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Conan the Gladiator (Tor Fantasy)by Leonard Carpenter
The public-house at Thujara was no gilded palace. Its walls of sun-baked mud were thick enough to stand before the harsh winds of the Shemitish plain, turn aside leopards, and blunt the spears and arrows of roving bandits. It had a tile roof tight enough to keep out winter sleet and summer dust-storms. Its doors and shutters were secure against sneak thieves--those, at least, who had not been locked inside for the night.
The inn's kitchen had sheep stew, coarse bread, and raw wines and ciders that were no more sickly or sour than the pressings of other rural districts. The place was, in all, very little different from a hundred other inns Conan had squatted in during his travels. It was cozy enough, and he thanked Crom he had coppers enough to afford its shelter for a few more nights.
Hulking over the long plank table that served as a counter, he took careful stock of the local women. A hardy lot, these Shemitish maids--thick and supple in the haunch and breast, sharp-eyed and sharper-tongued, with ill-kempt hair that hung down in charcoal or reddish curls.
Ellilia, now, the kitchen-keeper, made a healthy armful...as did Sudith, the innkeep's pouting daughter, a wild crocus blooming along a barnyard fence. Alas, most of these country wenches were discouragingly homey and settled. And unimaginative, far too ready to fend off an innocent question with the swipe of a roasting-fork or a splash of scalding soup.
The two current exceptions sat on the bench at either side of Conan, flirting gaily with the handsome Cimmerian. One of them, Tarla, was no real contender: a thin slip of a girl, barely approaching the estate of womanhood. She enjoyed playing at feminine wiles without fully knowing what they meant; to her, the outlander's thick-muscled bare chest, his square black mane, and his foreign-looking blue eyes signified only status and prestige, a handsome trophy in the flirting game. Yet Conan tolerated her brash experimentation; he bantered with her as half a child and half a maiden, without making demands on her.
The other female was Gruthelda, the stablemaid. She had all too clear an idea of the relationship between the sexes, likely gained from watching the antics of the horses and asses under her care. To her credit, she had the braying laugh and the good strong teeth of a well-fed mule; less fortunately, there was something in the roll of her eye and the stumble of her speech that made Conan believe she must have been kicked by one. Sitting with Gruthelda was lively exercise; the lass would make some stockhand a sportive mate.
He had just been letting the girls share his trencher of spiced oat gruel when there came a stirring from outside the inn--a chorus of voices and the skirling of some high-pitched instrument. It was not yet dusk, and the oaken door was not bolted; instead it swung open to admit a string of newcomers--mountebanks of some kind, three in number. They marched in and issued a grand proclamation, singing in turn as they made a prancing circuit of the tavern.
"For your delight and idle delectation," one said.
"Be you of noble rank or common station," the next proclaimed, to a riotous fluting.
* * *
"We hail you to our sumptuous display,
A Circus offered here on market day!
Rare feats of prowess, strength, and wizardry,
Strange fearsome beasts, and maidens fair to see,
All will disport at Festival tomorrow.
Come be amazed, nor shirk us at your sorrow!"
* * *
The first in the line was a broad muscular man, almost Conan's height and more than his girth. Bare-chested, he wore a brightly sequined kilt, rope sandals, and a wide leather belt with the brightly polished clasp of a contest champion. His face, framed by jet-black curls, bore full, sensuous features and a coarse lip that curled in an arrogant expression. As his march brought him toward the central table and toward Conan, his glance took in the Cimmerian's smoldering gaze and massive physique. Hackles rose almost visibly; then he strode on, scarcely acknowledging the implied challenge.
Conan, seeing the strongman and feeling natural skepticism and irritation at his overblown bearing, was nonetheless instantly distracted by the second marcher. This was a female, dressed in a tight sheer costume that both concealed and advertised the firm athletic flesh prisoned underneath. From neat slippers to bare shoulders, she was clad in fine silk, a sheer green fabric that seemed almost to have been sewn taut against her skin; only a narrow fringe of skirt hung about her hips as a flimsy pretense at modesty. The shiny cloth fitted with extra tightness over her breasts; these were ample but pressed flat, probably to prevent sway during violent acrobatic movements. Her brown hair, of unknown length, was tied back in a neat braid at her nape. Her hands and arms were hard and graceful, bare of any rings or bracelets that might interfere with her craft.
The sight of this female athlete, so different from the farm and village women of Thujara, gave rise to a new set of cravings in Conan's soul. He had known girl-warriors before; crack sailors, too, and dancers in the great cities. This was in truth his favorite type of woman, he realized...or at least, a welcome change. Suddenly forgetful of the two farm maids who fawned against him, he half rose from his bench and reached out a hand. He sought to detain the prancing performer and perhaps offer her refreshment or lively conversation.
"Paws off, you oversized lumpkin! Let the parade pass unmolested."
Drawing back his hand from a sharp rap on the knuckles, Conan turned to stare at the third member of the band, a squat, square-faced midget dressed in a gray baggy-sleeved cape and pointed black cap. Lashing out with a small man's quickness, he had struck Conan's hand with the end of a silver flute--which, until then, had tweeted in skillful crescendoes between alternate verses of the marching song. Moving briskly past, the musician regarded Conan with bright, alert eyes from a face that was square-featured and not unhandsome.
"Wait, fellow, that was most ill-mannered," Conan protested, standing up and endeavoring to pull free of his girlfriends. "I only meant to invite the lass to stop awhile and talk, or mayhap share a puncheon of ripe cider. I would compliment you all on your fair costumes and fine talents. Especially the lady, there--"
"Enough, woodsman!" A gruff baritone voice overrode his as the bemuscled leader stopped and turned. "We have business to attend to."
"True indeed," the lovely acrobat said, her kohl-dark eyes looking at Conan with unamused interest. "There is our march through this village to complete, and a whole great circus to be made ready in time for the market fair tomorrow--"
"Plenty indeed to occupy us," the muscleman finished for her, "instead of crowding in here to soak up warm, weak horse-trickle with an ill-mannered country lout." Wrinkling his nose at the aroma of the beaker in Conan's hand, he moved up opposite him and expanded his chest. Conan saw that, in part, he was only acting the character of the arrogant champion; but there was something heartfelt in it, too, something scornful and personal in his manner.
"And what if I bundle your thick carcass out of the way?" the Cimmerian challenged. "Will there be enough room then for the lady to sit down and share drink with her admirers?" He blinked past the oiled shoulder of the titan to the skeptical-looking woman. "For, if I can yet receive civil treatment from you and your friends here, I might then be inclined to follow along and help you with your night's chores back at your tenting-ground--"
"Enough of your impudent drivel!" the strongman barked. Barging forward, he gave the Cimmerian a flat-handed shove on the chest, causing him to lurch backward and slosh part of his drink onto Gruthelda's bosom. "Now, sit on that bench and be quiet, Outlander, before I knot your arms and legs around it to keep you there."
"So it comes to grapples, then." Handing his cup to Gruthelda while keeping his eyes on the big man, Conan drew several deep breaths and arched his body into a wrestler's crouch. Arms spread wide, he balanced on tiptoe, holding his weight high.
"What, a tavern skirmish?" his adversary crowed. "I, Roganthus the Strong, accept your challenge!"
The performer began to spread himself in an identical crouch to Conan's, but raised a flat palm in warning. "First rid yourself of that pig-bleeder there, lest you find yourself skewered by it in a fall." He pointed to the small dagger sheathed at Conan's belt--a mere paring-knife really, its blade scarcely exceeding a hand's-breadth.
"This? If you wish it."
Unlacing the sheathed weapon from his belt, Conan turned to his giggling, giddy seconds. He handed it to Tarla, whom he judged less likely than Gruthelda to use it in an excess of girlish excitement.
As he turned back to confront the strongman, he felt an iron hand clamp the side of his neck and bear down hard. His turning body fell into a blind, lurching half-step; he flailed his arm to clutch at his attacker and instantly felt it grasped and twisted in a wrestler's skillful hold. Propelled roughly across the floor, driven off balance into the side of the long inn table, he plunged over it and tumbled onto the hard dirt floor.
"A throw! Your kind attention, gentlefolk!" Dizzy, Conan heard the midget's gruff voice shouting. "The first fall out of three--unless, of course, there's a pin. Your bets, everyone! I, Bardolph, will guarantee them." The small man was now making the circuit of the place, collecting money and scribbling tallies on a wax tablet. "Remember, good friends, Roganthus is so far undefeated!"
Conan sprang to his feet and stalked angrily toward the strutting, posturing performer. "That was no honest grapple, you rogue!" he thundered. "This time you'll not catch me off guard!"
His complaint was echoed by yells, both derisive and supportive, from inn patrons who'd risen from their seats to form a ring of spectators. Newcomers jostled in through the door as well--summoned hither by the noisy circus parade, no doubt, and by the yells. A fight was a rare treat in Thujara, a town that lacked diversions, and Conan was a foreigner whom few cared to stand up for; so the crowd, in general, howled for his blood.
"Have at me, Northerner," Roganthus crowed, "unless you want to back down! Only two more tumbles will acquit your honor. Fear not, I promise to be gentle with you!"
Even as Roganthus sneered and taunted, Conan was upon him, lunging with blinding speed to throw a hammerlock across the mountebank's brawny neck and shoulders. The strongman's flesh was oiled, however, and the Cimmerian's fingertips raked across the firm skin without catching hold. His adversary ducked and delivered a block, a low, powerful shoulder-butt to Conan's midsection. It drove him only a few shuffling steps backward--until something bulky rammed into the hollows behind his knees and toppled him over, once again onto his back.
Blinking away stars from his fall, Conan belatedly realized it must have been Bardolph, already scuttling across the room to collect more bets, who had tripped him up. The midget's presence underfoot was no accident, the Cimmerian felt sure as he rolled to his feet.
"Another fall, Northerner, and so soon?" Roganthus blustered for the benefit of the crowd. "Poor fellow, you must learn not to stumble over innocent bystanders!" He turned in his crablike stance to face his attacker--but this time Conan did not bother to raise himself upright. Darting on all fours with pantherine speed, he locked an arm around the showman's thick knee, lifted, and twisted.
As the giant reeled and doubled over, Conan took the full weight of the man's torso onto his shoulders and hoisted him bodily into the air. Turning in place to confuse his opponent, he raised the writhing man high overhead and flung him down flat on his back to the tavern floor. The thudding impact brought a grunt from Roganthus and a respectful silence from the crowd.
"Well-done, Conan!" the loyal Gruthelda cried. "You threw him good, now pin him down! Step on his neck!"
But as Conan knelt to apply his weight more judiciously, the supine man arched up from the floor and grabbed hold of the Cimmerian's throat and trunk, exerting sudden leverage to try and flip him onto his back. Conan responded by prying his attacker's knee out from under him and driving him forcefully into a bench of the central table, toppling it.
Roganthus recovered and lashed back like a wounded python; the two proceeded to roll and grapple across the tavern floor, scattering furniture and spectators alike. Thrashing on their knees in the dirt and the muck, each groped and flailed for an advantage. At length Conan managed to clamp an arm around his adversary's neck and lever him over onto his back. But as he bore in to subdue Roganthus with a stranglehold, the giant gave off a low, involuntary groan.
Suspecting a trick, Conan clenched the man's throat only lightly while peering down into his face. The strongman did not lash out or try to topple him, but rolled his eyes and muttered pitiably, "Ow, by Set, you should not have doubled me backward across that bench! That was a foul move indeed! I think you must have cracked my shoulder-bone."
"The match is over, then?" Conan asked, loudly enough for the others to hear. "You yield to me as the better fighter?"
"Why, no," Bardolph the flute-player interrupted at once. "Of course he does not!" Striding forward, the diminutive man was able to glare down indignantly at Conan where he crouched on the floor. "The contest is halted due to a foul, naturally! All bets are impounded--though in truth, you should lose by forfeit."
"Why, that's nonsense," Conan objected, rising up to his knees. "I bested him fairly enough--"
"How can you argue over such a thing while a man lies here in pain?" The beautiful acrobat knelt beside Roganthus. Smoothing his rumpled, muddy hair, she kissed his clammy brow. "Poor fellow, can you get up?"
"I think so." Roganthus let the muscular female haul him to a sitting position, with Conan gingerly propping him up from the other side. "Aii! By the feel of it, my knee is sore wrenched!" Trying to stand upright, he faltered and leaned heavily on the woman. "I may need your help getting back to camp."
"Let me aid you," Conan volunteered. He looked the woman performer straight in the face. "I bear him no grudges after an honest brawl."
"Very well," she said, returning his gaze. "If you want to try and set things aright--"
"No, never!" Roganthus protested angrily, turning on Conan. "I would not trust this oaf to carry a sack of stale cow-flops!"
"Now see here, you great ill-tempered hulk, I can hardly carry you," Bardolph the midget pointed out. "Helping you is the least this farm-ruffian can do, after maiming you unfairly." As he spoke, the small musician was already shoving aside furniture and gawkers, clearing a path to the door.
Conan kissed his tavern-girls goodnight, then he put his back forcibly under the arm of the hobbling man, who resisted him at first and tried to shove him away, in spite of his game knee. Meanwhile, the female acrobat braced Roganthus more closely, careful of his sagging, injured shoulder. The party then started for the inn door--not as grandly as they had entered, but with no less comment and attention from the villagers.
Outside, twilight gathered over the grainfields and pastures of the Shemitish plain. The four of them, with Conan half dragging his resentful burden, headed out between the trees and buildings of town, west toward the pinkish-gold sunset.
Along the way, Conan learned that Bardolph and Roganthus were both Kothians by birth. The shapely acrobat, whose sultry face bore a catlike Stygian cast, was Sathilda, a native Shemite. Their troupe consisted of a dozen or so itinerants from diverse lands, most of whom were currently occupied setting up circus stalls and tending the animals.
The encampment soon came into view, nestled off the road beside a tree-lined stream. Bonfires flared, illuminating two brightly painted wagons, low tents, and dark shapes that hulked bright-eyed in the shadows. Fit-looking nomads, the males were, dressed in shabby finery. The women, clothed likewise in silks, busied themselves cooking and laying out bedrolls.
"Ooh, my shoulder!" With his loud groans, Roganthus announced their arrival. "Handle me more gently, you rawboned lummox, lest you compound the damage you have done already! Bring me drink, and plenty of it, to ease this distemper!" While he scolded, Conan and Sathilda lowered him onto cushions before the fire. Others came to see what had happened and, on hearing the strongman's moans and complaints, resentfully eyed the Cimmerian. He found himself wondering whether he might be mobbed or stoned; yet he stood his ground and returned their looks defiantly.
"Well, since you have crippled our star performer, you may as well do the chores assigned to him." The speaker was a lean, gray-bearded elder with the excess height and craggy facial features of a Bossonian: Master Luddhew, as the others respectfully addressed him. After looking Conan skeptically up and down, he waved a rawboned old hand at an open tool-crate containing metal stakes and a heavy iron mallet. "Sathilda will show you what needs to be done."
Taking up a flaming brand from the fire and striding proudly before him, the female acrobat led him up to a level open meadow where long timbers and thick ropes were laid out on the grass. "These supports need to be staked out firmly," she explained to him. "One loose rope could ruin my act, and lay me up worse than Roganthus."
Working under her supervision, Conan drove metal spikes deep into hard earth, knotted lines around them, and hoisted gaily painted beams vertical. Between the uprights, the two stretched a sturdy tightrope along with various rope ladders and trapezes. Sathilda tested every fastening, occasionally tightening a knot or admonishing Conan to drive a stake deeper. When the work was finished, she handed him the torch, swung herself barefoot up onto the rope, and poised there gracefully for a moment. She then performed a dazzling series of loops and flips around the trapezes, landing neatly on the ground. "That will do for now," she informed Conan with a smile. "You may share our supper if you wish."
A few venturesome townspeople had followed Conan and the others out to the camp, arriving in twos and threes as sunset faded. Already the circus folk worked the crowd for silver; blankets had been laid out before the biggest fire, with various nomads showing off their talents. On one, a female seer called Iocasta knelt in a peasant dress and turban, dealing out pasteboard cards and telling fortunes to squatting farmers.
On another blanket a gambling game was in progress, punctuated by the clink of coins and the rattle of dice in a bone cup. And farther on, inside a circle of attentive males, a plump, buxom dancer gyrated and dipped in a sequined halter, girdle, and a mist of veils, moving to the strains of Bardolph's flute and a thumping tymbal. Keeping the time with bangles shaking across her belly, the woman doubled over backward most charmingly, picking up thrown coins with her teeth.
Conan paused but a moment to stare over the men's shoulders; then he turned and followed Sathilda to the smaller fire that lay beyond the wagons. There, inside a scattering of idle nomads, she bent over a cauldron and dished steaming viands into wooden trenchers for herself and Conan.
Amid the stares of the others--and most particularly Roganthus, where he lolled now in a drunken half-doze--the Cimmerian hunched down beside the woman and ate. He exchanged few words with his hostess, sensing that, for now at least, most everything about her circus life was openly revealed to him. After scorching his mouth on the piping stew, he waited quietly while she dispensed wooden cups of spirit drawn from a small, spigoted cask.
It was fiery stuff that went straight to his head; he almost staggered when, moments later, he climbed to his feet at her silent summons. She led him away toward the back of the camp, into the deeper shadow of the circus wagons. There a sparse bedroll lay outspread on the grass; he saw her kneel beside it, smoothing and straightening it.
As he picked his way through the shadows, a rank, familiar scent drifted to his nostrils, making his neck-hairs prickle. There was a lazy clattering near at hand...then the shifting of heavy chain links and the feathery rumble of a low, bestial growl.
Whatever it was, it was black. Solid black. He could easily have stumbled over it in the darkness. From the dull mass of its shape and the broad space between the glinting yellow eyes, it was no mere panther. It must be a night-tiger, fully grown.
Sathilda made him flinch by placing her cool hand on the back of his neck. "The animals come in handy," she murmured in his ear. "They scare off the wild beasts and the prying farmers."
Entwining him in her arms, she drew him down onto her pallet. Her embraces proved to be vigorous and athletic. Fiercely taxing the muscles he had already strained while fighting and toiling that evening, the woman made him pant with exertion.
While resting after their first prolonged, sweaty bout, he found himself wondering whether this, too, was one of the strongman Roganthus's evening tasks. Yet he kept silent on the matter...being too sober to ask such a dangerous question and too sublimely intoxicated to care.
Copyright © 1995 by Conan Properties, Inc.
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