The chapter starts us off from the perspective of the mysterious wizard that the one Aquilonian bandit wizard get his cocaine from. Apparently portents have informed him that Conan knocking around town are of great importance, and he reports this to some mysterious face he conjures up from the smoke of a cauldron bubbling up from assorted magical ingredients and incantations.
“What these things portend I cannot as yet say. It is difficult to imagine such puny human matters attracting the interest of higher Powers.”
“All the pieces are not yet in place,” said the face. “You will keep us informed daily of new developments. Until this matter is resolved, we will devote much observation to events in that sector. Hold yourself in readiness for the return of the Masters.”
“Sector” makes me think of sci-fi, like the big twist here is that space aliens are keeping tabs on primordial Earth. I don’t know how out of place that would be in a 1989 Conan story. I tend to associate that kind of crossover where sci-fi and fantasy are considered practically interchangeable genres more with the 70s and earlier 80s, but that’s not really backed up by careful study or anything, just a vague intuition.
So far, it’s been ambiguous whether this story is planning on being episodic or more interconnected. There’s an episode where Taharka kills that one woman Conan knew for like three weeks, and an episode where he meets Kalya, but whether that’s just the story getting its ducks in a row before the the plot gets rolling for real or a sign of the episodic nature of things to come isn’t yet entirely clear. This bit indicates that probably there’s going to not only be an overarching plot in which latter parts depend upon earlier parts for context and pace, but also that the overarching plot is going to be way more important than just Conan and Kalya getting some revenge. This bothers me. This story didn’t need any higher stakes than a story of personal vengeance against a particularly dickish bandit.
The mysterious priest finds Conan while he’s on a midnight stroll, hoping to find the rest of Taharka’s band when they return from a slave raid to sell off more gladiators to the fighting pit. The priest says he can tell Conan more about the slavers he’s seeking, so Conan pays a visit to the temple.
“The beings to whom this temple is dedicated,” the priest said, “are not gods in the usual sense. They are beings unimaginably ancient and vast, but they are natural creatures of this universe, as are we. Their powers are truly godlike, as men reckon such things. We their priests do not truly worship them. We contact them. We do their bidding, and in return they grant us powers and other rewards.”
Seems like we’re definitely leaning into the whole ancient aliens thing here.
Conan is suspicious of sorcery, but the promise of information on his quarry compels him not to immediately shank the priest and instead give him the information he’s asking for (it’s not yet clear why he wants it).
“First, tell me something of your people and your ancestry.”
“I am no poet,” Conan muttered, “but I remember a bit of our people’s history.” He began to recite the tale of his family and clan. Like most barbarian peoples, to whom family lineage was everything, the Cimmerians kept careful genealogies. Although Conan was not one of those specially trained to store such things in his memory, any clansman could easily call to mind several centuries’ worth of his own clan’s history.
“That is sufficient,” said the priest when the lengthy recitation was done. “I now have enough direction to guide me. Now I wish you to hold forth your hand over the flame. Cut yourself so that a few drops of blood fall within the bowl.”
“I will do no such thing!” said the Cimmerian, scornfully. “I want no part of your spells.”
The priest smiled slightly. “Afraid of a little bloodshed? Have no fear, I will cast no spell on you. The history of any race is in its flesh and blood. By a certain art which my order commands, I can conjure somewhat of your past from your blood. It could explain much.”
Oh, boy. I wonder how racist this is about to get.
He saw bands of dark-haired, white-skinned warriors locked in furious combat with rivals whose hair was golden or red, and with others who had tawny hair, or dark skins. These were his own people, the Cimmerians, and their enemies were the Aesir and Vanir, the Hyperboreans and Picts. They might have been his own close kinsmen, save their weapons were of bronze instead of steel. He knew that he was seeing his ancestors many centuries ago, before they had steel.
Soon he saw similar people, and their weapons and tools were of polished stone. They roamed up and down frozen valleys where the ice never melted, and they battled other men, and white snow-apes, and creatures for which he had no names. Somehow, he knew vaguely, the priest was taking him back jthrough the history of his people. There were wanderings before the ice-times, when the Cimmerians clashed with a race of small men who rode across broad plains as one with their stocky, tough ponies. There were years in overgrown, jungle-clad mountains and valleys where giant serpents slithered and drums pounded a monotonous beat and tall, spear-bearing black men came forth to dispute passage, chanting savage war-songs from behind long hide shields.
Still further back did the flames take him. There was a time of cataclysm, when mountains erupted into towers of fire and smoke, liquid rock forming glowing rivers down their slopes, a time when seas rose to cover continents and ocean-bottoms became dry land. Again he saw his people in an earlier age, and always they struggled and slew.
He saw men like himself, now not so primitive, but wearing barbaric finery of bright silk and feathered headdresses. He saw them knee-deep in water, repelling an invasion of people he knew to be Picts, but these Picts came in huge, double-hulled canoes such as no Picts now used. He saw a man seated upon a golden throne, chin on a great, knotted fist, his eyes haunted. Beside him was a two-handed sword and on his head was a crown. In face and form, he might have been Conan’s twin.
Back and further back they went until his brain reeled with the span of time he was witnessing. Eventually, he saw a forest glade in which a family of hairy, almost-human creatures looked curiously at one of their children, whose skin was not so hairy and who could do things beyond the capabilities of its siblings. Then Conan was looking upon green flames once more.
So, not Klan-grade racist or anything, but still pretty racist, in that it’s pushing pretty hard the idea that the Cimmerians were always the same people, despite how very obviously unlikely that is. In just two thousand years, people living in England have had close proximity with – and subsequent intermarriage between – Britons, Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Danes, Normans, Welsh, Scottish, Irish, and in the past few generations, commercial air flight means that practically everywhere on the world is on the table, although that hasn’t had enough time to impact a significant portion of the nation’s ancestry (yet). When Caesar turned up to Britain in the 1st century BC, both Caesar’s army and the native British people were equally ancestors to modern English people, but also a huge chunk of any given Englishman’s ancestry for that era is somewhere in Scandanavia. This is just a few thousand years of history and already we’ve got people from northern Germany/Denmark, Italy, and the British Isles who are all equally ancestors to a single modern ethnic group, and this is the oversimplified version after I cut out three full paragraphs going into more detail about the potential ancestry of any given modern Englishman than anyone cares to hear about.
And Conan’s ancestry doesn’t content itself with going back just a few millennia, but instead goes back to the very dawn of humanity. Going that far back, we’re all from the same small-ish chunk of east Africa. Does this passage mean to imply that various pre-cataclysm ethnicities separately evolved into modern humans from wholly separate ancestries, and then, despite constantly living in close proximity to one another, never interbred? It’s possible that John Maddox Roberts has constructed this implicit fascist dystopia because he’s a closet Nazi, but it’s also possible he just didn’t think through how absurd it is to assume that not only is every ethnicity a representation of a single unbroken lineage with no significant interbreeding even between neighboring tribes, but also that this lineage would go back to different ethnicities having evolved into modern humans separately. It is baked into Conan lore that the Atlantians somehow devolved back into proto-humans once out of contact with metalworking and pots, after all, and it’s not an uncommon mistake for writers to lean on bad lore out of some imagined obligation, rather than ignoring it.
Anyway, the whole chapter amounts to this priest guy telling Conan that he and Taharka are special snowflakes because they disregard the traditions and customs of their people. Curiously enough, this is something that is specifically not assigned to barbarian cultures over civilized ones, but rather is some special quality that apparently occurs in only a few people every generation.
But yeah, that’s the entire chapter. Ancient Aliens priest shows Conan a vision of his ancestry, because apparently Robert E. Howard’s misunderstanding of evolutionary history needed to be explicitly referenced in this story. We’ll see if this ends up at all relevant to the plot, although even I’m not actually sure which would be worse, basing a major plot element on the most poorly thought out elements of your setting’s lore, or dedicating a chapter to asserting those elements’ existence in a story where they otherwise don’t matter.