Red Nails

"Red Nails"
Weird Tales 1936-07 - Red Nails.jpg
Cover by Margaret Brundage of Weird Tales issue July 1936 featuring Valeria and Tascela
AuthorRobert E. Howard
SeriesConan the Cimmerian
Published inWeird Tales
Publication typePulp magazine
Publication date1936

"Red Nails" is the last of the stories featuring Conan the Cimmerian written by American author Robert E. Howard. A novella, it was originally serialized in Weird Tales magazine from July to October 1936. It is set in the pseudo-historical Hyborian Age and concerns Conan encountering a lost city in which the degenerate inhabitants are proactively resigned to their own destruction. Due to its dark themes of decay and death, the story is considered a classic of Conan lore while also cited by Howard scholars as one of his best tales.[1]

The story was republished in the collections The Sword of Conan (Gnome Press, 1952) and Conan the Warrior (Lancer Books, 1967). It was first published by itself in book form by Donald M. Grant, Publisher in 1975[2] as volume IV of their deluxe Conan set. It has most recently been republished in the collections The Conan Chronicles Volume 2: The Hour of the Dragon (Gollancz, 2001) and The Conquering Sword of Conan (Del Rey, 2005) (published in the United Kingdom by Wandering Star as Conan of Cimmeria: Volume Three (1935-1936)), as well as The Best of Robert E. Howard, Volume 2: Grim Lands (Del Rey, 2007).

Plot summary

Techotl pointed to a black column of ebony which stood behind the dais. Hundreds of red dots scarred its polished surface — the bright scarlet heads of heavy copper nails driven into the black wood. "Five red nails for five Xotalanca lives!" exulted Techotl, and the horrible exultation in the faces of the listeners made them inhuman...

— Robert E. Howard, "Red Nails"

"Red Nails" begins in the jungles far to the south of any known civilized or barbarian kingdoms. Valeria of the Red Brotherhood is fleeing persecution after she murdered a would-be rapist. She is followed into the wilderness by Conan, a fellow adventurer who wishes for an alliance with Valeria as her lover. Suddenly, Conan's stand-off with Valeria is interrupted by a dragon (actually a dinosaur, although described with the characteristics of a Stegosaurus and Allosaurus) which mauls their horses. Both Conan and Valeria escape the dragon by climbing across an eroded hillside. However, the hillside has no food or water. Soon, Conan recognizes some poisonous fruit growing nearby. Acting quickly, he coats the tip of a spear in poison and pierces the dragon's lower jaw with a well-aimed throw. Although blinded, the enraged beast pursues the two fugitives by their scent. Fortunately, Conan lures the injured beast towards a ravine.

The couple emerge from their shelter and journey towards a mysterious walled city, which Conan sighted from the hill. With a lack of grazing livestock or cultivated fields, the city appears deserted. Afterwards, Conan forces open the main gate, long since rusted shut. The couple slowly enter a bizarre twilight world. The city, which is known as Xuchotl, is a massive structure completely enclosed and roofed off by an emerald dome. A single great hallway runs across the entire city. However, no streets or open courtyards are present. The structure consists entirely of four tiers of rooms, chambers, and passageways. Xuchotl, itself, is carved from jade with traces of other exotic materials.

The two separate and search the city's empty corridors. Valeria encounters a man named Techotl, who she joins in his feud between two factions which dwell in the once populous city. Soon, Techotl invites Conan and Valeria into the stronghold of his tribe, the Tecuhltli. Eventually, the couple are welcomed by the rulers of Xuchotl, Olmec and Tascela. After a ritual, Olmec reveals the history of his civilization.

The city of Xuchotil was built centuries before its current inhabitants arrived. One day, a slave — Tolkemec — betrayed his master and guided the newly arrived invaders into the city while slaying the original inhabitants. The conquerors were led by two brothers, Tecuhltli and Xotalanc, who ruled peacefully over their city. However, a feud developed when Tecuhltli stole Xotalanc's bride during one of their arguments. Meanwhile, Tolkemec betrayed both sides for his own reasons and was exiled to the catacombs. Nails driven into a pillar inside of Olmec's stronghold keeps count the number of slain rivals, and provides the title for this story.

After Olmec tells his story, Tascela develops an interest with Valeria. Soon, she has a slave attempt to drug Valeria with a narcotic plant. Valeria manages to capture the slave and interrogates her into revealing who is responsible for such treachery. However, she avoids submission and escapes the city.

Valeria's pursuit of the slave is interrupted when Xotalanc's army breaches the stronghold. Eventually, all of Xotalanc's troops are exterminated while Conan, Valeria, Olmec, Tascela, and fifteen Tecuhltli warriors remain alive. When Conan begins an expedition towards Xotalanc's stronghold, Valeria is left behind while her wounds are treated.

While Conan is away, Olmec tries to rape Valeria. However, his efforts are thwarted by Tascela. She reveals herself as a sorceress and the stolen bride who originally started the feud. Tascela plans on using Valeria's vitality in restoring her own youth. Meanwhile, Olmec secretly orders for his guards to execute Conan. Conan kills the two warriors and hurries back for Valeria. Returning to Tecuhltli, Conan finds a bruised Olmec inside Tascela's dungeon. After rescuing him, Olmec attempts to betray Conan and is killed.

Conan faces off against Tascela who has Valeria chained to an altar. Caught in a steel trap, Conan watches helplessly as Tascela proceeds with her sacrifice of Valeria. Suddenly, Tascela's ceremony is interrupted by Tolkemec who has returned from his exile, wielding an ancient sceptre with destructive magic. Desperate for assistance against her nemesis, Tascela releases Conan. Conan defeats Tolkemec by stealing his sceptre. After freeing herself, Valeria kills Tascela by plunging a dagger into her heart.

With the last inhabitants of Xuchotl killed, Conan and Valeria depart from the now-dead city.

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