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).

Plot Summary[edit | edit source]

Conan and young Balthus attempt to thwart the conquests of the Pictish sorceror Zogar Sag.

Detailed Synopsis[edit | edit source]

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 ambush Balthus. Conan had been tracking the Pict for some hours, as he has been chasing the encroaching Picts on commission from nearby Fort Tuscelan. 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 Tuscelan 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 Gwawela
Conan and Balthus arrive at Fort Tuscelan 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 Beasts of Zogar Sag
Balthus awakens next to a pyramid made of the stacked heads of Conan's patrol party. Only one woodsman remains alive, tied to a post, and he and Balthus compare notes. They are in a Pictish village, Gwawela, though the number of war-paint decorated men milling about far exceeds the size the village can contain. Zogar Sag himself steps out of a hut and approaches the woodsman. Zogar whips the Picts into a frenzy and then calls forth a fiendish saber-tooth tiger from the forest that attacks and devours the scout. Zogar then calls forth another creature with which to kill Balthus, and a giant snake slithers into the village. Before it can reach Balthus, a spear penetrates its neck as Conan arrives. He sets fire to the huts as the snake thrashes and in the confusion Conan grabs Balthus and the two flee the village.
5. The Children of Jhebbal Sag
Instead of heading for the river, the two head deeper into the forest. After the wounded serpent is finally put down the villagers notice their prisoner has escaped but assume the escapees are running for the river, giving Conan and Balthus precious time to put distance between themselves and the village. Soon, however, Conan realizes they are being tracked and they hide as a leopard appears down the trail. Conan slays it but knows the villagers can't be too far behind. Balthus wonders why Zogar doesn't send all the beasts of the forest after them, and speculates that Zogar only commands some beasts...specifically, those who have a trace and instinctual memory of the ancient god Jhebbal Sag. On a hunch, Conan scratches a symbol into the ground, one he had seen many times in his journeys and had the meaning explained to him by a witch-finder. The two men crawl into the foliage to wait, and soon a panther comes sniffing up the trail. When it reaches the symbol it stops and backs away in fright, refusing to go further. Conan and Balthus move on, and Conan explains how he escaped the Picts' ambush that killed most of his men. They take refuge on a hill, but when no Picts come near Conan realizes they have abandoned the hunt in order to gather forces for an attack on Tuscelan. They return to the river six miles south of Gwawela, but are ambushed by half a dozen Picts on the river's edge. The two men kill the Picts but are forced to plunge back into the forest.
6. Red Axes of the Border
After running a bit, Conan stops, realizing that even though the bodies of the Picts had been discovered, they are not being chased. Deducing that the attack on the fort is imminent, and he races back to the river in time to see one Pict rowing a canoe. Mimicking the Pict language, Conan calls the rower to the shore, and kills him with an arrow, stealing his canoe. Conan and Balthus cross the river and disembark on the eastern shore, once again racing to the north. They encounter a dog who had been rescued by Conan after Picts killed its master, and the wild animal, Slasher, recognizing Conan, joins their small party. Soon, they see the fort ahead, but it is already surrounded and attacked by the Picts. Conan decides Valannus is already a lost cause and that they need to warn the settlers beyond, deducing that the reason the Picts aren't trying to burn the fort down with fire-arrows is that they don't want the flames to warn the settlers and the stronger Fort Velitrium. As they race towards the settlements, they come across five Picts who have just killed a pair of settlers on the road. A shaken Balthus and Conan attack and kill the distracted Picts but then discover wagon trails leading to the salt licks. The two split up - Balthus continuing on the road to warn as many as possible and Conan to gather the men working the salt licks. Balthus reaches a farmhouse and wakes the woman inside, telling her to grab her children and make for Veletrium. They gather more and more settlers as they slowly flee down the road. Balthus realizes the Picts will overtake them and positions himself and Slasher to ambush them and give the settlers as much time as possible. Balthus downs several Picts with his bow, and Slasher prowls the forest killing a fair share too, but soon their position is discovered and overwhelmed.
7. The Devil in the Fire
Conan finds the men working the salt licks and explains the situation. The whole party heads for the fort, with Conan lagging a bit behind to watch their backs. He hears Balthus's voice call faintly from the road, but instead a creature covered with green and blue flame, a swamp devil, steps forward. The creature reveals it to be the half-brother of Zogar Sag, connected so that injuries to one are felt by the other. The creature taunts Conan and attacks, but Conan beheads it with a mighty swing.
8. Conajohara No More
Some time later Conan sits in Velitrium drinking a flagon of wine and talking with a forester. Conan explains that the Picts attacked the walls With ferocity, but soon lost their nerve. The forester, the only survivor of Fort Tuscelan, reveals that Zogar Sag collapsed dead for no apparent reason and the Picts lost their will to fight. The women and children had made it to Velitrium safely, but only because of Balthus's efforts, and his body and the body of Slasher, was found atop a mound of dead Picts. Conan vows to avenge his friend with the heads of even more Picts, but for now the fighting is over - Conajohara has been abandoned and the Thunder River is Aquilonia's boundary again.

Characters[edit | edit source]

* - dies in this story

Locations[edit | edit source]

Continuity Notes[edit | edit source]

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

Miller/Clark/deCamp Chronology
Previous Story:
The Jewels of Gwahlur
"Beyond the Black River" Next Story:
The Phoenix on the Sword
Robert Jordan Chronology
Previous Story:
"The Ivory Goddess"
"Beyond the Black River" Next Story:
The Black Stranger
William Galen Gray Chronology
Previous Story:
Conan the Rogue
"Beyond the Black River" Next Story:
Moon of Blood
Joe Marek Chronology
Previous Story:
The Jewels of Gwahlur
"Beyond the Black River" Next Story:
The Black Stranger
Dale Rippke Chronology
Previous Story:
"The Pool of the Black One"
"Beyond the Black River" Next Story:
The Black Stranger

Adaptations[edit | edit source]

Publishing history[edit | edit source]

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