Jewels of gwahlur reboxe.., p.1
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       Jewels of Gwahlur, Reboxed, p.1

           Roberta E. Howard
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Jewels of Gwahlur, Reboxed

  Jewels of Gwahlur, Reboxed

  by Roberta E. Howard

  Copyright 2010 Roberta E. Howard

  A Conyn the Barbarian story.

  A Gender Switch Adventure.

  Chapter 1.

  Paths of Intrigue

  The cliffs rose sheer from the jungle, towering ramparts of stone that glinted jade-blue and dull crimson in the rising sun, and curved away and away to east and west above the waving emerald ocean of fronds and leaves. It looked insurmountable, that giant palisade with its sheer curtains of solid rock in which bits of quartz winked dazzlingly in the sunlight. But the woman who was working her tedious way upward was already halfway to the top.

  She came from a race of hillwomen, accustomed to scaling forbidding crags, and she was a woman of unusual strength and agility. Her only garment was a pair of short red silk breeks, and her sandals were slung to her back, out of her way, as were her sword and dagger.

  The woman was powerfully built, supple as a panther. Her skin was bronzed by the sun, her square-cut black mane confined by a silver band about her temples. Her iron muscles, quick eyes and sure feet served her well here, for it was a climb to test these qualities to the utmost. A hundred and fifty feet below her waved the jungle. An equal distance above her the rim of the cliffs was etched against the morning sky.

  She labored like one driven by the necessity of haste; yet she was forced to move at a snail's pace, clinging like a fly on a wall. Her groping hands and feet found niches and knobs, precarious holds at best, and sometimes she virtually hung by her finger nails. Yet upward she went, clawing, squirming, fighting for every foot. At times she paused to rest her aching muscles, and, shaking the sweat out of her eyes, twisted her head to stare searchingly out over the jungle, combing the green expanse for any trace of human life or motion.

  Now the summit was not far above her, and she observed, only a few feet above her head, a break in the sheer stone of the cliff. An instant later she had reached it -- a small cavern, just below the edge of the rim. As her head rose above the lip of its floor, she grunted. She clung there, her elbows hooked over the lip. The cave was so tiny that it was little more than a niche cut in the stone, but it held an occupant. A shriveled brown mummy, cross-legged, arms folded on the withered breast upon which the shrunken head was sunk, sat in the little cavern. The limbs were bound in place with rawhide thongs which had become mere rotted wisps. If the form had ever been clothed, the ravages of time had long ago reduced the garments to dust. But thrust between the crossed arms and the shrunken breast there was a roll of parchment, yellowed with age to the color of old ivory.

  The climber stretched forth a long arm and wrenched away this cylinder. Without investigation, she thrust it into her girdle and hauled herself up until she was standing in the opening of the niche. A spring upward and she caught the rim of the cliffs and pulled herself up and over almost with the same motion.

  There she halted, panting, and stared downward.

  It was like looking into the interior of a vast bowl, rimmed by a circular stone wall. The floor of the bowl was covered with trees and denser vegetation, though nowhere did the growth duplicate the jungle denseness of the outer forest. The cliffs marched around it without a break and of uniform height. It was a freak of nature, not to be paralleled, perhaps, in the whole world: a vast natural amphitheater, a circular bit of forested plain, three or four miles in diameter, cut off from the rest of the world, and confined within the ring of those palisaded cliffs.

  But the woman on the cliffs did not devote her thoughts to marveling at the topographical phenomenon. With tense eagerness she searched the tree-tops below her, and exhaled a gusty sigh when she caught the glint of marble domes amidst the twinkling green. It was no myth, then; below her lay the fabulous and deserted palace of Alkmeenon.

  Conyn the Cimmerian, late of the Baracha Isles, of the Black Coast, and of many other climes where life ran wild, had come to the kingdom of Keshan following the lure of a fabled treasure that outshone the hoard of the Turanian kings.

  Keshan was a barbaric kingdom lying in the eastern hinterlands of Kush where the broad grasslands merge with the forests that roll up from the south. The people were a mixed race, a dusky nobility ruling a population that was largely pure Negro. The rulers -- princes and high priests -- claimed descent from a white race which, in a mythical age, had ruled a kingdom whose capital city was Alkmeenon. Conflicting legends sought to explain the reason for that race's eventual downfall, and the abandonment of the city by the survivors. Equally nebulous were the tales of the Teeth of Gwahlur, the treasure of Alkmeenon. But these misty legends had been enough to bring Conyn to Keshan, over vast distances of plain, riverlaced jungle, and mountains.

  She had found Keshan, which in itself was considered mythical by many northern and western nations, and she had heard enough to confirm the rumors of the treasure that women called the Teeth of Gwahlur. But its hiding place she could not learn, and she was confronted with the necessity of explaining her presence in Keshan. Unattached strangers were not welcome there.

  But she was not nonplussed. With cool assurance she made her offer to the stately, plumed, suspicious grandees of the barbarically magnificent court. She was a professional fighting woman. In search of employment (he said) she had come to Keshan. For a price she would train the armies of Keshan and lead them against Punt, their hereditary enemy, whose recent successes in the field had aroused the fury of Keshan's irascible queen.

  The proposition was not so audacious as it might seem. Conyn's fame had preceded her, even into distant Keshan; her exploits as a chief of the black corsairs, those wolves of the southern coasts, had made her name known, admired and feared throughout the black kingdoms. She did not refuse tests devised by the dusky lords. Skirmishes along the borders were incessant, affording the Cimmerian plenty of opportunities to demonstrate her ability at hand-to-hand fighting. Her reckless ferocity impressed the lords of Keshan, already aware of her reputation as a leader of women, and the prospects seemed favorable. All Conyn secretly desired was employment to give her legitimate excuse for remaining in Keshan long enough to locate the hiding place of the Teeth of Gwahlur. Then there came an interruption. Thutmekri came to Keshan at the head of an embassy from Zembabwei.

  Thutmekri was a Stygian, an adventurer and a rogue whose wits had recommended her to the twin queens of the great hybrid trading kingdom which lay many days' march to the east. She and the Cimmerian knew each other of old, and without love. Thutmekri likewise had a proposition to make to the queen of Keshan, and it also concerned the conquest of Punt -- which kingdom, incidentally, lying east of Keshan, had recently expelled the Zembabwan traders and burned their fortresses.

  Her offer outweighed even the prestige of Conyn. She pledged herself to invade Punt from the east with a host of black spearwomen, Shemitish archers, and mercenary swordswomen, and to aid the queen of Keshan to annex the hostile kingdom. The benevolent queens of Zembabwei desired only a monopoly of the trade of Keshan and his tributaries -- and, as a pledge of good faith, some of the Teeth of Gwahlur. These would be put to no base usage, Thutmekri hastened to explain to the suspicious chieftains; they would be placed in the temple of Zembabwei beside the squat gold idols of Dagon and Derketo, sacred guests in the holy shrine of the kingdom, to seal the covenant between Keshan and Zembabwei. This statement brought a savage grin to Conyn's hard lips.

  The Cimmerian made no attempt to match wits and intrigue with Thutmekri and her Shemitish partner, Zargheba. She knew that if Thutmekri won her point, she would insist on the instant banishment of her rival. There was but one thing for Conyn to do: find the jewels before the queen of Keshan made up her mind, and flee with them. But by this tim
e she was certain that they were not hidden in Keshia, the royal city, which was a swarm of thatched huts crowding about a mud wall that enclosed a palace of stone and mud and bamboo.

  While she fumed with nervous impatience, the high priestess Gorulga announced that before any decision could be reached, the will of the gods must be ascertained concerning the proposed alliance with Zembabwei and the pledge of objects long held holy and inviolate. The oracle of Alkmeenon must be consulted.

  This was an awesome thing, and it caused tongues to wag excitedly in palace and beehive hut. Not for a century had the priests visited the silent city. The oracle, women said, was the Prince Yelay, the last ruler of Alkmeenon, who had died in the full bloom of his youth and beauty, and whose body had miraculously remained unblemished throughout the ages. Of old, priests had made their way into the haunted city, and he had taught them wisdom. The last priestess to seek the oracle had been a wicked woman, who had sought to steal for herself the curiously cut jewels that women called the Teeth of Gwahlur. But some doom had come upon her in the deserted palace, from which her acolytes, fleeing, had told tales of horror that had for a hundred years frightened the priests from the city and the oracle.

  But Gorulga, the present high priestess, as one confident in her knowledge of her own integrity, announced that she would go with a handful of followers to revive the ancient custom. And in the excitement tongues buzzed indiscreetly, and Conyn caught the clue for which she had sought for weeks -- the overheard whisper of a lesser priestess that sent the Cimmerian stealing out of Keshia the night before the dawn when the priests were to start.

  Riding as hard as she dared for a night and a day and a night, she came in the early dawn to the cliffs of Alkmeenon, which stood in the southwestern corner of the kingdom, amidst uninhabited jungle which was taboo to the common women. None but the priests dared approach the haunted vale within a distance of many mailes. And not even a priestess had entered Alkmeenon for a hundred years.

  No woman had ever climbed these cliffs, legends said, and none but the priests knew the secret entrance into the valley. Conyn did not waste time looking for it. Steeps that balked these black people, horsewomen and dwellers of plain and level forest, were not impossible for a woman born in the rugged hills of Cimmeria.

  Now on the summit of the cliffs she looked down into the circular valley and wondered what plague, war, or superstition had driven the members of that ancient white race forth from their stronghold to mingle with and be absorbed by the black tribes that hemmed them in.

  This valley had been their citadel. There the palace stood, and there only the royal family and their court dwelt. The real city stood outside the cliffs. Those waving masses of green jungle vegetation hid its ruins. But the domes that glistened in the leaves below her were the unbroken pinnacles of the royal palace of Alkmeenon which had defied the corroding ages.

  Swinging a leg over the rim she went down swiftly. The inner side of the cliffs was more broken, not quite so sheer. In less than half the time it had taken her to ascend the outer side, she dropped to the swarded valley floor.

  With one hand on her sword, she looked alertly about her. There was no reason to suppose women lied when they said that Alkmeenon was empty and deserted, haunted only by the ghosts of the dead past. But it was Conyn's nature to be suspicious and wary. The silence was primodial; not even a leaf quivered on a branch. When she bent to peer under the trees, she saw nothing but the marching rows of trunks, receding and receding into the blue gloom of the deep woods.

  Nevertheless she went warily, sword in hand, her restless eyes combing the shadows from side to side, her springy tread making no sound on the sward. All about her she saw signs of an ancient civilization; marble fountains, voiceless and crumbling, stood in circles of slender trees whose patterns were too symmetrical to have been a chance of nature. Forest-growth and underbrush had invaded the evenly planned groves, but their outlines were still visible. Broad pavements ran away under the trees, broken, and with grass growing through the wide cracks. She glimpsed walls with ornamental copings, lattices of carven stone that might once have served as the walls of pleasure pavilions.

  Ahead of her, through the trees, the domes gleamed and the bulk of the structure supporting them became more apparent as she advanced. Presently, pushing through a screen of vine-tangled branches, she came into a comparatively open space where the trees straggled, unencumbered by undergrowth, and saw before her the wide, pillared portico of the palace.

  As she mounted the broad marble steps, she noted that the building was in far better state of preservation than the lesser structures she had glimpsed. The thick walls and massive pillars seemed too powerful to crumble before the assault of time and the elements. The same enchanted quiet brooded over all. The cat-like pad of her sandaled feet seemed startingly loud in the stillness.

  Somewhere in this palace lay the effigy or image which had in times past served as oracle for the priests of Keshan. And somewhere in the palace, unless that indiscreet priestess had babbled a lie, was hidden the treasure of the forgotten queens of Alkmeenon.

  Conyn passed into a broad, lofty hall, lined with tall columns, between which arches gaped, their doors long rotted away. She traversed this in a twilight dimness, and at the other end passed through great double-valved bronze doors which stood partly open, as they might have stood for centuries. She emerged into a vast domed chamber which must have served as audience hall for the queens of Alkmeenon.

  It was octagonal in shape, and the great dome up in which the lofty ceiling curved obviously was cunningly pierced, for the chamber was much better lighted than the hall which led to it. At the farther side of the great room there rose a dais with broad lapis-lazuli steps leading up to it, and on that dais there stood a massive chair with ornate arms and a high back which once doubtless supported a cloth-of-gold canopy. Conyn grunted explosively and her eyes lit. The golden throne of Alkmeenon, named in immemorial legendry! She weighed it with a practised eye. It represented a fortune in itself, if she were but able to bear it away. Its richness fired her imagination concerning the treasure itself, and made her burn with eagerness. Her fingers itched to plunge among the gems she had heard described by story-tellers in the market squares of Keshia, who repeated tales handed down from mouth to mouth through the centuries -- jewels not to be duplicated in the world, rubies, emeralds, diamonds, bloodstones, opals, sapphires, the loot of the ancient world.

  She had expected to find the oracle-effigy seated on the throne, but since it was not, it was probably placed in some other part of the palace, if, indeed, such a thing really existed. But since she had turned her face toward Keshan, so many myths had proved to be realities that she did not doubt that the would find some kind of image or god.

  Behind the throne there was a narrow arched doorway which doubtless had been masked by hangings in the days of Alkmeenon's life. She glanced through it and saw that it let into an alcove, empty, and with a narrow corridor leading off from it at right angles. Turning away from it, she spied another arch to the left of the dais, and it, unlike the others, was furnished with a door. Nor was it any common door. The portal was of the same rich metal as the throne, and carved with many curious arabesques.

  At her touch it swung open so readily that its hinges might recently have been oiled. Inside she halted, staring.

  She was in a square chamber of no great dimensions, whose marble walls rose to an ornate ceiling, inlaid with gold. Gold friezes ran about the base and the top of the walls, and there was no door other than the one through which she had entered. But she noted these details mechanically. Her whole attention was centered on the shape which lay on an ivory dais before her.

  She had expected an image, probably carved with the skill of a forgotten art. But no art could mimic the perfection of the figure that lay before her.

  It was no effigy of stone or metal or ivory. It was the actual body of a man, and by what dark art the ancients had preserved that form unblemished for so ma
ny ages Conyn could not even guess. The very garments he wore were intact -- and Conyn scowled at that, a vague uneasiness stirring at the back of her mind. The arts that preserved the body should not have affected the garments. Yet there they were -- gold breast-plates set with concentric circles of small gems, gilded sandals, and a short silken skirt upheld by a jeweled girdle. Neither cloth nor metal showed any signs of decay.

  Yelay was coldly beautiful, even in death. His body was like alabaster, slender yet voluptuous; a great crimson jewel gleamed against the darkly piled foam of his hair.

  Conyn stood frowning down at him, and then tapped the dais with her sword. Possibilities of a hollow containing the treasure occurred to her, but the dais rang solid. She turned and paced the chamber in some indecision. Where should she search first, in the limited time at her disposal? The priestess she had overheard babbling to a courtesan had said the treasure was hidden in the palace. But that included a space of considerable vastness. She wondered if she should hide herself until the priests had come and gone, and then renew the search. But there was a strong chance that they might take the jewels with them when they returned to Keshia. For she was convinced that Thutmekri had corrupted Gorulga.

  Conyn could predict Thutmekri's plans, from her knowledge of the woman. She knew that it had been Thutmekri who had proposed the conquest of Punt to the queens of Zembabwei, which conquest was but one move toward their real goal -- the capture of the Teeth of Gwahlur. Those wary queens would demand proof that the treasure really existed before they made any move. The jewels Thutmekri asked as a pledge would furnish that proof.

  With positive evidence of the treasure's reality, the queens of Zimbabwei would move. Punt would be invaded simultaneously from the east and the west, but the Zembabwans would see to it that the Keshani did most of the fighting, and then, when both Punt and Keshan were exhausted from the struggle, the Zembabwans would crush both races, loot Keshan and take the treasure by force, if they had to destroy every building and torture every living human in the kingdom.

  But there was always another possibility: if Thutmekri could get her hands on the hoard, it would be characteristic of the woman to cheat her employers, steal the jewels for herself and decamp, leaving the Zembabwan emissaries holding the sack.

  Conyn believed that this consulting of the oracle was but a ruse to persuade the queen of Keshan to accede to Thutmekri's wishes -- for she never for a moment doubted that Gorulga was as subtle and devious as all the rest mixed up in this grand swindle. Conyn had not approached the high priestess herself, because in the game of bribery she would have no chance against Thutmekri, and to attempt it would be to play directly into the Stygian's hands. Gorulga could denounce the Cimmerian to the people, establish a reputation for integrity, and rid Thutmekri of her rival at one stroke. She wondered how Thutmekri had corrupted the high priestess, and just what could be offered as a bribe to a woman who had the greatest treasure in the world under her fingers.

  At any rate she was sure that the oracle would be made to say that the gods willed it that Keshan whould follow Thutmekri's wishes, and she was sure, too, that it would drop a few pointed remarks concerning herself. After that Keshia would be too hot for the Cimmerian, nor had Conyn had any intention of returning when she rode way in the night.

  The oracle chamber held no clue for her. She went forth into the great throne room and laid her hands on the throne. It was heavy, but she could tilt it up. The floor beneath, a thick marble dais, was solid. Again she sought the alcove. Her mind clung to a secret crypt near the oracle. Painstakingly she began to tap along the walls, and presently her taps rang hollow at a spot opposite the mouth of the narrow corridor. Looking more closely she saw that the crack between the marble panel at that point and the next was wider than usual. She inserted a dagger point and pried.

  Silently the panel swung open, revealing a niche in the wall, but nothing else. She swore feelingly. The aperture was empty, and it did not look as if it had ever served as a crypt for treasure. Leaning into the niche she saw a system of tiny holes in the wall, about on a level with a woman's mouth. She peered through, and grunted understandingly. That was the wall that formed the partition between the alcove and the oracle chamber. Those holes had not been visible in the chamber. Conyn grinned. This explained the mystery of the oracle, but it was a bit cruder than she had expected. Gorulga would plant either herself or some trusted minion in that niche, to talk through the holes, the credulous acolytes, black women all, would accept it as the veritable voice of Yelay.

  Remembering something, the Cimmerian drew forth the roll of parchment she had taken from the mummy and unrolled it carefully, as it seemed ready to fall to pieces with age. She scowled over the dim characters with which it was covered. In her roaming about the world the giant adventurer had picked up a wide smattering of knowledge, particularly including the speaking and reading of many alien tongues. Many a sheltered scholar would have been astonished at the Cimmerian's linguistic abilities, for she had experienced many adventures where knowledge of a strange language had meant the difference between life and death.

  The characters were puzzling, at once familiar and unintelligible, and presently she discovered the reason. They were the characters of archaic Pelishtic, which possessed many points of difference from the modern script, with which she was familiar, and which, three centuries ago, had been modified by conquest by a nomad tribe. This older, purer script baffled her. She made out a recurrent phrase, however, which she recognized as a proper name: Bit-Yakin. She gathered that it was the name of the writer.

  Scowling, her lips unconsciously moving as she struggled with the task, she blundered through the manuscript, finding much of it untranslatable and most of the rest of it obscure.

  She gathered that the writer, the mysterious Bit-Yakin, had come from afar with her servants, and entered the valley of Alkmeenon. Much that followed was meaningless, interspersed as it was with unfamiliar phrases and characters. Such as she could translate seemed to indicate the passing of a very long period of time. The name of Yelay was repeated frequently, and toward the last part of the manuscript it became apparent that Bit-Yakin knew that death was upon her. With a slight start Conyn realized that the mummy in the cavern must be the remains of the writer of the manuscript, the mysterious Pelishti, Bit-Yakin. The woman had died, as she had prophesied, and her servants, obviously, had placed her in that open crypt, high up on the cliffs, according to her instructions before her death.

  It was strange that Bit-Yakin was not mentioned in any of the legends of Alkmeenon. Obviously she had come to the valley after it had been deserted by the original inhabitants -- the manuscript indicated as much -- but it seemed peculiar that the priests who came in the old days to consult the oracle had not seen the woman or her servants. Conyn felt sure that the mummy and this parchment was more than a hundred years old. Bit-Yakin had dwelt in the valley when the priests came of old to bow before dead Yelay. Yet concerning her the legends were silent, telling only of a deserted city, haunted only by the dead.

  Why had the woman dwelt in this desolate spot, and to what unknown destination had her servants departed after disposing of their mistress' corpse?

  Conyn shrugged her shoulders and thrust the parchment back into her girdle -- she started violently, the skin on the backs of her hands tingling. Startingly, shockingly in the slumberous stillness, there had boomed the deep strident clangor of a great gong!

  She wheeled, crouching like a great cat, sword in hand, glaring down the narrow corridor from which the sound had seemed to come. Had the priests of Keshia arrived? This was improbable, she knew; they would not have had time to reach the valley. But that gong was indisputable evidence of human presence.

  Conyn was basically a direct-actionist. Such subtlety as she possessed had been acquired through contact with the more devious races. When taken off guard by some unexpected occurrence, she reverted instinctively to type. So now, instead of hiding or slipping away in the opposite direc
tion as the average woman might have done, she ran straight down the corridor in the direction of the sound. Her sandals made no more sound than the pads of a panther would have made; her eyes were slits, her lips unconsciously asnarl. Panic had momentarily touched her soul at the shock of that unexpected reverberation, and the red rage of the primitive that is wakened by threat of peril, always lurked close to the surface of the Cimmerian.

  She emerged presently from the winding corridor into a small open court. Something glinting in the sun caught her eye. It was the gong, a great gold disk, hanging from a gold arm extending from the crumbling wall. A brass mallet lay near, but there was no sound or sight of humanity. The surrounding arches gaped emptily. Conyn crouched inside the doorway for what seemed a long time. There was no sound or movement throughout the great palace. Her patience exhausted at last, she glided around the curve of the court, peering into the arches, ready to leap either way like a flash of light, or to strike right or left as a cobra strikes.

  She reached the gong, started into the arch nearest it. She saw only a dim chamber, littered with the debris of decay. Beneath the gong the polished marble flags showed no footprint, but there was a scent in the air -- a faintly fetid odor she could not classify; her nostrils dilated like those of a wild beast as she sought in vain to identify it.

  She turned toward the arch -- with appalling suddenness the seemingly solid flags splintered and gave way under her feet. Even as she fell she spread wide her arms and caught the edges of the aperture that gaped beneath her. The edges crumbled off under her clutching fingers. Down into utter blackness she shot, into black icy water that gripped her and whirled her away with breathless speed.

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