Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Conan: Last Sands of the Dragon

Back blurb: Conan of Cimmeria was king of Aquilonia for many decades.  After the death of his queen the crown grows heavy and the barbarian passes it to his son, Conan II, called Conn.  Free on the road for the first time in years, Conan adventures on the great Western Ocean, once again a wanderer in search of fortune.  But the world grows dark during the Cimmerian's travels, and he finds himself drawn ever westward, closer to the setting sun than any man has been.  Something drives him, something warning him there is an evil arisen that means to end all the known world.  Shocking reunions and tragic heartbreak await Conan as the last sands of his hourglass fall.


"KNOW, oh prince, that between the years when the oceans drank Atlantis and the gleaming cities, and the years of the rise of the Sons of Aryas, there was an Age undreamed of, when shining kingdoms lay spread across the world like blue mantles beneath the stars—Nemedia, Ophir, Brythunia, Hyperborea, Zamora with its dark-haired women and towers of spider-haunted mystery, Zingara with its chivalry, Koth that bordered on the pastoral lands of Shem, Stygia with its shadow-guarded tombs, Hyrkania whose riders wore steel and silk and gold. But the proudest kingdom of the world was Aquilonia, reigning supreme in the dreaming west. Hither came Conan, the Cimmerian, black-haired, sullen-eyed, sword in hand, a thief, a reaver, a slayer, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, to tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandalled feet."-The Nemedian Chronicles

By J Morad

Chapter 1 Dreams Birth Swords

Botali Kadiro shivered in the crisp air of the crow’s nest and watched the world rock back and forth.  Endless waves of foam hypnotized him as they rolled to the horizon and disappeared in the sinking light.  The lines of his face burned with stinging drops of salt.  Yet, Botali dared not close his eyes.  The captain stalked the decks below.
The last bits of daylight fell away and Botali studied the swirling dark clouds that had followed his vessel for more moons than he could count.  The young sailor sighed, wiping big round drops of water from his cheeks and curled hair.  He dropped through the platform of the nest to begin the long descent down the main-mast.  Hand over hand on the rough ratlines of the shrouds, he passed sagging sails in desperate want of wind.  But the lateens hadn’t blown in weeks, so the battered galley from Messantia lowered oars every morning and rowed through the day, gaining its sole momentum from the backs of grumbling men.  From dawn to dusk on a pace few had seen, the crew of the Sea Siren rowed its strength into the unknown west.  Many suns had risen only to fall with no end of toil in sight.
Botali landed on the ship’s waist amid the rasp and clack of oars.  He adjusted the wrinkles of his soiled pants and tunic while staring through an open hatch at the brawny back of a Barachan rower.  Two churns of the banks later, eyes having shifted to their habitual fix on the water, he sensed more than saw the brooding presence approach on quiet footsteps.
The sailor turned in the massive shadow of his captain, who stopped to inspect a loose knot in the rigging with a look of disgust.  Shaking his square-cut black mane, now shot through with generous streaks of grey, the huge man tensed the muscles of his bare shoulders and flexed his fingers, cracking the knuckles of his fists.  He spun on the grime of the deck, quick feet belying his size, and in the waning yellow light Botali clearly made out a tangled maze of furrowed scars that mapped the bulges of the captain’s back and arms.  His skin was tan and weathered, with wear of a well-fought life, but no spare flesh hung on his form.
The captain stopped at a hatch and with a deep, booming voice said, “Rataan.  On deck, dog.  Tell me why my mainsheet will fly loose at the first call of wind?”
Botali shrunk near some loose canvas to watch the scene unfold.  The captain paced to the rail, ice blue eyes blazing with a cold fury.  Whatever trappings civilization had laid upon him, the captain, a barbarian, a Cimmerian named Conan, leaned on the rail with the look of a rabid winter wolf.  Some nights, deep in his cups, he told his crew tales of the grim northern lands of his birth.  Lands of battle and blood and hardship.  Botali Kadiro had never seen fabled Cimmeria, but those stories gave him little desire to change that.  He would not visit a country menacing enough to produce this terrifying man.
Minutes crawled by, fanning Conan’s ire, until a short, hook-nosed Barachan wandered up through the hatch as the oars of the galley rose and ceased their beating upon the waves.  The little pirate sailor shuffled along at a relaxed pace in flowing breeches, smacking thin lips around a mouthful of Argossean wine.  He smirked, heedless of his captain’s mood.
“You called, Captain?”
The Cimmerian’s eyes narrowed.
“Drink when there’s no work to be done, damn you to Set’s Hell,” Conan said.  “My mistake is clear to me, Rataan, in giving you the first mate to try and soothe this ragged crew.  I’ll remedy that now by you swabbing these decks and setting these yards ‘til I decide it’s been done right.”
The Barachan’s deep-socketed brown eyes blinked at the northerner.  “I don’t think so,” he said.  “I am not the ill aboard this ship, Conan.  The men whisper at night.  Breaking our backs on your fool’s quest was not what we sailed for.  We’ve been at sea for months now, and yet you limp to our doom with no wind or counsel from us.  We’re down to tack and will be dying for seawater soon.  No hint of land.  Not even a gull, man.  We came west for gold, Cimmerian, not on some death-quest of yours.  We’re done.”
Conan arched his thick brows.  “Done?  Counsel?  You would have me take counsel from a pirate who only walks without a noose tight to his throat because I slew his captor?  Counsel is my own, Rataan, and it is enough that I say we sail with purpose.  Now.  Do you grab rags, or do I feed you to whatever swims beneath our keel?”
Botali admired the bravery of the Barachan in this stand-off, if not the wisdom given his opponent.  Rataan took the measure of the barbarian.  “You’re no better than us.  You wound in that mess ‘cause you scuttled your last ship and killed her crew.  Now you lead us to the ends of the world.  Perhaps those grey locks show more of your age than you lead on, Cimmerian.  Perhaps the many winters have chilled your luck.”  Rataan spread his arms, smiling.  “A ship cannot sail without luck, Conan.  Let us come about to plunder the Zingarans again.  Or let me pilot her.  Agreed?”
Privately, with much wine, Conan would admit to remembering fifty or sixty snows, yet he never believed the passing years had dulled his keen senses.  The only effect time had wrought was to give him ever greater wonder at the endless repetition of man’s greed and treachery.  He set aside these musings and grabbed Rataan’s greasy black hair, jerking his head back to expose the soft flesh of his throat.  Another hand moved faster than the Barachan could follow and brought a wickedly curved knife from a belted scabbard to the neck of the screaming pirate.  Perhaps, Conan thought between movements, he could not match the speed of his youth, but his actions spoke of skill harnessed only through time.
“No,” Rataan said, the pace of his breath accelerating.  “No trial to judge me?  It’s our law.  I have broached no mutiny, only offered aid.  The crew follows me, will you kill their leader?”
The Cimmerian leaned close enough so the Barachan would feel his breath.  “I’m sure they are wise to follow you, Rataan, since it is you that led them to the edge of the gallows.  I have little need for a trial on my ship.  I’ll toss your head to the sea right now.”  The sharp blade pressed harder against the pirate’s throat.
The Barachan’s eyes rolled back, color draining from his swarthy face.  “By Ishtar, mercy.  I’ll swab.  I’ll swab.”
“And you’ll make sure your men fall in line, of course,” Conan said.
“Aye, of course,” Rataan said.  “We’ll follow you to the ends of the western seas.  And beyond.  I swear it.”
“Good.”  Conan released the Barachan’s hair, ignoring his fall to the deck.  “Botali Kadiro.  Come out from the shadows.”
Botali could feel the sweat freeze on his back at the sound of his name.  The young sailor swallowed and ran a nervous hand though his hair.  He stepped forward into a beam of silver moonlight.
“Fall to, sailor,” Conan said.
Botali presented himself with as much discipline as he could muster to the side of the prone Barachan.  “Aye Captain, sir.”
“No sirs on my ship, Kadiro.”  Conan appraised the shaking youth and grunted with approval at the gleam in his eye of what would pass for intelligence in this crew.  “You’ll be the mate,” Conan said.  “Before first light I want every sheet inspected and all knots retied, bow to stern.  All canvas checked for quality.  Every spar and bit of rigging examined.  Swab the filth from these decks.  And give this eunuch,” he thrust his lantern jaw at Rataan, “the bilges.”
“What?”  The Barachan scrambled to his knees and stumbled as far away as possible from the Cimmerian’s grasp.  “You expect my men to follow this Kordavan whore-son?” Rataan said while warily eying the steel of Conan’s dagger.  “We would have thrown him to the sea moons ago if not for your mothering.  He’s a pig.  His people shame the Arcan straits.”
Conan took one step forward.  “They’ll follow him or die,” he said.  “Start your work, Rataan, the crew will join you.  And change your breeches.  They’ve been soiled.”
The Barachan muttered an oath and disappeared below decks, leaving the Cimmerian alone with his new first mate.  Conan loosed his own curse and sheathed his knife.  He ignored the confused looks of the young sailor and climbed the ladder to the upper deck.  Botali Kadiro followed, trailing a few careful paces behind as the captain rebuked himself in a harsh, guttural language the Kordavan guessed to be Cimmerian.  The northerner stopped at the carved circle of the helm and gripped its handles.
Botali rocked on the balls of his bare feet, hoping to be shouted away so he could gather his wits and calm his nerves.  Minutes passed in the uncomfortably still air with no sign of acknowledgement.  He mutely watched as the barbarian tore open a tube of maps and cursed the topmost.  The stinging salt of the crow’s nest seemed very far away and a very pleasant way to spend an evening.
Botali engaged in a lengthy internal debate.  Few born into the recent age had not heard of this Cimmerian.  He had been chieftain and thief, warrior and king, and the Kordavan could well recall his grandsire’s outlandish tales of this man’s duels with wizards.  And demons.  And gods.  The first mate had no way of knowing what in those stories lay true or was the product of much retelling and embellishment.  But some flame must have sparked them.  He had served on the Siren for months and never been alone this close to his captain.  How did one address a walking and obviously disturbed legend?  Resolved to try, he thrice bid farewell to his long-unseen mother and offered short prayers to Mitra, Ishtar and a few of the Nameless Old Ones, whose exaltations he should not have known.  Botali sucked in his breath through clenched and teeth and said, “Sir?”
The captain’s eyes did not stray from his map.  “You have a tongue?  That is good.  I feared to have appointed a mute after a coward.  Did I not give you enough tasks already?  And what did I say about sir?”
Kadiro breathed in, attempting to bring force to his next words.  “May I ask a question, Captain?”
Conan broke from the map and looked down on the slight Kordavan.  Even with the years between them the northerner’s muscular thickness was twice again that of the young mate.  “I do not desire slaves and blind children on my vessel, Kadiro.  Every man should think and ask questions of worth.  If I have given you command aboard us, then I must think your mind has some merit.”  He looked back to the map.  “I only anger when men speak of treachery.”
Botali paused to consider the inherent fairness of the statement.  He tried to speak in the most even tone he could muster.  “I am not agreeing with the Barachan, Captain.  But he is right about one thing.  The crew will not follow me.  Why give me the mate?”
“A good question, but one I thought you would have explained for yourself.”  Conan sighed.  “You’re honest, as pirates and natural thieving bastards go, and you have keen sight, up top and on deck.  Never forget that for it will serve you well.  That sight is keen enough to know they’ll kill you when they come for me, doubly now so as you’re the first mate.  It might be deemed underhanded but at least I’ve bound your loyalty to me.  You’ll fight hard and lead well to make sure I stay alive.”
Botali exhaled.
“I’ve served on troubled ships,” Conan said.  “As both captain and mutineer, come to think of it.  As we speak, unless men have changed over the years, Rataan is below decks organizing the ones fancying themselves bravest.  He’ll lead them here, or to my cabin, sometime soon I imagine, with the full intention of my death.  Of course, if I were him, and if I was I’d throw myself off the topmast now, I would wait until the depths of first watch, but the little bastard isn’t that patient.  Tonight, I would have gladly gutted him, but his actions will ferret out the most treacherous of the dogs with little effort on our part.  When they come we’ll kill them and the rest will act like curs and shout their renewed allegiance to me and mine.”  The barbarian looked out over the ocean.  “I can’t blame any of them, truly.  I’ve done a miserable job.  I’ve pushed us past what any normal crew should take.  We’ll have to cull the worst of the lot.”
Conan turned and held Botali’s frightened eyes.  “We have little time.  Go to my cabin and fetch the sword from under the bunk.  In a chest you’ll find a cuirass and mail shirt, take whichever fits best.  Then go to the racks and arm yourself with something you can manage in tight quarters.  We’ll have a surprise for them.  Go.”
Too dumbstruck for further questions, the first mate’s legs carried him to obey the Cimmerian’s orders.  He dragged the sheathed broadsword from under the captain’s rumpled bed, judging its weight unwieldy for a normal hand.  The dull steel cuirass was hopelessly oversized for his narrow torso so he donned the mail shirt and found even that trailed to his knees.  Botali hurried on what he prayed were silent feet to the closest weapon’s locker, recognizing the curiosity of passing no crew in the ship’s bowels.  While selecting a recently whetted scimitar he noted newly empty slots in the rack lacking rinds of salt.  He feared the mutiny to have already begun with his captain armed with nothing but a knife.
Botali reappeared on the quarterdeck greeted by nothing more than the constant lapping of waves against the hull.  He searched the shadows but found no trace of his hulking captain.  Wandering to the port rail below the quiet sails he shifted the burden of the Cimmerian’s harness from one shoulder to another.  The Kordavan flicked his scimitar in a few practice passes, adjusting to its weight and feel.
Rataan stepped out from behind a spar.  “That bitch has fled, Kordavan,” he said.  “But he left his pup behind.”
Botali retreated as Rataan was joined in the moonlight by several of his fellow Barachans.  Angok, Sorth, Nedenal and Brantis fell in behind their former first mate, brandishing long swords and wicked, curved blades.  Past them, Botali could see the tense faces of the remaining crew awaiting the outcome.
“Where is Captain Conan?” Botali said, feigning defiance as best he could.
“It matters little, first mate,” Rataan said, covering the title with bile.  “Tonight you’ll die, and meet so many of the Kordavans I’ve sent to the bottom.”  His comrades joined Rataan’s laughter.  “Then,” he said, “when your precious Captain Conan comes out of-”
No one saw the massive figure drop from the sagging furls of the mainsail until he was among them, flashing like lightning in the night sky.  The initial blow came from a curved dagger.  The point found its mark in the center of Rataan’s skull, ending his speech.  The blade drove home until its guard met bone, slicing through the brain of the mutiny’s architect.
Conan landed on his feet, knees buckling slightly from the great height of the drop.  He tried in vain to pull his knife free from the skull, but Rataan’s head proved too thick to release it.  Bringing a fist to the groin of Sorth and doubling him over, he kicked a heel into the chest of Angok that sent the man flying into his fellows.  Heart pounding more than his time storming the Vanir outposts as a youth, Conan jumped and grabbed a stray line.  It came loose and swung the barbarian atop the rail near the speechless Botali Kadiro.
“Sword,” the Cimmerian said between labored breaths.
The first mate shook from his daze and lobbed the sword to Conan.  The captain ripped the blade from its scabbard and steadied his uncanny balance on the beam’s narrow width.
“Your cuirass.”  Kadiro flung the breastplate.
Conan caught the armor’s edge and saw the other two mutineers had recovered from their initial surprise and ran to the attack.  Uttering a wailing cry of death that chilled all, the Cimmerian leapt from the rail onto the coming pair.  He used the cuirass as a battering shield and rammed it into the face of Nedenal, crunching the soft bones of that man’s nose, jaw and cheeks under the stiff metal.  The heavy broadsword lashed out, moved deftly by a powerful arm as if it weighed no more than a reed, and swept under the futile parry Brantis offered.  The edge of the blade caught the Barachan’s neck, sending his head in an arcing flight ending in an ocean plunge.
Botali ran forward and engaged the reeling Nedenal, who struggled to counter the Kordavan’s unpracticed scimitar swipes while holding together the fragmented structure of his face.  Conan whirled to meet Angok, blade ringing against steel aimed squarely for his breast.  The Barachan sailor fought with the fervor of desperation, as he realized the full measure of the opponent he had chosen.  Thrusting and ducking, Angok screamed for the Cimmerian’s blood and gathered himself for a killing stroke, throwing his weight behind a lunge when he sensed the barbarian had momentarily lost his balance.  Conan recovered to reveal the feint and stepped aside as the Barachan passed him.  The broadsword whistled into the pirate’s back and his body flopped lifelessly to the deck.
Conan turned in time to see his first mate’s scimitar slice Nedenal’s stomach open, spilling entrails to wood already slick with blood.  The last sound on the ship was the coughing rasp of Sorth, who still rolled along the planks, cupping his loins and moaning.
“Mercy,” the Barachan said, after the Cimmerian raised him up by the back of his tunic.
The gathered crew awaited the final result of the battle and exchanged nervous glances.  Conan’s gaze swept their faces as each man’s chin lowered in shame.
“I saved your lives that night, in that hell hole you were sentenced to die as a pirate rabble.”  Conan’s booming voice drowned out the lapping waves.  He raised his broadsword overhead.  “So as the owner of those lives they are mine to take and I am fair with my judgments.  Let no man question me again and this goes no further.”
Several exhalations came over the heaving of Sorth’s breath.  Slowly, the crew raised their heads to meet their captain’s stare and silently nodded in thanks for the reprieve.
“Mercy?”  Sorth’s plea trailed off in fleeting hope.
“None for you,” the barbarian said, and plunged the point of his sword through the Barachan mutineer’s heart.
First mate Botali Kadiro repeated few orders after Sorth’s body had stopped twitching.  Within the hour, swabbing mops had attacked the filth and muck of the deck and the Barachan corpses had been given an unceremonious heave over the rails.  By moonlight, the crew watched curiously as the widening trail of crimson brought no fins.  The men told themselves the dim light did not allow them to see watery predators.  Secretly, hands by their sides, their fingers twisted in penitent signs of Mitra.  They feared to be in a place even the sharks dared not visit.
Behind the helm, the captain renewed cursing over his maps, scratching his head in confusion and disgust.  An hour passed and Botali came along after inspecting the re-rigging of the mizzen.  He saw the barbarian had covered his torso in a tan woolen jerkin.  The Kordavan sailor remarked as much.
“Aye,” said Conan.  “Sweating in the night air does cool me now and then.”
“Captain,” Botali said and hesitated, but a glance from Conan made him continue.  “Captain, if I may.  When I was a boy my grandsire would speak of you, of Conan, King of Aquilonia.  I would sit and listen to him and wonder what you were really like because it all seemed so fantastic.  I thought he was an old man telling tales to pass the time.  But after seeing with my own eyes what I have tonight, I know my grandsire spoke only truth.  You are…”  Botali’s thoughts swirled as he marveled at the gigantic man, a legend breathing before him.
“Only a man, by Crom,” Conan said.  “An old Cimmerian and nothing more.  Many things are said of me but I cannot tell you their truth, for I do not listen.  Let the old wives and grandsires spin tales to pass the time.  My world is still for taking, not listening.”
Botali shook his head in agreement, waking from his youthful memories.  “Aye.”
Silence passed between the two men.  Sailors scurried around them, lugging buckets of grease over the links of the tiller chain and hammering at wooden belaying pins to secure the running rigging.  Torches mounted about the deck released a dense black smoke that hung in the air.  Botali sniffed the fumes and tried to rekindle the conversation.
“Ah, here is your knife,” he said.  “It’s clean, but it took a while to retrieve it from Rataan.”
The Cimmerian grunted and returned the blade to its sheath.  ‘First time I ever put anything through that thick skull of his.”
The Kordavan grinned.  “Are you well?”
“Why would you ask?”  Conan realized the effect his loud, short retort had on the ashen features of his first mate.  He breathed in to reclaim his calm.  “I’m well,” Conan said.  The Cimmerian bit his upper lip and stared out into the night, speaking with uncharacteristic depth.  “I may have been faster once, I reason.  My own grandsire used to point to the frozen soil and say, ‘all ground cracks.’  He lived for sixty-three snows and died before my tenth with an Aesir heart wrapped around his axe.  In the council fires before Venarium they told tales of the past, of great warriors, including my grandsire.  They spoke of his deeds of youth, of his strength and speed.  They said even though age had caught him his skill always went unmatched.  I never thought…”  Conan seemed to wake from his own dream.  “Bah, now you have me squawking like an old woman.  We must find our damned course and be about our business.”
Botali shuffled his feet in new leather boots, freshly liberated from the cold dead feet of a Barachan.  “I only ask this question out of care for the ship, Captain, and not as a challenge.  Why do we continue to sail west?”
Conan waited for the men around them to leave.  He set aside his maps to scan the immediate rigging and peer over the taffrail for stragglers.  When satisfied they were alone he stepped to the first mate and spoke in hushed tones.
“Dreams,” Conan said.
“Dreams?” Botali said.
Conan nodded.  “I have seen many things that allow me to believe in the strange, no matter how I may loathe them.  Once before, many years past, I felt a dream of such power.  It spoke then and saved me.  Now I am plagued by the same dream, like that old one, every cursed night.  I find I can do little but heed again, Crom take me.”
“What is the dream?” Botali said.
“It’s foolish but I cannot truly say,” Conan said.  “It’s a feeling.  A sense.  I know nothing of what it seeks but it sends me to the west, to beyond the edges of these maps.  I can only hope to see what it wants when I get there.”  The Cimmerian shook his head.  “Speak no more of this.”
During the remaining hours of night the crew of the Sea Siren completed all tasks to the first mate’s satisfaction.  Conan and Botali exchanged only necessary words in that span.  Both men kept their own counsel, casting wary eyes over rail and bowsprit, searching for whatever destiny would meet them.  Eventually, a burst of radiant orange caught the stern of the ship and brought with it the welcome blow of a steady wind at the moment the galley’s oars touched water.  A cheer resounded from the waist as the lateens expanded and shoved the prow of the ship through the sea.  Conan signaled his first mate to give the order for oars-up.
Datak, a young Barachan Botali reasonably liked, began screaming from his new post in the crow’s nest.  “Land.  Land.  Look to the starboard bow.”
Sailors swarmed the rails, pointing at the distant blot of black marring the horizon.  They shouted and hooted, giving loud thanks to whatever gods they held dear.
Conan noticed his hull listing slightly with the weight of the crew to starboard.  “Back to your posts, dogs,” he said.  “You’ve seen land before and you’ll see it again.”
Men left the rails smiling, faces full of renewed hope.  Botali Kadiro and the Cimmerian remained focused on the sighting.  The Kordavan turned and caught his captain’s eye.
“Dreams,” the Cimmerian said.

Chapter 2 Storm Front

On a wooden bench in the private royal chambers of the palace of Tarantia, a massive young man in simple commoner’s garb sat brooding over a table of maps.  He studied the features and contours of his kingdom and points beyond.  His eyes, though blue, were not his father’s icy clarity, as his mother’s Nemedian blood also ran through his veins.  Her fine, straight nose and high cheekbones had been a gift to his fair face, and the ends of his black, square-cut mane curled gently to match the texture of her soft hair.  Yet, his father’s seed could never be hidden in him.  Hulking shoulders and rippling iron muscles framed a body measuring well over six feet, creating the image of a man more mature than this youth, a man who had not yet seen his twenty-first snow.
The young man reached beneath the table and absently scratched the grey fur of a giant Aesir wolf-hound lying beside his foot.  King Conan II, called Conn, of Aquilonia cursed to himself and drank deeply from an iron tankard of Bossonian ale.  His thoughts drifted, as they often did, to the songs of battle and bravery sung by the minstrels in his court.  In his mind’s eye he could see the tales of epic adventure centered round the myriad deeds of his father.  More than once he had mulled the idea of banning those songs.  They served as little more than painful reminders of the vast differences to his life and reign.  Raised in a palace with little time for travelling the world, Conn studied tax assessments where his father had poured over war plans.  Though not a stranger to battle, and certainly not unskilled in its art, Conn had wielded a quill more than a sword.  The son had never been allowed the opportunity to seek his own immortality.  These thoughts consumed Conn, until a flicker of movement and a deep growl from under the table reconnected him to the world.
“Be calm, Lola.”  Conn tugged at the alert wolf’s ear.  “Good girl, it’s only Arron.”
“Yes, Lola, be calm,” said the portly man stepping into the candle light.  “You can always eat me later.”
The wolf-hound crept from under the table to sniff the leg of the man now seated opposite his king.  Lord Arron fidgeted with his robe to smooth it and brushed the probing black nose away.  “You’d think she’d greet me with more than a growl at some point.”
“She doesn’t kill you,” Conn said.  “That’s high praise.”  He looked up from the maps to meet the gaze of his chief advisor.  “Nothing yet?  Not one returned?”
“None,” Arron replied.  “Twenty messengers out and not one back.  We haven’t heard word from any of our ambassadors or court spies since the last note from Khauran.  It would appear the world east of Corinthia has gone dark to us, my king.”
“This makes no sense.”  Conn shook his head and slapped the table.  “The merchant masters beat upon the palace door every morning thirsting for goods.  Taramis sent word weeks ago with fears her court has been infiltrated and rumors of people missing in her kingdom.  We send riders and they disappear.  We send more riders to find those riders and they disappear.  Zamora, Turan, Hyrkania.  Same.  No man I send is heard from again.  I mean, you expect the bastards in Khitai and Vendhya to say nothing, but you don’t expect them to kill your emissaries for no reason.”
Arron folded his arms.  “I don’t believe our men have been killed, my king, at least not by the courts we have sent them to.  There would have been threats, ransoms, back channel proffers on trades for the captured.  No, this to me is a third force intruding our world.  Something new has entered the map and is looking to disrupt our communications and our trade.”
Conn nodded.  “Count Tristan would have us do nothing further.
“Count Algourn Tristan always wishes nothing to be done,” Arron said.  “Unless that thing further lines his coffers.”
Conn grunted.  “You have little trust in our count.”
“I have complete trust in his self-interest, my king.  But even that has limitations,” Arron said.
“Perhaps.  I guess he has fallen far from the tree, old friend,” Conn said.  “Mitra knows I understand what it’s like to be a shadow of your sire.  The aggravation of it all.  I think of his father, Trocero, and all the wise counsel and loyalty he gave my own.  Trocero, Prospero, Pallantides, Publius…all the good men my father had at his side, and besides you I don’t think I have one I truly value.”
Arron nodded.  “Thank you, sire, and I am forever indebted to you and your family for my station in this world, but there are good men in this kingdom.  They are perhaps dulled by the many years of peace and prosperity won by your father and continued by you.  But I believe in our nobles and our people.  When the time has come they will do what is necessary.  Even Tristan, one can hope, will find loyalty is to his profit.”
Conn looked up into the vaulted recesses of the ceiling.  “I hope you’re right, Arron.  Tristan leads the Poitain knights and if his course differs from mine we’ll have lost a significant strength that will be difficult to regain.  I wish I knew what the man really thought.  We grew up together in these very halls and I swear to know less of his mind now than when we were children.”
“As you know, my king,” Arron parted his spotted hands and clasped them, “I have men throughout this and many kingdoms that feed me information, with this circumstance excepted.  Count Tristan has always been a private man, with little of note escaping his court.  His use of slaves in the Poitain economy is his most notable feature, I should think.  A thing we have spoken about often, for your father would never have allowed it.”
Conn said, “And I’m not happy with it either, man.  I’ve spoken to him privately many a time but he’s dead set on his ways.  I’ve half a mind to ready an invasion in my own country, but Set be damned we need him at the moment until we find out what’s going on.”  Conn paused.  “But maybe we’ll learn more of the man’s mind this night, I expect him ere long.”
Arron’s head tilted.  “You have requested the count this evening?”
“I have,” Conn said.  “I may not know the minds of the eastern realms but I’ll be damned to not know the minds of my own nobles.”
“Let us hope,” Arron said.
Conn sighed.  “Tell me, Arron, speak truth to me, for you know how difficult this is for me to ask,” Conn said.  “What would my father do?”
Arron closed his eyes for a span of moments.  “I was a young man when King Conan freed Aquilonia’s slaves.  What he saw in me as a teacher I cannot pretend to know, much like I can never claim to understand the mind of a man so volatile and foreign from anything I could ever know.  His mirth, his anger, his passion, his violence, everything about him met such extremes that I hesitate to say any prediction of his behavior is possible.  But I do know your father had an internal sense of right and justice that was nearly unerring.  And I never saw fear affect his calculus.  I think he would look out into the world of darkness we now find ourselves and stride forward with sword and torch until he could find an enemy to slay.”
Conn nodded and looked down at the table of maps.
Scant moments later the knocks of a mailed fist boomed on the thick oaken door of the chamber.  A large man in dark plate armor entered and said, “Count Tristan of Poitain on His Majesty’s request.”
Conn waved.  “Thank you, Erik.”  An aside to Arron, “I hate it when he says majesty.”
“The perils of power, Your Majesty,” said Arron.
Count Algourn Tristan swept into the room in ceremonial light mail and rapier, a change Conn noted from his normal courtier finery.  Tristan walked hurriedly to his king only to halt in a respectful bow and then continue on to clasp forearms.
“My king, it’s been far too long,” Tristan said.
“Yes, Algourn, it has,” Conn replied.  “And I appreciate the respect but we are in private chambers, call me Conn as you once did.  That is why I asked you here tonight, to skip the politics of court so that we may speak as men and old friends.  Now.  Tell me what you know.”
“So we shall dispense with pleasantries.”  Count Tristan turned to look around the chamber.  “What I know, Conn?  Certainly no more than our Lord Arron.  I know you send riders to the east and they do not return.  I know the caravans from Shadizar have stopped and the few merchants that come to our kingdom speak of odd changes in the eastern courts and clandestine crossings at the border.  I know word from Hyrkania and points beyond ceased months ago without warning nor threat.  I know, like you, that something has clearly changed in the world.”
“But,” Conn said, “for months this has built and you have counseled we take no action beyond going begging for information.  Now you tell me the world has clearly changed.”
Count Tristan shrugged.  “The world has changed, but how can we take action without knowing what action to take, Conn?  You are the ruler of the greatest kingdom in the west.  Would you raise the Aquilonian army and march blind to the east?  On a whim?”
The King of Aquilonia punched the air with his fist.  “A whim, Algourn?  A whim?  You yourself just said trade has stopped.  The knowledge of our world shrinking.  Would you have us isolated in the dark, awaiting some doom rolling towards us?  Yes, I should raise the Aquilonian army and march east.  My father would have already had us at the Vilayet Sea.”
Count Tristan pointed to the robed figure on the bench.  “What say you, Lord Arron?”
“I say I’ve always admired your self-sufficiency, Count Tristan,” Arron said.  “But Poitain’s fate is not separate from the world at large.  Something wicked clearly approaches us.  It would be best to be as prepared as possible.  If you know anything of what is transpiring to the east, now would be the time to inform your king.”
Count Tristan smirked at the implication.  “You think I know whatever ills befall this world and keep secrets from my king?  My oldest friend?  Is that what you think, Arron?”
“I think, Count Tristan,” Arron said, “that you have ever kept your own counsel, something to be respected in a man.  But again, now would be the time to share.”
Count Tristan began pacing along the near wall, hands clasped behind his back.  “Share?  You wish me to share, Lord Arron, with you?  With a creature but a chain removed from slavery?”
“Algourn,” Conn said.  “Careful.”
“No, my king, please let him finish,” Arron said.
“I’ll finish,” Count Tristan said.  The jaw and muscles of his face relaxed and then shifted, as if dropping one mask and affixing another.  “Look at your dark, bestial skin.  In Poitain, I would have you attending my fields, but here in the capital look at you.  Risen beyond your station to subvert my king and oldest friend.  He has listened to your lies and idiocy and your counsel has led this kingdom to ruin.  You have spoken against me, in these chambers.  This I know.  Against how we in Poitain have changed our culture and returned it to the natural order of things.  You poison my king’s ear against using the beasts of this world so that we may thrive and ensure the primacy of Aquilonia for a thousand years.  You should not be here in the king’s chamber in your sage robes, Lord Arron, you should be lashed on my estate, carrying my water.”
“I always suspected the depth of your hatred,” Arron said.  “I admit to never thinking you’d have the courage to reveal it so nakedly.”
Conn’s voice dropped to a whisper.  “Count Tristan, the only reason your head still rests on your shoulders is our history and the great respect our fathers held for each other.  Seek forgiveness for your words this moment from Lord Arron and you may yet escape the dungeons of Tarantia this eve.”
“I will do no such thing, King Conn,” Count Tristan said.
“How sad your mother and father would be for the hatred of a man for his skin,” Conn said.
“My mother and father?”  Count Tristan stopped pacing and faced his king, proud and erect, near a tapestry of lions in the royal chamber.  “You dare speak of parents to me, King Conan the Second?  King?  What a jest.  Your mother was a Nemedian whore and your father a ragged barbarian.  My mother’s lineage stretches back to time’s dawn.  My father, Count Trocero of Poitain, should have been rightful king when Numedides met his end.  I should be king now, the legitimate ruler of Aquilonia, not the mongrel half-breed before me.”
As the tone in the room grew increasingly loud and bitter, Lola the wolf-hound raised up and, growling with bared teeth, padded to her master’s side.  Conn reached down and signaled her to stay.
“I will share,” Count Tristan said, “as Lord Arron advised.  My king.  I will share with you how little you understand your world and how your time has passed without you even knowing.  My king.  You see, the storm front has finally arrived, King Conn.  The prophecy’s time is at hand.  You and your father have allowed this great kingdom, this great kingdom of mine, to fail.  Your constant and treasonous coddling of the impure species such as that,” he said, pointing again at the still seated and seemingly calm Lord Arron, “have diluted our Aquilonian blood.  And I will stand it no longer.  You let us breed with them, you allow them freedom, and you give them power.  You let them think they are the equal to the Aquilonian man, the true man.  I do admit to fault in this state.  We the Aquilonian royalty have allowed lesser breeds to rule this country for far too long.  I have allowed a lesser breed to rule this country for far too long.  My king.”
“And what will you do, Count Tristan?” Conn said.  He remained calm and composed.
“What will I do?”  Tristan laughed.  “What won’t I do, Conn?  I will hold you accountable for your sins.  I will take this throne and restore Aquilonia to the greatness that is its birthright.  I will take this throne and restore the greatness that is my birthright.  I do all this at the dawn of a new age.  I do all this in service to a new world.  The god-king has arrived and he has called all his true children to arms.”
Conn held Count Tristan’s glare.  “Count Tristan,” Conn said.  “I could summon my Black Dragons with a word and have you judged and sentenced to death by the hour.  But I will not do so.  What I will do is kill you myself.  Now, in this chamber.”
“Will you, Conn?”
“One thing before you hand out your justice, my former king,” Count Tristan said.  “Do you remember when we were but boys in this room, playing games to hide in the shadows and tapestries?  A game to learn the mysteries of the adults?”
Conn’s eyes narrowed.  “Choose your final words carefully, boy.”
“Do you remember that one night?” Count Tristan said.  “We didn’t even have hair on our chests.  We were there, in that far corner, behind the dragon scales.  Your father left these chambers through this wall, here, behind me.  Do you remember that?  And we were so delighted we’d found a secret passage like the palaces always have in the bard’s tales?  When we were sure all was quiet we crept out into this room and found the secret catch behind the lion tapestry.  Do you remember that?”
Conn took a step back, mentally cataloguing the weapons around the room.
“Over the years,” Tristan said, “I traced where the tunnels of this palace end.  I know the ways out, and I know the ways in.  I know how to get into this chamber, and most chambers, actually.  I know how to get into the hallway beyond that door where your Black Dragon guards stand, for instance.  I could place men in the shadows in that hall two paces from your guards and they would never know it until the fateful blow fell.  I could stand near this tapestry, like your father did so long ago, and release the hidden catch to this wall and open this room to whatever men I might need to claim what is mine.  Do you want to play that game again, Conn, to learn the mysteries of adults?”
“Guards, to me,” Conn said.  “Lola, defend Arron.”  He ran back to the bench and the broadsword lashed beneath its seat.  From beyond the door Conn could hear screams and the clash of metal.  From behind Count Tristan emerged a line of figures from the newly dark archway in the wall.  Clad in blackened leather armor with red trim, the strange men entering the chamber had pale faces of casual disdain.
“Stand down.  Now, Tristan,” Conn said, as he turned to face the widening arc of men.  His grip tightened on the hilt in his massive fist.
Count Tristan shook his head and smiled at the dozen men forming a noose around the king.  “I’ll grant this to you, and your father, as I feel generous.  You both possess the courage of lions.  If you were not beholden to the blood of dogs yours might truly have been a legendary dynasty.”
Conn bellowed and rushed the nearest assailant, bringing his sword crashing down in a wide arc.  The blow snapped through a steel blade raised in perfect defensive position and found a home buried half a foot inside the man’s skull.  Behind Conn, Lola the wolf-hound howled and leapt at another of the intruders.  His sword could not match the animal’s fierce speed and his death throes gurgled and mixed with the sound of her teeth rending his throat.  Lord Arron produced a dagger from beneath his robes and engaged another attacker, parrying two blows but struggling in combat.
Conn wrenched his sword from the collapsing man’s head in an arcing spray of blood and turned to meet the thrusts of two more blades.
“You think me soft because I was raised in a palace, Tristan,” Conn said between parries.  “You think you can bring these men into my home, into my chambers, and take my kingdom.”  With a feint the powerful young monarch slipped beneath the over-extended reach of one man and disemboweled him with a horizontal slice.
“You think my throne yours,” Conn said.  Six of the assailants converged on Conn, with a pair thrusting and defending against the wolf-hound and the remaining attacker beginning to overwhelm Lord Arron, clearly tiring in his heavy robes.  The handles moved on the chamber door.  The odds of the fight would soon worsen.
Count Tristan stood, rapier drawn, and watched the scene unfold.  Conn might not have been his father’s equal in battle - who in all honesty could claim to be? - but the king’s city-bred upbringing belied the innate speed and strength on display.  Conn’s first night may been swaddled in silken finery, but this night was a monument to lethal blood lust.  Count Tristan wondered with a nervous chuckle if he should have brought more men.
The king spun and dipped through the circle of swords slowly overwhelming him.  The floor grew slick with blood and viscera as Conn’s blade exacted pieces of flesh from his attackers.  Innumerable open wounds on his arms and thighs bled down to mix with the toll taken from his enemies.  Lola began to stagger between snaps of her jaw, her chest pierced repeatedly.  The door to the chamber flew open and more of the pale, dark figures ran into the chaotic melee, their weapons freshly coated with the blood of royal Black Dragon guards.
Lord Arron found himself surrounded and said, “My king,” before a thicket of sharpened points pierced his torso and throat.  His body twitched, remaining upright for long shuddering seconds and then collapsed to the stone floor.  More blades found the back of the Aesir wolf-hound and she yelped with a last look at her beloved master and then staggered and fell near the body of Arron.
The two deaths brought a moment of stillness to the battle around Conn.  The king looked at his fallen friends and found great sadness and rage surging through him.  He gazed across the room and locked eyes with Count Algourn Tristan of Poitain, once his friend and companion through so many childhood adventures.
“I will watch you die,” Conn said.  “We’ll see Crom together.”
“No, Conn,” Count Tristan said, “I’ll watch you die.  But not tonight.  You must serve other needs.  It is amazing though, you do always make things more difficult than I imagine.”
Conn grinned like a wolf and gathered himself to leap over the tightening circle of assassins and onto Tristan for one last, glorious act.  But the men were well trained and the moment of inactivity had given them time to gather their wits and react.  A pair dove at Conn’s legs while others leapt to his side and bound the king’s arms.  Still more began raining blows with their pommels on his unprotected skull.
Borne to the floor under the weight of so many men and rapidly losing consciousness, Conn grunted and blinked through the pain to see Count Tristan looming above him with a satisfied smirk.
“Conn,” Tristan said, “know that tonight marks the turning point for Aquilonia.  I have listened to He Who Has Arisen and been shown our path to immortality.”
King Conn blinked through the stream of blood running over his eyes.
“We will never again allow the filth of this world to drag us down, Conn,” Count Tristan said.  “We are the masters of this world and shall always be, for the god-king, Aryas, has risen.”  Count Algourn Tristan of Poitain raised his arms and exulted.  “And we are his Sons.”
Conn’s vision faded to black.

Chapter 3 New World

“They don’t even know who we are.”  Botali Kadiro’s voice was shrill.
“I don’t think they care,” Conan said, watching the flaming ballista bolt overshoot the bow of his ship.
“Hard-a-lee,” Conan said to the helmsman.  “Make fast to that damned boat or we’re all dead, man.”
A black sail galley had come around the horn of the just discovered island and immediately loosed waves of fiery arrows and heavier artillery.  Watching the arc of deadly points approach, Conan buckled his armor and urged the crew on.
“Row, dogs.  Full sails,” he said.  “Grab any weapon you can lay hands on.  We fight for our lives.”  Below decks the coxswain’s drum beat faster.
Coming head-on to the ship flying no colors, Conan could feel the deep thunks and vibrations of the large spear-like bolts bury themselves in his hull.  Flames began to leap up around the fo’c’sle despite the rush of broaching waves, the red fire curling up and around the bow with unnatural ferocity.  Most of the crew had established cover with shields and odd bits of the ship lying about the deck, but he watched the slow and the unlucky fall to black shafts from the sky and burn in place.  The little fires began to spread on deck.  Conan grunted and measured the distance to the enemy.  Too much ocean, no time for fine maneuvers to put the Siren in position for a boarding, and they didn’t have the artillery aboard to worry any opposition.  Suddenly, a large ball of flame rose from the deck of the enemy and fell just short of the Siren’s port rail.  It hit the ocean and a terrific boom and hiss of steam rocketed up along the ship’s flank and flung the less anchored of the crew to starboard.
Conan turned to the helmsman, ice-blue eyes boring into the man.  “Ram it,” he said.
The helmsman’s mouth gaped and began to stutter but the captain cut him off.
“You heard me.”
Conan yelled to every tar within ear shot.  “Hold fast, men.  We’re ramming her and then the blood comes.”
As the ships approached each other the enemy captain must have sensed Conan’s intent and ordered his helmsman to veer as the prow jumped suddenly off course.  But speed and distance doomed the maneuver and the Siren’s bow crashed into the port side of the dark hull with an explosive boom.  Only Conan’s strength anchored him to the nearby rail as sailors launched through the air and spilled onto the deck or into the ocean beyond.  With no proper ram mounted, Conan knew the front of his ship was a wreck of timber and oakum with only a few moments before the gushing water would take her to the bottom.  Beyond the fallen sails and ruin of the decks, he could see the enemy was similarly wounded.  The barbarian staggered to his feet.
“Fight for your lives,” he said.  “For your lives.”
Conan leaped and hit the listing main deck running, jumping over fallen lines and debris with ease despite his bulk and age.  Broadsword drawn, he cut though sheets tangled around nearby sailors ensnared in the crash and ordered them to fight.  Every able man would be crucial in the death struggle to come as he could hear the bellows and shouts from the enemy side in similar exhortations.
“Kadiro,” he turned and found his first mate in the maelstrom.  “Rally your men and follow me.”
With a panther-like bound and a chilling war cry the captain launched himself through the flaming wreckage of the Siren’s bow and disappeared over the splinters of the enemy rail.
Botali’s head was ringing as the captain met his still-disoriented gaze and bellowed orders.  The first mate watched the mammoth man scream to the heavens and bang his blade against his shield and then throw himself through the air and out of Botali’s sight into the enemy’s midst.  Rising on shaking legs, the Kordavan sailor waved at the men near him.
“Follow me,” he said and pointed his sword.  “Follow him.”
Bloody sailors picked themselves from the debris and searched for weapons and shields, pins or barrel covers, anything to use in the coming assault.  After a few interminable moments a growing group had gathered behind Botali as he began to thread his way past shards and licks of flame to the bow.  Perched on the narrow wooden span of a snapped beam bucking violently yards above the ocean, his wide eyes measured the gap to the pierced enemy hull.  He gulped and listened to the wild shouts and cries beyond.  A great clash of metal echoed through the smoky air and an arc of blood spun up from beyond the far rail and splattered across his face, breaking his daze.
“With me,” Botali said.  Gathering himself, he sprung through two pillars of rising flames and caught himself with an outstretched hand on the broken planking across the gap.  A glance beneath him to the jagged burning wreckage provided all the momentum required to carry him up over the rail and into the melee beyond.
Now planted firmly on the enemy deck Botali thought he had come upon all his visions of Set’s Hell.  Through air saturated by smoke and flame and ash, with burning bits of sail and line falling from the sky in ragged flutters, he could see Conan the Barbarian, Conan the Cimmerian standing before him, drenched in blood.  Surrounded by a flailing group of overwhelmed, pale-skinned men, Conan drew great gulping breaths as his blade whirred around the circle.  He wove a path of devastation.  Two hands still clenching weapons flew away from their former limbs and dropped to the floor.  Enemies cried in terror as the barbarian caught the hair of the man nearest him and screamed inches from his eyes.  Botali watched, unmoving, mesmerized, as Conan’s fist-wrapped hilt smashed again and again into the stunned man’s face until his legs buckled.  The confusion and terror provided a pause for Botali to gather himself and lead the Sea Siren band aboard the black ship.  With all eyes focused on the raging barbarian, Botali and the crew were able to set to slaughter and began filtering out through the smoke to the boat beyond.
“Captain?  Captain?” Botali said, when the immediate area was clear.
The barbarian’s huge shoulders heaved as the mess of the sailor’s head slipped from his fingers and fell with a sickening pulp to the deck.  The ice-blue eyes looked up to meet Botali, and the first mate took a step back and momentarily lost his balance in a pool of blood.  The gaze of his captain betrayed no civilization, no remorse, and no emotion beyond rage.  Botali looked into the ancient face of Cimmerian blood lust, and it terrified him.
Without a word, Conan ran off into the fog of war once again, leaving the Kordavan to right himself and plunge after his captain through the smoke.
Botali ran into a pocket of clear air and saw the remnant of the mystery ship’s crew gathered in a last stand, backs to the starboard rail.  Fronted by what he guessed was the enemy captain, a large, blonde figure himself covered in blood, they had formed up as best they could against the coming mass of the Siren crew.  Botali pushed ahead to the front of the pack as the two sides momentarily held back to draw breath and consider what was about to happen.  Now would be the last moments on this plane for many, and one of these groups would not exist in just a few heartbeats.  Botali glanced from side-to-side, seeing the mix of fear and aggression on the faces of his crew as they bunched together.  The first mate was mere feet from the enemy captain and the long, blood-smeared cutlass he held out to a point at Botali’s chest.  Suddenly, the thought sprang into his mind, where is Conan?
Botali heard the scream before he saw the blur of skin and steel that dropped through the smoke above their heads into the center of the enemy pack.  In the confusion, Conan had used his freakish hillman climbing skills to pick his way through the web of timber and rope to a perch just above them.  He jumped with a hair-raising battle cry and severed one awed head from a torso before his boots even landed on the deck.  Botali recovered from the shock of the moment and leaped ahead in a soundless charge as all but the enemy captain in the front line of the opposition turned in surprise.  Botali and the captain parried blade thrusts and the two sides came together in a fitting tribute to death.
It only took a few passes for Botali to realize his opponent was the superior swordsman, but he managed to gain seconds of respite as the confusion around them pushed both men away from each other.  Generally, the Siren crew was gaining the upper hand in the battle as weapons broke, limbs fell, and crimson jets sprayed the scene as the fuel of nightmares.  All the while, above the din and just out of sight, Conan’s bellowing shouts pierced the ears of all.  More than once, Botali caught a glimpse of a man facing one of his crew suddenly scream as the point of a broadsword emerged from his chest in a fountain of blood.  Caught between the Siren mongrels of the western coast and the raging Cimmerian, all save the captain of the doomed enemy crew fell in agony.
The tall, blonde captain turned to face the barbarian.  Bloodied, ash-grimed, and dripping with sweat, Conan’s chin lowered so that only the bottom half of his blue eyes were visible.  His knuckles turned white as fingers flexed and tightened on the worn sword grip and all the world seemed to wind down to nothing except the steady, deep drum beat of his breath.
“I’ll tell you nothing,” the enemy captain said.
Conan grunted and cleared the distance to the man in a coiled spring.  The enemy captain stepped back to parry the downward arc of the Cimmerian’s attack.  With an instant, wincing clash of metal the captain’s sword broke and Conan landed on the deck with his blade buried half a foot in the center of the man’s head.  As the body fell, Conan put one bloodied boot to the corpse’s chest and wrenched his weapon free.  Botali watched as the barbarian’s shoulders slumped with the weight of decades of these battles.
“Captain?” Botali said.
“Captain?” Botali repeated.
Conan’s head snapped up and said, “Both ships are done for, Kadiro.  Rally the crew and make for that island.  Remind these fools to leave their armor before we find half our force on the sea floor.  And free the galley slaves, they’re with us now.”  Conan jumped to a beam spanning the ship’s waist and shouted through the hatch at the strangely calm slaves below tangled in oars but curiously no chains.  At least none that he could see.  To a man they were dark-skinned.
“Hear me,” Conan said.  “You’re free men now, but that freedom only extends to swimming for your lives to that shore.  When we hit the beach stand with us and fight whatever bastards sent this cursed ship.  Or not, I care little.  But give no thought to turning a weapon against us.  You’ll not live to regret it.”
Botali and a few of the braver Siren crew jumped into the belly of the foundering ship and sought rusting iron links to sunder.  But the slaves below seemed unencumbered by chains, or by speech.  Wordlessly, to a man, they stood from their benches after the Cimmerian’s words and calmly made their way to the deck and then into the water.  But the mystery of the docile slaves would have to wait.  Conan stood at the rail and watched his own men in various stages of panic jump into the darkening seas slowly filling with the widening debris of the wrecks.  The men of the Sea Siren, like most sailors, fought an irrational fear of the water and screamed and flopped their way to shore.  Conan would stay aboard, of course, until every man had hit the brine.  Resting during the spectacle served the barbarian.  His arms ached and legs shook with the exhaustion of spent fury.  Finally, Botali ran to his side, dodging the flaming yardarm of a mast.
“That’s everyone, captain,” Botali said.
“Then into the water with you, Kadiro,” Conan said.  “Current’s strong and it’s going to be a hell of a swim.”
It felt like hours later when Botali dragged himself ashore on hands and knees and coughed seawater as the waves ran over his back.  Conan emerged from the ocean and knelt beside him.
“It’s not much, is it,” the first mate said in between heaves.  “This island.”
Conan grunted and absently scratched at his bare ribs.  “This island will do a damn site better than feeding the fishes.  Now stop your coughing and get the men in some sort of order.”

Chapter 4 Old World

Conn awoke with a start.
“Set’s hell,” he said.
“Close,” said the large black man seated with his back to the iron bars of the wagon.
Conn’s eyes were swollen and his head damn well hurt but he could still manage to speak through his creaking jaw.  “I know you, don’t I?”
“You do,” said the man, never looking away from the smoking landscape as it rolled by.  The first orange stabs of the new day lit the fields with shadows.
“Juma.  You’re Juma.  My father knew you.”  Conn tried to sit up and winced at the pain throughout his body.  “You came to Tarantia when I was a child.”
“I did.”
“How long have I been out?  How long have I been in this damn moving cage?”
“Two moons by my count,” Juma said.
“Two moons.  You’re the chieftain of the tribes in Kush now, right?” Conn said.
“I am.  And you’re the King of Aquilonia.”  Juma waved his arm as they passed a heap of rotting corpses.  “Look upon our palaces.”
“Betrayal.  In my palace,” Conn said.  “The Dragon guard killed.  Arron gutted like a pig in front of me.”
“Arron the advisor?” Juma said.  “That’s sad news.  I liked him.”
“As did I,” Conn said.  “And I will remind Count Tristan of that.”
“Tristan?  Trocero’s son?  The Poitainian scion?”  Juma shook his head.  “I vaguely remember him.  A small child hiding behind his father, I think, last time I saw him, then running around the palace with you.  But it makes some sort of sense with my story.  It was the son of my oldest warlord, a mere boy, and a band of white devils.  They slaughtered my guard and my wife.  She never even woke.”  Juma’s eyes momentarily focused on a distant point in space.  “But that boy is stupid.  Unbelievably stupid.  This enemy, whoever it is behind all of this, is no friend to the black kingdoms.  Whatever treasure they promised him will end in poison.  Nevertheless, here we are, in this rolling cage.  I count five moons for me.”
“Where are we?  Any idea?” Conn said.
Juma peered out through the bars.  “Near as I can tell, Khitai.  Or what’s left of it anyway.  Every land we’ve passed through has looked like this.  Towns in ruins, armies dead in gutted fields.  The Sons of Aryas are thorough, I’ll give them that.”
“Sons of Aryas,” Conn said.  “That’s what Tristan said to me before I blacked out.  I’ve never heard of any Aryas, or his sons for that matter.  But we’ve been losing scouts and emissaries for months to the east, trade drying up.  It’s like the edges of the map have been curling towards us.  It’s been a mystery.”
“Granted, Kush’s reach is not as long as Aquilonia’s, but our experience has been much the same,” Juma said.  “The land provides much but we do trade for certain goods and merchants we normally deal with began vanishing months ago.  Trade routes severed, appointments broken without a word.  We sent scouts past the borders but they never returned.  The night I was taken had been a long session in war council, deciding our next actions.”
“Sons of Aryas.  Aryas,” Conn said.  “No declaration of war.  No warnings.  No armies.  Palace coups and attacks in the night.  I don’t understand any of it.”
“Including the answer to the question that bothers me most,” Juma said.
“Which is?” Conn said.
“Why are we alive?”  Juma turned to the young king.  “Why cart us across the world when our lives were there for the taking?  I understand trusted lieutenants betraying and seizing power, but I don’t understand keeping us alive as potential symbols of rebellion?  Why offer even the slightest chance of hope?  I’ve had days to think on this and I’m no closer to the answer.”
“I don’t know,” Conn said.  “Arrogance?”
“Perhaps,” Juma said.  “But this mystery enemy has shown both cunning in removing rulers in small contained coups, and power in laying waste to these armies we’ve passed, however leaderless they might have been.  Maybe arrogance is their weakness.  We should probably hope so.”
“Have you ever heard of this Aryas?” Conn said.
Juma shook his head.  “Directly?  Recently?  No.  I don’t think so.  I’ve thought and thought on this.  The only thing I can think of is years ago, when my father was leader of the tribes and I was still a small boy, a crazed man from Stygia was captured.  We didn’t know if he was a wizard, or a prophet, or just one of the morbidly insane that always seem to be wandering out of Stygia.  Stygians are the worst neighbors you can imagine, by the way.  He came to us through the jungle, out of his mind, ranting about a prophecy and the death and enslavement of all those with impure blood.  He screamed about He Who Would Rise.  He called it a warning, he called it a solution.  I don’t know why I remember it.  Odd, really.  It’s not like I hadn’t seen Stygian demons before.  But something about the way he spoke.  The surety in his eyes even though he was clearly possessed by a mania.  Maybe he said the name Aryas.  I don’t know.  It was a long time ago.”
“What happened to him?” Conn said.
“We chopped his head off and went about our day,” Juma said.
Conn grunted.  “Have we seen any of our captors?  Food?”
“They come after the sun rises each day with some slop, you just missed yours.  You can tell by the smell we are left to fend for other needs.  I’ve seen a few of them, two driving this wagon and pairs ahead and back from what I can tell.  They all look the same as the ones that attacked that night.  Big, pale bastards.  Straw for hair.  Blue eyes that look at me with less care than they would an insect.”
“Black and red armor?” Conn said.
Juma nodded.
“The men Tristan had with him that night,” Conn said.  “Same general description from what I could tell during the fight.  There must be hordes of them, given the destruction I’ve seen just in this little time.”
“Hordes I don’t know,” Juma said.  “But some form of magic, or dragons, or something else.  Craters, smoking pits, charred bodies.  A destructive force has been unleased upon the land.  More than what men with swords can achieve.”
“This cage,” Conn said.  “I suppose you’ve found it sufficient to hold us?”
Juma nodded.  “Bars are solid.  Lock is good.  When they come with the food they do so in a pair with weapons drawn.  Maybe with both of us awake we can change the odds.”
For a time they rode in silence, each keeping their own thoughts as they surveyed the war-ravaged landscape.  After a time, Juma cleared his throat and spoke.
“There is one more question I would have answered.  And you would seem the person to ask.”
“Ask away,” Conn said.  “It seems I’ve little else to do but talk.”
“Where is your father, Conn?  Where is Conan?”
Conn felt the deep growl come up from his belly and through his throat.  A question he had asked himself so often, lately.
“To the west,” Conn said.  “I don’t know where.  After my mother’s passing he…grew tired of the crown.  He wanted the road again.  Relive the youthful days of adventure you had with him, I guess.  He had taken a ship last I knew.  Pirate band he rescued from what my spies reported.  Gods know how he did it, how he does anything, really.  When he left he told me he wished me to stay, and sit the throne, claim all he had achieved.  Carry on his legacy, was the way I saw it.  I tried to do it with honor.  I feel like I tried my best.  Sitting here, I see I failed.”
Juma laughed.  “No more than I, young king.  No more than I.”

Chapter 5 Inland

Wherever they were in the thrice-damned world was hot and damp.
Botali coughed and looked around at their new home.  “It’s good for the men to set foot on solid earth again,” he said.  “Fresh water and game will be a blessing from the gods.  It didn’t look like much of an island to me from the ship, but it has to have something.”
“Let’s have a full reckoning of our supplies, Kadiro,” Conan said as he watched the last bits of the Sea Siren sink into the water.  Entangled with the mysterious enemy ship, the ocean took both vessels into its remorseless embrace.
“Aye, Captain.”
The sound of wind and waves lingered in the ensuing pause.  Botali chewed his lip and gathered his courage.
“Captain?” Botali said.  “Respectfully, is this your dream?  To find this land?”
Conan sighed.  “I told you, Kadiro, I don’t know what my dreams tell me.  They’re like shadows from the past.  Like a thing I once met driving me west no matter what.  When I wake I only have a vision of the damn ocean.  And…”  The barbarian’s voice trailed off in the breeze.
“My son, Kadiro,” Conan said.  “All right.  There is something of my son in these dreams.  I feel it in my bones.”
“King Conn,” Botali said.  “I have heard of him yet you have never spoken of him.”
“I’m not in the habit of discussing my kin with the crew,” Conan said.
“He remains king in Aquilonia, last I heard,” Botali said, continuing on, resolute.
Conan grunted.  “Aye, he is king, last I knew.  He better be king.”
Botali ventured further.  “When was the last time you saw him?”
The Cimmerian snapped to face him with angry eyes but then breathed deeply, relaxed, and said, “Many moons, Botali Kadiro, many moons.”
The sailor allowed the words to linger.
“I was not always the man I am now,” Conan said.  “Many, many things have I been, but eventually I tired of them all.  Pirate.  Warrior.  I always wanted the next challenge.  Even being a king.  Conn might say even being his father.”
Botali dared not interrupt.
“I would say no to that, though,” Conan said.  “I did not tire of my son.  I tired of everything else.  The crown grew heavy.  His mother passed, I was helpless to save her.  I missed the call of the road.  The sea.  The mountains.  Adventure.  Me, being who I was, who I am.  With me there, sitting on that throne, it didn’t allow Conn to learn the truths he had to know if he was to rule effectively.  I knew, I thought, the longer I kept him at my knee the less he would learn.  He wouldn’t be his own man.  I could see him, trying to be me, trying to make decisions like me.  Not thinking through his own thoughts.  It’s no way to be a man.  I don’t know.  But like so many things in my youth, I ripped the riddle asunder instead of solving it.  I…”
Conan looked out over the ocean and shook his grey-streaked mane.  “You have me talking like old crones in a village, Kadiro.  Again.  No more.  Do as I’ve commanded and if you wag that tongue of yours over my words I’ll have your head.”
The captain stood amidst his crew gathering odds and ends from barrels that had washed ashore and packs they had grabbed at before the mad plunge into the waters.  In one hand, Conan swung a double-bladed axe to test its weight.  Satisfied, he studied the edge of his broadsword, examining its notches and dents.  Foregoing his armor in the stifling heat, his bronze torso absorbing the sun, he considered the slaves rescued from the enemy galley.  After his words, they had dutifully swam to shore and then stood in a knot on the beach, hollow-eyed and silent.  He stared at them now, but none looked back.  They just remained motionless, vacant, gazing in random directions, awaiting further instruction.  After a time he sighed and shook the problem from his head and addressed his crew.
“Men, I’ll not lie, it’s been a damn terrible slog.  The sail here was miserable.  You were promised gold and adventure and received nothing but back-breaking torment and now a fight to the death and a sunken ship.  And all of that is my fault.  Not easy for a captain to say, but truthful all the same.  But to my reckoning this island is the start of the fabled western lands.  The gold, the riches of legend, we are the first men from our world to set foot here, that I know of at least.  All the claims and tyrants and petty little states from back home are thousands of leagues behind us now.  Everything we find is ours for the taking.  Follow me a while longer and I promise, I’ll return you back to that home with enough riches to make each of you a king.  Each of you masters of your own destiny.”  Conan met the gaze of every man he could.  “To the island.”
The crew issued a lackluster huzzah and then fell immediately silent, a bit dead-eyed after the day’s exertions.  They would need rest and fresh supplies.
Botali caught Conan’s attention.  “Captain, what of them?” he said, nodding towards the motionless group of slaves.
“Did you try speaking to them?” Conan said.
“I did,” Botali said.  “They don’t answer but they’ll follow simple commands.  They just stand there.  I’m not even sure they’ll eat if we don’t tell them to.”
“Do some look familiar to you?” Conan said.
“What do you mean?” Botali said.
Conan shook his head.  “Nothing.  Don’t remember seeing anything like it.  They all appear healthy.  Not a scratch on them as I can tell.  Well, we don’t have time to nursemaid anyone.  Tell them to care for themselves and let’s get on with it.”
As they walked up the gentle slope of the beach to the tree line Conan wondered how many strange, new lands he had seen.  How many mysterious islands like this he had landed upon.  How he felt weary from the day but also joyful at the memory of blood and battle.  The man still felt the spirit of the barbarian boy that wandered into civilization from the wilderness all those years ago.
Axe strapped to his back, sword firmly in hand, Conan’s booted feet trudged through the sand.  A Zingaran named Troffo walked next to him.  “What are you expecting, captain?”
“Expecting, Troffo?  I’ve learned to expect nothing but blood if we’re to gain our fortune.  Ready yourself.”
The sound of lapping waves receded, overtaken by the growls and clicks of unfamiliar animals and insects as they moved from the beach.  Exotic trees and plants and glimpses of birds and small darting creatures filled their vision.  It was a different world but not entirely alien.  With silent, balanced steps Conan signaled the crew to fan out through the forest.  Inside a few hundred, sweaty paces he could see another body of water, some inlet not apparent from the ocean.  A raised hand told the crew to stop and quiet themselves.  The barbarian captain could see a hut and a ragged dock on the near shore.  An old weathered man pulled nets from a small boat.
Conan gestured for everyone to remain in place, quietly sheathed his sword, and then stepped out of the shadows into the sunlight near the hut.
The old man turned with a start to see the bronzed giant standing behind him, muscled frame gleaming.
Conan extended his empty hands.  “No need for fear or shouting, I mean you no harm.”
“You don’t look like a man of peace,” the old man said.
Conan let out a short, barking laugh.  “No, few if any have ever described me as that.”
“And you don’t look like one of them from the fort,” the old man said.  “Not with that skin and hair.”
“No.”  Conan saw little advantage to a lie.  “I’m a stranger to this island.  There are men in a fort here?”
“There are men in forts everywhere worth having,” the old man said.  “Though oft times I can’t tell the value of this place and I’ve lived here all my life.”
“You speak the common tongue?” Conan said.
“I don’t know what’s common about it,” the old man said.  “It’s what I speak.”
“This will probably tell you more than you’ll tell me but where exactly is here?” Conan said.
“You are lost on the great ocean,” the old man said.
“Those nets are heavy.  Let me lend you a hand,” Conan said.
The barbarian began hauling the heavy fishing lines from the boat to the dock.
“You don’t look like a fisherman, either,” the old man said.
“No,” Conan said.  “Farming, fishing, none of that was ever the life for me.  Truth be told I can’t stand common labors, though I do want you to understand I mean you no harm.  I come from the east over more ocean than I thought possible.  And I am a man that thinks much in this world is possible.  The months have been long and I’d give great thanks for fresh water and something to eat that didn’t come out of a net.  But why don’t we start with where in Mitra’s damned name we’re standing?”
The old man paused to purse his lips, appraising this strange man in his home.  “I don’t know the god you speak of.  And I don’t know what lies in the eastern ocean beyond the rising sun.  But this bit of rock is called Salt, it lies just east of the great lands.  Little happens here beyond fishing and ships from the mainlands supplying from the fresh water springs.”
“There’s a port here?”
The old man nodded.  “West of here.  Where the fort is.  Used to I could trade my catch there with little trouble.  Now the tax collectors wait and take their due.  More every time, feels like.  You can’t do much about it.  The soldiers in the fort make sure all the old men like me pay.”
‘These soldiers,” Conan said.  “A local chief?  How many men?”
The old man stared hard at the barbarian.  “A local chief?  How many men?  I guess you not knowing where you are is your business, but you must know who rules here?”
“I come from a land of many rulers,” Conan said.  “But as we’re speaking truth, I thought the great western ocean would merely bring me back around to Khitai, or maybe Vendhya.  You see, a sage I once knew had a mad theory this world was round, like a pig’s bladder, and if I traveled far enough I’d come back around to where I started.  For some reason that idea always seemed good sense to me.  But I get the feeling we’re nowhere near Khitai.”
“I don’t know Khitai, or the other place you spoke,” the old man said.  “I know the great lands west of here are now known as Nord.”
“Aye, now.  They had different names, once, maybe those you knew.  But that was before.”
“Before what?” Conan said.  “Before the one who rules here?”
The old man closed his eyes and Conan thought he was looking within to better, long ago days.
“I am called Conan,” the barbarian said.  “From a land far east of here called Cimmeria.”
Opening his eyes the old man extended his hand.  “I am Denn.”
Conan enveloped the hand within his own.  “Well met.  You seem like no great friend to these men.  Would you be willing to take me to this fort?  I can give you what little gold I have.”
“Aye,” the old man said.  “I can.  But you should bring more than my old bones with you.  Your men hiding over there should come with us. They make too much noise to stay in one place anyway.”
Conan laughed.  “Yes, they should.”  He whistled and his men stepped on rolling sea legs from the tree shadows, blinking their eyes in the sun.  The barbarian handed the old man a small sack of coins from his belt.  “Word kept.  Let’s get going while the light remains.”

Chapter 6 Dawn

Conn tilted his head, the agreed upon signal to Juma he was ready.  Juma stared through the bars at the ruins of the passing landscape, seemingly unaware and uncaring.  He hadn’t moved at all in the last few miles.  The Kush chieftain’s broad back appeared wedged between the iron bars of their mobile prison.
The wagon stopped moments after dawn broke through ahead.  The air was thick with smoke and the smell of death, proof of the destruction and mounds of corpses dotting the roadside.  This country, if this country was still Khitai, had been turned into a wasteland.  The famed lush jungles burned to ash and cinder and it appeared to Conn only the great black flies and carrion birds that feed on the dead remained of the land’s bizarre and fabulous creatures.  But rays of new sunlight brought hope to the day.  The two men driving them eastward had dismounted, and now approached the back of the wagon, swords drawn.  They appeared to Conn much like the men that had assailed his chamber a night not long ago in Tarantia.  One of them, tall and blonde, dressed in black armor with red trim, held a bucket of the rancid slop they served as food.  The other picked at his waist for keys to the cage.
“Stay where you are.  No movement,” the lead guard said as he turned the lock at the wagon’s rear.  He opened the cage and stepped away, blade carefully held back so it couldn’t get entangled in the bars, a trained, professional movement.  The second guard stepped forward to the lip of the wagon bed and placed the bucket inside, holding his sword outside and away from his body.  Every motion belied practiced confidence, and they wore their arms and armor with ease.  Talking through the night in hushed tones, Conn and Juma decided on their plan.  These Sons of Aryas were no trumped-up bandits playing at soldier.  Come what may, dying in an escape attempt was a better fate than living in this traveling cell.
The guard released the handle of his bucket and withdrew.  As he swung the gate closed Conn’s foot lashed out and kicked at the bars, hammering the edge of the iron door into their captor’s forehead.  As the man staggered back he momentarily blocked the path of the other guard and that was all the opening Juma needed.  With speed summoned from his youth, the massive man sprung from his feigned despair and launched his bulk against the recoiling gate.  Juma’s momentum carried him into the stunned guard and they fell to the ground in a heap.
Roaring, Conn followed and leapt out to face the standing guard while Juma was engaged in a furious grapple with his man.  Unarmed, Conn crouched and began to circle opposite the tall, blonde soldier.  The soldier remained silent but licked his thin lips while smartly sidestepping the tangled mass of wrestling limbs between them.  He flicked the tip of his sword in exploratory arcs, measuring the distance he would need to close.  After the third swipe, he lunged forward and brought his blade through a whistling crescent aimed to remove Conn’s head.  The young King of Aquilonia sunk to his haunches to let the sword pass an inch from his scalp and then darted forward.  The guard’s leather and mail covered most of his vital organs but his legs were clad only in breeches.  Conn reached the man’s knee on the backswing of his attack and buried a muscled shoulder into the bend of the leg while grasping the ankle and planted foot.  After a sharp snap like a tree limb in the wind Conn rolled free and the guard lay on the ground clutching below his knee at the leg bone sticking through.  His screams filled the early morning.  A few quick steps and Conn collected the man’s hastily dropped blade and plunged it into his neck, ending the agony.
Conn turned to Juma.  “Old man, what’s taking you so long?”
“A moment, young king,” Juma said between great, gulping inhalations.  “This one is growing tiresome.”  Positioned against the man’s back, legs wrapped around the armor of his torso, Juma bent to asphyxiating his prey with the powerful, corded lengths of his arms.  “And before I tire, I want him dead.”
Moments later the man’s body gave one last great seizure and sagged limply against Juma’s chest.  Sighing, the Kushite rolled the corpse from atop him and looked up at Conn.  “Always more satisfying to kill a man with your bare hands,” Juma said.  “But it used to be much less exhausting.”
“Come on then, gather his sword and see if this armor fits,” Conn said.  “The scouts they’ve set check in regularly.”
“Somehow I don’t think this armor will change the color of my skin, young hero,” Juma said.  “Doesn’t appear like the Sons have anything but the palest blood in their number.”
“Agreed,” Conn said.  “But all we need is the appearance from a distance.  We’ll strip these two and rub that one down with mud from over there and throw them in the cage.  It’ll never stand inspection but we need them near enough to close the distance on bows.”
Soon, Conn sat beside Juma on the wagon’s bench and snapped the reins of the draft horses.
“This armor smells like terrible medicine,” Juma said, sniffing at his chest.
“Agreed,” Conn said, laughing.  “But at least they grow large wherever they come from.  If we’d been taken by the damned Picts I doubt I could have fit a gauntlet.”
“I would imagine,” Juma said, “having done this with your father a few times, that the next part of your plan is to continue on this road until something happens and then we’ll make up the next bit once we’re there?”
Conn smiled.  “You read my mind.”
“Like your plan this morning,” Juma said.  “That was a good one.  Once he opens the door, jump out and kill him.  Short and to the point.  It was easy to remember, at least.”
“Father always said the best plans were simple,” Conn said.
Conn concentrated on keeping the wagon on the road.  Juma scanned the horizon and kept turning to check behind them.
“Young lord,” Juma said, after a time.  “There’s a man on horseback up ahead in the rising sun.  Maybe a ten minute ride.  Probably his partner with him somewhere.  I’d also wager the trailing pair is behind us at the same distance, but I won’t see them until more light comes.”
“There’s a blanket underneath us,” Conn said.  “I’d wrap it around you for the moment.  It might buy us a few seconds until they figure out we’re not their chalk-faced compatriots.”
“That plan we talked about making up,” Juma said.  “I imagine it’s something like let them get close enough and skewer them like suckling pigs?”
Conn nodded.  “That’s about all I’ve come up with.”
Ahead, the lead soldier approached.  Like all these Sons of Aryas they had met, he was pale of skin, with light hair falling from his metal cap.  Juma tried to shrink into himself on the wagon’s bench and wrapped the blanket tight around his head and shoulders.  Conn shielded his eyes, partially because of the new sun, but also to obscure his face.  The soldier rode toward them and Conn noted the sheathed weapons and loaded crossbow hanging from the saddle.
“Ho, Gunnar,” the rider said to Conn and Juma.  “Have you grown weary cutting down these yellow bastards of Khitai?  Damn tiring work, but satisfying.  What say you, Brother Albrek?  Have you taken chill in the morning…”  The soldier’s voice trailed off as he rode within a few lengths of the wagon.  Perhaps it was the way the pair carried themselves.  Perhaps it was some expected signal that had been missed.  Perhaps it was Conn’s long black locks resting in tangles on his armor.  Whatever the clue, whatever the tip, the man’s eyes went wide and he immediately reached for the loaded crossbow by his knee.
Conn sprang off the bench and sprinted up and over the back of the draft horse nearest to him.  As his foot planted hard on the nag’s head the beast rose up with a high-pitched squeal and launched Conn into the air across the gap onto the rider.  He had found his crossbow and was swinging it upward to fire when Conn’s body crashed into him, sending both men over the saddle and tumbling to the ground.  Before the enemy could gather his wits Conn was upon him, straddling his chest and pressing two powerful thumbs into the man’s eyes.  Behind him, Conn was vaguely aware of a vibrating thunk hitting the side of the wagon.
“Here comes the other one,” Juma said, jumping from his seat to use the wagon as a shield.  The ground began to thrum with the beat of horse hooves as the second scout approached behind a barrage of crossbow quarrels.
The soldier beneath Conn screamed and clawed at the Aquilonian’s grip to little effect.  Conn’s thumbs sunk deeply into the man’s eye sockets and blood poured down over his cheeks.  In a few moments, the pale body stopped writhing just as another quarrel landed close enough to Conn’s leg that he could feel its pass.
“Could be worse, he could be a good shot,” Juma said.
Conn scrambled on hands and feet behind the horses, using their bulk for protection.  “Swords out and use the wagon best we can,” he said.
“And what did you think I was doing?” Juma said.
In moments the second rider would be close enough to chase them around the wagon and that was a cat-and-mouse game the pair knew they would lose.  Conn’s thoughts raced.  They would have to use the underside of the wagon.  He would have to try and leap out between shots and recover the crossbow from the rider he had killed.  He would try and-
“Your highness,” Juma said, eyes fixed past Conn and up into the sky.
“What man?” Conn said.
“I think that white devil and his crossbow are about to be the least of our worries,” Juma said.
“What?”  Conn turned and tracked Juma’s eyes, looking up to the east.  At first the Aquilonian king didn’t understand what his companion was staring at, but then he saw the pinpoint ball of fire grow larger and larger as it approached through the downside of a towering arc.  It came off its zenith in the far heavens and bent to descend on a course that Conn found suddenly unappealing.
“You must be joking.”  These were Conn’s last words before the fireball crashed in the field between the wagon and the enemy rider circling towards them.  All was flames and smoke and thunder and fury as the explosion sent the world around it spinning into chaos.
Conn’s mind fled into blackness once again with a last fleeting thought that he was growing tired of the gods’ surprises.

Chapter 7 History

Conan walked beside the old man, Denn, through the bright green undergrowth and lush fronds of the unchartered island.  Unchartered to the Cimmerian, anyway.  The now boat-less captain arranged his men with scouts to the flanks and rear, but he had little hope untrained sailors could move through the woodlands with anything approaching stealth.
“Let’s start with the basics,” Conan said to Denn as they picked their way through the flora.  “Who rules here?  Salt Island.  Nord.  You said these names.  They mean nothing to us back east across the ocean.”
“If history is any guide,” Denn said, “they will mean something to you.  Years ago, many years ago as I think on it, when I was a boy, this island was known simply as Carib.  Then He Who Has Risen, well, I guess he risen.”  Denn laughed at his jest, enjoying the chance at a conversation to interrupt his solitary life.  “Him and his Sons.  Brothers, they call themselves, when I hear them talk down at the market.  They marched up and down the mainlands to the west of us, the two lands of Nord, the ones I told you about.  Then they took the island chains out here and this island because, well of course they took this island.  Who was here but fisherfolk like me?  What were we to do?  They razed our village shelter and built their fort.  And then it was called Salt.  Just like that.  Changed the name.  Our history no longer mattered.  We didn’t mean nothing.”
“Do they send regular patrols to you?” Conan said.  “Scouts around the island in any pattern?”
Denn shook his head.  “None that I can tell.  Nothing’s happened around here for years that I know of.”
Conan looked puzzled.  “Yet, we approached this island from the east and in what felt like a breath one of their ships attacked us.”
Denn shrugged.  “They run boats around the island for training, I think.  Could have just been bad luck.”
“That’s the only luck I’ve had lately,” Conan said.  “Continue on.”
“I’m left alone for the most part on my side of the island,” Denn said.  “Not good water for their big ships, they draw too deep, but good for my fish, see what I’m saying.  I mean, I guess, I do see soldiers occasionally.  Honestly. I thought you and this noisy lot were a party from the fort, on some fool’s errand.”  Denn looked around.  “Gods, these men are loud.  I’m amazed they don’t wake the dead with their tramping.”
Conan grimaced, conceding the point.
“So every day or so,” Denn said, “I take my tribute to the village, my tax they call it, in His name.  And then I trade what little I have left.  I return at night and that is my life, Conan, if that is your name.”
“It is,” Conan said.  “He.  You keep saying he.  He and his sons.  Him.  His.  Brothers.  What is this?  Give me a name, man.”
“Aryas,” Denn said. “Aryas sends his Sons.  The ship you and your men fought.  They are the Sons of Aryas.”
“You saw our battle?” Conan said.  “Our ship ram that damned ghost of a captain to the bottom?”
“I would be a poor fisherman if I did not watch the ocean,” Denn said.
Conan fell silent, thinking.
After a time Denn said, “Their Brothers will miss them soon, those sailors on that ship, if they haven’t already.  We could be walking to our death.  I’d say we most likely are.”
“Yet you walk with us?” Conan said.
Denn turned to face Conan.  “I’ve told you my life as it has been and as it is.  Maybe I tire of it.”
Conan spoke carefully, so that only Denn could hear.  “We are past all that we know, old man.  Let me tell you something.  Out there, on that ocean, there’s an island chain thousands of leagues from our home.  The Antillians some call them, beyond the western borders of most of our maps.  They’re a myth, almost every sailor will tell you.  But I’ve seen them.  I’ve been there.  Hell, I thought I’d been everywhere until now.  And let me tell you something else.  I was careful to sail past those islands when we neared them I don’t know how many moons ago.  Because I feared these men would never go past lands they already thought nothing more than a tavern tale.  After all, who sails past the ends of the world?  If these men knew the lengths I’ve gone getting here…”  Conan’s voice trailed off.  “But I knew in my bones the Antillians weren’t what I was after.  I knew that.  I had to push us beyond the limits of every place.  That sage I mentioned, the one that told me about this world being round, he also told me about big lands, to the west of us, past the ocean.  Mayapan he said was the name.  Maybe all of this is that.  Or maybe it isn’t.  I’ve never heard of Carib, or Salt, or Nord.  Nothing.  Not a bit.  Aryas?  The name means nothing to me.  But I know we’re supposed to be here.  I’m supposed to be here, at least.”
“How do you know you’re supposed to be here?” Denn said.
“Because I’ve dreamed it every night for the past year,” Conan said.
Denn looked the barbarian up and down.  “You’re crazier than you look.”
“You don’t know the half of it.”
“Listen,” Denn said.  “A lot of these names we’re talking about, they meant nothing to my parents, they meant nothing to me, once.  Now they mean everything.  Understand that Aryas and his Sons rule everything you see.  The mainlands, west of here, they were once known as Kashia and Abenake.  The names meant People of the Top and the Land of Dawn in the old tongue.  Then Aryas came.  He unleashed his children and their war machines.  It was like nothing you’ve ever seen.  The native peoples, my cousins, family I had, they fell before the sword and the fire.  His godfire, they call it.  The Sons decimated villages, town and cities, all in their path, burnt everything right down to the dirt.  The kings of old went before Aryas on their knees, swore their loyalty.  He killed them anyway.  Anyone who might oppose him.  He enslaved the rest, forced them to rebuild their towns to his liking.  Made his Sons and Daughters lords and ladies of the realm.  I hear tell of other things now, at night, when the fishmongers talk amongst themselves.  My family is mostly gone now, from what I know, I’m so meaningless here on this little island that they don’t even bother with me.  They just want my fish.”
“Who is this Aryas?” Conan said.  “Where did he come from?”
“Who knows?” Denn said.  “Legends, whispers.  A simple soldier, with dark magic, and darker words.  It doesn’t matter, I guess.  He controls all you see.”
“Listen, on the boat we took.  The one you saw us sink.  In the hold were men, the galley slaves, men acting unlike any I’ve ever seen but familiar all the same.  I swear some looked Darfarian to me, like some race I should know from my own lands.  They didn’t speak and they had eyes like the dolls merchants sell for children.  Blank, you see?  But they listened.  They did listen to me when I told them to do things.  And when you didn’t tell them to do things, they just did nothing.  Does this make sense to you?”
Denn nodded.  “That’s another tale.  Right now I think we should pay attention to our path.”
Conan grunted.  “How much longer to the fort?”
“Maybe we should stop now,” Denn said.  “These men are like bells ringing.  Maybe it’s best if you and I move forward alone.”
Conan stared at Denn, the Cimmerian’s ice blue eyes narrow and serious.  “I like you old man, for whatever reason.  But if you are leading us into a trap understand you die first.”
“Of that I have no doubt,” Denn said.
Conan gestured to Botali Kadiro and Troffo on the flanks to stop advancing and collapse the formation.  “The old man and I will scout ahead,” Conan said.  “Kadiro, arrange the men defensively and keep them quiet and out of sight.  They’re like a herd of elephants.  I’m amazed we’re not already under attack.”
Conan turned to Denn.  “Come on old man, lead me to this enemy.”
A few hundred paces ahead Conan saw blue sky marking an end to the green canopy overhead.  The pair walked out of the shadows cast by the last tall trees and came to a cliff’s edge.  The sea lay stretched before them.  Below the cliff, rough timbers outlined the square of a fort containing a few low buildings and a central, round tower that overlooked the ocean.  The fort held stables and what looked like barracks.  Outside the walls, a small town center with row houses and shops lead down to the wharf area.  There at the docks sat two black warships strikingly similar to the boat he had just sent to the sea floor.  The ships rocked gently on light waves, tied securely to large iron cleats.  A general sense of routine motion permeated the small village.  Conan smiled with satisfaction there appeared little more than the normal course of business.
“Seems like even with your elephants and sea battles no one’s the wiser,” Denn said.
“Aye,” Conan said.  “But what’s that in the courtyard?”
Years of seafaring had kept the old man’s eyes sharp.  “Looks like a girl, tied to a stake.  Been through it, looks to me.”
More woman than girl, Conan mused to himself.  But there was something amazingly familiar about her form.  Long, straight black hair hung over and obscured her face but something about the way she occasionally flexed and twisted her ivory limbs against the bonds transfixed the barbarian.  “Do you know who that is?” he said.
“No,” Denn said.  “But one of those boats docked last night when I was at market.  A ship full of captured pirates was the scuttlebutt in the village.”
“Pirates?” Conan said.  “So this Aryas isn’t master of everything I see?”
Denn smiled.  “Well, there’s always flies in the soup, right?”
Conan nodded.  “In my experience, old man, even gods have weaknesses.  Wizards bleed.  Demons die.  It always amazes me how a good blade and some strength can kill an immortal.”
“Maybe,” Denn said.  “I’ve never seen a god or a wizard die, but I imagine I can die.  So I might be getting tired of my life but is there a plan you’re following here?”
“Patience old man,” Conan said.  “There’s never a plan until you need one.  Now what’s happening?”
In the courtyard, two soldiers in leather armor trailed a man that was maybe their captain, or lieutenant, clearly someone above them.  He strode to the female prisoner and began to question her with each query punctuated by a slap to the side of her head.  Conan could hear the short, sharp barks but distance and echoes prevented him from understanding anything.
“She won’t last long with that kind of treatment,” Denn said.
“No.  She won’t,” Conan said. 
“Those are your Sons of Aryas,” Denn said.  “And I’m thinking that tied-up lass won’t be the first you’ve tried to rescue.”
“No,” Conan said.  “She won’t.”
“Well,” Denn said, “I’m thinking we should get your men and figure something out, right?  Conan?  Conan?”
But the Cimmerian wasn’t listening.  The commander in the courtyard had grabbed a handful of the woman’s long black hair and pulled it back to scream into her face.  Conan stared intently from his perch hundreds of feet above.
“Conan?” Denn said.  “What is it, man?”
Conan spoke but his eyes never wavered from the scene in the fort.  “It’s something that cannot be, old man.  It’s someone that cannot be.”
“What do you mean?”
“There is more dark magic here than you ever imagined, old man.  My eyes lie to me or this is an unnatural thing.”
“Let’s go, Conan,” Denn said.
“Yes, yes,” Conan said.  “We’ll grab the men, but we’re coming back.”
Conan crawled backward from the cliff’s edge and turned with Denn to make his way back to the Siren’s crew.  After only a few steps he looked up through the foliage and saw the body of Troffo the sailor, hanging by a snare around his ankle, his throat spilling blood onto the undergrowth below.  Two more steps and he could see the pale white faces of soldiers rising from the undergrowth, holding blades to the throats of his dusky crew of sea dogs.  The large white devil with his dirk to Botali Kadiro’s throat addressed the barbarian.
“Welcome to Salt Island.  I assume you are the captain of this mongrel band.  And I see you’ve made a friend with one of our natives.”
“Aye,” Conan said.

Chapter 8 Corpse

The throbbing headache woke Conn.
“This is the last time these Set-cursed Sons knock me from my senses,” Conn said, grabbing his head.  “I swear to that.”
As his eyes opened he met the lifeless stare of one of the wagon’s draft horses, the horse he had tried to use as a shield.  Conn remembered nothing after the flaming fireball of destruction descended through the early morning sky and laid waste to the field.  Slowly and painfully propping his body up on an elbow, the young king looked past the nag’s corpse to see if Juma was still alive.  Where they had battled was little more than a smoking crater, but he could make out bits of wood and metal where pieces of the wagon had been blown to rest.  On the far side of the wreckage he thought he could make out the lower half of the second horse’s body and what looked to be the lifeless body of Juma.  There was no sign of the pale soldier on horseback and his crossbow, and Conn expected as much.  That ball of flame had landed uncomfortably close to the man.
With the ringing noise in Conn’s ear he felt more than heard the steady pounding of hooves.  From the east, the direction he and Juma had been traveling, he could see cloud dust rising against the sun and the silhouettes of mounted men materializing in the light.  Conn glanced around and by sheer luck his sword had landed near him.  He was in no condition to fight an armed company of horsemen and could feel the unsteadiness in his legs.  After a resigned exhale he remained prone on the ground and brought the point of his sword to the horse’s flesh and cut the belly from chest to groin.  The drumbeat of hooves grew closer but after a few minutes of sawing the barrel of the beast lay exposed and the offal and viscera began to pour out onto him.  Conn snapped a few of the ribs with his hands.  He took one last great gasp of clean air and began to work his body inside the corpse of the horse.  Given his great frame it was a gift from Mitra these Sons of Aryas favored exceptionally large draft horses.
Trapped inside the horse flesh, fighting nausea and gasping for any little pockets of air, Conn could feel the vibrations from the riders’ approach.  There were muffled shouts and commands in what sounded like the common tongue.  These men spoke the common tongue of the Western lands?  This had somehow registered in the back of his mind during captivity.  How did they speak our language and we did not know of them?  Now he could feel heavy footsteps approaching.  There was more shouting and questions asked and he could make out at least two men circling his position, no doubt looking for more bodies or survivors.  He tensed, waiting for the sword thrusts to pierce his skin, but all remained still inside the horse’s corpse and the thudding of footsteps receded from him.  Soon he felt and heard the group ride away, the vibrations and sounds gradually fading off to the east.
Unable to further stand the wretched air and sticky slime inside the corpse, Conn rolled his body toward the belly slit and shook himself free of horse flesh.  He knelt on the ground retching between great gulps of air for some time, uncaring if the enemy had left a contingent behind to search for stragglers.  After many minutes, covered in blood and entrails, the Aquilonian king looked up coughing to examine his surroundings.  Smoke still rose from the ground in spots super-heated by the fireball, but all was still.  The one change he noted was the missing body of Juma, presumably just removed by the departed group.
“It’s going to be a long and terrible day,” Conn said to no one in particular.  “I’ve never missed the bathing room in the palace so much.”
And with that, Conn wiped what slick he could from his skin, picked up his sword, and began walking in the direction of the sun.

Chapter 9 Dungeon

“I thought Troffo was a good man, Zingaran or not,” Botali Kadiro said, shifting uncomfortably.
“I thought so, too,” Conan said.  “We’ll make sure to right the scales for that one.”
The sailors of the Sea Siren sat in chains on benches in the dim light of a crowded dungeon cell.  The moss-lined walls echoed grunts and sniffles and the sounds of booted feet sliding in the brackish water covering the floor.  
Before, in the moments after Conan and Denn had returned to the group, the pale-faced soldiers, the Sons of Aryas, had taken their weapons, cut down the body of Troffo, and then lead the crew down a winding path to the fort.  In short order, and oddly with no questions, Conan and his men found themselves shackled underground in this dark square of a prison.  The odds on the cliff had been bad for his men, against a well-armed force showing good tactics to his trained eye.  Better to keep as many alive as he could and wait for a fair chance.
“I’m amazed they took the time to build a dungeon,” Denn said, looking around.  “You always hear tales of them in the stories.  Never thought I’d be in one.”
“Seems like I’ve been in more than my share, but they all generally look the same,” Conan said.  “Can’t say I’ve liked one of them.”
“So now do you have a plan?” Denn said from his seat in the gloom.
Conan grunted.  “Working on it old man.  I was thinking of using your skull to batter down the door over there.”
“Do you know anything about these white warriors?” Botali said.
“Aye,” Conan said to the crew as a whole.  “Thanks to our native guide here I’ve learned some things.  Sons of Aryas, as they’re called in this part of the world.  Soldiers in an army of a mad fool called Aryas, some petty king that fancies himself a god from what I can gather.  They run this island now, as you can see, and all the lands west of here from what the old man tells me.  I could see this fort from up above, when I was up on the cliff.  Looks well defended, the men I saw trained and disciplined.  Good arms and armor.  They have a fire, like we saw back on the ship, burns fast and spreads faster.  ‘Godfire,’ is that what you called it?  When you add it all up I didn’t give us much of a chance back there with no plan in a pitched battle without bad losses.  We need better weapons and armor and a little surprise on our side.  We’ll address that in short order.”
“How?” a sailor said.
The Cimmerian turned to the sailor, a Barachan named Ting.  “As long as we breathe there is the chance to fight.  There is a way out of this.”
Conan studied the cuffs around his wrists and carefully weighed the thick chains hanging from the shackles.  The sturdy iron links connected to a metal ring set into one of the cobblestone rectangles in the floor.
“Kadiro,” Conan said, “can you get enough slack to listen at the door and get a view out of that grate?”
“I think so,” Botali said, moving.  “Yes.  Why?  What are you doing?”
“What does it look like?” Conan said, rising off the bench and planting his boots to either side of the ring.  “They never sink these things as deep as they should.”
“That’s the plan?” Denn said.  “Pull the chain out of the ground?”
“The best plans are simple, old man,” Conan said.
The massive Cimmerian squatted over the ring and roped the iron links over his fists.  Bending low he took several long, deep breaths and focused his eyes on the far wall to a point only he could see.  After a long, slow inhale the slabs of his thigh muscles popped and separated and the veins of his neck and forearms bulged.  Conan strained upward, never breathing out, face turning a deep crimson.  For several seconds no result appeared from this massive apparent effort.  Moments ticked by and the crew held their breath as their captain’s skin grew darker in the dim light.  Finally, the grinding, halting rumble of stone sliding against stone filled the dungeon cell.  The ring and the block it was secured to slowly rose out of the floor and with one last grunt cleared its setting and landed with a pop beside the now gasping barbarian.
“I’m not sure I would believe that if I hadn’t seen it,” Botali said.  “I didn’t think a normal man could do that.”
Conan was sat back on the bench breathing heavily, trying his best to conceal how much the effort had cost him.  “A normal man, no.  A Cimmerian?  My grandfather would laugh that it took me so long.  My father would have beat me.”
“What now?” Denn said.
Botali raised a hand, snapping his chain taught.  “Whatever it is, think quickly.  I hear footsteps approaching.”
Conan looked around at his men.  “Don’t do anything until I do.  We’ll see how many of the dead men there are.”
The crew sunk into the benches, backs pressed against the wall.  Conan maneuvered the loose block behind his calves and placed his large booted feet over the hole in the cell’s floor.  He hunched forward, head down, hands wrapped tightly around his chains.
A loud clunk signaled a key turning and the thick wood of the dungeon door swung open.  Conan thought the two soldiers that stepped in with torches might have been the same two trailing the superior in the courtyard, but with these pale blonde bastards who could really tell?
“We only need one to start talking,” the first of the two said as he surveyed the downcast faces in the torchlight, “and we do have our ways.  Who will it be?  Not you, big man.  You’re our reward at the end of this.  And I rather not touch the rest of you dirt-skinned animals.  No, I think we’ll start closer to home.  The old man of our island.”  The tall soldier in chain mail turned to Denn.  “I’ve seen you in town, at the fishmongers, hawking your catch.  You never struck me as one brave enough to betray us, but then, one never knows what mongrels are capable of.”
The first soldier stepped to Denn and motioned for him to extend his arms.  The second stepped into the cell and waved a sword point at his prisoners.  “Move and I’ll run you through,” he said.  He stood a few feet from the quiet barbarian.
As the lead guard bent to Denn’s shackles Conan exploded off the cell bench and with a great heave cast the stone block beneath him into the chest of the second guard.  The man collapsed under the brute force of the impact and dropped his sword to land near the foot of Botali.  Conan’s arms spun out and looped his chains around the neck of the soldier kneeling by Denn as the man struggled to rise in stunned surprise.  Knees braced against the guard’s torso, weight bearing down on him, the captain of the Sea Siren pulled on the iron links.  With bulging eyes and a last gurgling spit, the Son of Aryas gasped, and an audible crunch of bone signaled his neck had broken.
Botali, for his part, grabbed the second guard’s sword and buried it in the fallen soldier’s exposed throat before he could recover.
Conan took the keys lying on the floor and with a twist dropped his shackles loose.  He tossed the keys over to his first mate and with a wink said, “Best plans are simple.”  Taking up the remaining blade he stood in the cell doorway while his men freed themselves.
“Do you remember the way out of here?” Botali said.
“Don’t you?” Conan said.
“Not entirely,” Botali said.  “It’s my first dungeon.  A left then a right?  Stairs?”
Conan shook his head.  “Left, left, right, stairs.  Remind me not to let you navigate.”
“We don’t even have a ship anymore.”
“That’s next.”  Conan turned to his men, dropping his voice to a whisper.  “Listen close you dogs.  We passed an armory on the way in so we’re getting weapons on the way out.  Single file behind me, Kadiro is the rear guard.  No noise if you value your lives.”
The crew crept out slowly from the cell, Conan in the lead.  Torchlight intermittently broke up the gloom of the stone-lined corridor and Conan was pleased his men seemed a bit quieter than in the jungle undergrowth.  Occasionally he could feel the vibration of horses and wagon wheels from above but otherwise the dungeon beneath the keep was still.  Turning into a new corridor, Conan paused near a closed door while the trailing line caught up.  He took a moment and gathered himself and casually glanced through the small barred window set in the door.  Inside was another prison cell, and on a bench lying motionless was a woman with long, black hair covering her face.  An itch crept over the back of the barbarian’s neck and he swallowed deeply.
Conan raised a fist to tell his men to stop and gestured for the keys they had taken.  He turned the lock and opened the door as quietly as possible, remembering a light touch from the thieving days of his youth.  He crept into the cell alone and knelt beside the prone female figure.  The Cimmerian took a deep breath and fought back his innate fear of dark magic.  He gently brushed the woman’s jet-black hair aside and stared into an ivory-white face with dark eyes fiercely returning his gaze.
“You’re an idiot, Amra,” Bêlit said.

Chapter 10 Long Walk

“The lush jungles of Khitai.  You will not believe Khitai,” Conn said aloud, walking along the dirt road, continuing his conversation with no one in particular.
Conn had always wanted to visit Khitai, if this interminable hellscape he walked through was still Khitai.  He had sat at his father’s knee many a night and listened to stories of exotic creatures, fearsomely fast warriors and beguiling women, all set in the steaming green tangles of this myth-shrouded land.  Conn had spent hours of his childhood night running through the palace gardens with a wooden sword, hiding in oversized ferns, jumping out at tigers and elephants and all manner of creatures he imagined meeting on a jungle expedition through fabled Khitai.  They were good memories.
Now, finally seeing Khitai in the flesh, Conn found nothing lush.  There was no green.  Maybe it had been green once.  Maybe this dirt path he had walked along for days had once been a jungle road, encroached on and shrouded by mysterious, leafy plants.  Maybe just a few short months ago all of his father’s stories were true, and a sleek black panther would be marking his trail.  But that had passed.  All he could see now were charred stumps and burned pits, and dry, arid land to the limit of his vision.  If this was now the look of all Khitai or some small part he could not say, but something had scrubbed where he walked clean of life and color.  He had a suspicion the bastard Sons of Aryas were the cause, with swarms of the demon fireballs that had destroyed his wagon.  Yet, sad as Conn was that all his dreams of this land were dashed, he’d trade all his good memories for one damned drink of water.
Because nothing living seemed to haunt this new Khitai.  Conn had seen neither bird nor beast as the hot sun rose high overhead.  His cracked lips smacked together as he dragged one foot after another toward whatever this desert land had in store for him.  For want of a better plan he had set off after the men that took Juma’s body, towards the direction they had been traveling before the attack.  Conn understood the map, he was many countries and many thousand leagues from his home in Aquilonia.  Ahead was just as good an idea as back.
“Water.  Water would be nice,” Conn said, to round out the conversation.  “Any water.  Should have taken the damn slop in the bucket after we killed the guards.”
Conn trudged up a steep slope, staring at the crest.  The pounding of blood in his head was beginning to worry him as it felt like all he could hear was the buildup of pressure in his skull.  He wondered if each step would be his last and how funny it would be if fabled Khitai were his resting place.  His father would have appreciated that with a loud roar.  “Always wanted to see it, didn’t you boy?” Conan would say.  Where was his father?  Why had he left so soon after his mother died?  What part of the world claimed the final resting place of King Conan of Aquilonia?  Now that was sure to be a tale.  If only he could hear it.
As Conn reached the top of the hill he felt his right leg buckle and he fell to his knees.  For long moments he stared at the scorched earth on shaking hands and thought about what it would take to rise again.  The blood rushing in his head was unbelievably loud and he cursed Crom, Mitra and gods he had not thought of in years for his fate.  If only he could just.  If only he could just.
“Damn, not this way.  Not this way,” Conn said.
Conn raised up to scream at the sky.  He peered over the hill and in a moment realized the sound in his head wasn’t building pressure, well, maybe some of it had been pressure, but most of it was the steady sound of a waterfall.  A small but still running river flowed down from the next hilltop to spill out over a cliff beneath him and landed further in a glen far below.  Conn looked down and could make out what had once been a large lake, but from the dried, receding shoreline now looked like a fraction of its former size.  No matter, running water was good water, and with a croak and a few lurching steps Conn set off to the river side.
Each step was painful but with salvation in reach he made it to the flowing current and knelt down on the bank to take in great gulps of water.  Laughing to himself he brought handfuls of cool liquid up and over his head, and ran water down his arms, washing away the awful dried flakes of horse blood still covering him.  Conn stepped into the river and knelt to dunk his head, letting the remarkably clean water cover and refresh him.  But there had been many nights without food or rest.  Conn was exhausted and his head swooned with the sudden intake of so much liquid.  He rose and, trying to make his way back to the ashen bank, he slipped on a lichen covered rock and fell back.  Arms flailing for purchase but finding none, the current swiftly took him to the cliff’s edge and beyond.  In a moment he was falling a hundred feet through the air to plunge into the pool below.
Luck and the gods decreed there was enough depth to save Conn from his fall, and ten feet down he wrestled off the leather cuirass he had taken off the slain Son of Aryas.  Why had he kept it on through so much agony?  Managing to keep the sword belted at his side, he labored through a few agonizing swim strokes until he could plant his feet beneath him.  Slowly, painfully, he crawled up through the shallows and collapsed on the dusty outskirts of the lake bed.
Many moments later Conn was roused from his daze by a rough but decidedly feminine voice.
“You Cimmerians certainly know how to make an entrance.”

Chapter 11 Queen

“It’s impossible.”
“It’s apparently very possible.”
Conan was not often stunned but he swayed back on his heels and only preternatural balance kept him from falling over.  The woman in chains before him…her voice, her skin, her eyes, her hair, her movements…every sense told him this was Bêlit.
“I burned you,” Conan said.  “On a river.  Beside a temple.  Decades ago.  I struck the torch to your body.  I watched you burn.  I burned you.”
“I always told you death wouldn’t keep us apart,” Bêlit said.
“And it didn’t,” Conan said.  “I saw your spirit that night.  You saved my life.  But then you went to your rest.  You are not Bêlit.  You are a demon, summoned from hell in her form.”
“I promise you, Amra,” Bêlit said, “I’m no demon.  Not to you at least.  But we’re both here now.  And I imagine you’ve killed a few prison guards along the way.  So it’s only a matter of time before every soldier in this town is alert and screaming for your blood.  This complicates my plan.”  While she spoke Bêlit ran a hand close to her scalp.  Conan watched as she plucked a small black wire from her hair and twisted it into the locks at her wrists.
“Your plan?” Conan said.
“You didn’t think I was waiting in this dungeon for you to save me, did you?” Bêlit said.  “That’s for the weak blonde maidens that keep falling into your bed.  I had a plan to have these fools bring me to Aryas himself, but I know you’ll cause too much chaos for that to still work.”  She let the chains fall from her wrists and they collapsed to the floor with soft metal clinks.  “By the way, have you seen yourself?  When did you get so old?”
“You haven’t aged a moment,” Conan said.
Botali Kadiro stood behind Conan and looked at the pale-skinned brunette.  “Is everything all right, Captain?” Botali said.  “Is this woman friend or foe?”
“Damned if I know, Kadiro,” Conan said.
“The years have dulled your mind as well as your hair,” Bêlit said.  “We’ve moments to arm ourselves and carry the attack to the enemy before this is discovered.  And yet you stand here squawking like a washer woman.  Who are you?”  The question was directed to Botali.
“I’m first mate aboard the Sea Siren.”
“And where is this boat?”
“The ocean floor, now,” Botali said.  “Who are you again?”
“The one taking charge, as loss of a shup means you apparently need a competent captain,” Bêlit said.  “Filter word back to your crew I see standing in that hallway like so many bilge rats.  There’s an armory I passed on the way into this hole and we’ve got to get to it.  Single file, you’ve got a blade so you’ll be with me in the van.  Post a trusted man to the rearguard.”
Botali looked to Conan who broke away from staring at Bêlit long enough to respond.  “Do as she says, it was our plan, anyway.”
Botali turned to issue his commands and as Bêlit made to follow, Conan grabbed her upper arm roughly.  “I don’t know what you’re playing at demon,” he said.  “But you’re smart enough to know I won’t kill you while you wear her form.  Not yet anyway.”
Bêlit looked down at the huge hand encircling her arm.  “I’ll let you pull that hand back, Cimmerian, because of all we once shared.  But I care little for your concerns.  My task is Aryas, and not even you can stop me.”
“Aryas,” Conan said.  “The Sons of Aryas.  What do you know?”
“Maybe we can share these things later,” Bêlit said.  “Right now there are men to kill.”
Conan opened his hand and she was gone through the door.  He and Botali soon followed with the crew behind them as they walked the hallways with Bêlit in the lead.  She hugged each corner as a scout and motioned them forward.  Soon they were at the armory door and Bêlit was once again worrying the lock with her black wire.  The door opened and within moments the men of the Sea Siren and the strange woman with ivory skin were armed and considering plans.
“It makes sense to me,” Bêlit said, “to maintain the element of surprise as long as we can.  Guards here are dead, right?  Someone will come looking for them on a watch shift, and if my guess of time is correct night’s falling so that should be imminent.  We ambush and remove a few more of their number and make our way to the top.  It’ll still be dark.  The layout of the keep has the port due west, but the main gate is also west and with the most guards.  So I think we make for the stable beneath the northern wall and use the roof to gain the parapet.  By that time I can’t imagine the whole fort won’t be in arms so we’re going to have to drop down and make our way to the ships.  A fight every step I imagine.  That’s how I see it.”
“First part of the plan works,” Conan said, “but we’ll be cut to ribbons on the fight through the town.  And even if we make it to the docks there’s rigging and casting off, all while we’re trying to fight these damned Sons.  And they clearly have some training.  No, it’ll never work.”
“Well what then?” Bêlit said.  Every head in the crew pivoted from left to right, following the debate.
“We’re going to turn these bastards own weapons against them,” Conan said.  “The fort walls look to be mature timber and I’m thinking a bonfire will be just the distraction we need for the last part of the plan.”
“And how will we do that?” Bêlit said.
“Watch and learn, Queen of the Black Coast, if that’s who you are.  Watch and learn.”

Chapter 12 Pirate

“Who the hell are you?” Conn said.
“Not quite an old friend, but close enough,” the woman said, standing on the dry, scorched earth of the shoreline.
Conn raised a hand to shield his eyes.  The reflection from the woman’s plate armor was blinding but he could make out a tangle of blonde hair.
“How do you know I’m Cimmerian?” Conn said.
“You would give away that information without a challenge?” she said.
“I’m too damn tired to care at the moment,” Conn said.  “If it’s a fight you want then get on with it.”
“I don’t wish to fight you, King of Aquilonia,” she said.
“Again, you know me.  Who are you?”
“I’m Valeria.  Once of the Red Brotherhood.  And a fellow Aquilonian.  I knew your father many, many years ago.”
“You lie,” Conn said.
“Do I?” Valeria said.
“I’ve heard all my father’s tales,” Conn said, rising slowly on unsteady legs.  “He did fight and sail with a Valeria of the Red Brotherhood, but that was tens of years ago and everyone knows she went down with her ship on the Vilayet Sea.  That’s a story every fool knows.  And even if she had survived, ‘Valeria’ would be a grey crone now.  You can’t be much older than I.”
“Crone and grey, I take exception to both,” Valeria said.  “But I am who I claim.  I cannot speak to my years.  I remember the battle on the Vilayet you speak of.  Then I remember here.  I’ve been wandering this land for weeks.  This was green once.  Then there was a battle.  It was a slaughter.”
“The Khitai archers, their infantry, I didn’t believe they could be surprised like this,” Conn said.
“They weren’t surprised,” Valeria said.  “From what I could tell, anyway.  All the tricks of Khitai couldn’t save the men who fought here.  They faced demon fire that would not stop.  The enemy stood just beyond the horizon and slaughtered everyone.”
“Sons of Aryas?” Conn said.
Valeria nodded, eyes focused on the cliffs above, scanning for movement.
“All of Khitai is like this now?” Conn said.
“No.  Where there was battle it looks like this.  There is still green in places the Sons haven’t visited.”
Conn shook his head.  “Towns?  The populace?  Resistance?”
“Every village I’ve passed has been razed,” Valeria said.  “I guess the Sons surrounded them, burned them with their fire, and killed every survivor they could find.  They are scouring the land clean, it would seem.  And they’re rebuilding, too.”
“What do you mean?” Conn said.
“There are trains of supplies and material from the east,” Valeria said.  “Fair-skinned, light-haired Sons in charge.  Gods, they all look the same.  I’ve seen the encampments.  After the soldiers scour an area I see trains come in and then there’s building.  It’s like they are trying to erase the world to rebuild it.  And they bring slaves with them.  Masses of darker-skinned slaves stacking stones, moving earth, whatever is needed.”
“Khitain slaves?” Conn said.
“Slaves from everywhere, it would seem.”  Valeria paused.  “All colors of skin when I think on it.  And all like sheep, from what I’ve seen.  No chains, no whips.  They just do as they’re told.”
“Maybe that’s why our scouts and emissaries never returned to Aquilonia,” Conn said.  “The east has been a cypher for months.  Too long without action.  Snakes in our own grass.  We were naïve.  I imagine Aquilonia has fallen.”
“I don’t know,” Valeria said.  “But I do know its best we not tarry.”
“We?” Conn said.  “You still haven’t answered who you are.  Because you are not Valeria.”
“I believe I am Valeria, Conn, son of Conan,” Valeria said.  “And even if I’m not it would seem two blades in this hell are better than one.”
Conn grunted.  “Granted, providing on the blades isn’t treacherous.  So where do you suggest we go?”
“Seems like you were heading east,” Valeria said.  “These devils are coming from the east.  I always say head straight for the trouble.”
They began walking together.  Conn kept a few paces of safety between them.
“Food would be good,” Conn said.
“Not much game left,” Valeria said, “but I’ve caught a few rats.”
“What do you know of Aryas?”
“Nothing.  Except I know he has to die.”
They kept walking.
“How did you know it was me?” Conn said.  “Back there, by the lake.”
“I’d heard the stories of your birth,” Valeria said.  “And you laid there long enough.  You’re a wizard image of your father, Conn.  Maybe a bit taller, not as thick.  Not as scarred.”  She turned to appraise Conn.  “And now that I see you awake maybe your eyes don’t have that same brooding.  But you are him.”
“My mother would often tell me the same.”
“Where is your father, Conn?” Valeria said after another pause.  “Where is Conan?  Is he still alive?”
“You’re the second person to ask me that lately,” Conn said.  “And I give you the same honest answer.  I have no idea.”

Chapter 13 Flames

Bêlit laughed madly as her scimitar sliced through a man’s elbow.  “I always forget how good this feels.”
Bêlit and Conan fought back to back along the parapet before the guard tower.  She with joyous, flashing eyes and a wickedly fast blade that carved around mail and shield.  He with bellows and a blade and axe that bludgeoned away challengers’ defenses.
“Watch the spearmen in the courtyard,” Conan said to her.
“See them,” Bêlit said.
“Kadiro,” Conan said, swinging his axe through the neck of a Son and spinning his head off into the night.  “Take your men and get in that tower.  We’ll hold this.”
“That time we attacked the sea fort in Messantia,” Bêlit said, ducking under the hurtling tip of a spear.  “This is just like that.”
“Except no sharks below,” Conan said, cleaving a spear in two headed directly at his chest.  “And only Bêlit would know that.”
“I am Bêlit,” she said and used the ledge of the curtain wall to spring up and over an attacker.  The reborn pirate queen landed behind the man and thrust the point of her blade up and under the back edge of his cuirass.  His blue eyes dimmed wondering where the attack had come from.
Behind them, Botali Kadiro led the remnants of the Sea Siren, now down to a few handfuls of men, into the square wooden gatehouse.  Conan could hear the clash of swords and shouting, and through the open door he saw violent flashes of weapons.
“We’re too exposed,” Conan said.  “Follow Kadiro into the gatehouse.”
Bêlit parried an attack from a guard as he overextended his reach.  With a shove and outstretched foot she sent him flying through the air onto the hard dirt of the bailey below.  She turned and ducked under Conan’s blade and carried on through the open door, screaming oaths as she disappeared from sight.
Conan held off the single file of soldiers running at him on the parapet.  He crossed his weapons and pushed the lead man far enough away to back through the gatehouse door and slam it shut behind him.  The Cimmerian barred the door and adjusted to the torchlight.  He saw the bodies of slain Sons and a few of his own men littered about the interior.  There was a short flight of stairs and above he could hear Bêlit shouting orders.  “Ballista first.  Dip those bolts in that cauldron.  Move faster damn you.”
The pirate queen was moving men about behind the crude battlement of the gatehouse.  The tips of long ballista spears were dunked into the large bronzed braziers of weirdly liquid flame.  The fire, the godfire as the Sons of Aryas called it, was dangerous in unfamiliar hands.  The flames dripped down and ignited the shafts of the bolts.
“Crank the windlass faster.  Move,” Bêlit said, waving her arms at the crew and placing a boot to the backside of one man.  With three of the large crossbow-looking devices ready, she positioned one to fire at the central keep, and the other two to fire at the parapets extending out from the gatehouse.  She swung her sword down and said, “Now,” and three flaming bolts fired and sunk into their targets.  All three ignited the wood of the fort and lit up the night with red, consuming flames.
Conan looked over the inner edge of the wall and saw a group of the Sons gathering in the courtyard below, no doubt readying to storm the gatehouse from the lowest levels.  Dropping his weapons he grabbed two leather jerkins from a pile of weapons and wrapped his hands.  He bent to move one of the braziers against the wall.  In the fire’s dancing shadows the muscles of his arms and legs bulged and strained as brought the cauldron to the curtain wall’s interior.  He gathered himself and pressed the lip of the container up and over and the liquid flame spilled down onto the gate and soldiers below.  A final grunt and the cauldron followed and the screams of the men it fell upon rang out through the clamor.
“Tower doesn’t have long, it’s on fire from below,” he said to Bêlit as she directed another round of attacks.  Heat and flames and the frenzied shouts of men filled the night.
“What’s the next part of this bloody plan?” she said.
“Turn those things around and fire at the ship.  The one on the left,” Conan said.
“The ships?” Bêlit said.  “Are you mad?  We need one of those ships if we’re leaving this rock.”
“That’s why we’re only firing at the one on the left,” Conan said.  “Look how close together they’re moored.  Set the left one ablaze and any sailors standing will rig the one on the right and beat for their lives.  Look around, we don’t have enough men left to get that boat underway while we’re killing these bastards.  Let them do the job for us.”
Bêlit redirected the weapons, her dark eyes focused on the target ship at the port.  Without turning she said to Conan, “So it’s a race to get to that ship before it leaves?”
“You’ve got time for one volley,” Conan said.  “By the look of the central tower they’re getting ready to launch this damned fire right at us.  We’re just close enough that they have to reposition the catapult to hit us.  In a few seconds this will be an inferno.”
“Then fire,” Bêlit screamed at the remaining crew.
The catches clicked and the taught wires twanged and three flaming bolts arced across the night sky over the small main street of the village.  The first landed harmlessly in the wine dark waves of the ocean but the last two found their mark and lit the tarred lines of the ship ablaze.  They could make out figures rushing on the deck, some abandoning the boat to its fate, others trying futilely to stop the unnatural fire from spreading.  In moments, Bêlit could tell the situation was near hopeless.  But on the sister ship to the right, she saw Conan’s plan working itself through as sailors began frantically readying the ship to leave.
“The next part is we jump and run?” Bêlit said.
“The next part is we jump and run,” Conan said.  “Move dogs, over this wall and run for your lives to that boat.”
Botali was standing at the outer battlement looking down through the smoke and chaos.  “Can we survive this fall?” he said.
“Look at it this way, Kadiro, if you don’t your problems are over,” Conan said, appearing next to him.  “Hang from the lip and don’t stiffen your legs as you fall.  Move man, that catapult above is almost ready.”
Conan watched each man scramble over the thick wooden posts and disappear from view.  In a moment he and Bêlit were alone in the gatehouse tower.
“Now, Bêlit,” Conan said.
“So you do know it’s me,” she said and dropped from the edge.
“Aye, maybe it is,” Conan said to no one in particular and launched himself over the battlement as an enormous ball of viscous flame crashed where he had stood and exploded.

Chapter 14 Truth

“What am I looking at?” Conn said.
“One of their slave camps,” Valeria said.
“I know that.  But what am I looking at?”
As night fell the pair found themselves prone above the work site on a crag’s edge, an outcrop of rock providing a view of the entire valley.  Once lush with vegetation, this land, like so much of Khitai, had been partially reduced to a grey ash.  The dimming light made picking out details difficult but Conn thought he could see a water source in the form of a small river in the distance and, to his untrained eye at least, a portion of the valley seemed arable.  From this relatively green plot of land below the two watched men and women move about and could hear steady shouts of command and the routine noise of construction.  Walls and buildings gradually took shape.
“This is what you’ve seen on your travels?” Conn said.
“Yes,” Valeria said.
“All the same.  All from here to the coast?” Conn said.
“Yes, I think so,” Valeria said.  “Coast is maybe another day’s walk from here, but I can’t be sure.  They keep pushing inward.  Same pattern.  Decimate the land with fire, then mounted shock troops to clear up stragglers.  Then these slave trains come in to rebuild.  See the guards, there?  A fort as a town center, and then a surrounding town.  They’re putting up walls, too.  See, over there?  The embankment they’re building up, there?  It’s like they’re wiping everywhere clean and starting over.  Over and over.”
“Light’s difficult but notice anything about these slaves?” Conn said.
“There’s a lot of them,” Valeria said.  “And they work damn hard.”
Conn murmured agreement.  “Yes, they don’t stop.  Not one of those blonde bastards has to crack the whip to get them to do anything.  Docile.  Like sheep.  Sheep with different skins.  Anything else?”
“What do you mean?” Valeria said.
“I see every people I know down there,” Conn said.  “They’ve all come to my court, sent their ambassadors.  Dark skin from the southern kingdoms.  Ashen colors from Stygia, unless my eyes betray me.  Shades of Khitai and Vendhya.  And then look over there, the palest of the skins, whites like you and me, they are slaves too.  But notice any of them doing any of the heavy lifting?  More crafting and fine work, but not pack mules like the others.  There’s even a damn hierarchy to the slaves.  It seems the Sons of Aryas are not only scouring the earth, they’re making this new society in their own image.”
Conn and Valeria laid on the cool stone ground, each lost in thought.
Valeria sucked her breath in.  “I haven’t told you everything,” she said.
“That’s obvious,” Conn said, eyes remaining fixed on the town.
“I am Valeria,” she said.
“And?” Conn said.
Valeria shook her head.  “I think I am,” she said.  “I know more about those slaves than I’ve said.”
“Now would be the time to tell me,” Conn said.
“There was a temple, a room, somewhere,” Valeria said, “east of here, across a sea.  I woke up there, with people, strangers.  Slaves, like them below.  They were all hollow-eyed, vacant.  They wouldn’t interact.  I felt…different…like I knew who I was and everyone around me had forgotten.  I, I remembered my life.  I remember the fight on the Vilayet Sea you talked about.  I think I remember dying in the water, drowning.  I can’t be sure.”
“We’ve been together days,” Conn said, “why tell me this now?”
Valeria said, “Because even I’m not sure I’m not insane.”
“Keep going,” Conn said.  “How did you make it to finding me?”
“I don’t know why but I knew it would be bad if I let them know I was different so I kept pretending to be,” Valeria said, “a statue.  I don’t know, like them.  We were herded to a ship.  We sailed west, I think, I’m pretty sure it was west, to here.  To Khitai.  We docked at a port, what was left of it.  Some destroyed town being rebuilt, just like that one.  We marched inland.  I was so disoriented, so confused, I wasn’t sure what to do.”  She paused, breathing heavily.
“It’s okay,” Conn said.
“One day,” she said.  “I was given a command to repair canvas on a supply wagon.  Like you said, I look like them, easy tasks.”  Valeria’s eyes glazed over.  “The Son that gave me the order, he’d been drinking.  He cornered me in the wagon.  I guess I looked too much like them.  I’d seen them do it to other women, of course, and not just the white ones, and men for that matter.  I don’t know why I thought anything would be different for me.  No one ever fought back, so I couldn’t fight back either, not without them knowing I was different.  Without a weapon, nothing around me.  It got worse when the other guards lined up and took turns.  I was just surrounded and they...  And I just had to lie there.”
“I’m not sure what to say,” Conn said.
“Nothing you can say.  Nothing you should say.”
Conn let long moments of silence pass between them.
“So, you escaped?” Conn said.
Valeria nodded.  “Whatever daze I’d been in ended that night.  It was easy enough to leave.  Like you said, these slaves are sheep, you don’t chain sheep.  I hoped I’d come across that first bastard on the way out, but no such luck.  But I remember his face.  I know his face.  I’ve been wandering ever since, trying to understand what was happening, when you fell into that pool.”
Conn said, “Somehow you’ve been reborn.”
“Hell of a birth,” Valeria said.
“Well that’s why you still look so good,” Conn said.”
“Thanks, but now’s really not the moment,” Valeria said.
Conn coughed.  “My father always told me he could smell sorcery.  Like it was a stench that would shock him, or something.  I don’t know, sometimes I didn’t understand half the things he said.  But maybe I’m beginning to.  There’s an evil here, Valeria.  An evil I’ve seen and felt since that night in the palace in Tarantia, and probably before, if I hadn’t let myself be so damn blind to it.  Something in the world has risen.  And it means to destroy everything we know.”
“There’s much we don’t know,” Valeria said.
Conn said, “I understand Tristan stabbing me in the back, when I think on his personality, on the history, I really do.  And it’s my fault for not seeing it in time.  But I keep asking myself why a warlord of Kush would revolt against Juma for this scum?  These Sons won’t even bother to treat him like a dog, they’ll just kill him.  Didn’t he know that?”  Conn shook his head.
“Men do strange things for power,” Valeria said.
“The night he stole my kingdom Tristan pledged allegiance to the Sons of Aryas,” Conn said.  “A laugh when I think on it.”
“Do you think my story is insane?  Have I gone mad?” Valeria said.
“No madder than the rest of the world,” Conn said.
“You were taken in a palace coup,” Valeria said.  “Why are you alive?”
Conn shook his head.  “Juma asked the same question.  Why was Juma alive?  And neither of us had an answer.  As you said, there’s much we don’t know.”
“We should start getting answers,” Valeria said.
“We should,” Conn said.  “There’s a sliver of a moon tonight.  Very dark.  Why don’t we go down there and find someone to ask questions?”
“Are you sure you want that, Conn?” Valeria said.  “You might not like the answers you hear down there.”
“I’ll hear them anyway,” Conn said.  “Time to get ahead of these bastards.”

Chapter 15 Run

“Sailors never run fast enough,” Bêlit said as she ducked under an Aryan blade.  In a practiced, efficient motion she paused to let the Son’s momentum expose his rearguard and a flick of her sword sliced the back of the man’s calf open.  The soldier collapsed, screaming.
“Because they never run,” Conan said, wrenching one side of his double-bladed battle axe from the chest plate of another Son.
The pair were clearing the way down the main street of the small town, a broad dirt path lined with low buildings a few hundred feet in length between the keep and the quay.
“Slow down, let them catch up,” Conan said, looking back at the handful of his straggling crew, silhouettes against the rising flames of the wooden fort.  “Run, dogs.  Faster.”
Ahead, the scene was lit by the towering blaze of the ship they had fired on from the gatehouse.  The vessel was in the process of being completely consumed as bits of burning sailcloth floated up and out to sea in the offshore breeze.  A small group of men worked furiously at the adjacent sister ship to cast lines and rig sails to get away from the blazing hulk.
“I’m going ahead,” Bêlit said.  “If that boat makes it out of the dock we’re trapped between these fools and the sea.”
Conan knew better than to argue with Bêlit, or whatever this was in her form, so he slowed to help clear more of the Sons of Aryas.  He faced a pikeman and cut the wooden shaft of his weapon in two and then buried a sword in the shocked soldier’s neck.
The barbarian called out to a hobbling sailor, the Barachan named Ting.  “What’s wrong with you, man?”
“Hurt it in the fall, not sure, may have broken it,” Ting said through clenched teeth.  His face was pale and he was clearly failing.
“Crom,” Conan said.  With a grunt he swept the sailor up and over his broad shoulder and began running to the dock.  “I’ve never carried a Barachan like a potato sack,” Conan said between labored breaths.  “Time’s change.”
Conan’s boots hit the wooden boards of the dock.  Bêlit had made it aboard the remaining boat and he watched her blade rise and fall as she cleared Aryan opposition from the decks.  Some men jumped over the rails to disappear in the dark waters below, others fell screaming before her sword.  None stood before the fury with ivory skin.
Conan dropped Ting onto the gangplank and said to his panting crew, “Get aboard and finish that rigging, I’ll cut the dock lines.”
After the remnants of the Sea Siren boarded, Conan grabbed the gangplank and shoved it into the water.  He set to cutting the thick hawsers holding the ship and saw it float away from the wooden pier.
“Thank the gods for good wind and tide,” Conan said to no one in particular.
The barbarian faced the town and stared at a knot of the Sons of Aryas running full speed at him.  Conan screamed and heaved the battle axe with all the might of his left arm across the wharf at the lead Son.  The spinning weapon caught the soldier dead center in the chest and carried him off his feet back several yards into the men behind him.  Conan took one last look at the trail of dead bodies, the chaos of the ransacked town and the flaming ruin of the wooden fort.
“I’ve missed this,” he said aloud to himself, then he sheathed his sword and dove off the pier.  Powerful underwater strokes carried him to within a few feet of starboard of the black ship receding on wind and waves.
“Amra, grab the line,” Bêlit said.
In moments, the barbarian was aboard, listening to the creak of wood on water and the pings of crossbow bolts burying themselves in the planks of the stern and rudder.  After a time, with the rush of battle subsiding, Conan could feel the weariness in his limbs and leaned on the rail.
“Not bad for an old man,” Bêlit said.
Conan looked at her.
“I meant Denn,” she said.  And then Conan noticed the old man standing beside her, grinning.
“A hell of a distraction,” Denn said.  “Nice work.  Once the fires started no one noticed an old fisherman slipping out a side gate and making his way down to a ship.  I just didn’t see the sense in going back home.  Whatever’s left of the Sons, they’ll raze that island in rage.  Shame really.”
“How did you know which boat to get on?” Conan said.
“I got lucky,” Denn said.
“Should have burned this one,” Conan said.
Denn laughed.  “What now?”
“Now?  You’ll prove useful, old man,” Bêlit said.  “You know these waters and you’re going to help me get back to what I was doing before you fools trampled into my life.”
“And that was?” Conan said.
“Aryas, Cimmerian.  I told you, I’m going to find Aryas,” she said.
“And then?”
“Then I kill him.”

Chapter 16 Slaves

The pair walked down to the valley in the moonlight.
“I’m just saying, I know we haven’t been together long but I find it odd you never ask about your father,” Valeria said.
“What do I have to ask about?” Conn said.  “He’s my father.  I know him.”
“I just thought you would have asked me questions about what he was like when he was your age,” Valeria said.  “We had a lot of adventures together.  I just think it’s strange.”
“I’m sure you had a lot of adventures,” Conn said.  “He had a lot of adventures with a lot of people.  But you died, have somehow come back from the dead to walk beside me and have this conversation, and yet you find my relationship with my father strange?”
“I never said anything about your relationship,” Valeria said.  “Either way, it’s your affair.  I never knew my father.  I just think if I’d had the chance I would have wanted to know all I could.”
“Look,” Conn said, “you know who my father is, right?  What bard, what courtier, what courtesan, what whatever hasn’t told his stories?  Hundreds of times.  Or he himself, when he got deep in his cups?  Growing up, in that palace, at his knee, do you realize every day of my life was one long Conan story?  Conan the reaver, Conan the buccaneer, Conan the soldier, Conan the barbarian, Conan the king.  It went on and on and on.  My mother and I would steal away to the back kitchens sometimes just to hide and find a moment of peace.”
“I never had the opportunity to meet your mother,” Valeria said.  “For obvious reasons I wasn’t invited to the wedding after he claimed the throne and took her as queen.”
“She was a great woman,” Conn said.  “She was amazing.  She could withstand the weight of him.  She could withstand the thought of every visiting queen having slept with her husband.  She could withstand the sheer mass of his shadow we all walked in.  Truthfully, sometimes, I think it’s what killed her in the end.  The weary of it.  So if I don’t ask about your adventures with Conan the-whatever-he-was-being-called at that point, you’ll forgive me, I’ve heard them.”
“I guess I never thought about the difficulty of being his son,” Valeria said.  “On the other hand, you are King of Aquilonia.”
“Was King of Aquilonia,” Conn said.  “Look around, does this look like my palace?”
“You almost sound relieved,” Valeria said.
Conn laughed.  “Maybe.  I’ve been thinking on that as we’ve nothing to do but walk for days.  Maybe.  At least I’m not being constantly reminded of how I am not the slayer of demons and wizards and gods.  How I am not my father.  Because believe me I felt like that happened every damned day I sat the throne.  And lest you think I’m not grateful of my sire, he knew most of this, how it would go with me in his shadow.  And he rode me and trained me hard so that I might be my own man.  But every day was still a day of preparation for becoming king.  These past days, since that night in Tarantia, and now out on the road with you…these have been the first in my memory with no greater goal than surviving until nightfall.”
“Well,” Valeria said, “now you know how most of your subjects live.”
Conn turned to her.  “Am I that bad a king?”
“How would I know?” Valeria said.  “I’ve been dead apparently.  But let’s quiet and discuss your rule later.  Look ahead, two guards.”
In the distance Conn could make out two figures on tree stumps, backs toward them, seemingly bored and chatting.
“No matter how good the training, men on watch are still lazy pigs,” Conn said.  “Nice to know these Sons of Aryas are still very human.  What are you doing?”
Valeria unbuckled her chest plate.  “We need silence and this really doesn’t fit anyway.  Took it from a corpse and I’ve come to hate it.  Can you move silently, Conn?  Or was stealth not part of your training?”
“I can be quiet when need be,” Conn said.  “Crawl and slash?”
Valeria nodded.  Minutes later they had covered the open terrain on quiet feet and then worked themselves into position a few arm lengths behind the pair.
“-that’s why I’m saying it should be an equal split of coin,” one guard said to the other.
“Well, they’re not going to see it that way,” the second responded. “The godfire does most of the work and we’re just cleaning up the dregs.  These little bastards were nothing in the open field with their bushes burned.  From what I hear the whole western front is like this.  Burn and clean, burn and clean.  We do more slave herding than actual fighting if you think about it.”
“I hear things too,” the first guard said, “and there’s supposed to be hell in the northern reaches.  Snow and mountains and caves.  Miserable stuff.  But I hear what you’re saying, that we’re lucky to be here on light duty.  Still, the officers take the bulk of the treasure like they are doing anything more than shouting.”
“When has it ever been different?” the second guard said.
“Well-”  But the first guard’s words were lost in a choking gurgle.  A bright red line appeared on his throat and from it poured his life’s blood.  The second guard’s eyes widened, first in surprise, and then in pain, as his own throat opened.
“Good for the north at least, to be giving these bastards hell,” Conn said as he wiped his blade in the dirt.
“Cimmerians, Aesir, Vanir,” Valeria said, “tough lot, good tactics.  They’ll disperse in the mountains.  Make this, what do they call it, godfire, difficult to take out large groups.  No conquering army has ever found those lands to be worth the price.”
“This armor’s useless to take, I think,” Conn said.  “I’ve experienced first-hand how quick they recognize an outsider, and you’re maybe half a foot short for a Son.  Although, now that you mention it, I haven’t noticed any Aryan women.”
“From what I can tell they’re kept back until these forward towns are built,” Valeria said.  “But I agree, trying to sneak in as these two won’t get us anywhere.  And they probably have a check in time within a few hours.  So let’s see what we can see on our own.”
The low moonlight helped the pair glide invisibly across the remaining terrain until they reached the burgeoning town.  There was the beginning of an outer curtain wall of stone blocks, but construction lay dormant at the moment.  Near the scaffolding and loose stones on the outskirts Conn and Valeria could make out a makeshift holding pen for a group of slaves as they paused building the new Aryan city.
Conn whispered to Valeria as they crept along.  “Probably should have discussed this before, but will these slaves raise an alarm?”
“No, I don’t think so,” Valeria said.  “They’ll take commands, but they don’t speak, not that I’ve ever heard.  They don’t have any of their own thoughts.  See how they’re kept, over there?  Not even a bar on the door.  I think the Sons just put them there so they can have peace at night.  They’re like quiet sheep, best I can describe it.  You’ll see soon enough.”
They came to the wooden bars of the cage and Conn could see some of the slaves sitting in the dirt.  Others lay prone.  All of them were motionless and stared blankly ahead.  There was the sound of breathing, and the occasional rustle, but silence was mostly what Conn noted.
“Hello,” Conn said, softly, to a woman in the cage with plain dark features seated near him.  Her impassive eyes noted Conn but she did not speak and did not move.
“Do you know your name?” Conn said.
The woman remained silent.
“Lift your right arm,” Conn said.
The woman raised her right arm.
Valeria knelt with her back to Conn, looking for the enemy.  “See?” she said.
“I admit I didn’t really believe it,” Conn said, shaking his head.  “They are the perfect slaves.  No fighting back, no effort required to manage them at all.  They just…exist.  It’s inhuman.  Look at this one, I wish Juma was here.  I’d swear she was a Kushite.”
“Reborn maybe,” Valeria said.  “In the temple I remember seeing all the races I’d ever met in the world.  Hundreds, thousands of them.  Like me.”
“But not like you,” Conn said.
“No,” Valeria said.  “And I’d rather be dead for good than a hollow shell like that.”
“Agreed,” Conn said.  “I have no idea what to do with them.”
“There’s nothing you can do with them, Conn,” Valeria said.  “Who knows how many there are and if they really feel or think.  We have to continue on and find Aryas.  Whatever these people are now, whatever this is, he’s the cause.”
“You’re right,” Conn said.  “East.  We continue east.  You said all this is coming from the east beyond the sea.  So we head there and see what we see.”
Valeria remained silent.
Chapter 17 Memories

Conan turned from Bêlit at the knock on the door.  Most likely it was Botali Kadiro at this time of night.
“Captain?” Botali said.  “Permission to enter?”
Conan drained his cup.  These Aryan captains stocked sweeter wines than the barbarian normally appreciated, but any port in the proverbial storm.
“Come in, Kadiro,” Conan said.
“Captain,” Botali said, glancing from the Cimmerian to the mysterious dark-eyed beauty they had rescued from the fort dungeon.  Or had she rescued them?
“Well,” Conan said, reaching out to pour the remnants of a bottle into his cup, “what is it?  Another mutiny?  Tell those dogs if it’s another mutiny every damned one of them is getting my axe in his chest.”
Bêlit smirked.  “You left your axe on the island.”
“No.  No mutiny, captain,” Botali said.  “Smooth sailing and the men seem happy enough.  Relieved even, I imagine, given all that’s happened, to be on a boat and masters of our destiny again.  Plus, it seems like they’d just resupplied before we showed up, so everything’s fresh and plentiful.”
Now it was Conan’s turn for a wry smile.  “Good enough.  Masters of our destiny, eh?  Is that what we are?  Do you feel like a master of anything, first mate?”
“I feel happy to be have a sound ship with a good wind, captain,” Botali said.  “Many times in the past few days I’d never thought to have this much again.”
“How does she sail?” Conan said.
“Like a pig,” Botali said.  “But it’s clean and cared for.  Thank the gods for the wind.  We don’t have enough rowers to get much of anywhere.  Maybe fortune keeps smiling and we have enough to make it most of the way home.”
“No home, Botali,” Conan said.  “Not yet anyway.  She’s right.”  Conan nodded at Bêlit.  “I have a desire to meet this Aryas face to face.”
Botali coughed.  “Permission to speak freely, captain?”
Conan drained his cup and came unsteadily to his feet to retrieve another bottle from the sea chest in the corner.  “Always, Kadiro.  Always permission to speak freely so long as what you say doesn’t inspire me to separate your head from your shoulders.”
Botali stared at the barbarian’s back.
“I’m joking, man,” Conan said, turning and landing in his chair heavily.  “Speak.”
The first mate looked at Bêlit.  “You are still claiming to be Bêlit?  The Queen of the Black Coast?  The Shemite reaver of souls on the Argossian coast?”
Bêlit set her cup down carefully and returned his stare.  “I am.”
“And,” Botali said, “you called him Amra.  I heard you, somewhere in the fight back there.  Amra.”  The Kordavan turned to Conan.  “You are Amra?  The stories of Bêlit and Amra that have filled the seas since I was a child…that was you?”
Conan was glowing from the heat of the wine.  He raised his cup and drops of wine dribbled down onto the decking.  “What can I say?  ‘Conan’ just wouldn’t roll off a Shemite’s tongue.”
“But she’s dead,” Botali said, returning to Bêlit.  “You’re dead.  You’ve been dead since before I was born.  You’re a myth.”
“Am I?” Bêlit said.
“Even if you’re death was a myth you should be old,” Botali said.  “An old woman, like him.”
Conan exploded in laughter.  “Watch yourself, first mate, I was joking about removing your head.  But she really will.”
“But how do you explain this?” Botali said.
“These are reasonable questions,” Bêlit said.  “Asked reasonably.  And they are questions I have asked myself more than you can possibly imagine.”
“I’ve asked her, too,” Conan said, draining another cup.  “Watch what she says.  She’ll say she doesn’t know.”
“And that is my answer.  I don’t know,” Bêlit said.
“See?” Conan said.
“But where did you come from?”  Botali pressed on.  “Surely you didn’t wake up in that dungeon?”
“No,” Bêlit said.  “No, I woke up months ago, I think, in a land I didn’t know.  The land of these Sons of Aryas, so I learned.  One of the great continents we sail towards.  I woke up in a cattle pen of people.  Brown-skinned, white-skinned, black-skinned, every color you can imagine.  All blank of expression and thought.  Except me.  At first I tried to talk to those around me, but nothing.”
“But you were different?” Botali said.
“But I was different,” Bêlit said.  “But for the moment I thought it best to pretend I was one of them.  I had no idea where I was.  I had no idea when I was.  So I went along.  We were fed and watered like livestock for a time and then we worked.  I worked in wheat fields but then a group of the Sons came and gathered me and a few other females and put us on a boat.  They were taking us across a channel, not far from here, if I’ve got the navigation right.  We were to be slaves of a different kind I imagine, but one night on board some pale bastard was pawing at me and I grabbed the dirk from the back of his belt and ended him.  You should have seen the surprise on his face.”  Bêlit drank from her cup and smiled.
“One thing lead to another,” she said, “and I found myself captain of a pirate ship once again, a crew local to these waters.  They were from the original people of these lands, like our friend Denn, the ones that ruled before the Sons came.  I guess they all couldn’t be wiped out.  Set knows I was happy to just find breathing souls that could think again.  We managed a few raids, sunk a few ships.  But their damn fire weapons caught us one night.  The bastards captured me and brought me to that rock you found me on.  I was to be brought back to the mainlands, I was told, for an audience with Aryas himself.  Now I’ll need another plan.”
“That was your whole plan?” Botali said.  “Get captured, get brought before whatever this Aryas is, and kill him using who knows what?”
“I like direct plans,” Bêlit said, and Conan toasted her.
“But you were dead, right?” Botali said.
“I was, Botali Kadiro,” Bêlit said.  “I truly was.  I remember,” and she glanced at Conan, “I remember the night at the end of that ancient river.  The river on no map.  And the temple we found.  And the winged creature.  I do remember dying.  I even remember a brief return for…for reasons.  And then I remember nothing but what I’ve told you.”
Conan shook his head.  “She’s not lying, Kadiro.  Or she’s not completely lying.  She remembers details no one but Bêlit possibly could.  Moments only she and I could possibly know.  I know all sailors hate sorcery and damn man,” the Cimmerian slammed his cup onto the table, “I hate it more than all of you put together.  But this…this woman has Bêlit’s memories.  She has her form.  She has everything…I can think of, up to the moment I held her lifeless body in my arms.  What else am I to do?”
“So we trust her?” Botali said.
“No.”  Conan shook his head.  “Yes.  I have no idea.  But either way, if this Aryas has something to do with returning the dead to life to use as mindless slaves, then that’s something I’d like to ask him about.”
“So you’d risk all our lives on this?” Botali said.
Conan met his stare.  “When we make landfall, Bêlit and I will go our own way.  This becomes your ship.  Take her back east to our lands.  Take her to hell for all I care.”
Botali looked down at the deck.  “I never said we wouldn’t follow you.  I just think I, and the men, want to know what we’re up against.”
“Well,” Conan said, waving his hand.  “Now you know.  Sure death and no treasure, without a plan in sight.  Good enough?  Dismissed, Kadiro.  You have a watch to look after anyway.  I’ll see you topside at dawn.”
The first mate understood his audience was over and left the cabin.
“Can you trust him, Amra?” Bêlit said.
“Him?” Conan said.  “Yes.  Him I trust.  The rest of them?  Who knows?”
“And you don’t trust me?” she said.
“You?”  He laughed.  “You’re dead.  What’s to trust?”
“But yet you follow?” she said.
“Follow?” he said.  “I’ve followed many things in my life.  Prophecies.  Gut feelings.  Instincts.  Wine.  Women.  Treasure.  War.  Now?  Now I follow dreams.  That’s what lead me here.  I followed dreams.  And they keep pushing me west, ever west.  Maybe I’ll find what’s calling me in this land of Aryas.  I don’t know.  I don’t know what the dreams will bring.  Sleep is, sleep is difficult for me now.”
“I’ve noticed,” Bêlit said.  “These past nights, as I lie here, and you sit there in your cups, staring at me.”
“Aye,” Conan said.
Bêlit stood and turned from the table.  She walked to the flat bunk jutting out from the ship’s transom.  With each step she shed a piece of clothing.  Her white skin shone in the moonlight coming through the cabin window.
“Am I a demon, Amra?” Bêlit said.
The muscles of her legs and buttocks flexed and relaxed as her hips swayed.
“Am I a ghost, barbarian?” Bêlit said.
She lay naked on the sparse bedding, eyes locked onto Conan.
“Can you find better things to do this evening than drink?” Bêlit said.
She cupped her breasts, the dark points of her nipples jutting out between her fingers.
“Do you remember everything?” Bêlit said.
Conan put down his cup and pushed himself back from the table.  “Demon or ghost, O Queen.  Tonight I do not care.”

Chapter 18 Bad Plan

“Stupid idea.  I told you this was a stupid idea,” Conn said.
“Shut up and fight,” Valeria said.  “Back to back, move with me.”
Conn parried the downward swing of a broadsword aimed at his neck.  “Two more coming up the ladder on your left,” Conn said.
“To port,” Valeria said, ducking and cutting the knee tendon of a Son of Aryas.  “Did your father teach you nothing of the sea?”
“Aquilonia is landlocked, woman.”  Conn’s blade was now lodged in the eye socket of another Son.  He put his boot into the chest of the slumping corpse and pushed.  “And so is Cimmeria for that matter.  Maybe the old bastard learned everything he knew of the ocean from you.”
“Now I can teach the son,” Valeria said.  “Mitra save me.”
Conn said, “How long do you think we have before someone on the mainland realizes this ship is under attack?”
Valeria’s flicked her blade and drew a red line across the throat of an advancing Son.  “Seconds if we don’t get to him,” she said, pointing to a soldier running to the lit brazier at the starboard rail.  “One flaming arrow into the night sky and all the coast is coming down on our heads.  Hold them.”
Valeria leaped to the top rail of the quarterdeck and reached up in the complex tangle of rigging.  Fighting off the fast blades of two Sons, Conn could only catch a glimpse of the beautiful blonde pirate swinging through the night air over the ship’s waist.  Tarred sheet firmly knotted in her left hand she glided confidently over the deck.  Bloody sword firmly gripped in her right hand she swung the blade as she passed her target and neatly plucked his head from his body and sent it spinning overboard into the ocean.  It sunk with a splash and Valeria landed on the starboard rail as a silhouette against the moonlit sky, laughing to herself in vicious joy.
“Hurry up, King of Aquilonia,” she said.  “There’s only two of them left.”
The two pale warriors moved to either side of Conn.  The young Aquilonian immediately realized he was trapped.  With one blade against two Conn pivoted so that a Son was at either side.  They tensed and Conn knew they were preparing for a simultaneous killing stroke, only one of which he could parry.  Both razor edges rushed toward him but Conn was no longer there.  He had buckled his knees and fallen back to the deck and the two attacks whistled through the air.  One Son managed to pull his blade back in time but the second followed through and sliced the other’s hand open.  The first soldier’s weapon flew harmlessly into the air with a scream as Conn popped up to thrust his sword through the belly of the second.  Blade buried in two feet of Aryan guts, Conn released the slick pommel and snaked his arm around the neck of the man holding his bloody hand.  Tightening his hold around the man’s windpipe, bending him backwards so that he could gain no leverage, Conn listened to the death rattle.  After tense moments of futile twitching, Conn dropped the lifeless corpse to the deck and calmly walked over to free his blade.
“Not a bad move,” Valeria said.  “Brutish.  But nice to see you have some of your father’s strength.”
“Is that all of them?” Conn said, breathing deeply.
“It would appear so.  And listen to that.”  Valeria paused.  “Not a sound from land.  No one’s the wiser.  Told you swimming out here was a good idea.  No one ever keeps a full guard at night anchored this close to port.  Old trick, really.  Used it a few times but I admit we were a bit lucky.  Catching two of them in the head was a gift from the gods.”
“What now?” Conn said.
“Well,” Valeria said, “there’s slaves on the oars.  They’re going to get us underway.”
“I hate using them,” Conn said.
“I know, but we don’t have another choice,” Valeria said.  “Even if we could handle this ourselves, putting them on a boat and sending them back to the Aryans is not a good ending.”
Conn nodded.  “I guess it’s useless asking if you have a plan from here.  You’re just going to say of course.”
Valeria laughed.  “Of course I do.  The Sons talked about a huge port with a castle overlooking a bay.  Center of their trade, always expanding.  I’m not sure how to get there but it’s east of here.  If we’re to find Aryas I’m betting that’s the place to start.  Like you said, we head east.”
“We continue on to Aryas,” Conn said.
“That bastard robbed me of my death and you of your kingdom.  I think he owes us some answers and a good bit of blood.  You?”
“Aye,” Conn said.

Chapter 19 Old Plan

“You’re sure about this, old man?” Conan said.
Denn nodded.  “Nothing sharpens my memory more than being called ‘old man’ constantly.”
“No,” Bêlit said, “I think he’s fundamentally right.  It jibes with my understanding of it.”
“So there’s two continents with a strait between them?” Conan said.  “These are the lands of Nord, right?  And on the southern coast of the upper continent is Aryas’ capital?  A big port with a huge castle overlooking the bay?”
Denn nodded again.  “Andronova.  Once, many, many years ago I sailed there with my parents to see the coronation of the king.  Willem was his name.  Aryas killed him on the steps of his palace, as the tale is told.”
Conan remembered taking his own crown from the head of a slain king on palace steps.  “What do you expect?” he said to Bêlit.
“I raided those waters for a handful of months,” Bêlit said.  “I remember troop ships, supply ships, moving west constantly.  Almost never east.  They’d sail up from the south or down past Andronova and then into the straits and gone.  I never saw the city itself.”
“West,” Conan said.  “If this world is a sphere, a circle, then that would mean they’d be heading west to the lands we know.  Vendhya.  Khithai.  An invasion?  If the ocean spanning from the west of Nord to our eastern lands is shorter than what we crossed to get here, then that would make sense to me.  Start with the easiest logistics, where the enemy’s closest.”
“Even on our little island,” Denn said, “we know Aryas.  If there are lands you come from he does not possess, he will want them.  He will take them.”
“I hope our armies have something to say about that,” Conan said.  “And maybe there’s a weakness here if Aryas is counting on the huge ocean to the east of him for protection.  I’ll have to think on that.  Best estimate as to where we are now?” he said to Bêlit.
“I’ve limited experience with the stars in this part of the world,” Bêlit said, “but after conferring with Denn I believe we near the mouth of the straits separating the continents, just southeast of Andronova.  I don’t think we’re more than a day or two sail away.”
“We’re betting this ship blends in at a distance,” Conan said, “but we’ve no reason to think we can withstand close scrutiny.  We’ve been lucky these last days with no contact, and if Bêlit is right and the bulk of their fleet is heading west, that makes sense.  But as we approach land the odds against us increase.  Flags, signals, little things the Aryan fleet would expect of us at a mutual sighting.  We’ve no way of knowing.  And eventually this wind will die out,” Conan paused to look up at the full sails.  “Without enough oars we’ll be dead in the water.”
“Ship ahead off the port bow,” Botali Kadiro said from the crow’s nest, far above the top deck.  “Black timber like ours to my eyes.”
Conan sighed.  “It’s amazing how often in my life I’ve spoken of the devil and he has appeared.  If I ever meet Crom in the afterworld I mean to exact a toll.  Thoughts?”
“On slaying your god, or the ship?” Bêlit said.
“The ship,” Conan said.
“If it’s alone, I say we take it,” she said.
“Aye,” Conan said, “thought that would be your answer.  Let’s try to keep one or two of them alive for information.  Let’s also see how close we can get before they realize who we are.  As many helms from the armory as we can muster to cover dark faces.  We’ll want a contingent below the rail line with crossbows and whatever’s left of that unholy fire.  Kadiro?”
The first mate dropped down from the rigging beside the barbarian.  “Aye, captain.”
“Did you check the ballista on the bow?” Conan said.  “Is it workable?”
“We tested it two nights ago,” Botali said.  “Men are reasonably good shots with it.”
“All right then,” Conan said.  “Beat to quarters and meet me at the bow.  Bring your best marksman.”  The Cimmerian turned to his helmsman.  “Approach head on so they can see as little of the ship as possible.  When you get as close as you can without ramming, come about long side her.”  He glanced at the pirate queen.  “Bêlit, for once, follow me.”
The pair walked the deck.  Conan said, “I’ve got an idea.  Thought of this years ago on the Black Coast in our travels but never had a chance to try it.  It may be suicidal so I imagine you’ll try it without an argument.”
Bêlit laughed.  “You know me well.”
Botali and able-seaman Dontoni Tam joined them on the bow.  Conan finished explaining his plan as waves slammed against the hull.
“You jest,” Botali said.
“No,” Conan said.
“No,” Bêlit said, “I know him.  He’s not.  We’ll need a distraction to get you close enough to board.  And I think it will work.”
Botali stared at his captain.  He shook his head.  “All right then.”  He then walked off to oversee final preparations among the crew.
Conan wrapped a short length of chain around his fist.  “Remember, Dontoni, this is a different boat from our old Siren, make the adjustments before you fire.  You need to hit the lowest point you can near the enemy’s rail.  By the time we get fully alongside her you’ll only have a moment or two to make that judgment.  Are we clear?”
“Aye, sir,” said the seaman, with perhaps less confidence than Conan would have liked.
“And you?” Conan said to Bêlit.
She was wrapping her own fist in a short chain.  “Oh, I understand what we’re doing.  I’ve been dead already, once more won’t hurt me.  It’s you I think is in for a surprise.”
They were coming head on the enemy.  “Steady,” Conan said to no one in particular, hoping the helmsman would steel his nerves and guide them in close.  The barbarian glanced at the coiled rope near his foot and knelt further away, fearful of any entanglement.
“There must be some hailing signal,” Bêlit said.  “They have to be waiting for something they’re not getting.”
And with that a single arrow sped from the enemy ship and buried itself into the upper deck.  Conan could hear the vibration of the wood across the ship’s length.  “They have just grown suspicious,” he said.
The helmsman understood the arrow was a last signal to identify themselves.  Sighting the closing gap, he brought the ship around in a violent tack and maneuvered to the starboard flanks of the enemy ship.  In the span between the two vessels Conan could see weapons readying and men stoking the braziers of the frightening liquid fire.
“Did I tell you I became king of Aquilonia?” Conan said to Bêlit.
Bêlit’s eyes widened slightly.  She sniffed.  “I believe it.”
Dontoni Tam scanned the Aryan warship and identified the low point of the hull almost exactly amidships.  He turned to see Conan’s ice blue eyes boring into him and he gulped and nodded his head.  Tam sighted the ballista and clicked the trigger.  The bolt shot out over the water with the trailing length of line knotted through the end of its shaft.  It buried itself just below the taffrail of the enemy ship and Tam leapt up to wind the remaining length of line at his feet around the capstain.  Now there was a taught, descending length of oiled rope connecting the two vessels.  It would only hold for seconds before the motion of the sea severed the joining cord.
“Now,” Conan said, and he threw the loose end of his chain around the rope and snatched at it with his free hand.  In a second his feet dangled over the roiling ocean as he hung in the air, sliding down the rope toward the enemy ship.  In another heartbeat, Bêlit was behind him.
Bolts, arrows, and flaming projectiles of all sorts began to fill the air around them.  A foot or so from smashing into the starboard planking of the ship Conan pulled himself upwards in a single violent motion.  He released the chain that had brought him across the sea and reached out for the railing.  He caught it and hauled himself up and over with a few grunts.  For his troubles, as his feet hit the deck, he found himself with labored breath and facing a group of stunned Sons of Aryas.  Before they could react Conan unsheathed his broadsword and set to work.
Between parries and thrusts Conan heard the scream of Bêlit’s war cry.  She leaped from the rail and threw herself at the knot of men surrounding the barbarian.  Flashing steel, kicks, punches, and even bites were all the weapons of the pirate on display.  Out of the corner of his eye Conan saw the Queen of the Black Coast in all her chaotic glory.  As the deck grew slick with dripping blood Conan and Bêlit found each other’s backs and began to twist and weave in an iron dance of death.
“There’s fire on our boat.  They won’t have much time to tack around to get here,” Conan said.
Bêlit laughed and said, “I don’t care if they get here or not.  More for us.”
“Ever the same,” Conan said.
“Ever the same, lover,” Bêlit said.
The battle against the Sons of Aryas raged on as the enemy sailors recovered from the pairs’ surprising entrance.  After tense minutes of back and forth savagery the deck of the ship suddenly lurched and all the combatants momentarily lost their footing.  Botali and crew had managed to steer around and slam alongside the side with a terrific crash.  Conan could hear the bite of the grappling hooks and the remnants of his crew swinging aboard for battle.
“Kadiro,” Conan said to his first mate, “thank you for joining us.”
“You’re welcome, captain,” Botali said, ducking under a whistling Aryan cutlass.  “But go easy on this ship, I think we’re going to need it.”
“Aye,” Conan said, taking a moment to eye the flames engulfing yet another boat under his command.  “The fire these Sons of Aryas wield is death on the sea.  I’m glad we didn’t have any to use, would have wound up sending both these ships down to the bottom in ashes.”
Bêlit had found the heart of the enemy captain with her sword point and the Aryan crew soon found themselves overwhelmed.  Resistance dropped to a few sailors too injured for further resistance.  They dropped their blades and asked for mercy and soon the battle was finished.  Botali ordered the lines to their old ship cut away and soon they were taking stock of their new prize.
“These Sons are well-trained,” Conan said, “but I’m not sure how experienced they are in real combat.  They move well enough, but like it’s all been practice.”
“My read as well,” said Bêlit, wiping her sword on the dead body of an Aryan.  “I don’t think they’re used to people fighting back.  They let their fire and surprise do too much of the damage for them.”  She kicked one of the surrendered Sons, now tied up on the deck.  “They like facing scared rats, not warriors.”
“Don’t damage him anymore, Bêlit,” Conan said.  “We’ll need him to answer questions later.”
Botali came up on deck from the hold.  “Captain,” he said.  “I’ve got a man here, a captive I found chained up down below.  Not one of their dead-eyed slaves, but a living man.  Says he knows you, heard you up above.  Said he would recognize your voice anywhere.”
“In this part of the world?” Conan said.
“Yes, King Conan,” Juma said, stepping out from behind Botali.  “Or should I just call you Conan now?”

Chapter 20 Distance

“What do you see?”
Valeria looked down the mast at Conn’s upturned face.  “It’s amazing,” she said.  “I can see everything at this distance.  I’ve never seen captain’s glasses like these.  They’ll reinvent piracy if we can ever get them home.”
“What do you see?” Conn repeated.
Valeria returned to the two metal tubes bound side-by-side with ends of curved glass.  “Two black ships, different lines but similar trim and colors to ours.  One’s attacked the other.  Looks like the first has captured the second but is sinking in the process.  This godfire, or whatever they call it, is death on the sea.  Imagine being able to stalk your prey with these glasses and launch that flame at range?  Insanity.  No fleet could survive that.”
“Why are two of the Sons’ ships attacking each other?  That doesn’t make sense,” Conn said.  “Mutiny?  Factions within the Aryans?  Pirates posing as Aryans?”
Valeria shrugged and climbed down.  “No way of knowing unless we follow, right?  Looks like the second boat is moving on.  We’re probably an hour’s sail behind with this wind and the strength of the rowers, close as I can figure.”
“You’re probably right.  We should follow them,” Conn said.  “If they destroyed an Aryan boat maybe there’s something worth following, for a bit anyway.”
“I once heard ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’ in a tavern in Messantia,” Valeria said.  “Town full of bad drunks, Messantia.  But I agree.  I’m not sure how to get to Aryas and we don’t have the swords to capture another ship.  The poor souls below can row for us but that’s it.  We could at least see where this mystery crew is heading.  Maybe they’re allies to be had, maybe not.  Maybe just information.  I almost think we need information more right now.”
“All right,” Conn said, “that’s settled.  I don’t have any other ideas at the moment anyway.  I’m desperate to get back to Aquilonia but we’re at least a continent away.  And even if I could regain the palace I’m not sitting behind walls waiting to be attacked again.  We need to find out what madness has taken hold in the world.”
“We’re heading east,” Valeria said.  “Your father once told you this world is like a cow’s bladder, is that what you said?  If he’s right then my reckoning is we’re heading back to Aquilonia anyway.  Eventually at least.”
Conn paused and thought, working it all out in his head.  “A pig’s bladder.  He said a pig’s bladder.  But you’re right, I think.”
“You said your father sailed west last anyone knew,” Valeria said.  “East of us now, probably.”
Conn nodded.
“Well,” Valeria said, “maybe there’s a tale of him to be told.  If any man in this world could have left a mark…”
Conn nodded again as her words trailed off.

Chapter 21 Forward

“Go over it again, one more time,” Conan said.  The barbarian and Juma stood at the ship’s rail, staring at the endless waves.
“I’ve told you the tale, Cimmerian.  You know it,” Juma said.  “And you know how much I hate the damned water and you keep me standing on this deck.”
“One more time,” Conan said.  “Besides, the air will do you good.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen a man vomit that much.  You almost filled a cabin.”
Juma ran a hand over his face.  “All the days I’ve spent on boats lately.  You think I’d be used to it.  Very well.  One of the sons of my-”
“Skip ahead to the part with Conn, Juma,” Conn said.
“Oh, my kingdom and family don’t bear repeating?” the Kush chieftain said.  “Is that it, barbarian?  My pain means nothing?”
“Your pain means much to me, old friend.”  Conan laid a hand on Juma’s shoulder.  “But right now Kush and even my own lands of Aquilonia and Cimmeria are beyond our reach.  If Conn is on this side of the world, and I can help him, then that’s where I’ll start.”
Juma grunted.  “Always playing second to you, aren’t I?  Alright then.  Again.  I had already been taken by the Sons.  Somewhere on the border between Vendhya and Khitai, maybe three, four days after I’d been captured, the prison wagon stopped and they threw Conn in.  It was late at night, I had just awoken, so I’m not sure where he came from, or who brought him.  But once the torchlight passed over his face, well, he does bear a resemblance, doesn’t he?  I knew it was the young King of Aquilonia.”
“And you’ve no idea why you were both still alive?” Conan said.
“No.”  Juma shook his head.  “No, but we talked about that.  We agreed, it makes no sense, but we were both being transported east for some reason, across Khitai.  To the far ocean and I imagine to this Andronova we sail to, but that’s only a guess.  We hatched a plan to escape.  It was a simple plan, but he said you taught him to like simple plans.”
Conan looked down and smiled.
“So we’re going east, through the hell that had once been Khitai,” Juma said, “and it looks nothing like you remember, and we’re in a fight with a pair of these Sons of Aryas.  Conn’s a sight in battle, by the way, you of all people would have been thrilled.  He had a leap from a horse that must have been twenty feet in the air.  But we’re fighting it out, making headway, and then this ball of fire comes from the sky and obliterates everything.  For me at least.  I woke up who knows when chained up in that boat you took me from.  The rowers in the hold, the ones down below.  I remember thinking they were the saddest group of souls I’d ever seen.  They didn’t moan, they didn’t complain.  They just rowed.  Just like they do now.”
“The dead,” Conan said.  “The dead return.”
“Like your Bêlit,” Juma said.
“Like my Bêlit,” Conan said.  “And nothing else, nothing more you can tell me about my son.”
“Nothing,” Juma said.  “Except, except he said that it was Count Tristan that betrayed him, Algourn Tristan.  Killed Arron apparently in the Tarantian palace the night they took Conn.”
Conan sighed.  “Ah, Arron was a good man.  And Algourn was a lousy child.  I could see it even then.  And the father, Trocero, loyal in his way but I knew deep down he felt the throne should be his.  Should have choked the life from that man.  And the child for that matter.  Never should have let him play with Conn so much when they were children.  I’ve failed him in so many ways.”  Conan fell silent and stared at the waves.
“And what of you?” Juma said.  “How are you here?  You ask but you don’t answer.”
Conan shook himself back to Juma’s side.  “What of me?  I told you about the island we found and the raid on the fort.”
“No,” Juma said.  “Here as in years later.  This side of the world.  Disappearing from Aquilonia and leaving Conn to rule.  The world thought you sailed into the west and long since dead.”
Conan looked away and called to Bêlit on the aft deck.  “What do you see?” he said.
The dark-haired piratess pulled the metal tubes away from her eyes.  “Everything with these captain’s glasses.  We’ve used them for days and they still amaze me.  Imagine if we’d had these aboard the Tigress we could have-”
“Bêlit,” Conan said.  “What do you see now?”
“Ship trailing us,” she said.  “Another of the Aryans from the lines and colors.  Maybe an hour behind.  Not gaining or slacking, just stalking us it appears.”
Conan closed his eyes, thinking.  “We’re already gambling against long odds to stay unnoticed.  We can’t keep turning and fighting every ship we see and expect to stay hidden.  On the other hand, who knows, that could be the vanguard for an armada that’s sailing right for us.”
“We have our goal,” Bêlit said.  “Find Aryas.  Between what Denn remembers and what we got out of those bastard Sons we have a credible plan to get into Andronova.  If it doesn’t work, well, maybe we’ll be captured.  Maybe even taken to Aryas himself, but more likely one of his lieutenants.  At least we’ll be getting somewhere.  And if we’re killed…well, that’s happened to me already, I’ll get over it.  Point being, if that ship there isn’t interested in chasing us down then I say we let them follow as long as they want.  At that distance we’ll be off the boat and gone before they catch up and realize what we’ve done.  Another flaming wreckage with smoke on the horizon can give us away too easily.  Like you’ve said, we’ve been gambling and pushing our luck.”
“Kadiro?” Conan said.
“I agree with Bêlit,” Botali said.  “I mean, as far as this goes.  I don’t really agree with any of this.  I think this is our death.”
“Ah, Kadiro.”  Conan smiled.  “You really have found your tongue.  But you had your chance to run, now we’ve no time to put you on safe shores.  In for an Argossean coin, in for a pound.  Isn’t that the saying?”
Botali nodded.  “Yes.  Yes it is.  And we are in, captain, I just can’t imagine this working.  The old man’s been drunk for a week and those bastards she tortured could have been telling us anything to make her stop.  We’re probably sailing right into a trap.”
“No doubt, Kadiro,” Conan said.  “No doubt.  But it won’t be my first time walking into a trap, even if it is my last.  I’ve no wish to die but I don’t know any better way than to move forward.”
“The dreams still?” Botali said.
“No.”  Conan shook his head.  “No.  The time for mystical mumbo-jumbo is over.  By what we’ve seen and heard whole continents are swallowed by this pretend god Aryas.  And his Sons.  And his fire.”  Conan pointed at the captain’s glasses in Bêlit’s hands.  “All these marvels he seems to possess.”  Conan raised his finger to Bêlit’s face.  “The way the dead walk this land.”
“And Kadiro,” Conan said, “don’t forget, from what we’ve heard it seems none of our lands may be there to return to.  What choice do any of us have but to move forward?”
Botali nodded, sighing.

Chapter 22 Misdirection

“And it’s just on fire, sailing towards the docks?” Conn said.
“That’s what I said.”  Valeria kept the captain’s glasses against her face.
“No battle?  No enemy ship?  The boat we’ve been following anchors in the bay and then night falls and it just ignites and starts sailing at the docks in front of the fortress?  That’s what you’re telling me?”
“Yes.  That’s what I keep telling you.”
Conn bit his lip, thinking.  “It’s a diversion.  Has to be.  There was a story my father told me once, about a raid on Asgalun.  He was with Bêlit, I think, on the Tigress.”
“Bêlit?  The black coast pirate?  The Queen of the Black Coast?” Valeria said, looking at Conn.  “He never mentioned her to me.  Conan sailed with her?”
Conn nodded.  “Bêlit was how I knew he was drunk.  He never mentioned her until the end of the night when everyone but me had passed out, tired of hearing his stories.  And never, ever when my mother was nearby.  But no matter how drunk he was, even when he could barely rise off the throne to stand, Bêlit meant something to him, something he kept very private.  The two of them were trying to take a fort outside Asgalun so they stole a ship and set it on fire and rigged it to sail right at the fort.  Everyone was looking one way and he and Bêlit came around the back and found it nearly unguarded.  Misdirection, he’d say.  He was a lot cleverer than you’d think for all the stories.”  Conn chewed his lip.  “That’s a sail galley much like this one.  Are the oars moving?”
Valeria returned to the captain’s glasses.  “No.  All sails full and the wind is favorable, but the oars are up.”
“No rowers,” Conn said.  “Someone cares about the slaves aboard her.  My guess is they were emptying that boat out since nightfall and one or two stayed aboard to set the fire and get her moving.  They’d be gone by now, too.  The Aryan ships in port, have they taken action?”
“Yes,” Valeria said.  “Flaming bolts coming from the fortress and two ships approaching.  I can see a few archers firing as well.  Wait…catapult of some sort, huge ball of flame.  Hit the boat direct amidships.  She’s fully ablaze now.  Won’t be that long before she sinks.”
“You don’t even need that magic glass to see it from here,” Conn said.  “It’s lighting up the night sky.”  He laughed.  “I bet that’s all everybody in that castle is looking at right now.  I wonder who’s sneaking in through the back.”
“Well,” Valeria said, “that also seems to end this hunt.  But at least they got us here, and from the description it looks like exactly where we wanted to end up.  We might not be any closer to understanding who this Aryas is and how to get to him, but I’d wager someone in that fortress does.  Just have to find a way to sneak in.  We can’t sail right up to the dock, and we can’t use that fire trick.  Two flaming ghost boats sailing into the harbor will alarm the whole city.”
“No,” Conn said.  “I agree.  We’ll need a new tactic.”  The young Aquilonian caught himself on the rail.  “Damn the way this boat rocks.  Let’s just swim to the city to get on solid land again.”
Valeria laughed.  “You spent too much time in the palace and not enough on the ocean.  Another of your father’s failings.”
“Careful, Valeria.  Only I get to point out his faults,” Conn said.  “Anyway, what’s wrong with your eyes?”
Botali Kadiro stepped out from behind Valeria.  The point of his curved knife firmly pressed into the base of her spine.  “What’s wrong is she knows I’ll skewer her if she moves a way I don’t like,” he said.  The remnants of the Sea Siren crew stepped out from the shadows around the deck.
“Two questions we have,” Botali said, “are why do you want to get to that city and who are you?”
“Misdirection,” Conn said.
“Misdirection.”  Botali winked.  “You were busy looking at the flames in the distance.”
Conn’s hand rested lightly on the pommel of the sword strapped to his waist.  “I think you should say who you are.”
“We have the numbers,” Botali said.
“You’d need a lot more than this,” Conn said.
“Stop with this,” Denn said, breathing heavily, climbing the ladder up to the quarterdeck.  “Look around, we’re obviously none of us Aryans.  See, his hair is blacker than yours, Botali.  This ship may be of the Sons but it carries no warriors.  And damn it you all sound alike to me.  Mark my words there’s a tale to be told and I’d rather hear it than watch yet another sword fight.”  Denn said to Conn, “Young captain, or whoever you are on this boat.  I’m Denn, from Salt, many leagues from here and this is a crew from even farther away.  Truth told I actually still don’t know where they’re from, all their names are strange.  But the one with the knife acting far more threatening than his nature is Botali Kadiro.  Formerly first mate of…hells I don’t even know what the names of the ships are that we’ve been on.”
Conn stared at Botali.  “What are you?  Kordavan?”
Botali’s eyes narrowed.  “Yes,” he said.  “How would you know that?  You’re from our world?”
Conn smiled.  “I think we’re still on that same world…Botali is it?  Just a different part of it.  A very strange and dangerous part but I’m sure you’ve also learned that.  Now, if you’d put that knife away we can discuss things.  Keep in mind I’m only helping you, friend.  You attempt to hold Valeria of the Red Brotherhood captive.  I can assure you she is only letting you live to hear your tale.”
“Valeria of the Red Brotherhood?” Botali said.  “Impossible.  Another myth.”
“What do you mean another myth?” Valeria said.
Botali shook his head.  “That seems to be all that walks the earth now.  Myths and legends and the dead.”
“What do you know of the dead?” Conn said.
“Who are you?” Botali said.
Conn breathed deeply and drew himself to his full height.  His chest expanded and he appeared to fill the deck with his strength and vitality.  “I am Conan the second, called Conn, only son and lawful heir to Conan, and King of Aquilonia by might and right.  And I’ll have you tell me what you know.”
Botali’s eyes bulged as he recognized the familiar features.  He dropped to one knee, unsure of how to address a king.
“King Conn of Aquilonia, my apologies,” Botali said.  “But you’re not going to believe what I’m about to tell you.”

Chapter 23 Bazaar

“Will you two be quiet?  We’re not even going to make it to the gate before we’re found out,” Bêlit said.  She snapped a withering glare at the pair, one hand holding the cloth turban hiding her long black hair.
“I’m only saying this is ridiculous.  Look at those walls, I could have climbed them when I was a boy,” Conan said, returning her glare.  “Remember it only worked in Asgalun because I scaled the wall and opened the gate from within.”
“And how many years ago was that?  You’re no longer a boy,” Juma said, “is my point.  And what would Bêlit and I do even if you could climb up there?  Those walls must be thirty feet high.”
Both men tried to stoop and shuffle in rags along with the rest of the shambling slaves they had rescued from the taken enemy ship.  As a group they trailed Bêlit, acting in the guise of her pale skin as an Aryan noblewoman leading her property through town to the back of the main keep.  Yet another ruse that wouldn’t last with any close inspection.
“I told you I would have lowered a rope,” Conan said, “or something.”
“I’m not looking to bet my life on ‘or something,’” Juma said.  “And she’s right, you speak like an elephant walks, lower your voice.”
“Listen, look,” Bêlit said.  “Shouting, people moving away at the edges of the crowd.  They’ve seen the ship aflame.  That’ll pull guards away to the harbor and, if the gods are with us, fewer eyes means we’ll get through that gate as part of the crowd.”
Conan grunted.  “And if that doesn’t work?”
Juma chuckled softly.  “I didn’t even know we had a first plan, never mind a second.  Thought all you Cimmerians liked to keep things simple?”
“Did Conn really say that to you?” Conan said.
“He did,” Juma said.
Conan fell silent.
“Almost at the gate now,” Bêlit said, keeping her eyes on the two guards remaining on either side of an arch in the castle wall.  She could make out the spiked ends of a raised portcullis she knew would be dropped at the first hint of trouble.  “Just a few more feet,” she said.
Bêlit led her group of slaves with her head held high and her stride confident.  As they walked between two wagon trains of merchants she could hear the guards talking to each other about the flaming ship spotted in the harbor.  Rumors would be rife for hours, of course, and they were discussing hearing everything from an attack to a mutiny.
“…maybe problems with the godfire,” one guard said to another.  “I was on this march in Valun once when the supply cart broke an axle and tipped a lit cauldron out.  Burned five horses and a squadron in a blink.”
The other one nodded and mumbled.  “Could be that.  I’d hate to be aboard ship with that fire.  I doubt it’s an attack, who would attack us?  Who could?”
“There are always rebels,” the first guard said.  “Pirates.  Don’t listen to them who tell you we can’t be attacked here.  Our armies march to the west, eventually we’ll meet someone who fights back.”
In moments Bêlit, Conan, Juma and the slave crew were through the gates and into the central courtyard of the castle.  Hundreds of people milled about in the bazaar of merchant stands and wagon carts, buying and trading goods.  Money exchanged hands between tall, fair-skinned, bright-eyed, blonde men, with a few women of similar looks trading here and there.  The dark-skinned, dead-eyed scuffle of their slaves silently moved goods back and forth upon command.
Bêlit brought her group to the outer rim of the open market, in the torch lit shadow of a horse stall.  “Well, they certainly trade like Shadizar on Mitra’s Eve,” she said.
“They trade, they breathe, they bleed,” Conan said.  “They’re like any other men, reaching until their hands are chopped off.”
“Is that a Cimmerian proverb?” Juma said.
“No.  But it should be,” Conan said.
“Listen,” Bêlit said, addressing the glassy stares of her unfortunate crew.  “You’ve come with us as far as you can.  You’re going to leave us now and you should walk around the bazaar.  Act like you’ve been sent to pick up a package.  Or something.”  She began unwrapping the winding cloth turban from her hair.
Juma said, “We’re just leaving them?”
Bêlit shook the long strands of her black hair free.  “Set’s Hell, I could care less what happens to them.  Let them stare blankly.  We’re here.  The Sons we captured swore the last anyone knew Aryas was here at the capital palace.  We’re going to find him.”
“All right, all right,” Juma said, “but remember the way you were torturing those two they would have sworn my mother was in this castle.”
Conan unwrapped the rags concealing swords and black leather hauberks they found aboard their now-blazing ship.  Juma doused the torch and the three began wiping soot over their faces and arms.
“He’s here,” Bêlit said.  “And he’s too comfortable by far.  Too easy to get into these walls.  He thinks distance, oceans and his soldiers can protect him.  The man in the great castle.”
“Are we even sure he’s a man?” Juma said.
“Now’s my turn to tell you two to stop squawking like wash women,” Conan said.  He began gently pushing the slaves out to the marketplace.  “Let’s go while there’s still distractions to be had.”
The three crept along the interior of the curtain wall, around the edge of the light and noise of the buying and selling.  They hugged the stone blocks behind various stables and supply buildings until they reached a corner where the outer wall met an interior wall, another defense to the innermost keep.  They knelt in the dirt in the deep shadows and spoke in whispers.
“I may talk like an elephant but you move like one, Juma,” Conan said.
“And you still think like one, Cimmerian,” Juma said.
Bêlit stared up at to the battlements above.  “Looks to be about forty, maybe fifty feet.  It’s time you get your chance at boyhood.  Think you can make it?”
Conan smiled.  “I never knew you to jest.  Stay here.  There’s a postern door on that gatehouse tower.  See it?  Meet me there.”
The seams between the blocks and the cracks in the mortar of the wall made easy purchase for his strong Cimmerian fingers.  Conan had begun climbing mountains soon after he could walk.  Taught by his father and grandfather, no ropes had been allowed.  A Cimmerian would climb or die.  Towers, castles, his skills had allowed him access into all manner of places he never should have been.  Tonight, years removed from that long ago training, with a man’s length left to go until he could reach the rough stone edge, his left hand slipped.  In a blink Conan found himself hanging from three fingers wedged in a crack and the toes of his boots scrambling for stability.  He looked down for a moment and saw the remote, shocked faces of Bêlit and Juma turned up at him.
Conan gripped the edge of the wall and pulled himself up, arms and shoulders burning more than he could ever remember or he would ever admit to Juma, and especially Bêlit.  With his eyes just above the battlement he could see the back of a guard leaning over the outer wall, presumably staring at the flaming spectacle in the harbor.  Conan gathered his breath and brought himself up and over the ledge.  He flexed his knees and shook his arms out and carefully slid the broadsword from the scabbard affixed to his back.  In four quick steps he was behind the guard, the man still oblivious to his danger and mesmerized by the ocean spectacle.
“This is for my son,” Conan said in the guard’s ear and clapped one massive hand over the man’s mouth.  The barbarian silently drew his sword’s edge across the exposed throat and then followed the guard’s leaden body down to the floor.  He rolled the corpse into the shadows against the wall and turned to find the entrance to the gatehouse.
Sometime later, Bêlit and Juma knelt near the postern gate, backs to each other, scanning for trouble.
“How long did he say it would take him?” Bêlit said.
“He didn’t,” Juma said.
“How long has it been?” she said.  “It feels like it’s been a long time.”
“I know,” he said.  “I’ve watched the moon travel far.”
“I’ve heard no cry raised, no alarm.” she said.  “They’d close everything down if they found an intruder, wouldn’t they?”
“One would think,” he said.
“What do we do?” she said.
“I ask myself the same question,” Juma said.

Chapter 24 Knock

 “My father climbed that,” Conn said, staring up at the high walls.  “I know he did.”
“I was thinking the same thing,” Valeria said, “but I thought you’d fly into a rage if I mentioned it.”
“Why?  I don’t hate my father,” Conn said.
“No, you don’t,” Valeria said, “but you definitely don’t like being compared to him.”
Conn kept measuring the height.  As large as the castle appeared from the water, it was even more impressive up close.  “That’s how they got in, I know it.  I don’t think I could have made that climb.”
“Exactly my point,” Valeria said.
“Will you two keep quiet?” Botali Kadiro said.  “Like children.  Keep your head down, Conn.”
“You’ve gotten past me being king I take it,” Conn said.
“Yes,” Botali said.  “Your royalty won’t save my life at the moment.”
 Valeria, blonde hair and blue eyes blending in easily, led their small group under the arched gate.  Conn and Botali shuffled along in rags amidst the slaves taken from the galley they had left behind.
“This is a mad plan,” Botali said.  “Mad.  Your father would be proud.”
“Did you have a better idea?  How else were we getting in?” Conn said.  “Can’t get over the walls.  Have no local contacts to sneak us in.  I’d say frontal assault isn’t going to work.  Walk in plain sight.  It’s the only way.  We all agreed.”
Valeria walked proudly past the gates, head high and confident, appearing every inch the Aryan noblewoman wrapped in a dress they found in the captain’s trunk.  Perhaps a present he had bought for a wife or mistress.
“How far do we take this?” Botali said.
“As far as we can,” Valeria said.
Head down, Conn gathered in what he could of the castle.  Stout battlements with roaming patrols and an interior curtain wall that held the main tower on a bluff overlooking the bay.  Guarded by water from three directions and multiple defensive enclosures from the fourth, this fortress would only fall at great cost.  If this was Aryas’ home he had chosen wisely.
“Your blonde hair and this bazaar provide some cover at least,” Conn said.  “The old man, Denn, he said this is a festival night so things would be busy.  At least Crom granted us that.”
“An Aryan noblewoman with her slaves.  We’re just part of the group,” Valeria said.
“What do we do now?” Botali said.
Valeria paused to gather herself.  “Head for the keep, of course.  Anything of importance is in there.  Conan would have thought the same.  If Aryas is here, if Conan is here, that’s where they’ll both be.”
“Agreed,” Conn said.
Botali said, ‘I wish I didn’t agree.  But look ahead at the keep’s gatehouse.  Those doors aren’t open.  No one’s going in or out.  We’re going to need some way in.”
Conn nodded slowly.  “He’s right about that.  We look like we should be here in the courtyard but they’ll be questions if we try to go beyond.  Who are you?  Why are you trying to get in there?”
“Let me handle that,” Valeria said, throwing her hair back, sinking deeper into the haughtiness of her character.  “Now quiet.”
It took several minutes to wend their way through the lines and milling of traders and gawkers in the marketplace.  Eventually, they cleared the throng and crossed a hundred paces of quiet, empty dirt to the closed wooden doors of the gatehouse.  Valeria stepped to the iron grate covering a small hatch, drew herself to appear inches beyond her height, and cocked a fist to rap against the thick oaken slab of the door.  Before she made contact a husky male voice spoke from dark holes in the stone above them.
“What business do you have?”
Valeria cleared her throat.  “I am Lisbeth, wife of Henrik Xanthocroi of Scythia,” she said in a cold, clear voice, eyes never leaving the level of the door in front of her.  “I have private business here this evening.”
The voice from above said, “Henrik Xanthocroi?”
“Yes,” Valeria said.  “My husband.  Let me and my slaves enter.  Now.”
After a few heartbeats that Conn felt were both loud and long, he heard metal sliding on metal and clicks and snaps that accompanied the unlocking of the gate.  The right half of the gate split and swung inward with a great creaking and grinding.  Two mailed Sons of Aryas bowed their blonde heads and said, “Lady Xanthocroi.”
“You took your time,” Valeria said, stepping into the gloom of the castle.
“Do you wish an escort, madam?” one Son said.
“I know where I’m going,” Valeria said, brushing past them.  Later, Conn would remember thinking the guards seemed curiously relieved the meeting was ending.
There were three stairways under high arches leading from the immediate interior of the gatehouse.  On either side the stairs lead up.  The middle arch lead down.  Hiding whatever hesitation she might have felt Valeria stepped confidently toward the middle stair and lead her troupe down the steps.  Several flights down, in the smoky flickering light of torches along the walls, she saw a small alcove.  The leader of the Red Brotherhood stepped in and motioned Conn and Botali to follow.
“What was that?” Botali said.
“Who in Set’s hell is Lady Xanthocroi?” Conn said.
“I told you I spent some time as a slave, a worker in their camps,” Valeria said.  “Once, for several days, we were visited by a man called Henrik Xanthocroi.  I can’t tell you his exact station but the Sons in our group soiled themselves when he walked by.  One time I had to serve him and his men in his quarters and he complained endlessly about his wife, Lisbeth.  The impression I took was she was the only thing on this world he was frightened of.  That and maybe Aryas himself.  Stood to reason if Henrik was frightened of her the poor idiots at the gate would be too.”
“Amazing,” Botali said.
“It was a huge chance,” Conn said.
“Did we have a choice?  And besides,” Valeria said, “from what I could tell there wasn’t an Aryan that didn’t instantly recognize Henrik.  Like I said, I can’t tell you exactly who he is but he’s in Aryas’ inner circle.  Either way, chance or no, we’re here.”
“Why pick the down stairs?” Conn said.  “Royal quarters are usually in the towers.  That’s where we’ll find Aryas, if he’s here, or anyone of importance for that matter.”
“I don’t know,” Valeria said.  “A feeling.  Let’s make sure we’ve got everybody.  One, two, eight, ten, fourteen.”
“Wait.  Fourteen?” Conn said.  “We have twelve.”
“You have two more,” Bêlit said, stepping out from the mute group of slaves and raising her head to draw back her hood.
“An ingenious plan,” Juma said, lifting the cloth covering his face.  “I knew King Conn would never think of it.”
“Juma,” Conn caught the rising volume in his throat and repeated the name again.  He embraced the Kushite warmly.  “You survived.  How are you here?”
“Time for that tale later,” Juma said.  “But I do thank you for being so easy to recognize in those rags.”
“I’m glad your plan worked, Bêlit,” Botali said.
“Bêlit?” Valeria said.  “Queen of the Black Coast Bêlit?  That’s as impossible as I am.  Why didn’t you tell us this, Botali?”
“I’m telling you now.  Bêlit of the Black Coast,” Botali said, “meet Valeria of the Red Brotherhood and King Conn of Aquilonia.”
 “You are Bêlit, Captain of the Tigress?” Valeria said.
“I am,” Bêlit’s dark eyes flashed.  “Valeria of the Red Brotherhood?  I have never heard the name.”
The Shemite pirate turned to Conn and said, “You are Conn.”
“And you are Bêlit,” Conn said.
Juma said, “It would seem the dead will give the living no peace these days.  But now that we’ve exchanged our pleasantries I think we have more pressing worries.”
“Where is my father?” Conn said.
“That is one of our problems,” Bêlit said.  “We have no idea.”

Chapter 25 Myths

“This is too easy,” Conn said.
“I would agree,” Juma said, “but I have little idea what else we can do.”
The group of five, Conn, Juma, Valeria, Bêlit and Botali, along with their shambling group of mute slaves, plunged further below ground.  The neat black outlines of the stone stairs lay in contrast to the flickering flames of oil torches lining the passageway.
“This doesn’t even make sense,” Conn said, looking up at the downward slope of the vaulted ceiling.  “This castle is built on a bluff.  The angle and distance we’ve traveled, there’s no way we should still be going down.”
“Could we be under the ocean?  Beyond the castle?” Botali said.
“What miners could do that?” Conn said.  “What men could do that?”
“Sorcery,” Juma said.  “No men needed.”
“I never thought we would meet,” Valeria said to Bêlit, ignoring the other conversation.
“Why would we?” Bêlit said, keeping her focus on what might be hiding in the shadows.
“Well, we wouldn’t,” Valeria said.  “It’s just that, it’s just that I grew up in Aquilonia.  You were legend there.  When I began sailing your tales were told as far away as even the Vilayet Sea.”
“You were under the flag?” Bêlit said.
Valeria nodded.  “I am.  I was.  I was a captain.  And there was one other female pirate in the world as far I knew.  Bêlit of the Black Coast.  Her raiders, the Tigress, her first mate, Amra.  Those stories made it to every campfire in the world.”
Bêlit laughed.  “You’ve heard of Amra?”
“Of course,” Valeria said.  “Tall and strong, he was your first sword and would command the ship as you lead the boarding parties.”
Bêlit turned to look at the blonde woman.  “No man leads my boarding party.”
Valeria said, “There were so many stories.  It was thought…it was told…the legend was that you died somewhere in Stygia, in Amra’s arms.”
Bêlit said, “Close enough to the truth, I guess.  At least I am remembered.”
“Conn told me you sailed with Conan?” Valeria said.  “Did Conan know Amra?  Was he there when it, when it happened?  That night in Stygia.”
“I’m not even sure it was Stygia,” Belit said.  “It was on no map.  But yes, he was there.”
“What became of Amra?” Valeria said.
“We’re looking for him now,” Bêlit said.
“Wait.  Conan was Amra?” Valeria said.  “Conan is Amra?”  The Red Brotherhood pirate nearly tripped down the next stair.
“Amazing how myths never tell the whole truth,” Bêlit said.  “And not surprising Amra never told you.  He only tells lovers what he has to.”
“How did you…?  Why would you think that?” Valeria said.
“This is Amra we speak of,” Bêlit said.  “Or Conan, for you, I guess.  I never thought I was his first love, nor was he mine.  And, if I think on it, I know there were many after me.  Look at Conn, there, as proof.  Neither of us are his mother, that I know.  Not with the way you look at him.  If you pursue that you might want to consider the mess you face when we find the father.  Family meals will be difficult.”  She paused.  “He is the Cimmerian’s mirror, isn’t he?”
“You’re much more awful than I’d hoped,” Valeria said.
“I am the Queen of the Black Coast, girl,” Bêlit said.  “What you think of me doesn’t matter.”
“Heat,” Conn broke back into conversation with the group at large.  “Can you feel it getting hotter?”
“I do,” Juma said.  “Priests tell us the hell of Set is buried deep in the ground.”
“Maybe that’s where we go,” Botali said.  “Maybe that’s where Aryas lives.”
“We haven’t been travelling that long,” Conn said.  “I’d like to think Set’s hell is deeper than a Hyborian water ditch.”
“To the side,” Bêlit said, motioning to the group.  “Juma, douse that torch there.  There’s light ahead.”
Once Juma snuffed the torch in a rag they could indeed make out a stronger glow on the stairs ahead.
“We keep the slaves walking and stay behind them,” Bêlit said.  “We’ll see what we see.  Move along,” she said, motioning to the hollow eyes of the crew.  “Walk slowly, straight down these stairs and only stop if you meet danger.”
Through the descent the light grew noticeably stronger and the rise of each stair shortened.  Soon they were walking on flagstones of a flat smooth floor ending in an arched passageway of bright orange light.  The heat, a pleasing warmth a hundred paces ago, now approached an uncomfortable sear, and sweat rolled down backs and beaded on foreheads.
“We’re almost at the end,” Conn said.
“Let the dead ones keep moving,” Bêlit said.  “Break off and to the side once they pass into whatever lies before us.”
The slaves kept shuffling forward at their quiet, relentless pace.  In a few steps they were beyond the arch and out into the light.  The group of five stepped away and crouched in a line against the end of the wall.  As luck would have it, Valeria wound up closest to the end with a full view of the chamber before them.
“What do you see, girl?” Bêlit said.
“I’m no girl, O Queen,” Valeria said.  “And thank the gods I’m not.  Because this may be Set’s hell.”
“What do you see?” Bêlit said.

Chapter 26 Hell

Valeria squinted behind a raised hand, reflexively turning away from the light and heat.
What lay beyond was a cavern, with a soaring ceiling far overhead in the shadows.  The slick smooth gray of the stone floor continued out of the arch to form a deep square ledge surrounding a pit of fire.  The flames reaching up seemed to come from deep within the world and cast a hellish glare around the vast chamber.  The blazing heat was oppressive, more than any natural flame could generate, and cast a haze through the air that warped and stymied normal vision and movement.  Dizzying activity filled the space.
In one corner, a knot of milk-eyed musicians played wild, discordant notes on strange instruments with blind, jerking movements.  Their sightless eyes were oblivious to the hypnotic arrhythmics of gyrating bodies slick with sweat.  Slack and uncaring male and female slaves poured wine and served food in various stages of undress, answering the call of whomever beckoned.  The beckoners were all of one piece.  The Sons of Aryas and His Daughters, chalk-skinned with fair hair and blue eyes, laid on huge flotillas of divans and pillows around the chamber’s edges.  Nude, soaking in the heat, their glistening bodies pulsed against the tones of the music.  They pleasured each other and called on slaves to complete their acts.  Valeria dropped her hand and stared as men lay with women, and with other men.  She watched women kiss and writhe into each other’s bodies.  In another corner, she saw an Aryan man slice the throat of a defenseless slave woman while another man thrust orgasmically behind him.  He howled and screamed in ecstasy as the blood sprayed over his hands and face.
Valeria shook her head as if waking from a trance.  “This is beyond all belief,” she said.
Crouching behind her, Bêlit surveyed the scene and said, “Look there, and there.”  She pointed twice.
The first object Bêlit pointed at was a throne directly across from them.  Sitting atop it was an impossibly large, nude Aryan man with scrolling words of color and symbols tattooed into his body.  Now that Valeria saw so many of the Aryans naked, she realized most if not all had some form of symbols adorning their skin.  The man on the throne watched the proceedings with a satisfied smile, his long blonde hair nearly orange in the flames, and she could see the huge muscles of his body flex as he stuck a golden chalice out for wine.  A female slave with long black hair and lustrous pale skin kneeled before him, only her backside visible to Valeria as she worked to pleasure the monstrosity.  The giant Aryan took the refilled cup and swung it up to gesture near the ceiling, saying something to the Sons around him who laughed in response.  It was when Valeria followed that gesture that she understood the second thing Bêlit had pointed to.
Overwhelmed by the scene, Valeria had at first missed it, high up as it was in the shadows and haze.  In the center of the cavern, suspended by chains over the flames of the abyssal pit, was a cross of iron rods.  Chained to that cross, with the metal superheating and surely burning into his flesh with each passing moment, was Conan.  His head hung upon his chest.  Given the distance, and the heat, Valeria could not tell if he still lived.
Bêlit turned and grabbed Conn by the wrist.  “Come here, Conn.  Look there, over the chasm.  That is your father and if there is an ounce of Cimmerian blood in you now is the time and place to let it boil.  Your people have a rage for battle.  You have a rage for battle.  Unleash it.”
Conn stared up at the still body of his father in silence.  Juma and Botali Kadiro crept forward to see what was happening.
“It is Set’s Hell,” Juma said.
“Mitra save us,” Botali said.
Oblivious to the small band of invaders in the shadowed archway, one of the naked Sons of Aryas staggered over to the group of slaves that had walked into the cavern and stopped at the pit’s edge.  He looked them over and called back to the nearby set of couches.  “Look at this.  How they wander without direction.  Just like in life.”
“Free them for a bit,” another Son called back to him.  Taking a rest from the orgy around him he hung his arms over a divan to enjoy the show.
“Yes,” the first Son said, “I’ll do that.  A mercy.  More than they deserve though it doesn’t matter.  They’ll be back.”  He turned to the slaves.  “Go ahead,” he said, “into the fire.  All of you.”
Silently and without pause, the little grouping stepped forward and over the edge, hurtling down into the flames.  Valeria tensed to rise and attack but Bêlit gripped her arm tightly and said, “Wait on it.”
Across the cavern at the throne, the pale skinned slave woman finished her task and sat silently, head down, beside the foot of the huge Aryan.  He turned his goblet up and drained his wine again.  Smiling, he rose to his feet and clapped two huge hands together.  The music from the blind minstrels ceased and the twisting gyrations of sex around the room gradually wound down to silence.  He spoke in an overpowering baritone that reverberated throughout the chamber.
“We, His Sons and Daughters, thank Lord Aryas for his blessings on this night, our feast night, the night of Vokeskin.  For on this night we celebrate in the glory of our civilization and our history, and on the purity of our people.”
“That’s not Aryas,” Juma said.
“No, damn me to a hell worse than this,” Bêlit said.
“What do we do now?” Valeria said.
Bêlit waved for quiet.
“I,” the large Aryan continued from atop his throne, “thank you all, noble men and women, for your contributions.  This is a difficult time for all as we wage war to purify our world of the misshapen and ugly mistakes of which you see so many examples here tonight.  I know what we do is a righteous and just cause, and our Lord Aryas, as the one true God, has given us the tools to complete our task.  His blessings allow us to clean the world with His fire and His power grants us the return of these animals as our instruments, instead of our sorrows.  We purify.  We purify for the good of this world as these creatures cannot be trusted with our future, thus we must remove their states and cities.  We must remove their towns and homes.  We must remove their very minds, so that we, the Sons and Daughters of Aryas, may make this world in our image, in His image.  To Our Lord Aryas, to the greatness of His Glory.”
The gathered Aryans cheered in the dancing shadows of the flames.  Many rose to their feet and swayed drunkenly.  They shouted and yelled and raised their fists in the air.  The large man on the throne waved his arms, signaling for quiet.
“And now, I,” he said, “Muller Paterculus, Baron of Andronova, present to you on this Our Creators Day, the offering of blood.  Look there,” and he pointed to the unmoving Conan, hanging from the iron cross above the flames.  “The blood of their greatest king, a true gift to Lord Aryas and the Father, both the one true God.  The sacrifice of any leader of the mongrels pleases and nourishes He Who Has Risen and He Who Is Above.  Tonight’s offering will please more than all.  For that is Conan, from a tribe of mongrels in the foreign lands called Cimmerians.  He was once king in Aquilonia, another of the barbaric lands and now one of our satraps.  His tales, among his own, are often told, and have been known to us for some years.  His sacrifice will be marked by Our Lord and it is a privilege indeed for you all to witness.  Now with no further words, we watch the purification of this beast.”
Paterculus motioned to two slaves standing by a vertical winch that wound the chain from which Conan’s metal crucifix hung.  As they began to turn the great drum handles of the mechanism in their slow, halting manner, Conan’s iron cross jumped to life and then descended towards the infernal fires below.  The throng of Aryans rose as one to stand.  In one voice, they began a steadily rising chant, a wail that rose to mark each link of the chain bringing the Cimmerian closer to death.  The barbarian remained still.  His flesh smoked against the iron, his head continued to hang.  The damp locks of his grey-shot hair swayed and covered his face.
Bêlit kept her hand on Conn’s shoulders through the twisted convocation, steadying him and allowing him to find the full depths of his rage.  As Conan began his descent, she lifted her hand and bent to Conn’s ear.
“Now,” she said.
On that, Conn summoned a scream from the crags and tundra of Cimmeria, a blood-curdling yell that would have made his grandfather proud in the frozen wastes of his homeland.  The young King of Aquilonia, barbarian by descent, civilized man by birth, leapt into the chamber of horrors, sword drawn and frenzied.  Before the first Aryan body hit the floor he had pulled the blade free and leapt in a berserk rage to the next pale face he could find.
“Follow him,” Bêlit said to Valeria and Juma.  “Botali, with me to the chain.”
And with that the four plunged into the room.  Into hell.

Chapter 27 Battle

The chamber descended into chaos.  Screams echoed off walls and blood pooled on the smooth stone floor.  Some of the Sons grabbed at weapons hidden under couches and divans.  Others merely ran, as fast as feet would carry them, away from the whirling wrath that was King Conn of Aquilonia.  His face a mask of violent crimson, he sang death songs of Cimmeria and cut through the Aryan ranks.  His body became streaked with the red harvest of his enemies.  Every few steps a blade would meekly meet his sword, token resistance held by a trembling Aryan hand.  Conn swung his sword with such force he snapped the blade of any foolish enough to meet him and took the heads of his opponents for good measure.  Valeria and Juma stepped behind him, backs as close as they could manage, and picked off what Conn’s blade could not reach.
Those three laid waste to all before them, and Bêlit lead Botali in the opposite direction around the central pit to the great capstan the slaves continued to turn.  Without thought or fear they shuffled around the large wheel, bringing Conan ever closer to the eternal.
“He’s gone mad,” Botali said to Bêlit over the din, nodding toward Conn.
“He’s found his nature,” Bêlit said.
“Behind us,” Botali said, his sword blocking an axe aimed at Bêlit’s back, “some are escaping up the stairs.”
“There’s too many to kill,” Bêlit said.  “But it’s a long climb, just get to Amra.”
Baron Muller Paterculus, double-bladed axe in each hand, rallied the soldiers he could near the throne and shouted to clear a path to Conn.  Botali had a moment to watch across the chamber as Paterculus shoved Aryans and slaves alike away from him and down into the flames.  Botali lost sight of the bodies as they descended but the screams ended abruptly with a sizzling flash and a burst of fire jetting toward the ceiling.  Licks of flame came near the descending body of Conan and even brushed his skin.  The barbarian remained still.
Paterculus faced Conn and bellowed his own savage war cry.  The Baron’s remaining soldiers fanned out and Valeria and Juma sprung from behind Conn to fend them off.  Conn screamed and jumped straight up in the air as Paterculus’ twin axes sliced horizontal arcs beneath his feet.  Conn came down with his sword aimed at the Baron’s forehead but the big Aryan was faster than his bulk belied and he stepped aside to let Conn’s blade swing down through empty air.  With panther reflexes Conn turned his miss into a diving tuck-and-roll, coming to his feet on the Baron’s opposite side.
Bêlit’s sword strokes were less powerful than Conn’s but no less savage, or deadly in their outcome.  The Shemite pirate kicked and punched and brought her steel through the limbs and breasts of the Aryans.  At one point, Botali spun in a guarding maneuver and caught site of Bêlit ripping out the unguarded throat of a man she had gotten behind with her bare hand.
Botali said, “I’m going for the chain.”
In three steps he made it to the winch.  Raising his blade to strike the slaves down he paused and thought.  “Raise that man back up,” he said, pointing to Conan’s body over the fire.  “Bring him over here.”  The slaves looked up at him briefly and turned to reverse their course around the great wheel.  The iron contraption containing the barbarian began to rise.
Botali turned to Bêlit as she fought.  “See?  Sometimes you can-”
Whatever Botali Kadiro was about to add only the gods may know.  A foot of Aryan steel emerged from his chest and the shocked first mate could only look down in surprise.  He dropped his own blade and grabbed the sword puncturing his torso, as if trying to pull it out from the front.  The Son of Aryas behind him rammed the sword in farther and twisted, causing Botali’s body to spasm and twitch.  The Kordavan sailor fell to the ground in a heap, eyes open to the smoky ceiling above.
“Botali,” Bêlit said.
Valeria and Juma held their ground, swords forming a defensive wall around the circling hulks of Conn and Paterculus.  The two had made several passes at each other, minor cuts bleeding on arms and shoulders as evidence of their evenly matched prowess.  Conn’s battle lust still held but he retained enough skill to realize every time he thrust past one of the Aryan leader’s weapons the second axe was following at a different angle.  The Baron’s arsenal was one of feints and double attacks that were the product of decades of practice and training.  Conn fought with speed and passion and the bloodlust of all his lineage.
“Finish him, Conn,” Valeria said over her shoulder, parrying a blade and following the motion to slice the knee tendon of an Aryan.
“There’ll be more any moment,” Juma said, his sword taking the throat of another Aryan.
Across the chamber Bêlit saw the stalemate developing and cleared away the last soldier on her side with a kick to the inner leg of a man that collapsed him to the floor.  In a blink his head separated from his body and went spinning off into the fire.  The pirate spun around a few times to make sure she was in the clear and then turned her attention to the winch.  The two slaves had raised Conan fully from the flames and now they handled a second, interior set of gears and levers on the machine that brought the iron cross from the center of the pit to directly above Bêlit’s head.  They then returned to their original motion on the capstan’s controls and lowered the metal beam to the floor.  Bêlit rushed over and saw that spikes had been driven through the barbarian’s hands and his feet were bound to the metal by rope.  She sliced the rope but reaching out to touch the spikes she realized how hot the metal was and jerked her hand away, wincing.  The pirate tore a strip from her leggings and wrapped her hands.  Bêlit pulled at the large round nails impaling the Cimmerian and blanched as his arms fell away but strips of skin remained on the searing iron.  The shape of a cross burned the back of his body and his flesh bubbled and smoked.  Conan lay on the ground and Bêlit began slapping his cheeks and jaw.
“Get up, Amra.  Now,” she said.  “There is no time.  Your son is here.  He needs you.”
Conan the barbarian opened one eye and said through cracked lips, “My son?”
Bêlit laughed that the man was alive at all.  “Yes, your son.  Up.”
Conn could tell Paterculus was tiring.  The second axe was coming in a hair slower, Conn’s own aim a bit closer to the mark.  Paterculus also realized this and began gathering himself for one final onslaught.  He knew that this part of the battle was lost as the three friends of this demon fighter had cleared most of his soldiers from the room, but he had seen some escape to the fortress above and surely they would return in force.  If he could just kill this dark-haired mongrel at least that would be one less opponent for his men.
The Baron leaned back bringing both axes behind his head, allowing Conn’s sword tip to trace a line on his chest.  As Conn’s sword passed the huge Aryan swung his arms forward through their natural arcs, using all the great leverage and strength of his body, and aimed a blade at each of Conn’s shoulders.  Conn realized he didn’t have an angle to parry, or the time to dodge the twin blows.  He dropped his sword and reached up to catch the hafts of the Aryan’s axes.  Now, the two men were joined.  At first, Paterculus began bending Conn backward, using his superior height and weight to overpower the Aquilonian.  Valeria and Juma and the few remaining Sons simultaneously stopped their fighting to turn and watch.  In a moment, it seemed that Conn would be bent and bowled over under the larger man, and then at his mercy with two axes at his throat.  Conn, truth be known, thought this too, for a moment, and felt his body begin to give way.
Conn crossed his arms and fell back, watching the Aryan’s axes cross and then the whole man come forward following Conn’s momentum.  As Conn relaxed and let his back hit the floor the bits of the axes dug into his shoulders but he also raised up a foot to plant in the Aryan’s stomach.  Conn hit the floor and pushed his leg out and watched Paterculus flip over his head and onto his back leaving both axe handles in Conn’s hands.  The King of Aquilonia jumped to his feet, spun, and brought both axes down into the head of the prone Aryan.  Face obliterated, Baron Muller Paterculus twitched once and lay still.
The remaining Sons broke away and ran to the darkened arch of the tunnel leading up and away to air and reinforcements.  As Valeria surveyed the chamber she saw blood, limbs, corpses, motionless slaves, and the Queen of the Black Coast half-carrying a broken and nearly lifeless Conan.
“Juma, help,” Bêlit said, waking the Kush chieftain from his daze.
The words also snapped Valeria back to action and she rushed over to Conn, still standing with an axe in each hand, looking down at the body of the Aryan war chief and heaving.  He bled from a dozen wounds and the twin bites into his shoulders would need stitching.
“Conn,” Valeria said.  “Conn?  Can you hear me?  Conn?”
Conn said, “There are many ways to kill the bear, my grandfather once said.  According to my father, at least.”
“Conn,” Valeria said.
Conn raised his eyes to look at her, blinking, as if seeing the pirate woman for the first time.  “Aye, Valeria, I can hear you.”
“Let’s go Conn,” Valeria said, taking his arm, “although where I’m not sure.”
They made their way to Bêlit and Juma, both dragging Conan along the floor.  “What now?” Valeria said.
“We fight our way out,” Bêlit said.
“Impossible,” Juma said.
“Then what’s your plan?” Bêlit said.
Conan’s voice was difficult to hear at first, it was so ragged and low.  But he managed to gather a leg under him and raise his worn face up a bit.  He pointed a shaking finger to the throne and they could make out him saying, “Behind the throne, a door.  Saw it from up there.”
Valeria ran behind the throne and saw an arch naturally obscured by the similar stonework and lighting, hiding in plain sight unless you were up close, or had the eyes of a Cimmerian.  “It’s here,” she said.  “Hurry.”
Conn took Bêlit’s place and he and Juma carried his father, but as they passed the throne the barbarian shot out a hand and grabbed the black hair of the slave girl they had seen with Petraculus when they first entered the chamber of horrors.
“Hurry father, we don’t have time,” Conn said.
“Let her go Conan,” Juma said.  “There’s too many to save.”
But Conan growled and kept the woman’s hair wrapped in his fist and dragged her behind them.  Passing through the arch they turned a corner and found Valeria in a hemispherical grotto with stalactites pointing down into a pool of water.  In moments, Bêlit emerged from the water and exhaled.
“Under and up,” Bêlit said.  “It’s a short swim down and under a rock edge and then I swear that leads out and up to the bay.”
“Must be thirty fathoms down, all told, judging by the stairs and the bluff,” Juma said, considering the geometry in his head.
“What if it leads nowhere?” Valeria said.
“What if it does?” Bêlit said.  “Do you have a better idea?  There’s an army headed down those stairs.  We’re four blades and half a dead man.”
“We go,” Conn said.  “I’ll swim with my father.  I’m not sure he can make it on his own.”
“Wait,” Conan said.  “Wait a moment.”
“No time,” Conn said.
“Wait,” Conan said.  “Look at the slave girl.”
Conn shook his head but grabbed the hair of the motionless slave and snapped her head back.  He looked at her face and gasped.
“Mother?” Conn said.
“Zenobia,” Conan said.  “We can’t leave her here.  Not alive.”

Chapter 28 Sum

“Mother.”  Conn held Zenobia’s face in his hands, a face that stared back at him with lifeless eyes.
Conan knelt beside them, coughing and holding his side where the tortures of the evening had left him with broken ribs.  The skin on the back side of his body had begun to cool and dry.
“That is not your mother,” Conan said.  “That is dark sorcery.”
“It is Zenobia and you know it, father,” Conn said.  “She is no more an illusion than Bêlit and Valeria.  They stand before us.  They have risen from the dead.  They talk, they walk, they think.  Why not my mother?  Why not your wife?”
“That I cannot answer,” Conan said.  “But that is not your mother.  Look in her eyes.  She is not there.”
Valeria stood by the hall leading to the throne room.  “They’re coming.  We have to go.”
His face a mask of pain, Conan rose to his feet in spasms and laid a hand on Conn’s shoulder.  “She won’t make it.  She won’t make it to the surface.  And even if she does, not like this.”
Conn looked at him.  “What are you saying?”
“You know what I’m saying,” Conan said.
Conn shook himself free from his father’s grasp.  “You’re not killing my mother.”
“That’s not your mother, Conn,” Conan said.  “It’s what I’m telling you.  That is the form of Queen Zenobia of Aquilonia, your mother, my wife, but it is not her.  That is just a shell.”
“You’re not killing her,” Conn said.  Looking around, wild-eyed, he said to Bêlit and Juma, both silently watching the drama unfold, “Bêlit?  Juma?  You hear me?  You understand?”
Bêlit shook her head.  “I’m the wrong person to ask.  I’m just a shade myself.  I can’t tell you why I can say these words and she cannot.  And I did not know the woman in life.  But if she had the spirit and will to hold your father’s love there is no way she would choose this end.”
Juma said, “I’m sorry, Conn, but Bêlit’s words are true.  If there is a day in the future you meet me like this, the best way you can greet me is with a blade.”
“No, no,” Conn said, blinking through tears.  “It’s been so long since I’ve seen her.  Mother,” he cried, shaking Zenobia’s shoulders.  “Wake up, mother.  Talk to me.”  Zenobia blinked and looked up into Conn’s bleary eyes, awaiting a command.
“Conn,” Valeria said.
“I’ll take her,” Conn said.  “We’re not leaving her here.  We are not killing her.”
Conan reached for Conn, draping an arm across his shoulders.  At his side the barbarian held a dagger that Bêlit had wordlessly passed into his hand.
“Son,” Conan said.
“Father,” Conn said, choking the words through tears.  “Don’t.  I can’t.”
“You won’t have to,” Conan said, and plunged the tip of the dagger into Zenobia’s neck.  Her eyes widened slightly, but no sound passed her lips as she slumped to the floor.  Her life blood spilled down her chest and onto the smooth stone of the grotto.
“No,” Conn said.  “No.”  He followed her down to the floor, cradling her still form in his arms.  She offered no last words to him, no acknowledgment of his pain.  In a few heartbeats her blood stopped pumping and her body lay motionless.
Valeria came running back into the room.  She took one look at the scene, sheathed her sword and said, “I’m sorry, but they’re here.  We have to go.”
Bêlit came to Conan’s side and wrapped her arm around him, supporting him through the pain.  “We’re going now, you’ll swim with me.  You can make it.”
Juma came to Conn and gently began to pry the young man from his mother’s corpse.  “Come young king.  There will be other days.”
Valeria jumped into the water and resurfaced after a moment.  “Botali gave orders to Denn and the crew,” she said.  “They were to anchor just south of the lighthouse at the mouth of the bay.  That’s the marker.  When you get to the surface, sight the lighthouse and swim.”
Juma and Bêlit both nodded, and lead their charges to the water.  As they took their final breaths and dove below the surface they could hear the shouts and footsteps from the throne room.  In a moment they were out of the grotto and into the open bay lying before the great castle on the bluff.  There were a few disorienting moments in the pitch black of the depths but they stayed close enough to one another to feel the buffeting force of their swim strokes.  Gradually, the intense pressure in their ears began to lessen even as the dwindling oxygen in their lungs brought panic to the edges of the journey.  After an interminable amount of effort the waters around them began to lighten and it appeared as if their forms were outlined in silver.  The full moon was a blessing.
“There,” Bêlit said, pointing, once they had all surfaced and filled their lungs with air.  At least some luck was with them this night.  They had surfaced a few hundred feet from their waiting ship.
A day later, Conan sat on a barrel head near the aft railing of the sail-galley.  With a blanket on the burned skin of his back protecting him from further damage in the harsh light of the sun, he thought on the days since he had come to these foreign lands.  He thought on his days, and his wife, and the son he had found again.  He thought on all the adventures of his life, all that he could remember, and he watched the water and he felt old.  Older than he had ever felt, and perhaps the only time he had ever truly considered the end of things.
“Lost in thought?” Bêlit said, quietly standing over his shoulder.
“Aye,” Conan said.
“And?” she said.
“I’ve always lived in the moment, in the battle, in the arms of a lover,” Conan said.  “You.  Zenobia.  Valeria, I’m sure you’ve figured.  Countless others.  Gods, demons, giants.  Wizards and kings and men who would be gods that died screaming on my blade.  I’ve always been prepared that any moment in this wild life might be my last.  What I’ve never prepared for was maybe I’m looking forward to it.”
“That’s more thought than I’ve ever heard you reveal,” Bêlit said.
“Ah,” Conan said.  “Maybe.  Maybe.  I’ve always preferred jests and threats and war cries to make my enemies tremble.  Maybe now I’m just down to thought.”
“Sad days,” Bêlit said.
“If all else fails,” Conan said.  “How’s Conn?”
“Ask him yourself,” Bêlit said.  “Speak of the devil and he appears.”
“Son,” Conan said, turning on his barrel to meet the King of Aquilonia.
“Father,” Conn said.  “We’ve been sailing south east for some time.  Juma and Valeria are wondering what the orders are for a final bearing.”
“What do you think we should do, Conn?” Conan said.
Conn thought.  “I think I set out on this journey to kill Aryas for taking my kingdom.  Now he has far worse crimes to account for.”
“Agreed,” Conan nodded.  “I came west on the hint of dreams.  Maybe it was you that brought me, maybe it was Aryas.  Maybe it was my own diseased fever of the mind.  But I agree with you, there is more now.  I’ve told you what I learned hanging above those flames, listening to those pale devils talk.  Aryas lives in a supposedly impenetrable fortress in the midst of some land called The Shifting in the southern continent of Nord.  From what you’ve told me, our country of Aquilonia, and maybe all of the lands we know in the west, are overrun by traitors and his Sons.  Maybe nothing is left.”
“That’s where we stand,” Conn said.
“Well, as I’ve sat here, on this barrel, thinking on all this,” Conan said, “it seems to me at least we can take something from this nightmare.  We know Aryas exists now.  We know what the Sons are.  We know their weapons and tactics, some of them at least, and we know they can use our dead.  I take it this is more than you knew that night in the palace in Tarantia?”
“Yes,” Conn said.  “But that was my fault.  I hid behind walls instead of riding out and finding out for myself.”
“You did what a ruler should do, Conn,” Conan said.  “For that is what you are.  A king.  You were present and caring for your people.  I’m just a penniless adventurer.  It made sense for me to sail the ocean looking for trouble.  Sense enough for me, anyway.”
Juma and Valeria gathered behind Bêlit.  “Have we decided?” Valeria said.
“I need to get back to Kush,” Juma said.  “I would know what has become of my family.”
“I agree,” Conan said.  “The five of us aren’t storming wherever Aryas hides himself, not now and not in this shape, for me at least.  I think we need to occupy him with an enemy that fights back.  I say we all head east.  Back across the ocean and to our lands.  I don’t care how trained these Sons of Aryas are, or whatever sorcery they have, they haven’t wiped out everyone yet.  There’s always a resistance.  We go back.  We organize that resistance.  We push back and focus Aryas’ attention.  Then we’ll figure out what we do about getting to him and cutting out his heart.”
Bêlit said, “Acceptable.”
Valeria nodded.
Juma said, “I go to Kush, where do you go?”
“My instinct is Aquilonia,” Conn said, “but I don’t know what’s left.”
“I was thinking,” Conan said, “that if Aryas has been seducing key nobles of our lands, maybe we should start in a place that has none.”
Bêlit, Juma and Conn all exchanged a look.
“What?” Valeria said.
“He means Cimmeria,” Conn said.
“Yes,” Conan said.  “We introduce the Sons of Aryas to the hordes of Cimmeria.”