Swords of the Red Brotherhood - Robert E. Howard - ebook

Swords of the Red Brotherhood ebook

Robert E. Howard

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One moment the glade lay empty; the next a man poised tensely at the edge of the bushes. No sound warned the red squirrels of his coming, but the birds that flitted about in the sunlight took sudden fright at the apparition and rose in a clamoring swarm. The man scowled and glanced quickly back the way he had come, fearing the bird-flight might have betrayed his presence. Then he started across the glade, placing his feet with caution. Tall and muscular of frame, he moved with the supple ease of a panther.

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Contents

I. THE PAINTED MEN

II. MEN FROM THE SEA

III. THE COMING OF THE BLACK MAN

IV. A BLACK DRUM DRONING

V. A MAN FROM THE WILDERNESS

VI. THE PLUNDER OF THE DEAD

VII. MEN OF THE WOODS

I. THE PAINTED MEN

ONE moment the glade lay empty; the next a man poised tensely at the edge of the bushes. No sound warned the red squirrels of his coming, but the birds that flitted about in the sunlight took sudden fright at the apparition and rose in a clamoring swarm. The man scowled and glanced quickly back the way he had come, fearing the bird-flight might have betrayed his presence. Then he started across the glade, placing his feet with caution. Tall and muscular of frame, he moved with the supple ease of a panther.

He was naked except for a rag twisted about his loins, and his limbs were criss-crossed with scratches from briars and caked with dried mud. A brown-crusted bandage was knotted about his thickly muscled left arm. Under a matted, black mane, his face was drawn and gaunt, and his eyes burned like the eyes of a wounded animal. He limped slightly as he picked his way along the dim path that crossed the open space.

Half-way across the glade, the man stopped short and wheeled about, as a long-drawn call quavered from the forest behind. It sounded much like the howl of a wolf. But he knew it was no wolf.

Rage burned in his bloodshot eyes as he turned once more and sped along the path which, as it left the glade, ran along the edge of a dense thicket that rose in a solid clump of greenery among the trees and bushes. His glance caught and was held by a massive log, deeply embedded in the grassy earth. It lay parallel to the fringe of the thicket. He halted again, and looked back across the glade. To the untutored eye, there were no signs to show that he had passed, but to his wilderness-trained sight, the traces of his passage were quite evident. And he knew that his pursuers could read his tracks without effort. He snarled silently, the red rage growing in his eyes, the berserk fury of a hunted beast which is ready to turn at bay, and drew war-axe and hunting knife from the girdle which upheld his loinclout.

Then he walked swiftly down the trail with deliberate carelessness, here and there crushing a grass-blade beneath his foot. However when he had reached the further end of the great log, he sprang upon it, turned and ran lightly along its back. The bark had long been worn away by the elements. Now he left no sign to alert those behind him that he had doubled on his trail. As he reached the densest point of the thicket, he faded into it like a shadow, with scarcely the quiver of a leaf to mark his passing.

The minutes dragged. The red squirrels chattered again on the branches ... then flattened their bodies and were suddenly mute. Again the glade was invaded. As silently as the first man had appeared, three other men emerged from the eastern edge of the clearing. They were dark-skinned men, naked but for beaded buckskin loin-cloths and moccasins, and they were hideously painted.

They had scanned the glade carefully before moving into the open. Then they slipped out of the bushes without hesitation, in close single-file, treading softly and bending down to stare at the path. Even for these human bloodhounds, following the trail of the white man was no easy task. As they moved slowly across the glade, one man stiffened, grunted, and pointed with a flint-tipped spear at a crushed grass-blade where the path entered the forest again. All halted instantly, their beady black eyes searching the forest walls. But their quarry was well hidden. They detected nothing to indicate that he was crouched within a few yards of them. Presently, they moved on again, more rapidly now, following the faint marks that seemed to betray that their prey had grown careless through weakness or desperation.

Just as they passed the spot where the thicket crowded closest to the ancient trail, the white man bounded into the path behind them and plunged his knife between the shoulders of the last man. The attack was so swift and unexpected, the Indian had no chance to save himself. The blade was in his heart before he knew he was in peril. The other two whirled with the instant, steel-trap quickness of savages, but even as his knife sank home, the white man struck a tremendous blow with the war-axe in his right hand. The second Indian caught the blow just as he was turning, and it split his skull.

The remaining Indian rushed savagely to the attack. He stabbed at the white man’s breast even as the killer wrenched his axe from the dead man’s skull. With amazing dexterity, the white man hurled the limp body against the savage, then followed it with an attack as furious and desperate as the lunge of a wounded tiger. The Indian, staggering under the impact of the corpse, made no attempt to parry the dripping axe. The instinct to slay submerging even the instinct to live, he drove his spear ferociously at his enemy’s broad breast. But the white man had the advantage of a quicker mind, and a weapon in each hand. His axe struck the spear aside, and the knife in the brawny left hand ripped upward into the painted belly.

A frightful howl burst from the Indian’s lips as he crumpled, disembowelled–a cry not of fear or pain, but of baffled bestial fury, the death screech of a panther. It was answered by a wild chorus of yells some distance east of the glade. The white man started convulsively, wheeled, crouching like a wild thing at bay, lips asnarl. Blood trickled down his forearm from under the bandage.

With an incoherent imprecation, he turned and fled westward. He did not pick his way now, but ran with all the speed of his long legs. Behind him for a space, the woods were silent, than a demoniacal howling burst from the spot he had just quitted. His pursuers had found the bodies of his victims. He had no breath for cursing and the blood from his freshly-opened wound left a trail a child could follow. He had hoped that the three Indians he had slain were all of the war-party that still pursued him. But he might have known these human wolves never quit a blood trail.

The woods were silent again, and that meant they were racing after him, his path betrayed by the trail of blood he could not check.

A wind out of the west blew against his face, laden with salty dampness. He registered a vague surprise. If he was that close to the sea, then the long chase had been even longer than he had realized. But it was nearly over. Even his wolfish vitality was ebbing under the terrific strain. He gasped for breath and there was a sharp pain in his side. His legs trembled with weariness and the lame one ached like a knife-cut in the tendons each time he set the foot to the earth. Fiercely he had followed the instincts of the wilderness which bred him, straining every nerve and sinew, exhausting every subtlety and artifice to survive. Now in his extremity, he was obeying another instinct, seeking a place to turn at bay and sell his life at a bloody price.

He did not leave the trail for the tangled depths on either hand. Now he knew it was futile to hope to evade his pursuers. On he ran down the trail, while the blood pounded louder and louder in his ears and each breath he drew was a racking, dry-lipped gulp. Behind him a mad baying broke out, token that they were close on his heels and expecting to overhaul him soon. They would come as fleet as starving wolves now, howling at every leap.

Abruptly he burst from the denseness of the trees and saw ahead of him the ground pitching upward, and the ancient trail winding up rocky ledges between jagged boulders. A dizzy red mist swam before him, as he scanned the hill he had come to, a rugged crag rising sheer from the forest about its foot. And the dim trail wound up to a broad ledge near the summit.

That ledge would be as good a place as any to die. He limped up the trail, going on hands and knees in the steeper places, his knife between his teeth. He had not yet reached the jutting ledge when some forty painted savages broke from among the trees.

Their screams rose to a devil’s crescendo as they raced toward the foot of the crag, loosing arrows as they came. The shafts showered about the man who doggedly climbed upward, and one stuck in the calf of his leg. Without pausing in his climb, he tore it out and threw it aside, heedless of the less accurate missiles which splintered on the rocks about him. Grimly he hauled himself over the rim of the ledge, and turned about, drawing his hatchet and shifting knife to hand. He lay glaring down at his pursuers over the rim, only his shock of hair and his blazing eyes visible. His great chest heaved as he drank in the air in huge, shuddering gasps, and he clenched his teeth against an uneasy nausea.

The warriors came on, leaping agilely over the rocks at the foot of the hill, some changing bows for war-axes. The first to reach the crag was a brawny chief with an eagle-feather in his braided hair. He halted briefly, one foot on the sloping trail, arrow notched and drawn half-way back, head thrown back and lips parted for a yell. But the shaft was never loosed. He froze into statuesque immobility, and the blood-lust in his black eyes gave way to a glare of startled recognition. With a whoop he recoiled, throwing his arms wide to check the rush of his howling braves. The man crouching on the ledge above them understood their tongue, but he was too high above them to catch the significance of the staccato phrases snapped at the warriors by the eagle-feathered chief.

But all ceased their yelping and stood mutely staring up–not at the man on the ledge, but at the hill itself. Then without further hesitation, they unstrung their bows and thrust them into buckskin cases beside their quivers; turned their backs and trotted across the open space, to melt into the forest without a backward look.

The white man glared after them in amazement, recognizing the finality expressed in the departure. He knew they would not come back. They were heading for their village, a hundred miles to the east.

But it was inexplicable. What was there about his refuge that would cause a red war-party to abandon a chase it had followed so long with all the passion of hungry wolves? There was a red score between him and them. He had been their prisoner, and he had escaped, and in that escape a famous war-chief had died. That was why the braves had followed him so relentlessly, over broad rivers and mountains and through long leagues of gloomy forest, the hunting grounds of hostile tribes. And now the survivors of that long chase turned back when their enemy was run to earth and trapped. He shook his head, abandoning the riddle.

He rose gingerly, dizzy from the long grind, and scarcely able to realize that it was over. His limbs were stiff, his wounds ached. He spat dryly and cursed, rubbing his burning, bloodshot eyes with the back of his thick wrist. He blinked and took stock of his surroundings. Below him the green wilderness waved and billowed away and away in a solid mass, and above its western rim rose a steel-blue haze he knew hung over the ocean. The wind stirred his black mane, and the salt tang of the atmosphere revived him. He expanded his enormous chest and drank it in.

Then he turned stiffly and painfully about, growling at the twinge in his bleeding calf, and investigated the ledge whereon he stood. Behind it rose a sheer, rocky cliff to the crest of the crag, some thirty feet above him. A narrow ladder-like stair of hand-holds had been niched into the rock. And a few feet away, there was a cleft in the wall, wide enough and tall enough to admit a man.

He limped to the cleft, peered in, and grunted explosively. The sun, hanging high above the western forest, slanted into the cleft, revealing a tunnel-like cavern beyond, and faintly illumined the arch at which this tunnel ended. In that arch was set a heavy iron-bound door!

His eyes narrowed, unbelieving. This country was a howling wilderness. For a thousand miles this coast ran bare and uninhabited except for the squalid villages of fish-eating tribes, who were even lower in the scale of life than their forest-dwelling brothers. He had never questioned his notion that he was probably the first man of his color ever to set foot in this area. Yet there stood that mysterious door, mute evidence of European civilization.

Being inexplicable, it was an object of suspicion, and suspiciously he approached it, axe and knife ready. Then as his blood-shot eyes became more accustomed to the soft gloom that lurked on either side of the narrow shaft of sunlight, he noticed something else–thick, iron-bound chests ranged along the walls. A blaze of comprehension came into his eyes. He bent over one, but the lid resisted his efforts. Lifting his hatchet to shatter the ancient lock, he abruptly changed his mind and limped toward the arched door. His bearing was more confident now, his weapons hung at his sides. He pushed against the ornately-carved door and it swung inward without resistance.

Then his manner changed again. With lightning-like speed, he recoiled with a startled curse, knife and hatchet flashing to positions of defense. He poised there like a statue of menace, craning his massive neck to glare through the door. It was darker in the large natural chamber into which he was looking, but a dim glow emanated from a shining heap in the center of the great ebony table about which sat those silent shapes whose appearance had so startled him.

They did not move; they did not turn their heads.

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This is a free sample. Please purchase full version of the book to continue.

This is a free sample. Please purchase full version of the book to continue.

This is a free sample. Please purchase full version of the book to continue.

This is a free sample. Please purchase full version of the book to continue.

This is a free sample. Please purchase full version of the book to continue.

This is a free sample. Please purchase full version of the book to continue.