Beyond the black river a.., p.1
Beyond the Black River Again, p.1Roberta E. Howard
Beyond the Black River Again
By Roberta E. Howard
Copyright 2010 Roberta E. Howard
A Conyn the Barbarian story.
A Gender Switch Adventure.
Chapter 1. Conyn Loses Her Ax
The stillness of the forest trail was so primeval that the tread of a soft-booted foot was a startling disturbance. At least it seemed so to the ears of the wayfarer, though she was moving along the path with the caution that must be practised by any woman who ventures beyond Thunder River. She was a young woman of medium height, with an open countenance and a mop of tousled tawny hair unconfined by cap or helmet. Her garb was common enough for that country--a coarse tunic, belted at the waist, short leather breeches beneath, and soft buckskin boots that came short of the knee. A knife-hilt jutted from one boot-top. The broad leather belt supported a short, heavy sword and a buckskin pouch. There was no perturbation in the wide eyes that scanned the green walls which fringed the trail. Though not tall, she was well built, and the arms that the short wide sleeves of the tunic left bare were thick with corded muscle.
She tramped imperturbably along, although the last settler's cabin lay miles behind her, and each step was carrying her nearer the grim peril that hung like a brooding shadow over the ancient forest.
She was not making as much noise as it seemed to her, though she well knew that the faint tread of her booted feet would be like a tocsin of alarm to the fierce ears that might be lurking in the treacherous green fastness. Her careless attitude was not genuine; her eyes and ears were keenly alert, especially her ears, for no gaze could penetrate the leafy tangle for more than a few feet in either direction.
But it was instinct more than any warning by the external senses which brought her up suddenly, her hand on her hilt. She stood stock-still in the middle of the trail, unconsciously holding her breath, wondering what she had heard, and wondering if indeed she had heard anything. The silence seemed absolute. Not a squirrel chattered or bird chirped. Then her gaze fixed itself on a mass of bushes beside the trail a few yards ahead of her. There was no breeze, yet she had seen a branch quiver. The short hairs on her scalp prickled, and she stood for an instant undecided, certain that a move in either direction would bring death streaking at her from the bushes.
A heavy chopping crunch sounded behind the leaves. The bushes were shaken violently, and simultaneously with the sound, an arrow arched erratically from among them and vanished among the trees along the trail. The wayfarer glimpsed its flight as she sprang frantically to cover.
Crouching behind a thick stem, her sword quivering in her fingers, she saw the bushes part, and a tall figure stepped leisurely into the trail. The traveller stared in surprise. The stranger was clad like herself in regard to boots and breeks, though the latter were of silk instead of leather. But she wore a sleeveless hauberk of dark mesh-mail in place of a tunic, and a helmet perched on her black mane. That helmet held the other's gaze; it was without a crest, but adorned by short bull's horns. No civilized hand ever forged that head-piece. Nor was the face below it that of a civilized woman: dark, scarred, with smoldering blue eyes, it was a face as untamed as the primordial forest which formed its background. The woman held a broad-sword in her right hand, and the edge was smeared with crimson.
"Come on out," she called, in an accent unfamiliar to the wayfarer. "All's safe now. There was only one of the dogs. Come on out."
The other emerged dubiously and stared at the stranger. She felt curiously helpless and futile as she gazed on the proportions of the forest man--the massive iron-clad breast, and the arm that bore the reddened sword, burned dark by the sun and ridged and corded with muscles. She moved with the dangerous ease of a panther; she was too fiercely supple to be a product of civilization, even of that fringe of civilization which composed the outer frontiers.
Turning, she stepped back to the hushes and pulled them apart. Still not certain just what had happened, the wayfarer from the east advanced and stared down into the bushes. A woman lay there, a short, dark, thickly-muscled woman, naked except for a loin-cloth, a necklace of human teeth and a brass armlet. A short sword was thrust into the girdle of the loin-cloth, and one hand still gripped a heavy black bow. The woman had long black hair; that was about all the wayfarer could tell about her head, for her features were a mask of blood and brains. Her skull had been split to the teeth.
"A Pict, by the gods!" exclaimed the wayfarer.
The burning blue eyes turned upon her.
"Are you surprised?"
"Why, they told me at Velitrium, and again at the settlers' cabins along the road, that these devils sometimes sneaked across the border, but I didn't expect to meet one this far in the interior."
"You're only four miles east of Black River," the stranger informed her. "They've been shot within a mile of Velitrium. No settler between Thunder River and Fort Tuscelan is really safe. I picked up this dog's trail three miles south of the fort this morning, and I've been following her ever since. I came up behind her just as she was drawing an arrow on you. Another instant and there'd have been a stranger in Hell. But I spoiled her aim for her."
The wayfarer was staring wide eyed at the larger woman, dumbfounded by the realization that the woman had actually tracked down one of the forest devils and slain her unsuspected. That implied woodsmanship of a quality undreamed, even for Conajohara.
"You are one of the fort's garrison?" she asked.
"I'm no soldier. I draw the pay and rations of an officer of the line, but I do my work in the woods. Valannus knows I'm of more use ranging along the river than cooped up in the fort."
Casually the slayer shoved the body deeper into the thickets with her foot, pulled the bushes together and turned away down the trail. The other followed her.
"My name is Balthusa," she offered. "I was at Velitrium last night. I haven't decided whether I'll take up a hide of land, or enter fort service."
"The best land near Thunder River is already taken," grunted the slayer. "Plenty of good land between Scalp Creek--you crossed it a few miles back--and the fort, but that's getting too devilish close to the river. The Picts steal over to burn and murder--as that one did. They don't always come singly. Some day they'll try to sweep the settlers out of Conajohara. And they may succeed--probably will succeed. This colonization business is mad, anyway. There's plenty of good land east of the Bossonian marches. If the Aquilonians would cut up some of the big estates of their barons, and plant wheat where now only deer are hunted, they wouldn't have to cross the border and take the land of the Picts away from them."
"That's queer talk from a woman in the service of the governor of Conajohara," objected Balthusa.
"It's nothing to me," the other retorted. "I'm a mercenary. I sell my sword to the highest bidder. I never planted wheat and never will, so long as there are other harvests to be reaped with the sword. But you Hyborians have expanded as far as you'll be allowed to expand. You've crossed the marches, burned a few villages, exterminated a few clans and pushed back the frontier to Black River; but I doubt if you'll even be able to hold what you've conquered, and you'll never push the frontier any further westward. Your idiotic queen doesn't understand conditions here. She won't send you enough reinforcements, and there are not enough settlers to withstand the shock of a concerted attack from across the river."
"But the Picts are divided into small clans," persisted Balthusa. "They'll never unite. We can whip any single clan."
"Or any three or four clans," admitted the slayer. "But some day a woman will rise and unite thirty or forty clans, just as was done among the Cimmerians, when the Gunderwomen tried to push the border northward, years ago. They tried to colonize the southern marches o
"So I have indeed," replied Balthusa, wincing. The memory of that red disaster was a black blot in the chronicles of a proud and warlike people. "My uncle was at Venarium when the Cimmerians swarmed over the walls. She was one of the few who escaped that slaughter. I've heard her tell the tale, many a time. The barbarians swept out of the hills in a ravening horde, without warning, and stormed Venarium with such fury none could stand before them. Women, men, and children were butchered. Venarium was reduced to a mass of charred ruins, as it is to this day. The Aquilonians were driven back across the marches, and have never since tried to colonize the Cimmerian country. But you speak of Venarium familiarly. Perhaps you were there?"
"I was," grunted the other. "I was one of the horde that swarmed over the walls. I hadn't yet seen fifteen snows, but already my name was repeated about the council fires."
Balthusa involuntarily recoiled, staring. It seemed incredible that the woman walking tranquilly at her side should have been one of those screeching, blood-mad devils that poured over the walls of Venarium on that long-gone day to make his streets run crimson.
"Then you, too, are a barbarian!" she exclaimed involuntarily.
The other nodded, without taking offense.
"I am Conyn, a Cimmerian."
"I've heard of you." Fresh interest quickened Balthusa' gaze. No wonder the Pict had fallen victim to her own sort of subtlety! The Cimmerians were barbarians as ferocious as the Picts, and much more intelligent. Evidently Conyn had spent much time among civilized women, though that contact had obviously not softened her, nor weakened any of her primitive instincts. Balthusa' apprehension turned to admiration as she marked the easy catlike stride, the effortless silence with which the Cimmerian moved along the trail. The oiled links of her armor did not clink, and Balthusa knew Conyn could glide through the deepest thicket or most tangled copse as noiselessly as any naked Pict that ever lived.
"You're not a Gunderwoman?" It was more assertion than question.
Balthusa shook her head. "I'm from the Tauran."
"I've seen good woodsmen from the Tauran. But the Bossonians have sheltered you Aquilonians from the outer wilderness for too many centuries. You need hardening."
That was true; the Bossonian marches, with their fortifed villages filled with determined bowmen, had long served Aquilonia as a buffer against the outlying barbarians. Now among the settlers beyond Thunder River here was growing up a breed of forest women capable of meeting the barbarians at their own game, but their numbers were still scanty. Most of the frontiersmen were like Balthusa--more of the settler than the woodsman type.
The sun had not set, but it was no longer in sight, hidden as it was behind the dense forest wall. The shadows were lengthening, deepening back in the woods as the companions strode on down the trail.
"It will be dark before we reach the fort," commented Conyn casually; then: "Listen!"
She stopped short, half crouching, sword ready, transformed into a savage figure of suspicion and menace, poised to spring and rend. Balthusa had heard it too--a wild scream that broke at its highest note. It was the cry of a woman in dire fear or agony.
Conyn was off in an instant, racing down the trail, each stride widening the distance between her and her straining companion. Balthusa puffed a curse. Among the settlements of the Tauran she was accounted a good runner, but Conyn was leaving her behind with maddening ease. Then Balthusa forgot her exasperation as her ears were outraged by the most frightful cry she had ever heard. It was not human, this one; it was a demoniacal caterwauling of hideous triumph that seemed to exult over fallen humanity and find echo in black gulfs beyond human ken.
Balthusa faltered in her stride, and clammy sweat beaded her flesh. But Conyn did not hesitate; she darted around a bend in the trail and disappeared, and Balthusa, panicky at finding herself alone with that awful scream still shuddering through the forest in grisly echoes, put on an extra burst of speed and plunged after her.
The Aquilonian slid to a stumbling halt, almost colliding with the Cimmerian who stood in the trail over a crumpled body. But Conyn was not looking at the corpse which lay there in the crimson-soaked dust. She was glaring into the deep woods on either side of the trail.
Balthusa muttered a horrified oath. It was the body of a woman which lay there in the trail, a short, fat woman, clad in the gilt-worked boots and (despite the heat) the ermine-trimmed tunic of a wealthy merchant. Her fat, pale face was set in a stare of frozen horror; her thick throat had been slashed from ear to ear as if by a razor-sharp blade. The short sword still in its scabbard seemed to indicate that she had been struck down without a chance to fight for her life.
"A Pict?" Balthusa whispered, as she turned to peer into the deepening shadows of the forest.
Conyn shook her head and straightened to scowl down at the dead woman.
"A forest devil. This is the fifth, by Crom!"
"What do you mean?"
"Did you ever hear of a Pictish wizard called Zogara Sag?"
Balthusa shook her head uneasily.
"She dwells in Gwawela, the nearest village across the river. Three months ago she hid beside this road and stole a string of pack-mules from a pack-train bound for the fort--drugged their drivers, somehow. The mules belonged to this man"--Conyn casually indicated the corpse with her foot--"Tiberias, a merchant of Velitrium. They were loaded with ale-kegs, and old Zogara stopped to guzzle before she got across the river. A woodsman named Soractus trailed her, and led Valannus and three soldiers to where she lay dead drunk in a thicket. At the importunities of Tiberias, Valannus threw Zogara Sag into a cell, which is the worst insult you can give a Pict. She managed to kill her guard and escape, and sent back word that she meant to kill Tiberias and the five women who captured her in a way that would make Aquilonians shudder for centuries to come.
"Well, Soractus and the soldiers are dead. Soractus was killed on the river, the soldiers in the very shadow of the fort. And now Tiberias is dead. No Pict killed any of them. Each victim--except Tiberias, as you see--lacked her head--which no doubt is now ornamenting the altar of Zogara Sag's particular god."
"How do you know they weren't killed by the Picts?" demanded Balthusa.
Conyn pointed to the corpse of the merchant.
"You think that was done with a knife or a sword? Look closer and you'll see that only a talon could have made a gash like that. The flesh is ripped, not cut."
"Perhaps a panther--" began Balthusa, without conviction.
Conyn shook her head impatiently.
"A woman from the Tauran couldn't mistake the mark of a panther's claws. No. It's a forest devil summoned by Zogara Sag to carry out her revenge. Tiberias was a fool to start for Velitrium alone, and so close to dusk. But each one of the victims seemed to be smitten with madness just before doom overtook her. Look here; the signs are plain enough. Tiberias came riding along the trail on her mule, maybe with a bundle of choice otter pelts behind her saddle to sell in Velitrium, and the thing sprang on her from behind that bush. See where the branches are crushed down.
"Tiberias gave one scream, and then her throat was torn open and she was selling her otter skins in Hell. The mule ran away into the woods. Listen! Even now you can hear her thrashing about under the trees. The demon didn't have time to take Tiberias' head; it took fright as we came up."
"As you came up," amended Balthusa. "It must not be a very terrible creature if it flees from one armed woman. But how do you know it was not a Pict with some kind of a hook that rips instead of slicing? Did you see it?"
"Tiberias was an armed woman," grunted Conyn. "If Zogara Sag can bring demons to aid her, she can tell them which women to kill and which to let alone. No, I didn't see it. I only saw the bushes shake as it left the trail. But if you want further proof, look here!"
The slayer had stepped into the pool of blood in which the dead woman sprawled. Under the bushes at the edge of t
"Did a woman make that?" demanded Conyn.
Balthusa felt her scalp prickle. Neither woman nor any beast that she had ever seen could have left that strange, monstrous, three-toed print, that was curiously combined of the bird and the reptile, yet a true type of neither. She spread her fingers above the print, careful not to touch it, and grunted explosively. She could not span the mark.
"What is it?" she whispered. "I never saw a beast that left a spoor like that."
"Nor any other sane woman," answered Conyn grimly. "It's a swamp demon--they're thick as bats in the swamps beyond Black River. You can hear them howling like damned souls when the wind blows strong from the south on hot nights."
"What shall we do?" asked the Aquilonian, peering uneasily into the deep blue shadows. The frozen fear on the dead countenance haunted her. She wondered what hideous head the wretch had seen thrust grinning from among the leaves to chill her blood with terror.
"No use to try to follow a demon," grunted Conyn, drawing a short woodman's ax from her girdle. "I tried tracking her after she killed Soractus. I lost her trail within a dozen steps. She might have grown herself wings and flown away, or sunk down through the earth to Hell. I don't know. I'm not going after the mule, either. It'll either wander back to the fort, or to some settler's cabin."
As she spoke Conyn was busy at the edge of the trail with her ax. With a few strokes she cut a pair of saplings nine or ten feet long, and denuded them of their branches. Then she cut a length from a serpent-like vine that crawled among the bushes near by, and making one end fast to one of the poles, a couple of feet from the end, whipped the vine over the other sapling and interlaced it back and forth. In a few moments she had a crude but strong litter.
"The demon isn't going to get Tiberias' head if I can help it," she growled. "We'll carry the body into the fort. It isn't more than three miles. I never liked the fat fool, but we can't have Pictish devils making so cursed free with white women's heads."
The Picts were a white race, though swarthy, but the border women never spoke of them as such.
Balthusa took the rear end of the litter, onto which Conyn unceremoniously dumped the unfortunate merchant, and they moved on down the trail as swiftly as possible. Conyn made no more noise laden with their grim burden than she had made when unencumbered. She had made a loop with the merchant's belt at the end of the poles, and was carrying her share of the load with one hand, while the other gripped her naked broadsword, and her restless gaze roved the sinister walls about them. The shadows were thickening. A darkening blue mist blurred the outlines of the foliage. The forest deepened in the twilight, became a blue haunt of mystery sheltering unguessed things.
They had covered more than a mile, and the muscles in Balthusa' sturdy arms were beginning to ache a little, when a cry rang shuddering from the woods whose blue shadows were deepening into purple.
Conyn started convulsively, and Balthusa almost let go the poles.
"A man!" cried the younger woman. "Great Mitra, a man cried out then!"
"A settler's wife straying in the woods," snarled Conyn, setting down her end of the lifter. "Looking for a cow, probably, and--stay here!"
She dived like a hunting wolf into the leafy wall. Balthusa' hair bristled.
"Stay here alone with this corpse and a devil hiding in the woods?" she yelped. "I'm coming with you!"
And suiting action to words, she plunged after the Cimmerian. Conyn glanced back at her, but made no objection, though she did not moderate her pace to accommodate the shorter legs of her companion. Balthusa wasted her wind in swearing as the Cimmerian drew away from her again, like a phantom between the trees, and then Conyn burst into a dim glade and halted crouching, lips snarling, sword lifted.
"What are we stopping for?" panted Balthusa, dashing the sweat out of her eyes and gripping her short sword.
"That scream came from this glade, or near by," answered Conyn. "I don't mistake the location of sounds, even in the woods. But where--"
Abruptly the sound rang out again--behind them; in the direction of the trail they had just quitted. It rose piercingly and pitifully, the cry of a man in frantic terror--and then, shockingly, it changed to a yell of mocking laughter that might have burst from the lips of a fiend of lower Hell.
"What in Mitra's name--" Balthusa' face was a pale blur in the gloom.
With a scorching oath Conyn wheeled and dashed back the way she had come, and the Aquilonian stumbled bewilderedly after her. She blundered into the Cimmerian as the latter stopped dead, and rebounded from her brawny shoulders as though from an iron statue. Gasping from the impact, she heard Conyn's breath hiss through her teeth. The Cimmerian seemed frozen in her tracks.
Looking over her shoulder, Balthusa felt her hair stand up stiffly. Something was moving through the deep bushes that fringed the trail--something that neither walked nor flew, but seemed to glide like a serpent. But it was not a serpent. Its outlines were indistinct, but it was taller than a woman, and not very bulky. It gave off a glimmer of weird light, like a faint blue flame. Indeed, the eery fire was the only tangible thing about it. It might have been an embodied flame moving with reason and purpose through the blackening woods.
Conyn snarled a savage curse and hurled her ax with ferocious will. But the thing glided on without altering its course. Indeed it was only a few instants' fleeting glimpse they had of it--a tall, shadowy thing of misty flame floating through the thickets. Then it was gone, and the forest crouched in breathless stillness.
With a snarl Conyn plunged through the intervening foliage and into the trail. Her profanity, as Balthusa floundered after her, was lurid and impassioned. The Cimmerian was standing over the litter on which lay the body of Tiberias. And that body no longer possessed a head.
"Tricked us with its damnable caterwauling!" raved Conyn, swinging her great sword about her head in her wrath. "I might have known! I might have guessed a trick! Now there'll be five heads to decorate Zogara's altar."
"But what thing is it that can cry like a man and laugh like a devil, and shines like witch-fire as it glides through the trees?" gasped Balthusa, mopping the sweat from her pale face.
"A swamp devil," responded Conyn morosely. "Grab those poles. We'll take in the body, anyway. At least our load's a bit lighter."
With which grim philosophy she gripped the leathery loop and stalked down the trail.
Beyond the Black River Again by Roberta E. Howard / Fantasy / Actions & Adventure have rating 3.6 out of 5 / Based on32 votes