“I fear for Amestris,” High Priestess Damaspia told Olaf.
“You think that her pale and uninteresting sister will seek to harm her?” Olaf asked, his brows lowering.
“Perhaps not without prompting by others,” said Damaspia, “but those who flock about her like vultures may well urge such a course upon her. Count Eligius, who is the leading suitor for Basina’s hand, has spoken against Amestris often.” She sighed. “Basina is as beautiful and as brainless as a butterfly.”
“I thought her no great beauty,” said Olaf. “A scrawny thing, and her smile did not reach her eyes, and her bosom was nothing to boast about. Your niece Amestris is far more attractive, I deem, and surely any red-blooded man would think the same.”
Damaspia’s lips twitched upward. “Did your eyes even rise as far as her face, or did you gaze only upon her chest?” The High Priestess bore a strong resemblance to her niece, although of course older, and her ample bosom was prominently displayed by the gilded breast-cups and diaphanous robes of her religious office. Olaf’s eyes had focused on that area during much of their conversation.
“I saw that her nose was somewhat larger than the average,” Olaf admitted, “but then, so are other features of hers far more interesting than a nose.”
“I am surprised that you even noticed that she has a nose upon her face,” Damaspia said, her eyes twinkling. Her serious expression returned. “I take it, then, that you would be willing to protect her?”
“Of course,” Olaf assured her. “Conan will stand by her as well, I am certain.”
“Good,” said Damaspia. She reached to her girdle and unfastened a leather pouch that was tied there. She tossed it to Olaf, who felt the weight of gold and heard the chink of coins as he snatched the purse from the air. “On the death of King Albinus, if Basina moves against Amestris, then you must defend her. Get her safely out of the city, if the odds are too great to protect her with certainty, and take her to our kinfolk in Emessa.”
Olaf frowned. “I know not where that place might be, for I am a stranger in this land, but I shall do my best,” he promised. “None shall bar our path and live, and I am sure that Conan will know the way.”
“He will,” Damaspia agreed. She drew in a deep breath. “To know that two such mighty warriors shall be protecting her takes a great weight off my mind.”
“But what of you?” asked Olaf. “You are her kinswoman. If enemies would strike at her, will they not strike at you also?”
Damaspia frowned. “They would not dare attack the High Priestess of Ishtar,” she stated.
“Amestris does not believe that any would attack her,” Olaf pointed out. “She turned down our offer to become her guards. You may be making the same mistake.”
The frown on the face of the High Priestess grew deeper. “Perhaps,” she conceded. “Yet I have loyal servants in the temple, and many believers in the city who would rise in revolt if I was harmed, and I think that I am safe enough. Amestris has only a small personal household.”
“We shall protect you also, if the need arises,” said Olaf.
“Thank you,” said Damaspia, “but Amestris must be your main concern. Take good care of her, Olaf.”
“I shall do so,” Olaf promised. “Now I must return to the tavern, meet up with Conan, and inform him of our agreement. Farewell.”- - - - -
Conan heaved against his chains. The weakness induced by the purple lotus juice had worn off by now but he could achieve nothing. The shackles would have restrained an elephant. Conan cursed his folly. He had fallen victim to the High Priest’s scheme because he had let down his guard, believing that a priest of Mitra could be trusted, and had taken no precautions against poison. He had been more wary of Princess Amestris, glancing into the goblets before she poured out the drinks, and waiting until she drank before tasting his wine. Wasted precautions, for he was now certain that he could safely wager his soul on the girl’s integrity; whereas Chilperic had repaid his trust with black treachery.
It was behavior most uncharacteristic for a priest of Mitra. He wondered if the High Priest was an impostor, a demon worshipper feigning allegiance to the most benign of the Hyborian gods, or if it was an excess of devotion that had inspired an unlovely fanaticism in Chilperic’s breast. He shook his head and put aside such speculation. It mattered not; in either case he would deal with the matter, if he could only get free, by severing Chilperic’s head from his shoulders.
How he would get free was another matter. If Chilperic sold him alive to enemies in Argos then no doubt an opportunity for escape would arise on the way. If only his head was required, to be transported salted in a keg, he could be slain whilst held helpless in chains.
Conan gave up his futile struggle to free himself. He allowed the chains to hang limp so that he could work out if the slack would give him enough length to swing as a flail should the priest, or one of his minions, come within reach. He grimaced in dissatisfaction. The chains were too short to be of use. For a moment he stood still and silent but then tensed. He had heard a noise from out of the darkness.
A long hiss of exhaled breath, a shuffling noise, and a metallic rattle; a sound not of chains, Conan judged, but rather the noise of some heavy body thrusting against a grille anchored within a groove in stone. A rank and feral scent reached the barbarian’s sensitive nose. There was something else alive and captive within the recesses of the crypt. A beast, he sensed, and a ferocious one. The Mitran priest, it seemed, followed the customs of black magicians in other ways than the use of the juice of the purple lotus. There was a monster imprisoned here, in some dark and secret chamber, and to it the priest no doubt fed his enemies. Should Chilperic decide to take Conan’s head then his body would be disposed of in some savage maw.
Conan sagged against the pillar to which he was chained. For a moment black despair threatened to overtake him. He could not free himself by his own abilities. His only hope, it seemed, was that Olaf would come in search of him. Yet the giant troll, although as mighty a warrior as Conan had seen, was perhaps not the sharpest sword in the scabbard. Would he be able to see through the wiles of the High Priest who had fooled Conan? Conan doubted it. He set his jaw and began to strive once more against his chains.- - - - -
Olaf sat alone at a table. The tavern was busy, and at other tables patrons were crowded together uncomfortably, but no-one had dared to sit with the giant. Olaf took a swig from his mug of ale and scowled. He had bathed, and devoured a gigantic meal, but there was still no sign of Conan and now it was after nightfall. What was keeping the barbarian? He had said nothing of going anywhere else after the Temple of Mitra, but had spoken of returning directly to the tavern; and surely he must have long since finished any business that he might have had with the priests.
“Move, ugly barbarian,” a harsh voice broke in on Olaf’s musings. “This table is needed by your betters.”
Olaf raised his head and glared at the speaker. “Who claims to be my better, tiny man?” he asked, and stood up.
The man who faced him, now tilting his head right back in order to look Olaf in the face, was a soldier in scale mail and plumed helmet. Two others in like gear stood at his shoulders. He swallowed hard, taken aback by the revelation of Olaf’s true size, and took half a pace back. He then gathered himself together and spoke once more. “I am Sulptius, a sergeant in the retinue of Count Eligius. Move yourself, giant, or we shall chastise you.”
“Count Eligius, you say?” Olaf grinned mirthlessly. He reached out with a huge hand, seized the plumed helmet, and rotated it on the sergeant’s head. The man’s nose broke in the process and the blank rear of the helm covered his eyes. Olaf then slammed the blinded man into the wall of the tavern, winding him, and let him fall to the floor.
The other two guardsmen snatched for their swords. Olaf’s fist shot out twice and the men toppled. “You may have this table, puny ones, for I am finished with it,” he said, and he gathered up his hammer and shield and moved out into the room.
“Tell me, oh innkeeper,” he called. “How will men know when the old king dies?”
The innkeeper stared at the heap of unconscious men at the vacated table. “You have made a bad enemy, barbarian,” he warned Olaf, “for men say that Count Eligius will marry Princess Basina and become king. His followers will have power in the city and Sulptius will have you seized and thrown into jail.”
“He can try,” Olaf said. “Answer my question, innkeeper. What sign shall announce the king’s death?”
“There is a great bell in the palace,” the innkeeper replied. “It will toll for the king.” He pursed his lips. “We expect to hear it soon, for it is said that he is gravely ill and his end draws near. No doubt it will strike in the early hours and wake me from my sorely-needed slumber.”
“No doubt,” Olaf agreed. “I must away and find Conan.”- - - - -
The High Priest recoiled from the huge figure who strode into the temple. “Mitra protect me!” he exclaimed. “What monster is this?”
“I am no monster,” Olaf assured him, “merely a warrior of matchless might. I seek Conan, the Cimmerian. He was to meet me after visiting this temple. He is late for our meeting. Is he still here?”
The High Priest cast a nervous glance towards a door at the side of the temple. He ran his tongue over lips gone suddenly dry. “No,” he told Olaf, “Conan departed long ago.”
Olaf failed to recognize the signs that the priest might have something to hide. He had long since become accustomed to humans being nervous in his presence. A scowl spread across his face. “Where could he be? Did he say aught to you of where he was going, priest?”
“No,” Chilperic began, and then an idea struck him. “Wait! I think he said that he was going to the Temple of Ishtar. If he is missing, I would advise you to look there, for the priests and priestesses of that dark goddess are cunning and treacherous.”
Olaf’s eyebrows lowered ominously. “Speak no evil of Priestess Damaspia, oh skinny one with a bald spot upon the crown of your head, for she is a fine woman.”
Chilperic took a step backwards. He raised his hand to the top of his head, felt his hair, and then let his hand fall. “I meant no offense,” he said. “I know nothing against her personally, but the cult of Ishtar is well known to be evil.”
“Huh. Priests always speak ill of those of other gods,” Olaf said. “Conan is not at that temple, thin priest, for I went there whilst he came to this place. Did he say anything else?”
“I cannot recall anything,” Chilperic said. “Wait, let me think.” He frowned, and made a show of scratching his head. “There was something. What was it? Give me but a moment, and I will have it.”
“Very well, priest,” Olaf grumbled, “but do not take too long.”
“I will try to remember,” the High Priest said. “Perhaps, whilst I am thinking, you would care for a goblet of wine?” His hand slipped within his robes and took hold of a small bladder, made from the intestines of a fish, filled with a rare and expensive liquid. The paralyzing juice of the purple lotus.
“Hah,” said Olaf. His scowling expression lightened. “I never refuse wine, priest.”- - - - -
The single note of the great bell rang out from the palace and died away. Princess Amestris emerged from her house in the palace grounds, her Shemitish bodyguard padding at her heels, and walked quickly to the main palace building. She made her way through the palace corridors until she reached the royal chambers. There she saw her half-sister, standing near the door of the king’s room, accompanied by her bodyguard and her suitor Count Eligius.
“Why was I not called?” Amestris queried sharply. “He may have paid me but little attention these past years but he was still my father. It is not right that I should learn of his death only from the bell that announces his passing to the whole city.”
“I did not think of it, Amestris,” Basina said, her cheeks coloring. Her lips parted to speak again, and her expression indicated that she was intending to utter an apology, but Count Eligius pre-empted her.
“Remember what I told you, majesty,” he urged Basina. “Act at once.”
The young princess opened her blue eyes wide. “Majesty? Me?”
“You are the queen now,” Eligius reminded her. “No-one has the right to question you.”
“I have not yet been crowned,” Basina said.
“A mere formality,” Eligius said. “The king is dead, and you are the queen.” His eyes narrowed and he stared at Amestris. “Or you will be, as soon as you act to remove the only threat to your accession.”
“I am no threat, Basina,” Amestris assured her sister. “I have no desire to take the crown from you.”
“She lies,” Eligius hissed. “Who would not desire a crown? Her protestations are but falsehoods to conceal her plotting against you. Give the word, and I shall remove her.” He clapped his hands twice. A dozen of his guardsmen filed out of a nearby room.
“The only plotting is that of Eligius,” Amestris sneered. “He is a snake, Basina. Why do you think father would not consent to your marriage?”
“Eligius loves me,” Basina protested.
“He loves only himself,” Amestris shot back.
“Lies and slander!” Eligius exclaimed. “Her words are poison. Let me silence her lying tongue and ensure that your rule is unchallenged.”
“Don’t listen to him, Basina,” Amestris pleaded. “I’m your sister. Would you begin your reign with a sororicide?”
“A what?” Basina’s brow furrowed.
Amestris rolled her eyes. “The murder of your sister.”
“She knows the word only because her thoughts have dwelt upon the act,” Eligius claimed. “Let me at least have her imprisoned, that her plots can be investigated.”
“Your advice is always good,” Basina said. “Very well, Eligius, arrest her.”
“Fool!” Amestris spat, as a triumphant sneer appeared on the face of Eligius and he waved his guards forward. “And I, too, am a fool. I should have hired Conan and Olaf.” She backed away.
“Flee, my princess,” her bodyguard counseled her. He drew his scimitar. “I shall hold them off.”
Amestris retreated slowly. “You will perish, Cambytes,” she warned him. “I do not want to bring death to one who has always been a faithful servant.”
“What better death could there be than to fall defending a princess?” Cambytes responded. “And perhaps I might slay Eligius before I fall. Now run!” He charged forward, scimitar held high. “For Ishtar!”
Amestris whirled about and fled like the wind. She ran down one corridor and turned a corner into another. She saw a squad of guardsmen ahead; the Royal Guard, not those in the service of Eligius, and she opened her mouth to call to them for aid.
“Seize her!” the sergeant of the squad commanded his men. “The king is dead, and Basina will rule now,” he expanded, as his men failed to rush to obey. “Eligius will reward us well for the capture of Amestris.” The guardsmen nodded and fanned out to block the corridor.
“Traitor!” Amestris hissed. She heard the clash of steel behind her fall silent. Cambytes’ fight against overwhelming odds must have ended in defeat and death.
“After her!” she heard Eligius shout, and then the thump of booted feet running. She was trapped between two forces.
To the side, however, was a window. It was head-high, and from her knowledge of the palace Amestris knew that the drop on the other side would be higher still, but she was lithe and supple, trained as a dancer at the Temple of Ishtar, and she feared the fall less than she feared the swords and spears of the guardsmen. She turned aside, grabbed the sill of the window, hoisted herself up, and leaped out even as a hand snatched at her legs. She bent her legs to take the shock as she landed but even so she stumbled and fell flat. The wind was driven from her body but she took no other injury. She scrambled to her feet, gasping for breath, and forced herself to run.- - - - -
Olaf took the goblet from Chilperic’s hand. Before he could raise it to his lips the note of a distant bell reached his ears. He paused. “The palace bell,” he commented. “So, the old king has passed.”
“That is so,” said Chilperic. “May Mitra care for his soul.”
Olaf lowered the goblet. “I must go,” he said. “There is a task that I am sworn to perform.”
“Drink your wine before you go,” the High Priest urged. “It is a fine vintage.”
“It would be a shame not to taste it,” Olaf agreed, “but I may need a clear head for battle.” He hesitated. “Still, one more drink will do no harm.”
Chilperic could not prevent a smile of triumph from coming to his lips but Olaf was not looking at the priest and failed to notice the expression. He raised the goblet once more.
Before he could drink there was an interruption. Three men in priestly robes entered. One held a spear, one had a sword hanging at his waist, and another was engaged in fastening up a sword-belt as he walked. “The bell tolls,” said the spear-carrier. “What are your orders, Holiness? Do we go to the palace?”
“Not now,” Chilperic hissed.
Olaf’s brows furrowed as he saw the newcomers. “From what Conan told me I judged Mitra to be like unto the White Christ of the Irish and Saxons of my world,” he said. “Why would such priests carry swords?”
“For protection against thieves in the streets,” Chilperic said smoothly. “Drink up, barbarian.”
“You seem overly eager for me to drink,” Olaf said, his eyes narrowing. He extended his arm holding the goblet. “I want to see you drink first, priest.”
Chilperic shrugged. “Very well,” he agreed, and raised his own goblet and drank.
“No,” said Olaf. “From this one.” Chilperic made no move to take the goblet. Olaf snarled, whirled around, and seized the acolyte who had just completed fastening his sword-belt. “You drink, then, priestling,” Olaf ordered, “or I shall snap your scrawny neck.”
The acolyte raised terrified eyes to his High Priest. “What shall I do, Lord?” he asked. “Save me from this giant, I beg you.”
Olaf dashed the goblet into the man’s face, shattering both vessel and the priest’s jaw, and tossed the man to the ground. “Conan never left this temple,” Olaf growled. “Where is he, priest? Tell me, or suffer the wrath of Olaf the Troll.”
Chilperic’s lip curled in a sneer. “He lies captive in the crypts below,” he informed Olaf. He gestured towards a door. “The stairs down are that way. Descend, then, if you dare.”
“There is nothing that Olaf does not dare,” the troll boasted. “If this is a trick, puny priest, I shall tear off your arms and legs when I return.”
“Conan is there, I swear by Mitra,” Chilperic promised.
Olaf paused to snatch up his hammer, which he had laid aside when offered wine, and then strode through the indicated doorway. In the corridor beyond was a massive flagstone with an iron ring set into it. A steel rod hung from hooks in the wall beside the trapdoor. The intention was obviously for two men to thread the bar through the ring so that they could lift the heavy stone between them. Olaf simply grabbed the ring and heaved. He raised the flagstone effortlessly and flipped it over to reveal a dark aperture in which a flight of steps leading down could be seen. He entered the hole and descended the stairs.
Chilperic waited until the troll had passed out of sight and then followed him through the doorway. One of his acolytes remained behind, tending to the injured man, and the other tagged along behind the High Priest. “Should we replace the flagstone, and weight it to keep the barbarian trapped inside?” he suggested.
“You have seen his strength,” Chilperic said. “We could not find weights enough to hold it firm against him in the time that it will take him to reach Conan and to return. No, I have a better plan.” He walked past the trapdoor and into an alcove in which stood a wheel, mounted horizontally, with spokes that protruded past the rim and were shaped to provide handgrips. He took hold of one of the spokes. “Help me raise the grille,” he commanded his acolyte, who promptly grasped a spoke at the other side. “We shall free the gray ape,” Chilperic said, as the two men began to turn the wheel and a clink of chains sounded from below. “Nothing human can face that monster and live. We can forget about Conan, and his giant ally, and concentrate upon destroying the Temple of Ishtar.”- - - - -
Amestris lowered herself over the wall of the palace compound, hung at the full length of her arms, and then let go. She dropped four feet to the ground below, staggered as she hit the ground, but kept her footing. She ran quickly away from the palace until she reached an alley and ducked out of sight.
She rested, leaning against a wall, and gathered her strength. Inside a quarter of an hour she had gone from being a royal princess to being a hunted fugitive. There had been no chance for her to return to her own dwelling and she had no possessions with her other than the clothes on her back. Still, she was not without resources. Her aunt at the Temple of Ishtar would shelter her. All she had to do was to reach there. The only problem was that Eligius would know that the Temple would be her objective.
She sucked in her lower lip and bit on it. Was there anything else that she could do? She had not thought to ask the two barbarians for the name of the inn where they were staying. Searching the city for them, without that starting point, would be pointless. Better to make a run for the Temple of Ishtar and hope that Eligius had not had sufficient warning of the king’s death to send men there already.
Amestris set off once more. She walked quickly through the alley, crossed a street, and entered the shadows of another narrow alleyway. There were no torch-brackets on the walls and only the lights from windows cast any light into the lane. When she reached half-way along the alley, in a section hidden from the eyes of the town guard who patrolled the streets, two figures stepped from a doorway.
“What have we here?” a male voice wondered. “A girl, and a pretty one at that, if the darkness does not deceive me.”
“Pretty or not, what does it matter?” said another voice. “She will have the same slit between her legs.”
“It is not for you,” Amestris said, trying to keep her voice from shaking. “Let me pass.”
“There is a toll to pay,” said the man who had spoken first. “A kiss, shall we say?”
“We can start with that,” said the other, “and then move on to other things.” His hand dipped and rose again, and a glint of metal could be seen in the starlight. “Don’t try to resist, my pretty, or I shall cut you.” The knife moved from side to side.
Amestris recoiled, horrified, but even as she began to move back the first man leaped forward and grabbed for her arm.- - - - -
Olaf made his way through the tunnels below the temple. It was as black as night and he had to walk bent over to avoid striking his head on the roof. “Conan?” he called. “Conan! Are you here?”
“This way,” came an answering shout. “By Crom! I am glad indeed to hear your voice, Olaf.”
Olaf quickened his pace. Before he could reach Conan a movement caught his eye. A figure loomed in the gloom; man-like in shape, but bulkier by far. Olaf’s vision in the darkness was far better than a human’s and he caught a glimpse of long arms, gray fur, and flashing white fangs as something hurtled towards him. There was no space in the tunnel to swing his hammer and all Olaf could do was to brace himself for the impact. Then the gray ape, the cannibal creature from the eastern shores of the Sea of Vilayet that preyed upon men and split their bones for the marrow, was upon him. Its long arms took hold and its fangs drove for Olaf’s throat.