Man Booker Prize: George Saunders wins for Lincoln in the Bardo

Not only has a historical novel won the Booker Prize this year (that’s not uncommon), but one with distinct speculative elements as well – in fact I’d say that with the large dose of the supernatural in the book, it’s practically a historical fantasy book – but of course it won’t be shelved as fantasy by any bookshop.

Saunders has also been published in Best of Science Fiction and Fantasy anthologies in the past so I think to some extent he is a genre writer – although I don’t think any writer should be limited to a category as such.

Anyway as a fan of realistic and fantastical historical fiction, I must say I am very pleased to see this book win!

Battalion 202: Operation Solar by Jonathan Doering – Free Extract

The Battalion 202 stories by Jonathan Doering have been running in Alt Hist since Issue 4. They give an imaginative view of some of the pressures and reactions to Nazi Occupation had Operation “Sea Lion” been activated successfully in late 1940. “Operation Solar”, the concluding story in the cycle, brings together the narratives of the key characters, centering on the AU plans to attack and liberate the Nazis’ transit prison at Pontefract Castle.

You can purchase a copy of Alt Hist Issue 10 if you want to read the full story.

Battalion 202: Operation Solar by Jonathan Doering

Author’s Note: Battalion 202 has attempted to offer an imaginative view of some of the pressures and reactions to Nazi Occupation that would have been caused had Operation “Sea Lion” been activated successfully in late 1940. “Operation Solar”, the concluding story in the cycle, brings together the narratives of the key characters, centering on the AU plans to attack and liberate the Nazis’ transit prison at Pontefract Castle.

Late December, 1940

A British army officer looks out of the window of his office. Behind him, a young man and woman sit, watching him. Finally, he turns.

“So, what happened?”

Pontefract, 7th December, 1940

It was a couple of hours after the hanging of Father Peter Mackintosh that Tommy slipped back into the Operational Base of Pontefract Auxiliary Unit. Fortunately, the Queen’s Hotel was not overlooked by houses and sat beside one of the town’s three railway lines. Darting into the courtyard at the back, Tommy slipped through a side door and into the basement. His eyes adjusting to the gloom, he made out, behind the beer barrels and wine racks, a makeshift wall with a service door built into it. He looked over his shoulder once more before tapping the security signal: three separate knocks followed by a single one. It had been Chris’s idea – three dots and a dash, the Morse code for “V” for Victory. The door opened and Christopher Greenwood’s face appeared; he turned the muzzle of the silenced sniper rifle to one side when he saw who it was.

“Tommy!”

“Hi, kid, let us in then.”

“How was it?”

“Just get the bloody door locked first.”

They retreated down a short passageway between rough brick walls, marking off certain parts of the basement. They came to a second metal door and gave the same knock. The door was laboriously unlocked and unbolted before a ruddy-complexioned face beneath a thatch of sandy red hair was thrust out. “Welcome back trooper! Come away in.”

They stepped into a small living area: four metres by four, two sets of bunk beds opposite each other against two walls. In the centre stood a table where the AU members ate, discussed, planned, and cleaned and repaired weapons. On the far wall was a disused coal chute, allowing fresh air in. To the left of it stood a small stove, and to the left of that was a worktable with a small box of kitchen utensils on top. Stacked neatly underneath were tins and other provisions. To the right of the chute stood a Belfast sink, and beside that two slop buckets. In both corners on either side of the door were metal lockers holding weapons, first aid equipment, more clothing. As they entered the room, a pale-faced young man who had been sitting on one of the lower bunk beds looked up at them: Lieutenant MacKinnon gestured with his head.

“Steve, take the 303 and stand guard at the outer door, eh?”

Stephen Walsh, a renegade from a recent work round-up, had been brought a week before by Rosie Doyle. MacKinnon had taken him after some negotiation, joking ruefully: “Don’t be sending us too many; we’ve barely got enough space for ourselves here.”

Rosie raised her eyebrows. “Don’t send too many? How are we going to build a Resistance Army like that?”

“You wouldn’t be saying that if you had to spend a day down here. We only get to clear the slop buckets out each night. If we’re lucky.”

She laughed. “Well, you need to get out and about more, don’t you? Little more fresh air.”

MacKinnon had laughed easily enough, but once the door had closed again he’d turned and exchanged glances with both Tommy and Chris, before turning to their new recruit.

“And what the bloody hell can you do?”

Walsh had been a worker at Dunhill’s liquorice factory, so had become the unit’s cook, which was an elastic term, encompassing the role of preparing food, keeping the OB clean, mending clothing and equipment, performing First Aid when required, and so on. He had little military experience, save a few weeks’ preparation with the Home Guard before the invasion, but had settled down well enough. He took the rifle from Chris, nodded and disappeared through the metal door.

MacKinnon set a kettle to boil on the small stove, dropped some tea into a pot and sat down at the table.

“So how was it?”

 

 

When the riot started in the market place and truncheons and fists flew, Tommy, standing towards the back of the crowd, automatically backed away and strolled past the front of St Giles church. His wish was to bear left, back to the Knottingley Road, cross over and make his way directly to the basement of the Queen’s Hotel, where they had managed, through a union friend of his, to set up headquarters. But of course, that would have led any watchful snitch or secret police officer straight to them. Instead he bore right onto Shoemarket, his heart lurching at the realisation that this way would take him past the new Gestapo offices. His steps faltered momentarily, but he forced himself to continue: any sudden change of direction might attract attention, and he had three choices: move in the direction of the OB, take his chances in the market place, or walk to another edge of town and lose himself, and this was the only way of doing that under the circumstances. The hairs on the back of his skull rose slightly as the beautiful library building came into view, like that gorgeous bright white marble mausoleum he had seen when he had been wandering around Barcelona just before he came home with the British Battalion in 1938. He had looked at the shining, ice-white surface of it, then imagined the bones inside and shuddered.

“Just keep walking slowly. It’s just a building.”

He moved on, the electric field of evil sliding over and past him, before another faltering step: half way down the street was a line of trestle tables, with British police officers and German soldiers positioned behind it. Before and behind it, German infantrymen circulated, gently but firmly guiding passers-by over the table in order to have their documents checked. “Just take a moment. Nothing to worry about.”

Tommy’s eyes flicked to the alleyway just beyond the tables. In all likelihood, he would be spotted if he tried to walk down there undetected. And even if he made the alleyway without these personnel seeing him, there could well be another check point or at least an armed soldier waiting out of sight.

“Well, we’ll see how good these papers from Wakefield are.”

Sauntering nonchalantly towards the table, Tommy took in two British uniformed bobbies in blue, a German in field grey, and, improbably, a severe-faced young woman in a German uniform. Her blonde hair was tightly bunched beneath a piss cutter cap, but one or two stray hairs had worked their way loose. Tommy guessed that she was a member of the SS-Helferin Korps, focused on the strands of hair and drifted forwards, and by some miracle—perhaps because he did not protest against having to show his papers—was not intercepted and found himself in front of her. She flicked a glance at him as she shuffled some papers together and lined up her rubber stamp.

“Papers please, mein herr. Identity card, residency permit, work document.”

Tommy had his hand on all of the documents he thought she would want already and brought them out of his jacket pocket as one, handing them over with a grin. “There you go.”

Again, the glassy, disinterested glance, and for a second he regretted choosing to come to this woman. She pulled the corners of her mouth back in a polite smile and took the sheaf from him, turning them the right way round to read them, immediately lifting the top paper up for inspection before looking back at him more closely.

“This is a driving licence. I do not require to see it.”

She said it crisply, like a primary school teacher reprimanding a child for some sloppy spelling, but in for a penny, in for a pound. Tommy took the licence back with another grin, deliberately and brazenly seeking her eyes out and staring into them. “Pardon me. I’m sorry about that. I shouldn’t have given that to you, should I?”

Her eyes flickered for an instant, then her cheeks coloured slightly and she laughed lightly and looked down at the other documents. Tommy allowed himself to laugh in a low voice. “Now that you know that I have a vehicle, perhaps you’ll let me drive you somewhere some time?”

Again, the slight flush and the giggle. She glanced at the name on his papers. “Yes, Herr … Roberts. Perhaps.”

Out of the corner of his eye, Tommy spotted a movement as one of the soldiers became aware of the flirtation and started to move towards him. The woman shifted from side to side and gave him one more look before handing his papers back. “These are in order, mein herr. Thank you for your co-operation.”

Tommy risked one more look, flicking his gaze at the edge of her pupils, smiling broadly and taking the paperwork back.

“Thank you very much. Danke schön.

She shifted again, and he became aware of her body inside of her uniform. Then there was a poke at his shoulder and the German soldier was there, frowning.

“Ja, ja, danke schön.”

Tommy half-winked at the Helferin before turning to smile at the soldier and walking away. Maintaining an unflustered walking pace, he moved on down the street, turning right in front of the Windmill Inn, then curling round to the left into Finkle Street. His heart was a thumping fist and he kept seeing the rising blush in the woman’s cheeks and the excited look in her eyes as she looked downwards. But then he felt a wave of shame at the very thought of touching one of the enemy, the blush rushing through the whole of his body, before he felt the chill of the December wind, and his sense of ardour cooled. He walked into the cemetery, quickly losing himself amongst the gravestones, working his way back to the corner of the wall, and climbed up and over and into the field beyond.

 

 

MacKinnon drained his tea and nodded approvingly.

“Thinking on your feet. Good.”

Tommy shrugged. “I couldn’t really think of anything else to do.”

“Sounds like you couldn’t think of anything else at all.” They both chuckled at that, with Chris smiling good naturedly enough, although since getting engaged he was even more awkward about all of that than ever. Still, Tommy felt a little easier about his earlier reactions. As MacKinnon refilled their mugs, he asked: “What now, then?”

MacKinnon stopped pouring for a moment and watched him, before continuing to pour: “You’ve taken the temperature of the town, got a feel for what it’s like. What are your thoughts?”

“There’s an anger, but they don’t know how to focus it. The Jerries look well-organised and the local police seem to be hand in glove with them. If they’ve got the local command structures on their side, it’ll be hard to challenge them with such small numbers, other than harrying them the way that we have been doing.”

Christopher spoke up. “But we know what they’re planning to do with the people at the Castle. We’ve got to do something about that.”

MacKinnon looked at Christopher. “I know that your mother’s up there, Chris, but you’ve got to try to stay objective about that.”

“Objective?”

“You know what I mean. Try to stay calm. I promise you we’ll do everything to get as many of them out as we can. But I can’t guarantee that we can get them all out. Or how many that we get out will survive.”

Christopher reddened and opened his mouth, but then trembled slightly and closed it again. MacKinnon pressed on. “Look, of course you want to save your mother and the others. We’ll do what we can. And we’ve made contact with some other groups who are interested in giving us some back up.”

“Which groups?”

“We’ve got the AUs in Leeds South and Wakefield on side, so they’ll co-ordinate actions when we’re ready to go. Make as big a statement as possible, and hopefully draw some soldiers away from here. Or at least distract them.”

“But what about our own numbers? We’ll be overwhelmed if it’s just us.”

“Both units have said they’ll send who they can, but they probably each will manage one or two. They’ve got their own work to do, eh?”

Chris snorted. “That could be six of us, maybe eight. Hardly an army going up against a garrison.”

MacKinnon nodded slowly, rolling his eyes. “Ye-es, so we’ve got to concentrate on other sources of support. That’s one reason why I sent Tommy into town, to try to gauge if there might be stomach for some action.”

Tommy grunted. “I’d say there’s stomach. You might be able to garner six or so men of fighting age … But how to reach them? Then to train and equip them?”

“You’ve got a point, but we’ve got some local contacts now. Tommy, you’ve been able to work your old union contacts like a dream, especially now the TUC has been declared illegal, they understand we’re all in the same boat. And since you’ve linked us up with this Christian group, Chris, we’ve got a line to a lot of other sincere people who want to make a difference.”

Tommy sighed softly. “Yes, that’s true, but half of them are past retirement age. Their hearts are in the right place, and they’ll be champion when it comes to knitting us balaclavas and warm socks. Getting us food, even hiding us, sure. But storming the barricades? The Nazis would cut them down in a second.”

MacKinnon shrugged. “Maybe, but if they want to do their bit, we shouldn’t deny them.”

He caught a glance from Tommy. “For God’s sake, I don’t mean sending old ladies over the top with a rifle, Tom. But we’ve got to accept every offer of help that we get.”

Tommy nodded, but his eyes were dark. “You’re probably right, but it will mean more casualties. More arrests. Reprisals.”

“Aye, maybe. But the more every last single person stands up to what’s going on, the sooner things will change.”

Tommy flicked his eyebrows and his shoulders: there was truth in what had been said and there was no denying it. MacKinnon sipped his tea, watching first one then the other. “Anyway, boys, look on the bright side. This means that you both get to travel again.”

Tommy pulled a face. “Already? I’ve just got back from the clutches of Marlene Dietrich’s ugly sister.”

“This is to meet friends this time, or potential ones, anyway.”

“Oh yeah?”

MacKinnon nodded at Christopher. “Chris, I need you to make contact with the local brethren. Try the Methodist minister first. The Catholics are under more pressure than anyone else right now. Explain what’s happening and see what he says. We’re going to need volunteers for the attack, safe houses for anyone we do get away, medical supplies, food, clothes, you know the score. See what he thinks.”

“Right. If I can’t find him can I—?”

“Go and bother your wee woman? God man, anyone would think you were already married.” MacKinnon shook his head in mock irritation. “Well I can’t deny a man in love can I? But you be back here by the rendezvous time, Chris. That’s important.”

Tommy was watching Christopher. “Is that wise, Sandy? She could be being watched …”

“Some comfort necessary, I’d say. I’d be facing dissension in the ranks if I always said no. But I mean it Chris. Not a second later than the time we agree. Understood?”

“Yes sir.”

“Good. Now, Tommy. Our other source of help.”

“Yes? I was wondering.”

MacKinnon nodded again. “You know how they’re keeping Jewish prisoners up there? Well, I’ve been in touch with some Jewish groups who are champing at the bit to help.”

“Great. How many people can they spare?”

“Not sure yet. And anyway, we need to have a meeting, talk things over.”

“Of course.”

“Anyway, there are two main groups. The Jewish Defence Committee …”

Something shifted in Tommy’s memory. “Defence Committee? Weren’t there …?”

“Yep, the mouthy bloke at Waterton House.”

Tommy remembered the intelligent young man with sharp, dark eyes. And with a rush of heat, he remembered the man’s sister, with cropped, russet hair. “Yes, I think I remember him.”

MacKinnon snorted. “Aye, bit of a bolshie leftie if you ask me, but you know what they say about your enemy’s enemy.”

“Why send me to speak to him?”

“Why not? You’re a union man, you were in Spain. I understand this guy was out there too.”

“Get away! Which brigade?”

“How the bloody hell should I know? You’ll be able to ask him when you see him. Maybe he’ll have a few snaps from back then, eh? You can reminisce about the good old Republic.” MacKinnon’s tone was gentle enough and Tommy allowed himself a chuckle. The Scot smiled. “Seriously though, I need you to do a wee bit of that, get the measure of him. See if he’s trustworthy, build a few bridges, sort out how many he can muster, whether they’re battle-ready.”

“Right. And how are you going to be entertaining yourself whilst we run messages across the West Riding?”

“I’ll be helping myself to the best malt they’ve got on offer in the bar upstairs.” MacKinnon laughed and looked into his mug. “I’m billeted under a great bloody calendar hotel with a fully-stocked bar and my throat’s as dry as a bloody thistle.” He blew a sigh and set his cup down.

“There’s another Jewish unit. But professional. Made up of guys who actually have army training. Served in regular army outfits, but then when the Invasion came, they volunteered to form stay-behind teams of their own. Winnie agreed, said they’d fight all the more fiercely cause of what Hitler would do to them if he got half a chance. They call themselves the Jewish Brigades, and we’ve got one near Leeds. They’ve said they want to meet up and help, and from where I’m sitting, they’re the bloody cavalry.”

“I’m sure they are. So where do you want me to go?”

MacKinnon opened up an Ordinance Survey map on the table and pointed. “You meet there, in the woods between Pontefract and Ackworth. Chris, you go to the Methodist minister’s house first. He’s expecting you. Steve stays here and holds the fort. Meet back here no later than oh-two hundred hours.”

 

 

Pontefract Castle, 7th December, 22.30 hours

A car came screaming up to the gates in the early afternoon. The prisoners down below in the old Magazine, now nicknamed “Der Kühlschrank”, heard shouting and someone being dragged across the ground above. The door to one of the Nissen huts opened and slammed shut. Periodically since then there have been cries and shouts. Down in the perpetual half-light of her subterranean prison, Doris Greenwood fancies that she can hear familiar voices: particularly of that grubby little police sergeant, Balks. Something has happened, and now something else, something horrible, will happen. Beyond that, she knows nothing. It is strange to reflect that this is the worst thing: the not knowing.

A door slams again. More shouting, blows, then a shout and a sharp report that echoes back and forth above their heads. The sound echoes and reverberates: someone has been shot. In the leaden silence that follows there are more voices, but quieter, almost sheepish.

Then—scraping; a metal shutter far above their heads is thrown open. A voice (Balks’s?)  drifting down: “Someone wants to say hello. You people are going up in the world, or is it that he’s going down?”

As she looks up into the already unfamiliar light, a dark shape is falling towards them. It takes a moment for her to register what has happened. Then it is as if her very being is again wrenched in two directions. There is a part of her that looks at the body hanging in the pool of light thrown down through the service hatch, spinning slightly like a puppet on a string, and factually remarks, “There is a man hanging there.” Another part of her wants to scream.

Above, Sergeant Balks looks with fresh respect at Chief-Inspector Knight.

“I know he was a traitor, sir, but …”

“But what?”

“Well, shooting him …”

“Like you say, Sergeant. The Mayor was a traitor. He had nothing further to tell us. Let him serve as an example to the other prisoners.”

Knight slips his Smith and Webley revolver back into its holster. He will clean it when he has a moment back in his office. Such unpleasant things will, he imagines, be increasingly necessary. He turns to looks at Lieutenant Kürten, who is staring directly at him, and slowly nods his head.

END OF FREE EXTRACT

You can read the rest of this story by purchasing a copy Alt Hist Issue 10.

About the Author

After eight years living in West Yorkshire, Jonathan Doering now lives in Oxford with his wife and son, where he teaches English. His work has also appeared in: Cascando, Sheaf, Silver Carrier, Circus, LitSpeak, Contemporary Review, Alt Hist, Brittle Star, Gold Dust (for which he won a Best Prose Award), The Guardian and The Wolfian; his SF serial “Earworms”, which has recently been running in this last magazine, has been published by the Wolfian Press.

Raven Child by Morgan Read Davidson – Free Extract

“Raven Child” by Morgan Read Davidson is set during the time of Julius Caesar, and is about the migration of the great Helvetii tribe through the land that would one day be Switzerland—a migration that would bring them into conflict with the might of Rome’s legions.

You can purchase a copy of Alt Hist Issue 10 if you want to read the full story.

Raven Child by Morgan Read Davidson

You may know the story of the great migration of the Helvetii from the valley between the Jura Mountains and the great Lake Geneva. It is a story told around the hearth fire. “Do not covet the land of your neighbors,” the wise men proclaim. “Pride always collects its due,” the wise women warn, for the Helvetii boasted that they were the most valiant of warriors, favored above all by the thirty-three gods and goddesses. No matter that their crops suffered years of blight along the rocky slopes of that crystalline lake, or that they were forced to huddle along its shores by the ceaseless raids of the barbaric Germans. They were the children of Artio the Bear Goddess, and they would take what they deserved.

Many now spit at the mere mention of the Heveltii, doom of Gaul, for their march to the south rousted the eagle from its eerie, the terror that was Gaius Iulius Caesar. But in the downfall of that mighty tribe is nestled a tale of a boy with no name, a shifter the Helvetii called him, a sprite of the Horned One who snatches children who wander too far from their lodge. Fools they were, for as you will see, he could have been their savior.

He was no wood sprite, though he moved through the mountain forests like a furtive fox, a breath through the trees, having woven into his threadbare cloak ferns and twigs, moss and grass. To Old Maga, the German slave and maker of potions and salves, the boy was a kobold, with his twisted back that raised one shoulder, his tendency to appear out of the shadows in her hut, and his aptitude for discovering the most rare and hidden of herbs. It was while undertaking one of Old Maga’s missions for the deadly root of the Night Shade that the river of his life took a sudden and irreversible course.

The sun had reached its peak when he finally reached the small spring dripping through limestone. There in the deep glens of the forest was the hidden herb, and the shadows of the trees grew long as he painstakingly uncovered the earth over its roots, most desired by Old Maga. With his iron shard of a knife he trimmed the thin hair-like tendrils, enough to satisfy the cranky herb woman but not kill the plant. His frozen snake-spine hissed fire from being bent so long, and he stowed the wrapped roots deep in his satchel and made the torturous climb out of the moist basin.

It was as he was nearing the ancient shrine of Artio that he nearly stepped upon the fledgling crouched among the ferns. Its wing and tail feathers were newly sprung, dark harbingers of the raven it would soon become. The boy craned his rigid neck to peer up into the firs, searching for the fledgling’s parents that must be nearby, but no shadows flitted from branch to branch, no croaking auguries floated down from the canopy. He stooped, his knees popping, and stroked the charcoal down that covered the fledgling’s head and chest, and the bird clicked its beak, turning onto its back to reveal a leg twisted and deformed. A tingle rose up the boy’s neck and into his head, a shimmer like the silver leaves of a birch in the breeze. He lifted the fledgling and cradled it against his chest as he struggled to stand, his legs prickling with a thousand needles. Adjusting the satchel over his shoulder and pulling his forest cloak close about, he wound his way to the shrine of Artio and its roadside glade.

“What are you doing here, Toad?” The familiar screeching warble echoed through the trees, freezing the boy’s heart: Coros son of Orgetorix, and his ever-present companions. Too late to disappear like a wood sprite, the boy slipped the fledgling into his satchel and hunched his shoulders, for it was far safer to be Toad and suffer the bruises and insults that came with that guise than to raise his eyes and evoke the blood wrath of his tormentors.

“Got any mushrooms in that bag?” The lord’s son swaggered forward and grabbed at the satchel. He was twice the size of his two pimply friends, though not taller, his tunic of newly-died red and black crosshatch already stretching the limits of its seams, but the boy could not help pulling away.

“N-n-n-n—”

The three boys burst into laughter.

“Did you hear him croak? N-n-n-n!”

“Croak again, Toad!”

The boy pressed his lips together, hot coals burning beneath his cheeks.

A horse’s whinny rang through the forest.

“Hide,” Coros grunted, pushing the boys into the undergrowth behind the shrine, and they all lay among the ferns and spiny goose berry bushes.

The racing drumbeat of hooves reverberated off the trees as a single rider appeared on the road, skidding to halt in the glade. He was oddly dressed in a short, rust-red cloak with a billowing hood, and fur leggings rather than trousers. For a long while he watched the road that led to the lake town, and then slid off his horse, turning it loose to graze while he paced back and forth like a hound awaiting its turn at the scrap heap.

The damp moss seeped through the boy’s smock, and he furtively tried to adjust his satchel where the fledgling squirmed inside. Then the clatter of horse hooves and the braying laughter of men announced a party of horse lords with grand mustaches and brilliant tartan tunics and great cloaks. Their leader, a lofty lord of lords, saw the single rider and jerked to a halt in surprise. The banter ceased, and the lord rode alone to where the rider paced.

“That is Dumnorix, prince of the Aedui,” Coros whispered. “He takes my sister back to Bibracte to become his wife.”

Sure enough, there among the horse lords sat a maiden with hair that fell in bronze waves across her embroidered cloak. Dumnorix dismounted and took the cowled rider’s arm, leading him to the shrine. His heart fluttering like a finch in the thorns, the boy pressed his face into the loamy soil and became the forest floor.

“It is done?” the rider said in a thick accent.

“The council has been notified of Orgetorix’s plot,” Dumnorix said. “They will arrest him this very night. Once his kingly designs have been exposed, the Helvetii will cease all talk of migration.”

“Of this you are sure?”

Dumnorix held out his hands. “Only the gods can be sure of anything.”

“The Proconsul wants assurance.”

“Tell Caesar he may rest easy. Orgetorix is the Fish Who Thought He Could Walk On Land.”

“Traitor,” Coros gasped, attracting the men’s eyes like beetles to the candle flame.

With the flick of a hand Dumnorix sent his men into the underbrush. Coros and his companions leapt to their feet in a mad attempt to flee, but the boy remained on the forest floor, a part of the ferns and moss and broken twigs. Sticks snapped and men cursed and the boys squealed like pigs under the butcher’s knife, but no rough hands jerked the boy to his feet. Only when he could hear their whimpering beyond the shrine did he venture a glance, no more than the shimmer of wind through grass.

“We must reach the camp by dark,” Dumnorix was telling his men. “Please take my lady ahead with all due haste. I will properly chastise the young scamps and catch up shortly.” He put a hand on the shoulder of Coros and his smile was the cheerful warmth of the hearth fire. When the last clomp of horse hooves faded among the tall trunks, the Aeduan prince turned his smile to the lord son.

“Artio did not hide you well today, did she?”

“My father will put your head on a bore spear.”

The smile remained as frozen as the visage of the goddess even as Dumnorix slid his dagger into the lord son’s gut. From beneath his short cloak the rider brandished a Roman blade and before they could even cry out had cut down the two trembling boys.

“Leave them to the wolves,” the prince commanded over his shoulder, wiping his blade as he strode to his horse. The rider snarled a curse and made a noisy business of dragging the three bodies into the thick undergrowth.

And then he too was gone and still the boy had not flexed a finger.

The trees groaned and creaked, conducting a curious conversation high above. Artio the Bear looked down upon the bloody grass with distant eyes blurred by moss and age. The fledgling ruffled its wings and the boy stroked its soft head and rose stiffly to his knees.

A moan rose from the ferns.

A small voice deep inside the boy’s chest screamed, Run! Run now and hide in your cave. You are no warrior. You are no druid. You are the wood sprite, the twisted kobold. You are the croaking Toad. The wind sighed a mournful tune and ran her slender fingers through his thin hair, and he raised his head to Artio. His legs wobbled as he followed the smears of blood to the two boys, their throats raw openings, eyes open in surprise. Beyond them, Coros lay curled like one of those white grubs in rotten logs.

The boy sliced a long strip from the rich red cloth of the lord son’s tunic. He avoided looking into the lord son’s eyes glazed with fear and pain, and balled the cloth up and pressed it beneath the hands clutching the oozing gut. Coros wheezed, whimpering like a pup and curled into himself even more. The boy slashed another long strip from the tunic hem and tied it around the compress to hold it in place even if the lord son lost consciousness.

The fledgling watched this all with a curious black eye, and then hopped upon one leg, fluttering its wings for balance. Twilight had crept into the woods like a sneak thief. The boy sat back, his chest tight and sweat dripping into his ear. He could still become the wood sprite, take his hidden trail and forget all he had heard and seen.

But the fledgling clicked its beak and cocked its head, and when the boy held out his hand it hopped aboard. He removed the cloaks of the two dead friends and placed them over Coros, who had begun to shiver, and then he turned to the road and broken into a lurching trot toward the lake town.

A chill spring breeze whistled off the crystalline waters of Geneva and between the lodges of stone and clay and timber, carrying the scent of hearth fires, the tanning vats, and the latrine trenches. At one time the town had been enclosed within the old dike and palisade walls, the ancient seat of the esteemed line of great lords from which Orgetorix descended. Now, however, the once pristine pasturelands along the lake shore were clogged with the hovels and swine sheds of the clans, driven from their lands in the foothills and northern vales of the Jura Mountains by German raiders. Blights had devastated the grain crops for three straight seasons, and the stores had run empty. The clan wives made sacrifices of trinkets and woven dolls to the goddess in the water, and blamed the curse of the tribe on the wastrels and derelicts—outcasts like the boy who limped through the gates wearing the forest floor and clutching a raven child beneath his smock.

He kept to the weedy allies between crofts and thatched lodges, his cloak pulled over his head. He was the beggar-boy now, a whimpering mutt unworthy of the scathing eyes of the townsfolk. An old woman spit at him between her remaining two teeth, but otherwise he was ignored.

The great hall loomed like a crouching giant in the center of town, and as the boy reached the threshold raucous laughter spilled forth from the smoky innards. His knees nearly buckled, and his throat felt stuffed with wool, but his feet kept moving forward past hulking men smelling of rancid milk and ale and sweat to the crackling hearth fire ring, around which sat the oathmen of the lord, all eating from a venison roast on a platter and dipping their horns into a breached barrel of ale. Orgetorix himself, tall and robust with a long black mustache that drooped past his chin, noticed the boy first.

The lord stood, firelight dancing beneath his black eyes, and the boy shrunk into his ragged cloak.

“What are you?”

“M-m-m-m-m-m—” The words would not come, and the boy’s face burned.

The oathmen laughed, turning back to their ale and meat, but Orgetorix’s bushy black brow came together.

“Are you the mummer?

“M-m-m-my lord.”

“Oh, no,” the lord said, cocking his head. “You are the woodsman’s son.” He shrugged his eyebrows. “Still alive. Well, say what you must and be done with it.”

The boy nodded, his eyes on the floor of wood planks worn smooth, but his lips were numb, his throat tight. He shook his head in an attempt to clear the blockage, but could not even draw a breath. The undulating shadows of the hall closed in on him and his legs wobbled.

And then the raven pecked him, a sharp jab that sent a jolt through his chest, and the words burst forth.

“Coros,” he gasped. “Attacked. Sh-sh-sh-shrine of Artio.” And then he collapsed.

END OF FREE EXTRACT

You can read the rest of this story by purchasing a copy Alt Hist Issue 10.

About the Author

Morgan Read-Davidson grew up in rural Washington State before moving to Southern California to study film. In 2005 he was an Academy Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting, and worked as a screenwriter before becoming a professor of rhetoric and writing studies at Chapman University. He is an avid outdoorsman and traveler, an obsessive researcher of ancient cultures, and a champion of community writing programs. Currently he is in the final stages of completing a historical novel set in Gaul, 52 BCE.

HBO new show Confederate takes an alternate history view of the Civil War

News about a new Alt History TV show. From the Guardian:

It will envision a post-reparations America, where black Americans inhabit a sovereign nation, New Colonia, comprised of the southern states of Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama. The series will chronicle the complicated relationship between New Colonia and the US in a post-Reconstruction milieu, where the former has established itself as a fully industrialized country while the US struggles to stay afloat economically. It will chart the complex relations between the two countries, which are geopolitically linked but marred by a violent past.

The Thirty-Fourth Man by Martin Roy Hill – Free Extract

I have been remiss in not posting extracts from the Issue 10 of Alt Hist. So here’s the first one – “The Thirty-Fourth Man” by Martin Roy Hill. Paul Klee, former cop and OSS spy, now reluctantly serves the SS in a Nazi-occupied America. His latest assignment: Hunt down the Thirty-Fourth Man, a double agent who destroyed a German spy ring. A story inspired by true events. You can purchase a copy of Alt Hist Issue 10 if you want to read the full story.

The Thirty-Fourth Man by Martin Roy Hill

I always got a strange sensation when called to Günter’s office, something between dread and terror. SS Obersturmbannführer Hermann Günter was never an easy man to work for, especially if you hated his guts as much as I did. Günter headed up the German SS in the United States. He’d held that post since America surrendered—as did Britain and Russia—after Kraut atomic bomb missiles vaporized New York, London, and Moscow. It was his job to make the US safe for Nazism, fascism, and other acts of inhumanity. I rapped twice on the door to what had once been J. Edgar Hoover’s office in the old FBI building in DC, and heard Günter’s Teutonic-tinged, “Enter!”

Günter sat behind the decommissioned flattop that served as his desk, silhouetted by the blinding morning sunlight streaming in through the windows like an interrogation spotlight. He didn’t look up from the note pad.

“Herr Hauptmann, you are out of uniform.”

“It’s at the cleaners,” I lied. In fact, it was hanging in my closet collecting dust and, I hoped, providing a smorgasbord for moths.

“It is difficult to believe a uniform you have never worn requires cleaning,” Günter replied without looking up.

“Not true,” I protested. “I wore it to the office Christmas party.”

“There was no office Christmas party,” Günter said, still writing.

“Must’ve been the Halloween party then.”

Günter sighed but still didn’t look up. An arm snaked out, picked up a folder, and tossed it to the far side of the desk.

“Your next assignment,” he said. “You’ve heard of the Duquesne Ring?”

I nodded. “Nazi spies rounded up by the FBI early in ’41.”

Thirty-four German men and women were sent to the US in the late Thirties to spy on a country Germany was still at peace with. One of them was a double agent working for the FBI. For two years, the Bureau watched the spies, feeding them false information through the double agent. In early ’41, the Bureau closed the trap, arresting the thirty-three remaining spies. All were convicted and sent to prison.

“Heroes of the Reich betrayed to what you used to call the FBI,” Günter corrected.

The FBI, now called the National Police, was my real employer. I was seconded to the SS several months earlier, issued the death-head uniform I never wore, and given the rank of Hauptmann, or captain, the same rank I held in the army during the war. Günter told me he had requested me because of my background as a city cop before the war and as an OSS spy in Italy during the war. In truth, he wanted to keep a close eye on me so I didn’t arrest any more Nazi fat cats—German and American—who were making fortunes preying on a defeated America. I had had little say in the matter, but I didn’t mind. This way I could keep an eye on Günter, too.

I opened the file and glanced through its contents. Despite the SS logo on the cover, the contents were in English. That’s because the folder held a classified FBI report from 1941.

“This is the report on the Duquesne arrests,” I said. “What kind of case is this? They all went home to Germany hailed as heroes.”

Günter laid down his pen and looked at me for the first time, his dead, blue eyes hard, and his lips set tight.

“Yes, heroes,” he sneered. “Abwehr scum who failed the Fatherland.”

The Abwehr was Germany’s military intelligence agency, equivalent to America’s OSS. Staffed by professional military officers, the Abwehr’s responsibility was gathering foreign intelligence. Filled with Nazi sycophants, the primary job of the SS was Party security. The two agencies often butted heads—unfortunately, not hard enough to kill each other.

“We are not interested in the thirty-three who went home,” Günter said. “We want the thirty-fourth man.”


William Sebold was the thirty-fourth man. German-born Sebold immigrated to the States in the Thirties and became a naturalized citizen. While visiting his mother in Germany in 1939, the Abwehr strong-armed Sebold into becoming a spy. Unknown to his German handlers, Sebold notified the US Consulate of his recruitment and agreed to become a double agent for the FBI. Through Sebold’s work, the Bureau identified thirty-three members of a spy ring led by Fritz Duquesne, a German veteran of the Great War and another naturalized US citizen. Just days after the Japs attacked Pearl Harbor, the entire ring was in jail, and William Sebold disappeared.

“So you want Sebold,” I said, tossing the folder onto Günter’s pristine desk. It slid across the expanse of desktop like a careening carrier plane. “You don’t need me to find him. You have the entire FBI file right there. Go get him.”

I lit a cigarette and smiled at Günter. He didn’t smile back. Not at all.

“Herr Hauptmann, your flippancy begins to wear thin,” he said.

He removed an engraved gold case from his pocket and lit a cigarette. I wondered if he bought the case or looted it from one of his concentration camp victims.

“William Sebold is a traitor to the Fatherland and is wanted for treason. Your FBI has hidden him and—” He tapped the folder with an extended middle finger and I wondered if that gesture meant same in Germany as it did in the States. “—His whereabouts are not recorded in here.”

“So?” I shrugged.

“So as part of your country’s surrender agreement, your country is required to turn over anyone the Reich considers an enemy of the state or face consequences.”

After the surrender, nearly two dozen members of the US Congress revealed they were, in fact Nazi sympathizers or agents. Those Quislings forced FDR out of the White House and replaced him with a pro-Nazi financier named George Prescott. They also agreed to hand over anyone the Germans considered an annoyance. That included Jews, commies, homosexuals, even old J. Edgar. I didn’t want to contemplate what Günter might consider “consequences.” I already knew how the man’s mind worked.

“Again, why me? You have the entire National Police at your beck and call, including the Bureau agents who brought the Duquesne ring in.”

“Those who involved in the Duquesne affair were questioned,” Günter said.

“And?”

“They didn’t survive the questioning.”

I leapt to my feet, smashed the butt of my smoke into an ashtray, and leaned across Günter’s desk, my face in front of his. I knew how these Nazi creeps operated, and I knew too well how they interviewed people. During the war, I had too many friends and comrades in the OSS and resistance questioned by the SS. They didn’t survive either.

“You tortured them, you f—?” I bit off the last word. “You killed them and now you want me to do more of your dirty work? Who the hell do you think you are?”

Günter leaned back in his chair, sucked deeply on his cigarette, then exhaled. Through the smoke screen, he studied me with his pale, emotionless eyes.

“How is your stomach doing these days, Herr Hauptman?” he asked.

I stared at him for a long time, not answering, gritting my teeth so hard I may have loosened a filling. I knew what he was getting at. A bucketful of Nazi lead in my gut—at least it felt like a bucketful—cut short my career as a spy in Italy. I almost died. Günter was hinting there could be a repeat of that episode in my life, with a different outcome. As I said, I knew how the man’s mind worked.

I backed off Günter’s desk and slumped back into my seat.

“Just fine,” I lied. “It’s doing just fine.” I fumbled with another cigarette, and lit it. “You still haven’t told me why me? You’ve got hundreds of SS operators here who could find Sebold.”

“As before,” Günter said, waving his cigarette in the air, “your experience as a policeman and a spy make you admirably suited for this task. Plus you’re an American. You can ask questions of your own countrymen without …”

Günter seemed to struggle for the phrase. I gave it to him.

“Without scaring the crap out of them?”

He smiled and shrugged acceptance.

“Fine.” I took a drag on my cigarette. “But a few minutes ago, you ordered me to wear my uniform. It’s not the man who scares the crap out of people, it’s that damn black uniform and its death heads.”

Günter sighed, and closed his eyes.

“Fine,” he said. “Do not wear the uniform.”

I snubbed out my cigarette and picked up the file folder.

“Anything not in here I should know about?”

Günter knew exactly what I meant, and nodded.

“From our questioning, we discovered that Sebold was given a new identity and sent somewhere out west. To a farm to grow wheat. Unfortunately, we didn’t get his new name. But apparently, the location is in a place called Hutchison, Kansas. Do you know it?”

“No,” I said, turning to leave. “But I will.”

 

END OF FREE EXTRACT

You can read the rest of this story by purchasing a copy Alt Hist Issue 10.

About the Author

Martin Roy Hill is the author of the military mystery thriller, The Killing Depths, the mystery thriller Empty Places, the award-winning DUTY: Suspense and Mystery Stories from the Cold War and Beyond, a collection of new and previously published short stories and EDEN: A Sci-Fi Novella. His latest mystery thriller, The Last Refuge, was published in March 2016.

Alt Hist Issue 10 Published – and some news!

Alt Hist Issue 10 has now been published!

You can purchase eBook and Print copies from:

Amazon.com | Amazon.co.uk | Barnes & Noble

And eBook copies from:

Smashwords | Kobo | iBooks

Welcome to Alt Hist Issue 10. I am sad to say that this will be the last regular Alt Hist. It is possible that I may do the occasional special issue Alt Hist in the future—perhaps an anthology around a particular theme, but for now that’s it I’m afraid. I have enjoyed editing and publishing Alt Hist over the last six years. The experience has taught me a lot about publishing short fiction and also given me the opportunity to work with some great authors. However, my time is limited and I am not finding enough of it to spend on my own writing. So with a heavy heart I decided that enough was enough for Alt Hist—for now at least.

So, onto the stories in this final issue of Alt Hist.

We start off with “The Thirty-Fourth Man” by Martin Roy Hill. Paul Klee, former cop and OSS spy, now reluctantly serves the SS in a Nazi-occupied America. His latest assignment: Hunt down the Thirty-Fourth Man, a double agent who destroyed a German spy ring. A story inspired by true events.

“Raven Child” by Morgan Read Davidson is set during the time of Julius Caesar, and is about the migration of the great Helvetii tribe through the land that would one day be Switzerland—a migration that would bring them into conflict with the might of Rome’s legions.

The Battalion 202 stories by Jonathan Doering have been running in Alt Hist since Issue 4. They give an imaginative view of some of the pressures and reactions to Nazi Occupation had Operation “Sea Lion” been activated successfully in late 1940. “Operation Solar”, the concluding story in the cycle, brings together the narratives of the key characters, centering on the AU plans to attack and liberate the Nazis’ transit prison at Pontefract Castle.

“Occupation” by Adam Kotlarczyk follows the life of Maryse, a Norman French farm girl who, on the eve of the D-Day invasion, rides a train to rendezvous with her boyfriend, who has been conscripted into the German Wehrmacht.

The last story in Alt Hist Issue 10 is one of my own: “Chivalry: A Jake Savage Adventure”. I have resisted the self-indulgence of publishing one of my own stories in Alt Hist until the very final issue—although sometimes it has been tempting when I have struggled to find a final story for an issue. But I thought it was appropriate for this last one—and this story in particular fits well as it’s the reason that promoted me to start up Alt Hist in the first place. When I was submitting it to magazine six years ago, I received good feedback from beta readers and others, but I couldn’t find anywhere that would accept it—and I realised that part of the reason was probably there was no publication interested much in historical fiction, or a fantasy variant thereof. So Alt Hist began.

I hope that Alt Hist has performed its role to some extent in being an outlet for historical fiction. And I hope that its readers have enjoyed the stories that it has published. As always your comments and views are welcome. I can still be reached via the Alt Hist website, Twitter, Faceboook and email.

At the Boundary of Normal: History and Horror – A Guest Post by Andrew Knighton

Today we have a guest blog post by Andrew Knighton, author of The Sound of Stones from Alt Hist Issue 9.

At the Boundary of Normal: History and Horror

History and horror have a lot in common. Not just through their ability to bring darkness into fiction, but through the way they make us feel. It makes them a perfect combination of genres.

The Essence of Horror

Horror stories are all about events at the edge of normal reality. A clown who tips over from unsettling into sinister. Shadows in the woods that move from more than just the wind. A stranger in the street who is stranger than we ever imagined.

As explained in an article at Filmmaker IQ, while grounded in reality and relevance, horror also requires us “to face the unknown – to understand it and make it less scary”.

The Essence of Historical Fiction

Historical fiction also lies at the boundary between the familiar and the unknown. The life we see is like ours but different. People live, love and work much like ourselves. They have families and faith, feelings and furniture, the same range of sublime and the mundane as us. They may even live in the same places we do, share our religion, nationality or politics, depending upon the book and the reader.

Yet life in historical fiction is also different. When people sit down to dinner the food is not quite like ours. The clothes are different. The houses are different. They live in our reality, but made unfamiliar by time.

With both placing us at the edge of our reality, it’s almost inevitable that history and horror can work well together.

Foreshadowing Through Difference

One of the most obvious ways in which a historical setting can support horror is through foreshadowing. The different beliefs of people in the past can be used to bring in ideas that we no longer find plausible, such as monsters in the forest or the existence of demons. Ordinary conversations can refer to elements of the supernatural, setting them up to emerge later in the story.

The different reality of the historical past can also be used to foreshadow danger. Medieval Europe was rife with inter-personal violence, in the streets as much as the battlefields. The Aztec empire was the site of brutal human sacrifices. Hunger and disease plagued humanity from the dawn of time. Such themes can be used to create a sense of dread even before the supernatural enters. In a story like Charlotte Bond’s The Poisoned Crow, the dread of violence and forced marriage sets the tone from the start.

Creeping in Through the Unfamiliar

Unfamiliarity can misdirect the reader as much as it prepares them. A malformed stranger and a beast growling in the forest may make us fear that the moment of horror has come, only for them to be unmasked as a leper and a wolf. Tension is built and relieved for a greater shock later.

All the while, the feelings provoked by history and by horror accentuate each other. By facing both at once, we get a deeper sensation of something familiar and yet unfamiliar, something not quite right. David Tallerman’s The War of the Rats deliberately toys with combining the unusual and the mundane. A rat infestation is made worse by the trenches of World War One, becoming something truly horrific. The combination of the ordinary and the awful makes the story more unsettling than if it were set in the modern world.

Horror and history play similar tricks on our minds. They play those tricks particularly well when they get together.

About the Author

Andrew is a Yorkshire based ghostwriter, responsible for writing many books in other people’s names. He’s had over fifty stories published in his own name in places such as Daily Science Fiction and Wily Writers. His historical short story Honour Among Thieves is available for free from Amazon or Smashwords. You can find stories and links to more of his books at andrewknighton.com and follow him on Twitter where he’s @gibbondemon.

The Sound of Stones by Andrew Knighton – Free Extract

Serf against lord, Welsh against Norman are the conflicts in Andrew Knighton’s “The Sound of Stones”. A great medieval tale to conclude Alt Hist Issue 9.

The Sound of Stones

by Andrew Knighton

Thud.

Thud.

Thud.

One by one, Rhodri plucked the stones from the field and dropped them into his basket. More than just rocks, they carried the spirits of past generations, reaching out to Rhodri through fragments of their land.

Thud.

Thud.

Thud.

Every spring the same, since men came to this valley in a time older than tales. Rhodri heard the spirits of those long dead men whisper in his ear, an echo of when they worked these same fields.

Thud.

Thud.

Thud.

Clear the fields, sow the grain, wait for Old Mother Rain.

Thud.

Thud.

Thud.

The flint he’d just picked up was chipped to a cutting edge, the work of the stone men who’d first come here from the west. Rhodri felt the skill of its making flow through him, the memories of a man sitting outside his hut turning a rock into a blade. Perhaps some ancestor of Rhodri’s, long turned to dust in this same field. Rhodri wondered if he came from the free time, or had lived long enough to labour under the steel men’s yoke. For the people of the valleys, life had become harsher under the steel men’s rule. Feeding a family was hard enough in this land, without having to pay a lord’s tithes.

Meinwen waved at him across the field, red hair blowing in the wind off the sea. His heart swelled with pride. She worked as hard as any son might have, helping him in the fields and her mother in the cottage. The time had come when she should find a husband and make a home of her own, but she held back, even after dancing on Harvest night with Glyn ap Reese. Rhodri knew that she wouldn’t stay forever, but he treasured the days while she did.

Meinwen’s smile turned to a scowl. Rhodri turned, following her gaze. Three familiar figures were trudging up the path from town, one a mass of flapping red velvet, like a wound walking across the land, the others hulking brutes in chainmail shirts, steel hats glinting in the sunshine. They stopped at the dry stone wall, not out of respect as a villager might, but out of the arrogant laziness that coloured their every move. Rhodri knew who lay beneath that red velvet, and Gerard de Hadsville would never take a step others could take for him.

“A word with you, Master Ellis,” Hadsville called.

Rhodri set down his basket and walked reluctantly to where Hadsville stood.

“Good morning to you too, Master Hadsville,” Rhodri said.

“That’s Squire Hadsville, Ellis.” Hadsville’s soft, pale fingers writhed around each other like worms.

“I’m sorry,” Rhodri said. “How can I help, Squire Hadsville?”

He knew the answer, sure as spring was green. The Squire only came up the valley for one reason.

“Your tithe is overdue,” Hadsville said. “Where is my money?”

“It’s been a hard winter,” Rhodri said, “and spring’s come late. What little money we had has gone on food. If you can give me two more weeks—”

“I wish that I could.” Hadsville frowned and shook his head. “But I have obligations to those above me, just as you do. I must make payments to my lord, to my creditors, to my men …”

The two brutes clambered over the wall, knocking off the capstones as they went. They loomed either side of Rhodri, pillars of muscle and menace.

“Where’s the squire’s money, flinter?” The guard leaned close, an oak cudgel swinging in his hand. He looked much like the men of the valley, but thick set, with a harsh accent.

“Where’s the bloody money?” The other guard’s breath stank like old eggs.

“Two weeks. That’s all I need.” Rhodri kept his gaze fixed on the Squire. He wasn’t afraid. He’d been here before. Better to take a beating than to starve.

Hadsville wouldn’t hold Rhodri’s gaze. He looked away over the farmer’s shoulder. He smiled, but the expression was neither friendly not sympathetic.

“Your daughter’s grown into a fine young woman,” he said. “I hear your wife’s quite the beauty too, or was in her day. Maybe they can help you pay.”

On cue, the guards chuckled lasciviously.

Rage boiled in Rhodri’s veins. If these thugs weren’t here, he’d have knocked Hadsville flat, and to hell with the law. There were older laws, laws that let a man protect his family. But Hadsville and his men lived by the laws of steel, cold laws of lordship and power, and those laws could kill.

“Our black sow’s had a litter,” Rhodri said with resignation. “Take them. They’ll cover the tithe.” Those piglets would earn the tithe twice over at market, once they’d grown another two weeks. But Rhodri didn’t have two weeks.

“I knew you’d do the right thing.” Hadsville rubbed his hands together. “Sometimes all we need is a gentle reminder of our place in the world.”

He turned back down the path, more stones tumbling as his men crossed the wall. Rhodri winced.

“Thank you for the reminder, cousin Goronwy,” he called after Hadsville.

The squire spun around, his face twisted with rage. “That name is gone. You speak it again, I’ll have you beaten back into the past where you belong.”

Rhodri stooped and resumed putting stones in his basket.

Thud.

Thud.

Thud.

 

END OF FREE EXTRACT

You can read the rest of this story by purchasing a copy Alt Hist Issue 9.

About the Author

Andrew is a Yorkshire based ghostwriter, responsible for writing many books in other people’s names. He’s had over fifty stories published in his own name in places such as Daily Science Fiction and Wily Writers. His historical short story Honour Among Thieves is available for free from Amazon or Smashwords. You can find stories and links to more of his books at andrewknighton.com and follow him on Twitter where he’s @gibbondemon.

Ikigai: A Reason for Being by Samantha Payne – Free Extract

A maverick samurai endeavours to protect a woman who has fallen on hard times in Samantha Payne’s “Ikigai: A Reason for Being”, published in Alt Hist Issue 9.

Ikigai: A Reason for Being

by Samantha Payne

Spring had arrived in Edo. The scent of cherry blossoms suspended on the wind and he stood where he always did, staring into the open paper window of my father’s store.

Even from a distance I knew it was him, his towering frame was unmistakable. His hand rested on the hilt of his katana, one of two swords hanging from the obi at the waist of his gray kimono. He was always ready to strike, and it surprised me that he had not noticed my approach, or perhaps, he had but he sensed no danger from me.

“Mamoru?” He twitched a little in surprise and turned to look at me. His tawny eyes a contrast to his dark hair. He was handsome, in a plain way.

“Excuse me, Ms. Nakamura, am I in your way?”

“No, not at all, and please, for the last time, just call me Shouka. It makes me feel rude that I should refer to you by your first name, but you still insist on being so formal with me.” I adjusted the basket of vegetables in my arms to a more comfortable position. “You had a rather pleased expression, have you found a blade you might like?”

He turned back to the window. “This blade is a Kanemitsu Osafune of Bizen.”

I stepped closer to look at the sword he spoke of, but only glanced at it for a moment before observing him as he continued.

“They say if you want a sword, buy one made in Bizen. It is believed that most of the swords in action today, are in fact, Bizen blades.” He paused, and his gaze was almost hungry. It was like watching a child who had just discovered a toy he must have. “Even among the best swordsmiths, this one in particular, must have been forged by a truly gifted man.” Mamoru’s eyes lit up. “Speaking of talented swordsmiths, ones that have been said to rival those of Bizen include the Awataguchi and Rai Schools.”

There was a boyishness to Mamoru I had never seen before and I could not suppress my laughter.

“What is it?” He looked from the window to me, startled and obviously confused by my outburst, but his face would never show it. The boyishness was gone and he was once again a man of few words and little, readable, emotion. “I did not say anything with the intent to make you giggle. By any chance did I make an error in my statement?”

“No, no, not at all. Truth be told, I would not know otherwise.” I waved a hand in dismissal.

“Then what provoked you to laugh?” His voice was flat, to the point.

“I was just thinking how charming you can be when talking about something such as a weapon. It is a little ironic.” I looked from him to the swords in front of us, the sun reflected off the steel. Mamoru was a quiet, taciturn, man, which many people construed as coldness, but when swords were the subject of conversation he came to life.

“I am fascinated by the meaning forged into the blade. That is all.” His mind seemed to have wandered far from me, but he continued to humor me with conversation.

“What meaning is that?” The basket in my arms was growing cumbersome, and the afternoon sun warm but I endured.

“A sword has a simple and straightforward existence, to take your enemy’s life.”

I shifted the weight of the basket into one arm so I could reach out and rest my hand on Mamoru’s shoulder. “I think that’s one way of looking at it, but I think it’s more complicated than that, similarly to someone else I know.” I gave him a smile, and pulled my hand back to lift the banner hanging in the shop’s doorway. “Please, Mamoru, come inside.”

He followed after me. “I’m curious about your opinion on this matter.”

I set the basket down on an empty table near the entry way. “Swords are used to protect things we hold dear: people, ideals, and yes, that might mean hurting another who wishes to destroy such things, but if you only look at it from your side you’re neglecting the warrior’s purpose.”

He didn’t respond, but directed his gaze back to the swords on his right.

“Think about it, Mamoru, the first time we met, you used your sword to protect me from a group of thugs who used their blades to intimidate others. A sword’s purpose is ultimately defined by the warrior.”

He remained silent, seemingly deep in thought, as he faced away from me.

“Mamoru, are you looking to purchase one of those swords, because they seem to be speaking to you more than I am.”

“Is your father in, Ms. Nakamura?”

“I’m sure he is, wait here.” I grabbed the basket of vegetables and headed to the back of the shop that connected to our home.

My father sat on his zabuton while looking over a parchment, going over our finances no doubt. “Father?”

“Oh, Shouka, you’re home.” He smiled and set aside his brush and ink. “Is it busy out in the market today?”

“Business seems steady, speaking of, Mamoru is here. He wishes to speak with you.”

“Of course.” He stood from the cushion on the floor and followed me out to the front of the store where Mamoru was inspecting a different set of swords along the wall. “Mr. Yamaguchi, good afternoon.”

Mamoru turned to greet my father with a bow. “Good afternoon, Mr. Nakamura.”

“Shouka says you wanted to speak with me, what can I do for you?”

“Your Bizen blades, the katana and the shorter blade, the wakizashi, how much for the pair?”

“Oh, well, they are quite expensive, I am afraid.” I glanced at my father, taken back by his dismissive tone toward Mamoru, an interested customer.

“I would expect no less and I am more than willing to pay whatever price you deem is fair.”

My father sighed and rubbed his hand over his shaved head. “Mr. Yamaguchi, you are a good man and I will forever be grateful for your protection of my daughter all those months ago, but I cannot sell to you.”

“What?” I was shocked. “Father, what do you mean you can’t sell to him?” As if he was unable to hear me, he continued to speak with Mamoru.

“I am sure you understand why.” My father gestured to Mamoru’s hand resting still on the hilt of his sword. “If word got out that I was willing to sell to a man who carries his blades on his right, well, I would have no business.”

“We barely have business as it is, who cares if his swords are on his right.” I knew it was out of line for me to protest, but Mamoru was a friend and I recognized my father’s business was suffering with the presence of Western guns on the rise.

“Shouka, that is enough. I have said all there is to say on the matter.” My father brought his attention back to Mamoru. “I am sorry, Mr. Yamaguchi.”

“I understand, thank you for your time.” Mamoru bowed his head once more and stepped out.

“Mamoru, wait!” I followed quickly after his long strides, not waiting for my father to explain himself to me.

He stopped at the sound of his name but said nothing.

“I am sorry, about my father.” I took a breath and continued, “He should have sold you the swords, what does it matter if you wear yours on the right.

“Look around you,” his voice was cold like steel.

I did as he said, observing the road, and those who passed by us. The market was bustling with people no different than him and me.

“A warrior carries his sword on the left. A samurai carrying his sword will always walk on the left side regardless of how narrow a path is. They do this to keep anyone from touching their sword. A warrior’s soul is in his sword.” Mamoru pushed the hilt of his sword up by the hand guard with his thumb. “When a sword smith crafts a blade he inscribes a protective ki on the right side of the tang. In order to be protected the ki needs to point towards the wielder. By wearing my blade on the right, I am unprotected from evil.”

It’s then I see it, every man that passed by, carrying a sword at his side, wore it on his left. Everyone but Mamoru.

“I was born left-handed. No dojo would accept me. Budo forbids drawing your sword with your left hand, so the moment I picked up a fencing stick they tried to change the way I held my sword … Every time.”

“Why not let them change your stance?”

“Because there was nothing to fix.” He looked from me to the sky. “If I strike from the right I hit considerably harder. Drawing from the left limits my capabilities.”

There was a brief silence between us as we both stood, side by side, looking up through the branches of a cherry blossom tree, to the eternal blue of the sky.

“How many times have we watched these flowers bloom, I wonder.” The tone in his voice was gentle now, and a smile pulled at his eyes. “Time’s passing comes with change, but even so, there are some things which do not change. I place my faith in what remains unmoved.”

Mamoru would not change. That was his belief, and as I stood there beside him, I too wanted to believe in those things that did not change. I wanted to stand at his side, just like this, and watch the cherry blossoms bloom again next season, but Japan was changing and foreign influence would tear the country, and us, apart.

Men began to forgo swords in favor of shooting their enemies with western guns. As they set aside their swords, a new era of warriors set aside their souls. Soon the path of the samurai would be lost, along with my father’s shop.

 

END OF FREE EXTRACT

You can read the rest of this story by purchasing a copy Alt Hist Issue 9.

About the Author

Samantha lives and writes in the cold north of Flagstaff, Arizona. She is currently pursuing her MFA in Creative Writing at Northern Arizona University where she teaches English Composition. In-between teaching and writing Samantha draws manga and practices coloring inside the lines.

%d bloggers like this: