Conan the Bold is an origin story written either (optimistically) by someone who thought that the Venarium story referred to in Robert E. Howard’s work wouldn’t be as good as what he could come up with or (pessimistically) someone who’s only vaguely familiar with Conan and didn’t even know that the Venarium story was referred to at all. We’ll see if this origin story fairs better than the last, and how mutually exclusive they are (my estimate: Not particularly, and very, respectively, but you never know).
The steading was set in a small clearing, surrounded by low hills dense with a cover of hardwood forest. The householder, a graying man named Halga, leaned on his spear as he watched his three sons driving his cattle to pasture. He felt a deep satisfaction, for the winter had been mild and the herd had increased significantly. Now the trees were in full leaf, the streams were full of fish, and the rigors of past months had given way to a time of plenty.
This is the opening paragraph, attaching us to the perspective of this Halga fellow, whose family recovered Conan after he staggered out of the Pictish wilderness badly injured.
The object of Halga’s thoughts was confused in his own mind as he left the steading, passing through the gate in the timber wall that still seemed alien to him. The Highlanders did not use such fortifications. The southwestern Cimmerians, living so near enemy peoples, needed more protection than those who faced little but neighborly feuding.
And here we’re flipping to Conan’s perspective, just a handful of paragraphs later. This kind of casual perspective shift is never a good sign for the quality of a story, especially when all that Halga’s perspective told us are things that Conan either already knew or could easily have suspected on his own, unless it is, for some reason, a plot point that Conan doesn’t know that Halga is hoping to match Conan up with his daughter.
But now there was another urge pulling at his heart, causing him to doubt the wisdom of the wandering life. The source of that urge was Halga’s daughter, Naefa. who was making no secret of the fact that she wanted Conan for her husband.
So, no, the entire first page or so of this story from Halga’s perspective could’ve been traded out for one paragraph from Conan’s.
Each isolated steading was surrounded by a timber palisade, and several such family holdings would maintain a central fort where all could hasten in time of war. Never defensive fighters, the Cimmerians used the forts to protect the women, children and livestock while the men sallied out in sanguinary attacks.
Cimmerians are iron age barbarians, so this division between men and women isn’t particularly surprising and isn’t necessarily indicative that this is going to be a particularly sexist Conan story. It does come from 1989, though, and the Conan fandom has never exactly been one to demand progressive social mores from its fiction, so there could be some, let’s say, controversial passages ahead of us.
But now there was another urge pulling at his heart, causing him to doubt the wisdom of the wandering life. The source of that urge was Halga’s daughter, Naefa. who was making no secret of the fact that she wanted Conan for her husband. Working in her favor was his whole Cimmerian heritage. Men of his nation were encouraged to marry young and raise many children.
Life was savage in Cimmeria, the most primitive of the Hyborian lands. Men were slain by droves in the constant feuding and warfare. Women and children were lost in slave-raids, although most grown women managed to kill themselves rather than be slaves. All were faced with starvation in the hard winters, which far outnumbered the mild ones. The only answer to extinction was a high birth rate.
True, the Cimmerians had wrung some hard-won advantages from their harsh history and environment. The process of ruthless selection had made them stronger and more enduring than most other peoples. Disease was all but unknown among them, and their powers of recuperation were legendary.
Conan’s brooding on marriage prospects is interrupted.
With his thoughts still in turmoil, Conan cut the trail of a buck. Overjoyed to have something basic and uncomplicated to occupy his mind, he gave chase.
As originally depicted, Conan is clever in battle and brilliant in war, but uncultured and interested in the refined arts and sciences of civilized folk. In many post-Howard works, this is bowdlerized into Conan being a moron who gets through on brute strength. This line leans towards that second depiction a bit, but doesn’t necessarily commit to it.
Just before noon, Conan spotted the buck. It stood browsing in a little clearing; a fine, fat creature putting on weight early after the easy winter. Conan stalked it as he had been schooled, taking a few silent steps when the beast had its head down, nibbling the grass, freezing like a statue when it raised its head to scan its surroundings. The primitive eyes and brain of the animal could register little but movement, and a hunter might escape notice if he could stand still enough, though he was in plain view.
Deer do not work this way. Their vision is significantly more advanced than human vision for purposes of detecting certain colors (they’re angled more towards the blue end of the spectrum than we are, able to see UV but not as much red/orange) and making out shapes, particularly during dusk and dawn, when they’re most active. Now, you do want to freeze when they stick their head up, but that’s not because they’re tyrannosaurs who can’t see you if you don’t move. That’s because in addition to being good at seeing blue and making out the outline of predators, they are also amazingly well-optimized for spotting motion, and will immediately flee if they see you so much as twitch within the same zip code as their current location.
Deer are prey animals. They have no idea what a trap or ambush is and are generally dumb as bricks, but they are not at all primitive when it comes to spotting danger and running away from it. Hunters wear camo for a reason.
In fairness to our author John Maddox Roberts, not all of this was properly understood in 1989, and particularly the bit about their vision-range being shifted more towards blue than ours is fairly recent science.
Conan is ambushed.
The man who leaned casually against the tree behind Conan was a foot shorter, but equally broad through shoulders and chest. His hair was as black as Conan’s own, but his eyes were dark brown and his skin was swarthy. Conan cursed himself for a fool as he noted his sword in the man’s hand, his bloodied spear propped against the tree behind the man’s shoulder. A Pict.
Picts are the race most consistently depicted as subhuman or savage by the Conan setting. This particular book is interpreting them as “swarthy” (not uncommon), which means some kind of Hispanic or Arab or maybe Mediterranean complexion, and it’s also depicting them as slightly less orcish than some of the other stories:
“Death is the price of carelessness, Cimmerian,” said the Pict.
Conan felt his ears burning with mortification. “I am not so easy to kill, Pict, even when it is knife against sword.”
The Pict grinned, distorting his face-paint. “Brave talk, but you know better. Have you forgotten my lessons so soon?”
Conan turned back to his task. “I have not forgotten. The first lesson my father taught me was never to leave my weapons out of reach.”
“It must be a woman on your mind. That is no excuse. Women have no use for dead men. Any other Pict would have slain you on sight.”
Conan merely grumbled. Months before, he had been fleeing across the hills of the Pictish Wilderness, closely pursued by a war-band of the Black Mountain Picts. He had taken refuge in a cave, only to find it already inhabited. The occupant was Tahatch, a warrior of the Great Valley Picts. Tahatch had hidden in the cave the night before, pursued by another war-band of the Black Mountain people. Forced into uneasy proximity, the two had spent three days and nights in the cave, trading stories in low voices.
When they had emerged at length, the two ranged the hills for several weeks, hunting and occasionally making midnight forays into Black Mountain villages. Tahatch was out seeking adventures and honors to gain admission to the Gray Wolf fraternity, the most prestigious of the warrior brotherhoods. Conan had accounted himself an excellent woodsman, but he had found that he was a beginner compared to the Pict, and he had learned much.
But only slightly:
“A fine buck,” said Tahatch.
Taking the hint, Conan gestured toward a pile of offal. “Help yourself. I can’t carry it all.”
The Pict squatted and picked up the buck’s liver, holding the slippery organ in both hands. He proceeded to eat it raw.
We abruptly bounce back to Halga’s perspective, but while some kind of dash-mark indicator of changing perspectives would have been appreciated, there is at least more function to this perspective change, as Halga and his sons prepare to defend their stead from a bizarrely international band of slavers. It feels kind of like something that would emerge from the golden age of Caribbean piracy, but the reason why you got multi-national crews in that area is because lot of European nations were simultaneously colonizing a place while also kidnapping Africans and bringing them there, which meant you had nationalities from three continents mingling in one place. And, of course, once commercial air flight becomes available, emigration across continents is so easy that it happens all the time, meaning that multi-nation team-ups don’t even require explanation in the modern day. Back in the iron age, though? Why did our villain go on a costly multi-national tour gathering up his troops instead of just recruiting from Aquilonia, his base of operations?
“Slavers will have no stomach for a death-fight,” said the youngest of his sons. “When we kill a few, the others will run, you’ll see.”
“That may be,” Halga said. “We can always hope. But be prepared for the worst. Should that happen—” he turned a stark gaze upon the two older sons, “—you must be ready to tend to your women. I will see to your mother and sister.”
A) There’s four of you, if three out of the four are still capable of killing your women, doesn’t that mean the battle is still pretty inconclusive? And B) can’t your women take care of suicide on their own? The narrative treats this as a “better death than slavery” shout of Cimmerian defiance, but if the women aren’t plunging the daggers into their own hearts, then it comes off a lot more like maximum-tier misogyny where the men consider themselves to have such ownership over their wives and daughters as to be able to murder them to stop them from falling into the hands of others as trophies. At that point, the women are already slaves. Also C) if you’re not murdering your wives and daughters but actually assisting in suicide in defiance of capture, why can’t the women grab an axe and go out swinging? Even if they’re too undertrained to do serious damage, suicide by Aquilonian at least has a chance of doing some damage on the way down. Granted, there’s also the chance that you’ll be non-fatally wounded and captured, but if you’re really all that committed to defiance in the face of slavery, keep swinging on your mangled leg until you’re either dead or too mangled to move at all – at which point you’ll be dead shortly in any case.
Although hailing from Keshan, just south of Stygia, our villain today has all the hallmarks of your bog standard post-Howard Stygian super villain save for mastery of magic:
Taharka was a tall man, and strikingly handsome, and he knew it. He was not quite as dark as a Kushite, and had the high-bridged nose and aquiline features of the riverine tribes that dwelled along the Styx south of Stygia. He liked to affect the airs of an aristocrat, although he had no noble blood. His father, a humble shopkeeper, had hoarded every copper coin to procure the best education available for the youth, and then had bullied him into excelling at his studies. The education and his very evident talents had secured him a cavalry commission in the service of the king of his land.
And hey, maybe he’s got some magic up his sleeve, too. This “cruel genius” depiction is usually associated with the Chinese in real-world racism, but for Conan it gets assigned to black people, which is part of that whole “mish-mash of random racist tropes that don’t add up to much of a political narrative” thing discussed earlier.
A Nemedian with a broad, curved blade appeared before Halga’s youngest son. The youth bore a spear in each hand. Even as the Nemedian toppled back, his killer leaned over the parapet and cast his righthand spear down, piercing the shield and back of the man upon whom the Nemedian had been standing.
On the one hand, this is a really dumb way to arm yourself. On the other hand, this is a Conan story, and I’m willing to let realism slide if the result is awesome.
This proved to be a miscalculation, for as he cast the spear, he received a severe slash on the left arm from a billhook wielded by a Bossonian who stood below. The youth made no outcry, but drew his sword and prepared to fight one-handed henceforth.
Why not just continue wielding a spear in one hand?
Halga had seen the bowmen among the enemy, and they disturbed him. Arrows were easy to dodge most of the time, but a man occupied with enemies before him could not watch for missiles while defending himself from swords.
Jesus, Halga and his sons are getting so many action hero tropes attached to them I’m starting to wonder why they aren’t the main characters.
Halga slew two more, then the first arrow struck him in the side. He grasped the shaft in both hands and snapped it off. He could still fight, but he knew that they would be finished in a few minutes. He turned to his youngest son.
“My son,” Halga said, his voice was steady as if he had been discussing that day’s pasturing, “your brothers and I have duties to perform. You must tarry here and hold them for a while.”
“Go, Father,” said the youth as he sheared the hand from an Aquilonian bandit. “Even a one-handed Cimmerian can delay this rabble a bit.”
The current standings here are Cimmerians: Two injured but capable, two healthy, vs. slavers: Seven dead, twenty-three healthy. And you have to wonder how much longer these slavers, who have already lost a quarter of their number, are willing to continue feeding themselves into the Cimmerian meat-grinder before their morale breaks. So, that thing I talked about earlier where, if the Cimmerian men each killed their own wives, that necessarily meant they hadn’t taken sufficient casualties for the battle to be hopeless? Yeah, they’re walking right into that.
Haiga leapt to the ground, holding a hand against the arrow-stub. It was not the pain, for pain was nothing, but he did not want the arrowhead to induce further bleeding and cause him to fail in this final task. He sheathed his sword and grasped a broad-bladed spear. For this duty, he would not use a sword fouled with the blood of slavers. For the last time, he entered his house, as his two older sons entered theirs.
When Halga emerged from the house, the spear was covered with blood.
Since the actual deed was depicted offpage, it is left entirely to the reader’s imagination how much this was an assisted suicide versus a murder.
The total aftermath:
Some time later, Taharka stood surveying the carnage within the enclosure. “Four men did this? A greybeard, a youth, and two warriors in their prime. How many did we lose?”
“Twenty-two, Chieftain,” said a Gunderman.
Wow, those slavers are pretty fucking dedicated to keep fighting in the face of seventy percent casualties. Granted, skirmishes often result in higher casualty ratios than major battles, because the battle hasn’t clearly turned against the losing side until most of them are already dead, and by then it’s hard for the rest to get away, but under the circumstances the slavers probably wouldn’t have been pursued very far. Also, if there were 22 fatalities against four Cimmerians, then probably you could’ve won if you fought with eight Cimmerians, even if the second set of four weren’t dedicated warriors the way their husbands/father were. For that matter, you probably could’ve won if you just didn’t have three out of four warriors abandon the wall midway through the battle, leaving one of them to be surrounded and picked off before confronting the rest within the steading, where it is much easier for the slavers to surround the Cimmerians.
In the aftermath, Conan and Tahatch make an examination of the scene of the crime, as Conan prepares for vengeance. Contrary to the braindead battle, there’s some reasonably interesting deduction going on:
[T]he Pict examined the site. After several minutes of this, he straightened. “There are seven still living, and one of those is wounded. There were two Bossonian archers among the raiders, and none of the dead are Bossonians.”
“How do you know there were two of them?” Conan asked.
“At the steading I found a broken arrow with a nock of horn, and one with a nock of bone. A single archer would not use both types.” Conan knew that this was true. The Bossonians were notoriously finicky about their shooting tackle.
I mean, this isn’t completely devoid of stupidity. This only concludes that there are at least two Bossonian archers, because it’s possible that there was a third who used the same type of arrows as another. Likewise, he concludes there are two Gundermen based on the prints left by horse shoes, but just because at least two of them had their horses shod by Gundermen doesn’t mean that they are Gundermen.
In any case, Tahatch declines to join Conan on his vengeance quest. I’m honestly not sure why he came into Cimmeria to catch up with him in the first place if he didn’t plan on sticking together, but Tahatch is gone and Conan is in pursuit, seeking revenge for that one woman he knew for all of three weeks, half of which he spent near-comatose from wounds.