|The||Thief of Forthe|
By CLIFFORD BALL
A swift-moving, romantic story of a thief who coveted a kingdom, and the appalling secret of an old magician
The crude stone chamber was lighted only by the flickering flame of a single torch thrust into a crevice in the wall. Wrenched by the drafts of the dank underground dungeon, it cast fitful gleams over the features of the two figures seated at opposite sides of the low rock table occupying the exact center of the small enclosure. This article, with the two chairs supporting the men, alone graced the bareness of this sunken hole that had, in a bygone age, echoed with the groans of tortured and dying men. The walls were damp with the moisture of eons.
"I grant you," argued Karlk, the magician, stroking his long beard with the slender fingers of a woman, "that Thrall has been a fair king. Yes. But not a good one."
"Good enough for me!" grumbled the other, more powerful man. He struck a clenched fist on the stone of the table to emphasize his insistence, at the same time eyeing the black-cowled figure of Karlk with tiny fires of suspicion in the depths of his long-lashed gray eyes.
In all the kingdom of Forthe there could hardly have been found two men of such different types. The magician was of slender frame, of small features, and delicate hands and feet. He had never appeared in any other costume than the one he now wore—a long robe of ebon silk almost touching the ground as he walked, held by a twisted cord at the waist. A black cowl covered his head; the heavy beard and hirsute growth before the ears left only the flashing, malignant eyes and the thin nostrils visible. There were many whispers to the effect that Karlk was not really of the race of men and that if anyone would have the unthinkable courage to uncover his person, he would discover, not a human form, but some monstrosity impossible for the mind of mankind to imagine.
The other man was virtually naked. Beyond the breech-clout he wore and the sandals on his feet his only article of adornment was the slender sword dangling by his side. To this his right hand frequently strayed; obviously the weapon was almost part of the man. He had known the clash of steel in combat; convincing proofs of this were the great scars that crossed one another over many parts of his naked flesh. Unlike the magician he was clean-shaven, his hair bound in the back by a thin gold chain. The well-shaped skull gave proof that brain backed his brawn. Relaxed, as an animal of the wild rests, he still gave the impression of a creature ready to spring into snarling, ferocious battle. He had cause for alertness, for he was Rald, prince among thieves.
"Good enough!" repeated the thief. "What cause have you against Thrall? Didn't he save your accursed skin the time that missing guardsman was found outside these walls crawling on all fours and barking like a dog? And didn't I see the poor devil myself before they mercifully cut off his head—a head with long, pointed, furry ears on it? Thrall covered your deviltry, didn't he?"
"An unfortunate experiment. One of