In the red light of the failing sun, Conan the Second, King of Aquilonia, stood on a hill and surveyed the first great battlefield of his reign.
Five years earlier, the young king’s mighty sire, Conan the Great, then in his sixties, had abdicated his throne and disappeared into legendry, some say to meet his bane, others claiming the barbarian king and hero of a thousand tales was a demigod, an immortal who yet lived, still battling his way west, across the oceans and continents of the world still unmapped and unexplored by any in the Hyborian age.
Whatever Conan’s fate, his eldest son, known to his family and friends as Conn, was left to rule the greatest nation state in their part of the known world, and his legendary father’s many enemies saw Conan’s abdication and disappearance as an opportunity to seize power for themselves.
Not the least of these was a man named Titus, a once powerful nobleman from Zingara who had sided against Conan when the former king had first claimed the throne of Aquilonia decades earlier. At first, Titus was reluctant to test Conn, fearing his ferocious sire would return at his moment of triumph and crush him, as he had done to so many others, so many times before. However, when Conan had not returned after five years and rumors of his death at the hands of the red shadows that had plagued his kingdom shortly before his departure reached Aquilonia, Titus had begun plotting the overthrow of the young king.
In secret, he allied himself with the Picts, the dark, wild men of the west who had for centuries fought the ancestors of those who now ruled over lands that had once belonged to their own ancestors.
Savage and undisciplined, the Picts were nonetheless capable and tenacious fighters, fearless in the face of death and able to withstand brutal punishment ere they fell. All they lacked was leadership. Indeed, had the Picts the discipline to organize and band their factious clans together rather than fight amongst themselves, they may still have inhabited all of the lands the white men now lorded over, but they were a jealous and barbarous people, given to slaughtering one another over the slightest insult and feuds between clans sometimes went on for decades.
More than once they had rallied under the leadership of one of their spiritual leaders, powerful shamans whose magic could invoke supernatural horrors, who used fear to control them and drive them to blood crazed frenzy, hurling them against the war machines and cold steel of the men of Aquilonia and her allies. Each time they had been driven back, their shaman slain and their will broken. The last two times this had happened, it was Conan himself who had delivered the fatal stroke and then years later when at last he had torn the bloody crown of Aquilonia from the head of depraved king Numedides with his own hands and declared himself king, the Picts had faded back into the night haunted forests and kept to themselves, content not to test the giant berserker who had in battle after battle claimed so many of their fathers, brothers and sons.
Now, however, they were told that Conan had gone and had left on his throne a young heir, untested, they heard, in real battle and the man who told them these lies had also promised them their lands back and much wealth to boot should they aid him. The Picts had believed him, and laying aside old feuds, had banded together to form an army that, together with mercenaries hired by Titus, numbered in the tens of thousands.
For the first time, the Picts were given arms to match their foes and trained to use them, taught the ways of steel and iron, given armor to cover their naked and vulnerable bodies.
Then there rose among them a new shaman, Achak, the unholy offspring of a fallen shaman and some believed, a she-demon summoned from the Pit. Achak’s magic, it was said, was very strong. He was master over the beasts of the forest and with a glance could mesmerize a man rendering him completely under the witch’s control.
Rumor had it that during a midnight council where dozens of warring clans had gathered under a totem of truce, Achak had summoned from the forest a giant saber toothed cat, a beast thought to be long extinct. It was said that the beast, a twenty foot monster with two foot tusks and paws the size of small shields, at Achak’s command, had glided from the gloomy mist of the great forest, gone directly to the shaman and lain down, it’s great head bowed at his dusky feet. This was a powerful sign, the sign that they had waited for, the omen that had convinced them to join with the white man and his soldiers who sought to help them overthrow the hated Aquilonians once and for all. From that night forward, they were committed to defeating Conn; they would stop at nothing to see him, his family and any who opposed them roasting over open pits.
Now, a year later, the Picts, under the leadership of Titus and Achak, had crossed the Black River in their blood mad hordes and over run the Bossonian Marches. They slaughtered all who stood in their way; men, women, children - none were spared as the swart brown marauders hacked and slew their way toward the Aquilonian border.
As soon as the reports of the massacre reached Tarantia, the glittering capitol of Aquilonia, Conn had gathered his host and ridden out to meet them.
They had been shocked to see the Picts armored and carrying steel rather than the inferior copper weapons they were used to seeing. At first they fell back in the face of the Pict attack, seeming confused and disoriented, but then a figure clad in black armor emblazoned with a golden lion, the harness of the king, and wielding a huge double bitted axe, rode in amongst them, striking right and left, dispatching the Picts as though they were stalks of wheat under the scythe and bellowing the Cimmerian war cry taught him by his titanic sire. To his men, it was as though Amra (for that was Conan’s nickname) himself had returned from his sojourn to lead them to another roaring victory and they rallied to his cry. In an explosion of violent action, they mowed down the Picts, slaughtering all that stood to fight and pursuing those that fled into the forest.
Now as evening fell, the young king assayed the gory scene before him. Unhelmeted, Conn wiped the sweat from his brow and watched as his dead and wounded were removed from the field and any wounded Picts were dispatched. From behind him, he heard a familiar voice mutter, “So, this is what war is like.”
Conn turned and gave a grim smile to his younger brother, Taurus. Conn himself was the very image of his father, square jawed and grim, with coarse black hair and strikingly blue eyes. His brother, while as powerfully built, was a foot shorter than Conn, and favored more his mother Zenobia, who had died giving birth to their sister, Radegund. There was about them both, however, the stamp of their barbarian sire that set them apart from other men and which bonded them together as closely as two brothers could be.
“Pretty, isn’t it?” Conn taunted him.
Taurus did not return the jest. “No, brother, it is not pretty. It is gory and horrific. Is it necessary to kill the wounded? Surely they cannot harm us now.”
Conn turned back to face the battlefield. This was the basic difference between them. Conn had received more attention from their father, been in the field with him, had fought beside him while Taurus still toddled in the palace court. He knew that in the world in which they lived, only the strong lived long enough to have tales written about them and songs sung about the campfires retelling their deeds. Taurus was still young, only sixteen; he had not been exposed to the world that existed outside of Aquilonia.
Taurus’ position as the king’s brother and next in line for the throne had not earned him the easy life that some of his contemporaries had enjoyed; young fops whose fathers owned land and commanded troops who had about them bodyguards and hangers on; he had learned from his brother what Conn and been taught by their father and had been tested through battle in several small skirmishes that had arisen after Conan’s sudden departure, but today had been his first real combat in a major battle. He had accounted himself well; dozens of Picts had fallen under his sword, but the experience had left an impression on him and it came through now in his voice as he talked with his brother. Conn tried to pretend he had not heard it.
“Better to have them dead now then have to fight them again later.”
“As you say.”
Taurus moved to stand beside him. He squatted down and scooped a handful of dirt in his hands, letting it sift through his fingers as he looked out over the field. The vultures had begun to circle and the first had landed to begin the macabre buffet. He shuddered.
“What a waste,” he grunted, disgust in his voice.
“A waste you say, brother? How so?”
“Look about you, Conn,” he said gesturing with a sweeping motion at the scene before them. “These poor bastards had no chance. Twere better they were still naked and squatting in some hut somewhere than be food for the vultures. It sickens me.”
Conn looked down at his younger brother, grim faced and earnest. “I did not attack them, Taurus. It was they that crossed the river and murdered women and children. I feel no pity for these. They got only what they asked for.”
Taurus rose and faced Conn. “I know, brother. I do not fault you. It is Titus who is the real enemy here. It is he who raised this army. He and the witch are responsible for this carnage.” Again, he turned away from his brother and looked out over the field as the last remnants of pink and red were fading away to dusk. “Still, it saddens me that these simple brutes must be the grist for his mill.”
Conn placed a hand on his brother’s shoulder. “You have a good heart, brother, and it serves you well, but know this,” he turned Taurus toward him and looked him in the eyes, “the Picts have been fighting our ancestors since before Atlantis fell, since the time of Kull of Valusia and until they pull themselves from the barbarousness from which they came, they will continue to fight us. It is in their nature; they are taught to hate us. I will not hunt them as long as they do not hunt me, but today was not the end. This was merely Titus and his shaman sizing us up, reconnoitering us. The final battle of this conflict has not yet been fought but when it is, many will die on both sides. War is not a thing which brings happiness, Taurus, but it is a thing that must be done if we want our children and the children of those who look to us for protection to live to have children of their own.”
The two sons of Conan the Conqueror stood silently for a minute, sharing the bond that only one brother can have with another. As they turned and left the little hilltop and headed for their encampment, the sun finally sank below the distant horizon and darkness fell like a shroud over the dead and the living alike.
Deep in the dank, fetid wilderness, the same darkness fell over a Pictish encampment and the mud huts they used as dwellings. The cooking fires were blazing, casting an orange glow on the surrounding cover of forest that encircled the camp and female Picts, their naked bodies shining blackly in the firelight, moved here and about it preparing the meal for the group of warriors camped there.
Groups of them sat by themselves around smaller fires, talking and gesticulating, describing their prowess in battle and lovemaking or deriding their counterparts’ skills, laughing and yelling at one another as they waited for their repast. They had not been in the previous day’s conflict; none who had still lived. They had been summoned here by Achak, for what they knew not and did not deign to ask. The mysterious holy man was as much an enigma to them as to their foes and they would rather have faced his great saber toothed cat than question his commands. They simply knew that he wanted them there and that was all they cared to know.
Apart from the main camp, another, larger hut was erected, with a high roof and wide doorways. It was coated in a black pitch like mud so that were it not for the torches alight at the entrance, one could have easily stumbled into it before one saw it clearly. At the entrance to this larger building, the great cat lounged, loudly cracking the bone of some prey beast it had between its enormous paws, guarding the entrance to its master’s dwelling.
Languorously it stretched its massive forepaws, the muscles rippling elegantly beneath its tawny hide and yawned, exposing rows of razor sharp teeth and a pair of two-foot long canines that curved out of either side of its giant head. Its stretch completed, the monstrous twenty-foot throwback to another age put the end of the big bone it was cradling back in its mouth and continued extracting the nutrient rich marrow within it. The loud cracking sound of the bone giving way reverberated through the night air.
Inside the hut, a rank fume-like haze hung like a pall in the air. The stench of death permeated the atmosphere and the dirt floor crawled with insects, ants, roaches, spiders and centipedes scurrying underfoot, fighting one another for the detritus that lay strewn about the place.
A fire was lit in the center of the hut and the heat from it turned the stinking atmosphere into a sauna. Behind the fire, cross-legged and naked, sweat seeping from his every pour, sat Achak.
His curly gray hair was long and matted, tendrils of it like the arms of some wooly kraken standing out in all directions. His face, gaunt and haggard in the firelight, was decorated with the ritual scars of his calling and painted white except around the eyes, giving his countenance a skull like aspect. Deep in the recesses of these dark pits, his eyes glowed redly and shone like the slag of hell.
Moaning in a low voice and swaying back and forth, Achak raised his hands over an object placed in front of him before the fire, thumbs together, fingers splayed wide. He began to shake, then, his body twitching, his hands seeming to vibrate over the object and his moaning turned to wailing, a high-pitched keening note that got louder and louder until it no longer resembled a human voice at all but rather the voice of a demon from the pits of the abyss. As it reached its crescendo, a lightning bolt struck from a clear sky outside the hut and the great cat guarding the entrance leaped to its feet and screamed, adding its guttural snarl to its master’s incantation.
Around the cooking fires, the warriors gathered there became deathly silent, the whites of their eyes gleaming, the women trembling with fear. Then all was silent.
Back inside the hut, Achak sat still, his wooly head bowed and his arms limp at his side. Finally, after some minutes, he raised his head and regarded the object at his feet.
It was the severed head of an old Pict, remarkably alike in appearance to Achak himself. It was, in fact, the head of Achak’s own father, Sagayetha, and though dead for three decades, its eyes were open and, impossibly, words issued from its gory mouth.
“What trick is this? Why am I trapped in this place? Who has summoned me into Limbo?”
“It is I father, your son, who summons you.”
The fire flared dangerously and hot as the shriveled ancient head of Old Sagayetha wailed.
“AIEEEEEEEEEEEE! You have ripped me from my place in Gehenna! You have disturbed my resssssst! Oh, pain and torment! Why have you done this? What do you want of me?”
“I require your sight, O Father, for my enemy is close and I must know where to strike at him next. Look, O Father, through the Great Veil and guide me so that I can revenge you and destroy the house of Conan forever!”
The severed head rolled it eye’s back into their withered sockets and its mouth opened, its tongue protruding blackly like a moldering slug. A worm crawled from it nostrils and back into the black maw as it wailed again.
“AIEEE! Conan! A thousand curses on that barbarian cur! May Father Set eat his liver for a thousand years!”
“Yes, Father, Conan has left these lands and is rumored dead. His heir now sits on the throne of Aquilonia, but he is not his sire. He has not the teeth his father had; he can be beaten. See for me Father, peer through the Veil and tell me where to strike at him!”
The eyes rolled back down and looked into the eyes of Achak, pale orbs in sunken flesh. “I will look, O Son, but you must never use me again in this way! You must never pull me away from my resting place in the pits of Gehenna, for the fires cannot touch me there! Here I burn! I BURN! AIEEEEE!”
“Forgive me, Father, but only through your eyes can I see what needs to be seen.”
“I will look now, O Son. I will peer through the Veil…”
With that the severed head’s eyes glazed white and a blue glow issued from them. For several minutes all was quiet save for the crackling of the fire. Then the glow retreated and once again the head of the ancient shaman spoke.
“I have seen, O Son, I have seen! The force of Aquilonia is gathered in the Bossonian Marches and only a small contingent of guards stays behind in Tarantia. Go there and find the daughter of Conan! Find Radegund! Bring here to the Tree…take her to the Wailing Tree…”
An evil smile etched itself into Achak’s craggy face.
The Wailing Tree was a massive willow that grew far to the east in the darkest section of the forest that was home to the Picts. Shamans from before the time of the First Cataclysm had ensorcelled the tree and imbued it with the power to extract the soul from anyone trapped within its feathery creepers and when the tree was done with its victims, it left them alive yet emptied of life, zombified and enslaved to the shaman who placed them there. Tens of thousands of Picts and their enemies had gone gibbering to satisfy the vampiric willow’s parasitic thirst over the eons and now Achak planned on feeding it the daughter of his greatest foe and in the process lure the seed of Conan of Cimmeria and destroy it for all time!
“RELEASE ME! RELEASE MEEEEEE! I have told you what you need to know! Let me go back into my cairn, away from the fire! RELEASE MEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!”
Achak placed his hands back where they had been during the incantation and mumbled three words under his breath. With a final howl, his father’s soul ran barking back to Gehenna.
Rising, exhausted, Achak staggered to the door of his hut and called out for his chieftain, Mobutu. Warily, the swarthy Pict chieftain approached the witch’s hut and stammered, “You called, O Master?”
“Bring me food and water,” Achak snapped, “then come inside. We have things to discuss.”