Canned Burger

While I’m over here in a corner recovering from an extremely hectic Monday, why don’t you enjoy part 2 of my semi-epic Conan character backstory.

“Get over here, boy!”

It was the only life he’d ever known. Though he could remember nothing prior to the last year or so, the boy had been told by Master Zazael that he had always been a servant of the house. He dwelt in the basement with the other servants, carrying water and washing dishes and clothes. Occasionally he’d have to wrestle with one of the others for a better sleeping spot or the freshest of leftovers. Once, he’d killed one of the other servants. He’d dashed out the Stygian’s brains on a rock. He’d been lashed for it.

The foreman, a fat man of Kush, scowled as he regarded the tanned skin, lean muscular frame and long wavy hair of the servant. He used the handle of his whip to tip the young man’s chin up towards his round, well-fed face.

“The last load of water you brought is dirty. Go to the far spring, and bring me some warm clean water.”

The servant looked over at the buckets he’d just brought in. The foreman saw his eyes move, and knocked the buckets over, shattering them on the floor and letting the water seep into the cracks of the stony floor.

“I said go!”

Setting his jaw, the young man turned away and stalked down the stairs into the basement. The other servants moved out of his way – they could tell he was in a fowl mood. No one knew his name, not even the boy himself. When he was like this, however, the other boys chuckled and pointed, calling him Crom because of his mood.

“Oh, look!” said the one with spiky hair, “Crom descends from his mountain!”

With a movement almost too fast to see, the boy grabbed the speaker by the throat. Through the gurgling and gasping sounds, a low and menacing voice was heard.

“Don’t you know it’s a bad idea to attract Crom’s attention?” the boy growled.

“I… I’m sorry…” the other managed. The boy let him drop. He then picked up two buckets and stormed out into the late afternoon air.

The night was going to be a crisp, clear one. The boy sighed as he moved towards springs. They were one of the few places he had any peace in this place, and in a way he was glad the foreman had decided he wanted warm water instead of cold, although fires always roared somewhere in Zazael’s palace. He shrugged, and rounded the rocky outcropping that concealed the springs from the palace. The natural rock formations of the hills made the palace infinitely more defensible, and sheltered the springs from any winds that would steal their warmth.

There was a chill in the air, however, as the boy moved around the rocks towards the spring. Steam wafted from the water, and through the mist the boy could make out a curvaceous form moving slowly. His movements became slower, stealthier, as he crept closer to the water. His breath caught in his throat as he realized what he was seeing. It was the baroness, Zazael’s wife!

He’d never seen her before, as servants were not allowed on the floors walked by the baron. But the stories were well-known: how Zazael had rode north under cover of night into savage Cimmeria and returned with the most beautiful and deadly woman ever spawned by the land of legendary Conan, King of Aquilonia. Some of those loyal to Zazael even whispered that he planned to take Aquilonia for himself. The boy doubted it. Zazael worshipped Derketo, sometimes giving lip service to her name and place in Kush as Derketa. Conan was known to take Crom’s name in vain often, which in the boy’s mind, made him as devout a follower of the brooding god as one of Mitra’s most resplendent priestesses.

The baroness stopped moving for a moment, and the boy knew he had made a mistake. Perhaps he had taken too sharp a breath or stepped on a twig. Either way, there was a sudden splash from the spring, as the baroness leapt across the space to where her garments lay piled by her lazily grazing horse. She took up her sword and aimed it at the boy, not bothering to conceal her nakedness.

“Who goes there?” she demanded. “Show yourself!”

“A mere servant, dread baroness,” he told her, moving to where she could see him. Her blade lowered and there was laughter in her voice when she spoke again.

“And a handsome one, at that. No wonder my husband keeps the likes of you from my sight.” She moved closer to him. “Why do you not look upon me, slave? Am I ugly?”

“No,” he managed, daring to look at her as she stood in water that only came to the middle of her thighs, her skin glistening in the dying sunlight. “You’re beautiful, my lady, it’s simply that…”

What? What was it? Something gnawed at the deepest part of his soul. There was something wrong with this. Something extremely wrong and it went beyond lusting after the wife of the man who could end his life with a mere word. No, it was something deeper than that, more primal. She reached out and touched his face.

“Look at me, boy.”

Slowly, dreading whatever nameless thing was crying out inside of him, his eyes moved up and met hers. Suddenly, he felt dizzy and light-headed. The baroness’ eyes narrowed and searched his own, as if she too was struggling with something deep inside of her. After a moment, she picked up her sword again, and this time handed it to him.

“What can you tell me about this sword?” she asked, her voice quaking.

He took the sword in his hand. Its weight was familiar, the etching along the base of the hilt catching the last rays of sunlight. He turned it over in his hand, and then tested it by slashing the air a few times. As he did, he saw himself standing atop a mountain, carrying a blood-stained standard. He raised it and called out to the dark clouds that closed in around him. The closer they came, the louder he called, and finally, a pair of eyes appeared beyond the darkness. They glared at him, impatient. It was then he realized the word he had been screaming, a word seemingly unfamiliar until this moment.

“This is a sword of Acheron,” he said aloud, as the baroness looked on with tears in her eyes. “A sword of my ancestors. A sword of an empire that fell long ago, but is within my family, our blood and our bones.”

“Lykandros…” Cassandra whispered, and embraced her son. He returned her tight grip, then pulled away, looking down at his soaked clothing. She laughed, the first time she’d really laughed in a year. She touched her son’s face and laughed again.

“I can’t believe I nearly seduced you!” She giggled. “I’m sorry…”

“It’s not your fault,” Lykandros replied, the joy at his rediscovery of memory and mother overshadowed by the knowledge of his destiny. “It’s your husband’s.”

Before Cassandra could reply, the sound of an approaching horse echoed through the hollow. Lykandros handed his mother the sword, then found himself a rock nearby and moved into the cover of the trees. Cassandra turned towards the sound, placing a hand on her wet hip and fixing a look of impatience on her face. Rounding the corner was a man with obsidian skin and curiously bright green eyes. Unlike Zazael, this man was massive, clearly born with an axe in his hand. The captain of the baron’s guard, he was known as Al-Fayoum. He swung down from his saddle and bowed before his baroness.

“My lady, the Baron awaits you at the palace,” he said in his deep voice.

“Tell the Baron to get stuffed,” she replied with a sneer. Al-Fayoum looked up, confused, and suddenly found a large rock flying at him. It struck him in the shoulder, spinning him to the ground and sending his axe skittering away. It was stopped by the foot of a lean servant, who regarded him coldly. Cassandra smiled, jutting her chin towards Al-Fayoum as the night sky kissed her wet skin.

“I don’t believe you’ve met my son, Al-Fayoum. Descended from kings of Acheron, son of a mighty general loyal to Conan, burning with that Cimmerian vengeance your Stygian people have come to know, respect, and fear.”

Lykandros stepped forward, swinging the Stygian axe easily in his hand and regarding Al-Fayoum’s tattooed pate. The captain of the guard slowly got to his feet and watched the young Aquilonian approach. There was no fear in his eyes, and no hatred either. This gave Lykandros pause. He raised the axe, and touched it to Al-Fayoum’s forehead.

“Why don’t you hate me?” he asked, to Cassandra’s shock. Al-Fayoum replied without moving anything but his lips.

“Because I’m not stupid,” Al-Fayoum rumbled. “Your quarrel is with Zazael, who is already an enemy of Stygia due to his communing with Kush and their distorted ways of worshipping a god to whom I give no fealty but must hold in regard due to my love for Stygia. He took your mother and made her a caged animal rather than allowing her to be free to do as she wills, as any predator with her beauty and power should be allowed.”

Cassandra blinked, surprised at the frankness of the large Stygian warrior. Lykandros pulled the axe away, and handed it to Al-Fayoum.

“I’m going to kill Zazael,” he told the Stygian. “Will you help me?”

“He is holding court in his palace,” Al-Fayoum replied. “Soon he will pass judgment on a man who slept with his brother’s wife, than killed his brother to claim his land.”

Lykandros considered that. He looked at his mother, who was finally getting dressed. He then turned back to Al-Fayoum.

“Once it happens, we’ll have to fight our way free.”

“Are your men loyal to you?” Cassandra asked Al-Fayoum, who nodded.

“They are, save for the honor guard Zazael keeps with himself. Also, the troops from Kush will want to take this palace and these lands back. They will try to kill us, should we be found in the aftermath of an apparent coup.”

“Then we kill Zazael, fight past his guards, and take separate paths out of the land,” Lykandros summarized. “Al-Fayoum. If you do not serve Zazael, nor the gods or lords of Stygia, who do you serve?”

“I serve no man,” Al-Fayoum replied, “and the only god who might be worthy of having me kneel before him would cast me from his mountain and laugh at me if I crawled to his feet swearing oaths of loyalty with empty words. He is satisfied with strength and steel, blood and vengeance, not words and flesh.”

“Then let Crom take this place,” Lykandros declared, “but I ask you, on your honor as a warrior, to keep my mother safe.”

“I can take care of myself, boy,” Cassandra said coldly, sharpening the Acheron blade.

“Of this I have no doubt,” Al-Fayoum told her, “but believe me when I say that since your arrival here over a year ago, I have considered being in your mere presence to be an honor. While Zazael did not allow anyone to spend much time with you, I have always seen you as a tigress, chained and held against your will, beautiful to behold but all the more breathtaking when slaying your prey and bathing in their blood.”

Cassandra was speechless. She had not been spoken to like that since Astonidas had wrestled her to the ground and made her his under the full moon so many years ago in Cimmeria. She walked past the men and swung into her saddle.

“If you live through this night, Al-Fayoum, you may accompany me out of this cursed place. Lykandros, I will see you in court.” She smirked, and spurred her horse on with a savage yell. Al-Fayoum took in a breath and smiled.

“By Crom, what a woman.”

“That’s my mother you’re talking about,” Lykandros replied. Al-Fayoum laughed, and turned to the boy.

“And she has raised a fine son. Go now. Take this dagger. I will destroy Zazael’s wine stores and spread his treasure trove on the ground. Let the people of Kush take what they will, it matters not to me.”

“Aye,” Lykandros agreed with a nod. “Let them take what they will, and let us leave with our hearts and honor.”

Al-Fayoum nodded, and departed on his horse. Lykandros made his way back to the palace on foot, using the cover of night to conceal his approach. He snuck back into the basement. He made his way through the room without drawing attention to himself, until his path was blocked by the foreman.

“Where’s my water?” the fat man bellowed.

“In your veins and bladder,” Lykandros replied, and stabbed the fat man in the chest without warning. “I’ll spill one, you empty the other.”

Wheezing, the fat man toppled to the ground. Heedless of the cries of the slaves, Lykandros made his way up through the palace. From the stories of other servants and some of his own night-time explorations, he knew many back ways and secret passages, finally coming to the main audience chamber, creeping behind tapestries that hung at the back of the room, where he could easily see the dias upon which Zazael stood, resplendent in a golden cloak, Cassandra seated at his feet.

“Bring forth the next lawbreaker,” Zazael boomed, and two of his honor guard brought a beaten man before him. “What is his crime?”

“Adultery and murder, my lord,” a skeletal majordomo told the baron. “This man got his brother’s wife drunk, slept with her, and murdered his brother.”

“Ah, a very old tale and a very old crime,” Zazael mused. “So, an old punishment shall go with it. Have the man drawn and quartered.”

The man managed to wheeze out “But my lord…!” Zazael, seemingly annoyed to be addressed by a criminal and a mere farmer, turned and made a slashing motion across his throat. One guard grabbed the man’s hair and yanked his head back, while the other produced a knife and cut the man’s tongue out. Tossing it on the dias, they carried the man away as blood flowed from his quivering lips.

“So,” came a measured baritone voice, “any one who commits adultery and murder in this land is to be put to death?”

Zazael turned as Cassandra stood, a proud smile brightening her features. Lykandros gripped the dagger tightly as he approached the dias. One of Zazael’s honor guard moved towards him, and Lykandros threw the dagger. It struck the other man in the neck, sending a spray of blood across the room, staining the young Aquilonian man’s face. He did not break stride, taking the shotel from the dying man’s slipping fingers. Zazael called for more guards, picking up his own weapon. Cassandra grinned as she launched herself at those who approached, going at them with bare hands until she could get a weapon in them. Steel met steel on the dias itself, Zazael having grown rusty in his skills in the decadence that came after his many conquests. Lykandros, however, had been trained by a great general of Aquilonia and a fearsome warrior-woman of Cimmeria, and further hardened by slavery in the depths of this very palace. The outcome was not in doubt. Lykandros turned aside a series of weak attacks, then hit Zazael’s hand so hard it nearly fell from his arm. The young man kicked his uncle down the dias stairs, towards the small collection of corpses Cassandra was creating, now that she had a weapon in each hand, laughing at the joy of the slaughter like a beast unleashed from its cage.

“How did you and your mother break my spell?” Zazael asked as Lykandros stalked toward him, picking up the shotel that had killed his father.

“No magic is stronger than steel,” Lykandros replied. “And no steel is stronger than the bond that ties a mother to her son or a son to his mother. You should have considered that before you murdered my father like a coward, instead of meeting him in combat and taking his life on the field of battle.”

“So now you’ll murder me?” Zazael seethed, reaching under his robes for a weapon. Lykandros stepped on his concealed hand, and smiled at the satisfying sound of breaking bones. He raised the shotel.

“Yes,” Lykandros said coldly. “But this is not for conquest or for a woman. This is for vengeance. This is the promise I made to my father when you took his head. This is the promise I made to Crom when you stole our lives, like a thief with no honor! And now without honor I cast you into the blackest pits of Hell! Die in despair and dishonor!”

With a savage cry, Lykandros brought the shotel down between his uncle’s eyes, splitting the skull open and spraying himself and his mother with gore. His mouth twisted into a scowl and his arms twisted, snapping the shotel in two. He stood, and his mother tossed him an axe. The rest of Zazael’s honor guard ran towards them through the retreating throng of screaming courtiers, intent on avenging their lord. Al-Fayoum appeared in the back of the hall, carrying a bow. He shot down two of them before the reached the mother and son, who handily defeated the rest.

“We have no time!” the Stygian cried as he joined them. “Kush had agents within the palace, and they’re slaughtering anyone who will not swear to return this land to Kush.”

“Then take my mother and run,” Lykandros said. “I’ll leave by another route. You know this land far better than I, Al-Fayoum. You can find shelter and safety.”

“But that is why you should come with us!” Cassandra protested.

“No time to argue,” Lykandros decided, and kissed his mother tenderly. “I love you. Your true husband rests well tonight for the first time, because of you.”

“And you,” she told him, her hand in his hair. “You are our son, and we have always been proud of you.”

A flaming arrow sailed through the window and struck a tapestry, setting it aflame.

“We’re out of time,” Al-Fayoum rumbled. “We must go.”

He gently pulled at Cassandra’s arm. If he had been a lesser man, she would have wrestled free of his grip, but it was like an iron vise. Tears in her eyes, she called her son’s name as he turned and ran down the hall towards the sounds of battle.

Apparently, some of his fellow servants had decided they wanted the palace for themselves, rather than giving it to Kush. He found his way to the outer wall and scaled it. He ran for the grotto, where he’d seen his mother and reclaimed his life. He heard the sounds of hooves after him, and turned to see men of Kush in pursuit. He rounded the outcropping and heard arrows being loosed from bows. Pain exploded in his left shoulder and he spun into the hollow. Reaching back, grimacing from the pain, he snapped the arrow’s shaft, and kept running, towards the other side of the hollow where the river dipped under the rocks into the depths where it took on the heat that fed the spring. Another arrow struck his right leg. Crying out, Lykandros pushed himself until he reached the rocks that overlooked the river. It was a long way down. Not looking back, not thinking twice, he jumped, hoping his cunning had not failed him in guessing the depth of the water. He didn’t know if it did or not, because he hit the water with a force that knocked him out just as cold as one of his father’s brutal sleeper holds.