Nor were his adversaries always men. One day Uldin told Conan, "You're to fight a Hyperborean tonight."
"What manner of folk are they?" asked Conan, who had heard vaguely that Hyperborea was a land lying east of Asgard. "I saw one once when we were both slaves of the Wheel; but we had no speech in common."
"A tall, lean, light-haired people, for the most part," said the trainer. "Dangerous foes, reputed to be wizards and sorcerers."
On this occasion, Conan and his antagonist were sent into the Pit in loincloths and sandals, with short swords in their hands and bucklers on their left arms.
Conan was amazed to discover that he faced a woman. She was slim and long-legged, and almost the height of Conan himself, who, now full-grown, towered a head above even the tall Vanir and Aesir. The woman's hair, the color of moonbeams, was woven into a thick braid, and her small breasts were bare. Althrough her supple body exuded an aura of sensuality, her green eyes were deathly cold. From the way she grasped her weapon, Conan sensed that she was well-practiced in her art.
The whistle blew, and the fight was on. The combatants circled warily, then engaged. Steel rang on steel and thudded against the wood and leather of the shields, the clatter resounding above the shouts of the spectators. Despite the sinewy strength in the warrior-woman's arms, Conan's musculature, toughened at the Wheel and hardened in the Pit, was decisive. For all her skill, and speed, and subtlety, Conan stolidly batted her sword aside time after time.
A heavy blow knocked the sword from the woman's hand. From the benches above rose a yell of "Drep! Kill!" For an instant, the woman presented a wide opening, standing immobile as if reconciled to death.
Conan hesitated. Among the compelling customs of the Cimmerians, drilled into the boy Conan, was that a man's foremost duty was to protect the women and children of the tribe. Although Cimmerians might cheerfully ambush and murder the men of another clan with whom they were at feud, deliberately to slay a woman who had done no crime was an unheard-of brutality.
Conan's hesitation lasted no longer than two heartbeats. Then the Hyperborean woman sprang back, retrieved her fallen sword, and rushed upon Conan with renewed fury. When one of her blows gashed his forehead and blood dripped into his eyes, he was hard put to defend himself.
At last, fatigue slowed the warrior-woman's attacks. Striking alternately with sword and shield, Conan beat her back against the wall of the pit. A powerful backhand stroke split her shield and plowed into her side. As blood gushed forth, staining her white flesh, the young woman cried out and slumped to the rough dirt floor, pressing her hand against the gaping wound, as if to hold back her entrails.
Conan stepped back and glanced up. Toghrul caught his eye, pointed, and made a chopping motion with one blunt-fingered hand. When Conan still hesitated, the Pitmaster repeated the unequivocal gesture with greater emphasis.
The young barbarian bent over the crumpled woman, who seemed to have lost consciousness. His sword swung up and fell in a chopping blow. Still bent, he thrust the point of his sword into the earth, grasped the blonde braid, and raised the severed head for the enjoyment of the Aesir chieftains. The crowd roared its satisfaction.
"At that moment," the king related to me, "I hated myself. Never have I told this tale before, for the deed is one of the few of which I am ashamed. True, the woman was dying, and the death I dealt her was perhaps more merciful than letting her die slowly; but still, the deed was vile and cowardly to a Cimmerian. Then I bethought me of Toghrul, who had made me thus to despise myself. All my hatred focused on him, and I swore that one day I would repay him for my shame."