by: Rick Johnson
PO Box 40451
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the astute reader will notice the many anachronisms here such as I describe Ivan III instead of Ivan IV who actually ruled during the time of Suleyman II.
The reason is simple, the Janice series takes place in Eurasia from 1450 to 1550 and as this is not a historical story but a love story, I feel free to include anything and anyone in that century.
I It was raining in the Crimea. In the Spring, it always rained this far south which was why there was so much wheat grown here. While the inhabitants of Rogatino just north of Moskva ate moldy bread in the winter to stave off starvation, here, in the Crimea, life was good. Mostly. True, the Ottoman Empire was pushing north and the Princes of Russia were making overtures of peace to slow the advance until they could arm but really, which master was worse? The Tsar who saw himself as the direct descendant of Julius Caesar or the Sultan who saw himself as the fist of God? Both would take what they wanted and to hell with the wishes of the people.
It was a long ride from Moskva, more than 2700 versta, had she walked or ridden in a straight line. But the actual distance was nearly twice that, so much had she meandered, following clue after false lead until she was here.
They had taken her sister, not her, slapping her to the ground, laughing at her attitude, her temper as fiery as her hair, choosing the beauty of her older sister who didn’t fight as much, didn’t bite and kick and scream invectives at the slavers who had visited her town and farm. In the end, Sonya was left behind, untouched save for a bruise on her cheek where one of the slavers had struck her down in irritation and another bruise on her rump where she had landed.
Most slavers would have taken them both, virgin girls valuable to those men who wished no comparison. But these slavers were under orders of the Tsar and so they kept their depredations under control and left Sonya un-violated and her home standing.
For months she had chased her prey. Sometimes paying for a ride or information with a promise to cook a meal or mend a shirt, sometimes with that rare silver she earned and rarely, after that pleasant evening with that handsome officer who removed that which the slavers had ignored, with her body. But pay she did to follow and find the slavers who had taken her sister, her beloved Roxelana. To Sonya, nothing else mattered save the freedom of her sister.
It was while in a small inn, more an old house where the owner scattered rushes from the last harvest upon the floor to slow the trod of boots in the dirt floor, boots which churned the floor into a mud wallow not even fit for pigs, that trouble struck. Trouble followed Sonya like the plague but she was smart enough to realize that most of it was her own fault. God had blessed her with fair skin and red hair to make a princess sneer with envy but to keep her from overreaching her station, Satan had cursed her with a temper to match her locks. Two men, Turks from the look, approached and placed a mug of beer before her. Then they sat.
Sonya liked beer. She had drunk it when she and Roxelana had snuck into the Church dinners and stole a mug or two under the noses of the Priests. It did make her belch if she drank it too fast though. So when the Turks sat, she took a deep drought and belched her best, seeking to drive them off with manners that they’d see as un-ladylike.
Only now it didn’t work. The two laughed and one made a comment that she knew without understanding their barbarous tongue was unflattering. Then one placed his hand upon her own that she broke free and dashed the contents of her jack into his face.
Sputtering and to the laughter of his fellow, the Turk, a giant of a man stood swearing and raised his fist to dash the young girl to the floor. Sonya moved back to draw her sword, a heavy broadsword that she had stolen from a sleeping Frank but then her arms were pinned from behind. Unwilling to show weakness she stared and awaited the blow that she only hoped would not break teeth, swearing at the two with all her might. Beat and rape her they may but break her no man would accomplish as she kicked at the giant’s shins.
It was raining again. It was raining the last time I came through here and it was raining this time too. A part of me wondered if it was the same rainstorm but I knew that not even in the Crimea would it rain for more than a year straight. The Ottoman Empire was pushing north. With Vlad Dracula long dead and excommunicated for seeking to enlist aid from Catholic Hungary, even Romania was being overrun. At least, though, the Turks would protect Ruth and her family of Jews from the ravages of the Greek Church which burned Jews as easily as Catholic Spain burned them. Suleyman I whom Europe called Satan incarnate, was called by his own people “The Lawgiver” for he was a fair man who expected all men to obey his laws and sided with no man, Mohammadan, Christian or Jew above the other… so long as their taxes were paid.
The last time I came through here I was with Gazelle, whose mass and visage prevented trouble though attracted looks. Now, I was alone. Gazelle left in Greece to return to her family, my former slaves whom I called Hansel and Gretel, left with their uncle in Bulgaria along with a purse large enough to encourage a good life and decent marriage and Ruth, my desired for whom I lusted yet came to love as a daughter, left behind in Romania with her father and another large purse that would ensure a good marriage for her, though the thought of her young body being held by a man angered and depressed me.
Still, it had been more than two years and I was anxious to return home to Ireland, to my children, to my life. Just a few more months and my sentence would be run and … Sentence! Curse is more like it. Yet, a curse not without benefits.
A crashing to my right interrupted my thoughts. This weather always made me depressed. Back home, I’d lay before a cherry fire with a good book and expect the servants to fill my wine-glass and keep the fireplace stoked. Here, I was alone, soaked to the skin and wishing that the sun would come out. Glancing to the sea I could barely make out the ice breaking apart and moving south into the Black Sea, the rain washing away the coverings of dust and leaves that made Jason and his Argonauts think that he had passed between floating islands.
I needed a dry place to sleep, one that had a hot bath and a bevy of even hotter buxom beauties to wash my back, rub my feet and hair and attend to my other, less public desires.
This part of the Crimea was in dispute. Claimed by the Kingdom of Poland, the Principality of Moscow and the Ottoman Empire, soon enough the Turks would enforce their claim as they pushed north, to be stopped only by the Russian Winter. A Winter I hoped to miss for my business was with the nomads of the Steppes who raided the Rus and Mongol alike and so I would be all the better by avoiding them both.
But where war was raged, money could be made and after leaving most of my funds with Ruth, I was as close to impoverishment as I cared to be. Thus when I saw the hovel that doubled as an Inn, instead of riding on in search of better lodgings that would benefit my Station, I turned in.
The stalls behind were covered with a roof and poor walls but would be dry inside and entering, a boy jumped to his feet and came over, swaggering until I dismounted and removed my soaking cloak. Then his jaw dropped and he remembered to bow. Nobility would never come to this place and neither would I had I been less generous and more determined.
I held my hand, giving the boy a smile and a penny, for either would he gladly give me his soul, and asked, “Dear child, I am lost and separated from my company. Until they find me, would you please care for my horse and tack for the steed is dear to me?”
I couldn’t understand his words, so quickly did they erupt, but his meaning was clear. I would have the best he had. So collecting my bag, replacing my cloak and pulling my hood I smiled at the boy and walked around the hut, trying to avoid trailing my dress in the mud. Once when my older sister abused a servant for pulling her hair by accident my father took her aside and reminded her that the peasants knew how to farm and weave and do all the labours necessary to our good life but were we impoverished, we would starve long before we could learn to farm. “And besides,” I spoke in, “History shows us that peasant revolts are often successful and I’d like to know that my servants will protect me.” So, I took care to be kind to the lesser classes for a kind word, a smile and the occasional penny would often make the difference between a good cut of lamb and a poor one. And on more than one occasion, my life had been saved by a peasant repaying my kindness.
Entering the hovel, I looked around, the rushes on the floor crushed into the mud, the interior dank with gloom and mainly the young redheaded girl being held by one Turk as another prepared to strike her down. It was no business to me, doubtless she was some cutpurse or doxie who had sought to rob or cheat the soldiers, still I was Irish and cold and wet and that meant I would not turn down a fight.
I slammed the door as loud as I could upon its leather hinges and entered, casually mentioning to the one about to strike, “If that hand touches her fair complexion, you shall loose it upon the instant.” I smiled, showing nearly perfect teeth for I found a gentle suggestion to be more intimidating than voiced anger.
The Turk started to speak then slowed as I removed my cloak, expecting an unseen hand to take and dry the garment. I was not disappointed. Then as he realized that I was a Westerner, despite my outfit, he sneered, then stopped as my knife-point slipped into his cod. “Or perhaps I shall make you a girl yourself?” then instantly without looking snapped, “Don’t!” I didn’t need to see the man behind me. There always was one sneaking up on a woman just as the red-head had been taken but the intake of breath convinced the room that I had abilities beyond their keen.
“Release her, buy us dinner and drinks, a bath and room, and leave while you can.”
“How the hell are you, witch!” the Turk demanded, drink giving him courage but removing what few brains he possessed.
I removed a paper from my bodice, a pass given in pay for service to the Empire and snapped, “I am the Baroness Janice O’Brien of Ireland and THIS, gives me the right to make whatever demands I choose.”
The man gulped, unable to read the Arabic script the Turks had adopted but recognizing the seal upon the paper, thoughts warring within his tiny brain then another jab convinced him to be descrete. “Your pardon Lady, a misunderstanding. Keep!” he bellowed the last and we two were alone.
Sonya stared at the woman who had faced down the soldiers. She was a bit taller, maybe seven and a half ells tall, her hair strawberry-blonde and her damp dress of excellent make, she was obviously a noblewoman though Sonya couldn’t understand the Turkish she spoke. “Spaciba, but I don’t understand you.”
“Then, child, we should speak in Russian which I now see is your nation. Tell me your name and family and why you are here.” The woman was older but not by much from her appearance, though the wealthy spent a farmers lifetime earnings on looking young.
“I am Sonya of Rogatino. My sister Roxelana was captured by slavers these months back and I ran away from home to find and rescue her.”
“And that sword you seek to carry?”
“It’s mine!” defensive, Sonya grasped it to herself.
“So I see,” the woman laughed. “Forgive my impertenance but that steel seems to be larger than are you. Perhaps you should consider one smaller, lighter, more suitable to a woman?”
“What do you know of war… Lady? I see you are a noble but nobles, especially well-born ladies remain behind while they send their peasants to die for them.” Sonya snapped at the other.
Anger flashed for a moment then faded and the woman drew from her skirt a long curved blade of strange make. Curved like a saber, the handle was far too long and braided in expensive silk and the guard a simple pierced disc. The older woman reached over to the meat on the spit and with a quick movement, sliced off a piece that nearly fell to the fire until she caught it on the point. “Caesar wrote that not an entire Legion of Rome could stand against a Celt were his wife to take up a sword and stand by his side. Sonya, child, I am smaller than most men and weaker than all of them. And I am alone in your country. So, I must defend myself and if I cannot be bigger and stronger than a man, I must be faster and rely on skill over might and that requires a blade that I can the more easily wield.” She placed the meat over a trencher and pulled back so fast the meat remained behind, then remembering that all things fall, did so. The older woman then cleaned, carefully, her blade and returned it to the sheath hidden in her dress.
“Now, child, tell me about this sister of yours?”
Saddened, Sonya began, “Roxelana and I were closer than any two sisters could be. Then one day the salvers came, dragged all the young girls from the village and examined us all, choosing none by Roxelana for she was the prettiest.”
“Such a beauty indeed must she be to eclipse your contenance.”
“I tried to fight, to save her but to no avail for they were more and bigger then any who chose to oppose them. In the end, they threw me down and took Roxelana away with them. I’ve searched and followed all these months, suffering hardship for her. But I WILL find her, this I swear by all the Saints in Heaven.”
“And what of your Prince? Ivan the Third I believe? He calls himself ‘The Great’ so surely he will earn the title to rescue his subject?”
“Tsar Ivan!” she spat. “HE is the one who hired the slavers.”
“Why?” now interested, the older Noble leaned forward, exposing more cleavage.
“He gives them to the Turks as tribute.”
Leaning back, she took a drink, stared at the mug with distaste, doubtless the coarse beer not to her taste, then shrugged and sipped again. “I begin to see. The Ottoman Empire moves forward. Vlad Dracula held them back for years but now that he is dead, and with the Catholics fighting each other over who shall sit closer to their god in heaven, the Turks move north, pushing the Poles and the Rus aside and sending both to the afterlife. Ivan seeks to buy time to arm and so make alliances with your sister and other slaves. As tribute, their bodies serve Russia and give their families time to plan their battles.”
“And my Roxelana must suffer at the hands of Suleyman, that… that beast to purchase an hour of freedom!” she demanded.
“Do you play chess?” the Noblewoman asked as if the previous outburst had not occurred.
“What the hell does that mean?”
“You should learn. Chess is a game of armies upon the battlefield. A game of politics in darkened rooms. A game of skill in all aspects of life. It teaches you to think before you act. A master at chess is also a master in many other areas and is rarely caught unaware. Suleyman plays chess as does Ivan. And this land around us is the board.
“Your sister is a pawn, a piece to be moved out to entice the other side into a mistake, then to be crushed by a flanking attack they did not see. Winning can be overwhelming where you destroy every piece or it can be subtle as one innocent pawn, ignored until the knife slips between a rib. More than one king has died at the hands of a complacent girl he sought to bed. More than one war has been lost to a dagger held by a whore the eve of a major battle.”
“You imply that my sister was taken to assassinate Suleyman?”
“No, I don’t know her that well, though what I hear of Ivan implies that he wouldn’t operate that way. I am simply trying to get you to think ahead, to see every possibility so that when the Turks outflank you, it is they who will loose.”
Shortly after, the woman rose and spoke to the innkeeper and upon returning, said, “Come Sonya, your former paramours did pay for a room and the meal as directed. I’m glad to see I still have some influence even here. Let us retire for the night is long and cold and I would sleep with your warmth next to me.”
Standing, Sonja followed up the ladder and undressed, not seeing Janice’s eyes upon her then Sonya slid in under the covers which were little more than a mat upon the hay in a loft, but it was better than the ground where others slept in the mud. In Russia, bundling was a longtime custom so it wasn’t until she felt hands begin to explore that she slapped them off with an oath! “Is this what you think of me! Is this why you helped me? At least the serving girls would receive a few coppers for their perversions.”
“Do you want me to pay you? If so I will but I’d much rather you come to me for desire. Nay Sonya of Rogatine, return, it’s cold out there and I’ll keep to myself.”
The woman was true to her word though she held Sonya in her arms and legs for warmth. She was curious in that unlike Sonya and every other decent woman, the Noble had removed her hair from her legs, arms and armpits. The smoothness was curiously pleasant to feel. In the morning, Sonya left the bed and dressed, the Irish woman snoring as would any commoner. She was obviously good with that strange sword and spoke Turkish and even the hated Ottoman feared and respected her. Perhaps, she could be used to find Roxelana. Sonya dressed and climbed the ladder down to find the landlord had already prepared breakfast for the guests.
“Redhead,” he snapped, realizing that Sonya had the protection, but was not favored by the Baroness. “Will your Mistress sleep all day? I cannot work without waking the woman and fear a beating if I do. Go, stupid girl! Awaken your lady and let yourself suffer her anger.”
“Think you that I am some serving girl like your slut of a daughter!” Sonya snapped back. “Wake her yourself and be damned!”
The man stepped forward and raised his hand, intending to strike down the impertanant girl when a voice from above yelled, “Enough! It is difficult enough to sleep in this loft without your screams that awaken even the rats! Keep! Send me your daughter to help me dress and have your wife prepare a hot meal. Now!” The voice was one that was accustomed to obedience and obey the landlord and his family did.
Sonya sat and ate in sullen silence, glancing up as the aforenamed girl climbed the ladder with the now dry and pressed dress. How could anyone ride in such finery? Sonya mused. She herself had long ago learned the value of pants though a good vest to contain her growing breasts was a useful concession to femininity. Shortly the girl was down and shoo’d the men from the ladder, men who had sought to look up and see beneath the nobles skirts.
Once down the Irishwoman adjusted herself then sighed and approached the table, smiling and asking, not ordering but asking, “May I join you?”
Taken aback by the courtesy, Sonya barely remembered to stand and curtsey to the woman who sat and motioned for the Rus to sit. She smoothed her dress as she sat then sighing, smiled and asked, “Did you sleep well?” as if nothing untoward had happened the night before. Though not as made up as a doxie, still the woman’s lips were red and her eyes kohl’d to give an exotic look that belied the red-blonde hair of her head and eyebrows.
“Well enough. I need to find my sister. Thank you for your kindness,” and Sonya made as if to stand when… “And where is your sister?”
“I’ll find her!” Sonya snapped.
“It’s a big world out there, bigger than even the learned scholars believe. 36 thousand versta around. Two hundred ninety million square versta. Do you know how large that is? Can you even count that high? If you searched an area one verst on a side every hour, which you cannot do, it would take you over three thousand years to search the entire Earth.” The woman had been cutting her meal into small pieces which she was now eating, taking care to mot smear her lips.
Sonya sagged. True, she could barely count to a half hundred so had no idea of how large that number was but it sounded huge. “Then, how…” her voice was broken.
“There is a way, easily. You remind me of my sister and one of my daughters. That same temper, that same desire to rush out and damn the consequences. Maybe that’s why I feel for you. Battles are fought in the mind with the body following. Learn to use your brain first and your arm will follow easily.
She laughed and continued. “Like, did you believe what I told you? It’s true… but still a lie. Yes, the world is as large as I said but much of it is covered with water and needs not be searched. Then more is across the oceans or in nations that your sister would not visit. So we think… Ivan sold Roxelana to Suleyman. So she must be near the Sultan. Where Suleyman is, you shall find your sister.”
Sonya stood and demanded, “Then that is where I go!”
“And, dear child, how will you pass his guards? He is guarded by an army of Janissaries. Last night you could not defeat but two. No, Sonya, fight with your mind, prepare and then strike. Sit, eat, we have much to do. Roxelana is safe for now. As safe as she can be which is far safer than you or I would be were we to approach Suleyman.”
Forcing herself to sit, and eat, Sonya asked, “That paper you showed the Turkish dogs last night. It cowed them.”
She held the paper out, “Sometimes gold is not as valuable as people would believe. Or rather, there are many things more valuable than even silver. I have business around Europe and Asia. Without an army to protect me, I would soon find myself under the sweating hips of any man who wished his pleasure of me. So I find ways to survive, safely. I can fight, I pretend to be helpless until need arises, and I take employment in ways that will pay me in ways that are valuable.
“A year or two ago, I did a task for a Caliph. A task that not his army could accomplish. Something to do with an army of walking dead and a haunted farm the Turks could not stop. Instead of asking for silver, I asked for a pass. So long as I carry this, no Turk will hinder my passage.”
Sonya looked at it and though she could not read the writing, she easily recognized the seal of the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire. With this, she could enter the palace itself. Then she returned it. Time enough to steal the treasure later. “You serve the Turks?” she forced herself to not snap at the noblewoman.
Laughing the Baroness replied, “I am Tierna and I serve no one but my own Ri, and then only when it suits my mood and motives. I am from the west, so far west that beyond my own lands is an ocean so vast that even now most ships fail the journey. The Turks will never reach Ireland. They will take Romania and much of Hungary but no further for every league they capture is a league that must be held and every soldier taken from the battlefield to hold that league of land weakens the army. They may expand in some areas but revolts and resistance ever slows the march. To push north into Russia they must sacrifice East into China or West into Serbia. Empires expand then always fall and so shall this one.
“Thus I can do as I must, earn my passage by Ruble or Dinar or Lira or Mark for none of these nations are ally or threat to my own. I see my ways horrify you but then, in my own nation, I fight the English with the same ferocity you fight the Turk. I simply choose to save my anger for mine own enemies. Come, and bring that dog-hacker with you.”
Sonya followed the older woman who walked as elegantly as if she had been taught to stride by dancers, which she probably had. As they walked, the women chatted about the weather, the ocean and how soon could they expect flowers to bloom but nothing of how to find her sister.
“Why prattle on when Roxelana is being abused by that sobak of a Turk!” she demanded.
She looked sad and explained, “When the English burned my house with my… spouse and children trapped inside, I went insane and killed every English I could find. A part of my soul died then. I would save you that pain.” Then feigning a smile, continued, “Besides, life is too beautiful to waste on maudlin thoughts. Yes, your sister should be rescued, but along the path to damnation, you should slow enough to smell the flowers. It makes a hard journey a bit less ugly. Here we are!”
A woodsman was chopping wood on a tree stump then paused as the women approached. Gently taking the sword from Sonya’s hands, she removed it from its sheathe and commented, “A noble weapon, made to cut through fine German Plate and the fine Germans beneath. But heavy.” Then she swung the blade and with both hands easily split a log and buried the blade in the stump. “You try now.”
Sonya had to work the blade free for it was inches deep in the stump, then the Noblewoman motioned and the peasant farmer placed another log on the stump. Sonya smiled and with an equal strike, split the log easily though her blade didn’t penetrate the stump to any degree.
“A good strike, fit to separate the right side from the left of any man who offends you. But…. Now strike me!” and she drew her longer and much lighter blade and stood, relaxed with the point to the ground.
Sonya prepared and mentioned, “While Roxelana was practicing at cosmetics and finery as yourself, I was wrestling with my brothers and watching the men practice at fighting.” Then she struck.
Somehow, the strike missed the target, missed by inches but miss she did and then before she could recover, the older woman’s blade was at her neck. “Dear Sonya, this katana is made from some of the finest steel in the world. But even so, it would snap were I to block your heavy Frankish blade as would my arm and shoulder from the force of the blow. So rather than block, I deflected your strike. And I care not if you miss by an inch or a verst, still, you have missed and I am ready to attack. I see your problem. You are strong and fast, doubtless a gift of a lifetime rolling in the mud like a boy, but you are too small to recover such a mighty blade as that. Come with me and we shall see what we can see.” Then nodding to the woodcutter, she smiled and said “Thank you for the use of your stump,” causing the man to immediately doff his headgear and bow low.
The woman had power, Sonya thought. Between her Title and her beauty, her low bodice that showed more breast than Sonya owned and her smile, she turned men into fawning puppies who did as she wished and begged for her smile. But it was her skill with a sword and that pass that kept Sonya nearby. Sonya was no high-born doxie raised to be sold to some unknown prince to cement an allaiance. Did the lady Janice even know her husband before they made their wedding vows? At least Sonya knew and liked that Soldier, her first lover.
That blow was good. Too good! I came within a fraction of death by Sonya’s blow. Had I not been prepared and expecting that strike, I would be dead in the mud. But I refuse to show how much my arm and shoulder aches from deflecting her strike. The girl is far more than she seems. Short, red-hair and a temper to match I’d love to ride that filly but she obviously cares for men. Damn! Why do I always fall for the ones who are unobtainable. But that sword is too large for her. She can strike well and hard, but only once or twice before she tires even with her farmer’s strength. She needs something lighter, faster, more suitable to her style.
This is a girl fated for greatness. Like Joan of the Fairies who led the French against the English at Orleans or Tomoe Gozen of Nippon who was thought to be the reincarnation of a River Goddess as she fought by her husband’s side or Queen Maeve of Ulster who ruled with her own will and arm. Like them, this Sonya would be famous and the stuff of legends… if she survived her self-appointed task.
Ah, here it is, a blacksmith shop. “Come Sonya, I have something to show you. Excuse me, Smith, but as you can see, this fine steel is too large for such a small girl, have you something more suitable?” I asked the smith who stood by his anvil, sweating, stinking of maleness, his hair dripping, his scent overpowering,… damn! Shave the man’s face and body and I’d take him here and now. Why do Russian men insist on being as hairy as a dog. Were I to desire such, I’d bed one myself. At least I’d be able to give the litter away. The thought made me smile for I enjoyed Sonya’s graphic coarseness, like that story she told last night about the fox who being chased by a hound, led the dog into a hole where the dog became stuck. The fox then exited through another opening and violated the dog. It was an old Russian story but to hear such a beauty as Sonya tell it in graphic and obscene detail made me want the child all the more. It took all my strength to keep my hands on the table instead of under.
“Lady,” the smith started, glancing around in fear. “Both the Khanate and the Turks forbid the making of weapons. I would loose my hands were I to make what you wish.”
He was lying. He made them or he was too stupid to find a way around the law. I had spent a lifetime seeking to force my subjects to obey my laws while I sought ways to ignore the laws of my own king. But, I placed a few silver coins on the anvil before him, “I understand fully. Nor would I seek to place you or your family at risk. But, there are some disreputable people who would sneak swords into your shop while you were out quenching your thirst for smithery is a hot sweaty job.” I had to force myself not to touch the sweat running down his chest. I wanted to lick every drop …. No! “Come Sonya, let us admire this man’s work for I can see that he is an artist in his own right,” then I turned away and we glanced at the items on the wall as I explained, “I had no brothers and my sisters were like your own, seeking the attentions of the boys. My father sought to turn me into the son he never had by teaching me sports and carpentry and fighting and even smithery when he could. Yes Sonya, my parents were an arrainged marriage but it was my father who was the peasant and my mother the Noble who purchased him. Why I never knew but he wished for sons and I was the best he had. I believe he failed with me and would be disappointed and disgusted with me were he to see me as I am now. But, if I cannot please my father, I must please myself.”
“Even I know that,” the redhead laughed. “My father wished for me to marry and be a farmer’s wife. He would beat me when he caught me practicing with his sword.” She paused a moment, “It never stopped me, it just made me hide my efforts.”
The door shutting gave me my clue and turning, the table was now host to a dozen fine swords. Here a Frankish broad sword, there a Russian saber next to a scimitar from Damascus. The smith not only made steel, he traded in it as well.
Sonya ran to the table and hefted weapon after weapon, swinging each with a knowledge of fighting that implied that she was the tomboy she claimed. “Sonya,” I called.
“I see you love that Russian saber. Light, gently curved, it comes alive on your hand. But you use it like a broad sword. Curved blades are for slashing at a run against a lightly armoured foe. You won’t break plate with that but you can sever the arteries in armpit and inner thigh easily. Come, let us practice.”
As before, the girl was good. Naturally good. She learned everything I showed and did it perfectly the second time she tried. I feared for the men she would face. “Come, my Red-Haired Reaper, I grow exhausted with your skill. Come and let us drink the tavern dry for I have much to tell you of the world.
Would the woman never shut up? Sonya mused as she drank another jack of beer. True, she knew so much and had been everywhere. She had even circled the world though never in one trip as Magellin was said to have done. Still, the woman was of noble birth and believed that everyone, including Sonya, should treat her every word as if they were pearls. Finally, to shut her constant lecturing off Sonya asked, “Do you love your sisters?”
Taken aback, the Irishwoman stared then sighed, “I suppose so though we were never close. They had their lives and I had mine. I inherited only because my older sisters died in childbirth or of sickness, though none were ever married.” She laughed at that. “As much as my family dislikes me, I, at least, was decently married before my children were born. Why do you ask?”
“We were closer than any sisters should have been. Roxelana was the older and always wanted to be a Lady like yourself in a fine manor. I was the more boyish and would tease her thus: ‘We are simple farm-girls in a village outside Moskva. How can you even meet some Noble to marry, much less attract his attention?’ But she never ceased to dream. She would pretend our simple dresses were gowns and she’d practice at walking like a Boyer. Sometimes when you walk, I see my sister in your stride.
“Roxelana loved the boys. But she was always the good girl. We both were. But she knew how to make them do as she wished and could gain a pack of the drooling idiots with a single look. Yes, like that. You and she are very much alike save she is more beautiful, no offence,” Sonya added in a hurry. It was never a good idea to anger a Boyer. Fortunately, the woman laughed as if at a private joke.
The Lady joked, “I work at being attractive only because I know what a man likes and what his desire will get me. I would rather dress as you do, in comfortable pants and shirt, but I must…. Your sister knows what she wants a man to like for the same goal. There is a difference between us. Pray continue,” as she took another drink.
Drinking herself, Sonya continued, “Then the slavers came. They lined all the girls and looked us all over and chose only Roxelana. The rest they released. All others ran but not me. Roxelana screamed for father to save her but he did nothing. He feared the spears of the slavers but I did not. I attacked, bit, scratched, fought with all my might until one struck me down. When I got up, they were riding away and my father was holding me back.
“I fought him and so was locked in a sty until I calmed down. I broke my nails on the wood, bloodied my knuckles on the door and became hoarse screaming of what I’d do to the men who stole my sister.
“It was days later when I was released. I near tore the face of that boy off with my broken nails and they locked me back again. Finally, I was released and fought not, though it was more hunger than complacency that stilled my voice and fist.
“I gained my strength and then the next night I ran away.
“First I went to St Petersburg to see the Tsar, Ivan. To beg for his help.
“There was a soldier, an officer in a fine jacket and carrying sharp saber. I caught his eye and he promised to help me. Later…” she looked down and became red with the memory, “I,… I gave myself to him and understood a little why Roxelana liked boys so much. I think I loved him. Funny though now I cannot remember his name at all. Days later he came to me and told me that the slavers had been under the orders of Tsar Ivan and had gone to the south. More he could not tell me but he got me a ride in a cart, gave me a knife and a purse of money and, I thought, a baby. But that was untrue it turned out.” Regret, just a little regret, tinged her voice at that confession.
“The money I spent to eat and buy information. The knife I left in the side of a man who tried to rape me. Then I met a soldier, a Frank who claimed to have seen my sister. He wanted me and offered to help me rescue her so I … I gave him what he wanted. It was a week later I realized that he was lieing so I gave him a knot on his head the size of a goose-egg and stole his sword and purse and horse and came here.
“Then I met you.” Sonya motioned for more beer though it was clear that the Irish was not as accomplished at drinking as the Russian.
Soon enough, the older woman was nodding off and Sonya called for the innkeeper’s daughter to help her with the woman. They managed to get her up the ladder and then Sonya discharged the other girl, “I’ll undress her myself. You return to your duties.” When the girl left, Sonya loosened the older woman’s clothing and carefully lay them out to prevent wrinkles. Then, covered her friend with the blanket and kissed her cheek, “I do care for you but…” Sonya removed the Turkish Pass and her purse and continued, “Although you’d get me to Roxelana, you would also try to talk me out of rescuing her. So, sleep here and I’ll do what I must alone.”
Partway to the ladder, Sonya stopped, turned and replaced half the money, “I’m not a thief, just desperate. I hope you understand.”
Once down, Sonya called, “I have a mission from the Lady Innis to the northeast where she journeys. Fetch me a weeks worth of food and drink for I leave immediately!”
The package was handed over in the overhang that passed as a stable. Sonya was saddling her horse, the unintentional gift of the Frank who had lied to her and then she rode into the darkness to the Northeast as she had said. An hour later, she turned south.
I hate it when this happens. I felt around but was alone, fortunately. Last time I passed out I awoke with a case of fleas and some ugly man who was, fortunately, too drunk to rape me in my sleep. I checked myself to be certain. I wanted to yell at the inn to be quiet but my head hurt too much so I managed to dress myself though I decided to eschew cosmetics and almost fell down the ladder. The place was nearly empty at this hour so I asked for a mug of milk and a couple raw eggs and asked, quietly, for the keep to kill all those flies that were so noisy.
It may have been an hour later when I was able to speak. That was when I learned that my dear young child had departed the night before on my secret mission. I guess I was too hung-over to show surprise so I asked for my horse to be saddled and food readied and by the way, which direction did she go?
“Northeast, My Lady, as you commanded.”
“Of course, of course.” The girl wouldn’t be so stupid as to head directly southwest to find Suleyman in Istanbul. She knew I was headed Northeast and so would use that to throw me off. So she wasn’t as far ahead as she could be for riding near drunk in the dark in the wrong direction would slow her down. She probably didn’t have enough money for a boat so would ride along the coast. I could catch her.
Dragging myself up the ladder to pack, I discovered just how smart that girl was. She had robbed me of half my money and, more importantly, the pass. She could get almost to the Sultan himself with that. And I would have to talk or bribe myself through all the check-points. Damn! Well, nothing to do but follow and try to save her from being killed.
Now packed and down, I called for my food and then a giant of a man entered. Normally he would be inconsequential but the local with him pointed me out and said, “There, that Lady! She was with the red-head these last days.” The knot on his head was still black-and-blue so this must be my dear Sonya’s paramour who had used her so poorly.
He came to me as I loosened my shorter blade in my dress and as he opened his mouth to speak I demanded, “I am the LADY Innis and you will show me proper courtesy or I’ll have you beaten for your lack of manners!”
He was taken aback but only for a moment. “Lady! Ha! More likely some tart who stole that dress from your own mistress. Now tell me where Sonya is or you will be the one beaten. Maybe I’ll take you to the loft anyway and beat you afterwards.” Then he made the mistake of reaching for me.
He was easily a foot taller than me and twice my strength so I moved fast. I drew and stabbed into his armpit and twisted as the point entered, seeking that artery that lies within. Then as he screamed and fell, I slashed his throat and backed away, still on guard. The man who had guided the Frank left before I could reach him so knowing that the man probably wasn’t alone, Sonja had mentioned a Company, I did the only sensible thing. I ran!
Throwing my kit over my Gelding, I climbed on with the assistance of the stable-hand who had no idea of what had happened and rode to the northeast as calmly as I could. Moments later I heard shouting in a foreign language and kicked my steed into a gallop. I near rode down a half-dozen people but felt no arrow in my back. The friends of the man Sonya had robbed and I had killed would chase me for certain. All I could do was to lead them Northeast and hope Sonya had already turned Southwest and would be safe.
As much as I wanted to accompany that beautiful girl, I was committed to saving her life in this manner and I wished for two things. First that Sonya would turn aside before she got herself captured or killed and second, that I could take a break and wash my dress before the blood upon it dried.
Sonya rode southwest along the shore of the Black Sea, hoping that the rain would hide her tracks. She knew that the Irishwoman would be angry with her robbery and would chase Sonya to retrieve the letter at the least so Sonya ran her horse until it foamed then walked it and ran again. And somehow, the Saints were with her for the past days, she had seen no sign of pursuit. She ate what she found and slept wherever she could hide, paying for an Inn only when the weather forced her to do so. Janice was Boyer and Boyers had long arms and longer memories so Sonya kept herself off the main roads as much as possible.
The Lady Janice was heading Northeast, into Russia and away from the Ottoman Empire which made the thieft of the Pass easier for once out of the Crimea, she’d not need a Turkish Pass and could enter Russia unhindered. Sonya, however, would need the Pass to get past the border-guards or try to sneak past them in the dark. Thus did she justify her crime. After two-hundred or so versta she entered Odessa, remained a day then moved on.
That night, encamped in a farmhouse partially burned by the Turks in their move north, Sonya finally felt safe. She had reached the new border, shown her pass and the Turks had stepped aside and let her pass. It was that easy! The Irish Boyer would not find the crossing so easy and by the time the Lady Janice had talked or bribed or fought her way through, Sonya would be hundreds of versta south. Alone again, Sonya almost shed a tear for the woman, pervert she was for thinking that Sonya would lay with her as a wife, was intelligent and capable and did with words and will what armies could not do with steel.
Sitting there, her horse munching on the grass she had cut in the fading light, Sonya started a fire, her first real fire since she had met that stupid Frank whose sword she had stolen. Why the man never chased her was a mystery but one she was thankful for. So, relaxing on her blanket over molding hay, her small fire warming somewhat her body and the knowledge that she was only a few hundred versta from Roxelana, even her soul was happy and content. Soon she would enter Istanbul, rescue her sister, possibly even kill Suleyman the devil and then she and Roxelana would move someplace safe and forget these past months.
“Here she is!” a gruff voice reached her ears. The accent was Ukranian or maybe Moldavian but she understood the words and meaning easily. Someone had been tracking her, possibly at the direction of the Lady Janice. As the three men entered the light of her fire, Sonya realized that Janice never hired these, that Noblewoman would never stoop to these kind. Then she remembered. “You are the man in Odessa who tried to manhandle me. I should have done more than break your skull with my mug!”
Sonya was reaching under her blanket for her saber, buying time as the man, his nose swollen entered with his two friends.
“A woman who dresses like a man? You need to remember what you are. Go ahead, scream. No one will hear and I like a wild ride.”
Sonya waited until he was close and reaching, then she thrust and using both hands on the hilt, pushed the man back to die bleeding from his severed stomach.
The other two were frozen for but a moment, but a moment was all Sonya needed to stand and go to the guard. The two swore in Slovak, words that were unfamiliar to Sonya’s Moscovian ears but she needed no translation to know their meaning as they separated and approached from opposite sides. Here was the tricky part. If she faced one, the other would take her from behind. She might kill one but both? Then chess! A feint! Sonya turned to face the nearer and advanced. Her enemy backed away, knowing that his purpose was now to distract and defend while the other took her safely from behind.
Sonya watched his eyes and as soon as they looked past her, she screamed and rushed, forcing the man back by steps. Before she advanced more than a step, she turned and attacked the one behind, deflecting his blows until she could run him through. The man was not expecting that tactic, seeing in Sonya just another girl who stole her father’s saber and ran away for adventure. The ferocity of her blows put him off and he became torn between the desire to fight back and the desire to take her alive for rape. Within a few heartbeats Sonya had made that decision for him and she turned for the third, not watching the dead man behind her fall to the ground.
This man was no fool, just scared at how this young red-headed vixen had so easily killed two of his friends, friends who were battle-hardened veterans. He immediately went on the guard and soon realized that this girl was his match in skill, though not experience. He at first tried to beat her down with his size and the weight of his blade but each time, she would tap the heavier straight sword aside and flick in to draw blood. First from an arm, then a face and finally, a light tap on his neck. After that she backed off and allowed him to attack, remaining on the defense until he felt his arm grow weak and reaching up, realized that she had nicked something major in his neck and he was bleeding to death as he stood. Gathering his all, he attacked intending to finish the fight but she tapped the blade aside again, knelt and he felt the saber slam into his side then cut, Sonya calling an oath as she did so.
Sonya watched the man drop his sword and seek to stop his entrails from falling from his opened gut, then she sought whatever was in their purses feeling that she needed the money more than did they. Finally, she dragged the bodies outside and under a bush to hide them, looked over their weapons which she discarded as inferior to her own, removed the saddles and tack from their mounts and set the horses free save one that she hobbled in her hut to be as a pack-horse upon the morrow.
Then, drinking a bottle she found in one bag, settled down to a night’s sleep, knowing that needed no one to protect her, not her father, not her Tsar, not even that Irish Boyer.
The trip to Istanbul was long, taking more than a fortnight with many delays as she stood aside for the Turkish army to pass. At first she hid in the woods, then realized that they were not hunting her but moving to conquer more territory for their dog of a master. They stared at the woman in man’s clothing but in Romania and Bulgaria, the national Costumes of the people remained so she was not harassed for leaving her hair free or wearing a man’s clothing. Aside from the eternal presence of the Janissaries, Christians who had abandoned God to serve the Mohammadan Sultan, and the building of the Mosques, she could very well believe that Romania and Bulgaria were still free, so little had the Turks changed these nations. Still, the fact that they had taken her sister proved how evil they were and soon enough the walls of Istanbul stood before her.
She sat upon her horse, staring at the walls that had held off so many invaders, finally to fall before the Turk, now the capital of the Ottomon Empire, the greatest military force to rise since the might of Rome, whose emperors still lived in the name Tsar which was Russian for Caesar. Somewhere within those walls was her sister. The woman for whom Sonya had abandoned her life. The girl the Russian peasant had done so much to find and rescue.
Sonya rode to the city gates and showed her pass and for the first time she was stopped and examined. Questioned. Nearly interrogated. Yet, finally they let her pass. Only a few versta stood before her and her sister, rescue for the one, escape for both. How Sonya intended to escape she had not planned, her entire life these past months being obsessed with finding Roxelana. But as the saints had guided Sonya here, so would they guide her out.
She found an Inn near the Sultan’s palace. Not much of an inn but still a place to stay and Sonya imagined that she could see her sister in the minerets, reaching out the her sister, begging for salvation and Sonya planned. “Damn!” she thought. “If only the Lady Janice were here, she could find a way in and out!” but the voice to her left spake thus, “Janice would take you away for her own lesbian perversions, leaving Roxelana alone, or worse, take your sister for herself. Better you plan alone.” Planing was not something Sonya did well, her fiery temper encouraging action when even the Irishwoman would hesitate.
Finally, after a drought of fruit juice for the Mohammadans had forbade strong drink within their walls, Sonya approached the palace and presented her pass. “I am Sonya Lisowska, whose sister is held in the harem of Suleyman. I would have a few words with my sister.”
It was a bold move and one that should have resulted in a beating but instead, the guards looked at each other as if sharing some secret information and one bade her to sit as the other left for the interior.
It was not long before the guard returned, bidding Sonya to remove anything of use as a weapon, even going so far as to search her hair for pins and strip her naked as they searched her innermost cavities, an intrusion Sonya tolorated only to see her beloved sister. Then, satisfied, they returned to Sonya her clothing and holdig her arms tight, they escorted her, not to the throne room, but to a side chamber that was neither Throne nor harem. And there she saw the two, her sister Roxelana and the hated Suleyman. Had she not been held so tightly, she would have taken a scimitar from her guards and killed the man who even now was placing his foul hands upon her sister’s fair face.
Roxelana sat at the feet of the Sultan of the Empire as he spoke to her:
The guards held Sonya down then Roxelana spied her sister and glancing to Suleyman, who nodded, rose and ran to her sister who was immediately released by her guards. “Sonya, what brings you here? But please, come with me for I am so happy to see you. I would speak to you alone.”
Rexelana led her sister from the first room to an apartment that was obviously not one for a slave-girl. “Remember how I dreamt of being a fine lady? Now I am one! See! No slave chains for me, soon will I be married to the most powerful man in the world. But sit, drink, tell me of your travels and what brings you to Istanbul?”
Rushing to the windows to spy an escape route, Sonya began, “Roxelana, quick, we must prepare to leave. I have an extra horse nearby and with my pass, we can be versta away before you are missed.”
Confused, Roxelana asked, “But why? Why Sonya, would I wish to leave here? I have wealth, position, jewels, fine clothes and soon, power. Why would I give that all away to return to the life of a poor peasant with nothing to life for but a dirty farmer and a dozen filthy brats?”
“But Roxelana! I’ve searched for you for months! I stole for you, whored myself for you, abandoned our family to find you! You must come with me!” She tried to pull her sister to no avail.
“Sonya, let me go! This is my life. Please, understand, I am happy here. Remain! I can ask Suleyman to find you a good husband.”
“A husband!” she spat! “Among these who are damned to hell! These who seek to enslave the world! These…. Sobaka!” ‘Dog’ was the worst Russian insult she could express. Still she tried to drag her sister away who screamed, “Guards! Help me! Then she switched from Russian to Turkish and Sonya could understand no more.
The guards entered and beat Sonya until Roxelana forced them away, crying all the while. They dragged her to the throne room where Roxelana threw herself to the feet of the devil incarnate who screamed to the guards who raised their scimitars as if to kill the Russian. Then at the last moment, they lowered their cruel blades at a word and Suleyman spoke harshly and rushed off as if he had done something distasteful.
The guards dragged Sonya away as Roxelana followed, “I begged my love to spare you, promised him anything, everything and he relented. Sonya, you must leave the Empire immediately. If you return, you will die and I will not be able to save you. I love you dear sister but try to accept that I am happy here. I have converted to the True Faith of the Prophet and am marrying Suleyman the Lawgiver. I will be the first slave-girl to be so honored. I wish you could be happy for me. Please Sonya, be happy for me.”
Then they dragged her away for even the future Sultana could not easily pass through the gates of the palace. Sonya fought and screamed and spat invectives and tried to free herself and they beat her unconscious for her attempts. She awoke hours later, her head hurting, dizzy and her eyes not able to focus but they fed her water then mare’s milk and placed her into a wagon where she passed out again. Sonya had nightmares, she thought, though she remembered none of them.
When she woke again, they fed her and spoke to her in Turkish which she did not understand and bound by ropes, carried her for days. Finally, they crossed the Danube or so she learned later and released her, speaking to one Janisarry who translated, “You live only at the whim of the Sultan. Return and die and your death will be long and hard. Go now.” And he pointed north.
Sonya walked for a day, numb and dead inside. Her sister, she for whom Sonya had given all, had betrayed Russia, the Church, family and most of all, her own sister. And for what? Money and position? The more she thought about it, she realized that Roxelana had probably planned this all along, she only pretended to be a good girl to attract attention. She would have sold herself to any Boyer or fat-bellied merchant who promised clothes and silver. Doubtless, Roxelana had plans to sell Sonya into slavery too in order to advance her own position. The slut! She deserved that dog of a Mohammadan who probably as infested with the French Disease and a dozen other poxes. The more she thought about it, the angrier she became. Sonya had given her virginity to find Roxelana! She had whored herself to find Roxelana! She had robbed the one woman who cared for her to find Roxelana! And Roxelana thought of nothing but her clothes and her position and her jewels. As much as Sonya had whored herself, that whoredom was honest for it was to find and save her sister and Roxelana didn’t even care! Sonya stood to the Sun overhead and swore, “By all the saints! By God and Jesus Christ and Mary who bore her son in purity I swear by my own blood that I shall not rest until the Sultan Suleyman and his whore Roxelana are dead by my hand! This I swear by my hopes of Heaven and salvation and may I never rest in this life or the next until I carry out this vow!” Now to find another saber and begin her vengeance.
Sonya fell to the earth and cried. Begging Roxelana to come home but she knew that her cried and prayers and curses would be useless for God was cruel to do this and even Mary the Virgin who should understand didn’t.
Sonya had lost the one person in her life that mattered. Now, her soul was gone, empty, there was nothing left but hatred.
Red Sonya of Rogantino lay upon the dark earth for hours, crying tears of pain until she was emptied of all compassion.
[** this is the actual poem written by Suleyman to the slave-girl Roxelana Lisowska of Rogantino who he later married. I include it here as historical fact. -rj]