Conan the Avenger Part 17

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he said. "And fairest of all the city-states of northern Khirai was purple-towered Paikang. Hosts of glittering warriors s.h.i.+elded us from the warlike ambitions of Shu-chen to the north and Ruo-gen to the south. The lands were rich and the crops always plentiful. I dwelt in the palace in Paikang surrounded by all the splendor and culture of our ancient civilization.

"Then came the Accursed One. On one dark night his hordes swept up from the southeast like a destroying blaze. Our armies were wiped out by his foul arts. They were engulfed by earthquakes, devoured by magical fire, or smitten with the dry plague. Our sword arm was withered, and his h.e.l.lhounds made free with our beautiful city. Paikang was sacked in fury and blood, in thunderous fires and unnamable atrocities. I, my family, and some of my retainers fled on fast camels. Through many perils we found this refuge. I doubt if Yah Chieng knows of us, or he would surely have wiped us out by now. Kang Lou-dze, my daughter here, was captured by his swordsmen while visiting a village several miles from here. No hunters ever come to this hidden place.

"It would seem that our plight is hopeless. We are but a handful, to face magical might and thousands of well-armed soldiers. Still, the people, whom he is grinding to poverty by his taxes and extortions, long for the bygone days of serenity, freedom, and wealth. They would rise if given the chance. But the iron heels of Yah Chieng's generals press upon their necks. His swordsmen swagger the streets of the cities like conquerors, with whips in their hands.

"So it has been for a score of years, and our hope dwindles. It would die bat for the prophecy, in which we have put all our faith during these years of terror."

Conan had listened silently, but curiosity now prompted a question.

"The memories of many happenings lie crowded in my mind. But this prophecy? What of it?"

"My wife, the mother of Kang Lou-dze, was gifted with strange powers.

She knew the calls of birds, and I have often seen die wild beasts of the jungle nuzzling her hands. When disaster struck, one of Yah Chieng's marauders found his way to her chamber and struck her down while she prayed to our G.o.ds. I was too late to save her, but as I stood with dripping blade over the body of her murderer, she beckoned to me from the floor where she lay in her blood, and whispered into my grief-stricken ear:

" 'My days are ended. Flee swiftly to save our family. Hide yourselves and wait. Despair not. For there will come' from the west a conqueror such as you have never seen, with a great and n.o.ble heart. In his wrath he will crush the fiend like a snake under his heel. He will be a man of white skin and great strength, a king in his own land, and he will smite the usurper like a flaming thunderbolt. The G.o.ds are with him, and Paikang will once again-'

"In that instant her mouth filled with a rush of blood, and she died.

Stricken as I was, I could not stay. I gathered my children, and my servants helped me to carry the younger ones through a secret pa.s.sage.

"Through all these years we have waited for the white war lord. We have listened for rumors of his s.h.i.+ning armies and hoped to see his pennon on the towers of Paikang. But only marauding nomads have come from the Great Desert, and our hope has dwindled with the years.

"Except for a troop of mercenaries that Yah Chieng captured last year, you are the first man with white skin and round eyes to come from the West during all this time, but the prophecy said our savior would be a king and a conqueror. You are alone, without armies or followers, and you wear the habit of the nomads.

"I am old, my days are numbered, and now I begin to despair for the fate of my people."

A broad smile split Conan's face. Thumping the floor, he boomed: "Who said I'm no king, old man? King I am, and king of the mightiest kingdom of the West, fair Aquilonia. Conquered it myself, I did, and strangled its tyrant on the throne with my own hands. White I am, and my strength has won me duels with professional stranglers. Do I not fit your prophecy?"

The old man looked up, eager and incredulous at the same time:. "Is this true, Conan? You are a king? Then the part I did not tell you is also true-for my beloved wife said that this would occur within twenty years of our defeat. The G.o.ds be praised! We shall have a feast of prayer and thanksgiving tonight. Tomorrow we are at your command! Will you lead us?"

Conan's laugh was gusty. "Not so hotly, my friend! Even I, who have had my share of follies, am not so rash as to rush into the maw of this scoundrel with only a score of men. The G.o.ds help those who use their wits. We must lay our plans carefully."

Then his voice was drowned by the joyful shouts of the crowd that had gathered outside the hut, summoned by Kang Lou-dze. With sudden sobriety he accepted the humble adoration of these folk, whose sole hope of salvation he represented.

The high council of the Khitan village of outcasts was in session. The atmosphere inside the bamboo hut was rife with tension. Conan lolled on the floor mats, a beaker of wine in his hand, while his sharp blue eyes scrutinized his new allies. The air was thick with the lotus-scented smoke of water pipes.

"It will be no easy task to win entrance to the fiend's castle," said one tall, slant-eyed man, whose face was disfigured by a scar across his brow. "His cursed swordsmen guard it day and night, and there are his own unearthly powers in the bargain. The people have no arms, and a straightforward attack on the heavily-fortified citadel is out of the question with our scant force."

"You are right, Leng Chi," said the aged Kang Hsiu. "Stealth and trickery pave the road to success. And I know of only one way that might carry us there. In a week, Yah Chieng will give his annual feast in celebration of the conquest of Pailcang. The climax of this feast is always the Dance of the Lions, performed with all the ancient ceremonies. Thus Yah Chieng caters to the people's taste for spectacle and tradition. It is the only time when the great gates are opened and the public is admitted into the large courtyard. But how this can avail us I cannot fathom, for we must bring King Conan with us, and he is pale of skin and round of eye. We cannot possibly disguise him effectively, for he stands out among all men. Of course, we could carry him in a box-"

Conan's rough voice broke into the conversation. "None of that, my friend. To lie unmoving in a coffin, indeed! But this Lion Dance gives me an idea. I have heard of it from travelers. Do not the dancers carry great dresses made for two men, with a lion's head? At the end of the feast, I can slip into the castle. Then I shall be on my own. The only snag is the dancing dress. You have none here, and it would take too long to make one."

"Fate is indeed looking our way," replied the old man gravely. "In Shaulun, a day's journey hence, there is a team that goes to the dance every year with their lion dress. We will make it worth their while to let us borrow it. As for the rest, you speak true. You will have many chances to slip away during the latter part of the feast, for Yah Chieng often plies the rabble with wine, and there arises such confusion and shouting that his swordsmen have to chase everybody out with naked swords. Perhaps this time we can turn the riot to our advantage.

"The swordsmen of the usurper would be surprised to meet sober men with forbidden swords in their hands. Aye, I think we could promise Yah Chieng an unusually lively feast!"

"Not yet," said Leng Chi. "How many can we muster? Yah Chieng has his Two Hundred at instant call, besides his regular troops. Some of the latter might come over to us, did they know what was afoot. But-"

"And we have but a few bits of armor," said another headman. "The troops of the usurper will be scaled and plated like the crayfish of Lake Ho."

As the meager forces that the refugees could put in the field were summed up, faces and voices fell again. Then Conan spoke:

"The other day, Lord Kang, you said something about a troop of Western mercenaries captured by Yah Chieng last year. What is this?"

The old man said: "In the Month of the Hog, a company of fifty came marching out of the west. They said they had served the king of-what was the name of the kingdom? Turan, that is it. But, resenting the scornful way this king's generals treated them, they had deserted and struck out eastward to seek their fortunes in Khitai."

Leng Chi took up the tale. "They pa.s.sed a few leagues north of here, through the village of Shaulun. They found favor with the villagers because they destroyed a band of robbers, and they did not loot or rape. Therefore the villagers warned them against Yah Chieng. But they would not listen, and marched on to Paikang.

"There, we heard, they offered their swords to Yah Chieng. He feigned acceptance but had other plans in mind. He gave them a feast, at the height of which he had their captain's head cut off and the rest cast into his dungeon."

"Why did he do this?" said Conan.

"It seems he wanted them for sacrifices in some great rite of devilish magic!"

"What became of them?"

"At last accounts, they still awaited their doom, though that is three months since."

"How did you hear of it?"

"A woman of Paikang, who had been having a love affair with one of the Two Hundred, fled to Shaulun, and thence the tale came to us."

"Lord Kang," said Conan, "tell me about /our palace. I shall need to find my way about it."

Kang Hsiu began drawing lines on the earthen floor of the hut. "You know that the usurper may have changed things since I dwelt therein.

But this is how they were in my day. Here stands the main gate; here rises the great hall..."

Hours later, plans were made down to the last detail. Kang Hsiu rose and swung his goblet high, the amber liquid swirling in the smoky lamplight. He cried in a ringing voice: "To the future and honor of great Paikang, and may the head of the Snake soon be crushed under the boot of the Avenger!"

An answering shout went up, and Conan made a gesture and drank. His brain whirled with the realization that he was at last within reach of his goal.

Dust rose in choking clouds on the road that ran west from Paikang.

Hundreds of Khitans in blue and brown shuffled along it towards the city.

The sun gleamed whitely on the ma.s.sive marble wall of Paikang. The waters of the moat reflected the white walls, the brown hills, and the blue sky, save where the wakes of a flock of swimming ducks disturbed its surface. Over the walls rose the paG.o.das of Paikang, their multiple roofs gleaming with glazed tiles of green, blue, and purple and glittering with gilded ornaments at the corners. Golden dragons and lions snarled down from the angles of the battlements surmounting the great gate.

The dusty lines of countryfolk streamed into the gate, afoot and on donkeyback. For once Yah Chieng's soldiers stood back, leaning on their bills and tridents and watching the throng without stopping each one for questioning, search, and extortion. Now and then the drab column was lightened by the brilliant costumes of the dancers. The lion dancers of Shaulun made an especially brave show. The gilded lion mask flashed in the sun, turning its bulging eyes and curling tongue this way and that. The man in the forequarters must have been of unusual stature, for the headpiece of the lion costume towered far above the heads of the Khitans.

Inside the city, the countryfolk poured along a winding avenue toward the palace. Conan, peering through the holes below the lion mask, sniffed the pungent smells of a Khitan city and p.r.i.c.ked his ears at its sounds. At first it sounded like a meaningless din, though each horn, bell, whistle, and rattle was used by tradesmen of a particular kind to make themselves known.

Following the crowd, he came to another wall with a great gate standing open in it. The folk poured in. The column divided to flow around a jade screen of carven dragons, ten feet high and thrice as long, and joined again on the other side. They were in the courtyard of Yah Chieng's palace, formerly the seat of the Kang clan.

Pus.h.i.+ng, shouting pressed against the tables where Yah Chieng's servants ladled out rice stew and rice wine. Many of the guests were already in a stimulated condition; the singsong talk of the crowd rose to a roar. Here a juggler tossed b.a.l.l.s and hatchets; there a musician plucked a one-stringed lute and sang plaintive songs, though only those within a few feet of him could hear him.

Conan heard Leng Chi's voice in his ear: "Over this way. The dancing will soon begin. Be not so proficient as to win the prize. It would not forward our plans to have the judge demand that you doff your headpiece to receive it..."

The long stone corridor was dark. Deathly silence reigned in its murky depths. Conan slunk stealthily forward like a jungle cat, avoiding the slightest sound, carrying his sword unsheathed. He was clad in a Khitan jacket and silken trousers, bought from a merchant in a border village.

As he had planned, so had things befallen. During the rising turmoil in the courtyard, n.o.body had noticed by the flickering torchlight that one of the lion dresses was now borne by only one carrier. Shadows and nooks had aided Conan's swift entry. Now he was on his way into the heart of the enemy's stronghold.

His senses were sharpened to the utmost. It was not the first time he had entered the abode of a hostile wizard. Memories of the ghastly things he had met on similar occasions thrust themselves upon his consciousness like attacking demons. All his life, the supernatural had been the one thing that could send tendrils of fear probing into his brain. But with iron self-possession, he shrugged off his atavistic fears and continued his catlike stalk.

Conan the Avenger Part 17

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Conan the Avenger Part 17 summary

You're reading Conan the Avenger Part 17. This novel has been translated by Updating. Author: Robert E. Howard already has 319 views.

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