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Title: Rattle of bones
Author: Robert E. Howard
Release Date: April 27, 2023 [eBook #70653]
Produced by: Greg Weeks, Mary Meehan and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team at http://www.pgdp.net
*** START OF THE PROJECT GUTENBERG EBOOK RATTLE OF BONES ***
RATTLE of BONES
BY ROBERT E HOWARD
[Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from
Weird Tales June 1929.
Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]
"Landlord, ho!" The shout broke the lowering silence and reverberated
through the black forest with sinister echoing.
"This place hath a forbidding aspect, meseemeth."
Two men stood in front of the forest tavern. The building was low,
long and rambling, built of heavy logs. Its small windows were heavily
barred and the door was closed. Above the door its sinister sign showed
faintly—a cleft skull.
This door swung slowly open and a bearded face peered out. The owner of
the face stepped back and motioned his guests to enter—with a grudging
gesture it seemed. A candle gleamed on a table; a flame smoldered in
"Solomon Kane," said the taller man briefly.
"Gaston l'Armon," the other spoke curtly. "But what is that to you?"
"Strangers are few in the Black Forest," grunted the host, "bandits
many. Sit at yonder table and I will bring food."
The two men sat down, with the bearing of men who have traveled far.
One was a tall gaunt man, clad in a featherless hat and somber black
garments, which set off the dark pallor of his forbidding face. The
other was of a different type entirely, bedecked with lace and plumes,
although his finery was somewhat stained from travel. He was handsome
in a bold way, and his restless eyes shifted from side to side, never
still an instant.
The host brought wine and food to the rough-hewn table and then stood
back in the shadows, like a somber image. His features, now receding
into vagueness, now luridly etched in the firelight as it leaped and
flickered, were masked in a beard which seemed almost animal-like in
thickness. A great nose curved above this beard and two small red eyes
stared unblinkingly at his guests.
"Who are you?" suddenly asked the younger man.
"I am the host of the Cleft Skull Tavern," sullenly replied the other.
His tone seemed to challenge his questioner to ask further.
"Do you have many guests?" l'Armon pursued.
"Few come twice," the host grunted.
Kane started and glanced up straight into those small red eyes, as if
he sought for some hidden meaning in the host's words. The flaming eyes
seemed to dilate, then dropped sullenly before the Englishman's cold
"I'm for bed," said Kane abruptly, bringing his meal to a close. "I
must take up my journey by daylight."
"And I," added the Frenchman. "Host, show us to our chambers."
Black shadows wavered on the walls as the two followed their silent
host down a long, dark hall. The stocky, broad body of their guide
seemed to grow and expand in the light of the small candle which he
carried, throwing a long, grim shadow behind him.
At a certain door he halted, indicating that they were to sleep there.
They entered; the host lit a candle with the one he carried, then
lurched back the way he had come.
In the chamber the two men glanced at each other. The only furnishings
of the room were a couple of bunks, a chair or two and a heavy table.
"Let us see if there be any way to make fast the door," said Kane. "I
like not the looks of mine host."
"There are racks on door and jamb for a bar," said Gaston, "but no bar."
"We might break up the table and use its pieces for a bar," mused Kane.
"Mon Dieu," said l'Armon, "you are timorous, m'sieu."
Kane scowled. "I like not being murdered in my sleep," he answered
"My faith!" the Frenchman laughed. "We are chance met—until I overtook
you on the forest road an hour before sunset, we had never seen each
"I have seen you somewhere before," answered Kane, "though I can not
now recall where. As for the other, I assume every man is an honest
fellow until he shows me he is a rogue; moreover, I am a light sleeper
and slumber with a pistol at hand."
The Frenchman laughed again.
"I was wondering how m'sieu could bring himself to sleep in the room
with a stranger! Ha! Ha! All right, m'sieu Englishman, let us go
forth and take a bar from one of the other rooms."
Taking the candle with them, they went into the corridor. Utter silence
reigned and the small candle twinkled redly and evilly in the thick
"Mine host hath neither guests nor servants," muttered Solomon Kane.
"A strange tavern! What is the name, now? These German words come not
easily to me—the Cleft Skull? A bloody name, i'faith."
They tried the rooms next to theirs, but no bar rewarded their search.
At last they came to the last room at the end of the corridor. They
entered. It was furnished like the rest, except that the door was
provided with a small barred opening, and fastened from the outside
with a heavy bolt, which was secured at one end to the door-jamb. They
raised the bolt and looked in.
"There should be an outer window, but there is not," muttered Kane.
The floor was stained darkly. The walls and the one bunk were hacked in
places, great splinters having been torn away.
"Men have died in here," said Kane, somberly. "Is yonder not a bar
fixed in the wall?"
"Aye, but 'tis made fast," said the Frenchman, tugging at it. "The——"
A section of the wall swung back and Gaston gave a quick exclamation. A
small, secret room was revealed, and the two men bent over the grisly
thing that lay upon its floor.
"The skeleton of a man!" said Gaston. "And behold, how his bony leg is
shackled to the floor! He was imprisoned here and died."
"Nay," said Kane, "the skull is cleft—methinks mine host had a grim
reason for the name of his hellish tavern. This man, like us, was no
doubt a wanderer who fell into the fiend's hands."
"Likely," said Gaston without interest; he was engaged in idly working
the great iron ring from the skeleton's leg bones. Failing in this, he
drew his sword and with an exhibition of remarkable strength cut the
chain which joined the ring on the leg to a ring set deep in the log
"Why should he shackle a skeleton to the floor?" mused the Frenchman.
"Monbleu! 'Tis a waste of good chain. Now, m'sieu," he ironically
addressed the white heap of bones, "I have freed you and you may go
where you like!"
"Have done!" Kane's voice was deep. "No good will come of mocking the
"The dead should defend themselves," laughed l'Armon. "Somehow, I will
slay the man who kills me, though my corpse climb up forty fathoms of
ocean to do it."
Kane turned toward the outer door, closing the door of the secret
room behind him. He liked not this talk which smacked of demonry and
witchcraft; and he was in haste to face the host with the charge of his
As he turned, with his back to the Frenchman, he felt the touch of cold
steel against his neck and knew that a pistol muzzle was pressed close
beneath the base of his brain.
"Move not, m'sieu!" The voice was low and silky. "Move not, or I will
scatter your few brains over the room."
The Puritan, raging inwardly, stood with his hands in air while l'Armon
slipped his pistols and sword from their sheaths.
"Now you can turn," said Gaston, stepping back.
Kane bent a grim eye on the dapper fellow, who stood bareheaded now,
hat in one hand, the other hand leveling his long pistol.
"Gaston the Butcher!" said the Englishman somberly. "Fool that I was
to trust a Frenchman! You range far, murderer! I remember you now, with
that cursed great hat off—I saw you in Calais some years agone."
"Aye—and now you will see me never again. What was that?"
"Rats exploring yon skeleton," said Kane, watching the bandit like a
hawk, waiting for a single slight wavering of that black gun muzzle.
"The sound was of the rattle of bones."
"Like enough," returned the other. "Now, M'sieu Kane, I know you carry
considerable money on your person. I had thought to wait until you
slept and then slay you, but the opportunity presented itself and I
took it. You trick easily."
"I had little thought that I should fear a man with whom I had broken
bread," said Kane, a deep timbre of slow fury sounding in his voice.
The bandit laughed cynically. His eyes narrowed as he began to back
slowly toward the outer door. Kane's sinews tensed involuntarily; he
gathered himself like a giant wolf about to launch himself in a death
leap, but Gaston's hand was like a rock and the pistol never trembled.
"We will have no death plunges after the shot," said Gaston. "Stand
still, m'sieu; I have seen men killed by dying men, and I wish to
have distance enough between us to preclude that possibility. My
faith—I will shoot, you will roar and charge, but you will die before
you reach me with your bare hands. And mine host will have another
skeleton in his secret niche. That is, if I do not kill him myself. The
fool knows me not nor I him, moreover——"
The Frenchman was in the doorway now, sighting along the barrel. The
candle, which had been stuck in a niche on the wall, shed a weird and
flickering light which did not extend past the doorway. And with the
suddenness of death, from the darkness behind Gaston's back, a broad,
vague form rose up and a gleaming blade swept down. The Frenchman went
to his knees like a butchered ox, his brains spilling from his cleft
skull. Above him towered the figure of the host, a wild and terrible
spectacle, still holding the hanger with which he had slain the bandit.
"Ho! ho!" he roared. "Back!"
Kane had leaped forward as Gaston fell, but the host thrust into his
very face a long pistol which he held in his left hand.
"Back!" he repeated in a tigerish roar, and Kane retreated from the
menacing weapon and the insanity in the red eyes.
The Englishman stood silent, his flesh crawling as he sensed a deeper
and more hideous threat than the Frenchman had offered. There was
something inhuman about this man, who now swayed to and fro like some
great forest beast while his mirthless laughter boomed out again.
"Gaston the Butcher!" he shouted, kicking the corpse at his feet. "Ho!
ho! My fine brigand will hunt no more! I had heard of this fool who
roamed the Black Forest—he wished gold and he found death! Now your
gold shall be mine; and more than gold—vengeance!"
"I am no foe of yours," Kane spoke calmly.
"All men are my foes! Look—the marks on my wrists! See—the marks on
my ankles! And deep in my back—the kiss of the knout! And deep in my
brain, the wounds of the years of the cold, silent cells where I lay
as punishment for a crime I never committed!" The voice broke in a
hideous, grotesque sob.
Kane made no answer. This man was not the first he had seen whose brain
had shattered amid the horrors of the terrible Continental prisons.
"But I escaped!" the scream rose triumphantly, "and here I make war on
all men.... What was that?"
Did Kane see a flash of fear in those hideous eyes?
"My sorcerer is rattling his bones!" whispered the host, then laughed
wildly. "Dying, he swore his very bones would weave a net of death for
me. I shackled his corpse to the floor, and now, deep in the night, I
hear his bare skeleton clash and rattle as he seeks to be free, and I
laugh, I laugh! Ho! ho! How he yearns to rise and stalk like old King
Death along these dark corridors when I sleep, to slay me in my bed!"
Suddenly the insane eyes flared hideously: "You were in that secret
room, you and this dead fool! Did he talk to you?"
Kane shuddered in spite of himself. Was it insanity or did he actually
hear the faint rattle of bones, as if the skeleton had moved slightly?
Kane shrugged his shoulders; rats will even tug at dusty bones.
The host was laughing again. He sidled around Kane, keeping the
Englishman always covered, and with his free hand opened the door. All
was darkness within, so that Kane could not even see the glimmer of the
bones on the floor.
"All men are my foes!" mumbled the host, in the incoherent manner of
the insane. "Why should I spare any man? Who lifted a hand to my aid
when I lay for years in the vile dungeons of Karlsruhe—and for a
deed never proven? Something happened to my brain, then. I became as
a wolf—a brother to these of the Black Forest to which I fled when I
"They have feasted, my brothers, on all who lay in my tavern—all
except this one who now clashes his bones, this magician from Russia.
Lest he come stalking back through the black shadows when night is
over the world, and slay me—for who may slay the dead?—I stripped his
bones and shackled him. His sorcery was not powerful enough to save
him from me, but all men know that a dead magician is more evil than
a living one. Move not, Englishman! Your bones I shall leave in this
secret room beside this one, to——"
The maniac was standing partly in the doorway of the secret room, now,
his weapon still menacing Kane. Suddenly he seemed to topple backward,
and vanished in the darkness; and at the same instant a vagrant gust
of wind swept down the outer corridor and slammed the door shut behind
him. The candle on the wall flickered and went out. Kane's groping
hands, sweeping over the floor, found a pistol, and he straightened,
facing the door where the maniac had vanished. He stood in the utter
darkness, his blood freezing, while a hideous muffled screaming came
from the secret room, intermingled with the dry, grisly rattle of
fleshless bones. Then silence fell.
Kane found flint and steel and lighted the candle. Then, holding it in
one hand and the pistol in the other, he opened the secret door.
"Great God!" he muttered as cold sweat formed on his body. "This thing
is beyond all reason, yet with mine own eyes I see it! Two vows have
here been kept, for Gaston the Butcher swore that even in death he
would avenge his slaying, and his was the hand which set yon fleshless
monster free. And he——"
"This thing is beyond reason, yet with my own eyes I see it."
The host of the Cleft Skull lay lifeless on the floor of the secret
room, his bestial face set in lines of terrible fear; and deep in his
broken neck were sunk the bare fingerbones of the sorcerer's skeleton.
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