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The Horns of Chaliac
A King Conan Adventure by James Andersen
© 2023 James LaFond
This past November, James, a young writer and fighter visited me in Portland to spar. After he made certain not to hurt me in our 90 minutes of work, he bought me breakfast at a dive bar and began a discussion about our favorite Conan stories, a question I have a hard time answering. My favorites have changed over the years as I have changed.
Likewise, I have been unable to write a Robert E. Howard story, save the experiment in The Last Whiteman in which I posited myself as Howard if he had lived to age 60. It has been two months since I have been sent James’ Conan story. On the first day of 2023, I decided to avoid work and read for enjoyment. His manuscript is blown up into 16 point Lucida Unicode so I can read it.
As I read the second page of this novelette, which was Howard’s best length, I got a thrill. By page 4, I was really into the story. By page 21, the use of The Song of Roland, The Odyssey and Beowulf [with King Conan an actual composite of the three mythic heroes in many ways] reminded me that The Scarlet Citadel has been one of my Howard favorites from youth to old age, and that what Howard’s legacy benefits from is a young man of Howard’s writing age and physical energy to express such vibrant visions.
-Thank, James, for your story, Cascades, January 1, 2023
The First Half of the Yarn
CONAN, now king of Aquilonia, is beset by traitors, aided by the neighboring kingdom of Nemedia, determined to oust him from his throne. He is aging, now in his early forties, but in his full wisdom and cunning.
News reached the Aquilonian camp of a company of Nemedian cavalry moving across the border to flank Conan's host. The king took a troop of his most worthy knights to cut them off and drive them back across the border.
Autumn had set the forest ablaze. Leaves danced in the afternoon light, coming to rest gently on the forest floor. They muffled the plod of heavy hooves stamping a sodden road. Spears and helms glinted in the light filtering between the trees. The image of a gold dragon on a black field waved on a pennant atop each lance. King Conan rode in front, looming in his dark mail, atop a powerful jet black stallion. His roughly chopped black mane lay carelessly over his mailed shoulders, and two piercing eyes like frozen blue fire scanned the woodline carefully.
The sun was setting rapidly, tinging the already ruddy forest an even deeper orange.
“This road is little taken my liege, it is faster to follow the river.” A knight broke out, cantering up alongside Conan.
“All the better, less of a chance that Nemedian dog or his men find out our plans.” Growled Conan.
“Certainly they will not expect us to come from this way, surprise will be ours” The knight said eagerly.
“And they will suffer for it” Replied Conan, full of malice and black intent “We ride through the night”.
The company rode on, and as they plunged further down the old road the light became faint and pale, and the woods grew thicker and encroached further onto the path. Not a word was spoken. The only sounds were the plod of many hooves, the creak of saddles, and the jangling of armor and weapons. A mist came up out of the wet earth and shrouded even more the thick twilight woods. The air took a chill and the breath of the horses surged in white clouds about the riders.
The road became rougher and narrower, little more than a gap between walls of tangled branches, forcing the knights to break formation until they could barely ride two abreast. Their lance points caught on overhanging branches; roots and loose stones in the path forced them to slow to a steady walk. Darkness was seeping through the wood, choking out the last tinges of light.
If any of the knights felt uneasy they would not word it, they had followed Conan into great peril before, into the thickest fray of battle, and would have followed him into the pit of hell without question, such was their loyalty. These were Conan’s best knights, the flower of his chivalry, each chosen for outstanding bravery and courage in battle.
Yet some among them grew restless and shifted in their saddles, glancing back and forth into the now endless blackness of the nightime wood. No creatures stirred beyond the trees, save for the hooting of a lone owl somewhere away off the path. The mist still hung about the wood but the sky was clear, their path now dimly illuminated by the stars which seemed far away beyond the branches reaching over them like many slender fingers.
Conan remained alone at the front of the company, his murky dark figure like a great moving shadow was all that could be seen of him by the men behind. His eyes glinted like spear-points in the sparse starlight, attempting in vain to penetrate into the woods and darkness that lay before them. He too was unsettled, but his dis-ease came from a place of primal instinct, not a civilized fear of the dark. Like a wolf detecting some unknown danger he scanned about himself carefully, perking his ears for the slightest sound, drawing each breath slowly as if to parse the air for an unfamiliar scent. Yet nothing revealed itself, only in the raw and honed instinct of the barbarian did he feel something was amiss.
The night wore on and the progress of the knights grew even slower. The forest spilled further and further out into the treacherous path with roots and ferns, the trees reaching out with slender branches now snagging at their armor. The horses too began to show fear, snorting and pulling at the reins. The men spurred them forward with much difficulty. Even Conan’s great stallion slowed his pace and nickered his dislike of their current position.
Just as they had almost slowed to a complete stop a bright light overtook the path. The moon had risen past the screen of the trees and was glowing full, huge low and yellow like the eye of a wolf, illuminating the overgrown road. The light cast a weird glow about them, sending long shadows of knights and horses twisting among the roots and brambles. The fog persisted but now glowed with a golden haze in the moonlight. They pressed on, picking up their pace again despite the growing protestation of the horses.
They had gone only a little ways when Conan abruptly halted, raising up his huge hand and staring into the woods. The knights immediately behind him reined in quickly and their horses snorted and whinnied as they halted. The knights looked about quickly and waited, a few murmuring indistinct words to each other, Conan remained still, as if in a trance, staring off ahead into the wood.
At length a knight, Robert of Valeuse, one of the bravest in their number, broke out in a low hoarse voice, “What is it my liege?”
Conan remained still for some time, Robert watching him anxiously. At length Conan responded “The owl stopped”.
The knights looked around at each other and back out into the woods, the murmuring grew slightly louder as they passed what had been said to the back of the company.
Robert looked back at his companions and then forward again to Conan, who still had not turned from where he stared away into the moonlit woods. Robert drew breath to speak, to ask what Conan wished them to do, but as his lips parted a bellowing sound filled the woods. The horses screamed and squealed and some reared up at the sudden noise, nearly tossing their riders.
The sound seemed to come from all around them, a deafening drone at first but as they listened it multiplied into many pitches and tones, like the call of many hunting horns.
“A TRAP!” Conan snarled above the clamor “RIDE!” His voice boomed down the path as he spurred his horse into a reckless gallop.
The knights quickly followed suit, barreling down the narrow path as fast as they dared, barely keeping their king within sight. They rode with such abandon that branches broke on their faces and arms but they paid little heed, only thinking to escape the snares of the trap and the bellowing of the horns.
The noises did not seem to change or grow more distant as they rode, the horns blowing at all times different calls and notes like a great unseen hunting party.
They galloped hard at the heels of Conan, his black stallion charging ahead into the night puffing steam with every snorting breath. Conan glanced about him as he rode, expecting to see scouts or enemy soldiers come at him from the surrounding wood. But the moonlight only revealed trees passing away into obscurity. Looking ahead the path narrowed until it closed off, two great fir trees growing out blocking the way ahead. Conan drew his sword and charged forward, ready to meet a host of foes beyond the trees.
He burst through the boughs like a great cat lunging at its prey, roaring and brandishing his sword, barely with enough time to stop his horse before they struck the great looming shape which jumped out at them beyond the trees.
At first he thought it was a massive stone or a cliff, but looking side to side he saw the unmistakable form of a castle looming among the trees. Its towers stood stark, mossy and overgrown with ivy and ferns silhouetted against the huge moon.
The horns still sounded all around as the first of his knights charged through the clearing. They had the same surprise as Conan, turning quickly to either side to avoid collision with the walls.
In the confusion beneath the walls Conan scanned the ramparts rapidly for awaiting enemies, seeing only mossy stones. Looking down along the walls he saw that they were in fact before the gate, the opening masked by overhanging ivy in the dark.
“Inside! Quickly!” He roared at his confused knights and charged forward, slashing down the ivy as he thrust into the courtyard. Finding this too to be free of foes, Conan wheeled his horse and filled his powerful lungs to shout over the cacophony of the horns and screaming horses, “Dismount! Dismount and fight!” he swung his huge broadsword in a circle above his head as he shouted, the blade flashing like a yellow flame in the moonlight “Dismount and hold the gate! We face them here!” his voice echoed like thunder off the walls.
Conan sprung from his saddle and landed with pantherish dexterity on the mossy cobbles. Frantic horses were stamping around the courtyard, as the knights dismounted quickly to form a defensive line at the gate. Conan looked for some way to mount the walls so that he might get a better view of the surrounds, but if there ever was any stairway outside the towers it had either crumbled or rotted away. There were holes in the masonry of the wall where beams had once been held, low enough to reach. Conan bounded over to the wall with great springing strides and clambered up using the holes as a great cat clambers up a tree. From the ramparts he gazed out into the forest beyond.
The horns rattled the trees in the surrounding wood, yet Conan saw no sign of any foe. The treetops went on seemingly forever, a vast ocean of blazing autumn leaves occasionally pierced by the points of pines and firs. Nowhere in any direction did a clearing show spear tips among the foliage, no branches stirred enough to be moved by a host of men, the horns blasted away but no shouts or hoof beats joined their blaring. Above all gleamed the massive yellow moon, now high in the night sky, casting its strange glow over the foggy woods.
Below Conan in the aperture of the wall his knights had formed a solid wall of steel. The gate bristled with lance-points, held in anxious grips as the knights scanned the woodline for any movement. The horns were blowing now in a great frenzy, a crescendo of bleating and blasting, like a hunting party closing in on its mark. Conan strained his every sense for any sign of the source of the sound, but found only the endless forest.
Then, as suddenly as it had begun, the noise ceased. The wood was silent, and suddenly every sound the knights made was like the striking of anvils to their ears. The metallic jingle of armor, even their breath was like mighty waves crashing upon rocky cliffs. The horses were calming down, but their hooves on the cobbles rang like crashing thunder and their neighs like howling winds. Conan adjusted his ears as best he could, and strained his keen eyes into the darkness beyond, but only a faint breeze in the treetops revealed itself to his refreshed senses. He leaped from the wall, landing with catlike lightness in the courtyard below. The knights held their position, but a few glanced back at the massive figure of Conan brooding in the darkness, staring off at nothing as if in deep thought.
“Break formation, we camp here tonight.” Conan finally broke the silence “If that was a Nemedian scouting troop they must have missed us in the wood, or are going back to bring reinforcements to besiege us here.” He looked around at the overgrown battlements “Set a watch at the gate and on the walls, secure the horses, we’ll have no luck trying to move in the woods at night now that we’ve lost the road, we ride at first light”.
With his order the knights busied themselves preparing camp and choosing sentries for the first watch. Conan looked around the courtyard. Towards the back opposite the gate there stood a great hall built against the outer wall. Its doors were gone and the arched entrance stood open, a black maw in the mossy stones. Conan strode toward the opening, crushing fallen leaves as he crossed the courtyard. Approaching, he noticed ornamental carvings beneath the moss. He wiped away some of the growth. The moss fell away to reveal images of wolves hunting deer and other animals. Carved with intricate detail the forms of the animals writhed and twisted together. The moonlight cast shadows in the deep valleys of the carvings, and they seemed almost to move in the eerie glow. Conan grimaced at the images and looked into the doorway.
The hall was empty, from what the moonlight could reveal. A few leaves were blown across the stone floor by a breeze coming from the doorway. The far walls were shrouded in shadow but Conan recognized it as a banquet hall by the raised stone platform and central fire pit. He perked his ears for any sound from within but only heard the gentle howl of the wind and the echoing sounds of his knights going about their duties.
He turned to the sound of footsteps approaching him from behind, it was Sir Robert, his cloak wrapped about his lean form and his deeply-lined, mustached face like the bark of an old tree in the stark light.
“What troubles you my liege?” the knight inquired, noting Conan’s furrowed brow.
“This place…” Conan paused “I do not like it. I have heard of no castle in these woods, and I feel this one is not so long abandoned as it appears.”
“Truly it troubles me as well,” Robert said looking off into the darkness of the hall, “but I am more interested in the origin of those horns we ran from.”
“Indeed,” Conan shifted his gaze. “Perhaps we will find something of their owners here. Get a fire going and bring torches”
“As you wish, my king” Robert bowed and made his way across the courtyard.
At length Robert returned with three other knights all bearing torches, with an extra for Conan. They passed beyond the doorway and held up their brands against the thick gloom. The light from the torches struggled to lap against the far walls, but it was enough to reveal what was there. The knights recoiled, Conan scowled at the sight. Bones, great piles of them, lay scattered around the hall.
“What animals!” Robert hissed, turning his torch to illuminate the dark corners and recesses of the hall.
Conan said nothing but advanced cautiously to the nearest skeletal mound. As his torchlight climbed up the walls it unveiled doorways out of the blackness. Two openings stood opposite each other on the two side walls of the chamber. Crouching, he looked over the bones briefly, turning a few over with his free hand.
“Animals indeed” he said, standing and holding up a femur gnawed on one end. “Wolves, by the look of it”.
“Then the horns came from elsewhere” Robert said with inquisition on the end of his tongue. His voice seemed small in the lofty chamber, stifled by the choking shadows.
“The wolves did not sound them” interjected another knight, Sir Alaric of Noet, the greatest rider among the company and likewise among the most learned. His sarcasm received only a sidelong glance from Robert as a reply. “Yet, the wolves cannot have been so far gone as to not have heard, the clamor will have drawn them back. They may even now be watching us from the trees, figuring if they will eat us or wait for us to leave.”
“If they do we will give them a warm welcome at the king’s table” Conan grinned. “Set a double watch on the gate, tell them to give a shout if so much as a twig snaps. Get the rest moved into the hall and get a fire in the hearth. We are the only wolves here tonight”.
The moon rose ever higher; it shone so brightly that the stars were few. A few strands of cloud passed before it and were engulfed and made thin by the consuming glow. Light flickered out of the doorway of the hall to meet it, but the pulsating light of the fire was overtaken by the yellow lunar haze. The knights passed the evening in what revelry they could, drinking sparingly of their wine skins and attempting to out-do each other's accounts of chivalrous deeds.
Conan sat on his saddle staring silently into the fire. His chin rested on his powerful fist. The light of the fire and his fur mantle gave him the appearance of a brooding bear. The light reflected in his eyes like a candle seen through a piece of ice. Alaric sat nearby, watching Conan a while before speaking below the rumble of the storytellers.
“You are troubled by it too” Conan shot his eyes over to Alaric, who continued as he caught the king’s gaze, “the noises in the wood, the overgrown path, this place itself” he looked around the fire-lit hall “I have been thinking, a shred of a story I once heard came to me when we first came here, and I have been seeking it desperately in my mind the whole night.”
“Hints came to me only briefly of hunting parties and a castle left to the trees, of wolves and murder and black secrets in the night, but try as I might I could not recall the whole tale or from where it came to me.”
“Cease your dramatics Alaric.” Conan interrupted gruffly “I am in no mood for your pontification.”
“But I have found it, liege” Alaric lowered his voice yet his eagerness made it seem louder than any in the hall, “or I should say I found something that returned the memories to me. I walked through the other chambers of the keep while the fire was made, seeking some evidence of the lost lords of this place, and found something that is better seen than described.”
Conan scowled, “Damn your obscurity, yet I will see this thing.” He rose, and followed Alaric into the far door. Robert saw them go and silently followed after them.
They passed into the shadows of the passage. It was brighter than Conan expected. Great beams of moonlight shone through windows in the adjoining chambers. They passed in silence, Robert came up swiftly behind “What is it?” He whispered eagerly.
“You will see,” Alaric said calmly.
They came to an arched doorway at the end of the passage, carved much like the one at the entrance of the hall. Except that carved at the peak of this door was the lifelike face of a snarling wolf.
“In here” Alaric gestured them inside. Conan made no indication, but he found the place unsettling. His instincts were roused as they were earlier in the wood, he glanced about carefully.
The chamber was brighter than the passage, lit by moonlight streaming through two massive arched windows on the inner wall. At the far end was an altar, piled all about with bones. Upon it was the effigy of a knight, as was customary in noble Aquilonian burials, but the effigy was strange and half shrouded by shadow.
“It was here that I remembered,” Alaric started, his voice was now grave and steady “Sir Loriot of Chaliac, steward of the Eastwold. A great knight by many accounts but an even greater hunter. He lived for the chase and his skill was unmatched. He would go out alone for days and return with boar that would have taken five men to subdue. It is this skill at the hunt which earned him the name ‘The Wolf of Chaliac’”.
“He took the moniker as his crest, and wore a wolf’s pelt upon his helm. But there are stories that it was more than just a name. It is said that in battle he would take on the form of a massive wolf, and tear men apart with nothing but his claws which were as hard and sharp as the best steel. No weapon of iron could wound him. Always after fighting his mouth would be dripping with the blood of his fallen foes…”
“The fire was a better place to tell legends,” Robert scoffed.
Alaric ignored him and went on, “He was slain at the battle of Markden, some three-score years agone. His body was taken back here to be buried, we stand now before his funerary altar. He left no heirs and had no living family, and his castle was so remote no knight would take up its care, so slowly the woods took it back.”
“It was said that after his death his hunting horn could still be heard echoing through the forest. And some even claim to have been come upon by whole troops of ghostly hunters in the night, blasting their many horns as if hot on the tail of some mighty beast.”
“Surely you don’t suggest…” Robert interjected indignantly
“I am only repeating what I have heard,” Alaric responded patiently
“Enough.” Conan stopped both of them “I did not come here to be regaled with old woodsman’s stories.”
“There is more than old woodman’s tale-weaving in this my king,” Alaric said intently, “It is recorded in the Chronicle of Emperor Alesios, who reigned at the time, that the knights closest to Loriot disappeared shortly after his death. And I have heard it said that they came here to form some sort of secret pact, which they first made with Loriot in life, to something ancient and terrible which dwelt in these woods. Something that gave Loriot the wolf’s shape. They would sacrifice any wanderer unfortunate enough to get lost these tangled trees to this thing”.
“I am no child to be scared out of wandering in the woods,” Conan sneered. “Your knowledge of lore is great but I put no stock in fables”
“As you wish, my liege,” Alaric bowed. “I only thought this might clarify our situation somehow.”
“If only you’d have spent as long thinking of how to get us past the Nemedian troop we certainly encountered, we would have no need of wolf-stories,” Robert jabbed.
As they spoke the moonlight stretched across the stone floor to the altar, it mingled with the bones at the foot of the stone slab, which appeared different than the bones in the hall. Conan still could not shake an instinctual fear; he looked more closely at the bones beneath the altar and saw among them the hollow eyes of a human skull staring back at him. His gaze focused. The growing light of the moon slithered across the effigy, revealing the side obscured by shadow. This side was hideous and bestial, a hairy snarling creature that looked like the union of the canine and the simian. It was melded to the human side of the effigy like it was growing out and over it, strands of fur licked over the armor as if to overtake it.
“By Crom…” Conan muttered. Alaric invoked Mitra under his breath.
Suddenly from outside came a shout from one of the sentries on the wall. Conan and the knights in the altar room wheeled to face the noise, and Conan dashed out the window into the courtyard.
All was again confusion. Horses whinnying and pulling at their neck-ropes. Knights rushing this way and that to arm themselves and take up positions. Conan looked about on the walls and saw the sentry who had called waving others over to his position. Again Conan sped towards the wall and vaulted up it with cat-like ease. He stood before the man, and witnessed a gruesome scene.
The sentry who called had stumbled upon the knight he was to relieve sprawled upon the rampart in a pool of blood, his throat was open and he stared up into the sky with glassy eyes.
“Sir Gerard, my king, I found him like this. It must have been an enemy scout, they climbed the wall and slit his throat and sped away when they heard me coming.”
Conan looked over the wall then knelt to inspect the corpse more closely. The man’s throat was torn open, as if by a bear, all the way back to the spine. The moon shone overhead, mirrored darkly in the pooling blood.
“No knife rips a man open like that,” Conan said. “Hardly the technique of a cowardly Nemedian skirmisher. Did you see anything?”
“Only a black shape jumping down from the wall into the trees, over there.” The knight gestured to a spot in the woods. Conan scanned the trees, his eyes of all the men there were best at spotting movement among the branches, yet he could make out nothing. Not even the swaying of a leaf gave away any sign of life.
A few other knights had mounted the stair to the wall where Sir Gerard had been slain, others watched from down in the courtyard. From across the courtyard where they did not look came a crash, the horses screamed and frothed. Whipping around to face the sounds they saw a dark shape lying in a heap near where the horses were tied.
“Do not take your eyes off these woods!” Conan barked as he rushed back across the courtyard. The men who had watched from down below reached the shadowed shape first. “Sir Bours!” One exclaimed “He has met the same fate as Sir Gerard”.
Conan was wroth, to lose men in battle was one thing, but to see two of his best knights slaughtered from the shadows like hunted game drove him to rage. “Get every man up on the wall! We watch for the rest of the night. No Nemedian brigands will slay my men from hiding like cowards! At first light we ride out to find these curs.”
Finish reading The Horns of Chaliac at:
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