In my youth, I was impetuous, wild, full of rage and passion and hate - much like other women of my tribe at that age. But our people did not show it often. Something about our homeland, our dark, sullen, cold realm of mists and shadows, prevents us from it. Our moods are black and melancholic, given to monstrous dreams. Darkness and the night pervaded even our waking thoughts... but not in battle. In those mad exhultations, when our blades flame crimson and agony shoots through our sinews, our spirit finds release. No longer are we moody and dour, but burning with red fury and joy - not at the killing and feasting of swords, but at being alive. It is only when one is at the closest to having their life taken that one truly experiences what life is - distilled, tangible, seething, screaming life. And when that experience comes, we have the strength and will to fight tooth and nail so that we remain alive - such is the one gift breathed into our souls by our grim chief god.
I was a Phantom. The women of our people fought like she-panthers, and many accompanied the men and youths on raids, fighting alongside them as fiercely and heroically as their husbands and sons and brothers. That was expected of our people: what woman worth her skin would let the men of her clan fight for her? We all fought for each other: none save the very old or very young went to battle, and even then, they would fight if the battle came to them. All of our tribe took part in battle from the age they could hold a weapon in their hands - a necessity, for we often had to buy our lives with the edge of those blades. Our foes, be it rival clans of our own people, the painted savages of the west, the armoured invaders of the east and south, or the light-haired giants of the frozen north, accepted no quarter, nor was quarter granted.
Our people have more gods than our mountain-dwelling chief: half of them are goddesses. Four of them, the Phantom Queens, were my patrons: raven-haired, stark naked, ghostly pale, screaming ghosts of the battlefield. Each represented an aspect of combat: the confidence to command, the cunning of strategy and tactics, the demoralisation of the foe, the frenzy of battle-madness. We phantoms emulated them, following their example by going into battle naked save for a steel blade. Such audacity instilled no small level of intimidation in our foes, though the freedom of movement afforded by lack of clothing or armour aided us in our methods.
I fought many battles in this fashion, but one remains in my memory, and shall remain until the day of my passing into my god's realm of ice and mist. I see it now: the bleak grey of the land is streaked with red, the hollow quiet shattered by shouting and clashing metal. Red-headed warriors clad in brass scales roar and bellow with each blow of their great axes: their black-haired foes are silent, their only expressions wild snarls, crazed grins, or masks of bewildering calm. Youths and children of both tribes hurl spears from the flanks; long-bearded elders clashed with beardless youths; man and woman slew and were slain. One group of warriors stands out: a horde of women, stark naked, their alabaster skin streaked with blood and entrails, their black hair matted and ragged, their swords reddened with death. From the girl on her first fight to the matron of a thousand skirmishes, all have powerful limbs, strong frames and womanly curves.
It was in the middle of this battle that I brought my son into the world.
Our life is hard, but it is worth the hardship. We fight every day of our existence, against disease, famine, the elements, predators, rival tribes. As painful as any of the wounds I received during my life of battle, not even the pain of all of them combined could compare to the pangs of labour. That day I bled from a score of gashes and cuts, for though I still darted and whirled among the enemy like Nemain herself, I nonetheless had to account for the weight of my unborn. I danced a red death through the Northron ranks until I was almost tripping over their dead, panting with the exertion, eyes stinging with blood and sweat. I did not even pause until I slew the last enemy within closing distance: the Northrons were falling back, the tide of the battle had turned. Only then did I allow myself to collapse, white-hot jets of agony convulsing through every nerve, my body feeling as if it was being chewed by devils. The red haze gave way to whiteness.
Two slender white forms appeared through the blur: a grey-streaked matron, and a young girl. My mother and niece were phantoms like me: their pale flesh spattered with gore, their sword-arms completely red with blood. My wide-eyed niece looked to my mother, who narrowed her eyes to slits of bale-fire. This was neither her first delivery nor her first battle. More of my sisters appeared, forming a circle around me to defend against any Northron that dared take advantage of my momentary incapacitation. Mother fell upon a dead Northron's corpse, ripping his torn mantle from him: she directed my niece to find provisions from our supplies.
And so it was during the clangour of swords and the crying of the wounded and dying that a new life gasped its first breath. Mother swaddled him in the Northron's mantle, and I held him tightly to my skin. I felt the rapid beat of his heart through my bones. He did not cry a greeting like the young of other peoples, but his eyes were already wide open, and his bones and sinews were strong enough that he sat alert in my grasp. With the dust of battle and mist of our homeland, it seemed that the very world fell away beyond my circle of sisters, so that my family, myself, and my newborn son were all who remained in the cosmos - save for the din of the battle, which echoed like the dream of a ghost. Then, just as quickly as it appeared, the white faded from my vision, and I saw the glitter of steel and flame of blood. My mother raised him up to see this vista of death, horror and fury. It is a sight which would become familiar to him.
Northron reinforcements surged onto the field: they'd flanked through the trees. Mother passed my son to me, and my sisters formed a barrier between the babe and death. I was weary and exhausted, but seeing those bearded giants striking down my kin while I was grounded filled me with madness. I warred with myself: should I remain behind a wall of swords with my newborn, ready to defend him should my sisters fall? Or should I risk my life and his to lend a vital sword-arm to my family, sorely pressed by the onslaught as they were? Yet the black fury of my race moved my body almost without my mind's orders: I am no defensive fighter. I would take the battle to them. I instinctively wrapped the blanket around me in the manner of a sling, holding the infant close to my heart. I spied a fallen Northron's round shield, and appropriated it to further protect the boy. My claymore was too unwieldy to use with a shield, so I took my niece's short sword. Shuddering and groaning, I rose to my feet. My sisters protested, but I silenced them with a shriek: "If I can't protect my own bairn from Northrons when he needs me most, what use of a mother am I?" They did not speak, but nonetheless flanked me as we moved towards the battle.
Barely a minute old, and my son is seeing death firsthand, cradled in my left arm while my right cleaves flesh and bone. His heartbeat rose with mine. I practised with sword and shield combat as a youth, and once learned is never forgotten. Even now, I look back on that battle with wonder and bewilderment: how I could muster the strength and audacity to wade into battle with a minutes-old infant, much less survive that fight. Yet fight I did: I ached and convulsed, drenched in blood and mud and sweat, somehow surviving the onslaught while dealing death as I could. I can only suppose the sight of a naked, bloody woman carrying a baby in one arm and a sword in the other was uncommon enough to the Northrons for one of our swords to strike them down in their confusion.
I was careless. In the frenzy of battle, I edged further and further from my sisters, and found myself isolated. A huge red-bearded giant with a great axe charged at me - a Jarl, no less. I dodged the vicious arcs of his axe, keeping my body between him and the baby as I cut and parried. But my strokes glanced from his brass scales, or only nicked his flesh lightly. My foe was wily, for he knew he was too well-armoured for my counter-attacks, but he also knew I was too swift for him to land a killing blow. His next move surprised me: he dropped his axe, and as I instinctively lunged forward, I realised my mistake. He grasped my arm and fell forward, grappling us both to the earth. I had lost much blood and was spent from the battle as it was, and the Jarl was immensely strong. My legs were pinned under his body, one hand gripping my sword-arm, the other forcing my head backward, almost tearing the hair from its roots. His eyes glared madly inches from mine. Desperate though I was, my strength was failing: all my effort went into holding my shield between the foe and my son.
Yet as I looked to my son for what I was sure would be his and my own final moments on this earth, I saw him reaching upwards. To my astonishment, the baby grasped at the Northron's beard, pulling with all his infant might. The Jarl looked to him, seemingly noticing him for the first time. His face broke from a wild, cheerless grin into an expression of confusion, even as the baby scratched deeply into his eye. The Jarl roared deafeningly, blood starting from his right eye: he relented his grasp on my hair, and it took all my remaining strength to heave my head upwards, driving my forehead into the giant's face. For an instant I saw only blackness: when I came to, only a second had passed, and the Jarl was evidently as dazed as I was, blood gushing from his ruined nose. His right hand groped towards the baby, seeking to crush its tiny life in his clutches. But his grip on my arm had relaxed, and that split second was enough for me to wrench my arm free and drive my sword through his neck. Hot, steaming blood splashed on me and my son, and the giant fumbled at his neck, gurgling grotesquely. A final glare of defiance, and his body slumped still, almost crushing us with his weight. I used what little strength remained to heave the corpse off to the side, and took a final glance at my newborn. He was covered in blood, but seemed completely unmoved by it. He reminded me of nothing so much as a wolf cub.
I knew nothing of the rest of the fight until I awakened. By that time, the battle was won. No Northerners were left alive on the field, their survivors retreating to their snowy fastness, doubtless seething with the determination to return. For such a dour and dreadful people, my people's characteristic celebration of a hard-fought victory after so much violence and death is vibrant and wild. Faces not entirely used to smiling were grinning fiercely, throats uncomfortable with laughter bellowed uproariously, eyes normally stark and serious were twinkling with humour. Only in war are my people happy, it seems, and we were joyous indeed that day. All except one.
My man, battered and bruised and dripping blood like us all, bore a curious expression on his face. I looked to my son. The bairn sat vigilantly by my, his eyes still dark, but with a slight rim of volcanic blue. As his father approached him, he growled defiantly, like a wolf cub defending its stricken mother, not distinguishing between friend or foe, even among his own kin. His grandfather, grey beard streaked with white, laughed deeply despite a flap of bloody skin covering his right eye. His grandmother busied herself with wounded family, but was ever mindful of the new addition to the clan. Two adolescent cousins, one tall and rangy, the other broad and powerful, not yet cowed by our people's pessimism, stared in awe. Others from the tribe had gathered around: as their souls yet blazed with the joy of battle, they allowed their fierce hearts to swell with pride at this small warrior's resolve.
Thus was the tale of my son's birth, the little wolf who was born on a battlefield.
On this Christmas, which coincidentally marks the 80th anniversary of Robert E. Howard's character Conan's first appearance in print, I decided I would follow up on my take on the Cimmerian's death with my very personal account of his birth. As with "The Lion Passes," I have no illusions of "Out of Shadowed Hills" being anything remotely like canon, the way Conan was really born: it is simply the story I have created from my own imaginings, forged from the deeply intimate pieces and ingredients gathered over the course of a life time.
While "The Lion Passes" was informed by history and folklore, "Out of Shadowed Hills" is semi-autobiographical, in that it has some inspiration from the birth of my niece. My remarkable sister never once cried out during her lengthy labour, to the point where nurses were incredulous that she could possibly be experiencing contractions, calm and collected as she was. She gave birth minutes after admittance.
I came to see my niece early in the morning, and was greeted not by a tiny scrap of humanity bundled in cloth like Moses in the reeds, but by a fully awake, alert, and - incredibly - upright infant, eyes wide open, to greet her family. She was self-assured and limber as a baby deer, and I wouldn't have been the least bit surprised if she leapt out of her mother's grip and gambolled around the wing. Every year since her birth, she's never failed to amaze me in her intelligence, erudition, humour and wit. Just like her mother.
As ever, I wish all readers and Howard fans a marvelous Mitramas, a super Set Sacrificial Festival, a solemn, cheerless Cromhain, and of course, a merry Christmas!