Vienna was the one Christian island in a sea of infidels. Night by night men watched the horizons burning where the Akinji yet scoured the agonized land. Occasionally word came from the outer world – slaves escaping from the camp and slipping into the city. Always their news was fresh horror. In Upper Austria less than a third of the inhabitants were left alive; Mikhal Oglu was outdoing himself. And the people said it was evident the vulture-winged one was looking for someone in particular. His slayers brought men’s heads and heaped them high before him; he avidly searched among the grisly relics, then, apparently in fiendish disappointment, drove his devils to new atrocities.
— Robert E. Howard, “The Shadow of the Vulture”
Suleyman the Magnificent, called by his own people Kanuni, the Lawgiver, King of Kings, the Possessor of Men’s Necks, Shadow of Allah Dispensing Quiet in the Earth, before the wretched and inadequate walls of Vienna in 1529, was fit to be given yet another title – the Apoplectic with Frustration. The garrison of Vienna, outnumbered four or five to one, had not broken before the onslaught of Suleyman’s army. The Turkish army! The greatest on earth! Without doubt the best organized, it also boasted the finest artillery and perhaps the finest engineers. Its skilled, mobile and daring light cavalry was feared by everybody except the Cossacks. Its main infantry corps – the janizaries, the Sultan’s fanatical slave-soldiers – was the toughest and most relentlessly disciplined since the Roman legions. The Turkish advantage was not one of mere numbers.
And yet Vienna held out, under the valiant command of Count Salm, a tried soldier seventy years old. Half the days of October had passed. Suleyman’s promise that he would eat his breakfast on the city’s walls by the end of September had been thrown back in his teeth, with a mocking joke by the defenders. Attacks from without and treachery from within had failed alike.
What was more, even the Janizaries, “the terror of their enemies, and not infrequently of their masters” had begun to break. An army, even of the Janizaries, marches on its stomach. Suleyman had expected Vienna to fall quickly. For that reason, and also because bringing provisions across the sodden morass that was Eastern Europe in 1529 had great difficulties, rations were low. Janizary troops on the verge of mutiny were prone to showing it by overturning the large food kettles in the midst of their camps. Nor could they obtain food from the devastated country of Austria. Mikhal Oglu and his Akinji had been a little too bloodily efficient. Other supplies, like warm clothing, were just as short, and the season was late, the weather murderously chill. Besides, the army had carried out three major assaults, and the Koran required no more of the Faithful, in defense or attack.
Robert E. Howard, as usual, gives a succinct and vivid verbal picture of the situation. “Suleyman drove his men as relentlessly as if he were their worst foe. Plague stalked among them, and the ravaged countryside yielded no food. The cold winds howled down from the Carpathians and the warriors shivered in their light Oriental garb. In the frosty nights the hands of the sentries froze to their matchlocks. The ground grew hard as flint and the sappers toiled feebly with blunted tools. Rain fell, mingled with sleet, extinguishing matches, wetting powder, turning the plain outside the city to a muddy wallow, where rotting corpses sickened the living.”
The command – and the Janizaries, on the promise of plunder and the immediate payment of a thousand aspers to each soldier – agreed to mount one more all-out onslaught on Vienna’s patched, repaired, staggering ramparts. If it failed, they would raise the siege. Suleyman promised, as Howard recounts, “Thirty thousand aspers to the first man on the walls!”
Gottfried von Kalmbach fought like a demon in the breach by the Karnthner Tower. He battled endlessly with his great two-handed sword as “maddened faces rose snarling before him” and “at his side a slim pantherish figure swayed and smote, at first with laughter, curses and snatches of song, later in grim silence”. One way or another it was the final fight, as Gottfried and Sonya both knew. In the end, exhausted and half conscious, dead on his feet, Gottfried was pulled from the breach by the hands of Nikolas Zrinyi, who told him to go and sleep, for the Turks had been beaten off. “For the time being, at least.”
Gottfried staggered through the streets of Vienna, mazed from a sword-stroke that had split his helmet in the fighting. Offered a cup of wine (his everlasting weakness) he was struck from behind by the traitors in the city and taken prisoner. An Armenian merchant and his son, the men who had blown a mine from inside beleaguered Vienna, they planned to hand him over to Mikhal Oglu. Fortunately for Gottfried, Red Sonya found him in time, “her face drawn and haggard … her boots slashed, her silken breeches splashed and spotted with blood.” She struck down the father with her empty pistol and almost throttled the son. By this blogger’s count it made the third time she had saved von Kalmbach from certain death. In her merciless fury she was about to blow out the son’s brains before his father’s eyes, but while she primed her pistol they were interrupted by the bells of Saint Stephen’s cathedral. They had not sounded since the siege began.
“The bells of Saint Stephen!” cried Sonya. “They peal for victory!”
It was true. The final great attack of the 14th had failed like the others. The Turkish officers, including the Vizier Ibrahim in person, had driven the soldiers to the walls with scourges and scimitars. Not even a fresh breach opened at the Karnthner Gate by the explosion of two mines – the breach in which Gottfried and Sonya had been fighting — was enough to give the attackers the city. The heroism of the defenders had not broken. Two men, a Portuguese and a German, who had quarreled and been resolved to fight a duel in the morning, instead fought the Turks side by side until they were both wounded, one with a shattered left arm, one with his right disabled. They guarded each other’s sides and fought on until both were killed, their dispute forgotten. Count Salm, at about two in the afternoon, was hit by a falling stone brought down by Turkish cannon fire. It shattered his hip. At his age he failed to recover from the injury, which would have been severe even to a young man, and he died some months later. But he had won. “It was not written that the Turk should rule beyond the Danube.”
Gottfried and Sonya may be fictional. The courage and resolution of the real life defenders, Salm, Roggendorf, Philip the Palgrave, Bakics, Zrinyi and Hagen, was no less incredible than theirs. And Mikhal Oglu was not fictional either, let it be remembered. Neither are his atrocities.
The former knight of Saint John and the former Cossack girl (I’m certain she had been, though REH doesn’t spell it out for his readers) can stand as symbols of Vienna’s defense. From “a sagging shattered roof” they surveyed the frustrated Turks making ready to withdraw. One last horror was still to be perpetrated, though. Breaking camp, the Janizaries made huge fires out of their huts, their remaining forage and the supplies they could not carry with them, any and all unnecessary baggage, and then hurled their prisoners – those who could not march, the aged and the children – into the roaring flames. Those not burned were hewn apart or impaled. Even Gottfried, who had seen his complete share of terrible work, was appalled.
“Judgment Day in the morning,” he muttered, awed.
Sonya, seeing Mikhal Oglu among the Turkish host, spat blistering curses against “ … the bastard, that made Austria a desert! How easily the souls of the butchered folk ride on his cursed winged shoulders!”
Then she conceived an idea, and rushed down with Gottfried to their two traitor prisoners. They missed seeing, as Howard writes, “Nikolas Zrinyi and Paul Bakics ride out of the gates with their tattered retainers, risking their lives in sorties to rescue prisoners.” While this was occurring, Sonya offered the Armenians their lives if the father, with his son as a hostage, would take a message to Mikhal Oglu. The youth’s father, Tshoruk, did as he was bidden. He found the Vulture and told him that Gottfried “ … fell from his horse, riding to attack the rear-guard, and lies with a broken leg in a deserted peasant’s hut, some three miles back – alone except for his mistress Red Sonya, and three or four Lanzknechts, who are drunk … ”
The Vulture took the bait. Indeed, he leaped at the chance to regain the favor of Ibrahim, who had been more than displeased at Mikhal Oglu’s failure to bring him Gottfried’s head. “For a lesser man,” as REH tells us, “that might have meant a bowstring.” It probably would have. Taking twenty men, Mikhal Oglu turned back, as “the wind sobbed drearily among the bare branches.” And rode into the ambush Gottfried and Sonya had set, announced by the roar of fifty matchlocks firing as one.
That wasn’t the way Mikhal Oglu really died. However, he did not survive the siege of Vienna long. REH wrote in a letter to Lovecraft, on November 3rd, 1933:
Thank you very much for the kind things you said about the yarns in Magic Carpet. ‘Alleys of Darkness’ isn’t much of a yarn, but I do like ‘The Shadow of the Vulture.’ I tried to follow history as closely as possible, though I did shift the actual date of Mikhal Oglu’s death. He was not killed until a year or so later, on the occasion of a later invasion of Austria, in which the Akinji were trapped and destroyed by Paul Bakics.
Well, one of the heroes of Vienna’s defense did get him at last, which is justice. And compressing events into a shorter period to move the story faster, more dramatically, is a frequent device. Shakespeare did it all the time. Besides, and importantly to telling the story, it gives the final scene immeasurably greater impact, as Suleyman celebrates what he has proclaimed a “victory” in Istanbul. Those few who haven’t read “The Shadow of the Vulture”, and who don’t like spoilers, should quit the website at this point!
Suleyman has announced that “the Austrians having made submission and sued for pardon on their knees” he will leave them in possession of their fortress. All the splendor and magnificence of the Sublime Porte is on display. Largesse is scattered. Foreign envoys marvel. Suleyman recalls his many victories and reflects that “men would forget that a handful of desperate Caphars behind rotting walls had closed his road to empire.”
Then comes the gift brought by “a rider of the Adrianople post.” Opened before the Sultan, it holds a note, “To the Soldan Suleyman and the Wezir Ibrahim and the hussy Roxelana, we who sign our names below send a gift in token of our immeasurable fondness and kind affection,” with the signatures “Sonya of Rogatino and Gottfried von Kalmbach.” And when he sees what the package contains, Suleyman feels “his shimmering pretense of triumph” slip away. “His glory turned to tinsel and dust.”
I wondered in a previous post whether Roxelana ever knew that the red-haired fighting woman Red Sonya was her sister. She must have done. Roxelana was so deep in intrigue, which centered on the harem anyway, that she always knew everything that went on. She would have known what Gottfried and Sonya’s insolent missive said, word for word, and “Sonya of Rogatino”, not to mention the insult “hussy”, could have left her in no doubt.
Roxelana would not have been likely to tell her husband the Sultan that the woman who delivered such an affront, now a companion of the German who had wounded him at Mohacs, was her sister! She might well have wished Sonya, and Sonya’s identity, buried in a swift anonymous grave. And Sultan Suleyman must have vowed Gottfried’s death again, more forcefully than ever.
Gottfried and Sonya, fully aware of it, decided to leave Austria for the western kingdoms of Europe and leave no forwarding address. What their relationship had become by then is a little ambiguous. A German lanzknecht had told Gottfried, early in the siege of Vienna, “She’s no man’s light o’ love.” That was probably true. Then. The traitorous Tshoruk had referred to Gottfried “and his mistress, Red Sonya,” but that could have reflected his own belief, not the fact. However, we can take it that Robert E. Howard, who created the pair, knew the exact situation. One of his letters to H.P. Lovecraft, dated March 6th, 1933, included the sentence, “They may not seem real to the readers; but Gottfried and his mistress Red Sonya seem more real to me than any other character I’ve ever drawn.”
Sonya doubtless liked his prowess and fighting spirit. But part of the attraction seems to have been a half-exasperated, half-protective feeling that the big drunken lug needed looking after. She told him as much after hauling him out of the Viennese moat when a dozen Turks were chasing him, edged steel ready. “I see you need a wiser person to keep life in that hulking frame.” When Gottfried, baffled, cried “But I thought you despised me!” Sonya snapped back, “Well, a woman can change her mind, can’t she?”
I believe that makes things pretty clear.
Artwork by Jeffrey Jones, Abe Papakhian and Others.
Read Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five, Part Six, Part Seven, Part Seven, Part Eight, Part Nine, Part Eleven