As revolution brews in the shadowy streets of Belverus, Conan braves the traps and treacheries of the Royal Palace of the Dragon. Pursued by the luscious and shameless Sularia, the mighty warrior challenges a magic-spawned menace that cannot die: the invincible Simulacrum of Albanus.
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About the Author
Date of Birth:October 17, 1948
Date of Death:September 16, 2007
Place of Birth:Charleston, South Carolina
Place of Death:Charleston, South Carolina
Education:B.S. in physics, The Citadel, 1974
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Conan the Defender
By Robert Jordan
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 1983 Robert Jordan
All rights reserved.
The tall, muscular youth strode the streets of Belverus, monument-filled and marble-columned capital of Nemedia, with a wary eye and a hand close to the well-worn leather-wrapped hilt of his broadsword. His deep blue eyes and fur-trimmed cloak spoke of the north country. Belverus had seen many northern barbarians in better times, dazzled by the great city and easily separated from their silver or their pittance of gold — though often, not understanding the ways of civilization, they had to be hauled away by the black-cloaked City Guard, complaining that they had been duped. This man, however, though only twenty-two, walked with the confidence of one who had trod the paving stones of cities as great or greater, of Arenjun and Shadizar, called the Wicked; of Sultanapur and Aghrapur; even the fabled cities of far-off Khitai.
He walked the High Streets, in the Market District, not half a mile from the Royal Palace of Garian, King of Nemedia, yet he thought he might as well be in Hellgate, the city's thieves' district. The open-fronted shops had display tables out, and crowds moved among them pricing cloth from Ophir, wines from Argos, goods from Koth and Corinthia and even Turan. But the peddlers' carts rumbling over the paving stones carried little in the way of foodstuffs, and their prices made him wonder if he could afford to eat in the city for long.
Between the shops were huddled beggars, maimed or blind or both, their wailing for alms competing with the hawkers crying their wares. And every street corner had its knot of toughs, hard-eyed, roughly dressed men who fingered swordhilts, or openly sharpened daggers or weighed cudgels in their fists as their gazes followed a plump merchant scurrying by or a lissome shopkeeper's daughter darting through the crowd with nervous eyes. All that was missing were the prostitutes in their brass and copper bangles, sheer shifts cut to display their wares. Even the air had something of the cloying smell he associated with a dozen slums he had seen, a mixture of vomit, urine and excrement.
Suddenly a fruit cart crossing an intersection was surrounded by half-a-dozen ruffians in motley bits of finery mixed with rags. The skinny vendor stood silent, eyes down and careworn face red, as they picked over his goods, taking a bite of this and a bite of that, then throwing both into the street. Stuffing the folds of their tunics with fruit, they started away, swaggering, insolent eyes daring anyone to speak. The well-dressed passersby acted as if the men were invisible.
"I don't suppose you'll pay," the vendor moaned without raising his eyes.
One of the bravos, an unshaven man wearing a soiled cloak embroidered with thread-of-gold over a ragged cotton tunic, smiled, showing the blackened stumps of his teeth. "Pay? Here's pay." His backhand blow split the skinny man's cheek, and the pushcart man collapsed sobbing across his barrow. With a grating laugh the bravo joined his fellows who had stopped to see the sport, and they shoved their way through the crowd of shoppers, who gave way with no more than a wordless mutter.
The muscular northern youth stopped a pace away from the pushcart. "Will you not call the City Guard?" he asked curiously.
The peddler pushed himself wearily erect. "Please. I have to feed my family. There are other carts."
"I steal not fruit, nor beat old men," the youth said stiffly. "My name is Conan. Will the City Guard not protect you?"
"The City Guard?" the old man laughed bitterly. "They stay in their barracks and protect themselves. I saw three of these scum hang a Guardsman by his heels and geld him. Thus they think of the City Guard." He wiped his hands shakily down the front of his tunic, suddenly realizing how visible he was talking to a barbarian in the middle of the intersection. "I have to go," he muttered. "I have to go." He bent to the handles of his pushcart without another glance at the young barbarian.
Conan watched him go with a pitying glance. He had come to Belverus to hire himself as a bodyguard or a soldier — he had been both, as well as a thief, a smuggler and a bandit — but whoever could hire his sword for protection in that city, it would unfortunately not be those who needed it most.
Some of the street-corner toughs had noticed his words with the peddler, and approached, thinking to have some fun with the outlander. As his gaze passed over them, though, cold as the mountain glaciers of his native Cimmeria, it came to them that death walked the streets of Belverus that day. There was easier prey elsewhere, they decided. In minutes the intersection was barren of thugs.
A few people looked at him gratefully, realizing he had made that one place safe for the moment. Conan shook his head, half angry with himself, half with them. He had come to hire his sword for gold, not to clear the streets of scum.
A scrap of parchment, carried by a vagrant breeze, fetched up against his boot. Idly he picked it up, read the words writ there in a fine round hand.
King Garian sits on the Dragon Throne.
King Garian sits to his feast alone.
You sweat and toil for a scrap of bread,
And learn to walk the streets in dread.
He is not just, this King of ours,
May his reign be counted in hours.
Mitra save us from the Dragon Throne,
And the King who sits to his feast alone.
He let the scrap go with the breeze, joining still other scraps swirling down the street. He saw people lift one to read. Some let it drop, whitefaced, or threw it away in anger, but some read and furtively tucked the bit of sedition into their pouches.
Belverus was a plum ripe for the plucking. He had seen the signs before, in other cities. Soon the furtiveness would be gone. Fists would be shaken openly at the Royal Palace. Stronger thrones had been toppled by less.
Suddenly a running man pushed past him with horror-stricken eyes, and on his heels came a woman, her mouth open in a soundless scream. A flock of children ran past shrieking unintelligibly.
Down the street more screams and cries rose, and the crowd suddenly stampeded toward the intersection. Their fear communicated itself, and without knowing why others joined the stream. With difficulty Conan forced his way to the side of the street, to a shop deserted by its owner. What could cause this, he wondered.
Then the torrent of people thinned and was gone, and Conan saw that the street they had fled was littered with bodies, few moving. Some had been trampled; others, further away, were lacking arms or heads. And striding down the center of the street was a man in a richly embroidered blue tunic, holding a sword with an odd, wavy blade that was encarmined for its entire length. A rope of spittle drooled from the corner of his mouth.
Conan put his hand to his sword, then firmly took it away. For gold, he reminded himself, not to avenge strangers on a madman. He turned to move deeper into the shadows.
At that instant a child broke from a shop directly in front of the madman, a girl no more than eight years old, wailing as she ran on flashing feet. With a roar the madman raised his sword and started after her.
"Erlik's Bowels and Bladder!" Conan swore. His broadsword came smoothly from its worn shagreen sheath as he stepped back into the intersection.
The child ran screaming past without slowing. The madman halted. Up close, despite his rich garb, thinning hair and pouches beneath his eyes gave him the look of a clerk. But those muddy brown eyes were glazed with madness, and the sounds he made were formless grunts. Flies buzzed about the fruit the bravos had scattered.
At least, Conan thought, the man had some reason left, enough not to run onto another's blade. "Hold there," he said. "I'm no running babe or shopkeeper to be hacked down from behind. Why don't you —"
Conan thought he heard a hungry, metallic whine. An animal scream broke from the man's throat, and he rushed forward, sword raised.
The Cimmerian brought his own blade up to parry, and with stunning speed the wavy sword changed direction. Conan leaped back; the tip of the other's steel slashed across his belly, slicing tunic and the light chain mail he wore beneath alike as if they were parchment. He moved back another step to gain room for his own attack, but the madman followed swiftly, bloody blade slashing and stabbing with a ferocity beyond belief. Slowly the muscular youth gave ground.
To his shock he came to him that he was fighting a defensive battle against the slight, almost nondescript man. His every move was to block some thrust instead of to attack. All of his speed and cunning were going into merely staying alive, and already he was bleeding from half a dozen minor wounds. It came to him that he might well die on that spot.
"By the Lord of the Mound, no!" he shouted. "Crom and steel!" But with the clash of the blades ringing in his ears he was forced back.
Abruptly Conan's foot came down on a half-eaten plum, and with a crash he went down, flat on his back, silver-flecked spots dancing before his eyes. Fighting for breath he watched the madman's wavy blade go back for the thrust that would end his life. But he would not die easily. From his depths he found the strength to roll aside as the other lunged. The bloody blade struck sparks from the paving stones where he had been. Frantically he continued to roll, coming to his feet with his back against a wall. The madman whirled to follow.
The air was filled with a whir as of angry hornets, and the madman suddenly resembled a feathered pincushion. Conan blinked. The City Guard had arrived at last, a black-cloaked score of archers. They stayed well back, drawing again, for transfixed though he was, the madman still stood. His mouth was a gash emitting a wordless howl of bloodlust, and he hurled his sword at the big Cimmerian.
Conan's blade had no more than a hand's span to travel to deflect the strange blade to clatter in the street. The Guardsmen loosed their arrows once more. Pierced through and through the madman toppled. For a brief moment as he fell, the look of madness faded to be replaced by one of unutterable horror. He hit the pavement dead. Slowly, weapons at the ready, the soldiers closed in on the corpse.
The big Cimmerian slammed his blade home in its sheath with a disgusted grunt. It was unnecessary even to wipe a speck of blood from it. The only blood shed had been his, and every one of those cuts, insignificant as each was, ached with the shame of it. The one attack he had managed to meet cleanly, the thrown sword, could have been met by a ten years' girl.
A Guardsman grabbed the dead man's shoulder and heaved him over onto his back, splintering half a dozen arrows on the stones of the street.
"Easy, Tulio," another growled. "Like as not our pay will be docked for those shafts. Why —"
"Black Erlik's Throne!" Tulio gasped. "It's Lord Melius!"
The knot of mailed men stepped back, leaving Tulio standing alone over the corpse. It was not well to be too near a dead noble, most especially if you had had a hand in killing him, and no matter what he had done. The King's Justice could take strange twists where nobles were concerned.
A livid scar across his broad nose visible beneath the nasal of his helmet, the Guardsmen's grizzled sergeant spat near the corpse. "There's naught to be done for it now. Tulio!" That Guardsman suddenly realized he was alone by the body and jumped, his eyes darting frantically. "Put your cloak over the ... the noble lord," the sergeant went on. "Move, man!" Reluctantly Tulio complied. The sergeant told off more men. "Abydius, Crato, Jocor, Naso. Grab his arms and legs. Jump! Or do you want to stay here till the flies eat him?"
The four men shuffled forward, muttering as they lifted the body. The sergeant started up the street, and the bearers followed as quickly as they were able, the rest of the troop falling in behind. None gave a second look to Conan.
"Are you slowing that much, Cimmerian?" a gruff voice called.
Conan spun, his angry retort dying on his lips as he saw the bearded man leaning against a shop front. "I'm still faster than you, Hordo, you old robber of dogs."
Nearly as tall as Conan and broader, the bearded man straightened. A rough leather patch covered his left eye, and a scar running from beneath the leather down his cheek pulled that side of his mouth into a permanent sneer, though now the rest of it was bent to a grin. A heavy gold hoop swung from each ear, but if they tempted thieves the well-worn broadsword and dagger at his belt dissuaded them.
"Mayhap you are, Conan," he said. "But what are you doing in Nemedia, aside from taking a lesson on bladesmanship from a middle-aged noble? The last I saw of you, you were on your way to Aghrapur to soldier for King Yildiz."
Hordo was a friend, but he had not always been so. The first time they met, the one-eyed man and a pack of bandits had pegged Conan out on the Zamoran plains at the orders of Karela, a red-haired woman bandit known as the Red Hawk. Later they had ridden together to the Kezankian Mountains to try for treasure stolen by the sorcerer Amanar. From that they had escaped with naught but their lives. Twice more they had met, each time making a try at wealth, each time failing to gain more than enough for one grand carouse in the nearest fleshpots. Conan had to wonder if once again they would have a chance at gold.
"I did," Conan replied, "but I left the service of Turan a year gone and more."
"Trouble over a woman, I'll wager," Hordo chuckled, "knowing you."
Conan shrugged his massive shoulders. He always had trouble over women, it seemed. But then, what man did not?
"And what woman chased you from Sultanapur, Hordo? When last we parted you sat in your own inn with a plump Turanian wife, swearing never again to smuggle so much as a sweetmeat, nor set foot outside Sultanapur until you were carried out to your funeral pyre."
"It was Karela." The one-eyed man's voice was low with embarrassment. He tugged at his thick beard. "I could not give up trying to find word of her, and my wife could not cease nagging me to stop. She said I made a spectacle of myself. People talked, she said, laughed behind my back, said I was strange in the head. She would not have it said she married a man lacking all his brains. She would not stop, and I could not, so I said goodbye one day and never looked back."
"You still look for Karela?"
"She is not dead. I'm sure she lives." He grabbed Conan's arm, a pathetic urgency in his eyes. "I've heard never a whisper, but I'd know if she was dead. I'd know. Have you heard anything? Anything at all?"
Hordo's voice carried anguish. Conan knew that the Red Hawk had indeed survived their expedition into the Kezankians. But to tell Hordo would entail telling how last he saw her — naked and chained in a slave coffle on her way to the auction block. He could explain that he had had but a few coppers in his pouch, not even close to the price of a round-breasted, green-eyed slave in Turan. He could even mention the oath she had made him swear, that he would never lift a hand to save her. She was a woman of pride, Karela was. Or had been. For if Hordo had found no sign of her, it was more than likely the strap had broken her, and that she now danced for the pleasure of a dark-eyed master. And if he told the tale, he might well have to kill his old friend, the man who had always called himself Karela's faithful hound.
"The last I saw of her was in the Kezankians," he said truthfully, "but I'm sure she got out of the mountains alive. No pack of hillmen would have stood a chance against her with a sword in her hand."
Hordo nodded, sighing heavily.
People were venturing back into the street, staring at the bodies that still lay where they had been slain. Here and there a woman fell wailing across a dead husband or child.
Conan looked around for the sword the madman had been carrying. It lay before an open-fronted shop piled high with colorful bolts of cloth. The proprietor was gone, one of the dead or one of those staring at them. The Cimmerian picked up the sword, wiping the congealing blood from the serpentine blade on a bolt of yellow damask.
Excerpted from Conan the Defender by Robert Jordan. Copyright © 1983 Robert Jordan. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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