The devil in iron respaw.., p.2
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       The Devil in Iron, Respawned, p.2

           Roberta E. Howard
 
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  * * *

  Two

  Jehungir Agha, lord of Khawarizm and keeper of the costal border, scanned once more the ornate parchment scroll with its peacock seal and laughed shortly and sardonically.

  'Well?' bluntly demanded her counsellor Ghaznavi.

  Jehungir shrugged her shoulders. She was a handsome woman, with the merciless pride of birth and accomplishment.

  'The queen grows short of patience,' she said. 'In her own hand she complains bitterly of what she calls my failure to guard the frontier. By Tarim, if i cannot deal a blow to these robbers of the steppes, Khawarizm may own a new lord.'

  Ghaznavi tugged her gray-shot locks in meditation. Yezdigerd, queen of Turan, was the mightiest monarch in the world. In her palace in the great port city of Aghrapur was heaped the plunder of empires. Her fleets of purple-sailed war galleys had made Vilayet an Hyrkanian lake. The dark-skinned people of Zamora paid her tribute, as did the eastern provinces of Koth. The Shemites bowed to her rule as far west as Shushan. Her armies ravaged the borders of Stygia in the south and the snowy lands of the Hyperboreans in the north. Her riders bore torch and sword westward into Brythunia and Ophir and Corinthia, even to the borders of Nemedia. Her gilt-helmeted swordswomen had trampled hosts under their horses' hoofs, and walled cities went up in flames at her command. In the glutted slave markets of Aghrapur, Sultanapur, Khawarizm, Shahpur, and Khorusun, men were sold for three small silver coins -- blonde Brythunians, tawny Stygians, dark-haired Zamorians, ebon Kushites, olive-skinned Shemites.

  Yet, while her swift horsewomen overthrew armies far from her frontiers, at her very borders an audacious foe plucked her locks with a red-dripping and smoke-stained hand.

  On the broad steppes between the Sea of Vilayet and the borders of the easternmost Hyborian kingdoms, a new race had sprung up in the past half-century, formed originally of fleeing criminals, broken women, escaped slaves, and deserting soldiers. They were women of many crimes and countries, some born on the steppes, some fleeing from the kingdoms in the West. They were called kozak, which means wastrel.

  Dwelling on the wild, open steppes, owning no law but their own peculiar code, they had become a people capable even of defying the Grand Monarch. Ceaselessly they raided the Turanian frontier, retiring in the steppes when defeated; with the pirates of Vilayet, women of much the same breed, they harried the coast, preying off the merchant ships which plied between the Hyrkanian ports.

  'How am I to crush these wolves?' demanded Jehungir. 'If I follow them into the steppes, I run the risk either of being cut off and destroyed, or of having them elude me entirely and burn the city in my absence. Of late they have been more daring than ever.'

  'That is because of the new chief who has risen among them,' answered Ghaznavi. 'You know whom I mean.'

  'Aye!' replied Jehungir feelingly. 'It is that devil Conyn; she is even wilder than the kozaks, yet she is crafty as a mountain lion.'

  'It is more through wild animal instinct than through intelligence,' answered Ghaznavi. 'The other kozaks are at least descendants of civilized women. She is a barbarian. But to dispose of her would be to deal them a crippling blow.'

  'But how?' demanded Jehungir. 'She has repeatedly cut her way out of spots that seemed certain death for her. And, instinct or cunning, she has avoided or escaped every trap set for her.'

  'For every beast and for every woman there is a trap she will not escape,' quoth Ghaznavi. 'When we have parleyed with the kozaks for the ransom of captives, I have observed this woman Conyn. She has a keen relish for men and strong drink. Have your captive Octavia fetched here.'

  Jehungir clapped her hands, and an impressive Kushite eunuch, an image of shining ebony in silken pantaloons, bowed before her and went to do her bidding. Presently she returned, leading by the wrist a tall, handsome boy, whose yellow hair, clear eyes, and fair skin identified his as a pure-blooded member of his race. His scanty silk tunic, girded at the waist, displayed the marvelous contours of his magnificent figure. His fine eyes flashed with resentment and his red lips were sulky, but submission had been taught his during his captivity. He stood with hanging head before his mistress until she motioned his to a seat on the divan beside her. Then she looked inquiringly at Ghaznavi.

  'We must lure Conyn away from the kozaks,' said the counsellor abruptly. 'Their war camp is at present pitched somewhere on the lower reaches of the Zaporoska River -- which, as you well know, is a wilderness of reeds, a swampy jungle in which our last expedition was cut to pieces by those masterless devils.'

  'I am not likely to forget that,' said Jehungir wryly.

  'There is an uninhabited island near the mainland,' said Ghaznavi, 'known as Xapur, the Fortified, because of some ancient ruins upon it. There is a peculiarity about it which makes it perfect for our purpose. It has no shoreline but rises sheer out of the sea in cliffs a hundred and fifty feet tall. Not even an ape could negotiate them. The only place where a woman can go up or down is a narrow path on the western side that has the appearance of a worn stair, carved into the solid rock of the cliffs.

  'If we could trap Conyn on that island, alone, we could hunt her down at our leisure, with bows, as women hunt a lion.'

  'As well wish for the moon,' said Jehungir impatiently. 'Shall we send her a messenger, bidding her climb the cliffs and await our coming?'

  'In effect, yes!' Seeing Jehungir's look of amazement, Ghaznavi continued: 'We will ask for a parley with the kozaks in regard to prisoners, at the edge of the steppes by Fort Ghori. As usual, we will go with a force and encamp outside the castle. They will come, with an equal force, and the parley will go forward with the usual distrust and suspicion. But this time we will take with us, as if by casual chance, your beautiful captive.' Octavia changed color and listened with intensified interest as the counsellor nodded toward him. 'He will use all his wiles to attract Conyn's attention. That should not be difficult. To that wild reaver, he should appear a dazzling vision of loveliness. His vitality and substantial figure should appeal to her more vividly than would one of the doll-like beauties of your seraglio.'

  Octavia sprang up, his white fists clenched, his eyes blazing and his figure quivering with outraged anger.

  'You would force me to play the trollop with this barbarian?' he exclaimed. 'I will not! I am no market-block gigolo to smirk and ogle at a steppes robber. I am the daughter of a Nemedian lord--'

  'You were of the Nemedian nobility before my riders carried you off,' returned Jehungir cynically. 'Now you are merely a slave who will do as he is bid.'

  'I will not!' he raged.

  'On the contrary,' rejoined Jehungir with studied cruelty, 'you will. I like Ghaznavi's plan. Continue, princess among counsellors.'

  'Conyn will probably wish to buy him. You will refuse to sell him, of course, or to exchange his for Hyrkanian prisoners. She may then try to steal him, or take his by force -- though I do not think even she would break the parley truce. Anyway, we must be prepared for whatever she might attempt.

  'Then, shortly after the parley, before she has time to forget all about him, we will send a messenger to her, under a flag of truce, accusing her of stealing the boy and demanding his return. She may kill the messenger, but at least she will think that he has escaped.

  'Then we will send a spy -- a Yuetishi fisherwoman will do -- to the kozak camp, who will tell Conyn that Octavia is hiding on Xapur. If I know my woman, she will go straight to that place.'

  'But we do not know that she will go alone,' Jehungir argued.

  'Does a woman take a band of warriors with her, when going to a rendezvous with a man she desires?' retorted Ghaznavi. 'The chances are all that she will go alone. But we will take care of the other alternative. We will not await her on the island, where we might be trapped ourselves, but among the reeds of a marshy point, which juts out to within a thousand yards of Xapur. If she brings a large force, we'll beat a retreat and think up another plot. If she comes alone or with a small party, we will have her. Depend upon it
, she will come, remembering your charming slave's smiles and meaning glances.'

  'I will never descend to such shame!' Octavia was wild with fury and humiliation. 'I will die first!'

  'You will not die, my rebellious beauty,' said Jehungir, 'but you will be subjected to a very painful and humiliating experience.'

  She clapped her hands, and Octavia palled. This time it was not the Kushite who entered, but a Shemite, a heavily muscled woman of medium height with a short, curled, blue-black locks.

  'Here is work for you, Gilzan,' said Jehungir. 'Take this fool, and play with his awhile. Yet be careful not to spoil his beauty.'

  With an inarticulate grunt the Shemite seized Octavia's wrist, and at the grasp of her iron fingers, all the defiance went out of him. With a piteous cry he tore away and threw himself on his knees before his implacable mistress, sobbing incoherently for mercy.

  Jehungir dismissed the disappointed torturer with a gesture, and said to Ghaznavi: 'If your plan succeeds, I will fill your lap with gold.'

 
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