The public-house at Thujara was no gilded palace. Its walls of sun-baked mud were thick enough to stand before the harsh winds of the Shemitish plain, turn aside leopards, and blunt the spears and arrows of roving bandits. It had a tile roof tight enough to keep out winter sleet and summer dust-storms. Its doors and shutters were secure against sneak thieves--those, at least, who had not been locked inside for the night.
The inn's kitchen had sheep stew, coarse bread, and raw wines and ciders that were no more sickly or sour than the pressings of other rural districts. The place was, in all, very little different from a hundred other inns Conan had squatted in during his travels. It was cozy enough, and he thanked Crom he had coppers enough to afford its shelter for a few more nights.
Hulking over the long plank table that served as a counter, he took careful stock of the local women. A hardy lot, these Shemitish maids--thick and supple in the haunch and breast, sharp-eyed and sharper-tongued, with ill-kempt hair that hung down in charcoal or reddish curls.
Ellilia, now, the kitchen-keeper, made a healthy armful…as did Sudith, the innkeep's pouting daughter, a wild crocus blooming along a barnyard fence. Alas, most of these country wenches were discouragingly homey and settled. And unimaginative, far too ready to fend off an innocent question with the swipe of a roasting-fork or a splash of scalding soup.
The two current exceptions sat on the bench at either side of Conan, flirting gaily with the handsome Cimmerian. One of them, Tarla, was no real contender: a thin slip of a girl, barely approaching the estate of womanhood. She enjoyed playing at feminine wiles without fully knowing what they meant; to her, the outlander's thick-muscled bare chest, his square black mane, and his foreign-looking blue eyes signified only status and prestige, a handsome trophy in the flirting game. Yet Conan tolerated her brash experimentation; he bantered with her as half a child and half a maiden, without making demands on her.
The other female was Gruthelda, the stablemaid. She had all too clear an idea of the relationship between the sexes, likely gained from watching the antics of the horses and asses under her care. To her credit, she had the braying laugh and the good strong teeth of a well-fed mule; less fortunately, there was something in the roll of her eye and the stumble of her speech that made Conan believe she must have been kicked by one. Sitting with Gruthelda was lively exercise; the lass would make some stockhand a sportive mate.
He had just been letting the girls share his trencher of spiced oat gruel when there came a stirring from outside the inn--a chorus of voices and the skirling of some high-pitched instrument. It was not yet dusk, and the oaken door was not bolted; instead it swung open to admit a string of newcomers--mountebanks of some kind, three in number. They marched in and issued a grand proclamation, singing in turn as they made a prancing circuit of the tavern.
"For your delight and idle delectation," one said.
"Be you of noble rank or common station," the next proclaimed, to a riotous fluting.
* * *
"We hail you to our sumptuous display,
A Circus offered here on market day!
Rare feats of prowess, strength, and wizardry,
Strange fearsome beasts, and maidens fair to see,
All will disport at Festival tomorrow.
Come be amazed, nor shirk us at your sorrow!"
* * *
The first in the line was a broad muscular man, almost Conan's height and more than his girth. Bare-chested, he wore a brightly sequined kilt, rope sandals, and a wide leather belt with the brightly polished clasp of a contest champion. His face, framed by jet-black curls, bore full, sensuous features and a coarse lip that curled in an arrogant expression. As his march brought him toward the central table and toward Conan, his glance took in the Cimmerian's smoldering gaze and massive physique. Hackles rose almost visibly; then he strode on, scarcely acknowledging the implied challenge.
Conan, seeing the strongman and feeling natural skepticism and irritation at his overblown bearing, was nonetheless instantly distracted by the second marcher. This was a female, dressed in a tight sheer costume that both concealed and advertised the firm athletic flesh prisoned underneath. From neat slippers to bare shoulders, she was clad in fine silk, a sheer green fabric that seemed almost to have been sewn taut against her skin; only a narrow fringe of skirt hung about her hips as a flimsy pretense at modesty. The shiny cloth fitted with extra tightness over her breasts; these were ample but pressed flat, probably to prevent sway during violent acrobatic movements. Her brown hair, of unknown length, was tied back in a neat braid at her nape. Her hands and arms were hard and graceful, bare of any rings or bracelets that might interfere with her craft.
The sight of this female athlete, so different from the farm and village women of Thujara, gave rise to a new set of cravings in Conan's soul. He had known girl-warriors before; crack sailors, too, and dancers in the great cities. This was in truth his favorite type of woman, he realized…or at least, a welcome change. Suddenly forgetful of the two farm maids who fawned against him, he half rose from his bench and reached out a hand. He sought to detain the prancing performer and perhaps offer her refreshment or lively conversation.
"Paws off, you oversized lumpkin! Let the parade pass unmolested."
Drawing back his hand from a sharp rap on the knuckles, Conan turned to stare at the third member of the band, a squat, square-faced midget dressed in a gray baggy-sleeved cape and pointed black cap. Lashing out with a small man's quickness, he had struck Conan's hand with the end of a silver flute--which, until then, had tweeted in skillful crescendoes between alternate verses of the marching song. Moving briskly past, the musician regarded Conan with bright, alert eyes from a face that was square-featured and not unhandsome.
"Wait, fellow, that was most ill-mannered," Conan protested, standing up and endeavoring to pull free of his girlfriends. "I only meant to invite the lass to stop awhile and talk, or mayhap share a puncheon of ripe cider. I would compliment you all on your fair costumes and fine talents. Especially the lady, there--"
"Enough, woodsman!" A gruff baritone voice overrode his as the bemuscled leader stopped and turned. "We have business to attend to."
"True indeed," the lovely acrobat said, her kohl-dark eyes looking at Conan with unamused interest. "There is our march through this village to complete, and a whole great circus to be made ready in time for the market fair tomorrow--"
"Plenty indeed to occupy us," the muscleman finished for her, "instead of crowding in here to soak up warm, weak horse-trickle with an ill-mannered country lout." Wrinkling his nose at the aroma of the beaker in Conan's hand, he moved up opposite him and expanded his chest. Conan saw that, in part, he was only acting the character of the arrogant champion; but there was something heartfelt in it, too, something scornful and personal in his manner.
"And what if I bundle your thick carcass out of the way?" the Cimmerian challenged. "Will there be enough room then for the lady to sit down and share drink with her admirers?" He blinked past the oiled shoulder of the titan to the skeptical-looking woman. "For, if I can yet receive civil treatment from you and your friends here, I might then be inclined to follow along and help you with your night's chores back at your tenting-ground--"
"Enough of your impudent drivel!" the strongman barked. Barging forward, he gave the Cimmerian a flat-handed shove on the chest, causing him to lurch backward and slosh part of his drink onto Gruthelda's bosom. "Now, sit on that bench and be quiet, Outlander, before I knot your arms and legs around it to keep you there."
"So it comes to grapples, then." Handing his cup to Gruthelda while keeping his eyes on the big man, Conan drew several deep breaths and arched his body into a wrestler's crouch. Arms spread wide, he balanced on tiptoe, holding his weight high.
"What, a tavern skirmish?" his adversary crowed. "I, Roganthus the Strong, accept your challenge!"
The performer began to spread himself in an identical crouch to Conan's, but raised a flat palm in warning. "First rid yourself of that pig-bleeder there, lest you find yourself skewered by it in a fall." He pointed to the small dagger sheathed at Conan's belt--a mere paring-knife really, its blade scarcely exceeding a hand's-breadth.
"This? If you wish it."
Unlacing the sheathed weapon from his belt, Conan turned to his giggling, giddy seconds. He handed it to Tarla, whom he judged less likely than Gruthelda to use it in an excess of girlish excitement.
As he turned back to confront the strongman, he felt an iron hand clamp the side of his neck and bear down hard. His turning body fell into a blind, lurching half-step; he flailed his arm to clutch at his attacker and instantly felt it grasped and twisted in a wrestler's skillful hold. Propelled roughly across the floor, driven off balance into the side of the long inn table, he plunged over it and tumbled onto the hard dirt floor.
"A throw! Your kind attention, gentlefolk!" Dizzy, Conan heard the midget's gruff voice shouting. "The first fall out of three--unless, of course, there's a pin. Your bets, everyone! I, Bardolph, will guarantee them." The small man was now making the circuit of the place, collecting money and scribbling tallies on a wax tablet. "Remember, good friends, Roganthus is so far undefeated!"
Conan sprang to his feet and stalked angrily toward the strutting, posturing performer. "That was no honest grapple, you rogue!" he thundered. "This time you'll not catch me off guard!"
His complaint was echoed by yells, both derisive and supportive, from inn patrons who'd risen from their seats to form a ring of spectators. Newcomers jostled in through the door as w...