Before we get rolling, I want to back up and comment on something that I’d missed in the last chapter (hazard of pushing these out on a deadline is that sometimes I don’t give them as much thought as they deserve). What Kalya’s said to bring to the party is mainly that she understands how civilization works. As a story specifically set towards the very beginning of Conan’s career, Conan has only a vague idea of how things like law enforcement and criminal networks work. Kalya’s a less fearsome fighter than Conan, but she can handle herself alright and she has a valuable understanding of civilization. Perfectly good team-up, right?
It would be, except that Conan pays basically no price for his barbaric lack of subtlety in the town where he met Kalya. Sure, he gets ambushed by Rario, but he hacks his way out with no difficulty and if losing a potential informant was a major setback to their pursuit, neither Conan nor Kalya brings it up. Kalya doesn’t even bring it up when telling Conan that she’s joining his party, and you’d think if it were actually that important, she would have: “If I’d made inquiries instead of you bullrushing into every conversation, Rario would’ve told you where our quarry is” is a lot more compelling than just “we both want the same men dead.”
I find shockingly little to discuss in the front half of this chapter. We’re following Taharka and his men again as they arrive at a lawless border town between Aquilonia and Nemedia, where the local gladiator business has been gummed up by a crackdown on the slave trade by the Aquilonians. Taharka hatches a plan to kidnap people, teach them how to fight with simple weapons, then drug them up so they’re manic and vicious and set them fighting each other. So far as villainous plots go, it’s pretty well-suited to the story. It’s clearly evil, there’s obvious profit in it for the bad guys so they’re not just doing it for the evulz, and the stakes are comfortably local for something this early in Conan’s career. There’s not really anything new to comment on, though. It’s a pretty similar Taharka scene as was in the last post, and I’m kind of wondering how important these Taharka scenes are going to end up being to the narrative. The closest thing to something notable I can think of is mainly in the descriptions of the town, but, I mean, it’s a lawless border town in a Conan story. Imagine Tortuga but with more sand and scantly clad women and you’re basically there.
It’s the back half of the chapter, when the Aquilonian sorcerer guy goes poking around for the aggression-inducing drugs he’ll need for the gladiatorial scheme, that things start to get more noteworthy.
Axandrias saw a light in the dense darkness at the far end of the room. With some trepidation, he began to walk toward it. Several times he stopped and squinted upward at the serpent heads above. Always they were blank and enigmatic, but as he walked he had the uncanny sensation that they moved slightly, and from the corners of his eyes he kept half-seeing a flash of motion, as if long, forked tongues darted from scaly mouths.
He reached the source of the light, and found that it was a flame burning in a brazen bowl. The bowl stood on a tripod, and he could see no trace of fuel to feed the flame. This did not disturb him unduly. Since he was something of a conjurer, he assumed that most wizard’s feats were the same sort of trumpery.
Something disturbed him, and he looked back the way he had come. The bright rectangle of the doorway was at least fifty paces away. Yet, when he had stood before the temple, he had estimated that the city wall was no more than twenty paces away. That meant that this structure must extend through and well past the wall. It was another mystery, but he had not come here to sort out puzzles.
“What brings you here?” The voice came from behind him and Axandrias whirled, his hand darting to his sword hilt. The speaker was a tall, gaunt man dressed in a featureless black robe. He was shaven-headed, his cadaverous face as immoble as those of the stone serpents.
With a relieved sigh, Axandrias relaxed. “Your pardon, good priest. You startled me. I did not hear your approach. Are you the sole priest of this temple?”
“I am. The gods I serve are ancient beyond the dreams of men, and are all but forgotten in this decadent age.” The priest’s accent was strange. Axandrias was widely traveled but he had never heard its like. There was something odd in the man’s phrasing as well.
What with the strong snake themes, I’d assumed this was just a temple of Set, but Axandrias would presumably recognize a Stygian accent, considering he travels in the company of someone from even further south.
Feigning scholarly interest, Axandrias convinces this priest fellow to show him where they keep the magic around here. One book in particular quickly catches his eye.
“Great indeed,” intoned the priest in his sepulchral voice. He opened the cover and exposed the first page. It was an oddly thick and creamy parchment, inscribed all over in tiny characters the color of rusty iron. Axandrias touched the page and found it strangely smooth. He commented upon the fact.
“This is a book of spells written by the wizard-king Angkar, of the pre-Atlantean Empire of Walkh. To one who can read these characters are revealed the secrets of communication with beings that ruled the universe ere the earth was created. He was a sorcerer of all-embracing evil, such as is not seen in these times. He compiled this book as the masterwork of his reign. He had his fifty subject kings send him their daughters, more than nine hundred in all. These pages are made from the flayed skins of those princesses. The characters were written with the blood of royal infants. When the book was complete, he had the bones of his own face set into its cover, cut from his skull while he yet breathed. The binding is his own skin.”
Axandrias jerked his hand away as if the page was red-hot.
Oh, don’t act all surprised, Axandrias. This was clearly a standard-issue Necronomicon from the first sentence of description.
This weird snake prince guy really likes to show off his voodoo, and they end up looking at another bit of it:
“I can see,” Axandrias said, desperate to change the subject, “that I have come to the right place. To one who is privy to such secrets, the trifling things I seek must be as naught.” Idly, he raised the hinged lid of a plain, copper bowl. Inside, he saw a mind-shattering vista of the gulfs of deep space. He was looking as if from above into a monstrous whirlpool of stars. Abruptly he slammed the lid shut and tried to make his stomach return to its accustomed position. The wizard seemed not to have noticed.
This one’s more original than the bog standard Necronomicon, at least. A bowl with space in it doesn’t seem all that mind-bending and I’m not sure why you’d actually want one, but it’s a neat curiosity, anyway.
The next item on the tour is the murder steroids that Axandrias is actually here for, which need to be activated with some kind of spell to get their full effect. Axandrias leaves the temple and finds that it’s some weird space-time folding thing that’s bigger on the inside than on the outside:
When Axandrias reached the mouth of the alley, he looked back and saw the face of the temple once more. Consumed with curiosity, he hurried down a side street until he came to a stairway which mounted the city wall. With his prize tucked inside his tunic, he went up the stair and then made his way gingerly along the ruinous wall. When he saw the two warehouses which flanked the temple, he leaned over and surveyed the view. As he had estimated below, the flat, featureless roof of the temple extended about twenty paces from the paved alley until it disappeared into the wall.
He turned and crossed the thickness of the wall, a distance of less than four paces. He leaned over the parapet, expecting to see the greater bulk of the temple extending beyond. There was nothing. Just a featureless face of rough stone wall and beyond that, a grassy field where oxen placidly cropped the vegetation. His scalp crawled and his mind reeled. Where was the rest of the temple?
And…that is the chapter? I’m really not sure what we accomplished, here, but it’s still early enough in the story that this could be going somewhere.
Conan and Kalya have lost the trail of our villains when they check into a small roadside inn, who warns Conan that he shouldn’t be traveling with just a girl for a companion in these parts, because there’s been a spate of slave raids targeting healthy, strong men, specifically. You might think this justifies the previous chapter, in which the reason for these slave raids is set up, but I think it’s the reverse. Here, in these first two pages, we’ve set up all we need to know about the slave raiding operation in this part of the country. As an audience, we can guess that it’s not a coincidence that there’s mysterious raiders, and we don’t need to know the details of Taharka’s plan in order to follow Conan’s story, so long as we know everything that Conan knows, including why Conan cares. Indeed, Kalya figures out where this is going just a few paragraphs later:
When the woman had returned to the hut and the others were engaged in their conversations, Conan leaned across the table. “What think you of this? Might it have aught to do with Taharka and the others?”
“I cannot say, but I feel that there is some connection. The man is full of plots and schemes, and this may well be one of them. What its nature is I cannot yet tell, but it must be something crafty and devious.”
“Yet the slavers are said to be Nemedians,” Conan said.
“Nemedian clothes are as easy to put on as any. Raiders of any kind know how to use false colors. I think this is a good area in which to concentrate our search. If there is any new villainy being done, we can be fairly sure that Taharka and Axandrias are at the center of it.”
Of course, we’re still early on in the story, and there’s plenty of time for that spooky temple that got set up to be paid off later. We’ll see whether or not that actually happens.
Conan speaks to Kalya about his past:
“I am not like my countrymen,” Conan agreed. “Before I was old enough to hold a man’s sword I was always at odds with any who would rule me or order my life. My father, the village elders, the chieftain of my clan, they all had a go at thrashing me until I grew too large for such treatment. When I earned my warrior’s standing at Vanarium, they gave up trying.”
This makes him different from most Cimmerians? I thought refusing to bend the knee was a whole thing for not just Cimmerians, but Hyborian Age barbarians in general. In any case, this explicitly sets the novel after the events of Venarium. It’s even consistent, if vague, with how Second Venarium went for Conan, specifically:
“You were at Vanarium?” she said. The news of that battle had been all over Aquilonia and the borders a few seasons before; The Aquilonians had pushed across their borders onto ancestral Cimmerian lands and had built the city of Vanarium, manning it with Gunder and Bossonian frontiersmen. The Cimmerians had annihilated the settlement in a day and night of screaming slaughter. All three races were warlike in the extreme and fought without mercy.
Conan’s face twisted, as if this had turned his thoughts down paths he did not wish to follow. “That is past,” he said shortly. “Let us see what is to be found in this town of rogues.”
Conan lost everything at Venarium, so it makes sense he wouldn’t want to talk in detail. It’s really Conan of Venarium’s final chapter alone that’s fucking with the placement in the timeline. Without that, these two stories don’t have to be alternate origins at all. Personally, I have no difficulty just ignoring that final chapter and assuming Conan returned to Cimmeria after raiding Aquilonia for a while, and that this story is then a sequel.
Their investigation quickly brings them to the inn where Taharka has been selling his gladiators:
“A fighting-pit,” Kalya murmured. “Have you ever seen such?”
“Aye,” Conan said. “In Vanaheim and Hyperborea.”
So not only does this post-date Venarium, it probably post-dates quite a few stories taking place in Conan’s viking mercenary days (including the Frost Giant’s Daughter and a few post-Howard stories I have’t read). I didn’t expect the Chamomile Chronology I’m piecing together to stand superior to others, but now that I’m seeing such obvious cracks in the existing chronologies, I’m beginning to have my doubts.
Conan and Kalya observe a gladiator battle.
Although the swords had clipped, upturned points, they were better designed for cutting than for the thrust.
What do you mean “although?” The word you’re looking for is “because.”
There’s a whole thing here where Conan and Kalya are trying to figure out what’s going on. I know I’ve knocked points off Threadbare for hanging its entire plot on “what’s going on” instead of “what will happen next,” but that doesn’t mean that a book like this, where we have to watch our heroes figure out what’s going on even though we already know, is much better (although it is better). Threadbare gave us a mystery but neglected to give us any reason to care about the answers besides “ooooh, it’s mysterious,” but here in Conan the Bold the story has given us a reason to care about the answers (Conan’s personal grudge with Taharka is really dumb, but accepting that he has a personal grudge, we want to know what Taharka’s up to) but then gives us all those answers way ahead of Conan.
They do eventually start closing in, though.
“There,” he said, pointing, “against the far wall, between a Kordavan poleax and a silver-headed staff. Two Bossonian longbows. We are far from the Marches to see two such weapons.”
Kalya smiled, and the demented gleam returned to her eye. “There are two men nearby with whom we should have some words.”
Conan leaned on his elbow, chin cupped in a hard palm. He did not take his eyes from the bows, lest the weapons should be retrieved while he and his companion were not looking. “How should we go about this? Should we slay them, or take them aside and question them, or follow them to where the others are?”
“I recommend we take them to some private spot and find out what they know. If you slay them out of hand, part of your vengeance will be done, but I will be no closer to mine.” She sipped at her ale meditatively. “It may be that the others have ridden on and these two have stayed behind. If so, we must know of it. As for following them,” she thought for a moment, “it is tempting but dangerous. If they have separated, we might trail them for days accomplishing naught while the others draw farther away. Even should they lead us to the band this very evening, we might find ourselves facing six hard men. And it is likely that the band has grown. Your business is only with the six you were tracking. Mine is only with Axandrias. We do not want to take on perhaps ten or twenty at once.”
And shortly thereafter, they spot their quarry on the balconies with some whores:
There was no mistaking their nationality. Both were stocky men of medium height, strongly made. The hair of both was brown and square-cut. They closely resembled one another save the eyes of one were gray, those of the other, brown.
I’m not racist, I’m just saying all Bossonians kind of look the same to me.
The two ambush the Bossonians.
“Speak!” Conan barked. “You can die easy or die hard, but die you shall! Where are the rest of those who raided the Cimmerian steading? I want Taharka and the two Gundermen and the Aquilonian, Axandrias. Are they all still with you?”
Murtan shrugged, eyes still on his weapon-belt. “What are they to us? Aye, the wily Keshanian is still our leader. The Gunder brothers do this bidding as well.”
Okay, sure, no honor among thieves, but you aren’t exactly being offered a lucrative reward, here. For that matter, you’re not in a super compromised position. I’ve skipped the ambush, but they’re just being held at swordpoint in some alleyway. Odds of getting away alive are very slim, so if Conan and Kalya were offering to let them go, that’d mainly be a question of whether or not the Bossonians believe them. But it’s not like they’re strapped to a chair or deep in enemy territory. Odds of being able to force captors to either kill them or let them go are pretty solid. Just go for the swords at your necks and if they slit your throats, they were gonna do that anyway, and if they don’t slit your throats, you’re now in a position to run away.
“We have learned what we needed from them.”
Conan said to the woman. “Have you any further use for them?”
“Nay.” She dropped her point from Ballan’s throat. “These two are nothing to me. It is Axandrias I want. Do as you will with them.”
As she stepped back Conan snatched the weapon-belts from her hand and cast them at the feet of their owners. “There are your swords,” Conan said. “Use them!”
Or just run away. Granted, you do have him two-to-one (he asks Kalya not to get involved, and her vengeance is only with the Aquilonian), but he’s also got a proper length arming or maybe long sword, and you’ve got a pair of short swords used as archer sidearms. Plus, you’ve been making bank off of this slave trade thing, you could probably get a whole lot of reinforcements if you run into a heavily populated area and promise money to whoever brings you the Cimmerian’s head. It’s doubly weird that the Bossonians settled for “die quickly” when – as they confirm – they were confident that Conan would let them fight for their lives and were only afraid of immediate execution from Kalya. They could’ve just demanded that Kalya back off in exchange for the information and promised to give Conan the honorable(?) vengeance he was seeking.
But, no, the Bossonians attack head-on like idiots and get chopped to pieces. Kalya even confirms that they’ve got tons of money on their person while looting the bodies in the aftermath.
Also, Kalya’s musing on the fight in its aftermath just makes me dislike Conan:
A fight that consisted of three blows, two of them mortal. All of them struck by one man before his foes could strike effectively. Her swordmasters had told her that the ascending backhand blow was the weakest possible stroke, as the descending oblique was the strongest. The latter had the full weight and most of the muscle power of the body behind it, while the former utilized only the muscles of one shoulder. They had taught her that certain very skilled fighters could use the muscles of the flank and the leading leg as well. She had seen that blow tear through leather, bone and flesh as through so much smoke. The man’s art was minimal, but his speed, strength, timing, and coordination were little short of supernatural.
Conan isn’t actually good at anything, he’s apparently just arbitrarily granted perfect reflexes and super strength. Of course, in reality, using specific moves and stances is how amateurs fight. It’s a foundation that you build general situational awareness and familiarity with your own body’s capabilities on top of. And if you want to be super strong, you have to actually work for that, it doesn’t just happen. Sure, some people are more pre-disposed towards it than others and natural talent can disqualify you from being competitive in certain fields (including melee combat) no matter how hard you try, but nobody gets to peak performance without even trying.