Shadows in the Moonlight/Chapter IV
In the ghastly whiteness of dawn a handful of tattered, bloodstained figures staggered through the trees and out on to the narrow beach. There were forty-four of them, and they were a cowed and demoralized band. With panting haste they plunged into the water and began to wade toward the galley, when a stern challenge brought them up standing.
Etched against the whitening sky they saw Conan the Cimmerian standing in the bows, sword in hand, his black mane tossing in the dawn wind.
"Stand!" he ordered. "Come no nearer. What would you have, dogs?"
"Let us come aboard!" croaked a hairy rogue fingering a bloody stump of ear. "We'd be gone from this devil's island."
"The first man who tries to climb over the side, I'll split his skull," promised Conan.
They were forty-four to one, but he held the whip-hand. The fight had been hammered out of them.
"Let us come aboard, good Conan," whined a red-sashed Zamorian, glancing fearfully over his shoulder at the silent woods. "We have been so mauled, bitten, scratched and rended, and are so weary from fighting and running, that not one of us can lift a sword."
"Where is that dog Aratus?" demanded Conan.
"Dead, with the others! It was devils fell upon us! They were rending us to pieces before we could awake--a dozen good rovers died in their sleep. The ruins were full of flame-eyed shadows, with tearing fangs and sharp talons."
"Aye!" put in another corsair. "They were the demons of the isle, which took the forms of molten images, to befool us. Ishtar! We lay down to sleep among them. We are no cowards. We fought them as long as mortal man may strive against the powers of darkness. Then we broke away and left them tearing at the corpses like jackals. But surely they'll pursue us."
"Aye, let us come aboard!" clamored a lean Shemite. "Let us come in peace, or we must come sword in hand, and though we be so weary you will doubtless slay many of us, yet you can not prevail against us many."
"Then I'll knock a hole in the planks and sink her," answered Conan grimly. A frantic chorus of expostulation rose, which Conan silenced with a lion-like roar.
"Dogs! Must I aid my enemies? Shall I let you come aboard and cut out my heart?"
"Nay, nay!" they cried eagerly. "Friends--friends, Conan. We are thy comrades! We be all lusty rogues together. We hate the king of Turan, not each other."
Their gaze hung on his brown, frowning face.
"Then if I am one of the Brotherhood," he grunted, "the laws of the Trade apply to me; and since I killed your chief in fair fight, then I am your captain!"
There was no dissent. The pirates were too cowed and battered to have any thought except a desire to get away from that island of fear. Conan's gaze sought out the blood-stained figure of the Corinthian.
"How, Ivanos!" he challenged. "You took my part, once. Will you uphold my claims again?"
"Aye, by Mitra!" The pirate, sensing the trend of feeling, was eager to ingratiate himself with the Cimmerian. "He is right, lads; he is our lawful captain!"
A medley of acquiescence rose, lacking enthusiasm perhaps, but with sincerity accentuated by the feel of the silent woods behind them which might mask creeping ebony devils with red eyes and dripping talons.
"Swear by the hilt," Conan demanded.
Forty-four sword-hilts were lifted toward him, and forty-four voices blended in the corsair's oath of allegiance.
Conan grinned and sheathed his sword. "Come aboard, my bold swashbucklers, and take the oars."
He turned and lifted Olivia to her feet, from where she had crouched shielded by the gunwales.
"And what of me, sir?" she asked.
"What would you?" he countered, watching her narrowly.
"To go with you, wherever your path may lie!" she cried, throwing her white arms about his bronzed neck.
The pirates, clambering over the rail, gasped in amazement.
"To sail a road of blood and slaughter?" he questioned. "This keel will stain the blue waves crimson wherever it plows."
"Aye, to sail with you on blue seas or red," she answered passionately. "You are a barbarian, and I am an outcast, denied by my people. We are both pariahs, wanderers of earth. Oh, take me with you!"
With a gusty laugh he lifted her to his fierce lips.
"I'll make you Queen of the Blue Sea! Cast off there, dogs! We'll scorch King Yildiz's pantaloons yet, by Crom!"