Conan the Avenger Part 5
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The sun glinted on spired helmets and whetted spearheads. Spurs jingled and bright silks flashed as three armored riders breasted the long slope of a great sand dune in the wide desert that formed the southwestern marches of Turan. Red turbans were wound about their helmets; sashes of the same color girdled their waists. White silken s.h.i.+rts, baggy trousers thrust into short black boots, and sleeveless, silvered mail-s.h.i.+rts completed their apparel. Curved swords hung at their hips. Upright from the holders that hung from the saddles of two of them rose the ten-foot Turanian lances. The remaining one bore, slung from his saddle, a thick, double-curved bow in a bow case and a score and a half of arrows in a lacquered leathern quiver.
Accompanying them was a fourth figure, bound by both wrists to a rope held by the bowman. Deep gashes in the sand told of this prisoner's inability to keep up with his mounted captors. He wore the white khalat of the desert Zuagir, though the garment was dirty and torn to shreds.
His lean, dark visage was hollow-cheeked, but implacable hatred lurked in his red-rimmed eyes. He stumbled panting up the slope without a sound of pain or protest.
The Turanian soldiers, separated from the rest of their troop by a two-day sandstorm, were seeking their way back to Fort Wakla, a Turanian outpost deep in the Zuagir desert country. Yesterday they had met the Zuagir. His horse had tumbled under him with an arrow through its heart, and he had been laid senseless on the sand by a blow from a spear b.u.t.t. The commander of Fort Wakla had lately begun an intense campaign against the desert tribes, who had harried Kuranian caravans overly much of late. Having taken the Zuagir prisoner, the hors.e.m.e.n were bringing him back to the fort to be bled of knowledge before being hanged.
At the top of the dune, the little troop paused to rest. Waterskins were lifted to parched mouths, while the ragged prisoner crawled up on all fours, almost done in. Sand dunes stretched as far as the eye could see. As practiced warriors, the Turanians used the pause to let their hawklike eyes sweep the horizon and the surface of the sands. Nothing could be seen save endless, rolling yellow plain.
The tallest of the three, the man with the bow and the prisoner's rope, suddenly stiffened. Shading his dark eyes, he bent forward to get a better view. On the top of a dune a mile away, he had sighted a lone horseman riding at a gallop. The dune had hidden him as they came to their point of vantage, but new the stranger was flying down the near side in a flurry of sand. The leader turned to his fellows.
"By the alabaster hips of Yenagra!" he said, "we have caught another desert rat! Be ready; we will kill this one and take his head on a lance tip back to the fort."
Knowing there would be no trouble to recover the Zuagir after the fight, he dropped the rope. He spurred his mount down the slope towards the point in the wide valley of sand, where he counted on intercepting the stranger, and in one smooth motion drew the powerful bow from its case and nocked an arrow. His fellow troopers followed with spears poised and slitted eyes agleam, yelping like hounds closing for the kill.
At three hundred paces, the bowman drew and loosed at full gallop with the effortless horsemans.h.i.+p of a Turanian cavalryman. But the shaft did not strike home. Like lightning his intended victim flung his horse aside with a mighty effort that almost threw the steed. With a swift gesture, the stranger shook off the folds of his khalat.
The Hyrkanians halted in consternation. There appeared before them not the half-starved form of a desert man, armed only with knife and javelin, but a powerful western warrior in st.u.r.dy mail and steel helmet, equipped with a long sword and a dagger. The sword flashed like a flame in the sunlight as the rider whipped it out. The Turanian leader's narrow eyes widened with astonishment.
"You dare return to Turan, barbarian scoundrel!" he cried. For the Turanian was Hamar Kur, who had been amir of a troop of horse that Conan, as a leader of the kozaki, had routed years before by an ambush on the Yelba River. Hamar Kur was demoted to common trooper in the frontier guards in consequence and ever since had burned for vengeance.
Drawing his saber, he shouted:
"At him, men! It is Conan the kozak! Slay him, and the king will fill your helmets with gold!"
The Turanian riders hesitated, awed by the memory of gory and terrible legends a.s.sociated with that name. Tales told how this man, with two pirate galleys, had sacked and burned the fortified seaport of Khawarizm and then broken through six of the king's war galleys that had come to trap him, leaving three foundering and the others' decks awash with blood. They told how he, with a band of Zuagir tribesmen, had harried the outflung Imperial posts in the south until the border had to be drawn back. They told how the savage kozak hordes under his command had stormed the walled city of Khorosun, slaying and burning.
Conan made full use of his enemies' moment of indecision. Spurring his big horse, he thundered upon them like a one-man avalanche, his sword flas.h.i.+ng in circles. Hamar Kur's mount reared wildly before this cras.h.i.+ng charge and was cast to the ground. Its rider was spilled from the saddle.
The two other soldiers couched their lances and spurred fiercely, but lacked time to gain enough speed to make their charge effective. With the fury of a thunderstorm Conan was upon them, smiting right and left.
The head of one man leaped from its trunk on a fount of blood. The next instant, Conan's blade shattered the other's lance. The Turanian caught the following blow on his s.h.i.+eld but was hurled from his saddle by sheer impact,
Hamar Kur had regained his feet. Skilled in combat against hors.e.m.e.n, he ran to where the slain trooper had dropped his lance. Then he ran swiftly up and thrust the shaft of the weapon between the legs of Conan's horse. He cast himself aside at the last moment to avoid the barbarian's terrible sword.
The desert sands clouded the sky as Conan and his mount crashed to the ground together. With the practiced ease of the hardened mercenary, the Cimmerian threw himself clear. He rose, sword still in hand. With cold blue eyes slitted he watched his two surviving enemies slink towards him, one from either side. Their tactics were obvious: to catch him between them &o that one could strike him down from the rear.
With tigerish swiftness, he charged the soldier to the right. He knew he risked a scimitar in the back from Hamar Kur, but it was never his way to await the foe's attack. The Turanian tried to parry the cras.h.i.+ng blow, but to no avail. Splintering the curled blade with its terrible force, the Cimmerian's sword smashed helmet and skull like a ripe orange.
Conan wheeled like a panther in the nick of time. He just managed to catch Hamar Kur's whistling blow on his sword hilt. There was a momentary exchange of cuts and parries as the straight blade of the West and the curved blade of the East whirled about each other in a coruscating dance of death. Then a quick thrust from Conan pierced his enemy's breast. The point drove through the fine Turanian mail and on through the ex-amir's body. Hamar gave a ghastly scream and fell heavily. Conan braced his legs to tear his dripping blade free.
The Cimmerian wiped his sword on his enemy's sash and looked swiftly around. He had heard a sound from behind, and his senses and temper were on edge. He waited warily as a tattered figure half slid and half rolled down the slope almost to his feet. It was the Zuagir. Rising on shaky legs, he spat upon the prostrate form of Hamar Kur. Then he turned his burning eyes on Conan. As he took in the gigantic figure in worn mail, the rage and fury in his eyes gave way to recognition and joy. Lifting his bound hands, he cried:
"Praise be to Kemosh, for he has answered my prayers and sent these dogs to the floors of h.e.l.l! And more, he has brought back the great warlord who led us to plunder long ago! I greet you, Hawk of the Desert! There will be feasting and dancing in the villages! The Turanian dogs will cower in their towers as the cry goes forth from the desert: 'Yamad al-Aphta has returned!'"
Conan shrugged his broad shoulders and thrust his sword back into the scabbard His horse had risen front its fall, and Conan unslung his waterskin and pack from the saddle.
"Here, wolf," he grunted, "you look a little the worse for wear. Have a draught, but take care you are not overfilled." Conan brought out bread and dried meat and shared them with the Zuagir. "Now tell me: What is afoot in the desert? How did you fall into the hands of the Hyrkanians?"
The nomad answered between gulps and champings: "I am Yar Allal of the Duali tribe. I was riding in haste and alone for our camp when these dogs caught me. They shot my horse from under me and stunned me with a blow on the head. They were bringing me back to Fort Wakla for questioning and death."
"Whence your hurry?" asked Conan. "And why alone? These hills swarm with Turanian patrols."
The voice of the Zuagir took on a burning edge as he answered. "A terrible misfortune has struck our tribe. Listen, my lord. For days we lay in wait in the ruins of the Gharat temple, fifty miles to the south. Word had come that a rich caravan was approaching from the west, bringing the wealth and person of the lady Thanara."
"A yedka of Maypur, famed for her beauty and riches. Furthermore she is high in the favor of King Yezdigerd. Could we but capture her, a fabulous ransom would be ours as well as the spoils from the camel train.
"We lay there with knives whetted and bows newly strung until we thought the dogs of traders would never come. And then, one day, we heard the camels' bells in the distance. The long line of men, beasts, and wagons came into view.
"We waited until they were almost upon us. Uttering our war cry, we swept down upon them. We expected an easy conquest of the merchants and their retainers. Then, suddenly, the merchants and servants threw aside their khalats. Instead of timid civilians, mailed lancers in the white turbans of the Imperial Guard rushed against us!
"There must have been a hundred of them hidden in the wains. They rode through our ranks like reapers mowing down a field of wheat. Half of us perished in the first attack. The rest were riven apart and scattered into small bands. We fought mightily against the odds, and many a Turanian plunged to earth with a Duali spear through his throat or a curved knife in his guts.
"But our courage was of no avail as the steel-clad ranks closed in upon us. I saw my brother felled by a stroke from the amir's scimitar. Then Yin Allal, my father, caught a blow on the head that knocked him stunned from the saddle. I spurred my horse; smiting and thrusting I won through and away. They pursued me for hours, but their horses were wearier than mine and they gave it up. I was on my way to raise the tribe as I was caught. By now the caravan is safely within the walls of Fort Wakla. There will be rejoicing among the Turanians tonight; not for decades have they captured a Zuagir chief alive!"
"How know you he is alive?"
"In the last moment ere I raced off, I looked back and saw two of them carrying him back toward the carts. He was moving, though feebly."
Conan digested this tale. He well remembered Yin Allal, one of his staunchest supporters of old, when he, as war chief of three united Zuagir tribes, had led them in daring raids against the Turanians.
Confronted by this new problem, he did not wish to leave an old friend unaided in the hands of his enemies. He sprang up, his blue eyes flas.h.i.+ng with determination.
"Catch yourself a horse!" he snapped. "We ride for the Duali oasis at once. We shall be there by nightfall, and if my name is not forgotten I'll raise the tribes again. I will save my old friend. We'll pull those dogs' beards yet, by Crom!"
With a laugh he flung himself into the saddle. Gesturing to his companion to follow, he spurred his horse into a fierce gallop over the sands.
The oasis lay enfolded in the black arms of the desert night. Stars twinkled like gems on a dark mantle studded with diamonds; the fronds of the palms, now and then moving before the slight evening breeze, were silvered by the cold moonlight. In the shadow of the foliage were strewn a profusion of tents-a large Zuagir camp.
Earlier in the day, this had been a quiet place. The desert sun poured its golden rays upon the camel's-hair dwellings. Veiled women went about their primitive duties, fetching water from the well and broiling strips of meat over the campfires. Snores and snuffles sounded from the nomadic abodes as the tribesmen took their siesta.
Now the Duali oasis was a center of frantic activity. In the middle rose a tent whose size indicated its importance. From this tent, now and then, a lean desert hawk emerged. The Zuagir would hurry with flapping khalat to his horse, spring into the saddle, and urge the mount into a mad race out over the desert. Others returned from their missions, flinging themselves from foam-flecked steeds to hasten toward the big central tent. Zuagirs from the neighboring tribes of the Kharoya and Qirlata had been pouring in all day. Now the area covered by dun-colored tents was thrice as large as the day before.
Conversations were whispered behind the door flaps; men went to and fro on urgent errands. There was an orderly bustle such as is seldom seen in a desert camp.
The hearts of the robed and bearded chiefs in the central tent swelled with pride and affection. The huge figure in worn mail, seated in the place of honor, had become the center of legendry and hero wors.h.i.+p since the day long ago when he had arrived among them. He united their bickering clans and led them in raids so daring, b.l.o.o.d.y, and rewarding that tales of them were still told around the campfires. Their superst.i.tious minds regarded the return of the big Cimmerian as a good omen. This opinion was strengthened by having occurred at the same time that their raiding party had been nearly wiped out and one of their mightiest chiefs captured.
Petty inter-tribal quarrels were swept away by the return of the Hawk of the Desert. Savage expectation was mirrored in their dark eyes as Conan lectured them.
"The fort is impregnable to a straight a.s.sault," he said bluntly. "We have no ballistae or other siege engines to reduce it by force. It is well provisioned, like all these Turanian outposts, and might hold out for a year. Moreover, a determined sally by their seasoned squadrons would scatter bur irregular ranks. Our chance is to come to grips with them inside the walls, where cavalry tactics cannot be used and we have the advantage of numbers. Trickery must be used.
"Let us equip a caravan train from the loot stored here in this oasis.
Fifty of us, garbed as merchants, slaves, retainers, and camel drivers shall take the caravan to the fort, as if we were on the road to Kherdpur. At the twelfth hour we shall cut down the guards at the gate, open up, and let in the horde. Our main goals are the barracks, the officers' quarters, and the governor's palace. We shall pillage, burn sack, and slay until the streets run red with Turanian blood!"
The Cimmerian rose, hitching at his scabbard. "To work, desert dogs!
Before sunrise, I want such a camel train as would make any Zuagir's mouth water!"
Camel bells tinkled. The feet of men and beasts raised clouds of dust as the long line pa.s.sed through the gate of Fort Wakla. At the gate, the lean merchant in the lead declared: "Lord, I am Zebah, a Shemite of Anakia. I have come up from Yukkub to barter my goods in Kherdpur."
"Who is this?" asked the gate captain, pointing to a huge man wrapped in a capacious khalat. His kaffia hid the lower part of his face, so that only his piercing blue eyes could be seen.
Conan the Avenger Part 5
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Conan the Avenger Part 5 summary
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