Red Sonya of Rogatino
“The Shadow of the Vulture” is a short story by American writer Robert E. Howard, first published in The Magic Carpet Magazine, January 1934. The story introduces the character of Red Sonya of Rogatino, who later became the inspiration for the popular character Red Sonja, archetype of the chainmail-bikini clad female warrior.
Unlike Howard’s better-known fantasy work, “The Shadow of the Vulture” is historical fiction, set in the 16th century. It uses the career of Ottoman sultan Suleiman the Magnificent (also known as Sultan Suleiman I), the aftermath of the Battle of Mohács (1526) and the later Siege of Vienna of 1529 as a backdrop for imaginary characters and events.
In the story, Red Sonya is a gun-slinging warrior woman of Polish-Ukrainian origin with a grudge against the Ottoman sultan. She has the eponymous red hair and a fiery temper to match. It was revealed in the narrative that she was sibling to the favourite of Sulemain himself, the Ruthenian harem-girl Roxelana, who ended up marrying him as sole legal wife.
Howard’s Red Sonya had no connection to his Conan the Barbarian character. Roy Thomas and Barry Smith, in Marvel Comics’ Conan the Barbarian title, transposed Red Sonya into the Hyborian Age, changing the spelling of her name in the process. “Shadow of the Vulture” itself was adapted by Marvel as a Conan and Red Sonja story of the same title in Conan the Barbarian #23 (February 1973).
Plot (spoiler alert):
In Istanbul, the Ottoman sultan Suleiman the Magnificent sends home members of an Austrian diplomatic envoy whom he has kept imprisoned for nine months. He recognizes one of the members, however; a knight by the name of Gottfried Von Kalmbach, who had seriously wounded him during the Battle of Mohács. The Ottoman Grand Vizier Pargalı Ibrahim Pasha entrusts the widely feared soldier, Mikhal Oglu, with hunting down Von Kalmbach and retrieving his head.
Mikhal Oglu and his warriors raid the countryside between the Ottoman Empire and Vienna in preparation for Suleiman’s attack on the city. They attack a small Danubian village, in which Von Kalmbach had been sleeping off the previous night’s drinking. He fights his way free, and rides for Vienna, where the townspeople are preparing for the arrival of Suleiman.
The full Ottoman army arrives, and the siege begins. Von Kalmbach fights the encroaching Turkish soldiers atop the walls. He meets a belligerent, red-haired woman who fights alongside the men – ‘Red’ Sonya of Rogatino, revealed to be the sister of Suleiman’s favourite harem-girl, Hurrem Sultan. When one fight against a number of Turks proves to be overwhelming, she comes to Von Kalmbach’s aid.
Later, there is a lull in the siege and the defenders content themselves with drinking wine in the city square. Red Sonya insults Von Kalmbach, and an argument breaks out. Drunk and furious, Von Kalmbach spurs the men into an impromptu attack on the Ottoman encampment outside the city. Coincidentally, the drunken raid thwarts a surprise attack planned by the sultan, to have been assisted by traitors within the walls of Vienna.
The sultan eventually concedes defeat, and the Ottoman army prepares to leave. Von Kalmbach, however, is drugged and kidnapped by the traitors in Vienna – an Armenian merchant and his son, who had been in communication with the Sultan’s vizier and hoped to claim the knight’s head. Red Sonya comes to Von Kalmbach’s aid yet again. She blackmails the Armenian into delivering a message to Mikhal Oglu, who was serving as vanguard for the capitulating Ottoman army. Oglu receives the message and, believing Von Kalmbach to be alone and not too far away from his position, leaves the column with a small contingent. He is met, however, by an Austrian ambush.
In Istanbul, Suleiman is holding celebrations in honour of his ‘victory’ in central Europe. He receives a strange package in the mail, and Ibrahim opens it, hoping it to be the head of Von Kalmbach. It turns out to be the severed head of Mikhal Oglu, and included is a belittling note from Red Sonya and Von Kalmbach.