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Conan The Hero Mass Market Paperback – February 15, 1989
"Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress"
Is the world really falling apart? Is the ideal of progress obsolete? Cognitive scientist and public intellectual Steven Pinker urges us to step back from the gory headlines and prophecies of doom, and instead, follow the data: In seventy-five jaw-dropping graphs, Pinker shows that life, health, prosperity, safety, peace, knowledge, and happiness are on the rise. Learn more
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Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
The jungle pond spread murky and stagnant, shaded by dense foliage. A few ripples glided across its green-scummed surface to lap against the slimy shoreline. Then, close above the black water, the tangled thicket of rushes parted and a face peered through.
Dark it was, shadowed and obscure as the muzzle of a stalking beast. Yet from its dimness glinted eyes blue as brooding northern skies, a color seldom seen in these rank jungle depths.
The pale, foreign eyes searched the tree-filtered daylight of the pond bank. Seeing no exceptional danger, the watcher parted the reeds and eased out from between them: a massive man, sword-bearing and grotesquely painted, wading thigh-deep in the stagnant water.
He moved topheavy with a sun-darkened breadth of chest and shoulder, supple as an acrobat poised for swift, forceful action. The colors on his face were muddy tones of lampblack and umber; for further concealment, his headband and lank black mane trailed fern fronds, leafy stems, and other spoor of the forest. The remainder of his costume was sparse, a brief leather breech-wrap anchoring knifebelt and swordbelt crisscrossed on his bare chest and back. Except for the sheen of his fine steel weapons and their bronze-studded fittings, he might have passed for a savage child of the jungle.
He paused in the pond scum, extending the long, double-curved blade of his yataghan to redirect the course of a yellow-green water serpent away from his naked thigh. Then he glided forward, his muscle-corded legs and sandaled feet draining the slime and yellow bottom-muck of the pool. Once ashore he paused, bending to pluck red leeches from the glistening calves of his legs. Straightening, he beckoned behind him with his sword to others yet unseen.
The next man to emerge from the reeds needed no lampblack, since his skin was already dark as jungle night. His face had been daubed instead with white clay to break up its full-featured symmetry. He stood fully as large as the first warrior, armed and armored with light mail and an identical S-curved blade. And he might have moved just as gracefully through the mire, if his attention had not been taken up by others toiling behind him.
The half-dozen who followed were less grandly-sized men, with the olive skins and hawk noses of Turanians evident beneath their daubed makeup. They wore bewildering variations of Turanian military garb, with here a spiked metal cap, there a short purple tunic or chain-mail vest. In further defiance of common uniform, their outfits were threaded with jungle fronds, bright blossoms, and long, iridescent plumes of tropical birds. The blades they bristled with clanked often, and their progress through the marsh occasioned low splashes and muttered curses. These sounds invariably caused the black officer to wheel on them, hissing fiercely for silence.
Their pale-skinned scout, meanwhile, moved higher up the pond's steepening bank. He sank in places to all fours, his yataghan sheathed now on his back. From a distance, his progress was visible only by the faint play of jungle light on flexing limbs and the occasional flicker of a disturbed branch or a frightened, upward-spiraling moth. There was no larger animal life to be seen; though one might expect the dense overgrowth to be alive with the rustlings and twitterings of small creatures, a watchful silence reigned.
From the creeping warrior's own vantage, the way was by no means effortless. His course lay through clinging, dripping foliage, beneath and around slack vines whose thorns could gouge and poison the skin. Yet he dared not stop long to find his way, lest the hovering flies and blood-seeking gnats should settle on his skin to bite and suck their fill.
Near the crest above the pond, the foliage opened out. The creeper braced his hands on the littered earth to haul himself up and peer over the top. Then, with a sudden twist and a muttered oath, he wrenched his hand back and rolled away to one side. Squinting in the green dimness, he stared at what he had touched: the face of a fanged, snarling monkey carved from stone, its round head furred over with damp moss.
"Conan, are you all right?" Feather-soft, the whisper drifted up to him from where the black man crouched a few man-lengths downslope.
"Aye, Juma," the scout mouthed in response, raising a hand to silence the mutters and thrashings that were occurring along the line of men behind him. "Tis nothing."
"Good. But Conan, thrice-curse it!" The black officer's hiss was faint but intense. "Next patrol I scout ahead, and you take charge of these unruly louts!"
Grimly smiling, Conan nodded and turned back to the evil-looking carving. Considering it, he judged it part of a railing or a free-standing statue buried by jungle growth across the course of centuries; probably it meant that their goal was near. Renewing his grip on the carven monkey's furry pate, he dragged himself upward to peer across the brushy crest, into the leafy void beyond.
The monument rising there was too vast for even the greedy jungle to swallow completely. Hewn from solid stone, formed of what must have been a towering natural monolith, the great shrine tapered onionlike from its broad, swelling base to a slender, lofty pinnacle. Conan could see the pointed shikhara gleaming in hazy daylight high above, piercing to the sky through the many layers of dense foliage. And every cubit of the temple's surface was decorated with intricate carvings--from the wide, porched galleries overhanging the jungle cauldron where Conan lay, to delicate friezes that chased each other in bands around its distant spire.
The subject matter of those carvings was difficult to make out, even from this short remove. Seen through the screening branches, a few tangles of life-sized human shapes seemed to Conan to resemble fierce combats; other twinings of bodies looked more amorous and sensuous. He guessed that, like most sculptures he had seen, the statues depicted the diverse cruelties and pleasures of kings and humanlike gods. Tracing these forms was especially hard, because everywhere the jungle's greedy green tentacles invaded and obscured them. Many of the heroic forms looked bound or strangled by parasitic vines, and often it was impossible to tell the carved human contours from the monstrous windings and swellings of ancient roots.
But the shrine was still habitable…and inhabited, it would seem. Ahead and a little to one side rose a curving entry stair, weed-choked and crumbling. In the thick-pillared shadows of the terrace at its end, Conan glimpsed a single pale flicker: the play of daylight, surely, on a burnished metal blade. Peering closer, he made out above it the round paleness of a face scanning the temple's surroundings. To confirm the impression, there came to his jungle-keen nostrils a faint scent of smoke sweetened by ceremonial incense, drifting unquestionably from the direction of the shrine.
To Juma and the Turanians who crept up close behind him, Conan spoke in whispers and quick gestures. He dispatched them toward the base of the stair, indicating that they should await his signal before overcoming any guards there. Then, writhing snakelike, he was off through the roots and stems of the downward slope.
For long moments his progress was stealthy and swift, measured only by the shiver of a branch or the momentary deepening of a green shadow. Then at the base of the temple he emerged into plain view, nimbly mounting the side of the stone edifice. At first there was little challenge apparent in the climb, for the building's massive base shelved inward, with plenty of handholds and footholds in its ornamentation. But he soon enough faced the overhang of the shrine's main body, where its bulbous shape swelled out overhead. Though just as deeply carved and ribboned with vines, this out-jutting face would have been judged by most men impossible to scale, the more so without a rope and in total silence.
But Conan, only pausing at the angle of the slope to tie his sandals to his belt, assaulted the overhang fearlessly. He hauled himself up monkey-like, clutching with bare toes and fingers at carved niches and elbows of vine. Often his legs thrashed in empty air as he forced himself upward hand over hand; at other times, his lithe body clung close amid sculptured shapes both sacred and profane. He appeared almost to take part in their murderous and orgiastic writhings, as just another hero or godling carved in paler stone and deeper relief.
At long last he mounted to the balcony rail at the widest level of the shrine. Once there, he was free to hug the grainy stone, panting shallowly so as not to betray his presence by deep gasps. His climb had brought him up a few paces from the head of the stair, with the broad, gadrooned bulk of one ornate pillar standing between him and the shadowy roost of the guard he had seen.
Now he tried to verify the man's presence, first by peering through the gaps of the thick, carved railing, then by raising his head cautiously over its edge. From this distance, the interior gloom was easily penetrated, with nothing in sight but a lavishly decorated walkway strewn with rock fragments and plant debris. He stood up to lean inward over the rail; then, at the sound of feet shifting restlessly within, he jerked back to his precarious crouch outside. No one passed near, so Conan judged that the lone guard still loitered in his place at the stairhead. He stood upright, stretched himself prone on the rail, and eased across it on his belly.
Edging around the spiral-ridged curvature of the pillar, he spied the guard's arm, bare and muscular, banded with colored cords at shoulder and elbow in the style of the savage Hwong tribe. The man's bronze cutlass was stuck in his waistband, his hands resting on the rail as he watched the jungle.
Drawing a deep, silent breath, Conan moved up close behind him. His massive arms were poised, knife gripped tightly in one hand, ready to seize the sentry's face from behind and lay open his throat. His shoulders tightened for the gruesome deed; but instead, feeling a sudden kinship with the simple tribesman, he turned the knife in his hand and struck the man over the temple with its silver hilt. Catching the collapsing body under the chin with his free arm, he lowered the sentry quietly to the ground.
Just then a yell rang out behind him, followed by a shrill jabber of Hwong speech. Conan turned to see a second sentry come charging from an inner passage, wielding a saw-edged hardwood club. With no time to draw his sword, the northerner raised his dagger to fend off the stroke. The downswing was knocked aside, but its force drove the knife out of Conan's hand and shaved skin from his knuckles in passing.
Before the attacker could swing the club again, Conan lunged against him barehanded. Seizing him by the throat and the crotch of his brightly woven breechclout, he lifted the man and flung him headfirst over the rail. The Hwong's cry of rage and alarm sounded lingeringly this time, to end in a faint bleat of expelled air as he struck the stone outworks below.
Cursing at the noise and at the racking pains in his knuckles, Conan found his knife and sheathed it. Drawing his yataghan from behind his back, he stepped out onto the narrow stairway and waved it high in silent summons. His companions were already halfway up, their, legs racing over the small, worn steps as Juma silently waved them along with his sword. Conan turned to the inner archway, which was a narrow descending stair. No more defenders came out, but he heard a panicked jabbering below and glimpsed a face peering up at him, quickly to vanish in shadow.
Conan cast swiftly about the temple porch. The farther gallery and ascending rampways looked long-deserted and weed-choked; likely there was no benefit to be gained exploring there. It was from below that scented smoke issued; as his companions arrived on the terrace, he plunged into the downward corridor.
Conan took four or five of the tiny stairsteps with each stride. Mentally he cursed the tightness of the corridor, which was miserly in comparison with the vast outer dimensions of the monument. Its narrowness would permit only the first man in line to face the enemy, and even then it afforded no room to swing a sword. Worse, as he descended, his own bulky shadow and those of the men scuffing behind him quickly cut off the daylight. He was forced to slow his headlong rush and prod the scented darkness before him with his swordblade.
Squinting to pierce the dimness, he found himself at the base of the stair in a T-branching corridor; there, suddenly, he was attacked. An unseen club-wielder at one side beat down his extended sword, while the lurker in the other arm of the T stabbed up at his chest with a short, bronze-tipped spear. Catching sight of the razored spearpoint's glint, Conan jerked back, retaining a desperate grip on his yataghan; an instant later his blade lashed out and struck off the menacing speartip--cleanly, like severing the head of a striking serpent. Then, with his fellow-warriors pressing forward at his back, Conan leaped into the level passage to engaged the club-swinger.
Sparks flew from the stone walls as Conan drove at his half-seen enemy. Metal chimed shrilly as his blade tried to stab past the man's desperate parries. In a trice the club's deep-notched edge caught the steel blade of the yataghan, twisting it down and aside out of action. The tribesman bore down savagely on the swordblade, trying desperately to snap it…even as Conan's knife, plied in his free hand, buried itself to the hilt in the man's side.
The Hwong collapsed with a moan, and Conan finished him with a quick, chopping swordstroke. No more enemies stood before him in the dimness. From the rush of feet behind him, he guessed that his fellow attackers had broken through in the other direction. He stepped over the corpse and pressed forward. A yellowish, indirect light outlined the curving passage ahead.
With a couple of Turanians panting at his back, Conan came to the end of the corridor. It opened into a shadowy room, broad and low-ceilinged, with a fire burning on the floor at its center. About the chamber dim shapes of ancient idols, stone pillars, and human figures reflected its glow.
At the room's far end cries and weapon-blows sounded, where a pair of spearmen held the other wing of the attacking party at bay in the cramped entry; but this door was unguarded. Conan and his companions were well into the room before a youthful Hwong came pelting around the fire to face them. The young brave I was attacked at once by the Turanians, giving Conan time to take in the dim scene.
Outlined by firelight was a bent figure in a stiff, flaring gown. From the cloak's bristling feathers and winking ornaments, Conan judged it to be that of a shaman or magic-maker. In the crook of his arm the wizard supported a tall wooden staff crowned by a glittering, jewel-encrusted skull, whether real or cast of shiny metal Conan could not tell, so dense was the ornamentation. Its stooped owner, busy mumbling and tossing powders into the fire, glanced briefly up, and the dim backlight showed Conan a wizened, shriveled face of unguessable age. Calmly, then, the sage turned back to continue his chant unbroken, as if unconcerned by the intrusion of armed men.
Pinioned upright beyond the fire stood another remarkable figure, a slender female much harder to ignore. Naked but for some small adornment about her neck, she displayed strikingly the almond-eyed, saffron I skinned beauty which Conan found so alluring in the women of this southern clime. Shimmering full-lit before the fire, her body wavered above it like a shapely yellow flame. At her sides, two Hwong braves held her arms, forcing her so near the embers that her skin gleamed with perspiration. Her face, dark-eyed and tight-lipped in the gloom, gazed down into the flames in desperate resignation.
Whether the fire itself was the object of her fear, Conan could not guess; yet there was certainly some thing odd about it. The blaze was knee-high and armwide, a brisk conflagration, yet no supply of fuel was visible nearby. Where stubs of burned logs should have protruded, lazy fumes and smoky tendrils wove about the base of the flames. The whole fire came, perhaps, from the glistening dust the old priest sprinkled, grains of acrid incense whose pungency filled the room. The colors of the fire were strangely bright and varied; at times its glow almost seemed to take organic shape, like the swell and clutch of a carnivorous sea-flower bathed in restless ocean tides.
In the few racing heartbeats required to take in the scene, Conan's companions struck at the lone tribesman from two directions at once. While they chopped him down with a flurry of merciless blows, Conan veered toward the captive woman. Meanwhile Juma, bellowing fierce Kushite curses, broke through the archway at the far side of the chamber. The two guards who opposed him were scattered like tossed knucklebones before his roaring charge.
The pair of warriors holding the yellow-skinned wom an flinched back at these threats, the nearer one releasing her to draw a long, barb-bladed knife from his belt.
Once, twice, it clashed against Conan's flailing yata ghan, until a powerful backhanded slash laid open the man's neck and cast him sprawling into the fire. The other guard, meanwhile, had begun to drag his captive toward the shadowy rear of the chamber; now, at Conan's instant pursuit, he hurled her to the floor and turned to dash away into the shadows himself. The northerner bent over the woman, seized her arm, and hauled to her feet. Swiftly he ascertained that her lithe, straight limbs and supple body bore no wound and no weapon. With her sweat-damp hands clutching at his arm for protection, Conan turned to face the cacophony of shouts echoing around him.
The magician had finally retreated from the fire, having disabled the two troopers who had accompanied Conan into the room. One danced weaponless, howling and slapping at several small gouts of colored flame which blazed from his tunic and even from his bare flesh; the other Turanian rolled screaming on the floor, beating at his garments, from which billows of thick smoke curled. The maker of these uncanny fires was scuttling nimbly away, dragging his skull-topped stave along with him, aided by one of the surviving guards from the far door. His trail was marked by flaming sparks of fire-dust, which still dripped from his withered hand.
"After him, Imperials! It is Mojurna! Come, you Turanian dogs, slay him!" Yell as Juma would to summon his troops in pursuit, they were slow to follow; some hung back to subdue wounded but still-fighting Hwong; others bent to help their agonized fellow warriors extinguish the gnawing flames, pinning the men down while scraping at their smoldering scars with , keen knifeblades.
Conan's impulse to dash after the fleeing wizard was hampered by the grip of his liberated captive at his arm. Rather than drag an unclothed, unarmed female back into danger, he stopped to pry himself loose from her.
"By Astoreth's sacred dugs, woman," he roared at last, "let me go slay your tormentors!"
As he shook her off, he was unable to tell from her blank stare whether she clung to him out of fear for herself, or for him, or to protect the wizard. Regardless, he broke free and lunged after Juma and a pair of less eager Turanian troopers, who dogged the Mojurna's flame-speckled track.
Their pursuit was short. As they closed with the ancient shaman, he scuttled between a grimy altar and a hulking statue of a lion-headed warrior, into a deep crevice at the back of the gallery. Juma bent nearly double to follow him into the cranny, then darted suddenly backward as a heavy, dusty scraping sounded overhead. An instant later a massive slab thudded down in the entryway, striking sulfurous sparks from the lintel where it came to rest.
A few moments' inspection showed that the trick door, whether mechanical or magical in its workings, had effectively sealed off the escape passage.
"By Otumbe and Ijo!" Juma swore fiercely, kicking the patterned face of the slab with his sandaled heel and probing at it with his sword. "The old one has escaped! 'twas Mojurna, the rebel chieftain we sought, Conan, I am sure of it!" Squinting at the impenetrable stone in the dim, fading firelight, he shrugged and turned back to the watching soldiers. "Come on, perhaps we can pick up his trail in the forest."
"Aye." Conan turned away with him. "In any case, we should not tarry here. If the wizard can make stones fall, he may try to seal us up in this chamber."
He detoured back to his female prize, who stood watching where he had left her. Taking her by the wrist, he led her toward the entry. Still unclothed, she walked without apparent shame before the Turanian troopers. The men left off kindling torches, binding the Hwong captives, and aiding the burned troopers, turning to stare and mutter covetous remarks. Even the moaning wounded fell silent at her approach. But to the looks and gruff comments she gave no apparent heed.
Passing near the dying fire, Conan halted with his ward to gaze at the remains of the man he had knocked into it. Considering the small size of the blaze and the short time which had elapsed, the body had been consumed with uncanny totality. Only a few tarnished metal trappings and stubs of bone remained, outlining the man's shape in a sooty, sprawling X superimposed across the still-winking ashes.
"Dangerous sorcery, by Crom!" Conan muttered as he passed the incinerated remains.
"No, not by Crom, but by our ancient goddess Sigtona," the woman declared at his side in smooth, liltingly accented Turanian. "Such is the Shining One's power." She shook her stately head, averting her eyes from the smoking remains. "I am glad it was not I who fed the goddess."
Copyright © 1989 by Conan Properties, Inc.
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Just about every single Vietnam war cliche is here, prominently featuring Conan. Occasional ally and drinking buddy Juma makes an appearance, but even that isn't enough to save this book. This was a first for me: I quit reading it halfway through. The cliches are overdone, the story is drenched in misery and hopelessness, and it just doesn't feel right. I like unorthodox Conan, but this is Conan in name only. The character's just poorly handled. Carpenter has written a couple of my all-time favorite Conan pastiches, but this book just flat out blows. Try Conan the Valorous, also by Carpenter. FAR better untraditional material: Conan Goes To Cimmeria. This one, sadly, is just wretched.
Leonard Carpenter wrote the most Conan pastiches of any of the Tor authors. I’ve only read one of his eleven Conan novels. Carpenter didn’t write many other novels, but he did write poetry, and what looks like a lot of short fiction.
Carpenter introduces Conan in Conan the Hero rising from slimy water into a steaming jungle, skin striped with “muddy tones of lampblack and umber.” If that sounds kind of awesome and kind of like Rambo, well, yeah. Conan the Hero is a good book, but it suffers from being as influenced by the 1980s American drug epidemic, the Soviet-Afghan War, and, most of all, Vietnam as it is by Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories.
Conan starts the book fighting in the Turan army far, far to the east. They are fighting against tribesmen in what is an obvious Southeast Asia analogue. The desert natives struggle to operate in humid jungles that elephants are better suited to than horses (Carpenter does some cool worldbuilding with the elephants by the way). Soldiers spend their leave in a city of the locals on their side that is run by a cruel drug lord. Meanwhile, political machinations are afoot back in Aghrapur, but as usual the story isn’t nearly as interesting when Conan is offscreen. In this book, it is not so much a barbarian-civilization clash as the inevitable failure of overstretched imperialism.
“On every side, ladies, are barbarous hordes who eagerly await a first sign of our weakness, the smallest chink in our imperial menace, have been overrun—their cities broken, their temples profaned, their thrones and alters besquatted by vile, hairy hides! If we do not keep up unrelenting pressure against this external threat, why, even the sacred virtue of Turanian womanhood will be imperiled—”
I like this book, but it really suffers from the amount of contemporary influence that Carpenter allows to seep into it. It isn’t quite so relevant today, and it detracts from the story as a Conan story. But while I definitely put Carpenter a tier down from Robert Jordan and John Maddox Roberts, his work is better than that of Steve Perry or Roland Green, and I will eventually get around to reading the other Carpenter Conan book I own.