This story was first published in the June 1933 issue of Weird Tales. As was common when the series made the cover, a girl from the story is depicted (naked) and Conan isn’t.
(Poor Lovecraft. Weird Tales was his major market but he rarely wrote female characters and when he did, they were fully clothed.)
Shevatas the thief is trying to loot the ruins of a place called Kutchemes. He makes his way inside a dome of pure ivory, which sounds like a logistics puzzle for Player Character looters. That dome is the tomb of Thugra Khotan, “the dark sorcerer who had reigned in Kuthchemes three thousand years ago.” The lore is that he locked himself in the tomb when barbarians sacked his city and drank poison. “Thugra Khotan slept unmolested, while the lizards of desolation gnawed at the crumbling pillars, and the very river that watered his land in old times sank into the sands and ran dry.”
OK, you know what will happen. He wakes up and Shevatas dies.
Later, Princess Yasmela has a problem. Rumors waft from kingdom to kingdom that a veiled prophet named Natohk is raising an army of fanatical nomads, her small land of Khoraja is placed to bear the brunt of such an invasion, and her brother the king is being held for ransom by the king of Ophir. Worse, she has nightmares of Natohk claiming to be a shaman who visits her dreams while the frame of bones and flesh sleeps threatens to take her to wife, and “I will teach thee the ancient forgotten ways of pleasure!” Oh my.
One of her servants tells her to go to the temple of Mitra, god of her Hyborian ancestors.
Yasmela rose, but objected when Vateesa prepared to dress her. “It is not fitting that I come before the shrine clad in silk. I will go naked, on my knees, as befits a suppliant, lest Mitra deem I lack humility.”
“Nonsense!” Vateesa had scant respect for the ways of what she deemed a false cult. “Mitra would have folks stand upright before him—not crawling on their bellies like worms, or spilling blood of animals all over his altars.”
This is hilarious, because what Yasmela is talked out of doing is exactly what’s on the cover.
Mitra says “Go forth upon the streets alone, and place your kingdom in the hands of the first man you meet there.” Of course that’s Conan, clad in scarlet cloak flowing from his mailed shoulders and polished blue steel greaves and basinet. This is basically the mercenary gear described at the beginning of “Queen of the Black Coast”, and he’s now serving the princess as an obscure captain of mercenaries. Cloaked and with a cap and veil, he has no idea who she is, and drunkenly speaks rudely to her, peppered with archaic vocabulary words like “your leman robbed the king’s seraglio.”
(He’s added another language to his repertoire, “barbarous Kothic”.)
She leads him into the palace and is described as falling in love with his barbarous virtue. After realizing who she is, Conan explains the local political problem: “You can trust Amalric, our general, but the rest of us are only common men who love loot. If you pay the ransom Ophir asks, men say you’ll be unable to pay us. In that case we might go over to the king of Koth, though that cursed miser is no friend of mine. Or we might loot this city.”
(Elsewhere in the series Conan fights for “a rebel prince of Koth” against the king.)
Asked by the princess “Have you seen much war?”, he replies “I have fought in blood-feuds, tribal wars, and imperial campaigns.” I suppose piracy doesn’t fall under war, and we haven’t seen any imperial campaign, though Howard’s unpublished papers include a fragment about “The Hand of Nergal” where he serves the Turanian empire, a period to which L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter added three short stories for the Lancer paperbacks.
Placing the barbarian behind a curtain, Yasmela summons her foppish and elderly nobles in their 14th century cotehardies and ermine robes. Howard clearly has a thing for stereotyping nobles as weak, despite their origin as a horse-owning warrior caste. She says tomorrow they must march, and here is your leader!
Jerking aside the velvet curtains she dramatically indicated the Cimmerian. It was perhaps not an entirely happy moment for the disclosure. Conan was sprawled in his chair, his feet propped on the ebony table, busily engaged in gnawing a beef-bone which he gripped firmly in both hands. He glanced casually at the astounded nobles, grinned faintly at Amalric, and went on munching with undisguised relish.
Quoth Amalric: “If the dog ever commanded more than a company of cut-throats before, I’ll eat him, harness and all!” (Was the Bamula tribe only equivalent in size to a military company plus wives and children?)
The chapter ends with plate harness being brought to replace Conan’s chainmail. I wonder how many Player Characters at Gary Gygax’s table got this upgrade described as a story reward like this.
So an army is described, and Yasmela brings up the rear on a camel. Conan naively thinks that because she’s here, she’ll strap on a sword and fight, and Amalric makes fun of him for not being sexist. Meanwhile Natohk has been using spells to help win earlier battles: “At his bidding the demons of the air brought thunder and wind and fog, the fiends of the underworld shook the earth with awful roaring. He brought fire out of the air and consumed the gates of walled cities, and burnt armored men to bits of charred bone.”
Yasmela flirts with Conan again in camp, but things stay chaste. After a night’s sleep, a Shemite spy who knew Conan in Zamora comes with information: he was with many of his countrymen when they bowed before Natohk and “I squinted up and saw his veil blowing in the wind. It blew aside, and I saw—I saw—Bel aid me, Conan, I say I saw! My blood froze in my veins and my hair stood up. What I had seen burned my soul like a red-hot iron” — yeah yeah, the hooded visage was a bare skull, right?
“Whence came Natohk? Out of the desert on a night when … Vampires were abroad, witches rode naked on the wind, and werewolves howled across the wilderness.” I feel like he’s telegraphing too much for the reader at this point, but maybe people were less genre savvy in 1933.
Anyway, the noble Thespides who leads the knights chafes under Conan’s command and leads them into the desert valley as a vanguard over his objection. When battle is joined, Natohk rides his chariot across the front line, pouring powder that ignites into a wall of fire when the knights’ chargers strike it with steel horseshoes. Only Conan’s intidimating charisma stops his side routing. While the phalanx stands facing certain doom, he sends his light cavalry around to strike the enemy rear. Eventually they shatter the enemy horde, and he personally ends up fighting a fanatic Stygian prince named Kutamun. Then Conan sees that Natohk has reacted to his army fleeing by driving his chariot for the pavilion where Yasmela stood, “deserted by her guards in the frenzy of pursuit.” Conan chases the chariot with the captive Yasmela, but Natohk drags her indoors into some convenient ruins. He follows fast on their heels, yet finds that Natohk has had enough time to throw all her clothes on the floor and bind her naked to an altar.
He exposits “Lust for a woman weakened my sorcery. Now the woman is mine, and feasting on her soul, I shall be unconquerable! Back, fool! You have not conquered Thugra Khotan!” Wait, I’m confused. He had the hots for her, but that weakened his sorcery, so now he’s going to sacrifice her to… somebody… and that will make him win… somehow?
Anyway, he throws a stick at Conan and it turns into a cobra. Conan cuts it in half. Thugra Khotan pulls a scorpion out of his sleeve, and Conan reacts by throwing his sword. It pierces the sorcerer below his heart and goes all the way out behind his shoulders. He re-dies instantly, so Conan lifts Yasmela from the altar… and she insists on having sex with him right there. THE END
I have mixed feelings about this story. The first chapter is great, Mitra’s folktale-like arbitrary rule is a great way to set up Conan’s position, and Howard does a decent job selling the romance. Then, though, Thugra Khotan’s motives get all muddled, the prose describing the war is fine but not great, and the idea of Yasmela and Conan having sex on an altar with a dead sorcerer in the room makes me laugh.