After the free story from Alt Hist Issue 7, which we posted a couple of weeks ago, here’s the first of our free extracts from the other stories in Issue 7. First up is a medieval tale from Andrew Knighton, “Cold Flesh”.
Andrew brings us a morality tale from Medieval England. Matthew Tinderfield is happy to see his neighbour, Sir William Bodray, hang for his part in a rebellion against the king. But his satisfaction turns to dismay and horror as he reaps what he has sown. Andrew has previously had other stories with a medieval setting published in Alt Hist—see Alt Hist Issue 1 and 2. “Cold Flesh” neatly combines dark humour with visceral horror.
by Andrew Knighton
Death had barely touched Sir William Bodray. He swung from the gallows, as cold and impassive as he had been in life, his stern grimace as fixed as ever. Matthew Tinderfield watched in satisfaction as the last drops of piss dribbled from the tips of his late neighbour’s armoured toes. The man looked like a strung chicken, thin dangling limbs and no real flesh.
Tinderfield patted his well-developed belly and turned to the small crowd. He wondered if any of them had joined Sir William in taking up arms for the Duke of Lancaster. Was John the smith’s bruised hand really the result of an accident at the forge? Had Bildern the shepherd actually grazed his flock in the high hills for the past six months? And where was the widow Elizabeth’s son Tom? Off with his wife’s family, or lying trampled in the mud at Boroughbridge?
Not that it mattered. Those who had survived the revolt could learn their lesson from the likes of Sir William. Those Tinderfield didn’t ferret out, once more proving his loyalty to the king.
“Back to your fields,” he called out, ushering them off with a flap of his hands, rings clacking in the morning stillness. “The show’s over.” And a very good show it had been too.
He relished the moment as they turned and shuffled towards the nearby huts, obedient to his command. Perhaps he could call them back, he thought, just to see them do it again. But no, that would be indecisive, and indecision had not made him the wealthiest man in the parish, would not reinforce his status as their leader now.
“Told you,” he said to the body, reaching up to prod at the torn chainmail. “It’s not about right and wrong, you arrogant old sot. You would only have got them all killed. My way, at least, we get to live.”
He took a jingling pouch from his belt, tossed it to the patiently waiting hangman.
“Most of us, anyway,” he said.
“Someone been at your sheep, Master Tinderfield.” Harold’s voice rustled like dead leaves, barely rising to reach Tinderfield’s ears.
“I can see that, you senile old goat.” Tinderfield sighed. There was no use snapping at the wrinkled shepherd. It was a waste of energy, no amount of fury would change him now. “What did they do?”
“They got old Nara,” Harold said, a note of sorrow in his voice. He hobbled up the uneven field, Tinderfield prowling impatiently along beside him.
“Old Nara?” Tinderfield was loath to ask. Was this really what peasants did, naming sheep? Or was it just a lonely old man’s habit? Regardless, it was all the information he had.
“Mother of the flock,” Harold said. “She had a fine fleece in her day, still not the worst wool.”
He stopped at the edge of a ditch, pointing down into a tangle of brambles. A dank woollen shape lay in the bottom, fleece soaked with brackish water. It didn’t smell like something long dead, though the ditch had the rotten egg stink of poor drainage.
“Why haven’t you dragged her out?” Tinderfield asked, scratching at an itch on his neck. Damned fleas.
Harold patted his leg, the joints twisted and frozen by arthritis.
“Can’t get down there, master,” he said. “Can’t reach with the crook neither.”
Tinderfield sighed and looked back across the fields. He could fetch someone to do this, one of his labourers or a man from the village. But they were busy planting, and after the past year’s disruption he didn’t want to risk losing time on the crops. Besides, he was the head of the parish now, and did not want people to see any sign of his failures.
Reluctantly, he scrambled down the bank, cursing as he lost his footing and slid to the bottom. Icy water soaked his britches, his second best tunic spattered with algae and mud.
He stared down at the sheep. It stared back with one cold dead eye, a fly buzzing at the lid. Old Nara had recently been shorn, and her stubbly hide showed gashes where she had caught on the brambles. Her neck was one big purple bruise.
“The stupid creature strangled herself on a bush,” Tinderfield said, scrambling back out of the ditch. There was mud on his hands now, and his knees, and his elbows. He was cold and filthy and the itch on his neck would not stop. The world was a bitterly frustrating place.
“Really?” Harold peered down at the body. “There one that thick?”
“Really,” Tinderfield snapped. “From now on, take better care of my flock.”
END OF FREE EXTRACT
Don’t forget to order your copy of Alt Hist Issue 7 to read the rest of this story and others.