Jewels of Gwahlur by Robert E. Howard

Jewels of Gwahlur by Robert E. Howard

Jewels of Gwahlur by Robert E. Howard 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 man who was working his tedious way
upward was already halfway to the top. He came of a race of hillmen, accustomed to
scaling forbidding crags, and he was a man of unusual strength and agility. His only
garment was a pair of short red silk breeks, and his sandals were slung to his back, out
of his way, as were his sword and dagger. The man was powerfully built, supple as a
panther. His skin was bronzed by the sun, his square-cut black mane confined by a silver
band about his temples. His iron muscles, quick eyes and sure feet served him well here,
for it was a climb to test these qualities to the utmost. A hundred and fifty feet below
him waved the jungle. An equal distance above him the rim of the cliffs was etched against
the morning sky. He labored like one driven by the necessity
of haste; yet he was forced to move at a snail’s pace, clinging like a fly on a wall. His groping
hands and feet found niches and knobs, precarious holds at best, and sometimes he virtually
hung by his finger nails. Yet upward he went, clawing, squirming, fighting for every foot.
At times he paused to rest his aching muscles, and, shaking the sweat out of his eyes, twisted
his 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 him, and
he observed, only a few feet above his head, a break in the sheer stone of the cliff. An
instant later he had reached it—a small cavern, just below the edge of the rim. As
his head rose above the lip of its floor, he grunted. He clung there, his elbows hooked
over the lip. The cave was so tiny that it was little more than a niche cut in the stone,
but held an occupant. A shriveled 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 he thrust it into his girdle and hauled himself
up until he was standing in the opening of the niche. A spring upward and he caught the
rim of the cliffs and pulled himself up and over almost with the same motion. There he 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 man on the cliffs did not devote his
thoughts to marveling at the topographical phenomenon. With tense eagerness he searched
the tree-tops below him, and exhaled a gusty sigh when he caught the glint of marble domes
amidst the twinkling green. It was no myth, then; below him lay the fabulous and deserted
palace of Alkmeenon. Conan 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
Conan to Keshan, over vast distances of plain, river-laced jungle, and mountains. He had found Keshan, which in itself was considered
mythical by many northern and western nations, and he had heard enough to confirm the rumors
of the treasure that men called the Teeth of Gwahlur. But its hiding-place he could
not learn, and he was confronted with the necessity of explaining his presence in Keshan.
Unattached strangers were not welcome there. But he was not nonplussed. With cool assurance
he made his offer to the stately plumed, suspicious grandees of the barbarically magnificent court.
He was a professional fighting-man. In search of employment (he said) he had come to Keshan.
For a price he 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
king. This proposition was not so audacious as it
might seem. Conan’s fame had preceded him, even into distant Keshan; his exploits as
a chief of the black corsairs, those wolves of the southern coasts, had made his name
known, admired and feared throughout the black kingdoms. He did not refuse tests devised
by the dusky lords. Skirmishes along the borders were incessant, affording the Cimmerian plenty
of opportunities to demonstrate his ability at hand-to-hand fighting. His reckless ferocity
impressed the lords of Keshan, already aware of his reputation as a leader of men, and
the prospects seemed favorable. All Conan secretly desired was employment to give him
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 him to the twin kings of the great hybrid trading
kingdom which lay many days’ march to the east. He and the Cimmerian knew each other
of old, and without love. Thutmekri likewise had a proposition to make to the king 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. His offer outweighed even the prestige of
Conan. He pledged himself to invade Punt from the east with a host of black spearmen, Shemitish
archers, and mercenary swordsmen, and to aid the king of Keshan to annex the hostile kingdom.
The benevolent kings of Zembabwei desired only a monopoly of the trade of Keshan and
her 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 Conan’s hard lips. The Cimmerian made no attempt to match wits
and intrigue with Thutmekri and his Shemitish partner, Zargheba. He knew that if Thutmekri
won his point, he would insist on the instant banishment of his rival. There was but one
thing for Conan to do: find the jewels before the king of Keshan made up his mind and flee
with them. But by this time he 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 he fumed with nervous impatience, the
high priest 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 bee-hive hut. Not for a century had the priests visited
the silent city. The oracle, men said, was the Princess Yelaya, the last ruler of Alkmeenon,
who had died in the full bloom of her 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 she had taught them wisdom. The last priest to seek the oracle had been
a wicked man, who had sought to steal for himself the curiously cut jewels that men
called the Teeth of Gwahlur. But some doom had come upon him in the deserted palace,
from which his 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 priest, as one
confident in his knowledge of his own integrity, announced that he would go with a handful
of followers to revive the ancient custom. And in the excitement tongues buzzed indiscreetly,
and Conan caught the clue for which he had sought for weeks—the overheard whisper of
a lesser priest that sent the Cimmerian stealing out of Keshia the night before the dawn when
the priests were to start. Riding as hard as he dared for a night and
a day and a night, he 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 common
men. None but the priests dared approach the haunted vale within a distance of many miles.
And not even a priest had entered Alkmeenon for a hundred years. No man had ever climbed these cliffs, legends
said, and none but the priests knew the secret entrance into the valley. Conan did not waste
time looking for it. Steeps that balked these people, horsemen and dwellers of plain and
level forest, were not impossible for a man born in the rugged hills of Cimmeria. Now on the summit of the cliffs he looked
down into the circular valley and wondered what plague, war or superstition had driven
the members of that ancient race forth from their stronghold to mingle with and be absorbed
by the 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 him were the unbroken pinnacles of the
royal palace of Alkmeenon which had defied the corroding ages. Swinging a leg over the rim he 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 him to ascend the outer side, he dropped to the swarded valley floor. With one hand on his sword, he looked alertly
about him. There was no reason to suppose men lied when they said that Alkmeenon was
empty and deserted, haunted only by the ghosts of the dead past. But it was Conan’s nature
to be suspicious and wary. The silence was primordial; not even a leaf quivered on a
branch. When he bent to peer under the trees, he saw nothing but the marching rows of trunks,
receding and receding into the blue gloom of the deep woods. Nevertheless he went warily, sword in hand,
his restless eyes combing the shadows from side to side, his springy tread making no
sound on the sward. All about him he 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. He glimpsed walls with ornamental
copings, lattices of carven stone that might once have served as the walls of pleasure
pavilions. Ahead of him, through the trees, the domes
gleamed and the bulk of the structure supporting them became more apparent as he advanced.
Presently, pushing through a screen of vine-tangled branches, he came into a comparatively open
space where the trees straggled, unencumbered by undergrowth, and saw before him the wide,
pillared portico of the palace. As he mounted the broad marble steps, he noted
that the building was in far better state of preservation than the lesser structures
he 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 his sandaled feet seemed startlingly 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 priest had babbled a lie, was hidden the treasure
of the forgotten kings of Alkmeenon. Conan passed into a broad, lofty hall, lined
with tall columns, between which arches gaped, their door long rotted away. He 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. He emerged into
a vast domed chamber which must have served as audience hall for the kings of Alkmeenon. It was octagonal in shape, and the great dome
up to 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. Conan grunted explosively and his eyes lit. The golden throne of Alkmeenon,
named in immemorial legendry! He weighed it with a practised eye. It represented a fortune
in itself, if he were but able to bear it away. Its richness fired his imagination concerning
the treasure itself, and made him burn with eagerness. His fingers itched to plunge among
the gems he 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. He 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 he had turned his face
toward Keshan, so many myths had proved to be realities that he did not doubt that he
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.
He 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, he 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 his touch it swung open so readily that
its hinges might recently have been oiled. Inside he halted, staring. He 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 he
had entered. But he noted these details mechanically. His whole attention was centered on the shape
which lay on an ivory dais before him. He 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 him. It was no effigy of stone or metal or ivory.
It was the actual body of a woman, and by what dark art the ancients had preserved that
form unblemished for so many ages Conan could not even guess. The very garments she wore
were intact—and Conan scowled at that, a vague uneasiness stirring at the back of his
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. Yelaya was coldly beautiful, even in death.
Her body was like alabaster, slender yet voluptuous; a great crimson jewel gleamed against the
darkly piled foam of her hair. Conan stood frowning down at her, and then
tapped the dais with his sword. Possibilities of a hollow containing the treasure occurred
to him, but the dais rang solid. He turned and paced the chamber in some indecision.
Where should he search first, in the limited time at his disposal? The priest he had overheard
babbling to a courtesan had said the treasure was hidden in the palace. But that included
a space of considerable vastness. He wondered if he should hide himself 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 he was convinced that Thutmekri
had corrupted Gorulga. Conan could predict Thutmekri’s plans from
his knowledge of the man. He knew that it had been Thutmekri who had proposed the conquest
of Punt to the kings of Zembabwei, which conquest was but one move toward their real goal—the
capture of the Teeth of Gwahlur. Those wary kings 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 kings of Zembabwei 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 his hands on the hoard, it would be characteristic of the man to cheat
his employers, steal the jewels for himself and decamp, leaving the Zembabwan emissaries
holding the sack. Conan believed that this consulting of the
oracle was but a ruse to persuade the king of Keshan to accede to Thutmekri’s wishes—for
he never for a moment doubted that Gorulga was as subtle and devious as all the rest
mixed up in this grand swindle. Conan had not approached the high priest himself, because
in the game of bribery he 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 his rival at one stroke.
He wondered how Thutmekri had corrupted the high priest, and just what could be offered
as a bribe to a man who had the greatest treasure in the world under his fingers. At any rate he was sure that the oracle would
be made to say that the gods willed it that Keshan should follow Thutmekri’s wishes, and
he was sure, too, that it would drop a few pointed remarks concerning himself. After
that Keshia would be too hot for the Cimmerian, nor had Conan had any intention of returning
when he rode away in the night. The oracle chamber held no clue for him. He
went forth into the great throne-room and laid his hands on the throne. It was heavy,
but he could tilt it up. The floor beneath, a thick marble dais, was solid. Again he sought
the alcove. His mind clung to a secret crypt near the oracle. Painstakingly he began to
tap along the walls, and presently his taps rang hollow at a spot opposite the mouth of
the narrow corridor. Looking more closely he saw that the crack between the marble panel
at that point and the next was wider than usual. He inserted a dagger-point and pried. Silently the panel swung open, revealing a
niche in the wall, but nothing else. He 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
he saw a system of tiny holes in the wall, about on a level with a man’s mouth. He 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. Conan
grinned. This explained the mystery of the oracle, but it was a bit cruder than he had
expected. Gorulga would plant either himself or some trusted minion in that niche, to talk
through the holes, and the credulous acolytes would accept it as the veritable voice of
Yelaya. Remembering something, the Cimmerian drew
forth the roll of parchment he had taken from the mummy and unrolled it carefully, as it
seemed ready to fall to pieces with age. He scowled over the dim characters with which
it was covered. In his 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
he had experienced many adventures where knowledge of a strange language had meant the difference
between life and death. These characters were puzzling, at once familiar
and unintelligible, and presently he discovered the reason. They were the characters of archaic
Pelishtim, which possessed many points of difference from the modern script, with which
he was familiar, and which, three centuries ago, had been modified by conquest by a nomad
tribe. This older, purer script baffled him. He made out a recurrent phrase, however, which
he recognized as a proper name: Bît-Yakin. He gathered that it was the name of the writer. Scowling, his lips unconsciously moving as
he struggled with the task, he blundered through the manuscript, finding much of it untranslatable
and most of the rest of it obscure. He gathered that the writer, the mysterious
Bît-Yakin, had come from afar with his servants, and entered the valley of Alkmeenon. Much
that followed was meaningless, interspersed as it was with unfamiliar phrases and characters.
Such as he could translate seemed to indicate the passing of a very long period of time.
The name of Yelaya was repeated frequently, and toward the last part of the manuscript
it became apparent that Bît-Yakin knew that death was upon him. With a slight start Conan
realized that the mummy in the cavern must be the remains of the writer of the manuscript,
the mysterious Pelishtim, Bît-Yakin. The man had died, as he had prophesied, and his
servants, obviously, had placed him in that open crypt, high up on the cliffs, according
to his instructions before his death. It was strange that Bît-Yakin was not mentioned
in any of the legends of Alkmeenon. Obviously he 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 man or his servants. Conan felt sure that the mummy and this parchment were more than
a hundred years old. Bît-Yakin had dwelt in the valley when the priests came of old
to bow before dead Yelaya. Yet concerning him the legends were silent, telling only
of a deserted city, haunted only by the dead. Why had the man dwelt in this desolate spot,
and to what unknown destination had his servants departed after disposing of their master’s
corpse? Conan shrugged his shoulders and thrust the
parchment back into his girdle—he started violently, the skin on the backs of his hands
tingling. Startlingly, shockingly in the slumberous stillness, there had boomed the deep strident
clangor of a great gong! He 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, he knew; they would not have had time to reach
the valley. But that gong was indisputable evidence of human presence. Conan was basically a direct-actionist. Such
subtlety as he possessed had been acquired through contact with the more devious races.
When taken off guard by some unexpected occurrence, he reverted instinctively to type. So now,
instead of hiding or slipping away in the opposite direction as the average man might
have done, he ran straight down the corridor in the direction of the sound. His sandals
made no more sound than the pads of a panther would have made; his eyes were slits, his
lips unconsciously asnarl. Panic had momentarily touched his 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. He emerged presently from the winding corridor
into a small open court. Something glinting in the sun caught his 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. Conan crouched inside the doorway for what seemed a long time. There was no
sound or movement throughout the great palace. His patience exhausted at last, he 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. He reached the gong, stared into the arch
nearest it. He saw only a dim chamber, littered with the debris of decay. Beneath the gong
the polished marble flags showed no footprints, but there was a scent in the air—a faintly
fetid odor he could not classify; his nostrils dilated like those of a wild beast as he sought
in vain to identify it. He turned toward the arch—with appalling
suddenness the seemingly solid flags splintered and gave way under his feet. Even as he fell
he spread wide his arms and caught the edges of the aperture that gaped beneath him. The
edges crumbled off under his clutching fingers. Down into utter darkness he shot, into black
icy water that gripped him and whirled him away with breathless speed.
Chapter 2 – A Goddess Awakens The Cimmerian at first made no attempt to
fight the current that was sweeping him through lightless night. He kept himself afloat, gripping
between his teeth the sword, which he had not relinquished, even in his fall, and did
not even seek to guess to what doom he was being borne. But suddenly a beam of light
lanced the darkness ahead of him. He saw the surging, seething black surface of the water,
in turmoil as if disturbed by some monster of the deep, and he saw the sheer stone walls
of the channel curved up to a vault overhead. On each side ran a narrow ledge, just below
the arching roof, but they were far out of his reach. At one point this roof had been
broken, probably fallen in, and the light was streaming through the aperture. Beyond
that shaft of light was utter blackness, and panic assailed the Cimmerian as he saw he
would be swept on past that spot of light, and into the unknown blackness again. Then he saw something else: bronze ladders
extended from the ledges to the water’s surface at regular intervals, and there was one just
ahead of him. Instantly he struck out for it, fighting the current that would have held
him to the middle of the stream. It dragged at him as with tangible, animate slimy hands,
but he buffeted the rushing surge with the strength of desperation and now drew closer
and closer inshore, fighting furiously for every inch. Now he was even with the ladder
and with a fierce, gasping plunge he gripped the bottom rung and hung on, breathless. A few seconds later he struggled up out of
the seething water, trusting his weight dubiously to the corroded rungs. They sagged and bent,
but they held, and he clambered up onto the narrow ledge which ran along the wall scarcely
a man’s length below the curving roof. The tall Cimmerian was forced to bend his head
as he stood up. A heavy bronze door showed in the stone at a point even with the head
of the ladder, but it did not give to Conan’s efforts. He transferred his sword from his
teeth to its scabbard, spitting blood—for the edge had cut his lips in that fierce fight
with the river—and turned his attention to the broken roof. He could reach his arms up through the crevice
and grip the edge, and careful testing told him it would bear his weight. An instant later
he had drawn himself up through the hole, and found himself in a wide chamber, in a
state of extreme disrepair. Most of the roof had fallen in, as well as a great section
of the floor, which was laid over the vault of a subterranean river. Broken arches opened
into other chambers and corridors, and Conan believed he was still in the great palace.
He wondered uneasily how many chambers in that palace had underground water directly
under them, and when the ancient flags or tiles might give way again and precipitate
him back into the current from which he had just crawled. And he wondered just how much of an accident
that fall had been. Had those rotten flags simply chanced to give way beneath his weight,
or was there a more sinister explanation? One thing at least was obvious: he was not
the only living thing in that palace. That gong had not sounded of its own accord, whether
the noise had been meant to lure him to his death, or not. The silence of the palace became
suddenly sinister, fraught with crawling menace. Could it be someone on the same mission as
himself? A sudden thought occurred to him, at the memory of the mysterious Bît-Yakin.
Was it not possible that this man had found the Teeth of Gwahlur in his long residence
in Alkmeenon—that his servants had taken them with them when they departed? The possibility
that he might be following a will-o’-the-wisp infuriated the Cimmerian. Choosing a corridor which he believed led
back toward the part of the palace he had first entered, he hurried along it, stepping
gingerly as he thought of that black river that seethed and foamed somewhere below his
feet. His speculations recurrently revolved about
the oracle chamber and its cryptic occupant. Somewhere in that vicinity must be the clue
to the mystery of the treasure, if indeed it still remained in its immemorial hiding-place. The great palace lay silent as ever, disturbed
only by the swift passing of his sandaled feet. The chambers and halls he traversed
were crumbling into ruin, but as he advanced the ravages of decay became less apparent.
He wondered briefly for what purpose the ladders had been suspended from the ledges over the
subterranean river, but dismissed the matter with a shrug. He was little interested in
speculating over unremunerative problems of antiquity. He was not sure just where the oracle chamber
lay, from where he was, but presently he emerged into a corridor which led back into the great
throne-room under one of the arches. He had reached a decision; it was useless for him
to wander aimlessly about the palace, seeking the hoard. He would conceal himself somewhere
here, wait until the Keshani priests came, and then, after they had gone through the
farce of consulting the oracle, he would follow them to the hiding-place of the gems, to which
he was certain they would go. Perhaps they would take only a few of the jewels with them.
He would content himself with the rest. Drawn by a morbid fascination, he re-entered
the oracle chamber and stared down again at the motionless figure of the princess who
was worshipped as a goddess, entranced by her frigid beauty. What cryptic secret was
locked in that marvelously molded form? He started violently. The breath sucked through
his teeth, the short hairs prickled at the back of his scalp. The body still lay as he
had first seen it, silent, motionless, in breast-plates of jeweled gold, gilded sandals
and silken shirt. But now there was a subtle difference. The lissom limbs were not rigid,
a peach-bloom touched the cheeks, the lips were red— With a panicky curse Conan ripped out his
sword. ‘Crom! She’s alive!’ At his words the long dark lashes lifted;
the eyes opened and gaped up at him inscrutably, dark, lustrous, mystical. He glared in frozen
speechlessness. She sat up with a supple ease, still holding
his ensorceled stare. He licked his dry lips and found voice. ‘You—are—are you Yelaya?’ he stammered. ‘I am Yelaya!’ The voice was rich and musical,
and he stared with new wonder. ‘Do not fear. I will not harm you if you do my bidding.’ ‘How can a dead woman come to life after all
these centuries?’ he demanded, as if skeptical of what his senses told him. A curious gleam
was beginning to smolder in his eyes. She lifted her arms in a mystical gesture. ‘I am a goddess. A thousand years ago there
descended upon me the curse of the greater gods, the gods of darkness beyond the borders
of light. The mortal in me died; the goddess in me could never die. Here I have lain for
so many centuries, to awaken each night at sunset and hold my court as of yore, with
specters drawn from the shadows of the past. Man, if you would not view that which will
blast your soul for ever, get hence quickly! I command you! Go!’ The voice became imperious,
and her slender arm lifted and pointed. Conan, his eyes burning slits, slowly sheathed
his sword, but he did not obey her order. He stepped closer, as if impelled by a powerful
fascination—without the slightest warning he grabbed her up in a bear-like grasp. She
screamed a very ungoddess-like scream, and there was a sound of ripping silk, as with
one ruthless wrench he tore off her skirt. ‘Goddess! Ha!’ His bark was full of angry
contempt. He ignored the frantic writhings of his captive. ‘I thought it was strange
that a princess of Alkmeenon would speak with a Corinthian accent! As soon as I’d gathered
my wits I knew I’d seen you somewhere. You’re Muriela, Zargheba’s Corinthian dancing-girl.
This crescent-shaped birthmark on your hip proves it. I saw it once when Zargheba was
whipping you. Goddess! Bah!’ He smacked the betraying hip contemptuously and resoundingly
with his open hand, and the girl yelped piteously. All her imperiousness had gone out of her.
She was no longer a mystical figure of antiquity, but a terrified and humiliated dancing-girl,
such as can be bought at almost any Shemitish market-place. She lifted up her voice and
wept unashamedly. Her captor glared down at her with angry triumph. ‘Goddess! Ha! So you were one of the veiled
women Zargheba brought to Keshia with him. Did you think you could fool me, you little
idiot? A year ago I saw you in Akbitana with that swine, Zargheba, and I don’t forget faces—or
women’s figures. I think I’ll—’ Squirming about in his grasp she threw her
slender arms about his massive neck in an abandon of terror; tears coursed down her
cheeks, and her sobs quivered with a note of hysteria. ‘Oh, please don’t hurt me! Don’t! I had to
do it! Zargheba brought me here to act as the oracle!’ ‘Why, you sacrilegious little hussy!’ rumbled
Conan. ‘Do you not fear the gods? Crom! is there no honesty anywhere?’ ‘Oh, please!’ she begged, quivering with abject
fright. ‘I couldn’t disobey Zargheba. Oh, what shall I do? I shall be cursed by these
heathen gods!’ ‘What do you think the priests will do to
you if they find out you’re an impostor?’ he demanded. At the thought her legs refused to support
her, and she collapsed in a shuddering heap, clasping Conan’s knees and mingling incoherent
pleas for mercy and protection with piteous protestations of her innocence of any malign
intention. It was a vivid change from her pose as the ancient princess, but not surprising.
The fear that had nerved her then was now her undoing. ‘Where is Zargheba?’ he demanded. ‘Stop yammering,
damn it, and answer me.’ ‘Outside the palace,’ she whimpered, ‘watching
for the priests.’ ‘How many men with him?’ ‘None. We came alone.’ ‘Ha!’ It was much like the satisfied grunt
of a hunting lion. ‘You must have left Keshia a few hours after I did. Did you climb the
cliffs?’ She shook her head, too choked with tears
to speak coherently. With an impatient imprecation he seized her slim shoulders and shook her
until she gasped for breath. ‘Will you quit that blubbering and answer
me? How did you get into the valley?’ ‘Zargheba knew the secret way,’ she gasped.
‘The priest Gwarunga told him, and Thutmekri. On the south side of the valley there is a
broad pool lying at the foot of the cliffs. There is a cave-mouth under the surface of
the water that is not visible to the casual glance. We ducked under the water and entered
it. The cave slopes up out of the water swiftly and leads through the cliffs. The opening
on the side of the valley is masked by heavy thickets.’ ‘I climbed the cliffs on the east side,’ he
muttered. ‘Well, what then?’ ‘We came to the palace and Zargheba hid me
among the trees while he went to look for the chamber of the oracle. I do not think
he fully trusted Gwarunga. While he was gone I thought I heard a gong sound, but I was
not sure. Presently Zargheba came and took me into the palace and brought me to this
chamber, where the goddess Yelaya lay upon the dais. He stripped the body and clothed
me in the garments and ornaments. Then he went forth to hide the body and watch for
the priests. I have been afraid. When you entered I wanted to leap up and beg you to
take me away from this place, but I feared Zargheba. When you discovered I was alive,
I thought I could frighten you away.’ ‘What were you to say as the oracle?’ he asked. ‘I was to bid the priests to take the Teeth
of Gwahlur and give some of them to Thutmekri as a pledge, as he desired, and place the
rest in the palace at Keshia. I was to tell them that an awful doom threatened Keshan
if they did not agree to Thutmekri’s proposals. And, oh, yes, I was to tell them that you
were to be skinned alive immediately.’ ‘Thutmekri wanted the treasure where he—or
the Zembabwans—could lay hand on it easily,’ muttered Conan, disregarding the remark concerning
himself. ‘I’ll carve his liver yet—Gorulga is a party to this swindle, of course?’ ‘No. He believes in his gods, and is incorruptible.
He knows nothing about this. He will obey the oracle. It was all Thutmekri’s plan. Knowing
the Keshani would consult the oracle, he had Zargheba bring me with the embassy from Zembabwei,
closely veiled and secluded.’ ‘Well, I’m damned!’ muttered Conan. ‘A priest
who honestly believes in his oracle, and can not be bribed. Crom! I wonder if it was Zargheba
who banged that gong. Did he know I was here? Could he have known about that rotten flagging?
Where is he now, girl?’ ‘Hiding in a thicket of lotus trees, near
the ancient avenue that leads from the south wall of the cliffs to the palace,’ she answered.
Then she renewed her importunities. ‘Oh, Conan, have pity on me! I am afraid of this evil,
ancient place. I know I have heard stealthy footfalls padding about me—oh, Conan, take
me away with you! Zargheba will kill me when I have served his purpose here—I know it!
The priests, too, will kill me if they discover my deceit. ‘He is a devil—he bought me from a slave-trader
who stole me out of a caravan bound through southern Koth, and has made me the tool of
his intrigues ever since. Take me away from him! You can not be as cruel as he. Don’t
leave me to be slain here! Please! Please!’ She was on her knees, clutching at Conan hysterically,
her beautiful tear-stained face upturned to him, her dark silken hair flowing in disorder
over her white shoulders. Conan picked her up and set her on his knee. ‘Listen to me. I’ll protect you from Zargheba.
The priests shall not know of your perfidy. But you’ve got to do as I tell you.’ She faltered promises of explicit obedience,
clasping his corded neck as if seeking security from the contact. ‘Good. When the priests come, you’ll act the
part of Yelaya, as Zargheba planned—it’ll be dark, and in the torchlight they’ll never
know the difference. But you’ll say this to them: “It is the will of the gods that the
Stygian and his Shemitish dogs be driven from Keshan. They are thieves and traitors who
plot to rob the gods. Let the Teeth of Gwahlur be placed in the care of the general Conan.
Let him lead the armies of Keshan. He is beloved of the gods.”‘ She shivered, with an expression of desperation,
but acquiesced. ‘But Zargheba?’ she cried. ‘He’ll kill me!’ ‘Don’t worry about Zargheba,’ he grunted.
‘I’ll take care of that dog. You do as I say. Here, put up your hair again. It’s fallen
all over your shoulders. And the gem’s fallen out of it.’ He replaced the great glowing gem himself,
nodding approval. ‘It’s worth a room full of slaves, itself
alone. Here, put your skirt back on. It’s torn down the side, but the priests will never
notice it. Wipe your face. A goddess doesn’t cry like a whipped schoolgirl. By Crom, you
do look like Yelaya, face, hair, figure and all! If you act the goddess with the priests
as well as you did with me, you’ll fool them easily.’ ‘I’ll try,’ she shivered. ‘Good; I’m going to find Zargheba.’ At that she became panicky again. ‘No! Don’t leave me alone! This place is haunted!’ ‘There’s nothing here to harm you,’ he assured
her impatiently. ‘Nothing but Zargheba, and I’m going to look after him. I’ll be back
shortly. I’ll be watching from close by in case anything goes wrong during the ceremony;
but if you play your part properly, nothing will go wrong.’ And turning, he hastened out of the oracle
chamber; behind him Muriela squeaked wretchedly at his going. Twilight had fallen. The great rooms and halls
were shadowy and indistinct; copper friezes glinted dully through the dusk. Conan strode
like a silent phantom through the great halls, with a sensation of being stared at from the
shadowed recesses by invisible ghosts of the past. No wonder the girl was nervous amid
such surroundings. He glided down the marble steps like a slinking
panther, sword in hand. Silence reigned over the valley, and above the rim of the cliffs
stars were blinking out. If the priests of Keshia had entered the valley there was not
a sound, not a movement in the greenery to betray them. He made out the ancient broken-paved
avenue, wandering away to the south, lost amid clustering masses of fronds and thick-leaved
bushes. He followed it warily, hugging the edge of the paving where the shrubs massed
their shadows thickly, until he saw ahead of him, dimly in the dusk, the clump of lotus-trees,
the strange growth peculiar to the black lands of Kush. There, according to the girl, Zargheba
should be lurking. Conan became stealth personified. A velvet-footed shadow, he melted into the
thickets. He approached the lotus grove by a circuitous
movement, and scarcely the rustle of a leaf proclaimed his passing. At the edge of the
trees he halted suddenly, crouched like a suspicious panther among the deep shrubs.
Ahead of him, among the dense leaves, showed a pallid oval, dim in the uncertain light.
It might have been one of the great white blossoms which shone thickly among the branches.
But Conan knew that it was a man’s face. And it was turned toward him. He shrank quickly
deeper into the shadows. Had Zargheba seen him? The man was looking directly toward him.
Seconds passed. That dim face had not moved. Conan could make out the dark tuft below that
was the short black beard. And suddenly Conan was aware of something
unnatural. Zargheba, he knew, was not a tall man. Standing erect, his head would scarcely
top the Cimmerian’s shoulder; yet that face was on a level with Conan’s own. Was the man
standing on something? Conan bent and peered toward the ground below the spot where the
face showed, but his vision was blocked by undergrowth and the thick boles of the trees.
But he saw something else, and he stiffened. Through a slot in the underbrush he glimpsed
the stem of the tree under which, apparently, Zargheba was standing. The face was directly
in line with that tree. He should have seen below that face, not the tree-trunk, but Zargheba’s
body—but there was no body there. Suddenly tenser than a tiger who stalks his
prey, Conan glided deeper into the thicket, and a moment later drew aside a leafy branch
and glared at the face that had not moved. Nor would it ever move again, of its own volition.
He looked on Zargheba’s severed head, suspended from the branch of the tree by its own long
black hair. Chapter 3 – The Return of the Oracle Conan wheeled supplely, sweeping the shadows
with a fiercely questing stare. There was no sign of the murdered man’s body; only yonder
the tall lush grass was trampled and broken down and the sward was dabbled darkly and
wetly. Conan stood scarcely breathing as he strained his ears into the silence. The trees
and bushes with their great pallid blossoms stood dark, still and sinister, etched against
the deepening dusk. Primitive fears whispered at the back of Conan’s
mind. Was this the work of the priests of Keshan? If so, where were they? Was it Zargheba,
after all, who had struck the gong? Again there rose the memory of Bît-Yakin and his
mysterious servants. Bît-Yakin was dead, shriveled to a hulk of wrinkled leather and
bound in his hollowed crypt to greet the rising sun for ever. But the servants of Bît-Yakin
were unaccounted for. There was no proof they had ever left the valley. Conan thought of the girl, Muriela, alone
and unguarded in that great shadowy palace. He wheeled and ran back down the shadowed
avenue, and he ran as a suspicious panther runs, poised even in full stride to whirl
right or left and strike death blows. The palace loomed through the trees, and he
saw something else—the glow of fire reflecting redly from the polished marble. He melted
into the bushes that lined the broken street, glided through the dense growth and reached
the edge of the open space before the portico. Voices reached him; torches bobbed and their
flare shone on glossy ebon shoulders. The priests of Keshan had come. They had not advanced up the wide, overgrown
avenue as Zargheba had expected them to do. Obviously there was more than one secret way
into the valley of Alkmeenon. They were filing up the broad marble steps,
holding their torches high. He saw Gorulga at the head of the parade, a profile chiseled
out of copper, etched in the torch glare. The rest were acolytes, giant black men from
whose skins the torches struck highlights. At the end of the procession there stalked
a huge negro with an unusually wicked cast of countenance, at the sight of whom Conan
scowled. That was Gwarunga, whom Muriela had named as the man who had revealed the secret
of the pool-entrance to Zargheba. Conan wondered how deeply the man was in the intrigues of
the Stygian. He hurried toward the portico, circling the
open space to keep in the fringing shadows. They left no one to guard the entrance. The
torches streamed steadily down the long dark hall. Before they reached the double-valved
door at the other end, Conan had mounted the other steps and was in the hall behind them.
Slinking swiftly along the column-lined wall, he reached the great door as they crossed
the huge throne-room, their torches driving back the shadows. They did not look back.
In single file, their ostrich plumes nodding, their leopard-skin tunics contrasting curiously
with the marble and arabesqued metal of the ancient palace, they moved across the wide
room and halted momentarily at the golden door to the left of the throne-dais. Gorulga’s voice boomed eerily and hollowly
in the great empty space, framed in sonorous phrases unintelligible to the lurking listener;
then the high priest thrust open the golden door and entered, bowing repeatedly from his
waist, and behind him the torches sank and rose, showering flakes of flame, as the worshippers
imitated their master. The gold door closed behind them, shutting out sound and sight,
and Conan darted across the throne-chamber and into the alcove behind the throne. He
made less sound than a wind blowing across the chamber. Tiny beams of light streamed through the apertures
in the wall, as he pried open the secret panel. Gliding into the niche, he peered through.
Muriela sat upright on the dais, her arms folded, her head leaning back against the
wall, within a few inches of his eyes. The delicate perfume of her foamy hair was in
his nostrils. He could not see her face, of course, but her attitude was as if she gazed
tranquilly into some far gulf of space, over and beyond the shaven heads of the black giants
who knelt before her. Conan grinned with appreciation. ‘The little slut’s an actress,’ he told himself.
He knew she was shriveling with terror, but she showed no sign. In the uncertain flare
of the torches she looked exactly like the goddess he had seen lying on that same dais,
if one could imagine that goddess imbued with vibrant life. Gorulga was booming forth some kind of a chant
in an accent unfamiliar to Conan, and which was probably some invocation in the ancient
tongue of Alkmeenon, handed down from generation to generation of high priests. It seemed interminable.
Conan grew restless. The longer the thing lasted, the more terrific would be the strain
on Muriela. If she snapped—he hitched his sword and dagger forward. He could not see
the little trollop tortured and slain by these men. But the chant—deep, low-pitched and indescribably
ominous—came to a conclusion at last, and a shouted acclaim from the acolytes marked
its period. Lifting his head and raising his arms toward the silent form on the dais, Gorulga
cried in the deep, rich resonance that was the natural attribute of the Keshani priest:
‘Oh, great goddess, dweller with the great one of darkness, let thy heart be melted,
thy lips opened for the ears of thy slave whose head is in the dust beneath thy feet!
Speak, great goddess of the holy valley! Thou knowest the paths before us; the darkness
that vexes us is as the light of the midday sun to thee. Shed the radiance of thy wisdom
on the paths of thy servants! Tell us, oh mouthpiece of the gods: what is their will
concerning Thutmekri the Stygian?’ The high-piled burnished mass of hair that
caught the torchlight in dull bronze gleams quivered slightly. A gusty sigh rose from
the blacks, half in awe, half in fear. Muriela’s voice came plainly to Conan’s ears in the
breathless silence, and it seemed, cold, detached, impersonal, though the Cimmerian winced at
the Corinthian accent. ‘It is the will of the gods that the Stygian
and his Shemitish dogs be driven from Keshan!’ She was repeating his exact words. ‘They are
thieves and traitors who plot to rob the gods. Let the Teeth of Gwahlur be placed in the
care of the general Conan. Let him lead the armies of Keshan. He is beloved of the gods!’ There was a quiver in her voice as she ended,
and Conan began to sweat, believing she was on the point of an hysterical collapse. But
the blacks did not notice, any more than they identified the Corinthian accent, of which
they knew nothing. They smote their palms softly together and a murmur of wonder and
awe rose from them. Gorulga’s eyes glittered fanatically in the torchlight. ‘Yelaya has spoken!’ he cried in an exalted
voice. ‘It is the will of the gods! Long ago, in the days of our ancestors, they were made
taboo and hidden at the command of the gods, who wrenched them from the awful jaws of Gwahlur
the king of darkness, in the birth of the world. At the command of the gods the teeth
of Gwahlur were hidden; at their command they shall be brought forth again. Oh star-born
goddess, give us your leave to go to the secret hiding-place of the Teeth to secure them for
him whom the gods love!’ ‘You have my leave to go!’ answered the false
goddess, with an imperious gesture of dismissal that set Conan grinning again, and the priests
backed out, ostrich plumes and torches rising and falling with the rhythm of their genuflexions. The gold door closed and with a moan, the
goddess fell back limply on the dais. ‘Conan!’ she whimpered faintly. ‘Conan!’ ‘Shhh!’ he hissed through the apertures, and
turning, glided from the niche and closed the panel. A glimpse past the jamb of the
carven door showed him the torches receding across the great throne-room, but he was at
the same time aware of a radiance that did not emanate from the torches. He was startled,
but the solution presented itself instantly. An early moon had risen and its light slanted
through the pierced dome which by some curious workmanship intensified the light. The shining
dome of Alkmeenon was no fable, then. Perhaps its interior was of the curious whitely flaming
crystal found only in the hills of the black countries. The light flooded the throne-room
and seeped into the chambers immediately adjoining. But as Conan made toward the door that led
into the throne-room, he was brought around suddenly by a noise that seemed to emanate
from the passage that led off from the alcove. He crouched at the mouth, staring into it,
remembering the clangor of the gong that had echoed from it to lure him into a snare. The
light from the dome filtered only a little way into that narrow corridor, and showed
him only empty space. Yet he could have sworn that he had heard the furtive pad of a foot
somewhere down it. While he hesitated, he was electrified by
a woman’s strangled cry from behind him. Bounding through the door behind the throne, he saw
an unexpected spectacle in the crystal light. The torches of the priests had vanished from
the great hall outside—but one priest was still in the palace: Gwarunga. His wicked
features were convulsed with fury, and he grasped the terrified Muriela by the throat,
choking her efforts to scream and plead, shaking her brutally. ‘Traitress!’ Between his thick red lips his
voice hissed like a cobra. ‘What game are you playing? Did not Zargheba tell you what
to say? Aye, Thutmekri told me! Are you betraying your master, or is he betraying his friends
through you? Slut! I’ll twist off your false head—but first I’ll—’ A widening of his captive’s lovely eyes as
she stared over his shoulder warned the huge black. He released her and wheeled, just as
Conan’s sword lashed down. The impact of the stroke knocked him headlong backward to the
marble floor, where he lay twitching, blood oozing from a ragged gash in his scalp. Conan started toward him to finish the job—for
he knew that the priest’s sudden movement had caused the blade to strike flat—but
Muriela threw her arms convulsively about him. ‘I’ve done as you ordered!’ she gasped hysterically.
‘Take me away! Oh, please take me away!’ ‘We can’t go yet,’ he grunted. ‘I want to
follow the priests and see where they get the jewels. There may be more loot hidden
there. But you can go with me. Where’s the gem you wore in your hair?’ ‘It must have fallen out on the dais,’ she
stammered, feeling for it. ‘I was so frightened—when the priests left I ran out to find you, and
this big brute had stayed behind, and he grabbed me—’ ‘Well, go get it while I dispose of this carcass,’
he commanded. ‘Go on! That gem is worth a fortune itself.’ She hesitated, as if loth to return to that
cryptic chamber; then, as he grasped Gwarunga’s girdle and dragged him into the alcove, she
turned and entered the oracle room. Conan dumped the senseless black on the floor,
and lifted his sword. The Cimmerian had lived too long in the wild places of the world to
have any illusions about mercy. The only safe enemy was a headless enemy. But before he
could strike, a startling scream checked the lifted blade. It came from the oracle chamber. ‘Conan! Conan! She’s come back!’ The shriek
ended in a gurgle and a scraping shuffle. With an oath Conan dashed out of the alcove,
across the throne dais and into the oracle chamber, almost before the sound had ceased.
There he halted, glaring bewilderedly. To all appearances Muriela lay placidly on the
dais, eyes closed as in slumber. ‘What in thunder are you doing?’ he demanded
acidly. ‘Is this any time to be playing jokes—’ His voice trailed away. His gaze ran along
the ivory thigh molded in the close-fitting silk skirt. That skirt should gape from girdle
to hem. He knew, because it had been his own hand that tore it as he ruthlessly stripped
the garment from the dancer’s writhing body. But the skirt showed no rent. A single stride
brought him to the dais and he laid his hand on the ivory body—snatched it away as if
it had encountered hot iron instead of the cold immobility of death. ‘Crom!’ he muttered, his eyes suddenly slits
of bale-fire. ‘It’s not Muriela! It’s Yelaya!’ He understood now that frantic scream that
had burst from Muriela’s lips when she entered the chamber. The goddess had returned. The
body had been stripped by Zargheba to furnish the accouterments for the pretender. Yet now
it was clad in silk and jewels as Conan had first seen it. A peculiar prickling made itself
manifest among the short hairs at the base of Conan’s scalp. ‘Muriela!’ he shouted suddenly. ‘Muriela!
Where the devil are you?’ The walls threw back his voice mockingly.
There was no entrance that he could see except the golden door, and none could have entered
or departed through that without his knowledge. This much was indisputable: Yelaya had been
replaced on the dais within the few minutes that had elapsed since Muriela had first left
the chamber to be seized by Gwarunga; his ears were still tingling with the echoes of
Muriela’s scream, yet the Corinthian girl had vanished as if into thin air. There was
but one explanation that offered itself to the Cimmerian, if he rejected the darker speculation
that suggested the supernatural—somewhere in the chamber there was a secret door. And
even as the thought crossed his mind, he saw it. In what had seemed a curtain of solid marble,
a thin perpendicular crack showed, and in the crack hung a wisp of silk. In an instant
he was bending over it. That shred was from Muriela’s torn skirt. The implication was
unmistakable. It had been caught in the closing door and torn off as she was borne through
the opening by whatever grim beings were her captors. The bit of clothing had prevented
the door from fitting perfectly into its frame. Thrusting his dagger-point into the crack,
Conan exerted leverage with a corded forearm. The blade bent, but it was of unbreakable
Akbitanan steel. The marble door opened. Conan’s sword was lifted as he peered into the aperture
beyond, but he saw no shape of menace. Light filtering into the oracle chamber revealed
a short flight of steps cut out of marble. Pulling the door back to its fullest extent,
he drove his dagger into a crack in the floor, propping it open. Then he went down the steps
without hesitation. He saw nothing, heard nothing. A dozen steps down, the stair ended
in a narrow corridor which ran straight away into gloom. He halted suddenly, posed like a statue at
the foot of the stair, staring at the paintings which frescoed the walls, half visible in
the dim light which filtered down from above. The art was unmistakably Pelishtim; he had
seen frescoes of identical characteristics on the walls of Asgalun. But the scenes depicted
had no connection with anything Pelishtim, except for one human figure, frequently recurrent:
a lean, white-bearded old man whose racial characteristics were unmistakable. They seemed
to represent various sections of the palace above. Several scenes showed a chamber he
recognized as the oracle chamber with the figure of Yelaya stretched upon the ivory
dais and huge black men kneeling before it. And there were other figures, too—figures
that moved through the deserted palace, did the bidding of the Pelishtim, and dragged
unnamable things out of the subterranean river. In the few seconds Conan stood frozen, hitherto
unintelligible phrases in the parchment manuscript blazed in his brain with chilling clarity.
The loose bits of the pattern clicked into place. The mystery of Bît-Yakin was a mystery
no longer, nor the riddle of Bît-Yakin’s servants. Conan turned and peered into the darkness,
an icy finger crawling along his spine. Then he went along the corridor, cat-footed, and
without hesitation, moving deeper and deeper into the darkness as he drew farther away
from the stair. The air hung heavy with the odor he had scented in the court of the gong. Now in utter blackness he heard a sound ahead
of him—the shuffle of bare feet, or the swish of loose garments against stone, he
could not tell which. But an instant later his outstretched hand encountered a barrier
which he identified as a massive door of carven metal. He pushed against it fruitlessly, and
his sword-point sought vainly for a crack. It fitted into the sill and jambs as if molded
there. He exerted all his strength, his feet straining against the door, the veins knotting
in his temples. It was useless; a charge of elephants would scarcely have shaken that
titanic portal. As he leaned there he caught a sound on the
other side that his ears instantly identified—it was the creak of rusty iron, like a lever
scraping in its slot. Instinctively action followed recognition so spontaneously that
sound, impulse and action were practically simultaneous. And as his prodigious bound
carried him backward, there was the rush of a great bulk from above, and a thunderous
crash filled the tunnel with deafening vibrations. Bits of flying splinters struck him—a huge
block of stone, he knew from the sound, dropped on the spot he had just quitted. An instant’s
slower thought or action and it would have crushed him like an ant. Conan fell back. Somewhere on the other side
of that metal door Muriela was a captive, if she still lived. But he could not pass
that door, and if he remained in the tunnel another block might fall, and he might not
be so lucky. It would do the girl no good for him to be crushed into a purple pulp.
He could not continue his search in that direction. He must get above ground and look for some
other avenue of approach. He turned and hurried toward the stair, sighing
as he emerged into comparative radiance. And as he set foot on the first step, the light
was blotted out, and above him the marble door rushed shut with a resounding reverberation. Something like panic seized the Cimmerian
then, trapped in that black tunnel, and he wheeled on the stair, lifting his sword and
glaring murderously into the darkness behind him, expecting a rush of ghoulish assailants.
But there was no sound or movement down the tunnel. Did the men beyond the door—if they
were men—believe that he had been disposed of by the fall of the stone from the roof,
which had undoubtedly been released by some sort of machinery? Then why had the door been shut above him?
Abandoning speculation, Conan groped his way up the steps, his skin crawling in anticipation
of a knife in his back at every stride, yearning to drown his semi-panic in a barbarous burst
of blood-letting. He thrust against the door at the top, and
cursed soulfully to find that it did not give to his efforts. Then as he lifted his sword
with his right hand to hew at the marble, his groping left encountered a metal bolt
that evidently slipped into place at the closing of the door. In an instant he had drawn this
bolt, and then the door gave to his shove. He bounded into the chamber like a slit-eyed,
snarling incarnation of fury, ferociously desirous to come to grips with whatever enemy
was hounding him. The dagger was gone from the floor. The chamber
was empty; and so was the dais. Yelaya had again vanished. ‘By Crom!’ muttered the Cimmerian. ‘Is she
alive, after all?’ He strode out into the throne-room, baffled,
and then, struck by a sudden thought, stepped behind the throne and peered into the alcove.
There was blood on the smooth marble where he had cast down the senseless body of Gwarunga—that
was all. The black man had vanished as completely as Yelaya.
Chapter 4 – The Teeth of Gwahlur Baffled wrath confused the brain of Conan
the Cimmerian. He knew no more how to go about searching for Muriela than he had known how
to go about searching for the Teeth of Gwahlur. Only one thought occurred to him—to follow
the priests. Perhaps at the hiding-place of the treasure some clue would be revealed to
him. It was a slim chance, but better than wandering about aimlessly. As he hurried through the great shadowy hall
that led to the portico, he half expected the lurking shades to come to life behind
him with rending fangs and talons. But only the beat of his own rapid heart accompanied
him into the moonlight that dappled the shimmering marble. At the foot of the wide steps he cast about
in the bright moonlight for some sign to show him the direction he must go. And he found
it—petals scattered on the sward told where an arm or garment had brushed against a blossom-laden
branch. Grass had been pressed down under heavy feet. Conan, who had tracked wolves
in his native hills, found no insurmountable difficulty in following the trail of the Keshani
priests. It led away from the palace, through masses
of exotic-scented shrubbery where great pale blossoms spread their shimmering petals, through
verdant, tangled bushes that showered blooms at the touch, until he came at last to a great
mass of rock that jutted like a titan’s castle out from the cliffs at a point closest to
the palace, which, however, was almost hidden from view by vine-interlaced trees. Evidently
that babbling priest in Keshia had been mistaken when he said the Teeth were hidden in the
palace. This trail had led him away from the place where Muriela had disappeared, but a
belief was growing in Conan that each part of the valley was connected with that palace
by subterranean passages. Crouching in the deep velvet-black shadows
of the bushes, he scrutinized the great jut of rock which stood out in bold relief in
the moonlight. It was covered with strange, grotesque carvings, depicting men and animals,
and half-bestial creatures that might have been gods or devils. The style of art differed
so strikingly from that of the rest of the valley, that Conan wondered if it did not
represent a different era and race, and was itself a relic of an age lost and forgotten
at whatever immeasurably distant date the people of Alkmeenon had found and entered
the haunted valley. A great door stood open in the sheer curtain
of the cliff, and a gigantic dragon head was carved about it so that the open door was
like the dragon’s gaping mouth. The door itself was of carven bronze and looked to weigh several
tons. There was no lock that he could see, but a series of bolts showing along the edge
of the massive portal, as it stood open, told him that there was some system of locking
and unlocking—a system doubtless known only to the priests of Keshan. The trail showed that Gorulga and his henchmen
had gone through that door. But Conan hesitated. To wait until they emerged would probably
mean to see the door locked in his face, and he might not be able to solve the mystery
of its unlocking. On the other hand, if he followed them in, they might emerge and lock
him in the cavern. Throwing caution to the winds, he glided silently
through the great portal. Somewhere in the cavern were the priests, the Teeth of Gwahlur,
and perhaps a clue to the fate of Muriela. Personal risks had never yet deterred the
Cimmerian from any purpose. Moonlight illumined, for a few yards, the
wide tunnel in which he found himself. Somewhere ahead of him he saw a faint glow and heard
the echo of a weird chanting. The priests were not so far ahead of him as he had thought.
The tunnel debouched into a wide room before the moonlight played out, an empty cavern
of no great dimensions, but with a lofty, vaulted roof, glowing with a phosphorescent
encrustation, which, as Conan knew, was a common phenomenon in that part of the world.
It made a ghostly half-light, in which he was able to see a bestial image squatting
on a shrine and the black mouths of six or seven tunnels leading off from the chamber.
Down the widest of these—the one directly behind the squat image which looked toward
the outer opening—he caught the gleam of torches wavering, whereas the phosphorescent
glow was fixed, and heard the chanting increase in volume. Down it he went recklessly, and was presently
peering into a larger cavern than the one he had just left. There was no phosphorus
here, but the light of the torches fell on a larger altar and a more obscene and repulsive
god squatting toad-like upon it. Before this repugnant deity Gorulga and his ten acolytes
knelt and beat their heads upon the ground, while chanting monotonously. Conan realized
why their progress had been so slow. Evidently approaching the secret crypt of the Teeth
was a complicated and elaborate ritual. He was fidgeting in nervous impatience before
the chanting and bowing were over, but presently they rose and passed into the tunnel which
opened behind the idol. Their torches bobbed away into the nighted vault, and he followed
swiftly. Not much danger of being discovered. He glided along the shadows like a creature
of the night, and the black priests were completely engrossed in their ceremonial mummery. Apparently
they had not even noticed the absence of Gwarunga. Emerging into a cavern of huge proportions,
about whose upward curving walls gallery-like ledges marched in tiers, they began their
worship anew before an altar which was larger, and a god which was more disgusting, than
any encountered thus far. Conan crouched in the black mouth of the tunnel,
staring at the walls reflecting the lurid glow of the torches. He saw a carven stone
stair winding up from tier to tier of the galleries; the roof was lost in darkness. He started violently and the chanting broke
off as the kneeling blacks flung up their heads. An inhuman voice boomed out high above
them. They froze on their knees, their faces turned upward with a ghastly blue hue in the
sudden glare of a weird light that burst blindingly up near the lofty roof and then burned with
a throbbing glow. That glare lighted a gallery and a cry went up from the high priest, echoed
shudderingly by his acolytes. In the flash there had been briefly disclosed to them a
slim white figure standing upright in a sheen of silk and a glint of jewel-crusted gold.
Then the blaze smoldered to a throbbing, pulsing luminosity in which nothing was distinct,
and that slim shape was but a shimmering blue of ivory. ‘Yelaya!’ screamed Gorulga, his brown features
ashen. ‘Why have you followed us? What is your pleasure?’ That weird unhuman voice rolled down from
the roof, re-echoing under that arching vault that magnified and altered it beyond recognition. ‘Woe to the unbelievers! Woe to the false
children of Keshia! Doom to them which deny their deity!’ A cry of horror went up from the priests.
Gorulga looked like a shocked vulture in the glare of the torches. ‘I do not understand!’ he stammered. ‘We are
faithful. In the chamber of the oracle you told us—’ ‘Do not heed what you heard in the chamber
of the oracle!’ rolled that terrible voice, multiplied until it was as though a myriad
voices thundered and muttered the same warning. ‘Beware of false prophets and false gods!
A demon in my guise spoke to you in the palace, giving false prophecy. Now harken and obey,
for only I am the true goddess, and I give you one chance to save yourselves from doom! ‘Take the Teeth of Gwahlur from the crypt
where they were placed so long ago. Alkmeenon is no longer holy, because it has been desecrated
by blasphemers. Give the Teeth of Gwahlur into the hands of Thutmekri, the Stygian,
to place in the sanctuary of Dragon and Derketo. Only this can save Keshan from the doom the
demons of the night have plotted. Take the Teeth of Gwahlur and go: return instantly
to Keshia; there give the jewels to Thutmekri, and seize the foreign devil Conan and flay
him alive in the great square.’ There was no hesitation in obeying. Chattering
with fear the priests scrambled up and ran for the door that opened behind the bestial
god. Gorulga led the flight. They jammed briefly in the doorway, yelping as wildly waving torches
touched squirming black bodies; they plunged through, and the patter of their speeding
feet dwindled down the tunnel. Conan did not follow. He was consumed with
a furious desire to learn the truth of this fantastic affair. Was that indeed Yelaya,
as the cold sweat on the backs of his hands told him, or was it that little hussy Muriela,
turned traitress after all? If it was— Before the last torch had vanished down the
black tunnel he was bounding vengefully up the stone stair. The blue glow was dying down,
but he could still make out that the ivory figure stood motionless on the gallery. His
blood ran cold as he approached it, but he did not hesitate. He came on with his sword
lifted, and towered like a threat of death over the inscrutable shape. ‘Yelaya!’ he snarled. ‘Dead as she’s been
for a thousand years! Ha!’ From the dark mouth of a tunnel behind him
a dark form lunged. But the sudden, deadly rush of unshod feet had reached the Cimmerian’s
quick ears. He whirled like a cat and dodged the blow aimed murderously at his back. As
the gleaming steel in the dark hand hissed past him, he struck back with the fury of
a roused python, and the long straight blade impaled his assailant and stood out a foot
and a half between his shoulders. ‘So!’ Conan tore his sword free as the victim
sagged to the floor, gasping and gurgling. The man writhed briefly and stiffened. In
the dying light Conan saw a black body and ebon countenance, hideous in the blue glare.
He had killed Gwarunga. Conan turned from the corpse to the goddess.
Thongs about her knees and breast held her upright against a stone pillar, and her thick
hair, fastened to the column, held her head up. At a few yards’ distance these bonds were
not visible in the uncertain light. ‘He must have come to after I descended into
the tunnel,’ muttered Conan. ‘He must have suspected I was down there. So he pulled out
the dagger’—Conan stooped and wrenched the identical weapon from the stiffening fingers,
glanced at it and replaced it in his own girdle—’and shut the door. Then he took Yelaya to befool
his brother idiots. That was he shouting a while ago. You couldn’t recognize his voice,
under this echoing roof. And that bursting blue flame—I thought it looked familiar.
It’s a trick of the Stygian priests. Thutmekri must have given some of it to Gwarunga.’ He could easily have reached this cavern ahead
of his companions. Evidently familiar with the plan of the caverns by hearsay or by maps
handed down in the priestcraft, he had entered the cave after the others, carrying the goddess,
followed a circuitous route through the tunnels and chambers, and ensconced himself and his
burden on the balcony while Gorulga and the other acolytes were engaged in their endless
rituals. The blue glare had faded, but now Conan was
aware of another glow, emanating from the mouth of one of the corridors that opened
on the ledge. Somewhere down that corridor there was another field of phosphorus, for
he recognized the faint steady radiance. The corridor led in the direction the priests
had taken, and he decided to follow it, rather than descend into the darkness of the great
cavern below. Doubtless it connected with another gallery in some other chamber, which
might be the destination of the priests. He hurried down it, the illumination growing
stronger as he advanced, until he could make out the floor and the walls of the tunnel.
Ahead of him and below he could hear the priests chanting again. Abruptly a doorway in the left-hand wall was
limned in the phosphorus glow, and to his ears came the sound of soft, hysterical sobbing.
He wheeled, and glared through the door. He was looking again into a chamber hewn out
of solid rock, not a natural cavern like the others. The domed roof shone with the phosphorous
light, and the walls were almost covered with arabesques of beaten gold. Near the farther wall on a granite throne,
staring for ever toward the arched doorway, sat the monstrous and obscene Pteor, the god
of the Pelishtim, wrought in brass, with his exaggerated attributes reflecting the grossness
of his cult. And in his lap sprawled a limp white figure. ‘Well, I’ll be damned!’ muttered Conan. He
glanced suspiciously about the chamber, seeing no other entrance or evidence of occupation,
and then advanced noiselessly and looked down at the girl whose slim shoulders shook with
sobs of abject misery, her face sunk in her arms. From thick bands of gold on the idol’s
arms slim gold chains ran to smaller bands on her wrists. He laid a hand on her naked
shoulder and she started convulsively, shrieked, and twisted her tear-stained face toward him. ‘Conan!’ She made a spasmodic effort to go
into the usual clinch, but the chains hindered her. He cut through the soft gold as close
to her wrists as he could, grunting: ‘You’ll have to wear these bracelets until I can find
a chisel or a file. Let go of me, damn it! You actresses are too damned emotional. What
happened to you, anyway?’ ‘When I went back into the oracle chamber,’
she whimpered, ‘I saw the goddess lying on the dais as I’d first seen her. I called out
to you and started to run to the door—then something grabbed me from behind. It clapped
a hand over my mouth and carried me through a panel in the wall, and down some steps and
along a dark hall. I didn’t see what it was that had hold of me until we passed through
a big metal door and came into a tunnel whose roof was alight, like this chamber. ‘Oh, I nearly fainted when I saw! They are
not humans! They are gray, hairy devils that walk like men and speak a gibberish no human
could understand. They stood there and seemed to be waiting, and once I thought I heard
somebody trying the door. Then one of the things pulled a metal lever in the wall, and
something crashed on the other side of the door. ‘Then they carried me on and on through winding
tunnels and up stone stairways into this chamber, where they chained me on the knees of this
abominable idol, and then they went away. Oh, Conan, what are they?’ ‘Servants of Bît-Yakin,’ he grunted. ‘I found
a manuscript that told me a number of things, and then stumbled upon some frescoes that
told me the rest. Bît-Yakin was a Pelishtim who wandered into the valley with his servants
after the people of Alkmeenon had deserted it. He found the body of Princess Yelaya,
and discovered that the priests returned from time to time to make offerings to her, for
even then she was worshipped as a goddess. ‘He made an oracle of her, and he was the
voice of the oracle, speaking from a niche he cut in the wall behind the ivory dais.
The priests never suspected, never saw him or his servants for they always hid themselves
when the men came. Bît-Yakin lived and died here without ever being discovered by the
priests. Crom knows how long he dwelt here, but it must have been for centuries. The wise
men of the Pelishtim know how to increase the span of their lives for hundreds of years.
I’ve seen some of them myself. Why he lived here alone, and why he played the part of
oracle no ordinary human can guess, but I believe the oracle part was to keep the city
inviolate and sacred, so he could remain undisturbed. He ate the food the priests brought as an
offering to Yelaya, and his servants ate other things—I’ve always known there was a subterranean
river flowing away from the lake where the people of the Puntish highlands throw their
dead. That river runs under this palace. They have ladders hung over the water where they
can hang and fish for the corpses that come floating through. Bît-Yakin recorded everything
on parchment and painted walls. ‘But he died at last, and his servants mummified
him according to instructions he gave them before his death, and stuck him in a cave
in the cliffs. The rest is easy to guess. His servants, who were even more nearly immortal
than he, kept on dwelling here, but the next time a high priest came to consult the oracle,
not having a master to restrain them, they tore him to pieces. So since then—until
Gorulga—nobody came to talk to the oracle. ‘It’s obvious they’ve been renewing the garments
and ornaments of the goddess, as they’d seen Bît-Yakin do. Doubtless there’s a sealed
chamber somewhere where the silks are kept from decay. They clothed the goddess and brought
her back to the oracle room after Zargheba had stolen her. And by the way, they took
off Zargheba’s head and hung it in a thicket.’ She shivered, yet at the same time breathed
a sigh of relief. ‘He’ll never whip me again.’ ‘Not this side of hell,’ agreed Conan. ‘But
come on. Gwarunga ruined my chances with his stolen goddess. I’m going to follow the priests
and take my chance of stealing the loot from them after they get it. And you stay close
to me. I can’t spend all my time looking for you.’ ‘But the servants of Bît-Yakin!’ she whispered
fearfully. ‘We’ll have to take our chance,’ he grunted.
‘I don’t know what’s in their minds, but so far they haven’t shown any disposition to
come out and fight in the open. Come on.’ Taking her wrist he led her out of the chamber
and down the corridor. As they advanced they heard the chanting of the priests, and mingling
with the sound the low sullen rushing of waters. The light grew stronger above them as they
emerged on a high-pitched gallery of a great cavern and looked down on a scene weird and
fantastic. Above them gleamed the phosphorescent roof;
a hundred feet below them stretched the smooth floor of the cavern. On the far side this
floor was cut by a deep, narrow stream brimming its rocky channel. Rushing out of impenetrable
gloom, it swirled across the cavern and was lost again in darkness. The visible surface
reflected the radiance above; the dark seething waters glinted as if flecked with living jewels,
frosty blue, lurid red, shimmering green, an ever-changing iridescence. Conan and his companion stood upon one of
the gallery-like ledges that banded the curve of the lofty wall, and from this ledge a natural
bridge of stone soared in a breath-taking arch over the vast gulf of the cavern to join
a much smaller ledge on the opposite side, across the river. Ten feet below it another,
broader arch spanned the cave. At either end a carven stair joined the extremities of these
flying arches. Conan’s gaze, following the curve of the arch
that swept away from the ledge on which they stood, caught a glint of light that was not
the lurid phosphorus of the cavern. On that small ledge opposite them there was an opening
in the cave wall through which stars were glinting. But his full attention was drawn to the scene
beneath them. The priests had reached their destination. There in a sweeping angle of
the cavern wall stood a stone altar, but there was no idol upon it. Whether there was one
behind it, Conan could not ascertain, because some trick of the light, or the sweep of the
wall, left the space behind the altar in total darkness. The priests had stuck their torches into holes
in the stone floor, forming a semicircle of fire in front of the altar at a distance of
several yards. Then the priests themselves formed a semicircle inside the crescent of
torches, and Gorulga, after lifting his arms aloft in invocation, bent to the altar and
laid hands on it. It lifted and tilted backward on its hinder edge, like the lid of a chest,
revealing a small crypt. Extending a long arm into the recess, Gorulga
brought up a small brass chest. Lowering the altar back into place, he set the chest on
it, and threw back the lid. To the eager watchers on the high gallery it seemed as if the action
had released a blaze of living fire which throbbed and quivered about the opened chest.
Conan’s heart leaped and his hand caught at his hilt. The Teeth of Gwahlur at last! The
treasure that would make its possessor the richest man in the world! His breath came
fast between his clenched teeth. Then he was suddenly aware that a new element
had entered into the light of the torches and of the phosphorescent roof, rendering
both void. Darkness stole around the altar, except for that glowing spot of evil radiance
cast by the teeth of Gwahlur, and that grew and grew. The blacks froze into basaltic statues,
their shadows streaming grotesquely and gigantically out behind them. The altar was laved in the glow now, and the
astounded features of Gorulga stood out in sharp relief. Then the mysterious space behind
the altar swam into the widening illumination. And slowly with the crawling light, figures
became visible, like shapes growing out of the night and silence. At first they seemed like gray stone statues,
those motionless shapes, hairy, man-like, yet hideously human; but their eyes were alive,
cold sparks of gray icy fire. And as the weird glow lit their bestial countenances, Gorulga
screamed and fell backward, throwing up his long arms in a gesture of frenzied horror. But a longer arm shot across the altar and
a misshapen hand locked on his throat. Screaming and fighting, the high priest was dragged
back across the altar; a hammer-like fist smashed down, and Gorulga’s cries were stilled.
Limp and broken he sagged across the altar, his brains oozing from his crushed skull.
And then the servants of Bît-Yakin surged like a bursting flood from hell on the black
priests who stood like horror-blasted images. Then there was slaughter, grim and appalling. Conan saw black bodies tossed like chaff in
the inhuman hands of the slayers, against whose horrible strength and agility the daggers
and swords of the priests were ineffective. He saw men lifted bodily and their heads cracked
open against the stone altar. He saw a flaming torch, grasped in a monstrous hand, thrust
inexorably down the gullet of an agonized wretch who writhed in vain against the arms
that pinioned him. He saw a man torn in two pieces, as one might tear a chicken, and the
bloody fragments hurled clear across the cavern. The massacre was as short and devastating
as the rush of a hurricane. In a burst of red abysmal ferocity it was over, except for
one wretch who fled screaming back the way the priests had come, pursued by a swarm of
blood-dabbled shapes of horror which reached out their red-smeared hands for him. Fugitive
and pursuers vanished down the black tunnel, and the screams of the human came back dwindling
and confused by the distance. Muriela was on her knees clutching Conan’s
legs, her face pressed against his knee and her eyes tightly shut. She was a quaking,
quivering mold of abject terror. But Conan was galvanized. A quick glance across at the
aperture where the stars shone, a glance down at the chest that still blazed open on the
blood-smeared altar, and he saw and seized the desperate gamble. ‘I’m going after that chest!’ he grated. ‘Stay
here!’ ‘Oh, Mitra, no!’ In an agony of fright she
fell to the floor and caught at his sandals. ‘Don’t! Don’t! Don’t leave me!’ ‘Lie still and keep your mouth shut!’ he snapped,
disengaging himself from her frantic clasp. He disregarded the tortuous stair. He dropped
from ledge to ledge with reckless haste. There was no sign of the monsters as his feet hit
the floor. A few of the torches still flared in their sockets, the phosphorescent glow
throbbed and quivered, and the river flowed with an almost articulate muttering, scintillant
with undreamed radiances. The glow that had heralded the appearance of the servants had
vanished with them. Only the light of the jewels in the brass chest shimmered and quivered. He snatched the chest, noting its contents
in one lustful glance—strange, curiously shapen stones that burned with an icy, non-terrestrial
fire. He slammed the lid, thrust the chest under his arm, and ran back up the steps.
He had no desire to encounter the hellish servants of Bît-Yakin. His glimpse of them
in action had dispelled any illusion concerning their fighting ability. Why they had waited
so long before striking at the invaders he was unable to say. What human could guess
the motives or thoughts of these monstrosities? That they were possessed of craft and intelligence
equal to humanity had been demonstrated. And there on the cavern floor lay crimson proof
of their bestial ferocity. The Corinthian girl still cowered on the gallery
where he had left her. He caught her wrist and yanked her to her feet, grunting: ‘I guess
it’s time to go!’ Too bemused with terror to be fully aware
of what was going on, the girl suffered herself to be led across the dizzy span. It was not
until they were poised over the rushing water that she looked down, voiced a startled yelp
and would have fallen but for Conan’s massive arm about her. Growling an objurgation in
her ear, he snatched her up under his free arm and swept her, in a flutter of limply
waving arms and legs, across the arch and into the aperture that opened at the other
end. Without bothering to set her on her feet, he hurried through the short tunnel into which
this aperture opened. An instant later they emerged upon a narrow ledge on the outer side
of the cliffs that circled the valley. Less than a hundred feet below them the jungle
waved in the starlight. Looking down, Conan vented a gusty sigh of
relief. He believed that he could negotiate the descent, even though burdened with the
jewels and the girl; although he doubted if even he, unburdened, could have ascended at
that spot. He set the chest, still smeared with Gorulga’s blood and clotted with his
brains, on the ledge, and was about to remove his girdle in order to tie the box to his
back, when he was galvanized by a sound behind him, a sound sinister and unmistakable. ‘Stay here!’ he snapped at the bewildered
Corinthian girl. ‘Don’t move!’ And drawing his sword, he glided into the tunnel, glaring
back into the cavern. Halfway across the upper span he saw a gray
deformed shape. One of the servants of Bît-Yakin was on his trail. There was no doubt that
the brute had seen them and was following them. Conan did not hesitate. It might be
easier to defend the mouth of the tunnel—but this fight must be finished quickly, before
the other servants could return. He ran out on the span, straight toward the
oncoming monster. It was no ape, neither was it a man. It was some shambling horror spawned
in the mysterious, nameless jungles of the south, where strange life teemed in the reeking
rot without the dominance of man, and drums thundered in temples that had never known
the tread of a human foot. How the ancient Pelishtim had gained lordship over them—and
with it eternal exile from humanity—was a foul riddle about which Conan did not care
to speculate, even if he had had opportunity. Man and monster; they met at the highest arch
of the span, where, a hundred feet below, rushed the furious black water. As the monstrous
shape with its leprous gray body and the features of a carven, unhuman idol loomed over him,
Conan struck as a wounded tiger strikes, with every ounce of thew and fury behind the blow.
That stroke would have sheared a human body asunder; but the bones of the servant of Bît-Yakin
were like tempered steel. Yet even tempered steel could not wholly have withstood that
furious stroke. Ribs and shoulder-bone parted and blood spouted from the great gash. There was no time for a second stroke. Before
the Cimmerian could lift his blade again or spring clear, the sweep of a giant arm knocked
him from the span as a fly is flicked from a wall. As he plunged downward the rush of
the river was like a knell in his ears, but his twisted body fell halfway across the lower
arch. He wavered there precariously for one blood-chilling instant, then his clutching
fingers hooked over the farther edge, and he scrambled to safety, his sword still in
his other hand. As he sprang up, he saw the monster, spurting
blood hideously, rush toward the cliff-end of the bridge, obviously intending to descend
the stair that connected the arches and renew the feud. At the very ledge the brute paused
in mid-flight—and Conan saw it too—Muriela, with the jewel chest under her arm, stood
staring wildly in the mouth of the tunnel. With a triumphant bellow the monster scooped
her up under one arm, snatched the jewel chest with the other hand as she dropped it, and
turning, lumbered back across the bridge. Conan cursed with passion and ran for the
other side also. He doubted if he could climb the stair to the higher arch in time to catch
the brute before it could plunge into the labyrinth of tunnels on the other side. But the monster was slowing, like clockwork
running down. Blood gushed from that terrible gash in his breast, and he lurched drunkenly
from side to side. Suddenly he stumbled, reeled and toppled sidewise—pitched headlong from
the arch and hurtled downward. Girl and jewel chest fell from his nerveless hands and Muriela’s
scream rang terribly above the snarl of the water below. Conan was almost under the spot from which
the creature had fallen. The monster struck the lower arch glancingly and shot off, but
the writhing figure of the girl struck and clung, and the chest hit the edge of the span
near her. One falling object struck on one side of Conan and one on the other. Either
was within arm’s length; for the fraction of a split second the chest teetered on the
edge of the bridge, and Muriela clung by one arm, her face turned desperately toward Conan,
her eyes dilated with the fear of death and her lips parted in a haunting cry of despair. Conan did not hesitate, nor did he even glance
toward the chest that held the wealth of an epoch. With a quickness that would have shamed
the spring of a hungry jaguar, he swooped, grasped the girl’s arm just as her fingers
slipped from the smooth stone, and snatched her up on the span with one explosive heave.
The chest toppled on over and struck the water ninety feet below, where the body of the servant
of Bît-Yakin had already vanished. A splash, a jetting flash of foam marked where the Teeth
of Gwahlur disappeared for ever from the sight of the man. Conan scarcely wasted a downward glance. He
darted across the span and ran up the cliff stair like a cat, carrying the limp girl as
if she had been an infant. A hideous ululation caused him to glance over his shoulder as
he reached the higher arch, to see the other servants streaming back into the cavern below,
blood dripping from their bared fangs. They raced up the stair that wound from tier to
tier, roaring vengefully; but he slung the girl unceremoniously over his shoulder, dashed
through the tunnel and went down the cliffs like an ape himself, dropping and springing
from hold to hold with breakneck recklessness. When the fierce countenances looked over the
ledge of the aperture, it was to see the Cimmerian and the girl disappearing into the forest
that surrounded the cliffs. ‘Well,’ said Conan, setting the girl on her
feet within the sheltering screen of branches, ‘we can take our time now. I don’t think those
brutes will follow us outside the valley. Anyway, I’ve got a horse tied at a water-hole
close by, if the lions haven’t eaten him. Crom’s devils! What are you crying about now?’ She covered her tear-stained face with her
hands, and her slim shoulders shook with sobs. ‘I lost the jewels for you,’ she wailed miserably.
‘It was my fault. If I’d obeyed you and stayed out on the ledge, that brute would never have
seen me. You should have caught the gems and let me drown!’ ‘Yes, I suppose I should,’ he agreed. ‘But
forget it. Never worry about what’s past. And stop crying, will you? That’s better.
Come on.’ ‘You mean you’re going to keep me? Take me
with you?’ she asked hopefully. ‘What else do you suppose I’d do with you?’
He ran an approving glance over her figure and grinned at the torn skirt which revealed
a generous expanse of tempting ivory-tinted curves. ‘I can use an actress like you. There’s
no use going back to Keshia. There’s nothing in Keshan now that I want. We’ll go to Punt.
The people of Punt worship an ivory woman, and they wash gold out of the rivers in wicker
baskets. I’ll tell them that Keshan is intriguing with Thutmekri to enslave them—which is
true—and that the gods have sent me to protect them—for about a houseful of gold. If I
can manage to smuggle you into their temple to exchange places with their ivory goddess,
we’ll skin them out of their jaw teeth before we get through with them!’

Randy Schultz

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2 thoughts on “Jewels of Gwahlur by Robert E. Howard

  1. JJ Vladimir says:

    Great reading. Thanks for posting this.

  2. the250mikec says:

    Good reading Phil.

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