Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
The Tybor River rises in the southern end of the Border Range, within the region men call "Thanza." Fed by melting snows from the mountains and by streams from the well-watered plains of three kingdoms, it swells rapidly. At last it merges with the briskly flowing Red River to form the mighty Khoratas, which marches through Argos to find the Western Sea in that land's capital of Messantia.
The Tybor's currents are not the swiftest, nor is it wholly free from shoals and rapids. But it is navigable almost up to the mountains, and for much of its length it forms the natural boundary between Ophir and its mighty neighbor to the north, Aquilonia.
On a night in early summer, a man crouched on the Ophirean bank of the Tybor and studied what lay before him. He studied it with eyes of the same ice-blue tint as Lysinka's.
The eyes stared out of a weather-beaten, harsh-featured face, past first youth and not unscarred but still showing a fierce alertness and a keen intelligence Blue-black hair streamed down to the man's shoulders. The hand that held a branch aside, to give him a better view of the river, was calloused yet sure in its every movement.
Then silently he returned the branch to its original position, and still silently he rose to his booted feet. He was garbed in heavy woollen breeches somewhat the worse for sweat and brambles, a similarly battered shirt of dark green linen, and a belt that supported broadsword, dagger, pouch, and waterskin.
As he stretched to his full height, one could see that he was all but a giant. Only among the Æsir and Vanir, and some tribes in the Black Kingdoms, did more than a handful of men reach his height. Everywhere else men had to look up, to meet those chill blue eyes--if they wished to do so.
The man's name was Conan, and in the many lands where he had wandered and fought, he was known simply as Conan the Cimmerian.
* * *
Conan was on the bank of the Tybor River because of his latest adventure, which concerned a certain potent jewel known as the Star of Khorala. In the end, Queen Marala of Ophir had fled for safety to her Aquilonian kin while King Moranthes struggled to guard life and crown from enemies who sought both.
A land rent by civil strife was commonly a good hunting ground for the Cimmerian. He had few scruples about separating those with overmuch wealth from some of it, or splitting a few skulls in the process.
Also, in such times good mercenaries could command a high price, and Conan was both a doughty fighter and a seasoned leader of men. He had been a fighting man since he was fifteen and a captain before his twentieth year, battling in more lands than he had years.
But for every bulging purse waiting to be lifted or mercenary band seeking a battleworthy captain, there was another Ophirean who would think of the price on the Cimmerian's head. King Moranthes had set it at a thousand gold crowns, enough to make a man wealthy for life.
When a man thus found himself worth more dead than alive in a certain land, it was only common prudence for him to seek the greener pastures of other lands.
The quickest way out of Ophir led to the Tybor and across it to Aquilonia. The mightiest of the Hyborian kingdoms was a well-ordered land, with an army that could swallow all the baronial bands of Ophir with the ease of a frog snatching a dragonfly on the wing. No Ophirean in his right senses would pursue Conan there, and no Ophirean witling would last long against Numedides's men.
Of course, a land with too much peace might mean lean pickings for a warrior, but Conan had yet to find any such land. Even among the merchant houses of Argos there had been intrigues aplenty to bring his sword out of its scabbard and gold into his purse. It seemed unlikely that in so wealthy a land as Aquilonia, there would be no opportunity for a keen eye and a swift blade; the more so, in as much as there were tales that Numedides's grip was slacking. The pleasures of ruling had long meant more to him than the responsibilities, and such took its toll. When the royal lion grew weak, the lords and cities often turned into wolves.
Conan had seen this in a dozen lands and profited from it in most. Aquilonia it would be--even if at first he had to turn an honest coin by taking up his father's trade of smithing!
First, however, there was the matter of crossing the Tybor River without anyone on either side seeing him. This meant the use of a boat. Cimmerian strength and endurance would let him swim, but rivers rusted the best weapons, and building or navigating a raft would take too long.
Boats, however, did not grow on trees along the Tybor like oranges in a noble's garden in Zamboula. From where Conan stood, the bank was bare of boats and nearly bare of signs of human habitation.
Conan slipped from his hiding place and began casting along the bank, like a lion prowling for a roebuck on the plains of Stygia. Only the most alert observer could have seen or heard him more than five paces away--and the Cimmerian could close that distance before most men could draw a weapon.
Clouds veiled the stars and dimmed the moon, but Conan also had the clear night-sight as well as the stalking skill of a great cat. The few times the moon silvered a path across the Tybor, he found the nearest cover and watched for signs of pursuit.
He expected none. A man could empty a jug of good wine in the time it would take to reach the nearest village. Its folk would hardly be abroad tonight. As for those seeking the blood price for Conan, the last band of those whom he had encountered was feeding the ravens two days' travel to the south. By the time anyone found them, he would be safe in Aquilonia.
The third time the moon came out, Conan thought he saw something black jutting from the bank and not shaped like a fallen tree. The fourth time he was closer and recognized a boat. A crude one, hollowed from a log, but it had paddles and a carved ornamental stern. It also had two guards.
Conan moved within striking distance. He needed no further aid from the moon to see that the men were armed and wore leather cuirasses and rusty Nemedianstyle open-faced helmets. Not Ophirean soldiers, or even lords' levies. Likely as not, they were men about some business even less lawful than the Cimmerian's.
As Conan crouched in the shadows, seeking to overhear the men above the chuckle and sigh of the water, a light blinked thrice from the far bank. One of the men raised a dark lantern, aimed the open side toward shore, and manipulated the rattling shutter.
A Signal and a reply. Clearly the far bank held the mens' friends. Conan would find no warm welcome from the stolen boat. He moved forward cautiously, in search of a better view.
It was then that he saw the ship.
She was a fair-sized vessel, the Tybor being deep enough for ocean-going ships at least as far as Shamar, two days upstream. With sails spread on both masts, she was barely making steerage way.
Conan would have wagered a sack of sliver that these men were nothing else. The oncoming ship was their intended prey. The two men were most likely scouts intended to sight the ship if she took a course close along the Ophirean shore.
The hunters had just become the hunted.
Conan waited until the two men were close together and staring out at the river. No one, it seemed, had ever taught them that even when all seems quiet, sentries should not stand too close together.
The first man heard the Cimmerian just in time to turn halfway around before Conan struck. Conan shifted the aim of his blow from the back to the belly, so the man only doubled up and collapsed, instead or having his spine broken.
The other had time to draw a short sword before Conan's second punch crashed into his jaw. The sword flew from the man's hand and the man himself flew backward off the bank into the river. The current and the weight of his armor dragged him out of sight in a moment.
Conan knelt to search the first man for valuables or weapons. Then the fellow followed his companion into the water. The Cimmerian climbed into the boat.
It had four paddles and no steering oar, but Conan was as at home on or in the water as on land. This had not always been so, Cimmeria being landlocked, but the years of wandering had changed him. Much of his seamanship Conan had learned at the hands of a lady named Bêlit, now only ashes drifting on the currents of the Western Sea but still holding a warm place in the Cimmerian's memory.
Conan thrust the past from his mind, slashed the rope holding the canoe to the bank, and thrust hard with the paddle.
* * *
Conan's first thought had been to steer straight for the ship to warn her crew. Then he considered that on armed stranger paddling out of the night might be taken for once of the pirates and so be sprouting arrows before he could prove otherwise.
That was if the ship's crew had much fight in them at all. If they did not, it would be best to give them a wide berth--and meet the pirates straightforwardly.
The paddle blades' angle changed; the canoe swung about and headed for the point on the opposite bank from which Conan had seen the signal light. It was a moderately safe wager that the remaining pirates set out from there.
When Conan finally sighted them, the pirates were within easy bowshot and the moon was veiled once again. Conan counted four or five canoes, with as many men paddling in each one. He crouched low, to give the appearance of one of the men on the bank, both of whom had been a head shorter than the Cimmerian.
But his weapons were ready and every sense at its keenest. Now, if those sons of mangy she-asses could be just a trifle slow with the bows they must have--
Someone raised an arm, signaling from the leading canoe.
Conan raised his own right arm in a brief reply, entirely to buy time.
The pirate started waving his arm frantically. Conan dug his paddle into the water. The pirate chief clearly suspected that something was amiss but did not dare a shout and alert the oncoming ship. This might give Conan just a tri...