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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: Much of how Salome took over is told by Valerius to Ivga while she tends his wounds, though they are unusually severe for this trope.
    Her soft, nimble fingers were again at work, gently cleansing and closing the gaping edges of his raw wounds.
  • Ambition Is Evil: Salome rejected the study of things man wasn't meant to know for using Black Magic for power.
    "He said I was but an earthly sprite, knowing naught of the deeper gulfs of cosmic sorcery. Well, this world contains all I desire—power, and pomp, and glittering pageantry, handsome men and soft women for my paramours and my slaves."
  • 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.
  • Beauty Is Never Tarnished: "Taramis was still beautiful, in spite of her rags and the imprisonment and abuse of seven weary months."
  • 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 Bad: Salome, a witch who usurps the throne of Khauran by imprisoning and impersonating her sister Taramis with the aid of the mercenary leader Constantius the Falcon.
  • Big Damn Heroes: Conan and his horsemen arrive just in time to save Valerius and Taramis from the toad-like monster summoned by Salome.
  • Blinded by the Light: Salome uses light to blind Tamaris's rescuers.
  • Brain Fever: Valerius during the After Action Patchup, to give him an excuse to babble.
  • Bring News Back: Once Ivga has told Valerius which way Salome took Taramis, he sends her off to tell the news that the true queen has been found.
  • Cain and Abel: Salome is out to utterly break her sister Taramis.
  • 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.
  • Costume Porn: Salome goes in for this.
    Salome was clad in the barbaric splendor of a woman of Shushan. Jewels glittered in the torchlight on her gilded sandals, on her gold breast-plates and the slender chains that held them in place. Gold anklets clashed as she moved, jeweled bracelets weighted her bare arms. Her tall coiffure was that of a Shemitish woman, and jade pendants hung from gold hoops in her ears, flashing and sparkling with each impatient movement of her haughty head. A gem-crusted girdle supported a silk shirt so transparent that it was in the nature of a cynical mockery of convention.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Deal with the Devil: The curse stems from one of these.
    They tell how the first queen of our line had traffic with a fiend of darkness and bore him a daughter who lives in foul legendry to this day. And thereafter in each century a girl baby was born into the Askhaurian dynasty, with a scarlet half-moon between her breasts, that signified her destiny.
  • Death by Transceiver: Done with a Crystal Ball. 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.
  • Decadent Court: What Salome makes of Khauran, stunning and demoralizing the populace.
  • Decapitation Presentation: Salome brings the head of Krallides.
  • Decoy Protagonist: Conan is not the main character here. Valerius is.
  • Demonic Possession: This is one explanation offered to explain why Taramis (actually her Evil Twin Salome) is suddenly The Caligula.
  • Deus Exit Machina: Cona is captured by Salome's henchmen, and crucified outside the city gates; an Arabianesque fellow who happens to wander by takes Conan down. Conan joins his little bandit gang and spends a good deal of the story pillaging and doing things outside of the city-state of Khauran where most of the story transpires, leaving the young guard to be the hero of his own story.
  • Distinguishing Mark: The witch can be identified by her birthmark.
  • 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.
  • Fate Worse than Death: Valerius declares this, though in actuality he goes for La Résistance.
    "Oh, Ishtar, why was I not slain? Better die than live to see our queen turn traitor and harlot!"
  • Feathered Fiend: Conan is crucified, but Constantius carefully explains that the vultures will kill him first.
  • 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.
  • Go Mad from the Isolation: Tamaris at first does not recognize her rescuers.
  • Good Hair, Evil Hair: Constantius has a Fu Manchu mustache, and makes up for not being Asian by twirling it.
  • The High Queen: Taramis, who is beloved by her people for being a kind, virtuous, and benevolent ruler.
  • Hoist by His Own Petard: Constantius has Conan crucified early on in the story. When the tables turn and Khauran is freed from Salome's control with the help of Conan's forces, Conan's vengeance upon Constantius involves crucifying him just as he did to him — but unlike Conan, Constantius is nowhere near as enduring of the pain of crucifixion.
  • Home Sweet Home: Conan's In Harm's Way attitude is explicitly contrasted to Valerius, whose Smooch of Victory is welcomed with the "gratitude of a weary fighter who has attained rest at last through tribulation and storm".
  • 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.
  • I Have You Now, My Pretty: Constantius, before imprisoning Taramis on the orders of her Evil Twin Salome, requests that he takes "a little — ah — amusement first." Cue the Scream Discretion Shot.
  • Intimate Marks: Crescent birthmarks are considered signs of witchcraft, and one of these is the major feature distinguishing Queen Taramis from her evil twin Salome. Said birthmark is right on her chest.
  • Keep the Reward: Conan turns down an offered reward of a position in the queen's court because he must lead the mercenaries to raid other lands; that was the price of their service.
  • Kick Them While They Are Down: The story starts with Salome taking down Taramis, and Salome keeps kicking her until the climax.
  • King Incognito: Salome throws the head of a murdered man to a deaf beggar and casually discusses the true queen's imprisonment. Not only is Valerius not a beggar but a leader of La Résistance, he's not deaf.
  • 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.
  • La Résistance: Taramis' subjects are baffled by the Fake Queen, but struggle, and when one of them penetrates the secret, they are immediately out to rescue her.
  • Last Stand: This is the fate of the palace guard.
    The guards were fully armed and drawn up in a square, but there were only five hundred of them. They took a heavy toll before they were cut down, but there could be only one conclusion to such a battle.
  • 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.
  • Made of Iron:
    • Salome survives exposure as a baby.
      "But the life in me was stronger than the life in common folk, for it partakes of the essence of the forces that seethe in the black gulfs beyond mortal ken."
    • Conan himself not only survives being crucified, but after his cross is chopped down (with him still nailed to it) he helps pull the nails out and rides 10 miles before his injuries are treated.
  • The Man Behind the Man: The man who raised Salome intended this trope, but decided she wasn't good enough for a front man.
    "He would have made me queen of the world and ruled the nations through me, he said, but I was only a harlot of darkness."
  • 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).
  • Meaningful Rename: Salome reminds Constantius to call her Taramis since she is going for Fake King.
  • The Medic: Ivga both treats Valerius's wounds and calms him.
  • Moses in the Bulrushes: Salome is an evil version; since exposure failed to kill her, she returned to usurp her sister's throne, use Cold-Blooded Torture on that sister, and institute a Religion of Evil with Human Sacrifice.
  • My Master, Right or Wrong: Valerius, despite Tamaris' sudden transformation into The Caligula, is deeply troubled by the thought of revolt.
    "We hardly knew what we were fighting for, but it was against Constantius and his devils — not against Taramis, I swear it! Constantius shouted to cut the traitors down. We were not traitors!"
  • No Infantile Amnesia: Salome remembers being left to die from exposure as an infant.
    But the life in me was stronger than the life in common folk, for it partakes of the essence of the forces that seethe in the black gulfs beyond mortal ken. The hours passed, and the sun slashed down like the molten flames of hell, but I did not die — aye, something of that torment I remember, faintly and far away, as one remembers a dim, formless dream.
  • Obfuscating Disability: Salome tosses the head of a murdered man to a deaf beggar — who proves to be Valerius, who heard that the true queen is prisoner there.
  • Old Retainer: Salome tells Tamarais that Krallides, her faithful councillor, had been caught and killed. Cold-Blooded Torture had ceased to affect her, but this brings her to tears again.
  • 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.
  • Parental Abandonment: Salome survives abandonment, only to be rejected by the man who raised her for being not sufficiently interested in Things Man Was Not Meant to Know.
  • 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.
  • Rape Is a Special Kind of Evil: The mercenary leader Constantius rapes the kind and benevolent Queen Taramis. This scene is used to establish just how depraved and sociopathic Constantius (and by extension, Salome, the title witch) is.
    Salome: Enough of this farce; let us on to the next act in the comedy. Listen, dear sister: it was I who sent Constantius here. When I decided to take the throne of Khauran, I cast about for a man to aid me, and chose the Falcon, because of his utter lack of all characteristics men call good.
  • Red Right Hand: The birthmark which identifies Salome as a witch is a red crescent moon on her chest.
  • 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.
  • Rescue Arc: Valerius's plan as soon as he learns she is a prisoner.
  • 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.
  • Secret Legacy: Salome learned that she was born to the royal family and her sister was queen.
    "He had told me who I was, of the curse and my heritage. I have returned to take that to which I have as much right as you. Now it is mine by right of possession."
  • Sex Slave: One of the many terrible things Salome inflicts on her subjects is sexual slavery.
  • "Shut Up" Kiss: While a wounded soldier is babbling feverishly to his girlfriend:
    The trembling girl crooned soothingly to him, as to a wounded child, and closed his panting lips with her own cool sweet mouth.
  • Slasher Smile: Constantius does this while watching a guard be slaughtered and while crucifying Conan.
  • Smooch of Victory: After the victory, Ivga seeks out Valerius for this.
    As Valerius started to follow Taramis across the square towards the palace, through a lane opened by the wildly cheering multitude, he felt a soft hand slipped timidly into his sinewy forgers and turned to receive the slender body of Ivga in his arms. He crushed her to him and drank her kisses with the gratitude of a weary fighter who has attained rest at last through tribulation and storm.
  • Talking to the Dead: Valerius tells Krallides's head that his death was not in vain — now Valerius knows that the true queen is alive and a prisoner.
  • Spell My Name with a "The": Constantius also goes by "the Falcon". He doesn't insist on the "the", though.
  • These Are Things Man Was Not Meant to Know: Salome was turned out by the magician who raised her for not being sufficiently interested in this for its own sake.
    "He drove me from him at last, saying that I was but a common witch in spite of his teachings, and not fit to command the mighty sorcery he would have taught me. He would have made me queen of the world and ruled the nations through me, he said, but I was only a harlot of darkness. But what of it? I could never endure to seclude myself in a golden tower, and spend the long hours staring into a crystal globe, mumbling over incantations written on serpent's skin in the blood of virgins, poring over musty volumes in forgotten languages.
    "He said I was but an earthly sprite, knowing naught of the deeper gulfs of cosmic sorcery. Well, this world contains all I desire—power, and pomp, and glittering pageantry, handsome men and soft women for my paramours and my slaves."
  • Tome of Eldritch Lore: Salome did not mind when the magician who raised her drove her off, because "I could never endure to seclude myself in a golden tower, and spend the long hours staring into a crystal globe, mumbling over incantations written on serpent's skin in the blood of virgins, poring over musty volumes in forgotten languages."
  • Two Lines, No Waiting: Between Valerius and La Résistance, Conan, and Salome.
  • 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.