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Literature / The Black Stranger

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"The Black Stranger" (a.k.a. "The Treasure of Tranicos") is a Conan the Barbarian story. There are three versions of this story, two by Howard, and one by L. Sprague de Camp. The original version was written in 1934 or 1935, first published in 1987. The second version by Howard was written c. 1936, and was first published in 1976. The de Camp version was first published in 1953, and further modified in 1967.

Fleeing from Pictish warriors, Conan climbs onto a rocky outcrop that his pursuers won't enter. Deciding to investigate, he discovers a room full of treasure, but impossible to enter due to a deadly gas.

Conan wanders to a nearby fort, where resides Count Valenso, a nobleman on the run from a demon, and his niece Belesa and the rescued slave child Tina who Belesa has taken on as her ward. Recently, not one, but two pirate crews have docked at the fort, searching for the legendary treasure of Tranicos. In order to kill two birds with one stone, Conan turns the pirates against each other and leads them to the location of the treasure. All the while, Valenso is growing more delusional, especially after Tina claims to have seen a black figure on the shore.

After coming to blows with the pirates, they are beset upon by Pictish warriors. Conan, realizing they are heading for the fort, runs back as fast as he can to save Belesa and Tina. As the fortress burns around them, the two females are helpless as the black stranger finally reveals himself. Conan battles the demon, and, with a girl under each arm, leaps the walls of the burning fort and makes for the high seas, promising to give Belesa and Tina the new life they had dreamed of.

In the de Camp story, this ending is changed to Conan meeting with the lords of Poitain off the Pictish coast, looking for him to be their leader in a revolution against the Aquilonian king Numedides, which he accepts. Tranicos' treasure is then used to finance the rebel army that overthrows Numedides and brings Conan to the throne of Aquilonia.

The Tropes Stranger:

  • Badass Boast: One of the pirates says he thought Conan was dead because his ship was found destroyed. Conan says, "I didn't drown with my crew. It'll take a bigger ocean than that one to drown me."
  • Battle Amongst the Flames: Valenso's compound goes up in flames at the climax of the story, and Conan has to fight off the black stranger inside.
  • Deadly Gas: The cave with Tranicos's treasure is filled with a lethal purple gas. Conan tries to use this to kill Strom and Zarono, but they realize what's happening when they see Galbro's body.
  • Fox-Chicken-Grain Puzzle: Surprisingly, mentioned by Conan to describe the situation between him, Zarono, and Strom (which may be closer to Prisoner's Dilemma).
    Conan laughed with genuine enjoyment. "This is like the problem of the sheep, the wolf and the cabbage," he admitted. "How to get them across the river without their devouring each other!"
  • Gambit Pileup: Basically every named character has some kind of agenda. Belesa wants to make sure she and Tina are all right. Tina wants the same, though interestingly, she has a better idea of what needs to happen for them to be safe: namely, that Conan needs to survive because he won't hurt them. Conan, Zarono, and Strom all want the treasure for themselves and to kill the others. Zarono has the added goal of making Belesa his bride. Valenso is interested in the treasure, but is far more concerned with making sure the black stranger never catches up to him. Galbro wants the treasure too, but doesn't waste time trying to outmaneuver the others; he just goes after it alone. The black stranger is after Valenso, and the Picts want to destroy everyone.
  • Lady Not-Appearing-in-This-Game: When the story was printed recently in The Conquering Sword of Conan, one picture showed Zarono confronting a topless woman holding a knife. Presumably this was meant to depict him trying to force himself on Belesa and her attempting to fend him off, but no scene like this occurs in the story, and Belesa remains fully dressed and is one of the least sexualized Conan heroines. (The same artist also depicts Tina as a much older, fanservice-y young woman.)
  • Mama Bear: After Valenso savagely whips Tina, Belesa pulls a knife and warns him that she will murder him if he lays a hand on Tina again.
  • Noble Savage: Tina says Conan has a "barbaric code of honor" and insists that Conan is her and Belesa's best chance for survival because he won't hurt them as the other men will. (This "code of honor" apparently only extends to his treatment of women; Conan is just as treacherous and murderous towards the other men as they are towards him.)
  • Pirate Booty: The fabled treasure of "Bloody" Tranicos is the goal for many of the characters.
  • Shoot the Messenger: Valenso has Tina brutally whipped, purely for saying that she has seen the black stranger on the beach.
  • Spanner in the Works: Galbro is one for Conan when his corpse reveals to Strom and Valenso that there is something wrong with the treasure room, spoiling Conan's plans to murder them.
  • A Taste of the Lash: Valenso subjects poor Tina to a horrible whipping in a harrowing scene when she innocently reveals that she has seen the black stranger.
  • Torture Always Works: When Tina says she saw the black man, Valenso goes crazy and starts whipping her. Subverted because he wants to hear a lie, that she did not see the black man. But Tina is too frightened and in too much pain to tell the lie, so it's Double Subverted as she insists even more fervently that she saw the black man, which is the truth.
  • Treasure Map: Strom's mate, Galacus, has one leading to Tranicos's treasure, but Conan kills him and steals it. But Conan doesn't even need the map, having already stumbled upon the treasure by chance, so he burns it so that Strom and Zarono can't use it and have to depend on him.
  • Troubling Unchildlike Behavior: Belesa loves Tina but is a little disturbed that she seems to see things that a child should not understand, like that the walls of the compound are too sparsely manned to withstand an attack from the Picts.
  • Villainous Breakdown: Valenso undergoes one when he finds out the black stranger has tracked him down.
  • Would Hurt a Child: Valenso is so terrified of the black stranger that when Tina innocently says she saw a black figure on the beach, he has her whipped until she bleeds in an attempt to make her say she was lying.

Alternative Title(s): The Treasure Of Tranicos