung on him from out of the mist.
He screamed but it was cut short and his bloody corpse was hurled to the ground limp and broken. Before the knights stood a beast whose sight froze their limbs and minds. Its yellow eyes glowed like the moon and its fur was black as pitch. It was huge, tall as some of younger trees, but lean and long and well muscled. It stood like a man but was in all other ways like an immense terrible wolf. Its visage was a nightmare, twisted in a snarl which revealed its yellow knife-like fangs dripping with blood. It tilted its head back and released a bone-shaking deep throated howl which echoed away into the trees.
The knights stood paralyzed by the sight of it, all except Conan, who roused them from them stupor with a cry as he charged to meet the beast
“Are you knights or shepherds! At him!”
Conan rushed past them straight at the creature who snarled and poised to strike him. Conan ducked a sweep from the rending claws and gave a cry as he swung his great broadsword. The blade connected with the furry flank but did not cut, the beast barely seemed to notice as it ripped at Conan with another slash of its claws. He deftly dodged the second stroke and came again with a blow that would have split a man’s skull. His blade rung and shivered as it crashed into the monster’s head as if he had struck stone.
Conan’s knights rushed up to his aid, shouting and swinging their swords. Their points turned away on the creatures hide as it faced them, dashing one knight away like a man swats a fly. It roared and rent about them with its claws, shivering shields and bursting mail with every stroke of its claws. Two more knights fell and more were wounded as they circled the beast, slashing at it in vain.
Conan’s fury grew with each blow that fell without drawing so much as a drop of blood. His hair bristled and his eyes burned in primal rage. He threw down his sword and hurled himself full on at the creature, screaming with wild abandon. The impact sent them both sprawling. Conan landed on top of the creature and gripped its tangled fur in his fist as he rained blows like hammer strokes down on its head.
It writhed beneath him and pulled at him with its claws, ripping his mail shirt and deeply gashing his arms. Conan struck it between the eyes and it snapped at his hand as he drew it away, catching his arm in its crushing jaws. Conan’s eyes were stoked with barbaric fury as the teeth began to pop the mail rings of shirt in their tightening bite. Conan could not pull it free and his blows did not loosen the grip of the jaws. With a guttural roar he sunk his teeth into the creatures ear with all his might, and felt a warm stream of blood flood over his jaw and neck.
The beast released him and gave a cry, and flung Conan off with iron strength. Conan rose where had landed, blood dripping from his chin, and screamed a primal yell that shook the air. The beast rose quickly and howled again, its brutal monstrous howl, and this time it was met by others. Not the howls of wolves, but more of the same wicked howls that ripped the night air like ax-blows.
Conan charged again but the wolf-beast gave back and disappeared into the woods.
“Back to the keep!” Conan called to his men “They will be back and we will hold them at the gate!”
The knights rushed back to form up in the gateway and Conan followed, checking always for pursuit. He knew not why no weapon would bite on the monster, but he had wounded it, and if it could be wounded it could be slain. It was not long after they had filed panting back into the courtyard that a chorus of terrible splitting howls awoke in the wood.
“Turn and face them! Hold this gate with your lives!” Conan barked at his men.
Lances were brought out and their points burst from the gate ready to meet the foe. The men were steadfast, their breath and bodies steaming in the frigid air but their spirits fired by the words and deeds of their king.
Soon the howling ceased and out of the mist emerged hulking black figures, three in all, each as huge and terrible as the first. Their black fur shone like obsidian. They snapped and snarled as they approached, and the men grew fearful. How could they fight off three if their swords could not wound one? Even Conan was unsure how they would defeat the creatures, it had taken all of his ferocity to wound one and his men’s morale would not hold for long. Yet he showed no sign of fear.
“Send these fiends back to the pit they crawled out of, show them what Aquilonian steel tastes like!” He commanded as the beasts drew nearer. The lead of the pack howled and the others barked and growled in response as they charged, running on all fours with astonishing speed.
The knights braced themselves at the gate, planting the butts of their lances firmly in the earth. The wolf-beasts came straight on, their snorting breath fuming in the frigid night air. They rushed headlong at the lance-points as if they were blades of grass, and lunged. The lead was struck in the chest in midair and although not pierced, was sent sprawling onto the dirt. This tripped up the second one but the third launched itself over its tangled comrades and snapped a lance with a swing of its massive paw. It crashed among the men like a hurled log, sending three large knights tumbling.
Immediately the carnage began, the beast ripping men apart with its claws and sinking its fangs into their flesh like daggers. Conan leapt at the best and wrapped his massive arm about its jaws, fighting with all his strength to keep them closed. He drew a dagger and stabbed at its eyes, but as he and his men fought this one the other two had recovered and rushed into the fray. One came up and ripped Conan from the other, tossing him away like a small child. The other mounted the wall and came down behind the men inside the courtyard. It rushed to where the horses were tied and began slashing the throats of the terrified screaming beasts.
“The horses! Protect the horses!” Robert called from the gate as the chaos spread out into the courtyard. Conan staggered to his feet from where he been thrown and beheld a scene of pure terror. Slain knights lay all about with mangled faces and bodies. Those left standing were fighting for their lives with little hope, no weapons would even injure the murderous creatures. Many of the horses had been slain where they were tied and their corpses pulled on the leads of the others tied to the same line. Conan resolved himself to fight to the death began to rush in when suddenly all became dark.
A wind had picked up from the north and had driven dense clouds before it, which now shrouded the massive moon. The wolf beasts appeared unphased by the diminished light and continued their brutal slaughter. The men would be left to die hopelessly in the dark without so much as a fighting chance.
One source of light remained, however, the glow of the fire from within the hall.
“Torches!” Conan cried with all his might “Bring torches!” and he and those knights who heard him rushed to the hall and thrust torches into the flames. They quickly emerged brandishing their burning lights and charged towards the beasts. To their surprise the beasts gave way at their coming, not daring to attack any of the men weilding fire.
“They fear the flames!” Conan shouted and he rushed at the nearest beast, stabbing at it with the torch. The flames singed the fur and it caught fire, yelping in a frenzy to extinguish its burning pelt. The knights surged forward with their torches and the beasts gave way. Hurrying off into the woods, the one still smoking where it had been burned.
The knights who remained did not cheer victory. The light of the torches saved them, but also revealed how dire their situation was. Half the horses had been slain, and nearly as many knights. The night was dark, and the three beasts still stalked the woods. A light snow began to fall.
The knights regrouped in the hall and made fires about the courtyard. They had enough wood to last the night, but none knew if the day would prove a respite.
“It was as if they wore armor of solid steel!” Robert exclaimed, inspecting the dulled edges of his sword. “I was wrong to be so hasty Alaric”
“The fault is not yours Robert, even I was dubious of the tales, I never thought them so literal” Alaric replied solemnly.
“Yet there must be some way” Conan brooded “I made one bleed, and the other was hurt by the fire, they are not invincible”
“Even Loriot was slain” Said Alaric
“How?” Conan asked with renewed interest
“It is not recorded” Alaric sighed, “yet we are at his tomb, perhaps his bones may give us an idea.”
They rushed back to the chamber where they had seen the monstrous effigy. The image was eerily familiar to them now, it looked exactly as the beasts which had done so much slaughter amongst their company. With a great effort Conan pushed the effigy aside, revealing that it was no tomb at all, but a passageway with stairs that led down into blackness.
Conan muttered an oath as they stared into the pitch darkness of the stairway.
“We have no choice but to descend” he said, and taking a torch went down into darkness.
The others followed, and they climbed down for what seemed a great distance, though the passage never altered course or deviated. Eventually the light of the torches shone on a flat floor, not further steps, and they emerged into a massive natural cave. The roof was too high to be reached by the torches, and the furthest walls were dim shadows. It was empty except for a stone table carved from the living rock at the other end of the chamber.
As they approached the torches revealed a carving in the wall behind the table more hideous than the one in the chamber. It was a nauseating chimera of different beasts of all kinds, sharks, wolves, chimps, snakes, all fused into one disgusting visage of primordial terror.
“By Mitra…” Muttered Alaric as he held up his torch to better reveal the image “Nothing I have heard or read has described such a hideous beast”
“I doubt if those who carved this left any record”.
“What of this?” Robert brushed dust from the top of the table, revealing an inscription.
“It is in a dialect of Aquilonian, it could not be older than a century” Alaric said studying the inscriptions
“What does it say?” Conan asked brusquely.
“It is a poem…an epitaph”Alaric answered without taking his eyes off the inscription.
“I am terror in the night
All are my prey
A hunter beneath the full moon
I offered praise to Baagaash
And he made me death”
“Foul deviltry” Conan cursed, looking about the cave “But where is Loriot?”
“I know not” Alaric said, looking up from the carven words “I doubt if any know”
Conan paused, “Why should an effigy be carved upon a table?” He leaned against the side of the rock and pressed with all the strength in his massive form. As he pressed the top gave way, sliding off the top slab of the rock. It was a sarcophagus carved so carefully out of the stone that it appeared to have no gap between the lid and the box. Within there was a skeleton, not of a man but of the wolf-beasts form. Long and unnaturally-shaped the fangs smiled at them from the hollow skull.
The torchlight glinted on an object in the ribcage. Conan leaned in to get a better look. There imbedded in the spine was the point of a lance, but it shone much brighter than steel and had not rusted despite the flesh of the body rotting away. Conan gripped it and drew it out as the bones crashed and snapped. Holding it up in the torchlight it glimmered brightly. It was finely wrought, and was carved with runes and images which were too ancient even for Alaric to recognize.
“Silver…” Conan said, “I would recognize its shine anywhere”
“Yes silver!” Alaric started suddenly “I recall now of an old fragment I once read which spoke of silver being used to fight demons in ancient days. It is the only thing which can damage creatures of evil.”
“Well it certainly slew Loriot” Robert said looking into the sarcophagus, “but how are we to use it on the beasts which yet live?”
“They will not have gone far” Said Conan, “we have wounded two but they will wait for us to leave and try to pick us off in the woods”
“I will hunt them” He asserted.
“I will go with you” Robert asserted with grave concern
“And I” Said Alric steadfast.
“I wish no more of my men to be slain by these beasts” Conan said, “But I know I cannot dissuade you”.
They made preparations to go out into the woods and ordered the remaining knights to ready the horses to leave as soon as they returned. They brought no torches so as not to scare off the wolf-beasts and headed out into the dark autumn woods, now dusted by the gently falling snow.
They tracked on for some time, making no attempt at stealth hoping to draw the beasts to them. Conan held the lance tip like a dagger inside his cloak. The woods were silent save for their walking, and they followed the trail of the beats as best they could although much of it had been obscured by the snow. It was nearly morning when they stopped for the first time.
“How long are we to look for them?” Robert asked “If we go on too far we shall get lost in this damned forest”.
“Go back if you wish” Conan said callously “I will find them”
“Perhaps they have gone back to slay the rest” Alric suggested
“No they would not risk facing the fire…silence” Conan trailed off and held up his hand.
The hairs on Conan’s neck stood up, there was the unmistakable feeling of being watched yet he heard nothing. Back to back they scanned the dark woods but could make out nothing in the snow-covered tangle. For a moment the clouds parted, and a beam of moonlight shot through illuminating the freshly fallen snow. Then Conan saw it, a pair of glowing eyes in the dark. They stared at him with primal hatred. Conan rushed at them in a frenzy, and from the woods on either side burst the other two wolves. Robert and Alaric drew their swords as the beasts closed in on them, parrying the slash of rending claws.
Conan burst through the branches and collided with the oncoming beast as it tore at his mail shirt. It gashed him deeply, but as they came together Conan plunged the lance-point into its heart and it let out a blood-curdling cry as it slumped to the ground. Conan ripped the bloody blade from the fallen beast and turned back towards the others.
The two fighting Alaric and Robert had turned away from them when they heard the death-cry of the other. They ignored the blows of Alaric and Robert and rushed at Conan with frothing fangs. Conan came to meet them and ducked the slash of the first one, thrusting up into its ribs. The point bit deeply and the creature writhed with the blow, wrenching the handle from Conan’s hand and leaving it embedded between the ribs. Conan dodged desperately an onslaught of blows from the two beasts, but they overwhelmed him, and slashed him several times before knocking him into a tree. He staggered to his feet, back to the tree like a lion at bay, clutching a great gash in his side and picking up a rock as his only weapon.
The two beasts snarled at him with slavering fangs and positioned themselves for another attack. Conan gritted his teeth and poised to strike, ready to fight to his last breath. There was a crackle of movement behind the beasts and Alaric and Robert threw themselves onto the great furry backs. They shouted and clung on with all their might as the beasts roared and tried to shake them. Alaric had mounted the one with the spear-point in its side. He gripped it with all his might and attempted to pull it free but he could not unwedge it. The beast backed itself into a tree and slammed Alaric against it. He grunted with the blow but held on. Conan Came up before the beast and entangled himself in the grapple.
They smashed through the woods and the claws rent Conan’s back. But his hand eventually found the Spear-Point and with a great heave he ripped it out. Immediately he plunged it back into the creature's throat and it fell gurgling to the snow. The third beast had tossed Robert from its back and was holding him up with a clawed paw. He hung limp in its grasp as it opened its massive maw about his head. Before it could bite down Conan leapt into it like a bolt of lighting and drove the lance-point deep into its breast. It had no time even to whine as it crumpled into a bloody pile among the tangled roots.
“Robert!” Alaric rushed to the body still clutched by the massive claws.
It was too late, he had been felled by the beast. His eyes were closed as if in deep slumber.
“He will be remembered!” Alric cried “Songs will be sung of him for generations!”
Conan looked over the scene as the snow fell quietly through the bare branches. The sun was rising, a gray-blue light was filtering through the trees from behind the heavy clouds.
“They have returned!” Came the cry from the watchman as the bloody pair trudged back to the castle. The remaining knights rushed to meet them and beheld a sorrowful sight. Conan, bloody in his shredded armor, bore Robert’s body on his back. Alaric followed behind carrying something in his hands.
“The deed is done” Conan said gravely, and he laid Robert's body down onto the snow. Alaric tossed before the astonished knights the ears of all the beasts, severed and bloody.
“What are we to do now my king?” A knight inquired solemnly.
“Erect a pyre for the bodies, then we ride out” Conan replied
“To where shall we ride?” Another knight asked
“To the border.” Conan said passing into the courtyard “To find those Nemedian dogs”.