Monday, December 10, 2018

And I Will Dream of Endless War

When she grew old, Queen Ruana dreamed of the north. Around her she had caused a great hall to be raised up over the scorched bones of the old. The beams were hewn from the black oaks of the forest and the roof overhead was raised high, so that when the fires blazed the smoke lay in the air like storm clouds high above the heads of the feasters. Around the hall she had forged a kingdom with the strokes of her great spear. Giants guarded her throne, and her word was the law as far as a man could sail for a week in any direction. From the jagged coastlines of the southland to the deep forest in the eastern hills to the stormy seas in the west, Ruana was Queen, and she reigned for fifty years and some believed she would reign forever.

She knew she would not. Her hair had changed to an iron gray, and when she wore it in coiled braids it looked like pattern-forged steel. She still wore her heavy wolfskin cloak over the bright mail and the polished brazen bosses, but the mail was new. Her old armor, many times rent and torn, hung above her throne beside her splintered shield. She had earned those marks in battle against gods, and she bore them on her body as well.

Always close by her right hand was the spear that made her more than mortal. The straight haft darkened by time, the bronze blade transformed gold by power and by myth. Some whispered it must be a false spear, for nothing of bronze could shine so, and nothing gold could cut or pierce and yet take no mark. It was her sword and her scepter, and she had worn a place in the floor beside her throne where she was accustomed to set the spike as she held it and passed her judgments.

The war, that dark war that had almost sundered the lands of men apart, was now so far in the past that few lived who had seen it, save as children. Those who still bore the marks were gray and long-bearded, and they told the tales of that time with a darkness in their faces. War was still war, and men still shed one another’s blood, but that war had been unlike any other. That had been a war driven by dark powers, and now those powers were gone.

Monday, December 3, 2018

Sword Woman

Red Sonja is the best-known Howard creation that Howard didn’t actually create. The character “Red” Sonya of Rogatino appears in the historical adventure story “Shadow of the Vulture”, but she is a far cry from the chainmail-bikini-clad pop culture figure who stole her name. Sonya’s not the only example of a warrior woman from Howard’s work, though. We also have the pirate woman Valeria from “Red Nails”, and the better-known Belit from “Queen of the Black Coast”. Both of these women served as romantic interests for Conan himself. But there’s another red-headed hell-raiser in the Howard canon who doesn’t get as much play as she should: Dark Agnes of Chastillon.

Created during a period when Howard was working hard to break out of just writing for Weird Tales and into the so-called Adventure Pulps, which meant a wider market and better pay, Agnes is unusual among his heroes. For one, he wrote her in first person, which he did not do that often, and for another, she is probably the most fully-realized female character he ever created. Inhabiting her POV forced him to consider her much more completely than he usually did for his work, and it shows what he could have become if he’d had more time.

The two completed Dark Agnes tales are a ride. Definitely meant to be in the tradition of The Three Musketeers and other, similar works of swashbuckling high adventure, Howard managed instead a kind of hybrid style. He was not able to keep his trademark bloody violence damped down to Dumas levels, and so rather than classic French Romantic swordplay with clashing blades and bon mots, he produced savage, head-cleaving, limb-lopping action that is probably a much more realistic depiction of the violence of the day.

The historiocity is a bit of a mess. This is meant to be set in the 16th century sometime, but Agnes is depicted as wearing mail armor – a style that had then been out of use for centuries – and her swordplay seems much more medieval in style, with no mention of schools of dueling, parrying daggers, or other things common in the era. Also, pistols are used quite often, but with no mention of the fussy, match-burning mechanics of the contemporary weapons. It’s best to just look on these as a kind of historical fantasy.

But he got the feel just right. Not of the period, but of the stories set in the period. There is enough intrigue, treachery, backstabbing, mistaken identity, overheard conversations, ambushes, and chases to fuel an entire novel in just these two tales. Howard was an addict of fast, tightly-plotted action, and nobody else has ever done it quite as well.

Tellingly, Agnes is not a princess or a nobleman’s daughter or a lost heiress, but the peasant daughter of a drunk, abusive ex-soldier. Her tale begins with her father announcing she is to be married off, and when she objects he knocks her out and when she wakes up she’s all dressed and about to be hitched to some standard fat, ugly dude. Her older sister gives her a dagger and tells her to kill herself rather than be forced into marriage, but Agnes isn’t having any of that shit. When they drag her to the altar she pulls out the blade, shanks the groom in the heart, and then simply runs off into the forest. There she meets affable rogue/possible love interest Etienne Villiers and her adventures get rolling.

Sadly, they never had as much of a chance as they could have. Howard only completed two Agnes stories, leaving a third, “Mistress of Death” unfinished. The third tale began to include some fantasy elements, so it is possible that he was writing it more for the Weird Tales market. Neither of the completed stories saw print until 1975, almost 40 years after Howard’s death. Originally published in The Nemedian Chronicles fanzine, they were all collected in the Sword Woman anthology by Zebra in 1977, later reprinted by Berkley and Ace. The book has been out of print for a long time, but used copies can be found.

Like so much of Howard’s work, the Dark Agnes stories are frustrating because they are so good, and they moan with the lost potential of what he left unfinished. Here he showed that yes, he could write a well-rounded female character, and do it better than his imitators so many decades later. The stories have the sense of a much larger tale left unfinished, and maybe this is part of the reason why Howard’s work has been so ripe for pastiche and posthumous collaboration – seeing the shadow of the story that never existed, you want to help tell it, you want to finish it, because he never got the chance.

Monday, November 26, 2018

Fire Scars the Sky in Vain

Iron waves pounded the shore as the fleet of the Spear Queen came to land once again. The hulls ground upon the stony beach as each warship carved a furrow with its ram and rested from the long sea journey. The ships were shield-lined and dragon-prowed and scarred by fire and battle, but they had come across the wide waters though death and the wrath of dark gods to bring battle at last upon Hror, the Usurper.

Ruana was first to spring down from the rail and splash into the cold surf. She felt the waves lash around her legs and she waded to land, setting foot upon the country of Hadrad as an invader, and a conqueror. She had been driven from her home, endured terror and privation and battle and now she came at last to mete justice upon the one who began it. It had been almost four years since Hror came ashore and began the war which had consumed the kingdoms; now at last she would put an end to it.

The warships flung out lines and drove in their iron anchors, braced up their hulls with oaken beams, and her army disembarked and gathered there on the long shore. Giants there were, the old race come down from the northlands to follow the spear, but most of her warriors were the people of Vathran. Men and women, graybeards and young men, mothers and maids. They had been driven into the edges of the world to survive hard winters, hunted by evil men and the powers that drove them, and now they were come in their strength, steel-clad and armed with sword and shield and spear.