Two-Fisted Tales

Tales of Mystery and Adventure



 
'You are Grenulf of Wehrland, mercenary and freebooter. Your sword is renowned throughout the city-states of the Heliopans and the emirates of Isicar. You have fought for nomad sheiks in blighted Atalia, for Marsian prefects in the Khemran territories. You have battled satyr slavers in Pan-Leng and vicious orcs on the Visidal frontier. You have seen many lands and many battles but it is the Grenulf of Wehrland who fought against snake-worshipping dervishes in Sythia who is of importance to me...'
P&D welcomes Grenulf the Wehrlander in a desperate quest for ancient treasure and nameless magic in this 4-part sword and sorcery spectacular...

The Crypt of the Cobra
(Part One)

By C.L. Werner
About the author


THE SWARTHY FIST BURIED ITSELF into Grenulf's cheek, the impact of the blow knocking the brawny Wehrlander to the straw-strewn floor of his cell. Grenulf dabbed at the crimson trickle running from the corner of his mouth. He looked at the blood on the end of his finger and scowled at the gloating Isicarite.

'You want some more, eh dog!' the jailer taunted as he fastened the cold iron manacles about the prisoner's wrists. The Isicarite rose from his task, dragging Grenulf up with him by the chain which was attached to the manacles. The Wehrlander's face twisted in pain as the Isicarite planted his fist into Grenulf's belly, following the blow with a savage jerk of the chain.

'Now move your filthy carcass, by the black hands of Nergal!' the jailer snarled, leading his charge out of the cell.

The Isicarite led Grenulf down the dark, rat-infested maze of corridors which had been the Wehrlander's home for the last two months, a black hell with neither sun nor moon, in which the only illumination was that of the jailers' torches, heralding either a beating or a death battle with the vermin for the obscene scraps fed to the prisoners. Many times in those months Grenulf had been taken from his cell, led down the black halls to the torture chambers deep in the earth, halls of agony where black-hooded fiends flayed flesh until their victims' screams reached Sultan Muhrmeht's court far above. Now, Grenulf scratched at his blond beard in bewilderment. This was not the way to the torture halls; he was being led higher, not lower into the dungeons.

At last, the Isicarite stopped before a rusty iron door set into the wall at his side. The jailer reached beneath his leathern hauberk, his swarthy hand returning with a massive metal ring from which dangled a host of keys. The Isicarite selected a key and opened the lock of the cell door. He then pulled Grenulf to him by the prisoner's chains. The jailer's lips parted in a toothy snarl as he removed Grenulf's manacles. Grenulf massaged his raw wrists as he was pushed into the room beyond the door.

'Here he is, Kascus!' the Isicarite called into the cell after closing and locking the door again. 'If he does not agree, kill him.' The jailer started to walk away from the door when he added, 'With or without the Wehrlander, we move tonight.'

The light from the jailer's torch disappeared into the darkness of the subterranean corridors as the Isicarite descended back into the lower reaches of Muhrmet's dungeons. Grenulf marveled that the jailer's departure had not plunged him into absolute darkness. The occupants of the cell in which Grenulf now found himself had been granted a luxury unheard of in this black hell of perpetual night, they had been allowed light. Grenulf looked at the torches burning in iron brackets upon the room's walls before turning his eyes to the cell's other denizens.

The cell was large, easily ten times so large as the two-foot by ten-foot hole which had been Grenulf's home since arousing the Sultan's displeasure. In the center of the room was a large wooden table upon which parchment and ink rested, as well as the remains of a roasted peacock and several bottles of wine. About the table were several men of different cast and hue. The men watched intently as one of their number, a lean Khemran dressed in robes of sanguinary shade, gazed at a piece of yellowed parchment lying upon the table before him.

'Come here, Wehrlander!' commanded one of the onlooking men. He was tall and lithely built his limbs muscular without the gross bulk of the barbarian. His skin was of a dark complexion, though definitely belonging to a white race and being several shades lighter than that of the swarthy Isicarites. The man's dark hair was long and tied back into a single long rope of hair which hung over his shoulder. The rogue was dressed in simple clothes, though in such repair as to be marveled at their being found covering a denizen of Isicar's prisons. Surely, thought Grenulf, this man has not suffered overmuch in this place.

'I said come here, cell-sword! This concerns you as much as it does ourselves', hissed the rogue, his rat-like face pulling itself into a grimace of agitation. Grenulf looked into his accoster's small green eyes, eyes as impassioned as the Wehrlander's were cold.

'I would like to know whom I address and why I have been roused from my slumber and removed from my comfortable lodgings to be brought to this den of bribery-bought finery,' Grenulf challenged, holding his head high despite his filth-stained rags and bloodied face. The dark-haired man clenched his fists tightly as he fought down the swift temper which threatened to overwhelm him. In a moment, the lithe form ceased shaking and the passion passed.

'Know that I am Kascus of Talios and that I hold your liberty in my hands.' The thief held his palms out to Grenulf and then added, 'Aye, your life, too, is in these hands.'

'What would you have of me, Taliosian?' Grenulf asked, his tone still defiant, betraying neither the genuine curiosity nor the faintest stirrings of hope which raced through the reaver's mind.

'You are Grenulf of Wehrland, mercenary and freebooter. Your sword is renowned throughout the city-states of the Heliopans and the emirates of Isicar. You have fought for nomad sheiks in blighted Atalia, for Marsian prefects in the Khemran territories. You have battled satyr slavers in Pan-Leng and vicious orcs on the Visidal frontier. You have seen many lands and many battles but it is the Grenulf of Wehrland who fought against snake-worshipping dervishes in Sythia who is of importance to me. Your knowledge of Sythia is more important to me than the sword which slew a captain of Muhrmet's guard in a barroom brawl.' Kascus motioned for Grenulf to draw nearer the table. The Wehrlander, not liking the looks of the Taliosian thief nor the suggestion of venom in Kascus' voice, did so warily. He turned his blue eyes upon the parchment over which the Khemran yet stooped as he drew near the table and found the parchment to be a map of the lands of Isicar and Sythia.

'What business have you in Sythia?' asked the freebooter after examining the map. Kascus grinned at Grenulf wolfishly.

'Gold! Treasure! A king's fortune lying in the desert sands, forgotten even before the first Marsian called himself emperor!' The beady green eyes gleamed greedily as Kascus imagined the hoard which he would seize.

'And magic, knowledge lost to the dust of ages which may give a sorcerer the power of a thousand kings.' The Khemran lifted his shaven head, his deep-set eyes burning as brightly as those of the thief Kascus, twin pools of flame surrounded by leathery brown skin. Grenulf studied the sharp nose, thin lips and high forehead which combined to make the Khemran's face inhuman in its suggestion of cruelty. Grenulf was aware that the Khemran aroused in him an undefined sense of dread, a nearly subconscious feeling of fright and loathing.

'Sa-ank-met, the magician', explained Kascus, pointing at the Khemran who had already returned his gaze to the map upon the table. 'It is he who learned of the lost tomb which he would loot. Sa-ank-met was the acolyte of Muhrmet's high wizard when certain scrolls from Khemran came into the wizard's hands. The fool was so elated at his acquisition of a map telling of the location of the Black Crypt that he told his student of what lay within said crypt and after telling what he knew, fell before one of the very magics he had instructed his pupil in.' Kascus laughed and smiled at the Khemran sorcerer.

'Fortunately, Muhrmet's soldiers caught our friend before he was able to escape and he was forced to find another way to reach the Black Crypt.' Kascus laughed a second time, snatching a piece of peacock flesh and devouring the morsel.

'Your map shows you the way to Sythia clear enough,' stated Grenulf, the Wehrlander's suspicion of wizardry causing him to suspect Kascus' words even more. 'Why do you need me?'

'The map is many ages old. The desert creeps across grassland and forest, devours cities and rivers. Water, Wehrlander, that is why you are here. Of all the denizens of these filthy halls, you alone have trod the sands between Isicar and the coast, you alone can tell us where water may be found, for we cannot hope to carry all that we shall require to cross the wastes.' The rat-faced thief sneered at the Wehrlander, certain of the man's course of action.

'I imagine that the pig who led me here is a member of your happy band, the promise of gold has slain the loyalty of better men.' Grenulf paused to tear a piece of flesh from Kascus' slender fingers as the thief returned his attention to the peacock. 'I am certain that my liberty is as assured as the meal which I was summoned too late to partake of more fully.' Grenulf chewed on the scrap of meat slowly, refusing to give the Taliosian the satisfaction of seeing the mercenary give in to the near-maddening hunger which wracked his body.

'What more do you offer?' said Grenulf at length, reaching for another piece of meat. Kascus once more fought down a fit of rage at this latest act of defiance.

'A half share of the treasure,' stated the Taliosian coldly. Grenulf tore a cup from the hand of one of the muscular Isicarites standing beside the table. The mercenary noisily drank the wine before speaking.

'And how much is your part?' Grenulf challenged. For an instant Kascus' body began to spring toward the freebooter's throat before the thief checked his reaction. The Taliosian snarled. Grenulf would not acknowledge the rogue any manner of hold over him, as had the others Kascus had chosen.

'Two shares for myself and Sa-ank-met,' the thief confessed.

'Then that is also what I wish,' stated Grenulf, grabbing a wine bottle from the table, less for the remnants of the wine than for the bottle's ability to be employed as a weapon should the mercenary have overplayed his hand. They needed him, but he was not irreplaceable.

Kascus looked at the Wehrlander, weighing his options while the Isicarite villains he had taken from their cells waited for their leader's decision. The Khemran continued to study the map, unconcerned with the monetary bickering.

'Very well, Wehrlander,' spat Kascus. The Isicarites began to bellow their disapproval. The Taliosian ordered his men to be silent. 'You have come too far,' he hissed. 'There is only one way for you to leave now,' Kascus concluded threateningly.

'Your dogs would yap more loudly were they perishing in the desert for want of water, Taliosian,' declared Sa-ank-met, lifting his eyes from the map. 'I have told you, we need no more protection on this endeavor than my sorcery.'

'I am reminded that your magic did not keep you from the Sultan's dungeons,' stated Kascus curtly. 'I shall place my faith in swords.' Sa-ank-met returned indignantly to his study of the parchment.

Grenulf looked at the hulking Isicarites of whom Kascus spoke. He studied the evil faces, the hook noses and brown skin, the straight black hair and the thin, cruel lips, the massive biceps and bulging chests. Then the Wehrlander's gaze fell upon a gaunt, aged figure cowering behind the others against the rear wall of the cell, striving to remain unnoticed.

'Better to trust in your Khemran's witchcraft,' laughed Grenulf deeply, 'if you must fill your warrior's ranks with scarecrows such as this.' Grenulf pointed at the ancient against the wall, who raised his withered brown head and favored the mercenary with a frightened look. Grenulf laughed again. 'I dare say that he is old enough to know every trick there is to fencing, though I should sleep soundly in the Ghoul King's court if this wight can wield, much less lift, a steel blade.'

'That,' said Kascus with a tone of mockery in his voice, 'is Sa-ank-met's folly.' The Taliosian pushed through the Isicarite warriors and stood beside the withered old man. He dragged the ancient to his feet by the elder's long white beard.

'You look upon Azhid, once Muhrmet's chief scribe until he dared to omit a word from the Sultan's address to the ambassadors of the Marsian Emperor. He has rotted in these dungeons for ten years for that mistake and should have finished his days in darkness were my sorcerous friend not possessed of so very foolish a humor.' Kascus let go of the scribe's beard and smiled in the red face, daring Azhid to react to the abuse of the Taliosian. But scribes are not warriors. Azhid lowered his head in shame and, chuckling under his breath, Kascus stalked away.

'The scribe is learned in many tongues,' explained Sa-ank-met, lifting his eyes and looking at Grenulf. 'His is the knowledge of many dead languages spoken by peoples old when the black pyramids of Khemran were young and sunken Draloth's peaks rose from forest instead of sea. Such knowledge may be as vital as a guide through the wastes of Sythia.'

Kascus laughed in the face of the wizard. 'The ability to speak and read in a dead tongue as vital as the ability to find living water? Magic has rotted your brain, wizard, or do you suppose we shall trade riddles with the shades of those who built the Black Crypt ere we loot the innards of their labor?' The Khemran's eyes burned like smoldering embers, but the brown magician said nothing and returned his attention again to the map.

Grenulf watched the thief's mockery of the sorcery with a look of incredulity. The Taliosian was a fool, a bold reckless fool. Grenulf had dealt with wizards in the past, seen their magic transform heroes into cowards and kings into gibbering horrors neither human nor beast. Wizards were men to be feared and any dealings with them were as treacherous as the passes through the jagged Graf-na-Graf Mountains. Kascus' words of mockery were akin to throwing stones at a sleeping bear. The Wehrlander wondered when that bear would awaken to rend the thief's flesh. Already, an air of doom hung about the expedition.

Several hours passed, during which time Grenulf made himself as familiar as he might with the terrain which they would be called upon to cross, mentally placing water holes and passes upon the map as he studied it. It would be a hard journey; if even a single water hole had dried out they would perish in the baking sands of Sythia, for the jailer would not be able to secure more than a few bags to carry water according to Kascus. The threat that many an oasis had been occupied by slavers or bandits was a very real one as well. Still, better the near-certain death which Kascus' desperate venture offered than the certain doom which was Muhrmet's dungeons, Grenulf thought.

In the deep of the night the leather-clad Isicarite jailer reappeared at the cell door, his torch casting weird shadows upon the dank corridor walls behind him. From within the jailer's long black beard, a voice hissed at Kascus.

'It is time! Is the Wehrlander with us?' The Isicarite fingered his long curved dagger as he whispered the question. Kascus looked at the wiry blond freebooter and smiled smugly.

'Of course. Now, get us out of here.' The jailer opened the door and the inmates crept into the corridor in silence, a giant Isicarite dragging the scribe Azhid behind him. The jailer grasped Kascus' shoulder before the group had time to advance further down the corridor.

'We may run into some other guards,' the jailer stated, handing Kascus several knives to distribute amongst his men. Kascus smiled broadly as the jailer turned to lead them out of the dungeons. Striking like a serpent, Kascus' knife bit into the Isicarite's neck, the point of the blade erupting from the jailer's voice box as the Taliosian pushed the knife to its hilt into the brown flesh. The jailer fell, trembling upon the ground as his throat filled with blood.

Before the body had ceased trembling, Kascus was above it, removing the jailer's sword and armor. Grenulf was reminded of the ancient proverb, 'There is no honor among thieves.' Now the mercenary bore witness to the truth which had kept the saying upon the tongues of men long after its first speakers were dust.
 

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The Crypt of the Cobra is copyright C.L. Werner. It may not be copied or used for any commercial purpose except for short excerpts used for reviews. (Obviously, you can copy it or print it out if you want to read it!)