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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.

A Witch Shall be Tropes:

  • 0% Approval Rating: Salome is utterly hated for brutalizing and despoiling her subjects, turning her court into the most debauched and depraved place in the world.
  • 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.
  • Brain Fever: Valerius during the After Action Patchup, to give him an excuse to babble.
  • The Caligula: Salome. Her sole interest in ruling Khauran is to abuse its people to feed her appetite for debauchery and depravity.
  • Casual Crucifixion: The most famous scene in this story (which also inspired the scene in the 1982 film) sees Conan crucified in the desert, nailed to a cross by his hands and feet. When the desert nomads find him after he's already been hanging for hours in the hot sun the nomad chief, declaring "If he's worthy to ride with me he'll survive," has his men chop the cross down like a tree. Then after Conan somehow survives the fall and they've pulled the nails out (the one on his hands as Conan snatches the pincer and takes care of those on his feet himself), they immediately make him get on a horse and ride the ten miles back to their camp. Conan next appears in the story seven months later, fully recovered with no permanent injuries, just a few scars.
  • 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. After seven months, Taramis believes there's nothing more Salome can do to harm her, so Salome moves on to psychological torture.
  • 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.
  • Damsel in Distress: Taramis, locked all but forgotten in the deepest level of the dungeon, her only visitors Salome and the few others who know the secret, and they only visit to torture her.
  • Decadent Court: What Salome makes of Khauran, stunning and demoralizing the populace.
  • Decoy Protagonist: Conan is not the main character here. Valerius is.
  • Distressed Dude: Conan is crucified and must be rescued.
  • 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 Laugh: Salome truly enjoys being utterly evil, referring to her acts of unspeakable depravity as "comedies" and laughing at what she does and plans to do.
  • Evil Sorcerer: Salome, the titular witch. She's been trained in sorcery but told she doesn't have the patience to learn the deeper mysteries. She doesn't care, her sorcery is just another tool she can use to abuse people for her own amusement.
  • 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.
  • Genuine Human Hide: Salome wants a dress made of this, so gives Constantius permission for his men to flay alive as many captives as they want after they defeat Conan's host. Just one flaw with that plan...
  • 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 is as lovely as her beautiful twin sister, but utterly evil.
  • 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.
  • Kick Them While They Are Down: The story starts with Salome taking down Taramis, and Salome keeps kicking her until the climax.
  • Klingon Promotion: Subverted. He did the legwork first, ensuring the tribe would follow him anyway, he only fought the existing leader because he pressed the issue; Conan was already in charge in all but name. The fallen leader lives and is allowed to flee.
  • Let's Get Dangerous!: Valerius spends most of the story lamenting the fall of the kingdom and posing as a deaf beggar to get the information he needs. Then comes the final chapter where he cuts Salome's goon to pieces and run her trhough with her sword to asunder her heart.
  • 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 is a red crescent moon on her chest.
  • Rescue Arc: Valerius's plan as soon as he learns she is a prisoner.
  • Religion of Evil: Salome institutes one, tearing down the icons of Ishtar in the temple and replacing them with horrible figurines of long-dead evil gods.
  • Rightful King Returns: Taramis, once she's rescued by Valerius and Conan (mostly Valerius).
  • Scream Discretion Shot: The end of the opening scene, where Salome hands off her sister to Constantius to be raped.
  • Sex Slave: One of the many terrible things Salome inflicts on her subjects is sexual slavery.
  • Ungrateful Bastard: Olgerd rescues Conan from a lingering death on the cross, only for Conan to wrest the support of his followers away from him. Conan spares his life however, and points out that Olgerd only rescued him in the first place because he knew Conan would be useful.
  • Universally Beloved Leader: Taramis is beloved by her people for her justice, wisdom, mercy, and purity.
  • The Usurper: Salome, who steals the throne by assuming the identity of the rightful Queen. It's easy when you're the Queen's Evil Twin.
  • 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.
  • Would Hit a Girl: Conan doesn't seriously harm women in Howard's stories and focuses more on Constantius. Valerius however impales Salome through the heart the moment he has the chance.