Fleeing the sorcerous destruction of a long-lost city, Conan fights side-by-side with Valeria of the Red Brotherhood, that notorious and voluptuous she-pirate. Pursued by deadly spies and assassins, the Cimmerian and Valeria find themselves caught squarely in the front ranks of a bloody and savage war. But greater peril lurks in the shadow of a vast and forbidding mountain, where the Spirit Speaker wage occult battle with God-Men, who can read the future--and summon a Living Wind that consumes the soul even as it destroys the flesh.
Even a sword powered by barbarian might is of little use against spirits, much less against great beings of the elder dark, but the final struggle for survival will come down ton...Conan and the Gods of the Mountain
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In the forest between dead Xuchotl and the foot of Thunder Mountain, the boot-wearers whose tracks the hunter had seen followed a game trail.
One was a woman, and no southern hills or forests had ever been birthplace to one so fair of skin and hair. She wore a shirt and trousers of silk that had once been whole and white, but were now neither. Rents in both displayed the fairness of her skin; and a rag of red silk bound up her hair. The garb, though tattered, still fitted snugly enough to display the splendor of her breasts and hips.
Her boots had the look of the sea about them. They were of supple leather, with wide-flaring tops, easily kicked off if one found one's self in the water. That they were not made for tramping game trails in the Black Kingdoms was evident by how often the woman gritted her teeth.
About her slender waist a silken sash upheld a well-used sword and two knives. One knife was a seaman's dirk, the other a keen-edged dagger whose hilt writhed with creatures out of nightmare.
The woman was tall and robustly formed, yet her companion overtopped her by more than a head, and his muscles told of a giant's strength to go with that stature. He was similarly clad, with the difference that his sword was stouter and hung from a broad leather belt, along with three knives. His hair was black, flowing freely across his broad shoulders, and his eyes were of an icy blue, with the look of the north to them.
Those eyes had been the last sight of more than a few men over the years. The tall man was Conan the Cimmerian, his companion Valeria of the Red Brotherhood. They owed their garb to having once been pirates in Baracha, and their companionship to many curious circumstances.
Most important of those was the battle they had fought for their lives within the walls of Xuchotl. It was waged against enemies both animal and human, armed with both steel and spells. In the end, it had cleansed the accursed city of the very last of its bloody, unnatural life.
It had also given each of them a dagger. Nothing else would they take from Xuchotl, knowing too many of the city's secrets to trust loot removed from its halls. Those halls reeked of blood shed and spells cast over many centuries, and terror that would echo in their green-lit vastness when the bones of the dead were dust on the floors of polished stone.
Conan had traveled in the Black Kingdoms before, if not in this jungle, then in others hardly less friendly. He feared neither man nor beast. Yet had the Kwanyi hunter seen the wanderer of Cimmeria, he would have laughed...for Conan also threw more than a few glances over his shoulder to see what remnant of Xuchotl's evil might be on his trail.
* * *
It was taboo among the Kwanyi to leave the dead in the place where they died, no matter how great the burden of removing the body. Left where the spirit departed from it, the body might be found again by that same spirit and become a yaquele, one of the "walking dead."
So from the time they could bear a burden, the folk of the Kwanyi learned to make litters of whatever came ready to hand. Saplings, vines, even the leaves of the smokebush, had their uses.
A litter able to bear the dead was also fit for the living who could not walk. The hunter was moving again in less time than it would have taken him to empty a gourd of beer. Two of the Monkey hunters bore him on level ground, trailed by the third, while the leader strode on ahead.
The hunter noted that the leader bore his spear in both hands, held across his chest ready to either throw or thrust. This was a hunting party, so the men bore no shields, but it seemed that the leader did not expect their visit to Thunder Mountain to be entirely peaceful.
It further seemed that he wanted their presence to be unnoticed. Twice he raised hand and spear to halt all movement. Once he used the hunters' hand signals to send them all into a thick stand of smokebush.
The hunter had no notion of what they were hiding from, or why, although at the first halt he heard the chatter of women and the clatter of jars in vine nets slung across their backs. No doubt it was a band of the brew-sisters, taking jars of grain to the brew-house, or perhaps beer down from it. So what made the leader as careful not to be seen by them as he would if they were a war party of the Ichiribu?
The hunter had no answer, or at least none to lift a man's spirits. He thought of reminding the leader that the God-Men might know that the hunter had asked to come to them.
Would the Monkey warriors presume to deny the wishes of the God-Men? Or where they carrying out the wishes of the God-Men by carrying him up the mountain in secret?
* * *
Valeria leaned back against a tree of a kind Conan had never seen before. Its bark was a nubbly mass of red-and-white stripes, with mold and mushrooms sprouting in cracks between the stripes. It looked unwholesome to the Cimmerian's eyes, but he reminded himself that might be merely because the tree was unknown to him.
He was not without experience in the Black Kingdoms. Indeed, he had sat on a throne in them and been hailed with the praise-name of Amra the Lion. But that was farther south and west than here, not a two-day march from Xuchotl. In time, they might reach lands that Conan knew, or even realms where he was known, but they faced a long journey before they did.
Meanwhile, the Cimmerian had less knowledge than he could wish of this land and its perils. To be sure, no peril of the jungle could equal what he and Valeria had faced and survived in Xuchotl. Nor did Conan lack any woods craft or hunting skills such that might keep a man alive though he were cast down naked in a desert.
But Valeria was like a fish out of water in this jungle, or rather, a sailor far from the sea. She would doubtless prefer the rack than admit it, but she was trusting Conan to lead them both to the sea once more.
She sighed and kicked off first one boot, then the other. Rubbing her battered feet, she looked about for a stream. None lay close, but a puddle of water from the last rain offered hope.
One slender foot was dipping toward the water when Conan laid a hand on Valeria's shoulder. "Best leave standing water alone. Those blisters might fester or draw leeches."
"They are my blisters, Conan."
"Yes, and it will be my back that bears your weight if you cannot walk. Or would you rather I left you behind?"
That was the Cimmerian's rough jest. From the way Valeria's hand darted toward her Xuchotl blade, it seemed that the jest was lost on her.
"Peace, woman. I was joking."
"Your wit smells no sweeter than the rest of you."
"Take a whiff of yourself, woman, before you complain of another's smell. Either of us walking into the Golden Anchor in Messantia would clear the place in a heartbeat."
Valeria smiled thinly and kept her feet clear of the puddle. Instead, she pulled a handful of leaves from a low-hanging branch and dipped them in the water.
"Best not do that either," Conan said. "A blind man looking at the branch could tell that people had passed by."
"And what would this blind man do with the knowledge?" Valeria snapped. At least she did not reach for steel this time.
"If I knew that, I would know which way we should go to keep him or his friends off our trail," the Cimmerian said. "It might slow us a trifle, but--"
"Would to Mitra it did slow us!" Valeria said. She looked at her boots as if they had offered her a mortal insult. "Anyone would think from the way you've been driving us along that a whole new tribe of those brown-skinned cutthroats and spellmongers was on our trail."
"I can't swear that they aren't," Conan said, then added hastily as Valeria's eyes flamed, "but I'd wager against it. If you hadn't insisted that we search for our clothes, we'd have been out of Xuchotl--"
"If I hadn't insisted on finding our clothes--you know how I was garbed."
The Cimmerian grinned. "More sightly than you are now, I swear. Of course--"
Valeria rolled her blue eyes toward the canopy of the jungle with the look of a woman tried beyond speech and endurance. Then she sighed. "Of course it was quite unsuitable for tramping about in the jungle." That was certainly true enough, as the garb had been a swathe of silken cloth about her hips and not a rag more.
"And the folk of Xuchotl had nothing much better in their wardrobes," she added. "What else could we have done?"
"Nothing, I admit. But it took us time we could have used to put distance between ourselves and the city. We still have that to do, and the sooner, the better."
"Is that a hint we should be on our way again?"
"With you, Valeria, I can only hint. Crom alone knows what you would do if you thought I was giving you an order!"
Valeria rolled her eyes again, and this time she stuck out her tongue as well. But she also lurched to her feet and eased into her boots. She could not entirely stifle a gasp of pain, but Conan paid her the compliment of letting her finish the work herself.
The Cimmerian added to the curses he had already heaped on the folk of Xuchotl, this one for their wretched footgear. Only sandals--suited to their polished floors--had been in use for more years than the Cimmerian had lived. The sailors' boots he and Valeria had worn going into Xuchotl had been the best things to bring them out again.
But no one could deny that those boots were not made for walking fast and far. In another day or two, he might well need to think of finding better footgear, a hiding place where they could let pursuit pass by, or a trail over which Valeria could walk barefoot.
The Cimmerian's own soles were leather-tough and had resisted the burning sands of the deserts of Iranistan, but Valeria of the Red Brotherhood was more at home on a ship's deck. Another day or two of tramping these trails in such footgear and she might truly need to be carried.
Nor was that the only matter preying on the Cimmerian's mind. They had taken no food from Xuchotl, fearing poison or sorcery. They would have to find victuals before long. A three-day fast was less than wise, even for the Cimmerian, when hard marching, and perhaps fighting, lay ahead.
At least he could be sure of the woman beside him. Her courage and skill with weapons she had amply demonstrated, and not only in Xuchotl. That she had survived at all for so many years in the Red Brotherhood proved her no common warrior. She might lack the Cimmerian's woods craft, but that could be learned, and again, Valeria's being alive at all was proof that she learned swiftly when need be.
Would she learn swiftly enough? Only the gods knew, and Conan had given up expecting answers from them in good season. A fine sword, a trustworthy companion--and stout boots--were worth all the priests' prayers that Conan had ever heard.
Ahead, sunlight broke through the forest's canopy to tint a patch of dead leaves the color of old gold. Conan shaded his eyes with one hand and stared upward. As best he could judge, it was not long past noon.
"We'll see about stopping well before twilight," he said without turning. "Sooner, if we find a good hiding place with clean water. I'll set snares, and we can forage for fruits and berries while we wait for the game to find its way to the traps. You're handy enough with knots, I trust?"
"A sailor so long, and clumsy with knots? Conan, you have seagull dung where other men have their wits!"
Yet he could hear beneath the indignation relief and gratitude. Valeria would die before admitting either, of course, so it was best if she never had to.
As for the Cimmerian, he would rather die than leave Valeria. He had snatched her from the nightmare halls of Xuchotl, saving her from becoming a sacrifice on behalf of the aged witch Tascela. He would not be done until they reached not merely the coast, but the sight of a Hyborian ship. Between them and that happy moment lay Crom only knew what perils.
Crom only knew--and of all the gods Conan had ever heard of, the cold, grim lord of the Cimmerians was the least likely to answer the questions of mewling humans.
* * *
It took all four Monkey warriors now to carry the hunter's litter. They were well up the slopes of Thun der Mountain, although not on any trail the hunter remembered. This proved little, as he had been this far up the mountain only four times in his life, for ordeals and ceremonies that demanded the presence of God-Men.
He still would have gladly walked, even with the help of a staff, or with a tuqa leaf to ease the pain of his ankle. He cared little for the sweat and sore muscles of the Monkey warriors, but he cared very much about not being helpless. He thought of asking for the staff and a wad of the painkilling leaves, but one look at the grim face of the Monkey leader slew that thought at once. The Monkey warrior might have been the image of a yaquele, save for the sweat flowing down him.
Also, the hunter knew he could not walk far even with such aid without risking damage to his ankle beyond the powers of the God-Men to heal. The Kwanyi had small use for a hunter who could no longer hunt. He would be as a child so young that he had no right to anything--not even to food should it grow scarce. The worst that the God-Men or the Monkey leader--even Chabano himself--might do would be swifter, less painful, and more honorable than such a fate.
The hunter lay back and closed his eyes. Presently he felt the soft, cold touch of mist on his cheek and heard the cry of the mountain eagle as it soared in the chill sky found only above the tree line.
* * *
Conan's long arm whipped the sling up and over. At the high point of its arc, the slung stone leaped across the little stream and into the monkey-laden tree on the other side. The monkeys' chattering turned into shrieks of rage and fear. They scattered, leaves, twigs, and birds' nests tumbling in their wake.
One monkey neither cried out nor fled. Struck a deadly blow by the stone, it toppled from its branch, bounced from a second, then stuck firmly in the crotch of a third. From ground to the dead monkey was the height of six men taller than Conan.
The Cimmerian cursed the whole race of monkeys and the inventor of the sling. Then he saw that Valeria was kicking off her boots.
"Guard my back, Conan. I will have our dinner down in a trice."
Warned of leeches, Valeria leaped the stream, though Conan saw her wince at the pain this gave her feet. Then she was climbing the tree with almost the agility of the vanished monkeys, in the manner Conan had seen on the Black Coasts--body and legs at nearly right angles, arms gripping the tree as if it were a lover, well-formed hindquarters in the air.
She moved surely, fingers and toes seeking out the tiniest rough patches in the bark. The angle of the trunk was just enough to allow her to climb as she did, and it was not long before she reached the monkey. A slap to the branch did nothing; the branch was too thick. Valeria climbed another arm's length, crawled out onto the branch, and pushed the dead monkey off.
It thumped into a patch of ferns. Conan crossed the stream, thrust his sword into the patch, and withdrew it with the monkey spitted on the point.
"What is there to make you uneasy?" Valeria called.
"In this jungle, less than ferns can hide se...
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Book Description Tor Fantasy, 1993. Mass Market Paperback. Book Condition: New. Never used!. Bookseller Inventory # P110812514149
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