Conan the Barbarian

Michael A. Stackpole - Author

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ISBN 9781101539989 | 304 pages | 05 Jul 2011 | Berkley | 18 - AND UP
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Born in the fires of battle, Conan of Cimmeria lost his father and village when they were slaughtered by the cruel warlord Khalar Zym. Wandering the world alone, Conan was forged into a peerless warrior by hardship and bloodshed.

Years later, he crosses paths with Zym and his armies. But before Conan can exact vengeance, he must contend with the warlord's daughter-the seductive witch Marique-and a host of monstrous creatures. Only then will Conan's quest bring him face to face with Zym in an epic battle to avenge his people and save the world.

The caravan wended its way along the Zingaran coast, moving slowly in the bright sunshine. Bound for Messantia, it traveled overland because pirate predation had made shipping far too risky. Though Bêlit, the Queen of the Black Coast had vanished, her second in command, Conan, had joined with Artus and his band of cutthroats, terrorizing any ships that dared slip down the coastline.

Navarus, the caravan master, once again looked toward the sea. The road hugged the coastal hills. The receding tide had created a flat, sandy expanse between the breakers and the slope leading up to the road. The Argosian merchant had no doubt that the beach was truly quicksand, and as good as a wall to protect them from marauding pirates, but even an absence of raiders and the lack of a single sail between him and the horizon did not make him comfortable.

The caravan would take a week to travel the distance a ship could make in two days. While this did give him a greater opportunity to sample the delights of the female slaves in their cages, it forced him to load wagons and pack animals with food and water for his human merchandise. For the men it hardly mattered. They would pull the wagons into Messantia then get sold in lots to Lucius to work his mines. They were not expected to live long, so fattening them up on the road would be pointless.

The women, on the other hand, had to be handled more delicately. He shaded their cages so the sun's angry kiss would not blister their soft flesh. He brought casks of fragrant unguents so they could oil their skin. Fruits and watered wine would keep them healthy, and the hateful crone who served as his camp cook would boil up a broth that made them pliant and radiant at the same time. The best of the women he grouped with a tutor, teaching them to recite Argosian and Shemite verse so they might entertain powerful men, thus fetching a higher price.

One of the mercenaries he'd hired to guard the caravan came running forward. "The coast is clear, Master Navarus."

"Very good, Captain." Navarus wrinkled his nose at the stench rising from the man's armor. "How long until we reach the camping place?"

"We're making good time. Two hours, leaving us two hours shy of dusk. We could push further, but there's fresh water there…"

"Yes, yes." The Argosian flicked at a fly with a horsehair stick. "In early, up before dawn."

"And away before the pirates notice. Yes, Master."

Hidden in shadows of the inland hills, Conan and Artus crouched to study the approaching caravan. "By Bel, you're right, Cimmerian. Naravus thought to steal from us by traveling overland."

Conan, a dozen years removed from his homeland, allowed himself a wolfish grin. He need say nothing, for Artus knew him as well as any man alive. The massive Zingaran—born of Kushite slave parents on a Thunder River vineyard—had crossed the Cimmerian's path a number of times down through the years. Never enemies, but not always friends, mutual respect and intrigue bound them. When Conan returned from the Black Coast, he found Artus's company less irritating than solitude, and a solid friendship blossomed between them. It rendered Artus, whose dark hair had been gathered in long braided rows, immune to Conan's sullen bouts of temper.

Conan's blue eyes narrowed. Lying languorously upon a daybed, Navarus rode in an open cart at the head of the caravan, a parasol of the same green silk as his robe shading him. The little man had positioned himself to study the sea, which Conan regretted, for he wished to see the man's face when the pirates attacked.

Artus nudged Conan with an elbow. "Do we let him live this time, or put an end to it?"

"Let the gods decide." Conan didn't care if Navarus lived or died, but as long as he lived and Conan was able, he would bedevil the man. One of Navarus's agents had once drugged wine and fed it to the Cimmerian, thinking to take Conan and sell him into a noble's stable of pit fighters. Fortunately the Cimmerian's constitution and the trick about shackles he had learned from Connacht had thwarted that plan. Conan had killed his abductor, but had never really brought himself to care enough about Navarus to wring his scrawny neck.

"We'd best get to our horses."

Conan nodded and slipped back through the shadows with the lithe grace of a great cat. Taller and stronger than he had been at Venarium, with more scars to mar his flesh and mark his adventures, the barbarian warrior had met no equal among men in combat. Wearing a surcoat of mail with the ease of a virgin wrapping herself in silk, he mounted his horse and drew his sword. He raised it aloft, and from their places on the hillside, the Zingaran pirate crew acknowledged the signal.

The sword fell.

The pirates, who had spent the night digging and levering great boulders into place, knocked away pins, hauled cables, and pushed. The stones rumbled down the hillside, picking up speed. Some bounced. An oblong one began wobbling, its ends pounding the ground, first one then the other. The rocks bounded into the caravan, smashing through wagons laden with fruits and trinkets. Crates of oranges exploded into the air. Burst pomegranates spewed glistening seeds. Shattered urns gushed olive oil, and stale bread loaves tumbled through the dust.

Even before the stones had hit the caravan, the Cimmerian had spurred his horse down the hill. Behind him rode Artus, a lusty war cry bellowed loudly. Conan kicked out, shattering the first mercenary's jaw, then whipped his sword around to spin another man to the earth, bleeding. Artus cut past, his sword striking sparks from another. With a quick twist of his wrist he sent his foe's blade flying, then stabbed the man in the throat.

Chaos reigned over the caravan. The stones had passed through and, in a couple of cases, had crushed warriors who had been guarding the oceanside. The survivors of that contingent faced an uphill assault against screaming pirates and angry slaves. No matter what Navarus was paying them, it was not enough for them to rush to certain death. They retreated toward the ocean and the northwest, banding together to discourage pursuit.

Artus stood in his stirrups, waving his sword high. "Come back and fight, you pink-bellied, stub-cocked goat lovers!"

Conan reined up beside him, laughing. "You insult them."

The Zingaran raised an eyebrow. "Slavers?"

"Goat lovers."

Artus roared with laugher, but another roar, utterly mirthless, mingled with panicked screams from slaves. One of the mercenaries raised a bloody spear on high. At the hooves of his horse lay a half-dozen slaves and two of the pirates. The mercenary, his brows beetling, muscles bulging beneath hirsute flesh, grinned crookedly. From his expression there could be no mistaking the fact that he counted himself as dead. His only purpose was to take as many people with him as possible.

Conan looked at Artus. "Your joke angered him."

"But he's looking at you."

"He's yours by right, Artus."

"I cede him to you, Conan."

"Are you sure?"

The Zingaran smiled. "I insist."

Conan dug his heels into his horse's flanks. The beast leaped forward into the fray, hooves thundering on the roadway. The mercenary's mount sidestepped free of the corpses, almost daintily, then its nostrils flared and it plunged forward. The mercenary made to couch his spear as if it were a lance, but his grip shifted as he closed with his opponent. His eyes tightened, and as their horses closed, he thrust at Conan's face.

Conan turned his head just enough to avoid the spear, though blood from it painted his ear. His sword arm came up. The glittering steel came over and down, then through. The horses shot past each other, the riders still in their saddles.

But the mercenary's head spun in the air, the flesh gray, the eyes already milky. It hit the ground, spinning to a stop on its left ear a heartbeat or two before his body crashed into the dust.

Conan reined around and grunted as the larger portion of his foe twitched.

Artus dismounted and toed the head. "As clean a cut as you've made in months."

The Cimmerian slid from the saddle and wiped his blade on a dead mercenary's trousers. "I've made cleaner."

"And you shall again, my friend." Artus sheathed his sword and patted Conan on the shoulder. "Come, we have someone to attend to."

As the rest of the pirates swarmed over the caravan, gathering loot and freeing slaves, the two of them worked to the caravan's head. The caravan master's cart had been crushed by a stone, but he had somehow escaped death. Navarus crouched behind his overturned daybed, his face bloodied and streaked with dust. He held his parasol as if it were a shield, and brandished a paring knife. "Stay back. I am warning you."

Artus looked at Conan. "The gods have spoken."

The Cimmerian grunted.

The Argosian looked up at the two giants towering over him, then sagged back and began to sob. "You rob me at sea. You rob me on land. Why won't you let me alone?"

Artus sank to a knee. "It's simple, Master Navarus. You try so hard, and you're so clever. If not for you, we should be bored unto death."

The caravan master stared, agape. "You are doing this for sport?"

The Zingaran shrugged. "Well, we do profit from it, but in your case, it is primarily the sport. Isn't that so, Conan?"

The Cimmerian nodded slowly. "You make us laugh."

"Laugh. I make you laugh." Navarus dropped the knife and tears washed tracks through blood and dust. "I can't… I don't…"

Artus stood and the two of them laughed aloud. This did little for Navarus's disposition. The rest of the pirates joined the laughter openly, and the freed slaves cautiously. A number of the later, with rocks in hand and blood in their eyes, made their way toward Navarus.

Conan waved them off. "The gods have spoken."

If any of the slaves thought it curious that the pirates would leave Navarus alive, they said nothing. Instead, empty-handed, they turned to helping the pirates gather up loot and repair what carts they could. A handful of pirates returned up the hill and lit a signal fire, which sent a plume of dark smoke into the blue sky. The smoke and the tide would bring their ship, the Hornet, into the cove opposite the road.

Artus nodded as he surveyed the scene. "It is good to have you back, Conan."

The Cimmerian looked at him, his face impassive. "You have a good crew, Artus."

"We have a good crew, my friend." Artus smiled carefully. "Don't think I don't know how to read men, Conan. They're loyal to me, is the Hornet's crew, because I plucked every one of them from a gibbet before the hangman could drop a noose around his neck. A fair pirate crew they were, too, more cutthroats than sailors, but passable at both. But it's you that have made them into a band of men who fight together."

He waved a hand at the hill. "You thought of attacking from the land while he expected us from the sea. Those sea dogs would have mutinied had I suggested such a plan, but you they would follow into the depths of the Stygian underworld. You're special, and they know it—and knew it 'ere they saw you swing a sword in combat."

Conan grunted.

Artus laughed. "I, too, know you're destined for greatness. Knew it when we met. Knew it when I heard you were shipping with Bêlit. I thought someday to find you, see if you remembered me."

"I do no forget friends, Artus." Conan did not turn to look at his friend, but instead focused on the sea. In his life, Conan had not made many friends—he could count them on the fingers of one hand, and those among them who yet lived were far fewer. Of the dead, one loomed the largest, having left a void in his life that he could barely comprehend, much less begin to fill. In it, he discovered the hole his mother's death had left in Corin's life.

"I know you don't, Conan. And losing friends… no sharper pain." The Zingaran nodded slowly. "And I'm not much for the wisdom of the gods, especially as displayed today. But I rendered Bel's share when I was thieving, and don't mind giving the sea a jug of wine and as much flesh as will sink. If we amuse the gods, they might let us live a bit longer."

"And if we are tortured, this amuses them the most." Conan shot Artus a sidelong glance. "So better to torture than be tortured?"

"No sense in hiding, is there?" The Zingaran looked over to where Navarus sat, his daybed righted, his parasol lashed to the haft of a spear. "He hides, and look at the good it does him. 'Everything that was hidden will be found.'"

Conan nodded. "Is it your goal to save me from myself?"

Artus slapped the Cimmerian on the back. "Just to remind you of the reasons we cling to life."

A commotion arose among the pirates and slaves below. Conan and Artus marched into the heart of the crowd.

Artus planted his hands on his hips. "What is the trouble?"

One of the male slaves knelt and groveled at the pirate's feet. "Master, we know not what to do."

Artus shook his head.

Conan drew his sword. "Go. You are all free."

One of the females, a doe-eyed beauty with long golden locks and longer legs, peered up at him. "But… but your crew has gathered all the food and water. They have taken the loot and left us defenseless. Where would you have us go?"

Conan surveyed the desolate coastline in the sun's dying light. "You are right. You men, go there, take that fruit, that bread, and two carts for water casks. That will see you back to Zingara."

The slave at whom he pointed frowned. "But, Master, that's hardly enough for our number."

"I know." Conan smiled. "That's why the women will come with us."

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