Followers

5 Ways to World Build without Narrative Text

1. Maps and More Maps
 
A more detailed map of the world. Detailed maps of any interiors of importance. Eg. Below, a map of Minas Tirith from the Lord of the Rings.
 
 

2. Timeline
 
Include a timeline of important historical events at the front of the book.
 
Eg. Check out the very detailed expanded timeline for the Kingdom of Korovia.

3. Appendix of Named Characters
 
Also known as "Dramatis Personae". This allows you to introduce the characters before they even appear in the book. You can also potentially mention characters here which are mentioned in the book, but they don't actually appear in any scenes in the book because their off screen actions are subtext for major plot points.

4. Illustrations for Important Scenes, Places, People or Objects
 
Eg. Below, an illustration of Rivendell by J. R. R. Tolkien.
 
 

5. Website World Building 
 
Including an URL in the book where readers can learn more about your world. You could have individual pages dedicated to languages, cultures, food, a whole atlas of maps, monsters, how magic in the world works, and more. Those pages can also serve as a hub for marketing your social media accounts.
 
While building such detailed info pages for your website can be quite a task, the fact that it can also serve to help market your book(s) means that is serves double duty as both marketing and world building.

Example:

Charles Moffat's "Kingdom of Korovia" is a Tolkien-esque / Dungeons and Dragons style world, in which he mixes together Robert E. Howard's more Sword and Sorcery style, as well as dark fantasy and heroic fantasy.

The amount of background info on fiction.charlesmoffat.com/korovia/ is enough to fill a small book and includes such topics as:

Something Ends, Something Begins

Unofficial Translation

The following is a fan translation of "Something Ends, Something Begins", which is an unpublished Witcher story written by Andrzej Sapkowski. The original story was written in Polish as a wedding gift for friends of Sapkowski and it was never published and never properly translated into English. Copies of the story were later shared online and fans translated it into English.

I.

The sun pushed its fiery tentacles through the cracks of the window-shutters, sliced the chamber with slanted streaks of light, pulsing in the hovering dust, spilled in bright spots on the floor and the bear skins covering it, and shattered in a blinding flash on the buckle of Yennefer's belt. Yennefer's belt lay on a high-heeled shoe, the high-heeled shoe lay on a white lace shirt, and the white shirt lay on a black skirt. One black stocking hung on the backrest of an armchair carved in a shape of a chimaera. The second stocking and the second shoe couldn't be seen anywhere. Geralt sighed. Yennefer liked to undress fast and elementally. He would have to start getting used to it. He had no other choice.

He stood up, opened the shutters and looked out. From the lake, smooth as a mirror board, rose haze, the leaves of the birches and alders growing on the shores glittered with drops of dew, the far meadows were covered with low, thick mist, hanging like a cobweb close over the tops of the grasses.

Yennefer wriggled under the blanket with an indistinct mumble. Geralt sighed.

"It's a beautiful day today, Yen."

"Eeeh? What?"

"It's a beautiful day. An exceptionally beautiful one."

She surprised him. Instead of cursing and hiding her head beneath the pillow, the sorceress sat up, ran her hand through her hair and began searching the bed for the nightgown. Geralt knew that the nightgown lay behind the head of the bed; just where Yennefer had thrown it last night. But he was silent. Yennefer hated these sort of comments.

The sorceress cursed suddenly, kicked the blanket, raised her hand and snapped her fingers. The nightgown flew out from behind the bed and, waving the flounces like an eerie ghost, landed straight into the extended hand. Geralt sighed. Yennefer rose, walked to him, embraced him and bit his arm. Geralt sighed. The list of things he'd have to get used to seemed infinite.

"Did you want to say something?" asked the sorceress with narrowed eyes.

"No."

"That's good. You know what? Today is a beautiful day, of course. Good work."

"Work? What do you mean?"

Before Yennefer could answer, they heard a high, long cry and a whiz from below. On the lakeshore, splashing showers of water around, Ciri galloped on a black mare. The mare was thoroughbred and particularly nice. Geralt knew that it once belonged to a certain half-elf, who judged the ashen-haired witcher girl by the first impression and was nastily mistaken. Ciri named the mare Kelpie, which in the language of the islanders from Skellige meant a terrible and choleric spirit of the sea that sometimes took a form of a horse. The name was quite perfect for the mare. It's not been a long time since a certain halfling learned this the hard way, when he tried to steal her. The halfling's name was Sandy Frogmorton, but he's been called "Cauliflower" (because of the face after the mare's kick) ever since.

"One day she'll break her neck," growled Yennefer, watching Ciri galloping in the splashing water, bent, firm in the stirrups. "One day your crazy daughter will break her neck."

Geralt turned his head and without a word looked into the sorceress's violet eyes.

"All right, then," smiled Yennefer, without averting her eyes. "Sorry, our daughter."

She hugged him again, pressing herself against him firmly, bit him in the arm again, kissed him, and bit him once more. Geralt touched her hair with his lips and carefully pulled her gown over her shoulders.

And then they ended up again in the bed with scattered blankets, still warm and soaked with dreams. And they started to search for each other, and they searched very long and very patiently. Knowing that they would eventually find each other filled them with joy and happiness. Joy and happiness was in everything they did. And even though both were so different, they realized, as always, that those weren't differences that divide, but that bring together and bind, bind so strongly and so tightly, like siting of spars and the roof ridge, siting from which a house is born. And it was like the first time, when he was entranced by her glaring nakedness and intensive desire, and she was enthralled by his finesse and sensibility. And just like the first time she wanted to tell him, but he silenced her with a kiss and a caress and literally took away all the sense of it. Later, when he wanted to tell her, he couldn't get a sound out of himself, and later still the happiness and delight overwhelmed them with power of a falling rock, and there remained only one big flash beneath the eyelids, and there remained something which was a silent outcry, and the world ceased to exist, something ended and something began, something stopped and there was silence, silence and peace.

And enchantment.

The world was slowly returning to its tracks and again here was a bed saturated with dreams and sunlit chamber and a day... Day...

"Yen?"

"Hmm?"

"When you said that the day was beautiful, you added 'good work'. Does that mean..."

"It does," she confirmed and stretched on her spread arms, clutching the tips of the blanket, so that in that moment her breasts arose in such a way, that it evoked a powerful tremor in the lower part of the witcher's body.

"Look, Geralt, we created this weather. Last night. Myself, Nenneke, Triss and Dorregaray. I couldn't risk it, this day must be beautiful..."

She fell silent and jabbed his side with her knee.

"Why, it's the most important day in your life, silly."

II.

The castle Rozrog, standing on a jut in the middle of the lake, was in a dire need of general repairs, both exterior and interior, and not just now. To put it mildly, Rozrog was a ruin, a shapeless heap of stones thickly overgrown with ivy, wild wine, lichen and moss. It was a ruin standing in the middle of lakes, swamps and marshes swarming with frogs, salamanders and turtles. It was a ruin even back when it was given to the king Herwig. The castle Rozrog and the surrounding marshland were something like a lifelong gift - a goodbye gift for Herwig, who had abdicated twelve years ago in favour of his nephew Brennan, called the Good. Geralt met the former king through Dandelion, because the troubadour stayed at the castle quite often, since Herwig was a pleasant and nice host.

Dandelion brought up Herwig and his castle when Yennefer ruled out all places from the witcher's list as unsuitable. Oddly enough, the sorceress agreed with Rozrog immediately, and didn't even wrinkle her nose.

And so it happened that the wedding of Geralt and Yennefer would happen at the castle Rozrog.

III.

At first it was supposed to be a small and off record wedding, but in time it turned out - for various reasons - that it was not possible, so it was necessary to find someone with organisational abilities. Yennefer of course refused this; she didn't like organising her own wedding. Geralt and Ciri, let alone Dandelion, didn't have a clue about organisation. And so they charged Nenneke, the priestess of the goddess Melitele from Ellander, with it. Nenneke came immediately, and with her two younger priestesses, Iola and Eurneid.

And the problems started.

IV.

"No, Geralt," huffed Nenneke and stamped her foot. "I will take no responsibility for the ceremony or the feast. That ruin, which some idiot calls a castle, is of no use at all. The kitchen is falling apart, the dancing hall can be used only as a stable, and the chapel... Essentially it isn't even a chapel. Can you at least tell me what god that lame Herwig worships?"

"As far as I know, he worships none. He claims that the religion is a mandragora for the masses."

"I could've thought that," said the priestess, not hiding her scorn. "There is not one statue in the chapel, there's nothing at all, not counting the mouse pellets. And on top of everything it's such a damned backwater. Geralt, why don't you want to have your wedding in Vengerberg, in a civilised country?"

"You know that Yen is a quadroon and they don't tolerate mixed marriages in these civilised countries of yours."

"By the Great Melitele! One-quarter elven blood, is that a problem? Almost everyone has some kind of a mixture of the blood of the Elder Folk. It's nothing but idiotic prejudices!"

"I didn't make them up."

V.

The list of the guests wasn't that long. The engaged couple compiled it together and charged Dandelion with sending the invitations. Soon it turned out that the troubadour lost the list before he could even read it. Because he was ashamed to confess, he used a cheap trick and invited whomever he could. Of course he knew Geralt and Yennefer well enough that he didn't miss anyone important, but it wouldn't have been him if he didn't enrich the list of the guests by an admirable number of quite random persons.

And so there arrived old Vesemir from Kaer Morhen, Geralt's mentor, and together with him the witcher Eskel, a childhood friend of Geralt.

There came the druid Mousesack in the company of a bronze-tanned blonde called Freya who was one head taller and a couple of hundred years younger than him. Together with them arrived the jarl Crach an Craite from Skellige in a company of his sons Ragnar and Loki. When riding a horse, Ragnar's feet almost reached the ground. Loki resembled a delicate elf. After all, it was no wonder - they were brothers, but their mothers were two different wives of the jarl.

The reeve Caldemeyn from Blaviken reported with his daughter Annika, quite attractive but a terribly shy girl. The dwarf Yarpen Zigrin showed up, without - which was interesting - his usual company of bearded bandits, whom he called "ogres". Yarpen was joined on the road by elf Chireadan, whose status among the Elder Folk was not quite clear, but indisputably high, accompanied by several reticent elves, known to no one.

There arrived a clamorous troop of halflings, of which Geralt knew only Dainty Biberveldt, a farmer of Knotweed Meadow, and by hearsay his quarrelsome wife Gardenia. To this troop belonged also a halfling who was not a halfling - the famous businessman and merchant Tellico Lunngrevink Letorte of Novigrad, a changeling, doppler, acting as a halfling under the assumed name of Dudu.

Baron Freixenet from Brokilon appeared, together with his wife, the noble dryad Braenn, and five daughters called Morenn, Cirilla, Mona, Eithné and Kashka. Morenn looked fifteen and Kashka looked five. They all had fiery red hair, even though Freixenet was black-haired and Braenn honey-blonde. Braenn was visibly pregnant. Freixenet claimed quite seriously that this time it must be a son, while his flock of red-haired dryads looked at each other and giggled, and Braenn added with a light smile that said "son" will be called Melissa.

There also came Jarre Onehand, the young priest and chronicler from Ellander, ward of Nenneke. He came mainly because of Ciri, whom he secretly loved. Ciri, as it seemed to the embittered Nenneke, took the shy flirting of the crippled young man too lightly.

The list of unexpected guests started with the Prince Agloval of Bremervoord, whose arrival was considered a miracle, since he and Geralt openly despised each other. Even stranger was that he came in the company of his wife, the siren Sh'eenaz. Even though Sh'eenaz once sacrificed her fish tail in exchange for a pair of uncommonly beautiful legs, it was known that she never moved away from the seashore because she was afraid of land.

Few expected the arrival of other crowned heads - who weren't invited anyway. Nevertheless, the monarchs sent letters, gifts, messengers - or all at once. They must have arranged it, because the messengers traveled in one group and became friends. Knight Yves represented King Ethain, castellan Sulivoy represented King Venzlav, Sir Matholm represented King Sigismund, and Sir Devereux represented Queen Adda, the former striga. The trip must have been cheerful, because Yves had a cut lip, Sulivoy's arm was hanging on a band, Matholm was limping and Devereux had such a hangover that he hardly kept himself in the saddle.

No one invited the golden dragon Villentretenmerth, because no one knew how to invite him and where to look for him. To the general astonishment the dragon turned up, of course incognito, in the form of the knight Borch Three Jackdaws. Of course, where Dandelion was present, one could not speak of any incognito, but even so few believed when the poet pointed at the curly-haired knight and claimed it was a dragon.

No one expected nor invited the colorful rabble, whom were marked as "Dandelion's friends and acquaintances". It was mostly poets, musicians and troubadours, plus an acrobat, a professional dice player, a crocodile-trainer and four over-made-up dolls out of which three looked like prostitutes and the fourth one, who didn't look like a trollop, was undoubtedly one, too. The group was complemented by two prophets, out of which one was fraudulent, one sculptor, one blonde and ever drunken female medium, and a pock-marked gnome who claimed his name was Schuttenbach.

In a magical amphibious ship, resembling a swan crossed with a giant pillow, arrived the wizards. There were four times less of them than were invited, and three times more than expected, because Yennefer's colleagues, as the rumour went, disapproved her marriage to a man outside their brotherhood - and a witcher on top of that. A part of them ignored the invitation, and a part excused themselves because of lack of time and a necessity to participate on the annual world convent of magi. So on the board of the - as Dandelion named it - "pillowbird" was only Dorregaray from Vole and Radcliffe from Oxenfurt. And there was also Triss Merigold with hair of color of October chestnuts.

VI.

"Was it you who invited Triss Merigold?"

"No," the witcher shook his head and silently praised the fact that the mutation of his blood system didn't allow him to blush. "Not me. I think it was Dandelion, even though all of them claim to have learned about the wedding from the magical crystals."

"I don't want Triss to be present on my wedding!"

"But why? She's your friend."

"Don't make a fool out of me, witcher! Everyone knows you slept with her!"

"That's not true."

Yennefer's violet eyes narrowed dangerously.

"It is true."

"Is not!"

"It is!"

"All right," he turned around angrily. "It is true. So?"

The sorceress was quiet for a moment, playing with the obsidian star on the black velvet ribbon around her neck.

"Nothing," she said at last. "I just wanted you to admit it. Never try to lie to me, Geralt. Ever."

VII.

The wall smelled of wet stones and sour herbs, the sun shone through the brown water in the ditch, drew out the warm green of the growth on the bottom of the marshes and the sparkling yellow of the beaver lilies floating on the level.

The castle was slowly awakening to life. In the western wing someone flung open the window-shutters and laughed out loudly. Somebody else begged in a weak voice for the sauerkraut brine. One of Dandelion's colleagues, visiting on the castle, a blind man, sang while shaving:

Behind the hay barn, on a fence

A cock there very loudly sings
I'll get right back to you, lassie
When I vent myself a bit...

The door creaked and Dandelion came out to the courtyard. He stretched and rubbed his eyes.

"How are you doing, bridegroom," he said in a tired voice. "If you want to get away, now is your last chance."

"You've become a morning bird, Dandelion."

"I actually didn't even go to bed," grunted the poet, sitting down on a stone bench next to the witcher and leaning on a wall overgrown with vines. "Gods, what a night. But hey, friends don't get married every day, we had to celebrate."

"The wedding party is today," Geralt reminded him. "Are you going to make it through?"

"Are you trying to insult me?"

The sun was burning and the birds chirped in the bushes. From the lake could be heard splashing and squeaking. Morenn, Cirilla, Mona, Eithné and Kashka, the red-haired dryads, Freixenet's daughters, were swimming naked, as always, in the company of Triss Merigold and Mousesack's friend Freya. Above, on the disintegrating battlements, the royal messengers, knights Yves, Sulivoy, Matholm and Devereux fought for the telescope.

"Did you at least have fun, Dandelion?"

"Don't even ask."

"Any big scandal?"

"Several."

The first scandal, as the poet reported, was racially based. Tellico Lungrevink Letorte suddenly proclaimed in the middle of party that he'd had enough of the halfling disguise. The doppler pointed at the present dryads, elves, halflings, a siren, a dwarf and a gnome who claimed that his name was Schuttenbach, and said that it was a discrimination that everyone could be themselves, only he, Tellico, had to be dressed in someone else's skin. Then he changed for a moment into his natural form. At that sight, Gardenia Biberveldt fainted, the Prince Agloval almost choked on a lobster and Annika, reeve Caldemeyn's daughter, went into hysterics. The situation was saved by the dragon Villentretenmerth, still in the form of Borch Three Jackdaws, who calmly explained to the doppler that being able to change forms is a privilege, which, however, also obligates the changeling to always acquire a form that is acceptable by society, and that is nothing else than a mere politeness towards the host.

The doppler accused Villentretenmerth of racism, chauvinism and lack of knowledge on the discussion's topic. Therefore, the insulted Villentretenmerth changed for a moment into his natural dragon form, destroying several pieces of furniture and causing a general panic. When the situation calmed down, a fierce quarrel began, in which humans and non-humans accused each other of lack of open-mindedness and racial tolerance. A quite unexpected twist in the discussion came from the freckled Merle, the whore who didn't look like a whore. Merle announced that the whole debate was stupid and pointless and didn't concern true professionals, who don't dinstinguish between such things, which she was willing to prove on the spot (for an adequate reward, of course), even with the dragon Villentretenmerth in his natural form. In the silence that fell abruptly in that instant they heard the female medium proclaim that she's willing to do the same, and for free. Villentretenmerth quickly changed the topic and began discussing safer topics, such as economics, politics, hunting, fishing and gambling.

Other scandals were more or less friendly. Mousesack, Radcliffe and Dorregaray made a bet about who can levitate more things at once with the power of their wills. Dorregaray won, having managed to keep in the air two chairs, a fruits tray, a bowl of soup, a globe, a cat, two dogs and Kashka, Freixenet and Braenn's daughter.

Then Freixenet's two middle daughters, Cirilla and Mona, brawled, and had to be sent to their rooms. Shortly after, Ragnar brawled with the knight Matholm over Morenn, the Freixenet's eldest daughter. The angry Freixenet ordered Braenn to lock all their red-haired children in a room and joined the competition in drinking, which was organized by Mousesack's girlfriend Freya. It became apparent very soon that Freya had an unimaginable resistance against alcohol, verging on immunity. Most of the poets and bards, Dandelion's friends, were already under the table, but Freixenet, Crach an Craite and the reeve Caldemeyn were still fighting bravely; however, at the end they gave in, too. The wizard Radcliffe was holding up very sturdily, but only until it was discovered that he had a unicorn's horn on him. After it was confiscated, he couldn't stand a chance against Freya. For a while, the islander's table was empty - then an utterly unknown pale man in an old-fashioned kaftan drank with her for a while. After some time the man stood up, staggered, bowed politely and walked through a wall as if it were mist. A thorough search through the ancient portraits decorating the walls of the hall brought a discovery that it could have been Willem, called the Devil, the heir of Rozrog, murdered in the Dark Ages several hundred years ago.

The ancient castle was hiding various secrets and in the past it enjoyed a questionable and grim fame. No further supernatural incidents occurred, though. Around midnight, a vampire flew in through an open window, but was chased off by the dwarf Yarpen Zigrin, who was throwing garlic at him, trying to hit. Throughout the whole evening something howled, rang with chains and moaned, but no one took notice of that, because everyone thought that it was Dandelion and the strongly rarefied group of his still relatively sober friends. It was nonetheless the ghosts, which was proved by a large amount of ectoplasm covering the stairs, on which several people slipped.

The boundaries of decency were crossed by a disheveled phantom with fiery eyes, who mischievously pinched at Sh'eenaz's butt. This disturbance could be set right only with difficulty, because Sh'eenaz thought it had been Dandelion. The phantom immediately took advantage of this mistake and began pinching other victims in the hall, until it was caught by Nenneke and expelled by exorcism.

Several people saw the White Lady, who - as far as the legends can be trusted - was buried alive in the Rozrog's catacombs. There were sceptics, who claimed that it was no White Lady, but the female medium that staggered around the galleries in search of more bottles.

Then there was the general disappearing of persons. The first ones to disappear were the knight Yves and the crocodile-trainer, a short while afterwards no one could find Ragnar and Eurneid, the priestess of Melitele. Next disappeared Gardenia Biberveldt, but it turned out that she went to bed. Suddenly, Jarre Onehand was missing, and so was the second Melitele's priestess, Iola. Ciri, even though she had been claiming that she didn't have any feelings towards Jarre, expressed certain concern, but it became clear that the young man fell into a shallow ditch, where he fell asleep. Iola was found under the staircase. With the elf Chireadan. Also Triss Merigold was seen, disappearing with the witcher Eskel from Kaer Morhen in the garden summerhouse. By morning someone claimed to have seen the doppler Tellico leaving the summerhouse. There was a lot of guesswork, which form did the doppler take, whether Triss or Eskel. Someone even presented a very bold thought that there were actually two dopplers present at the castle. They wanted to ask the dragon Villentretenmerth for his opinion, him being an expert on changing forms, but it turned out that the dragon had disappeared and the trollop Merle with him.

The second whore disappeared, too, and one of the prophets. The prophet that stayed, claimed to be the real one, but was unable to prove it. Also the gnome passing as Schuttenbach disappeared, and still hadn't been found yet.

"You can feel sorry," finished the bard with a wide yawn. "Regret that you weren't there, Geralt. It was a ball."

"I do regret it," growled the witcher. "But you know... I couldn't, because Yennefer... Well, you understand..."

"'Course I know," agreed Dandelion. "That's why I don't get married."

VIII.

From the castle's kitchen came the sounds of pans chiming, merry laughter and ditties. To feed all that mass of guests was a problem, because King Herwig had practically no household. The presence of the wizards solved nothing, because for the purpose of general happiness it was decided that only natural products would be served, and the idea of culinary magic was scrapped. So it ended with Nenneke hunting anyone she could into work. At first it wasn't simple; those who were snatched up by the priestess had not the least idea about kitchen work, and those who did, ran away. However, Nenneke found an unexpected help in the person of Gardenia Biberveldt and the halflings from her company. And, surprisingly, all four trollops from Dandelion's company proved to be excellent cooks willing to cooperate.

There were also no problems with provisions. Freixenet and Prince Agloval organised a hunt and supplied enough venison. It took Braenn and her daughters only two hours to fill the kitchen with game. Even the youngest dryad Kashka could brandish her bow fairly well. King Herwig, who loved fishing, sailed out at the grey dawn on the lake and delivered pikes, walleyes and huge basses. Loki, the younger son of Crach an Craite, kept him company. Loki was well up in fishery and boats, and in addition he was of use in the morning, because, like Herwig, he didn't drink.

Dainty Biberveldt and his relatives, enforced by the doppler Tellico, saw to the decoration of the hall and the chambers. Into the washing and cleaning up they chased both prophets, the crocodile-trainer, the sculptor and the ever-drunk female medium.

Surveillance over the cellar and drinks was first delegated to Dandelion and his friends the poets, which actually proved to be a catastrophic mistake. Therefore, the bards were driven out and the keys handed off to Mousesack's girlfriend Freya. Dandelion and his poets sat the whole day in front of the cellar door and tried to excite Freya with love ballads, against which the islander, however, proved to be as resistant as against alcohol.

Geralt raised his head, yanked out of his slumber by the clattering of hooves on the stony courtyard. From behind the bushes growing around the walls came Kelpie shining with water, with Ciri in the saddle. Ciri was dressed in her black leather costume and had a sword on her back, the famed Gveir, gained in the desert catacombs of Korath.

For a while they looked silently at each other, then the girl spurred her mare with her heel and came closer. Kelpie bowed her head to reach the witcher with her teeth, but Ciri held her back with a strong jerk of the reins.

"So today," said the witcher girl, not dismounting. "Today, Geralt."

"Today," he confirmed, leaning against the wall.

"I'm glad of it," she said uncertainly. "I think... No, I'm sure you'll be happy, and I'm glad..."

"Dismount, Ciri. Let's talk."

The girl shook her head and threw back her hair, behind her ear. Geralt saw a wide, ugly scar on her face - a memory of the earlier terrible days. Ciri let her hair grow to her shoulders and combed it in a way to hide the scar, but she often forgot.

"I'm leaving, Geralt," she announced. "Right after the feast."

"Dismount, Ciri."

The girl witcher jumped down from her saddle and sat down next to him. Geralt hugged her and Ciri put her head on his shoulder.

"I'm leaving," she repeated.

He said nothing. The words pushed to his lips, but there were none that he would consider suitable. Or necessary. He said nothing.

"I know what you think," she said slowly. "You think I'm running away. And you're right."

He was silent. He knew that.

"Finally, after all these years, you're getting married - Yen and you. You deserve happiness and peace. A home. But that scares me, Geralt. That's why... I'm running away."

He was silent. He remembered his own escapes.

"I'll get going right after the feast," Ciri repeated. "I want... I want to feel the wind in my face on the back of a galloping horse again. I want to see the stars on the horizon again, I want to whistle Dandelion's ballads at night. I'm longing for a fight, the dance with a sword, I'm longing for the risk, for the delight victory brings me. And I'm longing for solitude. Do you understand me?"

"Of course," he smiled sadly. "Of course I understand you, Ciri. You're my daughter, you're a witcher. You'll do what you must. But I must tell you one thing. One thing. You can't run away forever, even though you'll always try."

"I know," she replied and cuddled herself closer to him. "I still have hope that one day... If I wait, if I'm patient, then I, too, perhaps will live such a beautiful day like this... Such a nice day... Even though..."

"What, Ciri?"

"I've never been pretty. And with that scar..."

"Ciri," he cut her off. "You're the most beautiful girl in the world. Right after Yen, of course."

"Oh, Geralt..."

"If you don't believe me, ask Dandelion."

"Oh, Geralt."

"Where..."

"South," she interrupted him at once, without averting her face. "Smoke is still rising from the ground after the war there, the reconstruction is under way, people fight for survival. They need protection and defense. I'll be of use there. And there is also Korath... And Nilfgaard. I have unfinished business there. We both have unfinished business there, Gveir and me."

She fell silent. Her face hardened, her green eyes narrowed, her mouth twisted in a hateful grimace. I remember, thought Geralt, I remember. It was like this that time, when they fought together shoulder-to-shoulder on the stairs of Rhys-Rhun Castle. The stairs were slippery with blood, and on them stood he and she. Wolf and Cat, two deadly machines inhumanly fast and inhumanly cruel, drove into a corner, pushed back against a wall. Yes, then the Nilfgaardians, awestruck, retreated before the flashes and whizzes of their blades, and they slowly moved down, down the stairs of Rhys-Rhun Castle, wet with blood. They moved down, leaning on each other, linked together, and before them came death, death from two flashing blades. A cool, calm Wolf and an insane Cat. Flash of blades, cries, blood, death... Like that, that time it was like that... That time...

Ciri threw back her hair and among the ashen strands shone a snow-white streak on the temple.

It was then that her hair whitened.

"I have unfinished business there," she hissed. "For Mistle. For my Mistle. Even though I avenged her, but for Mistle one death is not enough."

Bonhart, he thought. She killed him out of hatred. Oh, Ciri, Ciri. You're standing on the edge of an abyss, daughter. Not a thousand deaths would avenge your Mistle. Beware of hatred, Ciri, it consumes like cancer.

"Watch out for yourself," he whispered.

"I'd rather watch out for others," she smiled ominously. "It pays off more, it works better in the long run."

I will never see her again, he thought. If she leaves, I will never see her again.

"You will," she answered unexpectedly and smiled with a smile of a sorceress, not of a witcher. "You will, Geralt."

Then she drew away, tall and slender like a boy, agile like a dancer. She sprang up into the saddle.

"Yaaa, Kelpie!!!"

Sparks burst from beneat the horse's hooves, the courtyard struck by horseshoes. Behind the wall Dandelion emerged, his lute on his shoulder, in each hand a big jug of beer.

"Here, have a drink," he said and sat next to him. "It will do you good."

"I don't know. Yennefer warned me that if she smells something from me..."

"You'll chew some parsley. Drink, whipped guy."

For a long time they sat in silence, slowly drinking the beer out of jugs. Dandelion sighed.

"Ciri is leaving, isn't she?"

"Hm."

"I thought so. Listen, Geralt..."

"Shut up, Dandelion."

"Oh well."

They fell silent again. From the kitchen there came a lovely smell of roasted venison, strongly spiced with juniper.

"Something ends," Geralt said with difficulty. "Something ends, Dandelion."

"Not at all," the poet shot back seriously. "Something begins."

IX.

The afternoon was marked by crying. It all began with an elixir of beauty. The elixir, an ointment to be more precise, called Feenglanc and "glamarye" in the Elder Speech, used in a specific way, incredibly improved one's beauty. Triss Merigold, invited by the lady guests at the castle, prepared a large quantity of glamarye, after which the ladies applied the cosmetic treatments. From behind the closed doors could be heard the weeping of Cirilla, Mona, Eithné and Kashka, who were not allowed to use glamarye. This honour was granted only to the oldest dryad Morenn. The loudest was Kashka. One floor above cried Lily, the daughter of Dainty Biberveldt, because it turned out that glamarye, like most of other charms, doesn't work on halflings. In the garden sniffled the female medium, because she had no idea that glamarye caused immediate sobering up and the consequences that go with it, mainly a deep melancholy. In the western wing of the castle cried Annika, reeve Caldemeyn's daughter, who didn't know that glamarye should be smeared under the eyes, instead ate her portion and got diarrhea. Ciri took her portion of glamrye and put it on Kelpie.

The priestesses Iola and Eurneid also sobbed, when Yennefer refused to put on the white wedding dress they had made for her. Not even Nenneke's mediation helped. Yennefer cursed, threw around hexes and dishes, while repeating that she looks like a fucking virgin in white. The enraged Nenneke began yelling, too, and told the sorceress that she behaved worse than three fucking virgins at once. Yennefer responded by conjuring a ball of lightning and demolishing the roof of the corner tower, which had its good side, too. The crash was so terrible that Caldemeyn's daughter got shock from it and her diarrhea stopped.

Triss Merigold and the witcher Eskel from Kaer Morhen, were seen again, sneaking, arms linked, into the garden summerhouse. There were no doubts now that it was really them, because the doppler Tellico was drinking beer in the company of Dandelion, Dainty Biberveldt and the dragon Villentretenmerth.

And despite a thorough and persistent search, the gnome claiming to be Schuttenbach could not be found.

X.

"Yen..."

She looked breathtaking. Black wavy locks, curled up with a golden tiara, fell in a shining cascade over her shoulders and the high collar of a long white brocade dress with black-striped sleeves, pulled together on a bodice with countless drapes of lilac ribbons.

"Flowers, don't forget the flowers," warned Triss Merigold, all in dark blue, and handed a bouquet of white roses to the bride. "Oh, Yen, I'm so happy..."

"Triss, darling," sobbed Yennefer all of a sudden, upon which both sorceresses embraced and kissed the air around their ears and diamond earrings.

"Enough of those endearments," ordered Nenneke, smoothing the folds on her snow-white priestess dress. "We're going to the chapel. Iola, Eurneid, hold her dress, or she'll kill herself on the stairs.

Yennefer approached Geralt and with a hand in a white lace glove she straightened the collar of his black cloak, embroidered with silver. Geralt offered her an arm.

"Geralt," she whispered into his ear. "I still can't believe it."

"Yen," he answered her in a whisper. "I love you."

"I know."

XI.

"Where in the devil is Herwig?"

"I've no idea," answered Dandelion, while polishing the buckles on his fashionable heather-colored camisole. "And where is Ciri?"

"I don't know," frowned Yennefer and sniffed. "But you stink of parsley, Dandelion. Have you become a vegetarian?"

The guests began to assemble and slowly they filled the spacious chapel. Agloval, all in ceremonial black, escorted a shiny white Sh'eenaz, next to them scurried the troop of halflings in beige, brown and ochre, Yarpen Zigrin and the dragon Villentretenmerth shone with gold, Freixenet and Dorregaray in purple, the royal messengers in their heraldic colors, elves and dryads in green, and Dandelion's acquaintances in ever color of the rainbow.

"Has anyone seen Loki?" asked Mousesack.

"Loki?" Eskel stepped closer and looked at them from under the pheasant feathers decorating his beret. "Loki went fishing with Herwig. I saw them in a boat on the lake. Ciri went after them, to tell them that it's starting."

"When was that?"

"Well, a while ago."

"Plague on them, bloody fishers!" cursed Crach an Craite. "When the fish are nibbling, they forget about the entire world. Ragnar, go fetch them!"

"Wait," said Braenn and brushed the dandelion fluff out of her deep decolletage. "We need someone who can run fast. Mona! Kashka! Raenn'ess aen laeke, va!"

"I told you," spluttered Nenneke, "that you couldn't rely on Herwig. An irresponsible fool like all atheists. Whoever had the idea that he should be the master of ceremony?"

"He's a king," said Geralt uncertainly. "A former one maybe, but still a king..."

"Long liiive..." sang suddenly one of the prophets, but the crocodile-trainer calmed him down with a punch to the back of his neck. The crowd of halflings buzzed, someone cursed and someone else got punched in the nose. Gardenia Biberveldt screamed, because the doppler Tellico had stepped on her dress.

The female medium began to sniffle without reason.

"Another moment," hissed Yennefer with a pleasant smile, fingers tightly clenching the bouquet. "Another moment and I'll be damned. Let it finally start. Let it be done with."

"Don't wriggle, Yen," snarled Triss, "or you'll rip the stitching."

"Where is the gnome Schuttenbach?" squawked one of the bards.

"We have no idea," the four whores shrieked in chorus.

"Then, by dog's mother, have someone look for him!" yelled Dandelion. "He promised to bring flowers. What are we going to do now? Neither Schuttenbach nor the flowers are here. How do we look like now?"

From the chapel entrance came a murmur and both dryads sent to the lake ran in screaming. Behind them dashed Loki, soaking wet and dirty, with a big slash on his forehead.

"Loki!" cried Crach an Craite. "What happened?"

"Maaamaaaaaa!" cried Kashka.

"Que'ss aen!" Braenn grabbed her daughters and, all shaking and disturbed, she switched into the dialect of Brokilon dryads: "Que'ss aen que suecc'ss feal, caer me?"

"Our boat turned over..." breathed Loki. "Right at the shore... A terrible monster! I hit it with the paddle, but it chewed it up... It chewed up my paddle!"

"Who? What?"

"Geralt!" cried Braenn. "Geralt, Mona says that it's a cinarea!"

"An ilyocoris!" cried the witcher. "Eskel, go get my sword!"

"My wand!" called Dorregaray. "Radcliffe, where is my wand?"

"Ciri!" said Loki, wiping blood from his forehead. "Ciri is fighting it! She's fighting the monster!"

"Fuck! Ciri doesn't have a chance against it! Eskel! Get me a horse!"

"Wait!" Yennefer pulled down her tiara and threw it on the floor. "We'll teleport you. You'll be there sooner! Dorregaray, Triss, Radcliffe! Give us your hands..."

Everyone fell silent, then cried out loudly. In the door of the chapel appeared King Herwig, soaking wet, but whole. Next to him stood a bareheaded youngster in a strange shining armour. Behind them entered Ciri, water dripping down from her, she was all muddy, dishevelled, with Gevir in her hand. Across her cheek, from temple to chin, ran a deep, nasty cut, bleeding heavily through a strip torn from her shirt pressed to her face.

"Ciri!!!"

"I killed it," said the girl witcher in a weak voice. "I smashed its skull."

She staggered. Geralt, Eskel and Dandelion caught her and supported her. Ciri didn't let go of her sword.

"Again..." moaned the bard. "Again she caught it straight in her face... Why must she have such a damn bad luck..."

Yennefer shrieked loudly, pushed away Jarre, who was only standing in the way with just one hand, and grabbed Ciri. The sorceress, disregarding the mud and blood staining her dress, put her fingers on the girl witcher's face and shouted an incantation. It seemed to Geralt that the whole castle shook and the sun darkened for a second. Yennefer pulled her hands away from Ciri's face and everybody sighed in awe. The ugly gash narrowed into a thin red scar, marked with a few small drops of blood. Ciri sagged in the arms that held her.

"Well done," said Dorregaray. "A true Master's hand."

"Thanks, Yen," said Triss quietly and Nenneke started crying.

Yennefer smiled, rolled her eyes back and fainted. Geralt managed to catch her before she slid to the ground, like a soft silk ribbon.

XII.

"Calm down, Geralt," said Nenneke. "Don't get excited. It will pass in a moment. She just exerted herself a bit too much, that's all. And besides those nerves... You know how much she loves Ciri."

"I know." Geralt raised his head and looked at the young man in the shining armour, standing at the chamber's door. "Listen, son, return to the chapel. This is none of your business. And, just between you and me, who are you anyway?"

"I'm... I'm Galahad," replied the young knight. "May I... May I inquire how is the beautiful and brave maiden feeling?"

"Which one?" smiled the witcher. "There are two here, both beautiful, brave, and both maidens, though one of them is a maiden only by chance. Which one do you mean?"

The young man blushed visibly. "The younger one..." he answered. "The one who rushed to help the Fisher King without hesitatation."

"Who?"

"He means Herwig," Nenneke butted in. "The ilyocoris attacked the boat in which Herwig and Loki were fishing. Ciri threw herself at the ilyocoris, and this lad, who was nearby by chance, came to her help."

"So, you helped Ciri," the witcher looked at the young knight with more attention and gratitude.

"What's your name again? I've forgotten."

"Galahad. Is this Avalon? The castle of the Fisher King?"

The door opened and a pale Yennefer appeared, supported by Triss Merigold.

"Yen!"

"We're going to the chapel," announced the sorceress in a quiet voice. "The guests are waiting."

"Yen... we can postpone it..."

"I will become your wife even if devils take me! And I will do it now!"

"And Ciri?"

"What about Ciri?" The girl witcher emerged from behind Yennefer, rubbing glamarye into the healthy part of her face. "Everything's all right, Geralt. It was just a stupid scratch, I didn't even feel it."

Galahad, his armour creaking loudly, knelt, or rather fell onto one knee.

"Fair lady..."

Ciri's big eyes widened even more.

"Ciri, allow me," said the witcher. "This is knight... hmm... Galahad. You already know each other. He helped you when you were fighting the ilyocoris."

Ciri blushed deeply. The glamarye began to work, so it was a beautiful blush and the scar was almost invisible.

"Lady," mumbled Galahad. "Be so kind. Allow me, o beautiful one, to stay... I desire... I desire..."
"Knowing life, I believe he desires to become your knight, Ciri," said Triss Merigold.

Ciri clasped her hands behind her back and bowed gracefully, still silent.

"The guests are waiting," Yennefer interrupted them. "Galahad, I can see that you're not merely a warrior, but a polite lad. You fought together with... my daughter, so you may offer her your arm during the feast. Ciri, go on, change into a dress. Geralt, you comb your hair and tuck your shirt into your trousers, because it's out. In ten minutes I want to see all of you in the chapel!"

XIII.

The wedding was splendid. Ladies and maidens cried collectively. Herwig was the master of ceremony, a former king, but still a king. Vesemir from Kaer Morhen and Nenneke stood in as parents of the betrothed couple, Triss Merigold and Eskel as witnesses. Galahad accompanied Ciri and Ciri blushed like a peony.

Those who had swords formed an espalier. Dandelion's friends played their lutes and fiddles and sang a song composed for the occasion, being helped in the chorus by the red-haired Freixenet's daughters and the siren Sh'eenaz, famous near and far for her beautiful voice. Dandelion made a speech, wished the newlyweds much happiness, good luck, and a most successful wedding night, for which Yennefer rewarded him with a kick in the ankle.

Then they all rushed into the throne hall and besieged the tables. At the head sat Yennefer with Geralt, hands still bound with the wedding sash. They smiled and answered to the toasts and well-wishing.

The guests, who roared and rampaged themselves out the previous night, were having fun in a considerate and disciplined way - and for an admirably long time no one managed to get drunk. An unexpected exception was Jarre Onehand, who overdid it when he couldn't stand the sight of Ciri blushing under Galahad's sweet looks. Nobody disappeared either, except Kashka, who was soon found under the table, where she was sleeping on a dog.

The ghosts of Rozrog must have had enough from the previous night, because they showed no signs of life. There was only one exception in the form of a skeleton hung with the remains of a shroud, who suddenly appeared behind Agloval, Mousesack and Freixenet's backs. The prince, baron and druid were however so deeply absorbed in a discussion about politics, that they didn't even notice the apparition. The skeleton got very upset by this lack of attention, moved around the table and snapped its teeth at Triss Merigold. The sorceress, snuggled tenderly against the arm of Eskel from Kaer Morhen, raised her graceful hand and snapped her fingers. The dogs took care of the bones.

"May the Great Melitele favor you with her grace and blessings, loved ones." Nenneke kissed Yennefer and clinked her glass against Geralt's goblet. "But it took you a damn long time. Well, you're wedded now. I'm very happy for you, but I hope Ciri won't follow your example and that if she finds someone, she won't wait so long."

"I have the impression," waved Geralt in the direction of Galahad, enchanted by the girl witcher, "that she's already found someone."

"Are you talking about that odd character?" said the astonished priestess. "Oh, no. Nothing will come out of that. Did you take a closer look at him? No? Well then, look at what he's doing. For effect he's courting Ciri, but at the same time constantly examines and gropes at all the cups on the table. You must admit that it's not really a normal behaviour. I'm wondering why that girl looks at him like at a painting. Jarre, on the other hand... He's a reasonable, polite..."

"Your reasonable and polite Jarre has just fallen under the table," Yennefer interrupted her. "And now enough, Nenneke. Ciri is coming to us."

The ashen-hared witcher girl sat on the chair vacated by Herwig and cuddled up against the sorceress.

"I'm leaving," she said quietly.

"I know, daughter."

"Galahad... Galahad is coming with me. I don't know why. But I can't stop him, can I?"

"Of course not. Geralt!" Yennefer's eyes, glowing with a warm violet light, fixed upon her husband. "Go and have a walk around the tables and talk with the guests. You can also drink something. One cup. A small one. I'd like to have a talk with my daughter here, woman to woman."

Geralt sighed.

The party was getting more and more jovial. Dandelion's pals sang songs that caused Annika, Caldemeyn's daughter, to blush fiercely. A very tipsy dragon Villentretenmerth was hugging an even drunker doppler Tellico and tried to convince him that changing into Prince Agloval in order to replace him in the bed of the beautiful siren Sh'eenaz would not be a very friendly deed.

Freixenet's red-haired daughters jumped out of their skins just to please the royal messengers, and the royal messengers tried their best to impress the dryads, which in a way resembled a fun house. Yarpen Zigrin, snuffling with his hooked nose, explained to Chireadan that as a child he wanted to become an elf. Mousesack roared that the government would fall, and Agloval opposed him. No one knew which government they meant. Herwig was telling Gardenia Biberveldt about the great carp he caught on a rod with a horse-hair line, and the halfling nodded dreamily and only occasionally yelled at her husband to stop drinking too much.

On the cloisters, the prophets and the crocodile-trainer ran about, trying in vain to find the gnome Schuttenbach. Freya, clearly disgusted with the weaker men, drank helter-skelter with the female medium, while both of them kept a dignified and serious silence.

Geralt walked around the table, clinked his glass against the guests', proffered his back to friendly claps and his cheeks to friendly kisses. At last he came near to the place where the lonely Galahad was joined by Dandelion. Galahad, his gaze fixed at the poet's cup, mumbled something and the troubadour squinted and feigned interest. Geralt stopped and stood above them.

"... and so I got on this ship," Galahad was telling, "and I sailed out into the mist, even though I must confess to you, Master Dandelion, that my heart was clutched by terror... And I confess that I lost hope at times. I thought that my end had come, that I would die in that impenetrable mist... And then the sun came up, shone upon the water like... like gold... And then suddenly I saw before me... Avalon. This is Avalon, isn't it?"

"Not at all," argued Dandelion, filling their cups. "This is Schwemmland, which can be translated as Marshland... Have a drink, Galahad."

"And this castle... this must be Montsalvat, no?"

"By no means. This is Rozrog. I have never heard of Montsalvat in my life, son. And if I haven't heard about it, then it by no means exists. Cheers to the newlyweds, my lad!"

"Cheers, Master Dandelion. But that king... Isn't he the Fisher King?"

"Herwig? Oh he likes fishing, true. He used to prefer hunting, but then he was wounded in leg in the battle at Orth, and so can't ride a horse anymore. But don't call him Fisher King, Galahad. First, it sounds quite stupid, and second, Herwig might get offended."

Galahad said nothing for a long time, while playing with a half-empty glass. Then he sighed deeply and looked around.

"They were right," he whispered. "It's but a legend. A fairy tale. A fantasy. In short - a lie. Instead of Avalon a common Marshland. I'm out of hope."

"There, there," the poet jabbed at his side with his hand. "Don't fall into sorrow, boy. Why the damn melancholy? You're at a wedding, so have fun, drink and sing. You're still young, you have an entire life ahead of you."

"Life," repeated the knight thoughtfully. "How is it again, Master Dandelion? Something begins, or something ends?"

Dandelion shot a short, inquisitive look at him.

"No, I don't know," he replied. "And if I don't know, then no one does. The conclusion is that nothing ever ends and nothing ever begins."

"I don't understand."

"And you don't have to."

Galahad thought again, frowning.

"And the Grail?" he asked finally. "What has become of the Grail?"

"What is Grail?"

"It's something we're searching for," explained Galahad, setting his sad eyes on the troubadour. "Something that is the most important. Without which life has no meaning. Without which we're incomplete and imperfect."

The bard pressed his lips and looked at the knight with his famous gaze, a wise gaze mixed with a jovial honesty.

"You fool," he replied, "you've been sitting next to your Grail for the entire evening."

XIV.

Around midnight, when the guests were already quite capable of entertaining themselves, and Yennefer and Geralt, freed from the feast, could eye each other in peace, the door flew open and into the hall walked the bandit Vissing, generally known as Loot-Cup. Loot-Cup was around two meters tall, had a waist-long beard and a nose of a shape and color of a radish. On one shoulder he had his famed club Toothpick and on the other he was carrying a huge sack.

Geralt and Yennefer had known Loot-Cup for a long time. Neither thought of inviting him, though. It was evidently Dandelion's work.

"Welcome, Vissing," said the sorceress with a smile. "It's nice of you to have remembered us. Have a seat!"

The bandit, leaning on Toothpick, bowed courtly.

"Many years of joy and a bunch of kids," he said loudly. "I wish you that, loved ones. A hundred years of happiness... But what am I saying, two hundred, damn it, two hundred! Ah, I'm so pleased, Geralt, and you, lady Yennefer. I always believed that you'd get married, even though you always bickered and fought like those, how to put it, dogs. Ah, damn, what am I saying..."

"Welcome, welcome, Vissing," said the witcher and poured wine into the largest cup he could find. "Drink to our health. Where are you coming from? Rumours were that you were sitting in jail."
"They released me." Loot-Cup took a big gulp and sighed. "They released me on this, how d'ya call it, damn... bail. And here I have, my dears, a gift for you. Here you go."

"What is it?" growled the witcher, looking at the huge sack, in which something wriggled.
"I caught it on my way here," replied Loot-Cup. "I caught him in the flower beds, where that naked stone woman is standing. You know, the one on which the pigeons shit..."

"What is in the sack?"

"Oh, it's just a, how to put it, a little devil. I caught him for you as a gift. Do you have a menagerie here? No? Well, you can stuff him and hang him in the hall, the guests can admire it. But I tell you, it's one hell of a liar. He keeps saying that his name is Schuttenbach."

The Frugal DM's Magical Item Tables for 2nd Edition

I created this chart for 2nd Edition AD&D as an alternative the Appendix 2: Magical Item Tables found in the Dungeon Master Guide.

Why create an alternative chart?

This chart allows me to hand out more potions, scrolls, and a new category of items "Temporary Magical Items" which eventually stop working. Permanent Magical Items become a problem with power creep in long campaigns and monty haul style campaigns, and since I tend to run very long campaigns that last 3 years or more I have endeavoured to combat power creep so that the PCs don't become invincible monster-eating machines.

By creating an alternative chart which puts more emphasis on one time use items and temporary magical items this allows players to still gain magical items as they progress, still using the random charts, but the DM maintains more control over what they get.

Alternative Table 88: Roll a D100

01 to 40 - Potions and Oils
41 to 70 - Scrolls
71 to 90 - Temporary Magical Items (see Table 88B)
91 - Rings (DM's Choice)
92 - Rods, Staffs, Wands (DM's Choice)
93 - Books, Tomes, Jewels and Jewelry (DM's Choice)
94 - Clothing - Cloaks, Robes, Boots, Gloves, Girdles and Helmets (DM's Choice)
95 - Bags, Bottles, Dusts, Stones (DM's Choice)
96 - Household Items, Tools and Weird Stuff (DM's Choice)
97-98 - Armour and Shields (DM's Choice)
99-100 - Weapons (DM's Choice)

Note - Whenever presented with DM's Choice the DM should endeavour to choose a magical item with a power level that makes sense with the current campaign. Eg. If running a low level game you probably should not be giving out Spheres of Annihilation and similar items.  Such items really should never be random and should always appear with a backstory and/or be part of a plot. Finding a random +5 Holy Avenger in a troll's hoard of loot seems awfully overpowered.

Table 88B: Roll a D20 (or Subtract 70 from the previous D100 roll)

1 - Apple of Cure/Poison (50/50 Either Cures Poisons or is a Random Ingested Poison. See Table 51.)
2 - Dust of Disappearance
3 - Keoghtom's Ointment
4 - Necklace of Missiles
5 - Quaal's Feather Token
6 - Smoke Powder
7 - Sovereign Glue
8 - Universal Solvent
9 - Wind Fan (Eventually it breaks if used too often)
10 - Arrows, 2d6 (Roll Table 109 to determine bonuses)
11 - Bolts, 2d6 (Roll Table 109 to determine bonuses)
12 - Sling Bullets, 2d6 (Roll Table 109 to determine bonuses)
13 - Darts, 2d6 (Roll Table 109 to determine bonuses)
14 - Javelins, 1d3 (Roll Table 109 to determine bonuses)
15 - Special Ammo (DM's Choice)
16 - Temporary Magical Armour (Enchantment wears off within a random amount of time)
17 - Temporary Magical Weapon (Enchantment wears off within a random amount of time)
18 - Wand of Five Charges (Typically a Low Level Spell, and only usable by a specific class)
19 - Staff of Ten Charges (Typically a Mid Level Spell and only usable by a specific class)
20 - DM's Choice*

* The DM is encouraged to invent a new type of temporary magical item, possibly an unique one.

Conclusions

Pretend for a moment the PCs find a Frost Brand +3/+6 vs Fire Using/Dwelling Creatures. That is an awfully powerful weapon to be just laying around. It should have a story behind it. It should be where it is for a reason. It should have a name like "Blizzard" or something.

When the PCs first find the Frost Brand it should be a dramatic moment, like finding the Holy Grail or some powerful artifact. It is after all the one and only +6 weapon that can be found in 2nd Edition. You could base an entire campaign around this particular weapon. PCs during the past 40+ years of playing D&D have probably killed fire gods with it. It thus falls into a rare category of weapons of "Godslayers".

You don't leave such rare items just laying around. There should be stories and myths around them. PCs should instantly recognize the sword when they see it because they've all heard the stories, fables and songs of what the Frost Brand looks like and all the great deeds it was involved with.

Reserving the permanent magical items for moments like this makes the item feel more special. Players will recognize this and realize the magical item is important, even if it is just a +1 longsword called "Reaper". The Reaper +1 longsword might not be as famous as Blizzard, but if the DM makes the effort to build it up then the boring sword suddenly becomes an item of value in the minds of the players.



Types of Animated Book Covers, Alphabetical List

I recently decided to invest some time in making moving gif versions of some book covers, and during this process ended up researching various ways of how to make moving gif book covers.

The images below are ones I created while experimenting with different ways to make moving gif book covers.

Also I want to note that there is no one website or app that offers all of these options.

Eg. The site/app Giphy for example only offers 7 different filters for making moving gifs out of a single static image. To do more than that you need to use other websites/apps or to upload multiple images or a video. So for example the snowing gif below had to made using a different website (which unfortunately cropped the image) and the rainbow effect was made using Giphy.

So I need to find a different site that offers the snow effect (possibly even a blizzard) and doesn't crop the image.


Portal of Destiny
Animals/Cars Moving

Background Moving

Blinking/Winking Eyes

Exploding Image/Explosions

Fading Images/Words

Fading Person/Ghost

Fire/Ignition

Flicker/Bad Lighting

Fog Effect

Gears and Lights

Glitchy Screen

Hourglass/Clock

Kaleidoscopic Background/Foreground

Lightning

Lights Off/Lights On
  •     Sudden
  •     Fade In and Out from Dark

Moving Hair/Clothes/Objects (Eg. A swordswoman with a sword, her hair and cape blowing in the wind)

Moving Text

Rain Effect

The Lilith Bloodstone Omnibus
Rainbow Effect

Shaking Person/Object

Shaky/Rumble/Earthquake Effect

Smoke Effect

Snow Effect
  •     Gentle Snow
  •     Snowstorm

Sparkling Object (Eg. Gem, metallic object, glass, etc)

Strobe Light Moving

Transformation (Eg. Man turning into werewolf)

VHS/Old TV

Water Flowing

Watery Ripples

Wavy/Dreamy

Wind Effect (Blowing debris)

Written Text Appearing

Why make moving gif book covers?

I intend to use the above images in social media to promote and sell my fantasy books on Amazon and other websites. Basically it all comes down to marketing and advertising, to help capture the attention of people browsing my Twitter feed / Facebook fan page / etc.

Some ebook sellers also now allow book covers to be moving gifs, which means a book cover can now be dynamic. So in the future this might become a more common practice for selling ebooks.

Note

Regarding my own books they are also available as trade paperbacks (sometimes in large print). Print books still make up 76% of all books sold. Ebooks is 18% and Audiobooks is 6%. Books in Braille make up less than 1% of total book sales. Some day I would like to have my books available in audiobooks and braille.

Eugene "Boggy" Bogdanski - 1st/2nd AD&D Edition Sample Henchman

Notes:

I made the following elf for my current Roll20 game "Dark Ages of Korovia". And elf named Eugene? Yep, hence why he goes by his nickname "Boggy".

Constitution Dump Stat? Yep. Honestly in 2nd Edition have a Con of 7 to 14 makes basically no different in stats. The only things it changes is System Shock and Resurrection Survival... and for a henchman, these things are less important. If a henchman dies... we can always introduce a new henchman. Easy peasy henchman got squeezeed...

Check out my previous post on the topic of The Rarely Used Henchman and why DMs should be using them more often. Eg. Their best usage is arguably for whenever a character is knocked unconscious/captured/etc and the player can play the henchman until their own character is back up and running.

Eugene "Boggy" Bogdanski

3rd Level Elf Thief, Chaotic Good

Str 13
Dex 19
Con 7
Int 13
Wis 11
Chr 17
Com 16

HP 16
AC 14
Thac0 19 / Bonus-To-Hit +1

Belongings

Shortbow + quiver of 12 sheaf arrows.
Clothing/Rags
2 cp

Shortbow +5 to hit, 1d8 damage.
2/1

Potentially...
Longsword +2 to hit, 1d8/1d12.
Longbow +2 to hit, 1d8 damage. (Not proficient in longbow so he gets +5 -3 to his To Hit chance.)

WP: Short Bow/Horsebow, Longsword.

NWP*: Riding/Horse 14, Animal Training/Falconry 11, Disguise 16, Gaming 17, Local History/Weyvin 17, Singing/Polyphonic 17.

* I allow PCs to swap bonus languages to get extra NWP slots.

Languages: Korovian, Elvish.

Sylvan Elf Abilities: +1 with bows, 90% resistance to charm/sleep spells, elf stealth surprise bonus, infravision 60', chance to detect secret doors.

Thief Skills with No Armour*+**: PP 40, OL 25, FART 30, MS 90, HS 90, DN 20, CW 70, RL 0.

* He is currently benefiting from wearing no armour, but if he gains armour his thief skills will go down the appropriate amount.

** Since he boosted his MS/HS so much during the first 3 levels, at levels 4 to 10 the plan is to raise his other 6 thief skills by 5% each per level.

Background Notes:

Raised in Weyvin (which is known for having lots of half-elves) Boggy is actually 1/8th human, dating back to his great-grandfather who married an elf. Likewise his grandfather married an elf, and his father married an elf, and yet Boggy is quite proud of both his human and elf heritage, and will sometimes call himself "part elf" and if anyone asks he will proceed to bore them with his family's ancestry... which goes all the way back to the legendary Bogdan the Battle Behemoth, a hero from the Stone Age (Korovia's equivalent of Hercules).

Boggy is skilled at disguising himself and cheating at gambling, which he sometimes does while disguised as someone else. That way if he gets caught cheating and escapes, somebody else gets blamed. He calls it the "Doppelganger Effect".

Boggy aspires to be able to shoot his shortbow/horsebow from horseback, but to do that he needs to buy a horse first. Or steal one. It is his dream to become a mounted archer, and perhaps someday even get a giant eagle or a similar mount.

Wealth / Lack Thereof:

Boggy is looking to join a party or find a liege he can serve as he has unfortunately gambled most of his money away. He is quite poor. Any new liege will be responsible for giving him armour and weapons, etc.

Having a henchman come with almost no equipment is basically a mostly blank slate for the player(s) to add things to by giving the henchmen things they think the henchman can use. Thieves tools for example could be useful, although Boggy's FART (Find And Remove Traps) check is really low presently.

2nd Edition AD&D Bogatyr Warrior Class

Bogatyr, Warrior Class

Ability Requirements: Strength 15, Constitution 15, Intelligence 12, Wisdom 13
Prime Requisites: Strength and Wisdom
Races Allowed: Human Only

The Bogatyr is a Slavic warrior-hero similar to a knight who rarely uses magic. Magic for the Bogatyr is a bit of a double-edged sword. It has its uses, for sure, but they try to avoid using magic if they can. Instead the Bogatyr are focused on pursuits that improve their skills as warriors, and while they do sometimes use magic to bolster their abilities, they prefer to be reliant on their strength, intellect and wisdom.

Fantasy Note - Okay, so the fables and legends of Bogatyr do not strictly say whether or not Bogatyr had any magical talent. Some did. Some did not. Some had "supernatural strength" or other abilities. The Bogatyr presented here is partially a variant on the concept of the Witcher from Andrzej Sapkowski. I created this more fantasy themed version of the Bogatyr in order to introduce a strongman/Witcher-esque warrior/spellcaster that has a Slavic theme into my existing campaign world. Could players just play a Fighter/Wizard instead? Absolutely. Some do. But for those who want to try something with a specific Slavic flavour, this is something fun to play.

Only humans can become Bogatyrs, as their belief that magic is a double edged sword is a cultural belief unique to humans. Strength is the most important ability for a Bogatyr, but Wisdom is also useful as their magic is partially divine in origin. A Bogatyr with 16 or higher in both Strength and Wisdom gains a 10 percent bonus to the experience points he/she earns.

Bogatyrs prefer to be light and mobile in their armour. As such they are restricted to chainmail (AC 5) or less armour. It is possible for them to wear more armour, but it negates their ability to cast their magic.

Bogatyrs use the Ranger Experience Level chart.

Bogatyrs use Warrior Thac0 progression.

Bogatyrs use the Warrior Saving Throw progression chart.

Base Proficiencies

Weapon Proficiencies: 4
Non-Weapon Proficiencies: 3

Proficiency Progression: As Fighter.

Bogatyr are fond of swords and bows. Common weapons for them to learn are bastard sword, longbow, spear and lance. Unlike Paladins and Rangers who cannot specialize in a particular weapon, the Bogatyr can specialize but are restricted in what weapons they can choose to specialize in. They can only specialize in a sword, a bow, a spear, or a lance.

Bogatyr are skilled in many different things and may choose proficiencies from General, Priest, Rogue, Warrior and Wizard lists.

Common NWP skills for a Bogatyr to learn are: Animal Training/Falconry, Heraldry, Riding/Horse, Musical Instrument/Violin, Read/Write, Singing. If multiple Bogatyr are traveling together often each one will learn a different musical instrument.

Bogatyr Magic

Bogatyrs do not have a lot of magic. Their spell list is very limited and they don't actually learn that many spells over time. Nor is their casting ability that great. They cast spells as if they were half their class level, rounded up. Eg. A 5th level Bogatyr's caster level is 3.

While they do learn magic sooner than paladins or rangers, by the time they reach higher levels paladins, rangers and Bogatyrs have comparable magical skill.

Bogatyr magic is a mixture of both arcane and divine magic, and as such do not gain bonus spells like a cleric does for having a high Wisdom.

Bogatyr do not memorize or pray for spells. They simply know the spells from their spell list and may cast any spell of their choice, of the appropriate spell level, based on the number of spells they can cast due to their level per day. The number of spells they can cast resets after 8 hours of sleep.


Bogatyr Spell List

1 - Bless, Light, Magical Stone, Mount, Protection from Evil, Remove Fear.
2 - Barkskin, Blur, Flame Blade, Spiritual Hammer, Strength.
3 - Feign Death, Prayer, Protection from Evil 10' Radius, Protection from Normal Missiles, Remove Curse.
4 - Atonement, Cloak of Bravery, Emotion (Courage, Happiness, Hope only), Enchanted Weapon, Free Action, Quest.


Bogatyr Ethos and Restrictions

Bogatyr must be either Lawful or Good or both. LG, LN, LE, NG or CG are all acceptable alignments. A Bogatyr who ceases to operate within these alignment restrictions loses their spellcasting ability and can no longer go up levels in Bogatyr until they complete an Atonement, a Quest, and return to an acceptable alignment.

The Bogatyr can wear heavy armour, but if they do so it interferes with their magical ability. They cannot cast magic if they are wearing anything heavier than chainmail.

A Bogatyr cannot own more than 6 magical items. If they do so their magical abilities cease to function. The overlapping auras of carrying too many magical items interfere with their weak magical skills.

Bogatyrs devote themselves to a particular deity, nation or royal family. A Bogatyr who fails to properly serve their deity, nation or royal family loses their spellcasting ability and must Atone and complete a Quest before their spellcasting ability will return. The Atonement/Quest process typically takes at least a week.


The Evil Bogatyr

So you may have noticed I allowed the option of a LE (Lawful Evil) Bogatyr. This dark warrior has gone astray and become an anti-hero who lacks conventional heroic attributes, but still behaves honourably and within the law. They still follow the word of the law, they would never betray a friend or comrade or break a promise, but they are nevertheless evil.

Often Bogatyr go evil because they either failed to live up to a promise or an oath, and are now willing to commit acts of evil in order to somehow fix the mistake. Or perhaps they did fulfill the oath, but something happened during the process that twisted their sense of morality.

Not everything is black and white. The evil Bogatyr exists in a morally grey area. Or darker still.


Character Class Creation Notes
(See the 2nd Edition Dungeon Master Guide)

0     Human Only
0     Fighter Saving Throws
0     Any Weapons Allowed
2     Fighter Thac0
4     D12 Hit Die
2     Hp 3 beyond 9th level
1     Fighter Str
1     Fighter Con
1.75 WP x4, NWP x3
3     Special Ability: Bogatyr Magic

-0.5 Limited AC 5 or Less
-1    Must Be Lawful OR Good.
-1    Religious and/or Patriotic Ethos
-1    Cannot own more than 6 magical items

Total 11.25 or Ranger XP Progression

See Also
2nd Edition AD&D Alchemist Rogue Class


Paint-By-Numbers Wrathgar Painting

I got bored today so I made a Paint-By-Numbers version of Wrathgar that fans can print out and paint on.

Download Wrathgar ebooks or order the paperbacks by visiting amazon.com/author/moffat

Happy Holidays and Stay Safe!


The Scarlet Citadel, by Robert Howard

The Scarlet Citadel
By Robert Howard


Chapter 1 - They trapped the Lion on Shamu's plain; 

The roar of battle had died away; the shout of victory mingled with the cries of the dying. Like gay-hued leaves after an autumn storm, the fallen littered the plain; the sinking sun shimmered on burnished helmets, gilt-worked mail, silver breastplates, broken swords and the heavy regal folds of silken standards, overthrown in pools of curdling crimson. In silent heaps lay war-horses and their steel-clad riders, flowing manes and blowing plumes stained alike in the red tide. About them and among them, like the drift of a storm, were strewn slashed and trampled bodies in steel caps and leather jerkins--archers and pikemen. 

The oliphants sounded a fanfare of triumph all over the plain, and the hoofs of the victors crunched in the breasts of the vanquished as all the straggling, shining lines converged inward like the spokes of a glittering wheel, to the spot where the last survivor still waged unequal strife. 

That day Conan, King of Aquilonia, had seen the pick of his chivalry cut to pieces, smashed and hammered to bits, and swept into eternity. With five thousand knights he had crossed the south-eastern border of Aquilonia and ridden into the grassy meadowlands of Ophir, to find his former ally, King Amalrus of Ophir, drawn up against him with the hosts of Strabonus, king of Koth. Too late he had seen the trap. All that a man might do he had done with his five thousand cavalrymen against the thirty thousand knights, archers and spearmen of the conspirators. 

Without bowmen or infantry, he had hurled his armored horsemen against the oncoming host, had seen the knights of his foes in their shining mail go down before his lances, had torn the opposing center to bits, driving the riven ranks headlong before him, only to find himself caught in a vise as the untouched wings closed in. Strabonus' Shemitish bowmen had wrought havoc among his knights, feathering them with shafts that found every crevice in their armor, shooting down the horses, the Kothian pikemen rushing in to spear the fallen riders. The mailed lancers of the routed center had re-formed, reinforced by the riders from the wings, and had charged again and again, sweeping the field by sheer weight of numbers. 

The Aquilonians had not fled; they had died on the field, and of the five thousand knights who had followed Conan southward, not one left the field alive. And now the king himself stood at bay among the slashed bodies of his house troops, his back against a heap of dead horses and men. Ophirean knights in gilded mail leaped their horses over mounds of corpses to slash at the solitary figure; squat Shemites with blue-black beards, and dark-faced Kothian knights ringed him on foot. The clangor of steel rose deafeningly; the black-mailed figure of the western king loomed among his swarming foes, dealing blows like a butcher wielding a great cleaver. Riderless horses raced down the field; about his iron-clad feet grew a ring of mangled corpses. His attackers drew back from his desperate savagery, panting and livid. 

Now through the yelling, cursing lines rode the lords of the conquerors Strabonus, with his broad dark face and crafty eyes; Amalrus, slender, fastidious, treacherous, dangerous as a cobra; and the lean vulture Tsotha-lanti, clad only in silken robes, his great black eyes glittering from a face that was like that of a bird of prey. Of this Kothian wizard dark tales were told; tousle-headed women in northern and western villages frightened children with his name, and rebellious slaves were brought to abased submission quicker than by the lash, with threat of being sold to him. Men said that he had a whole library of dark works bound in skin flayed from living human victims, and that in nameless pits below the hill whereon his palace sat, he trafficked with the powers of darkness, trading screaming girl slaves for unholy secrets. He was the real ruler of Koth. 

Now he grinned bleakly as the kings reined back a safe distance from the grim iron-clad figure looming among the dead. Before the savage blue eyes blazing murderously from beneath the crested, dented helmet, the boldest shrank. Conan's dark scarred face was darker yet with passion; his black armor was hacked to tatters and splashed with blood; his great sword red to the crosspiece. In this stress all the veneer of civilization had faded; it was a barbarian who faced his conquerors. Conan was a Cimmerian by birth, one of those fierce moody hillmen who dwelt in their gloomy, cloudy land in the north. His saga, which had led him to the throne of Aquilonia, was the basis of a whole cycle of hero-tales. 

So now the kings kept their distance, and Strabonus called on his Shemitish archers to loose their arrows at his foe from a distance; his captains had fallen like ripe grain before the Cimmerian's broadsword, and Strabonus, penurious of his knights as of his coins, was frothing with fury. But Tsotha shook his head. 

"Take him alive." 

"Easy to say!" snarled Strabonus, uneasy lest in some way the black-mailed giant might hew a path to them through the spears. "Who can take a man-eating tiger alive? By Ishtar, his heel is on the necks of my finest swordsmen! It took seven years and stacks of gold to train each, and there they lie, so much kite's meat. Arrows, I say!" 

"Again, nay!" snapped Tsotha, swinging down from his horse. He laughed coldly. "Have you not learned by this time that my brain is mightier than any sword?" 

He passed through the lines of the pikemen, and the giants in their steel caps and mail brigandines shrank back fearfully, lest they so much as touch the skirts of his robe. Nor were the plumed knights slower in making room for him. He stepped over the corpses and came face to face with the grim king. The hosts watched in tense silence, holding their breath. The black-armored figure loomed in terrible menace over the lean, silk-robed shape, the notched, dripping sword hovering on high. 

"I offer you life, Conan," said Tsotha, a cruel mirth bubbling at the back of his voice. 

"I give you death, wizard," snarled the king, and backed by iron muscles and ferocious hate the great sword swung in a stroke meant to shear Tsotha's lean torso in half. But even as the hosts cried out, the wizard stepped in, too quick for the eye to follow, and apparently merely laid an open hand on Conan's left forearm, from the ridged muscles of which the mail had been hacked away. The whistling blade veered from its arc and the mailed giant crashed heavily to earth, to lie motionless. Tsotha laughed silently. 

"Take him up and fear not; the lion's fangs are drawn." 

The kings reined in and gazed in awe at the fallen lion. Conan lay stiffly, like a dead man, but his eyes glared up at them, wide open, and blazing with helpless fury. "What have you done to him?" asked Amalrus uneasily. 

Tsotha displayed a broad ring of curious design on his finger. He pressed his fingers together and on the inner side of the ring a tiny steel fang darted out like a snake's tongue. 

"It is steeped in the juice of the purple lotus which grows in the ghosthaunted swamps of southern Stygia," said the magician. "Its touch produces temporary paralysis. Put him in chains and lay him in a chariot. The sun sets and it is time we were on the road for Khorshemish." 

Strabonus turned to his general Arbanus. 

"We return to Khorshemish with the wounded. Only a troop of the royal cavalry will accompany us. Your orders are to march at dawn to the Aquilonian border, and invest the city of Shamar. The Ophireans will supply you with food along the march. We will rejoin you as soon as possible, with reinforcements." 

So the host, with its steel-sheathed knights, its pikemen and archers and camp-servants, went into camp in the meadowlands near the battlefield. And through the starry night the two kings and the sorcerer who was greater than any king rode to the capital of Strabonus, in the midst of the glittering palace troop, and accompanied by a long line of chariots, loaded with the wounded. In one of these chariots lay Conan, king of Aquilonia, weighted with chains, the tang of defeat in his mouth, the blind fury of a trapped tiger in his soul. 

The poison which had frozen his mighty limbs to helplessness had not paralyzed his brain. As the chariot in which he lay rumbled over the meadowlands, his mind revolved maddeningly about his defeat. Amalrus had sent an emissary imploring aid against Strabonus, who, he said, was ravaging his western domain, which lay like a tapering wedge between the border of Aquilonia and the vast southern kingdom of Koth. He asked only a thousand horsemen and the presence of Conan, to hearten his demoralized subjects. Conan now mentally blasphemed. In his generosity he had come with five times the number the treacherous monarch had asked. In good faith he had ridden into Ophir, and had been confronted by the supposed rivals allied against him. It spoke significantly of his prowess that they had brought up a whole host to trap him and his five thousand. 

A red cloud veiled his vision; his veins swelled with fury and in his temples a pulse throbbed maddeningly. In all his life he had never known greater and more helpless wrath. In swift-moving scenes the pageant of his life passed fleetingly before his mental eye--a panorama wherein moved shadowy figures which were
himself, in many guises and conditions - a skin-clad barbarian; a mercenary swordsman in horned helmet and scale-mail corselet; a corsair in a dragonprowed galley that trailed a crimson wake of blood and pillage along southern coasts; a captain of hosts in burnished steel, on a rearing black charger; a king on a golden throne with the lion banner flowing above, and throngs of gay-hued courtiers and ladies on their knees. But always the jouncing and rumbling of the chariot brought his thoughts back to revolve with maddening monotony about the treachery of Amalrus and the sorcery of Tsotha. The veins nearly burst in his temples and cries of the wounded in the chariots filled him with ferocious satisfaction. 

Before midnight they crossed the Ophirean border and at dawn the spires of Khorshemish stood up gleaming and rose-tinted on the south-eastern horizon, the slim towers overawed by the grim scarlet citadel that at a distance was like a splash of bright blood in the sky. That was the castle of Tsotha. Only one narrow street, paved with marble and guarded by heavy iron gates, led up to it, where it crowned the hill dominating the city. The sides of that hill were too sheer to be climbed elsewhere. From the walls of the citadel one could look down on the broad white streets of the city, on minaretted mosques, shops, temples, mansions, and markets. One could look down, too, on the palaces of the king, set in broad gardens, high walled, luxurious riots of fruit trees and blossoms, through which artificial streams murmured, and silvery fountains rippled incessantly. Over all brooded the citadel, like a condor stooping above its prey, intent on its own dark meditations. 

The mighty gates between the huge towers of the outer wall clanged open, and the king rode into his capital between lines of glittering spearmen, while fifty trumpets pealed salute. But no throngs swarmed the white-paved streets to fling roses before the conqueror's hoofs. Strabonus had raced ahead of news of the battle, and the people, just rousing to the occupations of the day, gaped to see their king returning with a small retinue, and were in doubt as to whether it portended victory or defeat. 

Conan, life sluggishly moving in his veins again, craned his neck from the chariot floor to view the wonders of this city which men called the Queen of the South. He had thought to ride some day through these golden-chased gates at the head of his steel-clad squadrons, with the great lion banner flowing over his helmeted head. Instead he entered in chains, stripped of his armor, and thrown like a captive slave on the bronze floor of his conqueror's chariot. A wayward devilish mirth of mockery rose above his fury, but to the nervous soldiers who drove the chariot his laughter sounded like the muttering of a rousing lion.

Chapter 2 - Gleaming shell of an outworn lie; fable of Right divine 

In the citadel, in a chamber with a domed ceiling of carven jet, and the fretted arches of doorways glimmering with strange dark jewels, a strange conclave came to pass. Conan of Aquilonia, blood from unbandaged wounds caking his huge limbs, faced his captors. On either side of him stood a dozen black giants, grasping their long-shafted axes. In front of him stood Tsotha, and
on divans lounged Strabonus and Amalrus in their silks and gold, gleaming with jewels, naked slave-boys beside them pouring wine into cups carved of a single sapphire. In strong contrast stood Conan, grim, blood-stained, naked but for a loin-cloth, shackles on his mighty limbs, his blue eyes blazing beneath the tangled black mane which fell over his low broad forehead. He dominated the scene, turning to tinsel the pomp of the conquerors by the sheer vitality of his elemental personality, and the kings in their pride and splendor were aware of it each in his secret heart, and were not at ease. Only Tsotha was not disturbed. 

"Our desires are quickly spoken, king of Aquilonia," said Tsotha. "It is our wish to extend our empire." 

"And so you want to swine my kingdom," rasped Conan. 

"What are you but an adventurer, seizing a crown to which you had no more claim than any other wandering barbarian?" parried Amalrus. "We are prepared to offer you suitable compensation -" 

"Compensation!" It was a gust of deep laughter from Conan's mighty chest. "The price of infamy and treachery! I am a barbarian, so I shall sell my kingdom and its people for life and your filthy gold? Ha! How did you come to your crown, you and that black-faced pig beside you? Your fathers did the fighting and the suffering, and handed their crowns to you on golden platters. What you inherited without lifting a finger--except to poison a few brothers--I fought for. 

"You sit on satin and guzzle wine the people sweat for, and talk of divine rights of sovereignty--bah! I climbed out of the abyss of naked barbarism to the throne and in that climb I spilt my blood as freely as I spilt that of others. If either of us has the right to rule men, by Crom, it is I! How have you proved yourselves my superiors? 

"I found Aquilonia in the grip of a pig like you--one who traced his genealogy for a thousand years. The land was torn with the wars of the barons, and the people cried out under oppression and taxation. Today no Aquilonian noble dares maltreat the humblest of my subjects, and the taxes of the people are lighter than anywhere else in the world. 

"What of you? Your brother, Amalrus, holds the eastern half of your kingdom, and defies you. And you, Strabonus, your soldiers are even now besieging castles of a dozen or more rebellious barons. The people of both your kingdoms are crushed into the earth by tyrannous taxes and levies. And you would loot mine--ha! Free my hands and I'll varnish this floor with your brains!" 

Tsotha grinned bleakly to see the rage of his kingly companions. 

"All this, truthful though it be, is beside the point. Our plans are no concern of yours. Your responsibility is at an end when you sign this parchment, which is an abdication in favor of Prince Arpello of Pellia. We will give you arms and horse, and five thousand golden lunas, and escort you to the eastern frontier." 
"Setting me adrift where I was when I rode into Aquilonia to take service in her armies, except with the added burden of a traitor's name!" Conan's laugh was like the deep short bark of a timber wolf. "Arpello, eh? I've had suspicions of that butcher of Pellia. Can you not even steal and pillage frankly and honestly, but you must have an excuse, however thin? Arpello claims a trace of royal blood; so
you use him as an excuse for theft, and a satrap to rule through. I'll see you in hell first." 

"You're a fool!" exclaimed Amalrus. "You are in our hands, and we can take both crown and life at our pleasure!" 

Conan's answer was neither kingly nor dignified, but characteristically instinctive in the man, whose barbaric nature had never been submerged in his adopted culture. He spat full in Amalrus' eyes. The king of Ophir leaped up with a scream of outraged fury, groping for his slender sword. Drawing it, he rushed at the Cimmerian, but Tsotha intervened. 

"Wait, your majesty; this man is my prisoner." 

"Aside, wizard!" shrieked Amalrus, maddened by the glare in the Cimmerian's blue eyes. 

"Back, I say!" roared Tsotha, roused to awesome wrath. His lean hand came from his wide sleeve and cast a shower of dust into the Ophirean's contorted face. Amalrus cried out and staggered back, clutching at his eyes, the sword falling from his hand. He dropped limply on the divan, while the Kothian guards looked on stolidly and King Strabonus hurriedly gulped another goblet of wine, holding it with hands that trembled. Amalrus lowered his hands and shook his head violently, intelligence slowly sifting back into his grey eyes. 

"I went blind," he growled. "What did you do to me, wizard?" 

"Merely a gesture to convince you who was the real master," snapped Tsotha, the mask of his formal pretense dropped, revealing the naked evil personality of the man. "Strabonus has learned his lesson--let you learn yours. It was but a dust I found in a Stygian tomb which I flung into your eyes--if I brush out their sight again, I will leave you to grope in darkness for the rest of your life." 

Amalrus shrugged his shoulders, smiled whimsically and reached for a goblet, dissembling his fear and fury. A polished diplomat, he was quick to regain his poise. Tsotha turned to Conan, who had stood imperturbably during the episode. At the wizard's gesture, the blacks laid hold of their prisoner and marched him behind Tsotha, who led the way out of the chamber through an arched doorway into a winding corridor, whose floor was of many-hued mosaics, whose walls were inlaid with gold tissue and silver chasing, and from whose fretted arched ceiling swung golden censers, filling the corridor with dreamy perfumed clouds. They turned down a smaller corridor, done in jet and black jade, gloomy and awful, which ended at a brass door, over whose arch a human skull grinned horrifically. At this door stood a fat repellent figure, dangling a bunch of keys--Tsotha's chief eunuch, Shukeli, of whom grisly tales were whispered--a man with whom a bestial lust for torture took the place of normal human passions. 

The brass door let onto a narrow stair that seemed to wind down into the very bowels of the hill on which the citadel stood. Down these stairs went the band, to halt at last at an iron door, the strength of which seemed unnecessary. Evidently it did not open on outer air, yet it was built as if to withstand the battering of mangonels and rams. Shukeli opened it, and as he swung back the ponderous portal, Conan noted the evident uneasiness among the black giants who guarded him; nor did Shukeli seem altogether devoid of nervousness as he
peered into the darkness beyond. Inside the great door there was a second barrier, composed of heavy steel bars. It was fastened by an ingenious bolt which had no lock and could be worked only from the outside; this bolt shot back, the grille slid into the wall. They passed through, into a broad corridor, the floor, walls and arched ceiling of which seemed to be cut out of solid stone. Conan knew he was far underground, even below the hill itself. The darkness pressed in on the guardsmen's torches like a sentient, animate thing. 

They made the king fast to a ring in the stone wall. Above his head in a niche in the wall they placed a torch, so that he stood in a dim semicircle of light. The blacks were anxious to be gone; they muttered among themselves, and cast fearful glances at the darkness. Tsotha motioned them out, and they filed through the door in stumbling haste, as if fearing that the darkness might take tangible form and spring upon their backs. Tsotha turned toward Conan, and the king noticed uneasily that the wizard's eyes shone in the semi-darkness, and that his teeth much resembled the fangs of a wolf, gleaming whitely in the shadows. 

"And so, farewell, barbarian," mocked the sorcerer. "I must ride to Shamar, and the siege. In ten days I will be in your palace in Tamar, with my warriors. What word from you shall I say to your women, before I flay their dainty skins for scrolls whereon to chronicle the triumphs of Tsotha-lanti?" 

Conan answered with a searing Cimmerian curse that would have burst the eardrums of an ordinary man, and Tsotha laughed thinly and withdrew. Conan had a glimpse of his vulture-like figure through the thick-set bars, as he slid home the grate; then the heavy outer door clanged, and silence fell like a pall.

Chapter 3 - The Lion strode through the Halls of Hell;

King Conan tested the ring in the wall and the chain that bound him. His limbs were free, but he knew that his shackles were beyond even his iron strength. The links of the chain were as thick as his thumb and were fastened to a band of steel about his waist, a band broad as his hand and half an inch thick. The sheer weight of his shackles would have slain a lesser man with exhaustion. The locks that held band and chain were massive affairs that a sledge-hammer could hardly have dinted. As for the ring, evidently it went clear through the wall and was clinched on the other side. 

Conan cursed and panic surged through him as he glared into the darkness that pressed against the half-circle of light. All the superstitious dread of the barbarian slept in his soul, untouched by civilized logic. His primitive imagination peopled the subterranean darkness with grisly shapes. Besides, his reason told him that he had not been placed there merely for confinement. His captors had no reason to spare him. He had been placed in these pits for a definite doom. He cursed himself for his refusal of their offer, even while his stubborn manhood revolted at the thought, and he knew that were he taken forth and given another chance, his reply would be the same. He would not sell his subjects to the butcher. And yet it had been with no thought of anyone's gain but his own that he had seized the kingdom originally. Thus subtly does the instinct of sovereign responsibility enter even a red-handed plunderer sometimes. 

Conan thought of Tsotha's last abominable threat, and groaned in sick fury, knowing it was no idle boast. Men and women were to the wizard no more than the writhing insect is to the scientist. Soft white hands that had caressed him, red lips that had been pressed to his, dainty white bosoms that had quivered to his hot fierce kisses, to be stripped of their delicate skin, white as ivory and pink as young petals--from Conan's lips burst a yell so frightful and inhuman in its mad fury that a listener would have stared in horror to know that it came from a human throat. 

The shuddering echoes made him start and brought back his own situation vividly to the king. He glared fearsomely at the outer gloom, and thought of the grisly tales he had heard of Tsotha's necromantic cruelty, and it was with an icy sensation down his spine that he realized that these must be the very Halls of Horror named in shuddering legendry, the tunnels and dungeons wherein Tsotha performed horrible experiments with beings human, bestial, and, it was whispered, demoniac, tampering blasphemously with the naked basic elements of life itself. Rumor said that the mad poet Rinaldo had visited these pits, and been shown horrors by the wizard, and that the nameless monstrosities of which he hinted in his awful poem, The Song of the Pit , were no mere fantasies of a disordered brain. That brain had crashed to dust beneath Conan's battle-axe on the night the king had fought for his life with the assassins the mad rhymer had led into the betrayed palace, but the shuddersome words of that grisly song still rang in the king's ears as he stood there in his chains. 

Even with the thought the Cimmerian was frozen by a soft rustling sound, blood-freezing in its implication. He tensed in an attitude of listening, painful in its intensity. An icy hand stroked his spine. It was the unmistakable sound of pliant scales slithering softly over stone. Cold sweat beaded his skin, as beyond the ring of dim light he saw a vague and colossal form, awful even in its indistinctness. It reared upright, swaying slightly, and yellow eyes burned icily on him from the shadows. Slowly a huge, hideous, wedge-shaped head took form before his dilated eyes, and from the darkness oozed, in flowing scaly coils, the ultimate horror of reptilian development. 

It was a snake that dwarfed all Conan's previous ideas of snakes. Eighty feet it stretched from its pointed tail to its triangular head, which was bigger than that of a horse. In the dim light its scales glistened coldly, white as hoar-frost. Surely this reptile was one born and grown in darkness, yet its eyes were full of evil and sure sight. It looped its titan coils in front of the captive, and the great head on the arching neck swayed a matter of inches from his face. Its forked tongue almost brushed his lips as it darted in and out, and its fetid odor made his senses reel with nausea. The great yellow eyes burned into his, and Conan gave back the glare of a trapped wolf. He fought against the mad impulse to grasp the great arching neck in his tearing hands. Strong beyond the comprehension of civilized man, he had broken the neck of a python in a fiendish battle on the Stygian coast, in his corsair days. But this reptile was venomous; he saw the great fangs, a foot long, curved like scimitars. From them dripped a colorless liquid that he instinctively knew was death. He might conceivably crush that
wedge-shaped skull with a desperate clenched fist, but he knew that at his first hint of movement, the monster would strike like lightning. 

It was not because of any logical reasoning process that Conan remained motionless, since reason might have told him--since he was doomed anyway--to goad the snake into striking and get it over with; it was the blind black instinct of self-preservation that held him rigid as a statue blasted out of iron. Now the great barrel reared up and the head was poised high above his own, as the monster investigated the torch. A drop of venom fell on his naked thigh, and the feel of it was like a white-hot dagger driven into his flesh. Red jets of agony shot through Conan's brain, yet he held himself immovable; not by the twitching of a muscle or the flicker of an eyelash did he betray the pain of the hurt that left a scar he bore to the day of his death. 

The serpent swayed above him, as if seeking to ascertain whether there were in truth life in this figure which stood so death-like still. Then suddenly, unexpectedly, the outer door, all but invisible in the shadows, clanged stridently. The serpent, suspicious as all its kind, whipped about with a quickness incredible for its bulk, and vanished with a long-drawn slithering down the corridor. The door swung open and remained open. The grille was withdrawn and a huge dark figure was framed in the glow of torches outside. The figure glided in, pulling the grille partly to behind it, leaving the bolt poised. As it moved into the light of the torch over Conan's head, the king saw that it was a gigantic black man, stark naked, bearing in one hand a huge sword and in the other a bunch of keys. The black spoke in a sea-coast dialect, and Conan replied; he had learned the jargon while a corsair on the coasts of Kush. 

"Long have I wished to meet you, Amra," the black gave Conan the name Amra, the Lion--by which the Cimmerian had been known to the Kushites in his piratical days. The slave's woolly skull split in an animal-like grin, showing white tusks, but his eyes glinted reddish in the torchlight. "I have dared much for this meeting! Look! The keys to your chains! I stole them from Shukeli. What will you give me for them?" 

He dangled the keys in front of Conan's eyes. 

"Ten thousand golden lunas," answered the king quickly, new hope surging fiercely in his breast. 

"Not enough!" cried the black, a ferocious exultation shining on his ebon countenance. "Not enough for the risks I take. Tsotha's pets might come out of the dark and eat me, and if Shukeli finds out I stole his keys, he'll hang me up by my - well, what will you give me?" 

"Fifteen thousand lunas and a palace in Poitain," offered the king. 

The black yelled and stamped in a frenzy of barbaric gratification. "More!" he cried. 

"Offer me more! What will you give me?" 

"You black dog!" A red mist of fury swept across Conan's eyes. "Were I free I'd give you a broken back! Did Shukeli send you here to mock me?" 

"Shukeli knows nothing of my coming, white man," answered the black, craning his thick neck to peer into Conan's savage eyes. "I know you from of old, since the days when I was a chief among a free people, before the Stygians took
me and sold me into the north. Do you not remember the sack of Abombi, when your sea-wolves swarmed in? Before the palace of King Ajaga you slew a chief and a chief fled from you. It was my brother who died; it was I who fled. I demand of you a blood-price, Amra!" 

"Free me and I'll pay you your weight in gold pieces," growled Conan. 

The red eyes glittered, the white teeth flashed wolfishly in the torchlight. "Aye, you white dog, you are like all your race; but to a black man gold can never pay for blood. The price I ask is--your head!" 

The last word was a maniacal shriek that sent the echoes shivering. Conan tensed, unconsciously straining against his shackles in his abhorrence of dying like a sheep; then he was frozen by a greater horror. Over the black's shoulder he saw a vague horrific form swaying in the darkness. 

"Tsotha will never know!" laughed the black fiendishly, too engrossed in his gloating triumph to take heed of anything else, too drunk with hate to know that Death swayed behind his shoulder. "He will not come into the vaults until the demons have torn your bones from their chains. I will have your head, Amra!" 

He braced his knotted legs like ebon columns and swung up the massive sword in both hands, his great black muscles rolling and cracking in the torchlight. And at that instant the titanic shadow behind him darted down and out, and the wedge-shaped head smote with an impact that re-echoed down the tunnels. Not a sound came from the thick blubbery lips that flew wide in fleeting agony. With the thud of the stroke, Conan saw the life go out of the wide black eyes with the suddenness of a candle blown out. The blow knocked the great black body clear across the corridor and horribly the gigantic sinuous shape whipped around it in glistening coils that hid it from view, and the snap and splintering of bones came plainly to Conan's ears. Then something made his heart leap madly. The sword and the keys had flown from the black's hands to crash and jangle on the stone--and the keys lay almost at the king's feet. 

He tried to bend to them, but the chain was too short; almost suffocated by the mad pounding of his heart, he slipped one foot from its sandal, and gripped them with his toes; drawing his foot up, he grasped them fiercely, barely stifling the yell of ferocious exultation that rose instinctively to his lips. 

An instant's fumbling with the huge locks and he was free. He caught up the fallen sword and glared about. Only empty darkness met his eyes, into which the serpent had dragged a mangled, tattered object that only faintly resembled a human body. Conan turned to the open door. A few quick strides brought him to the threshold--a squeal of high-pitched laughter shrilled through the vaults, and the grille shot home under his very fingers, the bolt crashed down. Through the bars peered a face like a fiendishly mocking carven gargoyle--Shukeli the eunuch, who had followed his stolen keys. Surely he did not, in his gloating, see the sword in the prisoner's hand. With a terrible curse Conan struck as a cobra strikes; the great blade hissed between the bars and Shukeli's laughter broke in a death-scream. The fat eunuch bent at the middle, as if bowing to his killer, and crumpled like tallow, his pudgy hands clutching vainly at his spilling entrails. 

Conan snarled in savage satisfaction; but he was still a prisoner. His keys were futile against the bolt which could be worked only from the outside. His
experienced touch told him the bars were hard as the sword; an attempt to hew his way to freedom would only splinter his one weapon. Yet he found dents on those adamantine bars, like the marks of incredible fangs, and wondered with an involuntary shudder what nameless monsters had so terribly assailed the barriers. Regardless, there was but one thing for him to do, and that was to seek some other outlet. Taking the torch from the niche, he set off down the corridor, sword in hand. He saw no sign of the serpent or its victim, only a great smear of blood on the stone floor. 

Darkness stalked on noiseless feet about him, scarcely driven back by his flickering torch. On either hand he saw dark openings, but he kept to the main corridor, watching the floor ahead of him carefully, lest he fall into some pit. And suddenly he heard the sound of a woman, weeping piteously. Another of Tsotha's victims, he thought, cursing the wizard anew, and turning aside, followed the sound down a smaller tunnel, dank and damp. 

The weeping grew nearer as he advanced, and lifting his torch he made out a vague shape in the shadows. Stepping closer, he halted in sudden horror at the amorphic bulk which sprawled before him. Its unstable outlines somewhat suggested an octopus, but its malformed tentacles were too short for its size, and its substance was a quaking, jelly-like stuff which made him physically sick to look at. From among this loathsome gelid mass reared up a frog-like head, and he was frozen with nauseated horror to realize that the sound of weeping was coming from those obscene blubbery lips. The noise changed to an abominable high-pitched tittering as the great unstable eyes of the monstrosity rested on him, and it hitched its quaking bulk toward him. He backed away and fled up the tunnel, not trusting his sword. The creature might be composed of terrestrial matter, but it shook his very soul to look upon it, and he doubted the power of man-made weapons to harm it. For a short distance he heard it flopping and floundering after him, screaming with horrible laughter. The unmistakably human note in its mirth almost staggered his reason. It was exactly such laughter as he had heard bubble obscenely from the fat lips of the salacious women of Shadizar, City of Wickedness, when captive girls were stripped naked on the public auction block. By what hellish arts had Tsotha brought this unnatural being into life? Conan felt vaguely that he had looked on blasphemy against the eternal laws of nature. 

He ran toward the main corridor, but before he reached it he crossed a sort of small square chamber, where two tunnels crossed. As he reached this chamber, he was flashingly aware of some small squat bulk on the floor ahead of him; then before he could check his flight or swerve aside, his foot struck something yielding that squalled shrilly, and he was precipitated headlong, the torch flying from his hand and being extinguished as it struck the stone floor. Half stunned by his fall, Conan rose and groped in the darkness. His sense of direction was confused, and he was unable to decide in which direction lay the main corridor. He did not look for the torch, as he had no means of rekindling it. His groping hands found the openings of the tunnels, and he chose one at random. How long he traversed it in utter darkness, he never knew, but suddenly his barbarian's instinct of near peril halted him short. 

He had the same feeling he had had when standing on the brink of great precipices in the darkness. Dropping to all fours, he edged forward, and presently his outflung hand encountered the edge of a well, into which the tunnel floor dropped abruptly. As far down as he could reach the sides fell away sheer, dank and slimy to his touch. He stretched out an arm in the darkness and could barely touch the opposite edge with the point of his sword. He could leap across it, then, but there was no point in that. He had taken the wrong tunnel and the main corridor lay somewhere behind him. 

Even as he thought this, he felt a faint movement of air; a shadowy wind, rising from the well, stirred his black mane. Conan's skin crawled. He tried to tell himself that this well connected somehow with the outer world, but his instincts told him it was a thing unnatural. He was not merely inside the hill; he was below it, far below the level of the city streets. How then could an outer wind find its way into the pits and blow up from below? A faint throbbing pulsed on that ghostly wind, like drums beating, far, far below. A strong shudder shook the king of Aquilonia. 

He rose to his feet and backed away, and as he did something floated up out of the well. What it was, Conan did not know. He could see nothing in the darkness, but he distinctly felt a presence--an invisible, intangible intelligence which hovered malignly near him. Turning, he fled the way he had come. Far ahead he saw a tiny red spark. He headed for it, and long before he thought to have reached it, he caromed headlong into a solid wall, and saw the spark at his feet. It was his torch, the flame extinguished, but the end a glowing coal. Carefully he took it up and blew upon it, fanning it into flame again. He gave a sigh as the tiny blaze leaped up. He was back in the chamber where the tunnels crossed, and his sense of direction came back. 

He located the tunnel by which he had left the main corridor, and even as he started toward it, his torch flame flickered wildly as if blown upon by unseen lips. Again he felt a presence, and he lifted his torch, glaring about. 

He saw nothing; yet he sensed, somehow, an invisible, bodiless thing that hovered in the air, dripping slimily and mouthing obscenities that he could not hear but was in some instinctive way aware of. He swung viciously with his sword and it felt as if he were cleaving cobwebs. A cold horror shook him then, and he fled down the tunnel, feeling a foul burning breath on his naked back as he ran. 

But when he came out into the broad corridor, he was no longer aware of any presence, visible or invisible. Down it he went, momentarily expecting fanged and taloned fiends to leap at him from the darkness. The tunnels were not silent. From the bowels of the earth in all directions came sounds that did not belong in a sane world. There were titterings, squeals of demoniac mirth, long shuddering howls, and once the unmistakable squalling laughter of a hyena ended awfully in human words of shrieking blasphemy. He heard the pad of stealthy feet, and in the mouths of the tunnels caught glimpses of shadowy forms, monstrous and abnormal in outline. 

It was as if he had wandered into hell--a hell of Tsotha-lanti's making. But the shadowy things did not come into the great corridor, though he distinctly heard the greedy sucking-in of slavering lips, and felt the burning glare of hungry
eyes. And presently he knew why. A slithering sound behind him electrified him, and he leaped to the darkness of a near-by tunnel, shaking out his torch. Down the corridor he heard the great serpent crawling, sluggish from its recent grisly meal. From his very side something whimpered in fear and slunk away in the darkness. Evidently the main corridor was the great snake's hunting-ground and the other monsters gave it room. 

To Conan the serpent was the least horror of them; he almost felt a kinship with it when he remembered the weeping, tittering obscenity, and the dripping, mouthing thing that came out of the well. At least it was of earthly matter; it was a crawling death, but it threatened only physical extinction, whereas these other horrors menaced mind and soul as well. 

After it had passed on down the corridor he followed, at what he hoped was a safe distance, blowing his torch into flame again. He had not gone far when he heard a low moan that seemed to emanate from the black entrance of a tunnel near by. Caution warned him on, but curiosity drove him to the tunnel, holding high the torch that was now little more than a stump. He was braced for the sight of anything, yet what he saw was what he had least expected. He was looking into a broad cell, and a space of this was caged off with closely set bars extending from floor to ceiling, set firmly in the stone. Within these bars lay a figure, which, as he approached, he saw was either a man, or the exact likeness of a man, twined and bound about with the tendrils of a thick vine which seemed to grow through the solid stone of the floor. It was covered with strangely pointed leaves and crimson blossoms--not the satiny red of natural petals, but a livid, unnatural crimson, like a perversity of flower-life. Its clinging, pliant branches wound about the man's naked body and limbs, seeming to caress his shrinking flesh with lustful avid kisses. One great blossom hovered exactly over his mouth. A low bestial moaning drooled from the loose lips; the head rolled as if in unbearable agony, and the eyes looked full at Conan. But there was no light of intelligence in them; they were blank, glassy, the eyes of an idiot. 

Now the great crimson blossom dipped and pressed its petals over the writhing lips. The limbs of the wretch twisted in anguish; the tendrils of the plant quivered as if in ecstasy, vibrating their full snaky lengths. Waves of changing hues surged over them; their color grew deeper, more venomous. 

Conan did not understand what he saw, but he knew that he looked on Horror of some kind. Man or demon, the suffering of the captive touched Conan's wayward and impulsive heart. He sought for entrance and found a grille-like door in the bars, fastened with a heavy lock, for which he found a key among the keys he carried, and entered. Instantly the petals of the livid blossoms spread like the hood of a cobra, the tendrils reared menacingly and the whole plant shook and swayed toward him. Here was no blind growth of natural vegetation. Conan sensed a malignant intelligence; the plant could see him, and he felt its hate emanate from it in almost tangible waves. Stepping warily nearer, he marked the root-stem, a repulsively supple stalk thicker than his thigh, and even as the long tendrils arched toward him with a rattle of leaves and hiss, he swung his sword and cut through the stem with a single stroke. 

Instantly the wretch in its clutches was thrown violently aside as the great vine lashed and knotted like a beheaded serpent, rolling into a huge irregular ball. The tendrils thrashed and writhed, the leaves shook and rattled like castanets, and the petals opened and closed convulsively; then the whole length straightened out limply, the vivid colors paled and dimmed, a reeking white liquid oozed from the severed stump. 

Conan stared, spellbound; then a sound brought him round, sword lifted. The freed man was on his feet, surveying him. Conan gaped in wonder. No longer were the eyes in the worn face expressionless. Dark and meditative, they were alive with intelligence, and the expression of imbecility had dropped from the face like a mask. The head was narrow and well-formed, with a high splendid forehead. The whole build of the man was aristocratic, evident no less in his tall slender frame than in his small trim feet and hands. His first words were strange and startling. 

"What year is this?" he asked, speaking Kothic. 

"Today is the tenth day of the month Yuluk, of the year of the Gazelle," answered Conan. 

"Yagkoolan Ishtar!" murmured the stranger. "Ten years!" He drew a hand across his brow, shaking his head as if to clear his brain of cobwebs. "All is dim yet. After a ten-year emptiness, the mind can not be expected to begin functioning clearly at once. Who are you?" 

"Conan, once of Cimmeria. Now king of Aquilonia." 

The other's eyes showed surprise. 

"Indeed? And Namedides?" 

"I strangled him on his throne the night I took the royal city," answered Conan. 

A certain naiveté in the king's reply twitched the stranger's lips. 

"Pardon, your majesty. I should have thanked you for the service you have done me. I am like a man woken suddenly from sleep deeper than death and shot with nightmares of agony more fierce than hell, but I understand that you delivered me. Tell me--why did you cut the stem of the plant Yothga instead of tearing it up by the roots?" 

"Because I learned long ago to avoid touching with my flesh that which I do not understand," answered the Cimmerian. 

"Well for you," said the stranger. "Had you been able to tear it up, you might have found things clinging to the roots against which not even your sword would prevail. Yothga's roots are set in hell." 

"But who are you?" demanded Conan. 

"Men called me Pelias." 

"What!" cried the king. "Pelias the sorcerer, Tsotha-lanti's rival, who vanished from the earth ten years ago?" 

"Not entirely from the earth," answered Pelias with a wry smile. "Tsotha preferred to keep me alive, in shackles more grim than rusted iron. He pent me in here with this devil-flower whose seeds drifted down through the black cosmos from Yag the Accursed, and found fertile field only in the maggot-writhing corruption that seethes on the floors of hell. 

"I could not remember my sorcery and the words and symbols of my power, with that cursed thing gripping me and drinking my soul with its loathsome caresses. It sucked the contents of my mind day and night, leaving my brain as empty as a broken wine-jug. Ten years! Ishtar preserve us!" 

Conan found no reply, but stood holding the stump of the torch, and trailing his great sword. Surely the man was mad--yet there was no madness in the dark eyes that rested so calmly on him. 

"Tell me, is the black wizard in Khorshemish? But no--you need not reply. My powers begin to wake, and I sense in your mind a great battle and a king trapped by treachery. And I see Tsotha-lanti riding hard for the Tybor with Strabonus and the king of Ophir. So much the better. My art is too frail from the long slumber to face Tsotha yet. I need time to recruit my strength, to assemble my powers. Let us go forth from these pits." 

Conan jangled his keys, feeling discouraged. 

"The grille to the outer door is made fast by a bolt which can be worked only from the outside. Is there no other exit from these tunnels?" 

"Only one, which neither of us would care to use, seeing that it goes down and not up," laughed Pelias. "But no matter. Let us see to the grille." 

He moved toward the corridor with uncertain steps, as of long-unused limbs, which gradually became more sure. As he followed Conan remarked uneasily, "There is a cursed big snake creeping about this tunnel. Let us be wary lest we step into his mouth." 

"I remember him of old," answered Pelias grimly, "the more as I was forced to watch while ten of my acolytes were fed to him. He is Satha, the Old One, chief most of Tsotha's pets." 

"Did Tsotha dig these pits for no other reason than to house his cursed monstrosities?" asked Conan. 

"He did not dig them. when the city was founded three thousand years ago there were ruins of an earlier city on and about this hill. King Khossus V, the founder, built his palace on the hill, and digging cellars beneath it, came upon a walled-up doorway, which he broke into and discovered the pits, which were about as we see them now. But his grand vizier came to such a grisly end in them that Khossus in a fright walled up the entrance again. He said the vizier fell into a well--but he had the cellars filled in, and later abandoned the palace itself, and built himself another in the suburbs, from which he fled in a panic on discovering some black mold scattered on the marble floor of his palace one morning. 

"He then departed with his whole court to the eastern corner of the kingdom and built a new city. The palace on the hill was not used and fell into ruins. When Akkutho I revived the lost glories of Khorshemish, he built a fortress there. It remained for Tsotha-lanti to rear the scarlet citadel and open the way to the pits again. Whatever fate overtook the grand vizier of Khossus, Tsotha avoided it. He fell into no well, though he did descend into a well he found, and came out with a strange expression which has not since left his eyes. 

"I have seen that well, but I do not care to seek in it for wisdom. I am a sorcerer, and older than men reckon, but I am human. As for Tsotha--men say
that a dancing girl of Shadizar slept too near the pre-human ruins on Dagoth Hill and woke in the grip of a black demon; from that unholy union was spawned an accursed hybrid men call Tsotha-lanti -" 

Conan cried out sharply and recoiled, thrusting his companion back. Before them rose the great shimmering white form of Satha, an ageless hate in its eyes. Conan tensed himself for one mad berserker onslaught--to thrust the glowing fagot into that fiendish countenance and throw his life into the ripping swordstroke. But the snake was not looking at him. It was glaring over his shoulder at the man called Pelias, who stood with his arms folded, smiling. And in the great cold yellow eyes slowly the hate died out in a glitter of pure fear--the only time Conan ever saw such an expression in a reptile's eyes. With a swirling rush like the sweep of a strong wind, the great snake was gone. 

"What did he see to frighten him?" asked Conan, eyeing his companion uneasily. 

"The scaled people see what escapes the mortal eye," answered Pelias, cryptically. "You see my fleshly guise; he saw my naked soul." 

An icy trickle disturbed Conan's spine, and he wondered if, after all, Pelias were a man, or merely another demon of the pits in a mask of humanity. He contemplated the advisability of driving his sword through his companion's back without further hesitation. But while he pondered, they came to the steel grille, etched blackly in the torches beyond, and the body of Shukeli, still slumped against the bars in a curdled welter of crimson. 

Pelias laughed, and his laugh was not pleasant to hear. 

"By the ivory hips of Ishtar, who is our doorman? Lo, it is no less than the noble Shukeli, who hanged my young men by their feet and skinned them with squeals of laughter! Do you sleep, Shukeli? Why do you lie so stiffly, with your fat belly sunk in like a dressed pig's?" 

"He is dead," muttered Conan, ill at ease to hear these wild words. 

"Dead or alive," laughed Pelias, "he shall open the door for us." 

He clapped his hands sharply and cried, "Rise, Shukeli! Rise from hell and rise from the bloody floor and open the door for your masters! Rise, I say!" 

An awful groan reverberated through the vaults. Conan's hair stood on end and he felt clammy sweat bead his hide. For the body of Shukeli stirred and moved, with infantile gropings of the fat hands. The laughter of Pelias was merciless as a flint hatchet, as the form of the eunuch reeled upright, clutching at the bars of the grille. Conan, glaring at him, felt his blood turn to ice, and the marrow of his bones to water; for Shukeli's wide-open eyes were glassy and empty, and from the great gash in his belly his entrails hung limply to the floor. The eunuch's feet stumbled among his entrails as he worked the bolt, moving like a brainless automaton. When he had first stirred, Conan had thought that by some incredible chance the eunuch was alive; but the man was dead--had been dead for hours. 

Pelias sauntered through the opened grille, and Conan crowded through behind him, sweat pouring from his body, shrinking away from the awful shape that slumped on sagging legs against the grate it held open. Pelias passed on without a backward glance, and Conan followed him, in the grip of nightmare and
nausea. He had not taken half a dozen strides when a sodden thud brought him round. Shukeli's corpse lay limply at the foot of the grille. 

"His task is done, and hell gapes for him again," remarked Pelias pleasantly; politely affecting not to notice the strong shudder which shook Conan's mighty frame. 

He led the way up the long stairs, and through the brass skull-crowned door at the top. Conan gripped his sword, expecting a rush of slaves, but silence gripped the citadel. They passed through the black corridor and came into that in which the censers swung, billowing forth their everlasting incense. Still they saw no one. 

"The slaves and soldiers are quartered in another part of the citadel," remarked Pelias. "Tonight, their master being away, they doubtless lie drunk on wine or lotus-juice." 

Conan glanced through an arched, golden-silled window that let out upon a broad balcony, and swore in surprise to see the dark-blue star-flecked sky. It had been shortly after sunrise when he was thrown into the pits. Now it was past midnight. He could scarcely realize he had been so long underground. He was suddenly aware of thirst and a ravenous appetite. Pelias led the way into a gold domed chamber, floored with silver, its lapis-lazuli walls pierced by the fretted arches of many doors. 

With a sigh Pelias sank onto a silken divan. 

"Gold and silks again," he sighed. "Tsotha affects to be above the pleasures of the flesh, but he is half devil. I am human, despite my black arts. I love ease and good cheer--that's how Tsotha trapped me. He caught me helpless with drink. Wine is a curse--by the ivory bosom of Ishtar, even as I speak of it, the traitor is here! Friend, please pour me a goblet--hold! I forgot that you are a king. I will pour." 

"The devil with that," growled Conan, filling a crystal goblet and proffering it to Pelias. Then, lifting the jug, he drank deeply from the mouth, echoing Pelias' sigh of satisfaction. 

"The dog knows good wine," said Conan, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. "But by Crom, Pelias, are we to sit here until his soldiers awake and cut our throats?" 

"No fear," answered Pelias. "Would you like to see how fortune holds with Strabonus?" 

Blue fire burned in Conan's eyes, and he gripped his sword until his knuckles showed blue. "Oh, to be at sword-points with him!" he rumbled. 

Pelias lifted a great shimmering globe from an ebony table. 

"Tsotha's crystal. A childish toy, but useful when there is lack of time for higher science. Look in, your majesty." 

He laid it on the table before Conan's eyes. The king looked into cloudy depths which deepened and expanded. Slowly images crystallized out of mist and shadows. He was looking on a familiar landscape. Broad plains ran to a wide winding river, beyond which the level lands ran up quickly into a maze of low hills. On the northern bank of the river stood a walled town, guarded by a moat connected at each end with the river. 

"By Crom!" ejaculated Conan. "It's Shamar! The dogs besiege it!" 

The invaders had crossed the river; their pavilions stood in the narrow plain between the city and the hills. Their warriors swarmed about the walls, their mail gleaming palely under the moon. Arrows and stones rained on them from the towers and they staggered back, but came on again. 

Even as Conan cursed, the scene changed. Tall spires and gleaming domes stood up in the mist, and he looked on his own capital of Tamar, where all was confusion. He saw the steel-clad knights of Poitain, his staunchest supporters, riding out of the gate, hooted and hissed by the multitude which swarmed the streets. He saw looting and rioting, and men-at-arms whose shields bore the insignia of Pellia, manning the towers and swaggering through the markets. Over all, like a phantasmal mirage, he saw the dark, triumphant face of Prince Arpello of Pellia. The images faded. 

"So!" raved Conan. "My people turn on me the moment my back is turned -" 

"Not entirely," broke in Pelias. "They have heard that you are dead. There is no one to protect them from outer enemies and civil war, they think. Naturally, they turn to the strongest noble, to avoid the horrors of anarchy. They do not trust the Poitanians, remembering former wars. But Arpello is on hand, and the strongest prince of the central provinces." 

"When I come to Aquilonia again he will be but a headless corpse rotting on Traitor's Common," Conan ground his teeth. 

"Yet before you can reach your capital," reminded Pelias, "Strabonus may be before you. At least his riders will be ravaging your kingdom." 

"True!" Conan paced the chamber like a caged lion. "With the fastest horse I could not reach Shamar before midday. Even there I could do no good except to die with the people, when the town falls--as fall it will in a few days at most. From Shamar to Tamar is five days' ride, even if you kill your horses on the road. Before I could reach my capital and raise an army, Strabonus would be hammering at the gates; because raising an army is going to be hell--all my damnable nobles will have scattered to their own cursed fiefs at the word of my death. And since the people have driven out Trocero of Poitain, there's none to keep Arpello's greedy hands off the crown--and the crown-treasure. He'll hand the country over to Strabonus, in return for a mock-throne--and as soon as Strabonus' back is turned, he'll stir up revolt. But the nobles won't support him, and it will only give Strabonus excuse for annexing the kingdom openly. Oh Crom, Ymir, and Set! If I but had wings to fly like lightning to Tamar!" 

Pelias, who sat tapping the jade table-top with his finger-nails, halted suddenly, and rose as with a definite purpose, beckoning Conan to follow. The king complied, sunk in moody thoughts, and Pelias led the way out of the chamber and up a flight of marble, gold-worked stairs that let out on the pinnacle of the citadel, the roof of the tallest tower. It was night, and a strong wind was blowing through the star-filled skies, stirring Conan's black mane. Far below them twinkled the lights of Khorshemish, seemingly farther away than the stars above them. Pelias seemed withdrawn and aloof here, one in cold unhuman greatness with the company of the stars. 

"There are creatures," said Pelias, "not alone of earth and sea, but of air and the far reaches of the skies as well, dwelling apart, unguessed of men. Yet to him who holds the Master-words and Signs and the Knowledge underlying all, they are not malignant nor inaccessible. Watch, and fear not." 

He lifted his hands to the skies and sounded a long weird call that seemed to shudder endlessly out into space, dwindling and fading, yet never dying out, only receding farther and farther into some unreckoned cosmos. In the silence that followed, Conan heard a sudden beat of wings in the stars, and recoiled as a huge bat-like creature alighted beside him. He saw its great calm eyes regarding him in the starlight; he saw the forty-foot spread of its giant wings. And he saw it was neither bat nor bird. 

"Mount and ride," said Pelias. "By dawn it will bring you to Tamar." 

"By Crom!" muttered Conan. "Is this all a nightmare from which I shall presently awaken in my palace at Tamar? What of you? I would not leave you alone among your enemies." 

"Be at ease regarding me," answered Pelias. "At dawn the people of Khorshemish will know they have a new master. Doubt not what the gods have sent you. I will meet you in the plain by Shamar." 

Doubtfully Conan clambered upon the ridged back, gripping the arched neck, still convinced that he was in the grasp of a fantastic nightmare. With a great rush and thunder of titan wings, the creature took the air, and the king grew dizzy as he saw the lights of the city dwindle far below him.

Chapter 4 - The sword that slays the king cuts the cords of the empire

The streets of Tamar swarmed with howling mobs, shaking fists and rusty pikes. It was the hour before dawn of the second day after the battle of Shamu, and events had occurred so swiftly as to daze the mind. By means known only to Tsotha-lanti, word had reached Tamar of the king's death, within half a dozen hours after the battle. Chaos had resulted. The barons had deserted the royal capital, galloping away to secure their castles against marauding neighbors. The well-knit kingdom Conan had built up seemed tottering on the edge of dissolution, and commoners and merchants trembled at the imminence of a return of the feudalistic regime. The people howled for a king to protect them against their own aristocracy no less than foreign foes. Count Trocero, left by Conan in charge of the city, tried to reassure them, but in their unreasoning terror they remembered old civil wars, and how this same count had besieged Tamar fifteen years before. It was shouted in the streets that Trocero had betrayed the king; that he planned to plunder the city. The mercenaries began looting the quarters, dragging forth screaming merchants and terrified women. 

Trocero swept down on the looters, littered the streets with their corpses, drove them back into their quarter in confusion, and arrested their leaders. Still the people rushed wildly about, with brainless squawks, screaming that the count had incited the riot for his own purposes. 

Prince Arpello came before the distracted council and announced himself ready to take over the government of the city until a new king could be decided
upon, Conan having no son. While they debated, his agents stole subtly among the people, who snatched at a shred of royalty. The council heard the storm outside the palace windows, where the multitude roared for Arpello the Rescuer. The council surrendered. 

Trocero at first refused the order to give up his baton of authority, but the people swarmed about him, hissing and howling, hurling stones and offal at his knights. Seeing the futility of a pitched battle in the streets with Arpello's retainers, under such conditions, Trocero hurled the baton in his rival's face, hanged the leaders of the mercenaries in the market-square as his last official act, and rode out of the southern gate at the head of his fifteen hundred steelclad knights. The gates slammed behind him and Arpello's suave mask fell away to reveal the grim visage of the hungry wolf. 

With the mercenaries cut to pieces or hiding in their barracks, his were the only soldiers in Tamar. Sitting his war-horse in the great square, Arpello proclaimed himself king of Aquilonia, amid the clamor of the deluded multitude. 

Publius the Chancellor, who opposed this move, was thrown into prison. The merchants, who had greeted the proclamation of a king with relief, now found with consternation that the new monarch's first act was to levy a staggering tax on them. Six rich merchants, sent as a delegation of protest, were seized and their heads slashed off without ceremony. A shocked and stunned silence followed this execution. The merchants, confronted by a power they could not control with money, fell on their fat bellies and licked their oppressor's boots. 

The common people were not perturbed at the fate of the merchants, but they began to murmur when they found that the swaggering Pellian soldiery, pretending to maintain order, were as bad as Turanian bandits. Complaints of extortion, murder and rape poured in to Arpello, who had taken up his quarters in Publius' palace, because the desperate councillors, doomed by his order, were holding the royal palace against his soldiers. He had taken possession of the pleasure-palace, however, and Conan's girls were dragged to his quarters. The people muttered at the sight of the royal beauties writhing in the brutal hands of the iron-clad retainers dark-eyed damsels of Poitain, slim black-haired wenches from Zamora, Zingara and Hyrkania, Brythunian girls with tousled yellow heads, all weeping with fright and shame, unused to brutality. Night fell on a city of bewilderment and turmoil, and before midnight word spread mysteriously in the street that the Kothians had followed up their victory and were hammering at the walls of Shamar. Somebody in Tsotha's mysterious secret-service had babbled. Fear shook the people like an earthquake, and they did not even pause to wonder at the witchcraft by which the news had been so swiftly transmitted. They stormed at Arpello's doors, demanding that he march southward and drive the enemy back over the Tybor. He might have subtly pointed out that his force was not sufficient, and that he could not raise an army until the barons recognized his claim to the crown. But he was drunk with power, and laughed in their faces. 

A young student, Athemides, mounted a column in the market, and with burning words accused Arpello of being a cats-paw for Strabonus, painting a vivid picture of existence under Kothian rule, with Arpello as satrap. Before he
finished, the multitude was screaming with fear and howling with rage. Arpello sent his soldiers to arrest the youth, but the people caught him up and fled with him, deluging the pursuing retainers with stones and dead cats. A volley of crossbow quarrels routed the mob, and a charge of horsemen littered the market with bodies, but Athemides was smuggled out of the city to plead with Trocero to retake Tamar, and march to aid Shamar. 

Athemides found Trocero breaking his camp outside the walls, ready to march to Poitain, in the far south-western corner of the kingdom. To the youth's urgent pleas he answered that he had neither the force necessary to storm Tamar, even with the aid of the mob inside, nor to face Strabonus. Besides, avaricious nobles would plunder Poitain behind his back, while he was fighting the Kothians. With the king dead, each man must protect his own. He was riding to Poitain, there to defend it as best he might against Arpello and his foreign allies. 

While Athemides pleaded with Trocero, the mob still raved in the city with helpless fury. Under the great tower beside the royal palace the people swirled and milled, screaming their hate at Arpello, who stood on the turrets and laughed down at them while his archers ranged the parapets, bolts drawn and fingers on the triggers of their arbalests. 

The prince of Pellia was a broad-built man of medium height, with a dark stern face. He was an intriguer, but he was also a fighter. Under his silken jupon with its gilt-braided skirts and jagged sleeves, glimmered burnished steel. His long black hair was curled and scented, and bound back with a cloth-of-silver band, but at his hip hung a broadsword the jewelled hilt of which was worn with battles and campaigns. 

"Fools! Howl as you will! Conan is dead and Arpello is king!" 

What if all Aquilonia were leagued against him? He had men enough to hold the mighty walls until Strabonus came up. But Aquilonia was divided against itself. Already the barons were girding themselves each to seize his neighbor's treasure. Arpello had only the helpless mob to deal with. Strabonus would carve through the loose lines of the warring barons as a galley-ram through foam, and until his coming, Arpello had only to hold the royal capital. 

"Fools! Arpello is king!" 

The sun was rising over the eastern towers. Out of the crimson dawn came a flying speck that grew to a bat, then to an eagle. Then all who saw screamed in amazement, for over the walls of Tamar swooped a shape such as men knew only in half-forgotten legends, and from between its titan-wings sprang a human form as it roared over the great tower. Then with a deafening thunder of wings it was gone, and the folk blinked, wondering if they dreamed. But on the turret stood a wild barbaric figure, half naked, blood-stained, brandishing a great sword. And from the multitude rose a roar that rocked the towers, "The king! It is the king!" 

Arpello stood transfixed; then with a cry he drew and leaped at Conan. With a lion-like roar the Cimmerian parried the whistling blade, then dropping his own sword, gripped the prince and heaved him high above his head by crotch and neck. 

"Take your plots to hell with you!" he roared, and like a sack of salt, he hurled the prince of Pellia far out, to fall through empty space for a hundred and fifty feet. The people gave back as the body came hurtling down, to smash on the marble pave, spattering blood and brains, and lie crushed in its splintered armor, like a mangled beetle. 

The archers on the tower shrank back, their nerve broken. They fled, and the beleaguered councilmen sallied from the palace and hewed into them with joyous abandon. Pellian knights and men-at-arms sought safety in the streets, and the crowd tore them to pieces. In the streets the fighting milled and eddied, plumed helmets and steel caps tossed among the tousled heads and then vanished; swords hacked madly in a heaving forest of pikes, and over all rose the roar of the mob, shouts of acclaim mingling with screams of blood-lust and howls of agony. And high above all, the naked figure of the king rocked and swayed on the dizzy battlements, mighty arms brandished, roaring with gargantuan laughter that mocked all mobs and princes, even himself.

Chapter 5 - A long bow and a strong bow, and let the sky grow dark!

The mid-afternoon sun glinted on the placid waters of the Tybor, washing the southern bastions of Shamar. The haggard defenders knew that few of them would see that sun rise again. The pavilions of the besiegers dotted the plain. The people of Shamar had not been able successfully to dispute the crossing of the river, outnumbered as they were. Barges, chained together, made a bridge over which the invader poured his hordes. Strabonus had not dared march on into Aquilonia with Shamar, unsubdued, at his back. He had sent his light riders, his spahis, inland to ravage the country, and had reared up his siege engines in the plain. He had anchored a flotilla of boats, furnished him by Amalrus, in the middle of the stream, over against the river-wall. Some of these boats had been sunk by stones from the city's ballistae, which crashed through their decks and ripped out their planking, but the rest held their places and from their bows and mast-heads, protected by mandets, archers raked the riverward turrets. These were Shemites, born with bows in their hands, not to be matched by Aquilonian archers. 

On the landward side mangonels rained boulders and tree-trunks among the defenders, shattering through roofs and crushing humans like beetles; rams pounded incessantly at the stones; sappers burrowed like moles in the earth, sinking their mines beneath the towers. The moat had been dammed at the upper end, and emptied of its water, had been filled up with boulders, earth and dead horses and men. Under the walls the mailed figures swarmed, battering at the gates, rearing up, scaling the ladders, pushing storming-towers, thronged with spearmen, against the turrets. Hope had been abandoned in the city, where a bare fifteen hundred men resisted forty thousand warriors. No word had come from the kingdom whose outpost the city was. Conan was dead, so the invaders shouted exultantly. Only the strong walls and the desperate courage of the defenders had kept them so long at bay, and that could not suffice for ever. The western wall was a mass of
rubbish on which the defenders stumbled in hand-to-hand conflict with the invaders. The other walls were buckling from the mines beneath them, the towers leaning drunkenly. 

Now the attackers were massing for a storm. The oliphants sounded, the steel-clad ranks drew up on the plain. The storming-towers, covered with raw bull-hides, rumbled forward. The people of Shamar saw the banners of Koth and Ophir, flying side by side, in the center, and made out, among their gleaming knights, the slim lethal figure of the golden-mailed Amalrus, and the squat blackarmored form of Strabonus. And between them was a shape that made the bravest blench with horror--a lean vulture figure in a filmy robe. The pikemen moved forward, flowing over the ground like the glinting waves of a river of molten steel; the knights cantered forward, lances lifted, guidons streaming. The warriors on the walls drew a long breath, consigned their souls to Mitra, and gripped their notched and red-stained weapons. 

Then without warning, a bugle-call cut the din. A drum of hoofs rose above the rumble of the approaching host. North of the plain across which the army moved, rose ranges of low hills, mounting northward and westward like giant stair-steps. Now down out of these hills, like spume blown before a storm, shot the spahis who had been laying waste the countryside, riding low and spurring hard, and behind them sun shimmered on moving ranks of steel. They moved into full view, out of the defiles--mailed horsemen, the great lion banner of Aquilonia floating over them. 

From the electrified watchers on the towers a great shout rent the skies. In ecstasy warriors clashed their notched swords on their riven shields, and the people of the town, ragged beggars and rich merchants, harlots in red kirtles and dames in silks and satins, fell to their knees and cried out for joy to Mitra, tears of gratitude streaming down their faces. 

Strabonus, frantically shouting orders, with Arbanus, that would wheel around the ponderous lines to meet this unexpected menace, grunted, "We still outnumber them, unless they have reserves hidden in the hills. The men on the battle-towers can mask any sorties from the city. These are Poitanians--we might have guessed Trocero would try some such mad gallantry." 

Amalrus cried out in unbelief. 

"I see Trocero and his captain Prospero--but who rides between them?" 

"Ishtar preserve us!" shrieked Strabonus, paling. "It is King Conan!" 

"You are mad!" squalled Tsotha, starting convulsively. "Conan has been in Satha's belly for days!" He stopped short, glaring wildly at the host which was dropping down, file by file, into the plain. He could not mistake the giant figure in black, gilt-worked armor on the great black stallion, riding beneath the billowing silken folds of the great banner. A scream of feline fury burst from Tsotha's lips, flecking his beard with foam. For the first time in his life, Strabonus saw the wizard completely upset, and shrank from the sight. 

"Here is sorcery!" screamed Tsotha, clawing madly at his beard. "How could he have escaped and reached his kingdom in time to return with an army so quickly? This is the work of Pelias, curse him! I feel his hand in this! May I be cursed for not killing him when I had the power!" 

The kings gaped at the mention of a man they believed ten years dead, and panic, emanating from the leaders, shook the host. All recognized the rider on the black stallion. Tsotha felt the superstitious dread of his men, and fury made a hellish mask of his face. 

"Strike home!" he screamed, brandishing his lean arms madly. "We are still the stronger! Charge and crush these dogs! We shall yet feast in the ruins of Shamar tonight! Oh, Set!" he lifted his hands and invoked the serpent-god to even Strabonus' horror, "grant us victory and I swear I will offer up to thee five hundred virgins of Shamar, writhing in their blood!" 

Meanwhile the opposing host had debouched onto the plain. With the knights came what seemed a second, irregular army on tough swift ponies. These dismounted and formed their ranks on foot--stolid Bossonian archers, and keen pikemen from Gunderland, their tawny locks blowing from under their steel caps. 

It was a motley army Conan had assembled, in the wild hours following his return to his capital. He had beaten the frothing mob away from the Pellian soldiers who held the outer walls of Tamar, and impressed them into his service. He had sent a swift rider after Trocero to bring him back. With these as a nucleus of an army he had raced southward, sweeping the countryside for recruits and for mounts. Nobles of Tamar and the surrounding countryside had augmented his forces, and he had levied recruits from every village and castle along his road. Yet it was but a paltry force he had gathered to dash against the invading hosts, though of the quality of tempered steel. 

Nineteen hundred armored horsemen followed him, the main bulk of which consisted of the Poitanian knights. The remnants of the mercenaries and professional soldiers in the trains of loyal noblemen made up his infantry--five thousand archers and four thousand pikemen. This host now came on in good order--first the archers, then the pikemen, behind them the knights, moving at a walk. 

Over against them Arbanus ordered his lines, and the allied army moved forward like a shimmering ocean of steel. The watchers on the city walls shook to see that vast host, which overshadowed the powers of the rescuers. First marched the Shemitish archers, then the Kothian spearmen, then the mailed knights of Strabonus and Amalrus. Arbanus' intent was obvious--to employ his footmen to sweep away the infantry of Conan, and open the way for an overpowering charge of his heavy cavalry. 

The Shemites opened fire at five hundred yards, and arrows flew like hail between the hosts, darkening the sun. The western archers, trained by a thousand years of merciless warfare with the Pictish savages, came stolidly on, closing their ranks as their comrades fell. They were far outnumbered, and the Shemitish bow had the longer range, but in accuracy the Bossonians were equal to their foes, and they balanced sheer skill in archery by superiority in morale, and in excellency of armor. Within good range they loosed, and the Shemites went down by whole ranks. The blue-bearded warriors in their light mail shirts could not endure punishment as could the heavier-armored Bossonians. They broke, throwing away their bows, and their flight disordered the ranks of the Kothian spearmen behind them. 

Without the support of the archers, these men-at-arms fell by the hundreds before the shafts of the Bossonians, and charging madly in to close quarters, they were met by the spears of the pikemen. No infantry was a match for the wild Gundermen, whose homeland, the northern-most province of Aquilonia, was but a day's ride across the Bossonian marches from the borders of Cimmeria, and who, born and bred to battle, were the purest blood of all the Hyborian peoples. The Kothian spearmen, dazed by their losses from arrows, were cut to pieces and fell back in disorder. 

Strabonus roared in fury as he saw his infantry repulsed, and shouted for a general charge. Arbanus demurred, pointing out the Bossonians re-forming in good order before the Aquilonian knights, who had sat their steeds motionless during the melee. The general advised a temporary retirement, to draw the western knights out of the cover of the bows, but Strabonus was mad with rage. He looked at the long shimmering ranks of his knights, he glared at the handful of mailed figures over against him, and he commanded Arbanus to give the order to charge. 

The general commended his soul to Ishtar and sounded the golden oliphant. With a thunderous roar the forest of lances dipped, and the great host rolled across the plain, gaining momentum as it came. The whole plain shook to the rumbling avalanche of hoofs, and the shimmer of gold and steel dazzled the watchers on the towers of Shamar. 

The squadrons clave the loose ranks of the spearmen, riding down friend and foe alike, and rushed into the teeth of a blast of arrows from the Bossonians. Across the plain they thundered, grimly riding the storm that scattered their way with gleaming knights like autumn leaves. Another hundred paces and they would ride among the Bossonians and cut them down like corn; but flesh and blood could not endure the rain of death that now ripped and howled among them. Shoulder to shoulder, feet braced wide, stood the archers, drawing shaft to ear and loosing as one man, with deep, short shouts. 

The whole front rank of the knights melted away, and over the pincushioned corpses of horses and riders, their comrades stumbled and fell headlong. Arbanus was down, an arrow through his throat, his skull smashed by the hoofs of his dying war-horse, and confusion ran through the disordered host. Strabonus was screaming an order, Amalrus another, and through all ran the superstitious dread the sight of Conan had awakened. 

And while the gleaming ranks milled in confusion, the trumpets of Conan sounded, and through the opening ranks of the archers crashed the terrible charge of the Aquilonian knights. 

The hosts met with a shock like that of an earthquake, that shook the tottering towers of Shamar. The disorganized squadrons of the invaders could not withstand the solid steel wedge, bristling with spears, that rushed like a thunderbolt against them. The long lances of the attackers ripped their ranks to pieces, and into the heart of their host rode the knights of Poitain, swinging their terrible two-handed swords. 

The clash and clangor of steel was as that of a million sledges on as many anvils. The watchers on the walls were stunned and deafened by the thunder as they gripped the battlements and watched the steel maelstrom swirl and eddy, where plumes tossed high among the flashing swords, and standards dipped and reeled. 

Amalrus went down, dying beneath the trampling hoofs, his shoulder-bone hewn in twain by Prospero's two-handed sword. The invaders' numbers had engulfed the nineteen hundred knights of Conan, but about this compact wedge, which hewed deeper and deeper into the looser formation of their foes, the knights of Koth and Ophir swirled and smote in vain. They could not break the wedge. 

Archers and pikemen, having disposed of the Kothian infantry which was strewn in flight across the plain, came to the edges of the fight, loosing their arrows point-blank, running in to slash at girths and horses' bellies with their knives, thrusting upward to spit the riders on their long pikes. 

At the tip of the steel wedge Conan roared his heathen battle-cry and swung his great sword in glittering arcs that made naught of steel burgonet or mail habergeon. Straight through a thundering waste of foes he rode, and the knights of Koth closed in behind him, cutting him off from his warriors. As a thunderbolt strikes, Conan struck, hurtling through the ranks by sheer power and velocity, until he came to Strabonus, livid among his palace troops. Now here the battle hung in balance, for with his superior numbers, Strabonus still had opportunity to pluck victory from the knees of the gods. 

But he screamed when he saw his arch-foe within arm's length at last, and lashed out wildly with his axe. It clanged on Conan's helmet, striking fire, and the Cimmerian reeled and struck back. The five-foot blade crushed Strabonus' casque and skull, and the king's charger reared screaming, hurling a limp and sprawling corpse from the saddle. A great cry went up from the host, which faltered and gave back. Trocero and his house troops, hewing desperately, cut their way to Conan's side, and the great banner of Koth went down. Then behind the dazed and stricken invaders went up a mighty clamor and the blaze of a huge conflagration. The defenders of Shamar had made a desperate sortie, cut down the men masking the gates, and were raging among the tents of the besiegers, cutting down the camp followers, burning the pavilions, and destroying the siege engines. It was the last straw. The gleaming army melted away in flight, and the furious conquerors cut them down as they ran. 

The fugitives raced for the river, but the men on the flotilla, harried sorely by the stones and shafts of the revived citizens, cast loose and pulled for the southern shore, leaving their comrades to their fate. Of these many gained the shore, racing across the barges that served as a bridge, until the men of Shamar cut these adrift and severed them from the shore. Then the fight became a slaughter. Driven into the river to drown in their armor, or hacked down along the bank, the invaders perished by the thousands. No quarter they had promised; no quarter they got. 

From the foot of the low hills to the shores of the Tybor, the plain was littered with corpses, and the river whose tide ran red, floated thick with the dead.
Of the nineteen hundred knights who had ridden south with Conan, scarcely five hundred lived to boast of their scars, and the slaughter among the archers and pikemen was ghastly. But the great and shining host of Strabonus and Amalrus was hacked out of existence, and those that fled were less than those that died. 

While the slaughter yet went on along the river, the final act of a grim drama was being played out in the meadowland beyond. Among those who had crossed the barge-bridge before it was destroyed was Tsotha, riding like the wind on a gaunt weird-looking steed whose stride no natural horse could match. Ruthlessly riding down friend and foe, he gained the southern bank, and then a glance backward showed him a grim figure on a great black stallion in pursuit. The lashings had already been cut, and the barges were drifting apart, but Conan came recklessly on, leaping his steed from boat to boat as a man might leap from one cake of floating ice to another. Tsotha screamed a curse, but the great stallion took the last leap with a straining groan, and gained the southern bank. Then the wizard fled away into the empty meadowland, and on his trail came the king, riding hard, swinging the great sword that spattered his trail with crimson drops. 

On they fled, the hunted and the hunter, and not a foot could the black stallion gain, though he strained each nerve and thew. Through a sunset land of dim and illusive shadows they fled, till sight and sound of the slaughter died out behind them. Then in the sky appeared a dot, that grew into a huge eagle as it approached. Swooping down from the sky, it drove at the head of Tsotha's steed, which screamed and reared, throwing its rider. 

Old Tsotha rose and faced his pursuer, his eyes those of a maddened serpent, his face an inhuman mask. In each hand he held something that shimmered, and Conan knew he held death there. 

The king dismounted and strode toward his foe, his armor clanking, his great sword gripped high. 

"Again we meet, wizard!" he grinned savagely. 

"Keep off" screamed Tsotha like a blood-mad jackal. "I'll blast the flesh from your bones! You can not conquer me--if you hack me in pieces, the bits of flesh and bone will reunite and haunt you to your doom! I see the hand of Pelias in this, but I defy ye both! I am Tsotha, son of -" 

Conan rushed, sword gleaming, eyes slits of wariness. Tsotha's right hand came back and forward, and the king ducked quickly. Something passed by his helmeted head and exploded behind him, searing the very sands with a flash of hellish fire. Before Tsotha could toss the globe in his left hand, Conan's sword sheared through his lean neck. The wizard's head shot from his shoulders on an arching fount of blood, and the robed figure staggered and crumpled drunkenly. Yet the mad black eyes glared up at Conan with no dimming of their feral light, the lips writhed awfully, and the hands groped, as if searching for the severed head. Then with a swift rush of wings, something swooped from the sky--the eagle which had attacked Tsotha's horse. In its mighty talons it snatched up the dripping head and soared skyward, and Conan stood struck dumb, for from the eagle's throat boomed human laughter, in the voice of Pelias the sorcerer. 

Then a hideous thing came to pass, for the headless body reared up from the sand, and staggered away in awful flight on stiffening legs, hands blindly outstretched toward the dot speeding and dwindling in the dusky sky. Conan stood like one turned to stone, watching until the swift reeling figure faded in the dusk that purpled the meadows. 

"Crom!" his mighty shoulders twitched. "A murrain on these wizardly feuds! Pelias has dealt well with me, but I care not if I see him no more. Give me a clean sword and a clean foe to flesh it in. Damnation! What would I not give for a flagon of wine!"

THE END

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