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Literature / A Witch Shall Be Born

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"You know how to reach the dungeons from the palace, Constantius?" said the witch-girl. "Good. Take this spitfire and lock her into the strongest cell. The jailers are all sound in drugged sleep. I saw to that. Send a man to cut their throats before they can awaken. None must ever know what has occurred tonight. Thenceforward I am Taramis, and Taramis is a nameless prisoner in an unknown dungeon."

"A Witch Shall Be Born" is a Conan the Barbarian story written by Robert E. Howard. First published in December, 1934.

Queen Taramis is woken in the middle of the night by a woman looking just like her, who reveals that she is Salome, Taramis' twin, and the born witch who stems from the curse on the royal family. She has let in an unscrupulous mercenary captain Constantius, and with his aid, seized the city and exiled Taramis to the dungeon.

Conan, the captain of her guard, is crucified by Constantius and rescued by wandering bandits. Meanwhile, Valerius, another soldier, hid despite his injuries, and in due course discovered the truth of why the queen had suddenly taken to the depths of evil. When Conan, after taking control of the bandits, stages an attacks, Valerius leads a rescue party and brings out the queen. In desperation, Salome unleashes a monster upon the city, but Conan and his forces vanquish it and kill Salome. Constantius is then crucified by Conan as the story ends.


The crucifixion scene was later used as inspiration for a similar scene in the film.

Tropes used in this story

  • After Action Patch Up: Valerius and Ivga. Both the info-dumping and the UST reasons.
  • Batman Gambit: Conan builds fake siege engines to trick Constantius into leading his army outside of the city (the rationale being that without siege engines, Conan's army would starve in the desert while trying to starve out the city's defenders), allowing Conan to ambush and destroy the mercenary army.
  • Bedouin Rescue Service: Subverted; the nomads only rescue Conan because they admire his toughness and feel he'll make a useful addition to their ranks. They've no problem leaving Constantius to his fate.
  • Big Damn Heroes: Conan and his horsemen arrive just in time to save Valerius and Taramis from the toad-like monster summoned by Salome.
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  • Brain Fever: Valerius during the After Action Patchup, to give him an excuse to babble.
  • Circling Vultures: Conan is crucified out in the desert, and no guard is placed on him because they'll scare off the vultures, and Constantius wants them to feast on Conan before he dies (as in the movie, Conan kills a vulture who tries feasting on him too early). Some passing desert nomads admire his toughness and rescue him, figuring he'll be a useful addition to their ranks. The story ends with Conan (now chief of the nomad tribe) leaving Constantius to the same fate, knowing the city-raised sellsword won't last nearly as long as he would and no-one's coming to save him.
  • Cold-Blooded Torture: Used freely on Taramis.
  • Crucified Hero Shot: Conan's crucifixion (including nails), which inspired a similar scene in the first Conan movie.
  • Crystal Ball: Salome scorns using it for study, but does use it for communication, sending a crystal ball with the army she's sent to crush Conan. The man at the other end lives long enough to deliver exposition on how they've been Lured into a Trap before someone cuts him down.
  • Curse: Why the witch is born; the first of the royal bloodline mated with a Humanoid Abomination.
  • Decadent Court: What Salome creates.
  • Decoy Protagonist: Conan is not the main character here. Valerius is.
  • Distressed Dude: Conan is crucified.
  • The Dragon: Constantius to Salome, specifically chosen for his lack of morals. While she is the one with the plans, and a witch, it is Constantius' military might that keeps them in power.
  • Eldritch Abomination: Salome summoned a toad-like demon from the netherworld, to whom she feeds prisoners. Upon her death, it frees himself from his room and tries to eat Taramis and Valerius, but is killed by a shower of arrows from Conan's soldiers.
  • Evil Twin: Salome is Taramis's twin sister, and while Taramis is a just and benevolent ruler beloved by her people, Salome is a ruthless and thoroughly evil witch who plunges Khauran into a reign of terror.
  • Eye of Newt: Salome doesn't like magic as such, and scorns gathering such things when she can just go for power.
  • Faint in Shock: Tamaris faints at the height of her rescue. After months of Cold-Blooded Torture and isolation, having your sister try to feed you to a monster and and then finding yourself in the middle of a battle do make a good excuse.
  • Fake King: Salome takes Taramis' place as queen and throws her in the dungeon to torment her.
  • God Save Us from the Queen!: Salome rules Khauran for seven months after taking her sister's place as queen. In that time, the people are made to suffer horribly. The ladies of the court are forced into orgies with Constantius's mercenaries; rich and poor alike are taxed to the breaking point; many of the city's men are sold into slavery; and hundreds of people are killed in Human Sacrifice, either dying under Salome's own knife or being fed to her pet monster.
  • The High Queen: Taramis, who is beloved by her people for being a kind, virtuous, and benevolent ruler.
  • Hot Witch: Salome.
  • Humanoid Abomination: The Witches of Khauran; they are born from some ancient curse that bedevils the royal family, marked by a red crescent-moon shape on their chests. Always female, they have an instinctive knack for foul sorcery and dark rites, compounded by a total Lack of Empathy and intense hedonistic urges. This is why the royal family kills the Witches at birth, for if one were to live, she would be compelled to usurp control of Khauran and would subsequently ruin it in pursuit of her own endless desires for selfish indulgence and perverse pleasures.
  • Human Sacrifice: Part of the Religion of Evil with Salome feeding people to her giant toad-monster.
  • Klingon Promotion: How Conan takes the control of the tribe.
  • Man in the Iron Mask: Now that she's in full control of the kingdom, one of her mercenaries urges Salome to execute her sister and rule in her own name. She refuses because she enjoys tormenting Taramis, only deciding to kill her as a final act of spite on realising Conan is winning, by which time Valerius is in the process of freeing her.
  • Meaningful Name: All witch women from the cursed bloodline are given the name Salome, and it's implied that a future Salome is the same one that caused the death of John The Baptist (sure enough, this Salome also likes presenting people with severed heads).
  • Out of Focus: Conan himself is only the protagonist in Chapters 2 and 4 and shows up near the end of the sixth and final chapter to save the day. Most of his accomplishments (his raids and his victory against Constantius) occur offscreen and are told by other characters.
  • Pay Evil unto Evil: At the end of the story, Conan gives Constantius a taste of his own medicine by having him crucified like Constantius did to him. Constantius is nowhere near as enduring of the pain as Conan is.
  • Red Right Hand: The birthmark which identifies Salome as a witch, a red crescent moon on her chest.
  • Rescue Arc: Valerius's plan as soon as he learns she is a prisoner.
  • Villain Opening Scene: With Salome's seizure of her sister.
  • Wham Line: Conan wants to lead the Zuagir to liberate Khauran from Constantius. Olgerd argues that Constantius's mercenaries are too strong for them to defeat.
    "Not if there were three thousand desperate Hyborian horsemen fighting in a solid wedge such as I could teach them," answered Conan.
    "And where would you secure three thousand Hyborians?" asked Olgerd with vast sarcasm. "Will you conjure them out of the air?"
    "I have them," answered the Cimmerian imperturbably. "Three thousand men of Khauran camp at the oasis of Akrel awaiting my orders."
    "What?" Olgerd glared like a startled wolf.