This short story is a lot longer than the usual Robert E. Howard shorts, being that it was written as part of a Tor books short story collection and not as part of a pulp fiction magazine. Thus, although it’s considerably shorter than a full Conan novel, it does have different chapters.
It opens with an italicized narration explaining that Conan returned home following Venarium, but found himself restless, and thus joined the Aesir in their raids against the Vanir and the Hyperboreans. The latter are ruled over (at least in part) by an evil cabal of sorcerers called the witchmen, and it is a raid against these witchmen that Conan is taking part in when our story begins. I don’t know why any of this needed to be communicated in italicized narration rather than just part of the regular prose. It’s pretty straightforward exposition, and half of it just places it at a specific point in the timeline, which seems unnecessary.
The story introduces us to an Aesir man who’s traveling with Conan as the two of them hunt a deer, presumably foraging as part of a raiding party.
Now pushing back the hood to peer about, he revealed a head of curling golden hair, slightly streaked with gray. A short, roughly trimmed beard of the same hue clothed his broad cheeks and heavy jaw. The color of his hair, his fair skin and ruddy cheeks, and his bold blue eyes marked him as one of the Æsir.
I draw attention to this mainly to highlight a flaw not of this story in particular, but the whole Conan story: Races are insanely uniform in their appearance. Things like eye color distinguish races from one another, despite the immediately observable fact that all real races in the entire world have multiple eye colors, and that while certain hair colors are near-exclusive to certain races, ordinary black or brown hair is also common in those same races. And also, when I say “certain hair colors are near-exclusive to certain races,” what I mean is “red hair exclusively is found primarily amongst a handful of closely related northwest European ethnicities.” And in fairness, blonde hair was probably pretty unique to Scandanavians in the distant past. But the Aesir and Vanir are supposed to be distinguished from one another by their blonde and red hair, respectively. Ethnic divisions have never been so clear cut in all of history. There may have been a time when only Irish people ever had red hair and only Swedes ever had blonde hair, but both ethnicities have also had brown or black hair.
This, of course, is the result of the undead influence of Robert E. Howard’s pre-Conan flirtation with Nazism, which persisted into the 80s by way of imitation even from authors who (probably) never had any Nazi-grade racist leanings at all. The mythical notion that there were at one point neatly sorted races who then intermixed is obviously false given even a cursory understanding of evolutionary history, but misunderstanding evolutionary history is pretty par for the course for Conan.
I probably should’ve included those last two paragraphs in my post intended to fully discuss the issue of racism so we wouldn’t have to do it over and over again in individual reviews, but the main reason it’s coming up now is not because this is a particularly egregious example, but because there’s little else to discuss for the first several pages of this book, which are entirely about Conan and this Aesir guy hunting a deer.
It’s nearly the end of the chapter before we’re finally told the plot:
Njal’s shortness of temper and the urgency with which he had driven his men across the wilderness to the Hyperborean border were not without cause. Hyperborean slavers, a fortnight since — slavers with the red mark of Haloga on their black raiment — had carried off his only daughter, Rann.
Slavers are a perennial Conan enemy, the ultimate symbol of the subjugation allegedly imposed by civilized folk upon one another and the barbarians, in contrast to the barbarians savage but freedom-loving way of life. This is a perfectly good setup, but I don’t know why we spent like seven pages hunting a deer before it was brought up. Of course, we’re still in the very early parts of the story, so “Conan is good at hunting deer” could plausibly be paid off later on.
Brooding over the fate of his beloved daughter and the whereabouts of his trusted scouts, the jarl repressed a shudder. The Witchmen of shadowy Hyperborea were feared far and wide for their uncanny mastery of the black arts; and Haloga’s sadistic queen was feared like the Black Death.
That said, this passage right here, following a bit where jarl Njal (the man who was hunting with Conan) receiving a report that none of his scouts have returned, tells us everything we needed to know about the Aesir, the Hyperboreans, and the witchmen. Who may or may not deserve capitalization. Unlike the Aesir and Hyperboreans, their name is not derived from a proper noun, but maybe they’re a specific organization and not just a general category of caster like “shaman” or “magician.” The point here, though, is that the opening narration was definitely pointless, which has me skeptical as to whether that deer hunt is coming up again.
Njal fought down the chill that clutched his heart and turned to Gorm the skald. “Tell the cook to broil the meat swiftly — and on charcoal, for we cannot risk the smoke of open fires. And bid the men eat fast. When night descends, we move.”
You’re in enemy territory. Your opponents know the terrain better than you do, and you’ve already lost scouts to them. I get that you’re planning to assail a powerful enemy stronghold and you need every advantage you can get, but you are way more likely to be walking into an ambush than setting one up.
Short stories have short chapters, and even given that, this one’s only got five. If I can keep my proclivity for sudden tangents under control, we may get through this in one post.
Anyway, we open with the raiders moving under cover of darkness, except instead of real darkness it’s Hollywood darkness where everything is shaded blue but it is otherwise no harder to see. It’s close to dawn when they get to the fortress of Haloga, however, so they bed down for the day and plan to try a night attack tomorrow.
But Conan has other plans, and thinks he sees a potential weak spot:
The arrow slits, however, were set lower in the walls and thus seemed more accessible. Those of the lowest tier were little more than thrice a man’s height above the ground, to give the archers a fair shot at besiegers who might cluster about the base of the wall. Plainly too narrow for a full-grown man of the bulk of most Æsir, were they too narrow for the smaller, slenderer Conan?
Yes, and thus this particular Conan of Cimmeria was shot to death by Hyperboreans. The more famous Conan of Cimmeria who would go on to become King of Aquilonia was actually fighting Vanir with an entirely unrelated band of Aesir.
This does not actually happen, because this chapter is actually about how Njal sees his scouts being tortured to death on the walls by the Hyperboreans of Haloga while the evil queen (of one castle?) watches. The capture of the scouts is taken as proof that the Aesir have lost the advantage of surprise, but dude, what did you think had happened to them? They all got lost? They were all individually eaten by bears?
The chapter ends with a fire starting up somewhere in the keep, the implication being that Conan’s raid has just stirred up some trouble.
In fairness to our authors L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Writer (the former of which helped compile the very first Conan chronology), Conan does have to struggle and suck in a lot to get through the arrow slit, and Hyperboreans are not necessarily amazing at making castles. On the other hand, their masonry is apparently so smooth as to preclude even preternaturally strong Conan from finding a fingerhold big enough to pull himself up by (he has to lasso a drain pipe that juts out from the roof, then when he’s level with the arrow slit he swings into it), which indicates some pretty good stonework.
Once inside, Conan sneaks around until he finds the cell of Rann Njalsdottir, guarded by two Hyperboreans. He dispatches them with the stealthy grace of Ezio Auditore. That is to say, he insta-gibs one from surprise and then just sword fights the second guy to death, who obligingly declines to sound an alarm.
A tall, milk-skinned girl with clear blue eyes and long, smooth hair the color of sun-ripened wheat stood proudly in the center of the enclosure, awaiting a fate she knew not of. Although the maiden’s high young breasts rose and fell in her agitation, there was no fear in her eyes.
In light of this description, I want to back up and show you the description given to the queen of Haloga back in chapter 2:
The eternally young queen of Haloga, Vammatar the Cruel, stood on the parapet fair as the morning, with long bright hair and full breasts, which curved sweetly beneath her heavy white robes. A lazy, languorous smile parted her full red lips. The men who attended her were true Hyperboreans, unearthly in their gaunt, long-legged stature, with pale eyes and skeins of colorless silken hair.
The need to remind the audience that women have breasts was notable even the first time it happened. The second is beginning to drift towards self-parody.
For the remainder of the chapter, Conan and Rann set a fire to serve as diversion while they make their way back to the arrow slit and the rope that Conan left there.
This chapter opens with Njal reuniting with Rann, bellowing with joy, but only because he can’t read the chapter title, which is “That Which Pursued.” The fire at Haloga delays pursuit for a while, and the Aesir decide to run without rest to their homeland to avoid being ambushed in the Hyperborean mists. They eventually discover that they are pursued, and the pursuers seem utterly tireless, never slacking off even as the Aesir and even Conan are beginning to fatigue.
As the Aesir find a hilltop upon which to make their stand, the pursuers emerge from the fog, and nobody who knows their tropes will be surprised to learn that they zombies:
Shouldering through the fog, a swarm of sinister figures emerged from the murk, and with steady, rhythmic steps stalked up the slope, like men walking in their sleep or puppets worked by strings. The flight of javelins that met the shambling attackers slowed them not at all, as they hurled themselves against the ring of shields.
The desire to have twitchy, unnatural gait for zombies goes back pretty much as far as the genre has existed, but I don’t think anyone ever really pulled it off until Silent Hill. I’m not really a connoisseur of zombie media, though.
The laws of biology these zombies obey is real selective. Their hearts have been removed, which means the energy used to fuel their movement is apparently supplied by magic. They react not at all to wounds, so their nervous system doesn’t seem to be working properly, although it’s not yet clear if they’re vulnerable to head shots. They apparently do still need muscles to move, though:
“Forgive, brother,” whispered Njal through stiffened lips, as with a backhand stroke, he hamstrung Egil’s walking corpse. Like a puppet with severed strings, the dismembered body flopped backward down the hill;
And shortly thereafter we learn that the nervous system is, in fact, completely optional:
With a sweep of the Hyperborean sword he bore, he severed the neck of a skeletal thing that was squeezing the life from the Northman at his feet. The skull-like head rolled grinning down the hill.
Then Conan’s blood congealed with horror: for, headless or not, the long-dead cadaver rose and groped for him with its bony hands.
If they don’t need nerve impulses to work their muscles, why do they need muscles to move?
In any case, the battle is going poorly for the Aesir. Njal and his bard Gorm are both dead, and that is all of the named Aesir except for Rann, who joins Conan for a final stand as the queen emerges from the mist behind her zombie horde. The narrative has gone out of its way here and earlier in the castle to assert that Rann is an accomplished swordswoman, as are all Aesir women. Immediately after this second assertion, it immediately undermines that:
Whirling, Conan lifted the girl in his arms and tossed her over his shoulder. Then he kicked and hacked a path through the foe, down the corpse-littered slope to the foot of the hill, where the queen sat on her steed awaiting the end, an evil smile on her half-parted lips.
It’s not like Rann is injured or anything. Conan apparently just thinks he’s better off fighting with her slung over his shoulder rather than standing at his side. And it’s not like Conan’s got some special plan in mind that requires Rann to appear incapacitated. He just breaks through the zombie line, drags the queen off her mount, puts Rann on there, and then, as he’s being overwhelmed by zombies, tells her to ride to safety in Asgard. Conan is captured, thus setting up one of many “Conan escapes imprisonment” stories. Specifically, this story leads into The Thing In The Crypt (which was written before Legions of the Dead, making Legions a prequel).
“Conan fights zombies” is not a bad premise and can sustain the story for as long as it lasts, but damn, this book seems almost self-parodic in how it reinforces all the most sexist tropes of 80s Conan. Despite characters in the story being given no more than a paragraph of description, if that, the abbreviated descriptions given both women makes sure to mention their breasts. Despite claiming in two different places that Rann is a warrior woman, in the end she is swept off her feet to be bodily carried to safety by Conan, despite having suffered no injury. And it’s not like this is a self-aware subtle parody from late in the era. This is a 1978 story, and its sexism appears to be entirely unironic despite being concentrated to the point of comedy.