The long pack train approaching the high crenellated granite walls of Ianthe did not appear to be moving through a country officially at peace. Twoscore horsemen in spiked helms, dust turning their dark blue wool cloaks gray, rode in columns to either side of the long line of sumpter mules. Their eyes constantly searched even here in the very shadow of the capital. Half carried their short horse-bows at the ready. Sweaty-palmed muledrivers hurried their animals along, panting with eagerness to be done now that their goal was in sight.
Only the leader of the guards, his shouldersbroad almost to the point of busting his metal jazeraint hauberk, seemed unconcerned. His icy blue eyes showed no hint of the worry that made the others' eyes dart, yet he was as aware of his surroundings as they. Perhaps more so. Three times since leaving the gem and gold mines on the Nemedian border, the train had been attacked. Twice his barbarian senses had detected the ambush before it had time to develop, the third time his fiercely wielded broadsword smashed the attack even as it began. In the rugged mountains of his native Cimmeria, men who fell easily into ambush did not long survive. He had known battle there, and had a place at the warriors' fires, at an age when most boys were still learning at their father's knees.
Before the northeast gate of Ianthe, the Gate of Gold, the train halted. "Open the gates!" the leader shouted. Drawing off his helm, he revealed a square-cut black mane and a face that showed more experience than his youth would warrant. "Do we look like bandits? Mitra rot you, open the gates!"
A head in a steel casque, a broken-nosed face with a short beard, appeared atop the wall. "Is that you, Conan?" He turned aside to call down, "Swing back the gate!"
Slowly the right side of the iron-bound gate creaked inward. Conan galloped through, pulling his big Aquilonian black from the road just inside to let the rest of the train pass. A dozen mail-clad soldiers threw their shoulders behind the gate as soon as the last pack-laden mule ran by. The hugewooden slab closed with a hollow boom, and a great bar, thicker than a man's body, crashed down to fasten it.
The soldier who had called down from the wall appeared with his casque beneath his arm. "I should have recognized those accursed eastern helmets, Cimmerian," he laughed. "Your Free-Company makes a name for itself."
"Why are the gates shut, Junius?" Conan demanded. "Tis at least three hours till dark."
"Orders, Cimmerian. With the gates closed, perhaps we can keep the troubles out of the city." Junius looked around, then dropped his voice. "It would be better if Valdric died quickly. Then Count Tiberio could put an end to all this fighting."
"I thought General Iskandrian was keeping the army clear," Conan replied coolly. "Or have you just chosen your own side?"
The broken-nosed soldier drew back, licking his thin lips nervously. "Just talking," he muttered. Abruptly he straightened, and his voice took on a blustering tone. "You had better move on, Cimmerian. There's no loitering about the gates allowed now. Especially by mercenary companies." He fumbled his casque back onto his head as if to give himself more authority, or perhaps simply more protection from the Cimmerian's piercing gaze.
With a disgusted grunt Conan touched boot to his stallion's ribs and galloped after his company. Thus far Iskandrian--the White Eagle of Ophir, he was called; some said he was the greatestgeneral of the age--had managed to keep Ophir from open civil war by holding the army loyal to Valdric, though the King seemed not to know it, or even to know that his country was on the verge of destruction. But if the old general's grip on the army was falling ... .
Conan scowled and pressed on. The twisted maze of maneuverings for the throne was not to his liking, yet he was forced to keep an understanding of it for his own safety, and that of his company.
To the casual observer, the streets of Ianthe would have showed no sign that nobles' private armies were fighting an undeclared and unacknowledged war in the countryside. Scurrying crowds filled narrow side streets and broad thoroughfares alike, merchants in their voluminous robes and peddlers in rags, silk-clad ladies shopping with retinues of basket-carrying servants in tow, strutting lordlings in satins and brocades with scented pomanders held to their nostrils against the smell of the sewers, leatheraproned apprentices tarrying on their errands to bandy words with young girls hawking baskets of oranges and pomegranates, pears and plums. Ragged beggars, flies buzzing about blinded eyes or crudely bandaged stumps, squatted on every corner--more since the troubles had driven so many from their villages and farms. Doxies strutted in gilded bangles and sheer silks or less, often taking a stance before columned palaces or even on the broad marble steps of temples.
Yet there was that about the throng that beliedthe normalcy of the scene. A flush of cheek where there should have been only calm. A quickness of breath where there was no haste. A darting of eye where there was no visible reason for suspicion. The knowledge of what occurred beyond the walls lay heavily on Ianthe even as the city denied its happening, and the fear that it might move within the walls was in every heart.
When Conan caught up to the pack train, it was slowly wending its way through the crowds. He reined in beside his lieutenant, a grizzled Nemedian who had had the choice of deserting from the City Guard of Belverus or of being executed for performing his duty too well, to the fatal detriment of a lord of that city.
"Keep a close watch, Machaon," the Cimmerian said. "Even here we might be mobbed if this crowd knew what we carried."
Machaon spat. The nasal of his helm failed to hide the livid scar that cut across his broad nose. A blue tattoo of a six-pointed Kothian star adorned his left cheek. "I'd give a silver myself to know how Baron Timeon comes to be taking this delivery. I never knew our fat patron had any connections with the mines."
"He doesn't. A little of the gold and perhaps a few gems will stay with Timeon; the rest goes elsewhere."
The dark-eyed veteran gave him a questioning look, but Conan said no more. It had taken him no little effort to discover that Timeon was but a tool of Count Antimides. But Antimides was supposedly one of the few lords of Ophir not maneuveringto ascend the throne at the death of the King. As such he should have no need of secret supporters, and that meant he played a deeper game than any knew. Too, Antimides also had no connection with the mines, and thus as little right to pack-saddles loaded with gold bars and chests of emeralds and rubies. A second reason for a wise man to keep his tongue behind his teeth till he knew more of the way things were, yet it rankled the pride of the young Cimmerian.
Fortune as much as anything else had given him his Free-Company in Nemedia, but in a year of campaigning since crossing the border into Ophir they had built a reputation. The horse archers of Conan the Cimmerian were known for their fierceness and the skill of him who led them, respected even by those who had cause to hate them. Long and hard had been Conan's climb from a boyhood as a thief to become a captain of mercenaries at an age when most men might only dream of such a thing. It had been, he thought, a climb to freedom, for never had he liked obeying another's commands; yet here he played the game of a man he had never even met, and it set most ill with him. Most ill, indeed.
As they came in sight of Timeon's palace, a pretentiously ornamented and columned square of white marble with broad stairs, crowded between a temple of Mitra and a potter's works, Conan suddenly slid from his saddle and tossed his reins and helmet to a surprised Machaon.
"Once this is all safely in the cellars," he told his lieutenant, "let those who rode with us haveuntil dawn tomorrow for carousing. They've earned it."
"The baron may take it badly, Conan, you leaving before the gold is safely under lock and key."
Conan shook his head. "And I see him now, I may say things best left unsaid."
"He'll likely be so occupied with his latest leman that he'll not have time for two words with you."
One of the company close behind them laughed, a startling sound to come from his sephulcral face. He looked like a man ravaged nearly to death by disease. "Timeon goes through almost as many women as you, Machaon," he said. "But then, he has wealth to attract them. I still don't see how you do it."
"If you spent less time gaming, Narus," Machaon replied, "and more hunting, perhaps you'd know my secrets. Or mayhap it's because I don't have your spindly shanks."
A dozen of the company roared with laughter. Narus' successes with women came with those who wanted to fatten him up and nurse him back to health; there seemed to be a surprising number of them.
"Machaon has enough women for five men," laughed Taurianus, a lanky, dark-haired Ophirean, "Narus dices enough for ten, and Conan does enough of both for twenty." He was one of those who had joined the company since its arrival in Ophir. But nine of the original score remained. Death had done for some of the rest; others had simply tired of a steady diet of blood and danger.
Conan waited for the laughter to subside. "If Timeon's got a new mistress, and it's about time for him to if he's running true to form, he'll not notice if I'm there or no. Take them on in, Machaon." Without waiting for a reply the Cimmerian plunged into the crowd.
Other than staying away from Timeon until he was in better temper, Conan was unsure of what he sought. A woman, perhaps. Eight days the journey to the mines and back had taken, without so much as a crone to gaze on. Women were forbidden at the mines; ...