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The unique Robert E. Howard tried his hand at quite a few fiction genres, from detective stories to oriental adventure to his humorous westerns about Breck Elkins. He virtually invented heroic fantasy featuring mighty roughneck barbarians, of course, as exemplified by Conan. His historical adventures with the characters Turlogh Dubh O’Brien and Cormac Fitzgeoffrey (that less than idealistic crusader) are memorable.
He tried his hand at interplanetary adventure at least once, too – with his novel Almuric.
(Damon mentioned in the first “Nemedian Dispatches” for 2011 that “A new trade paperback edition of the often reprinted REH planetary adventure (Almuric) was recently published by Wildside Press, sporting a cheesy computer generated cover.”)
As always, REH gave it his own individual touch. The protagonist, Esau Cairn, the Earthman who finds himself in an alien world, is a misfit on Earth, a powerful throwback to the kind of epoch that produced characters like Niord in “The Valley of the Worm.” This mighty fellow can’t even make a satisfying career of boxing or football — because he’s just too strong and fiercely vital. Without even meaning to, he injures all who compete against him. “Cairn was not a great sluggish lethargic giant as so many powerful men are,” REH informs us, through the mouth of the scientist who introduces the tale; “he was vibrant with fierce life, ablaze with dynamic energy. Carried away by the lust of combat, he forgot to control his powers, and the result was broken limbs or fractured skulls for his opponents.”
Nearly killing a sparring partner finishes his hopes of a boxing career. His license is revoked. Thwarted and restless, he gets involved with a crooked political machine that tries to make him a fall guy, and when the city boss tries to intimidate Cairn, he gets killed by one furious blow. By a typical pulp-magazine stroke of incredible luck, before he’s trapped and shot by the coppers, Cairn meets a scientist with a device that can transport him to a distant planet far beyond the reach of the political machine’s vengeance. Or the law.
Esau Cairn, like some other Howard characters (Francis X. Gordon, or “El Borak,” for instance) was “born in the Southwest, of old frontier stock … whose traditions were of war and feud and battle against man and nature.” Some of the warriors of the old west described in “Murder Ranches and Gunmen” would have appreciated Cairn, no doubt, and he them. But Cairn was actually born for a much more ancient, savage epoch, and on the world of Almuric he finds an environment that suits him.
His name is significant. Esau, in the Old Testament, was a hairy roughneck of a hunter who was conned out of his true birthright by his smooth-skinned, persuasive brother Jacob – a perfect symbol for the modern civilization that suits Cairn so poorly. In an ironic bit of role reversal, when Cairn arrives on Almuric, the apish Gura males see him as the smooth-skinned freak. The first one he meets asks him contemptuously if he’s a man or a woman. Cairn, typically, socks him on the jaw at once.
Later, captured in the city of Koth, he hears himself described as “a freak, a damned, smooth-skinned degenerate misfit which should not have been born, or allowed to exist.” By one of the men, naturally. The girl Altha finds him not only interesting, but evidently attractive, from the first. She’s something of a misfit herself, though, in that she longs for a gentler world than the one she knows, something that “is not, and never was,” so far as she’s aware. Cairn, happy for the first time in his life on lusty, crude Almuric, is baffled by this attitude.
It’s an odd world, to put it mildly. It appears to have no history, no development of cultures to compare with the way Byzantine culture, for example, grew out of the fading Roman Empire, or Spanish, Italian and French developed from their common precursor, the Latin language, or the culture of Timbuktu in Africa was imported by Arab conquerors. There’s nothing like that. The race that first attacks and then adopts Cairn, the Guras, inhabit huge plains in crude stone cities they apparently heaped up in a sudden switch from nomadic habits and then never developed further. Cairn says the males evidently did this to protect their women, not because they had any inclination to comfort or shelter from the elements themselves.
Male Guras are massive, apelike fellows with big jaws and receding foreheads. Fighting, drinking and bellowing crude ballads are their chief pastimes. The women, on the other hand, look like earthly women. Physically, they and the men might as well belong to different species.
“Stupid pigs,” the queen of the demoniacal Yaga race says at one point, of the Guras, and some might agree.
The Yagas are about the only creatures the Gura men fear. They are winged, which of course gives them a huge tactical advantage against wingless victims. Cairn describes them as “tall and rangy in build, sinewy and powerful, with ebon skins. They seemed made like ordinary men, except for the great leathery bat-like wings which grew from their shoulders. They were naked except for loincloths, and were armed with short curved blades.”
They have no inhibitions about eating human flesh. They regard themselves as superior beings, if not gods, so it’s not as if they were eating each other; just the lower orders. When Cairn eventually meets their queen, Yasmeena, he finds she’s the most cruel of the lot, like a combination of She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed and Howard’s own immortal vampire princess, Akivasha, in The Hour of the Dragon. She’s also the only female Yaga to have retained her wings. The others all have them amputated when young, in order to keep them in a subservient role, it seems. Nasty people.
“Men and women, the Yagas were open and candid in their evil,” remarks Cairn. “Their utter cynicism banished ordinary scruples of modesty and common decency. Deeming themselves gods, they considered themselves above the considerations that guide ordinary humans.”
They remind me strongly of winged semi-human devils in other REH stories, such as “The Garden of Fear.” It features one of James Allison’s former primitive incarnations, who tracks the last survivor of an ancient, pre-human winged race, because it has stolen his mate. He finishes it off in the “garden” of the title, the creature’s lair. Again, in one Solomon Kane story, “Wings in The Night,” the Puritan rover meets the last survivors of the legendary harpies, in the depths of Africa. They too are fiendish winged raptors with bat-like pinions. Cruel beyond measure, they prey on a peaceful black tribe that Kane fails to protect from the monsters, to his personal anguish.
Come to think of it, the Yagas aren’t unlike Michael Moorcock’s Melniboneans in the Elric stories. Theirs is a “sophisticated, brilliant, and cruel culture.” Returning stealthily to Immryr, the last Melnibonean city, Elric prowls through the thoroughfares, now and again hearing “a frenzied, idiot’s yell as some wretch of a slave died in obscene agony to please his master” (“The Dreaming City“). Such sounds would have been common in the Yagas’ inaccessible hold atop a sheer five-hundred-foot crag, also, the way Howard describes them.
The Yagas steal Esau Cairn’s girl, Altha, and carry her to their city of Yugg on the tall rock Yuthla. (In passing, those names are bloody awful.) Esau follows them, even though it’s an unheard-of thing, on Almuric, to defy the dreaded winged monsters. Esau doesn’t just defy them, he resolves to destroy them. He unites the different, feuding tribes of Guras to that purpose, for the first time in the history of Almuric, and overthrows the Yagas in their own citadel, upon which Yasmeena turns loose her private pet monster and completes the destruction. That’s a climax much like the way John Carter of Mars destroys the degenerate Holy Therns and the “goddess” Issus.
We’re all probably seeing echoes of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Barsoom in Almuric by now. The lost city of Opar in Africa, which Tarzan discovered, ruled by the priestess La, had a peculiar race of inhabitants. The men were apish, the women normal, like the Guras of Almuric. Burroughs’ John Carter, like Esau Cairn, is transported to an alien planet by mysterious means the details of which are never explained. From the time he arrives, he finds himself battling monsters and cruel degenerate elitists to save beautiful women. The fierce Black Pirates of Mars (who call themselves the First Born) prey on other races in aerial raids, though they use flying warships instead of natural wings. They too are ruled by a cruel woman (Issus, their living goddess). They too, like their unwitting subordinates the Holy Therns, eat human flesh and maintain that this is allowable since they are divine, a superior order of being. They too have their ancient “divine” order overthrown by the hero.
Burroughs’ hugely successful Mars series was probably, in its own turn, inspired by Edwin Lester Arnold’s Lieutenant Gulliver Jones: His Vacation, published in 1905, which also features an intrepid earthman and former southern soldier transported to Mars. Gulliver Jones rescues the beautiful Princess Heru much as John Carter does Dejah Thoris.
I don’t see that it matters much who inspired whom. Gulliver Jones was certainly first, followed by Burroughs’ John Carter, and then by Esau Cairn in the 1930s. But personally I prefer Esau Cairn to the rather hapless and un-enterprising Gulliver, and the always-superior John Carter. Esau Cairn may not be subtle, but he’s passionate, decisive, and he takes action. He may be less articulate than John Carter, and nothing like the master swordsman, but he’s just as brave and for my money less pretentious. Carter is downright boastful, especially about his incredible (literally) prowess with the sword. Esau Cairn, in short, is more likeable and human.
Other writers besides REH borrowed from, or expanded on, Burroughs’ Barsoom. L. Sprague de Camp’s Planet Krishna stories had Earthmen adventuring on that exotic world, which, like Barsoom, has various weird beasts and races, with a varied number of limbs. On Barsoom there are creatures with four, six, eight and even ten limbs (like the terrible maned banth, Barsoom’s equivalent of the lion). Krishna has only two basic land stocks, one four-limbed and laying eggs, the other six-limbed and bearing its young alive. That, as you’d expect from the meticulous de Camp, is considerably more plausible. My own favorite among his “Krishna” stories is Tower of Zanid, with the suave if worse-for-wear British rogue gone native on Krishna, Anthony Fallon, as the protagonist. I reckon Rudyard Kipling himself would’ve appreciated Fallon. He’s a lot like Kipling’s “Man Who Would Be King.”
Andrew J. Offutt wrote a novel, Ardor on Aros, which is half tribute to Burroughs and Barsoom, and half satire. (Published by Dell in 1973, with Frazetta cover art.) The eight-foot purple Vardor barbarians of Aros are a sort of more plausible green Martian. As with John Carter on Mars, the protagonist, Hank Ardor, finds himself stronger and more agile on the world of Aros than he was on Earth, Aros having lower surface gravity. Hank was something of an Edgar Rice Burroughs fan as a kid, but as an American college senior he’s aware of the unrealistic aspects of Burroughs’ Barsoom stories – the sexual side in particular. “John Carter,” he notes of the hero, “apparently possesses no genitalia, nor does Dejah.” (Dejah Thoris, generally referred to as “the divine Dejah Thoris,” Carter’s princess.)
Well, sexuality exists on Aros, all right. (Published in 1973, remember?) The lower gravity has an effect Burroughs never noted; women’s breasts and asses float up somewhat, becoming higher and tighter. One of them strikingly resembles the young Sophia Loren, another Liz Taylor. Barbarians do what real barbarians do. Rape. When Hank Ardor finds a local girlfriend (the dead ringer for Sophia) they get it on passionately before long.
(On Barsoom, despite being everlastingly kidnapped and held captive by dastardly villains, degenerate megalomaniacs and monsters, the heroines were never raped. This was carried to an extreme in the case of the lovely Thuvia. For a decade she was “a plaything and a slave” of the depraved Holy Therns, whose chief interests were the “delights of the flesh,” until rescued by John Carter and his son. Despite this, she appeared in a subsequent novel with the title, Thuvia, Maid of Mars.)
While the sex isn’t made explicit in Almuric, still, there are hints of it. Gura women are excessively docile and submissive from an early-third-millennium viecrovwpoint, and Esau Cairn doesn’t encounter any of them, anyway, until after he’s battled to survive alone in the wilderness for months, beset by predators that variously resemble overgrown hyenas and leopards. It would appear that even in desperation he didn’t find any of these sexy. After he meets Altha (whose interest in him is obvious from the start, if a bit naive) she is kidnapped by the terrible Yagas before their relationship can get physical. And she has a hard-ass dad. But Esau’s raging determination to bring her back is not, we can safely assume, platonic.
I’ll state flatly that I thoroughly enjoyed Almuric, and still have on re-reading it, as with everything of Howard’s I’ve seen – even the efforts that weren’t his best. It shows that Almuric owes something to the first three Barsoom novels, but then, even they owed something to Lieutenant Gulliver Jones, as is pretty well known. Old Rudyard Kipling understood that process, and how far back it goes, as he acknowledged in verse.
“When ‘Omer smote ‘is bloomin’ lyre,
‘E’d ‘eard men sing by land and sea,
And what ‘e thought ‘e might require,
‘E went and took – the same as me!
“The market-girls an’ fishermen,
The shepherds an’ the sailors, too,
They ‘eard old songs turn up again,
But kep’ it quiet – same as you!
They knew ‘e stole; ‘e knew they knowed.
They didn’t tell, nor make a fuss,
But winked at ‘Omer down the road,
And ‘e winked back – the same as us!”
That being so – and Shakespeare would admit it’s very much so, as the immortal bard pinched all his plots, many from history, “Romeo and Juliet” and “The Merchant of Venice,” to name just two, from well-known older stories – I didn’t feel bad about trying my hand at a rehash of Almuric. At least the basic plot thereof. One aspect of Almuric that tempted me strongly to do just that was its clearly unpolished, unfinished state. Al Harron contributed a fine cogent post on that very subject to The Cimmerian blog for January 2, 2010: “Dark Worlds Barely Guessed By Man – Almuric, Introduction.” Deuce Richardson, adding comments and amplifications, was nice enough to say “Keith Taylor’s The Lances of Nengesdul, published in 1982, is a very interesting hybrid of the S&P and S&S genres.”
The idea of an Earthman who’s ill fitted to life on Earth getting a new start in an alien world is a great basic premise. Tried and true. Robert A. Heinlein used it, for God’s sake, in his memorable Glory Road (1963). It’s not perfect, some aspects of it are dated now, but it is memorable, and more worth reading than 99% of everything that’s been published since. If you don’t know it, why are you wasting time on my junk? Get out there and find it!
I decided to copy the device of the hero having very little idea of what transported him to the new world or how he got there. Saves time with explanations. I had a clear idea myself of how it happened and why, but I intended to keep it for subsequent yarns if they should ever be written. Like Esau Cairn, he’d have to struggle to survive in a hostile wilderness at first, and encounter human beings later. Like Cairn, he’d meet fierce and fearsome predators. Like Cairn, he’d encounter semi-apish and fully human creatures, and eventually a girl who’d become his love interest. And oppressive villains.
I wanted to make the unknown world (called Barcui, pronounced bah-kwi) more detailed and fully rounded than Almuric, with its unfinished feel. No criticism of REH. He was fully competent to create a fictional world with its own history, cultures and a fully rounded “feel” to it, as anybody who’s read the Conan stories knows. He could have done it with Almuric if he hadn’t been, as I suspect, in something of a driven hurry when he wrote it. Or, as Al Harron clarifies, he’d merely produced a rough unfinished first draft which may have been completed by someone else, after REH’s death and before publication. There’s some controversy about that, which I’m not qualified to resolve.
I just know that I greatly enjoyed Almuric, no matter what its flaws. Absolutely, the background isn’t fully depicted or satisfying. REH still produced a fast-moving adventure more readable than anything ninety-nine per cent of his critics (me included) could turn out to save their lives. Just the same, I reckoned that aspect at least could be improved on, particularly as I’d picked up some clues on world-making from masters like de Camp and Poul Anderson. (I have a feeling REH would have enjoyed corresponding with both, if that had been possible.)
First thing. Lower gravity than Earth’s, so that the hero can be basically faster, stronger and more agile than the natives. Without that advantage, considering all the disadvantages he has, he’d never survive. I settled on a surface gravity about two-fifths of ours. A larger planet in diameter, but lower density, lacking a big nickel-iron core. Barcui has only a small one, if any. It’s made of lighter elements like aluminum, silicon, magnesium and their compounds, through to the centre. It has a considerably thicker atmosphere than ours. The combination of low gravity and dense atmosphere makes much larger flying creatures possible.
(Later I wondered what kind of atmosphere? If the oxygen, nitrogen and carbon dioxide had the same proportions as here, the pressure of the denser air would cause trouble in an Earthman’s system. Nitrogen narcosis and other difficulties. Maybe there’s a considerable percentage of some inert gas. The only one common enough would seem to be neon. (Fourth most abundant element in the universe. If Barcui does exist in the same universe as Earth. I’ve never specifically said.)
For a protagonist I wanted someone who, like Esau Cairn, was out of place on Earth, and found himself more at home on this new strange planet. I decided that he, too, should find himself in an ironic role-reversal on his arrival – but for opposite reasons. Not because he was too huge and powerful for his puny terrestrial fellows. Arpad Hurosci – of Hungarian descent – was a misfit because he was small. But on Barcui the people are also small, and he’d be normal size or even a bit bigger than average, as well as stronger and quicker in the lower gravity.
His physical advantages would count for far more than they would in a world of advanced mechanical technology. Barcui has no metals technology because it’s a low-density planet. Iron, zinc, copper and other such elements are only present in traces, enough to support human life but not enough to support industry or even blacksmiths. Some cultures are advanced, civilized and well organized, but they depend on stone, wood, glass and ceramics. Light metals like aluminum and magnesium can only be extracted from their compounds by electrolysis. Thus, on Barcui they’re unknown.
Esau Cairn’s frustration on Earth would have been nothing compared to Arpad’s. At least Cairn was physically imposing and his power was obvious at a glance. Not a person you’d choose to meddle with. A midget would be a frequent target for bullies, a subject of condescension and jokes even when the abuse wasn’t physical. The realization, when he first confronted human beings on his new world, that here his size was normal, would be overwhelming. One of his first thoughts would surely be: Women! I can meet women here! On equal terms!
Or better than equal. In a primitive milieu where strength and prowess count most, like it or not, a mighty fighter who can protect a girl has above average appeal. And the first girl he encounters turns out to need above average protection.
I called the story Lances of Nengesdul and it was published by Cory and Collins in 1982. Rowena Cory and Paul Collins were partners in a Melbourne publishing outfit at the time, and Lances of Nengesdul only had a print run of two thousand. It’s never been reprinted – and this is a good time to admit that I was rather relieved about that when a few years had gone by. My writer’s “L” plates are showing clearly and conspicuously in that work. For quite a while I preferred to forget it and hope that other people would. For instance, it probably wasn’t nearly as ingenious as I thought it then to make my protagonist, instead of a huge powerful throwback to former times like Esau Cairn, a circus midget and trick rider. (The difference between a midget and a dwarf, at least in old-time carny lingo, being that a midget is perfectly proportioned while a dwarf is not. The former are much rarer. These days it’s not politically correct to use either word. All small people are just that – small people.)
Among the human beings of Barcui, four feet is average height. With everybody the same size, that becomes irrelevant. Except to the Earthly midget who suddenly finds himself a man of normal stature, and far more powerful and swift than the Barcui natives, due to Barcui’s lower surface gravity. In that regard Arpad Hurosci’s situation is like John Carter’s, not Esau Cairn’s.
His origins are Australian. He was born down under, the son of a Hungarian couple who emigrated after World War II, when it became clear that the then Soviet Union had collared most of eastern Europe (including their country) by way of war reparations. By emigrating in time, they missed the Stalinist regime’s savage repressions in Hungary in 1956. Arpad’s father worked on the Snowy Mountains Project between 1950 and 1963, with thousands of other migrants. Arpad himself was born in 1948 and transported to Barcui in 1971. If he’s still alive, of course, he’s sixty-three now. Maybe he’s recording the memoirs of a remarkable life at this point, like Harry Flashman.
His acquaintances on Barcui mispronounce his name Arvadh, and he accepts it rather than correct them all the time.
He was always fit and active. In the circus he played two roles; by day a midget in the sideshow, this taking place at the beginning of the ‘seventies. Midgets, fat men and bearded ladies were still on display for the rubes, in some places anyhow. At night he took the role of the “child” in a family of trick riders. He wasn’t really related to them except on the posters and for ballyhoo purposes, but he could race around the ring on the shoulders of two family members, father and daughter, below him, and somersault through blazing hoops before landing on the girl’s shoulders again, as lightly as a ten-year-old. At a distance, he passed.
This riding ability comes in very useful on Barcui. The planet doesn’t have horses, or any other earthly animals, but in general design the mammals are similar to earthly ones, and the birds too. Some of the birds are immense, the predators in particular. The king of them all, called a kesth, has a forty-foot wing span. And its body is bigger in proportion to the wing span than is the case with earthly birds. The kesth is so dreaded that Kuno, god of death in the most civilized of the local cultures, is depicted as riding one. A yellow one, yellow in that particular culture being considered the tint of death.
Oh, yes. On Barcui the gods and certain other supernatural creatures have a real existence. It’s not explained why, in Lances of Nengesdul, nor does the hero become a believer in the course of that story, but they do. The people of the various tribes and cities, though they don’t know it, create their gods out of their imagination and belief, and nourish their existence with the psychic food of faith, religion and sacrifice. With organized religion on the various levels from primitive to civilized. The people, and even the priesthoods, don’t know this. They regard themselves as having been created by their gods instead of vice versa. They believe it. The gods know it, but they don’t let their worshippers share the secret. After all, their existence depends on the unquestioning belief of the folk. If belief in a deity ends, that god perishes. It’s happened to many. On Barcui as on Earth, every land has buried a dozen religions and a hundred gods in the course of its long history.
The sky is jade green instead of azure. That wasn’t just a whim of mine. It’s exotic, but it’s also the way it would have to be; an atmosphere so much denser than ours would scatter longer light waves than blue. Philip Jose Farmer’s astounding “World of Tiers,” a series that began in 1965 with Maker of Universes, has a curious world with a green sky as its main background, too, but in that one it’s an artificial pocket universe created by a megalomaniac Lord as his private amusement park. The devices he controls can even tie gravity in pretzel-shaped knots on a planetary scale, making possible the otherwise incredible structure of the “World of Tiers.” Naturally he could make the sky of this private planet any color he liked. His arch-enemy’s sequence of booby-trapped worlds in the sequel (The Gates of Creation), includes one with crimson skies. Barcui, though, is a wholly natural planet (in its origins and evolution, that is). The jade-green sky there follows from the qualities of its air.
Barcui has all the inconveniences of a natural environment; the equivalents of flies, lice, ticks and various diseases. But fortunately for Arpad/Arvadh, evolution on Barcui was separate to that of Earth, even if closely parallel. Protein structures are similar, but not quite identical. He can digest the food with no trouble, and enjoy it, too; however, he’s not a suitable host for the Barcuivo parasites and disease bacteria, which don’t like his tissues. He can mate with the women but not father their children. (On good old Barsoom, John Carter could even husband an egg-laying princess and have children with her. Matters like that were simply ignored in Burroughs’ time, in fiction, through delicacy as much as ignorance. In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the monster’s creator produces a bride for his creature, and then, overwhelmed by horror at the thought of these two fathering a race of such beings, destroys the bride. Mary apparently never considered that a genius surgeon who could create a living creature from dead bodies would certainly be able, with ease, to see that the pair couldn’t reproduce.)
Arvadh finds a son and heir ready-born, though. The region of Barcui in which he finds himself at first is a wilderness area at the meeting point of three great mountain ranges forming a rough T. This tangled, confusing region is known in one language (there are many) as Osh Odregangu Baharn. The name translates as “Refuge of the Defeated.” For literally thousands of years the bits and rag-ends of various tribes, cultures and even species that have been driven away from more desirable real estate by stronger conquerors, have drifted into this vast wild tangle of crags and valleys. There most of them have clung to their language and way of life. The leg of this immense T has a fertile coastal plain and a gulf of the sea to the west of it, a high cold plateau inhabited by barbaric nomads to the east. Beyond the plateau again is a wide red desert. (Decent rainfall, as usual, mainly occurs on the seaward side of the mountains.)
The coastal plain supports ancient and highly civilized city-states with a rather pleasant culture. But mountain bandits come raiding in force, often, and sometimes even the nomads from the high frosty plain sweep through the mountains with sack and slaughter on their minds, though their steeds (bipedal striders with pads and claws on their feet, not hoofs) aren’t suited to traversing rocky hill country. Getting through the mountains in large numbers isn’t easy – a fact for which the civilized lowland peoples give thanks to their gods. Generally the nomads’ appearance in the lowlands is a sign of famine, disease or defeat at home – some uncommon disaster that’s forced them to uncommon efforts.
The mountain passes are accordingly guarded by crafty fighter lordlings who exact tribute for the safety they provide. Their strongholds vary in size and the quality of the garrisons. Biggest and most crucial of the passes is Nengesdul. When Arvadh arrives on the scene, it has been held for three generations by a family of exceptionally able (and ruthless) petty rulers. They have guarded the pass so effectively that the lowlanders have even stood the cost of building a great castle on the crag at the eastern end of Nengesdul Valley for them. The current lord of Nengesdul, Ocal bro Dadens, suave, handsome, young and lethal, has only inherited the pass and valley two local years before. He’s already proved that he’s fully equal to keeping it.
A lowland engineer and architect began the castle’s construction for bro Dadens’ father. He’s completed it since the old lord’s death. Ocal bro Dadens has rewarded him by having him blinded so that he’ll never do an equal job for anybody else, or effectively guide enemies against the castle. He wasn’t deterred by the fact that the architect’s pretty daughter, Fei, was his mistress up until that time, or that she’d just conceived his child. Belonging to an arrogantly race-proud and highly dynastic people, bro Dadens intended to have the child killed as soon as it was born in any case, if a boy. As the omens indicate it will be.
Oh, bro Dadens is an almost excessively nice fellow, all right.
Having no other recourse, Fei went to the shrine of the goddess Yalamei and made offerings and prayers. Yalamei is the goddess of fertility; she looks after mothers and new-born infants. Oddly, or maybe not so oddly, she’s considered to be the twin sister of Kuno, Bringer of Death.
Fei is convinced her offering and prayer is what caused Arvadh to be transported into her own world of Barcui, to interfere with bro Dadens’ cruel plans. Arvadh doesn’t believe it, but he has no better explanation, and he’s made an enemy of the young border baron during his first days in the mountains anyway. He met one of his mounted patrols, and fought back desperately when they tried to kill him. His first allies on Barcui are the intelligent but rather baboon-like orhings, and later a clan of independent hill bandits (human) who have steadily refused to submit to bro Dadens, or his father, or his grandfather. Ocal bro Dadens’ credo is that his family has come to stay and will rule Nengesdul in eight generations’ time, and then eight more, and another eight after that.
But he intends Arvadh, who has defied him and killed some of his riders, to die a lot sooner. Arvadh has also humiliated him by snatching Fei and her newborn infant from his clutches. Bro Dadens’ pride is now committed to getting them back. The lord of a frontier castle in a highly volatile region can’t afford to let himself be mocked.
This is probably a good point at which to explain that the castle’s architecture, like that of the lowland cities and even the crudest timber buildings in the mountains, is dictated by Barcui’s low surface gravity, only forty per cent of Earth’s. Buildings can be taller and more delicate, bridge arches longer, and structures in general of an almost elfin daintiness and grace beside those of what Heinlein called “our rumbling, heavy planet.” Even Nengesdul, a practical working castle that guards a crucial strategic pass, shows that wondrous soaring lightness in its lines, as does the bridge across the nearby gorge.
Still, this yarn was inspired by Almuric, and like Esau Cairn, Arvadh is alone in a hostile wilderness in the beginning. Like Esau, he encounters strange and ferocious beasts. In Almuric they are just referred to as “leopard-beasts” or “hyena-like.” I copied old Edgar Rice Burroughs and gave Barcui’s creatures names in the most widely spoken local language, as he called the ten-legged maned Barsoomian lions banths, and the herbivores thoats and zitidars.
One feline predator quite like a panther, but slimmer and lighter, with chocolate fur and a blue face, is the tirzho. (As I said, my “L” plates were showing in a number of ways. If I ever rewrite the story I’ll make the tirzho’s facial color and tail rings fawn, not blue.) Its normal prey is other animals, though it will attack a human being it catches alone, especially one encroaching on its territory. Early in Lances of Nengesdul, one attacks the hero for just that reason.
As deadly and a lot more vicious in its killing lust is a tree-dwelling ambusher like a three-foot black squirrel in shape. Its nature, though, is like a pine marten’s, or a weasel’s. It has sharp fangs and sharper retractile claws. It’s called an evit. It’ll attack and rend absolutely anything, even if it’s not hungry. Its ferocity verges on the insane.
Then there’s the monarch of all Barcui’s predators, the huge bird of prey called a kesth. It’s tawny in color. The females are larger and plain, the males swifter, with a green head and crest. Either could kill a rhino or – in Barcui’s gravity – lift and carry off a pony. In his first day on Barcui, getting the lie of the land from atop a crag, Arvadh sees one pass close overhead and has a considerable shock. Luckily for him it already has a kill in its talons. If so inclined, it could have grabbed him like an owl grabbing a mouse.
“I’d had a lesson in being careful,” as he says. “Barcui doesn’t give many of those free.”
In Almuric, Esau Cairn’s very first hostile encounter is with one of the apelike human men, the brutish – even by that wild planet’s standards – Logar the Bonecrusher. Logar insults him, Cairn punches him in retaliation, and in the fight that ensues, Logar almost kills the stranger. Would have, Cairn admits, except that Cairn is a trained boxer and Logar’s a fighter with no vestige of science.
I included a comparable fight scene between Arvadh and one of the baboon-like orhings. They’re a remnant of an ancient species on Barcui. Probably only a few thousand still survive, and only in the inaccessible (to most people) mountains of Osh Odregangu Baharn. In general they’re quite likeable. But the chief of one band is a freak, huge and powerful beyond the norm, bigger than Arvadh in fact. He’s also subject to unpredictable fits of berserk rage. While they last his strength and ferocity are even greater than those of his normal state. The insensate wrath makes him immune to pain. Other members of his band would be glad to get rid of him, as he’s killed a couple in these unreasoning fits, and even the women and kids aren’t safe when he goes roaring crazy. But nobody’s been equal to the task of tossing him out.
The band of orhings he befriends and lives among for months live on the surface, hunters and gatherers, in the open air and sun. There are others, though. One branch of this hunted and vanishing race has taken to troglodyte living for many generations. They inhabit a huge series of deep limestone caverns dimly lit by swarms of foot-long fireflies. Vast numbers of nocturnal birds nest in these caverns by day, and their guano has formed deep masses of fertile soil in which edible fungi grow lavishly. Then there are fish in underground streams. The usual intricate formations of limestone caves give the whole place an eerie beauty, as Arvadh discovers when he and his friends venture down there to rescue some orhing females the troglodytes have kidnapped. Living underground has caused them to become pallid and white-haired, with huge lemur-like nocturnally adapted eyes. The surface orhings are firmly convinced they are ghosts of the dead. Nevertheless, they are game to oppose even ghosts to rescue the women, particularly with Arvadh helping.
The troglodyte orhings Arvadh must outwit and failing that, battle, make another parallel with creatures REH’s hero meets on Almuric. He has to rescue Altha from them after they have both escaped from the bat-winged Yagas. His description follows:
The bodies were like those of deformed apes, covered with sparse dirty white fur. Their heads were doglike, with small close-set ears. But their eyes were those of serpents–the same venomous steady lidless stare.
Of all the forms of life I had encountered on that strange planet, none filled me with as much loathing as these dwarfish monstrosities. I backed away from the mangled heap on the earth, as a nauseous flood poured through the rift in the wall.
The effect of those vermin emerging from that broken wall was almost intolerably sickening; the suggestion was that of maggots squirming out of a cracked and bleached skull.
The orhings who live in the limestone caverns aren’t that attractive either.
Well, the parallels between Barcui and Almuric are pretty obvious. I was hoping to write a series set on the planet of green skies, back in 1980. Then came the two Cormac Mac Art novels Andrew Offutt did with me, and after that the Bard series. I never did get back to Barcui, and after a while I came to consider that a good thing, really. Even though I wonder now and then how the confrontations between Arvadh and bro Dadens would have gone, and how he’d have fared among the ancient, civilized city-states of the lowlands, and whether he’d ever have crossed the broad sea-gulf to the peninsula on the western side, with its strange peoples and their weird customs …
If I ever rework Lances of Nengesdul, I’d certainly dedicate it to REH. It isn’t likely, though. For one thing sword-and-planet seems to have gone right out of style since the seventies. Nobody with any taste seems to want to touch it since the “Gor” series.