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To the memory of Robert E. Howard

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

The author would like to thank the following people for their help on this project: Fredrik Malmberg and Joakim Zetterberg of Paradox Entertainment, Howard Morhaim, Ben Bova, Kat Klaybourne, Thomas Dean Donnelly, Joshua Oppenheimer, and Sean Hood.

CHAPTER 1

CORIN, BLACKSMITH, SON of Connacht and, like every other Cimmerian, a warrior, watched the young men of his village. He measured them with a careful eye, aware that soon he would be fashioning for each a sword. It would match them in length and personality, becoming a part of them. In the south it was said Cimmerians were born with swords in their hands, but Corin knew that this was not true.

We are born with the courage to wield a sword, as Crom grants. He smiled. A Cimmerian needs little else.

A dozen young men, some showing only the first wisp of a beard, practiced with the fellows in a circle of hardpacked snow. Two warriors circulated among them, snapping order. The youths’ swords came up and flashed out, high cuts and low. Warriors lashed the youths’ bellies when their charges displayed sloppy guards, and tipped elbows up and kicked feet into their proper place. Smiles betrayed boys who thought learning the deadly arts was but a game; and harsh cuffs disabused them of that notion.

Only survivors earned the right to smile after the grim work of swordplay was done.

The youths moved in unison—some clumsy, some certain, some bold enough to add a flourish to a cut. They watched each other, being impressed and trying to impress. Clusters of giggling girls standing on the shadowed side of huts increased their desire to preen and sapped their focus.

Corin shook his head slowly, a lion of a man with a thick mane and beard. Despite the late-fall chill, he wore no tunic, only a leather apron. The smith’s strong arms displayed thick muscles over which a tracery of pale scars played. A few were the marks left by hot metal from the forge. The rest had been earned in battle.

The boy’s grunt caught Corin’s attention, but he did not turn toward it, not immediately. Had he done so, he would have smiled and his smile would have been seen. The boy needed no encouragement, but Corin, remembering his own childhood, saw no reason to discourage either.

Slowly he glanced over, and there, opposite the circle where the young men fought, his son, Conan, aped their movements. The stick his imagination had transformed into a Cimmerian broadsword slashed the air with a whistle. The boy ducked and twisted, then brought the stick around in a fluid riposte that would have cut a throat. Another twist, then a downward stroke to break a shin. The stick whirled up and around, both hands on the hilt, and came down in a beheading stroke.

Conan’s father ran a hand over his beard to hide a smile. Conan’s movements did not ape those of the young men; if anything, his fluidity mocked their stiff awkwardness. Where they were slow and tentative, he moved quickly and with certainty. Though battling at shadows much as they were, Conan was winning, whereas they would die easily.

Pride swelled Corin’s breast, but the soft voice of his wife came to him. Her dying words echoed inside his skull. In their wake came a weariness of the soul, and an ache that reminded him of old wounds. He composed his face, his brows narrowing, and turned to face his son.

“Boy, what are you doing?”

Conan froze, stick quivering in an aborted thrust. “Father, I was—”

“I sent you to gather firewood, Conan. My forge grows cold.”

The boy pointed at a stack of wood. “But I . . .”

“That’s a thrust near the heart, Conan, not in the heart.” Corin shook his head. “I give you a simple task and then find it half done, and you playing with a stick like one of those Aquilonian sorcerers in your grandfather’s stories.”

Conan dropped the stick as if it were a viper. “Father, I wasn’t . . . that wasn’t a wand. I was watching the others and . . .”

Corin waved his son to him. “Conan, those young men are being trained as warriors because they have earned that right.”

“Only by being older than I, Father.”

“Which means they are closer to death than you.” Corin cupped the back of his son’s neck in a hand. “You have it in you to be a great warrior someday, my son, but not today.”

“But I’m already taller than Eiran, and he’s only just started shaving . . .”

“Conan, enough.”

“But, Father—”

“Enough.” Corin pointed to the small pile of wood his son had gathered. “Double that, stack it inside the woodshed, then I want you to go check your trapline. You’d best be quick, too, since winter’s stealing up on us, and night will be on us soon enough.”

“Yes, Father.” Conan’s head tipped forward, but he looked up through black locks with those icy blue eyes. “It is just that I want to be ready to defend our village.”

Corin raised an eyebrow. Aggressiveness that will be welcome in a warrior is a nettle in a headstrong son.

Conan, well used to reading his father’s expression, said no more and set about his tasks.

Corin, satisfied, returned to his.

CONAN’S ANGER WITH his father had all but dissipated by the time he’d run far enough into the hills that the ringing of Corin’s hammer on the anvil could not longer be heard. In leaving the village, he’d almost picked up the stick, but his father’s suggestion that it was some sorcerer’s wand tainted it. Instead, armed only with a small skinning knife, Conan departed on his appointed chores, running across snowy fields and up into the forested hillsides of Cimmeria.

His father’s suggestion that it would be some time before he became a warrior melted beneath the intensity of his youthful fantasy. Out in the forest, away from the bemused smiles and sharp glances of adults, Conan grew into the man he knew he would become. Though already tall for his age, he grew taller. His arms and legs became as stout as his father’s and twice as powerful. His effortless stride ate up yards, and by the time he vanished within the trees, his transformation was complete.

No longer was he Conan the smith’s son, sent to gather rabbits from snares. No, he’d become a full warrior. He didn’t seek puny animals, but greater prey. Somewhere in the forests there might be Pictish scouts—Raven Clan or Otter, perhaps—probing Cimmerian lands before a raid. Or, worse, Aquilonians could have again come north, pushing their borders into lands on which they had no claim. His grandfather had fought them at Brita’s Vale, and he always said they’d return. Perhaps that was the more realistic threat.

It really didn’t matter which to Conan. Either required him to move swiftly and quietly through the forest, stepping carefully so the crunch of snow underfoot would not betray him. He moved from point to point, slid down into the windblown bowl around evergreen trunks, and peered through snow-laden boughs at the forest around him. He watched the shadows, because in them you could see the Picts; and he listened, because the clanking of the Aquilonians’ armor would betray their presence.

Though Conan knew he was playing at a game, for him it became so much more. The child delighted in the thrill of seeing something half hidden in snow and transforming it in his mind into a Pictish ambush. But the part of

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