Conan is pursuing the people who killed that one woman he knew for like three weeks, Hellbent on revenge. He comes across an abandoned Nemedian slaver, slowly dying from a wound he received in the battle with the Cimmerians. Conan interrogates the Nemedian to find out who his companions are, and the answer is two Bossonians, two Gundermen, an Aquilonian who allegedly has sorcerous powers, and their Keshanite leader. Notably, everyone but their leader is from somewhere in greater Aquilonia, so why on Earth were they set up as this bizarre international band? Why not have one guy very far from home, and everyone else is locally sourced?
Perspective changes to our villain, whose second in command (the Aquilonian wizard) is speaking to him about the morale problems caused by their 80% losses.
“Ah, but these fellows have the wrong attitude,” said Taharka. “You see, we lost many men back there, but that is no matter. In all the world, nothing is so easily replaceable as men. Each likes to believe himself unique and irreplaceable, but this is sheer self-deception. If you would ever be a leader of men, my friend Axandrias, you must understand that men, whether they be slave or free, few in numbers or in the tens of thousands, are nothing. Their death, if it serve your purpose, is acceptable. Their life, if it is inconvenient to you, is intolerable.”
“Wise words, my lord,” said the Aquilonian.
This isn’t terrible villain dialogue. It’s extremely on the nose, but it comes across as not too cartoonish for a Conan story. Provided the narrative manages to avoid running this into the ground, this guy could be a pretty effective villain.
“We shall cast about here. Perhaps there is surplus wealth to be appropriated. This land has the reputation for being rich.”
“Well-policed, too, master,” said Axandrias. “As a native, I speak with some authority. I have scratched my name on the walls of some of this nation’s finest dungeons.”
“Ah, but that was when you were young and foolish. Worse, you lacked proper leadership. All that has been remedied.[“]
Taharka’s words here come across like someone groping around for excuses to ignore the inconvenient but probably accurate report of a knowledgeable subordinate. If that’s where this is headed, then I kind of have to wonder how much work Conan’s gonna have left to do by the time he catches up. The last time Taharka disregarded local wisdom, he lost twenty-four men. Taking similar casualties again would leave him with negative eighteen. Maybe Conan will have to pursue his new band of reverse-slavers into the negaverse?
The slavers begin preying on random passers-by opportunistically, largely in order to restore morale, and Conan is able to pursue them by their poorly hidden corpses. Conan eventually resolves to acquire a mount of his own, in case the slavers pick up the pace and leave him behind. He finds a town and approaches, looking to acquire a steed.
Conan’s limited experience of towns told him that the livestock of visitors and traveling merchants would be pastured upon the common. Although he yearned to find whether certain horses he sought were there, Conan studiously ignored the pastured beasts as he strode toward the gate.
Is Conan’s experience of towns limited because they are rare, but present, in this story’s version of Cimmeria, or because Conan has been to civilized lands before? He’s definitely been to Pict lands, and he’s seventeen, a full three to four years older than he was at the end of the book Venarium (Conan is twelve to start and Venarium II is about a year and a half later, so depending on where his birthday is Conan could be thirteen or fourteen), and two years older than his traditional age at the battle of Venarium. The chronologies that mentioned it at all universally billed Conan the Bold as an alternate origin story, but so far this all fits in pretty snug with all but the final chapter of Conan of Venarium. Rather than leaving Cimmeria, Conan heads off to the Pictish wilderness
A guard leaned upon his spear and eyed the youth disdainfully. “What is your name, Cimmerian? And what is your business?”
Conan seethed and his first impulse was to draw his blade and split the skull of this insolent dog. He would gain nothing and might even be called to account for the act. City people had no true sense of honor. Worse, the bandits he sought might get away while he was trying to break out of the local dungeon.
So Conan is definitely familiar with civilized society. He’s clearly been out of Cimmeria before (unless we’re supposed to take it that seventeen-year old Conan would refrain from violence merely because of the stories he’s heard about Aquilonians, which is not what this passage implies). This definitely comes off less like a Conan origin story and more like it’s just early on in his career, and that he bounced in and out of Cimmeria two or three times before one of his adventures took him so far away that he wasn’t able to return home easily afterwards, and instead began wandering about in the south.
“My name is Conan. I seek certain men who may have passed this way. Have you seen a dark man of the south, traveling with an Aquilonian, two Bossonians and two Gundermen? I believe that they would have sought to sell some horses.”
The man’s gaze narrowed. “Why do you ask such things?”
So, seems like the slavers have definitely been here, and unless this is all just wasted foreshadowing (and while this book has its flaws, so far it hasn’t been nearly as incompetent as that), asking after them is about to get Conan in trouble.
Conan checks into a motel and finds Player Two:
The man led Conan toward the curtained door. As he was about to pass through, the cloaked person raised a tan-haired head and looked at him. To his astonishment, it was a woman. Rather, it was a girl of about his own age. She had strong, regular features that would have been comely save that the left eye was covered by a patch of black leather. He paused for a moment, startled by her gaze. The look in her single eye was not quite sane.
The Wikipedia summary has informed me that she will be his traveling companion for this book. I approve of this decision. Conan is not much of a character on his own, and is more like an avatar of barbarism whose arrival serves as the inciting incident for his supporting cast’s character arcs (except when it’s a short story, in which case “Conan tries to rob a wizard” can sustain like twenty pages by itself and doesn’t even need a character arc). We’ll see whether or not the companion character actually does end up playing this role, but we’ve at least got as far as step one: Have a companion character (or several) at all.
Player Two sits down for a chat with Conan at dinner.
“I am Kalya. Mad Kalya, men call me. You have probably been warned.” Her voice was startling; a hoarse grating that might have been made by a raven rather than a young woman. Squinting in the dim light, Conan descried a pair of scars on each side of Kalya’s neck. At some time in the past, someone had passed a dagger through the girl’s larynx. That accounted for the voice. He also realized that she must have been a mere child when it happened.
I associate the “badass lady with scars” archetype more with the 90s than the 80s. This book is 1989, so if my vague intuitions are correct, we’re looking at an earlier example of the archetype, hopefully before it got driven into the ground and became the domain of hacks.
Conan and Kalya go to meet with someone who says he knows something about the slavers Conan is tracking. Oh, also, Kayla apparently has a vendetta with the Aquilonian sorcerer. Conan recognizes the same gate guard on the way out as on the way in, and becomes suspicious that one guard would watch the gate so long, and reacts to that suspicion in the only reasonable way: Strangulation.
“But,” the man choked out, “how, what?” his eyes bulged as he strangled. Then, desperate, “Hold! Rario told me to keep watch this night. He gave money to my relief that I might stand a double-shift.” There was terror in the man’s sallow face. The savage before him looked as pitiless as a stone, and the madwoman behind the Cimmerian’s shoulder looked thirsty for blood.
“Leave him, Conan,” said Kalya. “This is a dog who is in the purse of any who has a few coins. Ratio is the one who may have knowledge important to us. Let’s go find him.”
I can’t tell if Rario and Ratio are the same guy with an inconsistent name or if they’re two different guys. Either it’s a typo that needed to be fixed or a confusingly similar pair of names that needed to be differentiated. In any case, Conan takes Kayla’s advice and lets the guard go.
Conan tells Kalya that he doesn’t want a sidekick and definitely doesn’t want a sidekick who’s going to complicate his pursuit by demanding she be the one to kill the Aquilonian. Kalya reacts in a perfectly reasonable manner.
“Wench!” Her eye glared feral hate. “From childhood I have devoted my life to the extermination of this man! Do you think I would let some illiterate, unwashed savage stand in my way? Let this ‘wench’ give you some lessons in courtesy and swordplay, barbarian!” She reached behind her neck and drew the cloak over her head. Before the cloak struck the ground, her right hand flashed across her waist and a sword was in her hand.
For a moment Conan stood dumbfounded. Her shift from semi-friendliness to hostility was bewildering, and her garb was as bizarre as anything the Cimmerian had encountered.
The woman wore very little beneath the cloak, and most of what she wore was protective armor. An intricate sleeve of mail and small plates covered her right arm from shoulder to wrist. She wore light greaves on both shins, and her right thigh was further protected by a cuisse of studded leather. Her right breast was confined in a web of fine steel mail, the other was bare. Her left hand was encased in the articulated steel gauntlet Conan had noted earlier. It had a flared, fluted cuff that extended almost to the elbow. Aside from these protective accessories, she wore only a loincloth supported by her weapon-belt, and that, too, was made of fine mail.
So far as chainmail bikinis go, this one’s a lot more reasonable than most. The mail loincloth is kind of dumb, but an emphasis on protecting a specific side of the body is not a bad way to show lots of skin while still having armor that is actually reasonably effective. Of course, it’s still more effective to have armor that covers your entire body, but the entirety of Conan’s armor is a fur loincloth, so Kalya’s actually got him beat in terms of defense. I’m kind of skeptical of the whole “warrior woman wearing next to nothing.” There’s nothing inherently wrong with it and it’s very in-theme for Conan, definitely, but it’s often pure fetishism with a patina of girl power plastered over to try and deflect criticism. We’ll see how this one plays out in execution.
“Crom!” Conan swore as he sprang back. “What is the meaning of this? We are not yet so at odds that it is a killing matter, girl!”
Kalya scrambled to her feet. “Stop calling me girl, you foul savage! Draw your sword if you’d not add murder to the crimes on my conscience.”
What, it’s not already there? You’re pretty seriously behind on the whole “dangerous stranger with mysterious past” checklist, Kalya.
Rario shows up and explains that he’s a fence for bandits. Why he felt the need to show up and explain this instead of just ignore Conan’s inquiries entirely is a mystery. Maybe he was afraid that someone would eventually give him away, so he decided to contact Conan immediately and lure him into an ambush? The ambush definitely happens, but Rario’s stated reason in springing it is just impatience with Conan, and he even says he would’ve helped him out had Conan been more veiled with his requests. I can’t keep track of Rario’s motivations at all, but the actual ambush reminds me of 80s movies in a good way:
Two of them attacked Conan. It was clear that they were well practiced in their craft. They closed in from opposite sides, one cutting at the Cimmerian’s head while the other swept a slashing blow at his legs. Instead of engaging one attacker and leaving himself vulnerable to the other, Conan dealt with both at once.
The low-swung sword passed through empty air as Conan sprang upward, jerking his knees up almost to chin level. Simultaneously, he slashed toward the sword that was whistling at his head. He did not block the weapon, but instead cut for the wielder’s wrist. The sword, with hand still gripping its handle, flew free, nicking the Cimmerian’s shoulder in passing.
He whirled and landed facing his other opponent. The man was still recovering from his abortive blow when the Cimmerian’s blade descended, crunching through mail to shear flesh and bone, hewing through ribs and deep into vitals. Conan jerked the sword free and spun once more. Blood flew from the blade in a great arc as Conan slashed the head from the man who stood staring at his handless wrist.
After killing the ambushers, Kalya suddenly decides she’s teaming up with Conan again, and Conan reluctantly agrees that he’ll need a guide in civilized lands, having never been further than the Bossonian Marches before. Thus ends the chapter.