“A Witch Shall Be Born” is a novella written by Robert E. Howard, first published in 1934 in the pulp magazine Weird Tales. It is one of Howard’s stories featuring Conan the Barbarian, set in his fictional Hyborian Age. This tale of intrigue, betrayal, and revenge showcases Howard’s talent for creating a dark, fantastical world filled with larger-than-life characters and intense action.

Comprehensive Plot Summary

Taramis, the benevolent queen of Khauran, awakens one night to a chilling sight: a woman who is her exact double, save for the malevolent gleam in her eyes. This apparition is her twin sister, Salome, who was believed to have died shortly after birth. Salome, bearing the blood-red crescent birthmark of a witch, reveals that she was cast out into the desert to die but survived, nurtured by a Khitan sorcerer who taught her dark magic. Now, she has returned to claim her birthright.

Salome, aided by the mercenary leader Constantius, overthrows Taramis. She imprisons her sister in the palace dungeons and assumes her identity, ruling Khauran with cruelty and debauchery. Under Salome’s reign, the once-prosperous kingdom plunges into chaos. The streets run red with the blood of the innocent, and the people are subjected to horrific abuses by Constantius and his Shemitish mercenaries.

Conan, the captain of the queen’s guard, immediately senses something amiss. His suspicions are confirmed when he witnesses the new queen’s depraved behavior. Attempting to rally the palace guard against this impostor, Conan is captured and crucified on Constantius’s orders. Displaying extraordinary resilience, Conan survives the crucifixion, even managing to kill a vulture with his teeth, a feat that spreads tales of his indomitable will and strength.

Meanwhile, Taramis endures torment in the dungeons. Salome visits her regularly, taking pleasure in her suffering and detailing the atrocities she commits in Taramis’s name. Each visit is a psychological assault, aimed at breaking the queen’s spirit. Despite the physical and mental torture, Taramis clings to the hope that her people will be freed from Salome’s tyranny.

As Conan recovers, he encounters Olgerd Vladislav, an outlaw leader. Together, they gather a band of rebels composed of Khaurani exiles and desert nomads. This growing force begins launching guerrilla attacks on Constantius’s troops, disrupting their control and giving hope to the oppressed citizens. Conan, driven by vengeance and the desire to restore Taramis to her throne, becomes a symbol of resistance.

Salome, overconfident in her perceived invincibility, underestimates Conan and his band. The rebel forces grow in number and strength, culminating in a plan to draw Constantius into open battle. Using his knowledge of Khauran’s terrain and tactical prowess, Conan orchestrates a series of strikes designed to weaken Constantius’s position and morale.

Constantius, believing his disciplined troops can easily crush the rebels, leads his army into the plains outside the city. Conan’s forces, though outnumbered, fight with the desperation of men who have nothing left to lose. In a brutal and chaotic battle, Conan’s strategic acumen and the ferocity of his warriors turn the tide. They break through Constantius’s lines, causing chaos and inflicting heavy casualties.

In the midst of the battle, Conan and Constantius confront each other. In a fierce duel, Conan kills Constantius, symbolizing the end of his oppressive regime. With their leader dead, Constantius’s mercenaries lose heart and are quickly overwhelmed by the rebels. Conan’s victory is complete when he leads his forces to storm the city, liberating Khauran and exposing Salome’s true identity.

Freed from the dungeons, Taramis is weak but determined to reclaim her throne. Salome is captured and brought before her sister. Despite her pleas and manipulations, Salome is sentenced to death, a fitting end for her treachery and cruelty. Taramis, with Conan’s support, begins the arduous task of rebuilding her shattered kingdom and healing the wounds inflicted by Salome’s reign.

Khauran’s citizens, once divided and oppressed, unite under Taramis’s restored leadership. The queen, having endured unimaginable suffering, emerges stronger and more compassionate. Conan, his vengeance fulfilled, prepares to leave Khauran, but not before receiving the gratitude and admiration of its people. As he rides into the sunset, the city begins to rebuild, hopeful for a future of peace and prosperity.

Through Conan’s resilience and Taramis’s unwavering spirit, Khauran is saved from the brink of destruction. The saga of betrayal, survival, and redemption leaves a lasting legacy in the annals of the kingdom, ensuring that the names of Taramis and Conan will be remembered for generations to come.

Main Characters

  • Conan the Barbarian: A formidable warrior with unmatched strength and cunning. His loyalty to Taramis and his determination to overthrow Salome and Constantius drive the narrative.
  • Queen Taramis: The rightful ruler of Khauran, known for her beauty and benevolence. Her imprisonment and eventual rescue are central to the plot.
  • Salome: Taramis’s twin sister, marked by a witch’s birthmark. Her cruelty and ambition lead to Khauran’s suffering.
  • Constantius (The Falcon): A mercenary leader allied with Salome. His ruthlessness and desire for power make him a formidable antagonist.
  • Olgerd Vladislav: An outlaw chief who becomes Conan’s ally. His support is crucial in the rebellion against Constantius and Salome.

Themes and Motifs

  • Betrayal and Usurpation: Salome’s betrayal of her sister and the usurpation of the throne drive the story’s conflict.
  • Strength and Resilience: Conan’s survival and fight against overwhelming odds highlight themes of personal strength and resilience.
  • Justice and Retribution: The eventual downfall of Salome and Constantius serves as a form of poetic justice and retribution for their tyranny.

Writing Style and Tone

Robert E. Howard’s writing in “A Witch Shall Be Born” is characterized by its vivid descriptions, dynamic action sequences, and a dark, atmospheric tone. His narrative is fast-paced, filled with intense, dramatic moments that keep readers engaged. Howard’s prose is rich with imagery, painting a picture of a brutal, fantastical world where strength and cunning are paramount. His characters are larger than life, embodying both heroic virtues and villainous vices in equal measure. The tone is often grim, reflecting the harsh realities of the Hyborian Age, but it also carries a sense of adventure and the indomitable human spirit.

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Categories: Book Summary