A rustle. Faint but audible. The first sound to break the silence in this dark, grim forest for more than five minutes, five minutes that had seemed unbounded by time. The Forest of Grubak, filled with creatues large and small, filled now with creatures waiting for safety to return to their home.
For five lingering minutes, the wolf had cowered amidst the rock-strewn dry stream bed; the bear had settled grudgingly against the trunk of the tree harbouring the hive and its honey; the serpents had intuited that the voles and mice were better left for a better moment than this. Birds had sought the air and even the fiends of the night had slunk away to find less savage souls to vie for.
A rustle. Nothing more. Nothing to give pause for thought in any other moment in the forest. But now, enough to dim the light in one fearless predator as it becomes prey for a more determined, more primeval foe, a foe without a flicker of doubt that the night was to be his.
The panther's eyes rolled glassily as the cord tightened about its neck. Legs bunched to spring, jaws distended to rip but a heartbeat later they were limp and disinterested. Those claws that had ripped life from countless beasts, those fangs that had dripped blood on every night for more than fifteen years were now no more than collectors' curiosities, trinkets for some tribal chief to show off to his women and to his young warriors. The big cat's spinal column had been snapped like a twig, such was the power in its adversary's grip, the speed that belied the years of city living.
The Cimmerian glanced about him, still coiled tight after this night of stalking a killer. His instinct was to permit himself no rest until he could be certain that no one and no thing would seek to catch him with his guard down. He had seem too many jackals, both beast and man, rob a lion of his spoils to relax his barbarian focus now. But he sensed that the forest was going back to its normal nighttime rhythm and he was soon loosening the pelt from the panther with an ease that no civilised man could have matched, even with the keen steel blade of Stygian origin that he worked with.
He needed proof of the kill if Mwagbala was to keep his word and release the girl he had stolen from Conan while the latter had been nursing his head after three nights celebrating the Passing of Yallah. His wolfish appetites meant that he would not abandon the Zingaran dancer to the depredations of that sordid lord of these lands. There were many women to be had, true, but this one was his, at least for a while, and his pride would not let any man who had betrayed him have her. Mwagbala would make a slip soon enough and his kingdom would serve to amuse Conan as its new ruler. But now it was time to get out of this ghost-riddled forest.