CONAN AND THE GODS OF THE MOUNTAIN
THE DRAGON OF THE CAVES
It came—another screaming, thundering challenge. The echoes had not
begun to die when it charged. Like a heavily laden ship in heavy seas,
it labored through the fungi, trampling some, shredding others. It held
its head low, horns thrusting forward like the ram of a galley. Valeria
remained still as the beast surged between them.
In the next moment, Conan shot forward like a stone from a sling.
His hands gripped the upper horn, and he vaulted clear over the beast's
muzzle, aiming for its neck…
The Adventures of Conan
Published by Tor Books
Conan the Bold by John Maddox Roberts
Conan the Champion by John Maddox Roberts
Conan the Defender by Robert Jordan
Conan the Defiant by Steve Perry
Conan the Destroyer by Robert Jordan
Conan the Fearless by Steve Perry
Conan the Formidable by Steve Perry
Conan the Free Lance by Steve Perry
Conan the Great by Leonard Carpenter
Conan the Guardian by Roland Green
Conan the Hero by Leonard Carpenter
Conan the Indomitable by Steve Perry
Conan the Invincible by Robert Jordan
Conan the Magnificent by Robert Jordan
Conan the Marauder by John Maddox Roberts
Conan the Outcast by Leonard Carpenter
Conan the Raider by Leonard Carpenter
Conan of the Red Brotherhood by Leonard Carpenter
Conan the Relentless by Roland Green
Conan the Renegade by Leonard Carpenter
Conan the Rogue by John Maddox Roberts
Conan the Savage by Leonard Carpenter
Conan the Triumphant by Robert Jordan
Conan the Unconquered by Robert Jordan
Conan the Valiant by Roland Green
Conan the Valorous by John Maddox Roberts
Conan the Victorious by Robert Jordan
Conan the Warlord by Leonard Carpenter
CONAN AND THE GODS OF THE MOUNTAIN
A TOM DOHERTY ASSOCIATES BOOK NEW YORK
Note: If you purchased this book without a cover you should be aware that this book is stolen property. It was reported as "unsold and destroyed" to the publisher, and neither the author nor the publisher has received any payment for this "stripped book."
This is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious, and any resemblance to real people or events is purely coincidental.
CONAN AND THE GODS OF THE MOUNTAIN Copyright (c)1993 by Conan Properties, Inc.
All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book, or portions thereof, in any form.
Cover art by Ken Kelly
Maps by Chazaud
A Tor Book
Published by Tom Doherty Associates, Inc.
175 Fifth Avenue
New York, N.Y. 10010
Tor? is a registered trademark of Tom Doherty Associates, Inc. ISBN 0-812-51414-9
First edition: May 1993
Printed in the United States of America
CONAN AND THE GODS OF THE MOUNTAIN
The hunter was of the Leopard Clan of the Kwanyi. He had been born with eyes and ears almost as keen as those of the clan totem. He had sharpened both further by many years spent in the forests between the Gao River to the west and the forbidden city of Xuchotl to the east.
Neither eyes nor ears now told of any menace close to him. Nor was it likely that this stretch of the forest held any. It was near the foot of Thunder Mountain itself. The hunter had learned its paths and streams, its drinking holes and fallen trees, even before his manhood ceremony.
Yet the hunter fled as though all the kin of the dragon he had found
in the forest near Xuchotl were ravening on his trail.
He had kept up this pace every waking moment for three days now. He had run until he could neither run, walk, nor stand, only fall senseless to the ground and sleep like a serpent with a pig in its belly. Then he would wake, to drink of the nearest clean water and run once more.
The pace had taken its toll. His dark skin was so caked with dirt that the hunter's tattoo of a leopard's paw on his right shoulder and the warrior's tattoo of a spear on his breast had all but vanished. Only the clan scarifications on both heels remained visible, to mark him and his footprints as of the Kwanyi.
His breath came in rasping sobs. His eyes stared ahead, next to blind, so that from time to time, a dangling vine slapped his skin. Once a stub of branch tore away his loinguard, leaving him to run on naked save for anklets of sodden feathers and the spear in his hand.
He could have run faster without the spear, for it was the stout weapon of the Kwanyi, a man's length of ironwood sapling with a triangular iron head as broad as a man's hand. Yet that thought never entered his mind. While he bore the spear, no warrior of the Kwanyi could doubt his courage.
The end of the hunter's run came suddenly, in the form of a jutting root. It caught his ankle, and even above the rasp of his tortured lungs, he heard bone snap. Then pain struck him twice, once as his head knocked against a rotten stump and once in the ankle as sundered bones cried out.
The hunter lay still until the pains eased and he knew that he would not at once become senseless. That would be death. This part of the forest held few dangers for a healthy hunter with both wits and weapons. It was otherwise for a man lying unaware of his surroundings.
When he dared move his head, the hunter rolled over and looked at his ankle. It was already swelling, and the pain was a spear of fire thrust up his leg. He would not be walking on that ankle again before the rains came—or ever if the God-Men of Thunder Mountain did not give him their healing. Poultices, purges, and the hands of village wise-women could do little against such ruin to bone and muscle.
In the next moment, the hunter began to doubt that he would even live to be spurned by the God-Men. Where he had seen only vines and thick-trunked trees, four men now stood. Each carried a spear; one carried a bow as well. Their loinguards, headbands, anklets, and tattoos alike named them warriors of the Monkey Clan.
This did nothing to raise the hunter's spirits. Chabano, Paramount Chief of the Kwanyi, was himself of the Monkey Clan. He would not have been chief for twelve years had he allowed his clansmen to feud at will with the Leopards, the Spiders, or the Cobras. Yet he had been known to turn a blind eye when those clans suffered some small hurt—such as
the disappearance of a hunter whose fate neither gods nor men could learn.
The hunter twisted himself about again, ignoring the pain in his head and ankle as he drew up his legs and raised his spear.
"Ha, what have we here?" the tallest of the four Monkeys said. "One of the Little Cats, it seems."
The hunter bit back a reply of equal sharpness, on the order of "Speak for yourself, Gelded Baboon." It would be time to seek an honorable death when he had told the four warriors where he had been and what he had seen there.
"Brothers—" the hunter began.
Spear-butts thudded on mossy ground. "No brother to you," one of the spear-wielders growled.
"Chabano says otherwise," the hunter replied, then started his story before anyone else could find insults. He began with finding the dead dragon outside Xuchotl, slain by no cause the hunter could discover.
That gained him the tallest Monkey's attention. "There have been tales of a dragon in that part of the forest. Yet there are more tales that say nothing can kill a dragon. Perhaps the cause you could not discover was old age, or a bellyache!"
"Listen to the rest of what I have to say, then think that if you wish," the hunter said. "I will say only what I saw, and that as swiftly as I can."
The hint for silence was not lost on the Monkey leader. The next time one of his warriors tried to interrupt the hunter, a spear-butt came down sharply on the man's toes. A glare cut short his muttered ill wishes, and allowed the hunter to continue.
He told of wondering if accursed Xuchotl might be safe to approach, with its guardian dragon dead. All life seemed to have fled the city—human life, at least. He spoke of an open gate through which the jungle was already creeping, to claim Xuchotl the Accursed for its own.
"How far did you go?" the leader asked.
"Not as far as I wished," the hunter admitted. "I, too, had heard the tales of the fire-stones within the city. I sought them and found—"
He swallowed. "—I found that Xuchotl's curse had at last destroyed its own people."
He spoke of the bodies of men and women slain no more than a handful of days before. Some bore the wounds of human weapons, swords and spears and knives, or even of teeth and nails. Others seemed to have been struck by lightning, and this in an underground chamber where no lightning could reach save by sorcery.
"It was then that I knew Xuchotl was still accursed, and that I might join the dead if I stayed longer within its walls," the hunter concluded. "I ran from the chamber and from the city. Yet as I ran, I saw that
others had come forth by the same gate not long before."
"The slayers of the folk of Xuchotl?" It was the man who had been silenced who spoke. Now his tone held respect and curiosity, as well as more than a little fear. The hunter's pleasure at having won over his listeners almost made him forget the pain in his ankle.
"That I do not know. I can only say that one was a giant, another as large as a common warrior of the Kwanyi. Both seemed well-laden, and both wore boots."
The Monkey warriors stared at one another, then at the jungle around them. It seemed to the hunter that he could see into their very thoughts as he spoke.
"I think that is why the talking drums have not spoken of this. The sorcerers who ruined Xuchotl might have other enemies in our land. Warned that they were discovered…"
The leader nodded. The hunter wondered if he, too, had a throat too dry to let words pass. One of the other Monkeys loosened his drinking gourd from his belt and passed it to the hunter.
The hunter poured the ritual drops into his palm and scattered them to the earth, then drank. When his throat was fit for speaking again, he handed the gourd back.
"Brother, I hear truth in your words," the Monkey leader said to the hunter. He turned to his companions.
"Make a litter. We bear him to the God-Men. If the drums have not spoken, he must do their work, with our help."
"If the God-Men are as they say—" began a warrior.
"Guard your tongue, lest it wag you into the Cave of the Living Wind," the leader snarled.
"If the God-Men are as they say," the man persisted, "they likely enough know already."
"Then we can do no harm," the leader said. "Perhaps even a little good, by showing that we common warriors understand the evil that magic may do."
"And if—" the man began again.
"Then they have need of our help against sorcerers who can slay dragons and scour life from Xuchotl the Accursed."
This thought silenced the warrior, but did not seem to please him or his comrades. Thinking briefly upon the matter, the hunter decided that this was no shame to the Monkey warriors. The notion of sorcerers more powerful than the God-Men of Thunder Mountain did not please him either.
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 smoke-bush.
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 hi