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The Phoenix on the Sword

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"The Phoenix on the Sword" is a novelette by Robert E. Howard first published in Weird Tales 20 6 (December 1932).

This is the very first Conan story, a reworking of Howard's own Kull story, "By This Axe I Rule!", which had been rejected for publication.

Plot SummaryEdit

An attempted coup of King Conan is stymied by a visitation of an ancient defender of the Aquilonia.

Detailed SynopsisEdit

In a small room inside a dim alley in Aquilonia, the Stygian Thoth-Amon meets with the outlaw Ascalante to discuss plans to overthrow Conan. Ascalante has been using the so-called Rebel Four to sow unrest in the city; the schemers include Dion, baron of Attalus, who seeks to instill himself as the new king; Volmana, count of Karaban who wishes to be reinstated into royal favor, as he was under the old king; Gromel, the commander of the Black Legion who desires control over the entire army; and Rinaldo, a famed poet who sees Conan as a barbarian unfit to rule the kingdom.

The "Rebel Four" have sought out Ascalante, the former count of Thune turned outlaw who raided caravans in the deserts to the south. Ascalante's ambitions were rekindled by the plot, and he has been organizing a coup against Conan for months, seeking to instill Baron Dion. However, Ascalante is also planning on turning against his fellow conspirators, whom he sees as tools. Ascalante plans on taking the throne from Dion after the coup is over. Ascalante has been the mastermind behind the conspiracy, and has ensured that the Conan is unguarded. Using Dion's wealth and resources, Ascalante has emboldened the invading Picts by smuggling strong liquor to them. The assault of the Picts calls for a dispatch of Imperial forces, and imperial squadrons had ridden out towards the frontier days before the coup. The rest of the imperial garrison is escorting Count Trocero, who had been summoned to Nemedia by King Numa, in a meeting pushed for by Volmana, who has royal kin in Nemedia.

The only other force in the city besides the Black Legion (under the command of Gromel) is Conan's personal guard. Through Gromel, Ascalante has bribed an debt-ridden officer of the guard to lead his men away from Conan's chamber at midnight. Over the course of months, the poet Rinaldo has been sowing dissent among the population of the city, many who have come to resent their new king. Rinaldo has also sanctified the old king Numedides and the old dynasty, to the point where a statue of him has been constructed in the city's temple to Mitra. With much of the populace turned against Conan and mourning the old dynasty, Rinaldo has ensured that Conan's murder and replacement by Dion (who claims connections to the old dynasty) will be welcomed.

Thoth-Amon resents his master, but obeys as Ascalante is blackmailing him into servitude and without his Ring his power is diminished. Ascalante doesn't trust Dion to maintain his composure during the coup, and fears that he may buckle under the pressure and mess up the entire plot at the last minute. Therefore, Ascalante sends Thoth-Amon to watch over Dion and ensure that the baron does nothing to foil the scheme.
The night before the coup is to take place, Conan, unaware of the danger, talks to his right-hand man, the knight Prospero. Conan reflects on the difficulties of being king, and how the populace that had once welcomed him as a liberator now despise him. Prospero says it is Rinaldo's fault, and that Conan should have him executed. Conan disagrees, believing that Rinaldo has a greater influence over Conan's image and legacy than Conan himself, saying that he Rinaldo's songs will outlive Conan himself. Prospero is set to leave the city with the imperial escort later that night, leaving Conan. Conan wishes that he could abandon his kingly duties and travel with Prospero, in part because he senses unrest and danger looming in the future. Prospero assures Conan he has nothing to worry about, and departs for Nemedia.
Meanwhile, Thoth-Amon is busy watching over Dion in his garden. Despite, Thoth-Amon's assurances, Dion grows increasingly nervous, lost in thought. Thoth-amon strikes up conversation, but Dion pays little attention. Thoth-Amon tells Dion of his rapid ascension in the royal court of Stygia, where he became a favorite sorcerer of King Ctesphon. The other magicians of the court hated him, but feared Thoth-Amon's power, which came from the Serpent Ring of Set, a powerful artifact found in an ancient tomb, capable of summoning beings from "outside". However, after a thief stole the ring from Thoth-Amon, his powers were broken, and, fearing the vengeance of the disgruntled magicians, he disguised himself as a camel-driver and fled Stygia. While traveling in Koth, Thoth-Amon's caravan was attacked by Ascalante and his men. Only by revealing his identity and swearing servitude did Thoth-Amon survive. It is because Ascalante knows Thoth-Amon's identity that he is able to blackmail him into servitude, having given a hermit priest instructions to make Thoth-Amon's identity known if he were to betray or kill his master.

Thoth-Amon finishes telling his story to Dion, offering a bargain to the soon-to-be king: he would serve Dion and reclaim the ring under the new king's protection. However, it turns out that Dion had not been paying attention at all to Thoth-Amon, disregarding what the lower-class slave said as unimportant due to his status. Upon hearing mention of a "ring", Dion snaps out of his thoughts and remembers his ring of good fortune, which he bought from a Shemitish thief. Looking for all the luck he can get, Dion reveals his secret compartment of treasures and trinkets, and pulls out the ring. Thoth-Amon recognizes the ring as the Serpent Ring of Set, and, driven by rage towards Dion and consuming greed, immediately kills the baron by stabbing him with a dagger. Having his powers restored, Thoth-Amon conjures a creature to seek out and kill Ascalante.
In the hours before midnight, Conan lies asleep in his chamber. Conan dreams of wandering through the tomb of Epemitreus the Sage, who has been dead for 1,500 years and is foretold to return to help Aquilonia in her times of need. Epemitreus offers a warning to Conan of danger and darkness looming around him, and tells him of how he spent his life fighting the forces of the god Set and his followers. Epemitreus asks Conan to present him his sword, and after Conan complies, the ancient magically carves a symbol into the cross-guard of Conan's sword. It is after this that Conan wakes up in his chamber, sword in hand. He is bewildered by the fact that his sword now bares a symbol of a phoenix carved into the cross-guard, just like Epemitreus had done in his dream. Sensing danger, the alert Conan begins to don his armor.
Meanwhile, Ascalante, Volmana, Gromel, Rinaldo, and 16 hired rogues sneak through the halls of Conan's palace, mostly unarmored and wielding daggers, swords, and axes. After the bribed officer leads the royal guard from Conan's door at midnight, the assassins set their murder into motion, and Gromel breaks down the chamber door. However, instead of catching Conan off-guard, they find the king ready to meet them, with sword in hand and partially covered with armor (though he lacks a helmet and side-pieces to his cuirass). Though surprised, the assailants know they have the advantage and charge into the room. Gromel, the only one in full armor (aside from Volmana), leads the charge, but Conan manages to cleave through Gromel's helmet with a single, mighty swing, shattering both Gromel's helmet and Conan's sword.

The rest of the assassins charge at Conan, engaging him in full combat. Conan tosses aside the sword haft, and uses an ancient battle-axe that was hanging on the wall for the remainder of the fight. Ascalante sends five men to guard the door, making sure Conan cannot escape. Over the course of the fight, Conan kills Volmana and disarms Rinaldo, desperately trying not to kill the beloved poet and incur the anger of his people. However, Rinaldo comes back with a dagger and charges at Conan. Conan only kills Rinaldo after the poet had stabbed him in the side, attempting not to kill him until the last possible moment. Though Conan has significantly thinned their numbers (killing at least nine men), he has received a great many lacerations and wounds, and is quickly losing blood.

Conan's assailants have him backed into a corner, and Ascalante is about to lay the final blow on Conan when the crowd of attackers is interrupted by cries of terror from the men guarding the door. The assassins surrounding Conan turn towards the source of fear, and see the creature summoned by Thoth-amon, who resembles a large and monstrous baboon. All the men notice the beast and let out cries of fear before turning to flee, but the creature remains unnoticed to Conan and Ascalante, whose attentions are focused solely on the other as they prepare for their final combat. Ascalante is about to stab Conan when he is clawed in the back and pounced upon by the creature. Ascalante comes face-to-face with the monster, whose face is maddeningly horrific and fills the man with dread. Just before Ascalante is killed by the beast, he notices a slight but terrible resemblance between the beast and Thoth-amon, letting out a ghastly cry as his normally self-sure attitude gives way.

As Ascalante is torn into, Conan charges at the beast, ferociously swinging at the creature's head with his axe. However, the axe bounces off the skull as if it were a rock. The beast, now focused on Conan, slams his body into him and throws him across the chamber. The creature climbs on top of Conan, his jaw locked on Conan's arm, but the creature seems uninterested in killing his target. Conan locks eyes with the beast, and is filled with fear by the demonic nature of the eyes, so scared that his yell of hatred comes out as a dry rattle. However, the same fear that paralyzed Ascalante fills Conan with fury, and using the last of his energy, Conan reaches around the floor for a weapon. He grabs the hilt of his broken sword from earlier, and plunges the shattered blade into the beast. However, instead of bouncing off like the axe, the sword, bearing the mark of the phoenix, plunges into the beast, and causes the creature to writhe and cringe in pain, killing it.

At this point, the royal court and guardsmen (sans the corrupt officer) have awakened and bursts into the chamber to see what the commotion was about. Publius and Pallantides notice their wounded king and the royal physician attends to his wounds. The identity of Conan's attackers is discovered, and Publius asks why Ascalante's corpse has such a horrified look on its face. Conan begins to tell the court about the beast, but notices that the beast's corpse has disappeared. The court begins to suspect their king is delirious, causing Conan to tell everybody about his dream and how he believes Epemitreus had a hand in killing the beast. In the middle of Conan's description of his dream, he is cut off by the high-priest of Mitra. The high-priest reveals that the legendary tomb of Epemitreus, carved into the mountain Golamira and supposedly guarded by a phoenix has been lost since the sage's death and has been unentered for 1,500 years. The knowledge of the tomb is one of the cult of Mitra's greatest secrets, and that no one but the inner circle of acolytes know about it. Conan shows the high-priest his shattered sword, and the priest is surprised by the presence of the phoenix symbol. He believes Conan had communicated with Epemitreus that night, and calls for somebody to shine a light over where the corpse of the beast was. A fear spreads over the court as they see a shadowy stain in the position where the beast had fallen.


* - dies in this story


Continuity NotesEdit

Storming the capital city and slaying King Numedides on the steps of his throne - which he promptly takes for his own - Conan, now in his early or mid-forties, finds himself the king of the greatest of the Hyborian nations. A king's life, however, proves no bed of houris. Within the year, the minstrel Rinaldo is chanting defiant ballads in praise of the "martyred" Numedides. Ascalante, Count of Thune, is gathering a group of plotters to topple the barbarian from his throne. Conan finds that people have short memories, and that he, too, suffers from the uneasiness of head that goes with crown - Conan the Usurper

Miller/Clark/deCamp Chronology
Previous Story:
Conan the Liberator
"The Phoenix on the Sword" Next Story:
"The Scarlet Citadel"
Robert Jordan Chronology
Previous Story:
Conan the Liberator
"The Phoenix on the Sword" Next Story:
"The Scarlet Citadel"
William Galen Gray Chronology
Previous Story:
Conan the Liberator
"The Phoenix on the Sword" Next Story:
"The Scarlet Citadel"
Joe Marek Chronology
Previous Story:
"Wolves Beyond the Border"
"The Phoenix on the Sword" Next Story:
"The Scarlet Citadel"
Dale Rippke Chronology
Previous Story:
"Wolves Beyond the Border"
"The Phoenix on the Sword" Next Story:
"The Scarlet Citadel"

Publication historyEdit


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