The timeline continues crawling forward towards Conan’s fateful fifteenth year. On the one hand, time skips suck. They play out pretty much one of two ways: Either the character is exactly the same as when we last left off, or else they’ve had a character arc we didn’t get to see and now they’re basically a different (though hopefully at least similar) character. The other hand, though, is that Conan of Venarium didn’t need to cover three years of Conan’s life. We didn’t need any details on what Conan was like before he reached barbarianing age, and having a narrative cover three years of events without coming across as disconnected vignettes marking time until the climax is hard to pull off. There’s a theme of Conan wanting to be all growed up, but so far it’s not super clear what fighting a snake in the Feywild or meeting a settler has to do with Conan’s overall arc other than being events that happened in the summer. Of course, we’re still only 32% of the way into the story, so there’s some wiggle room left for things to start coming together later.
Now in chapter 5 it is winter so we’re talking about Vanaheim and Asgard coming down to raid, because apparently they are ice people and only move south when the weather is bad, instead of doing the sensible thing and bunkering down for the winter before heading out to raid in the summer when they don’t have to trudge through three feet of snow to reach their target.
Conan’s going out hunting in the winter, and on the way out of the village, Tarla, that daughter of his father’s rival, exchanges more words with him than she yet has in any chapter:
“Out hunting, Conan?” That was Tarla, the daughter of Balarg the weaver, scooping clean, fresh snow into buckets to bring it indoors to melt for drinking and cooking water.
He nodded. “Aye,” he said, and even the one word seemed a great speech to him.
The girl’s smile was like a moment of sunshine from some warmer country. “Good fortune go with you, then,” she said.
Awkwardly, Conan dipped his head. “Thanks,” he said, and hurried away toward the woods.
Conan’s crush on the girl has never been subtle, and has been referenced nearly once a chapter, but so far the limit of Tarla’s personality has been “is girl.” And this isn’t some short story where Conan’s only arc is to face some mysterious peril, and which ends with some gory triumph when the peril has lost its novelty. This is a full-length novel that presumes to be some kind of coming-of-age story for Conan. If this Tarla is meant to be a significant character in it, she needs to have, y’know, personality traits.
While Conan’s out hunting, a starving wolf pack begins stalking him, and a fracas ensues:
Three more shafts saw another wolf dead, one wounded, and one arrow flying far but futilely. Some of the yet unhurt wolves began tearing at the carcasses of a fallen comrade. In this desperate time of year, meat was meat, come whence it might. Gore stained the snow. Conan shot another wolf, and yet another, even as they fed.
I don’t know if wolves are actually this stupid, either when starving or just in general, but they seem really unthreatening if they just ignore Conan while he pumps arrows into them. One thing I know is that wolf packs are usually like 6-8 wolves strong, and Conan kills or wounds (essentially a death sentence for wolves, since they can’t exactly patch each other up) no less than eight of them, and yet there are still uninjured wolves left in the pack to flee.
Conan returns with the pelts and meat of the super pack:
Mordec eyed the hides for some little while before he spoke. When at last he did, he asked, “You slew all of these yourself?”
“No one else, by Crom!” answered Conan, and he told the story with nearly as much savage vigor as he had expended in the fight against the pack.
After Conan stopped, his father was again some time silent. This time, Mordec spoke more to himself than to Conan: “I may have been wrong.” Conan’s eyes opened very wide, for he did not think he had ever heard his father say such a thing before. Mordec turned to him and continued, “When next we go to war, son, I shall not try to hold you back. By the look of things, you are a host in yourself.”
So, quest “Get Thumbs Up From Pops” complete, I guess? What do we spend the rest of the book on? We’re still two years out from the battle of Venarium that brought Conan out into the rest of the world.
After this, there’s another scene with Melcer, in which he goes to town to buy food for the winter from the savings he brought with him up out of Aquilonia, and then Conan shoots an arrow near him (but not quite at him), and Melcer gets angry and Conan is impressed that he’s more angry than scared.
And then we’re following Mordec again, where he meets with a clan chief from the north, who promises to muster the northern Cimmerians against the Aquilonians.
And then after that brief vignette, a giant bat attacks Conan while he’s watching a flock of sheep that Nectan the shepherd roped him into minding while he went to join the meeting with the northern clan chief. The bat is impervious to Conan’s iron-tipped arrows, but stymied by the silver-shod staff Nectan gave him to watch the sheep with, and burns like gasoline when Conan smacks it with a torch. He doesn’t get any sweet trophies off of this one, but the strange wounds on the sheep the bat had attempted to abduct convinces Nectan that Conan’s telling the truth. So now he’s killed two mysterious monsters, but it’s still not clear why they’re all coming out of the woodwork to fight Conan and I’m beginning to suspect that the answer will either be some lame chosen one shit or else it’s going to be something that would’ve been way more compelling had we known about it in advance. Just like Threadbare, this book makes me wonder what’s going on and doesn’t seem to realize that this comes at the expense of making me wonder what’s going to happen next. Confusion is not the same thing as tension.
And this whole chapter definitely reads like just a list of things that happened in winter.
I can’t find a specific passage to quote without just copying entire pages of the book, but this chapter (spring, about a full year since the Battle Adjacent to Venarium) opens with Stercus having sent his underage girlfriend back home and hoping to rustle up a replacement, for which he comes to Duthil. Presumably he’s coming for Tarla, since she is the only named character who could plausibly be Stercus’ victim, being the only girl in the entire story besides Stercus’ earlier victim (there’s also Conan’s mother, but she’s very definitely a full grown woman). I might feel a sense of dread if Tarla had shown any signs of being a human being and not an animatronic.
Stercus comes to Duthil and exchanges a few words with Conan, in which Conan is alarmingly frank about how much he dislikes Stercus and the Aquilonians, and Stercus doesn’t care. Then the inevitable happens:
The Aquilonian continued along the street at a slow walk, an expression of disdain on his face. None of the other boys who had been kicking the ball dared impede him, even for a moment. Conan stayed close to Stercus until the knight reined in once more, in front of the home of Balarg the weaver.
He bowed in the saddle there, something Conan had not only never seen but never imagined. “Hello, my pretty,” he murmured in Cimmerian suddenly sweet as honey. “What is your name?”
“Tarla,” answered the girl still standing in the doorway.
Oh, no. I am struck with horror.
“Tarla,” repeated Count Stercus. In his mouth, it might have been a caress. “What a lovely name.”
Conan discovered he had only thought he hated the Aquilonian nobleman. Now, with jealousy tearing at him like acid venom, he would gladly have stuffed Stercus into his father’s forge and worked the bellows for a hotter fire with a will he had never shown while helping Mordec to forge a sword or an andiron.
Tarla murmured in confusion and what was obviously pleasure. No one in the rude village of Duthil had ever paid her such a compliment before. Conan knew too well he had not, and wondered why. The answer was not hard to find: he had no more imagined such candied words than he had a bow from horseback. What the folk who had it called civilization knew wiles subtler and more clinging and perhaps more deadly than a spider’s web.
“Your name’s pretty” is a level of seduction that the Cimmerians never dreamt of? I get what Turtledove is going for here, but attributing such mastery of courtly etiquette that barbarians are left dumbstruck to such banal compliments comes across like parody. “Your name’s pretty” is the kind of thing I’d expect the barbarians to be coming up with. If Count Stercus is supposed to be seducing Tarla with the grace of civilization, why not have him come up with some actual poetry on the spot? Just a single ABAB stanza to get the point across. Wouldn’t be hard.
With another seated bow, Stercus continued, “I had not looked for so fair a flower in these parts, even in springtime. I must come back again soon, to see how you bloom.”
So, not actually going to put Tarla in any peril right here. I mean, we’re still two years out from Venarium II, so that makes sense, but I guess we just needed to have the villain strut about being a child rapist in order to set the mood?
From across the street, though, a gray-haired woman called, “Why should he speak a young girl so fair, with him a man full grown?”
Another woman said, “You know why as well as I do, Gruoch.” They both cackled—there was no other word for it.
“That foreigner is going to rape one of our village children! Hahaha!” It’s weird that the allegedly barbaric residents of Duthil don’t immediately put these womens’ heads on pikes. I’m not saying that this would be a particularly noble course of action or anything. I’m saying that it’s what I’d expect Cimmerians to do to people openly mocking one of their own for being victimized by an occupying army, and I’m not sure what the narrative purpose of having these two women be so openly traitorous is. Establishing that the resistance of Duthil are getting worn down by the invaders, I guess? Except it seems like this is supposed to be a totally normal thing.
Conan goes hunting in the woods in yet another vignette, although at least this one, unlike the monster fights or the wolf ambushes, sticks to the theme of the Aquilonians coming into Cimmeria, because Conan comes across a brute of a Gunderman soldier, argument escalates into a fist fight escalates into Conan murdering the guy and hiding the body. He later confesses what he’s done to his father:
Without hesitation, Mordec knocked him down. When he got up, the blacksmith flattened him again. Afterwards, Mordec helped him to his feet. “That was to remind you the Aquilonians will decide Hondren had a mishap in the woods—if you do not brag of what you did. It is a brave and bold thing, a boy beating a warrior trained. But it is your life and nine more if you ever breathe a word of it. Silence, or you die! This is no game. Do you understand?”
“I do, Father.” Conan shook his head to clear it; Mordec had not held back with either blow. “You have a hard hand with your lessons.”
“And you have a thick skull to drive them through,” said the blacksmith with rough affection. “I have to make sure they get home.”
Just in case you’d forgotten that Conan’s parents are terrible, terrible human beings.