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       Red Nails, p.1

           Robert E. Howard
 
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Red Nails


  Produced by Greg Weeks, Stephen Blundell and the OnlineDistributed Proofreading Team at https://www.pgdp.net

  Red Nails

  By ROBERT E. HOWARD

  _One of the strangest stories ever written--the tale of a barbarian adventurer, a woman pirate, and a weird roofed city inhabited by the most peculiar race of men ever spawned_

  Nearly four years ago, WEIRD TALES published a story called "The Phoenix on the Sword," built around a barbarian adventurer named Conan, who had become king of a country by sheer force of valor and brute strength. The author of that story was Robert E. Howard, who was already a favorite with the readers of this magazine for his stories of Solomon Kane, the dour English Puritan and redresser of wrongs. The stories about Conan were speedily acclaimed by our readers, and the barbarian's weird adventures became immensely popular. The story presented herewith is one of the most powerful and eery weird tales yet written about Conan. We commend this story to you, for we know you will enjoy it through and through.

  _1. The Skull on the Crag_

  The woman on the horse reined in her weary steed. It stood with its legswide-braced, its head drooping, as if it found even the weight of thegold-tasseled, red-leather bridle too heavy. The woman drew a bootedfoot out of the silver stirrup and swung down from the gilt-workedsaddle. She made the reins fast to the fork of a sapling, and turnedabout, hands on her hips, to survey her surroundings.

  They were not inviting. Giant trees hemmed in the small pool where herhorse had just drunk. Clumps of undergrowth limited the vision thatquested under the somber twilight of the lofty arches formed byintertwining branches. The woman shivered with a twitch of hermagnificent shoulders, and then cursed.

  She was tall, full-bosomed and large-limbed, with compact shoulders. Herwhole figure reflected an unusual strength, without detracting from thefemininity of her appearance. She was all woman, in spite of her bearingand her garments. The latter were incongruous, in view of her presentenvirons. Instead of a skirt she wore short, wide-legged silk breeches,which ceased a hand's breadth short of her knees, and were upheld by awide silken sash worn as a girdle. Flaring-topped boots of soft leathercame almost to her knees, and a low-necked, wide-collared, wide-sleevedsilk shirt completed her costume. On one shapely hip she wore a straightdouble-edged sword, and on the other a long dirk. Her unruly goldenhair, cut square at her shoulders, was confined by a band of crimsonsatin.

  Against the background of somber, primitive forest she posed with anunconscious picturesqueness, bizarre and out of place. She should havebeen posed against a background of sea-clouds, painted masts andwheeling gulls. There was the color of the sea in her wide eyes. Andthat was as it should have been, because this was Valeria of the RedBrotherhood, whose deeds are celebrated in song and ballad whereverseafarers gather.

  "Convinced that his death was upon him, the Cimmerianacted according to his instinct."]

  She strove to pierce the sullen green roof of the arched branches andsee the sky which presumably lay about it, but presently gave it up witha muttered oath.

  Leaving her horse tied she strode off toward the east, glancing backtoward the pool from time to time in order to fix her route in her mind.The silence of the forest depressed her. No birds sang in the loftyboughs, nor did any rustling in the bushes indicate the presence of anysmall animals. For leagues she had traveled in a realm of broodingstillness, broken only by the sounds of her own flight.

  She had slaked her thirst at the pool, but she felt the gnawings ofhunger and began looking about for some of the fruit on which she hadsustained herself since exhausting the food she had brought in hersaddle-bags.

  Ahead of her, presently, she saw an outcropping of dark, flint-like rockthat sloped upward into what looked like a rugged crag rising among thetrees. Its summit was lost to view amidst a cloud of encircling leaves.Perhaps its peak rose above the tree-tops, and from it she could seewhat lay beyond--if, indeed, anything lay beyond but more of thisapparently illimitable forest through which she had ridden for so manydays.

  A narrow ridge formed a natural ramp that led up the steep face of thecrag. After she had ascended some fifty feet she came to the belt ofleaves that surrounded the rock. The trunks of the trees did not crowdclose to the crag, but the ends of their lower branches extended aboutit, veiling it with their foliage. She groped on in leafy obscurity, notable to see either above or below her; but presently she glimpsed bluesky, and a moment later came out in the clear, hot sunlight and saw theforest roof stretching away under her feet.

  She was standing on a broad shelf which was about even with thetree-tops, and from it rose a spire-like jut that was the ultimate peakof the crag she had climbed. But something else caught her attention atthe moment. Her foot had struck something in the litter of blown deadleaves which carpeted the shelf. She kicked them aside and looked downon the skeleton of a man. She ran an experienced eye over the bleachedframe, but saw no broken bones nor any sign of violence. The man musthave died a natural death; though why he should have climbed a tall cragto die she could not imagine.

  * * * * *

  She scrambled up to the summit of the spire and looked toward thehorizons. The forest roof--which looked like a floor from hervantage-point--was just as impenetrable as from below. She could noteven see the pool by which she had left her horse. She glancednorthward, in the direction from which she had come. She saw only therolling green ocean stretching away and away, with only a vague blueline in the distance to hint of the hill-range she had crossed daysbefore, to plunge into this leafy waste.

  West and east the view was the same; though the blue hill-line waslacking in those directions. But when she turned her eyes southward shestiffened and caught her breath. A mile away in that direction theforest thinned out and ceased abruptly, giving way to a cactus-dottedplain. And in the midst of that plain rose the walls and towers of acity. Valeria swore in amazement. This passed belief. She would not havebeen surprised to sight human habitations of another sort--thebeehive-shaped huts of the black people, or the cliff-dwellings of themysterious brown race which legends declared inhabited some country ofthis unexplored region. But it was a startling experience to come upon awalled city here so many long weeks' march from the nearest outposts ofany sort of civilization.

  Her hands tiring from clinging to the spire-like pinnacle, she letherself down on the shelf, frowning in indecision. She had comefar--from the camp of the mercenaries by the border town of Sukhmetamidst the level grasslands, where desperate adventurers of many racesguard the Stygian frontier against the raids that come up like a redwave from Darfar. Her flight had been blind, into a country of which shewas wholly ignorant. And now she wavered between an urge to ridedirectly to that city in the plain, and the instinct of caution whichprompted her to skirt it widely and continue her solitary flight.

  Her thoughts were scattered by the rustling of the leaves below her. Shewheeled cat-like, snatched at her sword; and then she froze motionless,staring wide-eyed at the man before her.

  He was almost a giant in stature, muscles rippling smoothly under hisskin which the sun had burned brown. His garb was similar to hers,except that he wore a broad leather belt instead of a girdle. Broadswordand poniard hung from this belt.

  "Conan, the Cimmerian!" ejaculated the woman. "What are _you_ doing onmy trail?"

  He grinned hardly, and his fierce blue eyes burned with a light anywoman could understand as they ran over her magnificent figure,lingering on the swell of her splendid breasts beneath the light shirt,and the clear white flesh displayed between breeches and boot-tops.

  "Don't you know?" he laughed. "Haven't I made my admiration for youplain ever since I first s
aw you?"

  "A stallion could have made it no plainer," she answered disdainfully."But I never expected to encounter you so far from the ale-barrels andmeat-pots of Sukhmet. Did you really follow me from Zarallo's camp, orwere you whipped forth for a rogue?"

  He laughed at her insolence and flexed his mighty biceps.

  "You know Zarallo didn't have enough knaves to whip me out of camp," hegrinned. "Of course I followed you. Lucky thing for you, too, wench!When you knifed that Stygian officer, you forfeited Zarallo's favor andprotection, and you outlawed yourself with the Stygians."

  "I know it," she replied sullenly. "But what else could I do? You knowwhat my provocation was."

  "Sure," he agreed. "If I'd been there, I'd have knifed him myself. Butif a woman must live in the war-camps of men, she can expect suchthings."

  Valeria stamped her booted foot and swore.

  "Why won't men let me live a man's life?"

  "That's obvious!" Again his eager eyes devoured her. "But you were wiseto run away. The Stygians would have had you skinned. That officer'sbrother followed you; faster than you thought, I don't doubt. He wasn'tfar behind you when I caught up with him. His horse was better thanyours. He'd have caught you and cut your throat within a few moremiles."

  "Well?" she demanded.

  "Well what?" He seemed puzzled.

  "What of the Stygian?"

  "Why, what do you suppose?" he returned impatiently. "I killed him, ofcourse, and left his carcass for the vultures. That delayed me, though,and I almost lost your trail when you crossed the rocky spurs of thehills. Otherwise I'd have caught up with you long ago."

  "And now you think you'll drag me back to Zarallo's camp?" she sneered.

  "Don't talk like a fool," he grunted. "Come, girl, don't be such aspitfire. I'm not like that Stygian you knifed, and you know it."

  "A penniless vagabond," she taunted.

  He laughed at her.

  "What do you call yourself? You haven't enough money to buy a new seatfor your breeches. Your disdain doesn't deceive me. You know I'vecommanded bigger ships and more men than you ever did in your life. Asfor being penniless--what rover isn't, most of the time? I've squanderedenough gold in the sea-ports of the world to fill a galleon. You knowthat, too."

  "Where are the fine ships and the bold lads you commanded, now?" shesneered.

  "At the bottom of the sea, mostly," he replied cheerfully. "TheZingarans sank my last ship off the Shemite shore--that's why I joinedZarallo's Free Companions. But I saw I'd been stung when we marched tothe Darfar border. The pay was poor and the wine was sour, and I don'tlike black women. And that's the only kind that came to our camp atSukhmet--rings in their noses and their teeth filed--bah! Why did youjoin Zarallo? Sukhmet's a long way from salt water."

  "Red Ortho wanted to make me his mistress," she answered sullenly. "Ijumped overboard one night and swam ashore when we were anchored off theKushite coast. Off Zabhela, it was. There a Shemite trader told me thatZarallo had brought his Free Companies south to guard the Darfar border.No better employment offered. I joined an east-bound caravan andeventually came to Sukhmet."

  * * * * *

  "It was madness to plunge southward as you did," commented Conan, "butit was wise, too, for Zarallo's patrols never thought to look for you inthis direction. Only the brother of the man you killed happened tostrike your trail."

  "And now what do you intend doing?" she demanded.

  "Turn west," he answered. "I've been this far south, but not this fareast. Many days' traveling to the west will bring us to the opensavannas, where the black tribes graze their cattle. I have friendsamong them. We'll get to the coast and find a ship. I'm sick of thejungle."

  "Then be on your way," she advised. "I have other plans."

  "Don't be a fool!" He showed irritation for the first time. "You can'tkeep on wandering through this forest."

  "I can if I choose."

  "But what do you intend doing?"

  "That's none of your affair," she snapped.

  "Yes, it is," he answered calmly. "Do you think I've followed you thisfar, to turn around and ride off empty-handed? Be sensible, wench. I'mnot going to harm you."

  He stepped toward her, and she sprang back, whipping out her sword.

  "Keep back, you barbarian dog! I'll spit you like a roast pig!"

  He halted, reluctantly, and demanded: "Do you want me to take that toyaway from you and spank you with it?"

  "Words! Nothing but words!" she mocked, lights like the gleam of the sunon blue water dancing in her reckless eyes.

  He knew it was the truth. No living man could disarm Valeria of theBrotherhood with his bare hands. He scowled, his sensations a tangle ofconflicting emotions. He was angry, yet he was amused and filled withadmiration for her spirit. He burned with eagerness to seize thatsplendid figure and crush it in his iron arms, yet he greatly desirednot to hurt the girl. He was torn between a desire to shake her soundly,and a desire to caress her. He knew if he came any nearer her swordwould be sheathed in his heart. He had seen Valeria kill too many men inborder forays and tavern brawls to have any illusions about her. He knewshe was as quick and ferocious as a tigress. He could draw hisbroadsword and disarm her, beat the blade out of her hand, but thethought of drawing a sword on a woman, even without intent of injury,was extremely repugnant to him.

  "Blast your soul, you hussy!" he exclaimed in exasperation. "I'm goingto take off your----"

  He started toward her, his angry passion making him reckless, and shepoised herself for a deadly thrust. Then came a startling interruptionto a scene at once ludicrous and perilous.

  "_What's that?_"

  It was Valeria who exclaimed, but they both started violently, and Conanwheeled like a cat, his great sword flashing into his hand. Back in theforest had burst forth an appalling medley of screams--the screams ofhorses in terror and agony. Mingled with their screams there came thesnap of splintering bones.

  "Lions are slaying the horses!" cried Valeria.

  "Lions, nothing!" snorted Conan, his eyes blazing. "Did you hear a lionroar? Neither did I! Listen at those bones snap--not even a lion couldmake that much noise killing a horse."

  * * * * *

  He hurried down the natural ramp and she followed, their personal feudforgotten in the adventurers' instinct to unite against common peril.The screams had ceased when they worked their way downward through thegreen veil of leaves that brushed the rock.

  "I found your horse tied by the pool back there," he muttered, treadingso noiselessly that she no longer wondered how he had surprised her onthe crag. "I tied mine beside it and followed the tracks of your boots.Watch, now!"

  They had emerged from the belt of leaves, and stared down into the lowerreaches of the forest. Above them the green roof spread its duskycanopy. Below them the sunlight filtered in just enough to make ajade-tinted twilight. The giant trunks of trees less than a hundredyards away looked dim and ghostly.

  "The horses should be beyond that thicket, over there," whispered Conan,and his voice might have been a breeze moving through the branches."Listen!"

  Valeria had already heard, and a chill crept through her veins; so sheunconsciously laid her white hand on her companion's muscular brown arm.From beyond the thicket came the noisy crunching of bones and the loudrending of flesh, together with the grinding, slobbering sounds of ahorrible feast.

  "Lions wouldn't make that noise," whispered Conan. "Something's eatingour horses, but it's not a lion--Crom!"

  The noise stopped suddenly, and Conan swore softly. A suddenly risenbreeze was blowing from them directly toward the spot where the unseenslayer was hidden.

  "Here it comes!" muttered Conan, half lifting his sword.

  The thicket was violently agitated, and Valeria clutched Conan's armhard. Ignorant of jungle-lore, she yet knew that no animal she had everseen could have shaken the tall brush like that.

  "It must be as big as an elephant," mutte
red Conan, echoing her thought."What the devil----" His voice trailed away in stunned silence.

  Through the thicket was thrust a head of nightmare and lunacy. Grinningjaws bared rows of dripping yellow tusks; above the yawning mouthwrinkled a saurian-like snout. Huge eyes, like those of a python athousand times magnified, stared unwinkingly at the petrified humansclinging to the rock above it. Blood smeared the scaly, flabby lips anddripped from the huge mouth.

  The head, bigger than that of a crocodile, was further extended on along scaled neck on which stood up rows of serrated spikes, and afterit, crushing down the briars and saplings, waddled the body of a titan,a gigantic, barrel-bellied torso on absurdly short legs. The whitishbelly almost raked the ground, while the serrated back-bone rose higherthan Conan could have reached on tiptoe. A long spiked tail, like thatof a gargantuan scorpion, trailed out behind.

  "Back up the crag, quick!" snapped Conan, thrusting the girl behind him."I don't think he can climb, but he can stand on his hind-legs and reachus----"

  With a snapping and rending of bushes and saplings the monster camehurtling through the thickets, and they fled up the rock before him likeleaves blown before a wind. As Valeria plunged into the leafy screen abackward glance showed her the titan rearing up fearsomely on hismassive hind-legs, even as Conan had predicted. The sight sent panicracing through her. As he reared, the beast seemed more gigantic thanever; his snouted head towered among the trees. Then Conan's iron handclosed on her wrist and she was jerked headlong into the blinding welterof the leaves, and out again into the hot sunshine above, just as themonster fell forward with his front feet on the crag with an impact thatmade the rock vibrate.

  * * * * *

  Behind the fugitives the huge head crashed through the twigs, and theylooked down for a horrifying instant at the nightmare visage framedamong the green leaves, eyes flaming, jaws gaping. Then the giant tusksclashed together futilely, and after that the head was withdrawn,vanishing from their sight as if it had sunk in a pool.

  Peering down through broken branches that scraped the rock, they saw itsquatting on its haunches at the foot of the crag, staring unblinkinglyup at them.

  Valeria shuddered.

  "How long do you suppose he'll crouch there?"

  Conan kicked the skull on the leaf-strewn shelf.

  "That fellow must have climbed up here to escape him, or one like him.He must have died of starvation. There are no bones broken. That thingmust be a dragon, such as the black people speak of in their legends. Ifso, it won't leave here until we're both dead."

  Valeria looked at him blankly, her resentment forgotten. She fought downa surging of panic. She had proved her reckless courage a thousand timesin wild battles on sea and land, on the blood-slippery decks of burningwar-ships, in the storming of walled cities, and on the trampled sandybeaches where the desperate men of the Red Brotherhood bathed theirknives in one another's blood in their fights for leadership. But theprospect now confronting her congealed her blood. A cutlas-stroke in theheat of battle was nothing; but to sit idle and helpless on a bare rockuntil she perished of starvation, besieged by a monstrous survival of anelder age--the thought sent panic throbbing through her brain.

  "He must leave to eat and drink," she said helplessly.

  "He won't have to go far to do either," Conan pointed out. "He's justgorged on horse-meat, and like a real snake, he can go for a long timewithout eating or drinking again. But he doesn't sleep after eating,like a real snake, it seems. Anyway, he can't climb this crag."

  Conan spoke imperturbably. He was a barbarian, and the terrible patienceof the wilderness and its children was as much a part of him as hislusts and rages. He could endure a situation like this with a coolnessimpossible to a civilized person.

  "Can't we get into the trees and get away, traveling like apes throughthe branches?" she asked desperately.

  He shook his head. "I thought of that. The branches that touch the cragdown there are too light. They'd break with our weight. Besides, I havean idea that devil could tear up any tree around here by its roots."

  "Well, are we going to sit here on our rumps until we starve, likethat?" she cried furiously, kicking the skull clattering across theledge. "I won't do it! I'll go down there and cut his damned headoff----"

  Conan had seated himself on a rocky projection at the foot of the spire.He looked up with a glint of admiration at her blazing eyes and tense,quivering figure, but, realizing that she was in just the mood for anymadness, he let none of his admiration sound in his voice.

  "Sit down," he grunted, catching her by her wrist and pulling her downon his knee. She was too surprised to resist as he took her sword fromher hand and shoved it back in its sheath. "Sit still and calm down.You'd only break your steel on his scales. He'd gobble you up at onegulp, or smash you like an egg with that spiked tail of his. We'll getout of this jam some way, but we shan't do it by getting chewed up andswallowed."

  She made no reply, nor did she seek to repulse his arm from about herwaist. She was frightened, and the sensation was new to Valeria of theRed Brotherhood. So she sat on her companion's--or captor's--knee with adocility that would have amazed Zarallo, who had anathematized her as ashe-devil out of hell's seraglio.

  Conan played idly with her curly yellow locks, seemingly intent onlyupon his conquest. Neither the skeleton at his feet nor the monstercrouching below disturbed his mind or dulled the edge of his interest.

  The girl's restless eyes, roving the leaves below them, discoveredsplashes of color among the green. It was fruit, large, darkly crimsonglobes suspended from the boughs of a tree whose broad leaves were apeculiarly rich and vivid green. She became aware of both thirst andhunger, though thirst had not assailed her until she knew she could notdescend from the crag to find food and water.

  "We need not starve," she said. "There is fruit we can reach."

  Conan glanced where she pointed.

  "If we ate that we wouldn't need the bite of a dragon," he grunted."That's what the black people of Kush call the Apples of Derketa.Derketa is the Queen of the Dead. Drink a little of the juice, or spillit on your flesh, and you'd be dead before you could tumble to the footof this crag."

  "Oh!"

  She lapsed into dismayed silence. There seemed no way out of theirpredicament, she reflected gloomily. She saw no way of escape, and Conanseemed to be concerned only with her supple waist and curly tresses. Ifhe was trying to formulate a plan of escape, he did not show it.

  "If you'll take your hands off me long enough to climb up on that peak,"she said presently, "you'll see something that will surprise you."

  He cast her a questioning glance, then obeyed with a shrug of hismassive shoulders. Clinging to the spire-like pinnacle, he stared outover the forest roof.

  * * * * *

  He stood a long moment in silence, posed like a bronze statue on therock.

  "It's a walled city, right enough," he muttered presently. "Was thatwhere you were going, when you tried to send me off alone to the coast?"

  "I saw it before you came. I knew nothing of it when I left Sukhmet."

  "Who'd have thought to find a city here? I don't believe the Stygiansever penetrated this far. Could black people build a city like that? Isee no herds on the plain, no signs of cultivation, or people movingabout."

  "How could you hope to see all that, at this distance?" she demanded.

  He shrugged his shoulders and dropped down on the shelf.

  "Well, the folk of the city can't help us just now. And they might not,if they could. The people of the Black Countries are generally hostileto strangers. Probably stick us full of spears----"

  He stopped short and stood silent, as if he had forgotten what he wassaying, frowning down at the crimson spheres gleaming among the leaves.

  "Spears!" he muttered. "What a blasted fool I am not to have thought ofthat before! That shows what a pretty woman does to a man's mind."

  "What are you talking
about?" she inquired.

  Without answering her question, he descended to the belt of leaves andlooked down through them. The great brute squatted below, watching thecrag with the frightful patience of the reptile folk. So might one ofhis breed have glared up at their troglodyte ancestors, treed on ahigh-flung rock, in the dim dawn ages. Conan cursed him without heat,and began cutting branches, reaching out and severing them as far fromthe end as he could reach. The agitation of the leaves made the monsterrestless. He rose from his haunches and lashed his hideous tail,snapping off saplings as if they had been toothpicks. Conan watched himwarily from the corner of his eye, and just as Valeria believed thedragon was about to hurl himself up the crag again, the Cimmerian drewback and climbed up to the ledge with the branches he had cut. Therewere three of these, slender shafts about seven feet long, but notlarger than his thumb. He had also cut several strands of tough, thinvine.

  "Branches too light for spear-hafts, and creepers no thicker thancords," he remarked, indicating the foliage about the crag. "It won'thold our weight--but there's strength in union. That's what theAquilonian renegades used to tell us Cimmerians when they came into thehills to raise an army to invade their own country. But we always fightby clans and tribes."

  "What the devil has that got to do with those sticks?" she demanded.

  "You wait and see."

  Gathering the sticks in a compact bundle, he wedged his poniard hiltbetween them at one end. Then with the vines he bound them together, andwhen he had completed his task, he had a spear of no small strength,with a sturdy shaft seven feet in length.

  "What good will that do?" she demanded. "You told me that a bladecouldn't pierce his scales----"

  "He hasn't got scales all over him," answered Conan. "There's more thanone way of skinning a panther."

  Moving down to the edge of the leaves, he reached the spear up andcarefully thrust the blade through one of the Apples of Derketa, drawingaside to avoid the darkly purple drops that dripped from the piercedfruit. Presently he withdrew the blade and showed her the blue steelstained a dull purplish crimson.

  "I don't know whether it will do the job or not," quoth he. "There'senough poison there to kill an elephant, but--well, we'll see."

  * * * * *

  Valeria was close behind him as he let himself down among the leaves.Cautiously holding the poisoned pike away from him, he thrust his headthrough the branches and addressed the monster.

  "What are you waiting down there for, you misbegotten offspring ofquestionable parents?" was one of his more printable queries. "Stickyour ugly head up here again, you long-necked brute--or do you want meto come down there and kick you loose from your illegitimate spine?"

  There was more of it--some of it couched in eloquence that made Valeriastare, in spite of her profane education among the seafarers. And it hadits effect on the monster. Just as the incessant yapping of a dogworries and enrages more constitutionally silent animals, so theclamorous voice of a man rouses fear in some bestial bosoms and insanerage in others. Suddenly and with appalling quickness, the mastodonicbrute reared up on its mighty hind legs and elongated its neck and bodyin a furious effort to reach this vociferous pigmy whose clamor wasdisturbing the primeval silence of its ancient realm.

  But Conan had judged his distance with precision. Some five feet belowhim the mighty head crashed terribly but futilely through the leaves.And as the monstrous mouth gaped like that of a great snake, Conan drovehis spear into the red angle of the jaw-bone hinge. He struck downwardwith all the strength of both arms, driving the long poniard blade tothe hilt in flesh, sinew and bone.

  Instantly the jaws clashed convulsively together, severing thetriple-pieced shaft and almost precipitating Conan from his perch. Hewould have fallen but for the girl behind him, who caught his sword-beltin a desperate grasp. He clutched at a rocky projection, and grinned histhanks back at her.

  Down on the ground the monster was wallowing like a dog with pepper inits eyes. He shook his head from side to side, pawed at it, and openedhis mouth repeatedly to its widest extent. Presently he got a huge frontfoot on the stump of the shaft and managed to tear the blade out. Thenhe threw up his head, jaws wide and spouting blood, and glared up at thecrag with such concentrated and intelligent fury that Valeria trembledand drew her sword. The scales along his back and flanks turned fromrusty brown to a dull lurid red. Most horribly the monster's silence wasbroken. The sounds that issued from his blood-streaming jaws did notsound like anything that could have been produced by an earthlycreation.

  With harsh, grating roars, the dragon hurled himself at the crag thatwas the citadel of his enemies. Again and again his mighty head crashedupward through the branches, snapping vainly on empty air. He hurled hisfull ponderous weight against the rock until it vibrated from base tocrest. And rearing upright he gripped it with his front legs like a manand tried to tear it up by the roots, as if it had been a tree.

  This exhibition of primordial fury chilled the blood in Valeria's veins,but Conan was too close to the primitive himself to feel anything but acomprehending interest. To the barbarian, no such gulf existed betweenhimself and other men, and the animals, as existed in the conception ofValeria. The monster below them, to Conan, was merely a form of lifediffering from himself mainly in physical shape. He attributed to itcharacteristics similar to his own, and saw in its wrath a counterpartof his rages, in its roars and bellowings merely reptilian equivalentsto the curses he had bestowed upon it. Feeling a kinship with all wildthings, even dragons, it was impossible for him to experience the sickhorror which assailed Valeria at the sight of the brute's ferocity.

  He sat watching it tranquilly, and pointed out the various changes thatwere taking place in its voice and actions.

  "The poison's taking hold," he said with conviction.

  "I don't believe it." To Valeria it seemed preposterous to suppose thatanything, however lethal, could have any effect on that mountain ofmuscle and fury.

  "There's pain in his voice," declared Conan. "First he was merely angrybecause of the stinging in his jaw. Now he feels the bite of the poison.Look! He's staggering. He'll be blind in a few more minutes. What did Itell you?"

  For suddenly the dragon had lurched about and went crashing off throughthe bushes.

  "Is he running away?" inquired Valeria uneasily.

  "He's making for the pool!" Conan sprang up, galvanized into swiftactivity. "The poison makes him thirsty. Come on! He'll be blind in afew moments, but he can smell his way back to the foot of the crag, andif our scent's here still, he'll sit there until he dies. And others ofhis kind may come at his cries. Let's go!"

  "Down there?" Valeria was aghast.

  "Sure! We'll make for the city! They may cut our heads off there, butit's our only chance. We may run into a thousand more dragons on theway, but it's sure death to stay here. If we wait until he dies, we mayhave a dozen more to deal with. After me, in a hurry!"

  He went down the ramp as swiftly as an ape, pausing only to aid his lessagile companion, who, until she saw the Cimmerian climb, had fanciedherself the equal of any man in the rigging of a ship or on the sheerface of a cliff.

  * * * * *

  They descended into the gloom below the branches and slid to the groundsilently, though Valeria felt as if the pounding of her heart mustsurely be heard from far away. A noisy gurgling and lapping beyond thedense thicket indicated that the dragon was drinking at the pool.

  "As soon as his belly is full he'll be back," muttered Conan. "It maytake hours for the poison to kill him--if it does at all."

  Somewhere beyond the forest the sun was sinking to the horizon. Theforest was a misty twilight place of black shadows and dim vistas. Conangripped Valeria's wrist and glided away from the foot of the crag. Hemade less noise than a breeze blowing among the tree-trunks, but Valeriafelt as if her soft boots were betraying their flight to all the forest.

  "I don't think he can follow a trail," muttered Conan.
"But if a windblew our body-scent to him, he could smell us out."

  "Mitra grant that the wind blow not!" Valeria breathed.

  Her face was a pallid oval in the gloom. She gripped her sword in herfree hand, but the feel of the shagreen-bound hilt inspired only afeeling of helplessness in her.

  They were still some distance from the edge of the forest when theyheard a snapping and crashing behind them. Valeria bit her lip to checka cry.

  "He's on our trail!" she whispered fiercely.

  Conan shook his head.

  "He didn't smell us at the rock, and he's blundering about through theforest trying to pick up our scent. Come on! It's the city or nothingnow! He could tear down any tree we'd climb. If only the wind staysdown----"

  They stole on until the trees began to thin out ahead of them. Behindthem the forest was a black impenetrable ocean of shadows. The ominouscrackling still sounded behind them, as the dragon blundered in hiserratic course.

  "There's the plain ahead," breathed Valeria. "A little more andwe'll----"

  "Crom!" swore Conan.

  "Mitra!" whispered Valeria.

  Out of the south a wind had sprung up.

  It blew over them directly into the black forest behind them. Instantlya horrible roar shook the woods. The aimless snapping and crackling ofthe bushes changed to a sustained crashing as the dragon came like ahurricane straight toward the spot from which the scent of his enemieswas wafted.

  "Run!" snarled Conan, his eyes blazing like those of a trapped wolf."It's all we can do!"

  Sailor's boots are not made for sprinting, and the life of a pirate doesnot train one for a runner. Within a hundred yards Valeria was pantingand reeling in her gait, and behind them the crashing gave way to arolling thunder as the monster broke out of the thickets and into themore open ground.

  Conan's iron arm about the woman's waist half lifted her; her feetscarcely touched the earth as she was borne along at a speed she couldnever have attained herself. If he could keep out of the beast's way fora bit, perhaps that betraying wind would shift--but the wind held, and aquick glance over his shoulder showed Conan that the monster was almostupon them, coming like a war-galley in front of a hurricane. He thrustValeria from him with a force that sent her reeling a dozen feet to fallin a crumpled heap at the foot of the nearest tree, and the Cimmerianwheeled in the path of the thundering titan.

  Convinced that his death was upon him, the Cimmerian acted according tohis instinct, and hurled himself full at the awful face that was bearingdown on him. He leaped, slashing like a wildcat, felt his sword cut deepinto the scales that sheathed the mighty snout--and then a terrificimpact knocked him rolling and tumbling for fifty feet with all the windand half the life battered out of him.

  How the stunned Cimmerian regained his feet, not even he could have evertold. But the only thought that filled his brain was of the woman lyingdazed and helpless almost in the path of the hurtling fiend, and beforethe breath came whistling back into his gullet he was standing over herwith his sword in his hand.

  She lay where he had thrown her, but she was struggling to a sittingposture. Neither tearing tusks nor trampling feet had touched her. Ithad been a shoulder or front leg that struck Conan, and the blindmonster rushed on, forgetting the victims whose scent it had beenfollowing, in the sudden agony of its death throes. Headlong on itscourse it thundered until its low-hung head crashed into a gigantic treein its path. The impact tore the tree up by the roots and must havedashed the brains from the misshapen skull. Tree and monster felltogether, and the dazed humans saw the branches and leaves shaken by theconvulsions of the creature they covered--and then grow quiet.

  Conan lifted Valeria to her feet and together they started away at areeling run. A few moments later they emerged into the still twilight ofthe treeless plain.

  * * * * *

  Conan paused an instant and glanced back at the ebon fastness behindthem. Not a leaf stirred, nor a bird chirped. It stood as silent as itmust have stood before Man was created.

  "Come on," muttered Conan, taking his companion's hand. "It's touch andgo now. If more dragons come out of the woods after us----"

  He did not have to finish the sentence.

  The city looked very far away across the plain, farther than it hadlooked from the crag. Valeria's heart hammered until she felt as if itwould strangle her. At every step she expected to hear the crashing ofthe bushes and see another colossal nightmare bearing down upon them.But nothing disturbed the silence of the thickets.

  With the first mile between them and the woods, Valeria breathed moreeasily. Her buoyant self-confidence began to thaw out again. The sun hadset and darkness was gathering over the plain, lightened a little by thestars that made stunted ghosts out of the cactus growths.

  "No cattle, no plowed fields," muttered Conan. "How do these peoplelive?"

  "Perhaps the cattle are in pens for the night," suggested Valeria, "andthe fields and grazing-pastures are on the other side of the city."

  "Maybe," he grunted. "I didn't see any from the crag, though."

  The moon came up behind the city, etching walls and towers blackly inthe yellow glow. Valeria shivered. Black against the moon the strangecity had a somber, sinister look.

  Perhaps something of the same feeling occurred to Conan, for he stopped,glanced about him, and grunted: "We stop here. No use coming to theirgates in the night. They probably wouldn't let us in. Besides, we needrest, and we don't know how they'll receive us. A few hours' sleep willput us in better shape to fight or run."

  He led the way to a bed of cactus which grew in a circle--a phenomenoncommon to the southern desert. With his sword he chopped an opening, andmotioned Valeria to enter.

  "We'll be safe from snakes here, anyhow."

  She glanced fearfully back toward the black line that indicated theforest some six miles away.

  "Suppose a dragon comes out of the woods?"

  "We'll keep watch," he answered, though he made no suggestion as to whatthey would do in such an event. He was staring at the city, a few milesaway. Not a light shone from spire or tower. A great black mass ofmystery, it reared cryptically against the moonlit sky.

  "Lie down and sleep. I'll keep the first watch."

  She hesitated, glancing at him uncertainly, but he sat down cross-leggedin the opening, facing toward the plain, his sword across his knees, hisback to her. Without further comment she lay down on the sand inside thespiky circle.

  "Wake me when the moon is at its zenith," she directed.

  He did not reply nor look toward her. Her last impression, as she sankinto slumber, was of his muscular figure, immobile as a statue hewn outof bronze, outlined against the low-hanging stars.

 
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