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Red Nails is a novella by Robert E. Howard first published in Weird Tales 28 1-3 (July, August/September, October 1936).

Red Nails is the last Conan story Howard wrote and the last major fantasy he completed. On the verge of abandoning fantasy for more commercial concerns, Howard devoted considerable thought and effort to his final allegorical statement. Red Nails was important to Howard, and in a letter to Clark Ashton Smith, he expressed his feelings about it:

Sent a three-part serial to Wright yesterday: "Red Nails," which I devoutly hope he’ll like. A Conan yarn, and the grimmest, bloodiest and most merciless story of the series so far. Too much raw meat, maybe, but I merely portrayed what I honestly believe would be the reactions of certain types of people in the situations on which the plot of the story hung…

Plot Summary[]

Conan and Valeria take refuge in an entirely walled and enclosed city where the inhabitants have waged war against each other for decades.

Detailed Synopsis[]

1. The Skull on the Crag
Valeria of the Red Brotherhood stops at twilight at a jungle pool to rest her horse and climbs a nearby crag to pierce the canopy of the trees. Passing a skeleton on a small outcropping, she makes it to the top of the rock, and is surprised to see a walled city a mile to the south. She begins to make her way down the rocks but is startled by Conan standing at the base. He reveals that he followed Valeria from Sukhmet after she refused the advances of and killed a Stygian officer, forcing her to flee. Conan tries to get her to head towards the coast but she refuses, causing a standoff only interrupted by the sound of their horses being torn apart by what Valeria assumes are lions. They rush back towards the pool and find an elephant sized reptilian monster with a scorpion-like tail. The monster rushes towards them and they scramble back up the rocks, realizing what the skeleton was doing there in the first place as the beast, which Conan assumes is a dragon, waits at the foot of the hill, trapping them. As they ponder their situation, made worse that the only food available within reach are poisonous Apples of Derketa, Valeria shows Conan the walled city in the distance. Seeing civilization gives Conan an idea, and he gathers several branches and sticks together with his sword sticking out of the center, tying them into a sturdy bundle with vine. With his makeshift spear, he stabs some poisoned fruit with the sword tip and coats it with purple liquid. He then climbs as low as he dared and cries out to the "dragon," who eventually extends its neck fully and roars, at which point Conan thrusts his weapon as deep into the monster's mouth as he can manage. The enraged and bleeding dragon redoubles its efforts to climb the crag but loses its strength as it succumbs to the poison. The creature lumbers off to the pool to drink, and Conan and Valeria race for the city. It is not long before the dinosaur-like creature, blind with rage and poison and hunting by smell, is on their trail again, far quicker than Conan anticipated. Realizing they won't make it to safety, Conan pushes Valeria out of the way and simply lunges at the beast with his sword, cutting the creature deeply and being knocked fifty feet back in the process. The beast crashes headlong into a large tree and stays there. The two travel out of the forest and see the city a few miles away. They move a safe distance from the trees, puzzled as to why there don't seem to be any crop fields or animal herds to feed such a large city, and sit down to rest for the night.
2. By the Blaze of the Fire Jewels
Upon finally reaching the walled city, they notice the gates rusted shut and covered with dust and webs; the city is abandoned and dead. Valeria notes there might be treasure inside, and Conan manages to push the rusted door inward, snapping the bolt on the inside and revealing not an open courtyard or streets but only a long enclosed passage carved from jade stretching into the distance. Turning back to close the door, Conan notes that the broken bolt was closed from the inside, meaning that the people did not flee the city, rather trapping themselves inside. They begin to travel the road, lit by skylights far above, and while they see cobwebs, there is no accumulation of dust in the jade city. They find friezes on the wall depicting what seem like easterners, but every open door and chamber they explore is completely bare. Conan investigates an ivory staircase while Valeria rests, but she hears the soft sounds of a man moving through the corridor. Hiding behind a column, she observes the dark skinned, scimitar-armed man creep down the corridor, literally shaking with fear. He enters a room and moments later she hears a choked cry. She rushes to the door and sees the man lying a level below in a pool of blood in the middle of the chamber. Moments later a second man enters and moves to the man, lifting his head to see a cut throat. Before he can do much than gasp, a spectral skull appears on a balcony, its glow paralyzing the man in terror and magic, and as the skull drifts down to kill the man, the shape of a human hazily appearing inside the glow, Valeria, leaps forward and slashes at the shape, killing the man behind the illusory skull. Snapping out of his trance, the man, Techotl, speaking in a Stygian dialect, insists that they run to join his clan at the western gates, warning her not to touch the magical skull that still glowed and pulsated next to the corpse. Ignoring him, she crushes the artifact just as four new men race into the room, adorned with breastplates depicting a white skull, attacking immediately. Fortunately, Conan returns and the newcomers are easily dispatched, and Techotl leads the two to his people's encampment, Tecuhltli, across the city. Techotl explains that his "city" is at war with the opposing "city" of Xuchotl, and citizens of both prowl the enclosed streets of the giant structure. Conan hears sounds from a room ahead, and Techotl, not wanting to risk another encounter, leads them down some stairs into a darkened corridor. Unfortunately, whatever was upstairs throws a skull down below, and some shape begins to trudge forth in the darkness. A frantic Techotl searches for the exit while Conan swings his sword at the mass, with something chilling touching his foot. Techotl says it is the Crawler, and, upon finding a door, runs through the halls until he reaches the bronze door leading to Tecuhltli.
3. The People of the Feud
After several tense moments in which the occupants on the other side of the door observe Techotl and his new companions, with the sound of something approaching from the next hallway, the door finally opens as Conan catches a glimpse of a hideous crimson-stained head turn the corner. Techotl takes them to Prince Olmec, who greets the slayers or so many enemies warmly although his consort, Tascela, looks suspiciously on Valeria. Five red nails are triumphantly hammered into the wall behind the prince to represent the deaths. During a feast, Conan casually mentions the beast he slew outside in the forest, and the shocked Tecuhltlians explain that their ancestors were trapped in the city generations ago by the "dragons", which they assumed immortal and unbeatable. The ancestors came across the decadent and isolated city and warred with an conquered the slothish inhabitants with the assistance of an escaped slave, Tolkemec. They were ruled jointly by Tolkemec and the brothers Techultli and Xotalanc until fifty years prior, lust for a woman split them into three camps. Twelve years ago, Tolkemec was defeated by the forces of Techultli, though a presumably mortally wounded Tolkemec vanished. The remaining two camps hide in their respective fortified chambers, leaving only to stalk the halls to slay the enemy, and each have been whittled down to less than 50 men. Olmec asks the two to help him destroy the Xotalancas in return for treasure and assistance in escaping the city and dragon-infested jungle, despite the objections of Tascela. As Valeria and Conan are led to their rooms for the night, Conan questions Techotl about the apparent antagonism Tascela has shown them, and a disturbed Techotl reveals that Tascela is the woman from 50 years ago, eternally youthful due to witchcraft, who caused the schism in the first place. But he will say no more.
4. Scent of Black Lotus
Valeria is led to a private room and after she settles for the night, she is awoken by Yasala, maid to Tascela, who has sneaked into the room and is attempting to drug Valeria with a black lotus flower. Valeria captures and tortures the maid but the girl escapes and flees through the corridors into the catacombs. Valeria follows her to the door into the darkness below and takes a few hesitant steps before deciding not to pursue, but then hears faint cries pleading for help from deep inside the tombs. Valeria rushes to her room to dress and arm herself, intending on rousing Conan and leaving this city for good when cries of agony and battle fill the halls.
5. Twenty Red Nails
Minutes before, the Xotalancas had approached the door leading to Tecuhltli. The invaders covered their ears as one began to play on a magical pipe, driving the Tecuhltli guard insane as he threw open the door. They quickly spread through the halls in attack, but the larger numbers of the Tecuhltli, with the assistance of Conan and Valeria, soon overwhelm the attackers. Valeria and Techotl are injured in the fray, so Conan takes the soldiers Yanath and Topal with him to find out of the Xotalancas had sent their entire army to attack. They reach the abandoned section of the city, and discover the body of the monstrous, serpentine Crawler, wounded by Conan, which had crawled back to die. A series of dismembered heads of slain family drives Yanath to despair and madness, and he fatally wounds Topal before Conan can stop him. As Conan tries to comfort Topal in his last moments, the soldier attempts to stab Conan with a hidden dagger. He claims that Olmec ordered Conan's execution. Conan returns to Techultli, but encounters a dying Techotl, who tells him Olmec has taken Valeria, and when Techotl opposed him, Olmec attacked him. Techotl dies, and Conan, in a rage, continues to Techultli, but he stops when he hears the sound of a screaming man, and we investigates down a side corridor, he is shocked to see Olmec bound to a torture device!
6. The Eyes of Tascela
Earlier, Valeria had been taken to a private chamber to have her leg bandaged. Olmec entered the room under and after a short tussle, grabbed her and ran out the room with her. A delirious Valeria noted that Techotl was following but when he confronted Olmec, the Prince beat and stabbed him. Olmec takes Valeria to another room and tries to force her to drink a drugged wine, but Valeria manages to fend him off. They are interrupted by Tascela who berates Olmec for trying to keep Valeria to himself. Olmec curses the ageless witch, but her powers hold him in her thrall and she has him drink a paralytic potion. Valeria attempts to flee but an impossibly fast and strong Tascela stops her and ties her to a chair. Olmec collapses to the floor and Tascela opens a door to a torture chamber and drags Olmec into it, shutting the door behind her. Soon, Tascela returns alone and tells Valeria that she will be used keep Tascela's youthful appearance...
7. He Comes from the Dark
Olmec, tied to a rack as a great iron ball slowly crushes his chest, begs Conan to let him free, but Conan refuses. He demands to know where Valeria is, and Olmec tells him Tascela has her and intends to suck Valeria's life force away in order to remain young. He says he can get Conan into Tecuhltli via a secret way, so a wary Conan releases the prince and they head for a hidden side passage. They rush through corridors until Conan is distracted by a scream from Valeria. Olmec takes the opportunity to ambush Conan, but fails and is killed in turn. Conan continues to the throne room, where Valeria is being held tight by a man and woman while eleven others stand in a ritualistic circle with Tascela lounging on the throne. Conan bursts into the room but doesn't see the steel trap in front of the door, and it closes around his leg. Tascela begins the spell to steal the lifeforce of Valeria, but is interrupted by the appearance of a white haired, raggedly dressed wild man - Tolkemec, alive all these years and living in the maze of passages in secret and madness. He holds a wand and aims its crimson beam at Tascela, but one of the women holding Valeria down is struck instead, and is instantly killed, drained of life and mummified. Valeria takes the opportunity to roll off the dais and crawl away as Tolkemec slaughters Tascela's followers with the magic wand. Tascela frees Conan from the trap, begging for protection, and as the mad former king aims his wand at Conan, Conan hurls a dagger and slays him, the beam narrowly missing Conan. Tascela leaps for the wand, but Valeria is faster and plunges a dagger deep into the witch's back. All are dead and Conan and Valeria make plans to head for the coast.


  • Conan
  • Valeria, Aquilonian pirate and adventuress
  • Techotl, Tlazitlan *
  • Olmec, Prince of Tlazitlan *
  • Tascela, Stygian witch *
  • Tolkemec *
  • Yasala, maid *
  • Yanath, Tlazitlan *
  • Topal, Tlazitlan *


  • Xuchotl

Continuity Notes[]

  • For some two years as captain of the Wastrel, Conan continues a highly successful career as a freebooter. However, the other Zingaran pirates, jealous of the outlander in their midst, at last bring him down off the coast of Shem. Escaping inland and hearing that wars are in the offing along the borders of Stygia, Conan joins the Free Companions, a band of condottieri under the command of one Zarallo. Instead of rich plunder, however, he finds himself engaged in uneventful guard duty in the border post of Sukhmet, on the frontier of the black kingdoms. The wine is sour and the pickings poor, and Conan soon gets bored of black women. His boredom ends with the appearance in Sukhmet of Valeria of the Red Brotherhood, a woman pirate whom he had known in his Barachan days. When she takes drastic measures to repulse a Stygian officer, Conan follows her south into the land of the blacks. - Conan the Warrior
  • Conan is in his late thirties.

Miller/Clark/deCamp Chronology
Previous Story:
"The Pool of the Black One"
"Red Nails Next Story:
"Jewels of Gwahlur"
Robert Jordan Chronology
Previous Story:
Conan the Buccaneer
Red Nails Next Story:
"Jewels of Gwahlur"
William Galen Gray Chronology
Previous Story:
Conan the Buccaneer
Red Nails Next Story:
Conan and the Gods of the Mountain
Joe Marek Chronology
Previous Story:
"The Pool of the Black One"
Red Nails Next Story:
"Teeth of Gwahlur"
Dale Rippke Chronology
Previous Story:
The Black Stranger
Red Nails Next Story:
"The Servants of Bit-Yakin"


  • Red NailsSavage Tales 2-3 (Marvel Comics, October 1973 & February 1974)
    • reprinted in Marvel Treasury Edition #4
    • reprinted in Conan Saga #9-11
    • reprinted in The Chronicles of Conan: Volume 4: The Song of Red Sonja and Other Stories (Dark Horse Comics, 2004)
  • Conan: Red Nails (2006) • animated movie (in production)

Publication history[]