Conan the Bold: Oiled Up Gladiators

Chapter 6

Taharka and his band have run into trouble with Nemedian law enforcement and Taharka sacrificed several of his followers to stop them. By astonishing coincidence, this appears to have been pretty much all of the followers who weren’t on Conan’s hit list. I can appreciate that 1) we don’t want the list of targets constantly growing and 2) it makes little sense for Taharka to raise 30 bandits for his slave raid into Cimmeria and then stick with just four or five when operating at the Nemedian/Aquilonian border, but the straightforward solution to this is just to have him overwhelm the Cimmerian homestead without losing obscene numbers. There were only four defenders. It would perfectly sensible if just nine or ten bandits could overwhelm them taking only a handful of losses.

Sure, Conan personally regularly takes on like five guys and wins, but he’s supposed to be exceptional. A hero in the Greek sense. Random Cimmerians don’t need to be that awesome, and if they are, how come they don’t all end up kings of Aquilonia?

The trouble with the Nemedians’ only purpose is to winnow the slaver band back down to the guys in Conan’s quest log. He gets back to the border town just fine. Apparently it was the Bossonians’ job to train the new slaves, so Taharka learns they’re dead from the guy the innkeeper had to hire to replace them.

“Killed!” Taharka exclaimed. “Without asking my permission! What insolence!”

I like this line.

The innkeeper fills the bad guys in on what’s been going on while they were gone. He doesn’t know that Conan and Kalya are after them, specifically, but he does tell them that two mysterious strangers are about, including a Cimmerian.

After a bath and a change of clothing, the two sat at a table in the common room, sipping wine and awaiting dinner. When he had cut the dust of travel with a draught of golden wine, Taharka turned to his lieutenant. “Now, what means all this, my friend? Two of our band are slain, you find a one-eyed wench studying you, and she keeps company with a Cimmerian. What does this portend?”

“I know not, my chief. Something about the wench tugs at my thoughts, yet when I saw her I knew not whether the cloak covered a woman or a man.” He drained his cup and refilled it. “As for the Cimmerian and the dead Bossonians, I cannot say. It is true that we were in that land, but that was many weeks ago. He could not have tracked us so far, and it is known that men of that foggy land rarely wander far from its confines.”

“This one does,” the Keshanian pointed out. “The two Bossonians were slain by the blows of mighty swordsmen, and we know from hard experience how the Cimmerians smite with their blades.”

“The innkeeper mentioned only one Cimmerian,” Axandrias protested.

“Perhaps one slew both. If so, this is a man to be reckoned with.” He waved a dismissive hand.

Four out of four Cimmerian warriors you’ve met have been able to slay 4+ of your men even when badly outnumbered. This “perhaps” belongs in a story with a smarter opening than this one got.

The guy who was training the gladiators in place of the Bossonians is a Hyperborean with a name. There’s a whole scene where Taharka recruits him. He’s not in Conan’s quest log, but clearly he’s supposed to be important.

Ancient Aliens Priest comes looking for Taharka, and Taharka agrees to speak with him.

Taharka followed the priest out into the twilit streets of Croton. They exchanged no words as they made their way no more than a hundred steps to an alleyway paved with worn stones. Taharka felt a cold hand grip his heart when he saw the facade of the ancient temple. Why had that fool Axandrias not told him of this? Then he realized that, to the Aquilonian, as to most others, it was merely an old, near-abandoned temple. Every land abounded with such structures.

The priest turned as he stepped upon the portico. “I am a priest of—”

“I know which gods you serve,” Taharka said. He looked carefully down the alley. There was no one in sight, but he did not wish to take any chances. “Let us go inside to discuss this.”

I’m very skeptical of whether or not this whole Ancient Aliens plotline is going to be any good. Taharka evidently shares my skepticism.

“I see,” said the priest as they stepped into the gloom within. “You have been contacted before?”

“Yes,” said Taharka, drawing his dagger. He buried it to the hilt in the priest’s back, just to the left of the spine. As the man collapsed, Taharka plunged in his blade twice more. With a final, rattling breath, the priest expired.

“Fucking Hell, man, we’re trying to have a low fantasy swords and sorcery romp, and here you are dragging some fucking reptilian infiltrators into it. I’m not having any of that.” It doesn’t stick, though. Ancient Aliens Priest has a bunch of little imps who perform some rez ritual for him.

Chapter 7

Kalya’s super nettled with Conan because when he went on a walk and met Ancient Aliens Priest, he wouldn’t tell her where he went, because she was being a jerk and interrogating him about it instead of just asking like a functioning human being. Which, okay, sure, she’s supposed to be “mad” and being deeply suspicious and having a quick temper are perfectly good forms of “madness” that don’t rely on that stupid “crazy people act completely at random and can therefore take any action the plot requires regardless of whether it advances their stated goals” trope. But also, she’s supposed to be the party face who’s good at navigating civilization. In any case, Kalya has deserted the party and is now wandering the town planning to find and kill Axandrias personally.

She finds the slaver band coming in and begins plotting how to kill Axandrias. Her big stumbling block is that she insists that Axandrias know it was her who killed him before he dies, which means just following him ’till he falls asleep and then shanking him in the night is a non-starter, nor would he ever fight her in an honorable duel, just accept the fight so his bandit mates can surround her and hack her to pieces. So instead she…

Kalya went to the table side and swept it insolently with her one-eyed gaze. It passed over Axandrias and stopped at Taharka. “Are you the foreigner who fights the slaves in the pit?” Her shockingly hoarse voice crackled with challenge.

“I am,” said Taharka with a bemused expression.

“Have you a fighter you wish to pit against one of mine?”

“I hear that you offer a purse for any free challenger.” The men around the table ceased their muttering and the silence spread. Whispered words rapidly passed the news that something interesting was happening at Taharka’s table and soon all were straining their ears to hear what was being said.

“I have such an offer,” said Taharka, “although ere now no man has had courage to accept it. One thousand golden Aquilonian crowns to go down into the pit with one of my fighting-slaves. Another thousand if he comes out alive. Should he fail to do so, the first thousand will be paid to whomever you wish. Who is your challenger? Is it this Cimmerian of whom I have heard somewhat?”

“Nay,” she said. “It is I.” She pulled her cloak over her head and let it drop to the floor. There was a moment of startled silence, quickly followed by whistles, stamping of feet, and scattered applause. Her bizarre combination of armor and near-nudity drew the appreciation of men accustomed to strange sights.

Offers to fight in the gladiator pit? How does this advance her goal? I should not be confused as to the current viewpoint character’s goal. If keeping Kalya’s aim unclear is really necessary to this scene, it should’ve happened from Taharka’s perspective. We’ve used that one a couple of times already, often with dubious necessity. Also, that paragraph break in the middle of Taharka’s dialogue, the one that makes it real confusing to figure out who’s speaking? That’s from the original.

Except…then we are in Taharka’s perspective? But we were in Kalya’s when she approached the table, and the only indication we’re in Taharka’s is that suddenly we can hear his thoughts:

Taharka glanced at the faces directed toward his table, all of them ashine with lust for blood or flesh. This was developing well. True, he had not been training the slaves with weapons of such length, but that was of little importance. The drugged man might not even feel the cuts of a blade so sharp and light. If, against all odds, the woman should win and survive the experience, the sensation it caused would be well worth the loss. Best of all would be a double kill.

This book’s fan service continues:

“Now, brave woman,” said Taharka, “you must have an attendant to accompany you into the pit. He will hold your weapon-sheaths so they do not encumber you in the fight. Do you wish your body to be oiled? It is customary.”

“Ordinarily,” she said, “I do not allow men to lay hands upon my body, but, if it is the custom, I accept.” Immediately there was a great clamor as men volunteered to perform this necessary duty.

But it remains pretty good at justifying it:

“Excellent,” said Taharka. He turned to the Gunder brothers. “Wolf, fetch you the oil—”

“Nay!” said the woman. She stepped to Axandrias and resheathed her blades. The bare fingers of her right hand stroked his fine-bearded jaw. “This one is the prettiest of you. I’ll wager his hands are the softest as well. Let him be my attendant.” Loud hoots and ribald comments erupted throughout the common room and its overlooking balconies.

This scene still would’ve been better with a consistent perspective so I didn’t wonder why I wasn’t clued into Kalya’s plan despite riding in her head, only to discover that I had switched perspectives without warning. But at least Kalya’s plan started coming together after a page or two and not, like, two full chapters or something.

Axandrias and Kalya descend into the pit and Axandrias starts oiling her up.

With a broad grin and amid much raillery from the spectators, he began to smooth the oil over her shoulders and back. Kalya smiled and posed for the crowd while straining to keep her flesh from shrinking at the touch of the man she had come to kill. He spread the oil down her bare left thigh, his hand lingering far longer than necessary, then up over her hard-ridged belly. He stroked over her ribs beneath her mailed right breast, then slid his hand toward her bare left breast.

At that moment, her steel-gauntleted left fist smashed into his jaw, knocking him sprawling. There was much cheering at this, but it was cut off short when she whipped out her sword and leveled its point at the Aquilonian’s throat.

“It is not some drugged slave I came here to fight, Axandrias,” she hissed. “It is you! Stand and draw!”

He scrambled to his feet, rubbing his jaw. “What means this, slut? What have I—”

“Do you wish to see your handiwork, coward? Do you wish to see what your hot iron did to Kalya? Look, then!” She raised her eyepatch to display a ghastly pit of scar tissue, with no trace of an eye.

“Kalya!” he gasped, his face gone ashen and bewildered. “But Kalya died long ago!”

“You were not so lucky, murderer,” she hissed, stalking toward him like a panther. “Your dagger through my neck ruined me for singing, but I did not die of it. I can understand why you thought me dead, though. Such a wound should have been enough to slay a nine-year-old girl! Now draw your sword, or I’ll spit you like the maggot you are!”

It’s never been said whether Axandrias’ crime against Kalya was in any way sexual in nature, but with the way frequent reference was made to his charm with the ladies and how incredibly ubiquitous the “woman with sexually traumatic past” cliche is, I’d suspected that’s where this was going. Now we learn that Kalya was apparently nine when Axandrias did whatever it is he did. There’s still no particular indication that it was a sexual assault, ’cause, y’know, putting out her eye with a hot iron and trying to slash her throat is definitely grounds for a vengeance quest without any additional crimes, but knowing how young she was I am now wondering whether Stercus and Axandrias are going to be a matched pair of child predators playing the villain in Conan origin stories.

The cheering redoubled as Kalya drove Axandrias against the wall of the pit. She threw her entire body forward in a lunge that would have pinned him to the painted banner at his back, but he avoided it by a sideways dodge and tumble that would have done credit to an acrobat. Some cheered this move, others booed its seeming timidity.

“Enough of this,” Taharka said. “Wolf, Gunter, into the pit and slay the baggage.”

A chorus of protests broke out when the grim, yellow-haired men descended into the pit. “No! Fair fight!” shouted many. The two paid no attention. Kalya cursed frantically when she saw them coming toward her. Another five or six passes would see Axandrias dead upon her sword, but the fight had taken too long. She had planned to kill him before his friends could render him aid, but he had proven too swift and skillful, like the oily adder that he was.

I’m going to register a prediction right now: Kalya gets backed into a corner by the Gundermen, Conan steps in to bail her out, kills both Gundermen, but Axandrias and Taharka both escape in the chaos.

Kalya backed against a wall as the Gundermen drew near with broad blades in their hands. Axandrias ranged himself beside them, his terrified expression now replaced by a feral grin. There were shouts of rage from the crowd as the three closed in on the lone woman, who now looked frail and vulnerable when faced with such odds. All sound ceased for a split-second when a fifth form leapt from the parapet into the pit, landing catlike behind the advancing men. They whirled at his heart-stopping warcry.

“It is not to be so easy, dogs!” bellowed Conan. “Turn and face one who would rather drink Gunder blood than ale!”

Wow, step one of that prediction took one paragraph to be fulfilled.

We’re a handful of paragraphs in before we get step two:

Now not so hard-pressed, Conan parried his opponent’s sword without great difficulty. As he stepped forward for the killing blow, the Cimmerian’s foot came down in a pool of blood and offal and slid from beneath him. With his superb balance, Conan kept himself from falling, but he was bent over and, for an instant, vulnerable. Grinning ferociously, Gunter darted in, blade raised to shear down through the Cimmerian’s spine.

Axandrias had leaned too far forward in his attack, and a clout from the basket-hilt of Kalya’s sword sent him sprawling. He was helpless and she hesitated in the death-blow, savoring the moment. Then she saw the Gunderman’s sword raised over Conan. Without thinking, she turned from Axandrias and plunged her left-hand dagger into the man’s armpit above the rim of his armor. The blade grated on bone, then slid in easily. He froze, then began to cry out in agony. Her sword swept swiftly across his throat, cutting off the cry.

Having Kalya bail Conan out after Conan bails Kalya out did take me by surprise, so this isn’t the most predictable fight. It even kind of bucks one of my pre-registered predictions, in that Conan did not kill both Gundermen. But Axandrias does flee the pit while Kalya kills the last Gunderman, so depending on how much of a stickler you are for exact phrasing, I’m three for three.

A joint raid by the soldiers of Nemedia and Aquilonia show up to track down the slavers. Taharka, Axandrias, and their new Hyperborean friend escape and begin making their way to Ophir, planning on going bandit there. Conan and Kalya make their escape separately. Kalya relays her backstory:

She leaned back upon her hands, and her still-oiled body gleamed golden in the firelight. Her expression was distant. “My mother was a widow, very lonely and very wealthy. We lived in a fine house in Tarantia. One day a handsome young man came to call. Axandrias. He was of a decent family and claimed to be a friend of my dead father. My mother was as trusting as she was lonely, and soon the snake was visiting every day. I detested him, but my mother would hear nothing evil about the man.”

So, not doing the child predator thing twice in a row. Dodged that bullet at least. Conan and Kalya also (implicitly) have sex almost immediately afterwards, so we are not dodging the bullet where the woman who’s sworn off men forever is melted by the hero in, like, three weeks.

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