1. The Gale
"Hard a' port, and keep the wind aft!"
So said Conan, but his words were all but lost against the shrieking gale that pounded the Western Ocean. Thief, warrior, pirate, mercenary, King and conqueror, the hero of a thousand adventures, his life had come full circle, from the frozen wastes of Cimmeria, to the Lion Throne of Aquilonia, and now amid the unknown seas and lands of the uttermost West.
Having surrendered his throne to his young son Conn to fight the fearsome Red Shadows that had assailed his lands, he had journeyed across the Western Ocean to the unknown isle of Antillia, accompanied only by a band of Barachan freebooters and his old friend Sigurd the Vanir, a pirate and warrior from a people with whom Conan's folk had long had a blood feud, but with whom he had formed a comradeship in blood and iron on the field of battle.
In Antillia they had slain the evil sorcerers who had unleashed the plague of Shadows, and defeated their dark gods – though only for a time, for the beings of the outer dark ever pressed upon the boundaries of the waking world, seeking a forbidden gateway through which to enter and bring chaos to the lands of mortal Men. Only the courage of those rare mortals who dared to stand against them, or the whim of fate, could stay their wrath, but nothing could ever satiate their hunger for the bodies and souls of the living.
Conan had fought against such beings of an elder age before, though not with relish; his primordial dread of the supernatural was as deeply rooted in his barbarian heritage as was his blood-lust for battle and restless desire to ever explore lands beyond the horizon. For all the wealth and women that had been offered him by the grateful inhabitants of that isle, freed at last from their cruel oppressors, he spent not a fortnight there after his victory feast before his old restlessness and wanderlust took him by the throat once again and pulled him away from dreaming Antillia on a course to the West.
Many of the Barachan freebooters had remained, happy to take wives from amongst its amber-toned, dark eyed women and settle in a now peaceful and prosperous land far from the hardship of life at sea, the perils of the Zingaran and Arogssean navies, and the looming threat of the gallows which lurked over every pirate of the civilized lands. But others were not content with the offerings of tiny Antillia, and sought eagerly for the fabulous wealth they were sure must be waiting for them amid these uncharted seas and islands on the rim of the world, and these lusty souls followed the Cimmerian as he took ship for the West. Others, red-bearded Sigurd the Vanir amongst them, took ship out of friendship with Conan, spurred perhaps by their own wanderlust and desire for adventure as was he even in the twilight of his years.
"By Ymir's blood and guts!" swore Sigurd, in a bellow loud enough to be heard above the howling winds, "this is a storm worthy of the seas off Vanahiem in the depths of Winter! Who knew the weather could be so foul in these sunny climes?"
"I've seen as bad off the coast of the Black Kingdoms," shouted Conan in reply, "and worse on the Vilayet."
"The Vilayet!" spat Sigurd, his broad face creasing with the disdain of the Western mariner at mention of the Eastern inland sea. "A mere puddle!"
"And yet many a ship with all her screaming crew have drowned in her waters," said Conan in reply. "The Vilayet's a treacherous bitch. See to it that is not our fate on the shores of Mayapan!"
"Aye, enough talk!" nodded Sigurd. "You there, scurvy dog!" he boomed, stalking toward a lithe sailor drenched to the bone by the foaming seas. "Secure those grub-barrels with a tighter lash, or I'll toss your worthless hide into the drink!"
Conan smiled grimly, leaving the aging Vanir to do his work. Without in the least dimming his awareness of all about him – the howling wind, the towering waves, the cursing and grunting of men hard at work – he turned his mind to the distant shore and the lands that lay in wait.
Mayapan! It was but a legend to the Antillians, a vast, unknown continent to the West that dwarfed their tiny island. Their ancestors had ventured there in the long ago, they said, but no living man amongst them had ever set foot on the mainland. Among the Hyborians, Conan knew, Mayapan was not even a legend, as were long-drowned Atlantis and Lemuria of old. It was a land unheard and undreamed of, wide open to the conquering sword of any man strong enough to grab and take it with both clenched fists.
It would, he knew, seem a strange irony to a civilized man that the King of Aquilonia, mightiest of the Hyborian lands, would give up both crown and kingdom forever only to seek a new kingdom in unknown lands beyond the edge of the world. Conan could easily have turned the ship east from Antillia, sailed across the Ocean to the coast of Zingara or Argos, and rode pleasantly inland to triumphant return in many-towered Tarantia. His son Conn, now King in his own right, would be overjoyed to see him, the people would shower him with praise at having delivered them from the threat of the Red Shadows, and he could settle into comfortable retirement in the rose-scented gardens and marble-walled pleasure palaces of sunny Poitain, safe, secure and honoured to the end of his days.
Conan could not imagine a more terrible fate. He was not a civilized man; he was a barbarian descended from a thousand generations of barbarians, a blacksmith's son born on the field of battle, and forged of iron and blood amid the dark forests, grim mountains, and icy fogs of his Cimmerian homeland. In truth, the Crown had long been a burden to him, and his palace a prison. It was not the having, but the getting that set Conan's blood afire.
To be a King…that was a thing long grown tired and stale. To become a King, by the strength of his own body, the prowess of his sword-arm, and the force of his will; that was a thing worth living for, or dying in the attempt! Born to the worship of the terrible god Crom, who scorned all those who died not in battle, and whom Conan had long himself scorned as of no use to his own ends, Conan knew one thing; to die in a soft bed amid silken cushions, the weeping of gentle maidens and loyal servants the last sounds he heard before descending into the long dark of the underworld, this was not his fate. Conan of Cimmeria would seek glory as long as it was his to grasp, and meet the end he deserved; on the field of battle amid the clash of steel, the screams of the vanquished and the howls of the victors, just as he had been born.
With a start, Conan realized his mind had been wandering. Crom, he was growing old! This was no time for daydreaming. The sky grew ever more dark, and the waves ever higher. A cold finger traced its hands along his spine, as something told him that danger unseen was ahead and about them.
"Murillio, damn you!" he shouted to the man in the crowsnest. "What can you see through the gale! Are we not near land, nor any reef? Report!"
"As black as Nergal's heart, captain!" came the distant cry of the Barachan sailor. "I can't see a damned thing in this gale!"
"The come down here and get someone who can, you useless cur!" bellowed the Cimmerian. "Where is…"
The crash of timbers and rush of the waves cut him off, as the ship was smashed straight into a hidden reef! Flying through the air, Conan then found himself shocked by the coldness of the dark waters that closed about him. He kicked strongly, gasping as he reached the surface, turning about to see in which way lay the ship. Then a broken beam tossed by the angry waves crashed against his skull, and he knew no more.