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Literature / The Shadow of the Vulture

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"The Shadow of the Vulture" is a Historical Fiction short story written by Robert E. Howard, the creator of Conan the Barbarian, and published in 1934 for The Magic Carpet Magazine.

It takes place during the Ottoman incursions into Europe in the 16th Century (specifically between the Battle of Mohács and the first Siege of Vienna) and revolves around Knight of St. John Gottfried von Kalmbach and female swashbuckler Red Sonya of Rogatino, who strike up a partnership after surviving the fall of Mohács and trying to escape from the feared Turkish commander Mikhal Oglu, also known as the Vulture, sent by the Sultan to bring him Gottfried's head.

Sonya is notable for serving as the blueprint for Red Sonja, who was created by Roy Thomas for the Conan comics. She debuted in the 1973 Marvel-published Conan the Barbarian issue #23 which adapted The Shadow of the Vulture and setting in Hyboria instead of our Earth, with Vienna being replaced by the city of Makkalet, Gottfried replaced by Conan, Sonya by Red Sonja, Suleyman by Yezdigerd the Turanian Emperor. Mikhal is the only one left unchanged except he is Turanian rather than Turkish.

Can be read online.

"The Shadow of the Vulture" provides examples of:

  • Action Girl: Sonya is a skilled adventurer and musketeer who saves Gottfried's life several points during the story.
  • The Alcoholic: Gottfried is a drunk and is shown completely hammered out of his mind by the time Oglu and his men find him.
  • Animal Motifs: Oglu wears a dark costume with a pair of vulture wings that fell across the floor.
  • Antagonist Title: The Vulture refers to The Heavy Mikhal Oglu.
  • Been There, Shaped History: Gottfried is accidentally responsible for making the Ottomans withdraw from Vienna under siege when he launches a drunken sally on the Ottoman camp after arguing with Sonya, thus accidentally foiling a nighttime surprise attack on the walls of Vienna.
  • Big Bad: Suleyman the Magnificent.
  • Blade Spam: When Gottfried first observes Red Sonya fighting with her saber in close combat, the narration informs us that "[h]er strokes followed each other too quickly for the eye to follow; her blade was a blur of white fire".
  • Cain and Abel: Red Sonya's sister is none other than the Sultan's favorite concubine Roxelana (also known as Hurrem Sultan). While they are in the opposite sides of the war with Sonya supposed to be the good one and Roxelana the evil one due to being the Big Bad's Dark Mistress, we never really see how Roxelana feels about her sister, while Sonya refers to her in a very insulting way every time she talks about her and is the one most eager to kill her:
    Gottfried: Why did you wish for the Sultana Roxelana for a target, my girl?
    Sonya: Because she's my sister, the slut!
  • The Cavalier Years: The very start of them, in the 16th century.
  • Circassian Beauty: Features Roxelana, the wife of Suleiman the Magnificent and empress of the Ottoman Empire, and her sister, the equally fiery-haired and beautiful Red Soyna of Rogatino.
  • Classical Anti-Hero: Gottfried is a disgraced knight who spends much of his time drunk, needs his ass being saved by the resident Action Girl and the plot only happens because of something that happened in the heat of the previous battle. Nevertheless, he manages to save Vienna, albeit completely by accident.
  • Co-Dragons: Ibrahim and Oglu to Suleyman. The former serves as his grand vizier and adviser while the latter is his muscled enforcer.
  • Curse Cut Short: Sonya firing off an overcharged cannon cuts short a comment she makes regarding her hated sister.
  • Dark Mistress: Evil Redhead Roxelana is this to Suleiman the Magnificent.
  • Decapitation Presentation: Oglu offers his head to the Sultan if he can't deliver Gottfried's. Instead Gottfried and Sonya send the gift-wrapped head of Oglu to Suleyman, spoiling his victory celebrations.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: The reason why Suleyman sends Oglu to pursue and kill Gottfried: the knight managed to bash him on the head during a battle years ago and he wants payback.
  • The Dreaded: Mikhal Oglu, "whose very name was a shuddering watchword of horror to all western Asia".
  • Evil Redhead: Roxelana is red-haired like her sister and is considered an absolute bitch by both Sonya and the Sultan's own vizier Ibrahim.
  • The Heavy: Oglu serves this role to Suleyman, who is the Big Bad but doesn't sully his hands with any dirty job.
  • Historical Character's Fictional Relative: Red Sonya of Rogatino is the sister of Roxelana, the chief consort and legal wife of the Ottoman sultan Suleiman the Magnificent.
  • Historical Domain Character: Suleyman the Great, his Grand Vizier Ibrahim and Roxelana were real people.
  • Hordes from the East: Oglu and his men are Tatars in origin. Truth in Television since the Ottoman Empire employed them as vassals like the Crimean Khanate.
  • The Lad-ette: Sonya, who "drinks the strongest head under the table and outswears a Spaniard". A German knight snarks that if the Tatars had kidnapped and taken her to Suleyman's Royal Harem, he'd almost pity the Sultan for having to handle her.
  • Lured into a Trap: A father and son working as agents of the Sultan inside the Vienna walls coax Gottfried away from his fellow mercenaries, and Slipping a Mickey into his wine, have him Bound and Gagged for delivery to Oglu. Fortunately Sonya saw what happened, follows and rescues him in time. Then she agrees to spare the life of the traitor's son if the father delivers a message to Oglu that Gottfried has been wounded and is resting up in a nearby hut with only a few drunken companions. Oglu takes the bait and rides into an ambush of musketeers.
  • Made a Slave: It's mentioned that Sonya's sister was kidnapped by Crimean Tatars and dragged off to the Sultan's harem where she became his favorite concubine.
  • Spanner in the Works: Gottfried completely sabotages the Ottoman conquest of Vienna by inciting the drunken mercenaries into a sally outside the walls, catching the Janissaries by surprise as they're forming up to attack after their agents blow a breach in the city walls.
  • Villainous Breakdown: The story ends with Suleyman experiencing one when he sees Mikhal Oglu's head in place of Gottfried's, made even worse by the mocking note left by him and Sonya.