We start in media res with a ship’s master in Argos annoyed to find a mailed horseman leaping off his steed to the ship as it’s easing off the piles. It seems that Conan is being pursued by a squad of horsemen and archers on foot trudging behind, so push off now!
They’re sailing all the way from Argos to Kush, which is fine by Conan, a mercenary who found no work in Argos but did find trouble with the law.
“Well, last night in a tavern, a captain in the king’s guard offered violence to the sweetheart of a young soldier, who naturally ran him through. But it seems there is some cursed law against killing guardsmen, and the boy and his girl fled away. It was bruited about that I was seen with them, and so today I was hauled into court, and a judge asked me where the lad had gone. I replied that since he was a friend of mine, I could not betray him. Then the court waxed wroth, and the judge talked a great deal about my duty to the state, and society, and other things I did not understand … the judge squalled that I had shown contempt for the court, and that I should be hurled into a dungeon to rot until I betrayed my friend. So then, seeing they were all mad, I drew my sword and cleft the judge’s skull; then I cut my way out of the court, and seeing the high constable’s stallion tied near by, I rode for the wharfs,”
Values Dissonance alert: Conan and the crew of the Argus are bound for Kush to buy “ivory, copper ore, slaves and pearls.”
Howard’s brief, lush descriptions of the countries they pass on the way to Kush is worth quoting, as it also captures some of the racial bias we’ll be seeing repeatedly:
They sighted the coast of Shem–long rolling meadowlands with the white crowns of the towers of cities in the distance, and horsemen with blue-black beards and hooked noses, who sat their steeds along the shore and eyed the galley with suspicion. She did not put in; there was scant profit in trade with the sons of Shem.
Nor did master Tito pull into the broad bay where the Styx river emptied its gigantic flood into the ocean, and the massive black castles of Khemi loomed over the blue waters. Ships did not put unasked into this port, where dusky sorcerers wove awful spells in the murk of sacrificial smoke mounting eternally from blood-stained altars where naked women screamed, and where Set, the Old Serpent, arch-demon of the Hyborians but god of the Stygians, was said to writhe his shining coils among his worshippers.
Master Tito gave that dreamy glass-floored bay a wide berth, even when a serpent-prowed gondola shot from behind a castellated point of land, and naked dusky women, with great red blossoms in their hair, stood and called to his sailors, and posed and postured brazenly.
(Stygia is Egypt, which practices human sacrifice while the pre-Greek, Germanic etc. Hyborians don’t, a flagrant reversal of facts. An autodidact history buff should have known.)
They find the smoking ruins of a Kushite village, which Master Tito identifies as pirates’s work. He says they’ll try to outrun any pirate ship they encounter, but they can beat off reavers if there’s no other choice, unless it’s Belit. So of course they encounter Belit, a Shemite woman whose galley is crewed by more than eighty black warriors. Conan starts exchanging arrows with the minority who aren’t manning the eighty oars, noting that he learned archery among the Hyrkanians (so he’s already been as far as the Caspian Sea in the gap between the thief stories and this one). Tito and all the steersmen die and Conan takes over, but only briefly, as the Argus is rammed, grappled, and spearmen jump to fight the merchant rowers. We get some nice description of how Conan can survive fighting outnumbered: he’s wearing armor and puts his back to a mast so he can’t be surrounded.
Belit calls off her men and Conan falls in lust, a feeling that’s apparently mutual, as she basically proposes on the spot due to the allure of his physical power: “I am a queen by fire and steel and slaughter–be thou my king!”
Time passes, and one day they pull in to the river Zarkheba, where a Stygian galley once fled from Belit upstream and washed back downstream days later with its cargo but only one man, and he was gibbering insanely. She believes there’s a walled city somewhere on that river: let’s go sack it! Hmm, seems like a bad idea if you’ve established it’s a Lovecraftian city of death and madness, but OK.
On the way there, Conan and Belit debate theology and life after death. The plot-relevant part is Belit saying “Were I still in death and you fighting for life, I would come back from the abyss to aid you” They also lose a man to random encounter with a giant water snake. Then they come to the city, and find it a ruin where the only sign of life is a great bird/bat/winged ape that flies off a spire. The black men are afraid to go try to loot the open-air dungeon, and they’re clearly in the right. She makes four of them lift up an altar by handholds and stops her lover from helping them: she foresaw that lifting it would trigger a falling stone trap that kills the four lifters. Sure enough, the trapped altar covered a chest high as a woman’s arms full of diamonds, rubies, bloodstones, sapphires, turquoises, moonstones, opals, emeralds, amethysts, etc.
They see the bat-thing perch on the ship. Conan runs to investigate and returns reporting the thing destroyed their water casks. He leads twenty men away from the putrid river to find fresh water. His face gets close enough to a black lotus blossom to smell it, but while “juice was death, [its] scent brought dream-haunted slumber.”
He dreams that the city was built by winged humanoids before even lungfish evolved. The individuals were mortal but the species endured over geological time, and eventually an earthquake “caused the river to run black for days with some lethal substance spewed up from the subterranean depths, a frightful chemical change … Many died who drank of it; and in those who lived, the drinking wrought change, subtle, gradual and grisly” … basically the Devonian angels evolved into cannibal ape demons. His dream reaches human history, and he sees the ape demon transform people it encounters into werehyenas, then he sees himself arriving, and his sub-chief N’Gora attacked by the creature. So waking up, Conan obviously has to fight N’Gora and more werehyenas. He hurries to the ship, where he finds Belit hanging from the yardarm strangled by the very ruby necklace she stole!
Conan grieves by giving Belit a funeral on the ship. He thinks the demon is toying with him, letting him fill with grief and fear before attacking. Eventually it sends twenty werehyenas and he kills some with arrows before he runs out (combat scenes are better when you track ammo!), then fights with his sword until they reach grappling range, and finally fights two bare-handed. Then he’s knocked down by the flying demon and is about to be killed when… Belit’s ghost interposes herself! Her intervention holds the monster while Conan gets up and cuts the thing in half just above the hips.
Then it’s back to the ship with Belit’s cloak-wrapped body… he gets her out to sea all by himself, then sets it on fire from shore. And… come on, man, you discarded the treasure?!
For those who don’t know, the character Belit was copied from the title character of H. Rider Haggard’s 1886-7 novel She, about an immortal Middle Eastern woman who’s lived for 2,000 years as a goddess in Africa. Why Belit’s crew would worship her when she lacks She’s god-like qualities goes unexplained. Howard must have assumed 1934 readers would take it for granted that this is just what black men do. That’s the “white goddess” trope, which shows us that 1880s-1930s Anglo-American racism considered Semitic peoples white.
Of the original Conan stories, this is objectively the one that most captured the imagination of future writers. The first comic book to feature Conan was published in Mexico starting in 1952, not under his name but La Reina de la Costa Negra. When writing Marvel’s Conan comic in the 1970s, Roy Thomas stretched his time with Belit over 3 1/2 years of monthly issues.