Conan of Venarium: Double Villain

Chapter 3

The chapter opens with the victorious Aquilonians marching into Duthil and telling the Cimmerians that they’re in charge now, ha ha ha. Conan reluctantly admits that attacking them now is suicide and decides to stick to his father’s plan of biding their time until they can retaliate. Then there’s a bit with the Aquilonian garrison in which they stare at trees until they see Conan passing through having shot some particularly elusive birds ordinarily caught using traps, and everyone shivers at how protagonisty he is, and then we’re following Conan again on his hunt. It’s all pretty unremarkable? Like, it’s not bad. Maybe they’re absolutely botching iron age hunting the same way they botched iron age warfare in the last one, but I’m not really knowledgeable on that subject at all, so I can’t tell.

There is this one line that I’ll quote, just because it keeps coming up:

“I hope so,” said Granth. “Sometimes barbarians will kill without counting the cost. That’s what makes them barbarians.”

Daverio shrugged cynically. “That will probably happen once or twice. Then we’ll kill ten or twenty Cimmerians, or however many it takes. Before long, the ones we leave alive will say, ‘Don’t do anything to King Numedides’ men. It hurts us worse than it hurts them.’”

There’s something to be said for dumping more resources than seems immediately prudent into revenge, particularly in iron age societies, because that can deter people from trying to harm you in the future. Sticking strictly to only retaliating when such retaliation is the good move for you right now encourages bad actors to harm you whenever you’re unable to immediately profit from retaliation, and you’re usually unable to immediately profit from retaliation. Fighting powerful enemies is costly, and if you only ever look one move ahead, the “smart” thing to do is always to roll over for them. Plus, you might value a reputation for indomitability more than whatever material wealth you sacrifice acquiring it.

That’s not “without counting the cost,” though. It’s actually the opposite: Planning long term. And I’m wondering whether this is going to be a thing where a perfectly reasonable life strategy is treated as though it’s foolish, except, somehow also mystically effective? It’s kind of like the “utilitarian societies create negative utility” thing where someone really wants there to be some ineffable, incalculable quality to ideology or philosophy that renders rational thought and calculation useless, but inevitably what they come up with is just another thing that can and should be calculated.

That hasn’t actually happened here, but this book keeps referring to this “barbarians kill without counting the cost” thing, and I’m suspicious that it’s going to end up being “Conan is a barbarian, so he kills without counting the cost, but it turns out that this is the secret to driving off the Aquilonians,” except that means if he did count the cost he would’ve done the exact same thing anyway, because it worked.

For all that Turtledove doesn’t seem too good at portraying mass battles, his depiction of a battle with a giant monster is pretty engaging. Conan, wandering through the woods, ends up in the Feywild, the border subtle at first:

Once out in the clearing, Conan froze again, watching, listening, waiting. Something seemed to call him, but not in a way to which he could set words. He frowned, then went on. Whatever it was, he would find it.

And growing more obvious as time goes on:

Not here, not now. Silence had settled over him, soft as snowfall. His eyes flicked now to the left, now to the right, now up, now down. The forest looked no different from the way it had before he set foot on this treacherous track. It looked no different, but somehow it was. That muffling drift of silence lay thick upon the land. Even the buzz of flies and the hum of gnats were softly swallowed up and gone.

Before growing completely obvious at the mouth of some primordial ruin:

Defiantly, he pressed ahead. The path went past an enormous fir—easily the largest Conan had ever seen, and one he would surely have known well had it grown anywhere near Duthil—before turning sharply to the left. The blacksmith’s son followed it, but then stopped in his tracks in astonishment at the sight of what lay ahead.

Within which there is a giant snake, which Conan shoots to death with arrows. As I mentioned above, it’s a pretty good fight, in which Conan is dodging out of the way of the snake’s attempts to sink its fangs into him while firing arrows that try to find a chink in its armor, eventually managing to score a shot through the eye, which initiates the snake’s death convulsions, which nearly kill Conan in their own right. Conan harvests a fang and dips his arrows in the venom of the massive snake, and then leaves, finding himself back in the normal world again, that massive fir he passed earlier vanishing as soon as he steps past it.

On the way back home, he is suddenly struck by a brilliant idea, which he runs to tell his father:

That took Conan’s mind back to the fane from out of time, but only for a moment. The present and what might lie ahead were more important to him. “If we were to strike the Aquilonian camp at night, we could take the foe by surprise,” he burst out, his voice cracking with excitement.

Is that not what you did the first time? What with all the sneaking around, I’d kind of gotten the vibe that the Battle Adjacent to Venarium was a night attack. Conan’s twelve, so I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that he thinks an idea as basic as “night attack” is a cataclysmic super strategy that will turn the tide against victorious invaders.

Mordec’s response is less “kid, ‘night attack’ is not some new concept that the Aquilonians will be unprepared for” and more about how a coordinated strike on all the Aquilonian garrisons throughout Cimmeria would be impossible because some of the villages would back out or just lose, and then the survivors would summon reinforcements. Conan doesn’t like being dismissed, and considers telling Mordec about the monster snake.

He did not speak of his exploit with the serpent. He was not sure his father would believe him. He was not altogether sure he believed it himself, and that despite the sinister stains on the shafts in his quiver.

Conan harvested a massive fang from the monster, but the discoloration of his arrow shafts is the best evidence he can think up to prove that the fight happened?

Chapter 4

Our Aquilonian mooks are delivering a message from the Duthil garrison to Fort Venarium, which is now starting to resemble a proper fortification, with barracks and a central keep and such. Presumably this expands the radius of the magical combat buffs it provides to nearby Aquilonians.

And then, quite suddenly, he did not mind waiting any more. A very pretty Cimmerian girl carrying a pitcher of wine and two goblets on a tray came into the barracks. She could not have been above sixteen, and wore little enough that she would have had a hard time sneaking anything lethal into the room at the end of the hall. The guards there did not try to search her, but let her in unchallenged.

Granth had stared and stared. So had a good many of the soldiers in the barracks, though they seemed more used to her presence than he was. In a hoarse voice, he asked, “Who is she?”

“She’s Count Stercus’ plaything,” answered Captain Nario, looking up from his writing.

I guess this was a thing in 2003. I wasn’t really keeping up with any specific genres back then, just reading whatever the school library had stocked, but by 2008 or 2009 the internet was well and truly sick of villains being signposted by sexual assault, so presumably this is part of that trend. It’s definitely coming across as eye-rolling here. “Count Villainous is already a genocidal racist, but how can we make double-sure that the audience knows he’s the bad guy?” I guess after making the people he was racist against a bunch of murderous psychopaths who kill humans for sport, the narrative had to add a different ham-handed villainous trait to make extra sure it’s clear who the bad guys are.

When we’re back in Conan’s point of view, we learn that this is apparently going to be the theme of the chapter:

Men gathered in a little knot in the main—and almost only—street in Duthil. They spoke in low voices, too low for Conan to make out most of what they were saying. He got only snatches: “Her name is Ugaine.” “ … from Rosinish, to the east of …” “ … a foul lecher, if ever there …”

The other men try to exclude Conan from the conversation because he’s just a boy, in particular Balarg, the tailor, his father’s rival in the village, but eventually Mordec shows up and brings Conan into it:

“If these reports be true,” repeated Mordec, slightly stressing the first word, “this Stercus has taken for his own a Cimmerian girl of good family, using her for his pleasure and threatening to turn his Aquilonian dogs loose against the countryside if she does not yield to his desires.”

So if she came from a bad family, that wouldn’t have been a big deal? The “of good family” qualifier seems like a pretty Aquilonian thing to say. Don’t barbarians specifically not have divides between aristocrats and commoners?

Conan’s pretty incensed, anyway, and decides he’s going to go find some animal to murder to blow off steam.

Before he could make for the forest, his mother called, “Where are you going?”

“Out to the woods,” he replied.

“Would you bring me some water first?” asked Verina. “And would you tell me what the men are arguing about this time?”

He took a mug of water into the bedchamber, helped support his mother with a strong arm, and held the mug to her lips. Then, in guarded terms, he told her of Count Stercus and the girl from Rosinish.

Verina drank again, then sighed. “She probably brought it on herself with forward ways,” she said.

“That’s not what the men say. They blame it on the Aquilonian count.” Conan spoke hesitantly, for disagreeing with his mother made him uneasy.

In any case, she paid no more attention to him than had the men of Duthil. “Mark my words. It will turn out to be the way I said,” she told him, and then began to cough.

Just in case you were worried that Conan had at least one parent who wasn’t a terrible, terrible human being.

Venarium is apparently real close to Duthil, and Conan’s hunting trip crosses his path with an Aquilonian settler:

Melcer did not raise his axe in any threatening way, but he did not take his hands off it, either. The young Cimmerian had an arrow nocked, but it pointed at the ground, not at Melcer. Three plump grouse hung by their feet from the barbarian’s belt: he was out hunting game, not hunting men. With luck, this would not have to end in blood.

Taking his right hand from the handle of the axe, Melcer held it up, palm out, in a sign. “Do you speak my language?” he asked.

Somewhat to his surprise, the youngster nodded. “Little bit,” he said, his accent foul but comprehensible. He jabbed a thumb at his own chest. “Conan.”

Melcer the settler is pretty insistent on the whole “make a farm” thing, so Conan declares them enemies, and expresses his enmity by giving him a bird he hunted. I, uh, I’m not sure how that makes them enemies, but Conan definitely meant it.

For the rest of the chapter, we get a wandering tinker visiting from up north, from which we learn that many of the clans of northern Cimmeria are still free from Aquilonian occupation, and apparently didn’t participate on the attack on Venarium.

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