Conan the Warlord

ISBN 10: 0812542681 / ISBN 13: 9780812542684
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Synopsis: In the ancient land of Nemedia, Conan of Cimmeria agrees to impersonate Baron Eihnarson's son and heir in order to escape a foul prison cell--at least until he can escape completely, with a pouch full of gold. Calissa, the Baron's sensuous daughter, has other plans for Conan, as does Evadne, the voluptuous rebel maiden. Palace intrigues swirl--poison in the cup and the assassin's dagger in the dark--and Conan must lead the army of Diander against the Cult of the Snake, the demon which burns and slays all whom it does not concert to half-serpent slaves of an ancient evil. In mouldering tombs the dead Lords of Einharson stir, and rise to strike down any who would threaten their line.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.: Chapter 1
 
The Dance of the Clubs
 
 
The dungeon was rank with the smells of human misery. Its fetid gloom made a tangible fog of despair that somehow was only deepened by the single source of light: a thin, dusty ray falling from a window grating high overhead. Where it struck the water puddled together with rotting hay on the floor, wisps of steam arose.
A score or more of the room's prisoners lounged or squatted in the shadows around its rough stone walls. Some of them were Nemedian serfs, swarthy-faced men clad in coarse, knee-length shirts corded at the waist with frayed rope. Others had more exotic rags and a more foreign look: jaunty street-thieves of Dinander, or wealthless travelers run afoul of municipal authority. The inmates varied widely in their physical health also, from the robust toughs loitering in choice positions near the cell door, to peasant wretches broken by torture, moaning in the darkest corners.
Least fortunate of all was the one who sprawled facedown in the center of the wet floor, his limbs twisted under him and one dirty, sandaled ankle protruding into the barred patch of daylight. It was his plight that seemed to concern his fellows the most, and they called attention to it in loud voices.
"Jailer! Poor Stolpa's dead! Come haul him away!"
"Yes, come and get him. He's starting to stink!"
A stout, full-bearded prisoner ambled to the wooden door and gave it three hard kicks that failed even to rattle its heavy timbers. He leaned down and shouted through the peephole: "Warden! Come along here! The fellow's been dead half the morning. He's going to sprout maggots!"
"Get rid of him! Get him out!" A chorus of yells and hoots built to a raucous crescendo. All the able men contributed lustily, with one exception.
He was a northern barbarian--a tall, well-muscled youth of perhaps eighteen seasons, with shaggy black hair and the faintest shadow of a beard. His ill-fitting townsman's shirt and trousers made a parody of his hulking size; yet as he lounged against the wall near the cell door, his catlike ease belied the ungainliness of his garb. He kept his eyes steadily on the doorway, whispering at intervals to the man beside him, a broken-nosed ruffian who now and again added a jeer to the general outcry.
"They are coming!" The crook-nosed man's battered face suddenly grew serious. "Just look to your own part, Conan! The others will do theirs."
"Aye, Rudo. May Crom favor us!"
A loud thump sounded at the door. The youth eased himself upright as his cellmates' shouts died away.
"You scum!" a gravelly voice racketed through the peephole. "Let's have some order in there, or I'll shoot quarrels into the lot of you!"
The bearded door-kicker took a step forward in front of the spyhole, spreading his hands amicably, and pointed to the motionless one in the center of the floor. "Your Honor, Stolpa's been dead for hours, and the cell's crowded as it is. We'd like to have him out of here, please."
"Dead, eh?" the unseen warder rasped. "And which of you miscreants throttled him?"
The spokesman nervously clasped his hands. "No one, sir. He's been ailing for some time, as you know."
"Well then, let his ailing carcass rot. And yours with it, Falmar!" The voice murmured irritably aside for a moment, then came back to the eyehole. "How do I know it's not a trick?"
A stir of displeasure sounded among the prisoners, and crook-nosed Rudo stepped quickly from his place beside the barbarian. He went to the middle of the cell and, waving aside the bearded man, addressed the door. "Sir. With your permission...."
Elaborately he swung back his buskined foot, aimed and planted a kick in the middle of the inert body, with force enough to drive it a handsbreadth across the slimy floor.
"Stolpa's suffering has ended, sir." Rudo faced the door and lowered his head slightly. "Ours is only commencing. Will you take him, sir?"
The prisoners waited, as still as stones. After a moment an indistinct question and answer were exchanged outside the cell. Then the voice barked in through the peephole, "All right. But you must fetch him out, in case he died of the creeping palsy. Two of you carry him forth, no more."
Rudo and Falmar stooped over the body and hoisted it up by its legs and arms. As the dull sliding of the doorbolt sounded, the inmates shifted nervously.
The heavy panel grated inward.
"Come on, then! Be quick about it." The harsh voice belonged to a man with a gray-jowled face, wearing the bronze helmet and red-leather vest of a municipal guard. He indicated the way through the door with a jerk of his crossbow, and the corpsebearers lugged their burden forward. A second, leaner jailer grasped the door by its bolt brackets, waiting to close it on their heels.
As they passed through the portal, the prisoners' tense watchfulness finally disintegrated; they made sudden, swift rush for the exit. The northern youth sprang to the door and, seizing the nearest guard's arm so as to wrench it free of the door handle, dragged the man bodily inside the cell; meanwhile, the two corpse-carriers set violently on the senior warder. Their attack was aided by their dead burden, Stolpa, who sprang out of their arms in a miraculous, frenzied resurrection.
Inside the dungeon the young barbarian took precious moments to beat down the guard with savage blows of his elbows and fists. He seized the man's cudgel, wrenching and twisting at its lanyard until he heard joints crack in the wrist it was tied to; finally the thong pulled loose. Clutching the hardwood baton, he threw aside its former owner, relinquishing him to the driving feet and fists of other prisoners.
Then, shrilling a bloodcurdling war-whoop, he hurled himself into the stream of men pouring through the doorway.
By that time the wardroom was a mass of fighting bodies. The thick-jowled warden was down and disarmed, trying to crawl out from beneath the fight, his face bright with blood from a split in his scalp. At least four other guards had jointed the fray; as the barbarian shouldered through the crowd, two more uniformed men mustered up the narrow stone stair from the torture-rooms.
The youth met the second of them at the top of the steps, his club already slashing in air. The stroke was partly wasted on the edge of the warder's helm; nevertheless, it sent the man tumbling back down to the torchlit doorway at the stairwell's bottom.
In an instant the first guard turned back to avenge his companion; the youth twisted aside, and the cudgel-blow struck him smartingly across the shoulders. The two fenced, oak clacking against oak, until the northerner landed a rap across the other's knuckles. As the guard's baton slipped from agonized fingers, a cracking blow across the eyes laid him flat. A straggly haired inmate swiftly fell upon him to appropriate his weapon.
Meanwhile, the barbarian drove toward the ascending stair, where more guards clustered. There crooknosed Rudo flailed at them with the stock of the chief warder's discharged crossbow, while other prisoners sought to grapple close and get inside the swing of the defenders' cudgels. Falmar strove fiercely against a burly guard, strangling him with his own stick; the scrawny Stolpa lay sprawled on the floor against the base of the stairs. This time his portrayal of a dead man looked even more authentic than before.
The young barbarian threw himself into the skirmish line, and struck viciously at the warders, who were already hard-pressed. Since metal hats covered their heads, he aimed slanting blows at their necks. He was quickly rewarded with a snap and a scream as a collarbone gave way.
A fierce battle-rhythm possessed the youth. His movements among guards and prisoners became a violent, intricate dance. When an enemy's cudgel nicked an arm or raked across his ribs, the flare of pain only quickened the tempo. Dodge aside, drive forward, parry, strike! Primitive blood chanted a savage war song in his ears.
The turmoil that raged around him seemed to slow and become trivial and remote. He felt all-powerful, invulnerable, his foes falling left and right before him like scythed stalks toppling in a grainfield.
Then the northerner was brought back to immediacy by urgent cries from behind. Dazedly, shaking off his battle-trance, he glanced around to see that more guards had come from the lower dungeon and sealed off the cell's exit. Some of the prisoners had either been driven back into the stinking hole or had never left it, due to cowardice or physical inability; now the mutineer's force was divided. Fletta, the tall, moonfaced interrogator, stood at the cell door, backed by two guards and plying a copper mallet against the skulls of those who tried to exit the cell or clear its entryway.
A misfortune, clearly, and a dangerous one to turn back and try to correct now. Still, there was good hope for most of the prisoners to escape up the dungeon stair. Only two guards defended it, and they were retreating up the steps before the flailing clubs of Rudo and Falmar, who led the attack.
Then suddenly a new commotion sounded above. Fresh defenders came streaming through the archway, hurrying down the railless, curving stair. These were Iron Guardsmen of the province's elite army, clad in black-metal caps and cuirasses; as they approached the fray, they drew long, curved sabers.
Their commander strode through the arch at the top and watched them descend; he was a lean, distinguished-looking man with trim black mustachios. He placed his hand upon the hilt under his cloak, yet remained on the edge of the landing to survey the scene, turning aside only to whisper a word to a lesser officer who started down the stair. Then, calm and taciturn, he gazed down--directly it seemed, at the young northerner.
Thereafter the fight was short and brutal, the luckier prisoners falling before the warder's vengeful cudgels, the less fortunate methodically hacked or skewered by the Iron Guard. The northerner was hemmed in by guardsmen and disarmed by one who forced his thick, leather-vested body between the youth and his straining club. When he continued to struggle, a stinking shirt was clapped over his face from behind and he was dragged to his knees.
Yet he fought on against the cruel fists striking him from unseen directions. At any moment he expected to feel the chill of cold steel raping his guts, but for some reason his captors only pummeled and restrained him. His arms were bent behind his back, and there tied deftly and tightly. His thrashing neck was girdled by a large, sweaty bicep.
Around him he heard the last random thuds, moans and pleadings for mercy as the brawl ended. He was to be spared, it seemed; and so he strove all the harder, conjuring behind his sightless eyes vivid pictures of the tortures and indignities that might await him, if he lived so long.
Finally he could tell that the surviving prisoners were being herded back into the cell amid shouted orders and curses--yet he was kept kneeling on the floor in silence.
A level, businesslike voice spoke from somewhere near him. "This is the one called Conan?"
"Aye, sir, a Cimmerian. A dangerous fighter, and probably one of the ringleaders." The guard's voice quivered with anger and contempt. "With your indulgence, Marshal Durwald, he should be hamstrung, sir. Or killed straightaway!"
"Uncover his face."
The shirt was wrenched off, revealing to Conan the body-littered wardroom, the expressionless face of the black-cloaked military officer and the bloody-nosed visage of the municipal guardsman beside him.
The officer stared at him coldly for a moment. Then he spoke tonelessly: "Put him in a solitary cell, to be transported later." Marshal Durwald swiveled on his heel, his cloak billowing behind him. Over his shoulder he added, while stalking away, "He is remanded to baronial authority."
 
Copyright © 1988 by Conan Properties, Inc.

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