Category Archives: Historical Fiction

The Monarchy Revolution

By Abbey Serena

Forty-four years before Prince Albert draws in his final breath and sends the entirety of England into a period of mourning that lasts for the remainder of the century, a curse is placed upon the monarchy. What this curse is, and why it has come, none of the royals know. It comes in the form of a magic man—perhaps remnants of the Romantics, whose eyes would have glazed lovingly at the sight of him, for all of their opium-induced theories would have been proven true. This man is not altogether a man—and, for the sake of history, he is truthfully not real at all, except in his ability to rot certain aspects of the royals’ lives. He brings with him misery in the form of death. Queen Victoria said in her diary, after her assassination attempt on June 10, 1840, “Just before the 2nd shot was fired… or rather more while he fired, dear Albert turned towards me, squeezing my hand, exclaiming ‘My God! Don’t be alarmed.’” Why not alarmed? Why not fear for the end of a reign so filled with peace that not a single war was started, that the people stopped breaking their bones over their work, and that the monarchy was stabilized and expanded by the nine children for whom Victoria laboriously expanded and contracted her body? Why not be alarmed at the threat of an end? Prince Albert never told us, the readers of his German diaries and the scholars of history, why he commanded his wife, the Queen, to not be alarmed by death contained in a bullet.

Here, I must depart from you, reader, and have you choose for yourself if the cursed man was at fault for all of the wrongdoings that will happen forthcoming, or if the figures that I will portray should have taken responsibility for their actions. The question that I have for you, and that I’m certain Prince Albert posed within his own mind, is if fate interfered in the decades-long span of time in which this story takes place.

 * * * * *

The year was 1817, and the hour had grown so late that almost all of the light inside of the Palladian mansion, Claremont, was snuffed out. The young Prince Leopold doubted that anyone in the entire English nation slept tonight. Seated in an upholstered chair that had been placed out of the way of all of the people who rushed back and forth like ants raiding a basket of food and swiftly dodging death, Leopold stared straight ahead of himself at a portrait of a naked woman by an artist whose name he couldn’t recall. It occurred to him then that the female body was a strange, ugly, powerful weapon. They weren’t built for war, but they could both harvest life and destroy it using only their wombs.

The woman in the portrait reminded him of his own wife, Charlotte. Her hair was the same reddish-brown hue, and every tendril appeared like a flashing ribbon that she had tied to her crown like decorative ornaments. This nameless figure, too, was built with broad shoulders and a square torso. Her breasts—misshapen, pink-tipped lumps—pointed sadly down to a fat belly that might have been caused by pregnancy or tarts.

Everyone abruptly stopped moving. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed the door to the bedchamber where his wife was giving birth crack open. The figure that emerged was unsightly. He was a short man—no taller than the average woman—cloaked from head to toe in a wool coat. His back was slumped over and heavily knotted near his shoulder blades. A pomaded, white wig sat atop his head, the face of which nearly made Leopold cringe with its gruesome appearance. The man had two swollen flaps where his lips should have been, and his cheeks were furred with dark, coarse hair.

In the crook of the man’s arm was a swaddled bundle. Leaning on his cane, the man staggered over to Leopold and extended his arm without saying a word. Leopold dumbly held out his hands and the man placed his burden into them. Looking upward, Leopold examined the weathered, blackened skin and the silvery, damp eyes of the physician who had attended his wife during her labor. Looking at the bundle, he pushed back a swath of blanket and stared into the bluish, deathlike visage of his baby. Knowing from the silence that came from within the bedchamber that Charlotte hadn’t survived the birth, Leopold tilted his head back and gazed into the physician’s pale eyes. “What is to be done now?” Leopold, ever the strategist, whispered.

The good physician’s face flickered with interest, but still he remained mute. Seeing that he would receive no council from the man, he clutched his child against his breast and leaned his forehead into the heel of his hand. As water slid down Leopold’s cheeks, the physician turned and strode down the passageway. Between thumps of his cane, there came a steady tapping noise, as if he was wearing wooden shoes

* * * * *

In Belgium, Prince Edward, Duke of Kent, sat with his mistress at their breakfast table. He puffed on a cigar while Julie had for herself a plate of meat, eggs, bread, and sweets. Glancing at his companion, Edward exhaled heavily and reclined in his chair. Julie was a fine Frenchwoman, if not a bit theatrical. She was a jealous viper; she would never be outdone by another woman. On this morning, her dark hair was coiled atop her head and she wore a cambric gown that scooped up her breasts and thrust them upward. He loved Julie because she frequently asked him about the time that he had spent serving in the military.

Just as Julie finished her breakfast, someone knocked on the door. One of the staff hastened to answer it, and then appeared in the threshold of the breakfasting room. “My lord, a man comes with the post. He requests an audience with you in the parlor.”

“He does?” Edward asked with a crooked tilt to his eyebrows. He slanted a sardonic smile at Julie before rising. “I’ll see him at once!” As he followed his housekeeper toward the parlor, he wondered whatever a man bringing his post could want with him. He entered the room and found, sitting on his couch, a dreadful creature who made a poor excuse for a human being. Instead of rising and bending himself over into a bow, the man remained where he was and lifted his silvery gaze to the duke. He had in his lap a sack of letters. Edward, who realized that he had been staring at the strange-looking, old man, came forward and greeted him, “Good friend! Rise and bow to me, and then we’ll talk of whatever matters you seek to discuss with me.”

Putting his cane forward, the man stood and held out the sack. Edward fathomed that the man must have been stupid with age and simply took the letters without pressing him to bow again. Then the man gestured for his other hand. He took from his coat what appeared to be The Morning Chronicle, and he placed it in Edward’s free hand. Edward glanced down at the paper and pushed his mouth to the side of his face when he saw, printed on the cover, a headline that spoke of Princess Charlotte’s untimely death.

Edward looked back at the man, who nodded his head and shuffled past, his cane leaving dents in the rococo pattern on the rug. The housekeeper assisted the man out of the house, and as soon as Edward heard the front door close, he sank onto the couch. Peering closer at the paper, Edward realized that his father’s other relations were swiftly reacting to the news of the poor princess’s death and starting a race for the next heir. Edward snorted at the thought of his relatives chasing after young women still in their time of breeding. All of them were obese and balding. Even to have a taste of the royal line, many women would not subject themselves to such a fate.

Stroking his chin, Edward contemplated his mistress. They had been together for a long time. But on the other hand, he was still in his prime. It would be simple for him to find another woman, and if he managed to produce an heir to the throne, he’d be financially set for the rest of his life. For such a long time, Edward had been existing in and out of various states of debt. Surely Julie would understand.

As if his thoughts about her had summoned her, Julie appeared in the doorway, an apprehensive expression drawn onto her face. “What was that about?” She asked, her French accent lilting every word in that sweet way that he enjoyed.

“Ah, my dear girl! There was only a death in the English royal family. There are at least two of those every year, as you know. It is nothing to be worried about just yet.” He motioned for her to come to him, and like the affectionate woman that she always was, she floated over to him and propped herself upon his knee. To remove all of the worry from her head, he kissed her mouth and burned her cheek with his stubble.

* * * * * 

“Wait here.” Edward made a staying motion to his wife, Victorie, who wriggled backward on her seat in the carriage and stared at the back of his head as he alighted. A notch worried the space between her eyebrows. Making a little, sighing noise out of her throat, she rested her hands in her lap and looked down at the curved mound that had become her belly. They had waited far too long. She told Edward that they should have left for Kensington at least two months ago, but her stubborn husband had struck forth on a project to renovate several of the houses in Coburg.

Suddenly, the carriage door swung open again. A gust of wind rushed in and nearly blew off her cap. Tightening the strings, Victorie gazed at the man who stood in the doorway. He was half-concealed in shadow, and the little sliver of his face that she could see was matted with hair so thick that it almost appeared like animal fur. She stiffened. Where had her husband gone?

“What would you, sir?” She asked softly, her voice tainted with her German accent.

He stretched his hand out, his gloved fingers curled around a bit of paper. She took the paper and looked down at it. It was heavily folded and creased, as if it had spent the majority of its existence inside of someone’s clothing. She could feel the warmth of someone’s skin radiating from it, and there was a stain of sweat, though just a small one, on the corner. Looking back up, she frowned when she realized that she was alone once more.

Opening the paper, she read,

Madame,

            My heart yearns for you. The baby is almost due, and yet I am still with you.

            Yours,

            Prince Edward, Duke of Kent

Victorie’s eyelashes twitched as she contemplated the words contained within the scrap. Her hand smoothed over the curve of her belly. The baby inside rolled back and forth, just like the choppy waters over which they were trying to cross.

Edward entered the carriage again, rocking it as he took a seat across from her. Knocking the rain from his coat, he said in his loud, commanding voice, “Strange fellow, our coachman! He is silent, but efficient.” Without another word, he tipped his head back, pushed his hat down so that it covered his eyes, and, she assumed, tried to fall asleep.

Frowning deeply, Victorie leaned against the window and shut her eyes. Had she made a mistake to marry an Englishman? It was too late to have those sorts of thoughts. She had fixed her bed, and now she must lie in it, or so she thought George Herbert said.

* * * * * 

When Drina—later to take on her German roots and go by the name of Victoria—was seven-months-old, she spent most of her days chasing light across the floor. This day was no different than any other, and she remembered it with a distaste, remembered how suddenly her father had passed after this particular day. The little princess had been set down by someone—she couldn’t remember whose pair of arms that she had just been cradled in—and, upon seeing a cat streak across the floor and hunt down a moving stream of yellow that came in through the cracked window, Drina frantically pawed her way across the floor and sat herself down on the light. The cat, whose prey had just been squashed beneath the bottom of the new princess, gave her a stiff look and slinked off.

Peering downward, Drina was surprised to find that the beam of light had not been caught, but had slithered its way out and was now draped across her lap! She swatted her own leg. When her toy didn’t even give a shudder, she made a grumpy noise and flipped back onto her hands and knees. She began to prowl around again. Everywhere around her, people chatted and chortled at themselves as they drank their afternoon tea.

She poked her nose up and gazed at the faces of people that she didn’t recognize, and then the warm, dignified expression on her mother’s countenance. An old man was seated in a chair next to the lit hearth. She remembered him, remembered when her mother had scooped her up and plopped her on the man’s knee. Drina had giggled, thinking that it looked like his face was melting. She liked that old man. Even though her mother had chastised her, the old man had merely chuckled, rubbed her head, and dropped a bit of spittle on the ruffled collar that he kept tucked beneath his coat.

Padding her way through the booted feet and making sure that she wasn’t kicked, Drina kept looking up. Little did she know that she would continue having to look up for the rest of her life. Upon seeing her daughter, Victorie let out a delighted, cooing noise that was very flattering to Drina’s ears. Spinning around, she hobbled over to her mother, who bent and picked up the child. Suddenly, Drina was accosted with kisses and tickles.

“Baroness Lehzen, why is the child out of her nursery?” said a dark, masculine voice from across the room. Turning her head, Drina looked at her father, whose withered, pale face shone starkly against the tan-skinned, round-faced Germans who had taken over Kensington.

Another figure that Drina hadn’t before noticed stood from his chair by the window. Twisting in that direction, she glowered at her uncle, the Duke of Sussex. He was a frightening man, though as of yet, he’d never given her any true reason to dislike him. It was his wig. As he came over, he hunched against his cane and lumbered across the floor as if it pained him to move. His head was covered in an unwashed, tattered wig that smelled like mothballs and human sweat.

Realizing what the uncle intended to do, Victorie gripped her child tighter and said airily, “Oh, that’s all right, my lord. Drina is being good. Please, sit down and don’t trouble yourself with removing her.”

The only reply that he offered the duchess were his short breaths of air as he approached and bent for Drina. Smelling his wig, she began to squirm as he lifted her, supported her with one arm, and clung to his cane with his other hand. The tail of his wig fell over his shoulder and brushed against her neck, sending chills racing up and down her spine. As he took her from the room, she beat her fists against his chest and wailed so loudly that the next estate could have heard her, and yet her uncle wasn’t deterred by her tantrum. She found herself drifting farther and farther away from her mother, who remained seated, looking rigid, bewildered, and nervous all in one flittering expression.

As Drina was swept from the room, she noticed her mother glimpse over at her husband, who was leaning heavily against a wall, taking in shallow breaths. Not long ago, her father had bustled into the house, shouting, “There is a fortune teller! Will no one come with me and see this voodoo?” And when no one went, for fear of the dark magic that permeated the devilish sibyls who concocted those fortunes, her father went alone; when he came back later, he was much more sullen, his mouth turned downward. Drina overheard him say, “The sorceress told me that ‘This year, two members of the royal family will die.’” Drina didn’t know what it meant to die, but her father’s face suggested that it was perhaps an unpleasant experience. She didn’t think about these things until many years had passed, but, in that moment, she still felt a change in the air as she drifted next to the man who was already decaying within his own skin.

* * * * *

When the young queen was twenty-one-years-old, her husband, Prince Albert, took her out in a carriage for a trip through Hyde Park. She and her companion sat aloft on an elevated seat; with this being an open-carriage, Victoria had a full view of the park and the people that meandered through it. Many of them waved at her, happy grins sprouting on their faces as she and the handsome prince passed by. Several children, twirling long ribbons around, let out screeching laughter and chased briefly after the carriage. Victoria extended her hand toward them.

“Hello!” She called in a bright, melodic voice. Turning back around, she glanced at her husband, who had his hand cupped over his eyebrows. In his usual way, he studied the movement of the carriage beneath him, the way that it swerved around trees, but never tipped. Laughing softly, she asked, “Would you stop studying everything and enjoy the day?”

He flicked his eyes up to her and pressed a crooked smile onto his lips, and then went back to studying. Shaking her head, Victoria looked out again and gazed at a few Arabian horses in the distance. They were beautiful, wild creatures, their backs twitching as they learned to barely tolerate the saddles that were placed upon them.

A gunshot rang out and bounded off of each of the trees. Spooked, the horses bucked their heads and let out shrill whinnies. Looking to the right, Victoria squinted at a man who was holding a gun. Suddenly, Albert grabbed her arm in a grip that nearly hurt and thrust her downward. “My God! Don’t be alarmed!” He shouted.

Her whalebone corset wasn’t made to be flexed, and so it dug into her stomach, which was four-months swollen with life. Gasping, Victoria struggled against him and heard a scuffle from what seemed to be all around. When he let her back up, she immediately looked toward the gun-holding man and saw that he was on the ground, writhing beneath the bodies of several other men.

Her gaze flew to Albert, who was staring at her with eyes as large as saucers. In a matter of seconds, she was trapped against his chest, his heartbeat ricocheting through her entire body. Even though people were looking, she flung her arms around him, her bonnet loosening from her head and falling away.

Peering over Albert’s shoulder at the man, she felt a quiver in her very bones as she had a moment of recognition. It was like she had seen him somewhere, at some other period in her life. There, on the ground, was a man garbed in a thick coat, though it was an usually warm summer and even her lightest, linen dresses drew perspiration to her skin. His head was topped with a dark, thick-brimmed hat. His face, mostly concealed from her, was turned slightly so that she could see his chin, and on his chin was hair so coarse that it might have been peeled off of an Alaskan fox and attached to his chin with sticky pomade.

* * * * *

Would there be no peace for her yet? On the second of December, in 1861, Victoria perched on the sofa in the Blue Room, clasping a copy of Sir Walter Scott’s Peveril of the Peak. Tucking a length of hair behind her ear, she read softly to her husband, who had lie in his bed for weeks. She trembled a little as she held the book, occasionally looking up at Albert, whose brow was wrinkled with agony and whose skin was soaked with sweat. “What I wouldn’t give to see you well,” she whispered.

She existed in and out of consciousness for the next few days. Albert’s face became thick and puffy as he wasted away at the hands of a disease that she was certain the doctors were incorrectly diagnosing. They called it typhoid. Had it been typhoid, Albert would have been gone months ago, when he first began to complain about the pain in his stomach. He was starting to look how he did when she first met him; a young, lanky boy with a little bit of dough in his cheeks. She had fallen in love with that version of him, but she wasn’t sure if she wanted him back.

Come the ninth of December, Dr. Jenner exclaimed, “He is getting on favorably, thank God!” When Victoria entered the room, her heart pumping hard, she heard her husband mumbling to himself in French about war. As she looked sharply at the man that she had enlisted to save her husband, he assured her, “This is to be expected.”

On the eleventh, the middle-aged queen was awoken by her servants, who said that the doctors were asking if the children could come see their father. And at this point, she took up life in another world entirely and followed people around with a shuffling, stooped gait, and sat herself down by Albert’s bedside, becoming a piece of cold architecture. When hours went by and his rough breathing didn’t change, she started to get up, but he suddenly reached out and said desperately in a French-German-English combination, “Please don’t leave.”

Tears came to her eyes and burned her with their salt. “Give me this respite. I can’t stand to see you this way. I will be back.” Years later, she would regret leaving him just then, but as it was, she fled from the room and retreated to her own private space, where she was free to deny that her beloved husband was dying.

When he stopped taking as much air in later that evening, Victoria seemed to sense it through the very walls that separated them. She hurried back to her husband, brushing by a new doctor who had been brought in—this one dressed in a heavy coat, with a hat tipped down over his face. He carried beneath his arm a valise, and she nearly knocked it loose as she raced past him.

Entering the Blue Room, Victoria flung herself down by Albert’s bed and clutched onto his hand. “Est ist das kleine Frauchen,” she begged, returning to her German language, not realizing that she had returned to it. Albert, though his eyes were sealed shut and he was as still as a boulder, trembled his lips, just slightly, as if wanting to respond to her plea for kisses.

Someone touched her shoulder.

Whirling around, Victoria released a vulgar sound at the sight of the coated doctor, whose face was concealed beneath the brim of his hat. She thought she might have moved—maybe burst out of the room—maybe stayed where she was—she thought she recalled one of her daughters calling her back over to the bed—placing her hand within Albert’s. “Oh, this is death,” she whispered, “I know it. I have seen this before.”

And in the next few minutes, Albert inhaled several breaths, before exhaling deeply. His head tilted to the side, pressing into the feather pillow, and then he was quiet.

Sinking to the ground, Victoria let out several loud sobs and kissed all over her husband’s forehead, before the new doctor flung a sheet over him. Someone took her away from Albert, lifted her, and brought her into the Red Room. Her children were near her. One of them was in her arms. She pushed him away. She believed that it was Alfred. He looked too much like his father. He had his stern brow.

The year was 1861, and the hour had grown so late that almost all of the light inside of the heath stone castle, Windsor, was snuffed out.

______________________________________________________________

Abbey Serena is a senior at Bowling Green State University, where she studies Creative Writing and Scientific & Technical Communication. She is an editor on the staff of Prairie Margins and Mid-American Review, two national literary magazines. She has an upcoming publication in Ofi Press. Copperfield Review is her second publication.

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Last of the Minnesingers

By Andrew Stiggers

Diether swept the floor of the empty stage, bustling about with his broom in near darkness, the faint candlelight flickering from the side curtain as a draft played havoc offstage. It didn’t bother him – he was used to living in the shadows.

“Why are you sweeping?” a child’s voice called out.

He stopped and looked out to see a small boy sitting in the empty auditorium. The theatre doors should have been shut by now, he thought. “Why am I sweeping? Well, someone has to do the work.”

The boy nodded and smiled, his face lit up by the candles mounted along the walls towards the back of the auditorium.

“Listen, boy, tonight’s performance has finished. Why are you still here? Where are your parents?”

“Oh, don’t worry, I’ll leave soon and catch up with them.”

Diether had no time for children. He went back to his sweeping.

“Are you with the theatre troupe?” the boy called out again.

“No.” Diether brushed harder, facing the floor of the stage.

“What do you do?”

He stopped again and rested his hands on the top of his broom. Studying the smiling boy, Diether knew the lad couldn’t see him clearly on the darkly lit stage. “What do I do?”

Maybe he’s not so bad, Diether thought. Not like the others. He scanned around to make sure there was no one else in the auditorium. “Very well.” He placed the broom down on the stage, made a theatrical pose, his hands out in front of him, and took in a deep breath. “I am a minnesinger. I am –“

“What is a minnesinger?”

What is a minnesinger? I don’t believe it. What do they teach you at school nowadays?”

“Nothing about minnesingers.”

“Minnesingers were medieval singers – famous, noble poet-singers who played at all the German courts. They wrote and sang the most beautiful songs in this world.”

His family were descended from one of these minnesingers, and generation after generation had passed down the songs and taught each other how to sing them. It was the same for Diether – his father had shown him dozens of illustrated poems on ancient manuscripts and taught him the ancient way of singing. Diether learnt them quickly, even composing and singing his own lyrics. His father was astonished when he first heard him sing. You are truly a gifted minnesinger, my son. No one can take that away from you.

“So can you sing?” asked the boy.

“Of course – I am a minnesinger.”

“Will you sing a song for me?”

“Well…”

“Please?”

“All right, but just one song, and then afterwards you need to go home. What is your name?”

“Friedrich.”

“So, Friedrich, listen.”

Diether took his position centre stage – the flickering light still barely showing the outline of his figure – breathed in deeply… and sang. He chose a ballad in a melody created centuries ago, singing in High German with a rich, deep voice, slowly and in strict rhythm, rolling his tongue over each word, emphasising every hard consonant.

Fly high up and away, my sweet,

Through woods and hills and leas.

Fly with the nightingales,

Through all the kingdoms and the lands.

Fly to my soft, soft bed of grass,

And rest thine gentle head on me.

For you are mine, and I am yours, my sweet.

There was passion, emotion in Diether’s voice. Tears welled up. With such a depth of heart and feeling it was as if he sang with the voices of his father and the many generations of minnesingers before him.

The boy stood up on his seat and clapped loudly. “Wonderful!”

Diether took a bow.

He was happy the boy appreciated the song. If only everyone else did. He thought about the vulgarity and base humour of the play performed this evening. Diether had watched the audience’s reaction from behind the side curtain. The townspeople all laughed coarsely as the dwarf in an oversized black hat tried to prod the female actors with his droopy sword, before swigging beer and throwing food about and dropping his baggy trousers in front of the audience.

The House of Comedy, the new Freiburg theatre was called. Sadly, this was what the public wanted these days – to gawk and laugh at the bizarre and grotesque on stage.

Well, Diether was no buffoon. No Pickelhering, Hanswurst or Harlekin clown, or whatever the latest fad was. As his father had pointed out, he was a talented minnesinger, the last of their kind, but Diether had discovered no one wanted to listen to old songs of love any more.

“Right, you should go home now, boy.” Diether stooped down to pick up his broom.

“Could I hear some more?”

“You promised to leave.”

“Please, sir.” The boy stubbornly sat back down in his seat.

Perhaps there is still an audience for the minnesingers after all. “Wait there. I have an idea.”

He went backstage and rummaged through the wardrobe room. Diether normally wasn’t allowed back here. “Move out of my way,” one of the actors once said as she rushed in to get a change of costume during a performance. “You shouldn’t be here,” another said. “Get back to sorting out the props.”

He regarded the clothes and masks. His parents had always told him that it was all right to be different. It doesn’t matter what others think. Just be yourself, Diether. He’d really wanted to believe them. When he was a boy he used to dress up in fancy costumes like the ones hanging here, and try to play with the other children, pretending to be a real minnesinger. He’d thought he could impress them with his singing but it hadn’t made any difference. They still teased him and threw stones at him.

Returning to the stage dressed in a knight’s uniform and wearing a half-visor helmet, Diether discovered that Friedrich had moved to the front row of the auditorium. The boy was swinging his legs beneath the seat in excitement.

Diether stood to attention as he addressed the auditorium and set the scene. “My noble lords, ladies … and Friedrich … I want you to cast your mind back to the past, to the Middle Ages, to a time when the great cathedrals were being built and the Crusades were being fought.”

The more Diether talked and gestured, the more he edged towards the front of the stage and further into the dim light of the auditorium, feeling confident behind his visor.

“I am Meister Diether von Freiburg, one of the world’s greatest minnesingers. Having returned from Jerusalem as part of the Emperor’s entourage, I have travelled from court to court through all the Teutonic lands, reciting myths and legends, telling of the glories of the German people and winning every singing contest thrown at me.”

Friedrich clapped again.

The knight dramatically slumped his shoulders and looked down at the stage floor. “But I am now sad.” He peered up at Friedrich through his visor, waiting for a prompt.

“Why so, Meister?”

“For I have not found my lady love, the woman of my dreams – my muse. It is my greatest hope one day to meet her, and woo her with my tales.” Diether gestured to the imaginary audience. “Do you wish to hear one of those tales?”

“Yes, Meister.” Friedrich’s legs swung wildly under his seat.

“Very well. Imagine the ancient lands of Franconia and Swabia –” Diether held out his hands “– and let us begin.”

* * * * *

There once was a knight who traversed the lands on horseback, travelling far and wide. One day he stopped at the side of a road, alongside a hedgerow full of flowers, and heard a voice.

“Are you lost, Sir Knight?”

He surveyed around but could not find where the voice came from.

“May I help, Sir Knight?”

He looked down at his feet and saw a badger at the entrance to a hole beneath the hedgerow. “No, I do not think a badger can help me.”

“Try me.”

“Very well. Every year I make my way to see a lady at her tower, hoping to profess my love to her. I see her on her balcony, combing her long, fair hair, but before I dare call out to her I become afraid and leave the tower. I then travel far and wide for a whole year until I have mustered enough courage to try again.”

“Why are you afraid, Sir Knight?”

“I am beneath her station. I am but a mere, lowly knight and I am fearful of her rejecting my advances.”

“But you do love her?”

“Yes, with all my heart.”

“Then do not be afraid. Love is within us all, regardless of our station, of who we are in this world. She may love you too. Talk to her, woo her and you shall find out.”

The knight knelt down and smiled at the badger. “You are right, badger. You have helped me.”

“Be brave, Sir Knight, and go. Go to your lady.”

* * * * *

Love is within us all.

Friedrich clapped again, standing on top of his chair.

Diether stared at the empty auditorium. He really did dream of finding his one true love – an impossible dream, he knew. He imagined her, red hair with rosy cheeks, adorned in a golden dress, sitting on a stone bench surrounded by flowers.

“Can I be a minnesinger, Meister?”

“Well …” Diether scratched the top of his helmet, pretending to think. “You must be of noble blood. Are you?” The boy eagerly nodded. “Yes, of course you are. Come and stand next to me.”

Friedrich clambered up onto the stage.

“You must first swear a pledge. You must pledge to bring joy and happiness to all. Do you so swear?”

“I swear.”

“Good. Remember: the minnesinger always sings about honour, duty, nature, but most of all – and this is very important – he sings about love.”

“Yes, Meister.”

“Next you need to learn how to stand and project your voice. Here, like me… That’s right. Now let’s hear you roar.”

“Roar?”

“Absolutely. Like this … Roar!”

The boy laughed and then he tried. “Roarrrr!”

“Excellent. You’re now ready to recite some poetry.”

“But I don’t know what to say.”

“Just use words such as bliss and happiness and fair maid. Go on, you’ll be fine.”

“I … You bring mesuch happinessmy fair maid.”

“Very good, but you have to put more of yourself into the words – be more expressive. Again.”

You bring me so much bliss and happiness, my fair, lovely maid.”

“That was wonderful. We will make a minnesinger out of you yet, young man.” Diether patted him on his back. “Now stand here at the front of the stage and face the audience. Good. Imagine a packed house with the whole audience all sitting on the edge of their seats, waiting on your every word, on every gesture you will make.” Diether smiled.

The boy stood with puffed up shoulders, legs apart.

“Apprentice, stand straight, stand proud, for you are the last of the minnesingers. You have sung well – for Germany and your one true love.”

A ray of light from the auditorium entrance shone directly through Diether’s visor and momentarily blinded him. “Now take your bow with me.”

The audience.

Diether could see them all. His fellow minnesingers – poet-musicians from across the German lands. They were there to congratulate him and cheer him on. His patron the Emperor, sitting on his throne, waving his hand. The King of Bohemia holding his trusted falcon. Herr Dietmar von Aist, together with his lady wife, clapping in the front row. The dukes of Anhalt and Brandenburg looking up at him as they played chess to one side of the auditorium. Walther von der Vogelweide smiling, a large white feather on his hat, a peacock in full fan up above him on the balcony. And Count Conrad von Kilchberg, gloriously adorned in golden antlers. All in their flowing robes with crowns and swords, some holding pipes or lutes or drums. Even Tannhäuser was there at the back of the auditorium in his white hooded robe, a black cross emblazoned on his chest, standing next to several horses tied to a post.

“Do you see them too, Friedrich?” Diether whispered as he stood straight and dignified before taking his final bow, the stage light madly flickering and then fading to black.

* * * * *

The candle lit up again.

“There you are, Friedrich. Your mother and I have been searching everywhere for you.” The boy’s father had returned to the theatre.

“The minnesinger was showing me how to sing.”

“What minnesinger?”

“Why, the man next to me on the stage.”

The boy turned round. The knight was gone.

* * * * *

After placing his broom away, Diether went to the wardrobe room where he hung up the costume. On his way out he passed a mirror and caught sight of his reflection. A disfigured face riddled with lumps and bumps, a grossly enlarged forehead, and one partially closed, swollen eyelid stared back at him.

He’d been a beautiful boy when he was first born, his mother had said, but then it all changed, getting worse year after year. I’m sorry, son. Fleeing from all the boys and girls who threw stones at him, hiding at home, finding work that nobody else wanted to touch – reduced to sweeping the darkly lit, empty stage in front of an empty audience, and always alone.

Before leaving the backstage of the theatre he sang quietly to himself, For you are mine, and I am yours, my sweet, and then blew the candle out.

______________________________________________________________

Andrew Stiggers is a short story writer. Born in Paris, France, he has lived overseas including in Hong Kong, Singapore and Cameroon. He studied English Language and Literature at the University of Reading in the UK. His short fiction has been published in a number of anthologies, and his achievements include being the Winner of the 2017 Global Ebook Awards (Short Stories/Essays category), Winner of the Trisha Ashley Award 2017 for best humorous story, a Finalist for the Tasmanian Writers’ Prize 2015 and an Honourable Mention for the Writer’s Digest Writing Competition 2016. He was also a recipient of a New Zealand Society of Authors Mentorship in 2015.

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The Child Pilgrim

By Lisette Merry

The Vikings’ blood lust continued. And when spring arrived in 852, King Aethelwulf decided that if he were to stem the tide of their raids, he must remain at home.

The King was deeply disappointed. For it meant, that for the time being at least, he would not be able to fulfil his lifetime ambition of making his own pilgrimage to Rome. And a pilgrimage would have to be made now. For it had become a diplomatic necessity. So if he could not go, who would he send in his stead?

The King sat alone in his chambers with the Abbot of Ferrieres’ letter in his hand, and contemplated this question. He considered, in turn, each of the thegns, warriors and eminent clergymen in his court. They were all loyal and pious men, and therefore suitable to represent him to Pope Leo IV.  But one, by one, he dismissed them all. For he believed that God wanted him to send someone of his own blood. And, as he searched his heart, God provided him with the answer to his question. It was his youngest son, four year old Prince Alfred.

The King put down the letter, and smiled. God’s answer did not surprise him, for Alfred despite his tender years was already wise. And not only wise …..What a phenomenal memory he had too! He had seen it for himself just two weeks before, when Alfred had recited the entire ‘Book of English Poems’ to him and his wife Osburh. The book was a favourite of Queen Osburh, and she had asked Alfred to learn it and then recite it to her.

King Aethelwulf closed his eyes and pictured the scene again in his ‘mind’s eye’….. When Alfred had arrived he had told them both that he had learned the poems by listening to his tutor recite each one. And, once he had heard the poem, he recited it back. In this way he had memorised all of them.  Alfred, he remembered, had then handed him the book, and he had silently read the poems as Alfred had recited them ….. He had been word perfect!  Osburh knew all of the poems by heart, and he remembered seeing tears of joy in her eyes as she witnessed Alfred’s accomplishment.

And there was more evidence of God’s work in the way that Alfred had thrived at court. ……Hadn’t he been so impressed by Alfred’s abilities that he had arranged for him to be at his side whilst he conducted his kingly duties?

The King knelt down and bowed his head in prayer. God be praised for these your blessings on my son Alfred.  Thy Will be done this day and always.  Amen.

                                                                            * * * * *

Early next morning King Aethelwulf summoned Lothart, his Frankish secretary, and instructed him to make all the necessary arrangements for Alfred’s pilgrimage.

It was customary for Kings to request permission to travel through another King’s lands, and after he had dismissed Lothart, King Aethelwulf wrote just such a letter to his ally, King Charles the Bald of Francia. In it he asked that Alfred’s presence was kept between themselves, so as not to attract unwanted attention. And when he received King Charles’ consent to his request, just a few days later, he allowed Alfred’s pilgrimage to proceed.   

 * * * * *

 Four year old Alfred stood on the ship’s deck and watched the sailors work. When they had finished, the crew lined up ready for Captain Eastelwelf inspection. As he completed it he nodded his approval, and ordered them to weigh anchor.

Alfred could not wait to be underway. What an adventure this is! He thought, as he gazed out across the water.     

Lothart stood beside him and followed his gaze, but he turned to look at Alfred as he suddenly exclaimed

 ‘Look Lothart! The sun beams are lighting the water and making the sea sparkle.’

 ‘Indeed they are, my lord.’

‘The sea is calm today.’ Alfred continued in a quieter voice. ‘It is a sign that God blesses our pilgrimage.’

‘Yes, my lord of that I have no doubt,’ he replied.

Whilst they had been talking the crew had cast off, and Alfred watched Captain Eastelwelf turning the ship’s wheel as the crew began to unfurl the sails. Now Alfred could feel the ship moving forward, and he clasped his hands together with excitement. My pilgrimage has begun! He thought

Alfred wanted to go to the bow of the ship, but he knew that would be unseemly, and so he forced himself to stay where he was, and instead, he looked across the deck at the men in his entourage. Alfred knew them all as ‘King’s men’ which meant they had all personally sworn their loyalty to his father…….. And here they are, standing together on the deck, dressed in their fine courtly vestments. They look a little out of place.  Alfred thought, and then he smiled. Probably as I do myself……

He looked at each man in turn. There was Aethel, his bodyguard, who was at this moment, thanking the sailor who was collecting his luggage to stow below deck. And as he watched more sailors arrived to collect luggage from the two men standing next to him, Aetheldrum, the King’s physician and Ceoloth, the eminent clergyman. And then Alfred saw more sailors come over to collect luggage from the rest of his entourage, who were seven high ranking court officials, and thegns of Wessex.

Captain Eastelwelf shouted orders to his crew, as he turned the ship’s wheel and brought the vessel ‘about’. With the manoeuvre completed, he then ordered the crew to pull in the sails and once the ship was moving forward he ordered them to ‘close haul’ the sails to increase the ship’s speed through the water.

With the wind and tide in his favour, Captain Eastelwelf made port at Etaples-sur-Mer, on the northern coast of France by early afternoon.

* * * * *

As soon as the ship dropped anchor, the pilgrims stepped confidently ashore. They gave thanks to God for their safe voyage, and afterwards Lothart went into the quayside market to purchase a pack mule to carry King Aethelwulf’s gifts. And when all was ready, the pilgrims set off along via francigena, towards their first place of rest, St Judoc. 

                                                                            * * * * *

It was Aethels who caught sight of him first, standing at the open door to the monastery. Aethels could not believe his eyes!  And he closed them for a moment and then opened them again, just to check…..but his eyes had not deceived him… it was Abbot Lupus. Straightaway he passed the word on to the others, and they talked excitedly amongst themselves in hushed voices about the renowned clergyman. As they drew closer, Abbot Lupus stepped outside with his arms outstretched to them in greeting. His welcome warmed their hearts, and it was not long before Alfred felt able to ask him if they could meet.

‘Of course, Prince Alfred,’ he replied. ‘We shall speak presently.’

‘Thank you, your eminence’ Alfred said. ‘I will ask Lothart to accompany me, if you are agreeable.’

‘Certainly,’ he replied.

                                                                          * * * * *

 In the letter he wrote to the King later that evening, Lothart reported all the events of that day. Lothart wrote that the meeting had been a ‘resounding success’, and that Abbot Lupus had been delighted by Alfred, and by the King’s gift of lead for the roof of his abbey, and so much so that he had blessed Alfred’s pilgrimage, the King and his people.   

 

                                                                         * * * * *

And the lead was just the first of many gifts that Alfred would present to the Church on his father’s behalf. King Aethelwulf was a pious and generous man. He had ordered that gifts were to be given to the abbot of each of the monasteries in which the pilgrims rested on their journey. His gifts were all magnificent gestures of his generosity. But even so, or so it seemed to Alfred, each gift appeared to be slightly grander than the last one had been.

However there was still a wonderful surprise gift awaiting them all. And not even Alfred could have predicted how magnificent King Aethelwulf’s gift would be for the last monastery they rested in at Pavia. The gift was a crucifix made of 24 carat gold, and it was decorated with four rubies the size of hen’s eggs. It stood as tall as Alfred, and when the time came for him to present it to the Abbot of the monastery, Rudolpho, Alfred had to ask Aethel and Lothart to help him lift it.  The Abbot was overwhelmed with joy when he received it, and when he found his voice, he blessed the King, his people, and Alfred’s pilgrimage.

                                                                       * * * * *

Alfred and Lothart stood side by side on the flat roof of the monastery where the pilgrims were resting. The monastery was built beside St Mary’s Church, in the Schola Saxonum district, and from their vantage point they had a wonderful view of Rome.  

The noon day sun beat down upon them. It was so hot, that Lothart had to take off his velvet hat, and they both had to shield their eyes from the glare as the sun’s rays lit the buildings clad in white marble all around them.   

Alfred thought about his father, and what he had told him. His father had been right, Alfred thought. Pope Leo IV was a man of great vision and ability. He had seen that now for himself. The evidence was everywhere. The Holy Father had repaired and replaced the marble cladding so that the buildings now ‘shone white’ in the sunlight again….And there was so much more…..Hadn’t he also restored the eighteen city gates to their former glory? And Alfred smiled as he remembered the magnificent gate through which he had entered Rome.  And here, before him now he could see the wall that Pope Leo IV had ordered to be constructed to enclose Vatican Hill.

                                                                     * * * * *

Alfred stared at St Peter’s Basilica. He was spell bound by its size and beauty. And the spell was only broken by a papal guard as he tapped him gently on the shoulder, and ushered him inside.

As Alfred walked behind the papal guard he took in every detail of the splendour of his surroundings…. Even when he saw the imposing figure of Pope Leo IV waiting to greet him, attired in his full papal vestments, Alfred was not overwhelmed. The Pope, for his part, was deeply impressed by the young Prince. He smiled at him as he approached, and he placed his hand on Alfred’s shoulder as they walked together to the altar. It was here that Alfred knelt before the Pope, and bowed his head as the Holy Father anointed him to confirm him. And Alfred remained kneeling as he announced to the congregation……

‘I will write to Prince Alfred’s father King Aethelwulf of Wessex, and inform him of all that has passed here today. I confirm that from this time forth Prince Alfred of Wessex, is by God’s Grace, my godson, and confirmed as a member of God’s Holy Church. I also appoint Prince Alfred a Consul of Rome.’ 

Lothart sat with the congregation and noted down everything. He would use his notes in the letter he would write to the King later that night.

                                                                    * * * * *

In the days that followed his audience with the Pope, Lothart escorted Alfred to all of the buildings in Rome that the Pope had recommended for Alfred to see. Lothart was fascinated by the size of Rome, and stunned by its magnificence, as was Alfred.

Every building brought new wonder, and when they first looked upon the Coliseum, Lothart had to hold his hand against his chin to stop his mouth from dropping open. And when he looked at Alfred’s reaction he found him staring at the Coliseum, with eyes that were wide with wonder. Lothart smiled, and looked back at the Coliseum, and there they stood in silence until Alfred found his voice, and said.

‘The building is so tall and wide…. Each stone is bigger than ten men standing shoulder to shoulder…It must be very heavy. How does the building stand?’

Lothart was impressed by Alfred’s perception.

‘The stones are held together with a substance called mortar, my lord.’  .

‘Do we use it in Wessex?’ Alfred asked.

‘We use it, yes, when we build with stone, my lord…. But we mainly build with timber,’ Lothart replied.

They toured the Vatican City, and the churches that the Pope had recommended. In each of them the priests proudly showed Alfred their church’s collection of Holy relics. Alfred was fascinated.

‘I shall collect relics,’ he told Lothart later. ‘For they are holy things that Jesus touched….and his Apostles too. They are in the Bible.’

‘Indeed my lord.

‘When I am grown I will ask the Holy Father if I might have some of them to keep by me always in Wessex. I hope he will agree.’  Alfred said.

‘I am sure he will my lord,’ replied Lothart, and he quickly brushed a tear from his eye, so moved was he by Alfred’s piety.

 * * * * *

Once they had completed their tour of Rome, Lothart gathered the pilgrims together for their journey home. And as soon as they had finished packing their belongings, they knelt and prayed together.

And their prayers were answered, for they arrived home safely in the early spring of 854, barely a year after their departure.

                                                                             * * * * *

King Aethelwulf, Queen Osburh, and their family gathered together with the king’s court for Easter that year at Wilton.  

With so many important individuals gathered together under one roof, King Aethelwulf took the opportunity to attend to his most pressing diplomatic duties. And therefore everyone soon knew of the diplomatic triumph that Alfred’s pilgrimage had been for the Royal House of Ecgberht. 

As soon as King Aethelwulf had completed his work, Queen Osburh went over to where Alfred was sitting and talked to him about his pilgrimage. Their lively conversation soon attracted the attention of the prestigious Ealderman Hereberht and Ealderman Wulfhere, who were landowners in Wiltshire, and they asked Queen Osburh if they might join their conversation.

‘Of course gentlemen,’ Queen Osburh replied, and soon they were also listening to Alfred’s fascinating recollections.  Alfred was delighted to see their eyes widen with amazement as he recounted in detail everything he had seen and done there. Alfred particularly enjoyed the moment when they sat in silent wonder as he repeated from memory everything that Pope Leo IV had said to him.

* * * * *

When the court gathered in the King and Queen’s presence later that evening, Ealdermen Hereberht and Wulfhere praised Prince Alfred, saying that they had both been encapsulated by his phenomenal memory of his pilgrimage.

The King’s court were soon agreed. The child Prince Alfred was exceptional, and he had clearly been chosen by God for greatness.

______________________________________________________________

Lisette Merry has always found history fascinating. She has a number of favourite historical periods including the life and time of King Alfred the Great.  She lives in Kent, England with her husband.

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The Visionary Librarian

By Michael Bloor

January 1st, 1781

I do not fully know my reasons for setting down this record of past events. I have studied the works my great contemporary, David Hume, and I therefore no longer cleave to the kirk and to the faith of my fathers. Yet the purging of what others call my soul, penitence, and the striving for a moral life, they all remain a habit with me. Furthermore, I have a strong presentiment that I shall not live out this winter. These days of bitter chill may be my last opportunity to reveal my hidden crime and to state my case, not to the Maker in whom I no longer believe, but perhaps to my better self – the self who always seeks but never finds, who can carefully shape a principle but cannot always live by it. If others should find this manuscript after I am dust, may they read it and know that even a puir body can try to do his duty.

I have taught the school in the parish of Inverallan for thirty seven years and I trust I have discharged that duty honourably, though no Inverallan weaver’s or ploughman’s bairn has joined the ranks of David Hume, Adam Smith, William Robertson, and William Fergusson – the Philosopher-Kings of Scotland and all Europe. However, the Inverallan dominie has a further duty yet – a duty greater, I believe, than that of schooling the Inverallan bairns – I refer to my duty as Keeper of the Books. A hundred years since, the Inverallan laird bequeathed his library of two hundred volumes (together with a respectable sum for their upkeep) as a free library to all men and women who wished to borrow them. When the old minister, Mr MacKellar, informed me of my appointment and showed me the library that was to be in my charge, I could conceive of no duty under the sun that could be more pleasurable. I was not to ken then the rue that would come to me.

In the early years of my charge, Inverallan and the surrounding parishes were in a sorry state. The laird had declared for Prince Charles Stuart, and when the laird is for a cause then the tenants have little choice but to follow. Two score of men had marched off with the laird, my elder brother Alexander among them. Only three lads limped home. At first, we had good news of Alexander. It seemed that he had distinguished himself in the field at Preston Pans and, when the laird fell ill and was left behind in Edinburgh, Alexander took charge of the laird’s men on the march into England. On the retreat from Derby, Alexander was detailed to be part of the garrison the Prince left in Carlisle. After that we heard nothing. Cumberland’s army marched through our parish on their way to Culloden: they fired the laird’s castle and drove off all our cattle and our remaining horses.

It was in February 1752, a time of want and bitter cold, that I had more news. In the late evening there was a tapping at my window, but the pane was so frosted over that I could not see out. I took up my lantern and opened the door. A tall figure, muffled in a cloak stood before me. There was a bright moon, but his face was shadowed by his hat.

‘They tell me our parents are both dead.’ It was Alexander. I dropped the lantern; we embraced.

I fed him some porridge and spirits and studied him as he ate and drank. To my surprise, he seemed hardly changed, for all his seven-year absence. Only his rich, travel-stained clothes spoke of a difference. He told me bits and pieces of his story: it seemed that in the ’45 several men had died at his hands; more recently, he been in France in the service of the Stuarts, but Scots were no longer welcome there; he had used the last of his money to pay the ‘freetraders’ (as our smugglers are commonly called) to land him near Kirkcaldy; he had travelled to Inverallan only by night, there being a price on his head. But rather than talk over-much about himself, he had the charming ability to draw out the talk of others:

‘Well, Jamie lad, you’re quite the scholar now. I see on the table that “Lock’s Works” is your present study eh?’

‘Philosophy is only one of the subjects to be found in The Free Library, Sandy. There are books on geography, history, theology, and mathematics, translations of Ovid and Virgil, maps, collections of sermons…’

‘Yon is a strange conceit, is it not? to make a pile of your books, some of them doubtless worth a year of our faither’s labour. And then offer them up to any passin’ ploughboy that has a fancy for them?’

‘Each ploughboy, as you put it, must sign for each volume that he borrows. But Sandy, I don’t think you’ve grasped the wonder of the thing. They come here from their fermtouns and weavers’ cottages, limbs stiff after a hard day’s labour, walking miles through the sleet and the glaur. They carry back with them Shakespeare’s Sonnets to read by the ill light of their cruisie lamps. And that is their taste of Rhenish wine and honey cakes, their bed of goose down, their transport to Samarkand. With a book in his chapped hand, every ploughboy is an equal of the Duke of Argyll and the Marquis of Breadalbane. This free library is a growing light in a dark world, Sandy.’

‘Pish, Jamie. Your ploughboy is a duke’s equal (mention not that damned Argyll to me) in the alehouse, wi’ a tankard in his hand and a maid on his knee. What need of books, when you’ve left the schoolroom?’

In my eagerness to convince Alexander, I fetched the Borrower’s Register to show him. As he turned the pages, he murmured: ‘Well, well, Andra Comrie borrows Abercrombie’s Sermons. I thought him dead on the field at Falkirk.’

Seizing on this sign of interest, I lent over his shoulder to point out one of old Peter Reid’s borrowings. Alexander frowned: ‘I never marked Auld Peter as a scholar, Jamie. Does he have a daughter or a granddaughter who would read to him?’

‘He died last Lammas, Sandy and he’d lived alone up at Loanhead these four years. It’s my guess that the old man sought and loved the nearness of books. Perhaps his was the delight of the adventurer who trembles at the threshold of the treasure chamber…’

Alexander snorted, but I persisted – a man who lives too much alone with his thoughts: ‘I fancy that old Peter’s pleasure in his borrowings is like my pleasure in this library. I am surrounded by more books than I can ever read, surrounded by more knowledge than I can ever glean, more wisdom than I can guess at. Surrounded thus, I’m not daunted, I tremble with pleasure.’

I paused, embarrassed. Alexander gave me a long look and spoke softly: ‘Jamie, I have need to borrow a pile of your books… Indefinitely.’ I stared. ‘There’s a bounty on my head. I know of a vessel at the Broomielaw in Glasgow that will carry me to a new life in the Carolinas. For a price. Your books are as good as ready currency.’

My elder brother faded before my eyes and a simulacrum took his place. The brawling spirited lad I had idolised, and run after, was vanished like snow off a dyke. I recalled my mother’s sorrowing judgement: that Alexander was like a cherry, sweet to taste but with a stone at his centre. Before me was the callous gallant who had left his parents to fret and go to their graves thinking him dead on a battlefield, who had fawned and intrigued for place and favour in foreign courts, and who had only returned briefly to his native Scotland to profit from, and ruin, his brother’s position of trust. Worst yet, he would pillage the free library – the library that is, and should remain, a hope and consolation in a wretched world.

Every schoolroom is a stage for the dominie to strut and strike a pose. It was now my turn to dissemble and fall in with Alexander’s plans. We made up his bed, despite his faint protestations (‘I’m an old campaigner, Jamie – the heather has oft times been bed enough for me’) and fixed that he would stay hidden with me the next day, departing in the dusk with his booty of sixteen books (more than he needed for his fare, I’ll warrant).

That next day, I watched him take the less-frequented moorland road. I marvelled at how he hardly bent his back, shouldering the coarse linen sack of books. When he was past the castle ruins, I grabbed my hat and walked over to the manse, to beg the loan of the minister’s mare (I was still a communicant in those days and a member of the kirk session). I then took the military road to Stirling. I had slow progress over the half-frozen snow and dawn was breaking when I reached Stirling Brig. Mares’ tails of mist were twisting over the River Forth, which Alexander had to cross to gain the Glasgow road. I had the Brig sentry call up the Sheriff’s Officer, an old pupil of mine, to whom (in confidence) I told my tale.

After resting the horse, I turned for home and only heard the end of the story a week later. Samuel Haldane, the Sheriff’s Officer, came by to return the linen bag of books. I sat him down at the fireside and poured him a glass. He told me that Alexander, as he’d surmised, had been too canny to try to cross the brig: Haldane had put a concealed watch on the upstream ford and his men had taken Alexander there by surprise. However, as the party were marching back to Stirling, Alexander had slashed at one man with a concealed dirk, broken away and ran for the river. Whether the pursuers’ musketry had been successful, or the cold of the river had overcome Alexander, Haldane was unable to say, but Alexander’s body was seen to be borne away by the current, down to the sea.

Haldane could see that his news had pierced me. He rose and laid a hand on my shoulder: ‘Mr Robertson, your brother Alexander was well-kent in all this countryside from Stirling to Crieff, even before The Rebellion. He was too wild a man for these New Times.’

Though Haldane’s words were some comfort to me, mine is nevertheless the sin of Cain. But I did not commit fratricide merely to repossess a bag of books. Rather, I would claim that I sinned for a great principle, the principle of free knowledge. I have served that principle (not always constantly, but as best I can) for thirty seven years. And, if I could still pray, I would pray that the light of Inverallan library would shine out across all Scotland and the whole wide world.

______________________________________________________________

Michael Bloor is a retired sociologist living in Dunblane, Scotland, who has recently discovered the exhilarations of short fiction. This story was written as an homage to the wonderful Innerpeffray Library, founded as a free library in 1680s.

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Manassas

By Bruce Bullen

A young man dressed in a butternut uniform and carrying a rifle is looking out my window, waiting for Yankees. He was standing in my bedroom when they brought me up. There were others like him at the windows on the first floor. I guess they thought we had left for good and wouldn’t be coming back. I know that John and Ellen meant well. They wanted to move me out of harm’s way, so when the shooting quieted down a bit they carried me downstairs with Lucy Griffith’s help and took me to the spring house. I was holding on to the sides of the mattress trying to keep from rolling off the whole way. When we got there I told them I couldn’t bear to leave my house after so many years. The sound of the guns and the smell of smoke were as bad at the spring house as they were up here. I begged and begged until they took me back home.

I’m just an old woman, frail and sickly. I live in Henry House on Henry Hill. Their real names are Spring Hill Farm and Spring Hill. We never say Henry House or Henry Hill, but that’s what people around here like to say. I’ve lived on the farm for close to forty years, and there isn’t a more beautiful piece of property in the Commonwealth to my way of thinking. The farm itself has been fallow for years, cedar and pine are taking over, but the pastures dip as gracefully as always, the catbirds mew, and the scents are fresh, or at least they were until the shooting started.

It’s hot today, it has been for days, and the noise is enough to make you deaf. I’ve been bedridden so long I don’t remember the farm in summer. I’ve lost track of everything but the sounds. I hear the birds, the wind, and Ellen’s voice when she’s outside tending to things. Now, the familiar sounds are gone.

We heard guns in the distance at 5:30 this morning. I was dreaming of my Althea flowers, my pride. Some call them Rose of Sharon. The guns startled me and I woke up. Every so often a hunter comes by, but these guns weren’t hunting guns. The din was like nothing I ever heard before, and it kept up all morning. I could see that John and Ellen were upset. They kept running back and forth to my bedroom from the first floor asking if I was all right, talking to each other about what to do, thinking that I couldn’t hear them. What is it, I said? What is it? Yankees, they said.

I don’t fear the Yankees. My husband, Isaac, was a Yankee, and I’ve always been comfortable up north. It’s been a long time since Isaac died, 1829, not long after we moved here. We didn’t get to enjoy it together long. After Isaac died, I tried keeping up the farm, raised the children, and tended the garden, but it wasn’t the same without him.  My daughter, Ellen, lives with me now and has been such a help. My son, Hugh, is here when he isn’t at school. My son John happens to be visiting, while Hugh is away. I hired Lucy, a neighbor’s slave, to help Ellen with the chores, since I’m such a burden. Everyone is so worried and anxious, pacing about and wringing their hands. The soldiers tell me that I should leave because it’s too dangerous, but I’m not leaving again. I’m staying put no matter what happens. I worry about John and Ellen though, and of course Lucy.

The railroad junction is why they’re fighting. The RF&P line runs from Richmond to the Potomac –  the link between North and South, some say. That “link” meant something different a few months ago. Ellen has been telling me for weeks that Confederate soldiers were gathering at Manassas, but I didn’t believe her. The fight is about controlling the station, otherwise why come to Manassas? The Yankees want an easy run to Richmond, and the Confederates want to stop them. It’s very odd, having two Capitals so close together. It’s enough to make a person dizzy. I hope the fighting moves to Manassas, where it ought to be.

I don’t get many headaches, but my head has been pounding like the dickens all morning. It must be the guns. They sound closer. Ellen has been so kind, asking if I want anything like the good child she is, but when she tries to bring me water or tea her hands shake so much she has trouble holding the cups. Ellen, I say to her, it’s going to be all right. She doesn’t want to believe me. Lucy does her best to act brave, but I can see in her eyes that she is terrified. John tells them both to calm down, but he’s beside himself. I guess I’m not worried as much as they are. Who would harm a bedridden old woman and her family in such a beautiful place? Hugh sent Ellen a letter a while back, when rumors about Manassas first started. He said that our helplessness would make us safe if the troops ever passed through. I think he’s right. This war is nothing but a dispute between people who don’t see eye to eye on a few things. We’ve had trouble like it before, from the beginning in fact. When both sides see how determined the other is, they’ll sit down and work things out like gentlemen. I do wish this pounding in my head would stop. It hurts like the devil.

I often think about Isaac. He was a surgeon on the Constellation under Commodore Truxton, one of the first US Navy Captains commissioned by George Washington himself. Isaac was born and raised in Philadelphia, but he went all over the world, or so it seemed, serving his country on the Constellation. He was a good man who always did his duty, and he was a loving husband and father. We met after the country had fought to be free and were so proud to be on our own, thanks to the courage of great men from different states (colonies, I guess they were then) – George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton – half of them Virginians, I’m proud to say. Isaac and I felt lucky to be alive at such a time. I wonder what he would think if he were here today?

I’m 84, older than the country itself. I’ve had a full life. A few weeks back was the anniversary of the Declaration, but not too many noticed. If they did it was to claim the Declaration for themselves, depending which side they’re on. Times have surely changed. Who would have thought Virginia would leave the country it worked so hard to shape? But I’m a Carter. Virginia is my state, and if we can’t be part of the Union then I guess we’ll have to be on our own like we were before. It’s too bad, and awfully confusing.

I’m tired and nod off occasionally, even though the sound of gunfire shakes the bedroom. I dream about old Virginia. My great-grandfather Robert “King” Carter was one of the great men around here in the early days. He had the biggest tobacco plantation and more slaves than anyone else. My grandfather Landon wrote a famous journal about life before the Revolution called The Diary of Colonel Landon Carter and lived just long enough to see the country win its freedom. My father Landon Jr. built Pittsylvania. It’s a grand place, but he had a hard time keeping it up. He used to say there was nothing those British wouldn’t try to tax and no price they wouldn’t try to squeeze. Was he ever glad to be rid of them! I had eight brothers and sisters. Daddy was a great family man, a real gentleman. He liked everybody, and everybody liked him.

The young man with the rifle is shooting out my window, and I can hear more shooting downstairs. John is shouting at him to stop, but he says he’s got his orders. If they shoot at Yankees from the house, won’t the Yankees shoot back? I’m sure they have respect for private property and must know that we Henry’s are peace-loving civilians, but if there are shots coming from the house won’t they be confused? I can hear shouting, gunfire, and tramping outside, as if it were in my backyard. The smoke is so heavy you’d think the day had clouded over.

I worry about the Robinsons and how they are faring through all the noise and commotion. I hope they’re safe. Gentleman Jim is hard-working and resourceful, so I suspect they will be. Ellen told me he moved the whole household to the Van Pelt’s and came back to secure his house. That would be like him. I hope he doesn’t get caught up in this turmoil. Jim and I are like family. We care deeply about each other and our families. Both of us were born at Pittsylvania. I feel bad for him, having two sons sold down south like they were, but it didn’t stop him from working extra hard to care for his family. Ellen says the roadhouse is doing better and better every month.

Jim’s mother was a free woman – she was a slave of my Daddy’s, but I guess he decided to make her free. At any rate, Jim was born free. We had the same tutor at Pittsylvania, so I know he’s an educated man. Being born free also meant that he was automatically landed, and he was able to buy the house near Bull Run in the 1840’s. He raised eight children in it and owns even more acreage now. When he married Sukey, she wasn’t free, and he had to find a way to buy her freedom and freedom for as many of their children as he could afford. He nearly succeeded, but for Alfred and James. He just couldn’t buy their freedom fast enough. Jim is a determined man, everything he touches seems to pay – his farm, his businesses. He’s a regular tycoon. People say he’s one of the richest freedmen in Virginia. Jim was a special favorite of my Daddy’s, and he treated Jim and his mother with great respect. To me, Jim is like a little brother. I’m proud of him. I wouldn’t want this war or anything else to keep him from being able to make a good life for himself.

John keeps running back and forth, up and down the stairs. He says the armies are getting closer to Spring Hill. Why don’t the Confederates make their stand at Manassas, I ask him?  It’s what they’re fighting over after all. He says they tried to stop the Yankees at Bull Run and now it looks like they decided to stop running and are making a stand. The shooting outside is growing steadier, and John says that reinforcements are being brought up. He says we should have left when we had the chance. Why would they want to fight over Spring Hill, I ask? What use could it be to them? John says he doesn’t know, it’s just where they want to fight. The aching in my head is getting worse. It’s like everything I ever took for granted is breaking into pieces. I’ll lie here quietly and try to put them back together again when the fighting’s over.

It’s madness that a country would pull itself apart over a few disagreements. Especially when it had such a hard time coming together in the first place. We were more tolerant of each other in the early days. There were differences of opinion, of course, but we knew we had a job to do and had a long struggle ahead of us. People set aside their differences and realized they had to make sacrifices. I hated that Isaac was away on the Constellation for as long as he was, but I knew it was necessary for the good of the country. I can’t believe that in a few short years, in my lifetime, people could have forgotten what happened back then and what makes our country so great. Too many of us let our differences get in the way. The people of Virginia are struggling, I know, and they aren’t happy with the way things have been going. The plantations aren’t what they used to be, and the slave question never gets settled, but there are people like Gentleman Jim who know how to make their way. We should give them a chance. They could show us something, help get us back on our feet. But the Yankees are stubborn. They won’t recognize that we’re Virginians first, that we have a proud history and our own way of life. They forget that we had the idea of bringing all the states together in the first place. I’m sure both sides will see the danger before it’s too late. I’m too old and too loyal to Isaac to think any other way. If they were here now, I know both Isaac and Daddy would tell me not to worry, to have faith.

John is back upstairs. He says that a Yankee soldier entered the hallway downstairs and that one of the snipers shot him dead. Ellen was standing there when it happened and is hysterical with fear. Poor Ellen. She needs to pull herself together. John says he wants to move me someplace safer, but he doesn’t know where and thinks it’s too late anyway. I tell him not to worry, I’ll be fine where I am. Poor Lucy Griffith looks like she’s about ready to faint.

John went downstairs and came back again, anxious and at loose ends, saying that both armies are bringing up cannon and preparing for some kind of confrontation. The gunfire outside just doesn’t stop. I tell John and Lucy to let me be and turn my face to the wall, wondering if the precious innocence of our country could actually die here at Spring Hill. I can’t believe it will be so.

We’re a peaceful, law-abiding family living in our own house, a patriotic family. The land the house sits on is abundant and undisturbed. The house and the farm are known to everyone in Virginia. I’m an old woman, a Carter, the wife of Isaac Henry, lying bedridden on the second floor, hoping the country will come to its senses. If Spring Hill turns out to be the place where the two armies meet, I know in my bones that all of us will be fine. Common sense is going to win out, and they’ll let us be. They cannot be intending to destroy our traditions and beliefs. I’ll just lie here and hope. I believe it’s my duty. Both sides need to remember the promises our fathers and forefathers made.

The big guns are booming, and the house is shaking. Smoke and fire are visible outside my windows. Ellen comes running upstairs with her hands over her ears. John is holding my hand, trying to comfort me, but his head is hanging down and he’s not doing a good job of it. John, I say to him, be proud, everything will be all right. I look into his eyes and see a fear that I’ve never seen before.

I wish Isaac were here. He would know how to take charge of things, how to deal with the Yankees and the children’s fears. He was never one to be afraid of a little pressure. But he’s not here, and I need to be strong for Ellen, for John, for Lucy and myself. We’ve worked too hard to let fear get the better of us. Isaac used to tell me about the many dangers he faced while serving on the Constellation. I couldn’t understand how he endured them. Now, it’s my turn to be strong. I’m not leaving this house, ever again. I won’t show that I’m afraid. I trust in our people and our traditions. The armies can fight over the railway junction at Manassas all they want, but I’m sure there are plenty of good young men on both sides who will have the decency to honor the sanctity of our farm and family. I may be a bedridden old woman, but I know when to stand up for what’s right.

The shooting is louder and faster now. I can hear the rumble of cannons. A ball struck the side of the house. It must be an errant shot. Who would intentionally shoot at our house? The jolt from the impact upset John tremendously, and he has gone downstairs to to tell both sides, if he has to, that there are civilians inside. I hope he’ll be all right and won’t do anything foolish. Ellen looks paralyzed with fear. She doesn’t know what to do and keeps leaping back and forth, unsure whether she should try to help me or cower in the fireplace. Another ball strikes the side of house, this time higher up. Ellen, I say, stay put in the fireplace. Lucy is running from one corner of the room to another, startled  by the booming of the cannons. It’s enough to make one lightheaded. Lucy, I say, get under the bed, if you’re scared. Under the bed.

The noise outside is deafening, but I’m at peace. The worst is underway. We need only brave it, endure it, outlast it, and we will save ourselves. Isaac and Daddy would be proud. I’m Judith Carter Henry, and I won’t be banished or exiled. This is my land, my country, my family. Everything will survive. It must. But my poor hedge… my bushes… my red and white Althea flowers….

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Bruce Bullen is a retired health care executive. He is unpublished and recently returned to writing fiction full-time. An avid reader of American history, particularly the period between the Revolution and the Civil War, he found the link between the two periods and the paradox inherent in the Judith Henry story both interesting and relevant. In addition to historical fiction, Bruce has produced several collections of short fiction, including fifteen fables and ten stories about the inner workings of government.

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Mr. Dickens and His Carol

Written by Samantha Silva

Published by Flatiron Books

288 pages

Review by Meredith Allard

 

The caveat for this novel comes after the story where author Samantha Silva notes what most of us figured out while we were reading–that this is not a biographical sketch of how A Christmas Carol came to be but an imaginative “What if” about how Dickens might have come to write the world’s second most famous Christmas story. The Dickensians among us might easily fall into the trap of thinking “This didn’t happen,” “That didn’t happen,” and “There’s no way on earth that ever happened.” To fully enjoy this book we need to leave what we know about Dickens aside and simply enjoy the novel for what it is, a sweet retelling of the classic story using Dickens himself as the Scrooge who needs to discover the true meaning of Christmas. I highly recommend this novel for those who love Dickens, love his Carol, and are looking for a unique retelling of the tale.

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Meredith Allard is the Executive Editor of The Copperfield Review.

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Pale Bird Woman

By Dennis Humphrey

Wehnd’kehto of the Fisted Foot scanned the foaming edge where the Great Water beat against the stony land. The gray wet of the sky spirits spread out upon the dark stones as well, falling from their home in the mists above, not heavy, as in the warm moons long ago, but in small, stinging drops, driven by the wind that touches frost. White birds turned and laughed their shrill derision above, “Kay-ah, kay-ah!” Wehnd’kehto  paid them little attention as he limped along on his gnarled foot. He knew their cries were meant to distract him. Sometimes, gifts waited at the water’s edge, placed by the Great Water himself, and the jealous birds wanted them for themselves. Other times flippered beasts dragged themselves from the water to bellow, and he could pierce one with his spear for meat and furs. This day, he did not know what to think of what he found.

He had been alone on his tiny, water-circled land for more round moons than he had fingers, since the day his people set him here upon these same stones. They drove him from the raft of logs at the stone points of their spears. They spoke no words. None were needed, and words were not to be used lightly. Not then. He cast a last look that asked if there were another way. He knew there was not. Since the raft had gone beyond seeing into the mists, he had seen no other people. He looked at his feet, one straight, one crooked. There, in the sodden earth between them was a track that was not his own. He tightened his grip around the shaft of the simple spear he had cut from a green sapling with the edge of a broken stone. His small, water-circled land had none of the stone that was good for chipping into spear points. His spear was tipped with a tooth from some beast of the sea, one of the gifts left by the Great Water at the foaming edge. It was as large and as sharp as any stone point. He breathed out, and his breath showed white as the wind bore it away, a small part of Wehnd’kehto’s spirit given to the wind and sky. For luck. He followed the tracks, leaning on spear as he would a walking staff as he limped toward a group of great stones that stood near the water.

As he neared, he heard a soft cry. He felt his hairs stand up off his skin beneath the furs he wore. Between the stones, out of the wind, he saw a woman, face down on the sand. He hobbled to her, rolled her over. Dark water plants tangled all around her. Her skin was as pale as a fish belly, her hair like the setting sun. He shuddered to touch them. She opened her eyes, and made as if to speak, but her words, barely a sigh, were as the talk of the white birds riding the air above, “Kay-ah, kay-ah!

“Pale woman!” he said in the sacred tongue of his people. “Why do you cry with the tongue of the birds?” These few words were an extravagance, and in the dark recesses of his mind, his shadow self cowered, expecting reprisal from the wind spirits. But it had been long since he had last spoke any words at all. So long.

The woman brought one hand to his bearded face. “Kay-ah, kay-ah!” she sighed again. Though her tongue spoke only to the birds, her eyes bade him help her. He draped the furs from his own shaggy shoulders over the woman and carried her by the worn path to his dwelling. There, in a hollow of the mountain, he had kept alive the fire he had found after a storm, fed it dry wood day and night. He regarded it as a beast he had found, barely alive, that he had nursed back to health and domesticated. Now they lived together, sole companions, he feeding it to keep it alive, it giving him warmth, roasting his meat to make the fat drip and flesh brown. Wehnd’kehto placed the pale woman by the fire’s warmth, covered her with more furs, and with a vessel carved from the bones of the flippered beast, he fed her those rich drippings that run from meat placed before the fire to brown. Soon, she fell into a deep sleep.

When she awoke, the sun had gone to its long sleep. Wehnd’kehto sat on the far side of the fire from her. She looked quickly about, much as the small furry beasts that dart among the rocks when the cry of the taloned bird pierces the air.

“Pale bird woman,” he said, daring to use words again. “You can stay with me.”

She looked like she did not understand, but she calmed, though still remaining wary. She looked him over, but then saw the gnarled foot, and stood. “Kay-ah-ah-ah!” she cried, and darted out into the dark. The sky flashed, rumbled, and he lost sight of her in the dark wind and rain. Wehnd’kehto’s shadow self taunted him then. He tottered over to a small cache of dried leaves he kept in the dry of dwelling, but out of reach of the fire’s hungry tongue. He cast a handful into the flames, which eagerly devoured them and breathed out the sweet smoke. Wehnd’kehto hoped the wind spirits would forgive him.

As the sun’s first light spread across the sky, Wehnd’kehto set out to look for the pale woman again. The wind spirits’ rage and sky fire had calmed, and a quiet breeze was all that remained to remind him the wind spirits were still watching. Weakened as the pale woman was when she had run from his home, he did not need to look for long. He found her again at the water’s edge, soaked, cold, but alive. Though weak as the softest breeze, the living wind still flowed into and out of her. Perhaps the wind did forgive him. He puffed out a white cloud of breath in a long, warbled cry in the cool morning air to express his thanks, but he dared not speak words and risk angering the wind again.

He lifted her head from the cold sand. She sought to pull away, but was too weak. He took her pale hand, and placed it against the brown skin of his arm. She saw the pale against the dark that was the common color of the people, and her gaze fell to the sand. He stroked the pale skin of her hand gently, and she raised her eyes again. Then he placed her pale hand on his twisted foot. He moved her hand so it stroked the gnarled foot. Her eyes met his, a light in them now. “Koo-oh,” she cooed, as the plump, soft-gray birds do in the first light of dawn. Wehnd’kehto thought about her bird speak, and thought about those creatures, so favored by the winds that they were permitted to ride high upon them, above all other creatures. The birds were permitted to sing. Perhaps she spoke as the birds because the winds loved to hear them.

“Koo-ooh,” he cooed back to the Pale Bird Woman, and he lifted her from the wet sand. She stroked his beard with her pale hand and cooed and cooed to him in a long soothing song as he hobbled back up the worn path toward the warm fire.

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Dennis Humphrey teaches writing and literature at Prince William Sound College in Valdez, Alaska. He has a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, and his fiction has appeared in storySouth, Prick of the Spindle, BloodLotus, SN Review, Toad Suck Review, and Collateral.

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The Trail

By Katie Frankel

By the time we even reached the jumping-off place in Missouri, we had been traveling for what I naïvely thought was quite some time. Though my sisters – even Sarah, who had dreaded leaving Tennessee almost as much as I – had slowly yet steadily let the sadness of leaving fade away, I myself felt I could not. I was silent, speaking nearly not a word the entire way to the jumping-off place in Missouri, my heart feeling heavy in my chest. None of my family members could lure me away from my broken heart and sullen mood, and they eventually stopped trying.

I knew hardly a thing about the Oregon Trail, only that it led to both Oregon and California where land was free despite the Indians who surrounded it. Though he wouldn’t admit it, I did not think that Jack knew very much about the trail either, only what his friend knew and had told them. My brother had warned us all that, at times, the journey would prove challenging, but our trouble would be well worth it to reap the reward that would await us.

There were very many other wagons already in Missouri, far more than I had imagined. So many families awaited their departure that we could not even leave right away, instead having to wait for several days before finally being able to start out on the official trail. Even with waiting, our wagon train was long, wagons following ours as far as I could see.

Jack told me that for the first part of our journey we would be traveling on land that was long and yellow, allowing the river to guide us until we finally reached the mountain region. It was May now and the weather was mostly warm and pleasant, save for some slightly cooler nights. There was always a lot going on during our time on the Oregon Trail, both while traveling and while resting at night. Even after a long day of travel, Jack and Carissa both had things they had to tend to, with Carissa leaving two-year-old Joshua in my care during the time. There was always seemingly endless amounts of work to be done while traveling both in the wagon and out, from changing and oiling the wheel axels to taking care of the oxen and horses, and then finally, taking care of the people.

I was surprised to see that Carissa by no means was the only woman traveling with a young child; there were actually quite a few expectant mothers and mothers with children much younger than Joshua. Depending on how long each family decided to travel, I knew that some mothers would be giving birth on the trail and, recalling Carissa’s difficult birth, I was very grateful that she was not due to have another child.

Despite the large number of children traveling on the Oregon Trail, Jack had forbidden my sisters and me from wandering off with them; though I did not have desire to do so, I knew that my other sisters did. My brother warned us that children could get lost for days among the long wagon train and we witnessed this first hand only about ten days into our journey. A family traveling just two wagons up from ours became frantic one evening during rest when they could not find their five-year-old son. The mother was inconsolable, and although Carissa would not admit it, I knew that the other mother’s grief struck fear in her. The boy was not found for two days later when he finally reappeared, dirty and hungry. I knew it could have been much worse.

Many of the other families on the trail had oxen to pull their wagons but no horses, and although I feared Jack would consider them a burden, I was grateful that we had our three horses. I felt that Scout was a part of Connor always with me, though I continued to mourn for him every day. Just like three years prior when we had first moved to the Smiths’ farm, I rode Scout bareback on the trail often, and he seemed happy to oblige as he walked forward proudly. Each time I sat on the Paint’s back I felt a mixture of comfort and sorrow, my longing for Connor so overwhelming sitting aboard the horse who was so dear to him.

Sarah was friends with a family of seven children from age three to fifteen, and the older ones filled my head with countless terrors of horrible things that could happen to anyone on the Trail; we could be attacked by Indians, drown while crossing water, freeze to death or die of thirst, and an abundance of other terrible fates. Despite these warnings, Jack still seemed confident and I trusted his judgment completely, sure he wouldn’t knowingly put any of us in danger.

We were roughly halfway between our jumping-off place and Fort Laramie when something horrible happened.

We had been traveling for many miles and the sun had grown extremely hot at times during the day, but the weather was unpredictable. At times, we were pelted with hail bigger than the hoof of a horse, or had to wait out rainstorms that seemed to be never ending. However, the challenging weather was nothing compared to what happened to Annie.

She was nine, and her family drove the wagon that was usually in front of us. All of us children, even me, had become comfortable and accustomed to traveling and admittedly a bit careless. All of the older children frequently got off and on the wagons even while they were in motion to walk, meet up with other kids, or ride horses if they had any.

Jack used to allow Sarah and me to jump off the wagon at any point, but Hanna and Gracie were still too small. One day when Sarah jumped off, she landed hard and badly twisted her ankle, unable to walk for two days. After that Jack, forbid us from jumping off while the wagon was in motion, but Annie’s parents didn’t mind so much and allowed her to continue to do so.

I’m not sure what Annie planned to do when she jumped off that day, but in the end, it didn’t matter. As Jack stared ahead while driving, Annie jumped off the wagon as she usually did, but this time, the skirt of her dress became snagged on part of the wagon as she did so. The fabric did not rip but instead, drug Annie underneath.

“Stop! Stop!” Jack screamed at the top of his lungs, startling me so badly I leapt up from my seat in the wagon. Annie’s father immediately pulled back the oxen, but by the time he was able to fully bring them to a halt, it was too late; the wheels of the wagon had already completely crushed Annie’s body, the sound of her bones crunching sickly recognizable.

She didn’t die right away. The screams were atrocious, bloodcurdling; not only from Annie, but from her mother and father and siblings. The noise was deafening and brutal and the rest of us wept inside the wagon, even Carissa. By the end of the day, Annie was dead but the nightmare was far from over.

Because we were traveling in the middle of nowhere, the men had no choice but to dig Annie a shallow grave right on the side of the trail. There was not time to dig it extremely deep, and I knew now from what other children had told me that scavengers were attracted to fresh graves, whether they were animals looking for flesh or humans trying to steal the very clothes off of the deceased’s body. The thought made me so sick that I vomited over the side of the wagon.

Annie was not my first experience with death, yet her death was so extremely different from my mother’s and unlike anything I would have ever been able to imagine. Jack and Carissa were among some of the people who desperately tried to console Annie’s mother and father, and over the next weeks Annie’s mother’s grief was so brutal and crushing that I truly wondered if someone could die from a broken heart.

Everyone in my family dramatically changed after Annie’s death. Jack no longer spoke of traveling to Oregon with excitement and enthusiasm but became solemn, neither he nor Carissa speaking much at all. My sisters and I had lost the desire to explore with the other children, and we oftentimes felt we did not even want to leave the safety of the wagon, packed with supplies as it was. Additionally, I knew that the land we traveled on now was mostly flat and consisted of just tall grasses and streams; up ahead was the mountain region and places that not only put us at higher risk from Indian attacks, but had much more challenging terrain than what we had navigated so far. I suddenly was terrified of continuing to travel on the Oregon Trail, feeling sick the further we traveled and wanting to beg Jack to turn around. Some families did, with Annie’s death by no means being the only tragic occurrence that had happened in our wagon train so far.

 

We travelled for weeks longer. The Platte River was brown and full of silt, yet when there was no other source of water, we had to make due by collecting water from the river, letting it sit for an hour, and mixing in cornmeal to try and sink the silt to the bottom. Even so, the water tasted horrible and because of this, everyone in our wagon train preferred to set up camp near some of the fresh water streams that drained into the Platte River. Although the water tasted better, it held deadly, unknown dangers.

Sometimes after drinking the water, a man, woman, or child would become severely ill with no explanation and die within a day. No one, including my own family, connected the sickness with the water.

We continued to drink the water because it looked so much fresher than the brackish water of the Platte, and it tasted better. We drank this water for weeks as we continued traveling until one day, Carissa, Sarah, and Hanna all become horribly ill. The symptoms were exactly the same as the cases of sickness we had been seeing; the sickness that seemed to kill nearly half of those infected. Though it was morning, we could not continue traveling because they were so ill, quickly becoming extremely dehydrated, their faces and bodies slick with sweat.

“It’s the water,” Annie’s father told us gravely, pursing his lips and shaking his head.

Jack was panicked. “But they’ve hardly drank any of the muddy water. They—”

“Not the Platte water,” the man interrupted impatiently. “The clear water, from the streams. It looks good but it has disease in it. I know it does.”

He didn’t elaborate, but Jack didn’t care; half of our family was dying. Gracie and Joshua clung to me, crying and afraid as my brother desperately tried to keep his wife and our two sisters alive. Despite the fact that they wanted nothing to do with it, he brought them the muddy water to drink, forcing the three of them to continue to drink it because he said their bodies had become so dried up from the inside.

We stayed camped at that one spot for days, the wagon train moving on without us. Jack forbid us to continue to drink from the streams, and the fresh water was no longer so tempting. Once when I went to check on my sisters and Carissa, I thought they were dead, lying pale, sweaty, and motionless in the dirt.

After what seemed like months but was really only about a week, the three began to slowly recover. The process was difficult, with all of them having lost a great deal of weight and strength in the one week they had been sick, barely able to move much at all at first. Finally, though, one by one they did recover, and a few days later, we joined another much smaller wagon train that had come by to resume our journey; only now, Jack no longer wished to.

The challenges of the Oregon Trail had proven torturous and fatal so far, with Jack claiming it was only by God’s grace that all three had survived the sickness. the journey all the way to Oregon was supposed to take only four months, yet we had not even reached Fort Laramie and had been traveling for two months already. Despite the great difficulties that presented themselves ahead, Jack was afraid to turn back. Too late into our journey, Jack decided that bringing us onto the Oregon Trail had been a horrible mistake.

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Katie Frankel is a senior at Texas Wesleyan University majoring in English with a writing concentration. She enjoys writing and reading pieces of historical fiction, browsing antique stores, and riding her horse. She currently lives in Fort Worth and hopes to write professionally.

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A Grave Mistake

By Carrie Martin

Night grips London with a cold and unholy darkness. A sad, sliver of a moon hangs in the smog and drizzle that engulf the terraces and lonely streets. Flames flicker behind curtains drawn to the evil that lurks outside. Barely a light to see by as I hobble and weave round the mounds of sodden rubbish and horse crap. The stink from the cesspools is unbearable. My eyes are raw with it. The puddled cobbles have seeped inside my shoes, through the newspaper and into my socks. Fingerless mitts are useless on a night like this. I stuff my hands into my jacket pockets.

The doors of an alehouse fling open, wafting pipe smoke and sweet malt. Four disheveled lads pour out, drunk as emperors. A British soldier struts after them, immaculately dressed in his red coat and black hat. He jingles a pouch of coins, and pats one of the lads on the back.

“Evenin’,” I say with a nod and a tip of my flat-cap, keeping my head down, out of the dim light of the alehouse doors.

They mumble a greeting as they stumble after the soldier like rats with the Pied Piper. Off to the next alehouse to get yet more blathered and sign their lives away.

I’d kill for a tankard myself, but I can’t stop tonight.

I duck into an alleyway — a shortcut to the edge of the city — hands fisted inside my pockets, arming myself against scrappers or thieves. Or worse.

A rat scuttles past my feet, black eyes glistening, tail slithering. And then something shuffles up ahead. Something bigger than a rat, coming from the deepest, darkest shadows of the alleyway. I jump to a standstill and brace for a fight, my poor heart racing. But it’s a girl who steps out before me: dampened, frizzy locks erupting from her bonnet, her face gaunt and mottled with scars.

I exhale loudly and relax some. My imagination is running riot — and is it any wonder at this late hour, with the ghastly work I have agreed to?

“Fancy some fun, Mister?” says the waif of a girl, thrusting out her bony chest. Her smile is a grimace of wrecked teeth.

It sickens my heart to see such a sorry creature. She can’t be much older than my own son.

“Here, lass,” I say, handing her two pennies from my pocket. “Grab yourself a bed for the night, somewhere safe.”

She stares at those pennies in her hand and her eyes well with tears. “Thank you, Sir.” Then she scurries away, skirt flapping, back into the heart of this soulless city.

I’d better hope tonight pays off or the wife will have my guts for garters for giving money away when the rent is past due. But if Caleb is right — what he said in the Coal Hole tavern where I met him, drowning my sorrows — I’ll have a guinea by the morrow, enough to survive for a month.

I continue on, out the alleyway and over the empty road. The drizzle is letting up but it’s dark as death now the city is behind me, sweeping fields ahead. Skeleton trees line the road, shivering in the wind. And here, the church and cemetery, surrounded by a great stone wall. Tucked between the wall and wrought iron gate is a smart-suited figure with shoulder-length hair and a cocked hat. Right where he said he’d be.

“Aye, Owen. I thought you’d gotten cold feet,” says Caleb, springing up to shake my hand with a glove that is smooth as skin and cuffed with fur.

“Sorry Caleb. Took a bit for the wife to drop off.” I can’t have Edna knowing about this. I told her I’d sort it, and I will. I’ll just have to get creative with the truth, is all.

Caleb jangles the lock on the gate, and soon there is a flame growing bigger and brighter, the swish of a black cloak as the groundskeeper appears before us like a ghost. Scraggly hair pokes out of his knitted cap. His beady eyes and crooked nose glow wickedly behind the burning rag he holds on a stick. He inserts his key into the lock and creaks open the gate, just enough to let us squeeze through to the church grounds.

“Alright, Russell,” says Caleb.

Russell grunts in response as he locks up again, entirely ignoring my presence. There are no introductions, which suits me fine. I hope I never see Russell again.

“Let’s get this over with, shall we,” says Russell in a voice as gruff as his manner.

Caleb gives me a raised eyebrow, an amused smile, as Russell swooshes around and starts up the path, lighting the way for us to follow. It seems to take forever with his slow, bowlegged gait. It gives me too much time to think, to worry, to see the gravestones of crosses and angels looming in the darkness. I can almost hear the dead whispering their disapproval, restless beneath them.

We wrap round the church entrance and tower, and stop at a small wooden extension. Russell opens the door and illuminates the inside of a tool shed with his burning rag.

“Grab that wheelbarrow,” Caleb tells me.

I tip the heavy thing upright, onto its legs and front wheel. Caleb sets to work filling it with various bits of equipment: shovel, rope, canvas sack and sheet. Then he takes a second shovel and a metal rake, and we head back outside into the freezing night.

The gravestones are plainer down this grassy side, and squished together in rows like teeth. Crows caw unhappily in the trees above us, shaking the branches as they flap furiously away into the surrounding fields.

“Here he is,” says Caleb, stabbing his shovel into a rectangle of soil — the cemetery’s most recent burial.

My legs go weak. My breath catches. I lower the wheelbarrow and read the headstone.

 

In Memory of

Bartholomew Augustus Riseborough

Died April 1st 1795

Aged 33 years

 

I’m not a churchgoer, not really, but I sign the cross now, Lord help me. I picture my wife and son, in this grave instead of Mr. Riseborough. That’s why I’m here. That’s why I must do this. What choice do I have?

Caleb must sense my reluctance for he whips out a flask and tucks it in my hand. “Get some of this down you.”

“What is it?” I ask.

“Never mind what is it, just drink it,” he says.

Russell watches with his beady eyes, silent behind his flickering glow.

I swig back at least half the flask, ignoring the sickly sweet, bitterly strong taste. It burns down my esophagus and into my belly, warms and numbs me from head to toe. “Gorblimey, that’s harsh.”

I offer the flask to Russell but he shakes his head, so I return it to Caleb who happily downs the whole lot.

“Bourbon whiskey that. The good stuff,” says Caleb, wiping his lips. Then he lays the sheet at the head of the grave, and shows me where to dig with the spade of his shovel. “You just want to uncover the top half, stick it on the sheet. Then we can snap the lid open and hoist the body out.”

I grab the other shovel and set to work, scooping up the wet soil and tossing it onto the sheet.

“That’s it,” says Caleb approvingly as he matches me shovel for shovel. Then, with a smile, “Hell of a mouthful, his name. Fancy being called that all your life.”

“I had an uncle Bartholomew once, if you don’t mind,” says Russell, his thick wiry eyebrows dipped in an angry V.

“And were his other names long-winded and pompous too?” says Caleb.

Russell’s eyes get even beadier, if such a thing is possible.

I’m full of boozy adrenaline, sick to my stomach with what I’m about to do, but I cannot help but laugh. “It’s certainly the sort of name you’d associate with a man of means. Though you’d expect more of a headstone than this, if that were so.”

“Oh, he had money, all right,” says Russell. “He was a merchant banker. A banker who didn’t get round to writing his own bloody will. Can you believe that? It was his missus that chose this for him. Didn’t shed a single tear at his funeral, either. Didn’t even look that distraught, though I saw her dab her eyes a time or two.”

“I’d be doing a jig on his grave if I was inheriting what she is,” says Caleb, leaning on his shovel handle and catching his breath. “Might have to try bumping into her sometime. Aye, wouldn’t that be something.” He smirks and starts digging again.

“You’ve got the looks and the clothes to impress a lady, I’ll give you that.” I’d be stomping on dough in that damp, drafty cellar for weeks to afford an outfit so grand — when there was flour to be had. There’s only so much chalk and alum you can add to a loaf, and the boss had to let me go. “How come you’re all dandied-up for digging, anyway?”

“Because it’s risky enough carting a body around at night, but nobody thinks twice when you’re dressed all important, like. Aye, I’m not just a pretty face, me. And what a body we’ve got here… A man, young enough, no visible diseases, practically handed to us on a platter. Doesn’t get any better than this.”

I wonder what sort of cut Caleb is paying Russell to risk his job and squeeze out the competition for us on a find like this. But it’s impolite to ask, so I just keep shoveling.

“You won’t have to dig far,” says Russell. “The dead are piling up in this city, what with this rotten winter and all the pox. We’re having to bury them on top of each other.”

Now I really do feel sick. He has a way with words, our Russell.

“Remember what I said yesterday,” says Caleb, taking another break to address me. “It’s just a body, a shell, and there’s no point it going to waste, feeding the maggots. So long as we take nothing they owned — no jewelry, no clothes, no shoes — it’s not even illegal. You can’t own a corpse, see. And they just can’t get enough of them, these anatomy students. Even with all the hangings in the gallows of late.”

“It’s a mad world is this,” I say, shaking my head as I scoop another shovelful. “Men hanged for pinching bread but not for this. Makes no sense to me.”

Caleb points his shovel at me. “Exactly!” he says, and resumes his shoveling with gusto. “It’s all right for them, sitting pretty at the top, making laws to suit them as they go. Using us up and spitting us out, then killing us off when we’re knackered and desperate. It’s never them that hang, is it? Well, they’ll not get the better of me. I’ll not break my back to make another man rich, and I won’t end up in the gallows!”

Maybe he’s right, and morality is nothing more than words on paper, made not of heart but of mind. Then guilt and shame are self-inflicted, pointless things, and who is to say what is right? Do the rich sleep soundly in their beds while the necks of poor folk choke in their noose, simply because they have written it so?

We work for a while in silence, to the mesmerizing beat of slice-thump-slice-slice-thump-thump. Wind whips wetness at us from the church roof and trees, sending shadows dancing and darting beneath Russell’s ever-shrinking flame. Soil piles higher and higher upon the sheet as we get lower and lower into the grave. We dig till I’m sweating beneath my clothes, my breath puffing out in great clouds. My bad knee is seizing up, my back aching, when finally I strike something flat and hard with my shovel.

“I think I’ve hit the—”

I’m interrupted by a muffled but roaring moan, coming from the casket. The three of us freeze in horror — me, bent over the casket. An icy chill creeps up my spine. My heart pounds wildly. The dead man has risen to wreak vengeance upon us for disturbing his grave!

An almighty fit of bashing and banging ensues. I grip my shovel for dear life.

“Heeelp! Get me out of here!” roars the dead man.

“My God, he’s alive,” says Russell, the first to come to his senses. And oh, but I am a fool.

“Quickly, clear the muck off and snap the wood,” says Caleb.

We scrape and fling the remaining soil every which way, revealing the shiny wood beneath. Caleb jams his shovel under the lid of the casket. I get beside him, do the same, and we push down with all our weight to wedge it open. The top half of the casket cracks apart, and there’s Mr. Riseborough, wriggling and struggling with the shroud he’s been wrapped in. Only his face is visible under that white sheet, and he’s staring up at us with bulging round eyes, his mouth absurdly agape.

All at once his face retracts into an expression of mere confusion, his gentlemanly composure restored. In his posh accent he says, “What the bloody hell… Who are you?”

“Your saviours. That’s who we are,” says Caleb, and swings the rope down to him.

Mr. Riseborough frees his arms from the shroud, and we hoist him out of that muddy hole, grunting and cursing, until he’s on the ground. Then we unravel the rest of him, uncovering his three-piece suit and buckled shoes, and pull him to his feet. He thanks us profusely as he straightens his wonky poodle-like wig and swats at the mud on his fancy suit.

Russell’s got the burning rag in Mr. Riseborough’s long-nosed face, and we’re gawking at him, wondering what the hell happens next. But Mr. Riseborough isn’t interested in us. He’s too busy frowning at his gravesite, squinting and leaning in to read the common-man’s headstone with his name on it. Russell moves his flame over the stone, highlighting the heartless engraving.

“I don’t understand,” says Mr. Riseborough. “I’m as fit as a fiddle. How is it that I was presumed dead and buried in such an undignified manner? How could my wife let this happen?”

“You should’ve got your will written then,” says Russell. “Spelt out exactly what you wanted.”

“I didn’t think it necessary, what with my good health, no children and only a wife to consider. I presumed she would take care of… Oh, I feel quite nauseous.”

Then Mr. Riseborough unleashes an almighty belch, the likes of which I’ve never heard from a gentleman. It stinks to high heaven of something vaguely familiar. He puts a hand to his chest. “I do beg my pardon.”

Russell jerks backward as if he’s been shot, while I subtly turn from the fumes. But Caleb — God knows what he’s up to — he leans in to get a good sniff.

“It’s no wonder you’re feeling sick, Bartholomew,” says Caleb. “You’ve a stink of almonds on your breath. That’s cyanide is that.”

“Cyanide? What?” Realization dawns on Mr. Riseborough’s face. “I thought that cup of tea tasted odd, but we had just hired a new maid, and so I didn’t think much about it. But who…” He glances back at the headstone, clenches his hands into fists. “My wife! But how did she get away with it?”

Russell smiles slyly, as if he knew the answer all along.

“The question is, what are you going to do about it now?” says Caleb.

Mr. Riseborough acknowledges this with a slight nod, then paces back-and-forth aside his grave, hands clasped behind his back, furrowing and un-furrowing his brow. He stops suddenly, throws his arm in the air, and says, “How would you like to earn yourselves ten guineas each?”

“It’s not illegal, is it?” I ask.

“Not at all.”

And then he explains…

* * * * *

It’s past midnight and I’m at the pillared entrance of a huge window-spotted brick house, yanking and ringing the bell. Caleb and Russell are with me, grinning like idiots. And there in the wheelbarrow, hidden in the sack, is the lumpy, curled-up shape of Mr. Riseborough.

Silently he lies in wait — a little surprise for his “loving” wife.

Perhaps Mrs. Riseborough will drop dead herself when she sees him.

______________________________________________________________

Carrie Martin is a graduate of the Institute of Children’s Literature and a writer of quirky and dark (she started writing for children but somehow grew older and darker). British and Canadian-bred, she lives on Vancouver Island with her husband and daughter. Her stories have appeared in several anthologies and ezines. Read more at carriemartin.ca

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The White Ship

By Richard Comerford

She was called la Blanche-Nef – The White Ship.

She was undoubtedly a fine vessel, but not intended to  carry so many passengers and crew. There were over three hundred on board when she set sail from Barfleur  in Normandy just before midnight . The sea was calm, but there was little moonlight, and as most aboard, passengers and crew, had consumed considerable quantities of wine the required standards of seamanship  fell by the minute. It was November-cold.

Thomas FitzStephen stood proudly in the stern, next to his helmsman, yet he was uneasy as he surveyed the chaos before him. The rowers bent their backs, but their rhythm was gone and sometimes their oars flailed at empty air, or merely raised weak  splashes.

He had offered the use of his ship to the King that day, pointing out his wish to serve as had his father, Stephen Fitz Airaid, served the King’s father William  54 years before. His ship  Mora had carried the Norman Duke across the Channel to invade England.

King Henry had thanked him, saying he was pleased with his own vessel, but he had entrusted Thomas with many of his entourage, including his sons William and Richard and his daughter Matilda. William the Atheling was an important charge, as he would be the next Duke of Normandy and would inherit Henry’s  crown.

And… he was the young nobleman who, swaying slightly from too much wine,had  ordered Thomas to chase and overtake the King’s ship which had left before them.

Thomas was not pleased, but knew he had to do as he was bidden, and he gave orders accordingly while he looked at the noisy, drunken young men and women making merry on his beautiful ship. Free from the stern eye of the King they were intent on making the most of their brief freedom. He had certainly not approved of the boorish manner in which they had driven off a group of pious priests who had merely wished to bless the ship and her voyage. The baffled  priests had retreated in the face of a storm of abuse and sneers.

Surely it is bad luck to turn away a priest – many priests – who come from God to bless your venture…?

He heard a loud voice – Prince Richard of Lincoln, one of the King’s sons, he thought –exhort the rowers to greater efforts.  “Come on, my lads, put your backs into  it! Don’t  you want more wine?”

“Yes, my lord!” replied one forward oarsman.

“Then row as you never rowed before!”

A loud belch from his helmsman was followed by the unhappy man vomiting over the side, momentarily surrendering the tiller. It swung wildly before Thomas could grab it and steady the ship.

Dear God, have we lost our course?  If only there were more moonlight…  Where is Quilleboeuf?

Quilleboeuf was a large rock, feared by all sailors in these waters, which appeared and vanished with the tides.

“Sorry, Captain,” muttered the helmsman. “Wine…”

“Are we clear of Quilleboeuf?”

The man’s vacant expression was alarming, but he attempted to appear in control of himself.  “ Yes, Captain, we must have cleared her by now.”

Please, dear God, be right….

Some of the passengers had started to sing, and oarsmen joined in, first tentatively – as befitted their stations – then lustily.

“Are you well enough to continue?” Thomas asked the tillerman desperately.

He looked wounded – wounded and drunk.  “Yes, Captain,” he said proudly. “This is my ship, and I will – “

Quilleboeuf had in fact been waiting off their port beam, and now she struck. The ship  tore alongside the rock, which ripped out and shattered two planks. The bank of portside oars  were sheared and snapped like kindling.

The ship listed to port immediately, as water poured in through the long, wide gash. Her superior construction and materials were no match for the icy sea which, moments before had been calm and benign.

The portside oarsmen were first to react, dropping their broken  blades, half-rising in their seats…….before the sharp lurch of the ship tossed them overboard to a man.

The starboard side rose up as the portside dipped, and the oars on that side thrashed at the air. Drunken revellers  slid in a human wave towards the sea which now boiled with turbulence.  The oarsmen tumbled from their posts and fell among the  panicking crowd.

Women screamed.

Men roared, and screamed.

Thomas stared in horror, hanging on grimly to the first thing his hands found, the tiller again. Of the tillerman there was no sign.

The King’s heir is in my charge……

The weight of bodies tumbling to one side, together with the  inrushing water, was too much for the proud ship.  Ninety seconds after striking the rock she capsized and all went into the water.  Some, those closest  to the port  beam, were dragged under the upturned vessel as she turned turtle and  were left to fight their way out. The lucky ones were thrown clear.

But few were lucky this night.

The sea was filled with struggling humanity, of whom hardly any could swim.

Thomas was carried, still clinging to the tiller, under the ship. His lungs burning, he felt his way along the tiller to the side of the ship and found blessed open water where he rose to the surface.  Two small lifeboats had broken free, but were now both hidden by dozens of terrified people clinging to them, trying to get on board. Those already in relative safety vigourously sought to dislodge the invaders in order to preserve the own positions.

Others threshed and screamed and sank around this ghastly scene.

Thomas bumped into a large piece of  spar, probably broken from the mainmast, and gratefully clung on to it. To his shame. he hoped no-one would seek to share his good fortune.

Dear Lord, I have never been so cold.

Horrified, he watched in the thin moonlight silhouettes of his fellow men fighting each other to stay alive.

The shouts… as of battle…

The awful, awful screams.

Is this hell….? What of my King’s children?  Will I die here?

He did not know how long he had been in the water, but knew he fell unconscious for a while. He was losing feeling in his extremities as the bitter cold ate its way towards his vitals. The screams were dwindling as the victims, weakened by their revelry, efforts to survive, and fear  gave up and succumbed to warm, watery sleep.

Then, a dreadful quiet.

“Does anyone live?” a voice called weakly from a few feet away.

Hope!  “I do. Thomas FItzStephen, Captain.”

“I am Geoffrey de l’Aigle”

“And I am Berold, the butcher,” said another voice. “I think we must be the only ones left alive?”

Stephen panicked. “What of the King’s heir, William?”

“I saw him, sir, in a small boat…” started Berold

“Thank God…”

“But he heard cries for help from the Lady Matilda, and turned back for her?”

“Please tell me he succeeded…”

“I am sorry, Captain. Too many tried to board him. I fear he is lost. We have not heard of him these many minutes. Now all is still.”

Thomas  could no longer fight the exhaustion and cold. He could not stand before his King and tell him he had lost his children, and the heir to England. Better to sleep……  He would answer to God.

“God forgive me,” h e mouthed, and let go of the  spar.

Without his lifeline, it was easy to slip under the cold, dark water to Oblivion.

And, with Henry’s heir drowned, England slipped into the Anarchy.

______________________________________________________________

Richard Comerford is a former lawyer, now happily retired, living with his Wife in a small village in middle England. Since leaving the Law, he has been engaged in writing a Novel, which is now complete, and has been looking out a Novel, Screenplay, and some Short Stories he wrote many years ago, prior to succumbing to raising a family and earning a living. He wrote “The White Ship” in answer to a challenge from his Wife. She gave him the brief description of the subject matter, and he wrote the Story. It should be clear that he wants, after all these years, to be a Writer.

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