Monday, May 8, 2023

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Seeker in the Fortress

Continuing with my tour of Manly Wade Wellman's tales of Kardios of Atlantis, we come to the fourth in the series, "The Seeker in the Fortress." Like its predecessors, this story first appeared in an anthology, in this case Heroic Fantasy, edited by Gerald W. Page and Hank Reinhardt and published by DAW in 1979. Also like its predecessors, the story takes a well-worn sword-and-sorcery plot – the beautiful princess held against her will by and in need of rescuing – and develops it in unexpected ways. This is, I think, where Wellman's genius lies and why the adventures of Kardios have entertained me far more than I had expected they would.

"The Seeker in the Fortress" opens, not with Kardios wandering into some new land or stumbling upon some odd situation but with the description of the titular fortress, which, as the reader soon learns, is the sanctum of a powerful wizard.

Trombroll the wizard had set his fortress in what had been a small, jagged crater, rather like an ornate stopper in the crumpled neck of a wineskin. Up to it on all sides came the tumbled, clotted lips of the cone. Above and within them it lodged, a sheaf of round towers with, on the tallest, a fluttering banner of red, purple and black. At the lowest center, where the fitted gray rocks of the walls fused with the jumbled gray rocks of the crater, stood a mighty double door of black metal. Slits in the towers seemed ready to rain point-blanketed missiles, smoking floods of boiling oil. In this distance rose greater heights, none close enough to command the fortress.

As a stylist, Wellman is nowhere near the equal of Howard, Leiber, or Vance, but he often pens passages like this, which are both evocative and nicely set the scene. 

Waiting outside Trombroll's fortress is Prince Feothro of Deribana, who "stood among his captains and councilors and shrugged inside his elegant armor." Coming to greet him is the wizard's herald, dressed "in elaborate ceremonial mail." The herald reminds the prince that his master is "supreme in magic" and that "the winds and the thunder fight his battles." Despite this bombast, Feothro remains unimpressed. 

"Trombroll has plagued the world long enough," returned Feothrro, sternly enough. "He threatens plague and famine, and demands tribute to hold them back. Tell him we've come to destroy him. These armies are the allied might of Deribana and Varlo, sworn to end Trombroll's reign of evil. Varlo's King Zapaun is as my father, has pledged his thrice lovely daughter, the Princess Yann, to be my consort. Let Trombroll come out and fight."

"Why should he?" inquired the herald. "We have wells of water, stores of provisions. And we also have that exemplary triumph of beauty, the Princess Yann herself."

"Princess Yann!" howled Feothro. "You lie!"

All looked aloft. Two guards were visible, escorting between them a slender figure in a bright red garment. Then all three drew back out of sight.

The herald then warns the prince and his assembled host that, should they attempt to storm the castle, "the unhappy princess will die an intricate death even now being invented for her." Feothro is incensed by this and looks to his advisors for a plan that might enable him to defeat Trombroll without bringing about the untimely death of his betrothed.

As if on cue, Kardios enters the story, having just been captured after "prowling here and there among the various commands." Initially, the prince believes him to be one of the wizard's spies, but he soon comes to understand that this Atlantean wanderer, known as "an adventurer among monsters," might offer a way to achieve his goals.  Kardios agrees, saying "Maybe I happened along in good time to help you." He tells Feothro not to attempt a siege; instead, he should allow Kardios to find a way into the wizard's fortress on his own to rescue Princess Yann. Though he threatens the Atlantean not to fail, Feothro nevertheless agrees and the story kicks off in high gear. 

The remainder of "The Seeker in the Fortress" is great fun, a rollicking pulp fantasy adventure, as Kardios encounters – and overcomes – one problem after another in his quest to free the imprisoned princess. The challenges Wellman sets before Kardios are varied and not all of them can be beaten through brute force or swordplay. Further, the Atlantean prefers less violent solutions when possible: "I don't kill unless I must," he explains to one of his defeated foes. It's an excellent change of pace from the earlier installments in the series, not to mention a terrific reminder of the utility of trickery and charm when sneaking into an evil wizard's lair. This is my favorite story of Kardios so far, not to mention one of the better sword-and-sorcery yarns I've read in some time and I highly recommend it.


  1. Heroic Fantasy is a great anthology.

  2. To me, the strength and weakness of these tales is that neither Kardios nor Wellman seem to take them very seriously. Kardios is mostly wryly bemused by the goings on, perhaps because they're so formulaic?

    Whereas Howard and Conan believe every word.