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‘A Rustle of Dusky Wings’
An Untitled Conan Fragment by Robert E. Howard
Previously titled ‘A Wolf Who Had Lingered Too Long,’ revised
Reading from pages 405-406, The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, Del Ray, 2003, NY
One of Howard’s best Conan stories was The Frost Giant’s Daughter, which was rejected by his editor. I am of the opinion that this fragment was a second chance at the same theme, with Conan the last survivor on a battlefield:
“Yet one figure moved through that wide-strewn field of ruin—pygmy-like against the vast dully crimson sky.”
This is a dark piece, as Conan wanders the field looking for loot, dragging his great sword behind him, only to find that camp followers and other human scavengers have already taken all the good loot. He hears the moans of a wounded soldier, only to find a bloody naked girl in agony. He decides to put her put of her misery with his sword—rejection notice!—until she pleads for help. Within 250 words he is waist deep in female machinations as he carries the woman to the city outside of which the battle was fought.
“Carrying her carefully, he limped toward the reed-masked river-bank some distance away.”
In Part 2 of the fragment the reader is taken into one of Howard’s better atmospheric horror scenes, as the citizens of the city of Yaralet, which Conan is even then seeking access to, are shivering in dread behind barred windows and bolted doors, “…when night came on, the people barred windows and bolted doors, and sat behind their barriers shuddering, with candles burning before their household gods until dawn etched the minarets. No watchmen walked the streets, no painted wenches beckoned from the shadows, no thieves stole nimbly through the winding alleys.”
Howard then brings us to a conversation between a certain Prince Than and a shrewd philosopher who is afflicted with a muscular disease or nervous condition. Honestly, this fragment had the makings of one of Howard’s best tales. The characters were cleanly etched and Conan takes the stage as he does best, as a brutal barbarian, battle weary, and not about to take any civilized crap, or be deterred by some supernatural terror.
Howard has returned, briefly, in this fragment, to his wolf metaphor for the alienated man at odds with a corrupt world order, represented by the prince and the merchant and their haunted city. If done as a western this could read something like High Plains Drifter.
Aping Howard
I will try my hand at ghostwriting this piece. I have ghost written for much slighter and less vibrant authors and am terribly intimidated by the prospect of trying to write Conan as Howard would, not as I would. Hopefully, once I have reviewed all of the Conan material again, I will feel up to the task. I will keep chapter 1 as is, complete chapter 2, and then write 5 additional chapters, heading each one with the passage from Howard’s beginning of the second chapter that I would base the succeeding chapters upon.
The story is feeling akin to Xuthal of the Dusk in terms of Conan’s approach to the city with the girl. Chapter 2 reminds one of a combination of Rogues in the House and Black Colossus with the horrific underpinnings that haunt Xuthal of the Dusk.
I recall a pastiche by Carter or de Camp titled The Hand of Nergal. Since it has been over 30 years, I do not recall if it was based upon this fragment. If so, I would rather not read the tale but work directly from this fragment. However, if any of the Howard readers following this series have any ideas concerning the direction of this story and the location of Yaralet [I am thinking the Brythunian-Zamoran border at the west most and wondering if this might have been intended as a yarn to showcase some hyperborean sorcery rather than the usual Stygian brand of mummery.] than I will be certain to include your notion in the pastiche.
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Add Comment
deuceJune 2, 2016 10:26 AM UTC

Carter wrote "Nergal", based on this fragment. He didn't do a very good job.

"Yaralet" and "Than" seem to point to a Hyborian city-state next to Zamora, linguistically, though that's not hard and fast.

REH never gave the slightest indication that Hyperborea was steeped in sorcery, certainly not of a Zamoran or Stygian level. Despite all the pastiche crap that De Camp/Carter slathered on later, Howard's model for Hyperborea seems to have been based on early Czarist Russia, just like he read about in Harold Lamb's Cossack tales.
responds:June 3, 2016 9:19 PM UTC

Thanks, deuce.

This is extremely helpful.