Late afternoon brought Conan and Tukali to the end of the high country, and subsequently to the end of the most arduous part of their journey. They rounded the final bend in the path, passed by one last knoll and halted their horses at the edge of the Kothian Hills, right where the trail suddenly opened up onto a startlingly wide and clear view of the land around Khorshemish before it started its gradual slope downwards to rejoin the main road to Koth’s capital. From their vantage point at the rim of the Hills, the two men could see quite far across the many leagues of farmlands and grazing country. They could also see many of the small towns and hamlets that stretched in between them and their destination. Khorshemish itself was a broad mass on the southern horizon, bristling with towers and spires and surrounded by a dense proliferation of towns, trading posts and caravan camps.

Above them the sky was again clear and blue, with no hint that there had ever been a rainstorm just that morning. Conan looked down at the road below and saw many small groups of riders passing each other on the white paving stones. “We managed to save what money we have left by shunning the main road, but we also added an extra day onto our journey,” Conan said.

“Don’t forget we could have been detained at any one of the border posts. That could have cost us much more than a day,” Tukali added. “The fact that we are not travelling with a caravan would have heaped suspicion on ourselves. We didn’t do so badly.”

Conan frowned thoughtfully. “We could have tried bluffing our way past the border guards as enlistees for the Kothian cavalry.”

Tukali looked incredulous at Conan’s suggestion. “Coming from Ophir? If they didn’t immediately turn us away as undesirables, we probably would have been interrogated or even hung on the spot as spies! Besides, who knew that some rabid magic-user would be hunting victims along our route? He could just as easily have been prowling along the main road as anywhere else.”

Conan nodded at Tukali’s assertions, remembering times in his own recent past when he was treated badly because of some official or other’s paranoia about wandering barbarians. “You’re right. Still, it could be helpful to know why that sorcerer attacked us.”

Tukali shrugged. “Maybe we disturbed his meditation. Maybe his magics drove him insane. Does it matter? We’re alive and that’s what counts.”

Conan couldn’t argue with that logic, and rather than worry about something over which he had no control, he shifted his thoughts to other matters. He shielded his eyes against the sun with his hand and looked out at the distant speck that was the Queen of the South. “Judging by some of the routes I’ve taken into Khorshemish in the past, I’d guess that it’ll take us at least another day to reach the city.”

Tukali nodded in agreement. “This road is fairly straight and kept in good repair. Any patrols that pass us on the way will assume that we were allowed in officially.” Tukali grinned. “And if in doubt, we can always take an alternate route.”

Conan chuckled. “To Hell with your side-roads! Come, lets leave this one behind.” Conan started down the slope, Tukali following.

The rich land unfurled before Conan and Tukali like a scroll as their horses trotted briskly over the sun-bleached cobbles. Farmers toiled industriously in their fields. Even though the sun weighed heavily on the western horizon, the workers of the land were unwilling to dispense with their labors until they absolutely had to for lack of light. Their devotion to their work was almost fanatical, no doubt due in part to the large market for their goods in the capital, where more produce to sell would mean more money to earn. Of course, the penalties for failing to pay the somewhat heavy taxes of the region may have also influenced their hardy exertions.

As the two warriors made their way down the road, they also passed vast stretches of pasture where all manner of livestock grazed; cattle, sheep, goats and other livestock of all kinds, some familiar and some that were not so easily recognizable to the travelers. The people they passed on the highway while they rode southward were as varying as the creatures in the fields. Among the farmers and ranchers there were traders, mercenaries, entertainers, tradesmen, aristocrats and soldiers, many of them from neighboring lands bordering Koth. And of course there were slaves, some being brought to the capital to be sold, others accompanying their masters into the city or back out of it; pale northerners, brown-skinned Stygians, ebony tribesmen from the black coasts of the southern regions, and exotic Hyrkanians and Vendhyans among others. With so many different people moving about on the thoroughfares, the Cimmerian and his Turanian comrade found that there was no need to disguise themselves from the eyes of the routine patrols that kept order and the traffic flowing smoothly.

The concentration of humanity increased as Conan and Tukali approached nearer to Khorshemish. Collections of dwellings grew from groups of small huts in the farming villages to rows of larger stone buildings that cropped up in the various trading towns as the land gave way from agricultural usage to the sprawl of human habitations rippling outward beyond the city walls.

The last of their coppers were used up that night in one such trading town about half a day’s ride from the city. It was already well into the evening when both men decided it was time to take in a meal and rest up before finishing their journey to Khorshemish in the morning. Most of the trading houses had long been closed for the day when Conan and Tukali finally decided upon a fairly inexpensive inn located at the edge of town. The accommodations were barely adequate, but all of the essentials were there. The horses were put to stable by a boy no higher than Conan’s waist, whose father gave them lodgings in separate rooms little more than stables themselves; straw pallets served as beds, and the only light that entered into the close quarters was the moonlight that trickled in through the small hole in the wall that was purported by the innkeeper to be a window.

A mug each of bland, watery wine and a shared roasted chicken served as their evening meal, the best that the scruffy proprietor had on hand. To Conan the food and shelter were more than enough though, especially when the alternative was to sleep out in the street or on the side of the road; camping in some farmer’s field or pasture would only be asking for trouble since the rich, fertile land around the city was a commodity guarded most jealously. Better living quarters were almost guaranteed once they found employment, although when Conan and Tukali settled into their dingy rooms after finishing their meal, sleeping beneath the stars out in the wilderness seemed all at once highly preferable to the claustrophobic cells they had paid for. Luckily the events of the day and the hard riding of their trip left the men exhausted enough that they didn’t have to spend many waking moments contemplating their sparse sleeping quarters.

Alone at last, Tukali finally had an opportunity to contact his masters in Aghrapur. He undid the clasp from his turban and held it against the center of his forehead after unravelling the cloth from the headdress and laying it down beside his sleeping-mat. The complex, finely worked steel clasp stayed attached to Tukali’s skin without the need of his pinning it there, a fact Tukali was grateful for. Had Tukali been looking into a mirror, he would have been unsurprised to see that the intricate design of the clasp had now resolved itself into the form of a metallic eye, peering out from just above both of his own.

As he dozed off, he pictured in his mind the face of the one he would communicate with. Sleep quickly came over Tukali, and in the darkened world of his slumber a disembodied face began to take form, the face he had pictured. Two eyes the hue of aged hickory appeared first, then the thin and slightly arched black eyebrows that were the only hair other than the eyelashes to sprout anywhere upon the clean-shaven face, followed by a long straight nose terminating above a small but graceful mouth. The face finished coming into being by framing itself with tiny black ringlets of hair that just brushed the top of a smooth forehead, rolling past the temples to almost touch the high cheekbones and draping partially over the ears.

The one thing that always struck Tukali as odd about the Turanian court wizard was not so much that he looked quite young for one reputed to be a century old, but that he looked so . . . boyish. The first time Tukali had ever seen the magician he had been unsure whether Sharif had been an adult or not; only when the wizard spoke could a person tell for sure by his deep voice and commanding tones.

Sharif’s lips hardly moved when he did finally speak. “What news have you, Captain Tukali?” The voice and eyes were utterly compelling. Had Tukali not wished to inform his superior in the first place, he would have found it difficult to refuse now.

“I have news of import.” Tukali related the events of the past couple of days to the wizard, who listened with utmost interest and curiosity. When Tukali got to the part about being ambushed by the mad sorcerer, Sharif inquired about every specific detail, making Tukali wonder if he was more interested in news of their quarry or in the other wizard. “But as you see, my lord,” he continued, “the men are as good as avenged, and Conan suspects us not. In fact, he could be said to trust me with his very life!”

“A life you may very well have to take.” Sharif’s smile was ironic. “If matters make it any more difficult to bring the Cimmerian back to Aghrapur for trial and execution, you will have to execute him in the field and bring his head back to us as proof of his demise.” At Tukali’s uncertain look, for Sharif could see the face of Tukali’s psyche in his mind’s eye as well as Tukali could see his, Sharif became more reassuring. “Don’t worry Captain, you’ll not be charged with performing this task alone. I have a certain colleague in Khorshemish who owes me a favor or two, and who was also once the friend of my friend Tughril, the High Priest of Erlik, up until Tughril’s recent demise. When you arrive in the city, look for her in the small temple of Damballah near the scarlet citadel of Tsotha-lanti that overlooks the royal palace. She is the priestess Ashlara, and she will aid you in either subduing or killing Conan.”

Tukali felt like he hadn’t been told everything applicable to his mission. He knew that Conan was a traitor, a deserter from his post as a captain in the Turanian royal guard, a post for which he himself had been promoted to fill, but no deserter had ever been hunted for as long or as vengefully as they were pursuing Conan. Almost a year he had tracked Conan’s whereabouts, and never had he thought to ask for all of the information concerning Conan’s crimes. Until now. “My lord,” he began carefully, “I know ’tis not my place to question my assignment, but I was wondering if you would tell me more on the exact nature of Conan’s offense, other than his desertion.” Tukali would have found the need to swallow had he asked the question of his superior in the physical world.

Sharif looked grim for a moment, and Tukali was about to consign himself to whatever haranguing about questioning one’s orders the wizard seemed ready to give him, but then the other man relaxed. “What I tell you now must not be repeated, upon pain of death by Yildiz’s executioners.” He paused briefly to let the importance of the secrecy of what he was about to say sink in.

“You know the story of your predecessor’s desertion.” At Tukali’s brief nod Sharif continued. “That story is incomplete, and I doubt even Conan knows the entirety of the missing pieces himself. What he could tell you, however, was how his senior captain, a good man by the name of Orkhan, caught Conan enjoying the favors of Orkhan’s own mistress in his own bedchamber. Upon being discovered, Conan attacked and murdered his senior officer and then fled Turan.” Sharif’s face twisted with hate. “Imagine the outrage!” he hissed.

The sorcerer remained speechless for several seconds as he struggled to control his anger, then finally managed to regain his composure and went on. “He could also tell you that senior captain Orkhan happened to be the son of Tughril, my friend as I mentioned earlier, who passed away from the grief of losing his only son. Conan may have even known that Orkhan was a close friend of prince Yezdigerd’s. But what he couldn’t tell you was that Orkhan was also a royal cousin to the imperial majesty of Turan himself, our beloved King Yildiz.”

Understanding began to sink in for Tukali. A slaying among the royal family was easily quite enough to earn the thirst for blood that his superiors apparently had for Conan. Add to that the embarrassing circumstances under which Orkhan was killed and you had the potential for a manhunt spanning many kingdoms. Any crimes the Cimmerian had committed against Turan since then would only have fueled the fires of hate already raging against him. “I presume that if this news ever reached the public ear, my king could not only become the object of open ridicule both within and without Turan for letting the slaying of one of his family go unavenged, but it could also be perceived by our enemies as a sign of Yildiz’s weakness and an opportunity to flaunt his authority?”

Sharif nodded. “Well put. I see the gravity of the situation has not failed to impress itself upon you, Tukali. Now that you know the whole story, you can see why it is of utmost importance that Conan be done away with, not only for the sake of avenging Orkhan and Tughril, but to secure the king’s honor! Very few people know that Orkhan was a cousin to Yildiz, but were they to find out, our king would appear a coward or a fool.”

Sharif scrutinized Tukali’s face, a profound look in his pale eyes. “Know that since you too now possess this little secret, you will be watched as closely upon your return as the rest of us by Yildiz’s spies.” He paused in reflection. “Just before he died, I promised Tughril I would see his son avenged; I have no plans to go back on my oath. As part of the royal guard, one of your responsibilities is to safeguard the royal dignity. I suggest that you make your trustworthiness work for you.”

Tukali responded automatically with a pledge that had been drilled into him time and again as a recruit in the Turanian cavalry: “My faith is Turan, my life is my shah’s! I’ll bring you Conan or I’ll bring you his head. I will not fail either way.”

Sharif closed his eyes and nodded in approval. “See that you don’t, captain. More than a few people are counting on your mission’s success, not least of all the late Tughril’s fellow priests of Erlik, a group even I would not care to feud with. Contact me again when the deed is done.” The image of the wizard’s face faded away, and Tukali, hoping he could live up to his claim and avoid the consequences of failure, slipped into a true but troubled sleep.

Noon of the next day brought Conan and Tukali to one of the lesser eleven gates of the city of Khorshemish. The twelfth set of gates, bigger than the other eleven, lay on another part of the city’s rim, far from their present location. All of the gates rested between pairs of sturdy watch-towers set in the outer wall. Each was equipped with a large drum, supported by a pair of bronze poles, that was used to signal either the opening of the gates at dawn or their closing at sunset; nobody was officially admitted access into the city during the night. Conan remembered a time when such an unlucky person would have had to suffice with camping out on the huge plain that surrounded Khorshemish, but since his last visit, the city had flourished with even more trade of all types, so that human habitation outside of the city had grown and spread to within a few dozen yards of the imposing stone outer stone wall. The city, in all practicality, had outgrown its own self-imposed limits. Now anyone stuck outside after the gates closed could sleep in one of the many inns that clustered like bizarre growths within the vicinity of each massive portal.

The two huge bronze doors were currently open to admit traffic to and from the city. The crowds of people passing through the gate resembled the travellers on the rest of the roads around the city, except that many more soldiers were in attendance, along with substantially more craftsmen and tradesmen of all types. Other than the many soldiers on horseback and the occasional rich noble or merchant borne upon slave-supported litters, few people rode on mounts of any kind.

Conan dismounted from his horse while Tukali followed suit, and they led their animals through the gate. As they passed through the crowded entryway, one of a pair of soldiers standing back-to-back with another pair in the pathway’s center held up a gauntleted hand and halted them as they entered into the wide yard between the inner and outer walls. The two sets of guards were positioned so as to more easily monitor the people flowing in and out of the city. “A recent edict passed by King Strabonus’s court prohibits all large animals, except those for military or otherwise official use, from passing through these walls,” declared the guard.

Conan frowned in annoyance. “I never would have thought Strabonus one to permit such foolishness. And in his own capital, of all places! Is the king mad?” he asked boldly.

The guard waved a dismissive hand. “The king is busy touring the countryside. He’s left the affairs of state in the hands of those councillors he didn’t bring with him. Belike he doesn’t even know.”

“When the lion’s away, the jackals shall play,” one of the other guards grumbled.

“But why can’t we bring our horses into the city?” demanded Tukali. He knew he would need his horse when he was ready to deliver Conan into Sharif’s hands.

Again, the guard was neither arrogant nor gruff in his reply. Instead, he just sighed before answering in officious but decidedly bored tones. “Because it has been decided by the Royal Corps of Engineers that with the new flood of tenantry in and around Khorshemish, the dung dropped by increasing numbers of large animals within the city is adding to the stink, and until the sewers have been expanded, no large animals shall be admitted.” He rattled off the words with a casual ease, giving hint to the likelihood that he and his fellows had been made to recite the explanation for countless other inquirers. When he’d finished, though, the guard winked conspiratorially, and in a lower voice: “I must officially add that I’ve seen smaller dung dropped by oxen than by those overpaid slugs in the corps of engineers–them, and Strabonus’s court for listening to ’em.”

Conan smiled at the knowing snickers of the other three soldiers, but Tukali could only manage a half-hearted nod. The first guard resumed. “You can either stable your horses for a fee in the pen on the far side of this courtyard,” he pointed across at a large, thatch-roofed stone stable built between the inner and outer walls, “or you can sell them over there to people looking to purchase.” He pointed to the other side of the yard where a small group of people appeared to be inspecting various types of animals up for sale. “Whatever you do, make sure you have enough money to find lodgings if you don’t already have a place to stay. Anybody found wandering the streets after dark without proof of their residence within Khorshemish gets booted out of the city until daylight.”

Conan thanked the man, who nodded back at them as he and Tukali walked to the selling side of the courtyard. Neither man had a copper to his name, so penning the animals up while they were in Khorshemish was out of the question. They led their horses over to the small handful of bartering people.

It wasn’t long before they were inundated with offers; their steeds stood out against the other animals like gems among pebbles. The other animals for sale were mere pack-beasts, while theirs had been bred for war, fine mounts for anyone who knew how to handle them. Tukali was the first to sell his horse, striking a deal, Conan noted disgustedly, with a rough-looking bit of Zamorian riffraff wearing a large brass ring through his nose. Tukali grinned as he hefted his newly filled purse, the clink of silver raising his spirits even more. “What are you waiting for, Cimmerian? You’ve had three offers already!”

“Aye, offers falling far short of what this steed is actually worth. And none of those offering would even know how to care for a trained warhorse.” He patted the big animal affectionately. “I’ll wait.”

Tukali shrugged. “It’s your horse.”

As it turned out, Conan didn’t have to wait very long. After several minutes of listening to the annoying braying of those whose offers he’d refused, several likely candidates strolled out from beneath the arch of the inner wall’s entranceway in the form of four heavily armored warriors. Three of them headed directly for the holding pen on the far side, but the fourth, a blonde-haired Ęsir by the looks of him and as rare as Conan in these southern kingdoms, spotted Conan and his warhorse and headed over.

The Ęsir was almost as tall as Conan, which put him at least an entire head above the rest of the crowd. “I am Lars, of Asgard, and if I’m not mistaken, you must be from Cimmeria!”

Conan grinned and extended a hand, which Lars clasped with a mighty warrior’s grip. “Aye, Cimmeria is my homeland. I’m Conan.”

The other warrior’s eyes widened slightly in surprise. “Conan of Cimmeria? Ymir’s beard! I’ve heard of you!”

Conan widened his eyes in mock apprehension. “I hope you’ve heard nothing bad.”

The big Ęsir laughed, his lusty voice echoing off the stone walls. “Ha! From the tales going ’round, that would depend on which dead sorcerer or demigod you happened to ask!” As Conan cracked a smile, the other northman laughed again, his braids shaking with vigorous mirth. “For you to be selling as worthy a mount as this, though,” Lars gestured toward Conan’s warhorse, “you must be a little low on coins. I could remedy that. My horse, a faithful creature but unfortunately less hardy than this one, was killed in battle during our last venture, so I had to ride back on one of the pack-mares. I would pay handsomely for a steed such as this.” Lars patted the horse’s neck, admiring the animal’s great size, strength and well-kempt condition. The warhorse bowed its head toward the burly Ęsir and nickered softly.

“He approves of you, and so do I.” The statement may have sounded conceited in the ears of another, but Conan, and most certainly Lars as well, knew that any true warrior’s code required the responsible treatment of one’s mount, no matter how briefly or how long it was in the warrior’s care. To Conan, that included seeing that his horse ended up with a master who would treat it the same way. Conan found that there were few warriors in the world who deserved as much respect as they received, but his instincts told him that the Ęsir Lars was a man who could be trusted. The people of Asgard, like those of Cimmeria and quite unlike most of those in the supposedly civilized lands of the south, were an honorable race who still held to the values that had been handed down from one generation to the next for untold centuries.

Lars seemed genuinely honored to have Conan’s approval. His first, and only offer as it turned out, was more than generous. There was no haggling over the price. To do so would have been an insult to both parties. After the men bid each other farewell, Lars rejoined his band outside the city gates while Conan tucked away his purse, newly laden with silver pieces and even a few gold doubloons, into the tunic beneath his scale mail.

During the transaction, Tukali had waited by the city’s inner entrance. Seeing that Conan was finished, he waved him over to where he was standing under the high stone arch. “It took you long enough. How did you fare?”

“The money was good. And I also have the reassurance that my horse won’t be yoked to a vegetable cart by some idiot too earnest with the whip.” Conan looked pointedly at Tukali. “Not unlike your Zamorian trading-partner.” He waved toward the man who had bought Tukali’s horse. He was still standing with the others, evidently waiting for a new buyer to make him a profit.

Tukali, who hadn’t thought twice about whom he had sold his horse to, suddenly felt a twinge of guilt and even a little annoyance. How was it that Conan, the man he was either going to have to kill or bring back to Turan to be killed, had made him realize that he had formed a warrior’s bond with his horse, a bond that he had possibly betrayed by his rash dealing? Maybe there was more to this barbarian than his superiors had led him to believe.

At Tukali’s somber look, Conan clamped a beefy hand onto his shoulder and steered him through the inner gate. “I’m sure the Zamorian will just sell your horse for a higher price to another warrior. After all, a well-trained Turanian steed is difficult to come by outside of Turan. Besides, we had little choice but to part with our mounts. You can blame the dung-headed Royal Corps of Engineers for that!” Conan grinned.

Tukali laughed, feeling better for Conan’s heartening words. Then he abruptly caught himself. He knew his duty was to his Shah and his country, but how could he possibly betray someone he might be beginning to like? Tukali’s mind was far from placid as he and Conan strolled into the city.

Of the many things about Khorshemish that had changed since either man had last visited, some things had managed to stay the same. The sheer immensity of the city was still as imposing as it had ever been; it could take the better part of a day for a man to walk from one side of the city to the other, and several days to walk its perimeter.

To Conan the city’s layout looked pretty much the same, with the royal palace at the very hub of the metropolis, surrounded by military barracks, then the homes of nobles, courtiers and the fabulously wealthy, which in turn were ringed by the dwellings of the middle and then the lower classes. Between the dwellings of the commoners and the inner wall lay the various sections or ‘quarters’ devoted to specific trades, like the slave quarter, the mercenary quarter, the merchant quarter, and so on. Interspersed throughout the entire city, to varying degrees of class comparable to their surroundings, were the shops, markets squares, bathhouses, clubs, taverns, inns and every other type of proprietary establishment common where large groups of people congregate.

The city streets were thronged with bustling people going about their business beneath the noonday sun. The stench of so much humanity crowding together in one place threatened to overpower the two men at first, but as they made their way through the edge of the slave quarter to the mercenary quarter, the Cimmerian and the Turanian grew so used to the smell that they soon failed to take further notice of it.

As they walked the streets, they passed numerous auction blocks where slaves shackled together with clinking chains were made to show off their natural attributes to audiences that shouted bids or insults, depending on their estimations of the wares being offered. Conan suppressed the urge to shatter the skulls of the many slavers he passed by. He’d been up on the block himself enough times to know what hell the life of a slave could be, especially if the slave master had a cruel streak, like it seemed most of them did. Conan discerned that even Tukali, who he suspected had never had the displeasure of having an iron collar locked around his neck or the lash of the whip licking at his back, was eyeing the spectacle with open distaste.

Tukali noticed Conan’s look and muttered to him under his breath. “I never did like the idea of men buying and selling each other like pieces of meat. It’s abhorrent!”

Conan grunted in assent. He pointed past a slave pen towards an open gate in a wooden paling where a couple of guards lounged tiredly against the gate’s frame. “That’s the beginning of the mercenary quarter.”

“How can you tell?” Tukali asked.

“Because that fence surrounding the slave quarter is the only one of its kind in this city that separates one quarter, this one, from all the rest.” He pointed beyond the palisade at a stone and mortar building from which a black column of smoke rose toward the sky. The sound of metal banging against metal rang forth steadily from the building’s hidden interior. “And that there is an armorer’s forge. You won’t find one of those in this quarter.” He indicated the wooden sign shaped like a kite shield hanging over the open doors of the smithy’s wide front entrance. A crossed sword and mace were painted in bright hues on the sign, unmistakable in their meaning.

They were glad at leaving the loathsome dealings of the slave district behind. Now they walked among the swirling masses of armored warriors, surrounded on all sides by shops for weapons, armor and other supplies, training facilities, taverns and even healers. Presently they were looking for lodgings.

Conan stopped a large, shaven-headed, heavily armed and armored Kushite who gave them directions to a place several streets over. “The Pig’s Eye Inn and Tavern,” he claimed, “may not be the fanciest place around, but its among the best. Ask for Girtham. He’s the owner.” The big Kushite beamed. “Tell him Walel sent you.”

As they were about to leave, Conan voiced an afterthought. “By the way, there’s a ring-nosed Zamorian selling a Turanian charger over at the first gate into the slave quarter. If you’re in need of a fine warhorse, Tukali here highly recommends it.”

Walel looked at Tukali who nodded in agreement. “Is that so? As it happens, one of the new men in my company could use a horse. Many thanks!” He waved as he strolled off the way Conan and Tukali had come.

Tukali’s mind rested a little easier knowing that his horse would end up in good hands. But doubts about his mission stirred about restlessly in his head. When he had been pursuing the Cimmerian before they met up in Ophir, he’d been wondering whether he could accomplish his assignment, not whether he should. His loyalty to shah Yildiz and Turan had always been strong, but now he felt it buckling before his growing loyalty, as misguided as he knew it must be, to the Cimmerian. It didn’t help that Conan kept giving him reasons to respect him, either.

If he was going to follow through with his orders, he knew he’d better contact the priestess Ashlara, and soon, before he forgot where his duty lay. Tukali didn’t want to end up with agents of Yildiz or of the shah’s minions coming after him as well.

The Pig’s Eye lay on the corner of a street that swarmed with other inns and taverns, along with many small recruiter’s huts where mercenaries for hire could find quick employment. The only problem with many of the recruiters, as Conan knew, was that the jobs they handed out were often the worst; the pay was low and the assignments themselves ridiculously hazardous. Who wanted to be a guard on an expedition looking for jewels in a supposedly extinct volcano when the pay failed to include a cut of the treasure and the volcano was probably still active? Conan knew of many similar stories he’d heard from fellow mercenaries who, out of desperation for a job, had signed up with one of the local recruiters, only to end up poorer and fleeing for their lives from some awful predicament. Conan would have to be careful about whom he contacted for a job.

The outside of the Pig’s Eye was fairly nondescript. The two-story wooden structure was stained a dark brown, and a large oaken door banded with iron was the only way in. At least, Conan noted, the windows in the top floor were larger than those in the last inn they had patronized. Over the open door a wooden sign, carved on both sides with the name of the inn and the caricature of a pig wearing a patch over one of its eyes, swung lazily in an afternoon breeze. All types and sizes of warriors came and went from this and the other inns down the street. Few of them seemed desperate enough to visit the recruiter’s huts. Conan pulled open the inn’s door and they stepped inside.

A flight of chiseled stone stairs led them down into the cool air of the main gathering area. On the way down, a plain wooden sign painted with white letters stated that all weapons must be stowed at the main counter. Downstairs, a press of people ate, drank and conversed, some standing or leaning against walls, others sitting on benches or chairs at the many tables placed throughout the spacious, high-ceilinged room. Serving girls brought food, removed dishes or took orders amid the din of the crowd of warriors. Lanterns on the tables and torches set in sconces on the walls provided ample, and as it happened the only, light for the patrons. The three large fireplaces, one in each of the two near corners of the room and the third in the middle of the floor, were kept barren of flames during the hotter months since part of the tavern’s popularity was its controllable temperature; the room could be chilled or heated just as easily since the low level of the room kept it naturally cool and the hearths could bring needed warmth. The ceiling was supported by a number of large wooden uprights spaced in wide intervals.

Along the back of the room was the main counter, flanked on the right by a pair of chest-high swinging doors that led to the kitchen, and on the right by a wrought-iron spiral staircase that led to the two floors above. Behind the counter various casks and shelves full of goods lined the wall. Conan looked around the room and noted that nobody carried arms of any sort. No doubt that by the end of any brawls that happened to flare up in here, one would see at most only a few bruised and slightly bloodied bodies lying unconscious on the flagstones instead of a mess of broken corpses. Conan had to admit that weapons and wine didn’t always mix well together.

They wended their way through the crowded room to where a burly man with a bald pate and a red beard that flowed down over his stained leather apron appeared to be cleaning the counter. The man stood above the majority of the room’s occupants, and indeed most Kothians, at a good six and a half feet tall, though like Tukali he was still a full head beneath Conan’s ample stature. He had several highly detailed and exotic tattoos etched over his brawny forearms, but his most striking feature was an ivory patch over his left eye, held in place by a fine-linked silver chain looped around his bare crown. The outward surface of the patch was carved into the likeness of a leering skull. Conan was quite impressed by its handiwork.

Tukali leaned over the scarred and pitted countertop, attempting, unsuccessfully, to catch the burly man’s one eye. “I am called Tukali, and this is Conan. Are you Girtham?”

“I am he.” Girtham glanced up briefly at the two men, then turned back to where he was scrubbing fiercely at a wine stain with a soapy rag. “Glad to make your acquaintance. How may I be of service?”

“We’re looking for rooms.” Conan unclipped his sword from the belt around his waist and laid it on top of the bar, along with his dagger, bow and arrows. Tukali did the same, having also read the sign upon entering the inn.

Girtham finally gave up on the wine stain and threw the rag down in defeat. He looked up at Conan, drying his ham-sized hands on the front of his apron. “Rooms are one silver a night.”

Tukali seemed about to argue over the price, but Conan cut him off. “Walel told us this was a good place to stay while we looked for work.”

“Ah! Walel sent you here! Why didn’t you say so?” Girtham took a key from the ring at his waist, unlocked a cabinet behind the counter and stashed their weapons inside, then re-locked the compartment. “Three meals a day are also included in your tab, but anything else will cost extra.” Girtham grinned, looking for all the world like a crusty old pirate. From the big ring at his waist he selected two more keys and handed one to each of them. “Your rooms are on the top floor. The numbers on their doors will match the ones on your keys.”

A sudden crash from the kitchen caught Girtham’s ear. “Stay here a minute.” He excused himself and headed for the kitchen, barreling through the doors like the ram on a ship’s prow.

Tukali turned to Conan, a questioning look on his face.

Conan shrugged. “Maybe he wants us to sign the ledger.” Behind them the people in the room kept on as they had, unaware of the ruckus in the kitchen, or maybe just used to it.

The kitchen doors exploded outward again as Girtham came through, a feral grin lighting his face. “New girl dropped a tray of food. Sorry about that. Where was I?” Girtham frowned in concentration. “Oh yes. I take it you two haven’t been in the city long?”

“Only a few hours,” Tukali answered. “We’ve been here before, though it seems to have changed much since either of us was here last.”

“Aye, the city’s grown a lot in the past year.” Girtham shook his head. “But that’s not as important as what I have to tell you.” He leaned in closer, his head swiveling from side to side to make sure nobody was eavesdropping. “There’s a rumor that the beginnings of a plague may be going around.”

That demanded Conan’s interest. “A plague?”

“Shh!” The Cimmerian’s voice was clearly too loud for Girtham’s taste. “Keep it down! There’s no use scaring the other customers any further. People in Khorshemish are afraid enough over this without someone causing a panic.” Girtham’s voice was low and full of caution as his eye swept the room again. “Yes, a plague,” he continued. “But not like any plague ever seen before.”

“How so?” Tukali asked.

“They call it the ‘gilded madness’. It’s named for the odd fragments of metal that start showing up on the victim’s body, and the madness that comes with them. Over the period of about a fortnight the metal bits grow in number while the person starts losing their mind. They forget who and where they are and eventually disappear, never to be seen again.” Girtham suppressed a shudder. “Nobody knows how it started nor how to cure it, but people say that infection comes by touching one with the disease. It’s sorcery, if you ask me!”

“Aye, it fairly reeks of it,” Conan grunted. “I know of naught else that could cause metal to grow on flesh.”

“Me neither. The disease is said to be spreading, but so far its limited itself to a few among the lower classes.”

“Truth be told, I’ve never known of any pestilence that limits itself to the poor. If it truly is a plague and not a hoax, it won’t be long before we’re all at risk, if we’re not already.” Conan’s tone was deadly serious. In his travels, especially among the more southern kingdoms, he’d heard of entire villages mysteriously struck down. Wary neighbors usually set fire to the infected villages to burn the disease out, but it didn’t always work to stop the epidemic.

Tukali looked a little pale. “Thanks for the warning.”

“Sure. And watch your backs. As you likely know, this city can be dangerous enough without a plague on the loose.” Girtham started back towards the kitchen. “After you see to your rooms, come back down and I’ll clear a table for you.”

It was a simple matter to find their lodgings using the numbers on their keys. Each room came equipped with a sturdy cot, blankets, a window with shutters, an equipment bench, and a chamber pot that could be emptied at the end of the hallway into a chute that linked directly with the sewers. Most importantly, the rooms were clean and the bedding was free of lice.

Conan shed the major components of his armor and placed them on the bench. He stashed the small dagger he’d kept hidden in his tunic beneath the straw-filled pillow on his cot. Conan exited his room, locked the door, and knocked on Tukali’s door across the hall. After a brief pause, the Turanian appeared at the door and locked it behind him as they headed back downstairs.

“It’s good to get out of that armor for awhile.” Tukali wiped a bead of sweat from his temple. He too was clad in a simple tunic and pants.

True to his word, Girtham had a table waiting for them. They sat down with their backs to the wall so they could view the entire room. A comely blue-eyed girl about Conan’s age came and waited on them. They ordered some plates of mutton and a small cask of the house ale, then waited as the girl went to fetch their food.

In the meantime, Girtham himself came over to their table with three cups and a pitcher of wine. Conan beckoned him to sit down.

“I trust your chambers are adequate?” Girtham gave them each a cup and filled it to the brim.

Conan nodded and drank of the wine while Tukali and Girtham took swigs of their own. “Have you any advice on where we might find work around here?” he asked.

“Well, if its employment you’re after, you could try one of the recruiters’ huts,” at Conan’s frown he quickly continued, “–but I don’t recommend them, and I can see that you’re already familiar with their ilk. I’ll tell you what though; you two look like honorable fighting-men, and I know of a few employers who are looking to hire such as you. For an additional silver piece each, I’ll make mention of your names when I next consult with them. What say you?”

Tukali looked uncertain. “I’ve never paid money for employment before.”

“Think of it as a retainer. The fee drives off those who aren’t serious, which acts as a protection for any would-be employers by screening out undesirables.” Girtham gave them a toothy grin. “I’ll also receive a finder’s fee from your new boss. My reputation is among the best around, which is why many nobles seek me out.”

Conan looked around the room. To his eyes, the place was filled with naught but experienced-looking warriors. It appeared that the innkeeper was telling the truth about his claim of only dealing with professionals, so he dug into his purse and slapped two silver coins down in front of Girtham. “Count us in then.” He gulped down another mouthful of wine.

As Tukali nodded at Conan in thanks, Girtham swept the money into a pocket on his apron and winked. “Stick close to your friend here, Turanian. Good comrades are hard to come by, especially in your line of work.” Girtham rose from the table and went back to clearing away dishes.

They could see the serving girl who had taken their orders already heading back toward them with a large tray of food in her hands.

Second helpings were out of the question; the first serving of roast mutton and assorted vegetables was plentiful enough that both men ate their fill, barely managing to finish the huge tray of food. The pitcher of wine had been finished long ago, and the small cask of ale was more than half empty. For both men it felt good to eat as much as their stomachs would hold after the traveler’s fare they’d subsisted on while riding to Khorshemish. It felt even better to drink their fill of spirits. Tukali had eagerly started in on the ale, and now he was leaning back against the cool stone of the inn’s wall, relaxing.

Conan was well into his cups and feeling rather good himself when he saw the four men tramp down the stairs from outside. They were clad in mismatched assemblages of armor, as if they’d had to scavenge for their armature. The weapons they carried were no better, consisting of pitted and rusted swords, and maces with handles that bore evidence of hasty repairs.

All four men looked angry, Conan noted, and their leader, walking in front with a cocky air to his stride, had his hand resting on the pommel of his sword as if he were about to draw it. Conan gently set down his cup, watching carefully as the scraggly group approached the counter where Girtham was standing. Tukali had also taken notice, but he seemed too affected by his drinks to care much.

Girtham looked up from where he’d been counting the take for the day from a heavy strongbox built into the countertop. He quickly replaced the coins and shut the lid. “We’re closed for the evening.” He didn’t bother to ask them if they wanted rooms.

The leader spoke, a sardonic edge to his voice. “You know why we’re here. We want you to hook us up with a fat, rich noble. Hell, even a fat merchant will do.” The other members of the group laughed, but Conan could sense their mood wasn’t particularly festive. He eased himself out from behind the table.

“I told you before and this is the last time I’ll say it: Look for work somewhere else. I can’t help you,” Girtham replied. His hand slowly strayed beneath the countertop.

“What’s the matter? Our money not good enough for you?” The leader retorted, tightening his grip around the sword’s handle.

Currently lacking a weapon other than his own limbs, Conan picked up the empty circular iron tray from his table and shucked the scraps of their meal to the tabletop. His movements were casual but his mind was focused with deadly intent. Some of the few remaining patrons had already edged toward the walls, away from the back of the room where trouble was brewing between Girtham and the four toughs.

“You can ply me with all the money you want, but it won’t do you any good. I have standards to uphold.” Girtham’s temper finally cracked. “Who’d even want to hire you? You cutthroats are more likely to rob any employer I could give you than serve them! Get out of here!” Girtham’s hand slid out from under the counter to his side. Conan guessed it wasn’t empty.

“I’ll show you what a cutthroat I am!” the leader exploded furiously. He whipped his sword from its sheath and slashed it at Girtham’s face while his cronies drew their own weapons.

Girtham’s arm swung up as he stepped back, a short-hafted double-bladed axe clutched in his large hand. Steel rang on steel and sparks flew off of both weapons.

One of the pack, a man with a ragged chunk missing from his ear, slapped away a serving girl who strayed too close. The girl fell to the floor in front of him, and he lifted his mace to knock her out of the way for good.

Cold rage in his eyes, Conan drew the tray back and whipped it forward with all his might. Air whistled as the iron disc shot out across the room and struck Chewed-Ear, taking off the top of his skull in a spray of brains, scalp and bone fragments. Chewed-Ear went down without a sound, the tray lodging itself with a reverberating thud in the heavy wooden upright several paces behind him. The girl crawled away thankfully to safety.

Tukali gaped in ale-sodden astonishment at the power of Conan’s throw. Through the haze of drink, it occurred to him that he probably didn’t have to worry about Conan getting killed before he was taken to Aghrapur. It came as no surprise that Conan seemed substantially more than capable of handling himself in a fight, even supposedly unarmed.

Meanwhile, Girtham easily held his own against the leader. He parried the ill-aimed thrusts and swings of his foe, returning a few good blows of his own. The leader already bled from numerous nicks and cuts about his head and shoulders taken as he attempted to make his way around the edge of the counter.

Conan jumped onto a nearby table. The two other thugs, recovering from the shock of their compatriot’s gory demise, spotted Conan and rushed toward him with cries of rage. Conan leaped outwards, caught hold of a wooden rafter and swung his feet forward in a mighty double kick. Each booted foot connected with an assailant’s head, knocking both attackers off their feet with a duo of sharp crunches. The men hit the floor, one moaning as he clutched his splattered nose, the other twitching spastically in death, his forehead caved in.

Conan dropped to the floor in time to see Tukali heave the empty wine-pitcher at the leader. The pitcher bounced harmlessly off the counter between the two combatants, but it distracted the leader long enough for Girtham to bury his axe in the man’s chest. Blood squirted outward in a flash of crimson, soaking Girtham’s already stained apron. The leader cried out in agony, but the sound was lost in the torrent of blood and ruined lung that erupted from his mouth. He sank to the floor, his sword clattering on the flagstones as the life rapidly pumped its way out of him.

His expression grim, Girtham placed a foot on the dead leader’s chest and freed his axe from the corpse. “Thanks for the help. Some people just don’t know when to take ‘nay’ for an answer.”

The watchmen hauled away the only surviving member of the group of attackers after carting off the dead. The remaining witnesses to the battle had vouched for the actions of Girtham and Conan as righteous, the voice of the girl hit by Chewed-Ear the loudest among them.

Now the Pig’s Eye was nearly empty, the hour having grown late and only those roomed at the inn lingering on. Several of the serving-girls had already scrubbed the last of the gore from where it had pooled or sprayed, and Conan had been the only one there strong enough to yank the iron food tray from where it had lodged in the wooden pillar.

“That was a good fight, Conan. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a man killed with a serving tray before,” Girtham said as he finished inspecting his battle-axe for damage. Finding none, he tucked the weapon back under the counter.

“It was the closest thing at hand.” Conan sipped from a small goblet of mead. Girtham had offered the honeyed drink as a token of appreciation for Conan’s aid. Enough drink had previously filled Tukali’s belly for him to turn in for the night in an attempt to sleep off the effects of the alcohol.

“All the same, you killed two men and wounded another using naught but that tray and your feet.” Girtham dug into the cash box, pulled out two silver pieces, and placed them in front of Conan. “You can have the retainer back. I’m going to see to it that you’re hired within a few days. My recommendations are never taken lightly.”

Conan pushed the coins back at Girtham. “That’s generous of you, but I insist you keep your fee. I was only returning the favor you did by warning us about the plague. Another man might have held his tongue for fear of losing new patronage.”

Girtham nodded slowly, then replaced the coins in the strongbox. “Fair enough.” He closed the lid of the box and locked it. “Your friend didn’t seem quite able to match your efforts.”

Conan peered at the innkeeper over the rim of his cup. “If I’d been as drunk as he, I probably wouldn’t have managed much else myself. He’s good in a fight though. I give you my word on that.”

“Your word is all I need, northerner. I’ll make sure you’re hired as a pair, then. I already have somebody in mind. She’s a noblewoman with an estate close to the palace. I’ll contact her in the morning.”

Conan nodded. “I think I’ll be turning in. Thank you for the mead.” Conan set the empty goblet down. “I bid you good night.” He headed up the spiral stairs.

As he reached his floor, Conan could make out a figure standing at his door in the dim, flickering torchlight of the hallway. As he approached, he recognized the girl from the fight earlier; she looked to be in high spirits for one who’d been treated so roughly by the first rogue Conan had slain.

“I thought you’d never come up!” she exclaimed. The girl was also the same one who’d served their evening meal. “Girtham told me you are called Conan. I am Darienne.”

Conan took her hand in his own. “And what brings you hither at this time of night, Darienne?” he asked softly, his hand gently caressing hers.

“I wished to show you my gratitude for sparing me from that awful man.” The faint purple trace of a bruise lined the edge of her jaw, half hidden by the auburn tresses framing her delicate features. “Would you not like to know my gratitude, Conan?” She smiled coyly.

With the key in his free hand, Conan deftly unlocked the door and pushed it open. “That I would, lass.”

“Then why don’t I show it to you?” She drew him by the hand inside, the door swinging shut behind them.