Many are the songs that have echoed from the rafters of the inn men call the Black Dragon. It's common knowledge that enough ale can cause even the most somber of men to break into some rendition of their favorite tune, no matter how badly he mangles the cadence and melody. Patrons of that ancient tavern had heard songs tortured in this manner from nearly every part of the Lemurian Empire.
The inn stands on the crossroads between the borders of Manatrus and Dajuron and has a reputation for serving the best ale in the North Lands. It was an ancient place. A fire constantly roared upon the soot-blackened hearth, and this fire burned from the first days of fall to the last days of spring, casting it's crimson glow on scenes both comic and tragic. The oak panels were stained dark with both blood and history, and the oil lamps which flickered in iron stanchions had illuminated scenes of such wild debauchery and deranged depravity as would make many a soul shudder with revulsion.
The innkeeper's name was Jakkar. He brewed his own liquors and took a great deal of pride in his chosen craft. He'd inherited both the recipes and the inn from his father, and these had been also passed down to him from his father before him. They had been part of the family inheritance for countless generations and he was very proud. He was the keeper of one of the busiest inns in Dajuron. He once said he'd encountered every manner and race of man that had ever walked the earth in those times. But he'd never seen a man like the one who came into the inn late one snowy winter's eve.
He was obviously a barbarian. There was no mistaking that. But Jakkar couldn't be sure from what land he had originated. His wild mane of dark hair reminded him of the primitive Ukkars, but his eyes smoldered sky blue, like those of a blond haired Dajurikan. He'd heard legends of strange barbarians dwelling in the far North beyond the razor-edged ramparts of the Yazgan mountains, but he'd never believed these tales before now. Though the barbarian was not an overly large man, he had the appearance of someone who shouldn't be trifled with. He carried himself with a lithe, cat-like grace and his thews had an iron hardness that seemed to have never a moment of ease. His body was composed with a brutal economy of flesh that was almost frightening. His face was filthy, his dark hair like the tangled mane of a lion. A lethal looking broadsword was strapped across his back. He wore a primitive iron link mail shirt that was so torn and slashed in several places so that Jakkar wondered how he held it together. His boots were so worn they were little more than scraps of leather held together with strips of rawhide. It was obvious he had traveled no short distance. Yet he had ambled into the inn with an easy confidence as though it were his own home, settling himself at a table in the corner where he could watch the entire room with his back to the wall. He then silently beckoned Jakkar over to his table.
"I am Jakkar, the innkeeper here," he said. "What might your pleasure be this evening, sir?" he asked in his best subservient voice.
The warrior glanced him over quickly. His iron blue eyes seemed colder than ice. "I am Mantegor, once from Arcturus," he growled. "I want ale. Strong ale!" "Yes,sir," answered Jakkar automatically. "I have the finest ale ever brewed!"
"I doubt that, but bring me a flagon anyway!" Jakkar rushed off to do his bidding, avoiding his usual habit of indulging in witty conversations with newly arrived strangers. He had never heard of the land of Arcturus, but he could sense that this grim warrior was in no mood for talk. He filled a tankard to the brim swiftly and returned to set it before him.
Mantegor quaffed his ale in silence and listened to the laughing, ribald songs that echoed from the rafters of the ancient inn. He heard ribald songs sung by dark-eyed Orquazians, mournful, monotonous dirges of Manatrusian sailors. He even tolerated a ballad or two sung by a thin, sad-faced minstrel from Calamyr. He heard songs of loves lost and loves regained. He heard songs of ancient, mythical battles, of warriors who fought with the courage of gods against impossible odds. He heard songs of glory and songs of tragedy, songs of love and songs of joy and of sorrow.
Once, a gray-robed Lemurian priest who'd drank far too much rum began to chant a verse from the Song of the Black Fire, causing men to glance fearfully over their shoulders and murmur prayers to their respective gods.
None of these songs did much more than irritate Mantegor. He was in a foul mood. He was now nearly a pauper. He didn't even have enough silver left in his pocket to get decently drunk. The weak ale had little effect on him, having tasted far cruder and more potent mountain brews much of his young life. The dragon's treasure had indeed been cursed, for he had lost most of it in the mountains during a blizzard, and he had almost lost his life when he had fallen a great distance down the mountainside. He had lain for several hours unconscious buried in the snow and this was the only thing that had saved his life, for the snow had prevented his limbs from becoming entirely frost bitten.
He had come here simply as a place to warm himself. Outside, the storm relentlessly howled. Within, the light of the fireplaces was thankfully dim. He was glad. He had no desire to see more clearly the cheap furnishings or the even cheaper brass jewelry worn by the few half-naked whores that still remained awake. The place reeked of piss and shit and vomit. He wondered how civilized men could bring themselves to stand it.
He drained the last of his ale and checked his belt pouch. Five silver coins remained. Enough for three more rounds of this useless weak ale.
"Innkeeper!" he called.
In his youth, Jakkar had been a monster of a man, a warrior to be feared. But this was many years past. His head had long ago gone bald and his massive strength had since turned to huge rolls of fat. It wasn't an easy thing for him to conduct business so near the borderlands. The barbarians and cold-blooded mercenaries that often passed through the area were often extremely dangerous if displeased. They would cut your throat or smash your skull in without a moment's hesitation over an insult, whether it was real or imagined. Jakkar however, possessed one warrior's quality still that had stood him in good stead. He had a shrewd and unscrupulous mind, and he'd used it to stay alive by instinctively knowing the right thing to say or do in every situation that arose.
But he'd never seen a man like Mantegor before. Here was clearly some savage tribesman from the far North with his gruff accent and fair skin. Yet he was dressed much like a Manatrusian peasant, save for the shirt of silver mail which gleamed beneath his ragged cloak and the lethal looking broadsword on his back. His long, lion-like mane of dark hair was wild and unkempt, giving him an even more dangerous appearance. With every move he made, the muscles of his body rippled with iron cords beneath his sun-bronzed flesh. There was a reckless gleam in those icy blue eyes, so it was with no small amount of wariness that he approached the young barbarian's table once more.
"May I be of service to you, sir?"
"Another mug of ale, to start," the barbarian replied gruffly. "And some information if I can get it." "Information, sir?"
"Yes," answered the barbarian. "You look like a knowledgeable man in these parts. Tell me, is there any sword work to be had here or in Angkor?"
"Not here and certainly not in Angkor, which is controlled by the Lemurians and would never suffer a Northerner in their armies. No offense meant, sir. To the west, however, a war is being continually waged against the Yazgan trolls in northern Dajuron. The war has been going on for fourteen years and the armies are desperate for mercenaries to fight the trolls in the mountains. The pay and food are good, and men sometimes retire rich if they find the cache of some troll king who has been hoarding it for centuries. It's rare, but such things have happened."
Mantegor pondered these words for a few moments while Jakkar poured his ale. "These trolls," he said. "What are they like? Are they terrible fighters? Do they have the power to read men's minds like dragons? Or are there wizards amongst them who control mighty magic, as I have heard dwell in Orquaz and Karkalos?"
"They are no wizards," answered Jakkar, "Though it is said they are masters of the ancient art of metal-smithing and have secret knowledge of the ways of the lands below the earth. They are short, squat beings with wild hair covering much of their upper bodies. They fight with axes and are said to be savage warriors."
"My thanks for the information, innkeeper," said Mantegor. He flipped him his last silver coin. "When I kill my first troll, I'll dedicate him to you!"
Jakkar returned to his rounds. Mantegor sat alone once more, quaffing his ale and contemplating the long journey he would have to make to reach Dajuron and the Yazgan Mountains.
His thoughts were interrupted by a commotion at the front of the inn. Several armed men had entered. Mantegor's eyes narrowed when he saw that all bore signs of grievous battle. One was missing an eye, his face half-covered in blood. Another was nursing a fractured arm. Most were wounded in some way.
Suddenly Jakkar appeared from the kitchen.
"What has happened?" he cried. "Where is my daughter?"
The men avoided the innkeeper's eyes. One of their number, a tall warrior who wore a crested iron helm upon his closely shaved head, stepped forward.
"She is lost," he said. "Lost or slain in the Forest of Nephilheim."
"Fools!" the innkeeper screamed in helpless rage. Idiots! I warned you not to dare those paths! Why didn't you take the mountain trail as I directed?"
"The pass was filled with snow," the guard explained. "We had no choice but to turn back. The forest trail seemed our only choice. But when we entered the trees, it immediately grew dark and difficult to breathe. The trees hemmed us in so that it was almost impossible to find our way. We pressed on blindly, but at last we were forced to make camp until the deeper shadows lifted. Taking no chances, I assigned three men to sentry duty. The rest of us tried our best to get some sleep."
"I awoke to the cries of men in mortal agony. I could see nothing, but I'll never forget the sounds I heard, as if they were being torn in half and devoured in the darkness. Men died all around us. I fought blindly with my sword, but it was torn from my grasp. We could not even see who or what attacked us. It may have been trolls. They weren't human, that's certain!"
"But where is my daughter?" cried the innkeeper. "Perhaps she still lives! You cowards may still redeem your honor by bringing her safely back to me. I offer three hundred silver cintars to each man who helps bring my daughter back from the forest of Nephilheim!"
The men sadly shook their heads.
"Four hundred!" he pleaded.
"I'll not return to that devil's forest for all the gold in Dajuron," said the tall warrior.
"Cowards! Spineless worms!" Jakkar railed in helpless rage.
"No need to get yourself in an uproar," said Mantegor, his hand resting casually on the hilt of his great sword. "I'll rescue the girl if she's still alive, for six hundred silver cintars. But if she's dead, I want two hundred cintars and free room and board here whenever I come this way again."
"Done!" said Jakkar.
"What is the girl's name?"
"She is called Mira," Jakkar replied. "She is fair and slender, little more than a youth, though her breasts and hips belie that notion. Hey eyes are as brown as mine, and her hair is as red as mine is now grey.".
"When I return, I'll expect my pay," Mantegor said, and without speaking another word, he turned and strode out into the night.
The Forest Of Nephilheim appeared no more menacing than any other dense and shadowed forest that Mantegor had seen. Still, he doubted not the tale of the guards. Something monstrous had come out of the night therein and attacked them. What it was he didn't know. But he wasn't afraid. He knew that the guards had been civilized men. They lacked the fine honed senses and the primitive awareness that were his inheritance as a barbarian. Nothing would creep out of the blackness while he slept like a lamb awaiting slaughter, that much was certain!
He swiftly discovered the signs of the escort party. A herd of elk would have left less of a trail, he thought. He stopped for a moment, fingering the hilt of his broadsword. Somewhere along this trail a terrible doom had fallen upon these people, and had yet he no clue as to its nature. To continue on would seem to be the act of a madman or a berserker. He was neither. He had, however, given his word in a moment of foolhardy bravery (perhaps he had been drunker than he thought), and now of course he was bound by this vow. A civilized man might have felt no such compunctions, but a breaker of oaths would suffer the curse of the gods. He might lose his virility or the strength of his sword arm might wither away. He'd heard of such things happening before to those who broke faith with their word. It was best not to take a chance.
Besides, he thought, six hundred silver cintars was a lot of money.
He continued on into the black forest, though with a great deal of wariness. The further beneath the immense boughs he ventured, the more his instincts waned him of imminent peril. There was a smell of blood on the wind.
Silently, he slid his sword free from its scabbard. It glittered dully in the dim light of the stars. He made no more noise than leopard as he stalked slowly through the darkness. The snow had at last stopped falling and the night was getting colder. His breath steamed in misty swirls in the night air. His blue eyes darted this way and that, striving to pierce the darkness and discover what menace might lie hidden there. Now and then he caught a glimpse of starlight sparkling on the snow-frosted branches of the trees. Then the impenetrable night would close in once more and he would be forced to forge his way through the oblivion with nothing more than his instincts.
His ears pricked up. Somewhere ahead, plaintive and eerie amidst the eternal silence of the forest, a spectral music drifted on the breeze. Touched with strains of a vague and ethereal beauty, it seemed to echo the liquid whisper of the snow itself, to mirror the whispering howl of the North wind.
Unlike a civilized man, Mantegor wasted no precious time trying to convince himself he was only imagining what he heard. Someone was singing out there in the blackness of the forest, and he knew it was the singing of a woman. The further he advanced, the clearer the song became. Here was the ethereal voice of a goddess whose song had taken wing on the wind.
He came abruptly into a small glade. Misty starlight filtered down thru the trees, pale ghosts flitting across the white shrouded sward. Though snow was no longer falling, the breezes let loose sparkling trails from the over laden branches above.
The siren song drew him on. Surely, he thought, here is the voice of some elemental goddess of storm descended to bask in the delights of her own power. No other than a goddess could possess a voice so beautiful. An odd, indescribable longing filled Mantegor's heart. Strange urgings like none he'd felt before stirred his loins. There was an almost sensual glee in the weave of the haunting melody, an urgent cry for erotic fulfillment that called out to some hidden depth in his soul. His body seemed to automatically respond to this call. As if in a dream, he stumbled blindly forward, drawn on by a longing he could no longer deny.
Before him stood an immense tree of a kind he had never before seen in his wanderings. An inexplicable urge drew him to stand under its sweeping boughs. His sword hung forgotten at his side.
To his astonishment, a slim white form was suddenly there before him. He hadn't seen her arrive. One moment there had only been the ancient tree, and then she was there. He checked the instinctive swing of his sword only just in time, seeing it was naught but a slim, half-naked girl who stood before him. She held a silver lyre tightly to one sensuously rounded breast.
She was the most beautiful woman Mantegor had ever seen. Her jade eyes glinted merrily beneath the soft curves of her brows. Her long hair hung in flowing crimson tresses and was adorned with exotic blossoms. Her lips were as pink and full as the nipples that tipped the ends of her naked breasts, and her flesh was white as the snow she so lightly danced upon. She was clothed only in a thin strip of gauzy cloth wrapped tightly about the curve of her breasts and flowing just past her waist.
She was singing a song he had never heard before, a song of love, a song of unquenchable desire.
"Are you Mira?" he asked, striving to control the strange lusts that were rising in his loins. "Your father sent me to rescue you. Gods, girl, aren't you cold out here dressed like that?"
She only smiled alluringly and continued to croon her strange and beauteous song. She leaned back against the enfolding branches of the great tree. Spreading her long legs, she exposed the center of her desire to his wanton glances. He gasped. Her sex was hairless and white as pearls and silken cream. She dipped her fingers inside herself. They emerged dripping with a clear thick nectar which she raised to her lips and tasted. She dipped her fingers in once more, exposing the soft contours of her pink sex to his hungry eyes.
He could feel his cock rising as he watched her. Her fingers worked feverishly at herself, yet she never stopped singing. Her eyes were half-closed. Her nipples were taut and hard against the thin gauze covering of her night dress. Removing her fingers from the depths of her body once more, she brought them up to touch Mantegor's thirsty lips.
He tasted of her. His tongue licked clean her fingers. He splashed hot kisses down the line of her throat and brutally devoured the tender flesh of her young breasts. Then he was at the gate of her womanhood. His tongue teased slowly up and down her swollen vulva. She was slippery and hot with desire, her musk dripping into his waiting mouth. He nibbled her gently there then dipped his tongue again and again into her steaming sex until she gasped and pressed her loins to his face, riding him as she knew the moment of her surrender to joy. She hovered on parapet of ecstasy as he continued to work deep inside her, her shuddering moans drawing him to greater efforts to sustain her release.
He was so enwrapt in the girl's pleasure that he almost failed to notice the furtive movement out of the corner of his eye. Had he not been born and raised as a barbarian, he wouldn't have seen the shadow hovering above until it was far too late. But his were the instincts of the wild. Before he was even aware of what he had seen, he was on his feet, his naked sword shimmering in hand.
The branches of the tree above him, like hundreds of skeletal fingers, were reaching down towards him!
Unlike a civilized man, he didn't stop to consider the impossibility of his situation. Grabbing the girl by the arm, he attempted to drag her away from the threat. But she only lithely avoided his grasp and laughed in his face. One of the wildly clutching branches reached down towards his face. He struck it aside with his sword. It fell writhing to the earth. Mantegor saw that the clutching branches were completely avoiding the girl. He realized then the awful truth. The girl was naught but bait, a tender morsel ensorcelled by this demon tree to entice male victims into its grasp by the power of sexual allure. He wondered if she was even human.