Saturday, February 4, 2023

Conan - A Witch Shall Be Born

“A Witch Shall Be Born” was published in the December, 1934 issue of Weird Tales. This Conan story, authored by Robert E. Howard, was written on a tight, fast-paced schedule that prior summer. It was published again in Avon Fantasy Reader #10 in 1949,  and was later grammatically edited by L. Sprague de Camp for Conan the Barbarian (Gnome Press) in 1954 and Conan the Freebooter (Lancer) in 1968. While not a terrific Conan story, it does feature one of the most iconic scenes in the character's long history.

Khauran's Queen Taramis becomes awake inside her chamber and finds an image of her twin-sister Salome. This is seemingly impossible because Salome died as a baby. However, Salome advises Taramis that she is indeed alive and well because she was cursed at birth with a crescent shaped birthmark on her chest. In a brief backstory, it is explained that Taramis and Salome both come from a lineage of witches. When Salome was born, she was placed in the desert to die a cruel death by the elements. But, a magician named Khitai found the baby and nursed her back to health while teaching her the fine art of sorcery. 

As a way to destroy her rival sister, Salome teams with a mercenary named Constantius to allow his military to infiltrate Khauran. Conan, who just happens to be the Captain of Taramis' Royal Guard, catches on to the plot. He fights against the infiltration, but is overcome by too many blades. In one of the most iconic, visually descriptive scenes in the Conan mythos, the titular hero is crucified on a large wooden X. This scene was used in the Conan the Barbarian film as a remnant of Oliver Stone's original screenplay based on this story. After Conan's removal, Salome throws Taramis in the dungeon and carries on ruling Khauran for seven months as the fake Queen. 

Conan is pulled from the clutches of a cruel death by a brutal raider named Olgerd Vladislav. Among Vladislav's vast army of raiders, Conan rises to power and eventually usurps Vladislav as the group's new leader. In a bid for revenge against his original tormentors, Conan leads his men back to Khauran to face Constantius, Salome and a dungeon monstrosity. 

Overall, the build-up and momentum to have Conan rescue Taramis and fight the monster is quickly dismissed at the story's end. Unfortunately, Conan is replaced by a different hero, lending a dose of disappointment to what is an average story at best. While this is surely a Conan story, it doesn't feature the hero in a majority of the narrative. In fact, a good portion of the story is simply a letter explaining Khauran's downfall under Salome's rule. 

If you are a Conan enthusiast, then the story is essential to a future work by de Camp. In “The Flame Knife”, Olgerd Vladislav returns for revenge against Conan as a follow-up to the events in this story. “The Flame Knife” is featured in 1968's Conan the Wanderer (Lancer) and became its own novel, Conan: The Flame Knife, in 1981.

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