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Title: Queen of the Black Coast
Author: Howard, Robert E.
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Queen of the Black Coast" ***

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                     QUEEN OF THE BLACK COAST

                       By Robert E. Howard

    [Transcriber's Note: This etext was first published in Weird Tales
    May 1934. Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the
    U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]



1 Conan Joins the Pirates

    _Believe green buds awaken in the spring,
      That autumn paints the leaves with somber fire;
    Believe I held my heart inviolate
      To lavish on one man my hot desire._

    THE SONG OF BÊLIT


Hoofs drummed down the street that sloped to the wharfs. The folk that
yelled and scattered had only a fleeting glimpse of a mailed figure on a
black stallion, a wide scarlet cloak flowing out on the wind. Far up the
street came the shout and clatter of pursuit, but the horseman did not
look back. He swept out onto the wharfs and jerked the plunging stallion
back on its haunches at the very lip of the pier. Seamen gaped up at
him, as they stood to the sweep and striped sail of a high-prowed,
broad-waisted galley. The master, sturdy and black-bearded, stood in the
bows, easing her away from the piles with a boat-hook. He yelled angrily
as the horseman sprang from the saddle and with a long leap landed
squarely on the mid-deck.

'Who invited you aboard?'

'Get under way!' roared the intruder with a fierce gesture that
spattered red drops from his broadsword.

'But we're bound for the coasts of Kush!' expostulated the master.

'Then I'm for Kush! Push off, I tell you!' The other cast a quick glance
up the street, along which a squad of horsemen were galloping; far
behind them toiled a group of archers, crossbows on their shoulders.

'Can you pay for your passage?' demanded the master.

'I pay my way with steel!' roared the man in armor, brandishing the
great sword that glittered bluely in the sun. 'By Crom, man, if you
don't get under way, I'll drench this galley in the blood of its crew!'

The shipmaster was a good judge of men. One glance at the dark scarred
face of the swordsman, hardened with passion, and he shouted a quick
order, thrusting strongly against the piles. The galley wallowed out
into clear water, the oars began to clack rhythmically; then a puff of
wind filled the shimmering sail, the light ship heeled to the gust, then
took her course like a swan, gathering headway as she skimmed along.

On the wharfs the riders were shaking their swords and shouting threats
and commands that the ship put about, and yelling for the bowmen to
hasten before the craft was out of arbalest range.

'Let them rave,' grinned the swordsman hardily. 'Do you keep her on her
course, master steersman.'

The master descended from the small deck between the bows, made his way
between the rows of oarsmen, and mounted the mid-deck. The stranger
stood there with his back to the mast, eyes narrowed alertly, sword
ready. The shipman eyed him steadily, careful not to make any move
toward the long knife in his belt. He saw a tall powerfully built figure
in a black scale-mail hauberk, burnished greaves and a blue-steel helmet
from which jutted bull's horns highly polished. From the mailed
shoulders fell the scarlet cloak, blowing in the sea-wind. A broad
shagreen belt with a golden buckle held the scabbard of the broadsword
he bore. Under the horned helmet a square-cut black mane contrasted with
smoldering blue eyes.

'If we must travel together,' said the master, 'we may as well be at
peace with each other. My name is Tito, licensed master-shipman of the
ports of Argos. I am bound for Kush, to trade beads and silks and sugar
and brass-hilted swords to the black kings for ivory, copra, copper ore,
slaves and pearls.'

The swordsman glanced back at the rapidly receding docks, where the
figures still gesticulated helplessly, evidently having trouble in
finding a boat swift enough to overhaul the fast-sailing galley.

'I am Conan, a Cimmerian,' he answered. 'I came into Argos seeking
employment, but with no wars forward, there was nothing to which I might
turn my hand.'

'Why do the guardsmen pursue you?' asked Tito. 'Not that it's any of my
business, but I thought perhaps----'

'I've nothing to conceal,' replied the Cimmerian. 'By Crom, though I've
spent considerable time among you civilized peoples, your ways are still
beyond my comprehension.

'Well, last night in a tavern, a captain in the king's guard offered
violence to the sweetheart of a young soldier, who naturally ran him
through. But it seems there is some cursed law against killing
guardsmen, and the boy and his girl fled away. It was bruited about that
I was seen with them, and so today I was haled into court, and a judge
asked me where the lad had gone. I replied that since he was a friend of
mine, I could not betray him. Then the court waxed wrath, and the judge
talked a great deal about my duty to the state, and society, and other
things I did not understand, and bade me tell where my friend had flown.
By this time I was becoming wrathful myself, for I had explained my
position.

'But I choked my ire and held my peace, and the judge squalled that I
had shown contempt for the court, and that I should be hurled into a
dungeon to rot until I betrayed my friend. So then, seeing they were all
mad, I drew my sword and cleft the judge's skull; then I cut my way out
of the court, and seeing the high constable's stallion tied near by, I
rode for the wharfs, where I thought to find a ship bound for foreign
parts.'

'Well,' said Tito hardily, 'the courts have fleeced me too often in
suits with rich merchants for me to owe them any love. I'll have
questions to answer if I ever anchor in that port again, but I can prove
I acted under compulsion. You may as well put up your sword. We're
peaceable sailors, and have nothing against you. Besides, it's as well
to have a fighting-man like yourself on board. Come up to the poop-deck
and we'll have a tankard of ale.'

'Good enough,' readily responded the Cimmerian, sheathing his sword.

The _Argus_ was a small sturdy ship, typical of those trading-craft
which ply between the ports of Zingara and Argos and the southern
coasts, hugging the shoreline and seldom venturing far into the open
ocean. It was high of stern, with a tall curving prow; broad in the
waist, sloping beautifully to stem and stern. It was guided by the long
sweep from the poop, and propulsion was furnished mainly by the broad
striped silk sail, aided by a jibsail. The oars were for use in tacking
out of creeks and bays, and during calms. There were ten to the side,
five fore and five aft of the small mid-deck. The most precious part of
the cargo was lashed under this deck, and under the fore-deck. The men
slept on deck or between the rowers' benches, protected in bad weather
by canopies. With twenty men at the oars, three at the sweep, and the
shipmaster, the crew was complete.

So the _Argus_ pushed steadily southward, with consistently fair
weather. The sun beat down from day to day with fiercer heat, and the
canopies were run up--striped silken cloths that matched the shimmering
sail and the shining goldwork on the prow and along the gunwales.

They sighted the coast of Shem--long rolling meadowlands with the white
crowns of the towers of cities in the distance, and horsemen with
blue-black beards and hooked noses, who sat their steeds along the shore
and eyed the galley with suspicion. She did not put in; there was scant
profit in trade with the sons of Shem.

Nor did master Tito pull into the broad bay where the Styx river emptied
its gigantic flood into the ocean, and the massive black castles of
Khemi loomed over the blue waters. Ships did not put unasked into this
port, where dusky sorcerers wove awful spells in the murk of sacrificial
smoke mounting eternally from blood-stained altars where naked women
screamed, and where Set, the Old Serpent, arch-demon of the Hyborians
but god of the Stygians, was said to writhe his shining coils among his
worshippers.

Master Tito gave that dreamy glass-floored bay a wide berth, even when a
serpent-prowed gondola shot from behind a castellated point of land, and
naked dusky women, with great red blossoms in their hair, stood and
called to his sailors, and posed and postured brazenly.

Now no more shining towers rose inland. They had passed the southern
borders of Stygia and were cruising along the coasts of Kush. The sea
and the ways of the sea were never-ending mysteries to Conan, whose
homeland was among the high hills of the northern uplands. The wanderer
was no less of interest to the sturdy seamen, few of whom had ever seen
one of his race.

They were characteristic Argosean sailors, short and stockily built.
Conan towered above them, and no two of them could match his strength.
They were hardy and robust, but his was the endurance and vitality of a
wolf, his thews steeled and his nerves whetted by the hardness of his
life in the world's wastelands. He was quick to laugh, quick and
terrible in his wrath. He was a valiant trencherman, and strong drink
was a passion and a weakness with him. Naïve as a child in many ways,
unfamiliar with the sophistry of civilization, he was naturally
intelligent, jealous of his rights, and dangerous as a hungry tiger.
Young in years, he was hardened in warfare and wandering, and his
sojourns in many lands were evident in his apparel. His horned helmet
was such as was worn by the golden-haired Æsir of Nordheim; his hauberk
and greaves were of the finest workmanship of Koth; the fine ring-mail
which sheathed his arms and legs was of Nemedia; the blade at his girdle
was a great Aquilonian broadsword; and his gorgeous scarlet cloak could
have been spun nowhere but in Ophir.

So they beat southward, and master Tito began to look for the
high-walled villages of the black people. But they found only smoking
ruins on the shore of a bay, littered with naked black bodies. Tito
swore.

'I had good trade here, aforetime. This is the work of pirates.'

'And if we meet them?' Conan loosened his great blade in its scabbard.

'Mine is no warship. We run, not fight. Yet if it came to a pinch, we
have beaten off reavers before, and might do it again; unless it were
Bêlit's _Tigress_.'

'Who is Bêlit?'

'The wildest she-devil unhanged. Unless I read the signs a-wrong, it was
her butchers who destroyed that village on the bay. May I some day see
her dangling from the yard-arm! She is called the queen of the black
coast. She is a Shemite woman, who leads black raiders. They harry the
shipping and have sent many a good tradesman to the bottom.'

From under the poop-deck Tito brought out quilted jerkins, steel caps,
bows and arrows.

'Little use to resist if we're run down,' he grunted. 'But it rasps the
soul to give up life without a struggle.'

       *       *       *       *       *

It was just at sunrise when the lookout shouted a warning. Around the
long point of an island off the starboard bow glided a long lethal
shape, a slender serpentine galley, with a raised deck that ran from
stem to stern. Forty oars on each side drove her swiftly through the
water, and the low rail swarmed with naked blacks that chanted and
clashed spears on oval shields. From the masthead floated a long crimson
pennon.

'Bêlit!' yelled Tito, paling. 'Yare! Put her about! Into that
creek-mouth! If we can beach her before they run us down, we have a
chance to escape with our lives!'

So, veering sharply, the _Argus_ ran for the line of surf that boomed
along the palm-fringed shore, Tito striding back and forth, exhorting
the panting rowers to greater efforts. The master's black beard
bristled, his eyes glared.

'Give me a bow,' requested Conan. 'It's not my idea of a manly weapon,
but I learned archery among the Hyrkanians, and it will go hard if I
can't feather a man or so on yonder deck.'

Standing on the poop, he watched the serpent-like ship skimming lightly
over the waters, and landsman though he was, it was evident to him that
the _Argus_ would never win that race. Already arrows, arching from the
pirate's deck, were falling with a hiss into the sea, not twenty paces
astern.

'We'd best stand to it,' growled the Cimmerian; 'else we'll all die with
shafts in our backs, and not a blow dealt.'

'Bend to it, dogs!' roared Tito with a passionate gesture of his brawny
fist. The bearded rowers grunted, heaved at the oars, while their
muscles coiled and knotted, and sweat started out on their hides. The
timbers of the stout little galley creaked and groaned as the men fairly
ripped her through the water. The wind had fallen; the sail hung limp.
Nearer crept the inexorable raiders, and they were still a good mile
from the surf when one of the steersmen fell gagging across a sweep, a
long arrow through his neck. Tito sprang to take his place, and Conan,
bracing his feet wide on the heaving poop-deck, lifted his bow. He could
see the details of the pirate plainly now. The rowers were protected by
a line of raised mantelets along the sides, but the warriors dancing on
the narrow deck were in full view. These were painted and plumed, and
mostly naked, brandishing spears and spotted shields.

On the raised platform in the bows stood a slim figure whose white skin
glistened in dazzling contrast to the glossy ebon hides about it. Bêlit,
without a doubt. Conan drew the shaft to his ear--then some whim or
qualm stayed his hand and sent the arrow through the body of a tall
plumed spearman beside her.

Hand over hand the pirate galley was overhauling the lighter ship.
Arrows fell in a rain about the _Argus_, and men cried out. All the
steersmen were down, pincushioned, and Tito was handling the massive
sweep alone, gasping black curses, his braced legs knots of straining
thews. Then with a sob he sank down, a long shaft quivering in his
sturdy heart. The _Argus_ lost headway and rolled in the swell. The men
shouted in confusion, and Conan took command in characteristic fashion.

'Up, lads!' he roared, loosing with a vicious twang of cord. 'Grab your
steel and give these dogs a few knocks before they cut our throats!
Useless to bend your backs any more: they'll board us ere we can row
another fifty paces!'

In desperation the sailors abandoned their oars and snatched up their
weapons. It was valiant, but useless. They had time for one flight of
arrows before the pirate was upon them. With no one at the sweep, the
_Argus_ rolled broadside, and the steel-baked prow of the raider crashed
into her amidships. Grappling-irons crunched into the side. From the
lofty gunwales, the black pirates drove down a volley of shafts that
tore through the quilted jackets of the doomed sailormen, then sprang
down spear in hand to complete the slaughter. On the deck of the pirate
lay half a dozen bodies, an earnest of Conan's archery.

The fight on the _Argus_ was short and bloody. The stocky sailors, no
match for the tall barbarians, were cut down to a man. Elsewhere the
battle had taken a peculiar turn. Conan, on the high-pitched poop, was
on a level with the pirate's deck. As the steel prow slashed into the
_Argus_, he braced himself and kept his feet under the shock, casting
away his bow. A tall corsair, bounding over the rail, was met in midair
by the Cimmerian's great sword, which sheared him cleanly through the
torso, so that his body fell one way and his legs another. Then, with a
burst of fury that left a heap of mangled corpses along the gunwales,
Conan was over the rail and on the deck of the _Tigress_.

In an instant he was the center of a hurricane of stabbing spears and
lashing clubs. But he moved in a blinding blur of steel. Spears bent on
his armor or swished empty air, and his sword sang its death-song. The
fighting-madness of his race was upon him, and with a red mist of
unreasoning fury wavering before his blazing eyes, he cleft skulls,
smashed breasts, severed limbs, ripped out entrails, and littered the
deck like a shambles with a ghastly harvest of brains and blood.

Invulnerable in his armor, his back against the mast, he heaped mangled
corpses at his feet until his enemies gave back panting in rage and
fear. Then as they lifted their spears to cast them, and he tensed
himself to leap and die in the midst of them, a shrill cry froze the
lifted arms. They stood like statues, the black giants poised for the
spear-casts, the mailed swordsman with his dripping blade.

       *       *       *       *       *

Bêlit sprang before the blacks, beating down their spears. She turned
toward Conan, her bosom heaving, her eyes flashing. Fierce fingers of
wonder caught at his heart. She was slender, yet formed like a goddess:
at once lithe and voluptuous. Her only garment was a broad silken
girdle. Her white ivory limbs and the ivory globes of her breasts drove
a beat of fierce passion through the Cimmerian's pulse, even in the
panting fury of battle. Her rich black hair, black as a Stygian night,
fell in rippling burnished clusters down her supple back. Her dark eyes
burned on the Cimmerian.

She was untamed as a desert wind, supple and dangerous as a she-panther.
She came close to him, heedless of his great blade, dripping with blood
of her warriors. Her supple thigh brushed against it, so close she came
to the tall warrior. Her red lips parted as she stared up into his
somber menacing eyes.

'Who are you?' she demanded. 'By Ishtar, I have never seen your like,
though I have ranged the sea from the coasts of Zingara to the fires of
the ultimate south. Whence come you?'

'From Argos,' he answered shortly, alert for treachery. Let her slim
hand move toward the jeweled dagger in her girdle, and a buffet of his
open hand would stretch her senseless on the deck. Yet in his heart he
did not fear; he had held too many women, civilized or barbaric, in his
iron-thewed arms, not to recognize the light that burned in the eyes of
this one.

'You are no soft Hyborian!' she exclaimed. 'You are fierce and hard as a
gray wolf. Those eyes were never dimmed by city lights; those thews were
never softened by life amid marble walls.'

'I am Conan, a Cimmerian,' he answered.

To the people of the exotic climes, the north was a mazy half-mythical
realm, peopled with ferocious blue-eyed giants who occasionally
descended from their icy fastnesses with torch and sword. Their raids
had never taken them as far south as Shem, and this daughter of Shem
made no distinction between Æsir, Vanir or Cimmerian. With the unerring
instinct of the elemental feminine, she knew she had found her lover,
and his race meant naught, save as it invested him with the glamor of
far lands.

'And I am Bêlit,' she cried, as one might say, 'I am queen.'

'Look at me, Conan!' She threw wide her arms. 'I am Bêlit, queen of the
black coast. Oh, tiger of the North, you are cold as the snowy mountains
which bred you. Take me and crush me with your fierce love! Go with me
to the ends of the earth and the ends of the sea! I am a queen by fire
and steel and slaughter--be thou my king!'

His eyes swept the blood-stained ranks, seeking expressions of wrath or
jealousy. He saw none. The fury was gone from the ebon faces. He
realized that to these men Bêlit was more than a woman: a goddess whose
will was unquestioned. He glanced at the _Argus_, wallowing in the
crimson sea-wash, heeling far over, her decks awash, held up by the
grappling-irons. He glanced at the blue-fringed shore, at the far green
hazes of the ocean, at the vibrant figure which stood before him; and
his barbaric soul stirred within him. To quest these shining blue realms
with that white-skinned young tiger-cat--to love, laugh, wander and
pillage--

'I'll sail with you,' he grunted, shaking the red drops from his blade.

'Ho, N'Yaga!' her voice twanged like a bowstring. 'Fetch herbs and dress
your master's wounds! The rest of you bring aboard the plunder and cast
off.'

As Conan sat with his back against the poop-rail, while the old shaman
attended to the cuts on his hands and limbs, the cargo of the ill-fated
_Argus_ was quickly shifted aboard the _Tigress_ and stored in small
cabins below deck. Bodies of the crew and of fallen pirates were cast
overboard to the swarming sharks, while wounded blacks were laid in the
waist to be bandaged. Then the grappling-irons were cast off, and as the
_Argus_ sank silently into the blood-flecked waters, the _Tigress_ moved
off southward to the rhythmic clack of the oars.

As they moved out over the glassy blue deep, Bêlit came to the poop. Her
eyes were burning like those of a she-panther in the dark as she tore
off her ornaments, her sandals and her silken girdle and cast them at
his feet. Rising on tiptoe, arms stretched upward, a quivering line of
naked white, she cried to the desperate horde: 'Wolves of the blue sea,
behold ye now the dance--the mating-dance of Bêlit, whose fathers were
kings of Askalon!'

And she danced, like the spin of a desert whirlwind, like the leaping of
a quenchless flame, like the urge of creation and the urge of death. Her
white feet spurned the blood-stained deck and dying men forgot death as
they gazed frozen at her. Then, as the white stars glimmered through the
blue velvet dusk, making her whirling body a blur of ivory fire, with a
wild cry she threw herself at Conan's feet, and the blind flood of the
Cimmerian's desire swept all else away as he crushed her panting form
against the black plates of his corseleted breast.



2 The Black Lotus

    _In that dead citadel of crumbling stone
      Her eyes were snared by that unholy sheen,
    And curious madness took me by the throat,
      As of a rival lover thrust between._

    THE SONG OF BÊLIT


The _Tigress_ ranged the sea, and the black villages shuddered. Tomtoms
beat in the night, with a tale that the she-devil of the sea had found a
mate, an iron man whose wrath was as that of a wounded lion. And
survivors of butchered Stygian ships named Bêlit with curses, and a
white warrior with fierce blue eyes; so the Stygian princes remembered
this man long and long, and their memory was a bitter tree which bore
crimson fruit in the years to come.

But heedless as a vagrant wind, the _Tigress_ cruised the southern
coasts, until she anchored at the mouth of a broad sullen river, whose
banks were jungle-clouded walls of mystery.

'This is the river Zarkheba, which is Death,' said Bêlit. 'Its waters
are poisonous. See how dark and murky they run? Only venomous reptiles
live in that river. The black people shun it. Once a Stygian galley,
fleeing from me, fled up the river and vanished. I anchored in this very
spot, and days later, the galley came floating down the dark waters, its
decks blood-stained and deserted. Only one man was on board, and he was
mad and died gibbering. The cargo was intact, but the crew had vanished
into silence and mystery.

'My lover, I believe there is a city somewhere on that river. I have
heard tales of giant towers and walls glimpsed afar off by sailors who
dared go part-way up the river. We fear nothing: Conan, let us go and
sack that city!'

Conan agreed. He generally agreed to her plans. Hers was the mind that
directed their raids, his the arm that carried out her ideas. It
mattered little to him where they sailed or whom they fought, so long as
they sailed and fought. He found the life good.

Battle and raid had thinned their crew; only some eighty spearmen
remained, scarcely enough to work the long galley. But Bêlit would not
take the time to make the long cruise southward to the island kingdoms
where she recruited her buccaneers. She was afire with eagerness for her
latest venture; so the _Tigress_ swung into the river mouth, the oarsmen
pulling strongly as she breasted the broad current.

They rounded the mysterious bend that shut out the sight of the sea, and
sunset found them forging steadily against the sluggish flow, avoiding
sandbars where strange reptiles coiled. Not even a crocodile did they
see, nor any four-legged beast or winged bird coming down to the water's
edge to drink. On through the blackness that preceded moonrise they
drove, between banks that were solid palisades of darkness, whence came
mysterious rustlings and stealthy footfalls, and the gleam of grim eyes.
And once an inhuman voice was lifted in awful mockery--the cry of an
ape, Bêlit said, adding that the souls of evil men were imprisoned in
these man-like animals as punishment for past crimes. But Conan doubted,
for once, in a gold-barred cage in an Hyrkanian city, he had seen an
abysmal sad-eyed beast which men told him was an ape, and there had been
about it naught of the demoniac malevolence which vibrated in the
shrieking laughter that echoed from the black jungle.

Then the moon rose, a splash of blood, ebony-barred, and the jungle
awoke in horrific bedlam to greet it. Roars and howls and yells set the
black warriors to trembling, but all this noise, Conan noted, came from
farther back in the jungle, as if the beasts no less than men shunned
the black waters of Zarkheba.

Rising above the black denseness of the trees and above the waving
fronds, the moon silvered the river, and their wake became a rippling
scintillation of phosphorescent bubbles that widened like a shining road
of bursting jewels. The oars dipped into the shining water and came up
sheathed in frosty silver. The plumes on the warrior's headpiece nodded
in the wind, and the gems on sword-hilts and harness sparkled frostily.

The cold light struck icy fire from the jewels in Bêlit's clustered
black locks as she stretched her lithe figure on a leopardskin thrown
on the deck. Supported on her elbows, her chin resting on her slim
hands, she gazed up into the face of Conan, who lounged beside her, his
black mane stirring in the faint breeze. Bêlit's eyes were dark jewels
burning in the moonlight.

'Mystery and terror are about us, Conan, and we glide into the realm of
horror and death,' she said. 'Are you afraid?'

A shrug of his mailed shoulders was his only answer.

'I am not afraid either,' she said meditatively. 'I was never afraid. I
have looked into the naked fangs of Death too often. Conan, do you fear
the gods?'

'I would not tread on their shadow,' answered the barbarian
conservatively. 'Some gods are strong to harm, others, to aid; at least
so say their priests. Mitra of the Hyborians must be a strong god,
because his people have builded their cities over the world. But even
the Hyborians fear Set. And Bel, god of thieves, is a good god. When I
was a thief in Zamora I learned of him.'

'What of your own gods? I have never heard you call on them.'

'Their chief is Crom. He dwells on a great mountain. What use to call on
him? Little he cares if men live or die. Better to be silent than to
call his attention to you; he will send you dooms, not fortune! He is
grim and loveless, but at birth he breathes power to strive and slay
into a man's soul. What else shall men ask of the gods?'

'But what of the worlds beyond the river of death?' she persisted.

'There is no hope here or hereafter in the cult of my people,' answered
Conan. 'In this world men struggle and suffer vainly, finding pleasure
only in the bright madness of battle; dying, their souls enter a gray
misty realm of clouds and icy winds, to wander cheerlessly throughout
eternity.'

Bêlit shuddered. 'Life, bad as it is, is better than such a destiny.
What do you believe, Conan?'

He shrugged his shoulders. 'I have known many gods. He who denies them
is as blind as he who trusts them too deeply. I seek not beyond death.
It may be the blackness averred by the Nemedian skeptics, or Crom's
realm of ice and cloud, or the snowy plains and vaulted halls of the
Nordheimer's Valhalla. I know not, nor do I care. Let me live deep while
I live; let me know the rich juices of red meat and stinging wine on my
palate, the hot embrace of white arms, the mad exultation of battle when
the blue blades flame and crimson, and I am content. Let teachers and
priests and philosophers brood over questions of reality and illusion. I
know this: if life is illusion, then I am no less an illusion, and being
thus, the illusion is real to me. I live, I burn with life, I love, I
slay, and am content.'

'But the gods are real,' she said, pursuing her own line of thought.
'And above all are the gods of the Shemites--Ishtar and Ashtoreth and
Derketo and Adonis. Bel, too, is Shemitish, for he was born in ancient
Shumir, long, long ago and went forth laughing, with curled beard and
impish wise eyes, to steal the gems of the kings of old times.

'There is life beyond death, I know, and I know this, too, Conan of
Cimmeria--' she rose lithely to her knees and caught him in a pantherish
embrace--'my love is stronger than any death! I have lain in your arms,
panting with the violence of our love; you have held and crushed and
conquered me, drawing my soul to your lips with the fierceness of your
bruising kisses. My heart is welded to your heart, my soul is part of
your soul! Were I still in death and you fighting for life, I would come
back from the abyss to aid you--aye, whether my spirit floated with the
purple sails on the crystal sea of paradise, or writhed in the molten
flames of hell! I am yours, and all the gods and all their eternities
shall not sever us!'

       *       *       *       *       *

A scream rang from the lookout in the bows. Thrusting Bêlit aside, Conan
bounded up, his sword a long silver glitter in the moonlight, his hair
bristling at what he saw. The black warrior dangled above the deck,
supported by what seemed a dark pliant tree trunk arching over the rail.
Then he realized that it was a gigantic serpent which had writhed its
glistening length up the side of the bow and gripped the luckless
warrior in its jaws. Its dripping scales shone leprously in the
moonlight as it reared its form high above the deck, while the stricken
man screamed and writhed like a mouse in the fangs of a python. Conan
rushed into the bows, and swinging his great sword, hewed nearly through
the giant trunk, which was thicker than a man's body. Blood drenched the
rails as the dying monster swayed far out, still gripping its victim,
and sank into the river, coil by coil, lashing the water to bloody foam,
in which man and reptile vanished together.

Thereafter Conan kept the lookout watch himself, but no other horror
came crawling up from the murky depths, and as dawn whitened over the
jungle, he sighted the black fangs of towers jutting up among the trees.
He called Bêlit, who slept on the deck, wrapped in his scarlet cloak;
and she sprang to his side, eyes blazing. Her lips were parted to call
orders to her warriors to take up bow and spears; then her lovely eyes
widened.

It was but the ghost of a city on which they looked when they cleared a
jutting jungle-clad point and swung in toward the in-curving shore.
Weeds and rank river grass grew between the stones of broken piers and
shattered paves that had once been streets and spacious plazas and broad
courts. From all sides except that toward the river, the jungle crept
in, masking fallen columns and crumbling mounds with poisonous green.
Here and there buckling towers reeled drunkenly against the morning sky,
and broken pillars jutted up among the decaying walls. In the center
space a marble pyramid was spired by a slim column, and on its pinnacle
sat or squatted something that Conan supposed to be an image until his
keen eyes detected life in it.

'It is a great bird,' said one of the warriors, standing in the bows.

'It is a monster bat,' insisted another.

'It is an ape,' said Bêlit.

Just then the creature spread broad wings and flapped off into the
jungle.

'A winged ape,' said old N'Yaga uneasily. 'Better we had cut our throats
than come to this place. It is haunted.'

Bêlit mocked at his superstitions and ordered the galley run inshore and
tied to the crumbling wharfs. She was the first to spring ashore,
closely followed by Conan, and after them trooped the ebon-skinned
pirates, white plumes waving in the morning wind, spears ready, eyes
rolling dubiously at the surrounding jungle.

Over all brooded a silence as sinister as that of a sleeping serpent.
Bêlit posed picturesquely among the ruins, the vibrant life in her lithe
figure contrasting strangely with the desolation and decay about her.
The sun flamed up slowly, sullenly, above the jungle, flooding the
towers with a dull gold that left shadows lurking beneath the tottering
walls. Bêlit pointed to a slim round tower that reeled on its rotting
base. A broad expanse of cracked, grass-grown slabs led up to it,
flanked by fallen columns, and before it stood a massive altar. Bêlit
went swiftly along the ancient floor and stood before it.

'This was the temple of the old ones,' she said. 'Look--you can see the
channels for the blood along the sides of the altar, and the rains of
ten thousand years have not washed the dark stains from them. The walls
have all fallen away, but this stone block defies time and the
elements.'

'But who were these old ones?' demanded Conan.

She spread her slim hands helplessly. 'Not even in legendary is this
city mentioned. But look at the handholes at either end of the altar!
Priests often conceal their treasures beneath their altars. Four of you
lay hold and see if you can lift it.'

She stepped back to make room for them, glancing up at the tower which
loomed drunkenly above them. Three of the strongest blacks had gripped
the handholes cut into the stone--curiously unsuited to human
hands--when Bêlit sprang back with a sharp cry. They froze in their
places, and Conan, bending to aid them, wheeled with a startled curse.

'A snake in the grass,' she said, backing away. 'Come and slay it; the
rest of you bend your backs to the stone.'

Conan came quickly toward her, another taking his place. As he
impatiently scanned the grass for the reptile, the giant blacks braced
their feet, grunted and heaved with their huge muscles coiling and
straining under their ebon skin. The altar did not come off the ground,
but it revolved suddenly on its side. And simultaneously there was a
grinding rumble above and the tower came crashing down, covering the
four black men with broken masonry.

A cry of horror rose from their comrades. Bêlit's slim fingers dug into
Conan's arm-muscles. 'There was no serpent,' she whispered. 'It was but
a ruse to call you away. I feared; the old ones guarded their treasure
well. Let us clear away the stones.'

With herculean labor they did so, and lifted out the mangled bodies of
the four men. And under them, stained with their blood, the pirates
found a crypt carved in the solid stone. The altar, hinged curiously
with stone rods and sockets on one side, had served as its lid. And at
first glance the crypt seemed brimming with liquid fire, catching the
early light with a million blazing facets. Undreamable wealth lay before
the eyes of the gaping pirates; diamonds, rubies, bloodstones,
sapphires, turquoises, moonstones, opals, emeralds, amethysts, unknown
gems that shone like the eyes of evil women. The crypt was filled to the
brim with bright stones that the morning sun struck into lambent flame.

With a cry Bêlit dropped to her knees among the blood-stained rubble on
the brink and thrust her white arms shoulder-deep into that pool of
splendor. She withdrew them, clutching something that brought another
cry to her lips--a long string of crimson stones that were like clots of
frozen blood strung on a thick gold wire. In their glow the golden
sunlight changed to bloody haze.

Bêlit's eyes were like a woman's in a trance. The Shemite soul finds a
bright drunkenness in riches and material splendor, and the sight of
this treasure might have shaken the soul of a sated emperor of Shushan.

'Take up the jewels, dogs!' her voice was shrill with her emotions.

'Look!' a muscular black arm stabbed toward the _Tigress_, and Bêlit
wheeled, her crimson lips a-snarl, as if she expected to see a rival
corsair sweeping in to despoil her of her plunder. But from the gunwales
of the ship a dark shape rose, soaring away over the jungle.

'The devil-ape has been investigating the ship,' muttered the blacks
uneasily.

'What matter?' cried Bêlit with a curse, raking back a rebellious lock
with an impatient hand. 'Make a litter of spears and mantles to bear
these jewels--where the devil are you going?'

'To look to the galley,' grunted Conan. 'That bat-thing might have
knocked a hole in the bottom, for all we know.'

He ran swiftly down the cracked wharf and sprang aboard. A moment's
swift examination below decks, and he swore heartily, casting a clouded
glance in the direction the bat-being had vanished. He returned hastily
to Bêlit, superintending the plundering of the crypt. She had looped the
necklace about her neck, and on her naked white bosom the red clots
glimmered darkly. A huge naked black stood crotch-deep in the
jewel-brimming crypt, scooping up great handfuls of splendor to pass
them to eager hands above. Strings of frozen iridescence hung between
his dusky fingers; drops of red fire dripped from his hands, piled high
with starlight and rainbow. It was as if a black titan stood
straddle-legged in the bright pits of hell, his lifted hands full of
stars.

'That flying devil has staved in the water-casks,' said Conan. 'If we
hadn't been so dazed by these stones we'd have heard the noise. We were
fools not to have left a man on guard. We can't drink this river water.
I'll take twenty men and search for fresh water in the jungle.'

She looked at him vaguely, in her eyes the blank blaze of her strange
passion, her fingers working at the gems on her breast.

'Very well,' she said absently, hardly heeding him. 'I'll get the loot
aboard.'

       *       *       *       *       *

The jungle closed quickly about them, changing the light from gold to
gray. From the arching green branches creepers dangled like pythons. The
warriors fell into single file, creeping through the primordial
twilights like black phantoms following a white ghost.

Underbrush was not so thick as Conan had anticipated. The ground was
spongy but not slushy. Away from the river, it sloped gradually upward.
Deeper and deeper they plunged into the green waving depths, and still
there was no sign of water, either running stream or stagnant pool.
Conan halted suddenly, his warriors freezing into basaltic statues. In
the tense silence that followed, the Cimmerian shook his head irritably.

'Go ahead,' he grunted to a sub-chief, N'Gora. 'March straight on until
you can no longer see me; then stop and wait for me. I believe we're
being followed. I heard something.'

The blacks shuffled their feet uneasily, but did as they were told. As
they swung onward, Conan stepped quickly behind a great tree, glaring
back along the way they had come. From that leafy fastness anything
might emerge. Nothing occurred; the faint sounds of the marching
spearmen faded in the distance. Conan suddenly realized that the air was
impregnated with an alien and exotic scent. Something gently brushed his
temple. He turned quickly. From a cluster of green, curiously leafed
stalks, great black blossoms nodded at him. One of these had touched
him. They seemed to beckon him, to arch their pliant stems toward him.
They spread and rustled, though no wind blew.

He recoiled, recognizing the black lotus, whose juice was death, and
whose scent brought dream-haunted slumber. But already he felt a subtle
lethargy stealing over him. He sought to lift his sword, to hew down the
serpentine stalks, but his arm hung lifeless at his side. He opened his
mouth to shout to his warriors, but only a faint rattle issued. The next
instant, with appalling suddenness, the jungle waved and dimmed out
before his eyes; he did not hear the screams that burst out awfully not
far away, as his knees collapsed, letting him pitch limply to the earth.
Above his prostrate form the great black blossoms nodded in the windless
air.



3 The Horror in the Jungle

    _Was it a dream the nighted lotus brought?
      Then curst the dream that bought my sluggish life;
    And curst each laggard hour that does not see
      Hot blood drip blackly from the crimsoned knife._

    THE SONG OF BÊLIT


First there was the blackness of an utter void, with the cold winds of
cosmic space blowing through it. Then shapes, vague, monstrous and
evanescent, rolled in dim panorama through the expanse of nothingness,
as if the darkness were taking material form. The winds blew and a
vortex formed, a whirling pyramid of roaring blackness. From it grew
Shape and Dimension; then suddenly, like clouds dispersing, the darkness
rolled away on either hand and a huge city of dark green stone rose on
the bank of a wide river, flowing through an illimitable plain. Through
this city moved beings of alien configuration.

Cast in the mold of humanity, they were distinctly not men. They were
winged and of heroic proportions; not a branch on the mysterious stalk
of evolution that culminated in man, but the ripe blossom on an alien
tree, separate and apart from that stalk. Aside from their wings, in
physical appearance they resembled man only as man in his highest form
resembles the great apes. In spiritual, esthetic and intellectual
development they were superior to man as man is superior to the gorilla.
But when they reared their colossal city, man's primal ancestors had not
yet risen from the slime of the primordial seas.

These beings were mortal, as are all things built of flesh and blood.
They lived, loved and died, though the individual span of life was
enormous. Then, after uncounted millions of years, the Change began. The
vista shimmered and wavered, like a picture thrown on a windblown
curtain. Over the city and the land the ages flowed as waves flow over a
beach, and each wave brought alterations. Somewhere on the planet the
magnetic centers were shifting; the great glaciers and ice-fields were
withdrawing toward the new poles.

The littoral of the great river altered. Plains turned into swamps that
stank with reptilian life. Where fertile meadows had rolled, forests
reared up, growing into dank jungles. The changing ages wrought on the
inhabitants of the city as well. They did not migrate to fresher lands.
Reasons inexplicable to humanity held them to the ancient city and their
doom. And as that once rich and mighty land sank deeper and deeper into
the black mire of the sunless jungle, so into the chaos of squalling
jungle life sank the people of the city. Terrific convulsions shook the
earth; the nights were lurid with spouting volcanoes that fringed the
dark horizons with red pillars.

After an earthquake that shook down the outer walls and highest towers
of the city, and caused the river to run black for days with some lethal
substance spewed up from the subterranean depths, a frightful chemical
change became apparent in the waters the folk had drunk for millenniums
uncountable.

Many died who drank of it; and in those who lived, the drinking wrought
change, subtle, gradual and grisly. In adapting themselves to the
changing conditions, they had sunk far below their original level. But
the lethal waters altered them even more horribly, from generation to
more bestial generation. They who had been winged gods became pinioned
demons, with all that remained of their ancestors' vast knowledge
distorted and perverted and twisted into ghastly paths. As they had
risen higher than mankind might dream, so they sank lower than man's
maddest nightmares reach. They died fast, by cannibalism, and horrible
feuds fought out in the murk of the midnight jungle. And at last among
the lichen-grown ruins of their city only a single shape lurked, a
stunted abhorrent perversion of nature.

Then for the first time humans appeared: dark-skinned, hawk-faced men in
copper and leather harness, bearing bows--the warriors of pre-historic
Stygia. There were only fifty of them, and they were haggard and gaunt
with starvation and prolonged effort, stained and scratched with
jungle-wandering, with blood-crusted bandages that told of fierce
fighting. In their minds was a tale of warfare and defeat, and flight
before a stronger tribe which drove them ever southward, until they lost
themselves in the green ocean of jungle and river.

Exhausted they lay down among the ruins where red blossoms that bloom
but once in a century waved in the full moon, and sleep fell upon them.
And as they slept, a hideous shape crept red-eyed from the shadows and
performed weird and awful rites about and above each sleeper. The moon
hung in the shadowy sky, painting the jungle red and black; above the
sleepers glimmered the crimson blossoms, like splashes of blood. Then
the moon went down and the eyes of the necromancer were red jewels set
in the ebony of night.

When dawn spread its white veil over the river, there were no men to be
seen: only a hairy winged horror that squatted in the center of a ring
of fifty great spotted hyenas that pointed quivering muzzles to the
ghastly sky and howled like souls in hell.

Then scene followed scene so swiftly that each tripped over the heels of
its predecessor. There was a confusion of movement, a writhing and
melting of lights and shadows, against a background of black jungle,
green stone ruins and murky river. Black men came up the river in long
boats with skulls grinning on the prows, or stole stooping through the
trees, spear in hand. They fled screaming through the dark from red eyes
and slavering fangs. Howls of dying men shook the shadows; stealthy feet
padded through the gloom, vampire eyes blazed redly. There were grisly
feasts beneath the moon, across whose red disk a bat-like shadow
incessantly swept.

Then abruptly, etched clearly in contrast to these impressionistic
glimpses, around the jungled point in the whitening dawn swept a long
galley, thronged with shining ebon figures, and in the bows stood a
white-skinned ghost in blue steel.

It was at this point that Conan first realized that he was dreaming.
Until that instant he had had no consciousness of individual existence.
But as he saw himself treading the boards of the _Tigress_, he
recognized both the existence and the dream, although he did not awaken.

Even as he wondered, the scene shifted abruptly to a jungle glade where
N'Gora and nineteen black spearmen stood, as if awaiting someone. Even
as he realized that it was he for whom they waited, a horror swooped
down from the skies and their stolidity was broken by yells of fear.
Like men maddened by terror, they threw away their weapons and raced
wildly through the jungle, pressed close by the slavering monstrosity
that flapped its wings above them.

       *       *       *       *       *

Chaos and confusion followed this vision, during which Conan feebly
struggled to awake. Dimly he seemed to see himself lying under a nodding
cluster of black blossoms, while from the bushes a hideous shape crept
toward him. With a savage effort he broke the unseen bonds which held
him to his dreams, and started upright.

Bewilderment was in the glare he cast about him. Near him swayed the
dusky lotus, and he hastened to draw away from it.

In the spongy soil near by there was a track as if an animal had put out
a foot, preparatory to emerging from the bushes, then had withdrawn it.
It looked like the spoor of an unbelievably large hyena.

He yelled for N'Gora. Primordial silence brooded over the jungle, in
which his yells sounded brittle and hollow as mockery. He could not see
the sun, but his wilderness-trained instinct told him the day was near
its end. A panic rose in him at the thought that he had lain senseless
for hours. He hastily followed the tracks of the spearmen, which lay
plain in the damp loam before him. They ran in single file, and he soon
emerged into a glade--to stop short, the skin crawling between his
shoulders as he recognized it as the glade he had seen in his
lotus-drugged dream. Shields and spears lay scattered about as if
dropped in headlong flight.

And from the tracks which led out of the glade and deeper into the
fastnesses, Conan knew that the spearmen had fled, wildly. The
footprints overlay one another; they weaved blindly among the trees. And
with startling suddenness the hastening Cimmerian came out of the jungle
onto a hill-like rock which sloped steeply, to break off abruptly in a
sheer precipice forty feet high. And something crouched on the brink.

At first Conan thought it to be a great black gorilla. Then he saw that
it was a giant black man that crouched ape-like, long arms dangling,
froth dripping from the loose lips. It was not until, with a sobbing
cry, the creature lifted huge hands and rushed towards him, that Conan
recognized N'Gora. The black man gave no heed to Conan's shout as he
charged, eyes rolled up to display the whites, teeth gleaming, face an
inhuman mask.

With his skin crawling with the horror that madness always instils in
the sane, Conan passed his sword through the black man's body; then,
avoiding the hooked hands that clawed at him as N'Gora sank down, he
strode to the edge of the cliff.

For an instant he stood looking down into the jagged rocks below, where
lay N'Gora's spearmen, in limp, distorted attitudes that told of crushed
limbs and splintered bones. Not one moved. A cloud of huge black flies
buzzed loudly above the blood-splashed stones; the ants had already
begun to gnaw at the corpses. On the trees about sat birds of prey, and
a jackal, looking up and seeing the man on the cliff, slunk furtively
away.

For a little space Conan stood motionless. Then he wheeled and ran back
the way he had come, flinging himself with reckless haste through the
tall grass and bushes, hurdling creepers that sprawled snake-like
across his path. His sword swung low in his right hand, and an
unaccustomed pallor tinged his dark face.

The silence that reigned in the jungle was not broken. The sun had set
and great shadows rushed upward from the slime of the black earth.
Through the gigantic shades of lurking death and grim desolation Conan
was a speeding glimmer of scarlet and blue steel. No sound in all the
solitude was heard except his own quick panting as he burst from the
shadows into the dim twilight of the river-shore.

He saw the galley shouldering the rotten wharf, the ruins reeling
drunkenly in the gray half-light.

And here and there among the stones were spots of raw bright color, as
if a careless hand had splashed with a crimson brush.

Again Conan looked on death and destruction. Before him lay his
spearmen, nor did they rise to salute him. From the jungle-edge to the
riverbank, among the rotting pillars and along the broken piers they
lay, torn and mangled and half devoured, chewed travesties of men.

All about the bodies and pieces of bodies were swarms of huge
footprints, like those of hyenas.

Conan came silently upon the pier, approaching the galley above whose
deck was suspended something that glimmered ivory-white in the faint
twilight. Speechless, the Cimmerian looked on the Queen of the Black
Coast as she hung from the yard-arm of her own galley. Between the yard
and her white throat stretched a line of crimson clots that shone like
blood in the gray light.



4 The Attack from the Air

    _The shadows were black around him,
      The dripping jaws gaped wide,
    Thicker than rain the red drops fell;
    But my love was fiercer than Death's black spell,
    Nor all the iron walls of hell
      Could keep me from his side._

    THE SONG OF BÊLIT


The jungle was a black colossus that locked the ruin-littered glade in
ebon arms. The moon had not risen; the stars were flecks of hot amber in
a breathless sky that reeked of death. On the pyramid among the fallen
towers sat Conan the Cimmerian like an iron statue, chin propped on
massive fists. Out in the black shadows stealthy feet padded and red
eyes glimmered. The dead lay as they had fallen. But on the deck of the
_Tigress_, on a pyre of broken benches, spear-shafts and leopardskins,
lay the Queen of the Black Coast in her last sleep, wrapped in Conan's
scarlet cloak. Like a true queen she lay, with her plunder heaped high
about her: silks, cloth-of-gold, silver braid, casks of gems and golden
coins, silver ingots, jeweled daggers and teocallis of gold wedges.

But of the plunder of the accursed city, only the sullen waters of
Zarkheba could tell where Conan had thrown it with a heathen curse. Now
he sat grimly on the pyramid, waiting for his unseen foes. The black
fury in his soul drove out all fear. What shapes would emerge from the
blackness he knew not, nor did he care.

He no longer doubted the visions of the black lotus. He understood that
while waiting for him in the glade, N'Gora and his comrades had been
terror-stricken by the winged monster swooping upon them from the sky,
and fleeing in blind panic, had fallen over the cliff, all except their
chief, who had somehow escaped their fate, though not madness.
Meanwhile, or immediately after, or perhaps before, the destruction of
those on the riverbank had been accomplished. Conan did not doubt that
the slaughter along the river had been massacre rather than battle.
Already unmanned by their superstitious fears, the blacks might well
have died without striking a blow in their own defense when attacked by
their inhuman foes.

Why he had been spared so long, he did not understand, unless the malign
entity which ruled the river meant to keep him alive to torture him with
grief and fear. All pointed to a human or superhuman intelligence--the
breaking of the water-casks to divide the forces, the driving of the
blacks over the cliff, and last and greatest, the grim jest of the
crimson necklace knotted like a hangman's noose about Bêlit's white
neck.

Having apparently saved the Cimmerian for the choicest victim, and
extracted the last ounce of exquisite mental torture, it was likely that
the unknown enemy would conclude the drama by sending him after the
other victims. No smile bent Conan's grim lips at the thought, but his
eyes were lit with iron laughter.

The moon rose, striking fire from the Cimmerian's horned helmet. No call
awoke the echoes; yet suddenly the night grew tense and the jungle held
its breath. Instinctively Conan loosened the great sword in its sheath.
The pyramid on which he rested was four-sided, one--the side toward the
jungle--carved in broad steps. In his hand was a Shemite bow, such as
Bêlit had taught her pirates to use. A heap of arrows lay at his feet,
feathered ends towards him, as he rested on one knee.

Something moved in the blackness under the trees. Etched abruptly in
the rising moon, Conan saw a darkly blocked-out head and shoulders,
brutish in outline. And now from the shadows dark shapes came silently,
swiftly, running low--twenty great spotted hyenas. Their slavering fangs
flashed in the moonlight, their eyes blazed as no true beast's eyes ever
blazed.

Twenty: then the spears of the pirates had taken toll of the pack, after
all. Even as he thought this, Conan drew nock to ear, and at the twang
of the string a flame-eyed shadow bounded high and fell writhing. The
rest did not falter; on they came, and like a rain of death among them
fell the arrows of the Cimmerian, driven with all the force and accuracy
of steely thews backed by a hate hot as the slag-heaps of hell.

In his berserk fury he did not miss; the air was filled with feathered
destruction. The havoc wrought among the onrushing pack was
breathtaking. Less than half of them reached the foot of the pyramid.
Others dropped upon the broad steps. Glaring down into the blazing eyes,
Conan knew these creatures were not beasts; it was not merely in their
unnatural size that he sensed a blasphemous difference. They exuded an
aura tangible as the black mist rising from a corpse-littered swamp. By
what godless alchemy these beings had been brought into existence, he
could not guess; but he knew he faced diabolism blacker than the Well of
Skelos.

Springing to his feet, he bent his bow powerfully and drove his last
shaft point blank at a great hairy shape that soared up at his throat.
The arrow was a flying beam of moonlight that flashed onward with but a
blur in its course, but the were-beast plunged convulsively in midair
and crashed headlong, shot through and through.

Then the rest were on him, in a nightmare rush of blazing eyes and
dripping fangs. His fiercely driven sword shore the first asunder; then
the desperate impact of the others bore him down. He crushed a narrow
skull with the pommel of his hilt, feeling the bone splinter and blood
and brains gush over his hand; then, dropping the sword, useless at such
deadly close quarters, he caught at the throats of the two horrors which
were ripping and tearing at him in silent fury. A foul acrid scent
almost stifled him, his own sweat blinded him. Only his mail saved him
from being ripped to ribbons in an instant. The next, his naked right
hand locked on a hairy throat and tore it open. His left hand, missing
the throat of the other beast, caught and broke its foreleg. A short
yelp, the only cry in that grim battle, and hideously human-like, burst
from the maimed beast. At the sick horror of that cry from a bestial
throat, Conan involuntarily relaxed his grip.

One, blood gushing from its torn jugular, lunged at him in a last spasm
of ferocity, and fastened its fangs on his throat--to fall back dead,
even as Conan felt the tearing agony of its grip.

The other, springing forward on three legs, was slashing at his belly as
a wolf slashes, actually rending the links of his mail. Flinging aside
the dying beast, Conan grappled the crippled horror and, with a muscular
effort that brought a groan from his blood-flecked lips, he heaved
upright, gripping the struggling, tearing fiend in his arms. An instant
he reeled off balance, its fetid breath hot on his nostrils; its jaws
snapping at his neck; then he hurled it from him, to crash with
bone-splintering force down the marble steps.

As he reeled on wide-braced legs, sobbing for breath, the jungle and the
moon swimming bloodily to his sight, the thrash of bat-wings was loud in
his ears. Stooping, he groped for his sword, and swaying upright, braced
his feet drunkenly and heaved the great blade above his head with both
hands, shaking the blood from his eyes as he sought the air above him
for his foe.

Instead of attack from the air, the pyramid staggered suddenly and
awfully beneath his feet. He heard a rumbling crackle and saw the tall
column above him wave like a wand. Stung to galvanized life, he bounded
far out; his feet hit a step, halfway down, which rocked beneath him,
and his next desperate leap carried him clear. But even as his heels hit
the earth, with a shattering crash like a breaking mountain the pyramid
crumpled, the column came thundering down in bursting fragments. For a
blind cataclysmic instant the sky seemed to rain shards of marble. Then
a rubble of shattered stone lay whitely under the moon.

       *       *       *       *       *

Conan stirred, throwing off the splinters that half covered him. A
glancing blow had knocked off his helmet and momentarily stunned him.
Across his legs lay a great piece of the column, pinning him down. He
was not sure that his legs were unbroken. His black locks were plastered
with sweat; blood trickled from the wounds in his throat and hands. He
hitched up on one arm, struggling with the debris that prisoned him.

Then something swept down across the stars and struck the sward near
him. Twisting about, he saw it--_the winged one!_

With fearful speed it was rushing upon him, and in that instant Conan
had only a confused impression of a gigantic man-like shape hurtling
along on bowed and stunted legs; of huge hairy arms outstretching
misshapen black-nailed paws; of a malformed head, in whose broad face
the only features recognizable as such were a pair of blood-red eyes. It
was a thing neither man, beast, nor devil, imbued with characteristics
subhuman as well as characteristics superhuman.

But Conan had no time for conscious consecutive thought. He threw
himself toward his fallen sword, and his clawing fingers missed it by
inches. Desperately he grasped the shard which pinned his legs, and the
veins swelled in his temples as he strove to thrust it off him. It gave
slowly, but he knew that before he could free himself the monster would
be upon him, and he knew that those black-taloned hands were death.

The headlong rush of the winged one had not wavered. It towered over the
prostrate Cimmerian like a black shadow, arms thrown wide--a glimmer of
white flashed between it and its victim.

In one mad instant she was there--a tense white shape, vibrant with love
fierce as a she-panther's. The dazed Cimmerian saw between him and the
onrushing death, her lithe figure, shimmering like ivory beneath the
moon; he saw the blaze of her dark eyes, the thick cluster of her
burnished hair; her bosom heaved, her red lips were parted, she cried
out sharp and ringing at the ring of steel as she thrust at the winged
monster's breast.

'_Bêlit!_' screamed Conan. She flashed a quick glance at him, and in her
dark eyes he saw her love flaming, a naked elemental thing of raw fire
and molten lava. Then she was gone, and the Cimmerian saw only the
winged fiend which had staggered back in unwonted fear, arms lifted as
if to fend off attack. And he knew that Bêlit in truth lay on her pyre
on the _Tigress's_ deck. In his ears rang her passionate cry: 'Were I
still in death and you fighting for life I would come back from the
abyss----'

With a terrible cry he heaved upward hurling the stone aside. The winged
one came on again, and Conan sprang to meet it, his veins on fire with
madness. The thews started out like cords on his forearms as he swung
his great sword, pivoting on his heel with the force of the sweeping
arc. Just above the hips it caught the hurtling shape, and the knotted
legs fell one way, the torso another as the blade sheared clear through
its hairy body.

Conan stood in the moonlit silence, the dripping sword sagging in his
hand, staring down at the remnants of his enemy. The red eyes glared up
at him with awful life, then glazed and set; the great hands knotted
spasmodically and stiffened. And the oldest race in the world was
extinct.

Conan lifted his head, mechanically searching for the beast-things that
had been its slaves and executioners. None met his gaze. The bodies he
saw littering the moon-splashed grass were of men, not beasts:
hawk-faced, dark-skinned men, naked, transfixed by arrows or mangled by
sword-strokes. And they were crumbling into dust before his eyes.

Why had not the winged master come to the aid of its slaves when he
struggled with them? Had it feared to come within reach of fangs that
might turn and rend it? Craft and caution had lurked in that misshapen
skull, but had not availed in the end.

Turning on his heel, the Cimmerian strode down the rotting wharfs and
stepped aboard the galley. A few strokes of his sword cut her adrift,
and he went to the sweep-head. The _Tigress_ rocked slowly in the sullen
water, sliding out sluggishly toward the middle of the river, until the
broad current caught her. Conan leaned on the sweep, his somber gaze
fixed on the cloak-wrapped shape that lay in state on the pyre the
richness of which was equal to the ransom of an empress.



5 The Funeral Pyre

    _Now we are done with roaming, evermore;
      No more the oars, the windy harp's refrain;
    Nor crimson pennon frights the dusky shore;
      Blue girdle of the world, receive again
    Her whom thou gavest me._

    THE SONG OF BÊLIT


Again dawn tinged the ocean. A redder glow lit the river-mouth. Conan of
Cimmeria leaned on his great sword upon the white beach, watching the
_Tigress_ swinging out on her last voyage. There was no light in his
eyes that contemplated the glassy swells. Out of the rolling blue wastes
all glory and wonder had gone. A fierce revulsion shook him as he gazed
at the green surges that deepened into purple hazes of mystery.

Bêlit had been of the sea; she had lent it splendor and allure. Without
her it rolled a barren, dreary and desolate waste from pole to pole. She
belonged to the sea; to its everlasting mystery he returned her. He
could do no more. For himself, its glittering blue splendor was more
repellent than the leafy fronds which rustled and whispered behind him
of vast mysterious wilds beyond them, and into which he must plunge.

No hand was at the sweep of the _Tigress_, no oars drove her through the
green water. But a clean tanging wind bellied her silken sail, and as a
wild swan cleaves the sky to her nest, she sped seaward, flames mounting
higher and higher from her deck to lick at the mast and envelop the
figure that lay lapped in scarlet on the shining pyre.

So passed the Queen of the Black Coast, and leaning on his red-stained
sword, Conan stood silently until the red glow had faded far out in the
blue hazes and dawn splashed its rose and gold over the ocean.





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