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Beyond the Black River

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Beyond the Black River

Beyond the Black River

Beyond the Black River is a novella by Robert E. Howard first published in Weird Tales 25 5-6 (May, June 1935).


1. Conan Loses His Ax.
A young settler named Balthus walks blissfully unaware through a forest trail when the sound of combat draws his attention. He hides behind a tree and sees Conan step into the open, having just slain a Pictish robber who was about to ambus Balthus. Conan had been tracking the Pict for some hours, as he has been chasing the encroaching Picts on commission from nearby Fort Velitrium. The Aquilonians have expanded their western border from the traditional Thunder River to the Black River (territory the Aquilonians have renamed Conajohara), and the Picts have begun crossing the Black River to rob and pillage. The two walk to Veletrium as dusk settles, but a scream causes Conan to plunge into the woods with Balthus right behind. They stop when they see a torn apart corpse, which Conan identifies as Tiberias, a merchant who ran afoul of a Pictish sorcerer named Zogar Sag. Zogar had pledged to kill Tiberias and four others who had imprisoned him, and has sent forest and swamp demons to do the deed, always stealing the heads. Vowing that Tiberius's head will remain on his body, Conan builds crude litter to carry him and the two continue to the fort. A mile along the path, as twilight sets in, both jump when they hear the scream of a woman and they both plunge into the leafy canopy. After a few minutes, they hear the scream behind them, though it turns into a cackling laughter. Realizing they were being drawn away from the body, Conan runs back to the now headless corpse. The two men catch a glimpse of a glowing blue, floating figure and Conan hurls his axe at it to no avail. Sighing, the two pick up the litter and continue their journey.
2. The Wizard of Gawawela
Conan and Balthus arrive at Veletrium and are immediately ushered to the governor, Valannus. He is shocked but not necessarily surprised of Tiberias's death, and worries that the soldiers will soon start to abandon the fort. He asks Conan to lead a battalion into the jungle to slay Zogar Sag. Conan agrees, though he decides that a dozen men in secret stand a better chance than a trampling horde. Balthus eagerly volunteers to go on the expedition.
3. The Crawlers in the Dark
That night, Conan, Balthus, and ten more men hand picked by Conan paddle a canoe silently down the river. A mile from Zogar Sag's village, Conan and nine of the men slip ashore into the forest as Balthus and the last man wait in the silent dark either for their return or dawn. After a bit, Balthus notices the canoe begin to drift and, when he tries to tell his companion, he discovers his throat slit. Before Balthus can cry out, hands reach from the darkness to choke him. Balthus stabs wildly with his knife and stabs deep into his attacker, who lets go. Balthus yells but many more men climb into the boat and subdue him into unconsciousness.
4. The Beast of Zogar Sag

The Fort Commander, Valannus, is a desperate man and asks Conan to slay Zogar Sag before he raises the Picts against the whole borderlands. 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. And they are on Conan's trail now.

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.

Balthus is sent on to warn settlers of the Picts to come, and Conan parts from him to warn salt gatherers. Conan manages to warn the salt men in time, but finds he has been marked for death by the gods of darkness for misusing the symbol of Jhebbal Sag. In the end Conan triumphs, some settlers are saved, but the Fort and Balthus are lost.




Continuity NotesEdit

Heading for Punt with Muriela, Conan carries out his scheme for relieving those worshipers of an ivory goddess some of their abundant gold. He then continues to Zembabwei. In the city of the twin kings he joins a trading caravan, which he squires northward along the desert borders - borders patrolled by his one-time Zuagir marauders - bringing it safely into Shem. He continues northwards across the Hyborian kingdoms to his bleak homeland. Conan is now around forty, with few signs of his years save a more deliberate approach to wenching and the pursuit of trouble. Back in Cimmeria, he finds some of his contemporaries raising families in their turn and tempering their northern hardihood with little luxuries, which filter up from softer Hyborian lands. Even so, no Hyborian colonist has crossed the Cimmerian borders since the destruction of Venarium, more than two decades before. Now, however, the Aquilonians are spreading westward, through the Bossonian Marches into the fringes of the Pictish wilderness. So thither, seeking work for his sword, goes Conan. He enrolls as a scout at Fort Tuscelan, the last Aquilonian outpost on the east bank of the Black River, deep in Pictish territory. Here a fierce tribal war with the Picts is in progress. - Conan the Warrior

Publication historyEdit

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