Queen of the black coast, p.1
Queen of the Black Coast, p.1Robert E. Howard
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QUEEN OF THE BLACK COAST
By Robert E. Howard
[Transcriber's Note: This etext was first published in Weird Tales May 1934. Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]
1 Conan Joins the Pirates
_Believe green buds awaken in the spring, That autumn paints the leaves with somber fire; Believe I held my heart inviolate To lavish on one man my hot desire._
THE SONG OF BELIT
Hoofs drummed down the street that sloped to the wharfs. The folk thatyelled and scattered had only a fleeting glimpse of a mailed figure on ablack stallion, a wide scarlet cloak flowing out on the wind. Far up thestreet came the shout and clatter of pursuit, but the horseman did notlook back. He swept out onto the wharfs and jerked the plunging stallionback on its haunches at the very lip of the pier. Seamen gaped up athim, as they stood to the sweep and striped sail of a high-prowed,broad-waisted galley. The master, sturdy and black-bearded, stood in thebows, easing her away from the piles with a boat-hook. He yelled angrilyas the horseman sprang from the saddle and with a long leap landedsquarely on the mid-deck.
'Who invited you aboard?'
'Get under way!' roared the intruder with a fierce gesture thatspattered red drops from his broadsword.
'But we're bound for the coasts of Kush!' expostulated the master.
'Then I'm for Kush! Push off, I tell you!' The other cast a quick glanceup the street, along which a squad of horsemen were galloping; farbehind them toiled a group of archers, crossbows on their shoulders.
'Can you pay for your passage?' demanded the master.
'I pay my way with steel!' roared the man in armor, brandishing thegreat sword that glittered bluely in the sun. 'By Crom, man, if youdon't get under way, I'll drench this galley in the blood of its crew!'
The shipmaster was a good judge of men. One glance at the dark scarredface of the swordsman, hardened with passion, and he shouted a quickorder, thrusting strongly against the piles. The galley wallowed outinto clear water, the oars began to clack rhythmically; then a puff ofwind filled the shimmering sail, the light ship heeled to the gust, thentook her course like a swan, gathering headway as she skimmed along.
On the wharfs the riders were shaking their swords and shouting threatsand commands that the ship put about, and yelling for the bowmen tohasten before the craft was out of arbalest range.
'Let them rave,' grinned the swordsman hardily. 'Do you keep her on hercourse, master steersman.'
The master descended from the small deck between the bows, made his waybetween the rows of oarsmen, and mounted the mid-deck. The strangerstood there with his back to the mast, eyes narrowed alertly, swordready. The shipman eyed him steadily, careful not to make any movetoward the long knife in his belt. He saw a tall powerfully built figurein a black scale-mail hauberk, burnished greaves and a blue-steel helmetfrom which jutted bull's horns highly polished. From the mailedshoulders fell the scarlet cloak, blowing in the sea-wind. A broadshagreen belt with a golden buckle held the scabbard of the broadswordhe bore. Under the horned helmet a square-cut black mane contrasted withsmoldering blue eyes.
'If we must travel together,' said the master, 'we may as well be atpeace with each other. My name is Tito, licensed master-shipman of theports of Argos. I am bound for Kush, to trade beads and silks and sugarand brass-hilted swords to the black kings for ivory, copra, copper ore,slaves and pearls.'
The swordsman glanced back at the rapidly receding docks, where thefigures still gesticulated helplessly, evidently having trouble infinding a boat swift enough to overhaul the fast-sailing galley.
'I am Conan, a Cimmerian,' he answered. 'I came into Argos seekingemployment, but with no wars forward, there was nothing to which I mightturn my hand.'
'Why do the guardsmen pursue you?' asked Tito. 'Not that it's any of mybusiness, but I thought perhaps----'
'I've nothing to conceal,' replied the Cimmerian. 'By Crom, though I'vespent considerable time among you civilized peoples, your ways are stillbeyond my comprehension.
'Well, last night in a tavern, a captain in the king's guard offeredviolence to the sweetheart of a young soldier, who naturally ran himthrough. But it seems there is some cursed law against killingguardsmen, and the boy and his girl fled away. It was bruited about thatI was seen with them, and so today I was haled into court, and a judgeasked me where the lad had gone. I replied that since he was a friend ofmine, I could not betray him. Then the court waxed wrath, and the judgetalked a great deal about my duty to the state, and society, and otherthings I did not understand, and bade me tell where my friend had flown.By this time I was becoming wrathful myself, for I had explained myposition.
'But I choked my ire and held my peace, and the judge squalled that Ihad shown contempt for the court, and that I should be hurled into adungeon to rot until I betrayed my friend. So then, seeing they were allmad, I drew my sword and cleft the judge's skull; then I cut my way outof the court, and seeing the high constable's stallion tied near by, Irode for the wharfs, where I thought to find a ship bound for foreignparts.'
'Well,' said Tito hardily, 'the courts have fleeced me too often insuits with rich merchants for me to owe them any love. I'll havequestions to answer if I ever anchor in that port again, but I can proveI acted under compulsion. You may as well put up your sword. We'repeaceable sailors, and have nothing against you. Besides, it's as wellto have a fighting-man like yourself on board. Come up to the poop-deckand we'll have a tankard of ale.'
'Good enough,' readily responded the Cimmerian, sheathing his sword.
The _Argus_ was a small sturdy ship, typical of those trading-craftwhich ply between the ports of Zingara and Argos and the southerncoasts, hugging the shoreline and seldom venturing far into the openocean. It was high of stern, with a tall curving prow; broad in thewaist, sloping beautifully to stem and stern. It was guided by the longsweep from the poop, and propulsion was furnished mainly by the broadstriped silk sail, aided by a jibsail. The oars were for use in tackingout of creeks and bays, and during calms. There were ten to the side,five fore and five aft of the small mid-deck. The most precious part ofthe cargo was lashed under this deck, and under the fore-deck. The menslept on deck or between the rowers' benches, protected in bad weatherby canopies. With twenty men at the oars, three at the sweep, and theshipmaster, the crew was complete.
So the _Argus_ pushed steadily southward, with consistently fairweather. The sun beat down from day to day with fiercer heat, and thecanopies were run up--striped silken cloths that matched the shimmeringsail and the shining goldwork on the prow and along the gunwales.
They sighted the coast of Shem--long rolling meadowlands with the whitecrowns of the towers of cities in the distance, and horsemen withblue-black beards and hooked noses, who sat their steeds along the shoreand eyed the galley with suspicion. She did not put in; there was scantprofit in trade with the sons of Shem.
Nor did master Tito pull into the broad bay where the Styx river emptiedits gigantic flood into the ocean, and the massive black castles ofKhemi loomed over the blue waters. Ships did not put unasked into thisport, where dusky sorcerers wove awful spells in the murk of sacrificialsmoke mounting eternally from blood-stained altars where naked womenscreamed, and where Set, the Old Serpent, arch-demon of the Hyboriansbut god of the Stygians, was said to writhe his shining coils among hisworshippers.
Master Tito gave that dreamy glass-floored bay a wide berth, even when aserpent-prowed gondola shot from behind a castellated point of land, andnaked dusky women,
Now no more shining towers rose inland. They had passed the southernborders of Stygia and were cruising along the coasts of Kush. The seaand the ways of the sea were never-ending mysteries to Conan, whosehomeland was among the high hills of the northern uplands. The wandererwas no less of interest to the sturdy seamen, few of whom had ever seenone of his race.
They were characteristic Argosean sailors, short and stockily built.Conan towered above them, and no two of them could match his strength.They were hardy and robust, but his was the endurance and vitality of awolf, his thews steeled and his nerves whetted by the hardness of hislife in the world's wastelands. He was quick to laugh, quick andterrible in his wrath. He was a valiant trencherman, and strong
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