News
Books
Biography
Articles
Gallery
Worlds
Games
Message board
Home  
Zorich.ru | Books | Novelettes
 
 
Conan and Death

 

 

Through a stifling fir-grove, cramping the paved road to the width of a second-grade horse-path, two travelers were beating their way. Among them two the one, who paced behind, was especially notable for his enormous height, broad shoulders, soldier's haircut a la Tiberius and a fierceness of face, whose features were not softened by the low blessings of a civilization.

That was Conan, the barbarian from Cimmeria.

Is that the truth that the Danes call white ash "The Steed of Odin"?

That is the truth.

And when they want to say "bear", they say "The Wolf of Bees"?

Yes, sometimes.

And what about the "sea"? Do they really say "The Road of Whales" instead?

They really do. Sometimes they even say "The Road of Hoopers".

King Conan from overseas stared unkindly at the Dutch king's son Siegfried.

It's a lie! Nonsense and stuff!

You're hurting my feelings, king Conan. I'd never tell a lie.

The latter was a wishful, but not real stretch about Siegfried. He tells lies every so often and because of his boyhood, not always skilfully.

And how do I say "a sword"?

A sword? Hmm... It could be..."Odin's Baton"!

A baton? Swear on Mithra, it is foolish!

Cimmerian fell silent.

Siegfried became upset. When such a respected, such a celebrated man as king Conan labels the musical style of speaking as "foolish", it means that it is foolish. So, it turns out, that Cimmerian called "foolish" Siegfried himself and also Siegfried's father both held the Danes in high respect.

In the real life the Danes say "a sword", "a sea" and "a bear". It is only for a song or a story... In their songs they call things unlike anybody else, Siegfried tried to proved the Danes' innocence.

Then it is especially foolish! To call same things in different ways! For instance, imagine. I've killed a demon; I've saved a daughter of Othyr's vizier. And then I dropped in a tavern. And I say: "Give me a Small Barrel With Throat's Pleasure! Make haste!" And when the tavern-keeper would bring me the wine, I taste it and exclaim: "You are tricking me, bastard! It is not a Throat's Pleasure! It is a Bloody Flux's Steed! Go while the going is good!"

Conan has started roaring with laughter.

Ua-ha-ha. Pause. Ua-ha-ha. Pause. Ua-ha-ha.

Siegfried chuckled cheerlessly. Discussing the cultural predilections of the young Dane's nation have made him feel embarrassed.

It is best not to be noisy on Gniteihed, he warned.

At once Cimmerian quieted down and turned serious.

Demons? Manticoras? Picts? I understand...

Conan's became bellicosely tensed, straining all the nerves and all his splendid muscular system. He's also laid his palm on the dagger's handle.

And wyverns, added Siegfried.

There were no wyverns and no manticoras on Gniteihed. As far as demons concerned... Siegfried wasn't very clear about them. And picts... Siegfried heard about them for the first time in his life. When he asked to keep the noise down, he just meant that it is a local tradition not to give a coarse laugh, not to play rough tricks, not to raise a voice needlessly on this Gniteihed Isle. As one would not in a church.

Don't you worry, wyverns are harmless creatures. Practically, Conan said competently.

Then added:

But they are quite dreadful.

"Not much more dreadful, then we both are", thought Siegfried.

-There are many creatures, that are more dreadful then the wyverns, he said aloud evasively.

How could I be unaware of it! proclaimed Conan. Don't you know that in the dungeon of Punt I endured the mortal combat with Sakh the Snake, that was a loathsome fosterling of Chaos itself?!

And up until the sunset the Cimmerian would not leave Siegfried in peace with his memoirs. He did not even give him a chance to put a word into his stories, except for legitimated "oho!", "indeed?" and "terrific!".

***

Not easy to find a guide in places like that. The Bataves are superstitious and at the same time extremely disinterested. The service, which could be easily purchased at a moderate price in Punt or Othyr, is free in the lands of these barbarians. But, contemptuously turning away from gold, Bataves simultaneously refuse the further contact with the travelers.

Fortunately, the Dutch nobility is familiar by hearsay with Conan the Cimmerian. Therefore, when I, in blank despair, dared to come to the court of king Siegmund and proved that I am the very man who destroyed Sakh the Snake, legendary Conan, they offered me a cup of good vine, fairly good snack and attacked me from all sides with their questions.

My request about the guide has surprised them, but, Mithra be praised, I was not refused. It is nice to be a king, even a one-time king.

Siegfried, the youngest son of the king Siegmund, had offered to escort me to the very den of the dragon Fafnir. I did not want to offend my host, so I accepted an offer at once. Though, I would prefer the company of valkyrie. Unfortunately, I did not notice any at Dutch's court. By the way, one more reason to give no credence to the "trustworthy stories" about the lands overseas. They all promise wonders like diamond genies that sit astride the golden Semurgs, but when you arrive, you see quite another thing like disrespect to Mithra, nasty idolatry, black magic and subacute gonorrhea... Othyr and Kush kingdoms are in cut-price decor!

Siegfried is an unsociable fifteen years old fellow. Seems like he deifies me. He listens spellbound to me and does not contradict in anything. But what is there to contradict to, though... Condescending to his juvenescent level of intellectual and psychical development, I try not to be on a slippery ground, not to speak about things, that can discredit me in the opinion of a respectable, civilized society; I mean in the opinion of magicians and wonder-workers of Punt, in the opinion of Aquilon's guardsman and courtesans... I really hope that they long for me much more then I long for them...

Siegfried's big brother is an exceptional rabble -it is obvious. For instance, what a brutish name Atawolf! Sounds silly! Cock-a-doodle-doolf!

I am sorry for Siegfried. From all his father's wealth he will inherit at most a tattered goat. It is a native custom of the Bataves. They don't like to divide up the lands, which were collected with a sincere martial diligence; they prefer to disinherit the younger sons of the king. So, the elder son takes it all the movables, the immovables, the flocks of tattered goats. Siegfried doesn't have any chance of getting duchy or even a shabby mark.

He is free to decide between three options to be one from the curtailed list of court circle, to be episcopized and become a Bishop (this is how the Bataves call the supreme priest) or to become a traveler. Judging on his appearance (especially his laid-back gaze), Siegfried is preparing himself for becoming a priest.

About Fafnir he knows no more then I do. Or, maybe, doesn't want to relate. The latter is unlikely, because adolescents are ingenuous, they are usually in a hurry to let the cat out of the bag in order to rise in the grown-ups opinion. Especially when those grown-ups are as authoritative, as I am. On the other hand, he is not as self-satisfied as the Avallon's aristocrats, those begin to put on airs from the cradle...

Now, I'll try to provoke Siegfried to be frank.

I guessed, that it is customary in your kingdom not to speak about it... but... I know that from time to time Fafnir expects human sacrifices from you all.

How do you happen to know?

One friendly dragon told me.

I've read it in his face, that he does not trust my words about "one known dragon".

Most likely that dragon just wanted to soil the reputation of his congener. If Fafnir expects human sacrifices, why grant him an asylum?

This is something new he never told me about an asylum before. The important thing is to give up no signs of me being really surprised.

An asylum? I'm sure, it is not an asylum in a full sense of the word. I suspect, that you keep Fafnir here on Gniteihed not only because he asked you, but because it pays. Maybe you keep him, so to say, in reserve. In case there is a war, for example. Or for a black magic, if not for something worse... I see, my dear Siegfried, we both catch the meaning at once... Do we?

It is astonishing, but the stripling has become really confused. His cheeks turned red. He's hiding his eyes.

It means, I found out something interesting, something that a stranger should not know... A taboo... A frightful secret... Enigma full of horror, that chills to the bones... On the whole, in such atmosphere I feel right at home!

I was right when I left my gang and went off this way, to the back of beyond. Maybe in our petty time here is the only place for the absolute feat of arms...

"You are totally right, answered Siegfried. He finally collected his thoughts You, king Conan, are very shrewd... Fafnir really needs such sacrifices... And this is why I'll ask Fafnir to make you swear never share your insights with anybody..."

This time I looked at a madcap fellow anew. I see that this young barbarian has terrifically changed! It's as if Zervan, the sovereign of time, had condescended to this backwoods and created a new Siegfried in exchange for previous one. Stately, calm, dispassionate... This Siegfried, I believe, shall obtain the power and win fame... But fishily episcopal ones...

***

Two days of mountaineering on the Glerbjorg mountain ridge gave Siegfried a possibility to see enough of the overseas guest.

There was a long dagger with a bone handle in Conan's belt and this belt itself was made of marvelous lindwurmskin. The barbarian's sword had such huge overall dimensions, that it has no place in a belt sheath a sheath like that would drag behind, living uneven track. This is why Conan carried the sword on his shoulder, wrapping it around with morocco.

Silk baggy trousers represented the most garish detail of the barbarian's dress. In the old days they probably seemed luxurious. On his feet he wore a queer leather flats with clinch-toes.

Behind his back Conan had a sack with belongings, which, according to his words, were represented mostly by "amulets, talismans and poisons". However, every morning and every evening instead of amulets and poisons Conan took out of his sack a large mirror, made out of beaming bronze and a remarkable shaving-knife. After the shaving he used fragrant ointments from two phials and prayed on cryptographic language to the gods, who were unknown to Siegfried.

Indelible tan ate into his face, into his neck, into his hands. At the same time, his body and shoulders that were hidden under the shirt and hauberk (which was worn by Conan for no apparent reason) were almost pale.

When the barbarian uncovered himself up to the waist for taking a bath in a tiny waterfall, Siegfried furtively smiled.

Why are you grinning?

You look like a busker, who rubbed himself with soot to play an Ethiopian. Like as if he'd rubbed his face and hands but forgot about breast and shoulders, because audience could not see them anyway, because of the clothes.

You must be a title-holder in concocting... better give me a towel...

But where is it?

In the same place, in a sack. To the on your right.

Concerning the talismans Conan did not lie. In addition to the clothes and other paraphernalia, associated with everyday life, there were some enigmatic trinkets in Conan's sack. Probably, there were amulets in all cases.

Under the towel Siegfried found a goblet, made from a human skull; its stem imitated a rooster's leg. In the eye-sockets felt the burden of their fate two great pearls they were just like two cherries.

Siegfried put a crumpled towel in the extended hand of Conan.

We must hurry, said a king's son.

In an hour they've reached a bald Glerbjorg ridge. There were no fir-trees there. Only the grass and the anemic cowberry bushes.

A valley at the foot of the mountain ridge was hazy. The forest, that remained behind them could not go up to the top, it also could not go down to the valley. Here and there on the northern mountainside they could see pellucid groves and nothing more.

Paved road went away to the left, climbing higher and higher along the ridge of Glerbjorg. Two paths rifted from the road. One of them directed downward, to the valley, the other turned right, to the mess of the gray boulders. A roadside stone, that was full of runes, sticked out right in front of Siegfried and Conan.

Conan did not notice the stone; instead he tracked the pave road to the last degree. The road reached the very top; this peak, properly speaking, had the name Glerbjorg. There, on the peak, groaned in the wind a deserted watchtower, that was surrounded with a guttered earth mound.

Whose? laconically asked Conan, poking his finger into a watchtower.

This fortress is ours, proudly answered Siegfried. Its name is Flute of the Winds. Romans had built it. Then it was captured by the Halvdanes... Now the fortress is ours.

-"The fortress"! Hmm... If it is a fortress, why don't we see a garrison there?

Cause there is no pleasure in being there, in that fortress, admitted Siegfried. People say this is a very unpleasant place. And unsafe.

Is that so? Really unsafe? But why? Is there a den of demons? Very interesting! Let's go there and see if there're any demons in your windy Flute...

The barbarian did not wait for a response of his guide. He confidently set out on foot in the line of the watchtower. Siegfried had no time to blink twice when Cimmerian, who became ten years younger at once, came to be within a spearthrow.

King Conan! Show down a little! King Conan! What are you doing!

Jingling with the sheath rings, Siegfried ran at full speed, following the restless barbarian.

King Conan... You must not go there... You may not... Forbidden... to Siegfried's shame, he was short of breath.

Why I may not? Why "forbidden"?

Because. "Forbidden" means forbidden!

Bullshit, good Mithra excuse my ribaldry! I, Conan the Cimmerian, may go anywhere! Everywhere I've decided! Do you realize that, dear boy?

Siegfried had bitten his lip. It's been a long time since someone called him "a boy". King Conan called him that way and it probably means that he does not take him seriously. Absolutely not. And it means, that he is unable to stop him on his way to the Flute of the Winds. Then what should he do now? What should he do?!

Well... said Siegfried with a sepulchral voice. Go. It's your right. Then I'll go back. To the sea. And I'll order the old Rutgar to sail for the homeland.

Who is Rutgar?

Having really unsatisfying and even unhealthy curiosity concerning the places where evil spirits and other scum lives, Conan at the same time was quite inattentive and in fact incurious.

Rutgar is helmsman of our snekkar, reminded a king's son.

Just as you like! Go back! But remember: even if I would stay in the fortress until the dawn, in any case I'll come down after you. And will even leave behind, said Conan with authority.

Siegfried angrily turned his back upon the barbarian and begun to walk away.

It was his opinion that the conversation is over. Damn that stubborn sun of a bitch! Devils take his pighead! Siegfried, the offspring of the ruler's family, shall not wrangle with a barbarian without kith or kin, with an usurper of lice-ridden Aquillon's throne! Moreover with an ex-usurper. Now Conan is just an ordinary fortune hunter, nothing more than a soldier of fortune!

However... was heard behind Siegfried's back, the victory over the mountain spirits would hardly add a brilliant to the crown of my glory... And it would take about a week to swim across the see to the lands of your father... So... You're the winner!

Siegfried, having a grudge against Conan, did not turn around. He came to the roadside runic stone. Conan, that suddenly grew quiet, followed him.

Don't be silly, dear boy! Never take an offence at me! Everyone knows, that I have an ungovernable character...

Never call me "dear boy"! Could you say, that I am a bad guide? Do you see that stone? Full of runic notes?

Where?

Here it is!

Ah, now I see...

Can you read runes?

I can't.

Aha! But I can! There is an inscription on that stone. "Going to my left... you'll sink into oblivion... Going... going to my right... you'll look death... in the face. Going straight..."

Siegfried wrinkled up his forehead, recollecting the word-for-word translation.

"Going straight..."

It is unimportant, Conan interrupted. You did not let me go to the left. So, let's go to the right! What do you think about it? "You'll look death in the face"... I'm sure it means, that you'll look in a dragon's face, it surely means Fafnir!

No! Never! You're wrong again! We should not go on the right, in no circumstances! There is a real Death. Absolutely real! We don't know anything about the travelers that went to the left. But we often meet those, who went to the right! We often meet their phantoms! Do you understand? There is oblivion on the left and Death on the right!

I do understand. It's easy!

And so we need to go straight and down, to the valley. It is swampy down there, but this season it's possible to walk through. You are lucky. If it had been a spring or a beginning of a summer, no one would have offered to take you to Fafnir. This valley is dangerous; many people had vanished there.

Well... well... well... Stop chattering! It's clear as a noonday, that the end of the inscription is "Going straight, you'll find Fafnir!" Am I right?

Yes.

Siegfried nodded. That minute he recalled the exact words that finished that sentence: "Going straight, you'll find a fool's grave".

***

Till the very den of the dragon we almost did not speak.

By the way, a king's son was a good walker we ran down from the mountain and he even shot ahead. Then we traversed a bog, a really guileful bog. The path had disappeared, but Siegfried accurately scented, where to step. So, my ankles stayed dry.

I guessed, that my dear boy had been there before. When I openly asked him, he answered unwillingly. He said, "yes". He's been here together with his father. He was a child back then and was not allowed to come into the Fafnir's cave. He said, that he never saw this wise dragon and that he's also waiting for the time when he'll ask him the questions and quench his thirst for wisdom.

"And you too" added Siegfried proudly. The pride of a king's son was absolutely explainable: our joint journey to the dragon was putting us both in equal position, as if we were really equal...

Eh! What "thirst for wisdom"? What questions? My dear naive boy...

If there really is somebody in the den, that somebody is hardly satisfied with his bitter lot to quench juvenescent thirst for wisdom all days long. The barbarians are not burdened with the ungrounded philoprogenitive beliefs. And this is why it's easy for me to imagine, that your father, dear boy, came to an arrangement with vile Fafnir in a good time, so to say, and sold him your body and soul... And when I, Conan, turned up, he decided to take the occasion and settle things up with Fafnir. And even make him an appetizing present in the form of nourishing Cimmerian.

It is clear the dragon, the son of Angra Mainyu, would never loaf about the den without any vital interests... But what kind of vital interests could the Angra Mainyu sons have? We know it very well! I have grown wise with experience! You want to eat me up? No, thanks!

After the bogs, we crossed a thick of the forest. It was foul, full of wind-fallen trees and very humid. The path had rode up again, dodging between the stones along the stream. Finally, it had led us out of the forest to the fresh air.

We stopped at the edge of a spacious glade. One hundred steps away from us darkened a wide rocky wall. I craned my neck and made certain that wall's upper end disappears in the dark clouds that gathered above us.

It was astonishing when we saw the sights of this land from the alp, I did not see any wall like that.

I cheered up this meant, that the place is bewitching, magical. And that, in turn, meant, that I would not feel sorry for the time spent.

Near the bottom of the rock, one foot over the glade, I saw an iron door. It was red because of rust, ancient and massive. At the same time I did not notice any hinges or locks.

"How should your sword be styled?"

Siegfried spoke in hushed tones. Apparently he was afraid of the dragon. He was really afraid, even though he was under protection of Conan himself! I bet he did not believe that he would get the answers to his stupid questions! He maybe did not even believe that he would get a chance to ask!

"What?"

"I would like to know the name. Does your sword have a name?"

"What for?"

"So I'd know how to address it!"

"Is it necessary?"

This minute I've remembered: it is quite common among these barbarians to idolize their arm, to pray to it. What a godlessness! Indeed! To worship the iron that is being hourly desecrated by unclean blood! But, this is a bad job, I mean trying to change ones mind regarding the mistakes inherited from their forefathers.

"It is necessary" meanwhile answered Siegfried. "For example, my sword's name is Gram".

I had no choice. So I had to remember one sonorous local word, the first one that came across.

"The name of my sword is... Rydil"

"But why did not you mention it earlier?"

"I... I don't like to blab out the important things... But since you told me your secret first... I shall do the same."

"Well... Please, give me your Rydil. I need to talk to him."

Siegfried's utmost seriousness did not dispose to mockery. I winded off my morocco and extended to Siegfried my sword, which from that moment on had the name Rydil.

Siegfried had actually grunted from the exertion. It is clear, he did not get use to the things like my Rydil. His own sword, his Gram, was unlikely to surpass my dagger in weigh or length.

Haphazardly he piled up Rydil on his shoulder and went aside, under the protection of old ash-tree.

There he'd stuck both swords mine and his into a ground. At first I wished to blame him for his treatment of my favorite. But I said nothing. (When I watch myself, I can be tolerant!)

King's son kneeled down, put together his palms, as if he were praying and started to mumble. I suppose he tried to get our swords talking. It's hilarious!

I've decided, that it is a right time for me to get down to my own business.

I drag out of the sack the Shangarian necklace from black bolls of a slay-poppy and an amulet with a dried finger of Agrapurian sorcerer Lolamba. I put an amulet and a necklace around my neck; I got a seal-ring of Ether Spider on my forefinger.

After that I returned the sack to my back. I need to be watchful! No doubt, it is easier to speak with a dragon without any sacks. But it is really stupid to forget about omnipresent thieves! I know, that these lands are thinly populated, but I bet, that a half of the population are, for sure, the cryptic thieves! Besides, people are not the only who steals. Many of the spirits, werewolves, even vywerns do the same...

Siegfried continued his conversation with Gram and Rydil. However, the swords did not answer him neither with chime nor even with a gentlest squeak. Ah! I wonder what was he hoping for?

I smiled. I know, that in contrast to Siegfried I would be heard. Because I know whom to appeal to!

I turned my face to the East and recited from "Mihr Yasht" the words, that in the old days had brought me the victories over the whole lands:

"We sacrifice unto Mithra, the lord of wide pastures, who

is truth-speaking, a chief in assemblies, with thousand ears,

well-shaped, with ten thousand eyes, high, with full knowledge,

strong, sleepless, and ever awake.

To whom the chiefs of nations offer up the sacrifices, as they

go to the field, against the havocking hosts, against the enemies coming

in a battle array, in the strife of the conflicting nations..."

So, I've finished my arrangements. Siegfried was still standing on his knees before an ash-tree. I stepped up to him.

Are you going to murmur up to the stop?

He kept silence. I think, he was pretending like he didn't hear me.

Without wasting words, I grasped the handle of my sword and tried to tear it up from the ground. That's enough, dear boy. I hope you had a good long talk. That'll do it for today!

(Doesn't sound right...)

I wish! Rydil was deep in a ground, and it did not really moved, as if he put down roots! Or, as an old scoundrel Lolamba would say, as if it got stuck in the teeth of Nergalus!

I squatted down, placed my shoulder under the sword's cross-piece and tried to straighten. I hoped to liberate my arm by all means.

But that also did not help.

Siegfried, in whose sight I made my endeavor attempts in morose silence, had finally woken up.

What are you doing, king Conan?

It was not that easy to hold the anger.

Don't you see it with your own eyes? I'm taking out my sword! But I can't understand what's happening with it!

Nothing serious. It is simple. The iron went under the auspices of the sacred tree. And this tree shall give our swords back after we finish a communication with Fafnir.

And nothing in the world can extract my sword from here?

Unlikely.

Then say to me, don't you afraid to come to the dragon's den without a sword?

Quite the contrary. I am afraid to come to the dragon's den with a sword.

I'm not a huge thinker and I'm even ready to recognize this fact (at least, in the face of Mithra), but at that moment I had no trouble grasping, that it is useless to argue with Siegfried, to entreat him to take away a paternoster, to call to his common sense or his feelings.

At the same time I understood one more thing for no apparent reason Siegfried does not take into consideration my dagger. Maybe he thinks, that dagger is safe, maybe he thinks, that Fafnir thinks that it is safe. But most likely Siegfried just forgot about my dagger. As it is often the case, a thing could become such an eyesore to someone that he just stops noticing it at all.

But who knows, maybe in a minute Siegfried will see things clearly again. Then he'll certainly demand that I'd leave the dagger near the sacral ash!

I smiled as unconstrainedly as I only could. And said:

So... well... I feel, it's time to unlock Fafnir... meanwhile I'll go aside... I'll be right back.

What for?

Hmm... I think it's not good to make water under the holy elm! Or, as the Danes would say, "Unrighteousness is to pollute the Odin's steed with belly's foam". Correct?

Seems, it sounded very comically. I burst out laughing.

Still giggling, I went to the bushes and there took out of my sack a tiny (as two thimbles!) green bottle. This small bagatelle was paid for with lives of the whole pirate gang in a heroic time of my youth.

Although I, old Cimmerian miser, grudged a little a priceless ounce of sweat that has been taken from an invisible rakshas, nevertheless I did not hesitate. I've moistened the sheath and the dagger with bottle's contents.

The skin had discolored immediately; the white-yellow ivory became absolutely white. Losing their natural colors, all the sheath's and dagger's substances, became saturated with a new color, the color of invisibility.

The arms before my very eyes have dissolved in a thin air. But I was palpably aware of a smooth bone globule on the top of the handle, of two iron hooks near the basis of the blade and of the silver bracket on the edge of the sheath. All the things where they should be. I was satisfied.

The only problem is that the sweat of the invisible rakshas will not be holding on long enough. It will dry up soon and an image of the dagger will come through the emptiness and unveil my conspiracy...

King Conan! King Co-o-nan!.. I am going i-i-in!

***

The iron door turned on the iron pillar passing through its very middle. Outstanding hand-made thing, a masterpiece of blacksmith Reign apart from the fact that it was firm and eternal had one more advantage: it was equipped with a magnificent mechanical lock and a servo-motor with a hydraulic booster.

Siegfried greased the key with old fat and inserted it in a keyhole that was recondite behind the blackberry bush to the right of the door.

King's son had to exert himself to make the mechanism work. For this purpose he had to add one more auxiliary detail to the key's head. It was a foot-long lever.

During the first turn of the key, four joint-pins came back into the slots of the lock's mechanism and opened the door.

A dozen of athletes would turn purple with strain, trying to swing the iron monolith around the ace-pillar. However, blacksmith Regin would never be considered an Archimedes of his poor in genius time if it'd require a dozen of athletes to use his marvels of mechanical ingenuity.

Siegfried turned the key once again.

In the depth of basalt awoke and begun to roar an artificial waterfall. A water tank embedded in the rock, splashed away ten thousands barrels of water.

The water squelched in the water-wheel paddles, driving gears started to rattle. The door was opening slowly. The opened chink was wide enough for a man of any constitution, even as husky as Conan.

It will take five days to refill the water tank again the stream, that flowed through the secret vein of rock was quite feeble.

The second water tank, that was situated symmetrically, still remained full. It must be emptied during the closing of the iron door.

Conan resolutely stepped over the threshold, following Siegfried.

The dispersed light of the autumn day was immediately taken to task by numerous gems marking the walls and the ceiling of the roomy alley with a dotted line. It went straight for seventy steps and then smoothly turned right.

This bright inner light that suddenly blazed up in yellow, crimson and dark blue gems, scared Conan, though Siegfried stayed indifferent to it. The barbarian suspected that the gems that sparkled in blind darkness are products of a sacrilegious teurgia while Siegfried discovered that they are nothing but lamps indicating the direction.

No stink, no sticky piles of garbage, no cattle skulls or bones... In a word, no paraphernalia of slovenly gluttony. Cimmerian just did not find them in a passage, though he industriously tried.

The Fafnir's abode was an evidence of the strange fact: its master is a cleanly, inventively thinking creature, maybe a little bit phlegmatic and lazy, inclined to create sporadically when the inspiration comes...

Turn of passage revealed one of the last products of Fafnir's inspiration: an impressive block of a rock crystal. Only when adapted to the unusual lighting and only after being filled with the creativity of the artist one could realize that this block was a Fafnir's life-sized self-portrait. Crystal dragon laid on the floor, tucking up the forepaws under the chest in a catlike manner. He covered his head with his right wind.

King Siegmund, who came into the den at the beginning of the year to ask dragon's advice on the religious politics of the kingdom, caught Fafnir sculpturing the left wing. Siegmund had frightened away Fafnir's inspiration. This is why the self-portrait remained unfinished and single-winged...

The nature showered artistic gifts on Fafnir the Sculptor. And that made him very unscrupulous in the choice of tools for his art-work. He usually scorned the traditional sculptor's tools, preferring his inborn pride. For rough treatment of the rock crystal he has been using his diamond cutting teeth of the upper jaw. For finishing work he has been using the claws of the upper extremity, he has been polishing his masterpieces with tale skin, that was as shaggy, as a real emery.

"Fafnir, son of Hreidmar" this name was given to the sculptured figure by the dragon. But he did not emboss the inscription in imperishable stone. The joy of creation caused a toothache, the claws horribly itched...

Conan stood on his toes. He knocked on the edge of the crystal tail, evaluating. Unfortunately, the abstract thinking of the barbarian was not strong enough to recognize in the crystal block anything more interesting, then a block. The Fafnir's tail in his opinion was merely a fantastical stalagmite...

When you are guest, it' s better not to touch anything without the host's permission...

It seemed to Conan that this phrase was pronounced by Siegfried. Acoustics in the heart of the fairy mountain was really fairy. Distant sounds seemed close, close sounds sometimes even did not reach ear, the beating of own heart could be easily mistook for the murmur of the scorching sulfur in the subterranean waterfalls of Utgard.

Better stop teaching me! Right now! the barbarian became furious turning abruptly.

He nervously grasped his dagger, but timely collected himself. The clank of iron was able to reveal his intents. If not to Fafnir himself, then to Siegfried.

Cimmerian walked around the sculpture then he figured out, that the crystal block from certain perspectives looks like a bird, nestled down on the floor. However, Conan did not care about this resemblance a rush. He was not interested in the crystal dragon-like birds, he needed their flesh-and-blood prototype. And the latter, seemed, vanished into thin air!

Who is here?

Indeed, who?

The voice did not belong to Siegfried, although it also jingled with juvenile bells.

I am Conan, king of Aquillon, noble native of Kymmeria, answered the barbarian, bracing himself up.

I am Fafnir, son of Hreidmar, the wise native of Nifelheim. You may ask your questions.

Where is Siegfried?

He is listening to my answers.

But then where are you?

I am here.

Why don't I see you then?

You see my simulacra. My simulacra is conversing with you. You can get the answers. Is it not enough?

It is not enough.

Having a Jesuitical shrewd common sense, Conan gave no signs that he was hearing the word "simulacra" for the first time in his life. Although he guessed, that his interlocutor means the crystal bird. It might well be, Conan supposed, that "simulacra" is just a word for "bird".

Siegfried is polite, as polite as his father Siegmund. He is being satisfied with my simulacra's answers without complaints. But you are not, said Fafnir. I believe, that your father was as uncouth as you are...

The dragon was famous for his foresights the life of Niun, Conan's father, was not really rich in ceremonies. It was the life of a village farrier.

...However, the dragon continued, you might have weighty reasons to insist upon meeting me in person?

Of course, penetrating son of Hreidmar, I have. I know, that a spit of dragon is an excellent transmutator and it is very useful for magicians. I would like to buy some of your spit. A quarter of a pound. Price does not matter.

Your voice is a voice of a warrior. Not of a magician. Your work is to strike with iron. Seeking for my spit, you are turning to the road of black magic. It will bring you no good, for a moment intelligible parlance of Fafnir degraded to the muffled sleepy mumbling. I see... see your past lives... future lives... here... there... these lives are like fishes... quick-moving fishes... Aha! Here it is! Here it lays, my forty pounds nugget! triumphed dragon. Listen to me, you naked animal: you had never taken neither spit, nor sweat or bile from celestial dragons. You have been taking it from rakshases, from people and vywerns, from lindwurms, loathsome ashy snakes and many animals. You have been mainly taking the blood. And that was your right. Because you have been staying on the path of warrior with both feet. And now...

That will do! Enough! Let's get down to business! What do you ask for your spit?

Your left hand. Up to the elbow.

Exorbitant prices! But... but I'm willing to give you one finger. For a quarter of a pound.

About a minute it was quiet.

One finger will do. But remember well my warning. If you give me your finger today, in four days you will die...

Until this moment Conan stayed indifferent to the cautions of Fafnir. He kept the conversation up only because he wanted to lure the dragon out of his sanctuary and make the creature appear before him in all his visible, tangible, vulnerable fullness, in fullness of flesh. However, this time the dragon's warning confused him. Indeed, the death of Conan, the famous exterminator of filth, should be desirable for any foul offspring of Evil. For what reason Fafnir, this progeny of Angra Mainyu, is trying to discourage him, Conan, from the bewitching bargain?

But the barbarian was already through with hesitation he just came to the conclusion, that mercenary creature is lying.

It's a deal! screamed out Conan boldly. My finger is yours!

Once Cimmerian has witnessed a terrible attack. A huge migrant horde of locust assaulted the Kush kingdom. He memorized forever an apocalyptic rattle of the gluttonous cloud stripping motley patches of fields and pastures from the landscape and reducing to a common ash-colored denominator the sowings of pea and hemp, barley and wheat. He had never seen anything more frightening in his life.

The locust cloud has assembled in the heart of the cave and then dived from under the arches curtained off with darkness as if it intended to hit exactly Conan's chest.

Conan knew from Kush experience, that it is best in such situation to fall on the ground.

When the deafening rattle finally calmed down, leaving behind just a few chilly hurricanes, Conan raised his head.

In front of him, proudly sticking out his belly, stood a dragon. In fact, he bore much more resemblance to a bird then to a reptile.

Fafnir's wings that would not fit into the passage while spread stuck up above the spotty back of the dragon. Their rear edges seemed blood-stained and tattered at first sight. But very soon Conan noticed that this optical illusion is caused by feathers, that covered the wings of the dragon. Black, scarlet, orange feathers.

The legs and the back of Fafnir's head were also feathery. Plumage there was modest in color, but warmed up the dragon's cold body well. Two pointy ears of Fafnir were shaggy with a tender gray fluff. The down inside of the ears were silver-bluish. As the ears of young rakshas, noted Conan.

The barbarian also decided, that this feathering caused that terrible locust-like noise that accompanied dragon's flight. But Conan was wrong. Loud chirr and rattle, that announced the appearance of the winged anchorite, was just one of the numerous dragon's jokes. Another time Fafnir would squeak as a pig, hiss as a pouring rain, drone like a fire-ball.

There were wide segments of keratinized skin on the chest, on the belly and on the inside of the dragon's hip. They were separated from one another with leathern bottlenecks. Perhaps, this was the only thing (not counting the bare tale with arrow-like end and haughty crocodile mug of exorbitant length) testified, that Fafnir is essentially a dragon.

He was ten ells high. Cimmerian couldn't tell the length of dragon. The illumination was too delusive.

Unprecedented color! Unwitnessed breed! Conan almost panted with ecstasy. What a priceless trophy!

So there you are, Conan, the son of Niun!

The authentic voice of Fafnir, produced by his real throat and not by a cold throat of simulacra, was silky. In fact, it was so silky that one might want to stroke it with hand. Or maybe even to stroke his tongue. One would like to apply it to a forehead, to the cheeks, to wrap it around the neck. It was a voice of a crafty devil, princesses' seducer, of a thief abducting human souls...

Conan became strongly convinced, that this creature is treacherous, blood-thirsty and mendacious.

It is me. So what?

You are similar to my brother Regin. As sulky as he is. You are tall.

Is he a man, I mean, your brother?

He is man-not-man. But it is not interesting. I need to know something else...

Fafnir made two steps forward and moved his eye surrounded by a ring of horn, closer to Conan.

Cimmerian heard that dragon eye despite its deceptive vulnerability, cannot be punctured by knife or sword. Is that true, or is that just another lie told by cunning eunuch Lolamba?

He wished he could verify it, but the risk outweighed possible benefits.

Tell me, Cimmerian, were your mother faithful to your father? suddenly asked Fafnir. Did she offer herself to lustful nothern wind? Did she drink the magical water with white worms? Maybe, she received a Golden Rain in her privy rooms? Or did she consorted with Black Kite in the image of pen-swan?

That was too much! Conan's mind was blinded with fury. But, though his eyes were blind, his hands, unfortunately, were not.

The heaviest marrowbone in Nothern Europe punched the dragon's right cheek.

Fafnir's head shacked away from Conan.

Stop smearing my mother! yelled the barbarian.

In vain. It was not wise to waste time on such fits of passion.

Any snake could be envious of dragon's tale mobility. Fafnir has knocked Conan down before in he could delivered the third blow in series. At that the arrow on the dragon's tale has scratched Conan's hauberk.

Bounced off.

Kept on moving mechanically.

Turned around the longitudinal axis.

And chopped off a little finger from the Conan's hand that was drawn back for the fourth blow.

It has also chopped off it's own sculptural image from the monument "Fafnir, son of Hreidmar" and broke a couple of gems on the wall of passage. Then it went away, drawn by celestial-born dragon's muscular system, that was very well-developed...

I do really hate curious persons! I do hate idle curiosity! I do hate them even more, then I hate lindwurms! barked dragon. And I do hate you three time as much! You, dirty huckster!

The unfinned, sharp-clawed forepaw of dragon has pressed Conan to the floor. It has also covered an invisible dagger. To that dagger were directed all the simple thoughts of the barbarian.

Conan's left hand was bleeding. While the right hand tried to feel the dagger's handle.

You needed my spit? Then take it! I am not greedy! Take it!

Fafnir angrily spited.

But his dense spit did not spread like a foam puddle over the floor. Because of the contact with an air, luminous liquid roughly blistered. Separate bubbles, rolling over, gathered in one big ball. Its outer sheath got hard. Then contents of this vessel, that reminded of glassy honeycomb, got the color of the stale blood-pudding.

When the spit underwent these transformations, Conan repeatedly called for Mithra's help.

Fafnir intently sniffed.

Finally the smell of the blood helped the dragon to find the barbarian's finger that was chopped out. He removed his paw from the prostrate Conan, stepped ahead, stretched his neck and, twisting his tail into a magic pretzel, breathed on the little finger.

Ownerless bit of human flesh instantly turned into a silver fish. Fafnir licked off the fish with his shining tongue at once.

Human flesh is forbidden... murmured dragon. But fish is not.

The dragon was confident, that the bargain is done and thus the conversation is over. But the barbarian was not going to share that opinion.

The left underarm of Fafnir was just at the high point above the Conan's nose. Cimmerian squinted his eyes. The bone handle of his dagger was slowly returning into a world of visible.

Cimmerian carefully pulled the dagger from the sheath with his healthy hand.

Oh! But what is there... what? Fafnir pricked up his ears, listening to the prophetic currents, that came from his stomach. A fate? My fate?.. Hey, Conan!..

The dragon crooked his neck and looked under his belly.

The darkness reigned there. The eyes of Fafnir flared.

King Conan? What is going on?

This was the voice of Siegfried. Two minutes ago king's son accomplished the conversation with another Fafnir's simulacra situated in a small room, which he entered, following the turns of the main passage. It was not far from the first crystal simulacra.

Conan leaped to his feet and stabbed the dragon with his dagger. Steel had torn the buckle between two horny segments on the dragon's belly.

The blade came into a Fafnir's flesh to the full length. Then into this living depth, that started to exude a farinaceous gluten, but did not start bleeding, plunged the dagger's handle together with Conan's hand.

Fafnir began to wail. The lamentations of the dragon were mournful, but unintelligible. His eyes twinkled twice and went off.

It seemed to Conan that the Fafnir's glutton will suck him in immediately. He uttered a scream and jerked back his hand. The dagger completely remained in a wound.

The Cimmerian rapidly flew out from under the dragon.

Siegfried, who stood under the left wing of Fafnir, has caught a slap in a ear. He still was unable to comprehend, what was happening.

Suddenly Fafnir became quiet and crashed down on his right side, a broken wing crunched.

Instantly, with loud flapping, the dagger jumped out from the wound. Its handle painfully punched Siegfried in the chest.

Conan... you...

Siegfried did not finished the sentence. The tight stream of dragon's blood hit his chest. Right in front of his eyes gleamed the spokes of a scarlet wheel. And king's son fainted away. The bloody steam, that seemed inexhaustible nodulized Siegfried from top to toe.

As soon as miracle-working haemoglobins sprinkled the Siegfried's sinciput, he took a long breath and, making hoarse noises, came to himself.

Simultaneously, Fafnir has also regained consciousness.

R-r-r-r-tsa... R-r-r-tsa... said the dragon, gnashing with his sharp claws. He rose to his four feet.

While Fafnir have been dying, while Siegfried have been taking a bloody shower, the only thing that Conan had time to accomplish was offering a gratifying prayer to Mithra. Though he prayed in rough-and-ready fashion.

But very soon it has become clear that his gratitude to Mithra was expressed prematurely...

It turned out that Mithra is not a helper, at least, for a while. And that the only real ally of Cimmerian is his dagger. But where is this dagger?!

After washing in dragon's blood, Siegfried's skin started to itch. But most importantly something has happened to Siegfried's eyesight. He saw a bright star where was the exit from the cave, he saw the luminous piece of rotten wood where was Conan. Fafnir was seen as an oblong window and beyond that window was glistening like silver a night sea. There was a moonlight drive on that see. Right to that moonlight, sailed a boat. At the bottom of the boat there laid a man and someone in black loose overall was sitting at the stern... In his hands the stranger held an unusual thin oar.

Siegfried shouted.

Someone in black loose overall turned around. White teeth, red gums, eternal smile of skeleton. The oar came out of the water and Siegfried recognized that this is not an oar, this is a scythe. The passenger of a boat was Conan. The helmsman was Death.

O, Jesus, chieftain of the divine army and his holy centurions, help! Dispel the satanic delusion!

Siegfried jumped up and took to his heels. Bumped into a wall unfortunately, the substantial geometry of the passage did not coincided with its parallel geometry which was in focus of Siegfried's sight after the contact with Fafnir's blood.

He dashed aside, ran forward and bumped into the opposite wall.

Damn!

But the exit was very close.

Siegfried's spirit became stronger and he doughtily dived into the heart of the bright star. He did not scorched even his wavy hair and came to the surface beyond the parallel sight. The evening humidity and wet grass open their arms to him.

In the cave snarled and raged dragon Fafnir personified hatred against the human race.

And it seemed to Siegfried that Fafnir pursued him closely. A death from the wounded Fafnir's sharp-clawed paws would have been just. King's son recognized that. He, Siegfried, had brought a killer disguised as a friend to the wise dragon. He, Siegfried, deserves no credit. He deserves death and posthumous damnation.

But thirst for life is stronger then justice. And the moral categories are aliens to human body.

Instead of waiting for the well-deserved punishment, Siegfried's body erected itself in front of the key inserted into a keyhole. The hands of Siegfried snatched at lever and turned the key once, twice, thrice...

Fafnir's blood streamed down the king's son's legs, irrigating the grass, though after this irrigation it immediately changed into fragile crystals of goldish spar.

The water from the second water-tank gushed out on the wheel paddles. The iron door was closing slowly...

***

Conan, the indomitable barbarian from Kymmeria, became almost deaf by the dragon's howling. But unlike Siegfried, he did not lose his temper.

When Siegfried ran at a breakneck pace towards the cave's exit, and Fafnir, on his numb, lifeless legs moved back into the depth of the cave, Conan has finally found his dagger. After returning from the dragon's belly, the steel has became cherry-red and the handle was now colored with lemon-yellow. Unprecedented!

The left palm, that has lost a little finger, has been horribly aching. The stump has been still bleeding.

Conan pulled three clove of slay-poppy out of his necklace and hastily chewed them down. The sedative effect of the Othyr herb positively affected him very soon his hands, his feet, his jaws, upper and lower and even his tongue went absolutely numb. His backbone became covered with hoar-frost. However Conan's extremities upper and lower were still obeying him. And that was most important.

Cimmerian turned away, closed his eyes and, speaking with his lips closed, pronounced a conjuration. After that he opened a seal-ring of Ether Spider. With a quiet hum from the cavity that was hidden under the massive ruby of a seal-ring, got out a spirit, known by the name Ether Spider.

With a lightning speed he started to spin a web and in a split second he had woven from the thin air an image of Conan, that looked exactly like Conan himself. Now near the real Conan there stood a second Conan swaying a little bit like drunk.

Ether Spider is a very ephemeral creature by nature, he just dissolves in the air, if telluric magic of ruby does not defend it. And this is why the spirit preferred to take a sip of energy from his master's lips and hide again in the seal-ring as soon as possible.

Conan pressed on a ruby and a jewel went back with a soft click.

After that Cimmerian opened his eyes. It was strictly forbidden to watch Ether Spider work. Else wise Ether Spider could catch a sight, root into the pupil of the eye and settle down in the Cimmerian's cranium. Joyless perspective. Especially taking into account the intolerable talkativeness of the spirit.

Fafnir, who has been moving by anything but the life-force, has finally stopped. He rested his eyes on Conan. And it seemed to him, that the barbarian is stunned. His hands are lowered, his head is bent...

The last seconds of countdown were ticking in the Fafnir's consciousness and the dragon doubtfully examined the spurious Conan. He already got used to the fact, that the life has left his winged body as well as to the fact that very soon the motion would leave it too. The only thing that still bothered Fafnir was: what to do with the Cimmerian? To chastise him for his treachery with immediate death or to pass the Conan's life to inexorable Fate?

At the same time genuine Conan prepared himself to the last combat. He hid himself beyond the crystal Fafnir's simulacra. He was waiting for a moment when dragon would attack his copy, made by Ether Spider. According to his calculations, during the attack the creature should come as close as necessary for the last stab of dagger. He decided to aim at the dragon's eye.

If crafty castrate Lolamba was right and the dragon's eye is really stronger then the steel, the attempt would not be successful and the jaws of tough Angra Mainyu's offspring would close down the skull of Conan and squeeze out his brain from his nostrils and eye-sockets. But if Lolamba was mistaken... Oh... in this case he, Cimmerian, would grant to the Netherlands people their liberty from feathered tyrant's oppression!

Fafnir jumped ahead.

Conan, who was woven from nothing, has been torn to tatters. These tatters, weightless, variegated started to spin in the air that was stirred up by dragon's paws.

The Fafnir's muzzle became faintly visible in this motley circulation two steps away from Conan. Screaming out a war-cry of Othyr camel guardians, Cimmerian rushed into attack.

Lolamba was wrong. Dagger's cutting edge has easily pierced through the cornea of the dragon's eye. And this eye exploded from within: the life ardor came out from the third innerbody cocoon connecting the dragon's brain with his dying consciousness.

Instantly a beam of particles painted in gay colors barbarian's hair, blazed on his cheeks, shaded his look.

I forgive you, Conan. But remember, the deal is done, murmured Fafnir, lowering to his belly and covering his head with a wing, right to a T as did his crystal simulacra.

The dragon became silent. At once the last sparkles from his exploded eye went out. Absolute darkness reigned in Fafnir's asylum.

In the beginning, Conan ignored this fact.

As it did many times in the past after a victory over a powerful enemy Conan felt that blood foamed in his veins like an ocean surf. And he heard the all-conquering blare of optimistic trumpets.

You are the offspring of the All Lies Father. And you yourself told only lies!

Conan addressed the spirit of Fafnir, which, according to the barbarian's idea, should be near at hand.

I am not afraid of you. I am not afraid of your predictions! summarized Conan with haughty voice. And spited out in darkness.

Then Conan sang a Song of Good Fortune. And danced a Dance of Victory.

The chorus of Conan's double that were born by echo joined him in singing.

Dancing in the darkness was not convenient. Twice Conan hit his head on the wall and against the simulacra. Only after that he assented to notice that it is absolutely dark and that Siegfried is missing.

Hey! Hey, king's son! Dry your pants and come out here! I've liberated your kingdom from the blood-sucking parasite! You all are free people now. Free-e-e-e!!!

Conan listened to the silence. Only echo answered him.

"What a molly-coddle this Siegfried" muttered the barbarian. He was sure, that king's son is somewhere around. Maybe he just fainted away?

And what happened to light?

Groping his way, Conan reached the cave's exit and made faced the fact: the door was closed. Neither a sunbeam, nor a moonshine delved into and inflamed the wall gems.

Hey, whoever you may be... whoever you may serve... you... Nergalus' giblets... you should know: Conan the Cimmerian will show you what's what! On the earth or under the earth I'll give you what-for! I'll tear you in pieces! Barehanded! And so better open the door until I fly into a rage! Today I'm in a good temper. Very well... I'll have mercy on you, little fool.

The king's son mosquito shout reached Conan's ears from behind the door. The voice was materially weakened by the door's steel.

King Conan! I am unable to open this door! You will have to wait! It is not too long, only five days! And five nights! Until the opening water tank is filled up! Now you must keep silence. You've committed a horrible crime. I don't want to talk to you.

Don't be a fool, Siegfried. What does it mean "you are unable"? Once you was able to open it! I saw it with my own eyes! Is it difficult to do it once again? I've liberated your people from the cruel dragon and you return evil for good... Shame on you!

But king's son did not answer.

***

The whole night, that he spent near the iron door, Siegfried tried to make peace with his conscience. In vain.

Indeed, at the very beginning, he killed nice Fafnir. Not with his own hands, but with Conan's. Now he is actually killing Conan, imprisoning him in Fafnir's cave. And again, not with his own hands, not because of his will the door has been closed by the power of water, while he, Siegfried, thought that Conan is dead and that wounded Fafnir was going to tear off his, Siegfried's, head!

There was one more important circumstance, that gave Siegfried no rest.

It was necessary to pay wergild for the Fafnir's death. The dragon's kinsfolk should take it. Otherwise they (or their spirits) will certainly haunt Conan to death. And even in the world beyond they will give Conan no quarter.

Even looking at this problem through the prism of pure Christian views (Siegfried actually recognized the great power of comes Jesus and was sure, that he is a convinced Christian) anyway it turned out that Fafnir is an innocent victim of treacherous stab and that Conan is like Judas or Herod. Or even worse.

The best thing in times like this would be to ask bishop's advise. Unfortunately, there were no bishops in Gniteihed. There were also no churches, no monks, no pagan basilicas, no Jupiter temples there. Even no Isida's priest and no shabby druid!

It also turned out, that Siegfried's doing were not only destructive for the physical bodies of Cimmerian and Fafnir, but even destructive for the spiritual body of king Conan. Through ignorance king Conan has killed a sentient being, that must not be killed anyway. And now he even unable to depurate himself from the filth of violence and forced to stick around in the shut cage alone with his sins and a victim of these sins.

Siegfried pitied blockheaded Conan. This is why he decided to wait near the door these damned five days. Then he will turn the key, liberate the power of the water and together with it liberate the impetuous barbarian.

After his liberation Conan will have to choose the lesser of two evils: to stay on Gniteihed in a role of eternal outcast or to appear in court of Siegmund. (If divine justice will not occur earlier.)

Siegfried could not sleep. He was freezing. The capricorn beetles heartily creaked on a sacred ash-tree. Beyond the iron door snored the Cimmerian.

***

"Eternal light"! "Truth"! Cimmerian mimiced the king's son. What kind of "truth" can say the dragon, contemptible Angra Mainyu's offspring? Don't you know, that in Angra Mainyu's army Druj or Big Lie is one of the high standing generals? So, the truth and the dragon are incompatible.

We don't think so.

You are stubborn as a jackass. Well... Now you know what I came to the Fafnir's cave for. But I still have no idea, what are you seeking here?

Does it really matter?

I swear on Sraosha's bludgeon! It is better to talk to you then to go mad from hunger and thirst!

Maybe you should better try again to destroy the door? Maybe you've got some more of your secret magic amulets? Seems, you did not yet tested the miraculous properties of the Fafnir's spit...

I need a rest... And I'm sick of this damn spit... So, you can start telling me your story... I need to collect my thoughts.

Very well. I collogued with one of the Fafnir's simulacra. Just as you did. That simulacra looked a like an outline of a tree made of white clay globules. The dragon convinced me that this simulacra had a name "Fafnir without skin".

Insane creature! Nevertheless, I was right when tickled him with an iron...

Unlikely, that insane creature could explain things one after another and coherently. Siegfried interrupted the barbarian. I believe, that the dragon knew the esoteric truth... The interior truth of the world. Do you understand me? He was building his simulacras according to his knowledge...

But where did you pick up all these words, wondered Conan. "Interior"... "eternal light"... "esoteric truth"... I remember, you use to speak like a regular boy before!

"Interior" in Latin means "inner". Nothing special.

Nothing? Let it be nothing, Conan despondently agreed. And what did this "Fafnir without skin" told you?

I wanted to know my future. To be exact, I came here to ask what version of the future should I choose for myself.

Ha! This question is very simple. Why didn't you ask me? To get the right answer one don't have to ask mendacious dragons!

Why?

Because a man has no definite future. There is nothing to know. A man does not have any prescripted future. The world does not have any prescripted future...

I understand this point of view, tactfully agreed the king's son. But we, Bataves, do love speaking about the future. It is customary to speak about it. We think, that we can worm out a future as we can worm out a secret path to Hiperborea. Does it astonish you when the merchant, going to the other end of the world, wants to know as much as he can about the distant mountains and lakes, forests and tribes? Even in the case if his trip would be cancelled?

It does not astonish me.

Then you better believe, that I asked Fafnir, which ways of a strange land are convenient for me. This is a tradition in our family. My older brother Ataulf also asked Fafnir for advise, and so did my father Siegfried, and so did my uncle Rognar... I wanted to know which direction to go my vocation, so to say.

I understand. Then I bet being a king is not you vocation. And this is what Fafnir told you.

Ye-es... But how do you happen to know?

It is absolutely clear. You brother Ataulf would kill you if he suspect you of such claims. Believe me, my dear boy, I have had all kinds of experiences... I've seen lots of king's sons... One should not be a prophetic dragon in order to figure out your vocation...

If you are so penetrating, then maybe you know what Fafnir proposed to me?

Wait a minute... Well... You are able to become a warrior. It is obvious. And it is much more obvious that you will become a poor warrior. Further... You can be a priest of the Savior. A bishop, as far as I remember... You are suited for such work, it's clear. "Eternal light", "esoteric truth"... Well-rounded speeches... In fact, I don't see any other options for a king's son it is unlikely, that you are going to become a shoemaker... Oh, now. I see the third way! You can be a judge. As Sraosha in the army of Ahura Mazda. You will go with a bludgeon and punish the bribe-takers and scoundrels.

You are wrong. Fafnir never told me about being a bishop. He told me, that I can be a Hunter for Elements. Which means wizard.

It makes no difference, indifferently responded Conan. Let me tell you that in the lands, where righteous men confess the true teaching of Zaratushtra, they call their priests of the Saviour "the wizards". So, your words just prove me right.

Siegfried has become depressed. Maybe Conan is right and Fafnir did not have any special knowledge?

But one minute passed and he returned to this sacrilegious thought. It is impossible! What does it mean "did not have any special knowledge"? What a bullshit! The most important thing is not "what" but "how"! Fafnir did not only tell him the ways he should choose. He also said, what exactly to do in order to go this of that way!

Well... Maybe it really makes no difference... said Siegfried with strained voice. He awfully tried to keep his wool on. If you, king Conan, really equal in your wisdom to dragon Fafnir, then tell me, please, what exactly Fafnir has suggested? What was it?

Conan began to grumble in response. Siegfried decided that it gurgles in the barbarian's belly because of hunger.

In a minute Conan answered with a chest-voice:

I have to tell you, king's son... You can be a Hunter for Memory. Hunter is a good word, I think. It helps to express the proper sense. For example, the king is a Hunter for Power, the warrior is a Hunter for Courage. The magician is a Hunter for Elements... The judge is a Hunter for Justice...

Every new Conan's word made Siegfried gloomier. His knees trembled and his face became marmoreal. Because the Cimmerian repeated exactly the things, that Fafnir has told Siegfried. Word for word.

The Hunter for Memory can be whatever he likes a scald, a warrior, a magician. He can even be a beggar. But one day the Hunter for Memory will set fire to one and only temple. Or he will be crucified on the oblique cross. Maybe he'll write "The Metamorphoses" or count the skies. When the Hunter for Memory come into a world, he stay there forever. As the moon and the stars. His death is unavoidable, but his life will be engraved in the memory of the world. His memory is imperishable. And this is why he is called the Hunter for Memory.

King Conan, stop talking! Siegfried lost his temper. He gripped his head in a vice of hands.

But Conan did not react to Siegfried's despair howling. He burst out laughing and continued:

Now I'll tell you some more interesting things... To become a Hunter for Courage you should go straight to the court of Roman basileus. But you need to remember from there you will never come home...

Exhausted Siegfried rested against the door and fell silent. The pragmatysm gained the upper hand over the sacred fear finally he decided, that it would be useful to listen to Fafnir's prophecies once more.

To become a Hunter for Justice, you need to go to Syrmius, to the court of Atley, hunnu king. But you'll never come back from the land of hunnu... To become a Hunter for Elements, go to Niebelungenland. To the Nebelsee Lake. In fifteen years you will surpass your human nature. And you'll never return to people...

Siegfried imagined the Nebelsee Lake as distinctly, as if he was born and grew up there.

Contrary to the lake's name (which implied shades and darkness), the air under Nebelsee was transparent and clean as Easter dawn. Two huge fishes played in a water, not far from the shore boulders. And the mirror-like surface of the water suggested that Nebelsee is a deep lake with a guileful, black floor...

"But I myself have never been at Nebelsee!" Siegfried was horrified.

In a minute everything became clear for him. The stranger remembrances the remembrances of Fafnir came into his flesh together with Fafnir's blood. Siegfried stopped the retrospection with his will.

What a blockhead am I! he cried out.

He finally understood, what happened this morning. What happened while he washed himself in a brook and had his meagre breakfast. Then he nicely moved away from the iron door for not confusing the Cimmerian with his champing.

To confuse Cimmerian! Ha! The Cimmerian himself was able to confuse the whole world!

Now Siegfried knew it exactly, beyond doubt: "While I had my breakfast, Cimmerian had his! He cut the dragon's heart out and ate it up. He arranged a sumptuous feast! What a fool! I warned him in vain..."

Indeed, more then twice king's son alarmed Conan. Conjured him. Begged him to be patient. To suffer five days miserable five days! without water and food. In fact, it is not that painful. Any druid, any well-disciplined Christian monk would say, that keeping the five-days fast is good for your health. Very good in fact. This fast would certainly help to both bodily transformation and spiritual transfiguration of the barbarian. But the barbarian did not like to suffer. He did not like to keep fast. He did not care about transformations and transfigurations...

Here is a solution to the ominous secret of Conan's knowing-all-speeches.

His knowledge is borrowed. It was picked up from the delicious Fafnir's heart. And all Conan's oracles are the oracles of Fafnir.

The barbarian received a communion of dragon's flesh and blood. And now Conan's flesh and blood are becoming the dragon's flesh and blood. Yes, he'll become a dragon. An enlightened one or an insane one. But he'll not be able to hold the human shape for long.

After a while, in one or two meals, Conan will start understanding the language of tries and birds. The secrets of Creation and the secrets of the End of the World will open to him. But if the nature of dragon is in harmony with such secrets, the nature of human is not. Human will never stand the test of these secrets. A human soul is too small compared to the soul of a dragon.

And what will happen then?

The End of the World? Scarcely.

Most likely, the End of Conan.

The knowledge about Conan's fate came into Siegfried together with Fafnir's blood in that blood he was washed yesterday, against his will. But king's son had got off lightly with homeopathic draught of dragon blood while Conan gulped this elixir down from the heart and it was probably an overdose...

It is strange, that he is still alive though.

Or maybe he is not?

Maybe on that side of the door, a new monster, an anthropogenic dragon tears off leavings of baggy trousers from his legs?

Listen to me, king... What should I call you: "the king Conan" or "the dragon Conan"? Maybe even "the king Fafnir"?

The Daeva take you, king's son... responded Conan with hopeless, hangover voice. Me is me.

Do you remember what we were talking about?

Don't you? Did you have time to forget?

Don't be cross with me... I'm just checking... I want to know... Were you attentive when I spoke? It just seemed to me that you began to nod...

What an insolent fellow! Do you think, that when I can't show you what's what, you can distrust me? King Conan from Kymmeria? Damned insolence! Don't you know, who is elder here?

Don't you know that at any moment I can get up and leave you here all alone... For a half of a year or even more... And no one will release you from this cave. Don't you remember, that the key is on my side?

Stinky asshole, muttered Conan gently.

Siegfried waited silently for a more substantial answer. And he waited till the barbarian answered.

I listened to you attentively, dear boy. You told me about the Hunters. About Hunter for Justice, Hunter for Elements... and so on.

You think, I told you about the Hunters? exclaimed Siegfried, emphasizing the word "I" .

Yes. It was you. May I drop dead if it was not you!

Well, well, well...

The transformation of Conan's personality went at full speed. And this process was really amazing. The barbarian has lost a stable connection with human's reality. At the same time, the dragon's nature, that started to get control over him, still did not fully developed itself, it did not yet show itself, pretending to be something exterior, distant, safe.

***

But the most interesting things occurred on the third day.

Conan, the barbarian had comprehended the secrets of Creation and of the End of the World.

He hurried up to share them with Siegfried in the course of the next afternoon trance, where he spent particularly long time, helping himself with a menacing, roaring and dragon-like screeches.

Frankly speaking, Siegfried was disappointed with those secrets. He knew the most of them from the Halvdan people. They have the reputation of the most knowledgeable, because of their friendship with late Fafnir.

And again as it was yesterday when Conan came to consciousness after his trance, he was positive, that the things he told on behalf of Fafnir were nothing but a faithless nonsense told by impious dreamer Siegfried.

Oh... I told to myself... Conan! Don't look for a fame in the evening of life... You've destroyed lots of evil, so you've made lots of good things... But I was stubborn! I did not take my own advice... And the demons carried me to the edge of the world... And here in the middle of dirt and wretchedness, I become a victim of my own nobility... I turned into a boy, who is teached by wise, godlike philosopher Siegfried... Siegfried opens to me the secrets of the world... Woe is me!

Siegfried smiled only two times on Gniteihed. This was the second time.

Siegfried was touched not only by the trivial irony of Cimmerian, no. He was touched by the ultimate idiotism of the situation: the barbarian, the killer of a dragon, which to the marrow of his bones became soaked with the dragon's wisdom, is gushing with this knowledge from morning to night while in actuality he is really partitioned off the second, the dragon's, half of his new personality with a blind wall. Moreover, he subjected this second half of his personality to the dialectical ostracism.

The forth day they spoke about the forces that set the universe going. The Cimmerian chattered non-stop.

Siegfried did not understand much. Conan was easily carried away and very often he started to speak the language of celestial dragons. In the cave echoed the strange sounds they seemed like bursting of puff-balls or maybe like hooting of one thousand headed eagle-owl.

Everyone knows, that the language of the celestial dragons is saturated with magical sounds ten times more than the language of Adam and Eve. This is why lots of strange things happened in the cave and even near the door.

Broke into bloom and faded the branches of the dried blackberry bush, that was exterminated by Siegfried almost at the roots (he used it to light a campfire).

The grass on the glade intertwined into tight knots. Some bushes started to grow upside down and their roots slowly stirred on the wind...

Siegfried decided to stand aside. He was afraid, that he will get into this magical mess. It is not funny to find himself growing in a ground, like a carrot!

Fortunately, Conan changed the register of elements very soon.

Some stone cogs pushed their way through the grass and go up to two ells in height. Then they made their way back into the earth, leaving behind themselves the circular banks of brown alumina.

The barbarian was erupting just like young Icelandic volcano. His language went too far along the way of transforming the Word: constructive, destructive, inconceivable in its goals, perilous.

Luckily for Siegfried and for the whole Gniteihed, the will of Conan that was able to configure the World did not take part in this madness. Then Conan's body the unremovable variable of all the equations with the participation of human being this body wanted only to break free from the Fafnir's crypt that was tarred with darkness and sealed with iron.

The rusty dust started to peel off from the door. In the beginning Siegfried did not paid attention to it at all. Only lather, when the large flat slice of air in front of the door became absolutely red, Siegfried chickened out, because he thought that such a thick layer of rust on the door was impossible. Magic again?

When the red fog had lifted and Siegfried saw the iron slab again, Conan was silent.

This didn't surprise the king's son. He was infatuated with the studying of the slab's surface.

The snap-shot is like if you're looking from above on the heels and mountains of Gniteihed, that were cast in iron. King's son stared at the bas-relief in a mute amazement. Then he finally realized, that the shape of the bas-relief have nothing in common with Gniteihed. Absolutely nothing in common.

It was peaceful and quiet on the glade. King's son waited a little he was afraid of the new recurrences of Conan's magic monologue.

But he started to guess, that there will be no recurrences any more. He came closer to the door and stopped within five steps from it.

Took four more steps. And understood, that it is unnecessary to come closer. He returned.

This was an optimal distance. Optimal for perusal.

If the iron of the door would grow soft to the condition of the heated wax, if Conan would rush to attack the door like a cow given to butting, if he could breach the door and at the same time turn into that "wax iron" then... then we'd understood or maybe imagined the bas-relief, that mesmerized Siegfried.

The knees, the palms and the head of Conan went beyond the surface of the door. In addition to that somewhere were noticeable separate small details like creases of the cloth, segments of the necklace, the right shoulder and the right shoe's hooked toe.

The line with the sharp edges and some sickle-like cavities hardly blended with the whole composition. What are these? Maybe the traces of casual magical perturbations, maybe the fragments of his ribs... In fact, that magical squall could have easily tore up barbarian's chest...

All these details in their totality were mistaken by Siegfried for the mountain landscape. But now he seemed to grasp the proper gestalt.

The barbarian looked down on earth, approximately at the point, where Siegfried stood. Conan's head was bent forward and his chin did not make an independent detail, it was hidden in thickness of the iron.

Here it is, the settlement of all the disputes. Here it is, the critical argument in favor of dragon Fafnir's power and rectitude. The words of Conan were certainly borrowed. And the true master of these words was certainly Fafnir.

The incarnated force of the elements, that were awakened by the words of Fafnir, break out of the iron towards the light. It was visible, weighty, it made Siegfried tremble. The abstract categories, the fate of the world, the justice, the future were crushed and milled into a sand in Siegfried's imagination by this force.

Suddenly Siegfried with childish naivety started to think, that if he were a Hunter for Elements, he would be able to pull out the damn door at the very first night together with the flinders of rock. He would be able to save Conan from this prison before he decided to gobble up the dragon's heart. And this would be the real feat! At that minute he, seemed, decided his fate. He made up his mind to become a Hunter for Elements...

In a minute Siegfried squatted down and took a long look at king Conan's face.

He expected to see the furious grin or, probably, the last smile. The smile of liberation. After all, Conan's flesh had successfully liberated from the sufferings and his soul liberated from the flesh's restrictions...

And Siegfried really did see that smile.

 

 

 
 
 

 

 

 

 

Rambler's Top100
New novelette: "Children of Onegin and Tatiana" (Just another story about "Tomorrow War" world.) Stories collector "New Legends 2005" were published by "Azbooka". Alexander Zorich presented in this book by "Every Soldier has a Bride" story. "Tomorrow War" trilogy is ended. Last volume, "Moscow Time", will be publish by AST in February or March 2006.