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
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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 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
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.