Category Archives: Fiction

The Last Campaign of Ulysses S. Grant

By Ted Harvey

The writer approached the sick man hesitantly. The writer’s name was Samuel, but few people called him that anymore.

The sick man sat in a rocking chair. He was covered in a thick wool blanket. A wool hat was pulled over his head, the edge was almost touching his closed eyes. Samuel wiped the back of his own hand across his forehead. It came away damp.

Samuel stopped. He considered coming back another time. He knew his old friend needed the rest. But he needed the money too. A man of surety, Samuel had never felt so conflicted. Finally, he decided he would come back later. He turned to go.

“Better stay,” the gravelly voice said. “Even for a minute.”

Samuel turned back.

The seated man’s eyes remained closed, but his lips moved now, quivering.

“I can come back,” Samuel said, running his hand over his mustache.

The seated man opened his eyes.

“No time for that. Never know if I’ll still be here when you get back.”

Samuel opened his mouth to protest or maybe say something positive, he hadn’t determined what yet, but with a sudden vigor, the seated man waved his hand. It was a thick hand with stubby fingers, crooked joints, but even after all these years there was power behind it. Then, as quick as it had been flashed, that power dissipated and the hand dropped back into the blanketed lap. He sucked in a long breath and started coughing. Samuel took a step forward. But what could he do?

The coughing fit lasted almost a full minute before he regained control.

Samuel watched him, trying not flinch with each body spasm. They were worse now than the last time he was here.

“Can I get you anything?” Samuel asked.

“A few more months would be nice,” the sick man said, forcing a half grin.

“You’ll have more than that,” Samuel said. He could hear the doubt in his own voice.

“Maybe,” the sick man said. His body moved under the thick blankets. “I can never get comfortable. That’s the main thing. And the cough.” He cleared his throat and Samuel thought he would start coughing again, but he caught himself.

“How’s the writing coming?”

“Yesterday was a good day,” the sick man said. “Today?” He moved again and Samuel realized he was shrugging.

“I could help you write,” Samuel suggested. It was not the first time he had made this suggestion. He knew what the answer would be. But he had to ask anyway. The man was his friend. Of course he was more than that. A general. A president. A great man who risked being forgotten. I will not allow that to happen, Samuel told himself. Not this man. Even if it meant cheating a little. Even if it meant lending his own writing to the memoirs. No one would know. He would make it sound authentic. He knew he could. He had practiced at home. Late at night when he should have been asleep but couldn’t settle thinking of his old friend, struggling to breathe, struggling to finish.

“No,” the answer was definite. Samuel met the sick man’s gaze. The eyes never left him, determined. He saw the general there. The husband and father, too, and Samuel knew he would finish himself unless death came first.

“Fine,” Samuel said, “The offer is always there.”

“I think I’ll take a little rest now,” the sick man said.

“That’s good,” Samuel said. The sick man’s eyes were already closing. He moved his lips, mouthing something, but there was no sound.

“What’s that?”

The sick man’s eyes flickered open.

“Thank you, Sam,” he whispered, “I will owe you.”

“You’ll owe me nothing. I’m happy I could convince you to do it.”

Samuel meant to say more but the sick man’s eyes were closed now and his breathing was gentle and even. It was the most peaceful he had seen his friend in a long time. He turned away, and left him to sleep.

 

The sick man opened his eyes. The writer was gone. He wished he could stay, but he needed to be alone to write.

Samuel Clemens. A good name. Why he decided to use Mark Twain, he would never understand.

Samuel. Sam.

That’s what people called him too. Some people. Now they also called him Mister President, although he hadn’t been president for many years. General would be better. There were still plenty who called him that when they came to visit. He wasn’t sure what he preferred. Maybe Sam after all. A mistake, that name. Like so many things in his life it just happened. And it stuck. He was born Hiram. Hiram Ulysses Grant. Even he thought it was a bit of a strange name. He didn’t mind Ulysses, although he would never compare himself to his namesake. More of an Agamemnon. Or maybe Aeneas. He always liked Aeneas. Things just happened to the Trojan hero and on he went until in the end he founded the greatest empire the world had ever known. He could never be a Ulysses, although he wished he could. Such cleverness and wit! If he could have been more like Ulysses and less like a Sam, less like an Aeneas, maybe life would have been a little different. But he had known men like Ulysses, and if he was honest with himself, would he really have preferred that?

He sighed. What did it matter? He was what he was. Hiram. Sam. The General. Mister President. All of it. And none. He was simply himself and the few times he had tried to be something else, well, everybody who thought they knew something about him knew that version of him. A failed version. It was why he was writing. Better to be what you were. No more, no less.

Grant breathed in slowly. He was tired and knew he should rest. But the writing would not get done itself. Nor was he about to let someone else take it up for him. Not even Sam Clemens. Not while he was still breathing, and who knew how long that would be.

Slowly he leaned forward to his desk. The paper was half-filled with his scratchy marks. He began at the top and read what he had last written, moving his lips as he spoke each word. When he reached the end of the page, he paused and then, placing his pencil on the paper, began to write.

He did not stop after that for some time. The pencil rarely left the paper. He wrote slowly, but consistently. The words were there, they were his words after-all. It was simply a matter of transferring them down in writing.

It would have been easy to let the memories overtake him. But he would not allow it. There was no time for sentimentality or regret or anything else that came so often with thinking of the past. There was only space to write. Whatever came after that, well, he had no control of it, and in all likelihood would be gone from this earth for it to affect him. But that is not why he wrote. He did not write so others might know his thoughts or read of his exploits. He did not care what the outside world thought of his actions, his life. He cared only for Julia. And Fred, and Buck, and Nellie, and Jesse. But mostly for Julia. He could not leave her with nothing. Worse than nothing. With debts. With the debts he had brought down on them.

“You trust people too much,” Julia had told him once, many years before, soon after they were married. At least he thought she had said that. It was like something she would say. Not mean, just matter-of-fact. And true. That was always the worst of it, or maybe the best of it. The truth of her statements. And that declaration, of his never-ending trust, was as true as anything she had ever said. Even if she hadn’t said it exactly as he remembered. His trust was why he owed money. It was why he wrote now.

Once, years before, the memoirs from the war were a dime-a-dozen. And why shouldn’t they be? It was cathartic to write down all that had happened. Maybe cathartic was not the right word, because no matter what you wrote or how much you wrote, it did not relieve the memories. Time helped a little. And drink. But the war never really left you. As a soldier there was nothing you could do to make you forget, although they had all tried, and writing seemed to help some, at least a little.

Still, what did he know about writing? And why would anyone care what he wrote? He was no great philosophizer. His view of life was not worldly. Maybe he could have written a book on breaking a horse. Now that would have been something. But he didn’t think it would come out like he wanted it. It would have been like translating a foreign language that only he knew and there was no proper translation. No, it was better he had never attempted anything like that. It was better he stuck to what he knew, soldiering and moving forward.

He paused. Three new pages were filled with his words. He thought maybe he should read it back, but he knew he wouldn’t change any of it. It was what it was, no more, no less, and no amount of re-reading was going to alter what was written. Besides, he didn’t have time. The pain in his throat had grown significantly over the past week, much more than all the weeks before. He knew it wouldn’t be long now.

He had thought of death before. It had been all around him. At Shiloh and Vicksburg, the Wilderness, Petersburg. At Appomattox. And before that, at Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma. Death was a constant, but it had always been a constant around him. Now he would be joining the ranks of the departed.

He sighed. His throat burned. He wanted to cough to relieve the pain, but the coughing would be temporary relief only, so he forced the cough to subside.

Sam Grant didn’t mind that he was going to die. He had accepted it as a fact of life, as the only fact of life, long ago. But the pain was beginning to grow unbearable, and he wanted it to end. Rarely in his life had he reached a point of desperation, but he was getting close now. Except he couldn’t yet, not until he was finished. He leaned back over the desk. He put the pencil down and moved his fingers, one by one. They were old and stiff and not inclined to grip the pencil. But he forced himself to pick it up again, and re-reading the last line, began to write.

 

Samuel Clemens was also writing, but his was an altogether different story. He wasn’t sure what would come of it. With Tom Sawyer he had been confident it was his masterpiece. It was good. He knew it was good. But he was also painfully aware something was missing. So, in a way, he was re-writing it now. Not really re-writing, but pushing the story beyond what he originally thought it could be. Now it wasn’t about Tom. Tom Sawyer was not the right person to take this new story where it needed to go. Instead Sam Clemens had turned to Huck Finn.

It was better. He was certain of it, although he hadn’t let anyone read it yet. It was much too raw. He thought he might let the General read it. He might enjoy it very much. There was not much time. Not as much as he had thought before his visit earlier that day. The General did not look well. Of course he wasn’t well, but until today it had almost seemed impossible he was sick. Now it was very clear he was very sick.

Sam stopped writing. He wondered if the General was writing right now. Sometimes he wished he hadn’t convinced him to start the memoirs. The only thing they seemed to be doing was speeding the illness along. Sam knew that wasn’t really true. And he knew the General would write anyway. It was the only thing he could now and it was the only possibility of saving his wife and children from monetary ruin. Having lived a life that had so profoundly affected the people around him, most of whom he had never met, the only thing that would matter in the end was whether the General finished the book.

Sam Clemens could not help but smile at that oddity of life. The man had been the finest general the country had ever seen. He had become president for eight years. He had toured the world as the most famous man in the world. And now, none of it mattered. Except the book. It was remarkable the clarity death brought.

Sam peered down at his own work. He scratched his head as he read over the last paragraph. It was good, but not good enough. He scratched it out quickly and tapped the pencil on his tooth. He began again.

 

“Thank you for coming back,” the General’s voice was so soft, Sam Clemens had to take step closer to listen.

“Of course.”

He stared at his friend, wishing he could look away. It wouldn’t be much longer now.

“I need your help,” the General said.

It had been almost two weeks since his last visit. It was July 10th and Sam Clemens could feel the sweat dripping down his back. The General remained wrapped in the thick blanket.

Sam Clemens nodded. He had been waiting for this. He was prepared. The words he wrote would match exactly the words the General had written. No one would ever know the General had not finished.

“Sit,” the General said.

There was a second chair that had not been in the room before. When he had started, the General explained he didn’t want visitors getting the impression they could stay. But now it seemed that had changed. So Sam Clemens sat.

“Take the paper and pencil,” the General said, “I will dictate. I’m having a little trouble gripping the pencil now.”

Sam Clemens stared.

“I could just write it,” he said finally but the General shook his head.

“If you’re going to be difficult,” the General said, “I’ll find someone else.”

Sam Clemens shook his head, “No, I’ll write.”

He picked up the pencil and moved the desk that had sat by the General for so many months closer to his seat.

“No changes,” the General said, meeting Sam’s eye. Sam nodded. The General closed his eyes. “There isn’t much left, but I want to make sure it gets written. I can feel the end coming.”

Sam did not question him this time. He remained poised, ready to write.

The General began.

The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant was completed on July 18, 1885. Ulysses S. Grant, former General and President of the United States of America, died five dies later of throat cancer. The Memoirs were an instant best-seller and provided his family financial stability for the rest of their lives.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was also published later that same year.

______________________________________________________________

Ted Harvey has been writing for a very long time. His first memorable piece of writing was a condensed version of the Iliad, which he completed in first grade. Since then he has written thousands of pages of text with two publications to show for it: “Disappearing,” in the Aphelion Webzine, and “The Last Terrorist,” in AntipodeanSF. He is currently working in community development, although his true passions remain history and writing.

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Merlin’s Prediction

By Lisette J. Merry

Vortigern, the ambitious Chief Advisor to King Maines, and Manson, the leader of the Saxons had their final secret meeting in a dark, corridor recess, in King Maines’ castle in Camelot. 

Their plan would bring Vortigern everything his jealous heart desired, and Mason certain victory.

‘At sunset, then,’ Mason said.

Vortigern nodded, they shook hands, and then pulled up the hoods on their capes, and went their separate ways.

Vortigern went back to his chambers. He was not a man usually given to fear, because he was an experienced diplomat who had cultivated a show of bravado to disguise his true feelings in public.   And in private, he had always convinced himself that the cosmos smiled upon him and therefore there was nothing that could harm him.    

* * * * *

It all began well enough.  King Maines had always trusted Vortigern implicitly, and he followed him willingly enough when Vortigern told him that he wanted to talk with him privately about ‘a very pressing State matter’.   

Manson was waiting for them near the castle wall, and when he caught sight of King Maines on the battlements, he swiftly took aim, and fired.  Manson’s arrow found its mark.  It pierced a deep hole in the King’s chest, and moments later he was dead.

Vortigern looked down at the body of his dead King and suddenly his fears overwhelmed him. And like puffs of smoke in the wind, his well laid plans seemed to vaporise.   

Vortigern bolted straight to the sanctuary of his study and when he arrived there sweating and trembling, he sat down on his chair behind the great table laden with books. He forced himself to find a book, any book, rather than sit there staring into space and shaking like a lunatic.  He picked up a book and clutched at it until his hands stopped trembling. Only then did he attempt to open it and focus on the words on the first page. He forced himself to start reading. And when his manservant, Fabrian, arrived later to inform him of King Maines’ death, it seemed, for all the world, as if he had been reading for hours.

As soon as Fabrian had finished speaking, Vortigern reacted quite naturally to the dreadful news with surprise at first, and then with outrage, finally stating that King Maines’ murder was a treasonous act. His performance was flawless.  Fabrian stared at his master unable to speak, and finally, overwhelmed by grief, he bowed, and rushed out with tears streaming down his face. 

* * * * *

After King Maines’ assassination the Saxons defeated his leaderless army within days.  And Vortigern got what he had always wanted, the crown. 

King Maines’ subjects were terrified into submission, forced to accept the new order, or face torture and execution. And soon King Maines’ younger brothers Pendragon and Uther were banished to the distant land of Estion.

But still, Vortigern could not rest, because he was constantly plagued by the fear that they would return. He was too frightened to sleep, for whenever he did, he would soon wake again from yet another nightmare about his own violent death. 

After weeks of losing sleep in this way, something rather strange happened.  One night, on the eve of the full moon, King Vortigern was too exhausted to stay awake. But this time, instead of having yet another nightmare, he had a wonderful dream.  The dream was about the construction of a huge fortified tower, built to his own specifications. As it came to an end, he saw himself saved from Pendragon and Uther’s army by taking refuge inside it.  When King Vortigern woke from this dream, he felt, that at last, he knew how to save himself.

King Vortigern got up at sunrise. He dressed without the assistance of Fabrian for once, and then he opened the shutters and looked outside, with renewed confidence. 

When Fabrian arrived in King Vortigern’s chambers a little after 7am, he was amazed when his master ordered fruits, cold meats, bread and cheeses for his breakfast, instead of his usual half goblet of red wine.  

As soon as he had breakfasted, King Vortigern, feeling like a new man, ordered that the Royal Mason, Claudas, should be summoned to meet with him. 

And when they met, an hour later, King Vortigern described to him the tower that he had seen in his dream. Claudas hastily unrolled the parchment he had brought with him and placed it on King Vortigern’s dining table. And then with a series of questions he coaxed King Vortigern to describe the tower again, from the beginning, so that he could sketch it out. When King Vortigern saw how accurate Claudas’ drawing was, he immediately approved it, and told Claudas to begin work at once. 

Claudas followed King Vortigern’s orders to the letter, and as soon as he’d left the castle he assembled his masons and put them to work. King Vortigern was delighted, and he went about his diplomatic duties for the rest of that day with the reassuring sound of the masons chipping away at large blocks of sandstone, as they prepared them to lay as the foundations.

King Vortigern had ordered Claudas and his masons to complete the work by the next full moon. And fearful of incurring his wrath if they failed, they laboured from sunrise to sunset each day for the next whole month.

* * * * *

King Vortigern watched his tower steadily rise from its foundations to completion, and on the appointed day, Claudus held open the heavy oak door to the tower for King Vortigern. Once they were inside, Claudus lit his shuttered candle, and King Vortigern followed him across the flagstone floor to the foot of the stone spiral staircase. The King looked up, entranced by every tiny detail of the construction. And, as they climbed the staircase he stopped at each of the arrow slits in the curved stone wall to look outside.  He noted that they gave excellent visibility in all directions, just as he had seen in his dream.

When they reached the top step, King Vortigern listened with great interest as Claudus pointed out the cone shaped oak timber ceiling above their heads and told him how the structure supported the roof’s weight.

When the tour was over, King Vortigern had no hesitation in approving the work. His fears had evaporated. For he now felt secure in the knowledge that he would be able to defend himself from Pendragon and Uther should they ever return.  When he retired that night, he slept more soundly than he had done in weeks.

The next morning he woke in excellent spirits, and he got up and walked over to the shutters and opened them so that he could, once more, feast his eyes on his beautiful tower.  But when he looked outside, to his dismay, his fortified tower was no more, it had collapsed during the night, and it was now just a huge pile of stones. A ruin!

King Vortigern was distraught. He began to pull at his hair and beard, and shout at the heavens in his outrage and distress. 

When Fabrian entered his master’s chambers a little later, with his breakfast, King Vortigern’s eyes were still wild with disbelief and fear.

‘How could this have happened?’ he asked Fabrian.  But he didn’t wait for Fabrian to answer, he just carried on talking, as if to himself. He ranted on and on.  Finally he said

‘……and I chose the finest mason, Claudus, the Royal Mason, no less, to design the tower and act as the foreman for the building of it. ’

Fabrian listened to him in stunned silence, too frightened to interrupt. When the King fell silent at last, Fabrian assumed that the storm of emotions was over. So he was startled when the King suddenly spoke again.

‘But, I am not deterred, Fabrian, I will have Claudus and his masons build another tower for me, and this one will stand, by God, and protect us against our enemies.’  

Fabrian breathed an inward sigh of relief as the King calmed down. But just to be sure, he waited until he had not spoken again for some minutes.

‘Yes, my Lord,’ Fabrian said as he served the King his breakfast, placing it before him on the dining table in the ante room which adjoined King Vortigern’s bedroom.  Then Fabrian poured him a goblet of sweet melon juice.

When the King had finished his breakfast, he looked up at him.

‘I will dress now, Fabrian. I have much to do.’

Fabrian bowed, and immediately fetched King Vortigern’s clothes and helped him dress. The King finally put on his sleeved cape, and as he looked at his appearance in the mirror he nodded his approval at his reflection, and gently stroked his sleeved cape’s ermine collar.

‘Bring Claudas to me, Fabrian,’ he said.  ‘I have decided that he will start the rebuilding of my fortified tower today.’

Fabrian bowed, and then withdrew from King Vortigern’s chamber and fetched Claudas.  He met with the King an hour later.  And after they had spoken, the work on the tower began again. The King had given orders that the masons were not to use stones from the old tower for the rebuild. He ordered them to use all new sandstone, which meant that they had to start the work all over again, and painstakingly shape each piece of sandstone with their hand chisels. They were furious, but they were so afraid of King Vortigern’s temper, that they kept their feelings to themselves. 

Weeks passed, and by the end of the month, the fortified tower was finished.  When he saw it King Vortigern thought it looked more splendid than the first one had done.

But ill fortune struck again. For soon after it was finished, the tower collapsed, just as the first had done. King Vortigern was furious, but he was also frightened, for he could find no explanation for why both of his magnificent towers had collapsed so suddenly.  King Vortigern was so angry that he interrogated Claudas for a whole hour after the second tower’s collapse, but he finally concluded that Claudas was as puzzled as he was.  

King Vortigern would not let the matter rest. He was determined to find out why the towers had collapsed, and he called the Court Astrologers to him to ask them for their advice.  They dutifully responded to King Vortigern’s summons without delay, and upon their arrival walked ceremoniously into the great hall, and then stood before him resplendent in their silken robes trimmed with fox fur. They listened intently to all that King Vortigern had to say.  And when he had finished, they turned to each other and spoke amongst themselves for some time.   Finally, and after much deliberation, they nodded their agreement to each other.  They had made their decision, and they chose Micas, the most learned of their number, to tell King Vortigern what they advised. 

‘Sire, we are all sorely troubled by what you have told us, and by what we have learned ourselves of these events. We can determine no explanation for them in the cosmos, despite our efforts to do so.  Our advice to you is that you seek your answer from a young boy who is known to us, and who has extraordinary gifts.’ They all nodded their agreement to this. 

King Vortigern was deeply disappointed. He had felt certain that they would have found an answer to his dilemma in the cosmos. But it seemed they had not. He was at a loss now as to how he should proceed.  And although he was startled by their advice, he knew better than to question it.

‘Who is this young boy?  And how shall I find him?’

‘You will not have to find him, Sire. We will go in search of the boy,’ Micas replied.

‘So be it.’ King Vortigern said.

Then he turned to Fabrian who was standing by his side. 

‘Take Fabrian with you, so he might be your messenger. Send him back to me with the news that you have found the boy,’ he told Micas. Then he smiled at the assembled group of men.

‘You have my leave gentlemen,’ he said, dismissing them.  

And as soon as they left the king’s presence, the Court Astrologers set out with Fabrian, on their journey.  Early the following morning, they found some children playing together by a stream. One of the children, a young boy, noticed them, and he immediately left his playmates and ran over to speak to them,

‘I am the boy that you seek. My name is Merlin.’ He said.  The Astrologers looked at him and were silent for a moment, because they were amazed that the boy already knew their purpose. Micas turned to Fabrian, and said.

‘Go now my friend, and tell King Vortigern that we have succeeded in our search.’ Fabrian nodded to him, and set off towards the castle at a run.  Then Micas spoke to the young boy.

‘Will you come back with us to King Vortigern’s Court, and speak to the King on a matter of great importance to him?’

‘Yes,’ Merlin replied. ‘But before I go with you, I must first return home and tell my mother why I am going to see the King, so that she does not worry about me. My home is close by, so I won’t delay you long.’

‘Good,’ Micas replied. And a short time later, after Merlin had reassured his mother, he went with the Astrologers to Camelot. And when they arrived there, they took Merlin straight to the castle’s great hall.

Merlin walked into the great hall behind the Astrologers, and they processed in this manner to the far end of it where King Vortigern sat on his throne.  Despite the grandeur of the hall, and being in the presence of the King, Merlin showed no fear.  He stood infront of King Vortigern, looked up at him, and said confidently,

‘Sire, my name is Merlin, and I know that you have brought me here to tell you why your great towers would not stand.’

King Vortigern was amazed by the child’s knowledge and insight.

‘And why would that be, young master?’ he asked.

‘Your towers did not stand Sire, because two dragons sleep under the ground where they stood.  And the weight of the towers pressed down on the dragons’ bodies as they slept. They became uncomfortable, and began to move about in their sleep. Their movements shook the ground above them, and it was this that caused both of the towers you built to fall down.’

Silence descended on the great hall.

There had been something about the look in Merlin’s eyes as he had spoken that defied King Vortigern to question his conclusion, and therefore, though he was amazed by what Merlin had just told him, he sent Claudas and his masons out to the site, and ordered that they should dig down beneath the foundations.  The men did as they had been ordered. And after some hours of digging, they found the two dragons, just where Merlin had said they would be, one of the dragons was red and the other one was white. As soon as the masons saw them they were terrified, and they ran away, in fear for their lives.

Although this looked cowardly, it proved to be a wise decision on their part, because only a few minutes later, the daylight woke the dragons, and they climbed out of the ground and attacked each other.  They fought ferociously for some time, and the Red Dragon was killed.  But the White Dragon was not the victor. For Destiny had determined that just before he died, the Red Dragon had found the strength to mortally wound the White Dragon and he too died soon after the battle finished.

King Vortigern had witnessed the dragons’ fight from the battlements of his castle with Merlin standing beside him. 

‘And what is the meaning of all of this? Is it possible that you can tell me, young master?’ he asked Merlin.

Merlin looked up at King Vortigern whose eyes were now wide with fear, and said,

‘I believe I can, Sire. You are the Red Dragon.  The White Dragon is Pendragon and Uther, who will soon return to Camelot, kill you, and reclaim their kingdom.’ King Vortigern smiled, and shook his head, for he did not want to believe Merlin.

* * * * *

Merlin’s prediction soon proved true.  For only a few days after the collapse of King Vortigern’s second tower and the battle between the dragons, the two brothers, Pendragon and Uther returned to Camelot with an enormous army. They fought with, and defeated King Vortigern and Manson’s Saxon army.  When the battle was over, the usurper King Vortigern was found dead in the remains of his second ruined tower. Pendragon and Uther reclaimed Camelot, and the older brother, Pendragon, assumed his place as the rightful king.

King Pendragon and Uther asked Merlin, despite his youth, to become their counsellor. For Pendragon and Uther both agreed that Merlin was wise far beyond his years. Merlin said he was honoured by their request and accepted.

Merlin instinctively knew what his first duty would be, and that was to warn them of the imminent danger of another attack on Camelot by the Saxons.

And a short time later, the Saxons did indeed invade and wage war against King Pendragon, Uther and their loyal army close to Camelot.  Both victory, and tragedy were destined to follow. For even though they won this, their second battle against the Saxons, Pendragon was struck down on the battlefield and killed. 

After his brother’s death, and the designated period of mourning, Uther succeeded his older brother Pendragon, and out of respect for his brother’s valiant deeds, and in devoted remembrance of him, Uther chose to be known from that time forth, as King Uther Pendragon.

______________________________________________________________

Lisette Merry has always found history fascinating. One of her favourite periods of British history is the time of the legendary King Arthur. She lives in Kent, England with her husband.

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Right Between the Eyes

By Hazel Kevlihan

Sasha Patrova is perfectly invisible to the naked eye as she makes her way up the hill in front of her. The landscape is a desert, a frozen wasteland which stretches on for miles. Underneath acres of hard packed snow lies a scorched and traumatized earth. It’s a battered remnant of farm lands and villages. Overhead, a crow glides beneath the cloud line. The winter sun reflects across the snow, giving his underbelly a dull sheen. Crows are the only birds who don’t migrate to escape the cold, instead embracing the wreckage of an ecosystem, taking the best of what meat remains without competition. Now the crows rarely starve, and great flocks of them soar over spent battlefields. They come down in a black rain of beaks, the odor of gunpowder clinging to their feathers, guzzling down their pound of flesh while it’s still warm.

Not on this day though. On this day there is just one solitary crow with a solitary soldier to match. She reaches the top of the hill and hunkers down, rifle thumping lightly against her back, fatigues crinkling softly in the breeze. Across the plain, Sasha can see the dark forms of marching soldiers. Estimating that she has about ten minutes, she pushes her arms through the snow until her elbows are submerged and her fingertips press lightly against the frozen earth. She then kicks both legs out behind her in one swift motion, and sinks to the ground. Wiping the snow off her face with the back of a gloved hand, she pats around in her pockets until she finds the binoculars, and raises them to her eyes. Snow begins to fall on her back, masking her slight frame further. All around her the land is a gleaming white reflective surface, crunching methodically beneath German boots.

Hans Schmidt has always hated the cold. Upon his acceptance into the 6th Army he was practically rejoicing, the invasion of Russia was advertised as an easy task. Those communist barbarians of the North were surely no match for the cultured perfection of German war. The USSR was isolated, backward, and would give the Third Reich the much-needed living space they deserved. It would be a lovely stroll through the warm Russian summer – shoot a few soldiers, secure the oil fields, and march back to Berlin in triumph. He dreamt of finding old Russian treasure. He would accumulate a small fortune, and finally be able to live in the heart of the capital, where he belonged.

But now look at him. Hans is cold, miserable, and these ‘communist barbarians’ are proving far more difficult to deal with. His daydreams are haunted by the images he has witnessed, but far worse are the nightmares. Well, not nightmares. There is only one, singular. The same sequence repeating over and over every time he closes his eyes. The visions are so real that he wakes each night soaked in what he fears is blood, only to discover it’s just his own sweat.

It all started when a group of soldiers joined them from another division. They started telling stories, mostly to scare them he knew, of a sniper in the Red Army.

“They call her The Wraith.” An older man, with multiple scars on his face, said that.

“A woman?” One of his comrades asked with a scoff, “The Russians truly are barbaric if they let their women fight, and this is the best they’ve got? It’s a wonder she hasn’t shot herself in the foot yet.” The young men laughed softly, Hans louder and longer than most, he was covering the stroke of panic which had just raced through him. The older soldier scowled, frown lines deepening on his face.

“Just you wait,” he said, “You will see what the Russians are capable of.” And that was it. One ominous warning and he walked away. The young men continued with their raunchy jokes and laughter, but Hans could still hear the way a hollowness of fear crept into their every syllable.

Now, with winter upon them, everyone alive acts like a seasoned veteran, and everyone fears The Wraith. Hans prays every night that he will never encounter her. He wishes desperately for her to fight other battles, kill other men. He doesn’t want to die.

Sasha stops, a few feet away from a large boulder peeking out of the snow. She doubled back and checked her tail multiple times to make sure she wasn’t being followed, but giving away the position of her infantry would certainly be fatal, so she scans the area one more time. Satisfied that she is truly alone, Sasha walks forward, leaning one arm casually on the protruding boulder. Pushing her scarf away from her mouth, she painfully purses her cracked lips and whistles three notes. Slightly off-key, the sound curls away into the afternoon for several seconds until another three answers them. Her spotter stands to attention, leveling his figure slowly out of the snow, and then shaking himself like a dog. “The commissar will want to see you now.” He says, sounding slightly miffed. She knew that he’s unhappy to have been left behind at the army base while she went to scout on German troops. Sasha is sorry to disappoint him, but doesn’t regret going out on her own. Despite her prowess as a sniper, and fame even within her enemies’ camps, she hardly ever gets to accomplish anything alone. Instead, her spotter is always tagging along, like a nanny or a babysitter. As if she even needs a spotter, she can see an enemy uniform as well as any man, it isn’t that difficult.

“I know.” She says, and the words come out tired and soft. None of them has had much sleep since the offensive against Germany started. The press calls this The Great Patriotic War. A very big title, to be sure. Sasha doesn’t know much about what the rest of the ‘patriots’ are going through, and she doesn’t care. The entire world exists for her through the eye of a scope. Even the landscape of her dreams is not exempt from this. What little sleep she gets is consumed with warped memories, binding all the nightmarish traits of reality with the heightened awareness of the subconscious, and always down the sight a rifle. Her mind flinches at the sound of a gunshot ringing in her ears, the images eclipsing reality. Her husband, the letter came from the war office, then the dreams had started. The leaders didn’t sugarcoat anything, they said he was a deserter, killed by firing squad. She didn’t want to believe it, she didn’t believe it, but there it was on the page. Killed by firing squad, the blocking detachment, the section of the army who dealt with traitors.

Traitor. The word hangs in her mind, the meaning not fully comprehensible. The blocking detachment deals with traitors, this is all they do, a group of soldiers assembled by The Commissar himself for that singular purpose.

Her husband, off in the distance, detached from her now, had been fighting other battles, killing other men, and was killed by other Russians. Sasha shivers, the motion bringing her back to reality. Her spotter has sunk back into the snow to keep warm. She has to report to The Commissar.

Hans stomps his feet, trying to get some feeling back into them. The worn, soggy souls of his boots do little to protect him, but they’re better than nothing. He’s seen too many nine-toed men to risk taking off his shoes in this weather. Evening sets in slowly, each day passing by at such length, so as to prolong their suffering. The wind is beginning to pick up, flurries of snow dance between the soldiers as they make camp for the night. It is his turn to take watch, and so it seems as if his day is getting longer still. As he stands there, damp and freezing, Hans longs for the big, open fireplaces of his house back in Germany. His childhood home. As a young boy his parents would light huge open flames, almost bonfires, in the wintertime to keep the house warm. It’s old, and creaky, and out in the middle of the countryside. Passed down to his parents as a wedding gift, Hans loved living there. Running through its big empty halls, hiding in all the tiny places, sliding down the banisters. It was absolute heaven for a young boy. That was until his mother died. Then he started seeing things, frightening things, around the house. Images, forms of her, only warped and twisted. Like memories gone bad, or a soul which had soured. He hated the house, hated how every room or noise would conjure a memory of her, a memory which would scare him, chase him, hunt him until his throat went raw from screaming her name, screaming for somebody to please help him. He told this to a friend once, a person who he now can’t put a name or face to, but Hans still remembers exactly what he said. The friend said that he was being haunted – haunted by a wraith.

Sasha thought she was cured. She thought that being on the frontlines fighting had cured her, or would cure her, of this fear. This overwhelming panic that had begun to consume her, eat away at her center. In fairness it worked for a while. The cold, the adrenaline, and the pain came to the forefront of her mind, pushing all other thoughts promptly aside. But the fear is back, pounding at her rib cage with every heartbeat, and for obvious reasons. The commissar was happy with her report. Well, about as happy as he could be considering he doesn’t like her very much (the traditionalists never do), but the problem is with what came after, this is what made the fear once again most prominent. It’s bad enough that, despite her having more than proven herself on her own, Sasha is once again assigned to a mission with her spotter, but she is also assigned to the blocking detachment, effective immediately and until further notice. They appear to be short-staffed, and this is a fairly simple mission anyway. This situation not usual, or anything she would ever do by choice, but orders are orders are orders. She gets orders, she follows them, that’s the way it works. Apparently a sergeant in their infantry has deserted, he was last seen heading to join the German encampment. Sasha, along with her spotter, is now supposed to hunt this man down, and kill him.

Hans stares into the darkness. He’s not sure, but he thinks he sees movement in the distance up ahead. Night has fallen, the cold increasing exponentially. The snow still dances in the wind, and he blinks slightly into the dark before looking away – it would do him no good staring at shadows. But then no, he’s sure he heard something there. Yes, definitely somebody shouting into the wind. What were they saying?

“Don’t shoot. Please don’t shoot.” The sergeant forgoes his panicked sprinting for sobbing. They almost gave up hope of finding him in the dark, before stumbling upon his fleeing form. Only a few feet from the German camp, Sasha worries the soldiers will hear him. Her spotter stands off to one side being useless, and she is there, in perfect sight of the sergeant, swinging her rifle over her shoulder and into the ready position. She looks down the sight. The sergeant’s final pleas die down as he closes his eyes “Please…please…”

Hans jogs forwards quickly, as he gets within sight of the sobbing man he flattens himself to the ground and crawls forward, a rifle in his hands. He stays motionless just behind the man, as he sees two figures a couple of meters away. One is standing off to one side, looking away. The other – Hans stifles a gasp. The other is holding a rifle, but that’s not all. Despite the multiple layers of heavy winter gear, it is fairly clear. This is The Wraith.

Time slows to a sickening crawl as Sasha looks down the sight of her rifle. This is all too similar to her dream, to her nightmare. Maybe this is a nightmare, she thinks idly. Her mind’s wandering, scattered. She should pull the trigger, has she taken too long already? How much time has passed? The man still hasn’t moved from her sight, tears are streaming down his face out of closed eyelids, she can see them crystallizing, freezing as frost on his face. “Right between the eyes.” Who said that? It’s a memory. Her father, from when she first took up shooting, “Right between the eyes, that’s where you want to aim for,” It was a warm summers day outside of their house, she was holding the rifle awkwardly in her arms, she could feel the sweat accumulating on the tips of her fingers, making the trigger slip slightly. The straw face of a dummy stared accusingly back at her “Just pull the trigger Sasha.”

Hans crawls slightly closer on his stomach. The man in front of him has seized up now, waiting for his executioner to shoot. Hans is close enough to touch him, but he only has attention for one person, the object of his fear for so long, The Wraith. He lifts his head slightly, propping his chin up with the butt of his gun as he stares.

“Just pull the trigger,” Sasha thinks desperately to her fingers, but they won’t act. Paralyzed in inertia she stands there, as her thoughts flow to their inevitable destination, her dream, her nightmare. The sergeant’s face becomes another, much more familiar face, who also pleads for his life. Killed by a sniper, branded a deserter, her husband stands before her in fear. She can see every line of his face through the sight of her rifle.

“Just pull the trigger Sasha,” Her father says in one corner of her mind “Right between the eyes, that’s where you want to aim for.” But she can’t, she can’t. And then suddenly, inexplicably, as if a weight has been lifted, she can. She puts the pressure on her index finger, but not before swinging the barrel just slightly. The sergeant, reacting on instinct alone, turns and runs the last remaining yards into the enemy camp, as her spotter curses behind her.

“What was that?” He asks furiously, the shot went wide, slicing into the darkness just behind the sergeant. Sasha doesn’t respond, she just stands there, staring through the sight of her rifle. She takes a few long steps forward, hardly knowing whether what she sees is real or just another messed up daydream.

There’s a German soldier lying limply in the snow in front of her, with a bullet between his eyes.

______________________________________________________________

Hazel Kevlihan is an Irish-American writer with a strong interest in World War 2. She enjoys exploring different perspectives throughout history and researching for her next project.

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The Poet’s Wife; The Mistress’ Sister

By Gina M. Bright

León, Spain 1387

So this is how it ends. The body stops working long before the mind. There is much time to think, indeed. At least I have time to write—well, in between the cramping and letting go. The black liquid comes pouring out and soils my bed now more often than filling my chamber pot.

I wish Geoffrey were here. I have my son though. When John gathered his men for this action to be taken in Spain, Thomas did not have much of a choice in going, nor did I. My son has served John of Gaunt, the Duke of Lancaster, for many years now. And not because John is his father, a loathsome rumor spread by those who cannot accept my sister’s position in his bed.

Katherine never could escape the will of her heart. When we were girls back home in Hainault she took in every little kitten found wandering in our garden. She fell in love with John the first time she saw him look at his wife, Blanche. By my faith, angels must have swathed her in their light. Blanche’s beauty did not belong to this world. Perchance Katherine found celestial comfort through John’s adoration of Blanche. She has always been faithful to our Creator. Or perchance Katherine could not resist John’s Plantagenet charms, his solid stature and stormy eyes.

When Blanche was plucked from this world by the dreaded pestilence, they at least waited some time to fulfill their mutual desire. Unfortunately, their secret union happened just as Katherine’s husband, Hugh, perished in France serving our Black Prince and John was betrothed to Constance, the Castilian beauty I have served ever since John brought her to England as the second Duchess of Lancaster.

John was always seeking power and what better way to get it than to marry one of the daughters of the recently slain King of Castile, Pedro the Cruel. Alas, the gallant Gaunt did not assume that title then or now. His ambition though is the reason we are here in León and I am dying from dysentery, along with many of his own soldiers.

I regret that I cannot serve my Duchess Constance. She has her ladies, certainly, but she needs me. She has always felt as long as I tend to her, my sister cannot move too close to John. It is no wonder Constance was so worried when I spent a few years with Katherine at her Kettlethorpe manor almost ten years past. My husband was away once again and Katherine needed me.

Katherine missed John to the brink of madness. When he did visit, their nightly cries of ecstasy spilled over into the light. But then he was gone again and Katherine retreated to her chamber for days without any sustenance.

And my poor Duchess! I could just see her at Hertford, her beloved castle, sipping wine through her sighs of despair as her ladies tried to comfort her during John’s absences. At least her quarters there contained the largest hearth that always managed to defeat our English dampness that she hated so much.

I took the time I had to myself at Kettlethorpe to write, not something that is becoming to a lady in waiting to the Duchess of Lancaster, nor to the wife of a poet with a bit of fame. John so admires Geoffrey’s work and rewarded him with his Aldgate apartment in London. It provides a quiet space for his craft.

John had begged him to write something, anything, to relieve his great sorrow after Blanche died. The Book of the Duchess was the result of a few years’ labor written during his visits to France and Italy for our old King Edward. Geoffrey shared those woeful words with me before he gave them to Gaunt.

“Dear Philippa,” he said through my tears, “your response means more to me than John’s and even the court’s. You know what it is to write.”

Indeed I do but only Geoffrey knows my work. For the world thinks women are not fit for writing. We are creatures, so they say, with humors not in balance. Perchance another age will see us otherwise, as my dear husband does.

Before my long visit to Kettlethorpe, I spent time with my husband in his apartment above Aldgate where the rabble entered the city during our Great Revolt six years past. Geoffrey said it was thrilling to watch so many commoners march into London to get some justice. What they did to our city, though, perhaps shifted the scales in the other direction. I wish I could have seen them though.

Geoffrey had collected nearly sixty books for his library there. I visited Aldgate as much as I could and spent hours turning the leaves of parchment. I found a story by one of our French writers, Chrétien de Troyes, who I think got it from the Roman poet, Ovid. I was so moved by this tale of two sisters I could not return the book to the shelf.

Philomena and Progne were separated when Progne married a lord who took her to a land far away from Greece. As the years passed, Progne asked her husband to bring her sister to her so she could see her once again. Alas, lust reigned in this lord’s heart when he returned with Philomena. He placed her in a cave and robbed her of her purity. He could not silence her screams and so he cut out her tongue.

What was to be done with her now? This brutal man kept her in one of his castles. Certainly she would be safe from the world there. Philomena did not want for anything in her prison, including a loom and thread. Day after day she weaved the words of her story into a large piece of cloth. One of the servants took pity on her and fulfilled her request to deliver the tapestry to her sister. When Progne read the words in the cloth, she left for the castle and was reunited in sorrow with her dear sister.

I carried this story with me to Kettlethorpe and felt compelled to write it in my native tongue. Philomena’s story spoke to me. My own sister has been mistreated by a very powerful lord. John displayed her as his mistress that one Spring a few years past at his Leicestershire estate. Thank goodness my Duchess Constance was not there when John led Katherine’s horse by the bridle for everyone to see. Evermore, my sister has been called “whore.” Evermore, John continues to be called “duke” or “my lord.”

My tongue has not been severed but I cannot speak out loud about their affair. The customs of the nobility silence me since I am lower in status. Yet I write about these matters now, just like Philomena did, as I lay dying in León.

Geoffrey was so pleased with my Philomena poem he included it in his present work, The Legend of Good Women. It’s a shame really that people would scoff at my poem if it bears my name. I will be pleased though if people admire it as one of Geoffrey Chaucer’s own.

Perchance the Duchess will be pleased with this “legend” when she hears it because Philomena gets her revenge, after all, on the lord who befouled her. Heaven knows Constance has endured a good deal of abuse from the Duke, but never in public.

I remember that magnificent dinner for the boy king’s soon to be new wife at the Savoy in April of 1381. It was the last one there for the palace was destroyed by the rebels in June of that year. No more Gascony wine flowing from the spigots and no more shrimp, eels, or bream served to perfection at that feast!

John of Gaunt was the host that night for Anne of Bohemia, her family, so many courtiers, and King Richard himself. And Constance was the hostess, the respected Duchess of Lancaster, and John’s adored wife. John always made sure Constance was treated that way at this event and all others. But when the Duchess was not in the court’s eye, she was not in John’s either.

The truth of the matter is Constance despised the Savoy because she knew Katherine spent most of her time there. John always ordered the servants to move my sister’s belongings before his wife arrived. Gaunt’s bedroom had two cabinets of clothing and Constance always placed her garments in the smaller one. After she arrived for the Bohemian event, she looked in her cabinet for just the right bejeweled tunic to wear. In there, she spotted an emerald one with a weasel collar, far too small for my Duchess’ curved Spanish body. The servant who removed Katherine’s garments was a bit too hasty in her work.

Constance at once commanded all of her ladies to move her to another room. The next day she returned to Hertford Castle. But she felt compelled to leave there after a few months when she got word that the Savoy had been burnt to the ground. Her reply to the messenger had a feigned sense of concern for my sister.

“Dios mío! Espero que la puta fugado.” I had learned enough Spanish in my service with her to translate thus, “My God! I hope the whore escaped.”

I prayed Katherine did. Thinking of her perishing in the flames made my skin feel hot all over. Fear then set into my Duchess’ heart after she expressed her hopes for my sister. She asked to move the household far away from these troubles in London and, as we heard, in the nearby counties of Essex and Kent. And so we set off for John’s Pontefract Castle, quite a bit north in Yorkshire.

After several days’ journey, we arrived there near eventide, thank goodness because Constance did not have good vision at dusk. Constance took the candlelight she saw within as a good sign the servants were ready for us. I knew though that they were serving my sister. I could see Katherine’s favorite destrier in the stable. Troilus’ blue-black hue and that gold and blue ribbon, Plantagenet colors, she always tied around his tail were not to be mistaken as anyone else’s horse.

My lady was impatient to enter the castle. I told her I would declare our arrival and return at once. The servant who opened the door revealed my sister had arrived with haste two nights ago after the Duke gave her word from Scotland to flee London because of the rebels who hated him so. Thank goodness she received his order before the rebels made it to the Savoy.

Now what to tell my Duchess with my sister safe inside? The servant said we should travel even farther north to the vacant Knaresborough Castle, another night’s journey.

“My dear Duchess,” I said with the utmost sadness when I returned, “there are no proper provisions for our stay here. There is no meat to be had and no wine. The rebel army has hindered the arrival of many goods.”

“No vino! Dios mío,” she replied. And then with tears in her eyes she asked where we would go. I explained we could travel a bit farther north to one of her husband’s other castles arriving at day’s break.

Our journey here to León now was much less difficult for my lady. She did not want for anything with her husband by her side. John filled one carriage with wine and another one with cheeses, meat, and fish, if we were close to the coast.

Before I contracted this malady and became chained to my chamber pot, I got to see my Duchess experience some joy with John, as he did with her. Constance was ready to give birth. The castle was filled with anticipation for the baby boy’s arrival. John and Constance loved their young girl, Catalina, but they just knew they were having a son who would maintain the Castilian line.

I labored hard with my Duchess. I applied cool cloths to her brow and told her when to push. A beautiful boy entered the world, but only to take two little breaths. Then he was gone. Constance never seems to hold onto happiness for very long.

I cannot hold onto much of anything at the present time. My son, Thomas, visits me daily and brings me water and small plates of cheeses and fruit. None of it stays with me though.

I miss our home in Rotherhithe. How glorious to step into our garden with the fierce Thames felt in the morning air. There’s something about living on the water that makes me feel like I too am always going somewhere. We moved into that home after Geoffrey became Justice of the Peace for Kent. The pay is not worth the effort it takes to sit in the session court issuing fines, hearing pleas and what not, but it gives him much time to write.

He has begun work on a simply wonderful idea. Geoffrey met the Italian poet Boccaccio when he visited his country many years ago. Boccaccio’s book of tales told by nobles who escape the pestilence in Florence inspired my Geoffrey to create his own book. But Geoffrey will have stories told by people from every station in life as they travel from London to Canterbury to honor our slain saint, Thomas Becket.

He has set himself quite the task! Geoffrey wants me to write the tales told by the women on the journey, but I do not think this undertaking will come to pass. I barely have the strength to move from my bed to my chamber pot. When Thomas comes to visit me tomorrow, I will give him what I have written here, and this last letter to my dear husband.

Dear Geoffrey,

My father warned me when I met you in the Countess of Ulster’s household—you a page to Edward III’s second oldest son and me a personal demoiselle to his wife—about my happiness being compromised by someone lower than me in status. I knew you were the son of vinters, but your mind, your view of the world, and your love of books drew me to you. I knew no one else would have satisfied me as you have done for a lifetime.

I have never wanted for nice food, wine, or tunics. I have never wanted for children. Our three have been a blessing and no mum could be prouder. I have never wanted for a husband who treats my sister as his own in spite of her transgressions.

My dearest husband, you have never failed to respect me as your equal and encourage my own habit of writing in spite of my sex.

I so wish I could see you one last time for some more talk and a read together, but my passage through this world has sped up quite a bit. I have been forced into a lane going elsewhere. I pray it is a good place. Please make your tales one for the ages, Geoffrey Chaucer.

I love you so,

Philippa

______________________________________________________________

Gina M. Bright has a doctorate in medieval English literature from Lehigh University. She has worked as a registered nurse for more than 30 years, primarily in the fields of AIDS and oncology. Her first book, Plague-Making and the AIDS Epidemic: A Story of Discrimination (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), reflects her passion for caring for underserved populations and for research and writing. 1381: The Forgotten Revolt is her first novel and was a 2016 First Place Category Winner (Dark Ages, Medieval, Renaissance) in the Chaucer Awards for Pre-1750 Historical Fiction sponsored by Chanticleer Book Reviews.

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Farewell the Day

By Carole Green

Tuesday morning begins bright and sharp. By three o’clock those who have shift work are up and heading out to meet the day.  Others – like his Da, having come off at midnight with a bad knee – turn back into the snug of their blankets.  Having left behind the warmth of the cottage some minutes before, Harry sounds now like a train chugging along in the clear cold air which catches at his breath and makes it rise in white puffs. A curious redwing follows his progress, darting through the hedge as he crosses first the snowy fields and then the icy lanes and makes his way down the Jarrow row to meet his cousin, Robert. It is dark but a half moon hangs grinning at them in the velvet blue like a prop from one of Mr Kelley’s fabulous entertainments. Robert is a decade older than his eager cousin, and less impressed by the freshness of the day. Harry’s joking description of the moon raises only a wry smile. Robert has come off shift only five hours previous and slept through most of his dinner and breakfast.  His lids are hooded as he follows laggardly behind young Harry. He crunches on a rock of cinder toffee, which his wife makes weekly and in great quantities in winter, in hopes of keeping him awake and going. He grumbles at the lad’s cheerful whistling. There is nothing to whistle about where they are heading.

The men congregate in the lee of the engine house as they wait their turn to be let down. Harry nods goodbye to cousin Robert here. Although it is Harry himself who, fourteen years old and hating the constraints of the schoolroom, has insisted on starting at the works – he is relieved that he has found a place with the pit cuddies and horses. They are docile beasts and nuzzle softly at any treats a boy can bring them.  They are excellent listeners also; their soft brown eyes convey a great deal of sympathy for the problems a lad might sound off about. And they never break a confidence. Harry has told them about his impatience with school and how only last summer he discovered that he is a fair hand on the water. He has earned some good pocket money helping his cousin run the ferry crossing at Dunston. His mother’s family are a friendly lot and keep a well-stocked table; a fellow never goes hungry no matter what kind of work he gets up to. He enjoyed the order of their household and how things got done in congenial spirit. A lot seems to be accomplished with a great deal less of the shouting and moaning that fills his own house.

But Harry cannot stay on beyond August. His mother needs him at home – who else can get the old man from the pub in one piece? His brothers are too impatient with the task and inevitably it ends in a scuffle and a black eye. But Harry is different. He remembers Da when he used to romp and play with them, when he had more time in the day. It is Becky from next door taught him the trick: don’t think of your Da as he is now, think of him as he was before. Becky is a year or two younger than Harry and has bright green eyes and a small gap between her two front teeth. She kissed him once behind the outhouse the cottages share. Her lips were warm and dry like a caress. But then, before he even had time to open his eyes, she’d slapped him hard upside the head so that his ear rang.  If you tell anyone I’ll knock your teeth out, Harry Clasper, she’d said. Harry believed her. Becky’s Da spends every minute he can throwing money away on the cock fights. He is not alone in his pursuits. The grind does the same to families up and down the town rows. This hauling in and scooping up of wayward men from the pubs and cockfighting pits and gaming houses is a daily ritual. Gateshead and Newcastle town are booming and if a fellow seizes the chance he need never be short of work. But the fruits of this labour do not always find their way to the ever growing families which require feeding and the cottage rows in which they cram have no land fit for cultivation. It is a sorry fact that a fair portion of wages are paid in beer from the company alehouse. It is easy to drink beyond the allotted share and tabs quickly mount up. There is a sad joke that some men worked to drink, and others drank to work. Harry understands that his Da falls into the latter category. Robert makes good money as a brusherman, setting off the charges that widen and deepen the shafts, but oh, how he hated to say goodbye to the light and, instead of becoming accustomed to it, he loathed and feared the stygian blackness more each time he went down. And so, instead of a fresh warm beer in the morning, he began taking something stronger; until that no longer had its effect and he found something more potent still. He is not a loud nor an aggressive drinker, on the contrary, as the years wear down he becomes a quiet man, sitting in the corner, knocking back the drinks at a rate which might have surprised his companions had they been counting.  Trouble is it is well neigh impossible to get him off that stool and back home – timing, as Harry discovers, is everything. There is a certain point, before a kind of mad oblivion transforms him, that Da can be coaxed home for his supper. You have to address him very clearly, but respectfully, and pretend that whatever gibberish he is talking makes perfect sense. If you nod and aye convincingly then he will let you sling an arm under his and around his back and together you can amble your way to Ma’s long cooled dinner.  Harry has come to discover that his Da’s ramblings are oft times lucid in their way:  bits and pieces of stories from his days growing up in Dunston, and as a keelman on the Tyne. He has one-sided arguments with long lost companions about the boat and the water and what to watch out for. When he is fair sober he forgets these tales and he refuses ever to speak of the water.

And so it seems Harry’s destiny that he will follow the Jarrow Claspers into the colliery. At least for now he is not working the depths. It is his task to lead the gin-horses which wind the mechanism that draws the coal up the shaft. This work does not pay as well as that below ground, but his Da has forbidden he go down the shaft ‘till he is a year or two older. Impatient to prove himself as he is, Harry has agreed to the old man’s condition. He’s seen the wee trappers crawling out after an eighteen hour shift: they are like broken twigs, their eyes red with coal and crying, and all for a measly fivepence a day. Harry shivers as he takes over the care of the gin-horse. It stumbles clumsily as he swaps with the other boy, and he feels its weight bear down heavily upon him for a second. But then the creature straightens into its routine, the well-greased mechanism running lightly along with it. Harry can hear the heavy clang of the cage as it begins its descent. The Bensham seem is the deepest they have clawed out yet: 175 fathoms straight into the heart of Hell or so the brushermen, who blasted it open, claim. But Harry knows his cousin Robert is oddly proud to be a hewer of the deepest workings. It is almost a thousand feet to the river above and, given the direction the shaft plays out, it is likely that Jarrow church itself perches smugly upon them – constituting the other end of the religious spectrum, the men joke.

The conversation among those descending is minimal this morning but the outrage of the previous week is still fresh on the tongue. Three little girls were only last Tuesday sentenced at the Assizes to a months’ imprisonment in the House of Correction for confessedly lifting a small quantity of pig-iron from Hetton Colliery. There is no question the young ‘uns were wrong to do as they did; but the sentence is a hard one for their families to live with and it is disgusting that such a weight of law has been brought to bear upon such young offenders when mightn’t a good minute with the switch have resolved the matter? And hasn’t Billy Miller’s fall down the Bensham shaft to his death only the Friday previous been recorded by the same court as accidental, when everyone knows that the mine is short on Deputies with the new seem opening and that Billy’d overbalanced pulling in a tub when the shaftside had crumbled away? Why is there no sentencing of the owners, Thomas and Robert Brown, Esqrs., of London, to even one day’s hard labour in said House of Correction for such criminal penny-pinching? Robert spits on the ground as he listens to Black Jimmy’s impassioned speech. He doesn’t like Jimmy much – the man is too given to jabbering when the face is obstinate and refuses to yield to the pick and it is all you can do to put your back into it. But the fellow is right. The way things are, men cannot go on like this much longer. And the snivelling trappers well broke a man’s heart, even though nearly everyone did sneak the odd sweetie and kind word to the poor lads, as the waggons trundled by. Day in and day out, opening trap-doors; and the rest of the time sitting alone in the dark like toads. Even the Galloways get better treatment. It is scandalous. Black Jimmy is right, something is sure to give.

A half hour later Robert is at the coalface. He is sweating heavily and can barely see to raise his pick. He cannot afford a lamp of his own yet and candles are forbidden at this new depth. Black Jimmy’s Geordie lamp is quickly corroding in the humid conditions and Robert does not trust it. The man holds it up for closer inspection as it looks as if the flame is turning a faint blue behind the guard when Robert sees rather than hears one of the thin wires peel back from its mesh. He stretches out his hand but too late. Jimmy lowers the lamp to the ground and then the whole place goes up in one single ball of fire. A quarter mile above Harry feels the whump and has seconds to pull the horse away from the track and towards the open door as the flame shoots out the top of the workings. The banksmen are severely burned. None of the thirty-four miners working below survive; almost a dozen of these are lowly trapper boys, not yet ten years old. Forty-five gentle Galloway ponies, some eating oats in their underground stable, others still hitched to their load, are also blown clean off the face of the earth. The scene is black and chaotic. The pitmen topside are barely able to keep the women and children back from the gaping hole; they claw at the ground and wail pathetically for their lost husbands, fathers, brothers. There is no hope of rescue. The corpses, human and horse, are later brought up the shaft in nets. For some of the ponies it is the first time in a decade they have reached the surface. Now the sunshine plays across their carcasses.  Harry, working the gin-horse, helps in this gruesome task of recovery. It is something he never forgets. The sight and smell of the mangled flesh will stay with him for the whole of his life and, although he will work at a colliery again, he never will go down the pit.

The Abbey public house is crammed to the rafters for the wake. A collection is set up and everything is now on the House. Harry has had a few pints more than he is accustomed to and is jostling with some bigger lads towards the back. Someone has foolishly started the rumour that there will be entertainments. The older lads are joking about Sally’s ‘hams’ and calling rowdily for some ankle and the barmaid is grumpily avoiding them. Harry blushes, uncomfortable at the crude joking. These are cousin Robert’s friends and Harry is out of his depth. Robert would have taken just the right tone, have said the right words to make light of it. Harry feels a sad pang at his absence. And then from the far corner, near the bar itself, comes an odd stomping sound. The men are squeezing back, clearing room for something. In all the shoving Harry finds himself sausaged towards the front and suddenly has a clear view of the man at the centre of the circle. He is short and squarely built and he is leaning forward banging first one foot then the other hard upon the wood floor so that he looks, like a bull, as if he is about to run at something. And then he begins to call out. His voice is loud and his words carry over the swift silence in the room. Poor horse, he calls and Harry, in a flash of comprehension, understands it is a rant unfolding about the pit horses and ponies. He has heard of such performances but has never witnessed a ranter in action before. The hair on the back of his neck and down his arms prickles as the man’s voice rings out and speaks to something deep in the guts. The man bellows and shouts and then raises one arm, his voice ascending whenever he repeats the word horse so that it becomes a braying squeel. The horror of the pit and the load and the biting harness and the furious darkness as it cuts into the ponies fills the air as the ranter brings it forth so vividly. The finger of one hand stretches upward as if apportioning blame, but those who hear his words feel themselves shouldering the guilt and the devastation in his performance; in the horses’ terrible existence and fiery death.  Of course the images which flare in the mind’s eye are those of the men and boys themselves so hideously consumed by the collieries: both through their work and in their death. And so Poor horse is, on the Geordie tongue, soon Poor usand the sense of injustice cuts keenly through the room. The faces of the men crushed around the circle are red and covered in either tears or sweat, Harry cannot tell. He has never felt anything the like of it, and finds himself overwhelmed. He struggles to breathe: his body and soul held fast amongst the ranks of his neighbours which heave and buckle around him. He is dizzy and thinks he might black out.  And then, reaching a crescendo, the ranter collapses into the crowd who take up his stamping and the roar and the place erupts into chaos. Then the fiddlers start up a whirling jig and soon the wild dancing spills out into the lane and the waiting night beyond: almost enough to rouse the dead.

______________________________________________________________

Carole Green is a first time novelist. In her spare time she teaches English and sculls on the river Tyne. She also has a Masters in English.

This piece is part of an unpublished longer work on the life and times of Harry Clasper, an early professional rower and well-known Tyneside oarsman. He is one of the great Victorian sporting legends of Northern England. Clasper’s funeral was reportedly attended by a crowd of upwards 100 000 mourners. This extract is a brief description of his mining background and gives some context to his later development as a professional sportsman. Although fictionalised, the incident described is based on recorded fact – Robert Clasper is listed amongst the casualties of the Bensham disaster.

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In the Vale

By Nyri A. Bakkalian

Gettysburg, 2 July 1863

Even with the sun down at long last, it was still terribly, disgustingly hot.

The men were beyond tired, all of them: tired as hell. Exhausted and hungry and bloodied and reeling after the long hard slog through that Pennsylvanian hell on earth. Now the day’s battle had receded to either side’s artillery providing an undertone of distant thunder peppered by the sporadic pop-pop-thwack of pickets. The weary men sat to rest in the vale, amid the ghastly forms of fallen friend and foe among the growing shadows that crisscrossed the mighty blood-stained rocks. Battle-scarred trees, that’d been another source of so much shrapnel and debris that day, towered overhead.

Captain Walter Goodale Morrill sat near his resting men, utterly exhausted, carbine set down beside him on the dirt as he listlessly looked on. He keenly envied the ones who could sleep despite it all. Given everything he’d seen, Morrill wasn’t sure he’d have been able to get there. After all, to say the day was absolute murder would’ve been a severe understatement. Would Morrill ever find the words to express what he and the regiment had seen and endured? Would he ever be able to properly comprehend what he’d done, in all of its grim detail?

He could still see the scene, hanging invisibly but close around him in the little vale, like the battlefield haze. Detached to protect the flank, when the shooting grew hot, they’d risen from the stone wall in time to see the rest of the regiment of Mainers careen down the rock-strewn hill, a tidal wave crashing down on the men in gray, a mighty, mingled roar piercing the battle’s deafening thunder.

Morrill’s little company, amply armed, unexpectedly reinforced by the professional soldiers of a passing regular Army sharpshooter company, quickly chose to act. They fired and hollered like mad, even as they charged into the rebels’ flank. In a moment, they’d rejoined their regiment in its breathless, swift charge, into the bloody maelstrom. They were so close to the enemy, even amidst the enemy’s retreat, that at times it felt like they’d strayed too far into the gray lines, but the momentum was theirs. The rebels were running as fast as they could, out of the dense forest and across the sweltering fields of Adams County, with the pride of New England close behind them.

The exhausted captain rubbed at his eyes. Distantly, scattered sharpshooter fire continued in the lengthening evening shadows. It simply boggled the mind. How could he ever hope to do justice to this, and to tell this story?

Morrill started at the sound of snapping twigs and crunching gravel, fingers instinctively closing around his waiting carbine. A little knot of men approached him out of the growing darkness. Then they were close enough that he could make out their faces, and when he saw the stand of banners that followed them, the tension suddenly dropped off.

“Colonel Chamberlain, sir,” Morrill greeted the mustachioed officer who led them. He rose to his feet with a perfunctory salute. Thank God, he thought in silent relief. Good to see friendly faces. Close behind Chamberlain followed the color guard, bullet-torn, flame-scorched banners rising out of the shadows. Morrill could just barely make out the words beneath the eagle on the blue regimental standard: 20th REGIMENT MAINE VOLUNTEERS.

“Captain Morrill,” the professor-turned-colonel greeted him, “Been quite a day.” The men loved him. He’d come in as green as anyone, but had quickly proven himself more than capable of leadership and more than worthy of their trust. After all, he’d stood right with them through that terrible battle, just like all the other battles that’d come before.

“Ayuh, ayuh,” Morrill replied briskly in the Mainer affirmative, “that it has, sir, and a long day too. But I’d say we’re in mighty fine shape considering.”

Chamberlain turned and pointed up the big hill that sloped skyward to Morrill’s right. “It’s been a long day, but you know we’ve still got work to do. The enemy pickets, probably still men of Hood’s division, still aren’t that far. Orders from Colonel Rice are that we’re to secure that summit there.”

Morrill wiped the sweat from his eyes and glanced over his shoulder, through the treeline and up the steady, rock-strewn slope.

“Securing the summit,” he echoed distantly. “Yes, sir.”

Their gaze met through the murky twilight. Morrill saw a moment of fatigue in Chamberlain’s eyes. The man was good at hiding it, but there were moments like this one when Morrill could see through the carefully cultivated mask of command the man so prized. When, the captain wondered, had the colonel last slept?

But that glimmer was only a moment, for just as quickly, the steel was back in his voice.

“Those are our orders, so I’m heading up there. Any of your men who can follow should do so.”

Morrill saluted. “Sir.”

He hurried to rejoin his men, back where they still rested at the end of the vale. When Morrill was close enough to see them clearly in the ever-gathering darkness, he saw that those who’d been within earshot of his conversation with Colonel Chamberlain were wearily rising. Others, catching their meaning, were following them. The ones with ready ammunition had already begun reloading rifles and pistols. Others were picking over the detritus of the day’s slaughter, hunting for any stray rounds they could salvage from the abandoned cartridge boxes of the dead.

For a moment, the captain found he envied those who had fallen, who kept his men company in silent, final vigil. After all, the dead’s own part in this ghastly work was done, and they had no worries about orders and ammunition and provisions and enemy pickets. Would his turn to join them come next?

No. There was no time for such ghastly reflections. Morrill shook his head, sighed, and took a knee beside the company and set to reloading his carbine.

Yes, morose reflection could wait. For now, there was work to do.

______________________________________________________________

Nyri A. Bakkalian, Ph.D. is a queer Armenian-American and adopted Pittsburgher. A military historian by training, she’s an artist and writer whose work has appeared on InatriMetropolis JapanGutsy Broads, and Queer PGH. She has a soft spot for local history and unknown stories, preferably uncovered during road trips. When not hunting for unknown history, Nyri can most often be found sketching while enjoying a good cup of Turkish coffee. Check out her blog at sparrowdreams.com, and come say hello on Twitter at @riversidewings.

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The Foundry Lad

By Amy Wood

I don’t know who the old fiddler man is. I like him, I think. But I don’t know who he is.

He plays every day; rain or shine, snow or wind. Whether the skies are blue or grey, he’s there, same place, scraping away on his worn out fiddle with his worn out bow. Why he plays in the poorest part of town, God only knows, he can’t be hoping for much more than a ha’penny or two.

I often look at him as I pass by, how old is he? His face is lined enough to have seen at least seventy winters, I reckon, but his eyes are always bright. He sometimes sees me and winks as though he knows what I’m thinking – that he’s old enough to know better than to expect the poorest mice to pay for music when they can barely afford bread.

There’s a hole in his trousers, over his knee. The bottom hems are frayed and his boots were ancient when I was born. But somehow the old fiddler man seems like he ain’t poor, not like the rest of us. The look in his eyes ain’t the same, no despair in him. He’s different.

It’s a Tuesday when for once the sun shows its face and the warmth changes the streets into playgrounds of sparkling puddles left over from last night’s rain. Women gladly send ragged children to play in the road and they go without a fuss; the puddles don’t stay bright for long.

The long tramp up the hill from my little mousehole of a house to the foundry leaves my knees burning. Each day it seems I climb a mountain just for the privilege of wearing myself out for twelve hours but with the sun on my back, it’s not so bad.

Children yell and splash and one kicks me a ball, wasn’t so long ago I was one of ‘em, another scruffy urchin more at home on the street than inside four walls. But time is cruel and like everyone else, I grew up. With three brothers and sisters to help feed, I ain’t got time for being young. I kick the ball back and keep on climbing.

At the top of the hill I stop for just a minute to get my breath. The view down ain’t much to inspire a man but it’s where I come from and some strange part of me wants to be proud of it. Tumbledown houses pile on top of each other, tiny streets wind around them, brown ribbons through the maze but there’s no lustre to ‘em. No silk ribbons here. This part of town lost its sparkle years ago, so far, the people are too tired to worry about getting it back.

All of a sudden it makes me sick: the poverty, the neglect, the disgust of those born more fortunate. I want to rage and shout, to do something, anything, to show the high-born folk who look down their noses at us that we are more than just rags and dirt. But what can I do? Nothing, same as always. The sun’s lost some of its warmth, I pull my thin coat tighter and turn away from the view down the hill.

The old fiddler man’s sitting in his usual spot as I turn the corner by the foundry. His cap is more battered, his coat more worn, his boots cracked and dirty. But he smiles at me as I pass and plays a little jig. The thousand lines on his face crease up into something kindly. Inside me, something breaks and wants to cry.

On the cobbles in front of him, the old man has his usual scrap of canvas, his collecting tin. There’s a fair few coins there, he’s done well, even with it being early in the day. Perhaps folk are feeling generous, maybe the sun’s done ‘em good.

I realise I’ve stopped, I don’t want to walk down the lane to the foundry, I want to stay and listen to the old fiddle scrape out forgotten songs. The warmth comes back into the morning and it’s as intoxicating as Ma Bellow’s illicit gin.

The old man looks at me and nods, just a slow up and down of his head. No smile now, his eyes are sad. He plays something soft and melancholy, impossibly lovely. I stand and let the notes wash over me, there’s precious little time in life to just be still and I know I should be moving now but the fiddle talks to me, sings at me, catches me deep inside and doesn’t let go. How long I stand there I don’t know, could be hours, days even. Those soft notes are too lovely to walk away from. But all things must end and I find myself standing in silence, staring at the old man’s wrinkled hands.

When I draw breath it tastes like the sweetest of honey cakes, the air in this bit of town ain’t so good sometimes but today it’s warm and thick as soup, a delight to every sense. I let it settle down into my lungs like pipe smoke, the best thing I’ve ever tasted.

The smile comes back onto the old man’s face and the jig slips from his fiddle again. A woman passing by, not more than twenty but worn down by her lot in life, suddenly beams and skips a step or two. I don’t dance but when I make my feet move and head down the lane, it’s with a lighter heart than before. As I reach my destination, I look back over my shoulder, the old fiddler man is just visible, his bow flying up and down, his cap bobbing in time with the music.

Usually I feel defeated, exhausted by the time I reach the foundry, but today there’s a lightness about me that even the blazing metal and crashing machinery can’t shatter. I take one more breath of sweet, blossom-flavoured air and close the foundry door.

Twelve hours later I’m free once more and the sky is the faded blue of early twilight. There’s a chill blowing in on the breeze and the sun of earlier is forgotten. Folk hurry past me, heads down, coats pulled snug. A washed-out day moon hangs in a corner of the sky, it looks tired but determined to show its face regardless.

I stumble over cobbles and mutter curses to myself; I’m tired. Children run screaming past me but I’m too old and spent to join in their games. Each step is hard work, one foot in front of the other is an agony of concentration. My ears buzz from the foundry noise and I try to blink away a headache.

After an hour or two – or maybe it’s only a minute – I reach the old fiddler man’s corner. He’s still there, as I expected. I pause nearby and drink in the music but this time he ain’t playing for me. A little girl stands in front of him, not more than four, her short legs chubby and round, socks falling down as she twirls. Her dress is patched, homemade and old but to her it’s the greatest of gowns. Round she goes, eyes squeezed shut, little hands reaching out for the partner only she sees.

The old man taps the rhythm, quick and sharp. She never misses, each change in note, each stroke of the bow sends her flying, little feet barely touching the ground. Her bobbed hair is a dirty halo as she twirls. A tiny Cinderella, squeezing every last drop of joy from the music and savouring it as only the innocent can. She’s beautiful. I feel old and irrevocably broken.

Eventually the old man draws out one final note and lets it melt away into the evening. The little girl faces him, chubby hands on hips, brows drawn into an outraged frown.

“Another one!”

The old man laughs and shakes his head. “Tomorrow.”

It’s the first word I’ve ever heard him say, but little Cinderella ain’t surprised. She smiles and bounces over to fling her arms round his neck, holding him tight.

“Early tomorrow?”

A nod from the old man.

Satisfied, little Cinderella lets go and backs away, humming to herself and dancing a step now and then. As she turns to go, the old man whistles and points at the coins on the canvas at his feet.

She smiles again and shyly picks up a penny. At a cough from the old man she takes another two. Nodding, he plays a jaunty tune as she skips away, her treasures clutched tight to her chest. I watch, spellbound.

His eyes are on me before I can escape. The gentle tune of earlier is in the air again, slow and lovely, wrapping itself round me. I sway on my feet, it’s been a long day, I should be getting home. Blinking takes an eternity, my eyes stay shut of their own accord and it takes everything I have to force them open. When I do, the old man nods and changes the tune. It’s still soft and low but the melancholy has gone, it’s a quiet ghost of the merry jig little Cinderella so enjoyed.

I’m too tired to dance and even if I wasn’t, I could never match the little girl for sheer unassuming joy, but the music does me good. A glow within me builds and spreads and I’m all the better for each note. Just as before, I barely notice when the old man stops playing, I go on staring at the fiddle, reliving the gentle loveliness in my mind.

Eventually, I rouse myself and remember where I am. Time to go home, the chill is setting in more and I’m shivering. My teeth chatter and the colder air hurts my throat as I breathe.

I suppose I should say something, thank the old man or tell him how wonderful his music is, but I can’t find any words. I just stand, frowning at my own incompetence, until he presses a coin into my hand. His fingers are warm, like sandpaper worn down to almost-smoothness. He smiles and pats my arm.

“For your mother.”

I look down, there’s a tanner, sixpence, in my hand.

“I can’t—” I begin, but he shakes his head.

“You can,” he says, very soft and very sure. “She danced as well. Take it.”

The bow settles back onto the strings. I stare at the sixpence. Is this what he does? Is he some kind of toff, come to the poor part of town to give away his wealth? If that were true, he’d be mobbed, folk here know the value of coins and I’ve seen fights over pennies. But nobody glances the old man’s way, everybody trudges on, heads down, with eyes for nothing but their own struggle.

Whatever the old man’s playing now, it puts me in mind of green fields and swooping birds and gentle breezes ruffling through trees. I ain’t seen real green fields but the once, sunday school trip, it was. Can barely remember what grass smells like. But his fiddle makes pictures dance in my head and it almost breaks my heart when I look at the poor town I call home.

“Who are you?” I ask.

He looks up at me and smiles a bit. The bow dances on the strings, dances like the little girl, my mother’s waiting for me at home, he said she danced as well, my mother ain’t never even whistled never mind danced, perhaps I should ask her about the fiddle and the music—.

I close my hand around the sixpence. The old man’s smile grows as his notes dip and swirl around me.

The sun’s slipping under the horizon by the time I make my legs move toward home. Brilliant reds and pinks streak the sky, staining the faded blue. Might be a nice day again tomorrow.

Each step I take closer to home, the more the old man seems like something out of a dream, almost forgotten already. When I reach my tiny mousehole I look at the sixpence. Gentle notes echo in my ears; swooping birds on breezes of music, rolling hills and perfect skies, flowers and trees and all things good. I remember the little girl, her eyes tight shut, twirling and turning, little Cinderella.

The world seems less grey as I step through my door. Maybe tomorrow will be a better day.

______________________________________________________________

Amy Wood is a British writer whose stories feature in Opening Line Literary ‘Zine (Sept. & Dec. 2014), Flashdogs: An Anthology (Dec. 2014), Spelk Fiction (22 Jan. 2015), Flashdogs Solstice: Light & Dark (June 2015), Twisted Vine Literary Arts Journal (December 2015), Magnolia Review (January 2016), Flashdogs: Time (2016), The Galway Rewiew (Feb. 2016) and Short Fiction Break (2 June 2016).

She spends her time trying to write amid family life and wondering where she left her knitting. Also coffee, because it’s basically a foodstuff by now and words would never happen without it.

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Rumors of War

By Tamar Anolic

When Prince Konstantin Konstantinovich entered his father’s study in the Imperial palace of Pavlovsk, he found his father standing at the window, staring out. It was April, 1914, and spring was just starting to find its way into St. Petersburg. The sunlight that flowed through the window was a pale light, but it was not as pasty as the Grand Duke Konstantin’s countenance. Prince Konstantin sucked in a breath when he saw how ill his father looked.

The Grand Duke heard his son gasp and turned from the window. “Ah, Kostya,” he said. He gestured for his son to sit. Konstantin settled into one of the comfortable chairs facing his father’s desk, inhaling the smell of his father’s cigars as he sat. “Are you still corresponding with Pilar of Bavaria?” the Grand Duke asked.

Sometimes, Konstantin wished his father didn’t have such a good memory. “Yes, I am.”

“And still no talk of marriage?”  the Grand Duke pressed. “I thought you were interested.”

“I am interested,” Konstantin admitted. “And I told her as much.”

“But?”

But I’ve heard the same talk of war as you have. Some say Russia could mobilize her armies as early as next month.”

The Grand Duke sighed. For a moment, he stared out the window again. Then he looked back at his son. “I don’t think the mobilization will come that early, and yet my fear of war hangs over my head like an anvil. You realize that if Russia’s armies moved across Europe, they would be marching against Germany? You and Pilar would be on opposite sides of the conflict.”

The thought chilled Konstantin. “But if I brought her here as my wife, would that guarantee her safety?” he asked. “Or would it just leave her a very young widow?”

The Grand Duke did not have the time to answer before both he and Konstantin heard footsteps at the door of the study. A second later, Konstantin was glad to see his brothers Oleg, Igor, and Gavril come into the room. They took seats next to Konstantin, and the room was quiet as the four young men eyed their father, who continued to stand at the window, staring out.

Then Ioann, the family’s oldest brother, slipped into the study, holding his four-month-old son, Vsevolod. The baby stared around with big blue eyes. A tuft of black hair stood straight up on his head. Finally, the Grand Duke turned from the window and smiled at the sight of his only grandchild. Ioann smiled back and hugged Vsevolod to his chest. The Grand Duke watched them for a minute before he held out his arms for the baby.

Ioann handed Vsevolod to his father and sat in the one remaining chair in the room. The Grand Duke sat at his desk and rested Vsevolod in his lap. Then he looked at his five sons and sighed. His pain was obvious. Konstantin felt himself tense up and saw his feelings mirrored in the anxious expressions on each of his brothers’ faces.

“By now, you all have heard that Europe seems to be moving towards war,” the Grand Duke said. “If it comes to that, I doubt Russia could avoid fighting.”

Konstantin and all of his brothers nodded.

“But Nicholas himself doesn’t want to go to war,” Gavril said of the Tsar. “He thinks Russia has a long way to go before its railroads and other industries can support a war.”

“I agree with him,” the Grand Duke replied. “But the passions of our countrymen, and of our fellow Slavs, are running high. I’m not sure Nicky could keep Russia out of war, even if he were opposed to it.”

“What about the Duma?” Ioann asked, naming the nationally elected congress. “The Duma has the final say over whether we enter the war. If both it and Nicky are opposed, perhaps Russia will remain neutral.”

The Grand Duke shook his head, his disdain obvious. “The Duma consists of nothing but politicians that bend at the slightest wind,” he said. “If people are clamoring for war, the Duma will make sure it happens, regardless of whether it’s good for Russia.” The Grand Duke shook his head. “The country needs strong men that stick to their principles, like Peter the Great.”

“Nicky is no Peter the Great,” Konstantin heard himself saying. “Peter could have kept us out of war. Nicky won’t be able to.” Everyone in the room looked at him.

Gavril in particular glared at his younger brother. “Are you disloyal to the Tsar?” he asked.

“I’m just saying what I see,” Konstantin mumbled. Then he looked Gavril in the eye and spoke more clearly. “I am as loyal to Nicky as you are.”

The room became silent, and Konstantin fancied he could see the tension in the air mingling with the sunlight that was still coming through the window. Then Vsevolod began to fuss, and Ioann stood up to take his son from his father. The Grand Duke did not object, but an intractable sadness filled his eyes. The expression remained there as Ioann took Vsevolod into the hall and handed him to his wife, Princess Elena.

From inside the study, Konstantin watched as Elena took her crying son and disappeared down the Palace’s long hallway.  “I’m sorry, Papa,” he said as Ioann returned to the room and took his seat. “I didn’t mean to upset you.”

“It’s not you that’s upsetting me, Kostya,” the Grand Duke replied. “It’s the prospect having all five of you march off to war.”

“And yet if my country calls, I can only reply,” Oleg said, and Konstantin was grateful for his words.

The Grand Duke’s eyes welled up with tears as he looked at Oleg. “You are the most talented, artistic and poetic of my eight children,” he said. “Your loss in this war would be the greatest.”

“Relax, Papa,” Ioann said. “War hasn’t even been declared yet.”

“And yet I feel its rumble in my bones,” the Grand Duke replied, standing and going back to the window. “We are headed down that path. All of Europe is.”

Konstantin, Ioann, Gavril, Oleg and Igor looked at each other uneasily. Then Konstantin rose and joined his father at the window. “It will be alright, Papa,” he said, putting a hand on his father’s shoulder. “Truly it will be.”

But Konstantin’s reassurances were of little use. He watched his father’s jaw clench and unclench. Then, despite the Grand Duke’s efforts to the contrary, tears ran down his face. “Five of my sons marching off to war,” he said. “I should never have lived to see this day.”

__________________________________________________________________________________

Tamar Anolic has been fascinated by the history of Imperial Russia for over fifteen years.

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Steel

By Daniel L. Link

Grigory turned to find the source of the laughter, the pain in his knee forgotten. A man was running his way, rifle in hand. He froze. The wheels of his cart came to rest between cobblestones, but he held on, rather than raising his arms in the air.

“You there,” the guard gestured with the rifle. “Don’t move.”

A passing man lowered his eyes and hurried away.

The guard’s smile was broad, white puffs of steam escaping with each chuckled exhalation.  His exuberance puzzled Grigory, who didn’t see anything in the cold, drab day that should have him in such good humor.

“Let me see,” he said, pointing the rifle at Grigory.

This time he did put his hands up, but the guard waved the gun again.

“The cart,” he said. “Let me see in the cart.”

“It’s just potatoes.” Grigory took one corner of the burlap tarp and yanked it back to reveal half a cartload of potatoes, with a small child nestled in the middle. He gasped.

“Ha!” The guard shouted triumphantly. “I saw her sneak in there.”

He was right, it was a girl, no older than eight or nine, her dark hair cropped close like a boy’s. She looked to Grigory, her icy blue eyes filled with dread.

“Out with you, now.” The guard grabbed her by the tunic, and Grigory heard fabric tear as he wrenched. “Good job, comrade. We’ve been looking for her all week.” He turned to the girl. “Come, girl. The Cheka will want to talk to you.”

A chill went through Grigory. He couldn’t fathom why the secret police would be interested in one so young, but he knew he should stay out of it.

“Wait,” Grigory said, unsure what he was doing. “This isn’t the girl you want.”

“No?” the guard said, eyebrow raised.

“No, she can’t be. She’s a friend. She helps with the potatoes.”

He didn’t let go of the girl, just stared at Grigory, incredulous.

“Sir, believe me. She sleeps in there sometimes, but truly, she’s the daughter of a friend who died in the war. She helps me in exchange for food. We help each other.” He added, “I have a bad knee.”

“What’s her name?”

“Nika,” he said, blurting out his youngest sister’s name.

The man demanded the name of his dead friend. That was easy; Grigory had many dead friends.

“If you’re lying to me,” he said. “I’ll return, and you can both hang.” He pointed to the palace, where the nephew of the Czar once lived, that formerly proud symbol of his country now corrupted by death and ruin.

“Why?” Nika asked when they were in Grigory’s cottage. “You risked everything to save me.”

“There has been enough killing. Besides,” he said, sitting by the hearth and poking the fire, “I could use the help.”

For a solid month they worked close together and Grigory found he liked her company. Nika never offered her real name, but she told him she was wanted for theft and that her parents had been killed by the Reds.

“Where’s your family now?” Nika asked.

“Dead,” Grigory told her. “Everyone. My father, brother, and I all fought in the Great War. Alexei died, but Papa and I came home. Then, it was war with the Bolsheviks.”

“You’re a White?” Nika asked. “Like my parents?”

“I’m not anything. Red, White, it’s no matter. My father was a Cossack, and he was killed by the Reds. My mother and sisters starved, and I escaped. Now, I grow potatoes.”

On impulse, Grigory pulled a metal band from his pocket.

“This was my sister’s. It’s all I have left of my family,” he said rolling the band between his fingers. “I want you to have it.”

Nika’s eyes were wet as she put the large ring on her finger.

“Keep eating,” he laughed. “It will fit in no time.”

“Is it iron?”

“No, steel. It’s much stronger. There is an old proverb. ‘The same hammer that shatters glass forges steel.’ Have you heard it?”

“No.”

“The world needs more blacksmiths, and less broken glass, that’s what I think.”

“Can anything break steel?” Nika asked, admiring it.

Grigory nodded. “Hunger.”

The trees were bare, the wind off the Oka biting, signifying the end of autumn. On the way home from market, Grigory let Nika go ahead while he pulled the cart alone. The remaining potatoes were small and shriveled, making the load light.

He watched her run, swinging a stick, laughing. Her hair was longer and she had put on weight. She was hardly the girl Grigory had first brought home. He smiled.

At the end of the bridge, two guards approached, one grabbing her by the neck, shouting. Grigory dropped the cart and ran to her, his aching knee screaming.

“Officer,” Grigory said. “Perhaps I can help.”

“Perhaps you can,” the guard said.  He turned to Nika, tightening his grip. “Is this the man?”

“Yes,” she said. “This man is a traitor,” Nika pointed her stick at Grigory. “A fascist Cossack dog.”

“Well done, little one,” the guard said, then gestured to the man beside him. “Seize him.”

Grigory didn’t fight as the man took him by the arm. “Why, Nika?” was all he could say.

“Her name’s Anna,” the guard told him. “This girl has sniffed out more of you Whites than the Cheka. Good work, child.”

He saw no emotion on her face as he was dragged toward the palace, no sign she felt anything except the nervous twisting of the steel band on her finger.

______________________________________________________________

Daniel Link is a writer of flash fiction, short stories, and novels. He lives in Northern California with his wife, who supports him in his obsessive writing. Twitter: @DanielLLink

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Matisse’s Lens

By Bev Sandell Greenberg

                                                                                                                        Paris, 1905.

Back at their Montparnasse apartment, the newspaper review of her husband’s first exhibit makes Amelie grind her knuckles into her eyes. They’re sitting across from each other in stiff-backed, mismatched wooden chairs, a stained, threadbare cloth on the table, a tattered, multi-coloured rag rug on the floor.

“What were you thinking, Henri?” she wails, her face red and puffy. “I’ll be the laughing stock of Paris! Everywhere I go, people will point. ‘Look,’ they’ll say, ‘That’s Mme. Matisse, the model for that bizarre painting at the Salon D’Automne — the portrait with the purple, green and yellow face.’

Henri winces in silent agony. “It’s not about you!” he says. Annoyed with Amelie’s snivelling, he rests his eyes on a decorative plate hanging on the wall behind her. Years ago, his mother had painted the plate with a lively forest scene, an antidote against the leaden sky of Bohain where he grew up. Henri finds the plate soothing to look at.

“Do we have to talk about the exhibit now?” he asks, his stomach churning.

 Amelie heaves a jagged sigh. “But it’s me in the portrait. And the article talks about its ‘feral quality.’ Shouldn’t I be upset?”

The comment wounds Henri, makes him taste the bile in his throat.

“Look, how do you think I feel? This is about my skill as an artist or lack of it,” he says, his hands flying like birds. “People still want those dark shades — like the old Dutch Masters and their French counterparts. It’s 1905, but people still won’t accept bright colours in paintings.”

“It’s true,” Amelie says, her face looking pinched. “But how can we survive?” I bring in some money from my hats. I model for your paintings, so you don’t have to pay one. But there’s still not enough income to support three children!”

“What should we do?” he asks, removing his spectacles.

But no sooner does he say the words than he regrets them. Amelie might ask him to give up painting altogether. Practicing law could earn him money, but he always hated being a lawyer. He fell in love with painting during a year of recuperation after surgery for appendicitis and never returned to law.

But Amelie doesn’t answer his question. She tries another tactic. “You were hoping to sell at least one painting. How long can we go on like this? There’s only a little food in the pantry. Yet all around us, we have art on our walls by Cézanne and Gauguin. There’s even a bust by Rodin in the hallway.”

“It’s only plaster, not brass,” says Henri, “And not so loud! Rodin’s right next door, working in his atelier.

“I hope he hears me,” she says, her dark eyes burrowing into him. “Why did you get us into debt to buy those pieces? What did that accomplish?”

Il va sans dire. It goes without saying. Seeing the creations of these artists allows me to study their techniques and helps me develop my own. Whatever happens, we are not selling these pieces! Do you understand?”

Amelie looks daggers at him, then mumbles something under her breath, too softly for him to hear, as if she knows he won’t ask her to repeat it.

“Do you remember when we got married and I said I loved you, but adored painting more? Well, I have to persevere with it and keep improving!”

She rolls her eyes, then marches out of the room, her shoes clacking sharply on the floor. Henri pours himself a glass of wine and sips it slowly.

Amelie didn’t always behave this way. Her parents’ misfortune made her more anxious. They lost everything after their employer committed fraud and scapegoated them in an ugly trial. News of the case spread throughout France, causing Amelie and her family much embarrassment. It extended to Henri, making him strive not to attract undue attention by dressing like a businessman. As for Amelie, she became less trusting, bracing herself for the worst in every situation.

The stress from that court battle cost Henri two years in time, but now he’s painting again and very proud of his latest work. Not only has it captured his imagination, but he’s convinced that it’s bound to catch on with the public. For that reason alone, he can’t quit now —not when he’s close to a breakthrough. He’ll wait things out for as long as he can and try to make do for his family. If need be, he could always give art lessons. In any case, he mustn’t give up.

                                                               * * * * *

The next morning, Matisse wakes up early and enters his studio, a closet-sized room at the back of the apartment. Better to get started right away.

For fifteen minutes, he reads the poetry of Mallarmé to calm his mind before attacking the canvas. To Henri, poetry is like oxygen; the beauty of the words inspires him and heightens his mood as he starts off the day. He feels somewhat diminished by the fight and his insomnia, but vows not to let Amelie’s remarks deter him.

Today he’ll start a new painting of a window sill, seeking to enliven it with the images of plants that he had roughly sketched. Henri has been considering this painting n terms of the interior as well as the exterior and did charcoal drawings of various possibilities two days earlier. At this point, he must decide on the time of day for the scene — a choice that will influence the degree of light and intensity of the colours. He’d also like to introduce a pattern into the painting — maybe a jacquard design on the curtains or some textured markings on the pots. He also needs to consider the angle of the painting; he thinks it should appear off-kilter.

But Henri’s imagination is jumping ahead of him. He hasn’t even mixed the paints yet. Squeezing them out onto the palette always gives him a certain tactile pleasure. Soon he has blended several shades of green, pink and red. Combining the colours reminds him of mixing paints as a child at his father’s hardware store. Even now, inventing new shades excites Henri, feels like magic.

At that point, he dips his brush in the green paint and makes his first stroke on the canvas. The sight of that first dab of colour always fills him with awe. First there is nothing, then a soupçon of something dramatic. Even so, that sense of uncertainty never disappears, no matter how many paintings he has completed.

A few hours later, Henri goes into the kitchen for some paté, no one is home, the children at school, his wife with her customers.

How difficult Amelie can be at times, but what did she expect? He was already an artist when she married him. Still, her hat-making helps pay the bills and she is a good mother to their children. In fact, before he married her, she suggested raising Marguerite, Henri’s four-year-old illegitimate daughter. In that case, he needs to take Amelie’s complaints more seriously and set himself a deadline of sorts. His exhibit is almost over, and if he doesn’t earn any income soon, he may have to take on other jobs, like drawing copies of pieces at the Louvre, though he’d rather not.

* * * * *

Henri and Amelie maintain their mutual silence and the pattern repeats itself. Despite their problems, he rises early every morning, paints till lunch, then till dinner and afterwards, well into the evening. The time goes quickly and he gets an idea for a series of etchings to illustrate Mallarmé’s poetry. Henri is in his studio thinking about how to proceed when Amelie bursts through the door. What now?

She hands him an envelope addressed in a spidery scroll. It’s a bill, no doubt, one to add to the others. He rips open the envelope and finds a single sheet of thick, cream-coloured paper with embossed letters at the top. As soon as he reads the name Gertrude Stein, his pulse starts to quicken.

The letter, signed by Leo Stein, Gertrude’s brother, offers to buy “Woman with a Hat” for 1200 francs.

Henri’s initial optimism drizzles out of him; he was expecting to receive a better price. He shares this news with Amelie. But she doesn’t look downcast; her eyes are gleaming.

“What’s wrong?” says Henri, bewildered by her reaction. “Didn’t you hear the offer?”

“I did,” she says, “but we’re not going to accept it. We’re going to ask for more!”

“What? How can we do that?”

“Look, if we don’t try, he can’t say yes to paying more. On the other hand, he might say no, or buy the piece for his original offer.”

Henri heaves his shoulders. He can’t believe his wife’s gall. Nevertheless. she persuades him to ask for 2400 francs and he sends off the note.

                                                          * * * * *

They wait one day, two days. Then a letter arrives the following afternoon before Amelie gets home. Henri happens to be upstairs. His hand trembles slightly when he tears open the envelope.

It contains 2400 francs and a note asking Henri to bring the painting to Gertrude’s apartment at #27, Rue Fleurus. What a breakthrough! He’s heard that she holds an weekly open house there every Saturday. An invitation to this event might well lead to other opportunities, such as introductions to well-known artists, like Picasso. How thrilling it would be to meet him and discuss painting together!

But Henri shouldn’t get ahead of himself. He counts the bills just to be sure, a jolt of adrenalin coursing through his veins. He can scarcely believe what just happened, that their prayers have been answered. Now they can pay their bills and his paintings will start to command better prices.

When Amelie finally comes back, he shares the news. She’s happy enough about the money. She can now buy new clothes for Marguerite as well as some things for Pierre and Jean.

But Amelie doesn’t look as overjoyed as he thought she would. “You put me through a lot with that exhibit,” she says, her voice brittle. “And if not for me, you wouldn’t have gotten a higher price. But do you mention this? Not at all.”

Acid rises in the back of Henri’s throat. He didn’t expect these sharp words. He thought things would be improving between them.

She leaves the room abruptly and Henri decides to go for a walk to the market. He returns soon afterwards with a small parcel wrapped in paper.

Amelie is in the kitchen, cracking eggs. She is facing away from him when he enters the room, his hand behind his back to hide the parcel. He tiptoes up to her and firmly plants a kiss on her shoulder. Just as she turns to face him, he pulls out the parcel like a magician.

“Qu’est-ce que c’est?” she says, offering him a tentative smile.

“See for yourself!”

She unwraps the paper and finds a bouquet of violets. “Oh, they’re lovely! I haven’t gotten flowers for so long, not since you …”

He can’t resist finishing her sentence. “Not since I brought you violets every day for three weeks when we were first courting.”

“Oh Henri, I’m so touched that you remembered! Thank you,” she says holding out her arms. While they are embracing, Henri happens to glance over Amelie’s shoulder. Behind her lie the flowers on the kitchen table. The bold purple hue grabs his attention.

They should last at least a few days in the apartment. Maybe he’ll use their colour in his new painting of the windowsill. Come to think of it, that shade of purple would add a certain je ne sais quoi amid all the greenery.

______________________________________________________________

Bev Sandell Greenberg is a Canadian fiction writer, poet and critic whose stories have appeared in literary magazines, including Prairie FireThe Knight Journal, The Nashwaak Review and The Prairie Journal as well as in several anthologies. Her poetry has been published in journals; it has also been circulated on transit buses for the Poetry in Motion program and in an art exhibit entitled “Visual Poetry.” She is currently working on stories that re-imagine pivotal and ordinary moments in the lives of artists.

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