Beyond the Black River/Chapter VIII
Chapter VIII: Conajohara No More
There had been fighting on Thunder River; fierce fighting before the walls of Velitrium; ax and torch had been plied up and down the bank, and many a settler's cabin lay in ashes before the painted horde was rolled back.
A strange quiet followed the storm, in which people gathered and talked in hushed voices, and men with red-stained bandages drank their ale silently in the taverns along the river bank.
There, to Conan the Cimmerian, moodily quaffing from a great wine-glass, came a gaunt forester with a bandage about his head and his arm in a sling. He was the one survivor of Fort Tuscelan.
“You went with the soldiers to the ruins of the fort?”
“I wasn't able,” murmured the other. “There was no fighting?”
“The Picts had fallen back across Black River. Something must have broken their nerve, though only the devil who made them knows what.”
The woodsman glanced at his bandaged arm and sighed.
“They say there were no bodies worth disposing of.”
Conan shook his head. “Ashes. The Picts had piled them in the fort and set fire to the fort before they crossed the river. Their own dead and the men of Valannus.”
“Valannus was killed among the last — in the hand-to-hand fighting when they broke the barriers. They tried to take him alive, but he made them kill him. They took ten of the rest of us prisoners when we were so weak from fighting we could fight no more. They butchered nine of us then and there. It was when Zogar Sag died that I got my chance to break free and run for it.”
“Zogar Sag's dead?” ejaculated Conan.
“Aye. I saw him die. That's why the Picts didn't press the fight against Velitrium as fiercely as they did against the fort. It was strange. He took no wounds in battle. He was dancing among the slain, waving an ax with which he'd just brained the last of my comrades. He came at me, howling like a wolf — and then he staggered and dropped the ax, and began to reel in a circle screaming as I never heard a man or beast scream before. He fell between me and the fire they'd built to roast me, gaging and frothing at the mouth, and all at once he went rigid and the Picts shouted that he was dead. It was during the confusion that I slipped my cords and ran for the woods.
“I saw him lying in the firelight. No weapon had touched him. Yet there were red marks like the wounds of a sword in the groin, belly, and neck — the last as if his head had been almost severed from his body. What do you make of that?”
Conan made no reply, and the forester, aware of the reticence of barbarians on certain matters, continued: “He lived by magic, and somehow, he died by magic. It was the mystery of his death that took the heart out of the Picts. Not a man who saw it was in the fighting before Velitrium. They hurried back across Black River. Those that struck Thunder River were warriors who had come on before Zogar Sag died. They were not enough to take the city by themselves.
“I came along the road, behind their main force, and I know none followed me from the fort. I sneaked through their lines and got into the town. You brought the settlers through all right, but their women and children got into Velitrium just ahead of those painted devils. If the youth Balthus and old Slasher hadn't held them up awhile, they'd have butchered every woman and child in Conajohara. I passed the place where Balthus and the dog made their last stand. They were lying amid a heap of dead Picts — I counted seven, brained by his ax, or disemboweled by the dog's fangs, and there were others in the road with arrows sticking in them. Gods, what a fight that must have been!”
“He was a man,” said Conan. “I drink to his shade, and to the shade of the dog, who knew no fear.” He quaffed part of the wine, then emptied the rest upon the floor, with a curious heathen gesture, and smashed the goblet. “The heads of ten Picts shall pay for his, and seven heads for the dog, who was a better warrior than many a man.”
And the forester, staring into the moody, smoldering blue eyes, knew the barbaric oath would be kept.
“They'll not rebuild the fort?”
“No; Conajohara is lost to Aquilonia. The frontier has been pushed back. Thunder River will be the new border.”
The woodsman sighed and stared at his calloused hand, worn from contact with ax-haft and sword-hilt. Conan reached his long arm for the wine-jug. The forester stared at him, comparing him with the men about them, the men who had died along the lost river, comparing him with those other wild men over that river. Conan did not seem aware of his gaze.
“Barbarism is the natural state of mankind,” the borderer said, still staring somberly at the Cimmerian. “Civilization is unnatural. It is a whim of circumstance. And barbarism must always ultimately triumph.”