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CONAN OF VENARIUM
THE COMING OF THE AQUILONIANS
Wagon wheels groaned. Horses' hooves drummed. Above and behind and through all the other sounds came the endless thump of heavy boots in the roadway. Lithe Bossonian archers and the broad-shouldered spearmen of Gunderland made up the bulk of Count Stercus' army. They eyed the small number of heavily caparisoned Aquilonian knights who rode with Stercus with the amused scorn freeborn foot soldiers often accorded their so-called social betters.
"What do they suppose they're going to do with those horses when we get up into Cimmeria?" asked Granth son of Biemur. The Gunderman coughed. He marched near the middle of the long column, and the road dust coated his broad, friendly face and left his teeth gritty.
His cousin Vulth snorted. "Same as they always do," he answered.
"And what's that?" demanded Granth. He and Vulth squabbled all the time, sometimes in a friendly way, sometimes in earnest. Vulth was older--he had to be close to thirty--and taller, but deep-chested, big-boned Granth owned a bull's strength his cousin had trouble matching.
Here, though, Vulth was more interested in sniping at theAquilonian aristocrats than in scoring points off Granth. "Why, they'll use 'em to flee, of course," he replied. "They can run from the wild men faster and farther than us poor foot sloggers."
Granth laughed. So did several other soldiers in their company. But their sergeant, a scarred, grizzled veteran named Nopel, growled, "Shut your fool's mouth, Vulth. If the count hears you talking like that, you'll be lucky if he just puts stripes on your back."
"I'm not afraid of him," said Vulth, but his wobbling voice gave the words the lie. Count Stercus hated everyone in his own army with a fierce and rancorous passion. Granth had yet to hear what he had done down in Tarantia, the capital, to be relegated to the gloom of the northern frontier, but it must have been something dreadful.
But, however much Stercus despised his own men, he reserved his most savage loathing for the Cimmerians. How many times had he harangued the army about the barbarous savages they were going to face? More often than Granth could easily remember; that was certain. If Stercus had his way, he would wipe every Cimmerian off the face of the earth.
Peering through the dust as best he could, Granth looked north toward the hills of Cimmeria. Dark forests of pine and fir and spruce robed those hillsides, making them even more somber than if they were of bare rock. Mist clung to the hills; gray clouds scudded low above them.
"Mitra!" muttered Granth. "Why do we want that miserable country, anyway? Why would anybody in his right mind want it?"
Nopel grunted. "Plain you didn't grow up on the border, the way I did. You ever had a pack of those wild wolves come howling down on your farm or village to steal and burn and kill, you wouldn't ask stupid questions like that." The sergeant spat in the roadway.
Abashed, Granth marched along in silence for a while. Buthis was not an easy spirit to quell, and before long he said, "You can't even see if anybody lives in those woods."
"Oh, no--you can't see the Cimmerians there," said Nopel. "Don't you worry about it, though. Whether you see them or not, they see you."
More silence followed. More often than not, Gundermen and Bossonians, good-natured men close to the land, would sing as they marched: ferocious songs of what they intended to do to their foes and bawdy ballads about the wenches they'd left behind and the others they expected to find after they beat the enemy. No one in the whole long column seemed to feel like singing today.
Granth looked toward the huge Aquilonian flag a standard-bearer carried at the head of the column. The great gold lion on black heartened him. Aye, the Cimmerians were wolves, but when faced with a lion wolves slunk away. Granth's hand tightened on the shaft of his pike. Let the wolves howl! When the fight came to close quarters, he would make them howl on a different note.
A stream no different from any of the others the army had forded wound down out of the darkly wooded hills and through a verdant meadow. Pioneers ran forward, seeking a ford, and soon found one. The standard-bearer splashed across, the water rising no deeper than his thighs. The Aquilonian knights forded the stream next. Most of them urged their horses forward to form a protective wall to shield the rest of the army against any possible onslaught from the north. Count Stercus and a few of his henchmen, however, reined in just on the far side of the stream.
"You see?" muttered Vulth. "He hasn't the stomach to advance himself."
"No, look," answered Granth. "He's speaking to the foot soldiers as they cross."
"Well, so he is," said Vulth. "Still, actions talk louder than words, or so our grandsire always used to say."
Sergeant Nopel cuffed him, hard enough to stagger him and make him swear. "I don't care what your granddad used to maunder on about," snapped Nopel. "What I say is, you talk too cursed much."
By then, the company had almost reached the stream. Granth drew his sword and held it high so the blade would not get wet and rust. When he crossed, his boots crunched on gravel in the streambed. Cold water poured down over his boot tops and soaked his feet. He cursed resignedly; he had known that would happen. He would have to sit close by the fire tonight--and every other man in the company would have wet feet, too. There would be a lot of pushing and jostling before that got sorted out.
He squelched up onto the north bank of the stream. "Welcome to Cimmeria!" Count Stercus called from horseback, not to Granth in particular but to all the men who were coming up onto dry land just then. "Welcome, I say, for we are going to take this land away from the barbarians and make it ours."
Stercus sounded very sure, though his voice was higher and thinner than Granth would have liked in a commander. He wanted a man who could bellow like a bull and make himself heard across a mile of battlefield. Stercus was young to have a command like this, too, for he could not have had more years than Vulth. His lean, hawk-nosed, pallid face would have been handsome but for dark eyes set too close together and a chin whose weakness the thin fringe of beard he wore could not disguise.
"The savages shall surely flee before us," declared Stercus.
"I hope he's right," said Granth.
"If the Cimmerians ran whenever somebody poked them, Aquilonia would have taken this country hundreds of years ago," said Vulth. "We'll have plenty of fighting to do yet. Don't you worry about that."
Granth looked to see if Sergeant Nopel would tell Vulthto shut up again. Nopel said not a word, from which Granth concluded the sergeant thought his cousin was right. The Aquilonians trudged north, deeper into Cimmeria.
Iron belled on iron. Sparks flew. Mordec struck again, harder than ever. The blacksmith grunted in satisfaction and, hammer still clenched in his great right hand, lifted the red-hot sword blade from the anvil with the tongs in his left. Nodding, he watched the color slowly fade from the iron. "I'll not need to thrust it back into the fire, Conan," he said. "You can rest easy at the bellows."
"All right, Father." Conan was not sorry to step back from the forge. Sweat ran down his bare chest. Though the day was not warm--few days in Cimmeria were warm--hard work by the forge made a man or a boy forget the weather outside. At twelve, the blacksmith's son stood on the border of manhood. He was already as tall as some of the men in the village of Duthil, and his own labor at Mordec's side had given him thews some of those men might envy.
Yet next to his father, Conan's beardless cheeks were not all that marked him as a stripling. For Mordec was a giant of a man, well over six feet, but so thick through the shoulders and chest that he did not seem so tall. A square-cut mane of thick black hair, now streaked with gray, almost covered the blacksmith's volcanic blue eyes. Mordec's close-trimmed beard was also beginning to go gray, and had one long white streak marking the continuation of a scar that showed on his cheek. His voice was a deep bass rumble, which made Conan's unbroken treble all the shriller by comparison.
From the back of the smithy, from the rooms where the blacksmith and his family lived, a woman called, "Mordec! Come here. I need you."
Mordec's face twisted with a pain he never would have shown if wounded by sword or spear or arrow. "Go tend toyour mother, son," he said roughly. "It's really you Verina wants to see, anyhow."
"But she called you," said Conan.
"Go, I said." Mordec set down the blacksmith's hammer and folded his hand into a fist. "Go, or you'll be sorry."
Conan hurried away. A buffet from his father might stretch him senseless on the rammed-earth floor of the smithy, for Mordec did not always know his own strength. And Conan dimly understood that his father did not want to see his mother in her present state; Verina was slowly and lingeringly dying of some ailment of the lungs that neither healers nor wizards had been able to reverse. But Mordec, lost in his own torment, did not grasp how watching Conan's mother fail by inches flayed the boy.
As usual, Verina lay in bed, covered and warmed by the cured hides of panthers and wolves Mordec had slain on hunting trips. "Oh," she said. "Conan." She smiled, though her lips had a faint bluish cast that had been absent even a few weeks before.
"What do you need, Mother?" he asked.
"Some water, please," said Verina. "I didn't want to trouble you." Her voice held the last word an instant longer than it might have.
Conan did not notice, though Mordec surely would have. "I'll get it for you," he said, and hurried to the pitcher on the rough-hewn cedar table near the hearth. He poured an earthenware cup full and brought it back to the bedchamber.
"Thank you. You're a good--" Verina broke off to cough. The racking spasm went on and on. Her thin shoulders shook with it. A little pink-tinged froth appeared at the corner of her mouth. At last, she managed to whisper, "The water."
"Here." Conan wiped her mouth and helped her sit up. He held the cup to her lips.
She took a few swallows--fewer than he would have wanted to see. But when she spoke again, her voice wasstronger: "That is better. I wish I could--" She broke off again, this time in surprise. "What's that?"
Running feet pounded along the dirt track that served Duthil for a main street. "The Aquilonians!" a hoarse voice bawled. "The Aquilonians have crossed into Cimmeria!"
"The Aquilonians!" Conan's voice, though still unbroken, crackled with ferocity and raw blood lust. "By Crom, they'll pay for this! We'll make them pay for this!" He eased Verina down to the pillow once more. "I'm sorry, Mother. I have to go." He dashed away to hear the news.
"Conan--" she called after him, her voice fading. He did not hear her. Even if she had screamed, he would not have heard her. The electrifying news drew him as a lodestone draws iron.
Mordec had already hurried out of the smithy. Conan joined his father in the street. Other Cimmerians came spilling from their homes and shops: big men, most of them, dark- haired, with eyes of gray or blue that crackled like blazing ice at the news. As one, they rounded on the newcomer, crying, "Tell us more."
"I will," he said, "and gladly." He was older than Mordec, for his hair and beard were white. He must have run a long way, but was not breathing unduly hard. He carried a staff with a crook on the end, and wore a herder's sheepskin coat that reached halfway down his thighs. "I'm Fidach, of Aedan's clan. With my brother, I tend sheep on one of the valleys below the tree line."
Nods came from the men of Duthil. Aedan's clan dwelt hard by the border with Aquilonia--and, now and again, sneaked across it for sheep or cattle or the red joy of slaughtering men of foreign blood. "Go on," said Mordec. "You were tending your sheep, you say, and then--"
"And then the snout end of the greatest army I've ever seen thrust itself into the valley," said Fidach. "Aquilonian knights, and archers from the Bossonian Marches, and those damnedstubborn spearmen out of Gunderland who like retreat hardly better than we do. A whole great swarm of them, I tell you. This is no raid. They're come to stay, unless we drive them forth."
A low growl rose from the men of Duthil: the growl that might have come from a panther's throat when it sighted prey. "We'll drive them forth, all right," said someone, and in a heartbeat every man in the village had taken up the cry.
"Hold," said Mordec, and Conan saw with pride how his father needed only the one word to make every head turn his way. The blacksmith went on, "We will not drive out the invaders by ourselves, not if they have come with an army. We will need to gather men from several clans, from several villages." He looked around at his comrades. "Eogannan! Glemmis! Can you leave your work here for a few days?"
"With Aquilonians loose in Cimmeria, we can," declared Glemmis. Eogannan, a man nearly of Mordec's size, was sparing of speech, but he nodded.
"Stout fellows," said Mordec. "Glemmis, go to Uist. Eogannan, you head for Nairn. Neither one of those places is more than a couple of days from here. Let the folk there know we've been invaded, if they've not already heard. Tell them to spread the word to other villages beyond them. When we strike the foe, we must strike him with all our strength."
Eogannan simply nodded again and strode off down the road toward Nairn, trusting to luck and to his own intimate knowledge of the countryside for food along the way. Glemmis briefly ducked back into his home before setting out. He left Duthil with a leather sack slung over one shoulder: Conan supposed it would hold oat cakes or a loaf of rye bread and smoked meat to sustain him on the journey.
"This is well done," said Fidach. "And if you have sent men to Uist and Nairn, I will go on to Lochnagar, off to the northwest. My wife's father's family springs from those parts. I will have no trouble finding kinsfolk to guest with when I getthere. We shall meet again, and blood our swords in the Aquilonians' throats." With that for a farewell, he trotted away, his feet pounding in a steady pace that would eat up the miles.
The men of Duthil stayed in the street. Some looked after Fidach, others toward the south, toward the border with Aquilonia, the border their southern neighbors had crossed. A sudden grim purpose informed the Cimmerians. Until the invaders were expelled from their land, none of them would rest easy.
"Bring your swords and spears and axes to the smithy," said Mordec. "I'll sharpen them for you, and I'll ask nothing for it. What we can do to drive out the Aquilonians, let each man do, and count not the cost. For whatever it may be, it is less than the cost of slavery."
"Mordec speaks like a clan chief." That was Balarg the weaver, whose home stood only a few doors down from Mordec's. The words were respectful; the tone was biting. Mordec and Balarg were the two leading men of Duthil, with neither willing to admit the other might be the leading man in the village.
"I speak like a man with a notion of what needs doing," rumbled Mordec. "And how I might speak otherwise--" He broke off and shook his big head. "However that might be, I will not speak so now, not with the word the shepherd brought."
"Speak as you please," said Balarg. He was younger than Mordec, and handsomer, and surely smoother. "I will answer--you may rely on it."
"No." Mordec shook his head again. "The war needs both of us. Our own feuds can wait."
"Let it be so, then." Again, Balarg sounded agreeable. But even as he spoke, he turned away from the blacksmith.
Conan burned to avenge the insult to his father. He burned to, but made himself hold back. For one thing, Mordec only shrugged--and, if the fight against the invaders meant hisfeud with Balarg could wait, it surely meant Conan's newly discovered feud with the weaver could wait as well. And, for another, Balarg's daughter, Tarla, was just about Conan's age--and, the past few months, the blacksmith's son had begun to look at her in a way different from the way he had looked at any girl when he was smaller.
Men began going back into their houses. Women began exclaiming when their husbands and brothers gave them the news Fidach had brought. The exclamations were of rage, not of dismay; Cimmerian women, no strangers to war, loved freedom no less than their menfolk.
Mordec set a large hand on Conan's shoulder, saying, "Come back to the smithy, son. Until the warriors march against the Aquilonians, we will be busier than we ever have."
"Yes, Father." Conan nodded. "Swords and spears and axes, the way you said, and helms, and mailshirts--"
"Helms, aye," said Mordec. "A helm can be forged of two pieces of iron and riveted up the center. But a byrnie is a different business. Making any mail is slow, and making good mail is slower. Each ring must be shaped, and joined to its neighbors, and riveted so it cannot slip its place. In the time I would need to finish one coat of mail, I could do so many other things, making the armor would not be worth my while. Would it were otherwise, but--" The blacksmith shrugged.
When they walked into the smithy, they found Conan's mother standing by the forge. Conan exclaimed in surprise; she seldom left her bed these days. Mordec might have been rooted in the doorway. Conan started toward Verina to help her back to the bedchamber. She held up a bony hand. "Wait," she said. "Tell me more of the Aquilonians. I heard the shouting in the street, but I could not make out the words."
"They have come into our country," said Mordec.
Verina's mouth narrowed. So did her eyes. "You will fightthem." It was no question; she might have been stating a law of nature.
"We will all fight them: everyone from Duthil, everyone from the surrounding villages, everyone Who hears the news and can come against them with a weapon to hand," said Mordec. Conan nodded, but his father paid him no heed.
His mother's long illness might have stolen her bodily vigor, but not that of her spirit. Her eyes flamed hotter than the fire inside the forge. "Good," she said. "Slay them all, save for one you let live to flee back over the border to bring his folk word of their kinsmen's ruin."
Conan smacked a fist into the callused palm of his other hand. "By Crom, we will!"
Mordec chuckled grimly. "The rooks and ravens will feast soon enough, Verina. You would have watched them glut themselves on another field twelve years gone by, were you not busy birthing this one here." He pointed to Conan.
"Women fight their battles, too, though men know it not," said Verina. Then she began to cough again; she had been fighting that battle for years, and would not win it. But she mastered the fit, even though, while it went on, she swayed on her feet.
"Here, Mother, go back and rest," said Conan. "The battle ahead is one for men."
He helped Verina to the bedchamber and helped her ease herself down into the bed. "Thank you, my son," she whispered. "You are a good boy."
Conan, just then, was not thinking of being a good boy. Visions of blood and slaughter filled his head, of clashing swords and cloven flesh and spouting blood, of foes in flight before him, of black birds fluttering down to feast on bloated bodies, of battles and of heroes, and of men uncounted crying out his name.
Granth son of Biemur swung an axe--not at some foeman's neck but at the trunk of a spruce. The blade bit. A chunk of pale wood came free when he pulled out the axehead. He paused in the work for a moment, leaning on the long-handled axe and scowling down at his blistered palms. "If I'd wanted to be a carpenter, I could have gone to work for my uncle," he grumbled.
His cousin Vulth was attacking a pine not far away. "You go in for the soldier's trade, you learn a bit of all the others with it," he said. He gave the pine a couple of more strokes. It groaned and tottered and fell--in the open space between Vulth and Granth, just where he had planned it. He walked along the length of the trunk, trimming off the big branches with the axe.
And Granth got to work again, too, for he had spied Sergeant Nopel coming their way. Looking busy when the sergeant was around was something all soldiers learned in a hurry--or, if they did not, they soon learned to be sorry. As Vulth's pine had a moment before, the spruce dropped neatly to the ground. Granth started trimming branches. The spicy scent of spruce sap filled his nostrils.
"Aye, keep at it, you dogs," said Nopel. "We'll be glad of a palisade one of these nights, and of wood for watchfires. Mitra, but I hate this gloomy forest."
"Where are the barbarians?" asked Vulth. "Since those herders by the stream a few days ago, we've hardly seen a stinking Cimmerian."
"Maybe they've run away." Granth always liked to look on the bright side of things.
Nopel laughed in his face; sergeants got to be sergeants not least by forgetting there was or ever had been any such thing as a bright side. "They're around. They're barbarians, but they're not cowards--oh, no, they're not. I wish they were. They're waiting and watching and gathering. They'll strike when they're ready--and when they think we're not."
Granth grunted. "I still say building a little fort every time we camp for the night is more trouble than it's worth." He went back to the base of the trimmed trunk and began to shape it into a point.
"It's a craven's way of fighting," agreed Vulth, who was doing the same thing to the pine. The woods rang with the sound of axes. Vulth went on, "Count Stercus brought us up here to fight the Cimmerians. So why don't we fight them, instead of chopping lumber for them to use once we've moved on?"
"Count Stercus is no craven," said Nopel. "There are some who'd name him this or that or the other thing, sure enough, but no one's ever called him coward. And when we're in the middle of enemy country, with wild men skulking all about, a fortified camp is a handy thing to have, whether you gents care for the notion or not." He gave Granth and Vulth a mincing, mock-aristocratic bow, then growled, "So get on with it!" and stalked off to harry some other soldiers.
After the cousins had shaped the felled trunks into several stakes sharpened at both ends and a little taller than they were, they hauled them back to the encampment. Archers and pikemen guarded the warriors who had set aside their weapons for spades and were digging a ditch around the camp. Inside the ditch, a palisade of stakes was already going up. The ones Granth and Vulth brought were tipped upright and placed in waiting postholes with the rest.
"I wouldn't want to attack a camp like this. I admit it," said Vulth. "You'd have to be crazy to try."
"Maybe you're right." Granth did not want to admit any more than that--or, indeed, even so much. But he could hardly deny that the campsite looked more formidable every minute. He could not deny that it was well placed, either: on a rise, with a spring bubbling out of the ground inside the palisade. The axemen had cleared the dark Cimmerian forest back far enough from the ditch and the wall of stakes that the wildmen lurking in the woods could not hope to take the army by surprise.
But then a lanky Bossonian straightening the stakes of the palisade said, "I wouldn't want to attack a camp like this, either, but that doesn't mean the damned Cimmerians will leave us alone. The difference between them and us is, they really are crazy, and they'll do crazy things."
"They're barbarians, and we're coming into their land," said Granth. "They're liable to try to kill without counting the cost."
"That's what I just said, isn't it?" The Bossonian paused in his work long enough to set hands on hips. "If trying to kill without worrying about whether you fall yourself isn't crazy, Mitra smite me if I know what would be."
Another sergeant, also a Bossonian, set hands on hips, too. "If standing around talking without worrying about whether you work isn't lazy, Mitra smite me if I know what would be. So work, you good-for-nothing dog!" The lanky man hastily got back to it. The sergeant rounded on Granth and Vulth. "You lugs were just rattling your teeth, too. If you've got more stakes, bring 'em. If you don't, go cut 'em. Don't let me catch you standing around, though, or I'll make you sorry you were ever born. You hear me?" His voice rose to an irascible roar.
"Yes, Sergeant," chorused the two Gundermen. They hurried off to collect more of the stakes they had already prepared, only to discover that their comrades had already hauled those back to the encampment. Granth swore; cutting trees down was harder work than carrying stakes already cut. "Can't trust anyone," he complained, forgetting that only the day before he and Vulth had cheerfully absconded with three stakes someone else had trimmed.
As darkness began to fall--impossible to say precisely when the sun set, for the clouds and mists of Cimmeria obscured both sunrise and sunset--a long, mournful note blown on thetrumpet recalled the Aquilonian soldiers to the camp. Savory steam rose from big iron pots bubbling over cookfires. Rubbing their bellies to show how hungry they were, men lined up to get their suppers.
"Mutton stew?" asked Granth, sniffing.
"Mutton stew," answered a Bossonian who had just had his tin panikin filled. He spoke with resignation. Mutton was what most of the army had eaten ever since crossing into Cimmeria. The forage here was not good enough to support many cattle. Even the sheep were small and scrawny.
A cook spooned stew into Granth's panikin. He stepped aside to let the cook feed the next soldier, then dug in with his horn spoon. The meat was tough and stringy and gamy. The barley that went with it had come up from the Aquilonian side of the border in supply wagons. Cimmeria's scanty fields held mostly rye and oats; the short growing season did not always allow barley, let alone wheat, to ripen.
Had Granth got a supper like this at an inn down in Gunderland, he would have snarled at the innkeeper. On campaign, he was glad he had enough to fill his belly. Anything more than that was better than a bonus; it came near enough to being a miracle.
Someone asked, "What are we calling this camp?" Count Stercus had named each successive encampment after an estate that belonged to him or to one of his friends. Granth supposed it made as good a way as any other to remember which was which.
"Venarium," answered another soldier. "This one's Camp Venarium."
Mordec methodically set his iron cap on his head. He wore a long knife--almost a shortsword--on his belt. A long-handled war axe and a round wooden shield faced with leather and bossed with iron leaned against the brickwork of theforge. A leather wallet carried enough oatcakes and smoked meat to feed him for several days.
Conan was anything but methodical. He sprang into the air in frustration and fury. "Take me with you!" he shouted, not for the first time. "Take me with you, Father!"
"No," growled Mordec.
But the one word, which would usually have silenced his son, had no effect here. "Take me with you!" cried Conan once more. "I can fight. By Crom, I can! I'm bigger than a lot of the men in Duthil, and stronger, too!"
"No," said Mordec once again, deeper and more menacingly than before. Again, though, Conan shook his head, desperate to accompany his father against the invading Aquilonians. Mordec shook his head, too, as if bedeviled by gnats rather than by a boy who truly was bigger and stronger than many of the grown men in the village. Reluctantly, Mordec spoke further: "You were born on a battlefield, son. I don't care to see you die on one."
"I wouldn't die!" The idea did not seem real to Conan. "I'd make the southrons go down like grain before the scythe."
And so he might--for a while. Mordec knew it. But no untried boy would last long against a veteran who had practiced his bloody trade twice as long as his foe had lived. And no one, boy or veteran, was surely safe against flying arrows and javelins. "When I say no, I mean no. You're too young. You'll stay here in Duthil where you belong, and you'll take care of your mother."
That struck home; the blacksmith saw as much. But Conan was too wild to go to war to heed even such a potent command. "I won't!" he said shrilly. "I won't, and you can't make me. After you leave, I'll run off and join the army, too."
The next thing he knew, he was lying on the ground by the forge. His head spun. His ears rang. His father stood over him, breathing hard, ready to hit him again if he had to. "You will dono such thing," declared Mordec. "You will do what I tell you, and nothing else. Do you hear me?"
Instead of answering in words, Conan sprang up and grabbed for his father's axe. For the moment, he was ready to do murder for the sake of going to war. But even as his hand closed on the axe handle, Mordec's larger, stronger hand closed on his wrist. Conan tried to twist free, tried and failed. Then he hit his father. He had told the truth--he did have the strength of an ordinary man. The blacksmith, however, was no ordinary man. He took his son's buffet without changing expression.
"So you want to see what it's really like, do you?" asked Mordec. "All right, by Crom. I'll let you have a taste."
He had hit Conan before; as often as not, nothing but his hand would gain and hold the boy's attention. But he had never given him such a cold-blooded, thorough, methodical beating as he did now. Conan tried to fight back for as long as he could. Mordec kept hitting him until he had no more fight left in him. The blacksmith aimed to make the boy cry out for mercy, but Conan set his jaw and suffered in silence, plainly as intent on dying before he showed weakness as Mordec was on breaking him.
And Conan might have died then, for his father, afraid he would fall to an enemy's weapons, was not at all afraid to kill him for pride's sake. After the beating had gone on for some long and painful time, though, Verina came out of the bedchamber. "Hold!" she croaked. "Would you slay what's most like you?"
Mordec stared at her. Rage suddenly rivered out of him, pouring away like ale from a cracked cup. He knelt by his bruised and bloodied son. "You will stay here," he said, half commanding, half pleading.
Conan did not say no. Conan, then, could not have said anything, for his father had beaten him all but senseless. He saw the smithy through a red haze of anguish.
Taking his silence for acquiescence, Mordec filled a dipperwith cold water and held it to his battered lips. Conan took a mouthful. He wanted to spit it in his father's face, but animal instinct made him swallow instead. Mordec did not take the dipper away. Conan drained it dry.
"You are as hard on your son as you are on everything else," said Verina with a bubbling sigh.
"Life is hard," answered Mordec. "Anyone who will not see that is a fool: no, worse than a fool--a blind man."
"Life is hard, aye," agreed his wife. "I am not blind; I can see that, too. But I can also see that you are blind, blind to the way you make it harder than it need be."
With a grunt, the blacksmith got to his feet. He towered over Verina. Scowling, he replied, "I am not the only one in this home of whom that might be said."
"And if I fight you, will you beat me as you beat the boy?" asked Verina. "What point to that? All you have to do is wait; before long the sickness in my lungs will slay me and set you free."
"You twist everything I say, everything I do," muttered Mordec, at least as much to himself as to her. Fighting the Aquilonians would seem simple when set against the long, quiet (but no less deadly for being quiet) war he had waged with his wife.
"All you want to do is spill blood," said Verina. "You would be as happy slaying Cimmerians as you are going off to battle Aquilonians."
"Not so," said Mordec. "These are thieves who come into our land. You know that yourself. They would take what little we have and send it south to add to their own riches. They would, but they will not. I go to join the muster of the clans." He strode forward, snatched up his axe and shield and wallet, and stormed forth from the smithy, a thunderstorm of fury on his face.
"No good will come of this!" called Verina, but the blacksmith paid no heed.
Conan heard his father and mother quarrel as if from very far away. The pain of the beating made everything else seem small and unimportant. He tried to get to his feet, but found he lacked the strength. He lay in the dirt, even his ardor to go forth to battle quelled for the moment.
Verina stooped beside him. His mother held a bowl full of water and a scrap of cloth. She wet the cloth and gently scrubbed at his face. The rag, which had been the brownish gray of undyed wool, came away crimson. She soaked it in the bowl, wrung it nearly dry, and went back to what she was doing. "There," she said at last. "You're young--you'll heal."
With an effort, Conan managed to sit up. "I still want to go and fight, no matter what Father says," he mumbled through cut and swollen lips.
But his mother shook her head. "Mordec was right." She made a sour face. "Not words I often say, but true. However great you've grown, you are yet too young to go to war." And Conan, who would have and nearly had fought to the death against his father, accepted Verina's words without a murmur.
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