Beyond the Black River
|"Beyond the Black River"|
|Author||Robert E. Howard|
|Series||Conan the Cimmerian|
|Published in||Weird Tales|
|Publication type||Pulp magazine|
|Publication date||May 1935|
|Preceded by||"Jewels of Gwahlur"|
|Followed by||"Shadows in Zamboula"|
"Beyond the Black River" is one of the original short stories about Conan the Cimmerian, written by American author Robert E. Howard and first published in Weird Tales magazine, v. 25, nos. 5-6, May-June 1935. The story was republished in the collections King Conan (Gnome Press, 1953) and Conan the Warrior (Lancer Books, 1967). It has more recently been published in the anthology The Mighty Swordsmen (Lancer Books, 1970), and the collections The Conan Chronicles Volume 2: The Hour of the Dragon (Gollancz, 2001) and Conan of Cimmeria: Volume Three (1935-1936) (Del Rey, 2005). It is set in the pseudo-historical Hyborian Age and concerns Conan fighting the savage Hyborian Picts in the unsettled lands beyond the infamous Black River.
The foreword to the story tells of Conan's travels to Punt with Muriela, refers to a scam perpetrated against worshippers of an ivory goddess and then on to Zembabwei, where he joins a trading caravan on its way to Shem. Around 40 now, Conan visits his homeland and finds his old friends are fathers. Bored, Conan sets off for the Bossonian Marches and becomes a Scout at Fort Tuscelan on the Black River, at the western border of the newly conquered Aquilonian province Conajohara.
A young settler named Balthus encounters Conan in the forests slaying a forest devil. Accompanying the young man back to the Fort, Conan finds the body of a merchant ensorcelled by a Pictish wizard named Zogar Sag and slain by a swamp demon. The Fort Tuscelan Commander, Valannus, desperately asks Conan to slay Zogar Sag before he raises the Picts against the whole borderlands, especially since the fort is vastly undermanned after the Aquilonian king Numedides has foolishly decided to withdraw most of the garrison. Taking a hand picked team of scouts and Balthus, Conan sets off stealthily in canoes.
Balthus is captured and most of Conan's men slaughtered in an ambush. Balthus and one of the Scouts are tied to stakes and the scout is sacrificed by Zogar Sag to one of his jungle creatures. Before Balthus can meet a similar fate, Conan sets the Pictish village on fire and the two flee into the woods. Conan tells Balthus of the cult of Jhebbal Sag, now forgotten by most. Once all living things worshipped him when men and beasts spoke the same language. Over time men and most beasts forgot his worship. Zogar Sag has not, however, and can control those few animals and creatures who also remember, sending them on Conan's trail.
Conan is able to neutralize them using a symbol he once noticed, and the pair hurry to return to the Fort to warn them of the impending Pictish assault, but they are too late. The Picts already are all around the fort, and furious fighting is going on. The number of Picts ensures that eventually the fort will be overwhelmed and the defenders slaughtered. The only thing left to do is warn the settlers to flee while the Picts are busy with the fort - otherwise they will be slaughtered, too.
Conan and Balthus go to warn the settlers that the Picts have crossed the river and are raiding. They are joined by Slasher, a feral dog formerly owned by a settler who had been slain by the Picts. Balthus is sent on to warn settlers of the coming Pict raid, and Conan parts from him to warn a group of settler who had gone to gather salt. Balthus warns women and children to leave their huts and flee. When a band of Picts arrives, who move quicker and might overtake the women, Balthus stays behind to cover their escape. Accompanied by Slasher, he makes a stand against the coming Pict raiders, first shooting arrows from concealment and then in a furious face-to-face battle. The man and dog's sacrifice delays the Picts and gives the settlers time to reach safety. Conan manages to warn the salt-gathering party in time, but finds he has been marked for death by the gods of darkness for misusing the symbol of Jhebbal Sag, and he is attacked by a demonic creature who tells him that it and Zogar Sag are of one blood. Conan triumphs against the creature, but the fort is lost, and so is the entire province.
The story ends in a tavern on the other side of Thunder River, the former boundary to the Pict Lands in Conajohara. A survivor tells Conan about the courageous act of Balthus and Slasher, and how their final stand had delayed the Picts just barely long enough for the settlers to reach safety. He also relates that in the midst of his triumph at Fort Tuscellan, Zogar Sag was mysteriously struck dead, sporting the same kind of wounds Conan had inflicted on the swamp demon. Upon hearing of Balthus' and Slasher's demise, Conan vows to take the heads of ten Picts to pay for Balthus, along with seven heads for the dog, who was "a better warrior than many a man."
- The story was adapted by Roy Thomas, John Buscema and Alfredo Alcala in Savage Sword of Conan #26 and #27.
- The story was also the basis for the GURPS: Conan adventure module "Beyond Thunder River".
- The Sword, on the album Gods of the Earth, based the song "The Black River" on this story.
|Wikisource has original text related to this article:|
- Beyond the Black River title listing at the Internet Speculative Fiction Database
- Conan.com: The Official Website
- Beyond the Black River public domain audiobook at LibriVox
"Jewels of Gwahlur"
| Original Howard Canon
"Shadows in Zamboula"
"The Pool of the Black One"
| Original Howard Canon
(Dale Rippke chronology)
"The Black Stranger"
Conan the Rogue
| Complete Conan Saga
(William Galen Gray chronology)
"Moon of Blood"