Recently recovered from wounds sustained during an adventure in Pictland, Conan has been nursed back to health by a family in south-western Cimmeria. Soon, Conan is wrestling with the possibility of marriage to the eldest daughter of that family, Naefa; his heritage and lust warring against his wanderlust.
However, while Conan is away hunting, a band of slavers led by one Taharka of Keshan attacks the family's steading. Hopelessly outnumbered, and following Cimmerian custom, the men kill their respective wives, and Naefa, to prevent the women from being enslaved, before slaying as many of the enemy as possible. Thankfully, all the younger children were visiting another family at the time of the attack.
Naefa's father drives his spear, wet with the blood of his wife and daughter, into the frame of the doorway to his home, an unspoken request to other Cimmerians to bury his family and avenge their death.
Suffering heavy losses and with no slaves to show for it, Taharka leads his band back to Aquilonia and easier pickings.
Conan follows them, tracking the bandit's depredations to a small town where he meets Kayla, a swords-woman. As a child, Kalya's mother, a rich widow, was tortured and murdered by one Axandrias of Aquilonia, years before he joined forces with Taharka. Mutilated and left for dead, Kalya swore vengeance on the man and so accompanies Conan on his hunt, despite his initial objections
Taharka and Axandrias had arrived at a border town between Aquilonia and Nemedia. There they meet the owner of an inn who has a fighting pit. Taharka agrees with the owner to supply him slaves for his fights. Axandrias is looking around for a way to drug slaves into fighting. He arrives at an old temple. The priest of the Temple of the Ancient Ones, shows him the history of their world. Eventually he agrees to give Axandrias some magic pills that will make the user immune to any pain. Meanwhile Taharka has added to his company, Kuulvo of Hyperborea.
Conan later meets these same priests and is shown visions of a future in which a man with his appearance is a very powerful king. When he arrives back at the room, Kalya demands to know where he has been and then storms out when he refuses to say anything. Choosing to vent her anger, she heads to the inn. There she makes a deal with Taharka to fight in the pits, while at the same time looking to get closer to Axandrias. Axandrias is chosen to rub oil on her before the fight. As he is about to do so, Kalya reveals herself to him and attacks. As she is about to finish him, the two Gunderman join in the fight. Seeing she is outnumbered, Conan jumps into the pit to save Kalya. The two Gunderman are killed in the fighting as Axandrias escapes. Just then soldiers of Nemedia and Aquilonia arrive and panic ensues. Conan and Kalya escape in one direction as Taharka, Axandrias, and Kuulvo flee in another.
Eventually, the trio arrive in Ophir and find a secluded hollow from which to hide and begin raiding again. Forming a new band they spread out and become quite successful. Meanwhile, Conan and Kalya join up with a caravan as guards.
The trail grows hot, then cold a number of times with battles and escapes. In addition to the mortal struggle, we also learn that Taharka and Conan are unwilling/unwitting chess-pieces of warring god-like powers in a cosmic battle for dominion over the earth in the coming centuries.
Together, Conan and Kalya cross Aquilonia, Ophir, Koth and Shem all the way to the River Styx and, after approximately nine months, achieve their ultimate confrontation with their respective nemeses.
At the story’s end, Conan’s destination is unknown.
- Halga - south-western Cimmerian Elder. Killed fighting Taharka's band.
- Naefa - marriagable daughter of Halga. Killed by her family to prevent her being taken by Taharka's band.
- Tahatch - warrior of the Great Valley Picts. Friend to Conan.
- Dermat - Halga's oldest son. Killed fighting Taharka's band.
- Murcha - Halga's second son. Killed fighting Taharka's band.
- Taharka of Keshan - primary antagonist. Leader of a band of slavers. Recruited by the Ancient Ones to be their champion. Resourceful, intelligent, and ruthless. Leads a band of slavers in Cimmeria, Aquilonia, and Nemedia. Forms a new gang of raiders in Ophir. Forms a new gang of pirates on the River Styx. Killed fighting Conan in a duel.
- Axandrias of Aquilonia - secondary antagonist, member of Taharka's band. Has some skill in sorcery. Haunted by Kalya's memory. Becomes addicted to the pills received by the Ancient Ones. Killed by Kalya in a duel.
- Murtan and Balan of Bossonia - bowmen in Taharka's band. Killed by Conan
- Gunter and Wolf of Gunderland - bandits in Taharka's band. Killed in the fighting pits by Conan.
- Kalya of Aquilonia - a.k.a. "Mad" Kalya. Female warrior. Secondary protagonist. Joins Conan to find Axandrias. Conan's companion through the story. Kills Axandrias in a duel. Is killed by a spear thrown by Taharka.
- Rario - Aquilonian horse trader/fence. Killed by Conan.
- Un-named preist of the Ancient Ones at the temple in Croton. He appears at the end of the story as well. Gives Axandrias potions to make their slaves immune to pain.
- bat/humonculi creatures - demonic servants of the preist of the Ancient Ones in Croton. Human in body and face, they are covered in short dark fur and have bat-wings. Fingers and toes end in black talons and they have bare, lizard-like tails.
- Kuulvo of Hyperborea - tertiary antagonist, member of Taharka's band. Killed by Conan, after having his throat bitten out in a fight.
- Vulpio - knife juggling/throwing entertainer
- Ryula - Vulpio's wife and felow performer in his knife throwing act
- Hurrapa - illusionist entertainer and secret priest of the Ancient Ones. He appears at the end of the story as well
- Gorbal - leader of the entertainer troupe to which Vulpio and Ryula belong
- Hazdral - master of a caravan
- Burra - chief guard of Hazdral's caravan
- Parva of Corinthia - minor bandit in Taharka's band
- Hyras and Nargal of Zamora - minor bandits in Taharka's band
- Pushta - minor bandit in Taharka's band
- Amyr - captian of the barge Pride of Luxur
- Ra-Harakhte - Shemitish bulk-goods fence
- South western Cimmeria
- Northern Aquilonia - un-named town
- Croton, border town of Aquilonia and Nemedia. a.k.a. Karutonia [ancient name]. Location of a temple to The Ancient Ones/The Great Powers/The Masters
- Leucta, town in Ophir. Lies at the junction of three major roads and a number of minor ones
- Southern Ophir - un-named town
- Pashtun, large island (and town) in the middle of the River Styx
- Khopshef Province, Shem. West of Pashtun on the River Styx
- Nakhmet, small town in Shem (Khopshef province) on the north bank of the RIver Styx
- Ashabal, town in Shem (Khopshef province) on the north bank of the RIver Styx
- Un-named, small island near the Stygian (southern) shore of the River Styx. Location of a large temple to The Ancient Ones
- Temple of the Ancient ones in Karutonia - Eons-old, the temple folds space (bigger on the inside than the outside), can access at least one other dimension (light coming through windows is not the same color as light outside), has braziers that burn green flame without visible fuel supply, has a room with "incalcuably ancient" instruments of "...silver, gold and age-blackened bronze" crystals, stones, jewels and the spellbook of the wizard-king, Angkar.
- Spellbook of Angkar - the wizard-king of the pre-Atlantean Empire of Walkh was a socerer of all-embracing evil. His massive spell-book's pages are the flayed skin from more than 900 princesses from the empire's 50 subject-kings. It's spells are written in the blood of royal infants. The bindings and cover are the wizard's own skin and the cover is set with Angkar's own facial bones, cut from his skull while he was still alive. Two immense rubies are set where the eyes would be. The book reveals the secrets of communcation with beings who ruled the universe before earth was created.
- Bowl of Galaxies - lidded, plain copper bowl. Inside, from the gulfs of deep space is a view of "a monstrous whirlpool of stars."
- Berserker Pills - "The outer coating of each pill is the hardened gum of the Julak Tree of the Barachan Isles. This confers strength and endurance. Once it was commonly used by the elite guards of kings before going into battle. It has been mixed with a secretion taken from certain Stygian scarab beetles, confering extraordinary quickness of body and eye. In the center of each is the gum of the green poppy. Its virtues are twofold: while the dose is working, the taker feels no fear, but instead a great urge to attack, and he is all but insesnsible to pain." The substance is highly addictive, but used with discretion at infrequent intervals, the taker is in no danger of harm. The pills came with a spell that, if recited "...when you administer each dose, the effect is both quicker to take hold and greater in its power." Frequent use is destructive. Used daily, the pills will consume the user "within a very short time."
- Scrying Flames - the green flames from the brazier in the Temple of the Ancient Ones can be used by their preists to look back into the prehistoric ancestry of whosoever donates a few drops of their own blood. The blood is consumed by the flames as it drops into the brazier before it touches the bottom.
Age: Conan was 15 at Venarium [per REH]. As the novel opens, it is summer-time and only a few seasons after the sack of Venarium. He would be still be 15 years old, approaching his 16th birthday.
Recent Travels: He has already left his family, tribe, sept and clan in Northern Cimmeria to adventure with the Æsir (Aesir) against the Vanir and we learn that he has traveled to the Pictish coast and across the Pictish wiilderness.
Knowledge of Civilization: At the start of the novel , "The young Cimmerian was suspicious of the devious ways of civilization." and, "...was young and inexperienced in the ways of civilized men..." As this is the first time Conan traveled south of Cimmeria (eratta: last chapter of Conan of Venarium), he doubtless learns much about the language and culture of many Hyborian nations during the course of the novel. Kayla, his travelling companion, had a wealthy family that provided her a "decent education," and it is unlikely that Conan could have successfully navigated so far across the continent without her help and tutoring (although none is discussed in the novel).
Much confusion is introduced by the following passage: when Conan and Kayla arrive at Leucta, Ophir, Conan states, "I know little of life in cities, and most of what little I have know involves fleeing from the lawkeepers or waking up on the musty straw of a dungeon." Unless there is at least one city in Asgard, Vanhiem or Pictland, where did 15 year old Conan come by his experience with cities?
Knowledge of Organized Religion: "He had met priests of Mitra, and of other gods, who were no worse than other men. His own god was Crom, who had no preisthood." Priests of Mitra could easily have travelled Cimmeria during Conan's youth, seeking converts. He had likely met Æsir preists and perhaps even Vanir priests. Having spent a short time in Pictland it is possible he had even met a Pictish Shaman, although it is unlikely he would lump them into the category he was discussing.
Conan Sees a number of temples, as well as the pyramids of Stygia from a distance.
Languages: it is interesting to note that, at the beginning of the novel, Conan speaks fluently with a pict. Shortly thereafter, Conan speaks rather fluently with Aquilonians and, upon reaching Croton, he speaks with, "...many traders and caravaners...[from] peoples of many nations..." In Jewels of Gwahlur, REH seggests that Conan easily picks up languages. He could have learned some Aquilonian from his grandfather, wandering priests of Mitra (see above), or perhaps even traders from that nation. Conan would certainly know how to converse with the Æsir after adventuring with them and, in The Frost Giant's Daughter (both Marek and Rippke list that as the first Conan story in their separate chronologies), he knows enough Vanir to taunt his opponent.
Fuana: Conan sees camels for the first time at Croton.
Continuity Errata: Although the novel "feels" like a Conan story, many chronologies label this novel Apocrypha, finding it difficult to "fit" this novel into a chronology of Conan's life. I disagree.
In his famous letter to P. Schuyler Miller of 10th March, 1936, Robert E. Howard provides a great deal of information regarding Conan's early life. In the third paragraph (the first two deal with Kush and the lands east of the Vilayet Sea) Howard states: "As you deduct, Conan was about seventeen when he was introduced to the public in “The Tower of the Elephant.”" He states that Conan was born on a battlefield during a raid by a horde of Vanir. At the end of that paragraph he states that Conan was 15 at Venarium. He begins the next paragraph with: "There was the space of about a year between Venarium and his entrance into the theif-city of Zamora." That intervening time saw Conan return to his clan in northern Cimmeria, after Venarium, and then travel north to Asgard to fight alongside them against first the Vanir and then the Hyperboreans. He ends the paragraph saying that Conan escapes from the Hyperboreans and travels south "...in time to make his debut in print" presumably referring to "Tower..." again, since "The Frost-Giant's Daughter" was not published as a Conan story until after Howard's death.
"...the space of about a year," comment is the primary reason that this novel is discarded by most chronologies. But keep in mind Conan spent some time in the city of thieves before "Tower..." takes place. Howard just finished saying in the previous paragraph of his letter that Conan was 15 at Venarium and 17 during "Tower...", i.e he was not saying that there was only "about a year" between Venarium and "Tower..." itself...which gives us some time to play with.
Conan the Bold, prior to the main narrative, has Conan adventuring the previous fall, winter and spring in the three of Asgard, then Vanhiem, then at the Pictish Coast and through Pictland to Southern Cimmeria where the novel begins in early/mid-summer, "a few seasons" after Venarium. Near the end of the novel, Conan remarks that he cannot tell what month it is because the weather is constantly hot. Kayla responds that It is, "...the second week after the first full-moon of the year..." so the story takes place over the course of about 8 or 9 months, ending in Shem/Stygia it the middle of winter.
In the north, few raids happen in the winter (wars, yes, raids, no), so Conan was born in either very late spring, in the summer or in the early fall before snow closed the mountain passes. Getting a horde from Vanaheim into Cimmeria would take some effort so let's eliminate late spring or early summer. So, some time between midsummer and early fall, Conan was born. For the sake of argument, let's say late summer. Also for the sake of argument, let's say that Venarium's battle took place in early fall (after all the clans had time to assemble in the south), only a month or two after Conan's 15th birthday.
So Conan turned 16 during this novel and spent that fall and winter in the south. He could easily have been back in Cimmeria by the summer of his 16th year. After turning 17, he could easily have headed North again to Asgard to adventure against the Hyperboreans that fall. Legions of the Dead (by DeCamp & Carter) takes place with the Æsir against the Hyperboreans in late fall, when Conan is captured by the Hyperboreans...and The Thing in the Crypt (also by DeCamp & Cater) has him escaping from the Hyperboreans the following late winter/early spring; he would be just past 17 and 1/2.
Adding two months to travel to Zamora and Conan would still be able to spend "...hours in the courtyards of the philosophers, listening to the arguments of theologians and teachers..." as per "Tower..." and still be able to toppled the tower of Yara before his 18th birthday.
An interesting aside, including ...Bold actually accommodates the Rippke timeline's placement of "The God in the Bowl" as the second chronological Conan story by Howard ("The Frost-Giant's Daughter" being the first). A more naive, younger Conan on his way back North from Shem could easily have travelled through Numalia, Corinthia; it's a fairly straight line between middle-Shem and Cimmeria. If Conan continues back to Cimmeria after that, it also accommodates the Howard-established and de Camp reinforced path directly from Hyperborea to Zamora, which the Rippke timeline calls into question by placing "God..." (not published until well after Howard's death) before "Tower..."
Keep in mind, we are talking about "pastiche" tales here...many of which have characters that barely resemble Howard's Conan. If Conan can be in his 17th year (which Howard said was accurate) during "Tower..." and still allow for the adventures before and after ...Bold, then why exclude ...Bold from a "pastiche" timeline just because Conan enters the thief city of Zamora when he is 17 instead of 16 (i.e. 20 months after Venarium instead of 11-13 months)?