Scratchboard illustrations by Kurt Brugel
This story has been freely adapted by Kurt Brugel in 2016 with characters and places from the 1950 Crom comic books with the original pulp story The Warlock of Sharrador from Planet Stories 1952.
The Barbarian came to be awake in the pearl mist of the Sennorech dawn, staring upward into the glistening point of an iron forged blade. The blade hung in the air without visible support to the hand that held it, then he saw the ghastly black form that thrusts the blade forward to the Barbarian’s throat. No time for thoughts when your pending destruction lingers inches from your last breath.
He whipped the fur pelted blankets into a geyser and dove naked over the edge of the bed to roll on the floor and turned over and over. He brought himself up against the chair where his clothes and belts hung. He already had his Skull-Biter in hand. He slept with that blade, every night.
The pitch-black figure staggered, stepped towards the Barbarian and plunged its two blades into the empty space where the Barbarian once laid. That would have been me, instead of the bed, if the little people had not come in my dreams to whisper in my ears of Flaith’s loveliness, the Barbarian thought, and tour loose his dagger to accompany his sword. Both pointing forward at the ghastly hooded figure shrouded in its own command of darkness and shadows. This was a sword-wielding fiend.
His wrists steadied, without hesitation, he thrusts both sword and dagger into the shadow ghastly figure. Which then immediately fell to the floor, empty of any human form that would have held the cloak with a figurative content.
“It was a close thing,” Crom the Barbarian told himself, sitting there naked on the floor.
It had been the Sfarri who had sent the hooded night assassin, the Sfarri, who hated the men of Ophir with a hate like a fierce, blazing flame, who would not hesitate at assassination to gain their aims.
They were a cold, efficient breed of men, these Sfarri. He reminds himself of the far-flung wooden fleet ships of mother Ophir, stretched in a thin line under the stars one night in four winters passed. Almost always, Ophir lost her ships. Almost always, those far-ranging Sfarran ships smashed the eagle blazoned Ophirn cruisers, and fled like laughing ghosts into the black infinite night.
No Ophirn ship had ever captured a living Sfarran. Somehow, within their dark ways, if they were cornered, they would expire before their very eyes. It never failed.
And, slowly, but remorselessly, the ships of Ophir were pushed back and back, away from the coast of Sennorech, that are so rich in every jewel and spice known to man, and even in some that Ophirn man had never come to know.
The people of Ophir had ordered Crom the Barbarian, their new king, to Sennorech. There he would make at a last parlay with the High Mor who ruled the Sennorech people. He was to offer alliances, trades agreements and stop the bloodshed between their peoples. He was to prove his might as the rightful leader of Ophir. He would return to his Queen Tanit, a just man to rule by her side.
Too many times, at the foot of the great ruby throne of the Sennorech ruler, had young Crom the Barbarian seen the thin, hard lips of the High Mor twist cruelly as he lashed out at the Ophirn envoy. Too many times had the red flash of fury crept up his sword arm as he listens to the High Mor explaining to them the fact that the men of Ophir were no match for the relentless fury of the Sfarri.
The High Mor, it was plain to see, was eager to ally himself with the Sfarri.
In return, the Sfarri would rid him of these annoying Ophirns.
Only the two short black swords the Sfarran assassin wielded, lay smoldering on the thick pile of ash and shadows. This was the opening play in the Sfarran games of Ophirn extermination.
The Barbarian let the breath from his lungs in relief. He sat with his back propped against the leg of the chair, and the sword hand that took the life from the assassin, on his naked knee. He was a tall man, a man grown hard and fit with the wild cunning that was the hallmark of a Barbarian youth. Blonde hair was cropped close to the conformations of his head, giving his face a hard, carven look.
The mark of blood-filled battles was in Crom the Barbarian’s eyes and in the catlike walk and movements of his strong body. He had been forged as only a Barbarian warrior would be hammered, with a cold precision to his mind and a careful hardness to his body.
He came off the floor and began to dress, Wrapping his midsection with a cut of leather which was held to him by a wide leather girdle and leather belts. His long sword and dagger were strapped in, lacing his feet into his high buskins. His mind went to the learned mystic, Gard, who he made Ophir’s Kingly representative at the court of the High Mor, overlord of Sennorech.
“If they’ve made their try for me, they’ve already made it for him,” he told the room. “They know who I am.” he frowned. “Who led them to me? Who is living false in my presences?”
He tightened the leather belt strap that held his long sword close his midsection. He fastened his sword to its pivot on his hip.
The door opens to a finger press, and he was out in the long hallway, moving with long strides. A woman came out of the shadows to meet him before he had much distance between himself and the room…
“Crom! Crom – wait!”
It was one of the slave girls assigned to them for comfort and entertainment, while the negotiations went on. She was still in the gown she wore to his bed last night. It was very tight to the curves of her body. Like many warriors in the distant lands, the Barbarians had a fondness for the slave girls of other lands. Unfamiliar and new to their touch and senses, they were a must-have when abroad. She was a good dancer on the tables of the drinking hall and was good for keeping his bed warm on the cold nights, far from home.
Her soft hands caught his, and he could feel her body’s tremblings as she came against him. “Crom, you’ve heard! Oh, Crom, I’m scared! What’ll they do to you!?”
“Talk sense, girl!” he grabbed her and then he softens his voice, and told her he was well aware of the Sfarran actions.
Her dark eyes were frightened things. “They killed your King tonight!” The same way, as they came for him. “The High Mor has sent word that you’re to leave. All of you. No more Ophirns in Senorech!”
The slave girl whispered in the stillness of the corridor, “You are to board your ship and chart your course for home. Get out of Sennorech and stay out!”
The Barbarian drew a deep breath, and a vein swelled and throbbed in his hard face. “He’s afraid of the Sfarri. Sfar if close to the High Mor’s lands. May the gods curse a man so driven by a fear he’d murder another man who wished him nothing but good!”
The slave girl shook against him. “Crom, let’s rouse the others! You must be on your ship and away from Sennorech before the Red Dragons descend upon you and your men!”
THERE was nothing he could do now, nothing except swallow the bitter truth that he was running from a fight, that he was leaving his dead on these distant shores. Gard, the old mystic, one of his men, who had scratched names on graves from Akka Jungles to the Ice Steps of Makron, who had been born to the service of the golden eagle, and now lay with no man to whisper a prayer over his dead body.
The Barbarian shook himself like a cat stretching after a sleep. The anger boiled within him, locked inside his guts by his tight lips. “I’m going to get his body. I’ll take it back with us for a decent burial.”
Her hands tightened until the red nails cut into his flesh. “You’re a fool, Crom the Barbarian! A stubborn fool that’s walking to his death! Don’t you understand? That’s just what the High Mor wants you to do! He’ll have his Dragons waiting for you, like cats standing at a mouse-hole in a kitchen wall!”
“Let them wait,” he growled, but her hand dragged him along the corridor, to door after door of the barracks. They roused the other Ophirn Barbarians, thirty men in all, the most allowed in Sennorech by the High Mor. Men tumbled from their bunks with sleep glazing their eyes, but they wakened fast enough, with the slave girl and their Barbarian King to whip them into action.
They found Captain Odön of the Ophirn flagship, Eclipse half-dressed. A small, chunky man, he showed the years of his service in the crow’s feet at the corners of his eyes and the faint silver that threaded his curly black hair.
“Crom! Go now! Get aboard the ship. I’ll bring the men, and whatever they want to take along.”
Sobering men in fur and leather were filing out of the barracks by twos and threes, with spear, ax, sword, and shields slung over shoulders. They moved across the city in a body, their hands gripping at the weapon of choice to defend them from any Red Dragons that would attack openly.
The Barbarian lost himself to his thoughts, the moment before Captain Odön took them out of the barracks, toward the silver haul that was the Eclipse. He stepped from the slave girl’s side, into an intersecting corridor, and moved down a flight of steps to the catacombs. It was easy, down here among the sewer run-off and the rats that ran along it, to stand and wait until the boot falls faded. The slave girl came once to the ramp and called, but her voice echoed hollowly in the cellar unanswered.
By the time they got through the city and down to the ship, the Barbarian was sliding through the shadows cast by the monolithic buildings, and moving along the broad avenue flanking the Jaddarak canal. Ahead of him were the white bulks of the palace keep of the High Mor of Sennorech. Somewhere in those towering windowless edifices, the old mystic lay dead.
He reached the high stone wall of the garden and was hoisting himself over the stone wall top when a dark-faced Sennorech caught sight of his barbaric garb and screeched an alert. The Barbarian cursed in his throat and dropped to the ground inside the garden, his sandals printing their soles deep in the loam of a bed of Thallan sunflowers.
He made for the arched doorway at the near end of the gardens. At a run, he came into the darkness of the groined arches. He knew his way through these labyrinthine tunnels. The hoarse, brazen pitch of the bry-horns were startling in the Sennorech morning. They’ll be roaming these halls with their swords, soon enough. Cutting at every shadow, he thought. Sooner or later one of the shadows will give him up! He had to reach the old mystic’s room, had to kneel there and do what must be done for Gard, as Gard would do for any Ophirn fallen in battle.
They might expect him to come as he was, expect him to fight his way to the old mystic’s side and kneel to whisper a prayer for him over his dead body. As an Ophirn it would be expected. Expected and guarded against. But Sennorech was not Ophir, and in Sennorech things were rarely done for spiritual reasons. The Barbarian yanked his sword from its sheath as he ascended the stairwell to the top floor of the High Mor’s palace. There, he will find Gard the old mystic he had ordered to play King in place of himself. If Red Dragons or Sfarran assassins were expecting him, he was ready.
Curiously, all of the rooms at the top floor of the castle were empty, save for the crumpled man who lay on his back, next to a smoldering pile of black Sfarran assassin cloaks. The Barbarian went to his knees, and his lips moved. In the shared custom of Aesirs and Ophirns everywhere, he put his hand to the old mystic’s forehead and whispered, “I swear by the blood that bonds us, you will not have died in vain.”
It was a simple thing, that oath. Many men had spoken it until it had become a part of the creed of those who roamed the world. But as the Barbarian let the words trail from his lips, he cursed and looked down at Gard’s right palm.
He grimaced, and then reason came into his head. His advisor was recently dead, not a rotting corpse. “Besh & Shema!,” he breathed, and leaned down, ripping with strong fingers at the palm that was clutching and hiding something.
The Barbarian leaned forward and untwisted from Gard’s right hand a slender emerald green crystal that emitted a yellowish glow.
It came away and danced in his fingers, reflecting a yellowish-green glow on the wall.
He sat on his ankles and forgot that a mile away the Eclipse was about to set sail. “Now why in the good names of Besh & Shema did Gard have this in his hand, as they came to take his life?”
The bry-horn sounded again.
But this was no time to solve puzzles. With a snap of his fingers, he slipped the slender green jewel into the binding that was tight about an ankle. He went to the window and stared down at the splashing fountains and the sunflower gardens half a mile below him. The walls were lined with Sennorech palace guards, inside and out, and men with the High Mor’s Red Dragon insignia on their cloaks. They all moved here and there in the shrubbery, slashing at ferns and jungle vines with their swords and spears.
“They’ll tire of that soon enough,” he decided. “then they’ll come through the palace itself, a floor at a time, working the place over with the point of a dagger and the edge of their swords.”
They would be expecting him to hide. They would be expecting him to keep retreating ahead of them until they trapped him high above, in this room or on the rooftop. A guard and soldier would act like that. They would do the smart and sensible thing.
He wandered the rooms of the top floor of the palace until he found the garderobe. The place where all must come to let go of what they had eaten the day before. It was simply a vertical shaft with a stone seat at the top. Garderobes emptied into moats, he thought. With the edge of his dagger, he worked at the stone seat until it came loose from the wall. He crawled into the shaft and replaced the stone as best he could. Then, sliding and levering himself downwards.
It stank bad enough, but he finally came to the end of the shaft and crawled his way up through a street grille, and headed for the docks.
He was out of the palace guard’s search area and as good as a free man walking the streets.
“Except for these barbaric wrappings,” he told himself, glancing down ruefully at the fur and leather he wrapped his midsection in.
He was moving up the central avenue of Sennorech. His mind was torn cleanly with a thin hard grief, for he was remembering the old mystic, Gard, and the way of his smiling and his gentle voice. It was a good companionship, that of Gard and himself, born of their mutual effort to rule Ophir.
And now it was over. No more would he see that smile or listen to that voice or wonder how the old man had come to know so much more than he about so many things–
“–under penalty of the Red Dragons! The barbarian’s King – Crom of Ophir – is to die on sight. All guards are hereby warned. The Barbarian must not leave Sennorech. He is to be slain on sight, under penalty of the Red Dragons!”
It sank in after a while. He drew back into the shadows, and the crystal stone tied to his ankle pained him as if it whispered with Gard’s voice. They’re afraid of me and what I can do to them, his mind told him. They don’t even dare let me get close to the Eclipse. But how? How did they find out that he is the real King of the Ophirns? Crom shook his head and looked down at himself, wrapped in fur and leather as a true Barbarian kept himself.
“It’s the way I’m dressed,” he told the shadows. “I’ve got to be rid of this dressing or swallow a dozen iron blades.”
They would be searching the docks just about now, moments before sendoff. They would dismantle the ship to find him. And there would be others, swords in their hands, stretched all around the city. They would slay on sight or they would suffer the fate of the Red Dragon and no one in his right mind cared even to think about punishment, that took a man a month of agony to die.
The Barbarian stripped naked in the shadows and bundled his wild dressings into a ball and weighed it with his sword; Skull-Biter. He made a compact bundle and threw it up, through the lengthening shadows, onto a low, sloping roof. Let them find that when they could! Then he turned and ran on the sun-warmed bricks, away from the dock, toward the dirty alleyways that were the Akkalan slums.
“Now wherein the name of Besh & Shema could a man who is stripped to his buff hope to find a shelter in this murderous town?” he asked the wind as he ran.
The Barbarian thought of Hammeron Black-eyed, a dwarf raider with a colossal thirst for pale yellow fire that was Sennorech ale. His lips twitched as his memory ran on to the lowland taverns, sampling every liquid that the skills and arts of men could brew.
Hammeron Black-eyed was a raider. A soldier for hire. But traded in tycat furs, and spent his profits faster on drink, than the fierce little desert tycats could breed and run to his traps.
With Hammeron Black-eyed he could find Flaith.
The city of the Sennorech had been built eons ago when their primate ancestors first modeled clay from mud and water. As the years piled knowledge on their shoulders, their buildings grew and expanded, but they still showed the heterogeneous planning the first Sennorech had put into them. A man could lose himself in the slum quarter, where the Red Dragon rarely came, for the High Mor was content to close his eyes to the manner of a man’s profit, providing he paid a good tax at the end of the year. Under the creaking signs and iron grille balconies, in the dark street shadows, even a naked man could run free and unmolested.
He came to a square of light and an open door under a carven tycat. Carefully he crept closer listening to the song a hundred throats were bellowing through the smoke and the wine and ale fumes. He came inside on soundless feet and stood sheltered by a solid oak railing.
Flaith was a breath in a man’s throat and a catch at his guts, lovely in bronze moire, her amber shoulders bared to the curve of her breasts, the moire slashed teasingly down a naked side to the swell of a white hip. She leaned on the wooden tabletop, and her almond-shaped eyes were clear, and her crimson hair a flame caught in the blaze of a wall torch.
The Barbarian let his eyes linger on her loveliness, but it was the dwarf raider he needed. With the scar across his face and a full foaming tankard at his mouth, that he had come to see.
He drew back his arm and threw the pebble he held.
Hammeron Black-eyed felt the sting of the rock on his forehead. He lowered his mug and swore by a dozen gods at the ill manners of men who would toss rocks in the middle of such a song. And then he felt Flaith’s white fingers and the dig of her long red nails in his forearm.
“It’s Crom!” she whispered. “he’s naked and alone!”
“For shame! A fine boy like that and – “
“Hssst, you by blow fool!” she warned. “Go to him and see what he needs!”
She pressed the key to her dressing room into his hand, and when he had slipped through the men and women toward the door, she stood so others could see her. On tiny golden feet, she climbed from chair to tabletop, and her bare arms wore amber serpents writhing in the crimson half-light.
“The Snakes of Slaamsheel,” she called to the players, and a roar of delight went up, for this was an old ballad, and the flame-like Flaith dancing with skirt to mid-thighs across the tabletops, set the blood bubbling in all man’s veins.
The Barbarian caught the fire of her throaty singing just as Hammeron whipped the cloak off his shoulders and flung it about his chest.
“A full belly, is it?” the dwarf man asked. “Wine or Puban ale or maybe both?”
“I’m sober as the snakes Flaith sings of, and as mean!”
Hammeron caught the madness in his voice, and grunted, “Come quickly, then. This way, across the sill and through the alley to her doorway!”
When they were moving into shadows of the alley, Crom told him of his friend’s death, and of the orders of the High Mor that made him lower than a Tuuran beggar. And as the words came through his teeth, the raw fury that twisted him showed in his eyes. “They cut him down without a chance for a fight – the way they tried to cut me down! Now they’re hunting me for a reason only the Shee fairies could know!”
“Easy, boy. Easy! Talk as you want – it helps ease the pain under your navel. But don’t let the hate shake you so. It blinds a man.”
The dwarf raider turned the key in the lock and the stout wooden door opened inward to a tiny room where an oil lamp cast a dim yellow glare on a dressing table and stool. Womanly garments hung from a peg-rack on the wall above a tycat-skin bed.
“Flaith’s room,” he muttered. “Only she comes here.”
The Barbarian sat on the bed, and with elbows on knees he looked at the floor and began to swear. He cursed in low Aesir, and influent Ophir, in High Centauran and sibilant Antaranese. “May the foul fiends of Sennorechs’ ten hells gnaw his eyes from now ’til Doomsday! If only Hobgob himself were alive, and here to fly away over Cureeng with his mean little soul!!”
Hammeron chuckled, and Barbarian bit down on his tongue and glared hard at him. The little man moved to the dressing table and lifted a golden carafe. He went to pour the fiery liquid it held, then turned to glance at the Barbarian. He shook his head and went across the room and gave him the carafe.
“There are times when a man can’t quench a thirst, no matter how much he drinks. Take it all.”
Crom tilted the carafe and let the smokey quistl slide into his mouth. After a long while, he tossed the carafe aside and drew air into his lungs. He came to his feet and walked up and down.
“I’ll need clothes. Some sort of disguise. I can talk their language well enough. I’ll make out until the heat ebbs away and I can come back for him. The High Mor! A god and a priest to these heathen Sennorech! But he’s a man, and man can die, slowly and in great pain, when he’s hated!”
The dwarf shook his head. “Go away, yes. But forget this vengeance for a long time. Maybe forever. You’ll live longer that way.”
Crom put out his hand and lifted the dwarf off the floor and shuck him. “He murdered my friend! Cut him down as he slept! No way to strike back! No chance to fight for the life he loved!”
He put the little man down and patted his arm. Hammeron rubbed his chest where his jerkin had pinched his flesh. “You’re a strong man, Crom the Barbarian. But not strong enough to buck the High Mor on Sennorech! I tell you –”
The door came open and Flaith slid in, away from the reek of winey air and the sound of roaring voices. She closed and locked the door and set her back to it.
She was a woman to stir the pulse of a man, in her bronze gown with its slits and deep neck, and the tight fit of its cloth to the swell of her haunches. Her almond eyes with the long curving lashes, the red fullness of a moist mouth and the smooth forehead low under the flaming hair had made her the darling of the quarter. She looked at Crom with her anger bright in her green eyes, and her lips thinned to a tense line.
“Before you speak, Flaith, “ said Hammeron Black-eyed suddenly, “let me tell you he isn’t drunk, except with hate for the men that killed his friend.”
When the dwarf was done with the story she was in front of Crom whispering softly, “Crom, forgive me! A woman can be a fool! I was one just now, with the thoughts I had of you.”
“It doesn’t matter. Nothing matters anymore except the man I’m going to kill someday! They won’t let me leave on the Eclipse. They’re going to keep me here and hunt me down.”
Flaith whirled and went to her dressing table. She fumbled at a jar, lifting the lid and dipping her fingers into jet cream. She said, “I’ll change the look of your face, Crom honey. Wipe away its hardness and its pain. And somewhere here in all these clothes will be something to fit you. Hammeron, look among them!”
For an hour the Barbarian sat while they worked on him, and when the hour was done, he stared at himself in the mirror and swore by the eye of Balor himself that no man on all Sennorech would know him.
“You’re as big and as strong,” the dwarf grinned, studying him, “But you look like a traveling singer, with those short curls and the shadows under your eyes. A man who sings to a woman a song to coax music from her thighs and runs with the dawn!”
Crom snorted, but Flaith nodded.
“A player of music? Those fingers to coax a tune from anything but a pretty girl?”
Crom laughed. “And what would a man whose family came from Ophir be playing? I remember a night I sang of my hunger for a woman on a balcony over these canals of Jaddarak before I put that song to the test and coaxed music from her flesh.”
Flaith flushed and scowled the bubbled laughter.
“You used which song that night, you faithless rheenog!?”
For a moment all three of them were silent.
Flaith shrugged her shoulders. “I’m crazy. I’m moonstruck and as mad as the ghouls that haunt the shores of Barloom! But—I’m going with you!”
And when Crom would have argued, she put her fingers across his lips and shoved him toward the door.
“Wait outside! Neither you nor the dwarf nor any man we meet will know Flaith for the shameless little gypsy she’s going to turn into! Do you think I want those fingers coaxing music from anyone other than me?”
The old road from Akkalan to the cities of the Inland deserts is long and broken. The desert spins their sandy webs across the shards of its ancient cobblestones. Gaunt black ruins of forgotten cities can be glimpsed dimly in the fading sunset, at the foot of the Samarinthine Hills, or standing atop the stone slabs that mark the caravan routes from Pint to Kanadar. Few used the old stone road, and the few who did travel it were so wrapped in their own cares—for this was a road much frequented by criminals and their like—they had no thought for the man or woman who sat by the edge of a running stream, twenty feet from the crumbled side of the highway.
Crom’s long fingers swept the loose tangles of Flaith’s fiery hair, and a burst of clear sound came flowing forth in a wild, free call. And then the sound was softening, deepening.
He laid back in near exhaustion. She then moved on top of him.
“You are no woman I’ve ever met before,” he whispered to Flaith, where she lay with her chin pillowed on his chest, staring at him. “But a man does what he can with what he must, and I’m not one for blaming the tools of my hands.”
The Barbarian opened his eyes at that and held her so as to admire all of her curves. Flaith wriggled her naked toes to the lilting rhythms he drew from his touch. Across the star lanes and the paths of distant lands, men though they lay as dust in their graves, something of their memories sat in Crom the Barbarian’s fingers this day.
The girl rolled on her back in the grass, and the worn cloth of her blouse grew taut across her breasts. “Tell me stories to put to a song, of Crom the Barbarian,” she whispered, “and we’ll eat well from copper and silver bits we take in the marts like Clonn Fell and Mishordeen.”
“Words? Songs? I don’t know anything about those. Make up your own words while I play to your ears and the sunlight, and the joy of being alive!”
And at the thought of life, he thought of death, and remembered Captain Odön and his men as attempted to leave from Sennorech in the Eclipse, and what had happened to them after that!
He stood suddenly. The scowl was black across his face as he lifted his fist.
“I sit here and play music, and my men call to me in whatever grave they gave them! I ought to be thinking of finding the High Mor and choking the life from his throat with these hands!!”
Flaith put her long fingers to her red hair and shook it free to the breeze. Her almond eyes brooded at him as she remembered that day—weeks back—when they had stood outside the walks of Akkalan watching the destruction of the Eclipse under the flaming arrows of the High Mor’s Red Dragons.
Crom had watched, sick and twisted. “That rotten mother’s son ordered her smashed! He couldn’t find me, so he played it safe and killed them all!”
He went mad for a little while, and Flaith clung to him with sharp nails digging into his arm and back, screaming in his ear. Only when she buried her teeth in his neck and tasted blood did he come back to sanity.
Now, remembering all that, and knowing how the death of his men and the destruction of the Eclipse ate in his middle with a sort of sharp, acid bitterness, Flaith watched the Barbarian lift his fist to the cloudless sky.
Crom wondered. And then his fingers were untying his buskin strings and lifting loose the crystal he had taken from the old mystic’s death clenched hand.
“It hold a secret,” he told Flaith, “but what that is, I do not know or claim to understand.”
The Barbarian brooded less and less in the days that followed, and as they moved along the road that bent in a wider arc about Drekkora and beyond the snow-topped hills of Sharn, he slipped back into the Crom the Barbarian she had known in the taverns. Laughter came back to his lips, and he turned more and more to her, coaxing magic from her curves, that seemed to soothe his spirit.
As they played, Flaith hummed with him, and words came to her lips, words that matched the wild, clear music that they made together to the ancient melodies.
The stalls that lined the Square of the Clonn Fell were hung with priceless tapestries from the looms of Beinoll and the Drithdraga and were bright with the potteries of Lamanneen. Men and the women of city house and desert tent brushed through the stalls, fingering the wares, haggling over prices, dipping into leather purses for stored prices.
No man would have known the Barbarian in this brown stranger with the naked chest gleaming through the rents of his worn, dusty jerkin, with his loose cloth trousers fastened at naked ankles with silk cording. And no man would have known Flaith in the dark-skinned gypsy wanton, with her midriff bare above her flapping skirt of transparent teal and below the worn halter that bound her breasts. She was a gamin who laughed and swayed her hips as she sang, and her eyes flashed and flirted with the slack-jawed farmers in from the fields and furrows.
A sudden jostling took the farmers and the merchants as they made way sullenly for the file of Sfarri soldiers who came shouldering a path arrogantly through the press. They looked like fighting men, trim in black and gilt field uniforms. Their black eyes moved everywhere, missing nothing.
Now the Sfarri detail was closer to the marble fountain where Crom sat with Flaith huddled close against him. He could feel the shiver run through her bare arm where it pressed his side.
She whispered, “They look for us,” and her dark eyes surveyed him, studying his disguise. He could read the approval in them.
The soldiers glanced at them and passed on.
A man cursed softly in the shadows. There was a wild flurry of capes and sandal feet. A peddler, with a scraggly gray beard flowing across his chest, ran like a frightened rat from a group of Kas cattlemen and into a thick thong of rug merchants from Stig.
“A rykinthus peddler,” whispered Flaith.
Crom felt the fury rise in him. The Sennorech governed the people of this land as they might a herd of cattle. There was no emotion in the chase. It was hunting a man down, capture him! Take him to the Sennorech Red Dragon tribunal, where an executioner’s blade would sever a man’s head from his shoulders.
The peddler ran past Crom on shaking legs.
In his darkest eyes, Crom read the angry terror that lay deep within him. Teeth gritted, Crom moved clumsily, bumping into the foremost of the Sfarri pursers, throwing him off balance. Two others ran into him and fell heavily to the cobblestones of the square.
The Sfarri officer rose, tight-lipped at this clumsiness. His hand went to the hilt of his sword. Crom rammed a fist to his middle and slid sideways, the green crystal in his hand. With a backward lash of his arm, he drove his fist heavy into the man’s temple.
The blow knocked the crystal from his hand. He scrambled after it, where it lay on the cobblestones. His fingers missed as he snatched at it as it made clinging sounds against the stone street. At the harsh, discordant sound that rose into the air, the Sfarri officer who had been reaching for him fell awkwardly to the stones, sprawling lifelessly.
Other Sfarri were falling too as if the breath of life had been blown from them. They lay here and there beside the fountain, like dead men.
Crom stared dumbly, hearing the shouts of the people of Clonn Fell falling back from the lifeless Sfarri soldiers.
Then he whirled and slipped in among the crowding merchants and farmers, pretending that he was driven by stark terror.
A moment of wild flurried movement, and he was free, darting behind a wooden wagon toward the heavy drapes of a carpet stall. Flaith was shrinking back, also losing herself in the milling mob.
Crom saw her, dove toward her.
She cried out, “What was it? How’d you do it? What killed them?”
“I don’t know! We have no time to play guessing games!”
He caught her hand, dragged her into an alleyway where the massive stone walls of ancient buildings towered high above them. The dark shadows they cast lay like shielding hands that shrouded them in sudden darkness.
Flaith panted, “You touched the crystal! It made a sound! That must have done it!”
“I know all that! But for the sake of your unborn children, stop talking and run!”
They went swiftly through the narrow streets, burdened only by the green crystal. Under a stone archway, Crom swung to the right. A small figure stood in the doorway, beckoning to them. It was the bearded peddler Crom had saved from the soldiers.
“This way,” the peddler called. “Lunol forgets no man who saves him from death!”
An oak door opened. From it, a stone stair led down into a pit of Stygian blackness. The peddler put a hand on Crom’s belt, dragging him down into the gloom. They went swiftly, toward a stream of water that rushed and gurgled darkly between two narrow paths of brick that jutted outward from the sheer rock walls.
“The sewers that run under Clonn Fell! Quickly, along the ledge! Gods be with us! If the Sfarri follows and clap their hands on us they’ll throw us to their executioner’s blade!”
The peddler whimpered in his fear as he scurried along the narrow brick ledge. Crom and Flaith ran after him. Soon their sandals were wet with the accumulated filth and slime of centuries.
They went for miles through the sewer, deep down under the streets of Clonn Fell.
When they emerged into bright sunlight, they stood on a wide beach where the gray, cold waters of the Taganian Sea rolled restlessly.
Flaith sank on a rock, one hand pushing back her thick red hair. Crom read her weariness in her haggard face.
“Why were the Sfarri after you?” he asked the peddler. “What did you do?”
Lunol shrugged. “I dwell in the Clith Korakam desert that stretches from the ocean here to the cliffs of Kamm.”
It was Flaith who explained. “The black tower of Sharrador lies in the Clith Korakam desert. It is a place forbidden to all people of Sennorech.”
The old man whimpered his fright. “I saw a man come out of the tower. It was many months ago. He was a tall man with a bald head and scrawny, withered arms. And yet there was something in the manner of his walking, something in the way he held his head, that sent a cold chill of terror down my spine!
“Since then I have dreams. Terrible, frightening dreams! Dreams of places where no man has ever been! The soldiers of Sennorech have been hunting me ever since then. It took them a long time to find me, but now–”
Lunol shrugged. “From here it is not far to Clith Korakam. Once I am on its sands no man will ever be able to find me! I’ve spent all my life on those sands. I know them as I know the fingers of my hands.”
Crom looked at Flaith. “Sure, they’ll be after us, too, now! They know what we look like. They’ll want us for helping this one get away.”
“What can we do?”
The old peddler smiled. His swart face lighted under the loose cowl of his kufiyah.
“Come with me. I will make a home for you in the desert where none shall ever find you.”
Flaith said, “Perhaps they won’t know about us. We left the Sfarri soldiers lying as dead men, remember!”
Lunol looked at his interest.
Crom said, “This crystal made sounds and the soldiers fell like poisoned insects. Why they fell out of the air like poisoned insects. Why they fell I do not know. Do you?”
Lunol shrugged his shoulders. “I am an ignorant man. I do not know about these things. But this I do know. If we do not go into the desert, sooner or later the Sfarri will be sent to find us!”
They set off across the sands, past the high humped rocks that were beaten and weathered by the fierce storms that ravaged the desert land. They struggled across the burning wasteland, their throats choked with the heat and the sand.
The sun bore down on them, making sweat run in tiny rivers that plastered their robes to the flesh. Night came, and they slept where they fell, exhausted.
With the sun, they were up and moving. The days came and went, long eternities of heat and thirst, through which they plodded in the shifting sands. They were tiny motes of life against a backdrop of level, desolate loneliness.
They crossed ancient beds of rock, where once, in forgotten eons, a sea had rolled. Here Crom had to lift and carry Flaith, for her thin sandals were gone, and her white feet were red with blood where the stones had cut them.
They went on an on. They stopped at an oasis, here and there of a subterranean spring. They ate of the dried figs and bits of hard black bed that Lunol carried in his small black bag.
Toward dusk of their sixth day on the desert, Lunol cried out. They focused eyes salt-encrusted with dried sweat where his finger pointed.
“There! See yonder, and know Lunol did not lie!” There was livid fear in the eyes of the peddler as he gestured at the glistening black pile of the tower lifting upward from the sand. It was almost as if he expected to see something dark and fearsome slip from the basalt blocks and come hunting him.
“It’s been there for thousands of years,” he whimpered. “Even when Besh & Shema roamed these sands, the tower was there.”
Flaith came close to Crom. “I’m frightened! There’s something wrong with it.”
Crom snorted and walked forward through the sand, plowing his way where the wind had piled thick granules. Flaith ran a few steps after him, her hand seeking his arm. Behind them, could hear the peddler moaning.
“I tell you,” he chattered, “I’ve seen it come out of the tower on clear nights when there wasn’t a wind stirring across the sand. It just moved around, all in dark shadows and shining, making the sand lift and whirl, like a storm down off the Barakian hills. It was cold. Terribly cold! The sand was frozen solid where it had been.”
The Barbarian stared at the tower. It was tall, formed of black basalt, a thick column of rock that was windowless and seemingly doorless. At the base of the column was a long, low building that stretched on either side of the tower for forty feet. Two red pylons, carved and polished, stood like pointing fingers at its ends.
The old peddler was wringing his hands. “It wasn’t human, that thing. It could kill as easy as a wench winks! Once I saw a hare run past it. It stretched out a thin tendril of that cold black stuff and touched the rabbit, and the rabbit turned to black dust!”
Crom turned and caught the old peddler, yanking him to him.
“You’ve bleated and brayed ever since we got out of Clonn Fell! Go back if you want!”
The old man’s eyes glazed in his brown face. A wind stirred the wisps of whitish hair that straggled from under his kufiyah and the springs of thin beard that fluttered on his chin. He seemed to shake himself, and at an effort, his eyes cleared.
“No! No! You saved me from the soldiers. I told you the tower was the only place where the Sfarri never came, in all of Sennorech. But to go to the tower, to meet that thing–”
The Barbarian let the old man go, gently. He was ashamed of the burst of rage that had shaken him. He drew in a lungful of the hot desert air. He was alone in Sennorech. His comrades in the Eclipse had been destroyed. The High Mor was seeking him across a world, and to have this peddler whimpering his fear in his ears was proving too much.
He said gently, “Sorry, old one! Sooner or later the Sfarri will come here to the tower. After they have searched all Sennorech. They will find us. Maybe inside that tower–”
Lunol shivered. “No man can live inside the tower. No man can approach it. Death strikes down all who try! I’ve seen too many animals run close to it and—hofff!–they go up in smoke! There’s a band of death all around it. If you go too close, you’ll be the one to turn into smoke!”
Crom the Barbarian shrugged. “As we’ll go up in smoke as die under black blades held in Sfarran hand!”
He went alone.
Flaith whimpered, watching him. She crouched, her long-nailed fingers digging into the soft flesh of a white thigh. Her eyes were wide, frightened things.
He went twenty feet, then thirty. He grew smaller, walking across the flat stretch of dunes towards the great black tower.
As he walked, the Barbarian threw his dagger ahead of him. Nothing happened to it.
He walked on and on.
No death struck him. Now he stood under the shadow of the great gateway that was formed of a queer, sleek marble that held green fire frozen beneath its glazed surface. He put a hand on the gate and pushed.
To his surprise, the doorway opened, noiselessly.
Crom moved under the arched gateway, into a region of dim light and sharp black shadow, where a towering pile of stone and metal bulked huge in the center of the hall.
And then his legs crumbled beneath him, and Crom the Barbarian went down, onto the tiled yellow flooring of the tower room.
He floated bodiless in the heavens above the desserts of Clith Korakam. The stars swirled about him, moving endlessly in their orbits. This was death, he knew. But it was a strange form a death.
This is not Noorlythin!
The voice swirled about him, rumbling out of the black stretches of heaven itself. The Barbarian could feel eyes on him, hidden eyes that probed at him, lancing through him with the remorseless certainty of a great cat about to pounce on a prey.
This is a human. A man named Crom. He is frightened!
He was within the tower. Only Noorlythin could live in that trap of hell. I do not understand!
Something touched him, as gently as a Spring breeze of the sea. And with the touching, the eyes of Crom the Barbarian came open to the robed figures to see their faces, but only a blinding whiteness returned his stare, under the low hoods of their robes.
Seek not our faces, human. To you, we are as the sun!
His tongue was thick and swollen. He mumbled. He swallowed as if to clear his throat.
“Where am I? Who are you? I walked into the tower and –”
What had happened to him on that yellow floor? His knees had buckled and he had gone down with an intangible force crushing him. Crom shook his head.
We are the Doyen. An ancient race, a race of once-men who lived out the span of our lives eons ago. In that time, we changed. Our bodies evolved upward from their primal shape, striving always to progress to that last, final shape of all.
Noorlythin? He is one of you?”
Once he was. But Noorlythin could never forget the adoration that was showered on us by the Sfarri, that we created for servitude. He hungered to be worshiped as a god, as once he was, many eons ago. Noorlythin turned his back to us, the Doyen. He has gone back, resuming the primal shapes of the man whose race is young.
Fear came to the Barbarian there among the stars. It crept in through the unspoken words of the robed things, clutching at his mind with frozen fingers, he shook uncontrollably before he could assert himself.
“This Noorlythin. You seek him?”
He has broken the Doyen law. He has become as an animal. With his powers, he can be a god to any primal race. NO primate can stand to him, and well he knows it. When he is ready, when he has used the Sfarri to conquer all the primal races of the known lands, he will ascend into the Temple of Sharrador. Here, once again, he will be worshiped with living sacrifices, with orgies that only a primal race can conceive and execute.
The Barbarian said, “You aren’t telling me all this just to talk.”
You are a poor servant. Your flesh is weak. Yet must we use you against Noorlythin!
“How? How can I help?”
And then all around them was shaking, flowing in a liquid stream, inward toward a whirling pool of light that swam around and around, sucking into its maw. And as the stars and space flowed faster and faster, so flowed Barbarian stretched and lengthened and tortured…
He sat on the yellow tile of the ancient tower. A tumble of red hair shifted and tossed before him as Flaith’s white hand shook him. Beyond her, near the open green marble door, stood the peddler. His eyes burned with the fright in his face.
“Crom! You were so still. I thought you dead!”
She helped him to his feet. He swayed, almost retching with the pain that spasmed his muscles. Flaith was a blur of white before him. He put his hands to her soft shoulders, and his fingers dug in. He held to her, as to reality.
Slowly the floor solidified and steadied beneath his buskined feet. The pain slid away, slowly, then with greater speed.
“Up there,” he said thickly. “Things. Bright things. Maybe made of light itself. They spoke to me. Told me about something named Noorlythin. It was as if I was suspended in outer reaches of the skies and heavens. They want me to help them.”
Flaith came against him until the hard tips of her breasts burned his naked chest. Her voice was a flow of terrified sound.
“The Doyen! They are the Doyen Warlocks! We of Sennorech always thought they were just a myth, like Besh & Shema! They are gods, Crom! The gods of all that is seen and unseen!”
The Barbarian grunted. “Well, gods or not, they want to make a servant out of me. They want me to help them round up some character named Noorlythin.”
From the doorway, the peddler groaned. His eyes rolled in his head. White froth bubbled on his lips.
“Noorlythin, the evil! Noorlythin, who lived in the olden days, when all Sennorech worshiped him with blood sacrifices. Even today, on the altar in the city Temple of Krebb, the dark stains are still there!”
The Barbarian turned away to stare upward at the great metal structure that bulked monstrous in the dim light. It was formed of black steel and silvery iron. High above its arching shell, reaching upward into the dimness of the tower itself, were half a hundred floating, glowing orbs that danced and spun in the wind eddies.
Stretching on either side of the central hall were wide corridors, their walls lined by glimmering jewels that projected outward like bulging eyes.
The Barbarian moved toward the near corridor, his eyes caught by a scene within one of the glimmering stones. Flaith followed him, afraid to be alone.
They halted before a curving gem, that seemed to peer into the heart of a distant land. Flaith whispered, “It must be the land in which the Sfarri come from! I know those cold-faced men anywhere!”
Frozen, tiny faces stared back at them from a great, white city, set like a jewel on the shore of a wide, blue sea. The little figures were caught in a locked moment of time, attending to their duties. Some moved with weapons, some drove huge steed driven chariots.
“There’s something about them,” Crom muttered, scowling. “They’re so perfect! They make every move count as if it would be their last. Each of them is long and lean, with bright, keen eyes that never miss a thing!”
Flaith put a hand on the large gemstone, leaning closer, staring down at the magnified scene. Her almond eyes slid sideways at the Barbarian, amusement swimming in them. “I’ve noticed something that I thought you’d see, Crom the Barbarian!”
His eyes studied the girl in front of him as she cocked her head at him. Even in her tattered garments, through which the Barbarian caught a disturbing glimpse of white, rounded flesh, the red-haired Flaith was a tantalizing morsel of womanhood. He put out a long arm and drew her in against him.
“Och, now what would I have been missing that you, with your cat’s eyes, have seen?”
She shrugged elaborately. “If you haven’t missed them I won’t tell–”
“Shades of Besh & Shema! Their women!”
“They have no women! No man of Sennorech has ever seen a Sfarran girl. Rumor says that they shelter them because their loveliness. But if this a vision of the Sfarran homelands, and there are no women, then–”
Crom grunted. “You and your crazy thoughts! Look, woman! See for yourself. There are women there. There must be women!”
But though they hunted along all that corridor, staring at the Sfarran world and its diverse shapes and colors, its desert storms and wind-tossed seas, its magnificent white cities that looked like milky jewels, they found no woman.
They hunted until the Barbarian discovered that by pressing his hand against one of the closer red gems, he could make the scenes come to life. The tiny men moved as if released from a frozen tomb. They walked, piloted, and went about their tasks. Yet, even so, no women appeared.
No women, even, to comfort a man when he’s sad with loneliness. Then they aren’t human, with no heart in their chests to beat a little faster at the kiss from a woman’s lips. And if they have no hearts, they must be–
The Barbarian walked in his excitement, taking long steps that drew him past the metal structure. “Undead! No wonder they’re perfect warrior assassins! No wonder it is that none has ever been caught by an Ophirn battle ship for questioning! Being Undead, they destroy themselves before capture. And being Undead, too, they fight with the same possessed, incredible fury that’s smashed a dozen war fleets between the ice steps of Makron and Sennorech itself.”
The Barbarian was warming to his subject. “We fought the Sfarri across a score of waterways, ever since my grandfather’s days. They’ve pushed us back, away from The shores of Sennorech. Everywhere our paths have met, there’s been a bloody war. Bloody? Ha! There’s been no blood spilled on their side. Just smoldering black ash!”
Flaith tossed back a lock of reddish-gold hair from before her eyes. “You killed them in Clonn Fell. You slew them when you made your green crystal sing! The sound did it when it rolled on the stones.”
“Where is the crystal, Flaith?”
The old peddler came shuffling forward from the doorway, dropping his shoulder to loosen the strap that held the black sack to his back. From the sack the bright green crystal tumbled into the Barbarian’s eager fingers.
He held the green crystal gently with the tips of his fingers. He them scratched the crystal along the stone wall, and the wild sharp peal of chimes swept up and through the tower.
In answer to the high, keening notes, the great metal structure spanned shrilly. The tinkle of broken glass was loud in the sudden silence as Crom dropped his fingers from the quivering crystal.
Lunol, the peddler, cried out harshly, his face a wet mass of sweating fear. Flaith screamed high a high shrill. Her bare arm lifted and pointed.
The Barbarian whirled, and his crystal fell from numb fingers, bright and blazing, like the core of a giant sun, a whirling mass of fiery magic whirled and quivered, pulsing before the great structure. Its incandescence was blinding, brilliant. They could read the fury in the flame of its sentient heart. They needed no voice to tell them.
The black sunburst of brilliance lifted, shuddering. It foamed and grew, incandescent in the sheer brilliance of the black fire that burst and bloomed within it.
A thin stream of fire reached out, touched Lunol and laved him in its blinding darkness.
And Lunol shrank in upon himself, grew smaller, almost tiny within the sphere of brilliance that held him. He grew, then expanded suddenly. And where Lunol and the hungry black fire had been was just blackened smoke, drifting across the yellow floor.
Flaith turned her face in against Crom’s chest. Her fingers bit their nails convulsively into his flesh. Her body shook so badly that its trembling moved the Barbarian as he stood on firmly planted legs.
Another tendril of fire stabbed out.
Stabbed out, and–
In midair it halted, spreading across an invisible wall of nothingness that was erected before the Barbarian and the girl he held.
There was puzzlement in the pulsing of the thing, in the blind, angry darting of the outreaching tendril of flames. It moved to the floor and quested upward to the ceiling. It darted from wall to wall, seeking to penetrate the barrier that sheltered its victims.
And now the amazement was gone. The black fire burned lower as if disappointed.
In sheer anger, that made it blaze so brightly that Crom cried out and lifted a hand to hide his face, the thing stabbed again. And again, hungrily, raging with insane fury.
The Doyen shelter you! Only the Doyen could stand against the power of my will!
Barbarian could feel the anger fall away before the fear that ate at the thing. Almost, he could hear its thoughts. Perhaps it wanted him to hear his thoughts.
They can save you for a little while, but they cannot shelter you forever. Not from Noorlythin the Doyen Warlock can they save you forever! I shall work my will on you yet, man of Ophir! You will crawl on bloody stumps for legs, waving handless arms for mercy! Begging me with a tongueless mouth for the boon of death!
It came to the Barbarian that the thing spoke out of the grip of its own, paralyzing terror. It mouthed threats to bolster its own esteem.
Crom put his mind to the task and forced a laugh between his lips. He made his laugh mocking, challenging
“You’ll never kill me, Noorlythin! I am a servant to the Doyen now! Such as the Doyen Warlocks protect those whom they select to serve them!”
The thing that was Noorlythin pulsated like a stream of cobwebs caught in a mad wind. It lifted and shook, swirled and bellied.
And then, suddenly, it was quiet. It hung a foot above the yellow tiles, barely moving. And the inertia of the thing was more frightening than all its blinding brilliance.
The Doyen plays the game according to its own rules. They will not let me harm you with my Doyen powers. Only by other gifts can I let the life from your body, Barbarian! So be it!
And the thing was gone, blanking instantly from sight with nothing left behind to show its presence but a bit of black dust stirring restlessly on the tiling as a breeze came in off the desert and moved down the long corridor.
“Poor Lunol,” whispered Flaith. “Oh, the poor old man!”
The Barbarian lifted his crystal and stared dumbly at its glittering surface of polished emerald. “This thing of sorcery from Gard, the old mystics hand, summoned up Noorlythin from—from wherever he was hidden.”
“How can you use that knowledge?” wondered Flaith.
Crom shook his head. “I don’t know yet, but I will. Somehow, I’ll find out the truth.” he lifted his head and peered about the great tower. “And where better to begin than here?”
They ate dried meat plucked from Flaith’s girdle-pouch, chewing on hard black bread. And then they slept, with Flaith cuddled against the Barbarian’s length, with his own head pillowed on an arm, both of them stretched at the foot of the great metal structure.
It was the Barbarian who stirred first. He leans around Flaith’s top and gently slipped the emerald crystal down the opening of her blouse. Something was telling him that this was a safer place, then laced to his own lower leg. Then rising from the soft body of the girl, carefully so as not to disturb her. He wandered about the tower, studying the strange structure that glistened at him from the shadows. A man would need a dozen lifetimes to understand these things, he told himself. He would find no help from them.
He tried to fight the pall of bitter despair that lay across his shoulders. He was the servant of the Doyen Warlocks, caught up by them to hunt out and punish another god.
Laughter touched his lips, but the bitterness in it stung like poison.
How does one fight a god? How does one go about killing a thing that is made only of black, radiant magic? A thing that by a mere touch of the blazing brightness that comprises it, can blast him and all his kind to a black dust that shifts restlessly across a floor, flung by an errant breeze!
His fists were clenched until the knotted muscles of his forearms ached. “I can’t do it,” he told the structure. “I’m only a man. I can’t fight against a god!”
Deep within him, he knew that someone had to make this fight, that somaeone had to face Noorlythin, had to stand to him and his awesome power, or everything around him would go down, crushed and torn and flung into nothingness, as sand went down before the relentless roll of the ocean waves.
When that happened, the Sfarri and the Sennorech would expand, would lift their castles and their monstrous, monolithic palaces, where the kingdom of Ophirn stands. And those of the Sennorech would have their pick of the women of Ophir.
Of women like–
He turned to find her stretched on her back, her eyes regarding him wistfully. A shred of her gypsy attire was caught over one shoulder, falling away from the push of her nearly bared breast. The thin stuff at her waist hugged round hips and full upper thighs. The breath caught in the Barbarian’s throat as his eyes ran over her.
She was a woman to steal the breath of a man from his chest, and send his senses running frantic. With her hair frothing over the witchery of her cream-skinned shoulders, she was Besh herself, the perfect woman.
Something of his tangled senses came to Flaith and she laughed, with the throaty womanness of her pleased at the worship in his eyes.
In the middle of her laughter, a shadow came and lay on the yellow flooring between them.
A Red Dragon stood tall and lean in the open doorway of the tower, a glittering steel blade in his right hand.
The Dragon officer regarded them coldly. It came to Crom as he stood dumbly returning that hard glance, that he had never seen a Red Dragon smile.
“You will come with me at once.”
He stood sideways to the green marble doors, giving them room to pass him. Faith scrambled to her feet; eyeing the gesture with which the officer moved his sword. The Barbarian bent and lifted the black sack that had once belonged to Lunol the peddler.
Then he was walking with Flaith out the pylon gateway of the tower, across the hot sands towards the black hull of a sleek sand sailor.
He was midway through the hatch when he paused, staring.
There were Sfarran men inside the ship, but they were slumped over, in distorted postures and attitudes. He had seen the Sfarri like that in Clonn Fell when he had made the emerald crystal sing. But here he had not struck those strings!
Last night he had gently ran the crystal along the stone wall. And when the crystal chimed, an orb in the great, glistening tower structure had cracked into a thousand different fragments.
That breaking orb might have summoned up Noorlythin from whatever hell he dwelt.
“Move in, Barbarian,” said the officer behind him.
Crom went with Flaith, at the Dragon officer’s orders, to a bench set against hull of the sailor. The Dragon officer brooded at them and could read the raw hate that lay deep in his black eyes.
The Dragon officer said, “You ought to be sliced down, to save the High Mor the agony of listening to your pleas for mercy. But yours is a grave offense. An offense no man or woman has ever committed before. It calls for grave punishment.”
Flaith’s hand trembled in Crom’s big fist.
The Dragon officer said, “The High Mor commissioned me to bring you to him. I would be derelict in my duty were I to do otherwise. And I, Captain Herms Borkus, intend to commit no such infraction.”
The black eyes studied them. There was curiosity swimming in their depths, mixed with the hot hate, and a grudging respect. He turned away and went forward to the steerage hem of the sand sailor. Crom could hear the wind picking the sails. The ship lifted easily, its hull humming with smooth insistence.
Flaith whispered, “The crystal, Crom. You’ll kill him as you killed the others!”
But Crom only gestured at the Sfarri that lay in the strange and distorted attitudes or sprawled on the floor. And even as he gestured, the first of these dead Sfarri stirred and sat up, looking about him. Others moved then, silently, turning once to their duty posts, resuming their tasks as if had never been interrupted.
“Mother of Besh & Shema!” whispered Flaith, Her eyes wide and troubled under their long red lashes. “They live!?”
The Barbarian was half out of his seat, his mind questing. They were dead, but now they live! He thought of the cracking orb in the black tower, and the Sfarri that had fallen in the square in Clonn Fell. Dimly, he began to grasp the power of the crystal that he had lifted from his old mystic friend’s palm. It smashed the orb in the structure that fed the Sfarri their life. Without that power, they were cold corpses.
With the trained mind of a cunning Barbarian Aesir, he saw the possibilities of such a weapon in the crystal. At the head of the Ophirn fleet, Crom could make the crystal sing and cause the Sfarri that ran their ships to slump in their form of death.
Bitter mockery rose inside the Barbarian as he sat hunched over. He had the knowledge, but what use was it? He was being carried to an extremely painful death in the damp dungeons of the High Mor’s palace.
Herms Borkus came toward them from the steerage helm. He stared from one to the other. At last he said, “how did you do it? In Clonn Fell, we found the mighty Sfarri soldiers lying as if dead. As this ship neared the tower of Noorlythin, my men slumped over unconscious.”
Crom shrugged. “I’ve a powerful evil eye, friend. I cast it at those I don’t like and—well, you saw the result.”
Borkus said coldly, “You talk foolishly. There is no such thing as the evil eye. What is the answer?!”
“Oh, now look!” began Crom, when the thought struck him. Borkus is a Sfarran, yet he did not succumb to the lack of life! Crom turned the words on his tongue, and said, “I was talking sense, captain. In my family, as far back as the time of Nyoll of the Nine himself, one of us from my clan has always possessed the evil eye. It’s a foolish thing, and I’m not understanding it myself, any too well, but it’s the only explanation I can give.”
Borkus looked at Flaith, but his eyes did not linger on her beauty and showed no more emotion than a dog would show staring at a wall. From Flaith, his eyes swung to Crom who could read the thought that was gripping the officer. He’s wondering if he can strike at me through her. But that was the way of a man who lacked confidence in his own abilities, and Crom knew that this man before him had powers he had not yet used.
The Sfarran captain shrugged and moved away. He threw back over his shoulder, “The High Mor will know how to deal with you. After all, it is his right, not mine.”
As time passed by, Flaith and Barbarian huddled together in the Sfarran sand sailor. With each passing moment, the bleakness in the soul of the Barbarian grew darker and more empty.
The ship landed on the palace grounds. Shuddering slightly as the sails were closed off from the wind. Within moments after, Flaith and the Barbarian were crossing the dock, moving down a stone ramp that led to the dungeons.
A burly man, with black hair matted over his naked chest, clanked a ring of keys at their approach. He preceded them along the torch-lit corridor until he paused at an empty cell.
The cell was unlocked, and the Barbarian thrust inside. And the sobbing Flaith was dragged away from him, in the grip of one of the burly man’s hairy paws.
Crom was a Barbarian, and Barbarians are generally, without quite being aware of it, cunning reasoners. He tested the bars of the cell, found them to be formed of the coldest forged iron, and went over to the cot, where he lay on his back, staring at the ceiling. Within moments he was asleep.
He awoke to the touch of a soft hand on his chest, to find a woman bent above him, her limpid brown eyes soft with pity. A tumble of yellow hair framed her oval face.
“I bring food and drink, lord. You will need your strength for what lies ahead.”
Crom laughed harshly. “Better to be weak and near death when the High Mor begins his tortures.”
She moved closer. She was fragrant with some Sennorech perfume, and the little she wore—a red silk thing twisted about her loins, with a slave girl’s golden chains about her throat—showed her body to be exquisite, even in the half light of the cell. The Barbarian read the pity
in her eyes, and began to take interest.
“Sometimes, those live the longest who have no false pride,” she told him.
“You give me hope. Were you sent to do that?”
There was reproach in her eyes, and she started to draw away. The Barbarian caught her slim wrist and held her.
“Who sent you with your tempting offers?”
She pouted at him. “No man sent me. I am Slyss, the slave girl from Akkalan.” she rubbed her wrist when he released her, unconsciously posing his eyes.
The Barbarian said, “Tell me more!’
But she shrugged a white shoulder and went to stand by the cell bars while he ate. When he was done, she took his tray and wooden bowl and mug, and walked off with them, unlocking the cell door with a key that hung from her waist, attached to a thick metal manacle.
Her hips wriggled as she went, and she threw a glance at him over her shoulder. Her voice was music as she caroled a farewell.
She left the Barbarian with a fever of impatience in him. He strode back and forth in his cell. His hands tested the hard forged bars a hundred times. He told himself that the Sennorech did not have a fondness for the Sfarri over much, that the Sennorech, being descended from their primitive ancestors, had no common ground with a race of undead soldiers. He asked himself were in this pile of giant masonry Herms Borkus had hidden Flaith. If he could get away, if he could use this yellow-haired slave girl to unbar these cell doors for him, he would find Flaith and flee.
Where in all Sennorech was there sanctuary for Crom the Barbarian?
The slave girl told him when next she brought his food. This time, he was awake and restless, and her soft, quick tread was like music to his ears.
She came close to him, with only the width of the little tray between his chest and her breasts that stirred gently to her quickened breathing. Her brown eyes were full of gentle pity as they studied his haggard face and sunken eyes.
“Lord, you were never meant for prison bars! If only you would trust me, I know a way that leads from the palace.”
“Trust you, Slyss? I’d do anything for you if you could free me from this cage!”
Again she preened, smiling as he wolfed the food. “Only for that?”
His eyes studied her. She was a lovely thing, slim and gently rounded. Beside the flame-haired Flaith, she was a cooling breeze, but he knew many men who would have walked through the fires of Nanakar for a quick moment in her arms.
“Not only for that,” he told her. “You’re a sight to send a man’s blood to pounding in his veins. You don’t look like a slave girl. You’re much too beautiful.”
Her laughter was soft, pleased. She came and sat beside him so that her hip and the thigh were warm on his. She carried perfume in the yellow hair that dripped on her shoulders. It was rare perfume, and the Barbarian thought that if her mistress knew about it, that creamy back would be striped with red whip welts.
“There are men of the Sennorech who hate the Sfarri,” she whispered close to his ear. “Rumors have come to them that you possess some strange weapon, some magic means of killing the hated Sfarri.”
The Barbarian swallowed the cheap wine. He nodded. “I know a way.”
It was on his lips to say more when his side wise glance surprised a momentary gleam in the gentle brown eyes. He needed no mystic to read that triumph for him, even though it was quickly veiled behind her curving lashes. Now why should a slave girl of the palace know that feeling because of what I said? He asked himself. The Barbarian put his arm about the girl, drew her against him. With his lips buried in the yellow mass of her hair, he whispered, “It ought to be worth a lot to the Sennorech to get that knowledge! With such a weapon they need never fear the Sfarri again. They could cast them out! Even seek an alliance with the Ophirn!”
It was his last words that tensed the muscles across her soft back. Instantly, the muscles were relaxed, and she melted closer against him, her soft lips moving across his face to find his lips.
The Barbarian kissed her, why not? But he was warned, and only a fool disregards a warning, and Crom the Barbarian, as he drank from the scented lips of Slyss the slave girl, was even then congratulating himself that no Barbarian was ever a cursed gossoon.
He let her go after a while. She was a pleasant little thing, but she was no Flaith. He said, “Suppose I agree to trade my weapon for freedom from the High Mor? How do I know the Sennorech can guarantee my freedom?”
“I have keys,” she whispered. “Tonight I will come for you, to lead you through the dungeons, to the vaults below the dungeons, where the sea seeps in through solid rocks. No Sfarran ever walks down
there. It is a dead, damp place. But the Sennorech go there to hide from the Sfarri. It is the one safe place on all Sennorech. Slyss will take you there.”
He lingered over her lips, close by the unlocked cell door, to bind their bargain. But when she was gone, he took to pacing his cell, his brows drawn together. She wants more than the body of Crom the Barbarian, that one, he told himself. The weapon I possess, and me! Or am I playing the buffoon in thinking she was fond of me? He went back over their meetings and discovered to his vexing that each of her moves seemed calculated. Like a Sfarran! Cold, careful! Even her kisses lacked the fire such a woman should bring to them.
As the sun sank below the hills above Akkalan, the Barbarian rested. He was fresh when Slyss came to him on her bare feet, her key grating silently into the cell lock. “Slib, the jailer, lies drunk with wine,” she told him. “He won’t stop us.”
She went quickly along the cell corridor ahead of him. At an intersection in the rock walls, she slipped into dark shadows. He heard the rough grate of metal, and a section of the floor was rising and falling, as a balanced slab of rock fell back to expose a number of hand-hewed stone ledges that served as steps.
Slyss went first. The Barbarian came after her, and at her whispered bidding, tilted the stone slab back into place. An instant before it fell, as his eyes were still above the floor, he saw a man standing in the corridor, grinning at him.
The Barbarian almost cried out to Slyss.
The man in the cell corridor was burly, with black hair matted over his chest. He jangled a ring of keys at his side. It was Slib, the jailer, and his little eyes were clear and evil.
No man who lay drunk with wine ever boasted eyes like that! The only thing that troubled Crom was whether Slyss knew the jailer was awake and watching. If she knew, then he was being led into a trap, like a steer to the axing. If she did not know, then she was taking herself unwittingly into that same trap.
The Barbarian kicked off his buskins and walked with bare feet after the girl, along the cool damp floor of the sea vaults. In olden days, the primal men of Sennorech had made their coves in these vaults to escape the ravening monsters of the dawn era. Here and there, in the light of the torches along the wall, he could see piles of white bleached bones.
They walked for more minutes before he heard the faint rasp of the metal touching rock.
Slyss was whirling, crying out.
From the shadows, men came leaping.
As he plunged sideways, Crom noted that they were hard faced Sennorech Red Dragon warriors. There was not a Sfarran among them.
The Barbarian used his fist like a club, bringing its balled weight down in a full arm stroke, hitting the nearest man at the side of his neck, and driving him sideways into his companions. Before the man’s falling sword touched the floor, Crom held it, bringing it upward in a ceiling wise blow into the middle of the next man’s belly.
Crom the Barbarian had fought in the port taverns of Marsopolis and Bara-get. He had traded fists with Deneban dock wallopers and Karrvan stevedores. He knew every trick in the creeds of a dozen fighting races.
He used them all in the sea vaults below Akkalan. He used the Dragon’s own sword against him, driving it hard into his face. He hit backwards with it. He used an overhand, downward stroke, that drove the blade, deep into a man’s braincase.
It is no easy matter for ten men to cage one men. Not in dimly lighted pits, with that one man an explosive cyclone of fists and bashing sword. Ten men keep getting in the way of each other. And Crom the Barbarian was there to make each mistake a costly one.
He cut his opponents down to five in those first few minutes. Then he was at the wall, ripping loose a torch, hurling it in their faces.
With their screams of pain ringing in the sudden darkness, the Barbarian slid forward into the blacker shadows. Out of sight he ran.
He found a tunnel that at an angle into the main vault. He went along it, his bare feet making no sound.
He discovered another converging corridor and raced along that. Inside ten minutes, he lost himself in the labyrinthine vaults.
He came to a halt in the blackness, lungs gulping at cool air that was faintly spiced with sea salt. He listened but heard no sound. When his heart ceased to thud so heavily against his ribs, he moved again. But now he went more cautiously, with the sword before him like an overlong arm, probing the darkness.
He felt the cool updraft of air, just as his feet went out from under him.
He slid for thirty feet on a wet ramp that dropped him flat on his back on the floor of a huge chamber lighted by torches set flush to the stone walls. At the far end of the vast room, two mighty metal doors were hung on great bronze hinges.
Only the floor of the room rested a hundred great stone tables, and on each table lay a man or a woman.
“A tomb,” the Barbarian muttered. “I’ve found one of the Sennorech burial chambers.”
As he crawled to his feet and stared, he knew that this was no tomb. The bodies were flushed with life and clad in the uniforms and trappings of a hundred different people. The Barbarian rubbed a bruised shoulder and went to walk among the tables.
A shepherd boy with a ragged sheepskin across his loins and over one shoulder lay beside a trimly garbed officer of the Red Dragons. Beyond them, a silk-swathed dancing girl lay beside a heavily muscled halgor-driver, with the brown of the desert sun still on his forehead.
The Barbarian touched an arm. It was warm. It yielded beneath his fingers. He tried to rouse the man, without success.
A face in the third row over from the main aisle tugged at some chord of memory. He slipped between the tables, to stare down into the cold, haughty face of Captain Herms Borkus.
“Now would I had the wisdom of Besh herself, the wisest woman in all lands that surround the stolen sea,” muttered the Barbarian. “Is this a storeroom where High Mor keeps those he has doomed to some punishment? Is it a place such as the smoking chambers of Vreer and Anaflem, where men and women spend most of their lives dreaming? And if it isn’t any of these things, what in the name of the sons of Shema is it?
He walked on, staring down at the faces of those who lay in this trance-like slumber. He saw a face or two he knew from remembered glimpses, in the days when he had walked the court of the High Mor as a mere soldier in appearance, to Gard, the Ophirn emissary.
And then the Barbarian froze, and the blood in his veins moved with sluggish torpor.
Ahead of him, on the two largest tables of all, lay the twin bodies of the High Mor.
There was no mistake. He had seen that thin-lipped face too often where it leered down at the Ophirn envoy from the ruboid throne of Sennorech. The eyes were staring now, lifeless, but he remembered the scorn and the supreme contempt that had been in their depths.
The Barbarian was a baffled man.
He walked around the coffers, and his lips opened to speak, but no sound came out. “It’s dreaming I am, with the little people flooding my head with fancies from a fevered mind!–for he must sit even now on the throne, dreaming up tortures for my body.”
The creak of a door-hinge sent him to the floor.
He stared at the door, and smothered a curse in his throat when he saw the slave girl, Slyss of Akkalan, glide into the room. She was alone. She went to an empty pier and lay upon her back.
And now the hair at the base of the Barbarian’s neck stood straight up, for something was rising from all along her body. A something that was black, yet bright and dazzling, and from where he lay, Crom could feel the utter coldness of the thing.
“Noorlythin!” his numbed brain told him, and his eyes widened even more.
He heard a faint tinkling, such a sound as he had heard once before, when he floated between the stars among the Doyen Warlock. He looked, and the swirling black radiance that was Noorlythin was settling down on one of the bodies of the High Mor, and the High Mor was sitting up, chafing at wrists and fingers, swinging his legs to the floor.
In the ancient legends of Ophir, there was mention of a ruler who went in disguise among his people, that he might learn their thoughts and their way of living. It came to the Barbarian as he lay here that Noorlythin was such a one, but he used no simple disguises. He took the body of a man, or the body of a woman, and possessed it.
Crom retched silently, remembering the caresses he had given the slave girl. That Thing had been inside of her, controlling the pity in her eyes, the poses of her body. It had been Noorlythin who had led him into the vaults below the castle, for some reason he did not yet know. It had been Herms Borkus, seeking the secret of his crystal. He knew now why the smashing of the orb in the great structure had not cut off his lack of motive power, as it had the bodies of the Sfarran crew.
“By all the sands in Sennorech,” the Barbarian gritted between his teeth, “I have a secret worth a thousand suns in my hand. But how can I best use it?”
The High Mor was at the huge doors now. He went out without a backward glance, and the doors slid shut behind him.
Crom came to his feet. He looked around him at the faces of the men and women who lay awaiting the coming of the Doyen Warlock, Noorlythin. He knew what he had to do, and his face twisted in repugnance. Without these bodies, Noorlythin was trapped in the body of the High Mor; he was the High Mor, and no other. If these bodies were destroyed, slashed beyond recognition, Noorlythin could never use them, perhaps to appear again before the Barbarian in the guise of an officer or beautiful woman.
Crom gripped his sword more firmly and walked slowly down the long rows of coffers. At each table, he paused a little while and did what had to be done.
He left Slyss until the last.
But when he stood there, looking down into that smooth face, eyeing the yellow hair that tumbled around the creamy shoulders, he could not nerve himself to the task at hand.
“I’ll let her be. At least I know her as a cradle for Noorlythin. I’ll be on my guard.”
The Barbarian dropped the sword. He went to the doors and swung them open, and walked out into a long corridor hewed from living stone.
He followed that corridor that traveled steadily upwards. He emerged into a palace guardroom whose rack-hung walls were filled with spears and swords, with keen-edged axes and cloaks with the dragon of the Sennorech emblazoned on collar and breast.
And in the guard room, he found the High Mor waiting for him.
The High Mor took a moment and chuckled to himself. “How did you think you’d fool someone as all knowing as I, King Crom?”
“How?”, the wide eyed Barbarian stared with great intent.
“I knew you were the rightful King of Ophir moments after you and your envoy landed in Sennorech. All it took was a slave girl’s inquiring touch.” The high Mor’s chuckle mockingly grew.
“It is better this way,” said the High Mor. “just the two of us, face to face. I thought it might be better, as Slyss, to lure you into a Sennorech trap, and then to pretend a rescue by my Sfarran guards just as they were about to torture you. I thought I might claim your allegiance that way.”
The Barbarian showed his teeth. “And after you’d wormed the truth of my secret weapon out of me, you’d hang me to a rack with metal hooks biting into my naked back, and pull on my legs until the hooks came out. After that–”
The High Mor waved his hand.
“Since the Sfarri are a race of immortals created by the Doyen Warlocks so long ago that were I to tell you the numbers of years involved they would be meaningless to you, they are mere vessels, made of flesh, that thrive on the power generated by the structure in the black tower called Sharrador.”
“There is no need of torture between us, Barbarian. Oh, at first I wanted your life. Your friend, the old mystic stumbled on a Sennorech Wizard who discovered that the Sfarri are immortals.
“You tell me nothing new,” Crom grated. “Most of that I learned myself from putting one and two and three together.”
The High Mor threw back his jeweled cloak and rested a thigh on the edge of a gaming table. His eyes glittered brightly.
He said, “You are no fool, Barbarian. I do not underestimate you, believe me. I tell you this to explain why I felt it necessary to kill your friend the mystic.”
“And Captain Odön! And all the men who were on the Eclipse when your Sfarrans torched arrows fell on her into a smoking ruin just outside the shores of Sennorech!”
The High Mor gestured. His graceful white hand wave apology. “For all that, I am sorry. I made a mistake. Now I offer what I can to atone for my errors.
“Join me. Wear my dragon! To you, I promise such power as no man has ever dreamed. The wants of a Bral Kan of Procyon! Not even Gartillin Vo of Deneb or Cygnis Hannon will outshine you in the splendor of your triumphs!
“Do you think I want to spend my time in this?” and here the High Mor gestured at his body. “I want to go back to the Temple of Sharrador where once I dwelt for many ages, worshiped and adored.”
The Barbarian grinned. “You know I recognize you as Noorlythim?”
“You were in the chamber where I keep the bodies I use. I felt your presence.”
Crom stared with surprise.
“I knew you watched,” the High Mor went on. “I could have spoken to you there. But it is better to meet you this way, face to face, away from those reminders that I am not as you. In a human’s body, I may speak with you, as man to man,
“Only this way can I hope to convince you that I offer you more than you can ever gain without me. I am no man. I am a god! A god of primal sorcery! I have lived for eon piled upon eon, hunting and seeking through the kingdoms I have conjured. In some I lived for ages, in others I dwelt for only a little while. All those kingdoms, Crom the Barbarian, I offer you!
“Be an emperor, instead of a mere Barbarian King! Rule every kingdom in all the living lands and the ones unknown to you. The greatest jewels of Strae’eth or Vrann can be yours, to wear on your person or to be hung in ropes of diamonds about the neck of any woman in your presences! Lead my battle fleets! In distant Sfar, my necromancers shall create for you an untold number of Sfarran soldiers to serve under your banner. There will be the greatest warships build in your honor, each one encrusted with your name!”
The Barbarian shivered. It was a prospect that shook a man loose from his moorings.
To rule all lands living with men! To sit on a throne and gaze out at the people of these kingdoms bowed before him. To have the faerie women of Cygni and Flormaseron in a harem, waiting pleasure.
It was a thought that would have appealed to nine men in ten. Crom the Barbarian called himself a fool, but he turned his visions aside.
”I want no conquests. I want no jewels. The only woman I want is Flaith. Where is she?”
The High Mor sighed. “In a tower, well guarded. No harm has come to her. No harm will come. I am no sadist to harm a woman. Not when what I seek is possessed by a man. Tell me, Barbarian. What is your price?”
“Peace! An alliance with Ophir and the people of Sennorech. Let us send traders to Sennorech. Peace between the people of all the lands and kingdoms.”
The High Mor laughed. “I too, seek peace. A peace that will end with my dragon banner floating above the towers of Ophir. With your precious kingdom ruled by the Sennorech Red Dragons and patrolled by the Sfarri. I offer you a place in that peace, Crom the Barbarian. A high place. The highest place of all! I am a god! I have no need of earthly things. You do.
“Give me your answer, Barbarian!”
For a moment, the temptation was there. But in that same moment, the Barbarian remembered the blazing Eclipse, and the dead mystic, Gard and Captain Odön, straight and lean in his white fur lined cloak. A memory came to him of Queen Tanit and the affections she had given him in a drifting galley on the Stolen Sea. The High Mor was no human. He knew nothing of the loyalty and lusts, the fears and terrors of human beings. He was as far removed from the Sennorech and the Ophirns as man is from an ant.
“I answer—NO! you’d blacken these lands with your black fires and leave empty ruins. You’d take everything! And me—what of me?”
The High Mor smiled. “You would rule from the heavens by my side!”
But Crom the Barbarian shook his head stubbornly. “I cannot believe that. If I once tell you–”
The Doyen thought warned him just in time.
The High Mor brought his hand out from under his cloak and he held a black-wand in his fingers. It spat a stream of violent fire at the Barbarian.
Crom dove sideways. The tip of his finger slipped through the violet fire and it stung with agony. If the full effect of that blast had touched him he would be writhing helplessly on the floor, his body one gigantic mass of pain.
He had seen the wand turned on unregenerate killers. It softened them in a hurry.
His shoulder hit the edge of the table where the High Mor fell to the floor with him.
Crom put a hand to the throat of the other man and his fingers tightened and squeezed. It was like choking a bar of steel. The High Mor forced a laugh through his lips, and his body twisted like an uncoiling snake and forced the Barbarian from him.
“The Doyen warned you. I caught the thought they put in your head! Well, let them play their game. They can only interfere with me when I use my Doyen powers to destroy you. I have other gifts to use!”
A fist dove at his face, but the Barbarian was a master at rough and tumble fighting. He slipped it and bored in. His fists drummed into the High Mor’s belly, lifted and threw him back to rebound off the far wall.
A dozen weapons came tumbling down on the ruler of Sennorech. A cloak swathed his flailing arms.
Crom stepped back, waiting.
That was where he made his mistake. For the High Mor slid to the floor in a crumpled heap, and the thing that was Noorlythin glowed and pulsed and moved its frosted tendrils, free of its fallen body.
As Noorlythin moved its tendrils, the floor fell away beneath the heels of the Barbarian. The walls of the guardroom went out of existence, and Crom was falling, falling.
Guard yourself, Barbarian! You go into a place where no other living thing can enter! Not even another Doyen Warlock to shield you from my wrath! For each Doyen has in him the seeds of material creation, and what one Doyen conjures, no other Doyen can disturb!
And the high, mocking laughter followed him down and down, into the eternal blackness where he fell.
A hot sun blanketed his naked body. It blazed from a molten sky and cooked him where he lay on warm red rocks. Crom the Barbarian lifted his head and stared at the searing desolation before him. Sand and rock, and the shale of evaporated seas, stretching like the finger of Time to infinity itself, outward to that blazing blue bowl of the sky where the golden sun hung high, pouring down its heat.
He came to his feet and swayed with the pain that the heat was putting in his muscles.
Come to me! Come! Come! The Siren’s voice beckoned.
He put trembling hands to his head, and again that sweet call sounded, with the siren lure of all the lost treasures of all the lands.
He stumbled forward, hearing the summons in his head, in every fiber of his being.
Come to my riches! Lift up your hands to the jewel that gives a man everything he wants! Touch me! I am yours!
He was running across the hot sands that bit his naked feet with hot teeth, and over the sharp rocks that cut into his flesh until he bled. Dimly, he knew that nothing could help him now. That here he was cut off from everything that was sane.
This mad world was a conjuring of Noorlythin. His was the wild thoughts that dreamed the sands and the rocks and the awful desolation. His dream, a sun that cooked while it shone.
He ran. He fell to his knees, and he crawled.
With bleeding fingers he clawed at the rocks, making himself rise and run again.
It seemed to the man that he was running around in circles. The pain was part of him, now. His muscles jerked in agony at every step, yet always he forced himself to run faster, faster, gulping down the hot desert air. That siren call was strong in his ears.
Run, Barbarian! Run to me!
He ran on and on, and now he saw the others, men like himself, running on bleeding feet, crawling when those feet were worn to crushed stumps. And before each of those men, before Crom the Barbarian’s own eyes, gleamed–
The Eye of Lirflane!
A globe of a red jewel it was, the Eye. Imprisoned in its faceted surface were the dreams of an uncountable amount of people. The man that looked on it saw the happiness he sought, and he fought to join himself to it, that his own dreams would add to the total of all the others. And on the dreams and on the flesh of these men who came to it, drawn by a siren’s voice and by the eternity of delight it promised, the Eye of Lirflane feasted, waxed and swelled.
A man tried to claw at his legs as Crom the Barbarian ran passed him. Red eyes in a bloated face hurled hate at him, as his hand closed on his ankle.
The Barbarian shook himself free and ran on.
The Eye was closer now.
It grew massive, transparent. In its redness, the redness of the hair flaming Flaith beckoned. Her white body swayed and danced, and her throaty voice summoned him.
The Barbarian’s arms shook as he put them out, trying to pull himself forward with handfuls of hot, desert air.
Now the Eye of Lirflane was before him, and all he could see was Flaith moving toward him, her arms wide and beckoning–
One step he moved, and another.
His hand went out, toward the gleaming red side of the monstrous jewel.
Come to me. Crom the Barbarian! Come to the peace and the forgetfulness you have earned. Take me in your arms. Drink kisses from my lips!
The Barbarian grunted.
He shook in torture more vivid than the agony in his feet and muscles.
“Not Flaith!” he cried. “Not Flaith! You—woman of the jewel! Witch woman of Lirflane! You’re not Flaith!”
He went to his knees, to anchor himself the better to the ground, against the siren call of the mighty Eye.
“No. Got to fight! Get free. Free…”
He fought there on his knees, while men streamed passed him, rushing with insane desire into the red heaven of the jewel. Their eyes were mad with the greed of the lust that shook them, for every man saw in the Eye of Lirflane what his own eyes wanted most to see. Their bodies were torn and gaunt from their struggle across the sand and rock desolation. But they would lose their pain, within the bosom of the red eye.
Crom fought. He fought silently, until the sweat came out on his face in large beads, until it funneled down his chest and thighs. His belly and his back were awash with the salt dampness.
At last he turned, just a little, so that only a corner of the fabulous Eye remained in his vision.
He turned again, and now he saw only the barren loneliness of this abandoned world. And as he stared, the sand and the rocks and the sky ran with a liquid movement of a waterfall running over the edge a cliff. And the streaming reds and yellows buffs, the black and greens and the purples flowed together and formed a river, that swept the tortured legs of the Barbarian out from under him.
He screamed in his agony as the saltwater bit into his bleeding wounds. He babbled and twisted, flailing the salt sea with animal desperation. He drowned in this vast emptiness of an ocean, with no hand to grasp or eye to witness his going.
“No,” he shouted to the gray leaden sky above him. “I won’t die! I’ll live! I’ll live!”
His arms and his legs moved, and clumsily, he swam. No driftwood floated here. Here a man had to swim to stay alive, until his arms and his legs grew numb with his effort, and he sank.
The Barbarian turned on his back, and the saltwater buoyed him up. He floated for endless days, and during endless nights, and the tiny pink spark of life within him waxed and waned. And out of the eternity of no time, as he swam and alternately floated, a wing-prowed galley slipped through the foam-crested waves. Its white sail bellied in the ocean wind, it veered and came for him, running easily in the water.
From the rail, a bearded face scowled down at him. A hairy hand threw a rope that he twisted around his middle, he was dragged on deck, to stand dripping with the salt water that seared his wounds.
A rope was whipped around his wet wrists and he was dragged to the slim mast the rose from the deck, before the oar banks where slaves pulled at smooth-handled oars.
A woman whose flesh was tinted a delicate green came toward him. She walked with quick, supple strides, and the Barbarian noted numbly that her eyes were a feral green, and that her tiny ears were pointed. A whip coiled in her hand.
She showed her tiny teeth in a cruel smile.
“You are the man from Ophir! A Barbarian King? You are the one who turned down all the worlds known to man! For that you must be punished!”
And the long lash went snaking out in an arc, slashing into his back, and the sheer agony of the cutting whip slammed his body against the mast. The lash came down and lifted, came down and lifted, and the Barbarian sagged in the ropes that held him.
With the cruelty of her species, the cat-woman flogged him. When she was done, she cut him loose and stood over him on the swaying deck that was stained with his blood. Her voice was soft, furry.
“Take him and chain him to an oar! Rivet the manacles on his wrist and ankles! He will obey Him who is ALL!”
He was kicked and shoved across the deck. He tumbled into an empty slot on an oar bench. His wrists and ankles were shackled, the armorer not cared where his metal mallet fell.
For a day he rested, with black bread soaked in wine forced between his teeth. For a day, he knew only the blessedness of not moving. His slumber was dreamless–
In a red dawn, he was wakened by the bite of an overseer’s whip across his bloody back. His hands lifted and went to the oar-handle, and his body swayed and returned, and he put his weight with the weight of the men who held the same oar as he.
The galley slipped through the heaving ocean, and the red oars flashed in the sun, and the salt spray stung, and only when an errant wind swept across the seas was there any rest for the men who slaved on the benches. Sometimes men died, and were flung overboard. Other men were unshackled and dragged screaming to the foredeck, where the cat-woman waited, pink tongue licking her lips, the whip curling like a live thing in her hands.
And of all the men who worked the oars in this endless ocean, it was the Barbarian who was chosen most often for her amusement.
Once he almost died under the biting whip, and in that moment of pain and numbness, when his senses seemed about to float from his body, the cat-woman leaned close and her furry voice whispered, “Speak your secret to me, man of Ophir! Tell me the weapon that slays the Sfarri!”
But the Barbarian only shook his head and his hair, long uncut, tumbled on his bleeding shoulders.
The days were endless on that ocean, and the oars swung and the sail creaked, flapping overhead, and the overseer tramped the runway with endless patience, his voice a sullen growl. The cat-woman came to look upon the Barbarian and her slim greenish fingers came forth to stroke his naked back where her lash had marred it. Always her throaty voice whispered to him, speaking of the delights that might be found in her cabin, if only he were not so stubborn.
When her patience was at an end, she motioned to the overseer and he came with armed guards and unchained the Barbarian, and he was led to the mast and roped.
And then, in the middle of a whip sting, the ocean and the ship and the cat-woman’s whip fell away–to emptiness–
He lay on a hard, cold floor.
The High Mor stood before him, his hard eyes glittering. Crom was back in the guardroom that he had left—how long ago?
“A year.” said the High Mor, reading his thought. “A year and five days! And yet, the barest split moment of time. I sent you a world of my creation, Crom the Barbarian. There you lived, and almost died. You rowed at a real oar. You suffered the cuts of a real whip. Look at yourself!”
The High Mor threw a small metal mirror at him. Dazedly he stared at the grim, hard brown face and the cold blue eyes he saw mirrored on its surface. His flesh was of bronze, and great muscles swelled under it. The oar had put those muscles there, as the whip had put the scars on his ribs and back.
“Only a split instance of your time, Barbarian,” said the High Mor. “but a year and five days in the world I created! I told you I had gifts! I have made a thousand million worlds for that place of unmeaning, in the aeons that I have roamed the stars in the heavens. I am a god!”
Crom shook his head and his long hair flicked his naked arm. If he needed proof the High Mor’s words, his long-uncut hair and unkept beard was proof enough.
He thought, Tell him, and let him have his way! How can a man fight a god? The thought washed over him that he fought for all mankind, that the men and women of a thousand kingdoms unknowingly depended on his fight. Women like the flame-tressed Flaith, men like his friends, Gard and Captain Odön, who did their duty and died for it, all depended on what he did.
He had to think, to go over this logically. What would be the thought processes of a god! A god was no mere mortal, to be judged and weighed by human wants and failings. In it there was no mercy, no thought for anything but itself.
Crom pushed himself away from the floor to stand on long brown legs.
Courage, man of Ophir! He shall not trap you again!
The Doyen voice gave him heart, but the High Mor sneered.
“I heard it, too, Barbarian! The Doyen cannot help you. Not unless I strive by Doyen means to kill you. I need not do that, Crom the Barbarian, need I?”
The Barbarian shook his head like a dumb animal. He would never go back to that unknown place where Noorlythin was a god in his own truth! To the hell, where a glimmering moment was a year, where the Doyen Warlocks themselves could not enter!
“I could put you there again, Barbarian. I could forget you, let you live out your life for an eternity of moments that would turn to years and then your demise! Would you listen to reason then? Would you like to test your will again, against that of the Eye of Lirflane? Or feel once more the lash of Vigrette, the cat-woman? No, I read in your eyes that you would not!
“Come, then. Tell me how you made the Sfarri, an immortal thing, die!”
Speak, man of Ophir! Tell Noorlythin what he seeks! Only then, as he absorbs the knowledge, can we reach him!
The Barbarian shrugged the great shoulders that were scarred with the lash above the smooth roll of their bulging muscles. His head hung so that his uncut hair shielded his face.
“The crystal,” he whispered. “On the beautiful Flaith, tucked deep in her bosom, an emerald crystal.”
And as he spoke, he moved.
As the falling waters in the Veil of Valmoora was the leap of the Barbarian. Full into the High Mor he hurtled, knocking him sideways. And as they went down together–
The Doyen struck!
The very rocks of the palace misted and swirled under that awesome clutching. White fire flared and seared, and where it touched, all was destroyed! The walls of the palace shook and quivered. The walls groaned under the sudden stress.
Where the guardroom had been, was empty nothingness!
In a flame that lapped him protectively as it flared fiercely and strongly at Noorlythin himself, the Doyen Warlocks carried both men upward. So swift was their transmission through normal space that in one blinding surge of the white flame, the Barbarian found himself between his and their world, in some lost, dark blotch of empty heavens.
“No Doyen may slay another Doyen!”
That voice rang triumphantly in the abyss.
“There is a way, Noorlythin! That is why we have let you work your will on this man. He hates you with a deep hatred, Noorlythin. You put him in your worlds of unknown meaning, and you abandoned him to the creatures of your own creation!”
“Aye! I abandoned him! Were it not for him and his crystal, I would reign as a god over every kingdom to this inhabited world.”
“You dared not move before you knew the one weapon that might defeat you!”
“Now I know! Now! Now!”
The radiant blackness in the thing that was Noorlythin was awful. It beat and flared redly through the darkness. The Barbarian shuddered as its heat beat out at him, chilling even as it seared.
Courage, Barbarian! Courage for what lies ahead!
And now the voices shrank and whispered, piping like elfin horns within his head, that none but he could hear.
Through you, we may destroy him! Courage! With your help, he dies—forever!
He knew what he had to do. Of his free will he had to offer himself to Noorlythin! Of his free will, he had to fling himself into the mad embrace of those pulsing tendrils, that had turned Lunol the peddler to black and drifting dust!
He gave you to the Eye of Lirflane! He gave you to the cat-woman, Vigrette, and her whip!
The Barbarian snarled. “Destroy him, and I save the world! I hear you, Warlocks. I hear and I—obey!!”
And Crom the Barbarian flung himself headlong, forward into the black whirlwind of force that was Noorlythin.
In the Chamber of the Living Death, she who had been Slyss of Akkalan quivered fitfully, A bubble of froth broke from her red lips. She moaned and stirred. A hand lifted, struggled feebly, fell back to her side, limp and waxen.
Slyss opened brown eyes. She lay silent, staring upward at the ceiling. A sob fought its way upward from her throat.
“Noorlythin is dead! His control over me and the others—gone forever!”
She rolled off the table and stared around her, at the dead bodies. She shivered. She went to the doors and pulled them open. In the distance, she could hear the frightened roaring of terrified people. She began to run.
Flaith shook the bars of her cell that held her. Her red hair made a living flame about her shoulders.
“What is happening? What is it?” she screamed.
The terrified jailer, Slib, paused in his heavy run past her cell.
“The palace is falling in! The High Mor is dead. His body has been seen!”
Flaith shook the barred door.
“Let me out! Please, please! Give me a chance to save myself!”
The jailer licked his lips. He glanced up and down the corridor, then slid the key into the lock. The door opened under a push from his hand. “If the High Mor is dead,” he told the girl, “maybe now, the Sfarri won’t stay here on Sennorech! Maybe the Sennorech can rule themselves.”
Flaith caught the man by his arm.
“The one I was captured with! Crom the Barbarian! Where is he?”
“Nobody knows! His cell is empty.”
“His crystal? Man, where is his crystal?”
The jailer shook his himself free and started down the corridor. Over his shoulder he called, “Look in the storehouse of your blouse!”
Barbarian! Wake to life, Crom!
He was dead. He had thrown himself into the fiery maw of the thing that was Noorlythin. Who called him now? Who spoke these lies?
You live, Barbarian. You served as the catalyst that enabled us to use our powers against Noorlythin.
Crom opened his eyes.
He lay on a floor in the wreckage of the guardroom in the palace of Akkalan. In the distance, but growing closer, he heard the faint singing. He lay there and listened to the voice, as life flowed stronger into his body.
The singing came nearer.
The Barbarian stood up and he waited, big and bronzed, marked with scars.
Flaith stood in the broken doorway, her voice trailing off from the song she was singing. Tears had formed twin channels from red red-lashed eyes along her cheeks. When she saw Crom, she did not know him. And then he grinned, and his long hair, beard and scarred brown body were forgotten.
She flung herself at him, and lay against him, trembling.
He told her of the battle with the High Mor and what he had been, and of how the Doyen had destroyed him. “We’ve won, Flaith. He’s dead, forever!”
Laughter bubbled in her throat as she looked up at him. She then fell to her knees in front of him. “They’ll reward you Crom. Make you king of Ophir!”
The Barbarian grinned and embraced her back.
“I no longer desire to rule over others. For me, being King of Ophir is like a prison. A gilded cage that enslaves you to your wants and desires. Thirsts that can never be quenched. These civilized lands are no place for the likes of me. I wish to return to the mountain of my youth. I will journey home with or without you Flaith.”
Her answer rocked him, in the hunger of her mouth on him.
More Gardner F Fox stories can be found on his official website, this link will take you there.
More of Kurt Brugel’s artwork can be found on his official website.
If you’d like a copy of this short story and nine other by Gardner F Fox, you can purchase a copy of The Return of Dargoll and Other Pulp Stories from the Library.