The Devil in Iron

May 29, 2015

When I first read the original Conan the Barbarian stories, my favorite was “The Devil in Iron.”  It seems strange that I liked the tale so much at the time.  I reread it recently, after happening on a comment on the Web that suggested that it was one of Howard’s weakest Conan stories.  I don’t always agree with the conventional wisdom about such things.  (For example, while may readers consider “The People of the Black Circle” to be one of the best Conan stories, it is my least favorite of Howard’s original efforts.)

But I read “The Devil in Iron” again, and I agree.  It’s not a good story.  The plot requires two remarkable coincidences just to make sense.  Yet it’s no mystery why I particularly liked the story when I first read it.

There were two reasons, actually.  The first reason was that I like the cover art on the edition of Conan the Wanderer that I first read it in.

The Devil in Iron

I not usually much of a fan of Boris Vallejo, but I find this picture really evocative.  It’s not Conan I’m looking at here; the weird musculature of his back and the odd angle at which he’s holding his knife are rather off-putting, actually.  However, the scenery and especially the larger figure of Khosatral Khel are very creepy.  I can’t quite look away from that face.

The second reason I liked the story was in Howard’s prose itself.  This passage is just very powerful:

The tongue was Nemedian, but the voice was not human. There was a terrifying resonance about it, like a bell tolling at midnight.

“There was no life in the Abyss, save that which was incorporated in me,” it tolled. “Nor was there light, nor motion, nor any sound. Only the urge behind and beyond life guided and impelled me on my upward journey, blind, insensate, inexorable. Through ages upon ages, and the changeless strata of darkness I climbed—”

I like the idea that the demon-god was something entirely different before he emerged in this world.  It had to work its way up, through the physical and metaphysical bedrock, before it could take on a man-like body of impregnable iron.  I also like notion that its voice sounds like the tolling of a bell, because that enhances the feeling the story provides of Khosatral Khel’s metallic character.  When Conan inevitably defeats the monster, its corpse turns back into whatever it was before by the time it hits the ground.  It never says what Khosatral Khel’s true form was, but I believe it when the story says that it was horrible.

All in all, “The Devil in Iron” is not a particularly good story.  But it still has a few passages that really move me, and I wonder if other readers will still react the same way.

 

So Mrissa began to talk.  Yarec closed his eyes (which had been looking very red and tired) but Mrissa could tell that he was not asleep.  Whenever she said something unexpected, he would pop one eye open, and his expression made it clear that he was waiting for her to elaborate.  Sometimes, he broke in with questions—simple ones, mostly—and Mrissa would pause her rambling narrative to answer.

Born down on the beach of the great gulf, Ris Roonbeck had grown up with sand between her toes.  Once, the warm water between the Mississippian Delta and the Yucatan had been swarming with blue shrimp, and the surface had been dotted with little trawlers.  There were still manmade pens in clusters along the shore, for raising fish and invertebrates, but wild-caught seafood was gone.  Far from shore, the only vessels were slow-moving freighters and mobile drilling platforms.  There was simply too much petroleum trapped in pockets beneath the seafloor for drilling in the gulf to be abandoned completely.

However, many oil fields had been shut down, or bombed into oblivion.  Facilities for extracting and storing vast quantities of inflammable material made easy targets in conflict zones.  A single bomb, whether dropped from an aircraft or planted by a suicidal commando, could set an entire well ablaze.  The resulting fire might last for weeks, churning out black billows of smoke.  On one beautiful clear morning, Mrissa had looked out toward the water, and seen yet another plume of destruction rising from an offshore platform; and then she had known that she had to leave.

“Was that during the Second Summer War?” Yarec asked.

“That’s right,” Mrissa said.  “Most of the fighting was farther east, but we got a bit of it too.”

Before she left home, her father had taken her for a walk.  They strolled past the vast industrial shrimp pens, then the processing plant.  Behind the high barbed fence were heaped the prawns’ empty shells, waiting to be ground up to make soil additives.

“You know, Ris,” her father said, “as long as we’re here, you can always come back.”

“I know, Pop,” she said.

“Just be careful,” he said.  “And keep in touch.  Call or send a message.”  He ruffled his fringe of thinning hair.  “You mother will want to hear how you’re doing.  She’ll worry if she doesn’t hear from her daughter.”

When she was a little girl, she would have comforted her father by squeezing his hand.  But that was not possible any more.  It would have aggravated his arthritis, and even apart from that, Mrissa did not think it felt right.

They kept walking, chatting intermittently about matters that were quickly forgotten.  They circled back around to the family bungalow, ate supper, and headed to bed early.  The next morning, Mrissa got on a bus headed northeastward, toward a job an acquaintance had found for her as a lookout at a small boat building facility.  From there, she rose through her chosen profession.  Mostly she worked on very small operations, but there were a few highlights scattered through her record.

After a stint on the eastern seaboard, she had spent most of her career along the Pacific coast of North America.  To get there, she had crept her way west, from job to job, skirting the ugly arid wasteland at the core of the continent.  The land there was almost empty of humans.  When the rainfall had begun to fail, they had mined the ground for all the water it still bore.  Then when that was exhausted, they had abandoned their farms, leaving the ground vegetated only with sport varieties of wheat that managed to survive in spite of the desert conditions.

Eventually, her work brought her to the vicinity of Sankirk.  It had seemed an ordinary job, until after she and Yarec had blown up the chemical weapons plant.

The higher he rose, the smoother and better maintained the road became. The gravel grew finer, and the grade became more uniform. Yarec had the odd feeling that by moving farther away from the main human habitation, he was moving into territory that was less wild and better controlled. Even the trees, although they were becoming much more numerous, looked tidier up among the hills. Down by the coast, the vegetation had been scraggly and scattered, battered by ocean gales and dried out by the sun; but the trees beside the road were planted in orderly rows, rising strong and proud, with broad green foliage and smooth gray-brown bark.

Eventually, the road led him to a narrow valley. There, Yarec stepped off the road and scrambled up the left slope of the defile. The uneven slope would afford much better cover as he approached his destination.

At the end of the valley, high up between two steep shoulders of stone, stood a wall. It rose at least ten meters, and along the top were tiny black spines, each less than a meter tall, spaced out at regular intervals. According to the villagers, this was the entrance to the mining compound, but there was no sign of a gate. The only break in the wall’s deep gray surface was a rectangular drainage pipe, capped with a sheet of dense wire mesh. From his hidden vantage point, Yarec could see the duct was clotted up with brown and green plant growth, fed by the trickling stream that the pipe disgorged out into the valley. It must have been a small river in an earlier season, but now the watercourse was little more than a dull slither of mud running down the center of the valley.

For a while, Yarec watched the wall with his binoculars, but there were no signs of human activity. The only movements Yarec saw were from hill grasses whipping in the wind and occasional dragonflies hunting after mates and prey. Yet he felt certain that the facility was not abandoned. The construction was too recent and too well kept, and there were no signs that anyone had had to make a hurried exit. There was something else too, although he could not quite put his finger on it. One of Yarec’s other senses had noticed something—perhaps the sound of distant machinery or the acrid smell of a motor running. Whatever it was, it must have been just at the threshold of detectability—too weak and intermittent to be noticed consciously, but still enough to register as intuition.

Since nothing was happening, Yarec decided to get a little closer. He slid around the sand-dusted outcropping over which he had been peering and started edging up toward the base of the wall. As much as he could, Yarec kept to the steepest slopes, which were roughly scattered with trees. He stayed low to the ground, ducking from the shelter of one trunk to the next, while trying to keep his balance among the dark, sharp rocks. For a while, he managed. But the slope was too steep, and he finally lost his footing. For a moment, he teetered. Then he recovered his footing, but he kicked a fist-sized rock toward the bottom of the valley. It bounced down, with a clack, clack, clack.

There was a answering racket of machine gun fire, tearing up the ground where the stone had landed. The firing must have been automated. A human gunman would not have wasted so many rounds on an innocuous chunk of rock; nor would Yarec’s actual poorly concealed position have evaded detection. However, Yarec knew it would only be a short time before a real human did become involved.

But as soon as one did, the gunfire stopped. A face appeared atop the wall, followed by a brief stream of inaudible mumbling, which Yarec presumed to be mostly expletives. Then the voice reached him much more clearly: “Oh, come on up! It’s safe now.” The voice sounded more worn than he remembered it—as if she was trying to shout through the kind of hoarseness that came from working too long in hot, dry air. Yet it was still obviously the voice he knew.

He started down toward the gate again, shading his eyes from the sun as he tried to get a better view of the figure atop the wall. Her reddish hair was pulled back, except for one tress that had dislodged itself and now trailed down wispily from her right temple. Her forehead and nose looked rather sunburned, and Yarec remembered that she too was a rather recent arrival in this climate.

“Come on! Hurry up!” Mrissa shouted. “I want to hear what the hell you’re doing here!”

An invisible door opened in the gigantic wall, and he passed through, into the foregate of the mining complex. The buildings on the other side were simple but completely modern, and it felt as if he had stepped suddenly back into the present. By the time he made it inside, Ris had come down to greet him. Yarec saw a few other workers too, servicing equipment or just moving here and there. Mrissa’s red hair was unique among their dark, straight locks. They had deep complexions, but they did not really look like any of the locals Yarec had seen. Most of these miners looked like they had come from somewhere farther north, like the Yucatan.

Ris shouted out (to whom Yarec was not quite sure) that her husband had just arrived, and she was taking the rest of the day off work. If anybody really, really needed her, she would be in her room. As they entered the dormitory building, a man slithered up out of the shadows. He scanned the identification chip that they showed him, then waved Linc Dan Fuller through.

“I figured you would come looking for me eventually,” Mrissa told Yarec as they approached her quarters. Her door was marked with her name and the word “SECURITY,” written on two strips of masking tape covering over the identity of the previous occupant. Through the door, she had one small room, with a wardrobe, a mirror, and a sink. The single metal chair was piled high with dirty clothes. That left nowhere to sit except on her narrow foam cot, but she did not seem to mind sharing the space with him.

“Yeah, so what are you doing here, all of a sudden?” Mrissa asked, as soon as their bottoms were resting side by side on the pallet.

“I heard you were headed this way,” Yarec said. He fumbled with the cuff of his pants, which was stained with something gray.

“But why now?” she pressed.

Yarec, having finally located Ris, was not quite sure where to begin his explanation. He tried out a few sentences in his mind, but none of them sounded adequate.

Mrissa, not waiting for him to formulate a response went on: “I can see why you didn’t acknowledge me back at Fort Westerly, although you might have hurt my feelings by turning down my offer to spend the night.” Although she did not actually look hurt, Yarec thought. “You’re always a complete professional on a job,” she said. “You wouldn’t want to let on you knew me. It might spoil the mission.” Yarec started shaking his head, but Mrissa added, “You’re lucky I was there though. I made sure you were able to make it out.”

“You?” Yarec murmured, but it made sense. The soldiers’ inept response during his escape from Maldanko’s blockhouse naturally pointed to his having an ally on the inside.

That was a topic for later, though. “Sorry it took me so long,” Yarec said, sheepishly trying to bring the conversation back around. “I can explain why, but it’s complicated.”

“Everything’s complicated, isn’t it? But I figured you would show up on my doorstep sooner or later,” Mrissa said. “Once you get something in your head, you really stick with it. That’s one of the things that makes you such an effective agent. You just do not give up.” She snapped her fingers, then went on: “Our married life may not have lasted very long, but I learned to read you like a large-print poster file. I knew that, whatever the reason was that you had not come to find me immediately, you would decide sooner or later that you couldn’t keep ignoring your marital obligations.”

Mrissa laughed, amused by the notion. “For a while, I thought you were dead,” she said, “but eventually word got around that you were still kicking. I’m sure you were busy, but I am surprised it took you so long to come looking for me.”

“I would have, I swear,” Yarec said, realizing how defensive he must sound. “I was missing a whole big chunk of my memories. I was missing all of my memories of you.”

“Seriously?” Mrissa sounded suddenly furious, although, Yarec knew, not directly at him. “Your damn body transfers! Sooner or later, if one them doesn’t just kill you outright, it’ll mess you up beyond repair.”

“I try not to dwell too much on the risks,” Yarec said slowly.

“You may not think about them, but I do.” Mrissa pivoted around to face directly toward him. “Whenever you’re around, Yarec, you get me worried sick!”

“Sorry, Ris. I’m sorry.” Yarec made his exaggeratedly contrite face, but Mrissa’s expression showed no sign that she was finding it amusing this time. “Since I remembered about you… and me—about us—I’ve… uh… uh… tried to be more careful, because I know there’s someone else out there worrying about me.”

“So now you… what?” Mrissa said. “I am so confused.”

“Oh, believe me. I sympathize,” Yarec told her. “I think seeing you at Station Westerly jogged my memory, and it came back—most of it, I guess—”; he added more softly, “—when I had my next consciousness transfer,” and Mrissa did not look pleased about the last part. “There was a huge hole in my past. There was a huge hole in me, because you were missing, Ris.” He wanted to put his arms around his darling and kiss her, and he wondered whether she felt the same way.

“So what are you saying, exactly?” Mrissa asked. “You mean you forgot you ever met me?”

“Pretty much,” Yarec assured her. “That’s pretty much it.” He sighed and went on, “You looked kind of familiar when I saw you again. My mind was trying to tell me that I ought to recognize you; and when I finally did, I pretty much dropped everything to try and find you. This was the first really solid lead, and I’m so glad that… uh—”

“‘So glad’ that what, sweetie?” she asked in her familiar coyly mocking tone.

“Well, I’m so glad you didn’t shoot me on sight. You know: a woman spurned and that sort of thing.” He cocked his head to the left. “Although your defenses would have shot me on sight, you know.”

“Sorry about that. We’re mining pitchblende here, and the owners are a little paranoid about being attacked. One of the miners got into a nasty bar fight down in town a couple days ago. He had his gut all slashed up with a broken bottle. Since then, this whole place has been on lockdown, and the defenses were cranked up all the way.”

“The guy who was in the fight—is he okay?” Yarec asked.

“They say he’ll heal,” Mrissa said. She looked Yarec over. He was certainly not looking his best. “What about you? Are you alright, right now?”

“Yeah, I haven’t got anything worse than a few bruises,” Yarec said. Having been reminded of it, he reached down to rub a sore spot on his calf. “I’m just tired.”

“Yeah, me too,” Mrissa said. She cleared her throat twice, then said softly, “Yarec?”

“Yes, Ris?”

“I’m glad you came back,” Mrissa said, her eyes getting dewy, “and since you’re here, I want you to stay. You can’t go off and get yourself lost again. I can’t take it.” Yarec reached to pat her arm, but she slapped it away. “You can’t do this to me again.”

“I won’t. I’m not going anywhere without you,” Yarec said, trying to read her downcast eyes. “I’ll find something to do around here, until you’re done with this job.”

“Oh, hell no!” Mrissa said. “I am not sticking around here a second longer than I have to. Things were pretty rough after my last job. Thanks for that, by the way,” she said sarcastically. The bite of the irony was diminished, however, when she kicked off her shoes and slid her feet up onto the bed. With a groan of ahh, she laid back and motioned for Yarec to lie down beside her, in the narrow strip between her body and the wall. Yarec lowered his head against the perfectly rectangular viscofoam pillow, and Ris rolled over to face him, her own forehead resting lightly against Yarec’s chest.

“We were getting shelled from offshore,” she said. “It was a bitch getting away. I wish I could have just escaped with you. Because I was on the run—hiding out—for days. I’m probably lucky I didn’t get taken by slavers. When I got to a town, I just took the first work I could find—anything to get me far away.”

“What were you doing out at Fort Westerly, anyway?” Mrissa asked.

Yarec could not remember whether there were any exceptions to the security regulations for privileged conversations between husband and wife. However, at the moment he did not really care. He explained, “Just taking out the colonel, plus a little espionage if I got the chance.”

“He was a nasty piece of work,” Mrissa assured him. “Had you ever crossed paths with him before?”

“Nah,” Yarec said, “but I think he was involved in the Long Beach massacre, so I had some personal stake in things.”

“Hmm,” Mrissa mumbled. She propped herself up again and looked down at Yarec. “Do you have a lot of personal enemies you’re still going after, Yarec?”

“I don’t know,” he sighed. She rested her curls back against his shoulder. “I kind of stopped keeping track. Mostly they just tell me who the bad guys are, and I deal with them.”

Mrissa squeezed Yarec’s hand between hers. “There’s a lot of bad guys,” she said. “Believe me. I know. And I know what happened to your family. You told me. I’m sorry.”

He sighed again. “You’re my family now, Ris.” She gave his palm an extra tight squeeze. “That’s why. That’s why I had to find you.”

“One little, messed up family,” Ris said quietly. Yarec could feel that she was still crying.

He tried to segue away to a slightly less poignant topic. “When I was trying to find you, I realized there was so much I didn’t know about you. I’m not sure how much of it I’d forgotten and how much you’d just never told me.”

“I can’t keep introducing myself to you over and over again,” Mrissa said.

“Sorry,” Yarec said. “You won’t have to any more.”

“I’d better not,” Mrissa said firmly. She released his hand. “So what do you want to know? We’ve got some time.”

“I don’t know,” he said. “Even the things I do remember are a blur. Just tell me about yourself. I want to hear your voice. You do have a beautiful voice.”