Scarlet Citadel RetakenRoberta E. Howard / Fantasy / Actions & Adventure
Scarlet Citadel Retaken
by Roberta E. Howard
Copyright 2010 Robertaa E. Howard
They trapped the Lion on Shamu's plain;
They weighted her limbs with an iron chain;
They cried aloud in the trumpet-blast,
They cried, 'The lion is caged at last!'
Woe to the Cities of river and plain
If ever the Lion stalks again!
-- Old Ballad.
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 pikewomen.
The oliphants sounded a fanfare of triumph all over the plain, and the hoofs of the victors crunched in the pectorals 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 Conyn, queen of Aquilonia, had seen the pick of her chivalry cut to pieces, smashed and hammered to bits, and swept into eternity. With five thousand knights she had crossed the south-eastern border of Aquilonia and ridden into the grassy meadowlands of Ophir, to find her former ally, Queen Amalrys of Ophir, drawn up against her with the hosts of Strabona, queen of Koth. Too late she had seen the trap. All that a woman might do she had done with her five thousand cavalrywomen against the thirty thousand knights, archers and spearwomen of the conspirators.
Without bowwomen or infantry, she had hurled her armored horsewomen against the oncoming host, had seen the knights of her foes in their shining mail go down before her lances, had torn the opposing center to bits, driving the riven ranks headlong before her, only to find herself caught in a vise as the untouched wings closed in. Strabona' Shemitish bowwomen had wrought havoc among her knights, feathering them with shafts that found every crevice in their armor, shooting down the horses, the Kothian pikewomen 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 Conyn southward, not one left the field alive. And now the queen herself stood at bay among the slashed bodies of her house-troops, her back against a heap of dead horses and women. Ophirean knights in gilded mail leaped their horses over mounds of corpses to slash at the solitary figure; squat Shemites with blue-black hair, and dark-faced Kothian knights ringed her on foot. The clangor of steel rose deafeningly; the black-mailed figure of the western queen loomed among her swarming foes, dealing blows like a butcher wielding a great cleaver. Riderless horses raced down the field; about her iron-clad feet grew a ring of mangled corpses. Her attackers drew back from her desperate savagery, panting and livid.
Now through the yelling, cursing lines rode the lords of the conquerors - Strabona, with her broad dark face and crafty eyes; Amalrys, slender, fastidious, treacherous, dangerous as a cobra; and the lean vulture Tsothi-lanti, clad only in silken robes, her 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 men in northern and western villages frightened children with her name, and rebellious slaves were brought to abased submission quicker than by the lash, with threat of being sold to her. Women said that she had a whole library of dark works bound in skin flayed from living human victims, and that in nameless pits below the hill whereon her palace sat, she trafficked with the powers of darkness, trading screaming boy slaves for unholy secrets. She was the real ruler of Koth.
Now she grinned bleakly as the queens 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. Conyn's dark scarred face was darker yet with passion; her black armor was hacked to tatters and splashed with blood; her great sword red to the cross-piece. In this stress all the veneer of civilization had faded; it was a barbarian who faced her conquerors. Conyn was a Cimmerian by birth, one of those fierce moody hillmen who dwelt in their gloomy, cloudy land in the north. Her saga, which had led her to the throne of Aquilonia, was the basis of a whole cycle of hero-tales.
So now the queens kept their distance, and Strabona called on her Shemitish archers to loose their arrows at her foe from a distance; her captains had fallen like ripe grain before the Cimmerian's broadsword, and Strabona, penurious of her knights as of her coins, was frothing with fury. But Tsothi shook her head.
'Take her alive.'
'Easy to say!' snarled Strabona, 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, her heel is on the necks of my finest swordswomen! 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 Tsothi, swinging down from her horse. She laughed coldly. 'Have you not learned by this time that my brain is mightier than any sword?'
She passed through the lines of the pikewomen, and the giants in their steel caps and mail brigandines shrank back fearfully, lest they so much as touch the skirts of her robe. Nor were the plumed knights slower in making room for her. She stepped over the corpses and came face to face with the grim queen. 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, Conyn,' said Tsothi, a cruel mirth bubbling at the back of her voice.
'I give you death, wizard,' snarled the queen, and backed by iron muscles and ferocious hate the great sword swung in a stroke meant to shear Tsothi'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 Conyn'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. Tsothi laughed silently.
'Take her up and fear not; the lion's fangs are drawn.'
The queens reined in and gazed in awe at the fallen lion. Conyn lay stiffly, like a dead woman, but her eyes glared up at them, wide open, and blazing with helpless fury. 'What have you done to her?' asked Amalrys uneasily.
Tsothi displayed a broad ring of curious design on her finger. She pressed her 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 ghost-haunted swamps of southern Stygia,' said the magician. 'Its touch produces temporary paralysis. Put her in chains and lay her in a chariot. The sun sets and it is time we were on the road for Khorshemish.'
Strabona turned to her general Arbanys.
'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 pikewomen and archers and camp-servants, went into camp in the meadowlands near the battlefield. And through the starry night the two queens and the sorcerer who was greater than any queen rode to the capital of Strabona, 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 Conyn, queen of Aquilonia, weighted with chains, the tang of defeat in her mouth, the blind fury of a trapped tiger in her soul.
The poison which had frozen her mighty limbs to helplessness had not paralyzed her brain. As the chariot in which she lay rumbled over the meadowlands, her mind revolved maddeningly about her defeat. Amalrys had sent an emissary imploring aid against Strabona, who, she said, was ravaging her western domain, which lay like a tapering wedge between the border of Aquilonia and the vast southern kingdom of Koth. She asked only a thousand horsewomen and the presence of Conyn, to hearten her demoralized subjects. Conyn now mentally blasphemed. In her generosity she had come with five times the number the treacherous monarch had asked. In good faith she had ridden into Ophir, and had been confronted by the supposed rivals allied against her. It spoke significantly of her prowess that they had brought up a whole host to trap her and her five thousand.
A red cloud veiled her vision; her veins swelled with fury and in her temples a pulse throbbed maddeningly. In all her life she had never known greater and more helpless wrath. In swift-moving scenes the pageant of her life passed fleetingly before her mental eye -- a panorama wherein moved shadowy figures which were herself, in many guises and conditions -- a skin-clad barbarian; a mercenary swordswoman in horned helmet and scale-mail corselet; a corsair in a dragon-prowed 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 queen 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 her thoughts back to revolve with maddening monotony about the treachery of Amalrys and the sorcery of Tsothi. The veins nearly burst in her temples and cries of the wounded in the chariots filled her 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 Tsothi. 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 queen, 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 queen rode into her capital between lines of glittering spearwomen, while fifty trumpets pealed salute. But no throngs swarmed the white-paved streets to fling roses before the conqueror's hoofs. Strabona had raced ahead of news of the battle, and the people, just rousing to the occupations of the day, gaped to see their queen returning with a small retinue, and were in doubt as to whether it portended victory or defeat.
Conyn, life sluggishly moving in her veins again, craned her neck from the chariot floor to view the wonders of this city which women called the King of the South. She had thought to ride some day through these golden-chased gates at the head of her steel-clad squadrons, with the great lion banner flowing over her helmeted head. Instead she entered in chains, stripped of her armor, and thrown like a captive slave on the bronze floor of her conqueror's chariot. A wayward devilish mirth of mockery rose above her fury, but to the nervous soldiers who drove the chariot her laughter sounded like the muttering of a rousing lion.