by: Rick Johnson
PO Box 40451
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The Barachan Isles are a series of small islands that lie to the west of Zingara and are a known haven for pirates, mostly from Argos.
And this, Master, are the only facts that are certain about this nefarious place. Even their exact location and the exact number of the islands is uncertain, though I believe that this is less the illiteracy of the pirates and more in keeping with military security, for the less your enemy knows about you, the safer you are.
What I have been able to sift from the numerous legends told in the waterfront taverns of Kordavo and Messantia, among other seaside towns I wish to forget, is of questionable veracity but I give it to you for inclusion into the Nemedian Chronicles, should the Council so desire.
The Barachan Isles appear to lie some 60 miles southwest of Zingara perhaps some 80 miles northward from the border of Argos. That is, I hear that if you sail northward along the coast from Argos for 16 hours, then sail SW directly away from land for another 12 hours (assuming that your ship can do a respectable 5 knot speed), you will sight a series of 13 islands, of which only 7 are of note. Many of the remaining six are underwater at high tide.
The isles lie in a chain which follows the coast or gather in a cluster, depending upon who wishes to speak to you, and cover maybe two hundred miles across the greatest distance. I am including two of the most dependable maps herein to show how contradictory the information is.
These islands are volcanic in origin and so are speckled with small, safe coves which are a perfect place for pirates to hide, should they not fear embayment by the winds and tides, though these bays are tiny and barely able to contain a single ship. I am also told that climbing the cliffs that protect these bays is difficult and beaches are rare and often exist only at low tide which also tends to beach the ships hiding therein.
The largest, or safest island, is called Tortage and hosts the only settlement of civilized man. At least some of the other islands are inhabited by savage Picts who raid even the pirates which may explain why Tortage Town is the only real town upon the isles. Even then, the savage Island Picts have been known to lie in wait to take those who wander afield of the town walls for their vile sports. I am not even certain which of the islands is Tortage though it is said that Tortage is the only island with a decent bay capable of containing a fleet or protecting a ship from the storms that plague the Western Ocean.
The island group was first discovered by Argos who built the fortress of Tortage as a convenient military outpost for their then-war with Zingara. As peace ensued, the navy left and Tortage was overtaken by refugees, smugglers and pirates of all nations, though they of Argos predominate and the Pirate Council is always led by an Argossian. These pirates have the curious belief in democracy where each pirate has a voice in how the ship and city should be run and even possess a document that lists the rights and duties and punishments for their population. As we know, if they choose a competent leader, his rule will be bogged down in debating with those of lesser ability but loud voices, which is why our Nemdeian King, may he reign forever, whomever he is today, often ignores his council and rules as he will. But I digress and include an old map I copied in haste from the one made by the original Argossian naval captain that found the islands and built the city. The speckled areas are the beaches that are underwater at high tide and exposed at low tide.
It is said that if you cannot find it in Tortage, it does not exist and tales are told of Princesses of Aquilonia and even far off Khitai being sold as slaves in this vile city though only pirates seem to have the ability to pass freely to and from. It is said that the Pirate Council demands peace within his domain and that if but one pirate breaks their law, the entire ship is impounded and the entire crew, guilty and innocent alike, are enslaved while the offender is staked outside the walls for the Picts. With such a threat, it is no wonder that the Red Brotherhood, the Zingaran Freebooters, the Black Corsairs and other pirate bands walk the streets with sheathed blades. Though to be honest, I suspect that throats are cut on a nightly basis with little attempt to investigate the murder.
It is said that the one man who was able to tread the streets of Tortage safely was that Northern Barbarian from Cimmeria of whom I spoke earlier. As for me, I would fear to walk the streets in daylight wearing full armor and accompanied by my old Company. But I know that there is one other who did so safely.
I was sitting in a waterfront tavern, my short-sword upon the table at which I wrote and my knife loose in its sheath to discourage they who would assault one who wrote with quill and ink. I had spent some months collecting notes and stories and rumors and was jotting down the befuddled memories of my latest informant while still fresh in my mind when she sat before me without even an invitation. Had you seen her in action, you would know that this woman asked for no invitation and few dared to refuse her desires.
The woman was tall which implied that my belief in her Vanir ancestry was accurate despite her home of birth. Her hair was loose and long and flowed about her face and shoulders to evoke the most personal of dreams, dreams all men would best keep to themselves. She wore but a bit of scale that barely covered her ample breasts and shapely hips and the fact that her scars were few and small enough to be almost invisible spoke of her skill with the well-worn blade at her hip.
And then, without any introduction or greeting said the one thing that I did NOT wish to hear, “I understand that you are going to Tortage!” It was a statement, not a question and I shook at the thought.
“Nay, Sonja the Red,” I managed to stammer. “I am but a humble cartographer and leave the pirate-hunting to those with more skill and courage than I possess.”
She mulled this over a moment, took another drink of her ale and stared into my eyes. Hers were of the deepest blue, or maybe they were green. Whatever the color, I wished to dive into them and drown… until they glinted of steel. “Wake up, you fool!” she was waving her jack before my face. “At least you are staring at my eyes this time. I intend to visit that place and need a guide and so far, you are the best that I can find.”
“A, a,.. a gui… “
“Drink this, you need a drink from the looks of you.” She handed me her jack and I quaffed most of it to center myself.
“Only a fool or a pirate goes to Baracha,” I managed to say, “And neither of us are either of those. Nay, Sonja the Red, if you wish to go there, I shall copy my notes and maps for you but I would remain here where it is safe.”
She regained her leathern jack, tried to drink, then looked into the depths to find that I had emptied the thing and waved it for a refill, “I have had experience with maps and guidebooks. They who make these always leave out the most important parts. No, Miles, you go with me!” Again that statement that brooked no argument, though I tried.
I argued with her, pleaded with her and even, when she was distracted paying for her drink, tried to sneak away but nothing worked. Sonja the Red was determined to go to the Barachan Isles and she was equally determined that I accompany her.
“Why me?” I pleaded. “I cannot swim, I’ve never been on anything larger than a river barge, never even seen the Isles and am such a poor fighter that you’d spend most of your time keeping me alive. Surely you can find someone who knows the way and has personal experience?” I pointed to Zavros who had been my most recent confidant. “Look there, Captain Zavros. He knows the islands like the back of his hand!”
Sonja glanced at he to whom I mentioned, then snorted in laughter. Or rather, she had been drinking and her snort combined spraying beer from mouth and nose as she choked in laughter. I stood and pounded on her back until she was safe and waved me away. “THAT!?! Zavros is a wharf-rat who sells lies to the gullible for drinks. He may have seen the Isles from a distance when he was impressed into the Zingaran Navy but a captain? Not he.” As she spoke, and Zavros snuck away, I collected my notes and folded them up, thinking that perhaps if they substantiated other tales…
“But..” I hoped that she would choose another but thought, if there WERE pirates here, the navy would have a shore patrol upon the instant to arrest them.
“No, Miles, I have been searching for some time and your name keeps popping up as the person who knows more about the Isles than anyone else. So I sought you and you are my guide.”
Mitra save me, I am to be held prisoner by a mad-woman who has the power to enforce her will.
She directed me to my room where I handed her my satchel and she poured over my maps, both those given to me and those I created from the former as she memorized every detail, doubtless in case I drowned or was murdered by the brigands. Then as she glanced at my notes, I could see her frown for it was clear that she could not read Nemedian for she returned those to me with the words, “The trip will be long and you will have ample time to tell me everything you know.”
“How do you intend to make the crossing?”
“WE,” she emphasized the first person plural, “Will sail in a fishing boat I have rented. You do know how to sail?” then as I shook my head, added, “No matter, you will learn.” As if that settled everything. The woman was an Oliphant of War who let nothing or no one stand before her. Nay, she was a wall of water set free by the melting snows that rushed downstream, destroying all in her path save that which was smart enough to relax and be carried along. I felt like a leaf before a storm, such was her determination.
“We’ll leave in the morning,” then she removed her sword belt and laying upon my pallet, pulled my blanket over her, wiggled and tossed her clothing out, obviously naked under the light cover. She smiled at me and said, “You can take the floor or that chair. But I sleep light in case you seek the door, window or this bed.”
What could I do? I removed my clothing, folded it carefully, lay my byrnie over a pole, knowing that I’d need it soon enough, and lay upon an extra blanket on the floor, dressed in my under-tunic and pantaloons. It took a very long time for me to fall asleep.
I awoke to a boot striking me in the ribs and a far-away voice demanding, “… up! Tarim, you could sleep through a battle! How the hell did you ever survive that war with Aquilonia?”
Struggling awake, I slurred, “That was a very long time ago. And terror makes every man sleep light. Do you fear nothing?” I asked her as I dressed and washed my face.
She gave me a strange far away look and mused, “It has been so long. I’ve never met anything, man, beast nor demon that I could not defeat somehow. I’ll let you know when it happens. Now, you slept in so long you missed breakfast but I had the Keep make us a bundle. Gather your things and we are away!”
I did convince her to detour to the local Temple where I placed my papers and important belongings in trust. I wished to not be slowed down by unneeded gear but if I died, my papers must be returned to Numalia. So, with my journal and pen and ink in hand, my weapons and important gear and mostly, my byrnie in a bag, we set for the wharf where Sonja showed me a small sailboat that she had rented from a fisherman. And stink of dead fish the thing did.
I heard men in Ophir joke about the Amazons from far south who smelled like fish for they never washed their womanly areas and so would be overcome with passion when entering a fish-market. The thought made me smile until Sonja demanded, “What humor?”
Forcing myself to attain a stern visage, if only to prevent my head leaving my shoulders, I replied, “only a private joke.” She accepted this and began to order me around.
Now, I had read the books on sailing in the Temple and knew the words like Running Lines are those that raise the sail while Standing Lines are those that hold the mast upright. But there is a big difference between knowing this and finding the right rope when a mostly naked madwoman is screaming at you. But we got the sail raised and the morning breeze pushed us offshore.
How long?” she asked.
I had read that one famous navigator who had sailed all around the Black Kingdoms to Iranistan had figured out how fast a boat can sail. Something about you take the length of the hull, find the number that when multiplied by itself will give you that length, then half that number again will give you the top speed of any boat.
This open boat was barely twenty feet long so the speed should be between six and seven miles per hour. I tied a string to a piece of wood and tossed it over the side and counted a full minute as the string pulled through my fingers. Then I tied a knot in the string and pulled the wood back, measuring the string. This told me how fast we were sailing every minute which I multiplied by sixty to find how fast we were sailing every hour. No wonder everyone thought that navigator was mad. He said we can sail almost twice the normal pace of a man but my test showed that we were barely making a normal walking pace.
Then I consulted my chart which I had ironed with a thin layer of wax to protect from the water and said, “We should make shore a little before dusk. Then in the morning we can sail directly to the Isles. With luck, we can reach the Isles just before sundown.”
Sonja nodded and lay against the tiller as we sailed along the coast, never fully leaving sight of land for that would be suicide. As we sailed farther from shore, to avoid traffic and unwanted questions, I watched the shore vanish behind. I noted that the land and trees and buildings along the shore did not vanish into the distance as they would on land but slowly sank into the sea. Some scholars felt that this was proof that the Earth was round though they could not explain why the people on the other side did not fall off. Still it was relaxing to sit there, feel the boat move across the waves and hear the lines creak.
All day we sailed, I rigging a cloth to stop the Sun’s harsh gaze and we took turns at the tiller as the other napped. Once I asked, “Why is it so important to visit the Barachan Isles?” to which Sonja responded, “To kill a man.” It was the way she said that which made my skin crawl. Not with anger or hatred, but as if I had asked, why do you drink water? She would respond, ‘to avoid thirst.’
Eventually I judged that we were on the coast of Zingara directly opposite the isles and bade her to put in. Strangely enough, there was no town here but we did manage to find a small beach upon which we landed and tied the boat to some trees to prevent it from drifting away with the tide. Then Sonja made a fire and we cooked our evening meal and emptied a small cask of beer that was among the supplies she had purchased.
“Why is it so important to you to write down what… well what you write?”
“It’s what I do.” I replied. “You fight, I write.”
“My fighting saves lives, destroys tyrants and removes sorcerers. I kill bandits and make people safer. Can you say the same?”
I looked up from my writing and commented, “Do you have Bards where you are from?”
“We have wandering criers who pass from town to town speaking the news.”
“Have you any idea of how powerful those Criers are?” seeing her blank look, I explained. “Consider that they decide what news should or should not be passed. If a king is evil, they can choose to recount his crimes or ignore them. And the way he speaks can raise anger or dull emotion. He can decide to speak of a plague or recount a strong grain harvest that will cause bread prices to fall. A Bard, or your Criers, are some of the most powerful men in the world. What I do is to write down .. well everything. Then when it is collected, and copied again, it will be spread all across the land and everyone will know what is where and who does what. The maps I make will allow caravans to travel easily from one place to another. The notes I make will tell the watering holes, the bad kings to avoid and the areas infested with bandits or dangerous animals. People will travel to Khitai for silk because I spoke about that wondrous fabric.”
“And how will you decide what to write and what should be read?”
Laughing, “Hardly, I simply write down everything and let others wiser than I decide what to pass on. Know you of this Cimmerian barbarian, Conan?”
“Very well indeed,” her voice drifted off in a way that young girls will when they admire their beloved. But Sonja the Chaste would never….
“Well, people are hearing of his exploits, his tales because people like me write them down. Someday, people will speak of Sonja the Red of Hyrkania as casually as they speak of Conan of Cimmeria.”
“But the stories aren’t all true. Remember in Brythunia, that story they told about the werewolf I killed? It wasn’t like that at all. Oh, yes it was a monster-beast that I killed but we didn’t fight for three days and four nights until I ‘shoved my bare arm into its foul mouth and pulled its tongue out to strangle the monster with its own member’,” she was reciting a popular legend that was being told in Brythunia.
Sighing, “I wrote what I heard, what you told me. If the people wish to dress it up with fantasy to make a long winter night more bearable, I am not responsible. I do my best to tell the truth.”
“And what will you tell people about this voyage?” she leaned closer to me till I smelled the beer on her breath.
“The truth. I am no story-teller, but a simple scribe without the imagination to make such stories.”
“Good! Now, dear scribe, return to your writing and upon the morrow, you will tell me EVERYTHING that you know or suspect or believe about the Barachan Isles and one person by the name of Nobera.” Then she walked away to watch for danger or relieve her bladder, I know not which as I searched through my journal for that name.
I had crossed Hyboria a number of times. Been lost more times than I can remember but navigation on land is easy. At night, you find the stars that make up ‘the Cart’ and the tip of the pole points generally north. Day, you know the sun rises generally in the east and sets generally in the west so you note a distant landmark and use that as your guide.
But here, there is nothing. A couple hours out and the land had sunk beneath the waters and a part of me thought that it had actually sunk forever. But Sonja sailed on. “Sonja, how do you know where we are going right now?” I asked.
“Your map shows the isles to be SW of our position. I noted the direction of the sun when we sailed off and for the morning I kept the sun at that point of the boat. Afternoon, I’ll keep the sun over the proper part of the boat and that is how we will tell direction.”
I had not her confidence. Sixty miles is a long way to sail and a few degrees off-course may cause us to miss the island easily. Within three hours ALL land was gone. So if we were to miss the Isles by even a dozen miles, we’d never see them. And how can she tell direction when the sun is overhead? As the morning changed to noon-tide, she could change direction and never know until sunset. So, how did the pirates find their islands? I had heard that the kings of Argos and Zingara had offered a fortune and an Ennoblement to anyone who could find direction and distance and even position at sea. A century later, the prizes remained unclaimed. Still, Sonja was a force of nature equal to the storm and would brook no argument so I sat and waited and did as she directed. And I feared that we’d miss the islands and sail on to the mythical edge of the world. At least if we did, I’d settle the argument about the shape and size of the Earth. Small comfort.
Hours later she laughed, “There! Ease your fears for the Isles are there!” and she pointed to the right a bit as she adjusted the tiller.
“How do you know? I see nothing!”
“Those clouds! See how they rest on the horizon! They are different from the others overhead. Clouds, especially rain clouds sometimes become stuck on islands. And if the island is large enough, the winds swirl around the volcanic peaks and create clouds of their own. THAT is how the pirates find the isles. They sail from a known point on shore until they see the clouds and change course for them as will we. We are easily within thirty miles of the Barachan Islands. Eight or ten hours at the most and we will be there.”
“I doubt that the Pirates will allow us to sail into their bay in the dark.”
“Then we shall beach nearby and wait until we can. And you can pray that the Picts don’t find us.” At that she laughed such that I had to void so asked her to close her eyes as I sought the rail. “Downwind!” she laughed. “Never pee into the wind. Tarim, women have it easy sometimes. I may soak my legs but never my face.” I suspect that my captor has been drinking more than her share of the beer.
I took a nap in the heat of the day and when I awoke, found such a transformation in my companion I could well imagine that she had been exchanged for another. Gone was the maille bikini that made her infamous across the civilized world. Instead, she wore a bright scarf to contain her now yellow hair and protect her from the sun, short pants that ended just above the knees, a brightly colored scarf about her waist, and a short-sleeved shirt that revealed with every movement, that she no longer possessed such supporting confinement that was offered by her scale-maille top.
“I’m up here,” she snapped. “Tarim! If everyone stares as do you, I can slaughter every pirate as if they were sheep.” Then tossing me a bundle, ordered, “You change now!”
Opening the bundle I saw an outfit similar to hers, the standard attire for the Pirates of the Western Sea. “Turn aside, please,” I requested.
“Why?” she asked. “Afraid that you may reveal yourself? Worry not, it’s nothing that I haven’t seen better of.”
Surprised at this from one whose chastity was as well-known as her swordsmanship, I stared at the woman.
Laughing, she explained, “In the field, there is little privacy for anyone in an army. Plus most men think that the sight of their dangling manhood will inflame a woman’s passion.”
“Does it,” I asked casually but interested. I hoped that she was looking away.
“Most women find that sight to be more ludicrous than enticing. Nay, Miles, a kind heart and gentle smile does far more than you would imagine.” Then she released the lines that supported the Boom and as the sail and boom fell, she turned it fore-and-aft with such force that I was near knocked overboard.
“What the…” I snapped.
“Silence,” she hissed. “Sound carries far over calm water.” She was pointing towards the clouds where I saw the sail of a Zingaran ship. Galleys never left sight of land for they are so low to the water that even a small wave would swamp them and the large Galleons that carried much cargo tended to remain close to land (unless passing dangerous waters) as they traveled from nation to nation so this must be a pirate seeking our own destination.
“Think you that they saw us?”
“I doubt it,” she replied. “We are much smaller and at this distance, are hidden by the sea so only our mast shows. If they didn’t see the sail before, they won’t see the mast now..
I watched the woman and knew that she wasn’t afraid of the pirates, simply being cautious for the time to slaughter their entire ship would delay her in her desired murder. “At least,” she laughed, “We now know that you are correct in your navigation and the Barachians lie ahead.”
We waited until the ship had vanished in the distance and only then did Sonja decide to raise the sail. As the sun set, we found the archipelago and we both sat as she asked, “Which do you think is Tortage?”
“The largest!” I replied.
She gave me a nasty look and spoke, “From here, all look large. Well, no matter, we seek an inlet for the night and will explore upon the morrow.”
Fortunately, the Moon was almost full so we could see well enough to avoid the smaller reefs and islets and eventually found one island with a high cone and small bay. Entering, with lowered sail, we used sweeps to approach the shore where Sonja tossed a rope with crossed sticks to the crook of a large tree that overhung the water. Then we pulled or rather, rowed across the inlet to repeat the act with another tree. Once both makeshift grapnels were secure, we pulled the ropes tight to suspend us between the two and Sonja tossed a third rope to the crook of some rocks before us and soon, we had three lines to hold us in the inlet but away from the rocks. These, with the anchor at the stern, gave our little boat a safe rest.
“We should explore,” she suggested, hanging her sword across her back.
“Why? It’s too dark to see anything.”
Handing me my sword, she laughed, “Afraid of ghosts?”
“Yes. But more than ghosts, I fear the beasts and Picts that haunt these islands.”
Sonja looked over the island from the boat and explained, “These islands are too small to support large beasts of prey. Foxes, wildcats, snakes perhaps but no lions or tigers and probably no wolves either. I believe we are safe.”
“If so, then why did the birds flee as we entered?” Animals who know no danger tend to remain fast as man approaches.
“Pictish fishermen or nest-thieves, probably.” Then, “Let’s go! I am hungry for a hot meal.”
She grasped the one rope with her hands, and leaping up, worked hand-over-hand to the nearby shore where she rested on a shelf of volcanic rock a mere dozen yards away. “See! Easy, come along.” Then she climbed to the level area just above her head.
I followed for what else could I do. I didn’t fear her calling me a coward, for few had the courage of that woman. Nor did I fear calling myself such for I had spent my five years on the northwest border fighting Aquilonians, Cimmerians and even the occasional Vanir raider and I had crossed Hyboria a number of times alone. Yes, I was afraid, but I accepted that emotion and learned to live with my fears. No, to refuse Sonja was… akin to refusing my own king, hallowed be his name, so powerful a presence was she.
I fear a lifetime with pen and ink had robbed me of the upper body strength that she possessed so where she made the trip easily, I foundered, soaking my boots and struggling the last feet to safety. Then, after rubbing the cramps, I followed my guide and captor.
When we reached the peak, we had a good view of the entire island group though it was too dark to make out much. Sonja pointed to a nearby island and remarked, “Campfires. Be they Picts or pirates you think?”
“Picts, more likely. The pirates are said to fear the savages and remain behind stout walls or offshore with multiple guards aboard their ships. This is why the pirate king has so much power. Only in Tortage Bay is it safe to sleep. Outside those walls and harbor chain, the savages can and will raid with immunity and not even the largest ship is safe from their attacks.”
Sonja looked around and commented, “Our island seems to be safe for I see no fires nor smell no smoke. I think that if we build our fire between rocks and hill, none will see it and we can sleep in peace. Which do you think is Tortage?”
“Not this one so you have a one-in-six chance of guessing right. Perhaps if we roll a dice?”
“Funny. I hope you can make jokes as the Picts flay your skin from your living hide.” She turned away at that, searching the ground for something.
“Nay, Sonja, I did but jest. Perhaps when the sun rises we can see more.” Then she exclaimed with a cry and held something large and wiggly.
“Dinner. These lizards have much meat on their tails. See if you can find some bird eggs.”
By the time I returned, she had a small fire going and was roasting the gutted lizard. I handed her my hat full of large leathery eggs as I quipped, “I hope these are freshly laid as I’d rather not crunch whatever is inside.” Eggs of fowl are hard-shelled. Those of reptiles are soft and leathery so these must be of some lizard.
Looking one over using the fire as a lamp, she asked, “You found no bird eggs?”
“I chose to not climb those rocks in the dark and risk broken limbs.”
She nodded at my explanation and lay the eggs around the fire, turning them often to allow them to cook in their shells, and soon enough we ate, carving slices of cooked lizard from the surface as it cooked through and eating the eggs as we judged them ready. And soon enough, our stomachs were full and we debated over sleeping here or on the boat.
It was a hiss that awakened us from our discussion.
Drawing steel, we both saw the origin of the sound. A large snake easily a foot around and so probably a hundred long was fast approaching. “Sonja,” I shuddered, “I think we ate her babies.”
My companion said nothing but readied herself as I moved to the side. The ophidian could only strike one of us and the other would be free to attack. I hoped that the sight of two of us would make it flee but it glared at us both, turning its head from the one to the other, tasting the air with its forked tongue, then focused on me and struck.
I barely had time to point my blade to the monster and that was what saved me for the point of my sword entered the open maw of the beast and stuck. But the force of the strike was such that I felt two things in rapid succession; the pommel of my sword being driven into my own belly then the force of my body being lifted and thrust back against a rock.
Stunned, I was helpless and refused to loosen my grip on my blade for that was all that prevented the monster from swallowing me whole. And as it whipped to and fro, I was too heavy for it to throw as a terrier shakes a rat, I saw Sonja the Fearless attack the beast.
Her blade rose and fell as if she were chopping wood, but so quickly did it rise and fall that I could not count the blows even were I willing or able. Again and again that engine of destruction rose and fell, flashing in the moonlight as the ophidian sought to release me and attack my savior.
I twisted my sword to lock it into the beast’s mouth and thus it was trapped by me and killed by her. Finally, I felt a weight lessen and the head was free of the body but still impaled on my own sword.
Sonja stood there, covered with blood and panting then, in her casual manner asked, “Are you planning to stuff that thing?”
I kicked at it and got it off as she laughed, “I need to wash, remain here and watch not for my nakedness but for the snake’s mate.” And laughing at her wit, left the camp.
I admit that I was shaking. And I admit that part was terror and part was that reaction the body possesses after strong and violent work. I also admit that seeing my companion naked in her bath was the last thought in my head for I searched the darkness with eye and ear in terror of the beast’s mate.
When Sonja returned, her clothes soaked and what poked through her shirt revealed that as the cloth dried, it cooled what lay under. She had dagger in hand and walked the length of the still-twitching serpent until she knelt at the side of the thing. Slitting it open, she reached within and pulled out a large fish. “I thought so. There isn’t enough here for such a monster to consume so it feeds on fish from the sea.” Then, tossing it to me, ordered, “Still fresh, so clean this and we’ll have fish instead of snake for breakfast.” She pulled a couple more from the beast, then grunted as she sought to drag and roll it to the edge of the rocks and over it went into the water. “Tomorrow, be certain that your feet touch not the water for sharks may be attracted to the snake’s body.” And the woman laughed again at her own wit.
Mitra, that woman torments me so and actually enjoys my discomfort. “I dislike your wit at my expense.” I snapped.
She approached and I was so angry that I cared not if she killed me upon the spot. Instead, she smiled and said, “I’m sorry, Miles. I’m used to coarser companions. I mean no harm.”
Mollified, I cleaned the fish, scraping from them the snake’s digestive juices with the scales and opened them to cook over the coals over the night. “I would rather sleep in a fortress after this action.”
She laughed again and replied, “We take watches. Think of it as back in the army.”
“I hated the army,” I offered in as low a voice as I could. Then I settled back and fell asleep.
She awoke me for my watch and was soon snoring herself. Laying there, her shirt opened, almost revealing the treasures beneath, I stared more at her than the darkness, and I admit my fantasies were such that she would geld me were I to mention them aloud. So to recover myself, I paced around the camp watching but nothing appeared and our little boat lay bobbing on the bay as would a babe in her mother’s arms.
I finally awoke her for her watch and returned to sleep to be awakened by the sun in my face. We fell to the fish and so long as I ignored their origins, they were tasty and filled our bellies. But then, on the Border and while traveling I had eaten worse things that my stomach rejected little.
We then climbed to the mount again and looked over the archipelago in the light and discussed which island was which. “I know not, Sonja. As you can see, there are three maps that counter each other and these are the best I could gather. I saw a dozen others that I rejected but may be true. We can but guess from here.”
“You Said that Tortage is the largest so those two can be ignored. We seem to be on the south-easternmost island so I think we should sail toward that one in the distance. I appears to be larger. Hopefully we shall see ships in the area and follow them.”
Climbing down, I asked, “This Nobera you seek. What did he do to you that gives you such a desire for murder.”
“It concerns you not. If my killing him bothers you, then look away.” And she was silent until we were well out of the cove and on our way.
We sailed all that day, watching for other ships and I do admit that were the conditions different, I would grow to enjoy this sport. But Sonja remained at the tiller or the bow or occasionally climbing the mast and spoke but little. Once we moved behind an islet, little larger than a rock upon the waters, as another ship passed and we followed at a respectable distance seeking Tortage.
Once we saw two ships pass, each giving the other a wide berth though I suspect it more of a sailing ships inability to sail closer to the wind than 45 degrees than distrust of each other for although we could sail directly to Tortage, any attempt to leave required the ship to tack back-and-forth to return. And as we were now sailing NE from our position, we, too were forced to tack, thus increasing the distance we must sail.
“How do you intend to enter the Bay?” I asked Sonja. “All reports indicate that the island is infested with savage Picts and the city well patrolled.”
“Watch!” She commanded then she hailed a nearby craft by shining a mirror at them.
“Are you insane!” I demanded as I tried to pull her down but a blow convinced me that I had better luck against the pirates who lowered their sail and waited our approach.
As we came within range of voice, well within bowshot, Sonja cried out, “Are you for Tortage?”
“Who wishes to know?” the captain replied.
“Valeria of the Brotherhood! Now answer else I have you flogged.”
The man’s attitude changed quickly and he asked her, “What does Valeria of the Shark’s Teeth do in a fishing boat?”
“Dog, must you ask stupid questions while I die of thirst. Let us come aboard and I’ll tell you what I think you should know.” Then to me in a whisper, “Do you know of Valeria or the Shark’s Teeth?”
I replied in the negative.
“Then be a pirate for Valeria is infamous among pirates.”
“Rather I be what I am and not pretend to that which I shall fail.”
As the ships came together, Sonja, nay, let me refer to her by her assumed name, ‘Valeria’, lowered the sail and tossed a line to allow our boat to be towed and we came aboard. “Touch not this man for he is as powerful with pen as am I with sword.”
One of the pirates came forward and laughed, “You mean he will impale me with a quill?”
“No, but I will!” she snapped back. “This man is a scribe who I wish to write my life for all to know that when I am long dead, men will listen to tales of Valeria and tremble in fear.”
“A scribe!” he laughed again. “What need do we have of a pen-pusher?”
Approaching the man who towered over her, she asked, “What is your name?”
The man puffed himself up and replied, “I am Antoch,” to which Valeria asked, “Know you of Conan of Cimeria?”
“Of course, who has not?” he replied.
“Exactly,” she laughed. “Everyone knows of Conan. Scribes like Philos here,” she pointed to me, “write Conan’s adventures and Bards speak of him over the Winters in the cities. But you!” her finger poked the chest of poor Antoch, “Antol? Antos? Whatever. I have never heard about.” The crew laughed at the discomfort of that man and even I felt sorry for his humiliation. “In years to come, the world will know of Valeria of the Red Brotherhood and all because THIS MAN will write my tales. Touch him not or face me.”
The woman’s ability to invent a story on the moment and push it deep into the brains of her audience astounded me. I had expected her to massacre the crew but within a few sentences, they were hers and the Captain ordered a keg opened to toast “Valeria of the Red Brotherhood and her scribe who shall make her even more famous!”
Later, taking her aside as the crew raised their red sail to catch a breeze, I asked, “Who is this Valeria?”
Whispering, she answered, “A pirate, a freebooter, a buccaneer and a murderer. Last I heard she was in the Black Kingdoms with Conan, the slut! And now raids the Vilayet Sea.”
I suspect that my companion may be a bit jealous of the Cimmerian’s women but I fear to speak such words within her reach.
“By the time my lie is discovered, we should be long gone.” Well, that explained the blonde hair that crept from her scarf.
“I hope so for your forgot one thing.”
“Blondes tan but redheads do not.” Then I was forced to be silent for the crew began to approach led by Antoch. I was afraid that he wished me ill but stammered as a boy wooing his first love, “Philos, … Noble Philos,’ he began. Please, I am sorry for how I acted and beg you… Please write about me too!”
Sonja/Valeria fell to the deck laughing then walked forward waving me away and I was forced to record that man’s evil acts in the hope that he would become famous. And when he was done, another approached and then another until I felt like a Priest of Mitra hearing confessions. Most of those tales shook me to my soul but I consoled myself with the thought that when, if I lived, I would turn the papers over to the Argossian Navy for their use. Mayhaps my recording of their crimes would save the king the expense of a trial.
As we approached the bay and lowered our sail, the Captain strode to the bow and flashed a signal which was repeated from a tower. He made another signal to which Sonja paid much attention. And to this code, the great chain that barred the bay entrance lowered beneath the water and a longboat rowed to us. I could see the wretches were in chains and had been beaten near death but the mate tossed the longboat a rope which was made fast and the longboat then towed us into the bay. Since the wind was favorable, I can only assume that the Pirates refused to allow any to enter under their own power and preferred their visitors to be helpless. And so my fears were confirmed as we passed the towers that flanked the bay, I saw siege engines, including two terrible ballistas, either of which could pierce our hull with their arrows.
I asked ‘Valeria’, “How do you plan to get past those?”
Shrugging, she replied, “I had planned to beach around the island, fight my way through the Picts and sneak over the wall. This method just came to me so I hope another comes to me when we leave.”
As the ship docked, ‘Valeria’ said, in that deadpan voice she used when she wished to impress me with her wit, “If you would live, remain close.” I had no intention of leaving her side until we reached civilization, at which time I would change my name and visage and hide as a hermit in a stone hut on the Pictish shores.
We were met by a representative of the Pirate King, such as he is, who asked questions of each member of the crew, refusing to allow any to leave the ship until he was satisfied. It appears that we were not the first to seek entry under disguise. It was when he came to us that Sonja snapped, “Must Valeria of the Brotherhood be queried like some common seaman! Aside lest I have your cherries for my lunch!” and she pushed her way past him. Gods! That woman could enter the realms of the Hyperborean Sorcerer-kings had she the desire, for none stood before her.
I barely noticed the official writing her name in his book as we left. “What if…”
“Never give a buerocrat time to think.” She snapped. “Act as you will and expect them to obey for the alternative is for them to bother their superiors and THAT, they do not wish to do. Ah, this looks like a good place.”
The ‘good place’ was a tavern, and from what I could see of Tortage, every third business was a tavern, the other two being whorehouses and buyers of stolen goods. “So.. Valeria, what makes this a good place to search for your prey?”
“Because, Nobera likes but two things in life, wine and women and he cares not if either are willing or his.”
We sat and within seconds a jack of poor ale was set before each of us. Mitra it was a bitter brew but I sipped as I watched. ‘Valeria’ played the slattern well, showing a portion of free breast or leg and promising a kiss or caress as she flirted. I imagine a dozen men were in a dozen rooms awaiting a ‘Valeria’ that would never show. Someday, I mused, the real Valeria would learn what Sonja did to her reputation and seek revenge. I resolved to be far away when that happened. Yet, my companion never ceased to ask about her victim.
To one, “Know you Nobera? He promised me a ruby from Shem and I paid my part.”
To another, “Nobera left me with child,” sniff, “and I need to remove his manhood for that.”
Again, “Nobera and I were shipmates until.. find him for me and I’ll show you delights that no courtesan can deliver.”
And to another, “I seek Nobera. He stole half a map from me and I’ll share the treasure with whomever recovers both him and the other half of my map.” Valeria’s reputation may be muddied but half the island was now looking for Nobera.
One man sat promising information then lay his hand on her leg… to receive her tankard across his face. He fell bleeding from a broken nose and smashed teeth to which ‘Valeria’ simply raised her leg and drove her boot-heel into the man’s belly with such force that he curled up and vomited until he passed out. ‘Valeria’ ignored the scene and turned to another to question.
Later we retired to our rooms, joined by an unlatched door for both privacy and security. She trusted me to remain in my own bed as did I for I was more interested in rewriting my notes than ending my life upon her blade.
Then I heard the cup move across the floor. Sonja had tied a string to two cups and lay one in each room. She was pulling her cup which was the signal for ‘danger’.
I quickly replaced my notes and writing instruments in their case, then armed myself and was ready just as the door broke in. There were four ruffians and one thrust himself onto my sword as I grabbed for my dagger to no avail. I saw stars and pain then nothing.
I awoke in a smelly prison listening to screams. I had heard of what these pirates did to their women prisoners and feared that Sonja would suffer the same. I am ashamed to admit that I thought ‘better her than me’ for I was sorely vexed that she had dragged me into this adventure. Then I heard someone being dragged down the corridor past my cell door and mighty oaths revealed that Sonja did not submit easily.
Less than an hour later, or so I assumed, the door opened and I was ordered out at sword-point then escorted to the main audience chamber of the former Argossian Noble who had built this fortress. To my surprise, I saw Sonja standing there, unarmed but otherwise unharmed save her shirt was torn to reveal one shapely shoulder. She glanced at me, smiled then returned her attention to the Pirate King who was flipping through my notes with considerable interest. Damn! He will see my description of Sonja and her disguise and then we are dead. I tried to adopt Sonja’s fatalism and resigned myself to my death but she was probably still in shock from her gang-rapes and of no use.
Looking up, the pirate king called out, “Are you Philos?”
Shocked, for my name was easily read so he must be toying with me. Thus I replied, “I am, my lord.” The pirates around me laughed at this. Well, I was dead so waited.
“I understand that you write stories about Conan the Cimmerian and other such people and that these stories are spread by the bards to make them famous.”
“I but write what I see and hear, my lord.”
He looked at my maps and added, “Know you that we stake for the Picts people who seek to chart our islands.”
“I but copied what people told me on the mainland. I am certain that the Argossian Navy has much better charts than anything I could draw.”
“So it seems.” Then laughing, “Any who follow these will end up lost or upon a reef. But, you killed one of my men last night.”
“In my defense, my lord, I thought that I was being attacks by brigands and but defended myself. And to be honest, that man died only because he fell upon my blade more by accident than design.”
He placed my notes in my satchel and handed them to an aid and turned to Sonja. “I have heard much of Valeria of the Brotherhood. I’m glad to see you return even though you killed four of my men last night and near crippled another four but an hour ago.”
The man was illiterate! He only pretended to read my notes. And Sonja knew this. We were still alive!
“Then you should have asked politely or sent more and better men.” She laughed at this. So, she wasn’t assaulted. I should have known.
“Why do you want Nobera?” the king asked as his aid handed me my bag.
“Personal business.” She snapped back. “Is he here or not?”
“He is. Nobera!” the king yelled. His men pushed a man forward. The villain was so totally unawsome that he could have passed on any street without notice. And this was the man who Red Sonja went to so much trouble to kill. “What did you do to anger Valeria so?”
“I know not. I’ve never even met the woman. But wait, this isn…”
Sonja jumped forward and struck the man to the ground with a curse, “You damned dog! Someone give me a sword so I can kill him.”
Nobera rose to his feet and drew a wicked saber and approached Sonja snapping, “Whore! Slut! Whatever you call yourself, I will cut you to ribbons!” and he slashed.
I have seen tigers in Khitai move slower than did Sonja and the two danced about the room, Nobera armed and on the attack, Sonja unarmed and constantly dancing away. I carefully moved back, then pulled a blade from the sash of a pirate and tossed it to her, “Catch!”
My throw was poor but she rolled to the ground and came up with blade in hand to block an overhand blow, then she struck and Nobera stood as his entrails fell to the floor. He stared in disbelief, then slowly fell as the room of pirates laughed at his misfortune.
Coming forward, the king poked at the body with his booted foot and laughed, “It seems that your quest is done. I should fine you for this murder but I don’t think you would pay. No matter. Lunch is ready.” And he led us to another room where half-naked slave-girls were placing foodstuffs on golden plates, the booty of a dozen centuries.
Throughout the meal, the king divided his time between telling me his life story and ensuring that I wrote everything down and flirting with ‘Valeria’ who allowed him his gropings but pushed his hands away if they became too personal. She played the part well and after killing Nobera so easily, was in a god mood and after a keg or two, rose to dance on the table to the cheers of the room. I know not what else transpired for I sought my room at the Inn while I could still walk and fend off muggers. Last I saw, ‘Valeria’ was pouring a beer on the head of the pirate king to the laughter of the assembly.
As was my habit, I rewrote my notes before sleep musing that these pirates were quick to anger but give them blood and beer and they were equally quick to forgive.
I was awakened by alarms, “The Picts! The Picts are attacking the walls!” and throwing my window open, saw every man armed and rushing to the walls. I then heard pounding on my door, “Arm yourself and to the wall!” then more pounding down the hall.
I slipped my byrnie over my shirt and buckling my sword to my hips, left to see Sonja, no ‘Valeria’, armed and ready. “Come!” she snapped, “Time to earn our lives!”
We reached the wall where I grasped a pike from a corpse who had been struck with a number of arrows and pausing only to take his helmet for my own, began to thrust down at the savages.
The battle lasted for hours it seemed and no battle on the border against Aquilonian or Cimmerian tired me so much. I thrust and thrust and thrust. When a ladder reached the wall, I pushed it back. I saw a hook and rope fly over the wall and snag a defender who fell screaming as he was pulled to the wall then over to his death. And Sonja, Sonja was a devil in a blouse. She was never in one place for more than a second. She was here, killed a Pict, then there, killing another. Whenever the savages managed to reach the wall, Sonja was there to drive them back. I was watching her kill three who had reached the catwalk when I felt impacts against my body. Arrows! I had remained in the open too long and had been targeted.
I brushed them off easily for my light byrnie had stopped the poor shafts. An Aquilonian longbow would have sent a shaft through my byrnie, through me and killed the three men behind me but it seemed that here, good wood for bow and arrow was lacking so their weapons were useful only for the unarmored. Feeling invincible, I returned to killing and near dawn, the savages withdrew. Half the defenders remained on the wall, the other half were sent down to eat and rest while slave-girls brought food and water to they who remained.
I don’t remember reaching my room but I do remember Sonja pulling me up. “Do you wish to remain here forever? Now is our chance! Go to the wharf and row our boat to the right watchtower. I will meet you there.”
I struggled to my feet, gathered my bag and left fort he wharf as Sonja vanished. Did that woman never tire? And how will we get past the chain? And what of the Ballistas?
I untied the lines that held our boat to the dock, pushed off with an oar and rowed as best I could. The fishing boat, small enough for two, was still not made for rowing but I managed. I rowed across the bay to find two pirate ships tied to the chain and another one burning. But outside the chain were a dozen canoes and the bodies of hundreds of Picts floating in the sea. As I reached the mentioned tower, I waved to the survivors of the nearer ship who waved back. Their battle to protect the harbor was as bad as mine at the wall.
“What news?” one called to me.
“Like here, but we pushed them back. Mitra, I’ll dream of blood for a month!”
He laughed, “At least the sharks will eat well. The bodies outside the wall will stink long before they are eaten or buried. What of you? Why are you here?”
“I’m told to scout outside for more canoes. I guess they feel a single small boat is easier to risk than your ship.”
“Good luck but the chain remains so how do you plan to leave?”
I hadn’t thought of that but hoped that Sonja would think of something. “They never told me. I suppose I will sit here until orders arrive.”
“At least we have drink!” he raised his tankard to me. I waved back and waited, looking into the tower as best I could while they on the ship drank themselves to sleep.
I saw ‘Valeria’ enter the tower, blade sheathed and talk to the gatekeeper. They argued and the man pulled at her to cause her scarf to come loose. Her hair was red! Only the exposed area past the scarf was dyed blonde. The guard began to scream but she silenced him with a dagger to the belly. Two more ran down the stairs to meet her and under her sword, they fell. I wished to enter and help but the opening was too small so I could do nothing but wait and pray.
Nothing. Then a rope fell from the tower and Sonja slid down from an upper and larger window, burning the leather of her gloves as I fought to get the boat under her. “Raise sail, fast!” she snapped. “We have an offshore wind.”
“But the chain?” then I saw it falling to the bottom and the ships tied to the chain began to point to the bottom as the heavy chain fought to pull them under.
As I lowered the sail, Sonja pushed off the wall and used the oar as do the Khitans, sculling from the stern until the breeze caught us and we left.
Fortunately, the two ships were too busy trying to free themselves from the chain to concern themselves with us and we slipped into the dawn unimpeded. “What of the Picts?” I called.
“If they come, hope that we can sail faster than they can paddle. If not, we hope the wind holds until they get tired. But they attack once every couple months then are beaten off so I doubt we’ll see any.”
“and the pirates?”
She laughed, “I cut the cables holding the chain that protects the harbor and the string of the ballista. With the harbor defenseless, they’ll have to worry more about Picts entering by sea than chasing one small boat. Still,” she thought a moment. “Find us a course that will keep us away from their lanes and get us back undetected.”
We sailed to sea then changed course to hide from pursuit and moved at a new heading, always searching for a sail on the horizon when I thought to ask. Her hair was red save the ends which were blonde. “Why dye only the ends? It seems to me that your disguise would be the better were you to dye your entire head.”
She stared at me with a shocked expression, “Do you know what this dye is doing to my hair? My ends are split and the wave is gone and the dyed part is so brittle… Do you want to see me bald!”
Sonja the Red, Sonja the Chaste, Red Sonja of Hyrkania. Men have called her She-Devil with a Sword, the Red-headed Bitch and many things, many uncomplementary. but I think that I, of all the people she had known, saw for the first time, Sonja the Woman.