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‘A Distant Cresset’
Mistress of Death by Robert E. Howard
First published in Sword Woman and Other Historical Adventures from Del Rey 2011, from which this reading is taken.
This is one of my very favorite Robert E. Howard Stories, and the best Dark Agnes story, which takes her to the supernatural abyss that Howard’s famous Conan character so often tread. In this story Agnes really seems to be a female Conan, who lacking the brawn of the barbarian, makes up for it by reducing her personality to zero and amping up her ferocity. This is probably the most vicious Robert E. Howard he wrote. As my oppressed brethren in Harm City America would say if they had the misfortune of dealing crack cocaine on a street corner that came under the protection of Dark Agnes, “this ruthless bitch be off the chain.”
The character that was introduced to us in Sword Woman as a betrothed peasant girl, an abused daughter of an old soldier, who chose murder over marriage and a lifetime “looking into the everlasting face of the man you hate,” has now landed in a corrupt medieval city. She has apparently settled into a pimp-like role of one lady of the evening whom, in one scene, she brutalizes in true 1970s American pimp fashion. Dark Agnes is a woman alone in a city ruled by men who finds herself in the midst of an assassination in a dark alley lit by a cresset, a steel fire box on a pole that served as a street light in medieval cities. Here she makes the acquaintance of Scotsman John Stuart. Below is a taste of Agnes’ dialog.
“You are the first Scotsman I ever met, though I have had dealings with Englishmen.”
To which Stuart responds, “A curse on the breed! The devil take them all into his keeping. And a curse on my enemies who exiled me from Scotland.”
Agnes is soon caught up in the clutches of corrupt law enforcement with the captain of the watch, having made her girlfriend admit to having seen her at the scene of a murder and using it as a pretext to have Agnes chained in a dungeon, at his sexual mercy or lack thereof. What follows is a brutal tavern fight scene, pitting Stuart and Agnes against the city watch which they butcher in handy fashion, moving Agnes to say, “the foul dog, well, there is a new captain of the watch in hell tonight.”
Conan readers will note this very Conan-like statement on Agnes’ part in dealing with the very corrupt officials of civilization. This indicates to this reader that Agnes was to Howard an outlier within, a natural barbarian confined within civilization and having to deal with its evil corruption. For confirmation, I point to the conclusion from the first draft which the editors thoughtfully included here, outlining an encounter with the dark hand behind the assassination which Agnes interrupted behind the cresset-lit alley—a man with supernatural powers that introduces an aspect of sorcerer’s intrigue in line with most of the Conan stories, in which successful warriors will have to find a way to defeat powers that lie beyond the craft of fighting. In this light, Mistress of Death should be regarded as one of Howard’s works which fall under his recurring theme of barbarism versus civilization, that seems to come off best when the story is set, like this one, in a rotten civilized setting.
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logic of force
by this axe!
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