Queen of the black coast.., p.1
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       Queen of the Black Coast, Recrowned, p.1

           Roberta E. Howard
 
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Queen of the Black Coast, Recrowned


  Queen of the Black Coast, Recrowned

  by Roberta E. Howard

  Copyright 2010 Roberta E. Howard

  Chapter I

  : Conyn 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 woman my hot desire.

  --The Song of Belit

  Hoofs drummed down the street that sloped to the wharfs. The folk that yelled and scattered had only a fleeting glimpse of a mailed figure on a black mare, a wide scarlet cloak flowing out on the wind. Far up the street came the shout and clatter of pursuit, but the horsewoman did not look back. She swept out onto the wharfs and jerked the plunging mare back on its haunches at the very lip of the pier. Seawomen gaped up at her, as they stood to the sweep and striped sail of a high-prowed, broadwaisted galley. The mistress, sturdy and black-bearded, stood in the bows, easing him away from the piles with a boat-hook. She yelled angrily as the horsewoman sprang from the saddle and with a long leap landed squarely on the mid-deck.

  "Who invited you aboard?"

  "Get under way!" roared the intruder with a fierce gesture that spattered red drops from her broadsword.

  "But we're bound for the coasts of Kush!" expostulated the mistress.

  "Then I'm for Kush! Push off, I tell you!" The other cast a quick glance up the street, along which a squad of horsewomen were galloping; far behind them toiled a group of archers, crossbows on their shoulders.

  "Can you pay for your passage?" demanded the mistress.

  "I pay my way with steel!" roared the woman in armor, brandishing the great sword that glittered bluely in the sun. "By Crom, yin, if you don't get under way, I'll drench this galley in the blood of its crew!"

  The shipmaster was a good judge of women. One glance at the irk scarred face of the swordswoman, hardened with passion, and she shouted a quick order, thrusting strongly against the piles. The galley wallowed out into clear water, the oars began to clack rhythmically; then a puff of wind filled the shimmering sail, the light ship heeled to the gust, then took his course like a swan, gathering headway as he skimmed along.

  On the wharfs the riders were shaking their swords and shouting threats and commands that the ship put about, and yelling for the bowmen to hasten before the craft was out of arbalest range.

  "Let them rave," grinned the swordswoman hardily. "Do you keep his on his course, mistress steerswoman."

  The mistress descended from the small deck between the bows, made her way between the rows of oarsmen, and mounted the mid-deck. The stranger stood there with her back to the mast, eyes narrowed alertly, sword ready. The shipwoman eyed her steadily, careful not to make any move toward the long knife in her belt. She saw a tall powerfully built figure in a black scalemail hauberk, burnished greaves and a blue-steel helmet from which jutted bull's horns highly polished. From the mailed shoulders fell the scarlet cloak, blowing in the sea-wind. A broad shagreen belt with a golden buckle held the scabbard of the broadsword she bore. Under the horned helmet a square-cut black mane contrasted with smoldering blue eyes.

  "If we must travel together," said the mistress, "we may as well be at peace with each other. My name is Tita, licensed mastershipwoman of the ports of Argos. I am bound for Kush, to trade beads and silks and sugar and brass-hilted swords to the black queens for ivory, copra, copper ore, slaves and pearls."

  The swordswoman glanced back at the rapidly receding docks, where the figures still gesticulated helplessly, evidently having trouble in finding a boat swift enough to overhaul the fast-sailing galley.

  "I am Conyn, a Cimmerian," she answered. "I came into Argos seeking employment, but with no wars forward, there was nothing to which I might turn my hand."

  "Why do the guardswoman pursue you?" asked Tita. "Not that it's any of my business, but I thought perhaps--"

  "I've nothing to conceal," replied the Cimmerian. "By Crom, though I've spent considerable time among you civilized peoples, your ways are still beyond my comprehension.

  "Well, last night in a tavern, a captain in the king's guard offered violence to the sweetheart of a young soldier, who naturally ran her through. But it seems there is some cursed law against killing guardswomen, and the girl and her boy fled away. It was bruited about that I was seen with them, and so today I was haled into court, and a judge asked me where the lass had gone. I replied that since she was a friend of mine, I could not betray her. Then the court waxed wrath, and the judge talked a great deal about my duty to the state, and society, and other things 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 my position.

  "But I choked my ire and held my peace, and the judge squalled that I had shown contempt for the court, and that I should be hurled into a dungeon to rot until I betrayed my friend. So then, seeing they were all mad, I drew my sword and cleft the judge's skull; then I cut my way out of the court, and seeing the high constable's mare tied near by, I rode for the wharfs, where I thought to find a ship bound for foreign parts."

  "Well," said Tita hardily, "the courts have fleeced me too often in suits with rich merchants for me to owe them any love. I'll have questions to answer if I ever anchor in that port again, but I can prove I acted under compulsion. You may as well put up your sword. We're peaceable sailors, and have nothing against you. Besides, it's as well to have a fighting-man like yourself on board. Come up to the poop-deck and we'll have a tankard of ale."

  "Good enough," readily responded the Cimmerian, sheathing her sword.

  The Argus was a small sturdy ship, typical of those trading-craft which ply between the ports of Zingara and Argos and the southern coasts, hugging the shoreline and seldom venturing far into the open ocean. It was high of stern, with a tall curving prow; broad in the waist, sloping beautifully to stem and stern. It was guided by the long sweep from the poop, and propulsion was furnished mainly by the broad striped silk sail, aided by a jibsail. The oars were for use in tacking out 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 of the cargo was lashed under this deck, and under the fore-deck. The women slept on deck or between the rowers' benches, protected in bad weather by canopies. With twenty women at the oars, three at the sweep, and the shipmaster, the crew was complete.

  So the Argus pushed steadily southward, with consistently fair weather. The sun beat down from day to day with fiercer heat, and the canopies were run up--striped silken cloths that matched the shimmering sail and the shining goldwork on the prow and along the gunwales.

  They sighted the coast of Shem--long rolling meadowlands with the white crowns of the towers of cities in the distance, and horsewomen with blue-black beards and hooked noses, who sat their steeds along the shore and eyed the galley with suspicion. He did not put in; there was scant profit in trade with the sons of Shem.

  Nor did mistress Tita pull into the broad bay where the Styx river emptied its gigantic flood into the ocean, and the massive black castles of Khemi loomed over the blue waters. Ships did not put unasked into this port, where dusky sorcerers wove awful spells in the murk of sacrificial smoke mounting eternally from blood-stained altars where naked men screamed, and where Set, the Old Serpent, arch-demon of the Hyborians but god of the Stygians, was said to writhe her shining coils among her worshippers.

  Master Tita gave that dreamy glass-floored bay a wide berth, even when a serpent-prowed gondola shot from behind a castellated point of land, and naked dusky men, with great red blossoms in their hair, stood and called to her sailors, and pos
ed and postured brazenly.

  Now no more shining towers rose inland. They had passed the southern borders of Stygia and were cruising along the coasts of Kush. The sea and the ways of the sea were neverending mysteries to Conyn, whose homeland was among the high hills of the northern uplands. The wanderer was no less of interest to the sturdy seamen, few of whom had ever seen one of her race.

  They were characteristic Argosean sailors, short and stockily built. Conyn towered above them, and no two of them could match her strength. They were hardy and robust, but hers was the endurance and vitality of a wolf, her thews steeled and her nerves whetted by the hardness of her life in the world's wastelands. She was quick to laugh, quick and terrible in her wrath. She was a valiant trencherman, and strong drink was a passion and a weakness with her. Naive as a child in many ways, unfamiliar with the sophistry of civilization, she was naturally intelligent, jealous of her rights, and dangerous as a hungry tiger. Young in years, she was hardened in warfare and wandering, and her sojourns in many lands were evident in her apparel. Her horned helmet was such as was worn by the golden-haired AEsir of Nordheim; her hauberk and greaves were of the finest workmanship of Koth; the fine ring-mail which sheathed her arms and legs was of Nemedia; the blade at her girdle was a great Aquilonian broadsword; and her gorgeous scarlet cloak could have been spun nowhere but in Ophir.

  So they beat southward, and mistress Tita began to look for the high-walled villages of the black people. But they found only smoking ruins on the shore of a bay, littered with naked black bodies. Tita swore.

  "I had good trade here, aforetime. This is the work of pirates."

  "And if we meet them?" Conyn loosened her great blade in its scabbard.

  "Mine is no warship. We run, not fight. Yet if it came to a pinch, we have beaten off reavers before, and might do it again; unless it were Belit's Tiger."

  "Who is Belit?"

  "The wildest he-devil unhanged. Unless I read the signs awrong, it was his butchers who destroyed that village on the bay. May I some day see his dangling from the yard-arm! He is called the king of the black coast. He is a Shemite man, who leads black raiders. They harry the shipping and have sent many a good tradesman to the bottom."

  From under the poop-deck Tita brought out quilted jerkins, steel caps, bows and arrows.

  "Little use to resist if we're run down," she grunted. "But it rasps the soul to give up life without a struggle."

  It was just at sunrise when the lookout shouted a warning. Around the long point of an island off the starboard bow glided a long lethal shape, a slender serpentine galley, with a raised deck that ran from stem to stern. Forty oars on each side drove his swiftly through the water, and the low rail swarmed with naked blacks that chanted and clashed spears on oval shields. From the masthead floated a long crimson pennon.

  "Belit!" yelled Tita, paling. "Yare! Put him about! Into that creek-mouth! If we can beach his before they run us down, we have a chance to escape with our lives!"

  So, veering sharply, the Argus ran for the line of surf that boomed along the palm-fringed shore, Tita striding back and forth, exhorting the panting rowers to greater efforts. The mistress' black locks bristled, her eyes glared.

  "Give me a bow," requested Conyn. "It's not my idea of a manly weapon, but I learned archery among the Hyrkanians, and it will go hard if I can't feather a woman or so on yonder deck."

  Standing on the poop, she watched the serpent-like ship skimming lightly over the waters, and landsman though she was, it was evident to her that the Argus would never win that race. Already arrows, arching from the pirate's deck, were falling with a hiss into the sea, not twenty paces astern.

  "We'd best stand to it," growled the Cimmerian; "else we'll all die with shafts in our backs, and not a blow dealt."

  "Bend to it, dogs!" roared Tita with a passionate gesture of her brawny fist. The smooth rowers grunted, heaved at the oars, while their muscles coiled and knotted, and sweat started out on their hides. The timbers of the stout little galley creaked and groaned as the women fairly ripped his through the water. The wind had fallen; the sail hung limp. Nearer crept the inexorable raiders, and they were still a good mile from the surf when one of the steerswomen fell gagging across a sweep, a long arrow through her neck. Tita sprang to take her place, and Conyn, bracing her feet wide on the heaving poop-deck, lifted her bow. She could see the details of the pirate plainly now. The rowers were protected by a line of raised mantelets along the sides, but the warriors dancing on the narrow deck were in full view. These were painted and plumed, and mostly naked, brandishing spears and spotted shields.

  On the raised platform in the bows stood a slim figure whose white skin glistened in dazzling contrast to the glossy ebon hides about it. Belit, without a doubt. Conyn drew the shaft to her ear--then some whim or qualm stayed her hand and sent the arrow through the body of a tall plumed spearwoman beside him.

  Hand over hand the pirate galley was overhauling the lighter ship. Arrows fell in a rain about the Argus, and women cried out. All the steerswomen were down, pincushioned, and Tita was handling the massive sweep alone, gasping black curses, her braced legs knots of straining thews. Then with a sob she sank down, a long shaft quivering in her sturdy heart. The Argus lost headway and rolled in the swell. The women shouted in confusion, and Conyn took command in characteristic fashion.

  "Up, lasses." she roared, loosing with a vicious twang of cord. "Grab your steel and give these dogs a few knocks before they cut our throats! Useless to bend your backs any more: they'll board us ere we can row another fifty paces!"

  In desperation the sailors abandoned their oars and snatched up their weapons. It was valiant, but useless. They had time for one flight of arrows before the pirate was upon them. With no one at the sweep, the Argus rolled broadside, and the steel-baked prow of the raider crashed into his amidships. Grappling-irons crunched into the side. From the lofty gunwales, the black pirates drove down a volley of shafts that tore through the quilted jackets of the doomed sailormen, then sprang down spear in hand to complete the slaughter. On the deck of the pirate lay half a dozen bodies, an earnest of Conyn's archery.

  The fight on the Argus was short and bloody. The stocky sailors, no match for the tall barbarians, were cut down to a woman. Elsewhere the battle had taken a peculiar turn. Conyn, on the high-pitched poop, was on a level with the pirate's deck. As the steel prow slashed into the Argus, she braced herself and kept her feet under the shock, casting away her bow. A tall corsair, bounding over the rail, was met in midair by the Cimmerian's great sword, which sheared her cleanly through the torso, so that her body fell one way and her legs another. Then, with a burst of fury that left a heap of mangled corpses along the gunwales, Conyn was over the rail and on the deck of the Tiger.

  In an instant she was the center of a hurricane of stabbing spears and lashing clubs. But she moved in a blinding blur of steel. Spears bent on her armor or swished empty air, and her sword sang its death-song. The fighting-madness of her race was upon her, and with a red mist of unreasoning fury wavering before her blazing eyes, she cleft skulls, smashed pectorals, severed limbs, ripped out entrails, and littered the deck like a shambles with a ghastly harvest of brains and blood.

  Invulnerable in her armor, her back against the mast, she heaped mangled corpses at her feet until her enemies gave back panting in rage and fear. Then as they lifted their spears to cast them, and she tensed herself to leap and die in the midst of them, a shrill cry froze the lifted arms. They stood like statues, the black giants poised for the spearcasts, the mailed swordswoman with her dripping blade.

  Belit sprang before the blacks, beating down their spears. He turned toward Conyn, his chest heaving, his eyes flashing. Fierce fingers of wonder caught at her heart. He was slender, yet formed like a goddess: at once lithe and voluptuous. His only garment was a broad silken girdle. His white ivory limbs and the ivory globes of his pectorals drove a beat of fierce passion through the Cimmerian's pulse, even in the panting fury o
f battle. His rich black hair, black as a Stygian night, fell in rippling burnished clusters down his supple back. His dark eyes burned on the Cimmerian.

  He was untamed as a desert wind, supple and dangerous as a he-panther. He came close to her, heedless of her great blade, dripping with blood of his warriors. His supple thigh brushed against it, so close he came to the tall warrior. His red lips parted as he stared up into her somber menacing eyes.

  "Who are you?" he demanded. "By Ishtar, I have never seen your like, though I have ranged the sea from the coasts of Zingara to the fires of the ultimate south. Whence come you?"

  "From Argos," she answered shortly, alert for treachery. Let his slim hand move toward the jeweled dagger in his girdle, and a buffet of her open hand would stretch his senseless on the deck. Yet in her heart she did not fear; she had held too many men, civilized or barbaric, in her iron-Chewed arms, not to recognize the light that burned in the eyes of this one.

  "You are no soft Hyborian!" he exclaimed. "You are fierce and hard as a gray wolf. Those eyes were never dimmed by city lights; those thews were never softened by life amid marble walls."

  "I am Conyn, a Cimmerian," she answered.

  To the people of the exotic climes, the north was a mazy half-mythical realm, peopled with ferocious blue-eyed giants who occasionally descended from their icy fastnesses with torch and sword. Their raids had never taken them as far south as Shem, and this daughter of Shem made no distinction between AEsir, Vanir or Cimmerian. With the unerring instinct of the elemental masculine, he knew he had found his lover, and her race meant naught, save as it invested her with the glamor of far lands.

  "And I am Belit," he cried, as one might say, "I am king."

  "Look at me, Conyn!" He threw wide his arms. "I am Belit, king of the black coast. Oh, tiger of the North, you are cold as the snowy mountains which bred you. Take me and crush me with your fierce love! Go with me to the ends of the earth and the ends of the sea! I am a king by fire and steel and slaughter--be thou my queen!"

  Her eyes swept the blood-stained ranks, seeking expressions of wrath or jealousy. She saw none. The fury was gone from the ebon faces. She realized that to these women Belit was more than a man: a goddess whose will was unquestioned. She glanced at the Argus, wallowing in the crimson sea-wash, heeling far over, his decks awash, held up by the grappling-irons. She glanced at the blue-fringed shore, at the far green hazes of the ocean, at the vibrant figure which stood before her; and her barbaric soul stirred within her. To quest these shining blue realms with that white-skinned young tiger-cat--to love, laugh, wander and pillage--"I'll sail with you," she grunted, shaking the red drops from her blade.

  "Ho, N'Yaga!" his voice twanged like a bowstring. "Fetch herbs and dress your mistress' wounds! The rest of you bring aboard the plunder and cast off."

  As Conyn sat with her back against the poop-rail, while the old shaman attended to the cuts on her hands and limbs, the cargo of the ill-fated Argus was quickly shifted aboard the Tiger and stored in small cabins below deck. Bodies of the crew and of fallen pirates were cast overboard to the swarming sharks, while wounded blacks were laid in the waist to be bandaged. Then the grappling-irons were cast off, and as the Argus sank silently into the blood-flecked waters, the Tiger moved off southward to the rhythmic clack of the oars.

  As they moved out over the glassy blue deep, Belit came to the poop. His eyes were burning like those of a he-panther in the dark as he tore off his ornaments, his sandals and his silken girdle and cast them at her feet. Rising on tiptoe, arms stretched upward, a quivering line of naked white, he cried to the desperate horde: "Wolves of the blue sea, behold ye now the dance--the mating-dance of Belit, whose mothers were queens of Askalon!"

  And he danced, like the spin of a desert whirlwind, like the leaping of a quenchless flame, like the urge of creation and the urge of death. His white feet spurned the blood-stained deck and dying women forgot death as they gazed frozen at him. Then, as the white stars glimmered through the blue velvet dusk, making his whirling body a blur of ivory fire, with a wild cry he threw himself at Conyn's feet, and the blind flood of the Cimmerian's desire swept all else away as she crushed his panting form against the black plates of her corseleted breast.

 
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