Category Archives: Historical Fiction

In Love Rebound

Grand Oak Plantation, Northeastern Maryland Colony: 1665

Deep in a dream, Stephen laid his winning cards on the table in a London alehouse. As the cards left his hand, the table tipped; the cards slid onto the floor and into an engulfing sea. As he opened his eyes, his head was still swimming in a dream of seawater, and his knee ached. He hoped it wasn’t a bad sign for his last day as an indentured servant. 

He rolled over and looked toward the window. The shutters were closed, but pewter-colored light was leaking through the cracks. More rain, he thought glumly, watching the thin stream of water trickle from a bottom corner of the window to the floor. No matter how many times he’d tried to chink the corner with mud and straw, the window leaked every time it rained. There were only a few thin, rotting pieces of board beneath his corn husk mattress–not enough to defend his bed from a soaking when there was a hard rain. One night, awakened by thunder and lightning, he had dug a narrow trench to divert the water around his bed. He noticed with a little satisfaction that the rainwater was flowing in its channel toward the door, at least for now. 

Once awake, he could never lie still for long. He pulled on his trousers and the discarded coat that Susannah, the girl he had pledged to marry, had got from the laundry. He closed his eyes against the dizziness for a second or two, then planted his good leg onto the floor first to assist his bad knee. He’d gone along as a militia man to fight the Indians several years ago. He got a hatchet wound in his knee, but he had also been promised a small plot of land at the end of his indenture to reward his service. Dipping his fingers into the stream of water, he flicked some icy drops into his friend Thomas’s sun-browned face. 

“You wouldn’t want to be late,” he said grinning as Thomas jumped.

His grin faded as he ducked through the doorway, slapping a wool cap onto his wavy dark hair against the rain. He was remembering how Susie had left him last night, flushed red and shaking with desire, and run away back to the house. 

“You mustn’t try me so, Stephen,” she whispered, leaking tears onto his cheek before she slipped out of his arms.

Stephen would be free tomorrow, but she was still bound for two more years. They were desperate to marry–almost afraid to touch for fear he would get her with child. Her father Matthias, who was working off his own indenture as a carpenter, had asked permission for her to marry. Nothing had come of that request in six months.

Odd that he should dream of London, Stephen considered, just as he was to become a yeoman farmer, bound to his own land, here, and probably never to go back. The rolling sea of his dissolving dream now divided him from his family and friends forever. Better for all, then, he shrugged. In England, owning two hundred acres would have been impossible for such as him. His family was well-satisfied with his success, which the impossible distance enabled him to embellish a little in his letters.

Still, he had no particular love of farming, and with no tools of his own, he would depend on the favors of his overseer George Cresswell and the plantation owner, Master Tomlinsen, just as before. Although Stephen’s assigned plot had looked like paradise when Stephen and Susannah gazed at it together through their dreams, he had learned enough about farming to know it was a poor piece of property. He did not confess this to Susannah.

He forced his stiff knee into a brisk dash across the open paddock and slipped under the eaves of the livestock barn, casting a longing look into the warmth and lantern light there. The streaming rain reminded him of how boggy his acres were on the creekside. It would flood again in the spring. 

With a quick look around, he circled to the haypile in back of the barn and thrust his toe just under the pile until he felt the solid iron of the kettle he had found sitting empty by the spring and hidden to take to his homestead later. Satisfied, he moved on, adjusting his trousers as if he’d been relieving himself when two other workers came in sight.

He was to go straight to the tobacco barn this morning, but he didn’t, even though it was already near dawn. Everyone looked the other way as usual when he stopped by the laundry for a quick kiss and an exchange of the day’s luck with Susannah. 

“Look under the haypile in back of the barn,” he whispered into the muslin cap covering her honey-colored hair.

“I’m sorry about last night,” she whispered back.

“No fault of yours, sweet. Have you seen your father, yet?”

“They had me hauling linens down at first light. He was feeling poorly yesterday.”

They dared not linger and risk annoying their accomplices in the laundry. But he could detour by the carpentry shed to see her father Matthias, he decided. 

One of the other laundry girls passed by with a knowing smirk. 

“You have a merry smile. It becomes you well,” Stephen said to her, hoping his insincere flattery seemed genuine so she might feel kindly disposed to Susannah if they needed a favor.

The newest bondsman was coming towards him, straining under a load of wet, blackened wood. Stephen leaned in confidentially.

“There’s a pile of dry split wood under the porch steps if you’re short on what you need,” Stephen murmured. “I’ll help you replace it tonight.” 

And I might have to miss my supper to do it, he thought. My last as a bondsman. But Susannah is still bound. We depend on the goodwill of these fellows.

He was headed towards the carpentry shed to check on Matthias when another  servant, his friend Charles, went by with an axe and a mallet, looking fierce enough to use them on somebody.

“That madman Cresswell has us out mending fence in this!” he said indignantly. “And you’d best be quick over to the tobacco barn, or you’ll be celebrating your last day in the mudbath with the rest of us.”

 Since Stephen would be growing his own crop next year, Cresswell had agreed to show him how to check the curing tobacco for mold and choose which plants were ready to be laid carefully over the floor of the tobacco barn for further aging.  He was hoping Cresswell would send him off with the gift of a tobacco knife of his own. He’d only been allowed to work in the fields before, but he needed to know what to do with the stuff if he did manage to grow it. And he might need Cresswell’s help to get his crop sold and shipped. 

In the barn, he tried to concentrate on the difference between variations in the mottled greens and browns of the curing leaf and splotches of developing mold. The mold was supposed to be darker, but everything was nearly colorless in the dim light of the barn. He thought of Charles and his mates trying to grip slippery wet mallet handles in ankle deep mud, and willed his attention back to the less odious job of improving some English gentleman’s tobacco. 

At noonday dinner, ravenous after missing his breakfast porridge, Stephen gulped glasses of milk with his meat and bread, thankful that the shed workers were better fed than field hands. He folded a piece of pork into a slice of bread and put it in his pocket with a couple of  apples for Susannah’s father and walked over to the carpentry shed. He hadn’t yet kept his promise to check on the old man.

“Can’t stay but a minute,” he said to Matthias, who presented a gaunt gray face, almost the color of the wood dust that covered his clothes.  “Got to get back to work before Cresswell figures out I’m not just taking a piss.”

He held out the bread and meat. “Susie said you were feeling poorly.”

“I am. I’m right sick to my stomach, and I’ll tell ye why. Cresswell says he talked to the master himself, and Tomlinsen said no.”

“Even if Susannah’s not free, we can still marry,” Stephen said hastily, tamping down his dismay. 

“He said no to the marriage, too.”

“He can do that?” Stephen didn’t have to wait for the answer. He couldn’t enter into any contract himself without permission while he was bound, and neither could Susie. He knew that. But why did Tomlinson refuse?

“You didn’t tell Susie yet, did you?” Stephen was sure Matthias would put off telling such hard news. “Don’t fret about it. I’ll tell her tonight.”

As he turned to leave, Matthias reached for his arm. “Stephen?” The old man’s voice quavered. “Back of that pile of scrap iron by the forge? There’s a right passable axe-head. A little cracked, but it’ll stand sharpening and hold for a year or two. Fish it out and bring it to me like you’re havin’ it fixed for Cresswell, and I’ll put it to a handle and keep it close ‘til you can take it out to your place.” 

“I’ll need to chop a lot of firewood to warm my cold bed for two more years, Father,” Stephen answered without humor. “But thank you.” He was already moving toward the door, pulling up the collar of his coat against the rain.

He entered the tobacco barn pulsing with frustration and disappointment, but was soon attending to his tobacco lessons more closely than before, just to keep his mind off their dismal situation. As the afternoon shadows deepened and everyone got cross with hunger, Cresswell strode through the barn impatiently, barking orders to lay down piles of tobacco. First he would urge haste, and then, when they hastened, he cursed them for carelessness. 

Stephen’s eyes were burning with the strain. His arms and back ached with the effort of controlling his movements to lay bulky piles of tobacco leaf down as gently as babies into their cradles. He was too exhausted to think about his own future, about the consequences if his strength failed or he judged poorly. He wasn’t ready. 

Cresswell, eyes active in an idle body, leaned against the wall across from him. Stephen kept his hands busy and thought of Matthias’s well-intentioned gift of an axehead. He thought of the iron kettle and pot hook he had hidden in the haystack to help Susie feed them when they claimed their home together. We haven’t enough of our own yet, he thought, and now we can’t even have each other. I’ve nothing to bargain with but my labor, and no tools but those I can find here at Grand Oak. 

When it was definitely dark and time to leave off, he approached Cresswell and spoke to him in a carefully managed tone of deference. “This isn’t work a man can learn in a day or two,” he said, wondering if Cresswell even remembered that he was not bound to return to the barn tomorrow. His shoulders slumped and his eyes filled as he faced what must happen. It didn’t make him proud or happy, but he wasn’t prepared to walk four miles southeast to his homestead alone tomorrow and fend for himself with a makeshift axe. He looked around at the sturdy walls and racks of the drying shed he had helped build along with five other indentured men last winter. Cresswell stared at him and waited.

“You seem to need more helpers, Sir,” he said to Cresswell as respectfully as he could manage after being cursed and mocked all afternoon. He felt his face go red with embarrassment, but he soldiered on. 

“Maybe Master Tomlinsen would agree to renew my contract for another year. With more time, I could be of more use to you, Sir . . .”

Cresswell saw where he was going and stole the advantage. 

“You’d never be able to bring in a crop on your own, and you know it,” he crowed. “Come to the barn early tomorrow if you want your breakfast. I’ll speak to Tomlinson soon as I see him.” He turned abruptly and pointed. “These leaves you just laid down here are spoiled by the damp,” he added. “I’m surprised you didn’t see it.” 

___________________________________________________________________________

Shiela Pardee is a retired English instructor living in Oregon and dreaming her way back toward her family’s deep roots in the Delmarva Peninsula. She is working on a novel about settlers in the mid-Atlantic colonies.

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The Plain Man’s Portrait


It was a Saturday morning in late Autumn. Pale sunshine was burning off the last of the mist from the Thames, revealing the faint outlines of horses towing barges down river to London.

Closer by, a heron perched, neck craned, on the banks of the Long Water. It was being admired from a distance by his wife and daughters, who were out for a stroll in the palace grounds.

From the front courtyard he could hear a clatter of hooves and the voices of stewards shouting orders to deliverymen. Ambassadors from Vilnius would be visiting that evening. There would be a banquet and a pageant. They would be asking the Commonwealth to help in their war against Poland. The government had no intention to lend them its army or navy. Instead, it would send them off with warm words of encouragement.

Bulstrode Whitelock would see to all that – the man who had established himself as the regime’s master of diplomacy, etiquette and protocol.

And here was Whitelock now, asking him kindly to turn his eyes from the window to the artist, who was waiting behind his easel. He commanded one servant to adjust a sash across the sitter’s shoulder, and another to adjust the belt which held his sword and scabbard.

“These things are important,” Whitelock murmured, with a smile. “Even if a country has no king, it still must have a head of state. You should look the part.”

But what would be so wrong, the sitter thought, if England’s head of state were to dress in a plain, black suit? He still kept the one he had bought in 1640 for his first appearance in parliament.

“Made by an ill country tailor,” a fellow MP had said. But a black suit was right for any sober, honest man going about his daily business – more practical than scepters and cloaks of velvet. And the business of his office was to uphold the laws – as plain as that. Discard the fallacies of divine right and God’s anointed. In the new Commonwealth and Free State of Britain, government should be – for want of a better word – ordinary.

Plain clothes. Plain rule. Plain sustenance.

Whitelock had asked: should the Lord Protector’s wife be using the vast kitchens of Hampton Court to cook him up country food like fried eggs and black pudding? Surely, both the kitchens and the nation’s ruler deserved something finer?

He had eaten Whitelock’s idea of fine fare at state banquets. It was haute cuisine, the cookery drenched in wines and cream which was making a conquest of the courts and palaces of Europe. It was food the rich may eat but the poor may not. Plain food, on the other hand, unites us all. 

Looking back, things had been simpler for the regime – less compromised – in the year or two after Parliament had executed Charles Stuart. The newly-created Commonwealth had been the most hated country in Europe. Its ambassadors had been expelled. English goods had been impounded in foreign ports. Open season had been declared on English ships on the high seas.

Then, he had not had to submit himself to pomp and ceremony. His mind was occupied by one question only: where to take this revolution, which God had put into his hands?

A free church in a free state: that had been his answer. Whether you were a Baptist, a Presbytarian or a Fifth Monarchy Man, there was space for you in England’s new, broad church.

It was a church freed and cleansed of idolatry. Everyone could now take communion in pure and unadorned churches. Their stained-glass windows and ornaments had been smashed in acts of righteous vandalism by his troops, whenever they had moved into new, conquered territory.

But where had folk turned, given this freedom? Hundreds of thousands had joined the Quakers – George Fox’s Society of Friends – fascinated by his crazed visions, and how his followers talked in tongues when the felt the presence of the Lord.

It seemed that given the choice between plain truth and confusing, dizzying mystery, people preferred mystery every time.

Before the civil wars, he had heard labourers on his estate in East Anglia talk about the splendours of the former king – of how he was the richest ruler in Christendom, rode the mightiest chargers and lived in palaces of gold. It didn’t matter that they had never seen this splendour. The notion of it alone excited them.

They wanted their monarch to be magnificent, more than they wanted him to be just.

And as for him, now: how was he so very different, sitting for his portrait in flamboyant robes of state in Hampton Court, as monarchs had done before him?

He had an almost-royal seal for issuing decrees and an almost-royal title: “His Highness, the Lord Protector” – all outwards signs and symbols created by his lieutenants so that the Commonwealth could match the monarchy in dignity and, by extension, in legitimacy.

Now Whitelock was lingering at the door, a satisfied smile on his face. He told His Highness his carriage would be ready at midday for his usual ride around Shepherd’s Bush.

The sitter was left alone with the painter, who was holding his brush at arms-length to measure his features. How many times had this man knocked out portraits of other men of power? He would have known what he was meant to produce. No one was interested in how the man himself looked. What they wanted to see was power personified; power made flesh.

But surely this would be the final act of compromise – to sit complicit as his face was given the polished, cold hauteur of the kings who had preceded him? Generations to come would view his portrait, compare it with the line of tyrants he had overthrown, and see no difference between the two.

“A king in all but name.”

He slipped the robe of state from off his shoulders so that it fell to the floor, revealing the plain, russet coat he had worn as a cavalryman in the wars.

“I bid you,” he told the artist, “to paint me as I am – warts and all. Otherwise, I will never pay you a farthing for it.”

 He would explain it all to Whitelock when the ambassadors had left.

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Jeremy Howell is a British journalist working for the BBC in London. He lives in the historical village of Old Basing in Hampshire and is a member of the Westminster Writer’s Group.

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Miss Lucy: An Excerpt

October, 1878   

But who hath seen her wave her hand?

Or at the casement seen her stand?

Tennyson

1.

The first time he saw the ghost, Bram Stoker was hiding behind the safety curtain that hung neatly out of sight by the wooden proscenium, and which he himself had insisted be installed, at some expense, only a fortnight earlier—conscious, as any Acting Manager had to be, of the ever-present possibility of fire. Such catastrophic events swept across the London theatre world with distressing frequency, owing in most cases to the presence of filmy costume material left hanging near candles, the use of cheap, highly combustible greasepaint, and the current popularity for ever greater and more elaborate pyrotechnics than had been witnessed the season before. He himself had seen—only last month, at the Theatre Royal on Drury Lane—an entire parade of African slaves smeared head to foot in blacking, every mother’s son of them sporting lit torches as they cavorted beneath a slew of drapery meant to suggest palm trees. He had been nearly unable to remain in his box that night, eyes flicking over and again to the Drury’s exit while his brain pictured the sudden brightness that would no doubt appear as the paperboard sets began to catch. Next would come the shock of the players, some of them still delivering their lines; the well-dressed audience, uncertain at first whether this blazing spectacle, too, was only the latest in stage craft . . . then the stampede would begin . . .

In the end, he had managed to maintain his seat for the Drury show, but had accompanied his wife Florence into the damp evening afterward with a decided sense of having escaped a calamity whose outline they had already witnessed in full—with the exception, merely, of when it would unfold. And he had turned his steps, the next morning, toward the Lyceum with a renewed determination to leave nothing to chance.

Bram Stoker at thirty-one was a physical, redheaded presence on the London scene, broad in the chest, with a slow, sonorous voice, the precise opposite of what early life would have predicted. The childhood paralysis, never explained, lasted for years. So too did the great hunger that ravaged the island of his birth: before it was finished, over one million corpses littered the muddy fields, with an equal number emigrated to anywhere that would have them: to Boston, to Brisbane, to far-off Argentina. In New York, the Irish formed the bulk of the new poor, trading one species of suffering for another. Bram still remembered the brittle autumn when families first started appearing outside his sickroom window, shadow people that had fled the worst parts of the country on foot. In streams they gathered around the docking wall, foul rags begging food, begging passage on the ships.

Where are they going? he had askedMrs. Kirwan, the Catholic domestic who cared for him during that time. She herself lived through the worst part of the blight in Eaksey, where along with two of her sisters she had survived by creeping onto a landlord’s estate after dark, using a gentleman’s razor to cut the haunches of cattle and sucking the hot, vitamin-rich blood, a truth she will never tell. All those people?

            Whitechapel, most like.

            Why?

            An who can stay here, with the devil himself up and walking about?

Bram felt deep distress over the starving crowd and their suffering faces. The walkways of Clontarf were cobbled with stones that had been pulled from the fields to allow planting, and in the evenings the emigrants wandered them up and down. Some begged food, or blankets; some merely drifted, like leaves. The twilight road was haunted by their numbers.

Aren’t they afraid?

Hunger, child, Mrs. Kirwan had grimaced, closing up the blind. Hunger will make you do anything.

Most painful to him from that time of horrors, though, had been the total loss of his father’s affection; the goodnight kiss had never returned. But infirmity, once lifted from his shoulder, had been banished forever. One afternoon—had he been seven? eight?—he could abruptly feel three toes on his left foot. By season’s end, the paralysis had leached back out of his flesh as inexplicably as it appeared, and a young man took his first, wobbling steps on yellowed soles. In his teenage years he developed an athletic streak, as if in repudiation of all weakness. His limbs grew thick, his body massy. He began sporting a copious crimson beard. At Trinity, he took medals in hurdles, vaulting, long-distance walking, swim-meets, returning from the rugby field with blanched shins and heroically bleeding nostrils. Yet it was as if he had been rendered permanently invisible by the disease. Try as he might, the old man never stopped regarding him as something already dead.

It was only a year ago now (was it so little? yes, barely more than a year) that the second great miracle had occurred in Bram’s life, a miracle that, like the recovery of his ability to stand, had altered his prospects with the swiftness of a summer storm. Twelve months ago, he had been living in Ireland still, working as a civil servant at Dublin Castle, both his personal and professional life for the next three decades as predictable as the setting on a table. Tonight, instead, he found himself here, at the noble Lyceum Theatre—found himself at the opening performance of Hamlet—found himself (was it even possible?) Acting Manager to the most powerful Shakespearean in a generation.

From his position behind the baize curtain, Bram could see the actor waiting, as the saying went, in the wings, head tilted low as if at prayer, so that his swept-back hair shone in silvery tints above the absolute blackness of his cloak. The man had his long librarian’s arms draped behind himself, fingers interlaced, listening to each line that preceded his own appearance onstage with the intensity of a chemist trying a metal for imperfections. It had been made quite clear in rehearsals that nothing would be permitted, this evening, short of excellence.

What, hath this thing appear’d again tonight?

I have seen . . . nothing!

Cautiously Bram eased himself another half-foot into the narrow gap between fire curtain and house, struck by the notion that he had seen something odd. It was an uncomfortable feeling. The demand that no element be amiss during Hamlet applied just as sharply to him as to any of the crew, and likely even more so, as he was an outsider both to the island and the profession, and it was in every sense incumbent upon him to prove himself.

Only a few yards away, their hush audible in the manner of full theatres, sat a capacity crowd of well-dressed Londoners. His searching eye could just make out the ground floor orchestra, the first dozen rows illuminated by stage lamps, with here and there a playgoer’s visage thrown into a garish relief. Above the ground, a wedge of the dress circle, likewise filled, and a small section of the mural that ran from the back wall to the head of the western stair. The Lyceum was old and of grand construction, yet hardly what purists might call a “concise” structure. There were little peculiarities in the way this theatre had been built, quirks that a casual eye would overlook, but that lent it a feeling of never quite being at right angles. Stairways came to abrupt conclusions, before the foot expected them; sounds could be heard emanating from unusual directions, or no direction at all. One of three major windows—Bram had discovered on examining the immense structure that had, almost overnight, become his responsibility—was a good eleven inches lower than its companions, a defect he had covered with a banner.

Owing to one of these awkwardnesses, at the top of the western staircase, between two rows of audience members but concealed from them, was formed a little containment called the “Nook of the Stair”: simple wasted space, like an abortive hallway, too stunted to serve any purpose. He remembered having fretted over it in the first weeks after arrival, finally deciding that it would not be possible (due to an unexpected curve in one side of the plastered wall, but not the other) to hang even a candelabra in the Nook. And it was in that confoundingly disordered space, not visible from any position but his own, that his eye stopped. For a moment, he was quite certain someone was standing there.

The figure was just past the point where deep shadows fell. It appeared to be a female, slight of build, and vaguely outlined in something white. Even from a distance, this person gave off a peculiar feeling of stillness, as if she had kept watch in this unwitnessed spot for a century already, and could do so for another, but at the same time there was an equally strong sense of activity—the motionless species one sometimes perceived in persons intently engaged in addressing some vexing, inward problem. The arms, shrouded to the wrists in that same white material, hung loosely at her sides. Bram could see an oval face, with its gleam of forehead surrounded by dark, unruly hair, and underneath it, catching lamplight, two eyes that were—he realized with a jump—looking in his direction. Then there was nothing.

It was only later, after the relief and celebrations of opening night were concluded, after red beefsteak and wine at the Plough and Harrow, after his employer had gone on for almost an hour over precise alterations to be made before tomorrow night’s performance (everything from costume details to a change in Fortinbras’ blocking), only after all that, in the quiet of his bedroom with Florence once more, the last minutes of October silent save for the cross-town carriages rattling through the fog, that Bram remembered the definite impression of someone—a woman, he had thought, in the grip of strong emotion?—standing, quite impossibly, in the shadow of the Nook; and, remembering his mother’s frightful stories on Hallowe’en night, wondered whether there were, in this world God had created, such actual things as ghosts.

And if there were, what any such creature should want of him.

____________________________________________________________________

William Orem’s first collection of stories, Zombi, You My Love, won the GLCA New Writers Award, formerly given to Louise Erdrich, Sherman Alexie, Richard Ford and Alice Munro. His second collection, Across the River, won the Texas Review Novella Prize. His first novel, Killer of Crying Deer, won the Eric Hoffer Award for Excellence in the Small Presses, and has been optioned for film. His second novel, Miss Lucy, won the Gival Press Novel Award. His first collection of poems, Our Purpose in Speaking, won the Wheelbarrow Books Poetry Prize and was published by MSU Press, and he has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize in poetry, fiction and creative nonfiction. 

Meanwhile, his short plays have been performed around the country, winning both the Critics’ Prize and Audience Favorite Award at Durango Theatre Fest, and thrice being nominated for the prestigious Heideman Award at Actors Theatre of Louisville.

Currently he is a Senior Writer-in-Residence at Emerson College. Details at williamorem.com.

Miss Lucy Copyright (c) 2019 by William Orem. By permission of Gival Press.

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The Perils of Bonaparte

August 18, 1812

Dearest Josephine,

Smolensk is hot, dusty and oppressive. Russian opposition was light, the bulk of their army withdrew as soon as they saw Prince Poniatowski’s uhlans put spurs to their mounts, there was some trifling action at the city walls, and Murat’s corps entered on the heels of the Vistula Legion having hardly smelled any smoke. The city is burned out, of course, and there is little food. We found a cauldron of groats in an intact corner of one building; a bit insipid but somewhat palatable.

In the distance, in the encampment of the Russian rear guard, Prince Bagration’s soldiers are singing something that to my ear clearly appears written by men who eat Russian groats all day. It is insipid and mildly nauseating, but in its own way melodic, and how can I ever again cringe at a musical piece after having heard the braying of Egyptian camels?

Onward, and–l’audace! Toujours l’audace!

Napoleon

* * * * *

September 7, 1812

Here at Borodino, the Russians are dug in and well equipped; their songs sound rather worse with full orchestration than sung a capella. Poor Caulaincourt keeled over of apoplexy almost immediately, and several of my officers appeared greenish around the gills, but then our men discharged their first musket salvo which drowned out the music in a most satisfactory manner, and thereafter reloaded their muskets with rapidity I had never before seen, or believed possible. I shall ascribe that to their finer musical sensibilities–or perhaps to olfactory ones, as the brimstone constituent of gunpowder smoke provided an effective anodyne for the odour of groats emanating from Russian dugouts.

I am told the songs are all written by a man named Ilya Krivoy. I have ordered him caught and shot. A la guerre comme a la guerre!

* * * * *

September 14, 1812

We arrived at Moscow in the evening. The only significant opposition came from a peasant wedding that spilled out of a church in Borisovka, a village just outside the city: these abominable songs accompanied by accordion and balalaika appear to hit the exact pitch required to set French teeth on edge; the sequences of notes repeated ad nauseam reminded one of being sliced in half with a two-handed saw, forever. Two hundred soldiers and three officers were sickened, but are expected to recover in a few weeks, and as soon as our cannon caught up, a dozen canister shot eliminated this annoyance.

I have announced a reward of ten roubles for capture of Krivoy, alive or dead. I intend to execute him publically. They have their songs and I have my smoothbores; we’ll see which has plus bang de son franc.

* * * * *

September 15, 1812

The fire of Moscow begins. We caught some 400 arsonists, all of whom sang as they set the city aflame. All claimed to be working under orders. I had them all shot, and buried in a forest. Let their friends wander about looking for them, a la recherche de tombes perdu.

* * * * *

October 18, 1812

It seems all the Russians left in Moscow are eating groats and singing songs. Is there no humanity left to them? I raised the reward for Krivoy to twenty roubles dead or one hundred roubles alive; a rouble nowadays buys either three tonnes of groats, or half a chicken. I spend much time plotting an appropriate demise for this Krivoy, assuming I buy the more expensive package of him. I also ordered summary executions on the spot for anyone caught singing, copying sheet music, or in possession of a balalaika, pour discourager les autres.

* * * * *

November 20, 1812

I have driven all remaining Russians from Moscow; it seemed the only way, short of shooting the lot, of stopping the excruciating vocalizations, each melody like a garrotte constricting around one’s unmentionables. I confiscated all their food, of course, except for the abominable groats; they protest, et j’agite mes partes intimes a leurs tantes.

* * * * *

November 21, 1812

QUEL HORREUR!

At night, Moscow is filled with wolves!

Howling wolves!

Wolves howling Krivoy’s songs in four part harmony!

Run away!

Sauve qui peut!

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Anatoly Belilovsky was born in a city that went through six or seven owners in the last century, all of whom used it to do a lot more than drive to church on Sundays; he is old enough to remember tanks rolling through it on their way to Czechoslovakia in 1968. After being traded to the US for a shipload of grain and a defector to be named later, he learned English from Star Trek reruns and went on to become a pediatrician in an area of New York where English is only the fourth most commonly used language. He has neither cats nor dogs but was admitted into SFWA in spite of this deficiency, having published original and translated stories in Nature, F&SF, Daily SF, Kasma, UFO, Stupefying Stories, Cast of Wonders, and other markets. He blogs about writing at loldoc.net.

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God’s Own Country

Toka, Yorkshire, Spring 1069

My hair flies in the wind as I gallop over thyme-scented turf.  The pony is muscular between my legs, its coat hairy and hot.  The sea shimmers on the horizon, sparkling blue fading to misty distance.  My soul sings; I gallop for joy, for love of this land, that those who live here name ‘God’s own country’ – Yorkshire.

Thundering hooves race up behind me, then overtake.  Raven’s angry face turns on me.  “Toka, what are you doing?” he demands.

“It’s spring,”  I sweep my arm at hedges foaming with blossom; lambs leaping over molehills; puffs of white cloud floating in a deep blue sky.  “Do you not feel it?”

His knitted brows relax a little.  “Yes, I feel it,” he admits.  “But have a care.  Your father lost his life when his horse stumbled.”

I see the fear in his eyes and am shamed.  From the moment Raven came to serve my Father as huscarl – hearth troops – I have loved him.  I love him for his sturdy stance.  I love him for his thoughtful silence before he answers questions.  I love his long fingers, tanned but with pink nails, that gently fondle his dog’s ears.  Now I know Raven loves me too, and we are betrothed.

But his fear returns the shadow to my heart.  He speaks true.  Father spent his life locked in deadly feud with the Earls of Bamburg.  But last winter he died, not by act of Man, but of God.  His tripping horse broke a leg; father broke his neck.

We buried Father, son of Thurbrand the great Hold of Holderness, beside my Mother.  Now Father’s lands are divided among me and my brothers.  My eldest brother, Karli, sits in Father’s Hall at Hunmanby.  I and my four other brothers all have lands.  I have twelve estates.  It is a good endowment, worthy of a descendant of the Hold.

But with our legacy comes Feud.  My brothers carry the weight of vigilance, ever watchful for a murderer.

We ride homewards to Karli’s hall, where I stay until I marry.  Small children hail us, waving, as we pass well-tended fields, ploughed and sowed and speckled with tender new shoots of wheat and barley.  The children shout and run and chase away the pigeons that would eat the crops.

We stop to drink at a spring.  Sparkling water plashes into a stony channel.  I drink deep, of water that tastes clean and green and fresh.  I pluck flowers from the hedge, place them by the spring in thanks.

We watch the horses drink.  “You will be safe when we marry,” says Raven.  “We will go and live on my lands in Lindsey, away across the Humber.”

His long, pink-tipped finger is soft as the breezes as he runs it down my cheek.  Gently, so gently, he touches my lips with his.  He tastes soft and sweet, hesitant.  I slip my hand behind his head and hold him close.

* * * * *

Karli gives a feast to celebrate the coming of summer.  Since last night, a team of boys have worked to turn a spit over the great central hearth, roasting a swine.  The fat drips into the fire and flares.  The boys challenge each other to turn the spit without tiring, jeering at the one who retires, rubbing his arm.  I fill jugs with armfuls of flowers from the hedges, and place them on the tables.  Edeva, Karli’s wife, laughs: “Men want jugs to hold ale, not flowers.”

Edeva speaks true, and when the villagers come to the feast, we refill the ale jugs over and over again.  The great hall, so quiet and empty without Father, comes alive with talk and laughter, bright with colourful clothes.

I, since Mother died, the Cupbearer in Hall, fill the great ceremonial drinking horn, the one edged with silver.  I present it to Karli, my brother.  Karli raises it.  The silver catches a shaft of shining through the smoke hole.  “Summer is come,” he cries, “Greet the days of thrice-milking!”  He drains the cup: everyone else cheers, the voices rolling around the Hall, filling it with life once more. 

The boys carve up the swine, passing the meat round on great wooden platters.  The Hall is quieter as folk eat. 

Gradually, as each belly is sated, the buzz of chatter grows louder.   Men pull dice from pockets.  Small boys melt into the corner and begin to wrestle.  Women gossip.  Dogs slink under the tables to gnaw bones.  Someone starts a song.  Raven’s fingers catch mine.  His touch is magical, setting my skin tingling.

Raven speaks.  “I hear William has come, and sets him men to build another castle in York.”

Karli leans forward.  He has the look of Father, tall with a great mane of thick fair hair, turning silver at the temples.  Like Father too, his heavy brows become each day more knitted, more furrowed.  “We go not to York.”

“Why not?” asks Raven.  “It is the greatest city in the Northern Lands.”

Karli’s brows knot deeper.  “The Bamburg kin frequent York.  We of the Hold mingle not with those of Bamberg.”

Raven’s brows are fine, dark, and mobile.  Now he raises them.  “But there are thousands of people in York.  In that crowd, the Bamburg kin would not find you.”

Karli shakes his head.  “Not so.  They have spies, watchers.  The Earls pursue us through the generations, ever since King Cnut ordered Grandfather to remove their rebellious Earl Uhtred.  Uhtred’s son killed Grandfather, despite that Grandfather was acting for the King.  Thus our father was obliged to take vengeance – and now the feud falls upon me and my kin.  We must be ever watchful.”

I hear Karli, but he cannot suppress my joy.  Father did not die by feud, and I have never seen a single one of the Bamburg kin.  Soon, I will marry Raven.  I look at him and smile.  “When we are married, please take me to see this great city.”

Karli’s little girl, Ingunn, climbs into my lap.  I sing her a child’s song, of a wandering poet who seeks a warm bed. “He finds his bed…” I tickle her armpit, “Here!”  Ingunn, two summers old, squeals and giggles.  Her mother glares, “Ingunn must learn to sit quiet, don’t excite her.”

Chastened, I nuzzle Ingunn’s silken hair under my chin, and whisper a challenge, “How long can we stay quiet?”

She turns big blue eyes to me, nods, and puts a thumb in her mouth.  I wrap my arms about her, soft and warm, and dream of my child – Raven’s child – to come.

She starts and almost tumbles off my lap at sudden harsh yells, clash of metal, and a great thud as armed men burst into the Hall. 

Karli leaps to his feet.

* * * * *

Osbert, Yorkshire, May 1069

The sound of scabbards slapping against our thighs echoes in the sudden silence as I follow Gilbert, my Liege Lord, into the Hall.  Red faced peasants gape as our men spread around the room, unsheathed swords glinting in the firelight.

A man at the top table, with the womanly long hair of these men of York, leaps to his feet.  “Who are you, to bring weapons into my Hall?”  He speaks grandly, but we answer by throwing his guards, bound and bleeding, at his feet.

The Hall is more fitted to a count than a common farmer.  The air is thick with food, the smells meat, of bread, and ale.  My stomach growls and clenches: we have been in the saddle for many hours.  But in this hall, over-fed English peasants idle, a gallery leads to private rooms upstairs, the walls are lined with thickly embroidered hangings.  There are even flowers on the tables, as if at a King’s banquet.

My Lord Gilbert eyes the long-haired man.  “I am Commander of the Garrison of York, for King William,” he announces.  “I am come to collect the tax of Karli, son of Karli.”

The long-haired man speaks, “I am Karli, son of Karli.  And I have paid my lawful tax.”

A young woman sits beside Karli, a child on her lap.  But the child is not hers: he breasts are full but tight, virginal.  Her skin is fresh with youth, her hair long and fair like Karli’s.  I guess she is the sister.  Blood rushes to my balls: she is ripe.

Karli continues, “But I pay no tribute.  Tribute is paid by the men of Wessex, that the Danes may leave them in peace.  Here in York, the Danes do not threaten us: they are our kin.  We pay no tribute.  We never have.”

We have heard this tale many times.  These men of York seem to believe they themselves choose what laws to follow.  “Danelaw, Danelaw,” they bleat.  “Given to us by King Cnut, renewed by King Edward.”

My attention wanders.  On a hanging behind Karli, an embroidered warrior plunges his sword into a great dark dragon.  The dragon sits upon a pile of yellow gold.  It is apt: we warriors are about to claim our rewards.

I, like many of us, live by my sword because I am a younger son.  As it is not the custom to divide inheritances, my father can offer me little.  Hence, my sword serves he who pays.  Duke William – now King William – promised rich rewards to those who followed him to England.  I am here for my share.

The child on the girl’s lap whimpers, and she passes it to another woman.  I finger my sword: the smells of meat and bread are making me hungry.

But I must bide my time, for from King William also flow heavenly rewards.  The Pope has blessed his mission, and the King is to rectify the lax English Church.  We are to teach Englishmen obedience to God’s laws – and to His authority on earth, the King.

We began by righting the injustice done to William.  He was, by blood and promise, heir to England.  But the faithless English passed the crown to a commoner, Harold Godwinson.  When William demanded his throne, Harold refused, saying the King could do nothing without the consent of the Witan– his counsel of wise men.  A feeble excuse: it is for a king to rule, not to seek consent.

That is why William was forced to raise an army, and how I, Osbert fitzOderic, came to be in this Hall on the Yorkshire Wolds, following Gilbert, who in turn follows his kinsman King William, who in turn follows God.

A drooling dog circles the roast pork.  I kick it.  It yelps and runs under the table.

Karli finishes speaking.

Gilbert sighs.  It has been a long day.  We are far from home.  But, we have our work to do.  Gilbert draws a weary breath and explains to Karli, “It is not for you to choose what laws you follow.  There is one law.  The king commands: you obey.  You have not paid what the King commands.  Therefore, your estate is forfeit.”

I exchange glances with my men.  We stand prepared, practiced, our weapons at the ready.  It is almost three years now since God made manifest His will.  Three years since Harold died at Hastings.  Three years since William was anointed King, by the laws of God and Man.

But still the English do not accept it.  For three years, we have marched across this Godless country, suppressing rebellion to the south, the west, the east, and now to the north.

The remains of the fire that roasted the meat heat the metal of my chainmail, threatening to roast me.  Sweat trickles down my back.

“Your estate,” clarifies Gilbert, “Is now mine.”  The finger that had rested peaceably on his pommel flickers.  It is the signal we have been waiting for.

We draw our swords and spread around the room.  The peasants draw together, shivering, their eyes locked onto our swords.  Swords rise: peasants shrink.  Some cross themselves.

The swords swipe and cleave roast pork.  Our men take bread from the tables.  Thus we demonstrate who is now master.  I keep my eyes on the peasants as I stuff meat into my mouth.

While the peasants stare at our feeding men, Gilbert says, “I have a proposal of advantage to you.”

Karli lifts an eyebrow.

“My man, Osbert, will marry your sister.”

The girl starts, turns to her brother.

Karli, foolish, asks, “Who is this Osbert?”

Gilbert beckons.  I stand beside him, throwing my hip to show the large amber jewel on the pommel of my sword.  It is valuable, a reward given to me by the King himself.  The girl is lucky to be marrying such a successful man. 

“Osbert fitzOderic, commander of knights,” Gilbert introduces me.

The marriage is the King’s will.  He wishes us to marry Englishwomen, that the two races under his jurisdiction be united.  Furthermore, many Englishwomen claim to own land.  As God does not countenance women to own property, they must be married, that their husbands may hold the land.

Gilbert selected this girl, an orphaned virgin, to be married.  It is alleged she owns twelve estates.

The girl shakes her head.  “I am betrothed.”

Gilbert speaks.  “Nevertheless, it will be so.”  He glances around at our men: they have finished eating.  He flickers his finger again.

The scent of lavender rises from strewing herbs as I and my band shepherd Karli and his family out.  As planned, Richard, our other knight commander remains in the hall with his band.  Their job is to control the peasants: land is worthless if there is no-one to work it.

Outside, the bright sun dazzles.  We surround the family, swords drawn.  Karli glares at Gilbert.  “This is illegal.  I shall seek justice.”  His hand goes for his sword – but we have taken that.  The woman now holding the child puts a hand on his arm.

Gilbert says quietly to me, “Get the girl.”

I take her arm.  It is firm, sleek.  She shakes me off.  My man Roderick is prepared – he binds her wrists.  I toss her over my shoulder.

She writhes like a fish out of water.  She kicks, screams, bites.  Scarlet drops of blood drip from her knuckles as she pummels my mail-coated shoulder.  She makes no impression.  Battle has hardened my body.

Her reluctance is of no account.  Queen Matilda herself rejected the King’s first suit.  Now she is an excellent wife.  This girl will be the same.

Her brother and his huscarl try to retrieve her.  My men’s swords point at their chests.  The huscarl is stupid: he fights.  Roderick swings his sword.  The huscarl crumples.

I take the girl to my new estate.

When we arrive, the reeve, the girl’s servant, thinks to free her.  The touch of my sword teaches him his new master.

My priest says the marriage rites.  Roderick witnesses.  I consummate the marriage.  All is legal.

* * * * *

The girl is stubborn.  I beat her, but still she fights.  She attempts to run away.  The peasants aid her.  I am forced to punish the peasants and lock up the girl.

But the land is good.  The wheat is tall, cattle fat, sheep thick with wool.  Well kept houses cluster round the Hall.  There is a wharf for shipping goods to market.  Gilbert has chosen well for me.

All I need now is an heir.

Toka

He’s here again.  I fight.  I claw his eyes.  I kick, writhe, scream.

I cannot use the word man for this thief, liar, bully.  The thug who carried me away to slavery.

He is scrawny with a moustache like a weasel and neck shaven like a thrall, but his weight crushes me.  Vomit rises up my gullet.  His hot breath suffocates.  Yellow nails like claws grip my thighs.  I twist and turn, trying to escape.  My body clamps tight to bar his way.  But he forces his way in.  I, like my lands, am invaded.

Nobody comes to see why I scream.  He leaves, locks the door.  I have no water to wash away the scraps of his flesh caught under my fingernails.

* * * * *

At last, my brothers come, with Raven and Danish soldiers.  They kill Osbert.

Raven says, “All men are united to free us from William – even the Bamburg kin have made peace with your brothers, to fight our common cause.”

Karli nods.  “Many families have been wronged.  All have sworn alliance to drive out these devils.”

Raven gives me bread.  “You are thin, Toka.”  Food sticks in my throat.

His eyes cloud with the same fear as when I galloped my pony.  “Please, eat.”  He strokes my hand.  I flinch.

Raven withdraws, his gentle eyes pained.

I weep.

“Time, Toka,” he says.  “Take time to recover.”

***

I feel the stirring of Osbert’s spawn.

It consumes me from inside.  I cannot feel.  I cannot speak.  I cannot eat.  I cannot sleep.

I am a dead soul, my body stolen.

I walk by the sea.  I like the sea.  It is empty.  Empty of pain.  Empty of men.

I am defiled.  Defiled by Osbert’s invasions.  Defiled by his progeny.

The sea is unsullied.

A wave runs over my feet.  Clean.  Refreshing.

I walk.  Cold sea flows between my legs, numbing the pain of Osbert’s attacks.

I walk.  Clean, cold sea rushes over my breast, sharpening my breath.

I walk.  The sea washes me, sweeps away the stink of Osbert.

I walk.  I open my mouth.  Come, clean sea, purge devil’s child.

I walk.  The sea rushes into my nose, eyes, face, over my head.  I welcome it, each wave erases pain, washes away evil.

I walk.

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Helen Johnson has roved around Yorkshire, England for twenty years, writing about the history, heritage, landscape and people of a region known as God’s own Country. She was inspired to write about the Norman Conquest of Yorkshire after learning how devastating it was for the area. You can discover more of Helen’s writings at her website, https://www.helenjohnsonyorkshirewriter.co.uk/

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Henry V, Act II: Deleted Scene

Stunned, I look about me where I stand sentry; but whoever it was that placed this unsettling note in my hand has melted in the crowd that fills the royal audience hall. Moving shapes are everywhere: commoners, nobles, merchants, soldiers, men and women. It is no use to look for the messenger. Again I stare at the words of warning: Courtiers plot the King’s death. Grey is of their number. Black ink, somewhat blurred, yet perfectly legible on this shred of silk in my unsteady hands. This is not possible. It cannot be.

Yet it is. Why, ye heavens? And wherefore did I accept this cursed honour, to be captain of the royal guard, charged with guarding the King’s sacred person?  What am I to do? He is yonder, young King Harry, on his simple, austere throne; and simply he smiles at the woman who seeks some surely unimportant grace. Beside him his uncle, brothers, cousins, other men. Courtiers all. Great God! Any one of them might be ready to deal, the next instant, the fatal blow! Yet no, this is a hasty fancy. Those are his kinsmen and love him, surely, as I do. Yet Grey — there is but one of that name — who would have suspected him a traitor? And who else sides with him, and why? That I cannot as yet know. What must I do? Certainly not fill this vast hall with shouts of “Treason, treason, to the King!”. Better discreetly to approach his uncle the duke, and show him this note. But can we trust the message upon this piece of lady’s silk? What if it were a jest? Yet no; none would dare jest on such a matter.

I must speak to the duke and acquaint him with this note; that much is certain. But, now? The peasant woman, all curtsies, is departing, and the duke is in earnest conference with the King. Do I interrupt or wait? Every commoner in this hall may be a traitor in disguise, and each second precious. But would they truly attempt his life in this very public place? It is unlikely. Still, I hasten towards the King. God forbid any harm should come to him now, when newly crowned, he readies himself for wars abroad, and the whole kingdom hangs on the scale. God forbid any harm should come to him ever, this young man that but a while ago came often to practice the sword with me; this gold-hearted lad that in his hour of glory has not forgotten a faithful friend. And I, captain of his guard!

But stay. That servant who bears wine cups! What if in every one of them were some poison that would instantly stop the king’s heart in his chest?

“Halt there, fellow! Away with these cups; the King shall not drink from them. Away, I tell you!” He is gone, amazement on his face. But, heavens above! Where is the King?

The throne is empty. Empty, yet all his kinsmen here still.

“Where, in God’s name, is his Grace? Gone for awhile? Alone?”

I pass amongst them and, sword in hand, rush along the passage behind the throne.

“My King!” It cannot be, oh, it cannot be myself here, in this moment. But it is indeed my voice, my cries, that echo on the passage walls.

“My King!” He is but a youth, untrained, unready for this office, unaccustomed to this burden of continuous vigilance and suspicion. All the way to the end, then two side doors. I glance quickly into two empty rooms. Up this flight of steps, or down that one? God, help me. He may be anywhere, alone, a traitor’s hand muffling his cries and a traitor’s sword running through his body.

Footfalls resound, and a servant descends.

“Is the King gone that way?” my voice sounds, followed by: “No, captain.” I plunge down the flight of steps. Yet maybe it was not wise to believe the man; what if he were in the pay of the conspirators? Fool that I am, why did I not pause for a second longer before leaving the audience hall, and warn the nobles, and bring others with me? Yet careful now; my feet so rush over the steps they almost stumble and send me flying down.

The large, dimly lit hall is empty. Countless doors lead out of it, and behind every one of them I see that royal lad poisoned, throttled, stabbed. Where is he gone? In that corner, the sentinel!

“What way did he go?”, I pant. He eyes my naked sword and is speechless. “Quick, man! There is treason afoot! Which way?” He points, I speed down another flight of steps, and storm into a chamber. There is more light here. I stop dead.

Against the far wall, the lad leans pensively. Alive, unharmed! Heavenly powers be thanked. It is clear now. I did know — but in my fear I clean forgot — he is wont to come hither after the audiences, and rest his mind in solitude. Yet he turns to me and he is no lad, but the King; and displeasure at being disturbed in his retreat is clearly shown in his countenance and his voice.

“What is this, captain? Why the sword?”

Why? Because you, my lord, have vanished from your hall in a most imprudent hour, with no word of warning to your guard, who has countless times begged you not to do that. No, not this answer. Above all, he must not perceive how discomposed I am. He must not; he will not. I sheathe the sword and endeavor to steady this racing heart, these thoughts, this voice.

“I — Forgive me, my lord. I do beg your pardon for this intrusion. I received but now word of a plot against your life.”

“A plot!” His features change to alertness.

“Yes, my lord.”

“Who plots? From whom had you word of it?”

“I do not know as yet, your Grace.” Be steady, my outreached hand. “This note was given to me in the great hall, but I did not see the messenger.”

He looks intently at me and sees a man as composed as himself. Then taking the message, he studies it. Now his jaw is clenched; but the hand is like to a statue’s. He did not mark my agitation, I’m certain. What fool I was to give way to it. No traitor, bold though he were, would dare attempt the king’s life here, where he is surrounded by faithful men: to do so would be certain death. Yet I did not think of it; and had the King seen me rush distraught through halls and passages, he might have repented making me captain of his guard.

“Sir Thomas Grey,” he murmurs. “I fear I may know who the others are. It is beyond belief.”

Men’s feet clatter into the hall. The King’s uncle and his other kinsmen.

“My liege! How is your Grace? Why does the captain seek you in such haste?”

“He has brought us a most serious accusation. Here, uncle, read this.” His voice is determined. “We must look into it with no delay; yet must we give no sign of knowing it, lest these traitors should see it and escape us.”

He turns to me, looking me straight in the eye. “This has perturbed you, captain.” So, I was deceived. My discomposure has not escaped him. I return his look, though my cheeks burn.

“It was something — unexpected, my lord.”

“Trained limbs and sharp steel, captain, avail but little without a ready mind to direct them.” There is reproach in his looks and voice. I must needs make an answer to that.

“My lord, it was but this once I let my feelings take mastery; and once is not always. Yet if your Grace regrets bestowing my office on me, know I will no longer wish to hold it.”

It is too proudly and unwisely said, perhaps. But I cannot unsay it. In his silence, my last words seem to resound: ‘I no longer wish to hold it’. My heart races again like a hare fleeing the hounds. The King but looks on me steadily, his face a mask: he weighs me in his judgment.

“No, captain,” says he at last. He speaks with gentle irony, but kindly. “I take your perturbation as sign of your great care for our royal person, and little else. I know your worthiness.” I bow, and breath deep.

Now the King confers with his brothers and his uncle, and I look on. How can a man be so coldly observant, reason so clearly, when he has learned a moment ago of a treacherous plot against his life? My mind is in disarray since setting eyes on that note; yet he, whose life is in peril — he holds with a marble hand the scales on which he weighs men and actions; and the plates go neither above nor below the right measure. What manner of man is this?

It is but when the hour strikes that one can know how prepared he is; and the hour has struck, finding myself ill-prepared — but not him. I do not know if kings are made of other stuff than common men. Yet of this I’m certain now: that whatever comes to pass, Harry the Fifth is ready. For indeed, his mind is so.

______________________________________________________________________________

B. Becker is a creative writer (and escapee from Public Management) based in Southeast Brazil. Seed Heart, Becker’s first short story, was featured in the digital journal Carpe Bloom.

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1348

He arrived on Sunday, after a winter of sleep and snow. A jester with clear blue eyes, pale lithe hands and white flowers in them. He smiled and said, I come in peace. I ply my trade with buffooneries and riddles, and the joking tambourine accompanies my laughter. Enjoy my gifts, you beautiful city, and the good time I bring. He bowed in reverence, with the beauty of an angel. And it was Sunday.

On Monday Florence woke up at the song of hundred birds, colourful plumes of fast-winged spirits. Sun bathed the city roofs and its rays made the Cathedral’s spires shine and glow. Here it comes an unforgettable season, people rejoiced. For the jester had promised.

On Tuesday boys chased girls in the streets, calling them funny names like the jester had told them. Naked shoulders in the sunshine heat, naked feet on the humid lawn, great expectations and longing hearts. They laughed and laughed, they played and played again. And they were happy.

On Wednesday the artist began his most amazing painting, of a pale young man with white flowers in his hands. He gave him the beauty of an angel, blue starlight in his eyes. Which flowers are they, jester – but the model stood up and walked. Wait, the artist said, I haven’t finished yet. You won’t, replied the jester.

On Thursday the lords in their high palaces wanted to declare the war to end all wars, for a never-ending peace. Money to buy armies to buy weapons to buy yet more power. To earn yet more money for the richest city of Christianity. But the smiling jester told them to wait, for war was no longer needed. And so they waited.

On Friday he invited the people of Florence to celebrate and party. He went down to the streets, taking their hands and dancing around, drinking red wine and eating warm bread. They made rhymes and ballades together, singing the praise of loving souls, of kindred spirits, believing in eternity, sizing the fleeting day. Like yesterday never was, like tomorrow would never come.

In peace I came, he said, and kissed people of all ages, sex and races, rich and poor, beautiful and ugly, filthy and elegant, nobles and peasants. He caressed Lady Beatrice’s soft cheek, and brushed children’s head with his delicate fingers.

It was late at night when his Lady came to him. So scared she had been, the week spent burning in secret, yet hesitant on her steps. Are you wise enough to befriend a fool? Are you foolish enough to believe what he says? But not that night – that night she believed, and her feet followed him under an immaculate moonlight. His skin was whiter than the moon itself, and his touch as gentle as butterfly’s wings, bestowing pleasure and divine wisdom. What’s your name, my Lord, she whispered in awe. One you don’t want to hear.

When Florence rose from slumber on Saturday afternoon there were no songs, no flowers, and all birds were gone. A hot sticky rain was dripping on their faces and insects crawled on their wet skin. Sunlight had disappeared under a blanket of fog and clouds masked the Cathedral’s spires. In thousands they were dying, without mourning of the living, abandoned in fear, desperate beyond despair.

As a ghost in the darkness, a cart with its sinister bell sound came over, slowly parading in the streets. The jester strolled along, clear blue eyes shining in compassion, and face covered by a beak-like mask, white as his hands. Soothing sick people, whispering words to their moribund ears, caressing their gaping buboes.

He visited taverns, churches and houses, a silent shadow of doom. And on the red linens of their beds he threw the asphodels of the Black Death, his voice crystalline and sweet, the touch suave of an Angel of Plague.

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Russell Hemmell is a French-Italian transplant in Scotland, passionate about astrophysics, history, and speculative fiction. Recent work has appeared in in Aurealis, Argot Magazine, The Grievous Angel, and others. Find them online at their blog earthianhivemind.net and on Twitter @SPBianchini. “1348” originally appeared in Strangelet, 1.4, November 2015.

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Savior and the Thief

I saw her in glimpses, seraphim in the blinking lantern light. In a way she resembled all that London was in that year 1860 and all that it still is to this day; a beauty revealing itself in flashes, leaving one incredulous when it appears in the most unsuspected places and moments. The third year I called London home she acted the savior. Ironic that the grand capitol that swept a Dorset boy like me in its embrace, that instilled awe and welcoming within his bosom, would also become the stage for the worst pain to ever seize him.

Covent Garden hummed with yuletide commerce. Patrons of every ilk bundled and bundled some more, as if the frigid morning air were a habitual gadfly perpetually shooed away. Mothers and daughters wore two shawls, pinching them with one hand while the other grasped and prodded wares of confectionary, linens, flora, and baubles. Fathers in greatcoats and gloves conversed idly with costermongers, while using canes to shepherd wayward sons, toddlers and young boys wobbling in their mischief, excited with sundry activity the season brought.

Being a bachelor with no wee ones of my own, and a barrister’s clerk with but a little money to spend, I tended to make better progress through the seller’s stalls than those of more familial tethering. A couple items caught my eye which I thought of gifting to my mother, but nothing sold me.

“You there, how’s about a nice shawl for a lady in your life? Pretty as a picture in the Strand!”

“Young sir, a bouquet can go a long way, if you don’t mind me sayin’.”

“These chestnuts with a bottle of our vintage—ambrosia to the kings of Thessaly.”

I smiled at these offerings, but truth was, the best stock tended to be in the middle of the marketplace. Just the way I liked it. I cherished days like these in London, where I could leave Barrister Bloathewaite’s offices with recent wages and inhale the city in all its glory, its sights, sounds, smells, touch, and the occasional taste via seller sampler.

But the pain hit that day. Worse than ever.

That morning I had contemplated sending a missive, that I would be in with the doctor. But the pain below my navel subsided, and I soldiered on.

But here in the middle of holiday cheer it hit me, sharp as ever.

I grabbed my waistline as if to prevent me being guillotined in two. I stumbled, jostled passerby, and collided with the snow-strewn cobbles. Odd that once the pain hits a certain point it tends to numb right before fainting.

The faint lasted mere minutes and I felt myself floating. It dawned on me in my stupor, an angel had been sent to fetch me. Her face flashed as my consciousness undulated, a tide gleaming sunrise. The lanterns of the stalls revealed her soft face in the early eve. Chalky and fragile, small wisps of breath meeting the phantom of cold. Her lips and nose small but set in line like a sea vessel, her eyes the steadfast sails, watering in the momentum with which she transported me in the barrow.

As in and out as I was, I grasped that I did not cross the Channel bound for the continent. When the shilling hanging from above read “Physician” I knew I had remained landlocked. I knew that much before passing out again.

Mr. Roberts was a man who knew his craft, for the ailment I had, which he called “stones”, were to pass, albeit painfully, with the help of his regimen of elixirs and mixed powders and a certain prescribed diet. I was happy the bill had left me with a bit left to pay my rent and still get my mother a small gift to bring home for the season’s visit back to Dorset.

The following week I endeavored to purchase my mother’s gift and track down the barrow seller, the angel, who had conveyed myself to relief.

It must have not been my month, as it were, for as I traversed the crowds of Drury Lane I felt the pickpocket’s hand pull my billfold. I guess I was lucky in that regard, for many is the victim who never realizes they are being robbed.

I chased the lad toward Covent Garden, not enough time to notice if any constables patrolled nearby. Fortunately my daily walk to Barrister Bloathewait’s kept me in robust condition, and it took but a quarter of an hour to maneuver to an alley where my absconder could go no further.

“Hand me what is mine, and be gone with you,” I said, wanting to go about my day without further delay. I had a pity for those who took to these ways. Even though it was wrong, I knew starving families were often the motivation behind such acts.

The rascal wore a thick woolen cap and looked about as does a cornered animal wising for some escape to manifest.

“There’s nowhere to go. Give it here.”

With a rather high-pitched grunt, the culprit sprinted in an effort to throw me off balance and get past me. I felt myself stepping in the way and grabbing hold of this thief. The momentum took us both to the cobbles. What I thought was a boy squirmed in my grasp.

“Please don’t turn me in. Please,” a young woman’s voice pleaded.

It was then I met her eyes. She flinched as I removed the cap which unrolled the billow of wheat-brown locks.

“You?” My brows clenched as it dawned on me that this was the benefactor from the week prior. Up this close, she looked more a denizen of the heavens.

A look of vague recognition twinkled in her eyes, and was gone, a sparrow gliding through an arcade.

“Sir, here, take it.” She handed me the billfold. I do not remember putting it in my coat pocket, so muddled was my mind. “It was for my mother. She is sick. No one wants to help. Please, sir, don’t turn me in.”

We were both still on the cold ground, sitting in the dank alleyway. I helped her to her feet.

“Don’t you have money from selling your barrow-wares?” I asked, perplexed. “Surely this is not the way. What good would it do your mother if you were sent to jail?”

Her hands went to her face, and rivulets flowed.

“No, no. I didn’t mean that.” I said in soft tones. “I’m not going to report this. After all you did for me, bringing me to the doctor.”

“Thank you, sir. It’s just that what little money I make, most of it goes to the stall owner. And he pays me little.”

“Let me see if I can help you and your mother.”

Her eyes showed another gleam of hope, merely a flutter, but it was there.

She nodded, and the rest, as they say, is history.

It is said London is the epicenter of all Britain, from which all things stem. And that is true for me as well, for Angelia, the woman who saved me in Covent Garden that one day and then pickpocketed my heart, became the center of my universe, and eventually we wed. She had been abused by men who only wished to use and discard her. I had been a struggling clerk, shunned by a handful of maidens who thought me, admittedly true, not yet ready to financially support them in the way their fathers thought appropriate. Yet, our roads intersected at exactly the right time.

With some of my funds, and with appeals to certain charities with whom our law firm had business ties, Angelia’s mother survived her illness, and many is the night the three of us enjoyed dinner hearthside.

When I visited Dorset, my family was quite happy to see me, and though I had no gift for my mother, when she heard where those funds went and that I had met someone special, she said that was all the gift she needed.

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Nolan has been published in Foliate Oak, Aphelion, Blood Moon Rising, Points in Case, and Defenestration Magazine. He’s worked with executive editors from TOR/Forge; Random House; Folio Literary; and Dijkstra Agency. Under a pen name, he self-published an Epic Fantasy novel, full of kingdoms and conflicts. He’s also taught creative writing and has his own curriculum. All this writing came after his childhood acting days in Baywatch, Disney’s Geppetto, and Pizza Hut and HBO commercials, one of which was featured in USA Today.

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Ghost in the Bathroom

The little girl slipped out of the church when they brought forth the scrapwood coffin. Through the tawny windowlight, she watched as the long box of splintered planks clumsily jounced atop a garland of brown hands flayed raw by sand and sun. From the evening dark beyond the surrounding fence crowned with machine guns and sentry huts, the frantic yips of starving dessert wolves sounded from the belly of a gloomy arroyo, their whimpers high and sharp like a tribe of lost children. The little girl turned and ran between the wide empty firebreaks to her barrack, desperately trying not to think about the man who had fallen.

He had been the first to die in the camp. A young Nissei on a construction detail. An accident by all accounts. The little girl had seen a small crowd quickly gather near a pile of joists and studs at the base of the unfinished theater. She abandoned her game of jacks and wandered over to see what had happened, what absurdity lurked at the center of the serried throng able to diffuse the same solemn stare over all who looked upon it. By the time she pushed her way through, the stirred desert dust from the plummet had settled and the Issei hoarsely chanted in a sacred Japanese meant only for monks and poets. The dead man lay stiff and still, caked in a grainy red film. Above, frayed ropes hung from the broken scaffold and swayed like lazy spider legs in the hot wind. The body was bent in odd ways, a heaped and tangled mass of human angles. His hands were crammed beneath his chest, arms crushed and flaccid like the wings of a baby bird. His legs were spread and contorted, his right knee jerked high like a sprinters’ as though he were edging through a jagged finish line of loose nails and rusty scrubweed. The alderman for the dead man’s barrack block stepped forward and squat next to the body. He spat into dirt and shook his head and looked blankly beyond the fence. He decided the guard would have to be bribed for there to be a ceremony. That the mess hall would have to be consecrated. That another man’s help would be needed to move the corpse before the buzzards caught scent. Dorothy stepped back from the gathering and covered the beginning of a smile she could not stop from spreading. Against her will, she had thought the dead man looked as though he were dancing and hated herself for thinking such a thing. She pinched her arm hard and prayed for God’s forgiveness.

Curled under her tick-straw cot in the darkened barrack, Dorothy formed little piles of sand and told herself a tale about a young pharaoh and a magic horse who could gallop across the waters of the Nile. The story made her less afraid and gave new purpose to the powdery sand that always managed to get into her eyes and mouth and clothes despite how hard her mother tried to keep it outside. The front door exploded open with a heavy crash. Dorothy’s older brother stepped out of the blue night into the tiny greenpine chamber.

“Think you can run off huh? Think you can get away from having to sit through that funeral?”

“No Tom, no. I don’t want to see that man again. I don’t want to see him in that box, and I don’t care if I get in trouble. I don’t want to see that man again.”

Tom’s tie was loose, his collar wilted. He was almost fourteen and already taller than both of his parents. He was lanky, acned, and missed pitching for his junior high baseball team. His thin mustache was thickened by the dark of the room.

“You know,” said Tom, “I followed you out here to bring you back to the funeral. Mom and Dad’s orders. But as I was walking, I saw the ghost, like Obachan said. I saw his ghost, his y?rei in the bathroom.”

“No you didn’t!” Dorothy cried, “no you didn’t and you are just trying to scare me.”

“I saw him, sticking his broken arms and twisted neck out of the window. All that dust still on him.”

“Shut up!” Dorothy burrowed her head between her arms, tears dampening the frilled sleeves of her only church blouse, “Please go away, please!”

“Mom and Dad told me to bring you back. But I have a better idea. I’m gonna have you pay your respects to the ghost himself.” Tom grabbed both of Dorothy’s legs and dragged her from under the cot. She screamed and beat her hands against the floor. Tom let go of her ankles and covered her mouth. “Quiet,” he angrily hissed, “you stay quiet or I’ll throw you off that scaffold like him.” He hove Dorothy over his shoulder and stepped back out into the night.

The younger children had not gone into the bathrooms since the fall. None of them wanted to be the one cornered by the ghost while they were relieving themselves. In the days since, the oldest Issei claimed they had seen the y?rei in camp. Sometimes he was sitting on the benches around the gardens. Sometimes he walked along the fence passing his hand through the barbs in the wire. Sometimes he took the form of the snakes and scorpions that wriggled up through barrack floors when the days were hottest. But most times, it was agreed, most times he was in the bathroom.

The camp was quiet and solemn. The lights from the distant mess hall windows punched square holes into the dark while a cotton-eyed moon ogled from a vaulted cobalt sky. As they neared the bathroom, a tattered shroud of cirrus crept across the moon’s lambent glare and the remaining sprays of copper stars flickered weakly. 

Dorothy punched furiously. Her mouth was still covered and she bawled into the salty callouses of her brother’s hand. Tears streamed down her cheeks and pasted plaited locks of hair against her skin. Her shoes flew off as she kicked his back and slapped his cheeks but Tom only held her tighter.

Out of the dark, the bathroom materialized and its torn shreds of tarpaper lapped the desert wind like a long black tongue. The crooked door flew open and hit the side of the latrine with a slap.

Tom shoved his sister inside and held the knob. Dorothy frantically beat her fists against the wood, her weary brittle shouts rattling and crumbling inside her throat like dry autumn leaves. Through the pitch dark, a cold gust blew from the empty stalls. The slivered boards moaned in pain and between the low drumming of her balled fists, the dulled clink of dragged metal rung from behind like broken bells. Dorothy thrust her shoulder into the wood, driving with all her weight, but the door did not budge. She sunk to her knees and pushed her head against the planks. “Here he comes,” Tom whispered through the slats, “here he comes.” Dorothy closed her eyes and pressed them into the palm of her hands.

The dead man danced limply in her head.

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Christopher Berardino is a writer of Japanese-American descent from Orange County, CA. He received an MFA in Fiction from Cornell University in 2018. He has completed his first novel, Infamy, about the oft-forgotten Japanese Internment Camps. Selections from this novel won the Truman Capote Writer’s Award. Additionally, he has won Cornell’s Arthur Lynn Andrew’s Award for his short story “Dog Bait.” His work has previously appeared Connu Magazine, and Flash Fiction Magazine

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Rembrandt, Self-Portrait with Saskia

The old master studies the canvas for a long moment, then reaches out with shaking hands. He cuts away an excess of cobalt, his knife leaving a sharp shadow at the base of the tall cloud painted against the ultramarine sky. His student, used to such corrections, only nods his understanding, immediately applying his brush elsewhere.

The master’s own canvas is only half-finished, rough layers of oil over a charcoal sketch that he almost hadn’t needed to make. He’s painted this landscape before. He remembers silvered clouds in a butter-yellow sky. The windmill that dominates the scene was new, its sails full as it caught the wind. Today the structure is tired, its doorways seeming to list and sag, its sailcloth panels torn, exposing the latticework beneath. Even the tulips in the foreground, a river of red and white that undulates in the breeze off the canal, even they are not the tulips of thirty years ago. Those were so exquisite they could shatter a soul. More than one man had been broken by that blossom; today’s flowers seem barely to hold even the shadow memory of such beauty.

The serving woman wraps a cloak around his shoulders. The old master pulls it tight, hands too gnarled to be only sixty-two, he thinks. They can still hold a brush, still earn a living, and for that he’s grateful, but he remembers the hands of his youth, smooth and fine-boned, dexterous enough to paint all day without tiring. This April is mild, but his joints are sensitive to the smallest chill, and today they ache as though they were eighty.

The flapping of a tablecloth in his periphery catches his notice; the woman has set out the dinner of cold chicken and vegetables. His students, only two now – he stopped taking boys three years before – pause their work, eager for food and conversation after so many hours silently painting. The master stays by his easel, but takes a plate when offered. He eats the bread, only picking at the drumstick and asparagus. Food is not the joy it once was. But nothing is, really.

Once again he remembers that yellow sky and the girl who brought his meal then. Saskia. Only twenty-two, the cousin of a patron and so beautiful. “You are losing the light, sir,” she’d said to him that day, setting her basket on the ground. She’d knelt then, paying no heed to the damp grass on her pale green chintz. She studied his drawing. “Melancholic,” she said simply, gazing at his work. “Are you sad?”

Her voice was low, that scratch of laughter always there, even when speaking of melancholy. He admired the spill of red-gold hair from beneath her linen cap, her plump cheeks aglow from the cold spring air. “I cannot be sad, in such company,” he told her. It sounded cavalier, and he hoped she did not suspect him false.

“I’ve come with your supper,” she told him, “but I would stay to watch you work, if you allow it.” She tugged her fur-lined cloak close around her chin and settled onto the grass, fully expecting to stay.

He had known her but a fortnight, but it had been like this from the first, each seeking reasons to find the other, to linger thereafter. Over those weeks, they’d simultaneously exchanged insignificant conversation and meaningful glances, until he was certain that there was understanding between them, though no words to any such effect had been uttered. “I will not deny you,” he told her that day beside the windmill, “though you may wish I had. Sketching can be dull work.”

She smiled then, a radiant, impish grin, exposing a dimple and a flash of teeth. For long minutes they sat, he drawing, she watching, the supper forgotten. From the canals, the barge-men called, the mules brayed, and above them all, the sails of the windmill creaked.

“Are you not known for your portraits, sir?” she asked at long last, just as he lay a deep shadow beneath the bank of the canal. “Surely there is no living to be made in etchings of landscapes, lovely though they are?”

He looked at her fondly, so young and yet already so practical. “There is time enough to make money. This, I make for love.”

And here, here she looked up, her eyes wide and dark, her hair tossed by the wind. His heart staggered, for she had never looked more beautiful. “Are there not portraits,” she asked softly, “which are also made for love?”

For the first time, he was bold enough to take her hand. She did not flinch at the dark smudges of charcoal and chalk; she only looked into his eyes, waiting. “I would paint your face,” he told her.

Now, years later, the old master pulls paper from his bundle, his hands shaking as fingers search for chalk. He closes his eyes, remembering her face, just as it was in that moment. His pupils’ chatter fades, the feel of the sun on his face diminishes, and once more it’s a yellow, overcast day.

He draws the curve of her cheek, a bold crescent of red chalk that meets the sweeping line of her jaw. His fingers no longer tremble; the spring damp no longer seems to gnaw. More than twenty-five years have passed since he’d last drawn the planes and shadows of her face, but still his hands know them. In bold strokes and fine lines, she comes to life for him, her mouth laughing, her face framed in a fur-lined hood.

“Saskia.” His voice rumbles, low and ancient. There have been other women, each dear in her way, but now, as time weighs heavier upon him than mere years, it’s her voice he remembers, her face he would paint for love.

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Angela Teagardner is a bookseller for pay but a writer for passion. She lives with her little family in a little house in Columbus, Ohio.  

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