I had been a reaver
of the Northlands
for quite some time. And, as a child, my mother had purchased a wild southern beast called a tiger
for me to enjoy. Part of that afternoon of bloody combat
included a warm, wonderful rendition of "Do you how much of me can you save from being crammed into my bloodfulled maw of serrated teeth", screamed by a woman
whose name I now forget.
What it amounted to was the fact that I was at a loose end between blood oaths to avenge, battling the former and listening to the latter and had very little money, but I was burned out. So on the spur of a moment type whim, I'd decided I was going to throw a week's worth of clothes into a knapsack and take the first caravan to Zamora. I decided this deep in the night. Within the turn of an hourglass I'd walked to the caravan tent, gold coin in hand, and we were off.
The makeup of the caravan on the Cimmerian side of the border was 100% barbarian. When we crossed over in Nemedia, the most hostile border crossing I've ever encountered (Officer: "Where are you going?" Me: "Zamora." no answer "Zamora, City of Thieves?" "Why?" "I so choose." "Why there? Why not somewhere else, like WHERE YOU CAME FROM.") it became 80% Barbarian, 20% Southron men.
In Corinthia, it was suddenly 99% Southron, 1% Barbarian. Namely, me and everyone else. And as people came on the wares-laden wagons, they were laughing, carrying on, all friendly, bringing food and baggage, and when they saw me, they quietened down. Sat down as if in church, looking straight ahead. Kids were shushed and silenced with bug-eyed scowls and hushed voices.
From the Road of Kings, Corinthia to rural Koth, we rode in silence. Complete, dead silence, as if some great tragedy had occurred and nobody had any idea what to say. I realized completely this was somehow my fault, and had no clue how to respond. Civilized fools.
We passed what I realized after a while were cotton fields. I took out my trusted sword and started taking carefully sharpening it. This to them was akin to savaging one of their holy women - the sure sign of a barbarian, because the exercise would be pointless to anyone else civilized.
"Where you all from that you would keep a naked blade outside battle?" the woman sitting across from me said, daring to defy the taboo of speaking or making any sound whatsoever.
"Cimmeria." I said matter-of-factly, and it was like a dam had burst. People got up, started talking, children were told it was okay to play along side the wagons, food was taken down from overhead sachels and shared. The caravan came to life.
I had no idea what to make of it.
"Well I ain't never seen cotton neither" she said, prompting the woman in front of me to stand suddenly, wheel and say angrily "Slave wench, your family picked cotton." The word slave, a STRONG word almost unspeakable to myself, was dropped with a casualness and a hidden venom, like an iron fist in a velvet glove, that I actually startled back.
"My family ain't never pick no cotton. Maybe your family did, but nobody I ever knew picked no cotton!" At this the woman started to make her way into the wagon with a look on her face that was clear as day: we are going to fight, and you are going to lose. The other woman stood up and moved her child out of harm's way. I'd somehow started a fight. I was just minding my own business. Crom! I thirsted for combat.
I suddenly interjected with "Have at you, Southron fools!" which deflected the ire of both women, who stood down with a careful deflation that ceded victory and a "she blinked first" to neither. They filled me in sadly on the lotus-inspired coward's history of the region. Neither one knew anything about combat or the lamentations of the fallen. At the next stop I took my leave of these harridans and seated beside regal elderly southron priestess woman and offered her some of the dried bearflesh I was eating. She was obviously too well-mannered to let her surprise show too much, and genuinely flattered. I didn't understand until months later that such a gesture would have been unheard of even four months before I made it. These men of the south made no sense to me.
At some nameless one horse town, another Barbarian got on. I recognized his clan tattoos up one arm and the Aesir insignia up the other, having lived through the warring years of the Vanaheim and Asgardians. He lurched his fat, sweating, toothless carcass up to the wagon as if he owned the whole caravan, ignoring everyone but myself, giving me a searching look/appeal to solidarity which I ignored. This was not my tribe. Not by a long shot. And his presence had effectively killed any joy in that wagon. It was once again a hearse, everyone sitting to attention as if it was a church service or funeral. A civilized church service.
The journey bored him after forty five minutes, and he disappeared into the tiny curtained hovel at the back of the wagon. Soon the distinctive odour of lotus smoke became increasingly obvious. According to various rules and the law, the driver was supposed to stop the caravan immediately and deposit the offending passenger at the side of the road. And yet we continued, as fifteen minutes went by. He lurched from the hovel evidently drunk, and the odour of a recently finished lotus was counterpointed by the rank perfume of cheap ale.
"Were you smoking in the wagon, sir?"
"I ain't got no pipe so howm I supposed to be smoking, Slave?"
At that moment I would come to realise a significant truth when a Southron man would later argue to Northron nobles in a Hyperborean alehouse that there damn well WAS a difference between a Southron man and a Northron man saying that word. The caravan driver said nothing and carried on with his business. The redhair was satisfied that his put down put the driver in his place, and threw himself back into his seat.
When we got to edge of Koth and Zamora, everyone got off the caravan as required. As I was leaving (the redhair had left first) he stopped me politely and asked "Sir, may I ask you if that gentleman was smoking on the wagon?" I said "Calling him anything but a whore's whelp would be a stretch, but yes." He said, "I'm sorry to ask you this again, but sir, was he or was he not smoking on the wagon?" I said "Yes, he was indeed. Do you question my word?". I stared hard at him for questioning me twice.
When the man tried to get back on the caravan, there were two hefty guards of Merchants Guild who impeded his passage. I saw them talk to him gently and saw him get visibly angrier by the second. He then proceeded to stomp his feet and obviously challenge them to a fistfight.
Two Kothian border guards were summoned. They made their way onto the caravan and found me, ignoring all other passengers. Both of them were large, imposing Northron men.
"Excuse me sir, but the gentleman outside they say was smoking in the back of this wagon." My, my, aren't we genteel.
"That's right, he was." Stunned silence. The mood darkened. Crom, where was I, Stygia?
"I don't think you understand. They want him to have to buy another ticket, and it's their word against his. Was he or was he not smoking on this wagon?"
"Yes, indeed he was. Everyone on this horse carriage smelled it, including myself, and the haze was plain to see, even to that fool up front who was blinking all the time." There was a white hot, adrenaline high tension in the air, the kind before a riot or major fight.
"Barbar, I'm gonna ask you one last time. Was he or was this gentleman not smoking on this wagon." Gut him now! Take his worthless life!
"Yes, fool." Curses upon you, vile beast.
He drew himself up to his full height, then put his face in mine. "You ain't from 'round here, are you, boy?" I stifled a laugh. He was as serious as a rabid bear, cliched though his use of words was.
"No, I'm visiting."
"Uh huh, where from."
"Let me see your pass papers."
To his surprise, I had none. I showed him the blade of my trusted sword. He took a long look, then wrote down my name.
"Well, Conan, let me give you a word of advice. Don't you never come back to Koth, (and here he hissed the last words directly into my face) or I will kill you."
I never spoke truer words than the ones I did now. "Wasn't counting on it. My ticket's for Zamora. I'm only passing through. If you're telling me this as an officer of the law I'll be happy to schedule an alternate caravan route back." Didn't even blink. Maintained eye contact. Crom, take him. You're gonna put me in a shallow grave, at least I'm gonna go down with the ice of Cimmeria in my veins.
He blinked first. He stood up, dejected and disgusted, with one final warning parting glance. The officers left. They spoke to the Merchant's Guild staff, who wanted to lead the offender away. But the Viking scroggin instead tore off to my side and pounded on the wagon underneath it. "I'LL KILL YOU! COME ON OUT HERE YOU SLATTERN OF FOPPISH MEN!!!!", etc. etc. etc.
I yelled back. "Give greetings to your unworthy ancestors, you incestuous mound of offal. If you're the glorious highborne Northron race, miscegenation is progress. VALHALLA THIS, mother defiler!" (lopped of his vile head, blade upraised.)
The caravan driver took off, nearly running over two people in the process. I didn't realise at this point how much I probably owed him for doing that. The guards did not give chase. Thankfully. I didn't realise this was a possibility until I saw the relief on the face of the others that this had not taken place.
I turned back to the rest of the wagob, staring at me with saucer eyes. One guy shook his head and said "Boy, you either crazy, or stupid, or you got iron in your loins!"
We made it to Zamora, the entire caravan mentally composing the story they'd retell to relatives about the event. And as I stepped out of the wagon I smelled one of the best roast huts I've ever smelled. Nothing like slow roasted pork shoulder simmering in a rich sauce on a hot humid evening. It was a wooden shack with a faded promotional coal scribbled sign, and a large Southron with a faded tunic and a shaven head standing in front. Melodious music, played before me, filtered from the building and I knew then and there a cold brew and a slab of cooked flesh would be perfect. As I grabbed my meagre bindle to get off to stay there for the night, a hand grabbed my shoulder from behind.
I turned, it was one of the men from the caravan. "Don't go in there."
"Look again." He pointed to the bald Southron, who'd responded to my evident interest in the place by grabbing a metal cludgel. "You walk in there, you never walk out again. You understand?" I didn't say anything. "It work both ways."
"It's is the Hyborian Age." I said, shaking my head, talking as much about the events in Koth as I was here.
"I know" he said sadly. I know. Because now I have the beginning of an understanding of what it means to know. "Come on, I'll help you with your things." We got on the wagon together.
A few months later I had moved to Memphi and was in town on a significant anniversary of the death of their Wizard King. A march was being held to commemorate the anniversary date of the fateful march that led to the poisoned arrow assassination of the King. Far from the raucous, angry and tension filled original, this march was solemn. And folks came out of their stores not to heckle or cheer, but to stand and pay their respects.
The lone exception was an old Northron woman, who screamed out at everyone "None of you understand! These slaves was carying on! They weren't working! They were clogging the streets and breaking the law! That slave was a troublemaker! Do you hear me?" And here the word "slave" had no venom. It was worse. It was simply "other", the same way as you'd describe a herd of cattle or a nest of rats. But nobody was listening to her, which made her all the more angry and vocal. Because not only were the marchers ignoring her and staring straight ahead, so were the Northron onlookers paying their respects. It was the caravan all over again, people staring straight ahead, saying nothing, seeing nothing. Eventually an embarassed looking younger Northron man ran up and spirited her away, still cursing and protesting.
I learned many things on that trip. Much of which I wished I didn't have to.