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‘Slave of a Greater Will’
Blades for France by Robert E. Howard
First published in Blades for France, 1975
I first read this story as part of the four-piece Sword Woman collection, a mass market paperback. This is the second story of three in the saga of Dark Agnes. I am reading from Sword Woman and Other Historical Adventures, by Del Rey, 2011, in which the proper French, name spellings, and accent marks have been added to the text, which will not be the case in this brutalized, Americanized, Anglicized review, influenced—to the horror of my French-speaking editor, D. Lorincz, who even now might be wondering in her tortured literary mind if La Fond really meant to use an m-dash or really meant an n-dash, and didn’t know how to accomplish it with this infernal device—by the frustratingly muddy dialect of Bal’more English.
Blades for France is arranged in two chapters across over 20 pages and follows a story art that rises the entire time. Dark Agnes is a quick-thinking character who will not tolerate being treated as she is usually perceived, a woman who womanizes the wenches in the tale with her eyes and words and kills any men who would dare insist that she is a woman.
In typically brutal fashion, Dark Agnes finds herself, quite by brutal happenstance, wearing the obfuscating attire of a big brute she had just slain standing among a pack of rogues in conclave, masked and in disguise, in a darkened room, headed off to commit a lethal deed.
I won’t give away any more than this, because the story is a simple one. I would like to focus on Agnes’ encounter with the mistress of the king of France, whom she introduces herself to by first attempting to kill her. As she stands over the woman who has just been thrown from the horse that Agnes slew, she has this impression:
“Bending over her, I lifted her face, a pallid oval in the darkness. Under my hard fingers, her garments and flesh felt soft and wondrous fine.”
‘Are you hurt badly, Wench?’ I demanded.”
The encounter continues with the woman pleading for mercy, needing aid, and finding an ally in the person of Agnes’ roguish male sidekick, Etienne, who points out that this woman is the most famous whore in all France, and that Agnes should kneel, to which Howards’ dyke superhero responds, “Why should an honest woman kneel to a royal strumpet?”
Agnes is not portrayed as a butch but as a psychopathic, athletic and shapely daughter of an abusive, old soldier, whose battle lust she carries in her veins. Throughout all of her stories, the least so in this, but still present, is a sense that Agnes is driven into danger and that the men who ride with her will die. This sense is so strong that one cannot read a page not wondering if Etienne is about to buy it.
Howard does not glory in Agnes’ rude abrasive, dykish persona or focus overmuch on her sexual attractiveness to men, just bringing this up enough to let us know that to Agnes, it’s a curse.
In Agnes’ shadow, in Blades for France, we have the heroic mistress of the king, who despite being a girly girl is throwing herself to danger against her own nature, making her the real hero in this story, as Etienne is simply a rogue who is hoping to get into Agnes’ pants and will go along with her anywhere on this slim thread of hope, and Agnes herself is drawn into this adventure for no better reason than her addiction to killing men, in particular men who want to have sex with her and don’t know how to contain themselves like Etienne.
Thematically, I have to place this in the area of civilization as, in Howard’s dark view, the only hope that the decent heroine in this story, the mistress of the king, Francoise de Foix, who has no better chance of righting a wrong than, despite her closeness to the seat of power in a corrupt civilized nation, than to seek the aid of the murderess who calls herself “…Agnes de Chastillon, ...whom some men call Dark Agnes de la Fere.”
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