PTFC Challenge #3 – Red Nails

From Tales of the Rampant Coyote


Posted by Rampant Coyote on August 30, 2018

For the final entry in the Continuing the Pre-Tolkien Fantasy Challenge, I wanted to finish with one of my favorite pre-Tolkien fantasy stories… one that I haven’t read in years. I re-read it for this challenge, and while my take on it was different from my teenaged memories, I found I was no less delighted by it. The novella is one of the quintessential Conan stories by Robert E. Howard, Red Nails. It was also, sadly, the last complete Conan story written by Howard, published posthumously after his death.

But man, what a story.

This story as much about Valeria of the Red Brotherhood as it is about Conan. The story uses the third-person omniscient view which is out-of-fashion these days, freely moving into the heads of the two main characters. At least Howard does it well. I’m going to assume you already know who Conan is, but if you haven’t read at least a couple of original Conan stories, rather than his popular modern representation, than I’d argue you really don’t know who Conan is. This novella would be a great start! Howard himself called it, “the grimmest, bloodiest, and most merciless story of the series so far,” and “the bloodiest and most sexy weird story I ever wrote.”

In this story, Conan meets up with the pirate Valeria of the Red Brotherhood as they fled pursuit. Well, she was fleeing pursuit, he killed the man who was pursuing her. They meet up on this tall bluff in the jungle, Conan explains what a great service he’s rendered for her by killing her pursuer, and is sort of expecting her to fall into his arms in gratitude. Valeria is having none of this, and draws her sword to drive the … ahem… point home. Conan recognizes her skill and backs off, but still proceeds with the trash talk, which she returns.

He stepped toward her, and she sprang back, whipping out her sword.

“Keep back, you barbarian dog! I’ll spit you like a roast pig!”

He halted, reluctantly, and demanded: “Do you want me to take that toy away from you and spank you with it?”

“Words! Nothing but words!” she mocked, lights like the gleam of the sun on blue water dancing in her reckless eyes.

He knew it was the truth. No living man could disarm Valeria of the Brotherhood with his bare hands. He scowled, his sensations a tangle of conflicting emotions. He was angry, yet he was amused and filled with admiration for her spirit. He burned with eagerness to seize that splendid figure and crush it in his iron arms, yet he greatly desired not to hurt the girl. He was torn between a desire to shake her soundly, and a desire to caress her. He knew if he came any nearer her sword would be sheathed in his heart. He had seen Valeria kill too many men in border forays and tavern brawls to have any illusions about her. He knew she was as quick and ferocious as a tigress.

Their little argument is interrupted by the appearance of a monstrous creature described as a dragon. It’s that, or some kind of oversized dinosaur. They immediately forget their differences and band together in mutual defense. Their fight & flight take them to the gates of an ancient, city-sized fortress. The few inhabitants are survivors of a long-running, bitter feud between two tribes, bent on nothing more than the annihilation of each other. The tribe that enlists the aid of Conan and Valeria intend to pit their superior skill at swords against the other tribes’ reliance upon dark sorcery unearthed from the catacombs of the city. For every enemy slain, they drive a red, copper nail into an ebony column to mark their victory.

Naturally, when two decadent, dying races are steeped in such hatred and focused on nothing but destruction, there’s not going to be much of a happy ending no matter which side the mercenary pair might team up with. The story is full of interesting characters, but the backdrop of two dying cultures in the halls of a fortress built by an even longer-dead race is compelling. It drips with detail, but never too much.

Valeria isn’t quite the super-powered creature that Conan is, nor can she match Olmec, prince of the Tecuhltli tribe, for brute force. She is described as being stronger than the average man, and in skill and speed there are few men alive who could equal her, let alone beat her. She and Conan fight side-by-side, and have to rescue each other in nearly equal measure, so it’s clear that this adventure requires both of them. She is reckless, but she isn’t quite the hyperactive psychopath that Bêlit is Shemite was. Valeria is a pirate and mercenary, aggressive without being foolhardy.

One major battle scene pits Conan, Valeria, and men and women of both tribes  in a single, bloody conflict:

These crashed into the fray with the devastating effect of a hurricane plowing through a grove of saplings. In sheer strength no three Tlazitlans were a match for Conan, and in spite of his weight he was quicker on his feet than any of them. He moved through the whirling, eddying mass with the surety and destructiveness of a gray wolf amidst a pack of alley curs, and he strode over a wake of crumpled figures.

Valeria fought beside him, her lips smiling and her eyes blazing. She was stronger than the average man, and far quicker and more ferocious. Her sword was like a living thing in her hand. Where Conan beat down opposition by the sheer weight and power of his blows, breaking spears, splitting skulls and cleaving bosoms to the breast-bone, Valeria brought into action a finesse of sword-play that dazzled and bewildered her antagonists before it slew them. Again and again a warrior, heaving high his heavy blade, found her point in his jugular before he could strike. Conan, towering above the field, strode through the welter smiting right and left, but Valeria moved like an illusive phantom, constantly shifting, and thrusting and slashing as she shifted. Swords missed her again and again as the wielders flailed the empty air and died with her point in their hearts or throats, and her mocking laughter in their ears.

Neither sex nor condition was considered by the maddened combatants. The five women of the Xotalancas were down with their throats cut before Conan and Valeria entered the fray, and when a man or woman went down under the stamping feet, there was always a knife ready for the helpless throat, or a sandaled foot eager to crush the prostrate skull.

Brutal. Dark. Awesome.

And so NOT TOLKIEN.

Red Nails has some of the flashiest sorcery in the Conan stories. You’ve got a frickin’ lightning-wand and a glowing skull that renders victims helpless, and pipes that induce madness. You have giant snakes summoned from the depths, and ancient dragons resurrected through dark magic. You have witches that can compel with a gaze. And you have lots of swords. Yeah, this story is quintessential Sword & Sorcery, not just Conan. Tolkien’s wizards are slow-burning forces of nature with subtle magic. The sorcerers and witches of Conan’s world run hot and crazy.

If you are a Dungeons & Dragons player, the fortress city of Xuchotil is as archetypal dungeon as the Mines of Moria. With three tiers and towers above ground and who knows how many dank and dark levels in the crypts below, it is full of hidden passages, ancient torture chambers, lost magical items, monsters, and SCADS of treasure–to the point where the jewels and precious metals are esteemed valueless by the current inhabitants. Green fire-stones and the occasional indestructible skylight provide light through some of the chambers, but not all. There sounds like there is a lot more to the city than can be described in this story, but rather left to the imagination of the reader. Or an imaginative Dungeon Master.

And yeah, of the three stories I read for this challenge, this is my favorite, and remains one of my favorite Conan stories. Maybe it will become one of yours, too. You can find it online at Project Gutenberg, or over at Wikisource (complete with the July 1936 Margaret Brundage Weird Tales cover that is totally inappropriate by today’s standards…)

Anyway, I hope you’ve enjoyed this series. There was plenty of excellent fantasy out there before Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series hit the bookshelves, and while I still love LotR, I would love to see more of the preceding works get remembered. There’s plenty to enjoy.

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