By This Axe I Rule!
“My Songs Are Nails for a King’s Coffin!”
“At midnight the king must die!”
The speaker was tall, lean and dark, and a crooked scar close to his mouth lent him an unusually sinister cast of countenance. His hearers nodded, their eyes glinting. There were four of these – one was a short fat man, with a timid face, weak mouth and eyes which bulged in an air of perpetual curiosity – another a great somber giant, hairy and primitive – the third a tall, wiry man in the garb of a jester whose flaming blue eyes flared with a light not wholly sane – and last a stocky dwarf of a man, inhumanly short and abnormally broad of shoulders and long of arms.
The first speaker smiled in a wintry sort of manner. “Let us take the vow, the oath that may not be broken – the Oath of the Dagger and the Flame. I trust you – oh, yes, of course. Still, it is better that there be assurance for all of us. I note tremors among some of you.”
“That is all very well for you to say, Ascalante,” broke in the short fat man. “You are an ostracized outlaw, anyway, with a price on your head – you have all to gain and nothing to lose, whereas we –”
“Have much to lose and more to gain,” answered the outlaw imperturbably. “You called me down out of my mountain fastnesses to aid you in overthrowing a king – I have made the plans, set the snare, baited the trap and stand ready to destroy the prey – but I must be sure of your support. Will you swear?”
“Enough of this foolishness!” cried the man with the blazing eyes. “Aye, we will swear this dawn and tonight we will dance down a king! ‘Oh, the chant of the chariots and the whir of the wings of the vultures – ’ ”
“Save your songs for another time, Ridondo,” laughed Ascalante. “This is a time for daggers, not rhymes.”
“My songs are nails for a king’s coffin!” cried the minstrel, whipping out a long lean dagger. “Varlets, bring hither a candle! I shall be first to swear the oath!”
A silent and sombre slave brought a long taper and Ridondo pricked his wrist, bringing blood. One by one the other four followed his example, holding their wounded wrists carefully so that the blood should not drip yet. Then gripping hands in a sort of circle, with the lighted candle in the center, they turned their wrists so that the blood drops fell upon it. While it hissed and sizzled, they repeated:
“I, Ascalante, a landless man, swear the deed spoken and the silence covenanted, by the oath unbreakable!”
“And I, Ridondo, first minstrel of Valusia’s courts!” cried the minstrel.
“And I, Volmana, count of Karaban,” spoke the dwarf.
“And I, Gromel, commander of the Black Legion,” rumbled the giant.
“And I, Kaanuub, baron of Blaal,” quavered the short fat man, in a rather tremulous falsetto.
The candle sputtered and went out, quenched by the ruby drops which fell upon it.
“So fade the life of our enemy,” said Ascalante, releasing his comrades’ hands. He looked on them with carefully veiled contempt. The outlaw knew that oaths may be broken, even “unbreakable” ones, but he knew also that Kaanuub, of whom he was most distrustful, was superstitious. There was no use overlooking any safe guard, no matter how slight.
“Tomorrow,” said Ascalante abruptly, “I mean today, for it is dawn now, Brule the Spear-slayer, the king’s right hand man, departs from Grondar along with Ka-nu the Pictish ambassador, the Pictish escort and a goodly number of the Red Slayers, the king’s bodyguard.”
“Yes,” said Volmana with some satisfaction. “That was your plan, Ascalante, but I accomplished it. I have kin high in the counsel of Grondar and it was a simple matter to indirectly persuade the king of Grondar to request the presence of Ka-nu. And of course, as Kull honors Ka-nu above all others, he must have a sufficient escort.”
The outlaw nodded.
“Good. I have at last managed, through Gromel, to corrupt an officer of the Red Guard. This man will march his men away from the royal bedroom tonight just before midnight, on a pretext of investigating some suspicious noise or the like. The various sentries will have been disposed of. We will be waiting, we five, and sixteen desperate rogues of mine who I have summoned from the hills and who now hide in various parts of the city. Twenty-one against one –”
He laughed. Gromel nodded, Volmana grinned, Kaanuub turned pale; Ridondo smote his hands together and cried out ringingly:
“By Valka, they will remember this night, who strike the golden strings! The fall of the tyrant, the death of the despot – what songs I shall make!”
His eyes burned with a wild fanatical light and the others regarded him dubiously, all save Ascalante who bent his head to hide a grin. Then the outlaw rose suddenly.
“Enough! Get back to your places and not by word, deed or look do you betray what is in your minds.” He hesitated, eyeing Kaanuub. “Baron, your white face will betray you. If Kull comes to you and looks into your eyes with those icy grey eyes of his, you will collapse. Get you out to your country estate and wait until we send for you. Four are enough.”
Kaanuub almost collapsed then, from a reaction of joy; he left babbling incoherencies. The rest nodded to the outlaw and departed.
Ascalante stretched himself like a great cat and grinned. He called for a slave and one came, a somber evil looking fellow whose shoulders bore the scars of the brand that marks thieves.
“Tomorrow,” quoth Ascalante, taking the cup offered him, “I come into the open and let the people of Valusia feast their eyes upon me. For months now, ever since the Rebel Four summoned me from my mountains, I have been cooped in like a rat – living in the very heart of my enemies, hiding away from the light in the daytime, skulking masked through dark alleys and darker corridors at night. Yet I have accomplished what those rebellious lords could not. Working through them and through other agents, many of whom have never seen my face, I have honeycombed the empire with discontent and corruption. I have bribed and subverted officials, spread sedition among the people – in short, I, working in the shadows, have paved the downfall of the king who at the moment sits throned in the sun. Ah, my friend, I had almost forgotten that I was a statesman before I was an outlaw, until Kaanuub and Volmana sent for me.”
“You work with strange comrades,” said the slave.
“Weak men, but strong in their ways,” lazily answered the outlaw. “Volmana – a shrewd man, bold, audacious, with kin in high places – but poverty stricken, and his barren estates loaded with debts. Gromel – a ferocious beast, strong and brave as a lion, with considerable influence among the soldiers, but otherwise useless – lacking the necessary brains. Kaanuub, cunning in his low way and full of petty intrigue, but otherwise a fool and a coward – avaricious but possessed of immense wealth, which has been essential in my schemes. Ridondo, a mad poet, full of hare-brained schemes – brave but flighty. A prime favorite with the people because of his songs which tear out their heart-strings. He is our best bid for popularity, once we have achieved our design. I am the power that has welded these men, useless without me.”
“Who mounts the throne, then?”
“Kaanuub, of course – or so he thinks! He has a trace of royal blood in him – the old dynasty, the blood of that king whom Kull killed with his bare hands. A bad mistake of the present king. He knows there are men who still boast descent from the old dynasty but he lets them live. So Kaanuub plots for the throne. Volmana wishes to be reinstated in favor, as he was under the old regime, so that he may lift his estate and title to their former grandeur. Gromel hates Kelka, commander of the Red Slayers, and thinks he should have that position. He wishes to be commander of all Valusia’s armies. As to Ridondo – bah! I despise the man and admire him at the same time. He is your true idealist. He sees in Kull, an outlander and a barbarian, merely a rough footed, red handed savage who has come out of the sea to invade a peaceful and pleasant land. He already idolizes the king Kull slew, forgetting the rogue’s vile nature. He forgets the inhumanities under which the land groaned during his reign, and he is making the people forget. Already they sing ‘The Lament for the King’ in which Ridondo lauds the saintly villain and vilifies Kull as ‘that black hearted savage’ – Kull laughs at these songs and indulges Ridondo, but at the same time wonders why the people are turning against him.”
“But why does Ridondo hate Kull?”
“Because he is a poet, and poets always hate those in power, and turn to dead ages for relief in dreams. Ridondo is a flaming torch of idealism and he sees himself as a hero, a stainless knight, which he is, rising to overthrow the tyrant.”
Ascalante laughed and drained the goblet. “I have ideas of my own. Poets are dangerous things, because they believe what they sing – at the time. Well, I believe what I think. And I think Kaanuub will not hold the throne seat overlong. A few months ago I had lost all ambitions save to waste the villages and the caravans as long as I lived. Now, well – now we shall see.”
“Then I Was the Liberator – Now –”
A room strangely barren in contrast to the rich tapestries on the walls and the deep carpets on the floor. A small writing table, behind which sat a man. This man would have stood out in a crowd of a million. It was not so much because of his unusual size, his height and great shoulders, though these features lent to the general effect. But his face, dark and immobile, held the gaze and his narrow grey eyes beat down the wills of the onlookers by their icy magnetism. Each movement he made, no matter how slight, betokened steel spring muscles and brain knit to those muscles with perfect coordination. There was nothing deliberate or measured about his motions – either he was perfectly at rest – still as a bronze statue, or else he was in motion, with that cat-like quickness which blurred the sight that tried to follow his movements. Now this man rested his chin on his fists, his elbows on the writing table, and gloomily eyed the man who stood before him. This man was occupied in his own affairs at the moment, for he was tightening the laces of his breast- plate. Moreover he was abstractedly whistling – a strange and unconventional performance, considering that he was in the presence of a king.
“Brule,” said the king, “this matter of statecraft wearies me as all the fighting I have done never did.”
“A part of the game, Kull,” answered Brule. “You are king – you must play the part.”
“I wish that I might ride with you to Grondar,” said Kull enviously. “It seems ages since I had a horse between my knees – but Tu says that affairs at home require my presence. Curse him!
“Months and months ago,” he continued with increasing gloom, getting no answer and speaking with freedom, “I overthrew the old dynasty and seized the throne of Valusia – of which I had dreamed ever since I was a boy in the land of my tribesmen. That was easy. Looking back now, over the long hard path I followed, all those days of toil, slaughter and tribulation seem like so many dreams. From a wild tribesman in Atlantis, I rose, passing through the galleys of Lemuria – a slave for two years at the oars – then an outlaw in the hills of Valusia – then a captive in her dungeons – a gladiator in her arenas – a soldier in her armies – a commander – a king!
“The trouble with me, Brule, I did not dream far enough. I always visualized merely the seizing of the throne – I did not look beyond. When king Borna lay dead beneath my feet, and I tore the crown from his gory head, I had reached the ultimate border of my dreams. From there, it has been a maze of illusions and mistakes. I prepared myself to seize the throne – not to hold it.
“When I overthrew Borna, then people hailed me wildly – then I was the Liberator – now they mutter and stare blackly behind my back – they spit at my shadow when they think I am not looking. They have put a statue of Borna, that dead swine, in the Temple of the Serpent and people go and wail before him, hailing him as a saintly monarch who was done to death by a red handed barbarian. When I led her armies to victory as a soldier, Valusia overlooked the fact that I was a foreigner – now she cannot forgive me.
“And now, in the Temple of the Serpent, there come to burn incense to Borna’s memory, men whom his executioners blinded and maimed, fathers whose sons died in his dungeons, husbands whose wives were dragged into his seraglio – Bah! Men are all fools.”
“Ridondo is largely responsible,” answered the Pict, drawing his sword belt up another notch. “He sings songs that make men mad. Hang him in his jester’s garb to the highest tower in the city. Let him make rhymes for the vultures.”
Kull shook his lion head. “No, Brule, he is beyond my reach. A great poet is greater than any king. He hates me, yet I would have his friendship. His songs are mightier than my sceptre, for time and again he has near torn the heart from my breast when he chose to sing for me. I will die and be forgotten, his songs will live forever.”
The Pict shrugged his shoulders. “As you like; you are still king, and the people cannot dislodge you. The Red Slayers are yours to a man, and you have all Pictland behind you. We are barbarians, together, even if we have spent most of our lives in this land. I go, now. You have naught to fear save an attempt at assassination, which is no fear at all, considering the fact that you are guarded night and day by a squad of the Red Slayers.”
Kull lifted his hand in a gesture of farewell and the Pict clanked out the room.
Now another man wished his attention, reminding Kull that a king’s time was never his own.
This man was a young noble of the city, one Seno val Dor. This famous young swordsman and reprobate presented himself before the king with the plain evidence of much mental perturbation. His velvet cap was rumpled and as he dropped it to the floor when he kneeled, the plume drooped miserably. His gaudy clothing showed stains as if in his mental agony he had neglected his personal appearance for some time.
Excerpted from The Best of Robert E. Howard Volume 2 by Robert E. Howard. Copyright © 2007 by Robert E. Howard. Excerpted by permission of Del Rey, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.