Conan the Mercenary is a Conan novel by Andrew J. Offutt illustrated by Esteban Maroto and first published by Ace Books in 1981. It is the second installment in a linked trilogy of novels by Offutt featuring Conan, part one being Conan and the Sorcerer and part three being Conan: the Sword of Skelos. Despite being the second book in the trilogy, ...Mercenary was published last; ...Sorcerer debuted in 1978 and ...Sword of Skelos in 1979.
Lord Sabaninus, aged Baron of Korveka, a province of Koth, devises a plan to return his youth so he may woo the young Queen of Khauran, Ialamis, and bring that protectorate of Turan into the Empire of Koth, via marriage. Khi Zang of Khitai summons an entity from the outer-dark that devours the soul from a young serving girl and restores Sabaninus to the external age of about 30. He leaves for Khauran posing as Sergianus, Sabaninus' nephew.
Meanwhile, back in Zamora...after Disposing of Hissar Zul in Conan and the Sorcerer, Conan's soul remained trapped inside the Soul Mirror. He travelled from Arenjun to Shadizar with the intention of gaining an audience with the King of Zamora, for only a "crowned person" can release his soul from the mirror. He soon realized that such an outcome would be unlikely for a outland thief without the means to bribe the various potentates standing between himself and a royal audience.
Upon an evening, Conan comes across a curtained sedan, set upon by Shadizar's thieves. Seeing the litter occupied by someone with a jewelled hand and equally jewelled dagger, Conan decides to come to their aid in hopes of bolstering his fortunes. Along with the lone guard, the two dispatch the thieves. In so doing, Conan saves the life of Lady Khashtris of Khauran and her guardsman Shubal.
The noblewoman offers him a goodly sum to enter her employ and Conan accepts. The next day he learns that his new patron is cousin to Queen Ialamis of Khauran. Conan pledges to return his reward and serve Lady Khashtris for a half year without wage if she will convince her cousin to help him with his current dilemma with the Soul Mirror. Still grateful to Conan for saving her life, she readily pledges to do so.
On the road to Khauran, Conan saves the life of Khashtris a second time when the men who plotted against her in Shadizar catch up with them and attempt to finish the job.
Upon reaching Khauran City safely, the group stops at lady Khashtris' house where they make themselves presentable for a royal audience. Conan and Shubal then escort Lady Khashtris to the palace.
There, Conan and Khashtris relate his story to the Queen and a small retinue of advisors. Despite cautions from them, most incredulous from a young Nemedian Baron's son named Sergianus, the Queen casts the Soul Mirror against a wall and Conan's soul is freed from it's prison to return to him.
But that is when the real plot of the novel unfolds.
When the mirror is thrown at the wall, all eyes follow it except Conan's, himself looking angrily at Sergianus for yelling a warning about flying glass. When he hears the mirror shatter, Conan sees someone else standing in Sergianus' place. All other eyes are watching the sorcery of the mirror dissipate in a spectacular fashion.
After Conan and Shubal are dismissed from the Queen's presence, they pass the time before they must escort Lady Khashtris home by walking through the Khauranian marketplace for a few hours. They spend some time in a tavern that Shubal frequents and Conan asks Shubal what he knows of Sergianus. They learn from a Nemedian patron of the bar that Tor is not a Dutchy, as Sergianus claims, but only a Barony. Shubal also remembers seeing Sergianus' medallion somewhere before, but not in Nemedia, since Shubal has never been there. The two bodyguards then walk to a fruit-seller table to see a young woman that Shubal is wooing. It is there that Shubal remembers where he has seen Sergianus' medallion...it was worn by the aged Sabaninus, Duke of Korveka of Koth.
The next day, while waiting for Lady Khastris to finish her duties at the Advisory Council, Arkhaurus, Advisor to the Throne, speaks with Conan about why he stared so strangely at Sergianus the day before, after the mirror was smashed. Conan proposes an "experiment" where he and Shubal write down the description of a man and then they each read aloud what they wrote. Shubal describes Sabaninus, Duke of Korveka (of Koth), whom Shubal saw 5 years previously wearing the same medallion that Sergianus now wears. Conan describes who he saw standing in the place of Sergianus when his soul returned. The details of both accounts describe the same man. Before they can formulate a plan, Lady Khashtris presents herself ready to return home for the day.
The following evening Khashtris attends the palace, intending to remain there overnight and be returned home by royal guards the next day. Conan and Shubal , enjoying the night off together, are at Hilides tavern. In runs a 15 year old girl and jumps on Conan's lap, asking him to scare off the man following her. a short time later a man runs up to the door of the tavern, stops and scowls at them, and then leaves.
The girl is named Rosela and she begins to flirt heavily with Conan, so Shubal leaves to see his own girlfriend. Moments later a battle breaks out in the street, outside. Rushing outside Conan (again) aids Shubal against multiple (2) attackers. When the assailants lay dead on the street, a wounded Shubal explains that he interrupted them in the assassination of Nebinio, the Nemedian who told Conan and Shubal that Sergianus was no Duke's son.
After a brief and uneventful confrontation with the city watch, Conan takes Shubal to Sfalana's to be cared for and he and Rosela return to Lady Khashtris'.
A week passes where Conan loses himself in his work and Rosela's embrace; the matter of the magically disguised imposter Sergianus spending even more time with the Queen is far from his thoughts. Rosela gains employment at the Palace as a serving girl.
The Queen travels from the City to visit one of the towns of Khauran, leaving Khashtris to care for Princess Taramis, at the Palace. Conan is left alone to guard the rooms where Taramis is napping while Khashtris attends business elsewhere in the castle and Shubal is off to see about some wine. Rosela appears with wine she claims is from the Queen's own supply and offers Conan a glass.
A drugged Conan is shaken awake by Shubal and Khashtris and a dead man lays on the carpeted floor, Conan's sword close to hand. Shubal returned in time to stop him from entering the Princess' chambers. The assassin is none other than the man who chased Rosela into Hilides Tavern only a week earlier.
Working out that the murder was meant to look like Conan murdered Taramis, and that Rosela, to drug him before hand, was also in on the plot, the murder of Nebinio of Nemedia is given new weight. Conan and Shubal decide that Sergianus and at least one Khauranian co-conspirator is trying to remove anyone who can give evidence that he is an imposter. They explain their suspicions to Khashtris and she tells them Rosela hurried past her toward the gardens, as she was returning to the Princess' rooms.
There Conan finds Rosela dying and she confesses that Arkhaurus, whom Conan and Shubal confided in, was behind the plot involving her and her brother, the dead man. Arranging to have the Princess left behind when the Queen left the city, it was his plan to frame Conan for her murder.
Khashtris convinces the two to cover up the attempted murder of the Princess on the outside chance that Sergianus has nothing to do with it...her sister loves him and it would break her heart. They contrive a story to explain away any blood stains Khastris cannot get out of the carpets and manage to remove both Rosela and her brother's body without anyone being the wiser, except perhaps Arkhaurus, when he discovers the Princess and Conan still alive.
Lady Khashtris arranges for Shubal and Conan to have a private audience with the Queen to warn her of the plot, but she refuses to hear a word against Sergianus and bars them from the palace, stating she will send her own guards to escort her cousin to the palace from that point on.
With nowhere to turn, Lady Khashtris arranges for them to meet with Acrallidus, the Governor of Khauran City and a trusted counsellor to the Queen. In perhaps the most powerful sequence in the novel if not the entire trilogy, Conan lays out the evidence for Acrallidus, relating much of his own short history in the process. The listeners are left speechless, utterly convinced of Conan's resolve and willing to help him save their Queen.
The following night, at the Queen's dinner-party, the Illusionist, Crispis, entertains the Queen and her guests by revealing knowledge about them that he could not know, except through supernatural means, granted to him my a mystic amulet, The Eye of Erlik.
Crispis voices a vision that makes Arkhaurus appear as a plotter against Khauran for Koth. The seer's vision continues on to tell of an old man, also of Koth, and then identifies Sergianus sitting next to the Queen as the old man, congratulating him on how well he bears "...the weight of his many, many years, and even the baronial weight of that medallion of Korveka."
As confusion spreads through the room, Crispus asks, "My good lord Baron Sabaninus of Koth...why call yourself Sergianus and pretend to be so young? Behold, when I cover...my amulet..., all here see you as you really are!"
All eyes glued to Sergianus, he falls for the ruse. Fearing that all can see him as he really is, he calls Crispus a spy and tries to take the Eye of Erlik from him.
Shubal barges into the dining hall (having used a secret path into the palace know by Khashtris) and also accuses Sergianus...and he is stabbed by Arkhaurus, attempting to silence him. But Shubal perseveres and holds his sword to Arkhaurus' throat telling everyone not to move.
The Queen calls for the guards in the hallway but Conan bars the door on them. He distracts Sergianus and slays Arkhaurus, for killing Rosela. Then Sergianus too succumbs to the Cimmerian. As the killing blow is struck, Arkhaurus' wife clutches her dead husband and wails that she begged him not to ally himself with the Korvekan imposter.
As he dies, Sergianus' glamour fades and he is, finally, revealed to all to be Sabaninus.
The Queen, sick with grief that her new love was false, throws open the door and explains to the guards that Sergianus and Arkhaurus plotted against the throne. Leaving Khashtris in charge, she leaves the banquet hall.
As soon as she is able, Khashtris goes to seek her cousin the Queen. She finds her dying by her own hand.
After the state funeral, Conan reveals that the real Crispus was captured and later released by Conan and paid by Khashtris for his trouble.
Leaving Khauran, Khashtris gives him half of a Silver coin and says that Taramis will wear the other half in case Conan ever returns...Taramis will be told of Conan's service to Khauran and he will always have employment there, should he wish it, even after Khashtris passes on.
- Lord Sabaninus - aka: Sergianus. Baron of Korveka, a province of Koth
- Khi Zang - Kothian necromancer with the power to transform the external appearance of an older subject to look about the age of 30. He does so for a saddlebag of Gold and the promise that Sabaninus' children, the future rulers of Khauran, would allow him to build a temple in Khauran City
- Nateela - 18 year old Ophirian slave/servant of Sabaninus
- Sergianus - Son of the Nemedian Duke of Tor. aka: Sabaninus.
- Lady Khashtris - Khauranian noblewoman, cousin of the Queen, Ialamis, approximately 40 years old
- Jubal - Guard to the Lady Khashtris. 20 years old
- Ialamis of the house of Arcturus, Queen of Kharuan - widow, mother to Princess Taramis and Salome, cousin to Khashtris
- Taramis, Princess of Kharuan - Daughter of Ialamis, twin to Salome. See also "A Witch Shall be Born"
- Salome - devil-child, daughter of Ialamis, twin to Taramis, bears the moon-shaped birthmark. Was left for dead by exposure in the desert as a child as per the custom of her people. (mentioned by name only). See also "A Witch Shall Be Born"
- Acrallidus - Governor of Khauran City
- Krallides - Acrallidus' 14 year old son
- Arkhaurus - Cheif advisor to the Throne. About 45 years old.
- Hilides - Tavernkeeper in Khauran City.
- Verenus - brewer and supplier to Hilides. (mentioned by name only)
- Merkes - patron of Hilides tavern
- Nebinio - patron of Hilides Tavern and native of Nemedia. Knows that Tor is a Barony of Nemedia, not a Dutchy and that the first son of the Baron is also named Amalric (see Continuity Notes)
- Sfalana - Fruit-seller in Khauran City's market. Girlfriend of Shubal.
- Meshellisa - Old woman who sells fruit with Sfalana. Implied to be her grandmother.
- Evriga - Maid of the house of Lady Khashtris
- Spartus - Butler for Lady Khashtris
- Rosela - 15 year old girl
- Nardius - brother of Rosela
- Crispis - Illusionist from Kandala (appears by name only, since Conan impersonates him).
- Korveka - Barony of Koth
- Shadizar - Capital city of Zamora
- Khauran Ctiy - Capital city of Khauran
Mystic Items Edit
- The Eye of Erlik - "...a sword-shaped pendant about the length of [Conan's] least finger. The hilt was capped with a ruby pommel. Each end of the cross-bar guard was set with large yellow stones, barred each with a single black stripe." Pictured by Esteban Maroto as jewel encrusted miniature replica of a scimitar in a sheath hanging from a chain, all wrought in gold. The yellow stones resemble eyes. The Eye was sought by both the Khan of Zamboula (the original owner in this trilogy of novels) and the King of Iranistan. Properties: the only property attributed to the Eye of Erlik was that it made the Khan of Zamboula invulnerable. That power proved false in Conan: The Sword of Skelos. Conan fabricated scrying powers for the amulet in order to pull off a sting operation against the main antagonist in Conan the Mercenary.
- Soul-mirror - "...a mirror, no longer than Conan's hand, thickened by a small dome of glass or quartz." Through an undisclosed means, Hisarr Zul removed Conan's soul and placed it in such a mirror. The sorcerer had done so, previously, to other's souls as well. Breaking the mirror with someone's soul inside caused the victim to become a zombie-like slave to Hisarr Zul. In that state, the Sorcerer could hear through the zombie's ears and see through its eyes and speak through its mouth. To live thus was, "...to be dead while alive..." but, "To die without a soul is worse." Conan learns from the sand-lich, Tosya Zul, that the only way to give peace to a zombie created by the breaking of its soul-mirror is to stuff "...the skull of Hisarr with earth, and his ears and nostrils, and then severing that head and seeing that it is burned -- utterly consumed by flame." And the only (clean) way to restore a soul from an unbroken mirror is for it to be broken by a "crowned person."
Continuity Notes Edit
Age - The story, by it's own account, appears to be set shortly after Tower of the Elephant. In Chapter 2 Conan is said to be "...not quite 18". Then in Chapter 6 it is said that he is 18. The Galen-Grey chronology and the Jordan chronology both place this novel, and it's two trilogy partners, after Tower of the Elephant.
However, L. Sprague de Camp and others argue that major plot points in this novel, it's prequel and it's sequel, portray behaviour by Conan that is more likely to occur when he is a more experienced adventurer, not someone just past his mid teens; de Camp himself places the entire trilogy-arc of ...Sorcerer, ...Mercenary and ...Sword of Skelos later in Conan's life, after "Rogues in the House" and prior to Conan the Victorious, when Conan was 23, according to his essay "Conan the Indestructible."
Curse of the Khauran Queens - Every 100 years, twin girls are born to the royal house of Khauran. One of the twin girls bears a crescent shaped birth mark on its breast. This mark is the result of a pact made in the distant past by a queen of Khauran and a demon. Intended to ensure the royal line of the Askhaurian dynasty and Khauran's independence as a nation, the union also resulted in the birth of the witch Salome, the first to bear the crescent-shaped mark. Now, every twin girl born of the royal house who bears the mark is named Salome and is put to death. The current Princess, Taramis, was a twin of just such a birth; her twin sister Salome was left to die of exposure in the desert. The Curse also makes short work of any Queen's Consort, leading to the nickname for the country "Khauran of the unhappy Queens"
Connections to "A witch Shall be Born" - Khauran is the setting for the Robert E. Howard short story "A Witch Shall Be Born", and this novel borrows more than just the twins, Salome and Taramis, from Howard. Krallides, son of Acrallidus in this novel, appears in Howard's story as well. Conan is one of Lady Khashtris' personal guards in the novel; Conan is the Captain of Queen Taramis' Palace Guard in Howard's tale. In the novel, Khi Zang summons a "massive", croaking, black bulk with alluring eyes and immense fangs to kill Nateela and bestow youth on Sabaninus. The Khitan does so for the promise that, Sabaninus' children will allow Khi Zang to build a future temple in Khauran City. Years later, in Howard's story, Salome desecrates the temple of Ishtar and fills it with obscene images of foul deities, some of which are worshipped in Khitai. Salome places "...some sort of monster in a crypt in the temple...from the black night of ages". Sounds of "strident, inhuman croaking" are heard coming from the temple. Salome calls the name Thaug and, in answer, a "vast, dark form...came rushing toward him", Valerius, "in gigantic frog-like hops."
Amalric of Nemedia - The Barony of Tor in Nemedia, at the time of this novel, has a Baron named Amalric with a 1st son named Amalric. Later in Conan's saga Conan is in the employ of an Amalric of Nemedia, commander of a mercenary company hired by the Queen of Khoraja to repel an invasion by Koth in "Black Colossus". While it is likely that there is more than one Nemedian named Amalric in all of the Hyborian lands during Conan's lifetime, there could just as easily be a connection. Connection or not, any Nemedian with that name, operating a mercenary company in and around Koth only a handful of years after this novel, would surely have heard the story of how a fighter named Conan exposed an imposter calling himself Amalric of Tor and helped foil a possible plot by Koth to absorb Khauran. It could easily have given Conan a fast-track into that particular mercenary company when he showed up looking for work.
Odd Plot devices: There are a long list of situations in the novel that, while not directly contradictory of established facts of Conan's life, still leave the reader wondering, "What's going on here?"
Conan the Grifter - Chapter 10 of the novel has Conan impersonate an Illusionist, Crispis from Kandalla, and pretend to have supernatural powers of perception, in order to trap Sabaninus/Sergianus into exposing himself. A sting, or confidence game, is a plot-point used in only one of Robert E Howard's stories: "The Servants of Bit-Yakin". Even then, it is not Conan who does the acting. Conan simply takes advantage of someone else's con-game. Most timelines place that story in Conan's late 30s.
While the deception in this novel is ingenious, it is unlikely that a 17 year old barbarian with little experience in complex confidence schemes would have had the ability, experience, voice-talents or charisma to engineer and carry out such a con. Particularly since he cannot lie convincingly enough to prevent being taken captive by a slave caravan at the end of Conan and the Sorcerer only weeks before.
Conan the scribe? - Conan conducts an "experiment" where both he and Shubal simultaneously write a description of a man and then they each read it aloud. Shubal describes Sabaninus, Duke of Koth, and Conan writes a description of who he saw standing in the place of Sergianus when the Soul Mirror broke. This sequence seems odd for two reasons: how does an 18 year old barbarian know what an "experiment" is, and how/why does he have/take the opportunity, off-camera, prior to this novel, to learn to read and write complete sentences in any language? While he's not stupid, he's a barbarian, not a civilized man. Howard himself stated that Conan picks up spoken languages quickly, which could explain his ability to speak Turanian in this trilogy of novels by Offutt. However, it does not explain how the Cimmerian can also read and write Turanian fluently enough to pen a detailed description of the old man. While Howard states in "Servants of Bit-Yakin" that Conan has a surprising depth of knowledge about current languages (written and spoken), "...Bit-Yakin" takes place 20 years, give or take a few, after this novel.
"You believe in Sorcery?" - Shubal asks Conan this question less than 2 hours after he witnessed Queen Ialamis smash a magic mirror said to contain the soul of his friend, the shards of which dissipate in a most unnatural fashion.
Conan forgets about sorcery? - Certainly Conan could be distracted for a time by a pretty face, but it seems odd that he would ignore for long that a wizened old man magically disguised as a false Duke's son from another country was running around the palace and keeping time with the Queen who just restored his soul. Certainly Conan would have expected that Arkhaurus was dealing with it, but after no news for some days it seems unusual that he would not have demanded some news if Sergianus was still breathing.
Hiding two murders in a palace? - Unless the Palace of Khauran was unlike every other palace in every other fantasy novel and story, the entire place would have known about the murders in the first hour. Where, for instance, did all the water and soap come from (or was disposed of) that would have been needed by Khashtris to clean up the blood? How did they manage to get both Rosela and her brother's cloak-wrapped bodies all the way out of the Palace and disposed of with no-one seeing? Princess Taramis' life was just threatened; who would Khashtris trust enough to guard her while Conan and Shubal removed the bodies, particularly since Conan knows that Arkhaurus could still in the Palace after stabbing Rosela! Commanding the silence and perhaps assistance of palace staff, even from the Queen herself, seems well beyond the power of a cousin of the Queen. Why did Arkhaurus not intervene?
Conan the Magus? - ...is the actual title of chapter 10, and the main denouement of the novel. Why would Conan, who hates sorcery and fears the supernatural, devise a plan where he claims to wield magical/supernatural power, albeit through the Eye of Erlik, to see the hidden secrets of the Khauranian court?