Saturday, June 09, 2007

The Glass Sword - Chapter two

The walk up through the forests on the outskirts of Cimmeria was difficult. The trees grew so thick and the ground so treacherous that Conan and his young thief Grunelda led the horse by the rein for miles. Grunelda passed the time talking. Conan passed the time listening. He was not a man who spoke freely, but his eyes saw much of what the world missed. For all his suffering his reward was a body streaked in scars and a mind sharpened by danger. He tuned out the babbling below him, her chatter - to listen to the twigs snap and the leaves fall from the trees. They spent the nights sleeping under the stars, warmed by the fire. They traveled toward the village of Alar, answering a plea for help against the deadly terror that stalked it.

Conan, king of lands far beyond sight, had found the jeweled throne he earned robbed a man of his youth. Walking now at a brisk pace for miles had shaken the dust of age from his joints. His calves burned with exertion, his powerful legs driving through the brush to carve a trail for the horse and child following. The trail was overgrown and since lost to the people of the forest these days. As they crested a hill he waved a hand over his mouth, silencing the gossiping Grunelda. He reached the peak and looked out across the valley floor below, searching for the back road to Alar. He found it quickly, and as the sun set they finally reached flat earth and headed toward the path worn into the forest floor by a hundred thousand footsteps.

Conan had picked out a clearing through the trees for the night’s camp, but as he urged his mount from the path he suddenly stopped, his raised hand silencing both girl and horse. For a moment they remained cloaked in darkness, unmoving, unseen. The horse lowered his head as Conan swung his leg above it, slipping from the saddle without a sound, leaving Grunelda alone in the seat. He whispered a word to the black beast and the animal drifted a few steps into the tall brush before turning around deftly and scanning for danger. The king slipped away from them, lost to their their eyes and the failing moonlight that found the forest floor.

Conan smelled a predator. The forest was too silent, even the crickets that had started their mating calls at the drawing of night’s curtain grew silent. Conan stopped and searched the tree limbs above him for birds, he spied a white owl facing his way. He concentrated on the bird’s eyes. They were trained back on him, those flickering globes of the night hunter who saw all that traveled in the darkness. The eyes pivoted, releasing the king and landing fastened to a creature ahead. The owl locked in the site, but never moved. Conan lowered his head and moved quietly, swinging wide of the bird’s interest, until it’s face was on his left and behind him. That’s when he found what the owl was concentrating on.

The form waited in ambush, black and bulky and crouching perfectly still. Conan watched it, marveled at its strength at keeping such a position perfectly still for so long. Since it had its back to him, lost in the nightshade, he could not name it. So he waited as well. Another moment passed when he noticed the head move slowly. Conan gathered his strength. In one move he unsheathed his sword and stepped from the trees toward the shape, but found the shape moved near as quick and twice as intent on attacking the king! The royal sword hissed as he brought it over head and, two handed, swung the blade down hard enough to cleave the creature in two!

But his steel was met with steel, and the mystery that gripped that sword faded in and out of the shadows that hid them both from the sleeping gods above. Like two razor sharp musical instruments the swords cried out a ringing note as they ground against each other, tracing a wide arc as both fighters sought to disarm the other. Two quick exchanges exploded through the forest, the clashing steel unnerving the animals and birds who dared to hide near the practiced warriors. For a moment the two circled each other, having met their match, they sought to plan their next move. The form wore a cloak that hid his body, its hood shielding the face from prying eyes. Then the low whinney of a horse sounded from beyond the robed attacker.

“That would be a friend of mine.” Conan spoke. “Now you are outnumbered!” But behind the king was the scuffing of hooves, and the long breathe of a horse.

“And now it seems we are even once again.” answered the fighter in a low, raspy voice. “Before I kill you both I would know you first.”

“I am a hunter, for pelts. Agrod is my name. And you?” asked the king.

“I am as well a hunter. Pynor I am called.”

“You fight well for a hunter, Pynor.” answered Conan, realizing quickly the man was playing him for a fool.

“That is true, but then I have spent my life hunting men.” The two men collided once again, trading blows and dodging the whistling blade. The king sidestepped and brought his sword up from his feet, many times he had spliced a man in two with that move, but the sprite opponent met the sweep with one of his own, and as moments passed they breathed harder with every lunge and dodge. From the darkness behind them a voice broke through the gasping.

“Are you two tired yet?” asked Grunelda impatiently.

The king, though near breathless, found the wind to curse. He stood upright and guarded against the attack that now surely would come. The man in black laughed to himself. “It seems it is I that now hold the advantage!”

Conan grunted. “If your horse can wield an axe, then you may. Until then, it is you and I!” He watched the man widen his stance, his fingers kneading the leather bound hilt of his sword. Then he lowered it. His eyes were still locked on Conan, but the shoulders relaxed and he took a step back.

“Then I will spare the child if you will spare the horse.”

“Agreed. I would grant the same for you as well, since it was I that picked the fight!”

“I think the fight picked us!” came a good natured reply, and the voice now seemed far warmer than the menace it carried before. “I am Ekatus, of the tribe Monyor, beyond where the sun sets.”

“What happened to Pynor?”

“I heard the name in a town I was in during the new moon.” he answered non - chalantly. “And you, warrior? I hardly think you learned to fight like that hunting beaver.”

“He’s the king! Conan! Conan the Barbarian!” answered Grunelda, who seemed to take it as a great insult that the man could not tell from her king's rippling muscles and hulking shape that he was the greatest warrior of all ages. Conan shook his head.

“ I must find a way to shut her mouth.”

“There are some things even a king cannot do, and shutting a woman’s mouth is certainly one of them!” They laughed a moment before Ekatus dropped to his knee. “ I should have known it was you. I meant no dishonor in raising my sword against you, your highness.”

“Only I can dishonor myself, Ekatus, so you have nothing to apologize for.” Conan offered his hand, and the cloaked man took it. “We are looking to camp for the night. Will you join us? I would like to know the man who defies my sword.”

“Of course, King. I have a brace of rabbits on my horse. They are yours.”

“In my hall they call me king, in my forests I am Conan. Call me that. Little one, you can never again divulge who I am, or who you are. We must travel light, for there are times when a name is a burden. Do you understand?”

Grunelda nodded before saying “I have an idea. I’ll play the royalty and you play my servant.”

“And how would that be any different from yesterday, and the day before?”

Conan gathered wood and started a fire, and very soon, with spitted prey over the fire and mushrooms browning on the heated stones circled about, the men talked of the world around them. Conan studied the man’s features as the hood fell to his shoulders. His hair was black, long like the river winding at night. His pale skin shone under a bristling beard dark as his hair, covering a jaw set like marble stone. The lines around Ekatus’ eyes told more of laughter than of anger, though the man was expert with a blade, his demeanor lent more to friendship than hardship. He smiled easily. His dark eyes lingered on the flames, as if reading them.

Ekatus was in service to a chief only a few days north, the tribe of Monyor. “ I know that tribe.” Conan announced, but truthfully he could not tell Ekatus much more than that, for the name was lost among a hundred other squabbling tribes that lived in a strained peace under him. When Conan asked him why he had left his chief's side, the warrior shook his head in brooding.

“Evil has befallen him, and some foul creature has stolen something precious to him. Every man he has sent to barter with the thief has not returned, only their horses come back, trailing the clothing of the one they once carried. The village cannot afford to keep sending brave men to their deaths, so he sent me out to find the one who would come back alive. He claims that were I to find the warrior that I cannot defeat, in him lives hope.” Ekatus raised his eyes to his king. “You say you look for adventure? I can take you there.”

“No, wait!” interrupted Grunald. “We’re going some place where no one walks out alive? Why would we do a thing like that?”

“ Because it’s fun.” Conan answered, meeting Ekatus with a smirk. “Tell me more.”

“Someone, or something has taken from the chief something very precious to him. He could not know it would be the price for mining the caves of Sunderhol, but for his trespass he says a voice came to him one night a month ago declaring punishment for such a crime. For every full moon that passes without reward his daughter loses one of her senses. She has lost sight, smell, speech and touch. By the moon four days hence, she will lose her hearing, and will die shortly thereafter.”

“So pay back the gold!” Grunelda demanded.

“He says the voice will not take the gold back. It asks for something he cannot understand.”

Conan caught Ekatus’ eyes. “What did the voice say it wanted?

“It said ‘what is mine, brought to life, that is what you must give me.”

“Hmmm. It is a riddle. There is not much a sword can do to a riddle. But we will go and find the answer. We will follow you at first light.”

Ekatus nodded his appreciation, Grunelda rolled her eyes and the king of terrors pondered the mysteries that brought sorrow to his people. The three found soft ground and fell to sleep, awaiting the morning light and the warmth of adventure.

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