In my previous installment, I had brought Conan up from the pits underneath the Royal palace at Belverus in Nemedia. He was in the company of Zenobia, the slave-girl who had helped to rescue him from the pits, before Tarascus’ marrow-eating monkey would have burst into his cell and discovered him defenseless. Together they journey through secret passages in the castle before Conan becomes apprised of a hated voice.
This is Tarascus, King of Nemedia at Almaric’s bidding, who is addressing a thief in a private chamber over the disposal of the Heart of Ahriman. (This was the great flaming jewel which had resuscitated Xaltotun, the magician of Python, back to life.) Tarascus enjoins the fellow to take a boat from a neighboring country and cast the jewel into the sea. The thief departs pulling a slouch hat over his features, and Conan launches an attack on Tarascus which is reminiscent of a wounded tiger. He misses his footing at the crucial moment, however, and the poniard tears down the King’s ribs rather than through his heart — the blow is not mortal.
Having raised a hornets’ nest, Conan retreats to another chamber with Zenobia, kisses her passionately, and then rips some gold bars from the window — prior to making his escape through the gardens. He eventually discovers a sturdy horse which she had tethered at a nearby fountain and makes his way to the Aquilonian border.
The situation at the border is quiet, only stragglers are left, and, in the armor of a slain mercenary, most people give Conan a wide berth. He does discover some Nemedian rabble attempting to hang an old woman from a bramble — she turns out to be a witch called Zelata, who befriends the King, and shows him a vision of Aquilonia’s parlous state.
This section enables Howard to dwell disdainfully on civilization and his belief in its insubstantial or skin-deep quality. For example, immediately after Conan’s alleged death, the mob took over in the Aquilonian capital, Tarantia, and wouldn’t listen to reason. The barons distrusted each other and few would ride with the small band of Poitainians who had come up from the south to sustain the King’s cause.
Conan had no son and heir, he was only a lone adventurer, and men’s memories are fickle and short — this is what Howard seems to be saying. Many men were prepared to bow the knee to Valerius — even if they privately sensed that his rule might be sadistic and disastrous, purely because he had the blood of the old dynasty in his veins. Such, in Howard’s opinion, is the folly and venality of men: they choose the worse option having made a spectacle of the best. (For, although something of a New Deal democrat in his own inclinations, Howard is a metaphysical pessimist about human nature in general and governmental institutions in particular.)
Conan is startled by these revelations, but he soon rediscovers his poise and begins to plot the reconquest of his Kingdom. Zelata urges him against a direct military strategy, however, and argues that first he must make safe the Heart of Ahriman — the heart of his Kingdom, the one thing which is strong enough to hold out against Xaltotun’s magic. The men of Aquilonia do not fear Nemedia’s pike-staffs and spears — it is the black arts of Xaltotun which causes them to pause in their tracks.
Conan then journeys into occupied Aquilonian territory and seeks out the comradeship of one of his key supporters, a patrician called Servius Galannus. He is startled and mortified to find the King alive — having heard the great bell toll his dirge in Tarantia many days before. They make their way to a secluded chamber in his mansion, and Servius imparts to Conan everything that’s occurred. The treachery of certain Barons is mulled over, as is the lot of the common people under Valerius. Likewise, they discuss the balance of forces on the Nemedian side — and how, unless they can match the magic of Xaltotun, there will be no rising of forces possible amongst the Aquilonians.
Conan is enraged to hear that slavery has been selectively re-introduced and learns that the Countess Albiona is to be executed in the Iron Tower that very night for refusing to become Valerius’ mistress. (Howard here commends Conan for not thinking like a civilized man — and for having ideas which run in irregular channels.)
The King decides to go into Tarantia and rescue Albiona that very night — even though Servius regards it as the height of folly. And, much later, disguised as a traveler, Conan enters Tarantia and makes his way to the Iron Tower — a fortress or citadel which predates the modern capital, and many of the secrets of which he knows. Having entered it by a circuitous route, Conan replaces the Nemedian executioner and reveals himself at the paroxysm of the execution. He makes off with the superlatively relieved Countess after having despatched two masked Nemedians and a traitorous Aquilonian who informs Valerius with his dying breath that Conan still lives.
During his escape from the Iron Tower Conan was assisted by the followers of a minority religion, Asura, whom he had befriended during the time of his kingship. One of their number had recognized the King under his traveler’s garb — given that their cult looks to rend the veil or peer beneath the mask of illusion.
Deep in one of their concealed temples, Conan holds a council of war with Hadrathus (Asura’s high-priest) and Albiona. This confirms the reality of Xaltotun’s rebirth and the fact that he has to be separated from the Heart of Ahriman to become manageable. Conan is able to tell the priest that the heart has been stolen from the Acheronian wizard as he slept by Tarascus, and that a thief was then commanded to throw it into the sea.
Hadrathus is convulsed by the news — a Xaltotun separated from the flaming jewel is a mere half of the mage he once was. They begin to plot how they will get hold of the gem — given that Conan believes no self-respecting thief will scuttle the treasure. Instead he will sell it to a rich merchant for gold in the hand.
In all of this we see Howard’s mordant wit, anti-civilizational bias, and belief in White heroics, as well as his use of fiction for masculine wish-fulfillment fantasies.
To be continued . . .