Conan the Barbarian, p.1Michael A. Stackpole
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental. The publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.
CONAN THE BARBARIAN
A Berkley Boulevard Book / published by arrangement with Conan Properties International, LLC
Berkley Boulevard mass-market edition / July 2011
Copyright © 2011 by Conan Properties International, LLC (“CPI”)
CONAN, CONAN THE BARBARIAN, HYBORIA, and related logos, names, and character likenesses thereof are trademarks or registered trademarks of CPI. All rights reserved.
Special thanks to Simon Varsano, on-set photographer
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ISBN : 978-1-101-53998-9
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To the memory of Robert E. Howard
The author would like to thank the following people for their help on this project: Fredrik Malmberg and Joakim Zetterberg of Paradox Entertainment, Howard Morhaim, Ben Bova, Kat Klaybourne, Thomas Dean Donnelly, Joshua Oppenheimer, and Sean Hood.
CORIN, BLACKSMITH, SON of Connacht and, like every other Cimmerian, a warrior, watched the young men of his village. He measured them with a careful eye, aware that soon he would be fashioning for each a sword. It would match them in length and personality, becoming a part of them. In the south it was said Cimmerians were born with swords in their hands, but Corin knew that this was not true.
We are born with the courage to wield a sword, as Crom grants. He smiled. A Cimmerian needs little else.
A dozen young men, some showing only the first wisp of a beard, practiced with the fellows in a circle of hardpacked snow. Two warriors circulated among them, snapping order. The youths’ swords came up and flashed out, high cuts and low. Warriors lashed the youths’ bellies when their charges displayed sloppy guards, and tipped elbows up and kicked feet into their proper place. Smiles betrayed boys who thought learning the deadly arts was but a game; and harsh cuffs disabused them of that notion.
Only survivors earned the right to smile after the grim work of swordplay was done.
The youths moved in unison—some clumsy, some certain, some bold enough to add a flourish to a cut. They watched each other, being impressed and trying to impress. Clusters of giggling girls standing on the shadowed side of huts increased their desire to preen and sapped their focus.
Corin shook his head slowly, a lion of a man with a thick mane and beard. Despite the late-fall chill, he wore no tunic, only a leather apron. The smith’s strong arms displayed thick muscles over which a tracery of pale scars played. A few were the marks left by hot metal from the forge. The rest had been earned in battle.
The boy’s grunt caught Corin’s attention, but he did not turn toward it, not immediately. Had he done so, he would have smiled and his smile would have been seen. The boy needed no encouragement, but Corin, remembering his own childhood, saw no reason to discourage either.
Slowly he glanced over, and there, opposite the circle where the young men fought, his son, Conan, aped their movements. The stick his imagination had transformed into a Cimmerian broadsword slashed the air with a whistle. The boy ducked and twisted, then brought the stick around in a fluid riposte that would have cut a throat. Another twist, then a downward stroke to break a shin. The stick whirled up and around, both hands on the hilt, and came down in a beheading stroke.
Conan’s father ran a hand over his beard to hide a smile. Conan’s movements did not ape those of the young men; if anything, his fluidity mocked their stiff awkwardness. Where they were slow and tentative, he moved quickly and with certainty. Though battling at shadows much as they were, Conan was winning, whereas they would die easily.
Pride swelled Corin’s breast, but the soft voice of his wife came to him. Her dying words echoed inside his skull. In their wake came a weariness of the soul, and an ache that reminded him of old wounds. He composed his face, his brows narrowing, and turned to face his son.
“Boy, what are you doing?”
Conan froze, stick quivering in an aborted thrust. “Father, I was—”
“I sent you to gather firewood, Conan. My forge grows cold.”
The boy pointed at a stack of wood. “But I . . .”
“That’s a thrust near the heart, Conan, not in the heart.” Corin shook his head. “I give you a simple task and then find it half done, and you playing with a stick like one of those Aquilonian sorcerers in your grandfather’s stories.”
Conan dropped the stick as if it were a viper. “Father, I wasn’t . . . that wasn’t a wand
Corin waved his son to him. “Conan, those young men are being trained as warriors because they have earned that right.”
“Only by being older than I, Father.”
“Which means they are closer to death than you.” Corin cupped the back of his son’s neck in a hand. “You have it in you to be a great warrior someday, my son, but not today.”
“But I’m already taller than Eiran, and he’s only just started shaving . . .”
“Enough.” Corin pointed to the small pile of wood his son had gathered. “Double that, stack it inside the woodshed, then I want you to go check your trapline. You’d best be quick, too, since winter’s stealing up on us, and night will be on us soon enough.”
“Yes, Father.” Conan’s head tipped forward, but he looked up through black locks with those icy blue eyes. “It is just that I want to be ready to defend our village.”
Corin raised an eyebrow. Aggressiveness that will be welcome in a warrior is a nettle in a headstrong son.
Conan, well used to reading his father’s expression, said no more and set about his tasks.
Corin, satisfied, returned to his.
CONAN’S ANGER WITH his father had all but dissipated by the time he’d run far enough into the hills that the ringing of Corin’s hammer on the anvil could not longer be heard. In leaving the village, he’d almost picked up the stick, but his father’s suggestion that it was some sorcerer’s wand tainted it. Instead, armed only with a small skinning knife, Conan departed on his appointed chores, running across snowy fields and up into the forested hillsides of Cimmeria.
His father’s suggestion that it would be some time before he became a warrior melted beneath the intensity of his youthful fantasy. Out in the forest, away from the bemused smiles and sharp glances of adults, Conan grew into the man he knew he would become. Though already tall for his age, he grew taller. His arms and legs became as stout as his father’s and twice as powerful. His effortless stride ate up yards, and by the time he vanished within the trees, his transformation was complete.
No longer was he Conan the smith’s son, sent to gather rabbits from snares. No, he’d become a full warrior. He didn’t seek puny animals, but greater prey. Somewhere in the forests there might be Pictish scouts—Raven Clan or Otter, perhaps—probing Cimmerian lands before a raid. Or, worse, Aquilonians could have again come north, pushing their borders into lands on which they had no claim. His grandfather had fought them at Brita’s Vale, and he always said they’d return. Perhaps that was the more realistic threat.
It really didn’t matter which to Conan. Either required him to move swiftly and quietly through the forest, stepping carefully so the crunch of snow underfoot would not betray him. He moved from point to point, slid down into the windblown bowl around evergreen trunks, and peered through snow-laden boughs at the forest around him. He watched the shadows, because in them you could see the Picts; and he listened, because the clanking of the Aquilonians’ armor would betray their presence.
Though Conan knew he was playing at a game, for him it became so much more. The child delighted in the thrill of seeing something half hidden in snow and transforming it in his mind into a Pictish ambush. But the part of him that was closer to being a man narrowed his eyes and looked past the fantasy. He watched to see why he’d thought a Pict might be lurking, then studied the land to make certain it was no illusion.
None of the other children in his village had that intensity. For that reason they seldom invited Conan to join in their games of make-believe. Elders had said, and children had passed on their words, that Conan had an old soul and a vital one. They all knew why.
I was born on a battlefield.
For so many, that fact defined Conan and set their expectations of him. He was destined to be a great warrior, and he wanted to prove himself worthy of that destiny. His mother had died there, giving him birth. Though he had no memory of her, he had been told that with her last breath, she had given him his name. His greatness would honor her and his family, perhaps even all of Cimmeria. The name Conan would strike fear into the hearts of Picts, Aquilonians, Vanirmen, and anyone else who believed Cimmeria could be theirs.
The youth slipped from behind a tree, carefully watching his back trail. Moving from point to point, he worked his way over to a rock wall. He could have easily followed the game trail at its base, working around and up the hillside to the top, but instead he leaped up. His fingers caught a handhold, but only for a second, then he tumbled down into the snow.
Another child might have laughed, but nothing about failure amused the young Cimmerian. He rolled to his feet again, brushing snow from his wolfskin cloak. He eschewed using the footholds that had started him up the rock wall before. He leaped again, caught the rock, and clung to it fiercely with his right hand. He steadied himself with his left hand, then began his ascent. Keen eyes picked out a clear path, and in less time than it would have taken him to follow the game trail, he reached the top.
And I have left no sign of my passing. He smiled, then shrugged. Aside from that hole my bottom dug.
The forest opened before him, revealing a long oval meadow split by the dark scar of a stream. Conan kept to the forest’s edge, studying the expanse of largely undisturbed snow. When he came close to a set of tracks, he’d crouch and study them. He looked not only to see which animals had passed that way, but how the tracks changed over time. Years of study enabled him to read sign both of men and animals. Had Picts or anyone else been through the area, he would have known how many and how long ago they had passed.
Though no invaders had marched through the meadow, small game had. Conan checked the dozen snares set around the area and gathered two hares. Both appeared to be dead, caught by the neck in a loop of sinew. He broke their necks to be sure, then gutted them, tossing the entrails out where eagles and hawks might feast. He reset the snares, and moved two others closer to trails that led to the stream.
The quickest way back home would have been the path he chose to reach the meadow, but that way was barred to him. Not that any barrier had been erected, or that the cliff would have been too difficult to descend. Not that any invaders had taken up positions to ambush him. No, for Conan, that way would not work simply because to return by that same path would be careless. It would invite ambush. It could lead an enemy to his home, and it was the duty of every warrior to see that such a thing never happened.
Conan continued through the woods. He’d left his village to the north, and two days earlier he’d reentered from the east. This time he turned west, working his way through the forest. He paused on a hilltop that overlooked the trade road running toward the setting sun. He had traveled on it a short ways previously, before turning north to visit his grandfather, but today the empty road held no interest for him.
Instead he looked beyond it, toward the mountains to the south, and the lands beyond. The name Aquilonia had become common enough that it no longer inspired overwhelming awe when he heard it. But places like Ophir and Koth and Shem, dark Stygia and far Khitai . . . all of them sounded so exotic. Men had always said that his grandfather was a great warrior; but they also said he was a greater storyteller, and in his tales these places to which he had roamed, in which he had raided, became miraculous realms of wonder.
Of course, being eleven years old, Conan knew that his grandfather exaggerated. After all, it was not possible that a place like Shem might exist, a place so hot year-round that it never saw snow, and where the sand itself rose in great blizzards. Or that uncharted jungles, teeming with feral, manlike beasts and horrors from before time, might exist—this just was not possible. Those were stories to scare children and slacken the jaws of the foolish. Conan had grown beyond such wild tales.
What fascinated him about old Connacht’s stories had been the people and their odd ways. Conan wondered at their need for legions of gods and for massive
The Cimmerian youth drew himself up and smiled as he looked south. He would be a warrior. As Crom wished, he would make the most of the courage and wit with which he was born. He would use them to protect his homeland.
“And,” he said to the wind, “if civilized men dare trespass here, then, by Crom, will I make them pay.”
CORIN DID NOT look back from where he squatted at the hearth. “Was it Picts this time, Conan, or shining knights of Aquilonia?”
The crack of the door banging shut almost eclipsed Conan’s sigh. “I was being careful.”
“Practice, or was there reason?”
The boy set the rabbits on the table at the hearth’s far side. “If I had seen anything, I would have told you.”
Corin smiled and stirred the cauldron of stew hanging over the fire. “You can hang them up, let them season a day or three. Ronan’s eldest speared a buck. They gave me a down payment on a sword for him. I’ve cut some up, added it to the stew.”
“Ardel is going to get a sword?” Conan snorted and tied the rabbits’ hind paws together. “The buck must have been trapped in a snowdrift.”
“Ardel may be slow, but he throws a spear well.”
“Cimmerians are swordsmen.”
“And what if a Cimmerian loses his sword?”
Conan’s eyes tightened as he hung the rabbits from a peg near the door. “He would sooner die than do that.”
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